Many Happy Returns: Chapter Forty-Four
Rating: PG
Iella

"What was that?" Vilco wheezed, and stopped to peer in the direction of something he'd just caught in his peripheral vision — something that had temporarily lit up the smoke with a faint bluish light.

"It was over there," Dajira replied and waved a hand in front of her to try and clear a visual path through the cloying greyness. Her voice sounded as if she'd been eating gravel, and not surprisingly her eyes and nose were streaming. Fortunately her appearance was the last thing on her list of things to worry about.

"Is it a lightsaber?" the little Rodian asked, querulously hopeful.

Dajira thought for a moment, blinking. "No," she croaked, coughing to clear her raw, burning throat. A lightsaber wouldn't just flash and then disappear. A lightsaber glowed — like a beacon. She began to move forward slowly and carefully. Something told her that the flash had been a stun bolt, and the only one here likely to be doing any stunning was her stepfather. Obviously, despite the fact his scheme hadn't exactly gone according to plan, his intention to use the Jedi as a bargaining chip with the Yuuzhan Vong hadn't altered. She wasn't sure what this said about his mental state, but she definitely wanted to cling to the idea that both Anakin and Tahiri were still alive.

"I don't like this," Vilco said hoarsely, but kept pace with her regardless.

Dajira's heart was making repeated attempts to batter an escape route out of her chest although the noise it was making doomed any aspirations it might have had about secrecy. Even so, she was about to say something encouraging when suddenly they were clear of the smoke — and within a few body lengths of a corridor exit.

Dajira felt as much as heard Vilco's gasp, and then realised it was the jolt from her own cry of anguish.

"Father!"

Tag dropped Anakin's arm — the one he was using to drag him along the floor — and spun around, blaster raised.

"Father!" The word emerged as a whimper, not because of the frightening effect the gas mask had on her stepfather's appearance, nor due to the fear that he might kill her, although somewhere at the back of her mind she knew it was possible he would. No, it was a cry against despair, a last prayer to the gods to prevent her from giving in and resigning herself to his plunge into madness. She had to hope. It was the only thing she had left.

"Please, Father — don't do this. Please." Her head shook as she searched for the magic words that could end this terrible nightmare. But her brain could only supply repetition. "Please, stop now."

The insect face stared back at her — implacable and ugly, but not expressionless. Not to her anyway. She could read his rage in his rigid posture and curling, uncurling fist and for a moment she saw his hand holding the blaster tremble, but then it steadied. She gasped and felt the room sway, before realising her light-headedness was because she had been holding her breath.

Vilco had an arm out to support her. "Show him the holopic," he urged.

"Father," Dajira pleaded. "I know you think I'm against you, but I'm not. I'm not against you ... I just can't agree with what you're doing. It's wrong. It's wrong, Father, can't you see that?"

Tag, who had been reaching down to grab hold of Anakin again, straightened slowly, and stood facing her. And then, moving almost like an automaton, he slid the mask up his face until his mouth was clear.

"You're no daughter of mine!" he hissed, and levelled his blaster menacingly. "You're dead to me."

"I am your daughter!" she cried, willing her voice to sound resolute and the tears to stay dammed up behind her lids. "And it's because of this that I'm begging you to stop this madness. This isn't you, Father. This is not the kind and loving man who saved me and Mother." The rawness in her throat had turned into what felt like sandpaper. She swallowed and took a few tentative steps toward him.

"Stay away," Tag growled. "Get away from me."

Dajira teetered on one foot for a moment weighing up whether to finish the step she'd started to take or to retreat. All she could see of Bomar Tag's face, his real face, was his jaw, which was topped by the mouthpiece of the mask so that his thin lips looked as if they were suspended from it. He looked like one of the characters from an old Balmorran puppet show — a grotesque caricature villain. Only he wasn't comedic at all.

She finished the step and pulled the holopic she had taken from his office out from inside her top, and held it up so he could see it. "This is you," she said. "This is us — you, Mother and me. Do you remember when we had this taken? It was yours and Mother's anniversary, but rather than leave me behind you took me with you, and we went to the Amethyst Lakes. You took us on a water gondola and we slept out looking up at the stars. It was ... it was just you and Mother and me, and it was perfect. And you said that ... that it would always be perfect just like that as long as we were together. Do you remember, Father?" She searched the mask for some sign of response, but it stared back at her as if frozen.

