Many Happy Returns: Chapter Nine
Iella

Anakin crouched against the solid durasteel of the packing machine and hazarded a lightning quick peek around the edge, letting off one well-chosen shot. Somebody cried out, and he heard a thud and more curses from the victim's companions.

"Hey, Jedi!" a voice hailed them. "Come out now and we won't harm you."

"No, of course you won't," Anakin shouted back. "But you're quite happy to let the Vong hurt us. If you think we're going to hand ourselves over to be sacrificed, you've got another think coming."

The men didn't reply, but Anakin could hear a lot of muttering. No doubt they would try and surround them and draw them out.

He turned to Tahiri, but she had crawled forward to peer down the hole through which the conveyor belt emerged. She looked back at him, and Anakin didn't need the Force to know what she was signaling with her eyes. He waved her forward, let off another bolt, scrambled over to the other side of the side of the machine and fired two more quick blasts, then dived after her into the tunnel of darkness. Hopefully it might take Tag's men a few minutes to realise that he and Tahiri were no longer there.

He caught up with Tahiri as she half-slid, half-scuttled down the wide belt. It was coated with a non-friction surface, but was covered in pieces of white crumbly matter -- possibly ceramoplast -- which were probably residue from whatever usually traveled up it. In some ways the presence of these chips was an advantage as it helped them slide down the belt tunnel quickly. Anakin wasn't diverting too much of his thinking to the purposes of the machinery they were climbing on, but if he'd had to hazard a guess, he would have said it was designed to carry panels, possibly insulation panels, from the production site to the packing plant.

"I'm at the bottom," he heard Tahiri whisper just before he felt his own feet strike another section of belt that ran horizontally. "Where to, now?"

"Find the door. We need to find our lightsabers."

"Pity we didn't deal to that ysalamiri."

"I know. I didn't have time." Anakin didn't like to say that he had momentarily toyed with the idea of shooting it, but hadn't done so for two reasons. One, Tag's men had arrived, and two, he couldn't find it in his heart to kill a defenceless creature. After all, it wasn't the animal's fault that its natural self-defence system was being used as a weapon. The irony that this reaction would have made his brother Jacen proud of him hadn't been lost on him either. In fact, he had once jokingly considered talking Jaina into helping him find an ysalamiri and giving it to Jacen as a present. He shook his head in irritation. Family fun was something he would never experience again if he and Tahiri didn't get out of here.

To his surprise Tahiri took his hand. "I didn't mean kill it," she assured him.

He started. Was their connection that strong that she could still read his thoughts without the Force? Or did she just know him too well? He squeezed her fingers encouragingly, and set off through the dark. His eyes were beginning to adjust to the different degrees of blackness in the factory, this being itself a factor of the presence of various indicator lights and windows. The area around them now was particularly dark, so it came as a severe shock to both his eyes and his nerves when all of a sudden the lights came on.

Half-blinded, both Anakin and Tahiri jumped instinctively towards a cluster of shelves that looked like a mechanic's work station, and Anakin noticed fleetingly as he leapt that they were still some considerable distance from the door. The room they were in was huge, and the conveyor belt they had seen from above ran through the entire length, disappearing through an opening at the end where the metal press hung on joists from its platform.

"Somehow, we need to get through that hatchway by the press," he whispered urgently, hearing the inevitable sound of the door rolling up.

"Can you shoot out the lights?"

Anakin glanced up. "Too many of them -- don't want to waste shots." He peered around the side of a stack of durasteel trays and took careful aim. He was rewarded by another cry of pain. That's two down, he thought. But I don't think the next three are going to be quite so easy to hit. That's assuming they don't have more hiding somewhere else. He rechecked the entrance, but the only man there was the one he had shot. That meant ...

"Look out!" called Tahiri, pulling him back roughly. A shot from above missed him by mere microns, and he could have sworn that his hair was on fire.

"Spit," he muttered, and fired back randomly. The guard leapt back from the rails to avoid the shot and disappeared.

"Anakin, there's someone coming down the tunnel." The shrill note of panic in Tahiri's voice reflected his own desperation.

Anakin listened carefully, and heard the telltale sound of feet scrabbling down the conveyor. If only they could activate the belt, then it would carry whoever was on it back up to the top. He searched with his eyes for some lever or button on the giant lifting device that towered up at the meeting point of the two conveyors. Obviously whatever came through the press from the other room was lifted out of the metal trays on to the upper belt to be taken to the packing machine. All of which is no use to us in our current predicament, thought Anakin.

