Many Happy Returns: Chapter One

In Rebirth, Corran Horn learnt that when you take Anakin Solo and Tahiri Veila with you on a simple supply trip, things can quickly become complicated, albeit exciting in a death-defying sort of way. About two standard months after their safe return to the Errant Venture, Anakin and Tahiri find themselves on another trip, this time with Lando. Did Corran have a chance to warn Lando about the possible trouble he may be letting himself in for? Probably not. If he had, maybe the following events might not have happened.

The young man with eyes the colour of durasteel turned to his companion, an older, taller man who was wearing a black flight suit. "You still OK with this Qorl? It might get unpleasant you know."

"Unpleasant," Qorl nodded. He lapsed into silence and watched Remis Vehn's fingers skipping deftly over the controls of their light transport as he initiated the power-up sequence.

Vehn was accustomed to these periods of quiet. Qorl was an ex-TIE pilot who had crashed on Yavin 4 in the battle against the first Death Star. He had managed to survive alone there for twenty years until one day when Jaina and Jacen Solo had found his wrecked TIE fighter. Initially Qorl had held the twins captive and forced them to fix his ship, but eventually the three had been forced to fight together against a common enemy -- the Shadow Academy -- and they had become friends. Qorl's long separation from other humans meant that he found silence normal and small talk difficult, but this didn't particularly bother Vehn. Quorl seemed quite happy just to listen, and sometimes the younger man had to admit it was quite therapeutic just to be able to talk without having to allow any conversational space for the old man. In some ways it was no different to talking to himself, except that having Qorl there made the situation more companionable, and at least quieted his fears that his solo conversations might be a sign of insanity.

"Dealing with people is often unpleasant," Qorl said eventually in his perfunctory style.

Vehn chuckled sardonically. "Yeah, especially the sort of people I seem to get involved with -- present company excluded of course."

Quorl nodded sagely. "It's true you've made some bad decisions about who to trust. However, we all make mistakes -- that's how we learn."

"Yeah, well what I've learnt can be summed up in three words: don't trust anyone," grunted the pilot as he focused his attention on maintaining the course that Roon Planetary Security had advised him to follow. These days everyone was so nervous thanks to the presence of the Yuuzhan Vong that the merest departure from any security instructions could mean attack by whatever passed for a planet's defence force.

Qorl made the strange nasal humming noise that Vehn had discovered was a signal for the old man contradicting him. "Some people are good. Booster Terrik and the Jedi -- I'd trust them."

"Well that is true," conceded Vehn. "If it wasn't for Terrik rescuing us from the Vong near Yavin, we'd probably be star food by now. And I guess he didn't have to go to the trouble he did to drop us off somewhere safe."

"I think it was his way of repaying us for saving his grandson," Qorl reminded him. Vehn and Qorl had been instrumental in helping Anakin Solo and Tahiri Veila, along with Booster's grandson Valin Horn and another young Jedi trainee, escape the clutches of the Yuuzhan Vong after they invaded Yavin 4.

"Yeah," Vehn began feeding co-ordinates into the navicom. "It'll be interesting to see if certain other parties are so willing to repay us for the trouble they got us into."

Qorl nodded again, and transferred his attention to the viewport in readiness to watch their transition into hyperspace. Having been planetbound for so many years, he had rediscovered space travel with a quaint child-like joy: the smell of coolant that always seemed to permeate the atmosphere of space vessels; the moment when light seemed to dissolve around them and swallow them into a tunnel leading to apparent infinity; the myriad other sensations that he had once associated with starships, all had returned to fill him with emotions that he had forgotten existed and that he no longer had the words to express.

Vehn glanced over at the old TIE pilot and smiled to himself. In spite of Qorl's occasional tendency to use his boot in place of verbal communication, Vehn found he had developed an unexpected fondness for him. He wondered sometimes if he regarded him as a sort of substitute father, a father being something Vehn had never really had, his own having disappeared before he had reached an age to equate a face with the name "dad." In fact family was a concept he had little personal experience of at all, and he'd had to admit to being a little jealous of Anakin Solo and of young Valin Horn after observing their reunions with the various members of their families on board the Errant Venture following their escape. Even taking into account the fact that Anakin and his brother Jacen seemed to disagree on a few things, the bond between the two of them was still obvious and was greater than Vehn could remember sharing with anybody. He stole another quick look at his companion, and wondered idly how Qorl regarded him. Did he see him as surrogate family, or as a convenient compatriot to use until he found his feet? He guessed that time would tell.

