Many Happy Returns: Chapter Forty-Five
Rating: PG

He was floating. He wasn't sure where exactly, except it was somewhere very peaceful. Not that there was no sound, but what he could hear appeared to be carefully muted and indistinct, a little like piped background music played at a distance. It was a very clean place, too; there was no clutter and there was something soothing about the whiteness of the walls — if indeed they were walls. It was hard to see them clearly, and, dependent on how hard he focused on them, they seemed to shimmer with a kind of fluid opalescence. Some kind of fancy water feature, he mused, and then pondered the idea for a bit longer. It didn't seem quite right — he of all people being in a place with such things as water features; and then the thought slipped away on him like the other thoughts he'd been having. There was something about this place that made hanging on to ideas very difficult.

He'd had that feeling before — once — only that time it hadn't been in such calm surroundings. More like a nightmare landscape, in fact, full of psychedelic zigzag people with monster hourglass heads screaming white noise at him. That hadn't been nice at all, and he'd vowed never to smoke that stuff again.

So what was this? Where was this? And how did he get here?

And why was the simple process of thinking so incredibly tiring? But there again, everything was tiring here, even breathing — and all he really wanted to do was sleep.

Time was hard to track in this place, but he suspected that he'd been hovering on the verge of drifting off for a while. He'd just begun to think that sleep was finally going to claim him, when he became aware of something warm brushing against his forehead, and then transferring itself to each side of his head. It was an odd sensation, but not at all unpleasant: soothing ... like the voices that had broken away from the amorphous background and appeared to be moving towards him — gentle voices and yet strangely compelling. He wanted to obey them, but he wasn't sure what they meant.

"Stay with us, Mr Rongo."

Had he been trying to leave? He wasn't aware of it. He tried making his eyelids move apart so he could see the owners of the voices, but he just couldn't summon the energy. It was just as well they seemed to be friendly, because he certainly wouldn't have been able to do much about it if they weren't. He just wished he knew where he was. He wasn't in the habit of ... losing track of what he was thinking like this. It should have annoyed him, and yet somehow it just didn't seem to matter any more.

"Mr Rongo, we need you to work with us."

Work. The word rolled around in his head like a carnival ball trying to find the right slot.

"Lean on us, Mr Rongo, and we'll guide you. But you must hold on very tight."

He wanted to. The voices commanded a power that was hard to resist, but the effort of reaching out to them left him shaking like a helpless newborn baby. Somewhere in the distance a voice emerged from the background murmur and cried his name, and then another, deeper but no less anguished, responded. But he was already moving away, gathering speed along a long corridor; the walls sparked and sparkled as he passed, sending out forks of white light that warmed him and bathed him in an eerie luminescence. Soon he was aware of nothing except silence and a growing brightness that he realised marked the end.

And then something else — a shape, faint at first but slowly resolving into an outline and a face he remembered. He gazed up into the ice blue eyes, at the tousled mop above them, and grinned.

"Jonno. Hey bro'."

Jonno smiled back, but cocked his head and studied Rongo as if a little confused, and then turned to the shape beside him. Rongo willed his head to shift a few degrees to the right.

"Pet," he whispered. He'd forgotten how pretty she was.

"Um," said Jonno, and turned to stare at Pet again and then up at someone Rongo couldn't see.

"He'll be very disoriented for a while." The voice sounded like one of those he'd heard earlier.

Suddenly he felt the ground lurch beneath him and his head was tipped gently back until he was looking straight up. "Rongo, you moron, you're not dead. These women saved you."

He blinked, partly because it was his beautiful Iliana who was talking to him, and partly because something was falling into his eyes and making them sting.

"Sorry." Her voice was thick with emotion, and she was desperately trying to wipe away her tears from his face. "Just don't ever, ever do anything like this to me again. Or I swear, I'll kill you."

"And if she doesn't, I will," said a gruff voice, and a face stained with reddish streaks loomed into view.

"Blue?" Rongo murmured.

"Just rest, bro'," his friend replied with a loud sniff, and wiped his nose on the back of his wrist. "Take it easy, eh?" He squatted down beside Rongo, flinching a little with the movement, and pointed a finger at the two young people standing in front of them. "It's Anakin and Tahiri. You're going to have a wait a while longer to see Jonno and Pet again."

Rongo studied Blue for a long moment. Thoughts came and then slid away before he could link them into sequence — but the names resonated with a meaning that lit up like a banner.

He smiled. "We won then."

Blue snorted, gave his right eye a surreptitious swipe with a finger, and then nodded, grinning first at Rongo and then the two young Jedi.

