Many Happy Returns: Chapter Twenty-Seven
Iella

Tag stood at the window overlooking the plaza and watched as the milling group of assorted humans and humanoids began to assemble into something resembling an orderly march. He had been observing them for a few minutes, only too aware that he would have taken little notice of their activities if he hadn't been tipped off as to their intentions. Their entry in small groups of threes and fours into the square in front of his warehouse had certainly been unobtrusive, but now people were beginning to take notice of them. He smiled smugly to himself. Soon that little Rodian who seemed to be the chief organiser, judging by the way he was scurrying amongst them, was going to find that he was organising a panicked retreat. So much for those who dared to think they could even try and disrupt his plans to protect Balmorra. Did they not realise that every action they took to discredit him only went to highlight their disloyalty to their fellow Balmorrans? When all this was over, and the sacrifice of the Jedi and their deluded supporters had successfully appeased the Vong, then these people would realise the error of their ways.

But in the meantime, it wouldn't hurt to give them a little taste of punishment for their blind stupidity -- something that would bring home to them the cost of backing the wrong side.

He glanced down at the plastine box holding the vials of somnacyl, torn between attending to the process of drugging Calrissian and Vehn or watching what eventuated between the swoopers and the protestors. Both were sure to prove entertaining in one way or another. He was still prevaricating when he heard movements behind him.

"Um, Bomar."

He swung to face the owner of the voice.

"Kasen." Tag was about to credit the little accountant's nervous expression to his failure to find the ysalamiri, when another man appeared in the doorway, followed shortly after by another and then a third. There was something about the men's grey semi-military clothes and grim expressions that alerted him to their identity a split second before Kasen opened his mouth to introduce them.

"Delone?" He was unable to smother the jolt of disgruntled surprise that threatened to disrupt his moment of satisfaction. Nor was he able to mask it in his tone. Sithspit. What in kriff's name is he doing here?

"Um, yes. Mr Delone and his friends arrived at the factory while we were there lo- ... er ... while we were there. So I, uh, brought them here."

"Yes. We were a little concerned at the state of the factory, Tag." Delone regarded him with a sour expression.

"A minor problem -- not worth bothering you with. As you can see, we've got everything under control." He waved towards the scene outside the window where the protestors were now marching towards the factory waving their placards and shouting.

Delone eyed the messages on the protestors' signs. "Peace Brigade Traitors. Tag's Selling Us Out." He threw the Balmorran a jaundiced look. "If this is your idea of control, I'd hate to see what you define as chaos," he growled.

"Watch for a little longer and you might want to revise that comment. And anyway -- I understood the deal was that we take the prisoners to the Vong, not that you'd come to pick them up."

Delone's thin lips twitched. "That was indeed the deal, until we heard who you had."

Tag was trying not to let his discomfiture show, but it was proving difficult. Obviously Delone was the sort who liked to trade in on others' hard work. It was both annoying and disappointing. It was also going to be embarrassing telling him about the two young Jedi's escape.

"Come on, Tag -- it's a Solo. And not just any Solo -- but the one who caused all that trouble on Yavin. The one who's personally responsible for the deaths of a number of our friends. Can you blame us for wanting a piece of this?"

Tag glared back at the man, wanting to point out that a deal was a deal, and it wasn't exactly honourable to change the rules just because they hadn't realised the value of the prize. It irked him to realise that he didn't have much of a leg to stand. Delone was right about Solo's deeds making him as much an enemy of the Brigade as he was of the Vong. In hindsight, maybe he shouldn't have told them who he had, although then again, he had thought he could trust them.

Still, as Delone said -- with Solo involved, the matter had become personal for a lot of them. Damn it all.

"So where is he?"

Tag caught Kasen's pleading expression. Obviously he hadn't had the courage to tell them what had happened.

The pudgy Balmorran cleared his throat. "We had him, but some of my men forgot how sneaky these Jedi are, and he and his companion escaped. He should -- will -- be in our hands again soon though. We do have Calrissian," he continued hurriedly, before Delone could comment, "and as a surprise bonus -- Remis Vehn, of Yavin fame, and his partner in crime. What you're about to see is the first step in the process to recapture Solo and his little Jedi friend."

