Many Happy Returns: Chapter Twenty-One
Iella

The sun had begun to dip down towards the horizon and a slight breeze was stirring the scarlet drupes of the native Balmorran bugler flowers that hung around the balcony, making them pipe the strange nasal notes that had given them their name. It was still warm though, at least it was inside the protection of the solarium, and the roofs of Dinarra spread into the hazy distance like the pattern on a patchwork throwover. It was warm, and yet Dajira felt a chill prickle her skin into goosebumps. She lowered the macro-binoculars and blinked, and then lifted them again, refocussing them on a tiny square of roof atop a tower. Surely her eyes were playing tricks on her.

She leaned forward so she could support her trembling hands on the railing. There was no mistake. The image was horribly, undeniably, painfully clear -- three women, a small child and a baby all huddled together in the middle of the roof. The roof of her step-father's warehouse. The warehouse of the man she had defended as being incapable of hurting children.

She knew Bomar had other prisoners that he had originally thought were Jedi, and she also knew of the older couple who had been captured with Anakin Solo and his friend. But nobody had mentioned anything about children. She wondered what else her step-father had neglected to tell her.

The emptiness that a long soak in the whirl tub and a nap, enhanced by a large glass of Churban brandy, had almost begun to assuage filtered back, leaking in through the holes in the battered fence protecting her beliefs. She had almost managed to convince herself that Bomar's plan, although ostensibly cruel to those it was targeting, contained no threat to the people of Dinarra or the planet as a whole, and that therefore she should leave the fate of Anakin Solo and his friend in the lap of the gods. She had given them the chance they needed to rescue their friends, and that was all she could be expected to do. After all, she wasn't a fighter. She hadn't asked to become involved in this. All she wanted to do was live her life in peace.

And wasn't peace what Bomar wanted, too? Didn't the ends justify the means?

She lowered the field glasses again and wiped the mist of tears from the lenses. If she hadn't seen the women then maybe she could have clung to that justification, but again the tectonic forces of destiny had come back into play and overturned that possibility.

How long the women had been up there she didn't know, nor could she figure out why they were there. Surely Bomar would have placed them all in the old drying room that he'd had adapted as a cell for his non-Jedi captives. She considered fleetingly contacting him, but she was afraid. He might ask her to help, and she didn't want to have to refuse him. That would be too much like betrayal. She was also afraid she might agree, and that frightened her more than anything. The habit of years of obedience would be hard to break, and maybe she wouldn't be strong enough. After all, it had taken a mere few hours of being back in familiar surroundings to calm her earlier unease about Bomar's actions.

She packed the macro-binoculars back into their carry case and re-entered the cool interior of their apartment, carefully opening the door of her mother's room as she passed. The older Twi'lek woman was asleep, her lekku draped limply beside her pale face and thin shoulders. Years of servitude in the ryll dens had finally taken its toll in the form of a degenerative disease of the lungs. Although medicines were slowing the process, they were incapable of altering the course of the illness, and all Bomar and Dajira could do was to make what time she had left as pleasant as they could. Bomar had used his connections in the local council to ensure his wife had access to the best health care and other help services, and indeed there were days when it was hard to tell she was ill. Today, however, was not one of those days. Dajira pulled the door closed, and padded quietly downstairs feeling very alone. She couldn't ask her mother for advice -- Gassanta owed more to Bomar than she did, and apart from that she loved him. And he loved her. Whatever else he was, Bomar Tag was a faithful, loving husband.

She donned her street cloak, hooked the field glasses around her neck and unlocked her step-father's weapons closet, running her eye along the shelf until she found the small holdout blaster Bomar had taught her to shoot with. She checked the familiar DW-5 denotation on the handle and then studied the other weapons, and after some deliberation selected a spray stick, at the same time hoping she would have to use neither. Then she let herself out of the apartment and set off towards Dinarra's industrial sector. There was a building under construction near the warehouse, and it might be possible to get up on to it and see what was going on. Hopefully by the time she got there, the women would have been taken inside, although why they should be up there at all was still a mystery. Perhaps it meant Anakin Solo and his friend were already there and were in the process of saving them. As she walked she prayed that that scenario was true.