"Tag?" whispered Rongo hoarsely.

"Tag's dead," replied Anakin. "Taken out by the very ones he was trying to suck up to."

Rongo's eyes closed, and the sigh he let out resonated with such relief that Anakin was sure that even the Force-blind Yuuzhan Vong would have been able to sense it — had there been any left standing. For a while the group was silent: a calm but weary centre in a melee of security officers, emergency medics and the omnipresent holomedia.

"They can rest now," Rongo murmured.

"Yeah," Blue nodded, and reached over to give his friend's good shoulder a gentle squeeze. Anakin could see the swooper's Adam's apple bobbing up and down as if he was trying to continue speaking, but no words came out. How the Mantrusian women had managed to save Rongo's life was a mystery, but Anakin knew that there were a lot of people who would be endlessly grateful to them — both he and Tahiri included.

His eyes drifted over to a large body lying nearby, covered with three jackets bearing the Black Knights' insignia. Chukka and Shorty sat on each side, grim-faced and bloodstained, leading a silent vigil for their fallen friend, but when they caught Anakin's gaze on them they threw him a nod of acknowledgment.

"Don't!" warned Tahiri her voice low but very clear.

Anakin turned to her with a frown. "What?"

"Don't even think of starting the oh-I'm-a-terrible-leader-I-got-people-killed poodoo. If anyone knew the risks it was Doc."

Behind the reprimand he heard a distinct tremor — anger, in conflict with grief and sorrow. She was right, of course, but it still hurt; and it still bothered him deeply that no matter how valid the cause, there was always a terrible cost.

"Tag's the one responsible for this," Tahiri continued doggedly. "You tried to talk sense into him a number of times — he chose not to listen. If he had listened, Doc and Squid wouldn't be dead, and Rongo, Muss, Qorl and a whole lot of others wouldn't be hurt."

Anakin followed her gaze over the semi-controlled chaos around them. The corridor entrance to the tower had been transformed into an emergency triage centre and receiving point for the injured, although it would have been true to say that just about everyone was in that category, to a greater or lesser degree. Some, such as Lando and Tendra, Vehn, Purr and Tab, who had escaped without serious wounds, were moving amongst those less fortunate, helping apply sterile dressings and bacta patches. Neijal and Jassif had left Rongo in Iliana's and Blue's care, and had shooed away the medic tending to Muss so they could begin working their Mantrusian magic on him, while Tria looked on. Beside Muss lay Squid's body, also covered respectfully with rancor hide jackets.

At the far end of the corridor Jaytee, pale-faced and shaking, was sitting propped up against the wall. If he'd been aware that he was under the scrutiny of the two young Jedi he didn't show it; in fact he appeared almost oblivious to everything and everyone except the tall, broken figure lying with his head on Iliana's lap: Rongo. The boy's expression was a study in abject misery.

Anakin turned to Tahiri, and they gazed at one another.

"You lose a few, you win a few," he murmured ruefully, reaching over to flick a bloodied tendril of hair from her cheek.

Her reply was, as usual, the one he needed: she slipped her arms around him and pulled him against her so he could rest his chin on her hair. Together they began working on his damaged nervous system, which was still making his body spasm much like that of a droid undergoing regular short circuits. They were still holding each other when two figures limped wearily into view, their expressions reflecting horror at the extent of the carnage. Anakin scrabbled for something helpful to say, but, just as he was on the point of admitting failure, Dajira caught first his, and then Tahiri's, gaze.

"I'm so sorry," she said, her voice cracking with the effects of both smoke inhalation and emotion. "I just ... I just don't know what to say. I should never have turned a blind eye to what my stepfather was doing. I should have known it was wrong."

"I keep telling her not to blame herself," said Vilco, his eyes appealing silently to both Jedi.

"That's right," Tahiri said, straightening up and nodding. "It's actually Anakin's fault."

"Tahiri," Anakin began, meaning to remonstrate, but was interrupted by a very stunned looking Dajira.

"What do you mean?" she demanded. "If anyone tried to stop all this it was Anakin."

Tahiri shrugged, her expression an exaggerated study in resignation. Anakin could almost see the frustration radiating from her in waves. "Yeah, I keep telling him that," she told Dajira, "but he won't listen — even when the facts prove me right. Maybe we can give you each a share of the guilt, along with the rest of your family, who also should have been able to show your stepfather the error of his ways. I'm sure he would have listened to you all."

Dajira's mouth fell open and a gamut of emotions chased each other across her face, but the only sound that came out was a strangled sob.