Or was it Jedi fiend? The gods be thankful Daijira had never turned out like that little spitfire. Thinking about Dajira prompted him yet again to wonder where she was. It was probably just as well he didn't have time to worry about that right now.

Delone folded his arms and gazed around at the other Peace Brigade members who had moved up to get a better view. "I see. It looks like it's just as well we did come then. I expected you to have them ready."

Now that he was over the initial shock, Tag was beginning to feel angry. "Why didn't you return my messages? It's obvious you received them, otherwise you wouldn't have known about Solo."

"Our transmitter was out -- we could receive but couldn't reply."

Delone's tone was a little too glib. Tag wished he knew more about starships' systems so he could argue the point. "A call from the spaceport wouldn't have gone amiss."

"The place was in chaos. There'd been some accident and they had to reroute the outward bound traffic. There was no time. And anyway, this bickering is pointless. How is that," he said, pointing to the protest outside, "going to get Solo back into our hands."

"Oh, so now it's our hands is it? I have to say -- I'm not impressed with the way you do business, Delone."

"And I'm not impressed with the way you misled us. By the looks of it, I think you'll find you might be grateful we did decide to come here."

Tag studied the man through narrowed eyes. He was different from how Tag had imagined him. From his initial communications with Delone, when they'd been organising the yslamiri, he had built up an image of him as a short man -- maybe a little on the overweight side. It just went to show how deceptive voices could be.

"I doubt it, but as you're here, you may as well enjoy the entertainment. Take a seat -- this should be amusing." He flipped the switch on his desktop communicator. "Group one, stand by. It's nearly time for the performance."

"Good, we'll tune our instruments then," growled a voice that was orchestrated by a background of raucous laughter and ribald comments.

Tag smirked and had just keyed the link closed when a movement at one of the intersections caught his eye. For a moment he thought some of the swoopers had pre-empted him, but then he caught the gleam of black and yellow. It was just like ...

"What the -?"

"Is there a problem?" Delone was staring at him speculatively.

"No. No problem," mumbled Tag.

What the hell was his speeder doing in the plaza? Had somebody stolen it? The only one who had the code to it was ... No. He shook his head vehemently. It can't be. He squinted at the vehicle, trying to identify the driver, but the jiggling placards kept obscuring his vision. If it was her, he would just have to hope she stayed clear of what was about to ensue. But hopefully it wasn't. Surely it wasn't. No -- he shook his head again. Definitely not. There was no reason for Dajira to be in the plaza at this late hour of the day. It was obviously a thief, and any minute they were going to get a nasty, but well-deserved, surprise.

****

The streets around the parking complex were relatively quiet when Daijira rocketed out of the exit and aimed the speeder towards the route she'd decided would take her to the building site the fastest. It had been a while since she'd driven the vehicle, and it took her two intersections to remaster the technique required to stifle the throttle's tendency to surge. The last thing she wanted now was to be pulled over by the Road Patrol for street-racing.

At the third junction she had the speeder idling nicely while she waited to cross the main route, and was just about to congratulate herself when she heard an echo of what sounded like shouting bouncing around the facades of the buildings. She glanced around, trying to discern from which direction the sound was emanating, and caught the flash of colour and movement to her right. Something was happening in the plaza -- a procession of some sort by the looks of it.

The street cleared and she went to cross, but then hesitated. A procession -- at this time of day? Suddenly she remembered the people she had seen earlier from the kiosk, the ones she was sure she recognised from the trial. Without really thinking about what she was doing, she turned right, and about halfway down towards the plaza she pulled over. The clamour was quite loud now, and she could see the group marching backwards and forwards and waving placards. She eased the speeder forward a little more, hoping that her suspicions would prove unfounded, yet knowing they wouldn't, and simultaneously wondering why all this was happening. It felt as if all of a sudden she'd entered some strange universe in which everything was upside down. So many questions! Too many conundrums. She felt as though her mind was going to explode.

