Many Happy Returns: Chapter Five
Iella

Anakin gritted his teeth and gauged the distance between himself and the rim of the ceiling air vent. If he'd been in touch with his normal Jedi abilities, his plan would have been a cinch. Leap across, grab on to the ledge around the vent, pull himself up, and use the Force to slide the transparisteel louvres out of their slots. He would have been out on the roof and away in an instant. Well, at least he would have been out on the roof. Instead, he was stuck on the narrow top shelf of some sort of storage room, with a potentially leg-breaking fall below him if his jump failed.

He took a deep breath, steadied his nerves and mentally thanked his Aunt Mara for making it possible for him to even think of getting this far. It was Mara who had encouraged him to learn to operate without the Force when they were on Dantooine. Later, when Tahiri had been recovering on the Errant Venture from her ordeal with the Yuuzhan Vong Shapers on Yavin 4, Anakin had taken Mara's advice even further and taught himself to fight without the Force. In view of the circumstances he was in now, that seemed like a very sensible decision. He rechecked the space he was intending to span, visualising himself reaching the vent, and climbing through it. Be positive, Anakin he thought.

He crouched down, took another series of deep breaths to pump oxygen into his muscles and then sprang. For a heartbeat he thought his fingers were going to miss the ledge, but although his right hand scrabbled and slid off the surface of the durasteel, his left hand connected with a section that offered him a ridge to cling on to. The metal cut into his palm, but he flailed with his other hand and finally found a similar ridge on the other side of the vent. He swung there for a moment, feeling the strain in his triceps, and studying the area inside the vent. If he could get his legs up, he could probably slot them in between the vanes, and use his feet to act as anchors. Probably. It was certainly worth a try, anyway. He began to swing himself like a pendulum, and then as he reached the apex of a particularly high swing, he let the motion carry his legs up.

He almost made it. He managed to slip his left foot into a space, but his hands had begun to lose their grip; the sweat from the effort of holding his weight had made them slippery. He tensed in order to force his leg through further so he could at least hang by one leg, but the space was too narrow; his right hand lost purchase, and then his left, and he was suddenly falling upside down.

Somehow he managed to revert upright in mid-air, and as he landed, he bent his knees to try and cushion the impact. He fell backwards, and lay there winded for a few minutes, feeling a sense of panic initially when he couldn't catch his breath. He managed to roll on to his side, and then over completely to rest on his forearms. He pulled himself into a kneeling position, supporting himself with his hands on the floor, until his breathing returned to normal, although he was still grunting slightly from the pain of the jolt. Amazingly, he couldn't feel any specific limb pain, so it seemed as if nothing was broken. The ache was more general, and came from all over. No doubt he'd have some interesting bruises by the next day, in fact he'd probably be completely blue like a Chiss. That'd make Tahiri laugh, he thought. He sighed. Assuming I ever get to see her again, that is.

He swung himself around gingerly so he could sit with his back against the wall, and stared dejectedly back up to the vent. If only he had a vibro-blade, then he could remove those vent louvres. He studied the shelves again. Maybe he could break off one of the durasteel flanges that connected them to the wall and use it as a lever. It was a good idea -- potentially -- but the connectors all looked firmly embedded in the wall, and as he had already checked the walls for weak spots, it didn't look very hopeful. In fact the room was annoyingly secure, and he didn't think he was being paranoid to assume that it had been prepared especially to act as a prison. He had already tried calling out through a slot at the bottom of the door, but nobody had responded, and it irked him to realise that he wouldn't have known if there was anyone there or not. With the ysalamiri nearby, he was totally Force-blind. The only good thing he could say about the room was that he was sure it contained no security holocams. Obviously, Tag had complete confidence in the ysalamiri to do their job.

He sighed, and had just leaned his head back to rest when he heard voices outside the door. He was struggling to his feet when the door opened to reveal a thickset human with a sour expression on his already unpleasant face.

"Thought you might like some company, Jedi," he rasped, and reaching to the side, pulled someone roughly into view and thrust them rather viciously at Anakin. The door closed with a loud crash at the same moment as the newcomer cannoned into him. In the gloom he had a fleeting impression of blonde hair and a familiar warmth against his chest. He looked down and found a pair of emerald eyes gazing back, reflecting a series of emotions from despair through surprise to relief.

"Tahiri?" His arms had already folded around her.

Tahiri clung to him fiercely. She tried to speak but all that came out was a strangled sob.

"Hey. It's okay."

"No, it's not," she spluttered.

