Many Happy Returns: Chapter Twenty-Four
"Are you okay, pet?" Bomar Tag stared out the window of his office towards the apartment he shared with his wife and step-daughter on the hill overlooking the eastern end of Dinarra. He nodded and smiled in response to his wife's assurances that she was feeling rested, and a little better. The new drugs that Tag had convinced the doctor to import from Thyferra seemed to be reducing the amount of fluid in Gassanta's lungs, allowing her to breathe more easily. Unfortunately they tended to dehydrate her, a problem compounded by the fact that, in her weakened state, she would often sleep for hours and forget to keep drinking.
"Remember to get Dajira to refill your jug." He was going to add that it might be a good idea that she also help her mother out to the solarium so she could sit for a while before dinner, but Gassanta's response made him frown. "Not there? Where's she gone?"
After the events of the previous night he had assumed Dajira would be only too glad to be allowed home to rest, so this news of her absence had him a little non-plussed. He had intended to ask her about the ysalamiri, and to get her to return if necessary to the factory and transfer them into their travelling cages so one of his men could pick them up and bring them to the warehouse. There was no guarantee that the two Jedi would return before he had Calrissian and the others safely handed over to the Vong, but he wasn't going to take any chances. And there was no doubt the little beasts were effective against the Jedi -- no doubt of that at all.
A sudden thought turned the puzzled frown into one that was more baleful. "She hasn't gone to see that wretched boy, has she?"
Gassanta's reassurance that she had probably gone to pick up something for dinner sounded deliberately vague, and he could feel his irritation building. He knew his wife liked the boy at the nearby food plaza who Dajira occasionally went out with, and that she couldn't understand why he didn't. They're just good friends, Bomar, she had said. Friends! He had seen the way the boy looked at her, and it was definitely not the sort of look people reserved for friends. And anyway, the girl wasn't old enough to know the right sort of people to associate with. Did she not realise that soon they could be hobnobbing with some fairly high profile people? There was no way he was going to let her waste herself on some piece of lowly Dinarran retail culture.
His fingers tightened on the edge of the table, but he managed to control his tone so it sounded merely clipped. "Very well, pet. I expect you're right -- she's gone to do some shopping. Tell her to call me when she gets back." He listened to her acknowledgment, murmured his love and then abruptly closed the connection, immediately clicking on to another channel.
"Talley? Switch that vaping machine off and listen!"
The rumbling at the other end faded to a rattle, and a gruff voice responded with a curt query.
"Don't get snarky with me," growled Tag. "Remember who got that case against you thrown out back on Pantan." He waited for the grumbled apology. "Thank you. Nice to know you still appreciate it. Now, I need you to get something for me from the factory." He looked up as the door opened and the accountant walked in. "Hang on a minute," he huffed into the desktop communicator, and caught the newcomer's eye.
"Kasen, I'm sending you over with Talley to get those ysalamiri. They should be back in their den -- if Dajira did her job properly -- but as I can't get hold of her I can't confirm it."
The little man looked uncertain. "Er, okay. I gather they're safe to handle?"
"For kriff's sake -- what is it with you people? Take, take, take, but when I'm relying on you it's a different story."
Kasen regarded his boss's rising colour and quickly cleared his throat. "No problem, Bomar. Um, we'll sort it out. How do you want us to transport them?"
"They won't fit in your speeder, so you'd better take the small ground utility. And hurry would you. I'll be getting those life support gurneys jacked up for their occupants soon and I don't want any more stuff-ups."
"You want us to go now?" Kasen had been about to sit down, but he hesitated.
"No, I want you to go in two days time, that's why I'm not emphasising the urgency of the situation!"
"Sorry. Of course. Right away," stammered the accountant, grabbing his jacket and tried to put it on upside down. Tag glared at him, so he hastily flung the offending article over his arm, threw his boss a watery grin and scuttled out of the room -- although not so quickly as to miss Tag's curse of frustration.