****

The sun had begun to dip down towards the horizon and a slight breeze had sprung up, wafting tendrils of Tendra's brown hair across her face. It was still warm though, although the temperature was dropping, and the distant heat haze that made a lace edge to Dinarra's patchwork blanket was fading. It was warm, and yet Tendra felt a chill prickle her skin into goosebumps as she contemplated their predicament.

It occurred to her that if this had been a holovid, the makers would have created a gloomy backdrop to match what was happening to the characters. But the scene around her was peaceful, the air was clear and the view was worthy of a travel poster. Anyone seeing them would probably assume they were up there having a roof picnic. The indifference of the universe to their fate made her feel very small and alone.

Instinctively she nestled Kushka closer against her, and glanced quickly over to check on Ruba. So far neither seemed overly anxious, although Kushka had taken some convincing to stay away from the edge of the roof. It was only after some men appeared and removed their escape rope, and told them in rather unpleasant terms that Vehn had been recaptured, that he gave in to his mother's request to stay beside her. Every now and again, however, he would creep over and check the other side of the tower to see if one of the men had been able to open the panel again. Nobody bothered to tell him off -- secretly they were all praying for the same miracle.

"How long do you think they'll leave us here?" murmured Jassif the next time the little boy moved out of earshot.

Tendra looked serious. "I don't know," she sighed. "I'd like to be positive and say they're just giving us a little slap over the knuckles, and that soon they'll send up a vehicle to collect us. But I'm not particularly confident that that's going to happen."

Neijal shook her head. "No. He's punishing us," she declared firmly. "He believes what he's doing is going to save people, and we should be grateful in some strange way that we've been chosen as the sacrifices."

Tendra frowned. "You make him sound like some sort of religious zealot."

"He is."

Tendra gazed back at the Mantrusian woman noting the shrewd intelligence reflected in her brown eyes.

"He thinks the Jedi should sacrifice themselves for the greater good -- that's what he told us anyway. He thought we were Jedi, you see. But when he realised we weren't he couldn't very well let us go because, of course, we would have gone to the authorities. I believe he's convinced himself he's a solitary crusader fighting a sort of holy war."

"Neijal's right," agreed Jassif. "He's mad. Maybe once he was a good man, but something's happened to turn that good into something twisted. I've seen it happen to people before -- something stops working properly up here." She patted her head.

"I had the same thought myself." Tendra nodded, and then shivered as a stronger gust of wind reminded her of the clothes they had shed. She folded up the collar of her blouse, now no longer required to hold Ruba on her back. "I wish I hadn't suggested making that stupid escape rope now. For all the good it did, we might as well have stayed where we were. At least we were all together."

Neijal and Jassif both reached over to her.

"Don't say that," murmured Neijal.

"I have no regrets," Jassif assured her quietly.

For the first time in a long while, Tendra felt tears pricking the back of her eyelids, but as Kushka turned back towards them, his little face glum, she resolutely blinked them away.

****

"Nice weapon -- the old DL-44," growled Doc, cradling one of the blasters affectionately in his huge palm. He fixed Anakin with his piercing gaze. "Your old man still carry one of these?"

Anakin stared back in surprise, but then remembered what Doc had said about their fathers fighting together at Nar Shadda. He sometimes forgot that his father's reputation went back beyond the Rebellion.

"He does actually, although his one's a bit different from these. It has a few, um, modifications."

Doc chuckled, and stroked the weapon reverently before returning it to the crate.

"You want to take that lot through to the lounge, Doc," said Rongo. "Blue's rounding everyone up so we can go through the plan and assign stuff where it's going to be needed."

Doc gave a cheerful grunt. "I gave some of the rookies a run through earlier -- showed them how to change clips and generally avoid shooting themselves -- or me -- in the foot." He hoisted the box of assorted blasters on to one massive shoulder.

"Yeah -- I saw that." Rongo nodded. "I'll leave it up to you to decide who to give the rifles to. And just use your common sense with the other stuff -- extra blasters to the ones who can handle them, otherwise give 'em blades or fear sticks. We won't deal out the grenades until we're ready to go though. I'd like to think we'll have a compound to come back to when we're through."

Doc's deep-chested laugh echoed back down the corridor.

