Many Happy Returns: Chapter Fourteen
Rongo pushed open the door to the room that had until recently been his brother's. For a moment he hesitated. The sight of Anakin's youthful athletic form lying stomach down on the bed, his chin resting on his folded arms, reminded him so much of Jonno that he felt a lump rising unbidden to his throat. He swallowed hard as Blue glanced up, and hoped his voice would sound normal.
"Just about." The tattooed biker glanced across at Tahiri, who was sitting on the other side of the bunk, and offered her the bacta cream and patches he was holding. "Actually, you could probably finish off for me, Tahiri. Give that raw patch in the middle some more ointment, and then -- see what I did here?" He pointed to the blistered edges of Anakin's wound, which he had begun to cover with strips cut from larger bacta patches.
"Carry on making a perimeter of bacta strips to contain the layer of ointment. That should hurry up the healing process nicely."
Rongo patted his comrade on the shoulder. "He may be the ugliest triage nurse you've ever seen, but he knows his stuff." He gave Tahiri a wink. "However, I'm sure Anakin'll be glad to get the good-looking one. Eh, kid?"
Anakin pivoted his head around slightly so he could see the tall biker. "They both have their advantages."
Blue chuckled. "Anyone ever tell you that you have diplomatic potential?"
"Try not to let it get around," said Anakin laconically. "I have my reputation to maintain."
Rongo's brown eyes crinkled, and he watched for a moment as Tahiri cut off a bacta strip the way Blue had instructed. "Pity you can't slap on whole ones, but we have to go easy on our supplies of those things."
"No need to apologise." Anakin's statement ended in a slight grunt.
"Sorry," said Tahiri.
"You want some pain relief?" Blue asked.
Anakin shook his head. "We have some Jedi techniques we can use for that."
"Well, in that case I'll leave you to it," said Blue. "Oh, and Tahiri -- just remember to put everything back in the kit as soon as you've finished."
"And get some rest will you," said Rongo. "No -- cancel that. I order you to get some rest. Do I make myself clear?"
"Yes, sir," chorused the two young Jedi.
"Think they'll listen?" Blue said as he followed Rongo up the corridor.
"Nah. Young know-it-alls."
"We were like that once you know."
Rongo chuckled. "Possibly. Although I don't think I learned the art of attracting pretty blondes until a few years later."
"I still haven't learned it. Maybe I should ask the kid for some pointers." Blue let out a sudden guffaw as he remembered something. "Did you see Jaytee's expression when she walked in? I thought we were going to have to shoot his eyebrows down off the ceiling."
"Along with a few other body parts." Rongo chuckled again, and shouldered the door to the common room open. "Actually -- it might pay to keep an eye on him. I'd hate to see him cut to shreds if he tries anything, and I'm meaning by Tahiri herself."
"You realise we're beginning to sound like parents?"
"Yeah, makes you want to puke, doesn't it?"
"I dunno." Blue had reached the bar and pulled two bottles from the cooler, smoothly levering the top off one by using the other's cap. He took a few gulps and sighed contentedly, resting his elbows on the counter. "I guess you and I are like parents to some of these kids. At least when we beat them up it's for a good reason, not just because we're zonked out on spice or having a bad day." He wiped his chin, grinning.
"There is that." Rongo nodded, and ran his fingers over the pitted wood of the counter. "That's what I used to hate about home -- never knowing what the rules were. Pretty difficult to know what's right and wrong when it keeps changing. That's why I don't like us to have too many rules -- just a few simple ones."
"Yeah, you're a good leader, Rongo. I've been in a few gangs over the years and I reckon the Knights have the best spirit. Everyone works together pretty well, considering."
Rongo took a long draught of lum. "Well -- it helps having the occasional cause, I guess." He turned to watch the group in the corner recharging blaster packs under Doc's critical eye and occasional growled insults.
"Do you know Doc actually has a heart under that ornery exterior somewhere?" said Blue in a mock confidential tone. "I have evidence -- I heard it beating earlier this morning.'
