Many Happy Returns: Chapter Forty-One
Rating: PG

"What's up, Purr?"

Despite the fact the voice was familiar, and the question posed in a low tone, Purr still jumped a little and the fine fur at the back of her neck prickled against the collar of her jacket.

"Dunno," she murmured. "It's just ... something doesn't feel right." The nictating membranes on her eyes relaxed a little as she adjusted her focus to acknowledge her friend.

"Yeah," Tab agreed quietly. She'd been beginning to feel anxious as well, especially after she'd seen a thick shaft of laser light shoot up into the sky, but hadn't wanted to say anything that might upset the two Mantrusian women or the little boy. She figured they'd been through enough already.

She studied Purr side-on as the Trianii turned back toward the warehouse tower, noticing the way her long nostrils twitched as their sensitive olfactory receptors searched for the distant scents of the other members of their gang. She had just opened her mouth to ask Purr if she'd picked up on anything when she felt a gentle tap on her shoulder. She turned to find both Neijal and Jassif standing behind her.

"We're confident that Mr Zed and Mr Skell are stable now," Neijal said. "As long as they remain here resting, they will be fine."

Tab went to reply, and then stopped. She glanced at Purr uncertainly. The Mantrusians' habit of bestowing formal titles on everyone was a mannerism she found amusing, but there was something odd about Neijal's second statement.

Purr returned the quizzical glance with one of her own, and then turned to the slender healer. "When you say remain, uh, it kind of suggests you're intending to go somewhere. Um, are you?"

Now it was the turn of the two women to trade glances. "Oh yes," Jassif replied, as if surprised the question had to be asked at all, and pointed to the blocky outline of the warehouse. "We need to go over there."

"Oh! Um —" Tab scratched her head and stared helplessly at Purr.

"I-I, er, I'm not so sure that's a good idea," Puss replied, trying to sound definitive but failing miserably. The purposeful expressions on the women's faces were somewhat unsettling — and most unexpected.

"Uh, yeah," Tab added, in an effort to back her friend up. "And anyway, how would you get over there? We've only got Purr's bike."

"We've been thinking about that," said Neijal pragmatically, as if they'd been discussing how to organise getting their groceries. "We thought maybe the two of you could take Purr's bike over to the tower, then you could bring one of your friends' bikes back here, and then the two of you could ferry us back over."

Purr stared first at Neijal and then Jassif, and then at some undefined point in the air as if hoping to be inspired with a logical argument against the idea. But all that popped into her head was the thought that she had been on the verge of suggesting that they should go to the warehouse, although she wasn't factoring in finding another bike and taking the two women.

"I don't think Rongo would be very happy about that," Tab said frowning. "And what about Kushka and the little one?"

"They will be safe with Mr Skell and Mr Zed," Jassif replied firmly.

Tab's eyes widened and she was forced to stifle an insane desire to laugh out loud. "Uh, look, how can I put this nicely? Mr Skell and Mr Zed are about as good with kids as I'm good at embroidery. And believe me, ladies, I totally suck. You'd be leaving kids with kids, except your kids have more sense."

"Yeah," Purr agreed hurriedly. "Compared to those two morons, Ruba's a genius."

"Compared to those two, my ass is a genius," growled Tab.

Neijal smiled calmly, unaffected by their erudite reasoning. "I think you might be surprised."

"We've already suggested the idea to them," said Jassif. "And they have agreed."

"They're in la-la land," Tab replied heatedly. "They'd probably agree to anything."

"Hmm — might be a good time to hit Skell up for those hundred credits he owes me," murmured Purr thoughtfully.

"Look this is dumb," said Tab decisively. "There's no way we can leave those little kids with Stupid and Stupid's sidekick."

"And Rongo will kill both Tab and me if we turn up with you guys," added Purr, cajoling.

Neijal's face became suddenly serious. "You assume they are all still all right?" she asked cryptically.

Something cold twisted in Purr's insides. She turned to Tab, but found her friend staring at both women in turn; she looked a little pale. Were healers like Jedi the Trianii wondered. Can they sense things that we can't? It didn't help that she herself felt that something had gone wrong.

She chewed a clawed nail, debating the pros and cons. The women might be more of a hindrance than help, but there again they had abilities that might be needed. And they didn't appear to be scared. In fact they seemed to regard it as their duty.

"I don't like it," she murmured finally, "but if you feel that's what you gotta do?"

