Many Happy Returns: Chapter Twenty-Three
Iella

Tendra watched the speeder draw level with the roof and tried to calm the storm of emotions brewing inside her. It was proving a difficult task because the sight of Tag, with his pudgy cheeks and infuriating air of supercilious satisfaction, made her want to leap across the gap between them and pummel him until he cried for mercy. Two things stood in her way. One was the gargantuan driver of the speeder who looked as if he'd been moulded out of the side of a mountain, and the other was the knowledge that such an action would do nothing to help Kushka and Ruba. She contented herself by fixing Tag with a frosty glare, determined not to give him the pleasure of seeing her discomfort.

"Not a good situation is it, Mrs Calrissian?"

"I've known worse," she replied in a voice that she willed to sound flippant. "At least you have a lovely view from here."

To her satisfaction she saw Tag's lower lip sag briefly, but he quickly regained his equilibrium and inclined his head as if he was some sort of benevolent dictator bestowing her with a favour. "So glad you're enjoying it. It gets better at night -- but I'm sure you'll be discovering that soon for yourself."

"Okay." Tendra folded her arms, partly to stop her blouse from gaping open due to the buttons lost when she was carrying Ruba, and partly to look pugnacious. "I don't know who the hell you think you are, but I've had enough. These women are citizens of Mantrusia, and you have no right to be subjecting to them to this outrageous, disgusting, cowardly treatment. Whatever it is you have against the Jedi has nothing to do with these women. I insist you let them go immediately."

Neijal, seeing where Tendra was heading with this line of argument, went to grab her arm to object, but Tendra shrugged her off.

"I mean what sort of man are you? These women have children. Children!" She knew she was going red in the face but she didn't care. It felt good to be able to vent her pent up frustration and fear through fury. "Nobody I know who calls himself a man would do this."

Tag flinched as if he had been stung, and then his cheeks infused with blood so rapidly that Tendra hoped for one glorious moment that the pressure was going to blow the top of his head off. His fists clenched and when he managed to speak, his voice sounded strange.

"And when did the Jedi ever care about children, unless they're Jedi children of course."

"But these women are not Jedi. They're healers from Mantrusia on their way home."

To Tendra's surprise, and unease, Tag didn't seem to be listening. His eyes had become wide and staring but it was obvious that whatever he was looking at, it wasn't in front of him. His face contorted and beads of perspiration appeared on his brow. "Healers, Jedi -- they're all the same," he muttered. "Stand up for each other. Cowards -- vaping cowards." Just as quickly as his vision had glassed over, it returned to normal, and he refocussed his gaze on Tendra's face. "Come on, Mrs Calrissian." The look became disparaging. "Use that clever brain of yours. If I let them go now, they'll run to the authorities who will then have to investigate me. At the moment that would be a trifle inconvenient."

"So you'll let them go after you turn Lando and me over to the Yuuzhan Vong?" Tendra was determined to pursue her hope for a trade-off, but she was finding Tag's bizarre behaviour unsettling.

"Tendra, you mustn't-" began Neijal desperately, but again Tendra silenced her.

Tag studied her for a moment, his expression inscrutable. Whatever struggle he'd just been going through, he'd obviously overcome it.

"I might." He regarded her for a while longer before continuing. "And it doesn't bother you -- being given to the conquerors?"

"Conquerors my foot!" spat Tendra. "Of course it bothers me, but I doubt that you'll succeed."

Tag shrugged. "I'm sure I will. And it won't be just you two and Vehn and his crony. I'll get your little Jedi friends as well when they try to save you. I have right on my side." He spoke the final statement as if it was some sort of mantra.

"Right on your-" The absurdity of his statement rendered her speechless.

"The Jedi are a threat to us all. It's our duty to turn them over so they can be punished."

Tendra shook her head furiously. "That's a lie. It's people like you who are the threat. You think you can bargain with the enemy, but you are wrong -- so wrong it's almost laughable. You're in for a horrible, horrible surprise Bomar Tag, and you will deserve every minute of chagrin and pain the Vong give you." Her throat felt ragged from dehydration and anger, but she took another deep breath and carried on while she had Tag's slack-jawed, undivided attention.

"What you do to us will count for nothing. Nothing. And all this -" She waved her arms to indicate the warehouse and its surrounding cityscape. "All this will be taken from you and the people of Dinarra and used as some sort of plantation for spaceships, or some other genetic horror that they've concocted. If you've got any commonsense you'll give this stupid plan up now, if not for yourself at least for your fellow citizens. But as that's probably asking for the impossible -- you must at least let these women and their children go."