Rongo snorted. "I can imagine. Thud, beep, vaping thud, beep, get your, thud, vaping ears, thud, beep, off my chest."
"Had a few more beeps and vapings than that, but close." Blue grinned sardonically, and glanced across at Rongo, noting the pensive frown creasing his brow. "What's on your mind?"
"Been thinking about the Rancors. I want a small group to act as a decoy while we check out Tag's warehouse, and I want you to lead them. Take them over to the bridge near the market where we were this morning and look like you're thinking of crossing the boundary. That should keep the Rancors busy and out of our way."
Blue finished off his lum and threw the bottle into a plastine bin in the corner. "Good idea. I'll go and organise that now."
"And I'll hurry up lunch."
"Don't hurry it too much. I want those two to get at least a little rest."
"You could always go and sing them lullabies." Rongo shoved his companion playfully in the ribs.
"You obviously haven't heard my singing. I have been mistaken for bad plumbing you know."
"That bad, huh?"
"Excruciating is more the right word. I think I'll just leave them in peace. Just tell Doc if he sees them before lunch he has your permission to stun them."
"That'll make his day," said Rongo dryly. "Although last time he tried he had it turned back on him. Maybe I'll just let him bellow at them."
"That'll definitely work. Might even be educational."
"I dunno -- it is Solos we're talking about here."
Rongo snorted back a chuckle. "Yeah -- right," he said.
"Do I sense a facetious response there, beloved leader?" Blue threw Rongo a wide-eyed look.
"Me -- facetious, 'bro? Hell, I don't even know what it means." The bike leader threw his head back and swallowed the last of his drink, then winked and threw the bottle to Blue who flicked it on neatly so that it landed in the bin.
"Yeah -- right," Blue grinned as he headed towards the outside door. "I'll go find some decoys."
Rongo nodded and set off towards the kitchen. He slowed down as he passed Jonno's old room, but it seemed to be silent. Do Jedi sleep like normal people, or did they just go into some sort of deep meditation? He shrugged, unable to answer his own question. But one thing he was sure about. Dealing with these two young Jedi was one of the more interesting experiences he'd had, and was definitely going to be one he remembered for a long time.
Tahiri returned the surplus bacta patches to the first aid pack and pushed down the lid. She straightened to find that Anakin was sitting up and watching her, the faint wisp of a smile softening his features and muting the icy blueness of his eyes. She folded her arms and waited while his gaze tracked back up to her face, and then she raised an eyebrow quizzically.
Anakin caught the unspoken challenge, but his attempt to look contrite failed miserably.
"Sorry," he said.
"No, you're not. You were enjoying yourself."
"Yeah," he replied with a lop-sided grin. "I guess I was." His eyes flickered down and then back up to hers, and he held her gaze. "I, um ..." He ran several possible versions of his justification through in his mind. "I can't help it if I like the way you're put together, you know."
Tahiri's eyes widened and a series of expressions progressed through them beginning and ending on one of surprise. Anakin followed the sequence with mild trepidation. He still found Tahiri's reactions to be sometimes unpredictable. This time, however, she seemed to have the sort of look he hoped he might see on her face when she opened her birthday present. That was, of course, when he had figured out what to give her.
"Wow," she breathed. "You've actually given me a compliment that I don't want to bash you over the head for. Congratulations."
"The pleasure's all mine," he replied reaching out to give her hand a squeeze.
She smiled mischievously. "Maybe I should get you shot up more often."
"No, no." He waved the suggestion away vigorously. "Now I've got the hang of it, I can probably do it again without needing the initial pain and terror."
Tahiri plopped herself down on the edge of the bed and studied him speculatively. "You know how you could improve it?"
Anakin's gaze slid away from hers into its habitual thinking mode position, and then returned without obvious revelation. "Um, no."
"Instead of saying you like how I'm put together, you could have just you liked how I look. Put together makes me sound like a piece of machinery."
