Many Happy Returns: Chapter Twenty-Two
Iella

Tahiri couldn't stop her hands from shaking as she took the warm mug of coffeine Iliana was holding out to her. She felt such a plethora of emotions roiling around inside her that she herself wasn't sure whether the trembling was due to anger, revulsion or delayed shock, or more likely some combination of the three with a liberal dose of guilt thrown in.

Yes, guilt. It had taken a few minutes for that to kick in -- just after the realisation she'd pushed Anakin away. Just after her confused senses had processed his expression of hurt and confusion.

Almost on cue, she felt his familiar warmth brush her consciousness -- tentative, worried, reassuring. She leant towards him briefly to acknowledge his presence. She hadn't meant to block him out, but for the moment she was too confused herself to know why she'd responded the way she had. She took a sip from the cup and lowered it to the table just as Iliana sat down.

"Hey," the young woman said softly, reaching over to touch Tahiri's hand. "Whatever you're feeling -- it's okay."

"I'm, um, alright." To her frustration, her throat closed over the last word making it impossible to add anything else.

"You did great," Iliana assured her. "You dealt with it, and you dealt with it your way. No guy has the right to do anything like that to a woman."

"He didn't actually do anything," Tahiri reminded her, finally managing to regain control of her vocal chords.

Iliana's blue eyes opened wide and Tahiri was taken aback at the anger and pain she could see simmering there. "Really? How do you feel?"

Tahiri blinked. "Like I need a long shower," she said after a moment, and smiled weakly.

Iliana nodded slowly as if she was gathering her thoughts. "You can if you like. And you'll be safe -- don't worry. I'll wait outside."

Tahiri regarded her wistfully. It would be good to rid herself of the foreign odour she could feel clinging to her clothes and skin. It kept wafting into her nostrils, making her nauseous. She sighed and shook her head. "We don't have time. We need to get everyone organised and then get ready to go and meet the truck."

"Vape the truck," said Iliana smoothly. "Let the guys see to it. In fact I've got an excellent plan for how to take it. We'll truss Jaytee up and drop him on the road in front of it. Then the driver'll stop just after he's run him over, rush back to check his broken body and they can be ready to jump in and drive it off. How's that?"

Tahiri gazed at her, momentarily shocked by the vicious humour in her voice.

"Wouldn't you like that to happen?" The cruel expression faded into seriousness. "Honestly?"

"Yes, but ... " Tahiri shook her head, unable to find the words to continue.

"But you're afraid to say it, because it would be wrong." She sipped her coffeine studying the young girl carefully, and added. "And then you'd feel guilty."

Tahiri stared down into her cup, blinking furiously. She mustn't crack up again, not with all that was resting on them. Lando, Tendra, Vehn, and any others whom Tag had selected as worthy fodder to barter for peace, were depending on her. But she was so confused, and she felt terrible. She felt as if she'd failed as a Jedi again, just like she had when she'd cut off Mezhan Kwaad's head in order to save Anakin. Just like when she'd used a Yuuzhan Vong battle cry while rescuing him from the Peace Brigade collaborator on Eriadu. And like she had earlier when she'd let her anger cloud her judgment back at their hotel room.

"I already feel guilty," she said dully, hoping that keeping all emotion from her voice would enable her to exert the same control over her feelings. "I let my anger control me, and as a Jedi that's something I mustn't do."

"You're not allowed to get angry?" Iliana stared at the hunched figure opposite in disbelief.

"Anger leads to the Dark Side," Tahiri explained. "And it's not so much a case of not getting angry, as not letting it control our actions."

"Okay." Iliana thought for a moment. "How did you feel before you got angry?"

Tahiri tried to remember the sequence of events. It was difficult because she would have much preferred to push it away -- force it down into the depths where she couldn't see it. "I ... I -" The words stuck in her gullet. "I was ... felt ... like I was paralysed. I was okay to start with, but then I saw his eyes. They were so cold, as if ... as if I was some sort of thing and not a person." She shuddered and gazed up at Iliana beseechingly. "I wanted to push him away but I couldn't, and then ... I got angry."

She wanted to explain about what had happened deep inside her -- about the sensation that had felt like a parasitic larva poking its head up in response to some stimulus, and then rapidly retracting when the movement provoked its host to take action. But she could make no sense of it herself, and she wondered if she was imagining the feeling in order to absolve herself of responsibility. There was something else too, that she couldn't explain to Iliana, and it was connected with look in Jaytee's eyes that she had just described. She had been the focus of a similar dehumanising gaze before -- in the Shapers' damutek on Yavin 4. It was the same expression she had seen in Mezhan Kwaad's and Nen Yim's eyes as they discussed their experimentation with her nervous system, treating her as if she was nothing more than a blob of tissue and cells for them to control. The memory flared and she realised it gave her the same sense of powerlessness, and the same feeling of having her boundaries of self -- her Tahiriness -- invaded.

