Many Happy Returns: Chapter Two
When Lando returned to his office, Anakin was still sitting where he had left him studying diagrams showing different graphical representations and elevations of a droid-type figure. The only difference was that Tahiri was now peering at them too, her arms resting casually on his shoulders. Lando was slowly beginning to make sense of Booster's earlier statements about his two young passengers. In the eight standard hours they had been in hyperspace on the Lady Luck, he had seen them apart twice.
"You should tell Lando," she was saying. "He's hardly going to want a droid with the potential to shoot its own foot off."
"Is there a problem?" Lando enquired curiously.
"Anakin's discovered a design fault," announced Tahiri.
"Not exactly a design fault, more of a potential glitch," he corrected her.
"A droid without a foot would be a major glitch, unless you can programme it to hop."
Lando chuckled at the image conjured up by her words. "True," he said good-naturedly. "So what have I done wrong?"
Anakin glanced up at him earnestly, reminding Lando again that he had half-Skywalker blood running in his veins. "You need to adjust the range on his short-distance laser targeting module -- in other words reduce its angular parameters. Either that, or install a failsafe device to over-ride its firing capacity until the targeting module has registered that no part of the droid itself is within the frame."
Lando studied the area that Anakin had painted with red lines on the datascreen. "Uh-huh. Good spotting. Looks like you've earned your first day's board already."
"Good, no kitchen duty for us tonight then," said Tahiri cheekily.
Lando grinned widely in return. "None for Anakin, no. I believe you have yet to make a contribution, young lady?"
"That's a bit sexist," she grumbled.
"'Fraid so," Lando countered glibly. "Someone around here has to try and maintain tradition."
"Some traditions are a bit silly," she murmured.
"I think Tendra has some of that mallowcake left -- the one I saw you sneaking seconds of at dinner," he mused.
"Why didn't you say," her face crinkled into a sunny smile, and she hurried out, but not before Anakin had responded to the squeeze she gave his shoulder with an answering touch of his hand on hers. It was the merest brush, and if Lando hadn't been watching them closely he would have missed it, but he felt a jolt of surprise. Had the two of them been this close when Han and Leia had been on the Errant Venture, or was this something that had developed quite recently? Obviously neither of Anakin's parents seemed to be aware of it, and the conversation with Booster came back to him again.
"These droids are going to be pretty impressive, Lando," Anakin's words broke in on his cogitations. "And that secondary escape pod system is brilliant. It's good that you've always had those slave circuits."
"I haven't actually always had them, but I am glad I installed them. They've saved me a few times."
Anakin's blue eyes flickered over his face briefly. "I seem to recall them saving quite a few other people as well," he said.
Lando shrugged. "I live to serve," he chuckled.
Anakin's serious expression faded a little and he turned back to the datascreen.
"You'd better leave that diagram on for me," Lando said. "I'll take another look at it later. Thanks for the input, by the way, it's always good to get another perspective."
"No problem." Anakin sounded a little distracted.
Lando glanced across at the youth curiously. "Something up?" he asked. In reply Anakin regarded him thoughtfully for a moment. The silence lasted long enough to make Lando wonder if he'd actually heard the question at all, and he was just about to repeat it when Anakin shifted awkwardly in his seat, glanced in the direction of the galley, and then cleared his throat.
"Um," he began.
Uh-oh, thought Lando. I think I'm going to regret asking that question.
"It's about Tahiri," said Anakin, a little hesitantly.
"Oh," said Lando. Spit he murmured to himself. Where's Tendra when you need her?
"It's her birthday soon," continued Anakin, dropping his voice, as if he thought Tahiri might hear him from the galley and come to eavesdrop. "And I haven't got a clue as to what to get her."
"Ah," Lando breathed a huge sigh of relief.
"And there's not really anyone around that I could ask. I mean, I know Tahiri better than anybody, and I should be able to come up with some ideas, but I, um, well -- I'm not much good at this sort of thing."
"It doesn't come naturally, Anakin, it's something you learn to get good at."
"How?" Anakin looked at him curiously.
"By observation," explained Lando. "Imagine you're in covert security, and Tahiri's your suspect. Watch what advertisements she takes notice of on the HoloNet, find out what HoloMags she reads and what she looks at in them, see what she notices about other women's clothing -- that sort of thing."
Anakin's eyebrows shot up in wonder. "Wow! You make it sound like serious intrigue."
"It is," said Lando emphatically. "This is life or death stuff, Anakin. Women are forgiving up to a point, but it's not a point you can push too hard for too long."
"Yeah? Well in that case I'm already teetering on the edge," he said sardonically. "I forgot her last birthday completely, and then a few days later I got her captured by the Yuuzhan Vong!"
Lando grimaced. "Yeeouch!"