"Oh yes. We are sure," Jassif nodded, her voice quiet but firm. "I'll just go and make sure Ruba is comfortable."

Purr threw a quizzical glance at Tab who shrugged and rolled her eyes.

Neijal took a step, obviously intending to follow her sister-in-law, but noticing that the two Black Knights appeared to be rooted to the spot, she stopped, and smiled almost apologetically. "I hope this doesn't sound rude, but Jassif and I feel that speed is of the essence," she said.

"Oh! Yeah, of course," stammered Purr.

"Yeah come on, get your butt into gear, woman!" urged Tab, grabbing her friend and pulling her towards the swoop, and then added as soon as they were out of earshot. "I sure hope we know what we're doing."

"Well I certainly don't," muttered Purr as she clambered on to the bike and began priming the ignition.

"Good." Tab wrapped her arms around Purr's waist. "That makes two of us. You realise this means we're getting more like the guys every minute?"

Purr snorted but her reply was lost in the roar of repulsors as she coasted the swoop to the edge of the building, and then gave it some thrust.

But Tab wasn't really listening anyway. In fact the familiar sound of the swoop was a welcome relief, liberating her from the compulsion to mask her growing anxiety with attempts at humour. She'd already almost lost Zed, and suddenly the feeling she might lose friends, or they might lose her, was beginning to become more tangible than she would have liked.

But none of this prepared her for the view of the warehouse roof with its shattered tiles and ragged hole, that resembled far too closely an opening to some kind of fiery underworld. She was still feeling a little sick as Purr skimmed through the broken vent into the room that had been, until recently, the healers' cell. Tab didn't waste any time, barely waiting until Purr had pulled to a stop before leaping off and running over to the big bike she recognised as Blue's. No sooner had she fired up the starter than the two were on their way back to pick up Neijal and Jassif, who were already waiting at the edge of the building site.

"It's possible we might be able to find a way in through the front," Purr shouted above the revving engines. "What do you think?"

Tab tried to force her brain into analytical mode, but it was difficult to silence the rising sense of panic that was making it hard to think clearly. Agitated, as much at herself for letting the situation get to her as at the situation itself, she gripped the swoop's control bar. Something told her that the tower offered the safest route, although she had no idea what that something was.

She felt a hand squeeze her arm, and Neijal's voice filtered up to her ear. "I think we should go in through the tower."

Something about the calm decisiveness in the woman's voice filled Tab with a sudden sense of clarity, and she felt her self-confidence shakily reinstating itself.

She looked across at Purr and shook her head vigorously. "No — we'll take the tower." And before she could lose her nerve, she aimed her swoop at the yawning black maw on the side of the warehouse, and gunned it forward.

* * * * *

It took Jaytee a while to remember where he was, because waking with a headache and with the cloying acid-sweet odour of vomit on his clothes wasn't exactly an unusual state of affairs for him. At first he assumed he was back at the compound, and the roaring he could hear was simply the throbbing of his own pulse magnified by one mother of a hangover. But slowly the events that had led to his current status filtered through the fog in his head, and he began to make sense of the sounds he was hearing — voices shouting, screaming, and flesh being pounded and pulverised.

He managed to struggle across the foot or so that separated him from the wall, and after three attempts succeeded in pulling himself into a vertical position; and then waited while his stomach prevaricated as to whether to object to this reorientation or not. Gradually, however, the nausea subsided, and Jaytee found he was able to recognise a few familiar shapes in the twilight gloom.

It was kind of annoying, but he had to admit he couldn't really recognise any of the nearby Rancors — not as names anyway. He hadn't had a chance to get to know any of them, except maybe Slash and Bender, although even then he couldn't say he knew them the same way he knew Rongo.

He blinked — partly to clear his still hazy vision, and partly because the way his thoughts were running was unsettling him. Of course he knew Rongo better, but that didn't mean he liked him. The truth was Rongo, along with Blue and Doc, had spent most of their time bossing him around and putting him down. Nothing he ever did was good enough for them.

Well, now they were getting some payback.

His gloating was cut short by the sudden impact of something large and heavy, that knocked him over, swore angrily and then used him as a launching pad to return in the direction from whence it had been catapaulted. Winded, Jaytee stayed down, waiting until he saw the jumble of feet move away. The voice had sounded like Chopper's. Or more precisely, the curses sounded like Chopper's, who was renowned in the gang for being able to conjure up the most creative forms of verbal abuse, even better than Doc's. He was quite funny sometimes, Chopper was ...