* * * * *

Tahiri had stopped so suddenly that Jaytee thought she'd been shot, and it took a good few seconds for his heart to return to its normal physiological location.

"Are you trying to ki—" Her expression made his stomach lurch. "What's up?"

"Anakin!" The way she had breathed the name told Jaytee that she wasn't responding to his question; nor did she even appear to be aware he had spoken. She had turned and appeared to be gazing at some place to her left, although her eyes were unfocused.

Confused, Jaytee peered in the same direction, but all he could see was a grey cloud. He was about to ask her what she meant, when she took off as if she'd been catapaulted and he almost lost sight of her, only just managing to catch up with her before the smoke had obscured her altogether.

* * * * *

Being stunned was probably the most frustrating and demoralising state Anakin could think of — in so much as he could actually think, which was probably arguable. Thinking usually involved a kind of connective process that involved a certain amount of logical succession, not the random bursts of brain activity that he was currently experiencing.

He vaguely remembered the blue pulse from the blaster, and the loud explosion caused by his head impacting against something hard. He wasn't sure how long he'd been unconscious, but he suspected it hadn't been long at all, because he could still smell the unmistakable odour of Nacht-5 smoke.

He had come to with the bizarre notion that the wall of the corridor was sliding past him, and it took him a few seconds to realise that it was he that was moving, or, rather, being dragged along the floor. He didn't need to see who was doing the dragging; he could read Tag's crazed Force signature as clearly as a Coruscant holo-ad. One thing was certain; until his nervous system remembered that it was a nervous system rather than a living exemplar of the chaos principle, there was nothing he could do to alter his situation. Well, nothing that would stand the remotest chance of success. The best thing he could do was focus his energy and his will on repairing the damage inflicted by the stun bolt as quickly as he could.

He'd barely closed his eyes and turned his attention inwards, when the pulling sensation ceased and he was left to flop to the floor on his back. For a brief second he thought the girl's voice he heard might be Tahiri's, but when he reached out he could sense her further away — worried but relieved at his contact. Rather than try and puzzle out the identity of the speaker, he fell back into the Force and felt Tahiri adding her healing touch to augment his own. The feeling of urgency, that the next few minutes would be crucial, was growing like an ionic storm brewing, but Anakin knew he had to ignore it. If there was any time he needed all his faculties it was now.

* * * * *

"I remember that trip, yes," said Tag in a voice that was oddly toneless and clipped. He began walking towards her slowly. "I remember a number of trips and treats I've given you and your Mother, who, I'm glad to say, has always been grateful for the things I've done for her. I remember clothes and parties and concerts and toys and holidays. Do you remember all those things, Dajira?" He stopped in front of her and grabbed the holopic from her trembling fingers, and rotated it slowly as if studying it from all angles, nodding as if responding to some unspoken question. "When you joined up with these pieces of filth," he sneered, still in the same dispassionate tone, "did you think about your mother? Did you wonder, even for the tiniest minute, what your behaviour would do to her? How it would kill her as surely as if you'd shot her, except maybe shooting would be kinder? That way she wouldn't have to live with what you've become," his hand holding the holopic lashed out suddenly and smashed her across the face, "like I have to!" The last four words emerged in an animal snarl; but despite the needling pain in her jaw, Dajira heard, behind her stepfather's wrath, his agonised cry of betrayal.

"Don't you dare hurt her!" cried Vilco who had leapt forward to her aid. "You're crazy. If anyone's going to kill your wife it's you with all your rotten, twisted politics. You're the murderer, not Dajira."

"Yeah," a girl's voice chimed in behind him causing both he and Dajira to spin around, and Tag's fleshy jowls to flush an angry crimson. "We know about the people you've killed and about your plans for Balmorra."

"And how you hired the Rancors to do your dirty work." Neither Vilco nor Dajira recognised the speaker, although with the stains of smoke and battle smeared over his face he probably would have been difficult to identify even by his best friends — if he'd had any.