Tag stood stockstill. Tendra couldn't tell whether he was assimilating her words, or was lost in some private cogitation, because his expression had closed over again into an impassive mask.

"All right," he said suddenly. "I'll make a deal with you. Tell me where the Jedi base is, and I'll let them go."

Tendra felt as though she'd been hit in the stomach. Whatever she'd been expecting him to say it had not been that.

She gazed at Jassif and Neijal desperately, and then at little Ruba, and Kushka with his wide startled eyes. She felt her chin start to wobble and tears sprang to her eyes, and the terrifying realisation hit her that at that moment she could have torn Tag apart limb from limb with no remorse whatsoever. That he could reduce her to such a level of debasement; that he could trap her so casually between two terrifying choices! For the first time in her life, Tendra looked into the eyes of another being that she knew she hated with all her soul. The feeling was so overwhelming she could actually taste it -- a mixture of bilious, impotent rage and acrid remorse. But, before she could voice the dreaded refusal she knew she would have to give, Neijal stepped up beside her and placed an arm around her waist.

"She will not give you that information, Mr Tag." She emphasised his title with a hiss.

"No," added Jassif, holding Ruba tightly against her. "We believe in the Jedi. We know they are honourable and good. And if we must die to protect them we will."

"We're not afraid of death, Mr Tag. We've lived good lives, and we have faith in our gods. Our families will grieve, but they will know we died at peace. I wonder, Mr Tag, what your gods think of you."

Tag drew himself upright, although Tendra could see that his jowls were quivering. "I'm a righteous man," he affirmed. Again, she received the strange impression that he was quoting a favourite saying. "So be it then, ladies."

He nodded curtly to his behemoth driver, and the vehicle dropped on its repulsors like a stone. Tendra sank to the ground, and Jassif threw herself sobbing into Neijal's arms.

"I'm sorry," said Tendra dully. She felt as though she'd been sucked dry.

"No, no," soothed Neijal, placing one arm around Kushka who had come over when he saw Jassif cry. "You had no choice. The Jedi must be preserved. They will find a way to get rid of this terror."

"We meant what we said," sniffed Jassif as more tears spilled from her dark eyes. "Jedi saved Mantrusia once. If it falls to us to repay some of the debt we will."

Tendra gazed up at the two women. She wanted to speak, but she knew no words would come out, so she clambered to her feet and reached out to both of them. They huddled together for some time while the wind rustled their skimpy clothes, reminding them of the coming chill of night.

"We can use some of our healing powers to keep us warm," Neijal said. "And we can move around."

Tendra nodded, and then sighed. "I think you're right about Tag. I think he is mad. But there's something that's provoked it -- something connected with the Jedi."

"Maybe," murmured Jassif. "But he has the choice of letting it go or letting it twist him into something evil."

"Yes, you're right about that, too," Tendra conceded.

"Mummy, will the Jedi come?" Kushka snuggled into his mother's petticoats, relieved that the scary man had gone, and that the ladies looked less upset.

"Yes they will, Kushka," Tendra answered for her. She knew it was the truth. Anakin and Tahiri would definitely try and save them. The question was would they succeed, or more precisely how would they succeed? Two teenagers against a madman and his troop of sycophants and psychos weren't exactly encouraging odds, even if one of them was partly Corellian.

"What are their names?" asked Jassif quietly.

"Anakin Solo and Tahiri Veila," replied Tendra, a little surprised at the question.

"Solo," murmured Neijal. "Han Solo?"

"His father," explained Tendra.

"Ah." The two women nodded.

"Han Solo came to Mantrusia when I was a child. He helped the Jedi."

"He's one of the heroes," added Jassif. "And now his son is helping us. I think they must be a good family."

Tendra nodded, and smiled down at Kushka who was gazing up at her. "Yes. They are," she added firmly, feeling some of her former confidence flooding back. "A very good family, who never give up."

"And neither will we," said Neijal.

The three women had just finished exchanging determined glances when Kushka tugged Neijal's sleeve.

"Mummy, I know how to keep warm. We could play a game."

"That's a good idea," Neijal said, forcing a smile. She wondered how much of her bravado was motivated by her instinct to protect her son. "Which one?"

"Tag," replied the little boy, as if the answer was obvious.

*****

"Can you think of anything we should have told them that we didn't?" Rongo asked Anakin as they followed Blue across the compound to the bike bay.