Tag finished shaking his head, and stood for a moment thinking. He still wasn't sure when would be the best time to knock out Calrissian, nor had he definitely decided whom the Vong would consider the best prize -- Calrissian's wife or Vehn. Probably Vehn, as he had wreaked not a little havoc amongst the invaders on Yavin 4. It seemed likely they would see revenge as having greater value than simple possession of a high profile citizen of the New Republic. However, trying to second guess the Vong was just as risky as trying to second guess the Jedi. Would it be best to keep Calrissian awake for a little longer on the off-chance that the two youngsters would be able to sense him and therefore be more likely to find where he was? In truth he was hoping they would come to the warehouse, as then he could carry on with his original plan. And he wouldn't fail this time, of that he was confident -- and for two reasons. First, he would be here himself to see it through, and second, he had right on his side. At last the galaxy would see how easily it could free itself of the arrogance of the Jedi and their various Force-related cousins forever.
It was busy at the spaceport. Already, from their vantage point above one of the traffic thoroughfares, Anakin, Blue and Tahiri had seen two smaller ships land and several bulk freighters leave. The docking areas were almost all full, and the moving walkways between the port buildings were still in heavy use, even though it was getting late.
"Are you sure this is the only exit road?" Anakin asked Blue.
"For ground lorries, yeah. Air traffic comes in from the north and goes out west -- see." He pointed to the distant patterns of small speeders and air taxis. "And ground vehicles come in by that southern route we followed. This is definitely the only way they can come out."
Anakin nodded and dropped his jacket beside Tahiri's on the seat of the swoop bike that Rongo had assigned them. It really belonged to Teebone -- one of the bikers who had come off second best back at the alley -- but of course Teebone had no use for it in his current state. "I guess with all those ships in port, it's probable that loading might be going a bit slowly," he mused.
"Don't stress, kid." Blue rested his arms on the handrail of the walkway that spanned the exit road and gazed towards the freight building. "There's no way we could have missed it. But if it's gonna make you any happier, I can call Muss."
Anakin shook his head. "No need." He knew as well as Blue that Muss would have commed them from his station at the merge point if the truck had exited the port traffic lanes on to the main route into the city. "I just hate waiting." He moved along the bridge a few steps and found a support to lean against. The sun was pleasantly warming.
"Yeah, I know," sighed Blue. "You young good-for-nothings. You want it all, and you want it all now. No patience, that's your trouble."
Anakin threw him an amused look and went to turn his attention back to the road again.
"No sign yet," said Tahiri, settling beside him, and catching his gaze. The breeze was blowing her hair over her visors, so she pushed them up on her head to clear her vision. He couldn't help smiling. "What?" she asked brow crinkling.
Blue screwed his eyes up against the sun and moved along the walkway for a clearer view. "Hey, that might be it just coming out." When neither of the two teenagers replied he glanced over at them just in time to see Anakin leaning down close to Tahiri's ear. "Aw no, not again," he grumbled.
"I kind of like you with your hair all over the place," Anakin murmured.
To his satisfaction, Tahiri's eyebrows shot up. It was not often he managed to surprise her -- usually it was the other way around, especially lately. Although there had been that time in the locker on Yag'Dhul. Memories of that still made him feel warm inside.
"Yep, that's the truck alright," announced Blue a little louder.
Tahiri smiled the sort of smile that told Anakin she had recovered and had a rejoinder on the way. He prepared himself for the inevitable comment about his messy hair and his non-existent relationship with combs.
"We are still interested in the truck aren't we?" asked Blue. "Or was it just a ploy to get out and have a bit of a frolic in the sun?"
"Oh well," she said breezily, "if you like that sort of look, you should catch me first thing in the morning." She stopped so suddenly that Anakin wondered if she'd bitten her tongue, but then the significance of her words hit him. She had realised it, too -- and she blushed.
Anakin tried to stifle the laugh bubbling up inside him -- knew he should stifle it -- but failed miserably. Tahiri had managed to surprise him, but it looked as though she had surprised herself even more. "Maybe I'll take you up on that."
"Anakin!" The blush traveled rapidly from her cheeks to cover her entire face, deepening as it went.
"You know I really think I am invisible." Blue checked his hands and held them up to the sun.
"Gee, Tahiri. I don't think I've ever seen you blush before. It's actually quite becoming."
