Many Happy Returns: Chapter Thirty-Nine
Rating: PG
Iella

Tahiri was too busy avoiding being hit by chunks of roof to take much notice of where she was going, so it was with something of a jolt, both literal and metaphorical, that she realised she had crashed into a large body. In one fluid move she was up on her knees with the blue arc of her lightsaber in defensive pose, only to be greeted with a cheesy grin from Doc.

"Damn! Caught napping on the job again," he grunted, and began pulling himself up awkwardly.

Tahiri sensed as much as heard the faint catch of his breath signifying injuries, but she knew it would be a waste of her time asking him if he was all right. Instinct told her that Doc shared Anakin's pathological denial when it came to acknowledging pain.

Instead she reached out a hand to help steady him as he lurched to his feet, reaching out at the same time in the Force to locate Anakin.

"Oh no!" she gasped, and then jumped at a yelp from Doc, realising an instant later that it was her nails clawing into the already tender flesh on his forearm that had caused him to react.

But she didn't have time to apologise.

"Anakin!" she screamed, projecting the power of the Force into both the word and the mental signal alerting him to her lightsaber that was already in flight high above the heads of the intervening swoopers.

Still cursing himself for letting the Yuuzhan Vong leader escape his clutches, Doc couldn't help admiring the graceful curve that Tahiri's weapon painted in the air, nor the flawless left-handed snatch with which Anakin captured it as he cartwheeled to avoid a joint attack by both the warrior and the two-headed swooper. How Anakin had lost his own weapon was unclear, although peering through the murk Doc thought he could see blood staining the boy's wrist — either the result of a glancing blaster shot or a slash from the thrusting staff wielded by the alien. He was vaguely aware of Tahiri tensing beside him, but before she had committed herself to take the step intended to propel herself over to where Anakin was, the boy was swinging the blue blade in a gyroscopic motion that danced within a hairsbreadth of disconnecting the swooper's and the Yuuzhan Vong's feet from their legs, forcing them both momentarily to retreat. In the few precious seconds it took them to recover, Anakin had called his own lightsaber back into his grasp. Tahiri's blue blade cast an unearthly glow that transmuted the swooper's jaundiced faces into a duo of greenish mask-like apparitions that contorted menacingly as he attempted to break through Anakin's guard. By contrast, the warrior's beetle-blue armour appeared strangely rose-tinted as he battled the amethyst light.

Anakin parried and skipped from foot to foot as if performing a familiar step routine, both sabers sweeping in tight defensive arcs that burned fiery trails in the dust-laden air. Motes of ceiling material flared briefly and cascaded down to the floor like meteorites, surrounding and illuminating the young Jedi's figure as if it was the centrepiece in a light show. The silhouettes of the war leader and the swooper cut flickering and grotesque shapes into the haze that rendered their movements jerky and seemingly uncoordinated, like the stuttering images from damaged holo-disks. Although they lunged and jabbed, neither were able to penetrate the incandescent barrier that Anakin's swirling dance was creating.

"Vape it! How does he do this stuff?" Doc muttered to Tahiri in a mixture of envy and fascination, aware that she had sensibly revised her decision to leap to Anakin's aid.

"Well, he's had lots of practice lately," Tahiri reminded him, and then added pragmatically. "But to be fair, that is one of his more spectacular katas."

"Katas!" He goggled. "You mean you have names for this stuff?"

"Kind of. That's his number six, defensive kata using dual ... Don't you even think of it!"

Doc had barely registered the presence of the intruding Rancor before he heard a meaty thump followed by a low growl. He swung round, blaster automatically levelling and seeking its target, to be met by the sight of a struggling Tahiri being hauled backwards roughly by the hair. Instinct screamed at him to scramble ahead of the attacker so he could deploy his weapon without fear of hitting Tahiri by mistake, but the girl's expression had him rivetted to the spot. It wasn't so much feral as spine-tingling — not so much alien as more than human. For one very strange moment as he watched her curl up like a spring and then explode in a spitting bundle of kicking limbs and flashing teeth, Doc imagined he was fifteen years younger and on a secret mission in enemy territory: two beautiful operatives — the stuff of a young man's fantasies. A young man who had lost his way in the grunt and turmoil of reality.

