Many Happy Returns: Chapter Forty-Seven
Rating: PG

Leaving the warehouse had proved to be more complicated than either Tab or Purr expected. In fact if not for the unexpected intervention of an austere looking senior Security Officer and his sidekick, they suspected that the two young, and somewhat officious, guards at the top of the stairwell might have sent them back down to the others. But when Neijal explained how she and Jassif had left their young children on a nearby building site with some injured swoopers, the older man ordered one of the guards to borrow a Dinarran Security team transport vehicle and fly them over in that.

The evening air was brisk but nobody was complaining. In fact the chill was cleansing for irritated lungs and troubled minds, and the feeling of open spaces and relative silence was very welcome after their recent experiences.

Purr studied the skyline feeling, in a strange way, surprised at its comforting familiarity. Somehow it seemed incongruous that nothing in Dinarra looked different: the fluid light-lines of ground traffic still coloured the main routes and were counter-pointed above by the occasional halogen-blue glare of an air car; and the faint hum of factories and city night-life was still there like background music. It seemed wrong that nothing had changed, wrong that the city was just carrying on as usual with no awareness of what had just happened. And she couldn't help wondering how often others had had the same thought when they looked out over the city after events like tonight's, events that had affected and changed their lives in ways they never could have predicted.

She knew that for her Dinarra was a different place now, and although she couldn't really put it into words, she knew also that this was not going to be a completely bad thing. It was an odd realization. Dinarra was her adopted home; it was the place where she had found a family that she was proud to call hers. It was the place where she'd had to fight to preserve it. She hated what had happened, but somehow it had made her commitment to that family even stronger — and yet it went beyond that. She was committed to Dinarra, too. She'd never realized she was, but she knew it was true now — maybe it was only true after tonight. And for some really odd reason she felt bad that Dinarra, and by association Balmorra, hadn't been kind to the Mantrusians.

She sighed and turned to Neijal. "I guess this is one place you won't ever want to come back to."

To the Trianii's surprise Neijal took what she'd intended as a rhetorical question seriously. "Bad things happen everywhere, and there will always be good and bad memories of a place. I really think that if I was invited to come back here, I would definitely come."

"So would I," agreed Jassif nodding.

Purr's eyes, which had closed to slits thanks to the chill breeze, widened suddenly, and she felt the tear ducts reacting to the cold. She caught Tab's look of surprise, no doubt a reflection of her own.

"But why? Are you two gluttons for punishment or something?"

Neijal gave a little snort and exchanged a look with Jassif that Purr couldn't read. The Mantrusian woman turned to her, a faint smile touching the corners of her dark eyes. "Let's just say that we met some fine people here that we'll always think of as friends," she replied.

"You're obviously not talking about Tag," Tab observed, darkly, as the speeder coasted to a landing on the upper platform of the construction site near the builders' shed.

"There are many Bomar Tags in this galaxy. They pop up wherever there's fear for them to feed on," said Jassif in her matter-of-fact way. "And the more they feast on it, the more it damages them. I think it has probably always been that way, and no doubt it always will."

"Are you sure they're here?" asked their unwilling chauffeur dubiously as he peered amongst the shadowy geometry of struts and half-finished walls. In the gloom the duracrete caissons, with their protruding metal supports, looked as much like the results of a bomb blast as a site reconstruction. And then, as he powered down the engine, they heard the distinct sound of voices singing.

Purr chuckled as she and Tab hurried after Jassif and Neijal. "If they made a racket like that back on Trian, they'd be ducking boots."

Tab stifled the impulse to giggle, even though the image of weedy, little Skell and big, burly Zed cowering under a barrage of boots hurled by angry Trianii was hard not to be amused by. The problem was that she knew if she started laughing, she would end up crying. She'd been teetering on the edge of hysteria ever since she'd seen Blue carrying what she thought was Rongo's lifeless body, and the last thing she was going to do now was crack up and upset everyone. Not to mention make a fool of herself.