"Tahiri's right, Dajira," said Anakin, and then added wryly, "despite the sarcasm."

"But," the Twi'lek girl's eyes were stricken, "I believed the bad things he said about the Jedi, and so did my mother. We should have known better."

"How? How could you know better if that's what you were brought up with, and probably had rammed down your throat every day?" Tahiri asked insistently.

Vilco nodded, his large eyes glittering towards Tahiri with an expression that looked like a cross between gratitude and concern. She could tell he knew what she was up to, but he was still, nevertheless, worried about his friend's fragility.

"I think what Tahiri's saying is that your stepfather never gave either of you a chance to challenge what he believed," he said softly. "And it's not like you had a chance to meet any Jedi to find out what they were really like."

"And I get the feeling he knew you both felt you owed him," added Tahiri, replaying Tag's final rant in her mind.

Dajira sighed sadly. "We did owe him. He gave us a life we'd only been able to dream about."

"Yeah, but sometimes when people do good stuff like that, it's not necessarily for good reasons," said Anakin. "Sometimes they do it so they can have people around them who they can use to make them feel they're great and important — and all they really want to do is control them."

"I think you need to listen to your friends, Dajira," said a new voice — one that both Anakin and Tahiri recognised in spite of the hoarseness.

"It seems to me like they're making a lot of sense."

The Twi'lek girl raised her eyes to Lando's, and then looked at each of the others in turn. "You people," she hiccupped, "are ..." She shook her head overwhelmed, and Vilco squeezed her hand encouragingly. "I owe you all so much," she managed to finish, even though her view of them was completely blurred by tears.

Vilco slipped his arm around her, and caught Lando's eye. "I'd like to get her out of here if I can."

"I actually came over to tell you that there's a group of people waiting outside for you. Security can't let them in obviously — but they're asking for you." He beckoned to one of the Dinarran guards standing watchfully near the bottom of the stairs to the tower. "Can you escort these two out, please," he said, ignoring the man's obvious interest in his scanty attire. "They have support waiting."

Vilco let out a slight gasp, and then he smiled. "It'll be Rella and Tamar," he told Dajira. "Thank goodness."

Lando watched the pair hobble after the guard and then turned his attention back to Anakin and Tahiri. "I've got a message for you two as well. Not sure whether you're up to it or not, but the media people want to talk to you."

Anakin's brows disappeared into his tangled fringe. "Us?"

Lando shrugged. "How often do you think they get to talk to Jedi? Let alone two." He held Anakin's gaze for a moment, and the young man recognised the familiar glint that signified, in Lando's language of expressions, a business opportunity. In this case, though, it had nothing to do with money.

Anakin nodded grimly. "Then I guess we'd better make the most of it."

"We have to," said Tahiri, continuing his line of thought. "It may be the last chance we have to help ordinary people see what's happening and realise they're being sold out by people like Tag."

"Where do they want us?" Anakin asked Lando.

The older man nodded toward two people picking their way awkwardly past Chukka and Shorty. One of them, a woman, was carrying a holocam attached to a portable tripod; both of them were trying to look staunch, with varying degrees of success.

"Looks like they're coming to you," Lando murmured, and he suddenly reached over and grasped both young people gently but firmly on the shoulder. "I just want to say thanks," he said, his white teeth appearing to be almost incongruously clean against the grime of smoke and battle.

Anakin frowned. "What for?"

Lando sighed, and snorted. "For ..." he seemed to try out several possible continuations before holding up his palms in mock despair. "Never mind. Just tell them how it is, okay?" He caught Tendra waving at him. "I've got to go — good luck." He clapped Anakin on the shoulder again, and hurried over to his wife.

"Everything okay?" he asked, even though he could see her expression suggested otherwise.

"Um, I'm not sure really," said Tendra haltingly. "It's Neijal and Jassif."

Lando felt the blood race to his feet. "Oh no," he groaned.

"No, no," Tendra reassured him hastily. "It's nothing like that — they're fine. But they need to get back to Ruba and Kushka, so they'd like us to keep an eye on Rongo and Muss for them."

Lando rubbed a hand through his hair, frowning. "It's a terrible thing, you know, but I'd actually forgotten about those little kids. Where are they?"

"On a building site near here apparently," Tendra replied.

"A building site!" The blood that had descended to his feet a minute ago made a sudden return trip to his face. "They left them on a building site?"

"It's okay, Lando — they're perfectly safe."

"They are?" he queried, uncertainly.

"Of course," Tendra replied breezily. "They're with a couple of swoopers in an old equipment shed. They'll be fine."

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