Many Happy Returns: Chapter Fifteen
Iella

Kushka's tongue poked out in concentration as he scraped the sharp end of the tool that had until recently been his mother's earring along the floor beam. It wasn't hard work because the beam had already had its smooth surface ruptured by Vehn, Qorl and Lando cutting out the pieces for their makeshift torch. The exposed soft sapwood responded to the little boy's movements, peeling off in large curls. Kushka grinned with satisfaction at the growing pile of wood shavings, and glanced over at the men.

"Is that enough?" he asked the tall dark man in the purple shirt.

Lando's face lit up in an encouraging smile. "Hey, good work, Kushka. Just do a little bit more. I'm going to make a ball of shavings and wrap it with those strips that Tendra's making out of Mr Qorl's jacket lining. Once the fabric's burning it should burn slowly, but we need the shavings to get it going in the first place."

Vehn chuckled. "I've been threatening to burn that old jacket for a while. Never thought he'd actually offer to do it himself."

"It's a pity we can't do something about those revolting underpants," muttered the old pilot.

Vehn glanced down at the offending garment, pulling out the legs to display the florid pink cartoon kowakian monkey lizards prancing across the front. "They ain't underpants, Qorl, they're boxers. Underpants!" he repeated, sniggering. "Ah, Qorl. You can tell you were with the Empire! Anyway -- think yourself lucky. Imagine if I'd been wearing my Thyferran thong."

"Please!" Lando covered his eyes in mock horror, and there were some suppressed giggles from Jassif and Neijal and an amused snort from Tendra. "I'm going to have nightmares about this place as it is -- don't make it worse."

"Well, just remember. It may well be my trousers that make the difference between you breaking your leg because you had to fall too far or you landing safely."

"I'll try and think along those lines." Lando nodded. "Okay, Kushka, bring me a big handful of those shavings would you."

The little boy eagerly scooped up as much of his pile as his two hands would hold and walked slowly over, carefully emptying the shavings on to the middle of the criss-crossed strips. He watched while Lando wove the fabric around the curls of wood to create a bulb-shaped bundle, and then glanced across to see how his mother and Jassif were getting on with their job. Jassif was feeding Ruba again, so only Neijal was working, tying assorted longer items of clothing together to make an escape "rope."

Lando had said that they might not need a rope, but that it was better to assume they would and therefore be prepared. Everyone except Kushka himself had offered up something to make it, the requirements being that the item was reasonably long and had strong seams. So far his mother had Mr Qorl's jacket with its ripped out lining, her own and Jassif's skirts, Mr Vehn's brown trousers, and she was just tying in Jassif's shawl. Next she would probably use Lando's shirt, and then the assorted belts worn by the three men. Both his mother and Jassif had been wearing petticoats under their skirts, so they didn't look too undressed. In fact Kushka thought the coloured petticoats were prettier than their plain blue and grey skirts. If he were a lady, he'd have worn them 'round the other way.

The men with blasters hadn't come back at all, which was both good and bad. Bad because it meant they were all uncomfortable, and there was a horrible smell coming from Ruba. Good because without the men there, Kushka felt a little safer. He knew from the way the adults were talking and acting that they were in danger, but somehow he didn't feel scared.

"Want to swap places, Qorl?"

The older man grunted. "Might be a good idea. Many hands make fire work."

Vehn's grey eyes opened wide as he approached his comrade. "Mother of meteors, Qorl, do my ears deceive me or did you crack a joke?" He pressed his hand to his forehead. "I feel quite light-headed. This is a history-making moment, folks. Quickly, somebody record it for posterity."

Qorl flicked him on the ear as he walked past. "We need to work on respect your elders," he growled, but couldn't help a slight grin as he caught Neijal's eye. The movement wasn't lost on Vehn. He glanced at both Qorl and the Mantrusian woman, and then gave the Imperial a quick jab in the ribs before he moved out of reach.

"You old devil," he murmured.

Qorl managed to conjure up a blank stare, and turned away before it dissolved into a smile.

"Well, well," said Vehn as he grasped the stick and began twisting it backwards and forwards enthusiastically. "All this fire-making seems to be raising the temperature in more ways than one."

