Many Happy Returns: Chapter Forty-Six
Anakin picked his way carefully amongst the security police and the medics bustling around the triage area, his thoughts temporarily distanced from his present, chaotic reality. What could he say to the holonews crew that would make a difference? He would have been the first to acknowledge that words weren't really his forte, and usually that fact wouldn't have bothered him. But just for once he wished he had inherited his mother's gift for rhetoric, and it irked him to realise that this was one situation that his brother would have been comfortable in. So focused was he on his immediate concerns, that he hadn't noticed Tahiri tugging on his hand to make him stop, and it took her urgent call to bring him up short.
"What-?" He swung around to see what the problem was, but a voice resonating with anger and hurt caught his attention, and he followed Tahiri's gaze to where Jaytee had been sitting, recovering from the stun blast. He wasn't sitting any more; he was hanging suspended by the collar of his jacket facing a very agitated Blue.
"... selfish, useless no-hoper. I'd have kicked you out on your skinny ass months ago. The only one stopping me was Rongo. He said we should give you a chance; that you just needed to learn to trust people and learn how to make us trust you. Coz that's how Rongo thinks, you see always looking for the good in people." Blue gulped as he struggled to stop his voice from cracking. "My best buddy best mate a man could have."
Anakin caught Tahiri's wide-eyed, worried gaze. "He needs to say it," he affirmed quietly in response to her unspoken question. "Otherwise it'll just eat at him."
"... go through life without an arm thanks to you. But at least we can say he's got a life." Blue let go the boy's jacket and grabbed his ear, dragging him closer so the teen was forced to face him eye to eye. "Not like Doc and Squid," he snarled. "My family that's what they were."
Anakin could see the swooper's grip tightening to the point that his knuckles appeared almost skeletal; but although Jaytee's face was a study in agony, he didn't make a sound.
When Blue continued, his voice was so choked with pent-up emotion that it was barely more than a growl, and it was obvious his self-control button had reached meltdown. "They could have been your family, too. You know the family you never had, someone to watch your back, maybe even care about you. But you just didn't give a kriff, did you? You're just ... just-" Words finally failed him and he exploded in a burst of savage rage, throwing Jaytee backwards so he hit the wall skull first with a crack. But before the boy could slip down stunned to the ground, Blue had caught him and pinned him to the spot like a helpless insect.
Anakin caught the swooper's punch just before it connected with Jaytee's stomach. "Blue," he said firmly, "you're too good for this."
"He's a piece of snivelling-" The tattooed swooper caught Tahiri's eye and appeared to clamp down on the word that was about to escape. "Garbage," he finished, and his eyes flickered to Anakin's.
"I rest my case," said Anakin adroitly. He kept his grip on Blue's fist for a few seconds longer, eyeing the man shrewdly, and then released it with a short nod. Blue turned back to Jaytee and studied the hapless boy in silence. To his credit, Jaytee didn't avoid the Blue's gaze, nor did he flinch too much when the older man gave him a last angry shove before releasing him.
Blue snorted with what sounded like a mixture of irritation and fatalistic amusement. "You Jedi and your good influence," he grumbled.
"Doesn't seem to work with everybody," Anakin countered, and, aware that Tahiri seemed to be fidgeting beside him, he turned to see what the problem was just as she reached over to tap Blue on the arm.
"I think Iliana wants you," she said, and pointed toward the Mirialan woman, who was pantomiming vigorously with her hands in a way that suggested she wanted Blue's attention. She was standing with Lando and Tendra beside a medic, while another was unfolding a patient gurney.
"I think they're going to take Rongo to the emergency centre," said Tahiri, "and Muss, by the looks of it."
"Not without me they're not," retorted Blue, already hurrying over toward his wounded friends.
Anakin turned to Jaytee to find the latter had sunk back down on to the floor, and was sitting staring dully ahead with his back against the wall. He exchanged an anxious glance with Tahiri, who shrugged.
"You okay?" she asked the red-haired boy.
