Many Happy Returns: Chapter Twenty
Iella

"Ah, so the high council has finished, oh great one," said Tahiri, when she saw Anakin sauntering over to where she was sitting with Iliana and Vilco. From the overly casual nature of the saunter, she could tell he was nervous.

He stopped a few paces away and held his arms up in mock surrender. "I don't know why you're taking it out on me. I don't make the rules around here."

She threw him a jaundiced look. "No, but you go along with them."

Anakin noticed Iliana's conspiratorial smile and the sympathetic glance from Vilco. It occurred to him that this was one of those pivotal moments when he was being required to make a stand, although the exact nature of the battle was still a bit hazy. He beckoned to Tahiri to follow him, and led her over to the corner near the bar.

"We're guests here, Tahiri," he said quietly. "This is these guys' place with their customs. Sometimes you just have to take the diplomatic option, even if you don't like it."

"Fine. But I have to say, Anakin, you didn't look as though you found it that distasteful."

"That was just my sabacc face," he said hoping to win the day with humour. "You can blame Lando's influence for that."

He thought he saw Tahiri's lips start to twitch into a smile, but then she resisted the inclination and stared up at him seriously. "I would have hoped you'd still have stood up for me. Boys' club or not, we're in this together."

Anakin held her gaze for a moment, but then the need to think made him move his focus. Even when he knew she was displeased with him he still found her proximity distracting, especially when those wide emerald eyes locked with his. He searched the floorboards for possible ways of framing his reply, trying to ignore the electric tingle at the base of his stomach.

"Of course we're in this together. But sometimes being together means working apart for a while -- seeing to different parts of the plan. And right now we don't have time to waste on arguing about stuff like this." He resumed eye contact with her, and touched her cheek. "Okay?"

This time it was Tahiri that lowered her gaze. She seemed to study the dimple on his chin for a minute and then nodded. "Okay. You're right about the last bit, but I'm still not happy about the other business."

"Well," he grinned. "You could always try dressing up as a guy."

Tahiri's eyelashes fluttered wide apart. "Anakin! You're not turning kinky on me are you?"

Anakin's grin widened. "That very much depends on what you classify as kinky. Just a reminder at this point not to try and read my thoughts, by the way."

Tahiri giggled. "Okay, I guess I'll forgive you this time. But I can't help wondering if you'd be looking so smug if Iliana was in charge and you'd been the one excluded. Perhaps we should spend some time with the witches of Dathomir when all this is over."

"Wow, you really have got your hackles up, haven't you. Next thing you'll be telling me you've enlisted Tenel Ka to initiate me into the ways of the Singing Mountain Clan."

Tahiri folded her arms and looked thoughtful. "Actually, that's not a bad idea. She could probably help enlighten both you and Jacen."

"Kill us more likely, although she'd probably be kinder on Jacen."

"Don't worry." Tahiri patted his arm comfortingly. "I might intercede for you."

"Gee thanks, but I'd hate you to have to force yourself to do something you didn't want to do."

"You know something, Anakin." Tahiri leaned in close to his ear. "You're very cute when you're sulky."

One of Anakin's eyebrows shot up, followed closely by the other when Tahiri brushed his lips with hers. He was just thinking that he'd managed to cover his surprise quite well when a large hand slapped him companionably on the back, and for a moment he feared the consequences for whoever was going to end up doing his laundry. "Hey kid. All is forgiven I presume. Probably only give you a C for technique though."

He turned to find Blue grinning at him laconically. "Well, at least that gives me something to work on I suppose. I'd hate to think I was going to get bored here or anything."

"Bored! Here! Perish the thought." The swooper held his hands up in mock horror then he waved towards Iliana and the Rodian. "Slight change of plan. I'll take Vilco and fill him in on what we want. You and Tahiri are needed back in the kitchen. When Rongo got Iliana to nick the holocam he forgot to tell her we'd also need something to view the stuff on. We've got an old holoset, but we can't figure out how to wire the cam into it. Any brilliant ideas would be gratefully received."

"Now that's something I can definitely get an A on." Anakin set off into the corridor with Tahiri in tow, passing Jaytee who had just slouched in from outside.

"Modest ain't he?" he sneered.

"That was an example of something we call humour, kid. How about you chill out a bit. We've got a lot on our plate at the moment and it'd be nice to think you're not going to make it any more complicated than it has to be."

"I could have fixed up that old holoset to take the cam," the boy grumbled. "Piece of cake."

"Well you weren't around were you? Rongo looked for you but nobody knew where you were."

"I was so around."

"Yeah?" Blue studied the youth for a minute and then his eyes narrowed suddenly and he grabbed one of Jaytee's hands and inspected his fingers. The boy tried to wrestle his hand back but the older man hung on until he'd found the telltale ochre stains he was looking for.