Not that I begrudge him a bit of happiness, he said to himself. Must have been hell on dirt being on that godforsaken planet all by himself for twenty years. Vehn had never really given Qorl's experience on Yavin 4 much thought, but it occurred to him now that the man must have formidable mental resources to survive so long by himself without going mad. He imagined how he himself would cope without company, and more specifically without women. Not that he had anybody special like Lando, or, come to think of it, Solo, but he hadn't missed out on the romance stakes completely. And there was no doubt about it, the kind of companionship a woman offered was different from that shared between men -- even apart from the obvious physical advantages. There was something comforting about a woman -- something very ... nurturing.

Vehn looked down in surprise to find that his hands had stopped working. He glanced around surreptitiously and, satisfied that nobody had caught him with what he supposed might have been a soft look on his face, he returned to his task with a vengeance. Good luck to him. Even if it is just situational. Scary situations often produce unlikely alliances. He stole a quick look at Neijal. But there again, she is an attractive woman, and she's got pluck. And Qorl's not that old that he would have lost interest in that side of life. In fact, how old is he? I've never really thought about it.

Vehn performed some quick mental calculations. Assuming Qorl was in his twenties when his long sojourn on Yavin 4 began, he would now be about ... Well, the oldest he would probably be is about fifty-five standard years. Not that much older than Calrissian. Temporarily surprised, Vehn wondered about that for a moment, thinking that perhaps he'd made a miscalculation somewhere. Since he'd teamed up with Qorl, he'd thought of him as old, but now he gave it more thought he realised that that idea was probably due more to the man's appearance and his slightly stiff way of walking. In actual fact, looking at him now he realised that Qorl had changed quite a bit in the last nine or however many months they had been together. A better diet had put some padding on his sinewy frame, and now that a certain Mantrusian woman was lighting a bit of a fire in his dark eyes and adding some spring to his step, he did look younger -- or more precisely, he looked his age again. And some women preferred older men. And hadn't the kid said that Qorl looked like his dad? Vehn chuckled.

If he had the choice of the two women, he would probably go for the younger one, not because she was younger, but she looked more the sort who would like to feel protected. And there was something about the sight of her nursing the baby that affected him in a way he'd never felt before. Initially Vehn had been a little embarrassed about being in close quarters with a breastfeeding mother, but now he was used to it to the extent of finding it strangely warming. No matter what else happened to them now, he could say with all honesty that his recent experiences had put him through yet another learning curve. But there again, that seemed to be a common theme every time he found himself involved with that damn Solo kid and his feisty girlfriend.

There was a woman who didn't need protecting, but there again with the sort of situations Solo seemed to end up in he needed someone like that. Of course he had had to rescue her from the Vong, but judging by the details Vehn had pieced together about her captivity, she'd endured torture that he doubted many would have had the strength to endure. Hearing about Tahiri's experiences had made him regret the choice he'd made to involve himself with the Peace Brigade -- in fact it had made him question a number of things about his previous life. In reality he knew he was grateful to the two young Jedi, because they had, probably unknowingly, turned him into a better man. It hadn't made his life easier, far from it in fact. But it had made him feel that he was on some sort of path -- one that took into account the welfare of others and involved a definite distinction between right and wrong, based not on self interest but on something more altruistic.

"Want me to take over?"

Vehn glanced up to find Lando's now shirtless frame bending over him, a faint expression of concern on his face.

"Sorry. Mind got working. Bit of a shock -- it doesn't do that very often." The young pilot grinned, although he could tell that his fellow prisoner wasn't fooled by the attempt at self-deprecating humour.

"More likely it's lack of food. You guys have been here longer than Tendra and me, and one meal a day is subsistence rations only. It's only natural it'll take its toll."

Vehn stood up and Lando took his place. "I wish we could see through these walls to find out what was happening."

Lando settled into a comfortable position on the floor with their firemaking apparatus between his knees. "There are times I envy Anakin and his ilk their abilities. But there are also times I think it's more comforting to know nothing. It cuts down on the options."

"Fewer variables," grunted Vehn.

"Less need to worry about right and wrong -- you just have to worry about surviving."

"True." Vehn paused. "It must be hard on a kid to have that sort of responsibility." He remembered his own teenage years, and his own glorious lack of any concept of responsiblity to anyone other than himself.

Lando studied Vehn curiously, a faint frown creasing his brow. "My, we are waxing philosophical today."