For a moment he appeared not to have heard her, but slowly his head lifted and his brooding, red-rimmed eyes focused on both their faces in turn. "Why don't you just kill me." It wasn't a question.
Anakin shook his head. "Too easy," he replied. "For you and us. Why don't you try the hard way for a change? Show some grit, face up to stuff prove that Rongo was right to give you a chance. You can't prove anything if you're dead."
"Yeah, like they'll forgive me for what's happened," Jaytee muttered.
"They might or they might not. Whether they do or not, you can't change the past, but you can change the future," said Tahiri insistently.
"You helped Tahiri out," Anakin pointed out, "and for that I'm very grateful."
"Me, too," she agreed, "even though I'm still angry at you for what you tried to do to me back at the compound."
"Yeah." Despite his best effort, Anakin's expression darkened with the memory.
"But if we can move beyond stuff you've done to us, then you can, too," Tahiri finished, interlacing her fingers with Anakin's and squeezing them gently.
It wasn't that he hadn't caught her implication; it was just that some things were hard to forgive. "Don't push it too hard," he muttered behind gritted teeth.
She squeezed again, harder.
"Ow, um, yeah," he agreed. But Jaytee was too preoccupied with his own misery to notice the forced sincerity. Anakin studied the boy for a moment. "Hey," he added, "why don't you just try apologising?"
"And actually meaning it," Tahiri finished.
Jaytee didn't reply, or perhaps his reply was there in the wave of emotion that assailed the two young Jedi: horror and regret warring with the pull of habitual self-justification that was itself fuelled by an enduring fear of failure. But there was something else there, too; it was a yearning to belong and to be accepted, warts and all in the way that a family accepts its individual members. Anakin's gaze slipped down to meet Tahiri's.
"That's why you're prepared to cut him some slack, isn't it?" he murmured.
She nodded, eyes solemn. "I can't forgive him yet either, Anakin. But I do know where he's coming from."
She wasn't chastising him he knew that but he still felt a faint flush tinge his cheeks. If anyone knew what having family meant, it was Tahiri; and it was obvious that that understanding had allowed her to think beyond her own disgust at what Jaytee had done and place it in a wider context.
Sometimes it humbled him to see what a great Jedi she was becoming.
The slight brashness in the voice told Anakin who it was even before he'd turned to face the speaker. Media types were the same everywhere, it seemed; the old ones were thick-skinned, and the young ones learned quickly to act as if they were.
"Yeah, that's me. And this is Tahiri Veila," he replied, and noted, with a certain sense of satisfaction, the holonews reporter's slight start when his eye rested on Tahiri's scars. Reality had a nasty habit of bringing people up short, he thought.
The man's gaze, neutral again, in a manufactured way, flicked back to Anakin. "Mind giving the people of Balmorra some insight on what happened here?"
"Our pleasure." Anakin cocked his head toward the man's companion, who'd been fiddling with increasing urgency with something inside the back panel of her holocam ever since they'd arrived. "Got a problem?"
The young woman peered up at him and then threw the reporter a sheepish look. "I'll have it sorted in a minute." She sounded tense, and the way she kept trying to push her dishevelled hair back out of her eyes, as if her appearance mattered to her, told Anakin that she was far from familiar with this kind of situation.
"Want me to-" he began, and then stopped, not exactly dumbfounded, but close.
"It's probably your recalibrator," Jaytee was saying as he pulled himself up from his place against the wall. He grunted painfully, but hobbled over to squint inside the holocam's innards. "You got a micro-spanner or something?"
"Um, I don't think so," she said uncertainly, fumbling in her kit bag. She held up a set of tweezers and looked at the boy apologetically. "I'm afraid this is the closest thing to a small tool that I've got."
Tahiri nudged Anakin. "Is it the re-whatever-he-said?" she whispered.
He nodded, and shrugged ruefully. There would have been a certain amount of satisfaction in using his innate technical ability to fix the problem, and thereby be one up on the reporter. But something told him that it was more important to step back this time.