And yet, to his complete surprise, one who still had the ability to dream.

By the time he'd mentally slapped himself back into the present Tahiri had flipped up and backwards so she was riding on the swooper's shoulders, and, judging by the gurgling noises he was emitting, strangling him with her legs. Gasping, the youth sank to the ground, but Doc's expectation that she would then pull out her blaster and knock him unconscious was somewhat confounded by the sight of Tahiri's diminutive form hauling him to his feet, delivering two resounding thwacks to each ear followed by a hefty snap-kick aimed with unerring accuracy at his groin. Doc couldn't see her expression as she watched her opponent collapse in an ungainly heap of uncoordinated limbs, but he caught her eye as she turned and noted the chlorine glint.

"Remind me never to try and mess with your hair like that dumbass," he grinned as she stood, drawing measured breaths that appeared as much a salve for her anger as her need for oxygen. "So, uh, which kata is that? Number seven or number eight?"

She mulled the question over for a brief second. By the time she began her reply, her lips had quirked into the kind of smile he had noticed was never far away when she was with Anakin.

"I've just invented that one," she said. "I'm calling it Fighting Dirty Number One."

But Doc's expected rejoinder never eventuated, and Tahiri was suddenly alerted to the way his gaze had shifted to a point just behind her. Force sense screaming, she dropped and rolled clear of the blow intended to knock her senseless.

"Looks like you're going to get to invent another." The final word exploded with the roar of exertion Doc emitted as his huge fist pulverised the nose of the taller of the two swoopers. "And make this one real dirty," he growled, "for that piece of filth."

Aware vaguely of the clashing, threshing bodies beside her punctuated intermittently by the whirr and flash of blades, Tahiri focussed her attention on the swooper Doc had just described. The boy stared back with carefully manufactured bravado — a salacious grin failing to wipe the habitual petulant set of his mouth, or turn the sallow complexion with its liberal dose of teenage acne into anything other than a caricature of itself.

Despite her immediate reflex of revulsion combined with the usual rush of pre-fight nerves, Tahiri — to her utmost surprise — felt pity welling within her. Jaytee wasn't filth — he was simply pathetic. And he wasn't alone. The galaxy was full of people like him — people who responded to hard times not by reaching deep within themselves to find the strength for betterment, but by reeling from one group to another seeking, craving acceptance, and debasing themselves in order to achieve it. People who would compromise their morals, ignore the few remaining vestiges of their personality — who would sell their souls just to belong.

And who hadn't had hard times? Who amongst all the people she knew hadn't earned the right to howl their sorrows to the moon?

What right did this snotty nosed boy have to stand here and try to look like a warrior when it was his selfish whims and total lack of integrity that had created this mess?

Suddenly filled with an inner calm she had never believed possible, Tahiri returned his hungry gaze. The Force buoyed her so far above her previous feelings of anger and — yes she admitted it — hatred of the boy, that she could have sworn she was staring down on him rather than vice versa. She took a deep breath and steadied herself, opening her mind up as Anakin had taught her to the swirl of her opponent's emotions, yet still keeping a purchase on the wider sphere around her. Somewhere in that roiling background she recognised the pinnacle of calm and focused energy that she knew as well as she knew herself, and she felt Anakin's acknowledgment — wordless, but nonetheless clear.

Time slowed. The flash of uncertainty that Jaytee thought he had successfully disguised pealed like a Ho'Dinn chime for Tahiri, giving her plenty of time to mentally tick off her options.

"Bit of a stupid move that — chucking your fancy saber to Wonder Boy over there."

"Not at all." Tahiri studied the boy carefully through narrowed eyes. She was still amazed at how calm she felt, especially as she could still remember vividly the utter sense of powerlessness she had felt earlier when he had attacked her at the swoopers' compound. It was true that he had taken her by surprise, and that she had felt terribly alone there, whereas here she had Anakin and the others in view. And yet this situation was far more dire. More was at stake.

Or was it?

What was more serious — death or facing an assault on one's identity? Of having someone take by force something that was uniquely hers, and hers alone to offer. Of feeling that she had no control whatsoever over her destiny.