Anakin nodded. "I guess I tend to think in mechanical metaphors," he admitted. "Although I did try out your suggestion in my head beforehand, but it didn't quite capture what I wanted to say."
Tahiri thought for a moment. "I guess I think look sounds a little more flattering than put together."
"I dunno. I think it sounds a bit vague. I've always liked the way you look. And anyway at the moment you don't lo-" He stopped so suddenly that he almost bit his tongue. Spit, he thought. I wish I had bitten it -- about thirty seconds ago when things were still going well.
Tahiri had been reaching for his hand, but she stopped and glared green dagger blades at him. "At the moment I don't look what?"
Anakin grabbed her hand before she could snatch it back. "You should have quit while you're ahead. You know I'm no good at this. You want fancy words, get someone like Lando."
Tahiri's expression was hard to read, but to his surprise, and relief, it seemed to soften and her eyes lost their lethal glint. "I don't want someone like Lando," she said slowly.
"Well there you are then. You're stuck with someone like me. Get used to it."
"I am used to it. And I don't feel stuck."
"Neither do I. And you know I like the way you look -- even when, as is the case at the moment," he said emphatically, "neither of us looks all that great." He let go his grip on her hand and tweaked her affectionately on the nose. "You know you're beautiful. Surely I don't have to keep telling you all the time?"
"You've never actually ever told me," she informed him.
Anakin frowned. "Haven't I? Could have sworn I had. I know I've thought it often enough."
Tahiri rolled her eyes and shook her head. Her huff of exasperation, however, turned into a snort of resigned laughter. "It'd just be really nice if you remembered to say it occasionally.
"I do try, you know," he said softly. "It's just that this stuff doesn't come naturally."
"I know," she sighed. "I'm sorry, Anakin. I realise I'm a bit quick off the mark sometimes."
"Sss-" Anakin caught himself before he could finish his teasing repetition. "S'all right. If you weren't so ferocious I probably wouldn't like you as much." He grinned provocatively.
"Nice recovery," she grinned back.
"You've got to admit it -- I am improving." He settled back on the bed, but his attempt at a cocky expression was short-lived as the movement made him grimace instead. Tahiri threw him a look of concern. "I'm okay," he assured her.
"Anakin, you'd say that if you were half dead."
He looked up at her and their eyes locked. "Come here," he ordered her softly.
"You know, it's just as well I can read your intentions," she said, settling down in his arms. "Otherwise I might think that collaborating with swoopers was giving you ideas."
"Maybe it is," he murmured, lifting one dark eyebrow.
She studied him her eyes narrowed in concentration, and then shook her head.
"How do you know," said Anakin slyly, "that I haven't developed a Tahiri-proof section in my mind?"
"Put it this way, Solo. Try any funny moves and you're dead."
He sighed. "I'll never fit in here. I'm too honourable."
Tahiri giggled. "Shallow, you mean."
"Only to you," he reminded her.
"In that case, I guess I am too, to you."
"Yeah." He smoothed some strands of golden hair away from her cheek. The softness of her skin never ceased to amaze him, and he always found the contact soothing -- as soothing as the touch of her fingers on his forehead as they pushed away the lock of hair that insisted on always flopping forward.
"You left your comb behind on purpose, didn't you?"
"I like the way you do it with your fingers better."
"Schemer." She smiled and caressed his chin. The stubble rasped against her fingertips. "Don't tell me. You left your razor behind, too."
"No, I definitely packed it." He regarded her warily. "I, um, just keep forgetting to use it."
Tahiri snorted back a chuckle. "Don't worry, I'm kind of getting used to it. Prickly on the outside -- soft on the inside."
Anakin slid his hand up and touched his palm to hers. Their eyes locked again.
"You want to say that that means we complement each other perfectly," said Tahiri softly, "but you think I'll thump you for suggesting I'm the one who's prickly on the inside."
Anakin shook his head. "No. I know you'll thump me."
Their fingers intertwined.
"If we could avoid words, we'd communicate perfectly."
"When we avoid them you mean," murmured Anakin.