"Okay, Tahiri," he cast a quick glance up to check the railed area above them and saw it was empty of guards. "We're out of here," and he grabbed her hand and sprinted towards the far wall. Tahiri easily kept pace with him, following him up on to the belt and skirting her way around the huge trays that they could now see contained thick white panels. They were just ducking through the hatch into the next room when they heard voices and the pounding of feet behind them.

"Good. Darkness," muttered Anakin gratefully. He leapt down from the belt, and headed over to a row of large vats, intending to use them for cover while he picked off anyone following them. Tahiri was about to agree, when they heard scrabbling at the doorway ahead of them, and the lights flared on with a searing incandescence. Without hesitation, Anakin thrust the blaster into her hand and raced over to the door.

"Take out anyone who comes through that hatch!" he hissed.

Tahiri crouched between the two forward vats so that she was shielded from anyone coming through the door, and focused her attention on the point where the conveyor entered.

"Anakin Solo!" she called as loudly as she dared. "Don't you dare do anything stupid and heroic!"

"Hey!" he called back softly. "It's me!"

"That's why I'm worried, dummy!" she muttered, half in anger and half in fear. She heard the door squeaking and rumbling and then there was a muffled thump and a metallic crash. I hope that wasn't you, Anakin, she prayed.

"Spawn!" came a vicious bellow, and then another louder meatier sound, like a nerf tumbling to the ground, followed by a truncated groan.

Three down, said Anakin to himself, as he picked up the blaster he had knocked out of the man's hand just before he threw him to the floor. He glanced quickly back towards the conveyor but couldn't see past the vats. Trusting Tahiri to guard that entry point, he peeked cautiously out into the corridor. Nobody in sight. Okay -- that means they're going to come in from somewhere else. He turned back and gazed around the room searching for any other possible entry points, reaching back to activate the close button on the door. He thought about blasting the control unit, but decided not to in case he and Tahiri needed to escape that way.

Over on the far side he saw another door, and began racing over towards it when all of a sudden he saw it begin to roll up. He heard the hiss of blaster fire to his left, followed directly by a return shot.

Take your time, Tahiri, he urged mentally.

At least she would be distracting whoever was there so they would be less likely to try and shoot him, which was just as well, as he was now in direct view of the conveyor hatchway. He clambered quickly over the belt, intending to try and reach the door before it opened, but as soon as his feet touched the floor again he could see that that would be impossible. The opening revealed the huge figure of a man silhouetted against the darkness of the hallway behind him. Anakin leapt to the right at the same time that he saw the flash emanating from the blaster rifle. More shots sizzled from the direction of the vats, but Anakin had no time to consider that as a positive sign of Tahiri still being all right. He was too busy swerving and ducking his way towards the control console nearby, it being the only thing anywhere in the vicinity that offered him any protection.

There was another blast from the hatch and Anakin heard Tahiri cry out.

"No!" he gasped, and in that moment of lost concentration he felt a flash of heat along his left side followed by the nauseating smell of burnt flesh. He lurched sideways and tried to keep scrabbling towards the console, but before he could reach it somebody grabbed him from behind and lifted him roughly off the ground. He felt himself swung around and hurled into one of the trays on the belt. His head glanced off the edge and the last thing he saw before he blacked out was the huge man standing over him sneering.

Tahiri held her wounded arm against her side and aimed carefully. Anakin had made her practise shooting both right and left-handed, and although he had annoyed her at the time with his demands for perfection, she was now very grateful to him. Even so, she knew she was still shaky with her left, and she was even shakier now with the pain of the burn affecting her concentration. She waited. Her cry may have convinced the man that she had been hit badly, and she knew if she ceased fire for a while this might convince him even more. The seconds ticked on. The sound of blaster fire from Anakin's direction had stopped, and that unnerved her, but she decided not to think about what that might mean.

Suddenly, there was a shrill metallic screech followed by the loud rumbling of gears jerking into motion, and the conveyor belt began to move. A man's head popped up from above the huge metal tray that had been sitting just inside the hatchway. Tahiri caught a glimpse of his eyes registering surprise and then glazing over with horror as he started to turn his head up. His scream was silenced with a sickening crunch, and Tahiri covered her face with her hands and tried not to gag.