Suddenly aware she'd been gripping the controls so tightly that her fingers had turned white, she sat back in her seat and watched. There was no doubt the protest was directed at the warehouse. The question was what were they protesting about? Surely not the court case again. Externally as motionless as a statue, inside she was a whirlwind of activity as she remembered the two young Jedi and the look on their faces when she had told them that their friends were being held at the warehouse. Was this connected with them in any way? She pondered this possibility for a long moment, and then, with careful deliberation, she goosed the vehicle forward.

Across the open space she saw the windows of the warehouse staring blankly down on the figures shouting and gesticulating up at them. The last rays of the dying sun made the panes opaque so that they seemed inscrutable and silently threatening. Despite her warm cloak, Dajira discovered that she was shivering. Were the women with the little children shivering, too?

She gazed up at the building wishing she had the power to see through walls. Somewhere behind those expressionless panes, she knew Bomar would be watching. Would he ever forgive her for what she was intending to do? And, more importantly, did she care?

*****

It struck Anakin as vaguely amusing that Muss was proving to be a better driver than Blue, because their progress thus far had been relatively smooth. He gauged they must be about halfway there, although his sense of Dinarra and its layout was still sketchy. Opposite him, Treetrunk was rechecking his spare power packs and arguing good-humouredly with Squid, the Tunroth, about the relative merits of the E-11/S as opposed to the E-11.

Although the truck was the average size for a goods delivery vehicle, one side of it was fitted with bins and shelves, obviously intended for smaller or more delicate items, and so the actual space they had to sit in was limited. With eight of them crammed into the back, there was no room left, and, as Rongo had joked before they set off, it was a case of all learning to breathe together. The problem was exacerbated by the fact they were all loaded up with weaponry, and all except one of them were wearing either bandoliers or utility belts. Doc was the exception -- he had both.

Squeezed with Tahiri in between Doc's bulk and Rongo's leaner frame, Anakin found that he was becoming more and more aware of her warm body pressed up against his, and he couldn't help but be reminded again of the circumstances of their first kiss. It occurred to him, in the light of what they had ahead of them, that distracting thoughts such as that might be better ignored.

She stirred beside him, and he noticed the familiar focused, slightly grim expression she wore when she was preparing herself for possible combat. He didn't have to move far to be able to nudge her gently on her ear with his nose. "Hey, you okay?"

Rather than reply she simply turned and gazed steadily into his eyes. "You're going to warn me about anger aren't you?"

Anakin gazed back. The idle thought flittered through his mind that one day he was going to leap in and willingly lose himself in that glittering green ocean. He hurriedly pushed it back into his file of pleasant plans for the future, and threw her a grin. "I thought about it briefly, but I'm resisting -- in case I make you angry."

"Cute, Anakin. Real cute." Her lips twitched.

"And anyway, I know that look -- it's the I'm not angry, I'm just ready look."

She studied him half-amused, half-serious and pointed to her head. "You know sometimes I think I should install curtains in here."

He chuckled, at the same time reminded that, since Yavin, there was the odd occasion when he did get the illusion of a screen in the depths of Tahiri's mind that was hiding something elusive. It was probably no more than an illusion -- or maybe it shielded memories of her shaping too awful to share with him yet. That certainly made sense. Perhaps she had some sort of maternal desire to protect him from them. Maternal ... desire ... Before he could clamp a suppressor on them, Anakin was suddenly assailed by feelings that almost knocked the breath out of him.

"Anakin Solo!" Tahiri was regarding him wide-eyed.

"Sorry," he mumbled ruefully, willing his cheeks not to reflect the fires burning inside him.

To his relief Tahiri's consternation dissolved into a teasing smile. "Maybe you should think about installing curtains, too. And a sprinkler system."

"Yeah." He snorted, studied his boots for a moment and then turned back to find her watching him.

"I don't mind, really," she said softly.

Anakin caught her remembered image of Master Ikrit. "Together," he murmured, and was just intertwining his fingers with hers when a large hand gripped his knee.

"Kid, please! Channel some of those raging hormones into some bloodlust here will ya!"

"Well, actually Doc," said Anakin, rubbing his knee in an effort to restore the circulation. "Jedi are meant to avoid that sort of thing. We have other ways of preparing ourselves."

"Yeah? So what do you call your method?"

"Um, I'd say mine's more cooperative."