"I told you to get rid of that stuff," he hissed.

"I don't have to do what you say. You're not the leader."

"Don't get smart with me. You know vaping well that Rongo doesn't want any of that Phantasy stuff in here."

Jaytee's lips twisted sarcastically. "That's bantha crap. I've seen you guys having your little puff sessions."

"And you know what we're using and it ain't that." Still gripping Jaytee's hand he thrust a forefinger vigorously towards the open palm. "It takes an expert to mix the stuff properly, and believe me there ain't no experts around here. One day soon you'll get a bad batch -- and I'm warning you now, I won't be able to help you if you do. I don't think anybody could."

"Why do you care anyway?" The boy's breathing sounded wheezy and his eyes looked unfocused but he was doggedly determined to ignore anything with a whiff of good sense in it -- three of the unfortunate side effects of the brew he'd been smoking.

Blue exhaled noisily, shaking his head. "You know something, kid? I really don't know." He walked out leaving Jaytee to weave unsteadily over to the table, where he settled down with his head resting on the cool surface of the wood.

"Wonder boy," he whispered snidely calling to mind the sight of Anakin marching out purposefully with Tahiri beside him. He imagined deleting Anakin from the frame and enlarging Tahiri's image. He closed one eye and placed himself where Anakin had been. A slow grin slid over his lips before both eyes drooped closed.

*****

Anakin stood back and studied the holographic representation of the back of the warehouse, trying to visualise what it looked like inside. Like a lot of buildings of an industrial nature, it was plain and box-like, its most remarkable features being the tower and the security fencing on the main section of roof. Its lack of doors was no doubt a concession to security, as fewer entry and exit points would make monitoring the two it did have that much easier. There were windows, but they were on the upper level and were made of frosted transparisteel, so it was impossible to see inside. Obviously they were there purely to let in light.

Anakin found his gaze constantly returning to the rectangular prism that rose halfway along the right-side wall. "I'm sure Lando and Tendra and the others must be in that tower."

"Makes sense," agreed Rongo. "Only two possible escape routes from there -- one up and out and one down and out. Cuts down on the number of guards needed, and Tag can't exactly be rolling in vast numbers of willing helpers."

Anakin grimaced. "I dunno. He had a few at the factory. And we don't know how many of his workers he's suckered in to go along with his plans."

"True."

"And another unknown is the Peace Brigade," added Anakin. "For all we know they could be on their way now, or maybe they're already here. Seeing those life support gurneys delivered makes me think that he's expecting to do the deal soon."

"He may want to take them off planet himself," Tahiri suggested. "From what I've heard about him so far, he strikes me as the sort who might be stupid enough to want the glory of handing them to the Yuuzhan Vong personally."

Anakin pondered her words for a moment. "That's a good thought, Tahiri. It's quite possible you're right, but unfortunately we can't assume anything at the moment. And it's certainly better to over-estimate the number of defenders rather than under-estimate it."

"If they're in that tower," said Doc, "why don't we take a ship in, blast that panel thing open, load them on and then vape the kriffing place. Could save us a lot of trouble."

Anakin sneaked a glance at Rongo and noticed the leader was resting his chin strategically on his hand so his fingers covered his resigned grin.

"Um, possibly. The only problem is we don't know for sure if they are in the tower. I'm reasonably certain, partly because of what I felt and partly because it seems logical, but I'm not one hundred percent positive. Not positive enough to risk it anyway."

Doc shrugged. "That's a shame. It'd make one hell of a fireworks display. Plus it'd get rid of that bastard Tag."

"Remember what we agreed," Rongo reminded him.

"Yeah, yeah," said Doc testily. "It was just an idea. I'd still prefer to see him fry."

"Maybe he will, in a way," murmured Rongo quietly.

Doc studied his leader for a moment and then snorted and shook his head, although the look on his craggy face was good-natured rather than sceptical. "I wish I shared your faith in things, 'bro, but I'm afraid it's beyond me."

"It's actually a good idea," said Anakin who'd been looking thoughtful. "It would be useful to have a ship standing by to use if needed. What sort of ship have you got?"

Rongo looked confused. "We don't own a ship."

"But I thought ... Oh!" The truth dawned. "You were going to steal one."

No," corrected Doc. "We were going to commandeer one. I believe there's a difference."

Anakin had the grace to blush. "Well, there is the Lady Luck -- Lando's ship," he said. "But I'd have to fly it, and I'll be at the warehouse."

"Gee, it's tough when you have to do everything ain't it, kid." The sarcasm practically dripped from the big man's lips.

"I didn't actually mean it like it sounded," Anakin explained earnestly. "It's just that Lando would probably shoot anyone who put even the tiniest scratch on his ship, so if anyone's going to dice with death it'd better be me."