"These things don't like smoke and stuff," Jaytee explained, frowning with concentration as he wielded the tweezers, "because the filter's crud. There." He held up a small circle of fine-gauge mesh.
The reporter glared at him. "Oh great now it won't work at all."
Jaytee glared back. "You reckon." He dropped the filter into the woman's bag and returned his attention to the cam, fiddling for a moment with something else before switching it on. The indicator light immediately glowed green and the screen came to life. Jaytee threw the reporter a jaundiced look and flipped the panel closed.
"Get yourself a decent filter, then your recalibrator won't keep cutting out," he told the grateful woman, and then he turned and limped back to the spot near the wall that he appeared to have adopted as his place.
"Okay so we're ready to go?" The reporter glanced at both Anakin and Tahiri, and then his work mate, who gave him a nod, although she was still fumbling with the directional microphone. He took a breath as if to speak to her again, but began coughing instead. "What the blazes is this stuff?" he demanded when he'd recovered, waving a hand to indicate the grey cloud that had just drifted past them. He failed to notice the operator responding to his wave by thumbing the ready-to-broadcast button; nor did he notice it change from orange to green a few seconds later.
Neither did either Anakin or Tahiri not that they would have known what it meant.
"Nacht 5 smoke grenades," replied Anakin, "courtesy of upright citizen and merchant, Bomar Tag."
"Tag! Bomar Tag let loose with smoke grenades? What are you saying?"
"I thought you wanted to hear my perspective," Anakin replied levelly. "I guess my question is are you ready to hear it? Because if you think you're not, then Tahiri and I, as you can see, have got plenty of more productive things to do with the time."
The reporter bristled. "Hey. Don't get too uppity. Just remember that the current view of the Jedi could do with a bit of touching up, especially when it comes to arrogance."
"We're only too aware of the criticism that's been levelled against us, but we also know that it's been fuelled by fear. The galaxy hasn't had an enemy like the Yuuzhan Vong before, so nobody knows quite how to deal with them. People are afraid, so they get angry and look for scapegoats."
"Well, I guess a lot of folk would say that you chose that spot yourselves after you refused to hand over Jacen Solo to Tsavong Lah. A lot of folk believe that if you'd given Lah what he demanded, then there'd have been some chance of peace negotiations."
"They're wrong!" Tahiri burst out heatedly, and pushed her hair away from her forehead so that her scars stood out clearly, livid evidence of the torture she had endured. "The Yuuzhan Vong did this to me. They tried to turn me into one of them and use the knowledge they gained in the process to find a way to beat the Jedi, because they know that's the only way they'll ever be able to take over the galaxy. And they want this galaxy so much they'll do anything it takes to win it: they'll fight and torture and tell lies, and they'll also infiltrate and turn people against each other and against the Jedi."
Anakin nodded vehemently. "Tahiri's right. The Yuuzhan Vong are absolutely committed to taking this galaxy for their own. They see us all as infidels, but they're not interested in converting us to their way and sharing the galaxy nicely. That's not the way they think at all. They want to cleanse the whole place of any sign of us and shape it into their own vision of perfection. And they won't just shape planets either Tahiri's living proof of that. And anyone who thinks that surrendering or collaborating is going to win them any kudos is in for a nasty shock, because the truth is that the Yuuzhan Vong see that as a form of weakness. They'll go along with it as long as it wins them worlds, and then they'll simply kill the collaborators just like what happened here."
The reporter's, and the holocam operator's, mouths dropped open, although the former recovered first. "What do you mean: the same as what happened here?"
Anakin took a deep calming breath, aware that he was beginning to let his indignation take control, and simultaneously he felt Tahiri's hand slip into his encouraging and supportive. "Tahiri and I didn't come here looking for trouble, we came here with some friends to buy some supplies. A simple thing you'd think you know, pick up a few things we needed, have a few days rest here in Dinarra, which we thought looked like a pretty nice quiet place. The next minute we're drugged and locked up by the guy we'd organised to buy stuff from Bomar Tag who it appears is dealing with the Peace Brigade with the intention of trading Jedi for favour with the Yuuzhan Vong."