"But isn't that a good thing? If you hadn't got angry he would have been able to carry on."

Tahiri shuddered again, and Iliana moved her chair round the table so she could put her arm around her.

"But the others came in so he couldn't," Tahiri protested.

"They may not have. They might have decided to go somewhere else first. You weren't to know how long they'd take to come back."

Tahiri studied the tabletop. Her reason told her that Iliana was right, but she couldn't rid herself of the feeling that she had done something wrong, and that if she'd acted differently it might not have happened.

"I caught him looking at me several times," she said finally. "Maybe I should have told him not to. Maybe I let him think I didn't mind or something." Her voice faded as she realised the words, once voiced, sounded silly, and at last she gazed up at Iliana.

"Tahiri," said Iliana firmly. "Your anger was normal. Feeling paralysed was normal. Wanting to wash his filthy smell away is completely normal, as is feeling guilty. What you've got to get into your head is that the only one who should be feeling guilty is Jaytee himself."

"I think I do know that sort of." Tahiri smiled wanly again. "It's just ... it took me by surprise."

"Scum don't usually broadcast their intentions. And they don't care what pain they cause."

Tahiri's green eyes flickered towards the door and took on a stricken expression. "I hurt Anakin. I pushed him away after he tried to help me. I was even angry at him."

"Normal," announced Iliana as if she was ticking items on a checklist.

"But, he -"

"He'll understand. He'll be confused and yes, he'll be feeling a bit hurt, but he'll get over it because he loves you. And anyway -- Rongo'll be having a word to him. So don't worry, and forget all this guilt crap. You coped and you should be feeling proud of yourself. Anakin tried to help and you can be proud of that, too, even if you did feel like he was trying to prove that you couldn't cope without him."

Tahiri felt Iliana's words as if they were a slap on the face, and she felt the crimson rush to her cheeks. "It wasn't that!" she gasped, at the same time knowing that Iliana had unearthed something that had been niggling at her, but that she'd hoped to avoid confronting. She tried to push it back into its burrow still uncertain as to exactly what it was, although it felt like betrayal. Anakin had saved her from the Shapers, and had supported her through her months of recuperation even when he'd been itching to return to the front lines. He was always there for her -- her knight in Jedi robes. And yet, here she was furious at him for doing what she'd become accustomed to him doing. She pondered that for a moment. Was this some new step in their relationship where she became more his equal? Or was it part of her recuperation -- becoming what she would have been if not for the Yuuzhan Vong.

She tried to make sense of all the possibilities, but it was too much all at once to think about. She knew she loved Anakin and wanted to be with him. She thought she needed him. But maybe there were times when she didn't. And wasn't it good to know she could cope without him? Her mind raced ahead to a future in which they might have children of their own. Wasn't it good to know that she'd be able to protect them in his absence?

Iliana could see a struggle going on behind Tahiri's eyes and had to quash the sudden instinct to pull the girl against her in a fierce hug. She wanted to let her know everything was going to be all right, but she'd seen too many dark things herself to be able to do that. Life could be cruel. Even more frightening was the fact it could be so random. Good people suffered while evil people prospered. Ultimately, the greatest thing a person could do was stand up for their friends and stay true to themselves. Instead she quietly took Tahiri's hand in hers, hoping that the action would convey her support and her respect for the girl's ability to confront her own demons. From what Anakin had said earlier about her experiences with the Vong, it sounded like she had plenty.

*****

Rongo saw Jaytee eye him suspiciously as he walked into the small storeroom. He swapped glances with Blue, noting the cold steel in his eyes and the rigid set of his shoulders. It wasn't often that Blue got angry, but when he did the transition in his appearance was unsettling. Underneath his good-humoured facade, Blue, like a number of the bikers, hid a tangled mess of violence and frustration.

Rongo slapped his friend on the arm, aware as he did so of the tension in Blue's bunched muscles. He glanced over again at Jaytee who was busy trying to stem the blood gushing from his nose. "Okay, bro', I'll take over."

Blue nodded curtly and threw the youth in the corner a murderous stare. "I tried reason, but as you can see it didn't work." Underneath the fury Rongo heard the faint trace of regret. Blue didn't enjoy losing control, but obviously Jaytee had provoked him. The annoying thing in this case was that Jaytee was still sublimely unaware of all the trouble he was causing. He would still see it as them getting at him. Rongo sighed inwardly as Blue left, and prepared himself for the fray.

"Your turn now is it?" growled Jaytee sarcastically.

"Unfortunately." Rongo willed himself to ignore the boy's insolent expression. "I just want to know one thing -- what the hell made you do it?"

Jaytee wiped his nose with his forearm and sniffed loudly. A leer twisted his freckled and bloodied face into a grotesque mask. "She's cute -- that's why."