She scrambled around to the other side of the vat and peeked out, but what she saw made her blood run cold. A large man -- one of the ones who had captured her and Tendra -- was standing up on the belt and was leveling his blaster at the tray in front of him. Anakin was nowhere in sight, but Tahiri knew instinctively where he was. A steely determination took control of as she aimed her weapon; she took a deep breath, leveled the blaster pistol at the man's temple, and fired.

He stood there, unmoving and apparently unaffected, a vengeful grin on his thuggish face. Tahiri cursed to herself and took aim again, but as she went to depress the trigger, the man swayed slowly backwards and fell almost gracefully into the tray behind him. A smoking hole edged with blue gave him the appearance of having a third eye, all three equally sightless. Tahiri raced over to the belt and hoisted herself up on to it, almost falling off the other side as the belt jerked in its inexorable motion towards the press. She stared desperately around her and caught sight of the console. She whirled back to the press, and felt the icy hands of panic grip her heart and try to force it up through her throat. There was no way she could reach the controls in time and figure out how to switch them off.

She grabbed desperately at Anakin's feet and pulled with all her strength until his knees appeared at the top of the tray's rim. She hung over the edge and reached down to get a grip on his arms so she could pull him up, screaming out his name at the same time to rouse him from his unconscious state. She managed to get him upright, and stretched forward to grasp him under the arms, but he lolled sideways and then backwards causing her to lose her balance, and his superior weight pulled her down on top of him. She looked up and saw the blank metal of the press poised above her -- the inscrutable face of death waiting to strike. Tears of despair and terror streamed down her face, and she clung fiercely to Anakin's body as if in some crazy way she could protect him from the fate in store.

"I love you," she whispered, and squeezed her eyes tightly shut, waiting for the terrible moment of contact.

She waited.

She sat up. The metal plate was still poised above them, but the belt had stopped moving, and the rumbling of the machinery had turned into a slow cooling-down whine. Tahiri stared down at Anakin, and then, extricating her arms from behind his back, she clambered up on her knees and peeped over the top of the tray. Through the hatch she saw a slight figure standing by the console -- a Twi'lek. Tahiri realised that this must be the same girl she had knocked out upstairs, because she saw blood staining the side of her neck.

The girl stared back at her, and even from a distance Tahiri saw a mixture of emotions coursing through her eyes.

"You'd better hurry before I change my mind," she shouted.

Tahiri shook her head to try and break through the cloud of confusion that had suddenly enveloped her. "Why?"

The girl's shoulders sagged. "I'm not sure what I believe any more. I ... " Her chin trembled and she stared at Tahiri, anguish in her pale eyes, unable to continue. She gazed for a moment longer, and then turned and stumbled towards the door.

Tahiri heard a groan behind her, and turned quickly.

Anakin stared up at her, blankly at first, but then his eyes moved up to take in the press poised above them. "Oh," he muttered. "Bad!"

"Can you move?" she said gently.

Anakin grimaced and let her help him sit up. She pushed the arm away that he was using to cover his left side, and gasped.

"It looks worse than it is," he assured her. "Help me stand."

Tahiri glanced back towards the door, but the girl was no longer there.

"I think we'd better get out of here quickly," she urged him.

"What happened?" he wobbled and almost fell against the side of the tray.

Tahiri grabbed him and placed his hands on the rim so he could support himself. "I'll catch you up later. Right now, you're going to have to climb out of this thing. Can you do it?"

"Sure," he murmured obediently. "Climb out."

Somehow Tahiri half hauled, half pushed him over the edge, on to the belt and then down on to the ground. He touched the burn on her arm gently and then pulled her against him.

"You're incredible," he said, attempting a lop-sided grin.

Tahiri looped one arm around his neck and hugged him back, taking care not to touch his wounded left side. She nearly jumped out of her skin when a voice spoke from beside her.

"You'll need these." Tahiri turned to see the Twi'lek girl holding their lightsabers.

"Take them," the girl hissed, her eyes focused on Anakin.

"He needs help," she said.

The girl shook her head helplessly. "I can't," she said. "I've done all I can." She waved the lightsabers angrily. "Just go!"

"You did the right thing," said Anakin softly.

"Yeah," she said bitterly.

Tahiri reached out and took their weapons, slipping hers back on to the loop inside the front flap of her skirt.

"The others," said Anakin, holding the girl's gaze. "Where are they?"

She pursed her lips, but her eyes registered uncertainty. She glanced quickly at Tahiri and then back to Anakin.

"We're not trying to keep the war going," said Tahiri. "We're trying to end it. We want our homes back, our lives back, and we won't achieve that by giving in."