Rongo threw Anakin and Tahiri a sardonic grin. "Guns bring out his emotional side."

Anakin snorted and caught Tahiri's look of amusement. "Want us to carry anything?" he said surveying the array of fighting implements Doc had unearthed.

"Yeah. Get that duraplast bin from the corner and we'll stick all this stuff in it." His gaze settled on a large wooden box beside the bin. "Tell you what Tahiri -- while we're distributing this, have a look through that old chest will you, and bring anything else you think we could use."

"Sure." She pushed the rickety lid back so it was resting against the wall and grimaced at the hotch potch of items inside it: some storage cubes; an old set of hydrospanners, some missing their grips; more blaster clips; a leather jacket so mildewed it looked like some sort of dead lizard, and a bundle of stun cuffs. She picked one set up and checked the fasteners. To her surprise they appeared to be fine. Obviously they were a recent addition to the jumble.

She tried to pull open the lid of one of the cubes. Rust had sealed it fast, so she picked up a small blade that was lying nearby and began working it round the rim. She almost had it open when she heard scuffled footsteps behind her.

"I found some stun cuffs that might be handy," she said. "And some more clips. But I think the other stuff's just junk." The lid sprang free and she pulled it up. "Wow. Look at this Anakin! Bike bits." She giggled. "You could build your own swoop."

She went to pull a set of cogs out to show him when it struck her that Anakin was showing unusual disinterest. Usually it took only the merest mention of something mechanical and he would come running. She straightened, and stretched out with her Jedi senses to touch the presence she could feel staring at her back. At that moment she heard the door click shut, and the room seemed suddenly to fill with a cloying odour that smelt strangely familiar. It took her a few seconds to place it, but then it came back to her -- Tatooine, the Tusken village of her childhood, and Bangor, her bantha, the first year he was corraled with the other males. She remembered the scent of musk and sweat that filled the village for days as the tribe selected their breeding pairs, the sense of nervous anticipation. The faint taste of impending violence.

She swung round and found a pair of predatory blue eyes studying her. Beneath them a tongue flickered out to moisten a set of thin lips that then curved up into a satisfied smile.

"Hi," said Jaytee.

****

"Shouldn't you be with the others?" Tahiri's casual tone masked the unease that had spread cold fingers into her gut.

The youth began walking towards her, staggering slightly but still with the disturbing smile on his freckled face. He reminded Tahiri of a womp rat accidentally let loose in a domestic nauga pen. The grin was purely a response to the anticipated feast -- calculating and cold, leaving the eyes untouched and curiously vacant.

"Nah. Don't like them any more."

For a moment she thought he was going to walk right into her, but he stopped, swaying, about a foot away. She felt her nostrils flinch in response to his proximity.

Jaytee chuckled. "You know, you're real cute when your nose crinkles like that."

To her horror he reached out and touched the tip of her nose and then slowly began tracing a line downward with his finger. The smile widened.

"Do you mind!" she snapped grabbing his hand and yanking it away roughly from the top of her rancor-hide top.

The youth chuckled mirthlessly again and stepped forward so he pressed against her. "Ooh! Temper. That makes it a bit more interesting."

Her breath caught in her throat as she felt his other hand snake round her back, and a series of alarm bells started screeching in her head. In one part of her brain a calm voice advised her to keep him talking and move him slowly towards the door. That was commonsense, she knew. Maintain eye contact and be ready to use a modicum of force if necessary, knowing full well that Anakin or Rongo or both would be back soon.

She was dumbfounded, however, to find another voice over-ruling the first -- a shrill voice, invoking in her a wave of stultifying terror. Her stomach contracted and she felt the contents turn to acid, but she had no strength to vomit. Her limbs felt as if someone had severed the nerves connecting them to her conscious will. She couldn't move to fight, nor would her mouth open to vent the scream rebounding inside her skull.

Suddenly something stirred deep inside the depths of her subconscious. Something that had survival as its sole directive.