Chuckling he pulled his own visors off and leaned on the rail so he was at her level. "You what?"
Her green eyes studied his from point blank range. "I really think all this swooper stuff is going to your head."
"Okay," said Blue. "It's up to you, Mr Super-swooper Blue. Jump off the bridge, overwhelm the driver with your amazing powers and return triumphant to the compound. Ho ho, I don't think so!" He went to take a step towards the two young Jedi when suddenly the beginnings of an idea began rattling around his head. He turned back to study the scene before him.
"You're smiling," Anakin countered, provocatively.
"No I'm not," she said tightly.
"I can see a dimple."
"Stop it. You know I hate being teased."
"Yeah," he grinned and bumped noses with her.
"I thought you were worried about missing the truck?"
"Blue told me not to stress, and I figured you'd make a good distraction."
Blue chuckled. "Good old Blue figures that both of you might make a very good distraction. Keep it up, kids. You're starting to get an audience." He stared down happily at the crawling line of trucks and the bored drivers beginning to take an interest in the activities of the young couple on the walkway.
"Sometimes I wish you didn't have an answer for everything," said Tahiri.
Anakin sighed. "It's the Solo curse. You can blame Dad for that." He smiled again, and this time she couldn't stop herself from smiling back. Pleased to see her happy again, he reached over to tuck a wayward strand of blonde hair behind her ear, but Tahiri took his hand in hers and gazed up at him seriously.
"Thanks, Anakin," she said softly.
"For just being you."
"Coming closer," murmured Blue.
"Even though I tease you and get you drafted into a swoop gang?"
She smiled. "If you weren't doing stuff like that I suppose I might think you were sick or something."
"I don't know whether to take that as a compliment or not."
"Well it is. Help me out here -- I'm trying to thank you for the way you comforted me before we left. It was just what I needed."
To Anakin's surprise he noticed her lips were trembling slightly. "Hey," he stroked her cheek. "What's up?"
"Nothing. I'm just happy," she stifled a sob.
Anakin considered this for a moment, but somehow the relationship between her words and her actions didn't make much sense. "You're happy?" He traced a tear down her cheek. "This may sound silly to you, Tahiri, but, um, if you're happy why are you crying?"
"Because I'm really, really happy."
"Ah," he nodded, considered her words for a moment and then shook his head. "I don't get it."
Tahiri giggled between sobs. "Of course you don't, dummy." She dabbed at her cheeks to brush the tears away. "Sorry. It's been a weird few hours."
"I think it's just about to get weirder." Blue grinned. "Especially if that last group of drivers doesn't notice that these other guys have almost stopped." He glanced back to check that the bottleneck, created by so much traffic on the narrow road, was unlikely to clear in a hurry.
"The last thing you need to do is apologise."
"I didn't mean to push you away like that. I was just ..." She shuddered. "I wanted to pretend it hadn't happened."
"I can understand that."
"He was so disgusting. A revolting, greasy, stupid piece of bantha poodoo." She almost spat.
"And spotty," he added.
"Hard not to."
"He smelt, too."
Good for you, Tahiri, get it out of your system. "Yeah, I noticed Rongo was keeping downwind of him," he contributed encouragingly.
She brushed her fingers down her top as if trying to sweep herself clean. "I can still smell the smell on me."
Anakin thought about that for a moment feeling there was something important in what she had said but unable to put his finger on exactly what it was. From somewhere came the memory of them talking about Eriadu just after they'd landed there. He tried to identify the connection between the two events but drew a blank, and, realising it bore no relevance to the current discussion, he shoved it to the back of his mind. With any luck his brain would keep working on it and provide him with an answer later. He patted her gently on the arm.
"Hey. You smell pretty darn good to me -- as always."
"Oh boy, this is going to be a good one." Blue clenched the rail in anticipation. The group of ground vehicles headed by their potential victim was in clear view of the bridge. Blue imagined the sight from their perspective -- the two young people bathed in golden light from the sinking sun giving them the same aura of perfection as holo stars playing out a scene in a holodrama. It would be an ideal shot, too -- one of those moments of artistic contrast that holo-makers dreamed about. Tahiri with her halo of blonde hair and petite figure, and Anakin the quintessential young warrior. Blue sighed. Everybody loved a bit of romance occasionally, even frazzled delivery people.