He had to admit that when he and Tahiri opened themselves up to each other, the power they engendered could be frightening. Now, however, there was no need to pull one thousand-year-old Massassi trees from the ground and fling them at attacking spaceships. Now, what they needed was a deeper, more contemplative power, and so they focused inward.
Anakin found himself traversing a familiar mindscape of assorted memories and problems built up into dunes like those in the deserts of Tahiri's home planet of Tatooine. At the moment, the mounds were taller and more imposing, augmented by their trials at Tag's factory, and swept into monstrous shapes by the winds of Tahiri's emotions. He scaled the knife-edges of ridges gouged by her anger at Tag and by association the Peace Brigade in general. The latter was an old enmity, and one he had begun to help her erode over the months of her recuperation on the Errant Venture. One day he hoped it would wear smooth enough to sink down and lie beside the other turmoils from her past that time, love and maturity had relegated to the deep canyons of long-term memory -- experiences to call on when needed but which no longer held sway over her actions.
The last day and a half, however, had lain bare again some of the pain and confusion she had endured on Yavin 4. He had noticed those memories were easily brought to the surface, and there were still shadowy areas connected with her Yuuzhan Vong shaping that worried him. He threw himself into the full force of the winds, and was buffeted by crosscurrents of guilt and vengeance, despair and triumph.
People are making us fight them when we should be fighting the Yuuzhan Vong. Can't they see they're helping the Yuuzhan Vong win?
Fear makes them blind.
It's all such a waste. We're protecting people who will sell us out the first chance they get.
It's not everyone. It's just the Peace Brigade.
It feels like everyone.
That's because we have to deal with the scum.
I thought I was going to lose you in that factory.
I thought I was going to lose you on Yavin.
Anakin felt the gusts slowly transform into breezes, or was the sensation just that of her breathing caressing his cheek? Sometimes it was difficult to tell whether the feelings were purely mental or physical, just as it was often hard to differentiate between her feelings and his. He felt her wandering in and out of the paths of his own memories and fears, some recent and some, like hers, solidly confined to the depths of his subconscious.
To Tahiri, Anakin's mind was a complicated maze, but not one she would ever get lost in. She knew the dead ends that marked unresolved problems well, and wasn't afraid to explore them -- problems such as Centerpoint and Anakin's disagreement with his brother about the Force. Here equations covered the maze walls, but the variables kept shifting, and the solutions were as yet missing. Tahiri knew she couldn't help Anakin with the math; she also knew that wasn't what he needed her for. What he did require was her strength and experience, and these Tahiri offered willingly. This was how she had helped him come to terms with Chewie's death, for if there was one thing that Tahiri had learned at an early age, it was how to accept the inexplicable and sudden death of loved ones.
Anakin's problem with his father was an area they were coming close to resolving thanks to Tahiri's memory of her relationship with Sliven, the Tusken Raider who had adopted her after his tribe killed her parents. When she was nine she had returned to fulfill a promise to Sliven only to discover that it required that she face a dangerous trial of strength and endurance, one that he had been forced to agree to as the price for saving her in the first place. With Anakin's help Tahiri had survived, but the experience had taught her about the complex rules and loyalties that operate in the world of adults, and the strange emotional isolation that they are often forced to impose on themselves. Gradually, she was transferring that awareness to Anakin to help him better understand his father's behaviour.
"Sometimes the situation drives you to do things you hate -- maybe even makes you hate yourself," she had told him a few months before, when Anakin had been brooding after a brief visit from his parents. "Your father doesn't hate you for having to leave Chewie to die. He hates the situation that forced you to have to make such a decision."
"Why doesn't he say it then?" he had asked.
"He hasn't sorted it out himself yet. He's still afraid to think about it."
Now, through their bond, she noticed a new loop in the labyrinth surrounding Anakin's reasoning about the Force. It looked as though he had been trying to forge a link back to his experiences with Mara on Dantooine. It was the old conundrum again -- trying to find the balance between following his aunt's advice to learn to operate without the Force and developing his Jedi skills. He was annoyed at himself for not trusting his instinctive suspicion of Tag, but more than the annoyance was the worry that he hadn't yet learned how to know when his instincts were Force-generated or not.