The memory flared, the scene strangely superimposed with images of the shapers' damutek on Yavin Four — Jaytee's wild gaze transmuted into one of cool scientific appraisal that was pure Mezhan Kwaad. But there was no response from the depths of her being as before — no mysterious stirrings. Tahiri willed her emotions to stay in check, and instead of letting her memories distract her, she embraced them.

They are all mine," she affirmed. "They are who I am. And they make me strong.

She breathed again slowly, mentally checking her stance. "He's fighting people who can actually fight. I've only got you to deal with you."

******

In spite of herself, she couldn't help grinning cruelly at the angry red that infused his cheeks. His lips contorted in an attempt to give vent to the flood of words damming up behind them, and then whitened as they stretched to emit a strangled sound that was neither howl nor sob, but some unearthly sound in between.

"You think you're something else don't you!" Jaytee spat. "You and your pretty boy and your swanky friends, and all your smart-ass mummies and daddies who think the sun shines out your backsides. You got no idea what it's like — no idea at all. You're full of poodoo, all of you."

"You're the one who has no idea," she hissed back. "You have no idea because you're stuck with some kind of poor little me fixation. You think you're hard done by and the galaxy owes you something. Well I hate to have to break the news — but the galaxy owes you nothing. It doesn't owe any of us anything — it's us who owe it. So you can either fight to save it, or sell it and yourself out."

"You're a liar," he croaked. "You use all these fancy words, but you just want to keep things the same so you and all your friends get to keep everything."

"Then why are Rongo and the others fighting?"

Jaytee's mouth opened and closed a few times, and then he made an angry swipe at his forehead to wipe away the sweat. "They're just stupid," he mumbled feebly.

Tahiri nodded slowly. "Yeah, I guess they are. They took you in after all."

Jaytee's face twisted into an ugly snarl, and he made a grab for her neck, brandishing his blaster in the other hand with the obvious intention of crashing it down on her skull. That was based on the assumption the blaster would remain in his hand — but the blaster, it appeared, had other ideas. Before his befuddled senses could even register that the weapon had disengaged itself from his grasp, it had somehow leapt the gap between Tahiri and himself and nestled snugly in her hand, mocking him with its blank-eye stare.

He gulped, desperately trying to come up with a solution to this sudden turnaround, when luck, being the fickle thing it was, came unexpectedly to his aid. The wrestling bundle of limbs that was Doc and his opponent lurched violently against Tahiri, knocking her to the ground and sending the blaster skidding across the floor. With a crow of triumph, Jaytee made a grab for her, but she scrabbled away like an irritating insect. Desperately, he lunged and managed to catch hold of her foot, hanging on like grim death as she attempted to kick him away. Although she had managed to swing over on to her side, her efforts to free her foot only served to make her over-balance, and as she fell sprawling on her back, he leapt. Whether she sensed his intention or not, he was uncertain, but no sooner had he launched himself into the air then she was rolling away, and he landed spluttering and cursing on to the spot where she'd been lying a mere instant before.

The partial winding, however, only served to fire up his anger. He hauled himself to his feet, ignoring the sudden dizziness caused by the bone-jarring jolt, and grabbed at her again, this time managing to get a good grip on the back of her jacket. For a moment, as she flailed and twisted, presumably trying to shrug the garment off and escape again, he just held on, still gasping as his lungs voiced their objection to his crunching fall. Then, mustering all his strength, he heaved her back against him and wrapped his arm firmly around her neck.

For a moment she bucked and wriggled and her feet, now dangling a few inches above the ground, waved around wildly as she tried to get a purchase against his legs. Although small, she was surprisingly strong, and it was quite a struggle to maintain his stranglehold, especially after one of her kicks battered his kneecap with such force he almost tipped over as the pain shot up his thigh. He wrestled her right arm down and forced it to remain still by winding his free arm around her, gritting his teeth grimly as he reached out with his fingers to clasp the left sleeve of her jacket and immobilise her completely.

He wished that he could come out with some wisecrack to further humiliate the girl, at the same time feeling not a little humiliated at the energy he was having to expend simply to keep hold of her. He gasped in another lungful of air, intending to tighten his grip, but suddenly the struggling stopped and she appeared to go limp.