Tahiri pulled off her visors before they slid back down on to her nose and gazed up at Anakin. "You know what you said earlier about you understanding if I wanted you to keep your distance for a while?"
Aww -- bet it makes them feel young again, thought Blue, himself momentarily overcome with nostalgia.
"Well." She took both his hands and placed them on her hips. "I think you've been understanding enough." And she hooked an arm round his neck and pulled his face down to hers.
Blue watched with a burgeoning grin. As Anakin's arms slid round Tahiri and pulled her closer their lorry sailed headlong into the last of the group crawling along underneath them. The one behind it lurched to a stop amidst the echoes of squealing brakes and was promptly hit by the one behind, prompting the driver behind that to take evasive action that involved driving her vehicle into the side-wall. A cloud of steam shot up from the truck's damaged front panel and the driver leapt out of her cab narrowly avoiding being hit by the vehicle following her. That driver managed to swerve away from the woman, but ended up performing an about-face just in time to be hit by the confused driver behind. One after one, trucks either crashed into each other or swerved to avoid doing so, and the air resounded with a series of metallic scrapes and explosions and the hissing of traumatised engines venting geysers of steam.
Anakin lifted his lips from Tahiri's. "Wow," he murmured. "I think I actually felt the ground shake."
Blue tousled his hair. "How about the exploding rockets -- did you hear them, too?"
Anakin blinked back at the swooper. "Yeah," he said in amazement.
"What about the angry drivers cursing at one another and trying to knock each other's lights out?"
Anakin gazed from Blue to Tahiri and back again. Then he looked down.
"It's the truck!"
"Well, well, so it is," said Blue dryly.
"It's stopped." Tahiri observed. "And the driver's arguing with a whole lot of other people."
Anakin studied the fracas developing below them and then followed Blue's gaze to the other vehicles now beginning to gather some speed and draw away. His eyes flicked back to Blue and he smiled. "I gather this means Plan A is cancelled."
Blue grinned back and clicked open the comlink. "Hey, Muss. What's happening?"
"Traffic was so heavy they've diverted the passenger vehicles so the trucks can get on to the roundabout without any hold-ups. How's it going your end?"
"Smashing," replied Blue. "Be seeing you real soon." He turned back to Anakin to find him already pulling his jacket on.
"Come on, Tahiri." He grabbed her hand. "Let's hope the truck's still roadworthy."
"Should be," said Blue as they jogged down to the road. "It's just panel damage. Expensive -- which is why they're at each other's throats -- but not terminal, not for the front trucks anyway." He followed Anakin and Tahiri over the wall. "Personally I'm glad we didn't need Plan A. I wasn't too keen on the idea of jumping on to a moving truck. Although I was looking forward to seeing you do one of your mind tricks on the driver. Reckon you know how to drive one of those things?"
"You take the front one. We'll follow. Then when we're clear of the port, you can ditch your truck."
"I gather that's a yes." Blue threw him a sardonic grin, and then pointed down the now empty thoroughfare. "Be prepared to step on the gas real quick." He darted nimbly to the truck at the front and waited until he could see Anakin and Tahiri ensconced in the cab behind him.
The throng of angry drivers watched in disbelief as the front two trucks suddenly roared to life and took off down the road as if they were being pursued by one of the Yuuzhan Vong's metal-crunching monsters.
"I wonder why they all crashed?" Anakin grimaced as he flicked forward one notch too many on the pre-select lever and had to chop back down again.
Tahiri shrugged and leaned into the door as they raced at breakneck pace around a corner not designed to be taken at such speed. "Maybe they had the sun in their eyes."
"Nah, sun's in the other direction. Something must have blinded them though that's for sure. Boy this thing's got guts."
Tahiri snorted back a giggle.
She threw him a fond look. "I love you," she said, laughing as the truck lurched round one last corner and threw her up against him.
Anakin slipped his arm around her and gave her an affectionate squeeze, then he grinned. "I know."
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