You try too hard to be perfect, Anakin.
Maybe -- but I don't like to think I'll ignore warnings that could affect others.
Tahiri brushed his memories of Yavin, and the disturbing dream that had provoked him to disobey his Uncle Luke flared briefly, casting an incarnadine glow over his internal vision.
Your instinct about Yavin 4 was right.
She nudged him towards the present, and the nightmare images that marked their recent ordeal in Tag's factory.
And when you had no connection to the Force, you still thought like a Jedi and tried to help Dajira.
You get it right most of the time, Anakin. You're too tough on yourself.
She felt him sigh. It was not a sigh of contentment, but it wasn't one of frustration either. She reached out to him through their bond, tugging him away from the puzzles, and he followed willingly. He was learning to trust her guidance as much as she trusted his, although he recognised that he still tended to let his ego stand in the way sometimes. It was a weakness he was working on. Tahiri might be two years younger, but there were times when he suspected she made up the difference in greater wisdom.
He noticed the breezes again -- warm, soothing -- bathing him in fragrances from exotic worlds untouched by war. He saw himself lying with Tahiri on a mattress of soft turf, surrounded by feathery tree fronds hanging like diaphanous veils. Something tickled his face, and he came back to reality believing for a moment that they really were in some tropical paradise. He lifted his nose away from her hair and nuzzled her forehead.
"I don't know how you do it, but you always smell nice," he murmured.
Her eyes widened a little, the yellow and green striations in her irises fluctuating like patterns in an antique kaleidoscope. She seemed to consider his words, and then she smiled and snuggled contentedly in his arms.
"Have you noticed that Tendra always smells nice, too?" she mused a moment or so later.
Anakin shook his head and grunted a lazy negative. "Probably something expensive that Lando buys her," he reasoned pragmatically.
"Mmm, possibly. Of course, it doesn't have to be expensive to smell good."
"Anyway, whatever it is, it's nice."
"I'll take your word for it."
He felt her eyelashes tickle his neck, as if she had opened and closed her eyes quickly, but other than uttering a small sigh, she remained silent. The bed was not overly comfortable as beds go, but compared to the places they'd been forced to rest on recently it seemed almost luxurious. Lulled by the quietness in the room and calmed by his bonding with Tahiri in the Force, Anakin felt his eyelids begin to droop.
"That place you just took me to," he said softly. "One day, we're going to find a real place like that and go there -- that's a promise."
Tahiri didn't reply and he assumed she had already fallen asleep, but after a minute or so she looked up at him.
"I'll hold you to that."
Anakin smiled teasingly. "Me and my big mouth."
Tahiri stretched up and kissed him. "Not big -- just right." Her eyes had crinkled at the corners the way they did when she was amused, but her expression was serious.
"Just like -" Anakin began, but Tahiri placed her hand gently over his mouth.
"Quit while you're ahead," she whispered sagely, kissed him lightly once more and nestled back against him.
Anakin grinned in reply and settled more comfortably against the bolster. Although sleepy, he lay for a while thinking about some of the pictures his mother had sometimes shown him of Alderaan, and wondering if there would still be beautiful places to visit when the war with the Yuuzhan Vong finished. It seemed to him that in the last fifty years the galaxy had seen nothing but war, and a large number of the more peaceful, picturesque planets had bitten the dust -- or in some cases, been turned into it. Would there be any such places left? The thought made him shiver a little. He reached down carefully so as not to disturb Tahiri, and eased the quilt up to the cover them both. He could feel the faint tingle of the bacta ointment working its magic on his burn, continuing the healing process initiated in his healing trance. He focused inwards on the damaged cells, channeling the Force to augment the restorative properties of the bacta. The last thing he noticed as he lost touch with his surroundings was the warmth of Tahiri's body, and his last thought was how good it felt.
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