Anakin buried his nose in her hair and waited while she sobbed angrily. "We were trying to rescue you," she said finally, pulling away from him slightly and dabbing irritatedly at the tears on her cheeks.

"Well, at least you tried," he almost managed a lop-sided grin. "And anyway, I'm glad you're here -- I mean I'm not glad you got caught, but I am glad to see you."

Tahiri gazed up at him for a moment, then reached up and caressed his cheek. He took her hand in his and squeezed her fingers. "Fat lot of good us both being prisoners is though," she said with a wry expression. "I knew something had happened, but I couldn't sense you, Anakin. Then when they brought me in here I started to feel funny. What's happening?"

Anakin nodded towards the wall. "Ysalamiri. They've got some -- probably next door. We can't use the Force at all here, and of course, they blocked you from being able to reach me."

"I thought you were ..." she choked on the word she intended to say.

"No -- still here. Totally useless to anybody, mind you, but still alive."

A faint smile touched her lips. "Still crazy you mean."

"Yeah," he smiled back.

She sighed as he cuddled her against him. "They drugged Tendra, and they took her away. I don't know where she is."

"Maybe they've taken her to wherever they've got Lando. They probably drugged him too -- they certainly did me. Still got the headache. I can't believe I didn't try and fight it, but these ysalamiri make you feel weird. Must be what it feels like to be made suddenly blind or deaf."

"Yeah," she looked up again. "They tried drugging me too, but I managed to resist it, although I feel a bit numb in places."

"Good work," said Anakin admiringly, and began checking her neck for the entry point. "Where are you numb?"

"Um, they didn't actually hit me there," she said.

"Oh? Where then?"

Tahiri blushed slightly and patted the place the vial had punctured her. Anakin stared at her for a moment and then snorted back a laugh. "Astral -- can I offer my services as healer?"

"It's healing itself quite nicely thank you."

"Spit," he clicked his fingers in mock disappointment. "Oh well, it was worth a try."

She smiled, but he could tell by the tortured look in her eyes that she was only putting up a front.

"What's wrong, Tahiri?" he said softly.

Her eyes clouded with tears, but she made a determined effort to hold them back. "There was a fight," she began, and then stopped.

"Well," he said after a pause, "I'd hardly expect you or Tendra to just give in."

"No, but ... Anakin, I killed someone, and cut another man's hand off."

"Did they attack you?"

"Yes," she said slowly. "They burst in on us at the hotel. But they weren't trying to kill us -- they only wanted to capture us. I didn't realise it though until it was too late."

"But Tahiri -- it's natural to assume if people jump through your door without an invite that they haven't exactly come to spend the time of day with you. I presume they were waving blasters or weapons of some sort?"

She nodded. "Blasters and stokhli spray sticks. But the blasters were set on stun."

"Well, they were hardly going to tell you that. I mean, come on."

Tahiri stared up at him frowning. "I know, Anakin, but ... I should've been able to sense it. If I'd stopped and analysed the situation, I probably would have. Instead, I just ... well, I think I was sort of glad that I had somebody to fight. I was angry because we were worried about you, and we didn't know what had happened, and ... " she choked again, gave a stifled sob and stopped.

"You didn't fail, Tahiri," Anakin said firmly.

"I did. I always do."

"That's rubbish."

"No it's not. You would have picked their intentions."

"Oh yeah," he nodded sardonically. "I'm sure that as they charged through the door I would have thought -- not a problem, just relax, they're only here to take me prisoner. I mean, quite honestly Tahiri, blasters set on stun or not, they still intended violence and you were both right to defend yourselves. And it sounds like you two did better than Lando and me."

"I still feel awful."

"Well, you shouldn't. If anyone should be castigating themselves it's us, but it's too late to waste time doing that now, plus it's pointless. I had a slight inkling that something wasn't right about this Tag guy, but I wasn't really concentrating in the Force the way I should have been. I think I'd got a bit sucked in by this holiday atmosphere. It was kind of nice for once just being able to enjoy ourselves. I liked it." He paused. "I like just being with you."

Tahiri nodded seriously. "Me too."

"So," Anakin tucked a strand of blonde hair behind her ear, "don't give me any more of this negative nonsense."

"I'm still responsible for a man's unnecessary death."

"And he's responsible for putting you in a situation where you thought you had to fight for your life."

She was regarding him as he spoke, and he saw the despair in her green eyes begin to fade. "You're getting quite good at arguing," she said.

He shrugged. "You did say once that you'd rub off on me eventually."

Tahiri's lips twitched. Then she laughed. "Well, I was right about that."