"That's not much of an argument if he's not there to mete out justice."

"I like the ship idea too," interrupted Rongo. "But as you say, Anakin, only as a final resort. And it'd be risky. Ships aren't allowed in the urban space lanes here, so you could have your systems fried before you even reached the warehouse."

Anakin made a rueful face and turned his attention to the hologram again. Doc's suggestion had sparked another idea and he rechecked the roof for anything resembling a possible means of entry. Ships may be forbidden, but speeders and swoops weren't, and it might be possible to land their bikes, or even a speeder, safely within the security fence. He searched the surface hoping to find skylight vents like those he and Tahiri had used at the factory, but there was nothing.

"Looks like we might have to stick with Plan A," he said finally. The thought of blasting the Lady Luck in and flying out triumphantly with Lando, Tendra and the other prisoners was wildly attractive, but he had seen too many situations in the last few years where what had looked simple, had ended up in near disaster. Sometimes doing things the pragmatic way had its advantages, especially when other lives were involved. And they were. Not only did he have the swoopers to consider, but also Vehn's protest group and any other innocent bystanders who might be in the area.

"So, are you two still hell-bent on commandeering the truck?" Rongo's brown eyes glinted provocatively and Anakin couldn't help noticing on which word he put the emphasis. He also caught Doc's sly grin.

"Yeah. We'll steal it for you," he replied.

Doc guffawed. "You're okay, kid." He punctuated his approval by thumping Anakin's shoulder in what the young Jedi assumed was Doc's version of appreciation. "Actually, so's your woman, although I still register my objection to her being here."

Anakin quickly regained his balance, expecting Tahiri to take exception to Doc's unrepentant support for the gang's patriarchy and to their habit of referring to her as if she was his possession. Not that he minded the latter, in fact if he was honest with himself it gave him a little twinge of pride, although something told him that Tahiri wouldn't be too impressed if she knew about that. He glanced across to gauge her reaction to Doc's words, but all she did was roll her eyes.

Wow. He thought back to what he'd said to her earlier. I am getting better at this stuff.

"I know it's breaking our rules," replied Rongo firmly. "But as I said, this meeting is for planning rather than decision-making, and Anakin said he'd like Tahiri to be involved."

Doc shook his head sadly. "There's no hope for you, kid. Under the thumb already."

Rongo snorted. "Uh, 'bro, I get the feeling the Jedi run things a bit differently to us."

"Could be why they're losing." The gap left by Doc's missing front teeth made his triumphant grin look surprisingly boyish.

Anakin caught the look of helplessness that Rongo threw him. It was obvious Doc's beliefs were so entrenched that a firing squad armed with A280 armour-piercing rifles probably wouldn't affect them. "Okay," he said breezily, "keeping to the point here. We need to run through what we're going to do so everybody knows what's expected of them. We can't just go in and expect to blast our way up to the tower. We'll need to divide up into groups, plus we'll need people outside who can keep us informed should Tag call in reinforcements and who can hopefully prevent them from getting in."

The door opened and Blue walked in, stopping mid-stride when he saw the hologram of the warehouse positioned above the old holoset.

"Well, the first step is getting the truck and bringing it here," said Rongo waving Blue over. "Then we can unload the merchandise and fill it up with as many of us as we think we'll need."

"Yeah. That'll be the assault team." Anakin nodded. "We don't need a big group for that, but we do need people who can handle weapons properly. The biggest danger in a situation like that is people hitting their own comrades. We also need people who will listen to orders, because I don't want us going in guns blazing. We try reason first."

"Reason." Blue chuckled. "I don't think reason's Tag's strong point."

"Probably not. But it's the Jedi way."

Any rejoinder Blue had intended to make was halted by the earnest expression on the young Jedi's face.

"Fair enough, Anakin," said Rongo. "I've got a group of people in mind for that. Although I might need you to give them a pep talk beforehand just to reinforce the no-loose-cannon rule." He threw Doc a meaningful look.

"Hey, I've got the picture, okay -- hunker down, do what the kid says and no stray shots."

Anakin regarded the large man for a moment. "What's your weapons supply like?"

"Pretty basic, but it's all in good working order." The pride in Doc's voice was unmistakeable. "Some spare DL-44s and Intimidators. A collection of old E-11s, plus some of the modified version with slugthrowers, and EE-3s. A few of us have got our own E-15As -- don't ask me how we came by them," he added quickly before Anakin could give voice to the question so obviously on the tip of his tongue. "Also got a few CVIs, a box of proton grenades and smoke grenades and, believe it or not, an Equaliser. Of course, most of us carry our own weapons of choice -- blasters, blades, knucklers, fear sticks, that sort of thing." He folded his arms and grinned.