"Yeah -- keep practising their dodge moves," Blue called back. "I ain't exactly rolling in triage resources at the moment."

Anakin returned Rongo's grin, but then his expression lapsed into seriousness. "I think we pretty much covered everything we could. I'd like to hope it'll all go according to plan, but there's no guarantees because we don't know enough about Tag's set up."

Rongo made a wry face. "Yeah. Still, I think the group system we've organised'll compensate for any hitches. The leaders are all pretty fly and they can think on their feet. And as long as we keep each other up on where we are and whether we need support or not, we should be okay. I mean Tag doesn't exactly have hundreds to call on -- he's not Merr-Sonn or Blas-Tech."

"True," conceded Anakin. "The important thing is they all understand the main plan. As long as they keep that in mind we should be right."

"I definitely think you drilled that into them okay, kid," said Blue, effecting seriousness and failing miserably. "You ought to consider becoming a tecaher. I thought you were going to get them to recite their tables next."

Anakin's blue eyes widened. "You don't think I overdid it?"

Rongo snorted. "Hey, for the half that are nearly brain dead, it was a good chance to exercise some brain cells."

"Yeah -- and the other half that already are got to catch up on a bit more shut-eye," added Blue. "No problem, kid."

"We are kidding you know." Rongo finished pulling his swoop bike upright and grinned at Anakin's bemused expression. "You've done a good job with the planning. I think Doc's beginning to warm to you."

"Just as well," Anakin said ruefully. The thought of Doc taking it upon himself to get Anakin back for the fight in the alley was a little worrisome, especially as Doc was now armed with enough weaponry to put a Mandalorian warrior to shame. He noticed Rongo's gaze move its focus, and he turned to see Tahiri stepping out from the main door to the building.

"I might just go and check up on something," said Rongo, trying to catch Blue's eye, as Anakin moved forward to meet Tahiri.

"Sure thing, bro'." Blue wiped a speck off his side mirror and went to swing himself up on his bike.

"Uh, I might need a hand bro'."

Blue looked up and caught Rongo nodding significantly towards Anakin and Tahiri. "A hand? Oh, yeah -- a hand. Of course." He dutifully followed his leader across the oil-stained turf. "The path of young love don't always run smooth."

"Tell me about it," said Rongo with a curt laugh.

"I wish I could, bro', but I think even the kid knows more about it than me."

"I heard that you and Tria were getting friendly."

Blue scuffed his boots as he walked. "Friendly -- yeah, I s'pose. If you call beating me at arm wrestling and drinking me under the table friendly."

"I thought you liked strong women."

Blue rubbed his head, mainly, Rongo realised, to cover the faint tinge of rouge his skin had taken on "Give it a rest, bro'." He glanced back to see Anakin taking Tahiri's hand in his and, in the process, missed the approaching swish of fast moving legs encased in rancor hide. "I just don't seem to . . . Hey where's he gone?"

He stepped back out the door just in time to see Iliana dragging Rongo by the hand towards the wall. "Hey Illy, is Tahiri o-" He watched the Mirialan woman playfully thrust Rongo against the side of the building and leap into his arms.

"Rongo Toomahai. You are the best, greatest, most amazing man in this galaxy and I'm crazy about you."

"-kay?" finished Blue.

"Woow. What brought this on? Not that I'm complaining or anything."

"Um, Rongo -" Blue tried to get the tanned bikers' attention, but Rongo was quite obviously otherwise occupied.

"I'm just proud of you that's all," continued Iliana. "I know I don't tell you that very often, but I am really proud of you -- the way you talked to Anakin and dealt with Jaytee."

Blue tried clearing his throat.

"I don't think I handled Jaytee well at all. He's run off somewhere," said Rongo.

"He'll be skulking around -- don't worry about him." Iliana unwound her legs from around Rongo's and let him slide her down until her feet touched the ground. She reached up to stroke his chin.

"Do you want me to check if he's back?" asked Blue in a last ditch effort to enter the conversation. He glanced over at the bikes and began a rough count.

"I really love you, you big hunk," he heard Iliana murmur.

"I don't think ... " He turned back, and rolled his eyes. ". . . that I can contribute any more to this discussion. I'll go and see if the kid's around. Call if you need any help." Said the invisible man, he grumbled to himself.

"I'm crazy about you, too," said Rongo his lips finally parted from Iliana's. He kissed the tip of her nose and then nuzzled the soft skin on her neck. "And I want you with me all the time."