Vehn shrugged. "Ah well, you know what they say about clowns. We have to understand what worries people to know what to make jokes about."

Lando considered the thought for a moment, and then nodded and chuckled. "Well said."

"And let's face it. If this fire idea works we've still got a lot to worry us between here and freedom. I'm saving the laughs for that."

Lando's dark eyes locked with Vehn's for a brief few seconds acknowledging their mutual understanding of the danger of their plan, then he proferred his palm up to the younger man. Vehn gripped it firmly, grinned and glanced over at Kushka.

"Hey, kid. Keep it up and you'll be able to dig us out through the floor."

Lando heard the little boy chuckle and watched Vehn talking to him for a moment. He caught Tendra's eye and returned her affectionate smile, then turned his attention back to the task of creating fire.

*****

Dajira watched as the ground truck painted with greenery and exotic animals disappeared around the corner of the street, carrying the latest additions for the Dinarra Xenobiological Gardens. It had taken her a while to come up with that idea, and another while to work up the courage to contact the Gardens' chief gamekeeper, fearing a situation where the woman might ask her too many questions. Fortunately the keeper was distracted with organising the search for an escaped crystal snake, and, although surprised at Dajira's offer of two ysalamiri to add to the Gardens' menagerie, she was too busy to do anything other than accept. Dajira waited until the sound of the truck's engine had faded, and then she turned back inside and relocked the factory door. Hopefully the two animals would be able to live out a life free of predators, both humanoid and animal.

It had frightened her that her initial solution to the problem of what to do with the ysalamiri had been to shoot them. It had, after all, seemed the most logical way of removing from the equation. All she would have had to do was take the one still in its room up to its companion, shoot them, say she'd looked for them as her father had asked and found them both dead. He might think they'd been caught in crossfire, although she knew it was more likely that he'd assume the young Jedi had killed them.

She knew now that there was no way Anakin would have killed the ysalamiri. He had had the opportunity just after his friend attacked her. He could also have killed them before he and the girl escaped -- but he hadn't. Jedi protected life -- and although Dajira wasn't a Jedi, she was beginning to realise that what the Jedi stood for was strangely appealing. It didn't make for easy decisions; but sitting down and thinking through her options and their consequences had made her feel better about herself than she had for years. It was like freedom -- a bit like the feeling she'd known when Bomar had rescued her and her mother and brought them here -- except it was more a freedom of the mind. It wasn't the wide path that meandered aimlessly this way and that, it was the narrow one that headed resolutely in one direction.

Anakin's earnest expression flashed through her mind along with his words: "I don't like the dark, and I don't think you do either." Killing the ysalamiri would have been dark. Sending them to the Gardens seemed light, even if it did require a certain amount of deception -- or, at least, half-truths. But as she'd already led Bomar to assume she had arrived after the fracas, he could assume what he liked about the fate of the ysalamiri. He would find the cage on the upper floor empty and their room empty. There was a lot of blood around and plenty of signs of violence. No doubt he would reach a hasty conclusion -- and no doubt it would be wrong. She would probably have to say very little, and as she suddenly realised she had little to say to him it was probably just as well.

*****

Tahiri woke up and felt temporarily disoriented. She blinked a few times, taking in the bare wall with the paint peeling off in the corner, and the old threadbare rug that covered a small portion of the plain wooden floor. Then her thought processes began ticking over properly and she remembered where she was.

She had slept in some strange places over the years, often in dangerous situations, and by comparison this place and this situation seemed homely, almost comforting. No -- cosy, that was the word she wanted. Cosy and somehow right, as if this was the way things should be -- waking up warm and refreshed, with Anakin curled up against her and his arm draped over her. She wanted to turn and look at him, but she could tell by his quiet rhythmic breathing that he was still fast asleep, and she decided not to disturb him. No doubt he would have put himself into a light healing trance, and the longer he slept, the quicker his wound would heal. Instead, she imagined looking at him, following the curve of his dark lashes, the slight upturn of his nose and the peaceful expression she had often seen on his face when he slept. Now she could add to that familiar image the shadow of developing beard.