For the moment it looked as though Qorl was happy to go along with their current plan to try and enveigle the Peace Brigade into compensating them for the damage caused to Vehn's ship while he was working for them. Personally he didn't think they stood much of a chance as his ship had not been damaged while carrying out the Peace Brigade's mission, but after it had been stolen by two of the young Jedi they were meant to capture. Nevertheless, it was worth the effort, if only to give him the chance to confront the people who had hired him and subsequently lied to him about the true nature of the mission. He was sure that if he had known they were targeting children, he would never have accepted the job. Even if all he achieved was the chance to spit in their faces, he would consider it worthwhile, although some financial compensation would be nice. It had cost him and Qorl over three standard months menial labour in a munitions factory on Roon to both pay for the repairs to the hyperdrive on his ship and finance his investigations into where the Peace Brigade contact who had hired him was now located. He wondered idly how the man would react when they turned up at his office. No doubt he had thought Vehn had died along with some of the others.

Once they'd made the transition to hyperspace, Qorl disappeared into the galley. Vehn ran a quick diagnostic check just to make sure the newly repaired hyperdrive had survived its first workout as well as it seemed, and then leaned back in his seat and gazed out the viewport. His inward gaze was still focused on his memories of what had happened on Yavin 4, in fact he had found himself returning to that time frequently over the past four months. The Solo kid, especially, cropped up in his thoughts. On one hand, he was sure if he had ever had a brother like that he probably would have wanted to strangle him -- he was too smart, too good-looking and too damned cocky. On the other hand, he couldn't deny the grudging admiration he had for him. How many sixteen-year-olds could successfully take on an entire establishment of Vong? How many would even consider trying? Pretty good on the guns, too, he thought. If I ever meet up with him again, perhaps I should offer him a job. Not that I have a clue how I'd be able to pay him, seeing I don't even know how I'm going to make a living. He sighed. The Vong had made life difficult for everybody. Have to wait and see what happens on Balmorra I guess.

Images from his encounter with Anakin flickered through his mind like scenes in a HoloDrama. Wonder what was between him and the little blonde? he wondered idly. Didn't seem like they were related or anything. Interesting. He considered some of the women he'd known, and whether he'd be willing to travel halfway round a planet in a makeshift speeder to rescue them if they were captured. He was still weighing up the pros and cons for each case when his eyelids began to droop, and he settled back in his chair and fell asleep.

* * * * *

"Calrissian, long time, no see!" Booster Terrik heaved his impressive frame up from where he was sitting behind his ornate desk, immediately making the room seem smaller. Although age had caught up with him to the extent of greying his hair, and occasionally dulling his quickfire physical reflexes, it had failed to dampen the internal power source that motivated his considerable energy and determination. The ravages of personal loss and his involvement in the struggles against the Empire had only served to harden and concentrate his fortitude, as a furnace tempers base metals and transforms them into durasteel.

Once able to roam the galaxy far and wide, pursuing the life of a trader and sometime smuggler when politics dictated, Booster, like everyone, had had to adapt to the siege-like conditions that the invading Yuuzhan Vong had imposed. His home, the Errant Venture, a former Imperial Star Destroyer, had recently become home also to a host of young Jedi students and their instructors, as well as many of the other Jedi in need of a place of refuge. The galaxy was no longer a safe place for them, not since the Yuuzhan Vong had announced they would trade lives and peace for Jedi sacrifices. So it was that Booster spent much of his time now either enjoying contact with his two Jedi grandchildren, or meeting and making war plans with those he still trusted in the failing New Republic, in the room which served as his office and general centre of operations.

"Good to see you too, you old rogue," grinned Lando retrieving his hand from the vigorous workout to which Booster had just subjected it. Lando's history of battles and struggles extended nearly as far back as Booster's. Although both men would have agreed that the galaxy had never been a safe place, they both would have said that it was once a lot less alien-looking. As the Yuuzhan Vong siezed planets, they modified them, turning them into nurseries in which to grow their biotechnical weapons and space transports. Change was one thing, but complete reversals that flew in the face of normality were hard to come to terms with. "How's the travelling circus?"