"Yeah," Anakin grinned. He wiped away the tears that were still dampening her cheek, and then bent his mouth down to hers. The kiss, like most of their kisses lately, was long and lingering, and as usual he didn't want it to stop. Tahiri always felt so warm and soft, and he loved the way she seemed to fit so perfectly against him. Even now, in circumstances that must rate an all-time low on the scale of romantic situations, holding her and tasting the sweetness of her lips filled him with sensations that he could never have found the words to describe.

Suddenly Tahiri squirmed uncomfortably and threw him the sort of look a teacher might give an amusing, but habitually unruly, pupil.

"What?"

"Anakin! How can you ..." She looked down and then realisation dawned on her face. "Oh! Hang on." Tahiri reached into one of the lower front pockets on her vest and pulled something out. "You're excused," she giggled.

"What is it?"

She held it up for him, and was surprised to see his blue eyes begin to sparkle with utter delight.

"Wow," he said admiringly.

"It's meant to be a belated birthday present. I'd forgotten about it, and fortunately they didn't find it when they grabbed my blaster."

"Astral!" he took the small tool and flipped out first a micro-adjuster and then a blade. "This is the best present ever. This is perfect."

"Gosh. If I'd known you'd be this pleased I'd have had Corran fly us back to Eriadu from Yag'Dhul to buy one."

Anakin grinned, hugged her again enthusiastically and waved the multi-tool up at the ceiling. "Do you know what this means?"

Tahiri shook her head, perplexed.

"This means escape," he explained enigmatically.

"Anakin, did they drop on your head or something? You're not making any sense."

He waved up at the roof again. "That vent. Just before you came, I tried to get the thing open so I could get out, but those louvre things are too narrow for me to get my legs through. But now -- " he indicated the blade. "Now I have something to cut them out with."

Tahiri gazed up at the vent, at the shelves on the wall, and then back to Anakin. "So, what are we waiting for?" she asked.

Anakin gave her a lop-sided smile. "I have a vague plan, but I think we need to give it a bit more thought. Plus I think we should wait until it's dark, and there's hopefully fewer people around."

"Actually," said Tahiri, "although I don't really want to stay in here any longer than I have to, I could do with a rest." She studied the vent again. "Especially as it looks like we're going to be doing some serious climbing."

"Yeah," Anakin took her hand and pulled her down to sit beside him. "Still sore?" he asked, slipping an arm around her.

"Could be worse." She looked around at their prison, and then at the multi-tool in Anakin's hand. "Could be much worse," she sighed and settled gratefully against his shoulder.

* * * * *

Bomar Tag took a draft of the rather watery looking liquid in his cheap plastene tankard and leaned back in his chair, folding his arms with a grunt of satisfaction. "Apart from the quality of this lum, I think I can honestly say that at this precise moment things are looking pretty vaping good."

The thickset man with the perpetual sneer who was sitting on the other side of Tag's desk nodded and wiped a foam moustache from his scarred upper lip. "Not a bad day's work," he growled. "Two Jedi, and two fairly high-profile citizens of the New Republic. Not bad at all I'd say. Have you contacted Delone?"

"Yep. He's gonna let the local Vong Commander know what we've got and organise a rendezvous point."

"Better make sure Delone doesn't try and grab all the credit," the ugly one grunted.

"Don't worry, Mahko, Delone knows that when the Peace Brigade present the Solo kid and his little blonde friend to the Vong, you and I will both be there."

"Really?" said Mahko a little uncertainly.

"That worry you?" Tag's eyebrows disappeared into the furrows of flesh on his forehead.

Mahko exhaled noisily. "Guess not. Suppose I'll have to get used to dealing with them eventually."

"As will we all," sighed Tag. "I can tell you, Mahko, this galaxy is screwed. And the sooner everyone realises it, and stops trying to fight the inevitable, the better."

"Obviously Vehn and his mate are a bit stupid then."

"Vehn did what he did to get at me personally, not because of any highfalutin' ideals. He would have been quite happy if things had worked out okay on Yavin."

"I guess." Mahko took another loud slurp of his lum.

"Mind you I suppose in a way we owe Vehn at least something in the way of a thank you," added Tag. "If he hadn't told us about Anakin Solo's exploits with his ship, I probably wouldn't have made the connection when Calrissian mentioned the kid's name. Last picture I saw of the kid on the HoloNet was a few years ago -- I doubt if I'd have recognised him."

Mahko nodded and let loose a burp that confirmed the inferiority of the brew he was drinking. "That little blonde piece is a bit of a spitfire. Wouldn't want to get her too riled up," he observed. He broke open another bottle of lum and refilled his tankard, splattering foam over Tag's desk.