A few seconds ticked by as he waited uncertainly, half-expecting the movements to begin again. Somewhere nearby he heard the growls and thumps that signalled Doc hadn't yet downed his attacker — beyond that was a cacophony of whip-cracks and sizzles of fist and lasers on flesh.

He took another breath, and another, and had just begun to feel the faint tingle of jubilation when out of nowhere a small fist arced up like a heat-seeking missile and hit him squarely between the eyes. The room turned red and then dissolved into a spinning vortex and its orchestra of battle assailed his ears in echoing waves that made him think for one bizarre moment that he had fallen into a pool of water. His nostrils filled with the sickly sweet tang that heralded the explosion of blood vessels, but all he could think, as his knees buckled, was how stupid he had been. How had he failed to notice that somehow Tahiri had managed to wriggle her left arm out of her swooper jacket before he grabbed her?

Voices from the past stabbed at him with the familiar indictments of failure — but he was too busy fighting nausea to feel their cruel barbs too keenly. A further distraction was the set of sharp fingernails biting into the flesh of his forearm, and before he knew what was happening, he was being spun round, slowly at first and then faster and faster, like a crippled starfighter lassoed by the gravity of a planet.

Swallowing rapidly to force the bile back down, he tried desperately to free his arm from Tahiri's vice-like grip, but the girl had positioned herself perfectly, balancing his weight against hers and using it to keep him trapped in the centrifuge. It came as a shock, therefore, when the force tethering him to her suddenly vanished and sent him cannoning off at a tangent — straight into a large body that roared with Doc's voice, grabbed him by the shoulders, turned him round roughly and catapaulted him back towards Tahiri.

"Incoming!" Doc yelled.

"Gotcha!" she shouted back, already in the initial stages of a snapkick timed to catch the human projectile in the chest and send him flying backwards. She misjudged the energy required just a little. Instead of rebounding off her foot, Jaytee simply jolted to a sudden stop, wobbled, emptied the contents of his stomach in a colourful projectile, and then slowly — as if his bones had turned to mush — collapsed.

Tahiri was vaguely aware of Doc's gesture of triumph and appreciative roar. Mostly she was surprised — not at the fact she'd won, but because she was standing over Jaytee's shapeless form holding a blaster. She had forgotten that she was carrying the weapon, so distracted had she been by her desperate fight, but somehow, unconsciously, it had found its way into her hand.

And even though Jaytee looked dead, she knew he wasn't.

Her fingers trembled. Around her she could feel thoughts and emotions swirling — fear, hatred, gloating.

"You going to finish the little bastard off or not?" a voice asked. She raised her gaze to study the owner, taking in the blood streaming from a gash above his eye, the slashes in his rancor-hide top and the smudges and smears on his bandolier. Somewhere in the confusion behind him, her friends — old and new — were fighting for their lives. If Jaytee regained consciousness he might still be capable of harming one of them, or more likely killing himself by stumbling into somebody's line of fire.

And he certainly had a lot to answer for.

She lowered the blaster.

"It's not the Jedi way," she replied.

Doc growled in frustration and was in the process of reactivating his vibro-blade, when to Tahiri's consternation she saw his gaze focus on something behind her.

Not again! she thought, throwing herself into a roll and coming up with her weapon ready. Then she felt her mouth drop open. Two familiar figures were standing gaping at the carnage, and as she watched, a third slipped cautiously out from the same passage she and the others had used earlier.

"Ha — I wondered where you'd got to." Doc recovered first. "Had a nice explore have we?"

"Yeah — not bad," replied Muss, eyes agog. "Got a bit boring though, so we thought we'd better check how you guys are getting on."

"We're doing great," Doc replied breezily. "Best rumble in years, except for those creeps with the snakes — they're crazier than a Wookiee on spice."

"Sithspit, bro'! Are they who I think they are?" Muss, already pale, suddenly looked almost translucent.

"But, but ... I thought ... I mean ... I thought the point of this was to stop Tag before he called the Vong in," stammered Squid, turning large eyes glazed with horror and a little recrimination toward Tahiri.