Booster's attempted glare was confounded by the faint look of wry amusement in his good eye. "Teaching me a whole new set of skills, Calrissian. When this war is over, I tell you, I'll be able to deal with anything -- playground diplomacy, nappy-changing. After managing these whipper-snappers, I reckon I could run the entire galaxy one-handed."

Lando chuckled, and took the seat Booster waved him into.

"So what's brought you back into circulation? The last I heard you were busy knocking the Maw installation into something habitable to Jedi."

Lando nodded. "I still am. But every now and again we run out of food or need more equipment. You know how it is -- simple jobs turn into nightmares because some idiot forgot to get the right-sized hydrospanner. So I have to resume my acquaintance with the galaxy, although I have to admit that each trip I make, the galaxy seems to have got a little smaller and a little less friendly."

"Hah! Tell me about it," rumbled the big Corellian. "If the number of safe routes decreases any more, I might as well dispense with hyperspace altogether and just fly the Venture round in circles."

"Well, they do say a moving target is harder to hit," said Lando drily.

"Too right. Anyway, I gather your visit wasn't just to catch up, enjoyable and usually informative though any conversation with you always is. What's up?"

Lando smiled and relaxed back in his seat. Although it, like the table, was made from chunky Corellian hardwood, it was surprisingly well-formed and comfortable. He made a mental note to investigate whether he could acquire a similar set for his suite at Sanctuary. Probably difficult with the way things are at present, he thought, but something to consider for the future. One of Lando's coping mechanisms in times of duress involved making plans for the future, thereby inferring that a future existed. Some would have called it mindless optimism; Lando called it mental survival.

"Nothing as such," he replied. "As I said, this is mainly a supply trip. But just before I left, I got a call from Han. Apparently the engineers at Eclipse are having trouble with their vacuum sealant -- they must have bought a bad load or something. He wants me to pick up something more reliable and drop it off for him there, along with his son, Anakin. Apparently they're having a few other technical problems that they think Anakin might be able to solve for them."

"Ah, so you want to steal one of my passengers," the glint in Booster's mechanical eye was a little malevolent. "If you like I could lend you a few more."

"Er, no thanks," said Lando quickly. "The order was for strictly for one."

Booster grinned again. "Well it won't be one, I can tell you that right now. If you take Anakin, you take Tahiri, too. They come as a pair."

"Tahiri?" Lando's dark eyebrows raised in puzzlement. "Han didn't mention anyone else."

"No? Hmm, his powers of observation obviously aren't as strong as they once were. Still, I suppose to be fair to him, he's still in reconciliation mode with Leia. I think he might be in for a surprise." A strange look passed over Booster's face, not one Lando expected to see. It was almost fatherly and fond. He looked again to check he hadn't been mistaken, but found Booster smiling at him rather enigmatically. Lando stared back at his companion, wondering what he was on about and if there was some hidden joke he was meant to be understanding. "I haven't got a clue what you're talking about," he said shaking his head.

"Of course you haven't," replied Booster breezily. "It sounds like it's going to be your job to bring Han and Leia up to date on the happenings in their son's life. Maybe you can even offer him a little friendly advice and support. After all," the big man grinned, making his good eye glint knowingly, "you're a man of the galaxy. Anakin's stateroom's on Diamond Deck, just past the recreation room."

Lando gazed at Booster quizzically, but the object of his gaze was already on his feet reaching across the table to shake his hand again. "Let me know when you're ready to leave."

"I'll take that as a dismissal," Lando grunted, acknowledged Booster's amused nod with one of his own, and departed. In the turbo-lift, he puzzled over Booster's words. He hadn't had much to do with children, in fact the thought of being in Booster's place as guardian of a whole host of them was mildly terrifying to him. Children were as much an unknown quantity as animals in his book in that they seemed to follow their own unfathomable, and often unpredictable, rules of logic. Admittedly, he had enjoyed the occasional interactions with Han and Leia's children when they were younger, but since they'd become teenagers, the galaxy had rather devolved into chaos. He had seen Jacen a few months previously, when he visited Sanctuary with Han and Leia. But he hadn't seen Anakin since ... he was still trying to remember if the last time he saw the boy was at Dubrillion, when the turbo-lift delivered him to his destination.