"Silly man, I am with you all the time," she giggled and kissed his ear.

Rongo straightened. "Yeah." He brushed her dark hair back from her cheek. "I, um." He went to continue but gazed at her hesitantly.

"What?" she asked softly.

"I, uh, wouldn't mind if we made it a bit more, um, definite."

"Definite?"

"You're not making this easy you know," he grinned wryly.

"Not making what ... oh! Oh! Rongo, are you asking me to marry you?"

"Er, yeah. I think I am. I mean -- I am. I just wasn't sure if that's what you want or not. I mean I don't mind if you just want to -- unh!"

"Does that answer your question?" she asked a few minutes later.

Rongo nodded. "Yeah, I think that pretty much covers it."

"When did you decide this?"

"A while ago. I just wasn't sure if you'd want to be tied down yet."

"Actually," she whispered. "That sounds great. You can tie me down any time you like. I think we even have some stun cuffs you can use."

"Vaping heck, woman, what are you trying to do to me. I've got a bust-up to organise you know."

"Then think of it as something to look forward to for later," she said, eyes sparkling with both mischief and love.

Rongo chuckled. "Now if that ain't an inducement to get this over with quickly." He lifted her in his arms and swung her round.

"I wonder what the others'll say when we tell them?"

"Don't know and I don't care. We'll worry about that after we've hung Tag out to dry."

"Yeah." She slid her arms round his neck again and they held each other. "We're going to be good together, Rongo."

"Yeah." He ran his fingers through the silky thickness of her hair, and bent down to butt her forehead with his nose. "I don't deserve you, you know."

Expecting her to laughingly agree with him, he was taken aback to see the soft expression in her eyes undercut with a flash of annoyance.

"What sort of poodoo is that?"

A series of images unfurled in his mind like tattered leaves of flimsy from an old two-D picture album and flickered past in rapid succession: a scrawny adolescent standing over the bloodied, drunken body of a man who had beaten him in a rage one time too many; the broken remains of furniture after brawls; a young man professing love to one woman while cheating on another. Too many sepia-tinted memories of a selfish journey into adulthood. How could he even start to explain?

Although he'd never sunk to Jaytee's depths, he knew they had more in common than either would have wanted to admit. Maybe that was why he was so determined not to give up on the kid.

He shrugged. "You know me -- just being stupid." He kissed her again and grinned. "Come on. Time to get this show on the road."

****

There was no sign of Jaytee, so Blue grabbed an extra power pack for his blaster and headed down the corridor that led to the side door near the bike bay.

"Hey, Anakin," he said as he stepped back out into the sunlit yard of the compound. "I ... aw geez. Not another one afflicted by the love bug!"

Anakin and Tahiri were standing motionless apparently gazing into each other's eyes.

"What's going on round here? Has somebody spiced the water or something?" Blue stood watching them for a moment, his hands on his hips, but they appeared to be lost in some private world.

"So how's it going with you, Blue?" He affected a voice dripping with exaggerated femininity.

"Aw, had better days, you know," he replied.

"You don't say. Come here, you big hunk of delectable manhood -- I'll pour you a glass of lum and you can tell me all about it." He fluttered his eyelashes coquettishly.

"Lum -- now that reminds me of something. Before we drown our mutual sorrows in alcohol and meaningless passion, let me serenade you." He turned his back to the two young Jedi and leaned against his bike. "Ninety nine bottles of lum on the wall, ninety nine bottles of lum. I thought we were meant to be stealing a truck. I must be really dumb."

"Um, Blue."

He jumped and spun around to find two pairs of eyes regarding him. "You're not planning on taking up singing as a career are you?"

"Maybe," he said defensively, and his eyes narrowed. "You're not trying to tell me something are you, kid. Because if you are, I'm warning you -- this artist's soul is fragile."

Anakin and Tahiri exchanged smirks.

"Maybe we could slice him into the driver's com system," suggested Tahiri, green eyes twinkling mischievously.

"I don't know about that, Tahiri. There are probably regulations on this planet about cruel and unusual forms of torture and misuse of the airways."

"So I gather this means you two have sorted yourselves out, and we can go," huffed Blue, sliding on to his bike.

He saw Anakin smile softly at Tahiri and squeeze her hand before letting it go.

"We're ready," he said.

"As rockets." Tahiri clambered on to the back of their swoop.

"Okay, let the pillage begin." Blue flashed them a grin, and saw it reflected back at him in duplicate, as Anakin hit the thrusters and followed him out of the compound.



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