Anakin recognised Jaytee's voice though, and it caught him completely by surprise, even though Tahiri's message of reassurance about her unlikely companion arrived at almost the same instant. And as usual, the tiniest tick of the chrono spelt the difference between success and failure.

If determination had been all that was required to counteract the effects of the stun bolt, then Anakin would have been up on his feet and confronting Tag long before the man had even considered hitting his stepdaughter. But all that determination could do was provide the motivation to bring all his Jedi resources, and Tahiri's, to focus on returning the scrambled connections between his brain and his body to something close to normal. While Tag was distracted, Anakin had managed to reassert sufficient control over his neck to tip his head far enough to the side to locate the man. Next he had worked hard to raise one arm slightly, and although the movement was shaky, he'd been able to twist his wrist and stretch out his fingers towards the blaster Tag had trained on Dajira and Vilco.

He'd just begun to impose his will on the weapon to pull it into his grasp when he'd heard Tahiri arrive, and with a feeling of elation he threw all his concentration into the task. The blaster was just tugging itself free of Tag's fingers when Jaytee spoke.

One nanosecond of distraction was all it took to input the wrong vector; and instead of flying neatly into his waiting hand, the blaster hit him full force on the side of his temple. As he hovered on the brink of blacking out again, he decided he'd seen enough spectacular constellations in the last day or so to last him a lifetime. He clung doggedly to consciousness like a drowning man to a life raft.

Tahiri let out a shriek and advanced on Tag igniting her lightsaber, but he moved faster, grabbing Dajira and holding her in front of him like a shield. Vilco tried to wrestle her free, but was dispatched with a hefty kick, and by the time the little Rodian had recovered his balance Tag had shuffled backwards beyond reach of either Vilco or Tahiri, and had pulled out another blaster. He flicked it to stun and trained it on Tahiri.

"Just to make sure I have no more trouble from you," he hissed.

Tahiri was already reaching out to Force-pull the weapon from his grip, but she hadn't bargained on Jaytee suddenly getting it into his head to play the hero and throw himself in front of her. Tag swore as the boy collapsed in an ungainly mess of convulsing limbs and went to re-aim at Tahiri, but her expression gave him pause. Rather than the look of fearful horror he'd expected, she seemed surprised and almost bemused, and her gaze appeared to be focused on something behind him. For a tiny instant he panicked; and then he laughed — a short, cynical bark. Of course, it was a trick — damned Jedi and their ...

"Coward!" a hoarse voice rasped behind him, and he felt something impact between his shoulder blades. "Creeping away while others battle for you and hiding behind women. This is for how you have debased me and the last of my domain!"

Tag let go of his stepdaughter, not because of the condemnation he'd heard, but because his arms had simply lost the strength to remain around her. Dajira swung around in surprise, and then she screamed and began backing away. He looked down, and noticed something resembling a piece of shell protruding just below his throat. His back felt strangely wet and warm and there was a growing pool of crimson at his feet.

"This is your death," growled the voice. "This is your coward's death, dishonourable one."

They were the last words Tag heard.

Tahiri was torn between rushing to Anakin's side, helping Jaytee or comforting Dajira, who had fallen to her knees moaning inconsolably. She was still overwhelmed by the turn of events — by the sight of the Yuuzhan Vong warrior crawling out of the smoke to down Tag with his coufee, partly because his terrible wounds had made him such a gruesome sight; partly because she couldn't help admiring his determination and his devotion to his domain. And partly because she really wasn't sure if that admiration was something she should question.

While she was still prevaricating, the Yuuzhan Vong raised his fist and crossed it over his chest in a warrior's salute, bowing his head first to Anakin, who had managed to haul himself up on to all fours, and then to her. He held the solemn pose for several seconds, and then his head drooped and he toppled sideways.

Anakin caught her eye. "Vaping moffs!" he gasped in a tone that was simultaneously relieved and awestruck.

And somewhere in the distance sirens began wailing, and the clouds of smoke lit up as if they had been suddenly ionised.



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