"She's right," said Anakin.

Tahiri handed him his lightsaber, and he stared at it for a moment and then activated it. A gasp escaped the girl's lips and she stepped hurriedly back.

Anakin studied the amethyst glow for a moment and then turned to the girl again. "What's your name?" he asked, to her surprise.

"Da-Dajira," she stammered. "Dajira Tag."

Anakin nodded and turned back to his blade. "This is the light we're fighting for, Dajira," he said. "I don't like the dark, and I don't think you do either."

Dajira stared in wonder at the purple light, and flinched again when it deactivated with a hiss. "You friends are being held at my step-father's storage facility. That's all I can say. And please, you must leave. Now!"

Tahiri glanced up at Anakin, her green eyes signaling admiration, but also concern.

"I'm okay," he assured her. "Which way out, Dajira?"

Silently the girl turned on her heel, and began walking towards the door. Anakin and Tahiri exchanged quizzical looks and then followed. She led them along a corridor, down a ramp and then across a large space towards a small door inset in a large metal hatch that Anakin recognised vaguely as the entrance through which he and Lando had come the day before. They watched as Dajira keyed in a security code, and the door swung silently open. She stepped back to let them through.

Just before Tahiri followed Anakin, she turned back to Dajira and took her hand. "You did do the right thing," she said, squeezing the girl's cold fingers firmly. She stepped through and caught a fleeting glimpse of the girl's face streaming with tears, and then the door slammed shut.

Anakin stepped back exhausted against the wall and pulled her against him, and they held on to each other grimly for some time. Tahiri tried to fight the constriction in her throat, but eventually gave in and soaked Anakin's tunic front with tears of anger and relief.

"Hey," he murmured. "I thought you said we weren't to do anything heroic?"

Tahiri wiped her eyes, sniffing and laughing at the same time.

"No -- I said you weren't allowed to."

"Ah. I see," he grinned, and then sighed and mussed her hair. "One day I'll get this communication thing sorted out."

Tahiri sniffed once more, and then smiled. "No you won't."

"Nah, you're right." He kissed her.

"Now that I do understand," she murmured.

"Yeah."

"We need to find somewhere to rest, Anakin. You need a healing trance."

"We both do. Come on." He wrapped his right arm round her, and they set off slowly, supporting each other. "We'll head back to the ship."

"Is that wise? What if Tag's got guards there?"

"He might, but I don't think he's here. He wasn't one of the ones at the factory."

"He might be at the place they have Lando and Tendra," suggested Tahiri.

"It's possible."

"Maybe that's why Dajira was so desperate for us to leave."

Anakin went to take a step, faltered and grabbed on to the side of a low wall. "I'm okay," he protested.

"You're not. You can barely stand," she snapped, and, gazing around, saw the opening to an alley between buildings opposite them. "This time you're going to take orders from me, and you're not going to argue. We're going to find some shelter, and you're going into a trance, even if I have to knock you out myself."

Anakin tried to think up a witty reply, but he could feel his knees turning to jelly and his brain was signaling shutdown. He let her guide him under a low alcove, and he lay down as she instructed on his uninjured side. She settled down with her back resting against the side of a plastine rubbish receptacle and took his head on her lap. The alley was reasonably warm, and he could hear a low thrumming like that from an industrial refrigeration plant nearby. The sound had a soothing rhythmic quality to it.

"What about you?" he tried to say, but all that came out was an incoherent mumble. He heard the word "trance" and felt Tahiri's fingers soothing his forehead. Then he felt her touch him in the Force, tentatively at first as she probed the areas where he was feeling pain. He felt her flinch as she shared the fiery stinging in the flesh around his blaster wound and the nagging ache of the scorched and damaged tissue in the middle of it. She brushed soft Force fingers over the throbbing in his head, a palliative to the pain caused by the impact of his head against the metal tray. He returned the touch gratefully, absorbing and dissipating the raw tingling of the burn on her arm. Beyond the pain he was aware of her emotions: anger, guilt, worry and relief, and he helped her strengthen the wall she was building to keep them temporarily at bay. Implicit in that action was his promise that they would find time later to deal with their emotional wounds, once they had the fleshly ones under control.

The bond between them, already strong, expanded like an ysalamiri's protective bubble, enveloping them and dispersing their aches and pains. Eventually, exhausted but resting comfortably in each other's Force embrace, they fell asleep. When they opened their eyes again, the alley was full of shadows -- the greyish pinkish shadows of dawn.



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