So she strode purposefully to the elevator controls and pushed the button only to hear Zed's voice channeling up the shaft.

"Old Antilles had a farm, ee-ii-ee-ii-yo, and on that farm he had a nerf, ee-ii-ee-ii-yo. With poodoo here and poodoo there ..." The song temporarily floundered thanks to a little boy's squeals of laughter.

Purr chuckled, and Tab turned to the Neijal. "Sorry," she said rolling her eyes. "But he's having trouble progressing past the lavatory humour stage. If Kushka turns bad when he's older, just remember it's Zed's fault."

"A man who can make a little boy laugh after all this is worth his weight in credits," Neijal replied.

Tab tried to snort. "Maybe I should trade him ..." she began and then her voice cracked. "Damn!" She pressed her fist against her forehead. "Sorry ... just give me a minute."

But Neijal took her hand firmly and pulled her on to the elevator platform and Tab found herself face to face with Purr, who was busy grooming away the wet streaks in the fur beneath her eyes.

"Sith, look at us," Tab hiccupped, "a couple of wimps."

"Yeah," Purr growled. "Here." She wiped the tears rolling down her friend's cheeks with the back of one furry finger. "Can't let them see us like this."

The lift landed with a clunk. "It's us," Jassif called.

She was replied by the sound of running feet and a small projectile hurtled into view from around the corner of an archway. "Mummy!"

Neijal laughed as her son nearly knocked her over in his joy at seeing her again. She lifted him up and hugged him tightly. "You sound like you've been having fun."

"I like Mr Zed and Mr Skell," he replied grinning at her as she carried him back to where he'd come from. "They're funny." He wriggled down from his mother's arms and ran over to stand between the two injured men.

"Yeah," agreed Skell. "There's a wise kid." He looked down at Ruba who was lying in the crook of his arm covered by his jacket. "He's clever ain't he? You know, doncha?" he cooed, poking her in the tummy. "Doncha?"

"Strike me pink!" said Tab after her jaw muscles had returned to their normal closed setting.

"Hey, Skell," Purr smirked, relieved to be able to focus on giving one of her friends a hard time again. "Looks like you've found your true vocation. Maybe we can sell your services as nursemaid."

"Hey, watch it," he growled, grabbing at the grimy cloth lying in a sodden bundle beside him and waved it threateningly. "I have a loaded nappy and I'm not afraid to use it."

"You changed her nappy?" Tab gasped after the same struggle with her jaw as before.

"Nah — just took it off. Didn't exactly have anything to replace it with. I figured baby cr--, uh, poodoo was a step up from the poodoo we've had thrown at us lately. Here," he grinned up at Jassif. "I guess you want your baby back?"

Her face lit up as she snuggled Ruba against her again and just for a moment her eyes closed and her lips moved silently. "Thank you so much, Mr Skell, for looking after her. You're a very special man."

The little swooper shrugged. "Hey — wasn't much else I could do, eh?"

"And thank you, too, Mr Zed," said Neijal, leaning down to hug the big man. "I shall expect to hear all the news about your own son one day."

Zed's eyes bulged and he emitted some rather strange gurgling noises. "My son? My ..." He gulped and stared up at Tab. "Sith's bones, woman — are you up the duff?"

"No!" Tab replied vehemently, and then added suspiciously. "Do I look like it?"

Zed's mouth went through several contortions as if trying to shape words that wouldn't dig him into the pervasive poodoo motif any deeper than he was. Suddenly inspiration arrived. He put on his best grin. "You look great. Like always. Here give an old man a hand, eh?" To his complete surprise, she dropped to her knees and threw her arms round him.

"You big oaf," she sobbed.

"Hey," he rumbled, ruffling her hair. "Wassup?" He gazed up at Purr and the women in confusion.

Purr shrugged. "It's been tough, bro'. We lost Doc and Squid, and um, well, Rongo ..." she paused to swallow.