"And that's how you appreciate cuteness -- by trying to destroy it."

"Just wanted to have some fun." The youth's speech was still slurred. He leaned back against the wall and sank down into a crouch. "Don't get much fun," he added sullenly and sniffed again.

"And that's your definition of fun -- hurting and scaring the living daylights out of some young girl? What kind of sicko are you, Jaytee?"

The boy regarded Rongo for a moment, his expression flickering between anger and defiance. "What kind of sicko are you? You run this gang like we're all stupid kids. We never get to do cool stuff like the other gangs. Just work schemes and meetings and committees and dumb stuff like that."

"Yeah. And what do you get from all that, Jaytee? Personally, I mean. Decent food, a bit of disposable income. You'd get some good buddies, too, if you'd clean up your act."

"Maybe I don't want buddies."

"You don't know what you want."

"Yeah, I do actually. I want to do what I want. I want to please me for a change."

Rongo snorted. "Yeah -- pleasing yourself. That will be something different. Well, you can forget about coming to the warehouse. I'm not having you screw it up for the rest of us."

Jaytee spat. "Good. It's a stupid idea anyway. Who cares about your silly damn brother and his fancy girlfriend. I reckon you only like Solo and his blonde bit because they remind you of them. I -" In two strides Rongo had closed the gap between them and suddenly Jaytee found that he was pinned to the wall and choking again. Then just as quickly he was lying crumpled on the floor where Rongo had let him drop.

The older man was breathing heavily, and his dark eyes had transformed into burning coals. "No," he muttered as much to himself as to the youth. "You're not worth it. Get out and sober up. And when you have, you're going to apologise to Tahiri."

"Get vaped!" rasped Jaytee, struggling to his feet. "I'm out of here."

Rongo watched as he flung open the door and stumbled out into the corridor. He was still standing there, immobile, when Blue's face appeared round the door jamb.

"I gather it didn't go well?"

Rongo exhaled an exasperated sigh and shook his head.

"Well, you did better than me. I just couldn't stand his dumb gloating. I mean doesn't the stupid little twerp understand anything?"

"He understands it. He just won't admit it." He suddenly punched one hand into the other. "Damn it. We don't need this right now."

"Where's he gone?"

"Dunno." He sighed again. "I'd better go after him. It'd just be our luck he'll run his bike into somebody and kill them."

Blue grabbed his friend's arm. "Leave him. You can't hold yourself responsible for what he does. And anyway -- why let him stuff things up for the rest of us? Selfish little bastard's probably hoping you'll try and find him just so's he can upset the plan and get all the attention."

Rongo took another step and then hesitated.

"He'll be okay," Blue reassured him. "I mean where's he going to go? Nobody else is going to want to put up with him."

"I guess. Yeah, you're right. We need to get this show on the road."

Blue turned back to Rongo as they walked down the corridor. "Hey -- thanks by the way."

Rongo blinked, and a puzzled expression replaced the disconsolate one.

"For stepping in earlier. I, uh, almost lost it," he said ruefully.

"Hey." Rongo thumped him on the shoulder. "What are friends for?"

*****

"It's just so confusing," Tahiri said after a long silence.

"It always is. But I guess if it wasn't, we'd all be really boring and shallow." Iliana leapt to her feet and struck a ludicrous pose with an exaggerated look of disdain on her face. "We'd be like hoity-toity Thyferrans or Kuati women flouncing around in posh clothes all the time, and living useless lives of luxury."

In spite of the situation, Tahiri snorted back a faint giggle.

"Can't you just see us sipping cocktails and fussing with our little lap pets all the time? And taking our men out of the cupboard every night and popping them back for safekeeping the next morning?"

"That I cannot imagine." Tahiri chuckled out loud at the image.

"Well, there you are then. And you know as well as I do that neither Rongo nor Anakin would have us any other way, even if it does mean they spend a lot of time being confused and wondering why the hell they bother with us."

"You make it sound like they enjoy it," said Tahiri dubiously.

Iliana dimpled mischievously, and Tahiri was suddenly struck with her beauty.

"Of course they do. No pain, no gain. And it gives them a reason to weep into their lum together -- they couldn't possibly do that over real physical wounds. That would get them struck off the male register."

"Do you think they might be weeping into it now?"

Iliana regarded her shrewdly. "Possibly. Although it's more likely that Rongo is currently increasing Jaytee's vocabulary of rare and colourful curses." She studied Tahiri for a moment longer. "You know, Anakin strikes me as a guy who'd like a woman who can take of herself."

That was true. Tahiri found that she was nodding. He'd hinted that he liked her fierce streak a number of times, even that he found it exciting.

"But he also strikes me as a guy who likes to think he can fix things -- solve people's problems. Maybe even be a hero?"