Doc guffawed and thumped Anakin's shoulder companionably. "You know something, kid. I like you. You're a smartass, but I like you."

"Er, thanks. I think," muttered Anakin throwing Tahiri a comical look that made her efforts to suppress her giggles even more difficult.

The truck slowed to an unusually jerky stop, and they heard Muss let out a curse that reminded Anakin of his father's more colourful turns of phrase.

"What's up?" called Rongo, while the others exchanged nervous glances.

"Security Patrol," came the hissed reply. "What the kriff do I do now?"

Rongo leaned forward and peered through the window at the back of the cab. "See what they want. And, bro'. Act casual, okay. Might be just some regulation stuff."

They heard footsteps beside the truck and then the sound of Muss opening the side window.

"Evenin', Officer," said the swooper cheerfully. Fortunately, Iliana had found an old linen tunic for him to wear over his rancor-hide top to disguise his swooper identity. "Pleasant day?"

"Passable. How about you?"

"Busy. My last delivery though."

There was a pause, made longer by the tension in the air. Muss's tone of boyish relief suggested he was going for the ingenuous approach. Anakin wondered how well the officer would feel that went with the smell of the ale Muss had downed just before they left, not to mention his four or five days growth of beard.

"Is this from the spaceport?"

"Uh, yep."

Rongo glanced back at Anakin and Doc.

"Want me to deal with him?" mouthed the big man, but to Anakin's relief Rongo shook his head.

"Did you realise you've lost one of your fleet ID numbers?" The man's voice rang with the polite but accusatory tone typical of his profession.

"Not again! Damn thieving kids. No respect for property that's their trouble."

"So, what's the number?"

"The, uh, number? Oh, the number," said Muss loudly. "The number of my truck you mean?"

Rongo cringed. "Hell, make it obvious won't you, Muss! Doc, I -."

Before he could finish, Anakin was up on his feet and lunging for the window.

"What's going on here?" demanded the man in the brown uniform when a tousled head appeared behind Muss.

"There's nothing going on here," said Anakin firmly.

The officer blinked as a hand appeared and made a slow gesture a little like a wave. The voice was strangely soothing, and he suddenly felt relaxed. It was a good feeling, and he smiled.

"There's nothing going on here," he said agreeably.

"I've finished for the day. I can go home."

"Here, have one on me," called Muss after the officer had repeated Anakin's words. The man caught the coin, and threw it back.

"Here, have one on me."

Muss caught the coin, stared at it for a minute and then leaned out the window. "I'm going to throw you my wallet!"

The man kept walking.

"Damn." Muss thumped his hands on the controls. "Oh well. Got my credit back I guess." He glanced back at Anakin and grinned. "Thanks, by the way. How do you get to learn how to do that stuff?"

Anakin shrugged. "Practice -- and a healthy diet."

Muss caught the flash of a lop-sided grin and then the window was empty.

"Good work." Rongo nodded appreciatively as Anakin settled back down beside Tahiri. "How far, now?" he called to Muss.

"Should be there in about five minutes." The truck swung sedately around a bend and Anakin was pressed back towards Doc. A series of bulges, probably the proton grenades Doc was carrying cradled in his weapons belt, reminded him only too acutely about their mission, and he focused his thoughts on their plan. He felt Tahiri's consciousness brush his -- soothing him, bolstering his self-belief.

This is the right thing, Anakin. We couldn't do this by ourselves.

I know. I just want to be sure I've covered everything.

Opposite them, Squid and Treetrunk exchanged uneasy glances, and Tria, the woman who had been Teebone's partner at the alley, leaned in close to the Trandoshan.

"Are they trying to stare us out?"

Treetrunk tried out a menacing glare at Anakin, but there was no response. "Nope. Must be one of those spooky Jedi things they do."

"Weird," murmured Tria. "Never saw myself fighting with Jedi." She snorted. "Things must be bad."

The Trandoshan growled softly in what served as a sign of resigned agreement. "I think they are."

"Okay!" called Muss. "Approaching the doors now. Hope everyone's been to the bathroom!"

"We've got a bathroom?" quipped Doc.