Blue threw Anakin a sardonic look. "For weapons of choice, in Doc's case, substitute arsenal."

"I like to be prepared," Doc said and then after a few seconds reflection he sniffed and added, by way of concession, "It just doesn't seem to work against Jedi."

Anakin had been walking around the hologram while he was listening, studying the various angles of the warehouse, but when Doc mentioned the Equaliser he had stopped. "The building site where you were earlier, Rongo -- could we get sombody up there with that ion cannon? That way we could put the security fence out of commission, plus disrupt the power throughout the building." The unwelcome image of the press on the conveyor belt at the factory flashed like a warning signal in his memory. "I don't want any unnecessary complications -- such as Tag using his machinery against us. And having the fence deactivated would give us more options."

"Good idea." Blue nodded. "It'll be sort of like the blind attacking the blind."

Rongo chuckled. "True, but it does make it more of a level playing field."

Anakin nodded absent-mindedly. He'd been mulling over a number of possible plans ever since they'd returned from their reconnaissance trip, and now that he had had the chance to study the building in detail he had begun to consolidate his ideas. An image of Wedge Antilles suddenly flickered in his internal vision, along with memories of the times he, Jacen and Jaina had sat enthralled while the legendary pilot told them stories about the adventures of Rogue Squadron. He could still see Wedge's brown eyes as they sought out those of each child in turn -- brown, serious eyes tinged with warmth and wisdom, a little like his mother's.

"Remember," the pilot had told them once when he was recounting the squadron's part in the capture of Coruscant. "Never go in anywhere without back-up." Then he'd smiled cryptically. "And then back it up with your own back-up."

Of course, Anakin could also remember occasions when Wedge had broken the first rule, but probably only after he had carefully weighed up the risk of the mission and compared it with the necessity. Even then he was sure that his parents' old friend would have had some sort of alternative plan, even if it was as abstract as simply knowing everything there was to know about the situation and the people he was dealing with.

Anakin pondered the possible situations they might encounter in the warehouse. The number of variables was a little unsettling, not the least being their uncertainty about the number of people they would have to face. He was also unsure whether Tag's men would leave the warehouse doors open once the truck arrived, as they had that afternoon. It would be almost dark so it seemed likely that they wouldn't, and if they did close the doors it would be good to know the assault group had reinforcements close at hand to call on if necessary. They would have to be out of sight from the docking bay though, as otherwise it might make Tag's men suspicious.

He also remembered that another of Wedge's pieces of wisdom stated that the various stages of a plan should only be revealed on a need to know basis, and sometimes certain pieces of knowledge were best kept inside one's head.

He ran through the list of people with whom he and Tahiri had allied themselves. Rongo, Blue and Iliana he felt comfortable about trusting; Doc, he was reasonably certain, respected both him and Tahiri because of their fighting ability, but would be more likely to look to Rongo for leadership. Some of the others such as Zed, Tab, Treetrunk, Muss and Skel were sufficiently unnerved by the threat of the Yuuzhan Vong to follow anyone who offered them a way to prevent the aliens from getting a foothold on Balmorra. Anakin was aware of the occasional ripple of hostility towards both himself and Tahiri, but he also knew that the one factor all the Black Knights had in common was loyalty to the gang as a whole, and he felt a sudden respect for Rongo's democratic methods. Because the gang members had chosen their course of action, they'd be more committed to seeing it through than if Rongo had simply ordered them to.

Then there was Tag himself, and Anakin wished he had the time to find out more about the man. He didn't seem to fit the normal Peace Brigade profile, and this, allied with the fact that neither Lando nor Anakin had heard of him, suggested he be taken very seriously. Unknown enemies had advantages as nobody could predict their methods or the extent to which they would go to achieve their aim. Nobody could know what motivated them -- whether it was simple lust for power or something more complex.

This enemy obviously had followers -- unpleasant ones judging by those Anakin had met at the factory. Although not all of them fell into that category. There was one who Anakin had sensed was going through a crisis of faith. The question was had they resolved it or not, and if so, how were they going to deal with it?

He thought about that for a moment. I wonder if any of Wedge's back-up plans depended on something as tenuous as somebody making the right decision?

The answer came in the form of another scene from the past, one he'd heard about so often he could almost believe it was one of his own memories. His father returning at the last minute to save his Uncle Luke in the trench on the Death Star, thereby allowing his uncle to shoot the crucial torpedo. And his mother's words to his father when he returned to Yavin 4 -- words that showed her confidence that he would come through for them and place their cause above the pull of past loyalties. I knew you were more than money.

His mind returned to the present and he scanned the data in his head once more to assure himself that he hadn't missed anything vital. A lot depended on strategy and people obeying orders. A little depended on hope. Focussing back on the hologram, Anakin began mentally deploying his troops.



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