Anakin frowned thoughtfully. "Obviously, I'll have to try and be a bit more observant," he muttered. "Maybe I could backscan the stuff she's been logging into recently on the HoloNet."
"Now you're thinking," Lando slapped him triumphantly on the shoulder.
"I didn't realise things would get this complicated," Anakin observed.
Lando stifled a snort. The universe was falling to bits around them, the Yuuzhan Vong were sacrificing people by the millions, the government was slowly destroying itself from within -- and Anakin had finally discovered that life was a little confusing? What could he say?
"You'll get the hang of it," Lando reassured him. "Just try and be better at it than your father."
"I think they're sweet," said Tendra to Lando as he refilled her cup. "I'm really enjoying having them on board. This is great coffeine by the way, we'll have to try and get some more."
"Yes, well we'll just have to hope the Vong don't develop a taste for coffeine, too" Lando said laconically. "I'm rapidly losing all my best suppliers."
Tendra smiled, but it was a smile tinged with her understanding of Lando's dark humour. Secretly she knew he was as disturbed as everyone else at the Yuuzhan Vong's apparent disregard for life. She took another sip of her coffeine and settled back into the soft comfort of her chair, moulding her hands around the mug to absorb its warmth and dispel the chill that filled her bones at any mention of the Vong. "I really don't think you need to worry about those two," she said, returning to the original topic of conversation. "Perhaps you're remembering your own youth and assuming that Anakin's going to be as devious as you probably were."
Lando threw her a wide-eyed look that attempted to evoke innocence. "Now that's an interesting turnaround. I could have sworn I've often heard you appreciate the fact that I always behave like a gentleman."
"You do," she agreed, took another sip of her coffeine and continued, "now. I'm talking about when you were a teenager."
"I was never a teenager," Lando explained. "I went from child to gentleman in one easy transition."
"Can I also say how much I appreciate the way you can lie so smoothly," Tendra managed to stop her lips twitching.
Lando chuckled and reached over to brush her fingers with his. "You're probably right. I guess I just feel responsible for them while they're in our care. Plus, remember I knew Han when he was only a few years older than Anakin, and ... well, Anakin is his father's son in many ways."
"But not in the ways you're meaning. He's had a different upbringing, and a whole different set of influences. It seems to me that people like Luke, Tionne and Kam have had as much impact on the Solo kids as their parents."
"True," Lando nodded. "But he is a teenage boy, and Tahiri's a very pretty girl. And they seem to be unusually close."
"That's because they're best friends -- have been for years."
Lando looked at his wife curiously. "How do you know so much about them?"
She put her mug down and smiled sweetly at him. "You forget, my love, I had Tahiri helping me in the galley the other night. In one hour I think I heard more information than I've so far managed to assimilate in a lifetime."
Lando leaned back and let out a guffaw. "Well, in that case I'll trust in your judgment." He stopped as a sudden thought had occurred to him. "She didn't happen to mention her birthday at all did she?"
Tendra smiled. "Her birthday, yes. And Anakin's, and her last birthday and probably every other birthday before that."
"He forgot her last birthday," Lando said triumphantly, relieved to be able to contribute at least one piece of pertinent information. "And he's worrying about what to get her."
"She knows that. That's why she keeps leaving him clues."
"Ah," said Lando. He paused. "He hasn't found them."
"She knows that too. I think, Lando, that this is one area where you might be able to give him some guidance. The chances of him learning present-buying etiquette from his father are pretty slight."
Lando reflected on some of Han's efforts, the planet Dathomir being one of the more memorable.
"She also wants to buy him a present," Tendra continued, "because apparently it was his seventeenth birthday recently, but she had no opportunity to get what she wanted for him. She had thought she might have been able to get it on Eriadu, but apparently things got a bit complicated when they were there and they had to leave suddenly. So I thought that while we're on Balmorra we could each take them separately on shopping trips."
"Sounds okay to me," smiled Lando agreeably. "I don't mind spending time with Anakin. He's interesting."
"I presume you'll be taking him with you when you go to sort out the deal with the sealant?"
"Definitely. Having a Jedi on hand in business deals is always a plus."
"Good," his wife smiled. "While you two are doing that, I'll take Tahiri with me. Fortunately she knows exactly what she wants to get him, so it shouldn't be too difficult." She took a last sip of her coffeine, and gazed across at her husband affectionately. "I'm kind of enjoying surrogate parenthood."
Lando returned her gaze, noting behind the affection a faint look of sadness. Children were an experience that he and Tendra would only ever be able to enjoy on a part-time basis, and although that had obvious advantages, it would never be quite the same as having children of their own.
"All the fun minus the sleepless nights," he grinned. "Still, I'll just go and check how they're going with the lightsaber practice."