Jaytee gazed down into the wide green eyes only a few centimeters from his, but his triumphant grin died on his lips. He watched in growing apprehension as they slowly morphed into something to which he could assign no human name. An invisible hammer hit him in the chest and the next thing he knew he was struggling for air on the floor by the doorway and watching stupefied as the alien creature prowled towards him holding a set of stun cuffs. Then two things happened -- he heard a loud curse and he felt a set of hands yank him roughly to his feet and grab him in a choke lock. Hanging with his feet a few inches off the floor, counting the black spots in front of his eyes, he was too relieved to appreciate the inherent irony of being grateful to his captor.

"It's okay, Tahiri! I've got him."

Jaytee was so perplexed by the sight in front of him he barely registered the disgust in Anakin's voice. The alien had transmuted back into a human so rapidly, he wondered for a moment if he had imagined the whole thing. His addled brain was still trying to puzzle it out when he heard more voices behind him.

"What the hell's going on in here?"

"Vaping crap!"

"Jaytee, you little piece of -!"

"Here -- take him. I don't trust myself."

Anakin thrust Jaytee at Rongo, and the youth collapsed heaving in welcome gasps of air.

"I'm alright," Tahiri huffed angrily.

"Just get him out of here," snarled Anakin.

"I had it under control," Tahiri insisted, trying unsuccessfully to mask the traces of hysteria in her voice. "There's no need for such a fuss."

"Tahiri." Anakin reached out for her intending to comfort her, but to his consternation she pushed him away.

"I'm okay!" she hissed through clenched teeth. "I didn't need your help." She glared at all three of them. "And stop staring at me like that."

"We're not staring." Anakin hadn't meant to snap back, but he was at a loss to explain her behaviour. He was also worried at the look of pure vitriol that he'd seen pass through her eyes a few minutes earlier.

Rongo muttered something to Blue, who nodded and disappeared down the corridor. "Um, Anakin. How's about you take Tahiri to the kitchen. Iliana's going to make her a drink."

Anakin searched Tahiri's face for some sign of compliance but she seemed to have retreated into herself. He turned to Rongo, frowning, to see the swooper urge him on with a wave of his free hand -- the one not holding Jaytee's collar in a vice-like grip. The source of the problem seemed to have recovered from Tahiri's retaliation, or possibly, Anakin thought, he'd already forgotten it. Whatever the case, the leer he gave Anakin was obviously intended to provoke him. It took all his will power to make himself walk past the youth without grabbing him and bashing his face repeatedly into the wall.

He wanted to take Tahiri's hand but the stony look on her face warned him off, so he tried reaching out to her in the Force instead. He was just recoiling, confused, from the blank wall she'd constructed when Blue and Iliana appeared from the other end of the corridor.

"Its okay, Tahiri," the Mirialan woman said soothingly, placing her arm around the girl and leading her away.

Anakin heard her murmuring quietly, and then saw Tahiri nod. Why hadn't she responded to him like that? All he wanted to do was cuddle her and let her know she was safe. He heard Rongo call out and looked up to see the swooper beckoning to him. As he passed the closed door of the storeroom he heard Blue's angry voice delivering some choice phrases that Anakin was sure even his father had never heard of. Guilt wriggled its way into his thoughts again, and for a moment he listened to its whispers. Working with the swoopers was all very well, but what was he doing putting Tahiri at risk? And then there were the swoopers themselves. Again he found he was worrying about them, and if he had the right to let them put their lives on the line in order to save his friends?

He followed Rongo into his room and came face to face with a holocube of a young couple, and for one weird moment he thought he was looking at a holo of Tahiri and himself.

"That's Jonno and Pet," Rongo said quietly, noticing the succession of expressions flickering through the young Jedi's eyes. "No matter what happens, Anakin, I'll be forever grateful to you and Tahiri. If you hadn't come -- we'd never have done anything other than bicker about what to do about Tag."

To his surprise Anakin felt his eyelids prickle, but he forced the emotion away. Or thought he had.

Rongo reached out and clasped his shoulder. "Hey. Don't let it get to you. And don't be upset if she doesn't want you to touch her for a while. She's had a hell of a fright from that little ... " Several different words formed on his lips before he managed to select one that he hoped might put the incident back into perspective. "Idiot."