"There'd been rumours bandied around about Tag being in with the Peace Brigade, but they were denied," scoffed the reporter. "It was just some swoop gang trying to avenge two of their members who'd been accidentally killed in an accident with a Tag Industrial transporter."
Anakin eyed the man steadily. "I gather you're not an investigative reporter then?"
The man's lips tightened visibly and he glared back at Anakin, eyes narrowed angrily. "You're not doing much for the cause of the Jedi, kid."
"Okay well here's what we found out. Take it or leave it, or twist it however you wish." Anakin was past worrying about preserving whatever shaky image the Jedi might still possess. Sometimes the truth was just too important. "We weren't the only ones Tag had captured to give to the Yuuzhan Vong. He was also holding two Mantrusian healers and their two little kids because he'd mistaken them for Jedi. Not only that but he also had two pilots, one who used to work for the Peace Brigade and who therefore could have identified Tag as a collaborator." It wasn't the full story, Anakin knew, but he wasn't sure about a lot of it himself, having only had a brief catch up with Lando and Vehn. He also knew that he didn't have time for all the intricate details. Too much was at stake.
"Tahiri and I managed to escape, and in the process of trying to find help to free our friends and the others that Tag was holding captive, we, uh, met up with a gang of swoopers the same gang you're saying wanted revenge on Tag for the accidental killing of two of their members. Well it wasn't an accident. The two people who died had been part of the group protesting Tag's involvement with the Peace Brigade. He took them out out of spite, knowing that bullying tactics would probably scare the other protestors and also knowing that nobody would waste too much time worrying about a couple of swoopers. It was a cold, calculated act."
"But he got away with it," Tahiri added, "because he was who he was. He would have got away with his plan to pass us all over to the Yuuzhan Vong, too, except he forgot two vital facts: one, the Yuuzhan Vong really want Jedi, especially if they happen to have the name Solo."
"Yeah," agreed Anakin, "and two, they don't like collaborators who get other people to do their fighting. They were so excited at the thought of having a Solo as a prize to sacrifice, they, uh, eliminated the Peace Brigade group Tag had been working with, and came here disguised as the Brigaders so they could pick up the goods in person. Unfortunately for Tag, he didn't prove himself to be a worthy customer, so they killed him. Unfortunately for everyone else who he dragged into his little plot, they were forced to fight for their lives. Some didn't make it, and their blood is on Tag's head."
Anakin stopped and studied the reporter, who was struggling not to look dazed, but failing miserably. And without realising he was doing it, he raised his hand and pointed his finger at the man in a way that was so reminiscent of his father, that Tahiri couldn't help an inward grin. "But I think the thing you need to think about is not what has happened, but how it happened. How did a cadre of Yuuzhan Vong land unnoticed in a nice peaceful city like Dinarra? How did one man manage to orchestrate a plot to trade lives for favour with the enemy? And what had they promised him? Wealth? Nah they're not into that. I'd take a guess based on what I've learned about Tag, and say power. I don't know anything about Balmorran politics, but if I were you I'd start looking into his political connections and see what he had cooking."
Tahiri gestured to encompass the injured lying in the corridor around them, and also the survivors of the battle still hobbling around in the lingering smoke behind them. "When these people are recovered, you have a duty to tell their story. They've fought a battle here that has saved your world from becoming yet another conquest. They're heroes."
The reporter swallowed, and then cleared his throat, and, pulling himself up straight as if to field off the feeling of being more than slightly overwhelmed, he turned to his cam operator. "Okay, we've wasted enough time here. Ready?"
The look of confusion she threw back nearly turned his heart into ice, and he knew that the dawning horror on her face was being mirrored on his. "But ... I thought." Her voice wavered and then resumed with a degree of vehemence, or perhaps it was self-preservation. "You ... you waved ... the signal to start."