Jaytee had regained his breath, but for a moment he remained huddled against the wall, frowning. So what if Chopper was okay. He was still one of them — one of Rongo's yes men. One of the people who let you think they were your friend, and then ignored you when you were given a hard time by one of the oldies.

Not that Rongo was that old. Or Blue come to that ...

"Sithspit!" Jaytee, inadvertently forgetting that this was indeed his new name, clutched his head in his hands and gave it a good shake. Where was all this garbage coming from? His brain must be going soft. He gave vent to a growl of frustration and began crawling along using the shadow of the wall as a means of camouflage. Not that he was trying to avoid fighting, but he'd lost his blaster and his vibroblade, and so there wasn't much he could do until he could find some sort of weapon.

He had just about reached the spot where part of the roof had come down when something caught his eye over in the far corner. For a moment he thought somebody was shining a searchlight, but then the realisation hit him that the dancing beams belonged to two lightsabers. Despite the fact that this meant both Jedi kids were still alive, and obviously kicking, he couldn't help but be drawn into the complex pattern the blades were tracing in the air. It was beautiful in an other-wordly kind of way, and the crazy thought crossed his mind that if only he had brought the holocam, then he could have captured it. It just wasn't the sort of thing you got to see every day.

He came back to reality with a jolt and tried to purge the silliness that seemed to have crept into his head by shaking it furiously. He was just beginning to wonder if the girl had performed some mind trick on him when an explosion of movement near the opening to the tower caught his attention. Aware that he was in danger of becoming a sitting target if he stayed where he was any longer he scuttled quickly the few steps needed to take him behind the protection of the fallen lump of ceiling, and peered around it. His eyes took their time to focus in the growing darkness, but soon he was able to confirm that his initial instinct was correct. Both Rongo and Doc were there at the edge of a big group of tussling bodies that was seething like an angry mob at a smashball game. He couldn't see who Doc was busy pulverising, but that was probably because he wasn't particularly interested. Rongo's opponent however was different. Even with the dust-laden air making it hard to see clearly, Jaytee could easily visualise the glee in Slash's expression. He knew he had been waiting for this moment for months — years maybe.

Gradually though, as he watched, Jaytee began to feel an unpleasant niggling sensation upsetting the already fragile balance in his gut. There was something not quite right about this particular showdown. It took him a few minutes to figure it out, but suddenly he saw a curious pattern emerging. Rongo was being moved systematically further and further away from Doc and the rest of the group, and what was more, he and Slash were being shadowed by a couple of the latter's comrades. This wasn't a one-on-one honour fight, this was going to be a mob slaughter.

A stab of pain threw Jaytee into a momentary panic until he realised it was his own fingers gripping a nearby lump of broken duracrete so tightly he had cut himself. He glared at the blood, angry at the fact he was upset, angry at Slash for cheating, angry at Rongo for letting himself be cheated and angry at them both for making things difficult.

Why did this stuff always happen to him?

And why the blazes did he care what happened to either of them?

Did he care what happened to either of them? Or was it that he cared what happened to one?

It was then that he had another moment of panic, but nothing this time to do with cutting himself. This time it was more to do with the fact that there was something very strange happening to the wall beside him. There was something ...

He dodged around the side of his shelter, forgetting about the danger of being leapt on by one of his former brothers.

There was something coming through the wall! Something large and ... for a moment he thought it was another Yuuzhan Vong. But then it stood up, and seemed to pat its horrible face; and suddenly Jaytee saw that it was a man in a mask.

And about a second later he recognised who the man was.

* * * * *

Rongo had weathered the initial savagery of his fight with the leader of the Rancors despite taking several heavy blows and a particularly nasty slash to his upper arm. Somehow, however, as much by sheer determination as strength, he had managed to stay on his feet, and encouraged by the sound of Doc's voice from somewhere nearby urging him on, despite the fact that Doc himself was busy dealing with a grim looking Devaronian, he had started to get in some useful shots himself — enough anyway to even the balance.

But it was hard work, made harder when an inadvertent glimpse to try and locate Blue and Doc had given him instead the sight of Squid falling to a point blank shot from a blaster, followed by Muss who had leapt to her aid. Stifling the anguish that tore raw threads from his heart, Rongo had channelled his grief into an opportune kick that sent his opponent's blade flying from his hand, and before Slash had been able to replace it with another weapon from his bandolier, Rongo had followed up with a mighty punch to his midriff, followed by another that opened a gushing seam in the Rancor leader's nose.