She smiled as she remembered noticing that extra feature for the first time the day he arrived on Yavin 4 to warn them about the Peace Brigade. They had surprised each other that day. She had caught him gawking at her as if his eyes had suddenly developed an irresistible attraction to the orange of her training suit. She had found it hard to stop herself from sneaking the odd glance at him, in her effort to equate the tall, adult-looking Anakin with the one who had left the Academy the year before. He had been back briefly just before the Centerpoint debacle, but they'd only had the briefest opportunity to talk, and Kam and Tionne had needed her to help keep the Jedi children out of the way of the adults.

A quiet knock at the door disturbed her reverie, and she slid around carefully to check if Anakin had heard it and woken up. Whoever it was knocked again a little louder, so she slipped out from under the quilt and opened the door quietly to find the Mirialan woman standing there. As the woman went to speak, Tahiri put her finger to her lips and motioned towards the bed with her head. The woman peered in and nodded.

"Sorry, didn't want to wake you, but Rongo wanted me to tell you to use these." She indicated the clothes she was carrying. "He reckons it'd be better if you two looked like the rest of us."

Tahiri's eyes widened as she took the bundle. "Wow. They're heavy."

The woman laughed making her violet eyes sparkle. "Good quality rancor hide. They should fit. You two are about the same sizes as Jonno and Pet." She patted the bundle and a pained look replaced the sparkle. "These clothes belonged to them. Rongo can't quite bring himself to get rid of their stuff. He misses his little brother something awful." She nodded towards Anakin. "I think Anakin reminds him of Jonno."

Tahiri followed her gaze. The quilt had slipped down slightly.

"Hmm, he's a bit bigger up top than Jonno," the woman said, studying him thoughtfully. "If the jacket doesn't fit, don't worry. Rongo might have a spare."

Tahiri smiled. "Okay. Thanks. How soon do you want us to be ready?"

The woman shrugged. "Soonish -- but let him sleep a bit longer." She smiled back at Tahiri. "They look kind of cute when they're asleep don't they?"

Tahiri glanced back at Anakin, and then at the woman again. "Some of them don't look too bad awake either."

The woman began to laugh and then slapped her hand over her mouth to stifle the noise. "I'm Iliana." She offered Tahiri her palm.

"Pleased to meet you." Tahiri returned the gesture and felt the woman's fingers grip hers firmly.

"Me and Rongo are sort of ... together. He's a good guy you know. If he makes a promise, he'll see it through."

"I can see he's honourable." Tahiri nodded. "And tell him thanks for these." She nodded down at the pile of clothes.

"You're welcome. See you soon." The woman's violet gaze flickered over her face again, leaving Tahiri with an impression of warmth and openness. It occurred to her how often friends and allies were to be found in the most unlikely places.

She placed the rancor-hide gear on the floor in the corner and pulled out what looked like the smaller pair of trousers. The size did look about right, so, after double-checking to make sure Anakin was still asleep, she untied her now slightly ragged looking skirt and slid her legs into the biker trousers. They felt surprisingly soft and warm, and she ran her hands down the legs fascinated that something that looked so coarse and wet on the outside could feel so different on the inside. It struck her that it seemed to be her day for learning lessons about the difference between appearance and reality, and she grinned wryly to herself. She pulled off her blouse and had just started to rummage through the assorted tops and jackets Iliana had given her, when she heard a grunt behind her and the squeak of bedsprings.

"Hi. How're you feeling?"

Anakin was pulling himself into a sitting position on the edge of the bunk. He blinked at her and began to smile, and then his eyes slid away from hers and widened.

"Um."

"Are you okay?" She stepped towards him, taking the stunned look as a reaction to pain from his wound.

"Um, yeah."

She studied his expression carefully, and tried a little experiment, poking her tongue out at him and crossing her eyes. Absolutely no reaction whatsoever.

"Uh, Anakin. I know we never really studied anatomy at the Academy, but I have news for you. My face is up here."

His eyes slid back up again slowly, like starfighters suddenly overcome by atmospheric drag. "Um, sorry."

"Don't tell me. You like the way I'm put together."

It occurred to Anakin that Tahiri's skill in the art of sarcasm sometimes approached his Aunt Mara's. "No! I mean yes. It's just ... well I can't really help being ... I mean. Sithspit, Tahiri, I don't really know what I mean. I just ... I can't get used to it."

"What?"

He raised his hands, whether pleading or in frustration she wasn't sure. "You. The way you keep changing all the time."