"He was tricked," Tahiri said abruptly. "Because that's what happens when you try and collaborate. They came here disguised as Peace Brigaders, so even Tag got a surprise." She swung away suddenly and appeared to stare intently into the gloom — and then without a word, lunged around a huddle of figures locked in combat and disappeared from view.

"She's right," said Doc in response to Muss's slack-mouthed look of query. "I think it's just an advance group, so don't get your grots in a twist. And anyway — the kid seems to know how to deal with them."

"Um, yeah." Tria's eyes narrowed as she peered towards the dancing shafts of blue and amethyst.

She recognised the figures of Chukka and Blue, fighting along with a tall man who appeared to have had most of his clothes ripped off. Suddenly, as she watched, the man leapt aside, barely missing being speared by something long and, even in the twilight haze, wet-looking. The warrior, either as the result of his lunge or possibly aided by a hefty push from Chukka, lurched towards them, eliciting a gasp from Squid and a warning growl from Doc.

Muss worked his jaw a few times before finally managing to make it form words. "Okay bro', uh ... um ... I'm assuming that's armour he's wearing, right?"

Doc's response was to level his trusty DL-44, and begin blasting. "Yeah, and we're in luck bro' because this guy's is blue and according to the kid, blue is the easiest to --" He stopped, perplexed, as the warrior continued toward them snarling and gathering in his amphistaff in preparation for a whip-strike.

"Hey hang on a minute," the big man muttered as much to himself as to any of the nervous group behind him. "Was it blue good and black bad, or the other way around?"

"Uh, bro'," squeaked Muss watching the warrior's approach with growing apprehension. "Dunno what you're babbling about, but it don't look as if a blaster's going to stop him. You still got any —"

Doc returned from his quick mental revisitation of the advice Anakin had given them, and was already in the process of hauling out an old short-barrelled stormtrooper rifle from his bandolier.

"Okay — everyone work together here. Aim for his right armpit and wait for my signal."

And with that he leapt toward the warrior with a bloodcurdling roar, brandishing his weapon. The Yuuzhan Vong's frayed lips split into a mirthless grin and as he raised his arms to let loose his venomous staff, Doc's command thundered in the ears of the waiting Knights.

Their weapons lit up in unison — a fiery execution squad — and the warrior's upper torso turned an eerie incandescent red and then cracked into a mass of fracture lines, steaming and spluttering with droplets of moisture that danced like water on a hot griddle as he sank to the ground.

"Ah — got that sorted then," Doc grunted from his position on the floor where he'd thrown himself to avoid any accidental hits from his comrades. "Blue is bad, black is good."

"Holy mother of meteors!" Muss gasped. "How many more of them are there?"

"Not sure," Doc replied, clambering back to his feet. "I think the kid's disposed of a few. Might be a good idea to keep together though." He caught a hurtling Rancor, steadied himself and let loose a punch that reduced the man's face to a red mask, casting the limp body aside before beginning to turn back to Muss and his group. Something caught his eye and he froze. "I'm gonna help Rongo," he rumbled.

"We're coming, too," said Muss, perturbed at the look of concern on Doc's face. His injury had begun to throb again, and he could feel warm wetness seeping through the dressings. But he could also tell by the way Doc was moving — favouring one leg — that he hadn't escaped unscathed either.

Muss had had his differences with Rongo over the last few months, but there were two things that had kept him from even considering leaving the Black Knights. One was Doc, the best friend he could imagine a man having, and the other was the sense of kinship Rongo had instilled in the gang. They were truly a band of brothers — and sisters. They were like a family — except they were better than any family Muss had known.

And although the Yuuzhan Vong scared the living daylights out of him, and even the Rancors made him a bit nervous, Muss knew he would follow Doc, Rongo and Blue to the end if he had to.

It was what family did.

He hoisted his blaster, gave Squid an encouraging pat on the arm, and plunged after Tria who was already hot on Doc's heels.

Brothers, Muss thought to himself, dodging a swinging blow from an arm encased in a Rancor jacket and returning it with an uppercut with the muzzle of his blaster.

None of the three newcomers had recognised the sad bundle of arms and legs clothed in an over-sized Rancor jacket and lying in a pool of blood and vomit near the wall.

And if Jaytee had been in their place, it is highly improbable he would have recognised himself either.



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