"Anakin wanted to run through a few lightsaber drills with Tahiri, so I sent them down to the exercise area in the docking bay." He caught Tendra's quizzical look. "I don't know how accurate she is," he added in explanation.
"I wasn't meaning why send them down there, I was meaning why feel you have to check up on them? Stop worrying, Lando, they're fine."
"You're sure?" he said hesitantly.
Tendra patted his hand and smiled reassuringly. "Trust me."
"So," said Anakin as he and Tahiri strolled along behind the older couple on their way through a large and colourful market. "What are you and Tendra going to do?"
"Shop till we drop," she said, throwing him a mischievous look.
"Yeah? Since when have you become such a shopaholic?" He gave the hand he was holding a playful squeeze.
"Since we finally found a place where there're shops and nobody shooting at us or trying to capture us," she explained. "You sometimes forget, Anakin, that while you've been roaming around the galaxy, I've been stuck on places like Tatooine and Yavin 4."
"True," he conceded. He slipped his arm around her, and hugged her against him. "It's a shame we can't go to Coruscant. You could really go on a shopping rampage there."
"Yeah," she smiled, watching a street performer, a humanoid of unknown ethnic origin, contorting her supple body into knots.
"Hey," he glanced down at her. "You hungry?"
Anakin had stopped at a stall selling frozen sweet delights. "Remember those frozen juice lollies old Peckhum brought us all back once?"
"Well, try one of these," Anakin exchanged some coins for two cup-shaped things piled with some sort of frozen dessert. He handed one to Tahiri and she took a tentative lick.
"Mmmm," she said approvingly, and took another larger one. "What's so funny?"
"You've got a big dob on your nose," he chuckled.
Tahiri rubbed her nose on her sleeve. "Is it off?"
"Not quite. Come here." He flicked the pink fruit-flecked cream off her nose with his forefinger. "Now it is," he grinned.
Tahiri giggled as he took her hand again. "This is fun. I wish we could do this sort of thing more often."
"Yeah," sighed Anakin, biting into the waffle cup and wiping a dribble of bluish cream from his chin. "You can blame the Vong for that." He caught the warning upwards flicker of her eyes. "Yuuzhan Vong," he corrected himself.
"Mother of meteors, Anakin, don't you ever stop eating!" Lando said as the two young Jedi approached.
"I do try not to snack between snacks," Anakin assured him earnestly. "Are we off now?"
Lando nodded and turned to Tendra. "We'll meet you two back at our rooms. I'm not too sure how long this will take."
"That's okay, my love. That'll mean Tahiri and I can have a good look around." She smiled at the blonde girl and then turned back to Lando. "I thought we could have a picnic by the sea later on, so I'll buy some food."
"Now that does sound good," said Lando agreeably. He touched her affectionately on the cheek and turned back to where Anakin had been standing. "Now where's he gone?"
Tendra smiled. "They're behind that stall."
Lando rolled his eyes.
"Oh come on," Tendra said teasingly, "I'll bet you've taken girls behind the speeder-bike shelters."
Before Lando could think of a retort, Anakin and Tahiri appeared again.
"Does this mean we can go?" Lando raised one dark eyebrow quizzically.
"Sure," Anakin said breezily, and then frowned as Lando stifled a chuckle. "What's the matter?"
In reply, Lando reached out and wiped a smear of pink from his cheek.
"Now we can go," Lando grinned.
"According to the map I downloaded from the Visitor's Guide, our man's premises are over on the other side of the centre of the city," said Lando, as they stepped on to an automated walkway that took them over a bridge that allowed pedestrians to bypass the busy commercial area. Balmorra was a pleasant world, and the city of Dinarra, where they had landed, was surrounded on one side by forested hills, and on the other by the sea. The planet had so far escaped the interest of the Yuuzhan Vong, probably, Lando thought, because it was relatively unimportant both strategically and politically. The jury was out on how long that would act as a deterrent.
"Oh -- so this isn't the guy you dealt with before," said Anakin.
"Yeah -- same guy, different planet. He moved about six or seven standard months ago."
"Where was he before?"
Anakin threw Lando a quizzical look.
"Near Yag'Dhul," the older man explained.
Anakin's lips twisted sardonically. "Ah, Yag'Dhul -- fond memories."
"Well," Lando nudged him, "I hear you three didn't Givin at all easily."
Anakin chuckled, but the levity slowly gave way to a thoughtful look. "I wonder why he moved?"
"Probably wanted to put plenty of distance between himself and the Vong. Everyone's doing that these days."
"Yeah," mused Anakin.
Lando's brow furrowed. "What's the problem?"
Anakin shrugged. "I'm probably just getting paranoid, but it seems odd to go to all the trouble of moving your business, and probably losing some of your clientele, unless you have a really good reason. And six or seven months ago, there were no signs of any Vong activity near Yag'Dhul, so what reason would he have for moving?"