"Rongo?" Skell stammered in disbelief. "And Doc and Sq-"

Zed just shook his head and looked stricken.

"No, no," stuttered Purr as she regained control of her voice. "Rongo's lost an arm and he's in pretty bad shape. Slash got him." She caught the gleam of rage in Zed's eyes. "It's okay. Someone got Slash. Saw the body. But, yeah, Doc and Squid are ... with Jonno and Pet, I guess." She hadn't meant to add that, but somehow it just came out; and to her surprise it sounded right.

There was a long silence, broken only by the sound of Ruba's snuffles as she prepared to let them know about her hunger. Sensing her mother near at last, she knew food was not too far away.

"Yeah," Zed spoke up suddenly, and then nodded. "Yeah, I reckon they are," he threw Purr a sad but grateful smile.

Tab went to speak, and then cleared her throat and started again. "Come on, old fella. Let's get you two back to the compound."

Zed took her hand and then stared up at her. "What about Tag?"

"I don't think Bomar Tag will be in the same place as your friends," Neijal replied.

Zed threw Tab a quizzical look to which she replied with a grim nod.

"Mr Zed and Mr Skell," said Neijal, watching both men carefully as they stood up a little shakily, "are you both able to walk alright or shall we ask the guard to help?"

"I'm fine," said Skell stoically, but his knees buckled as he went to take a step and he began to tumble down. The next minute, miraculously — to Skell as much as to everyone else — he bounced back upright and stood bobbling like a puppet on a string. "Woah!" he gasped.

"I've got him," Purr said blithely, and, is if in answer to everyone's unspoken question, she pointed at the furry appendage gripped firmly around his midriff. "Bouncey, bouncey," she quipped, jiggling him up and down. "Handy things, tails."

"Show off," Skell complained.

"I'm okay," snorted Zed, leaning tentatively on Tab.

"Come on, I'm not going to break," she murmured gruffly. "Hey, you don't really think I'm ..."

"Nah, course not," he blustered as they hobbled in to the elevator. "Just ... aware that I eat more pies than you."

"You had to mention food, didn't you bro'?" grumbled Skell just as Ruba's patience finally ran out and she gave vent to her need. But nobody cringed or complained about the wailing as it echoed around the duracrete columns and was spread thin and reedy by the night breeze. Maybe they needed it, like a plaintive cry for the fallen, or maybe it was just good to hear something normal and simple. Something easily assuaged.

"It's going to be different now, isn't it?" murmured Tab as she took a last glance at the cityscape before the air car descended to street level. Purr had given the guard the directions to the compound, and although he'd looked a bit sniffy about it, he was, to be fair, following them exactly. Not that it mattered any more if he strayed into Rancor turf, seeing there weren't exactly many Rancors left to defend it.

"Things'll be different, yeah," Purr agreed. "Doesn't have to be bad though."

Skell studied her curiously. "La de da — who's the philosopher then?"

The Trianii shrugged. "Brothers," she said simply. "That's what it means doesn't it, through thick and thin."

The others looked pensive for a moment. "Yeah," nodded Zed finally. "That would be what Rongo would say."

"Well, there you are then," said Purr. Then she turned to the others, her amber eyes glistening like lanterns in the dark. "No matter what happens, we'll always have that, and no matter where we end up, we'll always be family." She gazed at each of them in turn and then spat on her hand and held it out; one by one the others followed suit.

After a while Tab turned to Neijal. "Where you're from — is it near here?"

The healer had been resting with her chin on her son's curly hair, but she straightened when Tab spoke and shook her head. "No, it's a long trip home for us. But before we do anything about organising our tickets, we need to contact our family to let them know we're alright."

"They'll be worried," added Jassif quietly, stroking Ruba's hair as the baby suckled hungrily.

"Well," said Purr, glancing around at the others as if to make sure she wasn't speaking out of turn. "You're welcome to treat our place as your home till you get it all sorted. If you don't mind putting up with a bit of mess," she added, gruffly.