He saw the emerald gleam in Tahiri's eyes and waited for the explosion and for her angry denial. Neither happened. He reached out to her tentatively in the Force and felt her calming both impulses. Another surprise.

"You've changed too you know," she said softly, taking the hand he had instinctively held out to her, and she settled on his lap. She traced a line with her fingers along his shoulders as if to point out one area affected by Anakin's progress into adulthood, and suddenly became aware of the warmth of his skin still slightly damp from sleep. "A lot of things have changed."

"Yeah." Anakin's arms slid around her. "It's just a bit hard to get used to sometimes." His voice was muffled by her hair. "Things were a lot less complicated when we were kids."

"There are some who would say we still are."

Anakin released her slightly so he could see her face. "Then they don't know what they're talking about. I don't know many adults who could go through what you have."

Tahiri smiled. "That's because they wouldn't have had you to help them through it. We're a team remember."

"Yeah." Anakin thought about their years at the Academy and all the times they'd fallen into and out of potentially threatening situations. He could feel Tahiri following the path of his memories, her eyes connecting with his. "Did you know," he murmured exploring the wide green orbs, "that you have flecks of every shade except blue in your eyes?"

The orbs widened even more, and then the corners crinkled. "Did you know you've got a little pimple in that crease in your chin?"

Anakin chuckled and bumped noses with her.

"I guess I don't need any blue in my eyes," she said softly. "You have enough for both of us."

Anakin could see two reflections of his face staring back at him, although as he drew closer the focus became fuzzy. He lost track of the faces as he kissed her. The taste of her lips filled his senses, along with the thrill of her body fitting so perfectly against his that a Givin might have used them as an example of the beauty of mathematics. More and more recently he had found himself hungering for her, but with a hunger that went deeper than just desire. It was as if the circle that was Anakin was only complete when Tahiri was locked into it. The reflections followed him again briefly as his lips traveled across her cheek. When he reached her ear, her eyelids shuttered them out.

"Krakana."

He wasn't sure if she had murmured the word or if it was his own mental alarm system. When he'd been quite small, he'd learned about the krakana that lurked in the seas of Mon Calamari, and the word had become his code word for hidden danger. "No krakana, Jaya," he used to tell his sister, when he'd wanted to assure her that he would be perfectly safe to proceed with whatever he had in mind. He'd told Tahiri about the krakana several years before, and it had become a private joke between them. Except this time it wasn't funny.

Tahiri trembled slightly as his lips left her neck, and they stared wide-eyed at one another, gulping awkwardly. Another stealth attack on eroding defences.

"Sorry." He slipped his hand up to touch her cheek, and gave her a wry grin. "I think by the way we're both having breathing problems that we need a bit more training before we try anything like that again."

Tahiri regarded him seriously, nodding. Then her expression softened and assumed its more familiar teasing mode. "You realise if you hadn't kissed me in that locker, we probably wouldn't be in this situation."

"Oh, so it's my fault. The fact that I chickened out and you took over has absolutely nothing to do with it I suppose?"

"I was just helping you out, like I always do."

"Well, maybe you'd better help me out now, and put one of those rancor-skin things on."

Tahiri drew back a little and looked down at her crop top. "Come on, Anakin, toughen up. What about all the times we've swum and trained together? You've seen me wearing a lot less than this."

"Yes. But ... it's different now. You, um, fill it out a lot more than you used to."

Tahiri sighed and shook her head. "No wonder most of the adults we know are weird sometimes. They must spend a lot of the time being confused like this."

"They probably do. Actually that could explain a lot."

She pointed to a little patch below the base of his neck where the skin looked darker. "Did you realise you're growing chest hair."

Anakin's blue eyes opened wide and he glared down at the offending fluff. "Vaping moffs! I hope I'm not going to end up like Dad."

"What's the problem with that?"

"I thought smooth was in."

"How did you know? You're not usually into fashions."

"I, uh, saw an article in that holomag you left up on the datapad the other day."

Tahiri's mouth fell open. "You read my holomags?"

"Um, not usually. I, uh, just happened to find it and -"

"Did you read the page I left up?"

"Um, I don't remember." Anakin was confused as to whether she was pleased or annoyed. "I just remember this advert for body wax and thinking what a laugh it would be to try and sell it on a planet like Kashyyyk."

"And that's all you remember?" She studied him for a moment, her green eyes hopeful.