Lando huffed in exasperation. "I think you are being paranoid, Anakin. Can't we just enjoy a simple business trip without looking for intrigue?"
"Sorry. Habit," Anakin threw him an apologetic smile.
"That's all right. I guess you have rather been in the thick of it lately. But see if you can think fun, relaxation, civilisation for a few days. You never know, you might get to like it."
Anakin laughed. "Okay, Lando. No more suspicious thoughts, I promise."
Lando patted the youth on the back. "You're okay, kid," he chuckled. "Ah, this looks like the place. After you," he waved Anakin on up the sloped entry under a rolled up door, and once inside he approached a long transparisteel window.
"We're here to see Bomar Tag if he's available," he gave the young Twi'lek woman behind the window one of his charming smiles.
"Do you have an appointment?" she asked, her gaze slipping from Lando to take in Anakin.
"Not exactly an appointment, but he is expecting me. The name's Calrissian, Lando Calrissian."
"Calrissian," repeated the woman distractedly, and then she seemed to start and her pale blue eyes flicked back to focus on Lando again. "Oh, Lando Calrissian. Yes, yes, of course. I'll tell him you're here."
Lando grinned at Anakin. "Now that's what I call service."
Anakin nodded. He was having to concentrate on keeping a casual expression, because he didn't want to annoy Lando by letting his unease show. The fact was, however, he could feel something strange. In fact, he felt strange, but he couldn't as yet define what constituted it exactly. Had he eaten his ice too quickly? Had something happened to Tahiri? He reached inwards for a moment. No, he was sure he could answer no to both those questions. So what was the problem? The Twi'lek woman's voice coming from beside him made him jump.
"Mr Tag will see you now, Mr Calrissian," she said smoothly. "Just follow the corridor round until you see a door to your left. That's Mr Tag's office."
Now that is bad, thought Anakin. I should have been able to sense her coming. What's wrong with me?
"Thank you," Lando smiled suavely again, and waved his head at Anakin indicating for him to follow. As they progressed towards their destination, Anakin began to feel a faint buzzing in his head. His initial instinct was to grab his lightsaber, which he was carrying concealed under his vest due to Lando suggesting that neither he nor Tahiri advertise the fact that they were Jedi. But then he realised that the buzzing sensation was not the same that he felt in the presence of the Yuuzhan Vong. This was something quite different, and quite new. He followed Lando into the office and tried to concentrate on responding to Bomar Tag's greeting and sitting in the chair the man indicated.
"So," Tag was saying. "You building another asteroid course, Calrissian, or is this for some new venture?"
"I've given up on recreation," said Lando. "And this load is for a friend of mine."
"Ah," the man nodded. He was large and bald-headed, and he looked hot. Anakin wasn't aware that it was particularly warm, but the man was a bit overweight -- maybe he'd been rushing around too much. "A friend." His expression soured a little. "Not one of your Jedi friends, I hope?"
Lando's dark eyes narrowed. "Why do you ask?" he said curtly.
The big man shrugged. "We're not too keen on Jedi here."
"By here, do you mean in this office, or on this planet?" Lando, Anakin could see, was tensing up in readiness for a possible attack.
"In this office. And because we've discovered you deal with the Jedi quite a bit, we're naturally suspicious. We don't want any of our product helping them escape justice."
"Justice!" spluttered Lando.
Tag nodded. "The Jedi are the ones who've caused all this trouble, provoking the Yuuzhan Vong and getting innocent people killed. The sooner we get rid of them the better, in my opinion."
Lando exploded. "Your opinion! You're not intelligent enough to have an opinion!" He leapt to his feet. "Come on, Anakin, we're out of here. If I stay in the same room as this piece of bantha excrement any longer I'm not going to be able to restrain myself."
Anakin saw Tag cast a smug glance in his direction and fiddle with something under his desk. He forced himself to focus his senses and concentrate on the immediate area around him, but the fuzziness clouded his perception and made him feel as though he was operating in a thick fog.
Tag tipped his chair back and folded his arms casually. "Anakin? This wouldn't be Anakin Solo would it? The same Anakin Solo who attacked a group of New Republic citizens on Yavin 4 when they were trying to carry out their patriotic duty?"
Sithspit, thought Anakin. I should have seen this coming. In fact I think I did see it coming, but I let Lando talk me out of it. He took a step towards Lando, felt a sudden presence behind him, felt the jab of something sharp in the side of his neck, and then his thought processes exploded in a cloud of sparks followed by blackness. He didn't hear Lando call his name, nor did he feel two heavyset guards carry him out into the loading area and throw him into a tiny room at the back. Worst of all, just as he felt the darkness take complete control of him, he realised he couldn't sense Tahiri at all.
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