Halfway around a wide sweeping corridor he found the recreation room, and about twenty paces further on he found what he presumed was the door to Anakin's room. He knocked and waited, and was about to knock again when it opened and he found himself staring at ... he lowered his gaze. Expecting to find a dark-haired boy of reasonable height, he found a petite girl with hair the colour of desert sand.

"Hello," she said cheerily.

"Er, hello," Lando's characteristic smooth charm when confronted with people of the opposite sex kicked in, and he ducked his head in a half-bow. "I'm looking for Anakin Solo. Is this the right room?"

"Yep," smiled the girl, her wide green eyes studying him, obviously fascinated. "He'll be out in a minute, he's just in the shower. Do you want to come in?"

"Thanks." As Lando stepped into the room, some of his conversation with Booster came back to him. "Would I be right in assuming that you're Tahiri?"

"You would," she replied. He noticed she was gazing at his clothes in open admiration. "That cloak is astral. Do you always wear it? Are you a Count or a Baron or something?"

Lando chuckled. "I'm afraid not. My name's Lando, Lando Calrissian. I'm an old friend of the family."

"Now that name rings a bell," she mused. "Ooh yes, I remember, Anakin's told me about you."

"Hopefully only the good bits," Lando grinned.

Tahiri laughed. "Well, that would be telling wouldn't it," she said mischievously, and sat down at the data screen she had obviously been studying when he interrupted her. She pointed to a fabric chair in the corner piled with bits of flimsi and the remains of what looked like the motivator board from a droid. "You can sit down if you like. Sorry about the mess, but that's Anakin unfortunately. I used to try and keep it tidy, but he'd always mess it up again, so I've given up. He reckoned he could never find anything -- boys are weird. Oh sorry," she glanced across at him apologetically, "present company excluded and all that."

Lando found his grin becoming wider. His memory of Anakin was of a boy who spoke mainly when spoken to. He wondered idly if Tahiri's considerable conversational skills had improved Anakin's, or possibly had had the opposite effect, and reduced him to complete silence. He was about to provide some male perspective on the tidiness question, when the door to the refresher opened. For a split second Lando felt a strange sense of disorientation, as if time had reversed and he was back thirty years looking at a young Han Solo. He looked again. No, there was the distinctive Skywalker earnest expression and dimpled chin.

"Lando?" the youth said disbelievingly, and let the towel he was about to dry his hair with drop to drape around his neck. His face broke out into a lopsided grin. "Hey. This is a surprise. How're things?" He responded to Lando's handshake, and his ice blue eyes swept briefly over the older man's face. Lando had the distinct impression that he was being assessed to make sure he was not the bearer of bad news.

"As good as things can be at the moment," he replied.

Anakin raised one dark eyebrow, and gave him wry look. "In other words, bad, but not too bad." He turned to Tahiri.

"I've already introduced myself, and it's here," she said, in apparent answer to two unspoken questions, and she reached over to the wide shelf beside her seat and pulled a neatly folded tunic top out from under a stack of data cards.

"Oh, um, thanks," he threw his towel on to the floor near the door to the refresher, and pulled the shirt on over his head. Tahiri threw Lando a knowing glance and rolled her eyes. "I'll pick it up later," he assured her as he tucked his shirt into his Corellian-style breeches, and then turned back to his guest. "So what brings you here, Lando? Business or pleasure?"

Lando chuckled, partly out of amusement, and partly from surprised delight. This older Anakin was new to him, and rather interesting, and he studied him carefully while he replied. "Bit of both actually. First a message from your parents saying 'hello' and 'we need your help at Eclipse,' and second an offer of a detour to Balmorra to pick up some supplies, and maybe even indulge in a few non-scheduled activities." He winked.

"Wow," Tahiri's eyes sparkled like Ithorian jadeflowers.

Anakin smiled at her. "Watch him, Tahiri. Don't let him get you anywhere near a sabacc table." He turned to Lando. "So when do we leave?"