The reporter turned away. "Kriff," he groaned in a half-whisper, and then steeled himself and swung back to face the holocam. "This has been CDN bringing you breaking news from the scene of a major disturbance in the Dinarra industrial precinct as you've heard, from two Jedi who were involved, involving a possible plot between local industrial magnate Bomar Tag and the Yuuzhan Vong. We'll be bringing you more reports as the situation becomes clearer. I'm Sangsun Fohm and this is Dinarra News Tonight." He waited until the indicator blinked red on the holocam, and then covered his face. "I'm dead!" he moaned.
Anakin shared a bemused look with Tahiri.
"Wow," she breathed, "our first interview."
"Not what I-" Anakin began, but was drowned out by a gravely voice distorted slightly by static that suddenly pulsed out from the reporter's pocket. The poor holocam operator, already pale, blanched to the extent that he thought she might faint.
"Don't know what you're doing with that new approach, but the comms desk here has gone crazy. Best reaction we've had in years." There was some high-pitched squealing in the background and then the voice continued. "We got two people saying they've got info on Tag, and I think your Jedi have just raised the profile of their order by about hundred per cent. They're stars."
Anakin looked down at Tahiri and the two shared a grin, but it had nothing to do with their sudden elevation to fame. It was because people were going to come forward and tell their stories, and hopefully that meant that the authorities would be forced to investigate the extent of Tag's machinations. That was priceless. Once others started hearing the truth about what had happened here, maybe, just maybe, they might be able to prevent it happening on their worlds. Maybe people would begin to see that the way to defeat the Yuuzhan Vong was to work together, and to never stop believing that they could win no matter how much the odds were stacked against them.
Maybe it was one small step in the restoration of hope. It was all they could ask for.
Anakin leaned forward and held his hand out to Sangsun Fohm. "Thanks," he said. "I'll be sure to mention your name to my mother next time she starts on one of her diatribes against the holopress." He threw the young holocam operator a lopsided grin. "Always good to meet the exceptions to the rule." He nodded at them both, and taking Tahiri firmly by the arm, began to lead her away, but they'd barely taken five steps when two uniformed men stepped into their path.
"Anakin Solo?" asked the older one, a large, silvery-haired man with bushy eyebrows and a penetrating gaze.
Anakin sighed wearily. "Yeah, that's me. And this is-"
"Tahiri Veila. I know," the man replied briskly, although not unkindly. He flipped out a metallic card engraved with his image and an alphanumeric sequence. "Colonel Varn Toberof, Balmorra Intelligence Service." He gestured briefly towards his companion, a younger man, very tall, but with a fairly non-descript face. "And this is Lieutenant Chastin, chief of the Dinarra precinct of the BIS."
Anakin flicked Tahiri an "oh great" look, and then turned back to the colonel. "I'm guessing you want to talk to us."
Colonel Toberof's formidable eyebrows quirked. "Indubitably," he rumbled. "But don't worry, son. It can wait until tomorrow unless you two are planning on doing a disappearing act." He eyed them both shrewdly.
Anakin snorted. "Disappearing under the blankets maybe, yeah." He stopped as if he'd bit his tongue. "I mean ... um, under separate blankets, of course ... er-"
Tahiri rolled her eyes. Chastin's rather thin lips seemed to develop a momentary twitch, while Toberof simply chuckled, and held up a large palm dismissively.
"It's okay. I understand you two need to rest. But I'm going to be interviewing everyone involved in this, uh, incident, and I need to make sure I'm going to be able to find you. Do you have quarters where you were staying?"
Anakin nodded, but somehow it was the image of the Knights' compound and not their hotel that came to mind. Suddenly the enormity of what they'd all just been through hit him like a concussion missile, and he stopped, afraid that if he opened his mouth to speak, the only sound he'd be able to produce was a sob. But Tahiri didn't bother about covering up her emotion; she simply let the tears flow.