"Yeah," agreed Zed. "There's not much for little kids, but we could probably find some stuff for them. Just tell Iliana what you want." He turned quickly to Tab suddenly realising how little he knew about the final battle. "Ili's okay isn't she?"

"Battered and worried like sith, but otherwise fine," she replied.

"That's very kind of you," Neijal smiled. "We'd be very happy to stay."

"Well, um," said Purr, "that's home over there. I know it doesn't look like much ..."

"I'll ask the chief to organize a hotel for you ladies," interrupted the guard. "That's no place for ladies and little kids to stay."

"Nonsense, officer." Neijal managed to sound like a school teacher reprimanding a naughty pupil. "This will be fine, and we'll be with our friends."

"But-" he started to protest, but she patted him firmly on the shoulder. "We'll be fine."

He stared at her for a moment and then shrugged. "If that's what you want," he said petulantly, and then added. "I'll tell the chief. He'll be debriefing you all."

"Better make sure my briefs are clean then," muttered Zed as Hami and Grunt, who'd obviously arrived earlier, opened the big gate of the compound to let them in.

No sooner had their air car settled on its repulsors than Bo, Pania and several others rushed over, and amidst much shoulder clapping and many expressions of relief they helped the two wounded men to their rooms. Tab tapped Purr on the shoulder and cocked her head in the direction of the two Mantrusians.

"So where are we going to put 'em?" she asked.

"I've been thinking — best room'd be Jonno and Pet's." She looked around. "Are Anakin and Tahiri here yet?"

"Nope," replied Squirt. "They got interviewed by some holonews guy. They'll be along soon though ... I think."

Purr scratched her ear. "Don't think they'll mind giving up their room somehow," she mused, and then turned to Neijal and Jassif. "Come on, ladies. I'll show you to your quarters. And, um-" She studied Ruba for a moment, thoughtful. "Hey, Squirt — can you find some cloths or something. The baby needs nappies."

"Got some old sheets," he replied. "I could tear 'em up, I guess."

"That would be perfect," said Jassif kindly. "Thank you so much."

Squirt shrugged. "Hey, anything for the ladies who saved Rongo." He threw them a grateful grin and rushed off to perform his task.

Tab took a few steps towards the building and then turned back. "I gotta go to Zed," she said, "but I just want to thank you two as well for what you've done. I'm not glad you got caught up in all this — but, if it had to be anybody, I'm glad it was you. If that makes sense."

"Yeah, same goes for me," Purr added as Tab hurried away. "So if you need anything, just ask — okay?"

Neijal and Jassif exchanged glances and then turned to Purr. "Actually, there is something we've been craving for days now. I wonder if you have some?"

"Hey — anything," said Purr grandiosely.

"Well," smiled Neijal, "we'd both kill for a cup of stimtea."

Purr couldn't help it — she burst into raucous laughter; and it took her a while to stop, by which time she had the dark wet streaks back in the fur under her eyes. "Sorry. It's just that the last thing I can imagine is you two killing anything." She pulled herself back together. "Of course I can get you some tea, and there should be some juice around for the kid. In fact, let's get you settled and then we'll get some food on the go. For everyone."

"I think that's a very good idea," agreed Jassif, just as another speeder coasted through the gate and settled nearby. "I do believe that's Lando and Tendra," she said, peering into the darkness.

"Yeah, and our two Jedi. And-" She tensed. "Sithspit," she muttered, unaware of the irony in the curse. "Come on," she motioned to the Mantrusians, "let's get you comfortable." And as she led them to the room that once belonged to her friends, now dead along with Doc and Squid thanks to Bomar Tag and his cronies, she wondered how she could ever forgive anyone even vaguely connected to the man; and why, why, why had those two crazy Jedi brought Jaytee back here after all he'd done to destroy them?

Chapter Forty-Six | Chapter Forty-Eight

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