Suddenly feeling that the fight had turned his way, Rongo didn't hesitate. He launched himself at the somewhat stunned swooper and the two crashed to the ground, Rongo ignoring the shockwaves that threatened to wind him. He forced Slash's arms to the ground above his head, grimly determined to keep them well away from any weaponry, and held them there by leaning most of his weight on to his left arm, freeing up his right to smash once more into the man's face.

But what Rongo had failed to notice was the fact he, unlike Slash, was now well away from his friends. It came as a surprise, therefore, when he suddenly became aware of some odd shapes in his peripheral vision, that slowly, but surely, resolved into the distinct images of two pairs of hefty, durasteel tipped boots.

* * * * *

Anakin felt the death of Tahiri's opponent, but not as he would the death of a being within the Force, rather, he sensed it second hand through the spike of relief she inadvertently channelled to him as the warrior fell. It was still a source of puzzlement to him how an entire race could be so completely devoid of any Force presence, but now certainly wasn't the time or place to lose himself in yet another attempt to figure it out. Especially not now, when every nerve, every muscle in his body was busy countering a savage vertical strike from the alien's rigid staff that threatened to cleave him from shoulder to thigh. Their weapons clashed in a fountain of sizzling, spitting shards of lambent energy that inscribed a fiery cross in the air. Locked in this grim yet strangely intimate battle embrace, Anakin found himself only inches from the warrior's face. He met the avaricious gaze unflinchingly, having long ago overcome the tendency to find the Yuuzhan Vong's love of mutilation repellent.

The seconds ticked past, Anakin maintaining his equal status in the tryst as much by assiduous use of balance as by brute strength, triangulating the warrior's superior weight against his own so he could estimate the minimum amount of push required. Jacen had often criticised his less than subtle use of the Force, but he knew that if his brother were with him at that moment he would have been surprised. It may have been just a simple case of mathematical puzzle solving, but for a brief instant Anakin felt a faint inner flush of satisfaction, until the beautiful symmetry of the equation was rudely interrupted by his trilling danger sense signalling the arrival of another of the ubiquitous Rancors.

Without consciously having to think his way through it, Anakin focused his strength into a shove that made the warrior quickly redistribute his balance on to his back foot. In that micropause, that appeared to both Yuuzhan Vong and newly arrived Rancor as a mere blur, the young Jedi spun a hundred and eighty degrees, delivered a Force blast designed to throw the swooper out of range, and completed his spin to land back on two feet, lightsaber in mid-guard, pommel resting almost casually in a two-handed grip.

Unfortunately, luck being the fickle thing it is, the swooper collided with one his comrades and bounced right back, stunned but nonetheless delighted, in exactly the same pose in which he'd been dispatched.

Oh, perfect, Anakin thought to himself resignedly, rapidly repositioning himself so as to be equidistant from both opponents. He was about to elaborate with something a little closer to what he imagined his father would have come out with when he heard Tahiri's call, followed almost immediately by her arrival.

As the surprised swooper spun around to find himself face to face with an azure lightsaber, the warrior advanced toward Anakin, his amphistaff coiled like a deadly spring. But the anticipated strike never came, and to Anakin's surprise, the Yuuzhan Vong halted. A little nonplussed, Anakin studied the alien's expression carefully, presuming this was some kind of ruse to unsettle him, because it was definitely achieving that result, especially when he realised the creature's dark eyes were studying him right back.

What was even more unnerving was the smile. It was predatory as always — and, as he'd noted earlier, almost the Yuuzhan Vong equivalent of cheerful — and now that he was close enough to recognise detail he could see that some of the warrior's teeth had been fastidiously carved so that they looked oddly like talismans adorning his mouth. His earlier curiosity about the origin and agenda of this renegade, but obviously upper caste, group filtered back, although he carefully balanced it with detailed observation of the warrior in case he tried some trickery. So engrossed was he, that he received quite a jolt when the Yuuzhan Vong spoke.

"It is as I thought," he hissed, almost confidentially. "You and your female are most worthy opponents."

Anakin threw him a jaundiced look. "I wouldn't let my female hear you say that if I were you. I don't think she quite sees herself in those terms."

The warrior nodded, although Anakin doubted he understood the finer points of Solo humour. "By the way," he added quickly, before his opponent could launch forth on the usual gushing spiel about the glories of death and the wondrous beneficence of the gods, "I have a question that I'd really like to know the answer to?"