"Yeah. Pity about Yens." Tag was silent for a moment.

"Pity about Sanky too -- that was his trigger hand she cut off."

"Aw -- he'll just have to learn to use his other one. Or get a prosthetic."

Mahko snorted. "Perhaps we should start calling him Vader." He swilled another mouthful and swallowed noisily.

Tag chuckled. "Not bad," he nodded. "Sometimes, Mahko, you can be quite a funny guy."

Mahko shrugged, and the sneer transformed for a micro-second into what might have been a grin. "So -- are you heading out tonight or in the morning?"

"Tonight -- that's what I wanted to talk to you about. If I leave now, I can be back by late tomorrow afternoon, by which time, hopefully, Delone will have messaged me. I want this place locked up and patrolled tonight, and tomorrow I want you to keep a close eye on anyone who comes here. For all we know there might be some more of Calrissian's cronies lurking around, or Vehn's."

"Are you expecting anyone tomorrow?"

"No -- appointment book's clear. I've instructed Dajira to redirect any important stuff to me. Otherwise the place is in your hands. Just don't drink all my lum."

"No worries there," grimaced Mahko, gulping the last contents of his tankard and banging it down on Tag's desk. "Think we can talk the Vong into paying us with some good quality liquor?"

Tag made a noise like a groundcar tyre deflating. "And Gamorreans can fly," he said. He heaved his bulk up out of his chair, and grabbed the thak-hide jacket that was hanging over the back of it.

"Don't worry, boss. I'll stay here tonight just to make sure everything's secure."

"Good. I should really cancel this meeting -- but there could be a big contract in the offing if I play my cards right. Plus, one of the bosses has a connection on the Administrative Council. Might be able to get a bit of inside knowledge," he winked.

"That's the way it works," shrugged Mahko matter-of-factly.

"Vaping right." Tag offered his second-in-command a half wave, half salute. "Cheers. Message me if there are any problems."

"Don't expect to hear then."

The two exchanged self-satisfied grins, and then Tag walked out. Mahko grunted, stretched and moved round the desk to sit in his boss's seat. He swung his feet up on the desk and tipped back. Might as well get some shut-eye now, he thought. Although I don't think we've got anything to worry about. His eyes drooped and eventually closed.

* * * * *

In the main office down the hall, Dajira sat up suddenly. That's a strange noise, she thought. She twitched one lekku aside in order to identify where the sound was coming from, and had a sudden thought that it might be something to do with the ysalamiri or the two young Jedi. She wondered where Mahko was, and if she should try and page him, but then decided that would make her appear panicky. And apart from that she preferred to keep her distance from Mahko -- she didn't like the way he looked at her sometimes. When Bomar was there she never worried, and Bomar usually was there, so she usually felt safe. Having a stepfather who was also her boss could be useful sometimes.

She puzzled the problem for a moment and then decided that the best thing to do would be to check the ysalamiri. At least if they were all right, then it followed that the Jedi would still be secure. If there was a problem with the ysalamiri, then she would find Mahko.

She made her way out into the delivery area, and towards the door in the back. Once through it, she found to her surprise that the guard Bomar had stationed there had gone. She stood uncertainly for a moment, wondering if the Jedi could have done something to make him vanish, but then decided that she was being unnecessarily jumpy. Jedi were obviously not all that powerful if they could be thwarted by such inoffensive little creatures. The guard was probably just slacking.

Tentatively she peeked into the room that now housed the ysalamiri. Bomar had had them temporarily in the room beside his office, but had moved them that morning after he had captured the Solo boy. Now apparently there was another Jedi there as well. Dajira hadn't seen this one, but she had heard that it was a female and that she had killed one of Bomar's guards. She studied the ysalamiri for a while, but they looked all right. One was eating leaves, and neither of them were making any noises. She frowned. The noise was quite faint now, so obviously there was no problem with the captives -- but she was glad she had checked. Bomar was not the best stepfather in the galaxy, but he had earned her undying loyalty, and no matter what, she knew she would always owe him more than she could repay.

When Dajira was six, Bomar had met her mother and managed to buy the Twi'lek woman from the pimp she had been forced to work for. Dajira's mother had been an orphan, and had learned, like many other young street girls, that their lack of education and skills left them qualified for only one profession. Until her mother met Bomar, Dajira's future looked as though it would mirror her mother's, but the man had put his step-daughter first in a school, and then in a trade institute, and then, when the previous secretary resigned, he had let her take the job. Apart from having to put up with Mahko leering at her when her stepfather wasn't looking, she couldn't be happier, or more grateful.