"Sorry," she sniffed. "I'm thinking about Doc and Squid, and all the people who got hurt."
"It's never easy losing friends," Toberof agreed. "And we've all lost more than our fair share lately," he added, exchanging a rueful glance with his subordinate. "The best we can do is honour their sacrifice and try and stop it happening to others. Yes?"
Tahiri nodded, and dabbed at her nose.
"Thanks, sir," Anakin said gratefully, swallowing before continuing. "I'm not really sure where we'll be tomorrow."
A voice spoke up from their right, and they all turned to find Lando limping towards them. He had a thermal sheet wrapped around him, but in a slightly dramatic style reminiscent of his cloak. "They'll be with me and Tendra at the Black Knights' compound, which is-" He paused frowning and then shook his head. "Actually, I have no idea what their address is. I guess we'll have to ask someone."
Toberof chuckled. "Somehow I don't think we'll have any trouble finding it." He studied them both in turn, and then nodded. "Expect us at lunchtime. Until then get yourselves checked out by the medics, and if they happen to decide to check you into the local hospital, just get a message to me on this number." He passed Anakin a flimsicard. "And we'll know to come there."
"Okay," said Anakin, sliding the card into the back pocket of his rancor hide pants. "And thanks again."
Toberof grunted an acknowledgment and hurried over to where members of the local security guard were putting up a temporary barrier, marking the area where they'd laid out the bodies of the Yuuzhan Vong warriors. On the other side of the room, two of the injured Rancors were being lifted into gurneys.
"I wonder what'll happen to them?" Tahiri mused.
"Whatever it is, I'm sure it won't be good," said Lando. "Not that there are many of them left standing."
The three of them stood silently for a moment, watching respectfully as Chukka and Shorty rose to escort the repulsor biers carrying the bodies of their two dead comrades along the corridor.
"It's not going to be easy for the Knights either," murmured Anakin. "I sure hope they're able to keep things going until Rongo's back on board again. They kind of rely on him, I think."
Tahiri nodded, and the two were quiet for a while longer contemplating the strange, uneasy peace that was settling over the scene, reverberating in the Force with the jagged echoes of pain, the muted thunder of violence.
Anakin nudged Tahiri. "So what's it going to be? Medics or healing trance?" he whispered.
"Do you really need to ask?" she mouthed back.
Lando led them towards the temporary exit ramp Security had installed that led down from a large hole cut in the wall to the side alley. "I actually came to tell you that the local Guard have organised transport to take us all back to the compound. Thought about going back to the hotel, but Tendra thought it might be better if we were all together for a while and Bo and Tria assured us there's room for us all there."
Anakin nodded, and glanced back at the lonely figure sitting with his back against the corridor wall and then down at Tahiri. She nodded.
"Okay," he told Lando. "We'll be along in a minute."
Lando looked at him quizzically, and Anakin shrugged.
"Just something we've got to do," he murmured.
Lando shook his head resignedly and clambered down the ramp gingerly to where Tendra was waiting. When she saw he was by himself she folded her arms and sighed.
"Don't tell me! They've left us and gone off on some other crazy crusade?"
Lando chuckled, albeit fatalistically. "Crusade, no. Mercy mission ... possibly. However I don't think it'll take too long." He gazed around. "Have you seen Neijal and Jassif?"
"No and I was just thinking maybe we should ask the guard to divert up to the building site in case they're still there."
Lando's brow wrinkled with concern, but Tendra reached out a hand to squeeze his arm. "They'll be fine. You really must stop worrying, my love."
"Blame it on Han and Leia. Hanging around with their kids makes a guy jittery. I mean look at me a few days with Anakin and Tahiri and I've aged ten years. Not to mention what it's done to my wardrobe!"
"Actually," she smiled. "I think you look great."
Lando studied her guardedly for a moment, and then adjusted his makeshift blanket cloak so it sat at a more rakish angle. And then they both laughed. They were still chuckling when three figures appeared at the top of the ramp, and began walking slowly down.
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