Anakin narrowed his connection with the Force until he could feel just the immediate sphere around him -- the warehouse, its surroundings, the protestors and the swoopers. Anticipation, fear, uncertainty, despair, determination -- he sensed them all, sometimes in isolated clumps, sometimes weaving in and out of one another in complicated patterns. There was something else, too. He tried to focus on it, but it was too elusive, and he didn't have time to pursue it because Muss was already announcing their arrival over the truck's communications link.

"You still gonna give Tag a chance to back his way out, kid?" asked Doc, obviously hoping Anakin had changed his mind.

"I have to."

In spite of the tension, Rongo couldn't help an inward smile. None of them had challenged Anakin as to why. Whether this meant they all believed in the Force or not, he was unsure, but it did mean they all believed in someone. And it didn't upset him or make him jealous to realise that that someone wasn't him.

****

An urgent flashing on his internal com channel interrupted Tag's ruminations about the mysterious appearance of his speeder.

"They're here!" a curt voice announced.

"I think we should invite them in, don't you?" Tag glanced across at Delone and grinned wolfishly. "I'll be down in a few minutes. Hold off the fiery welcome until I get there."

"Okay, boss."

Tag turned back to the window and toggled the switch. "Bender." Stupid name, he thought. "Two minutes."

"Ten minutes," repeated a slurred voice.

"No, I said two. Two! Okay?" Kriffing idiot.

"Two. Sure. Just razzling ya." The com squeaked with an overload of guffaws until Tag silenced it.

"Take a seat, gentlemen." He gestured to the chairs vacated just over an hour ago by the Rancors. "This shouldn't take long."

Tag noticed Delone's companions eyeing their leader and waiting until he gave them an almost imperceptible nod before they responded to Tag's offer. It occurred to him that they were a silent bunch. Evidently used to taking orders. Sign of a well-run organisation. He couldn't stifle a thrill of anticipation. Soon he would have Solo and the girl back in his clutches, and then he'd be on his way. He glanced across at the shelf opposite the window and to the tiny holocube containing the image of a man and a woman. This is for you, Mother. Rest easy. He threw the image a small triumphant smile and then turned back to watch the protest. Fools. He shook his head, but it was not in sympathy. Stupid, blind ignorant fools.

****

Dajira hung back at the far side of the plaza, concerned that anyone watching from the warehouse might recognise the speeder. The protest was obviously intended to show Bomar that there were quite a few Dinarrans who were still suspicious about his Peace Brigade connections. But as it was late in the day, and the protestors appeared to be peaceful, it was probably going to make little impact. She was just about to turn the speeder round when she heard a low thrumming sound that slowly augmented into a roar, and she swung around to find her view up the street obscured by a wave of approaching swoops. Instead of turning she accelerated toward the next intersection, but when she went to turn into it she saw another group of swoops bearing down on her.

Feeling uneasy, she raced around the edge of the plaza, but before she reached the third intersection another line of bikes swooped into the plaza and hovered menacingly on the periphery. She reversed quickly into a wide alcove between a tapcafe and a small storehouse. To her mounting horror, she saw the swoops slowly begin to close the distance between them and the protestors, who, she realised, weren't aware of what was about to happen. For a moment she waited, trembling, one part of her brain urging her to carry on with her plan, and the other telling her to do something to warn the protestors of their imminent danger.

She squinted to get a better view of the group near the warehouse. There were no children, but some of them looked like older people. None of them looked ready to take on a swoop gang. The bikes had almost reached the halfway point when Dajira made up her mind. Without thinking properly about what she was doing she banged her foot down on the throttle. A split second later, as she careened at top speed towards one of the swoops, she realised her mistake. Screaming at the top of her voice, she managed to manipulate the vehicle so it shot neatly between two of the bikes and struck out towards the protestors, who were now beginning to take notice.

"Run!" she shrieked. "Run! Get clear!"

Whether they heard her, or whether they were simply reacting the way most people would when confronted with a runaway speeder piloted by a crazy woman, she wasn't sure -- but to her relief they began to scatter. She spent the next minute regaining control of the vehicle, and then turned back to see what was happening. What she saw made her realise that the women on the roof were going to have to wait.



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