Again Tahiri was forced to agree, but she couldn't restrain her astonishment. "How do you figure out all this stuff?"

Iliana's blue eyes crinkled. "School of Hard Knocks -- did this course called Being a Woman 101. Looks like you're doing a similar, more concentrated version."

Tahiri responded with a wry expression.

"Anakin would've been angry at Jaytee, too -- furious I would imagine," Iliana continued. "It probably took a lot of self-control not to just swipe the stupid little scumbag's head off -- because I assume he could."

"Easily," agreed Tahiri.

"Maybe he was feeling guilty, too. Rongo had told him to watch out for Jaytee. Do you think perhaps Anakin might be beating himself up, wondering why he left you alone even when he'd been warned?"

Tahiri's shook her head vigorously. "But that's ridiculous. There's no way he could have predicted -" She stopped as the double realisation hit home -- first, that she'd just defeated part of her own argument, and, second, that she knew Anakin too well to doubt that Iliana's words were true. That's exactly what he would be doing.

"You see? Depending on how you look at it, you could say that you both screwed up equally badly, or that you both reacted in a way that was perfectly understandable given the abnormality of the situation. Personally, I'd go for the latter."

Tahiri tried to think of something to say, but nothing sensible presented itself.

"It's not often I'm lost for words," she admitted. "But all I can think of to say is thanks."

"That's okay," smiled the Mirialan woman. "It's taken me nearly twenty-four years to get to the point where I can feel good about myself regardless of what I do, and it's nice to be able to start passing that knowledge on."

Tahiri sipped her coffeine, a pensive frown creasing her brow. "It's funny, you know. Only a few hours ago Anakin said that we shouldn't worry if things sometimes get a bit awkward between us, and now here we are feeling awkward."

"But you'll sort it out, and you'll be stronger because of it."

Tahiri nodded.

Iliana found her eyes drawn to the faint scars on Tahiri's forehead. "And I get the impression that you two have been through quite a bit together already."

Tahiri nodded again and rolled her eyes.

"You're lucky finding a decent man so early. It's taken me ages to find one who'll love me for who I am, warts and all. Never thought I'd find him in a swoop gang." She threw Tahiri a look that suggested she was only too well versed in the ironical twists of life, and began scrabbling around at the back of one of the cupboards. "Ha, here they are," she mumbled triumphantly and drew out a packet wrapped in flimsy that she proceeded to offer to Tahiri. "Have a fix."

Tahiri's eyes widened, and her gaze flickered uncertainly between Iliana and the carton several times before noticing the grin tugging at the corners of the older woman's lips. Curious, she slipped her hand in the box and pulled out a handful of sweets shaped like exotic fruits.

"Oh!" she laughed.

Iliana smiled broadly making her blue eyes light up like beacons. "Got you that time, didn't I? This is my little treat to myself -- that's why I keep them hidden. Every now and again a girl needs to pamper herself." She caught Tahiri's expression of surprised delight. "They're Mirialan -- quite hard to get now thanks to the you-know-who," she explained pulling the wrapper down so Tahiri could see the name on the carton.

"Jelly fruit liqueurs," she read, and popped another one in her mouth, wondering idly as she did so if Iliana had come by them legally or not.

"Rongo got some for me for my last birthday -- and since then I've been hooked. So I found out where he got them from." She winked.

Eating stolen goods, Tahiri thought wryly. I wonder what the Jedi Code says about that. As no answer presented itself, she took another one.

"I've got a birthday coming up soon," she said conversationally as Iliana refilled her mug.

"Lucky you. Does Anakin know what you want?"

"He's not good at presents. I 've been trying to give him plenty of hints, but he doesn't seem to be getting them."

Iliana nodded sagely. "No, he's a very straightforward kind of guy. You might have to use a more direct approach like 'if you don't buy me a whatever, I will kill you'. I can see that working okay." She had to lean over and pat Tahiri on the back to stop her choking from a combination of sweet and laughter. "What do you want?"

Tahiri cleared her throat. "Well, I really want-" she began, but a gentle tap at the door, followed by Blue's face appearing, stopped her.

"Um, everything okay?" he asked tentatively, obviously uncomfortable with the job he'd been delegated.

Iliana raised her eyebrows to Tahiri, who nodded. "We'll be along soon, Blue," she said.

"No hurry ... well, no big hurry, um ... just as soon as you can, okay?" He threw them a quick apologetic grin, and closed the door again.

"We really should get going." Tahiri placed her mug on the scratched surface of the bench.

"You still alright with helping to get the truck?"

"Yeah." Tahiri nodded.

"Ready to kick some butt, eh?"

"If that's what it takes." She straightened and squared her shoulders.

Iliana's laugh rippled like a chime. "Go, Anakin's girl! Now," she murmured as they set off down the corridor. "Tell me what you want for your birthday."



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