"How soon can you be ready?"

In reply Anakin reached under his bunk and hauled out a backpack. "Two minutes," he replied lightly.

"Three," Tahiri corrected him, holding up a comb she had just extracted from the same place she found the top.

"Do I have to?" he pleaded.

"You know you want to really," she cajoled, smiling sweetly.

Anakin threw Lando a resigned look. "I've given up trying to argue," he shrugged, giving his hair, still tousled from the shower, a cursory touch-up.

"You know you're a goner," Lando murmured confidentially.

"Yeah." The look on Anakin's face suggested he was enjoying every minute of his defeat.

"Actually, make it ten minutes," Tahiri said, as she switched off the datapad, and walked to the door. "Some of us like to pack properly."

"Some of us are just too fussy, you mean," Anakin corrected her.

"Maybe some of us just like to be systematic," she shot back as she disappeared up the corridor.

Anakin eyed the comb for a moment, and then threw it decisively on to his bunk. He started grabbing pieces of clothing and datacards and stuffing them into his pack. "I gather you've already spoken to Booster," he said.

Lando nodded. "He tried to offload a few more on to me."

Anakin chuckled, and slid the cover over his datapad before wrapping it carefully in one of his shirt tops. "I think Booster's enjoying his role as guardian, despite his protestations to the contrary. Still, the sooner we get Eclipse and Sanctuary functional the better."

"Yeah, well we're getting there. Eclipse will be habitable once they get this sealant problem sorted out, which is where you come in. We're going to pick up some of the same product I located when I was setting up the asteroid run on Dubrillion, then all it'll require is for you to sort out the networking problems they're having with the environment control system."

Anakin threw a cursory glance around his room before hulking his pack on to his back. As he shrugged it into a comfortable position, Lando couldn't help noticing the changes that adolescence had wrought on the boy's frame. Although it was obvious he was still filling out, he was already tall and broad-shouldered.

"I think that's everything," he said. He flicked Lando a quick grin that was slightly apologetic. "I'll go and see how Tahiri's getting on, but she's probably still only writing her list."

Lando held up his hands and shrugged. "Don't worry, there's no hurry. I need to check in with Booster before we go anyway."

"Yeah, me too. We'll meet you at your ship if you like. I presume you're in the main docking bay?"

Lando nodded and stood up, adjusting his cloak so that it hung at an appropriately rakish angle. The galaxy may be descending into rack and ruin, but there were certain standards that Lando considered important to maintain. "It's been a while since you've travelled on the Lady Luck. I've made a few little modifications and developed some ideas to make it more complicated for the Vong in case I'm ever unfortunate to have a close encounter with them." He followed Anakin out of the room and around the corridor, stopping with him at an open door a few paces further on.

"Astral," responded the youth enthusiastically.

Tahiri was sitting on her bunk surrounded by neat piles of clothes and some small bags already packed with smaller items. "See," she said pointedly, "organised and orderly."

Anakin marched across the room and disappeared into the small refresher unit. "Not quite," Lando heard him say. "You've forgotten the refresher basin."

"Ha ha, very funny. You know I always pack that last."

Lando caught the amused roll of Anakin's blue eyes as he emerged from the refresher.

"We could be a while," he sighed and sat down in the empty chair.

"That will give me time to see Booster, and organise a quick fuel top-up," Lando said. "I hope he's in a generous mood."

"Booster's bellow is worse than his bite," Tahiri said sagely.

"Believe me, Lando, you're already in his good books. With Tahiri gone he might actually be able to get a word in edgewise at mealtimes."

"Really? Then how come he's always giving me those scrummy Corellian taffysticks?"

"It's obvious isn't it? He's hoping they'll stick your teeth together," Anakin grinned triumphantly. It was the same lop-sided grin Lando had seen on Han's face more times than he would have been able to count.

"I'll leave you two to slug it out," Lando said, and withdrew shaking his head. As the turbo-lift carried him back to the level on which Booster's office was located he found himself contemplating the prospect of playing temporary guardian to two teenagers with a combination of mild trepidation and amused anticipation. One thing was for sure; it certainly looked like Booster was right. Han and Leia might be in for a surprise.

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