It was because of this gratitude that she had experienced a struggle with her conscience earlier that day when the suave man, Calrissian, had walked in with the Solo boy. She had recognised the youth immediately. She had had a secret crush on him ever since she had seen him two years previously on the HoloNews. He was a year younger than her, but he didn't look it. Obviously all the Jedi things he did had given him a physique that other men would have had to train for months in a gym to achieve. Her mother had said that he looked like his father, Han Solo. Dajira's mother liked Han Solo, probably for the same reason the younger Twi'lek liked Anakin -- there was something terribly attractive about them. Maybe it was just that they lived exciting lives, and always seemed to be travelling to exotic places. Not that there were many of those left now the Vong were here.

When she realised the identity of Calrissian's companion, she had been in two minds as to what to do. Her conscience had told her that she should let her stepfather know it was Anakin Solo, in case he didn't recognise him, but another part of her didn't want to be responsible for harming the young Jedi. If only it had been one of the other Jedi, she thought, then she would have had no qualms at all about alerting Bomar. In the end she had decided to do nothing in the hope that somehow somebody else, or Bomar himself, might make the connection. Fortunately that had happened, although she still wasn't sure whether she was happy about it or not. Part of her felt glad that she hadn't had to betray Anakin, but another part felt guilty for not betraying him. She sighed, irritated that someone she didn't even know could put her through such torment, and went to return to her office.

She turned, and found herself staring at a large expanse of shirtfront.

"Is there a problem?" a voice above her demanded acidly.

"Why weren't you at your post?" she threw back at him.

"Nature called. I was only away for a minute."

Dajira felt a certain satisfaction at being able to wield a small amount of power, for she knew that the man would be worried in case she reported him to her stepfather.

"They are Jedi, you know. You should be more careful."

"Yeah? Well they're not much good without their powers you know. And anyway -- that room used to be used for tempering resin. It's surrounded with solid insulation as thick as a Hutt, and it's completely enclosed -- no outside walls. There's no way anyone could get out of there, unless they have a thermal detonator or a supply of concussion missiles."

"You should never assume anything with Jedi. They can be tricky."

"Not with ysalamiri around."

"Who's to say the ysalamiri can stop them doing those mind-tricks?"

"Well they ain't going to get a chance," the man's grin was unpleasantly toothy. "Because I ain't going anywhere near them."

"Aren't you going to feed them?" Dajira couldn't help feeling shocked. She remembered what it was like to feel hungry.

The man kicked at the bottom of the door with his foot to indicate a rectangular slot edged with durasteel. "There's a hole we can slide food through, but your father said to hold off feeding them until tomorrow. He's been preparing this room for a while -- even got to test-run it on those two weird healer women -- so you don't need to worry your pretty little head about it. Get back to your job, and leave me to do mine." The man folded his arms, and leaned back against the wall between the two doors.

Dajira hesitated for a moment, and then threw the man an insolent look, and got down on her knees so she could bend down and squint through the slot. It took her eyes a while to adjust to the gloom, but eventually she made out four feet side by side, two of which were bare. She tilted her head to get a clearer view, and saw that the two young people were sitting, backs against the far wall, with their legs stretched out in front of them. It was hard to make out their faces in the darkness, but they were very still, and she assumed they were asleep -- perhaps they were still suffering the effects of being drugged.

She studied them for a little longer. They were very close -- cuddled up together in fact. The girl had short, light-coloured hair, and she had her head against Anakin Solo's shoulder, while his head rested on her hair. Dajira felt a twinge of jealousy, and then realised how irrational it was to envy someone who was soon going to be killed, probably in some really terrible way. Full of conflicting feelings, she returned to her office -- on one hand sorry for the horrors that awaited the two Jedi at the hands of the Vong, and on the other half glad. She hated the way life buoyed her with dreams one minute, and destroyed them the next, leaving her feeling empty and disillusioned.

Perhaps the two Jedi might be feeling that way soon too.

On her way back to her office she noticed the noise again, and stopped for a moment to try and establish its location. She continued on round the hallway, noticing that it was definitely growing louder, and by the time she reached her stepfather's office she had figured out what it was. She flung the door open, and stared in distaste at the snoring man in her step-father's chair. Typical, she thought. The boss leaves and the whole place falls apart. Well, I'm not going to let it, and what's more I'm going to show these oafs up for what they are. She whirled around and stormed out, slamming the door viciously as she went, imagining Mahko jumping out of his seat with surprise and hoping that he'd bitten his tongue in the process. By the time she reached her desk, she had resolved to return secretly later that evening and keep an eye on things.



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