Anakin glanced at Rongo noting his sympathetic expression. He smiled weakly and then looked away. " I feel bad about putting her in this situation. Especially after you warned me to keep my eyes open. I just didn't think -"

Rongo folded his arms and fixed Anakin with a steely glare. "Didn't think what? That the kid would actually be stupid enough to try anything? That he'd go and get himself spaced out on spice because he's too damn selfish to think about about anyone but himself? Jaytee's a -" Again he had to search for the right option. "A mess. If anyone's to blame for this it's me. I was the one that got him roiled up enough to go on his little bender. But in fact none of us are to blame. He's the problem. So don't go bleeding guilt all over the place. Okay?"

Anakin's blue eyes flickered up to Rongo's briefly, before returning to their introspection. Eventually he sighed and nodded. "Okay -- no guilt tripping. I just don't understand why she's angry at me. I mean, I'd never try and force myself on her like that."

"Of course you wouldn't. You're a good guy, Anakin, and she knows that, don't worry. It's not about you, it's about you trying to intervene when she had the upper hand. It's all to do with power -- him trying to take it away and her getting it back."

Anakin frowned as he tried to assimilate this new piece of knowledge. "How do you know all this stuff?" he blurted.

Rongo grinned. "What, and me just a dumb swooper?"

"I didn't mean that." Anakin blushed furiously. "I mean -"

Rongo snorted quietly. "It's okay. I know what you meant." He was silent for a moment, thinking, as if unsure how to continue. He went to begin but had to clear his throat, as if the words had stuck on a constriction. "I, uh. I learned it from Iliana actually. She ... had something happen to her last year. Much worse than this though. She still has nightmares, still has days when she doesn't want me near her. But it's getting better. And I know it's nothing to do with me. She has to deal with her demons her way -- I just have to be there." He shrugged. "That's the way it is. Just be there. It's all you can do."

Anakin stared back at Rongo aware that his mouth had dropped open, but unable to do anything about it. "That's awful," he managed to say finally. Then he shook his head furiously as if the movement could somehow shake the evil from the galaxy and vanquish it forever. "How can guys do this stuff?"

Rongo shrugged. "Beats me. Power I suppose. They get kicked around once too many times, and it seems like the only way to fight back." He studied Anakin for a moment and then reached over and gripped his shoulder again. "You're a good kid, Anakin. And you've got a fine woman. Just give her time, and try and see it from her point of view. I've had more failed relationships than you've had hot dinners, but I know a good one when I see it." His tanned face, still serious, broke into a soft grin. "That's why I'm not going to let Iliana slip away on me. Going to tough this one out."

Anakin nodded slowly. His gaze slipped away from Rongo to the floorboards then back again. "I guess I'll just be there then."

"Yeah." Rongo held up his hand and their palms slapped together. "Bro'" he added eliciting a faint smile from the young Jedi. "Well, I guess I'd better rescue Jaytee from Blue. Not that anything we say'll do much good."

"I don't want him at the warehouse."v "Don't worry. I'm sure I'll be able to find plenty of other things for him to do, none of them pleasant and none involving carrying weapons."

"Refresher duty has a nice sound to it," said Anakin grimly, following Rongo back into the corridor.

"Yeah. Problem is with Jaytee -- he's had too much of that sort of thing in his life. Needs something to make him feel good about himself."

"Well," said Anakin grudgingly. "He did make a good job of those holo shots."

"I tried to tell him that, but the trouble is he's so used to getting knocked down he doesn't know a compliment when you give him one." He threw Anakin a wry look, gave a resigned shrug and disappeared into the storeroom.

Anakin walked a few more paces and then stopped uncertain where to go next. Should he go and see Tahiri? Or would it be better to leave her with Iliana for a while? He pondered the two options for a moment and then retraced his steps until he reached the door to the gang's common room. Rongo's advice echoed in his head. For the moment it sounded like she was in good hands, and he could do more by helping to organise the various groups of swoopers. Everyone was clear about the plan, but there were still a few loose ends he wanted to discuss with Doc.

He reached out in the Force to check that she was all right, and felt a faint, warm tendril caress his mind like a wisp of her hair caressing his cheek. It wasn't quite an embrace, but it was better than the cold barrier he'd encountered earlier. I'm here for you, Tahiri. The walls of the compound proved no barrier to their communication. Whenever you need me, I'm here.



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