"Sorry." He didn't really know what he was apologising for, but he knew instinctively that it was definitely apology time. Obviously from her reaction she had wanted him to look at the page. He frowned. Why would she want him to do that? Then it dawned on him in a flash of divine illumination. Was it something to do with her birthday present? Had she been trying to leave him clues? If he thought hard enough, he could probably conjure up the page from memory. As soon as he had the chance, he decided he would make a concentrated effort to do so. He smiled inwardly and mentally patted himself on the back. He was learning -- admittedly slowly, but he was learning. Maybe some of Lando's romantic expertise was wearing off on to him.

Tahiri regarded him for a moment, but rather than looking disappointed she smiled. "Okay, hero boy. How about we get this gear on and try and find something useful to do."

"Us being useful. That sounds like a good idea."

She went to get up, but he kept his arms around her. "Hey, Tahiri. I've never regretted anything that's happened between us you know. It may be awkward sometimes and it may not always be good timing, but I figure it's all part of the big learning curve. I just want you to know that."

Tahiri slipped her arms back round his waist, carefully avoiding his wound. "Remember how after we first kissed we couldn't look each other in the face for days."

"Yeah. That was crazy."

"It seems ages ago now."

"Time starting to drag is it? Does this mean I'm starting to become too predictable?"

Tahiri giggled. "Yeah -- every day the same old thing. Nothing adventurous or exciting about you at all." She kissed his chin and leapt to her feet.

"I had a suspicion that was the case. I might have to join a biker gang to prove you wrong." He grinned as he caught the clothes she threw at him. "By the way, I did see you poking your tongue out at me earlier. I just chose to not react."

"I rather got the impression you were too busy reacting to something else."

"But I did see you in my peripheral vision. Don't I deserve at least a few little credits for showing restraint."

"Anakin whatever you were showing, it was definitely not restraint." She pulled the short-sleeved top down so it fitted more snugly and turned back towards him. "There -- can you look at me now without going all gaga?"

"Gaga." He repeated with a chuckle.

Tahiri studied him through narrowed eyes, a thought suddenly making her suspicious. Was Anakin's hearing as keen as his sight? "You didn't happen to hear what Iliana said about you, did you?"

"Who's Iliana?"

She gave a satisfied nod. "That's okay then."

Anakin watched her for a moment as she fiddled with her hair in the small mirror, and tried to puzzle out what she had meant, but this time there was no illumination forthcoming. He picked up the pile of clothes and wandered around to the other side of the bunk, his thoughts slipping back to what had happened a few minutes earlier.

Krakana, he thought wryly, as he unfastened his now tattered Corellian breeches. I wish it were that simple. Danger was something he was only too familiar with -- that was something he'd faced all his life. But these new krakana came in the form of forces that simultaneously beckoned to him enticingly with one hand while frightening the living daylights out of him with the other. He remembered feeling the same ambiguity in the chasm above the pool on Yavin 4 when they were waiting to steal a Peace Brigade ship and Tahiri had fallen asleep in his arms. He also remembered acknowledging even then that it wasn't a new experience, and that he'd been feeling it in a milder form for some time before. He realised now that was why he'd been unable to say goodbye to Tahiri when he left with his father and Chewie on their last journey together. He'd avoided the farewell so he wouldn't have to confront feelings that at fifteen he didn't have the maturity to articulate. It was, no doubt, the fight or flee instinct he remembered reading about once -- and he'd chosen then to flee. But there again here he was now, not fleeing but not wanting to fight either. He sighed and pulled the rancor-hide trousers up. Fifteen to seventeen sounded such a short journey in time, but it was amazing the difference two years could make. He had just begun to pull on the sleeveless top when there was a loud thump at the door and Blue's head appeared, peering at him through the opening.

"Ah, good. Mind if I check that hole in your side before you cover it up?"

Anakin finished pulling the top over his head and let it rest on his shoulders. "Be my guest."

Blue squatted beside him and gently peeled away one of the bacta strips. "Amazing," he murmured. "It's looking good, kid. Pity you can't teach me some of that Jedi stuff." He fixed a wide strip of soft cloth bandage around Anakin's middle, clipping the ends together at the back. "There, that'll stop it rubbing on your clothes."