The leader tilted his head, his eyes above their bluish sacs looking almost quizzical. Anakin took it as a prompt.

"You said earlier that you work for nobody. But I still don't understand why you're here, and why you turned up here dressed as Peace Brigaders?"

The dark eyes regarded him for a moment, not exactly expressionless, but certainly hard to read. "Opportunity seldom comes without a price," the warrior replied cryptically, "especially when your domain is no longer amongst the favoured."

Anakin nodded. "So you are from Domain Lian, then?" he asked.

The warrior's eyes narrowed infinitesimally, and then he raised his chin in proud defiance, and Anakin, to his surprise, experienced a flash of understanding. He knew enough about Yuuzhan Vong war culture to realise that the blue vonduun crab armour the group wore denoted they were, or at least had been, members of an elite cadre. When their domain fell from grace thanks to the association of Deign Lian with Shedao Shai, it must have been akin to a deathknell for warriors like these. Suddenly cast aside from the mainstream war effort, the only choice they had was to grab what chances came their way for individual redemption in battle.

In a strange way, it was kind of sad. And in an even stranger way, it occurred to Anakin that there were more similarities than he would have liked between the situation of these warriors and the current beleaguered state of the Jedi.

He inclined his head — a brief acknowledgment of respect from one warrior for another. "Thank you. I appreciate the explanation."

The warrior returned the bow, and then emitting a blood-curdling howl he proudly drew himself up to his full height and drove at Anakin's midriff in an effort to impale him. Anakin threw himself up into a forward somersault and flipped over the on-coming threat, landing with barely a heartbeat before the warrior spun and came at him again. Once more Jedi and alien weapon met in a flare of radiance vying for that moment of advantage, for the tiniest sign of hesitation or weakness. Anakin felt the strain bunching the muscles in his upper arms and drew from deep within the Force, gulping great drafts of that ever-flowing stream. The warrior must have found their little chat enervating, because he appeared to have discovered his second wind and was varying his attack in a way that was upsetting Anakin's rhythm. It was as the young Jedi spun clear of a whip strike that whistled a little closer to his abdomen than he would have liked, that he felt his back come into contact with something warm and firm.

"Hi, how's it going?" he asked quickly, lunging forward and back again in a quickfire slash that forced the warrior briefly out of range.

"Not bad. A bit squashed in here though," Tahiri observed.

"Yeah," Anakin replied a minute later when he'd bounced back against her again after a sparring match in which he'd managed to slice one of the horned epaulets from the Yuuzhan Vong's armour. "It sure doesn't make it easy to manoeuvre."

Tahiri was silent for a moment while she allowed her lightsaber to do some talking. The Rancor she was facing was wielding a large vibro-axe, a weapon with which he was very adept. He was also extremely tall, giving his blows the advantage of gravity and meaning she had to work twice as hard to deflect them.

Anakin was silent, too, analysing the data he was receiving through Tahiri's perception.

"No," Tahiri observed when the Rancor had temporarily drawn back. "You could easily hit the wrong person."

"You could," agreed Anakin returning to position after parrying a flurry of blows from his determined opponent. "In fact I would say that would be very easy."

"So," she said pragmatically, "tell me when to duck."

"Now!" he yelled, punctuating the command with a dive roll that carried him underneath the oncoming staff in the opposite direction from Tahiri who had thrown herself to the left. From the temporary safety of the floor, he saw the warrior attempt to rein in his weapon, but the hungry amphistaff was already too far into its gyre to halt its momentum. Deprived of its original target it quickly found a suitable replacement in the guise of the Rancor, who had chosen that moment to launch a close attack on Tahiri only to be confused by her sudden disappearance.

Fortunately for him his confusion didn't last long. Unfortunately, it was replaced by something much worse. In a flash the amphistaff wrapped itself almost lovingly around his neck, hovered for a brief theatrical moment poised in front of his eyes; and then it struck. Even Anakin couldn't stop a shudder at the man's screech of terror as the fangs sank into the bridge of his nose, nor his agonised whimpers as he sank convulsing to the ground. However, there was no time to give the event more than a second's contemplation, unless he wanted to become another victim, so he leapt back to his feet with his lightsaber already beginning the diagonal sweep that would protect him from the warrior's onslaught.

For a moment he lost his sense of where Tahiri was — and when he regained it, it came with an image that nearly froze his heart.

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