Another knock heralded Rongo's appearance. The bike leader threw Anakin a grin and glanced over at Tahiri. He seemed to do a double take, and then he focused back on Anakin again.

"Got some lunch waiting for you two, if you want it that is."

"Are you kidding?" Tahiri handed Anakin his jacket. "We're starving."

"It's not very exciting."

"Food is food," she smiled, and watched Anakin as he pulled on the jacket. "Iliana said if it's too small she could get you another one."

He flexed his arms and stood up. "No this'll do. Nice jacket."

"Might pay you two to wear sun visors too." Rongo led them down the narrow hallway. "If Tag's there he might recognise you if either of you get too close."

"Good point."

Rongo stopped at the door to the kitchen and let Blue and Tahiri walk past him, but as Anakin went to follow them, Rongo took his arm and motioned for him to stop.

"Something the matter?" Anakin tensed, but Rongo grinned and shook his head.

"Hey, ki-, Anakin, you've got nothing to worry about from me. There's no way I'd double-cross you, or any of us come to that. I just wanted to warn you ... well not so much warn you, but just point out that that woman of yours is, well, pretty damn attractive actually. And there might be a few here who are going to get quite a hit out of seeing her in that rancor gear."

"Oh."

"You're surprised?" Rongo's dark eyes looked disbelieving.

Anakin shook his head. "Well, no, I guess not, I just hadn't ... well -" He scratched behind his ear thoughtfully. "I hadn't thought about it in those terms," he said finally.

"Ah well. Just thought I'd better warn you. Mainly because I don't really want her damaging any of my guys."

Anakin snorted back a laugh. "I see your point."

"Are there any others like her around?" Rongo patted him companionably on the shoulder as they joined the others in the kitchen.

Anakin shook his head. "She's a one-off. Quite unique."

Tahiri threw him a quizzical look.

Anakin drew out his lightsaber from his jacket pocket. "Our lightsabers," he explained. "I was just saying how each one's unique."

Tahiri nodded and waved the thick sandwich she was eating in the direction of the lithe woman with the chin tattoos. "This is Iliana."

Anakin nodded at her as she handed him an even larger meat-filled slab.

"You were right," Iliana giggled throwing a conspiratorial look at Tahiri who was trying unsuccessfully to stifle a grin.

"Why do I get the impression there are two separate conversations going on here?" Blue folded his arms and glared at all four of them. "And what is worse I'm not part of any of them."

"Often happens when you're the important one." Rongo cut himself a slice of meat.

"I'm glad you're acknowledging it, 'bro. Now, anything else you guys need before I leave?"

Rongo shook his head and swallowed. "Can't think of anything. We'll keep in contact though, so keep your comlink on. And if it looks like there's going to be trouble, just beat it and come back here. We're going to need everyone intact for tonight or whenever we decide to move on the warehouse."

"Something that might be useful is a holocam," said Anakin.

Rongo glanced at Iliana and raised his eyebrows. She nodded.

"Do you have one?" Anakin brushed crumbs off his lap and stood up.

"Um, yeah," Iliana said slowly. "I think Muss knows where it is."

"We'll catch up with you on the way there," Rongo called as she left. "In the plaza."

"Sure."

"And be careful."

She poked her head back through the door and blew him a kiss.

"Aren't I always?"

Blue shambled over to the door and then turned and blew Rongo a kiss too, ducking out quickly before the metal cup aimed in his direction made contact.

"Nobody gives us bosses any respect these days," grumbled the tall biker, and managed to keep a straight face while the two young Jedi recovered from their fit of laughter. "So we're ready?"

"As -" began Tahiri, jumping to her feet.

"Rockets," Anakin finished for her.

"What were you and Rongo really talking about in the corridor?" she asked him as they followed the swooper out to where the rest of the reconnaissance group was waiting.

"He, um, thinks that some of the young guys here might be more than a little bit interested in you -- and he didn't want any trouble."

"Who from -- you?" Her expression had cooled.

"Um, no. From you actually. He was scared you might slice them up and turn them into luncheon meat."

Tahiri nodded and although she looked annoyed, the warmth had returned to her eyes. "Oh, that's all right then." She studied him for a moment and then sighed. "What is it with guys? I really don't understand what makes you tick."

Anakin hugged her against him comfortingly. "Don't worry, Tahiri. If it makes you feel any better, we don't really understand it either."



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