"Biggs, Tank, come on!"
A second later three boys were shuffling up the stairs. From his seat in the kitchen area, Owen watched as one boy practically toppled the other in an effort to reach the great outdoors. Not that there was much to see but an endless plain of desert stretching in every direction. Still, boys had a way of making an adventure out of nothing, even in the desolate reaches of a forsaken planet like Tatooine.
"It's getting toward sunset," Beru noted as she placed a handful of vegetables in the evaporator.
Owen shut his eyes and inhaled. What was left unsaid gave him a reason to pause. Yes, the sun was setting; it was the fact that the boys were playing outside, while the sun was setting, that meant anything and everything.
Opening his eyes, Owen kicked his chair back and rose with a slow stretch to absorb the kinks of a long day. "I'll be up top," he said, then remembered to smile.
Beru simply kept about her food preparations, offering him a happy grin in return. She was so beautiful when she smiled, and so happy to have Luke. The boy meant everything to her, and Owen felt no less affection toward the child. He just worried...
His wearied legs became heavier with each step up, the effort of a day's hard work taking its toll - until the unadulterated laughter of three boys caught his attention. Owen jogged the rest of the way, slowing only when he caught sight of the children at play.
"Stop! Stop!" Luke shrieked.
And rightfully so, as Tank wrestled the slim boy to the ground. Biggs merely jumped around, cheering the unofficial contestants on. For an instant, Owen considered intervening. Then he remembered that life was a harsh reality. No one would ultimately be able to save Luke from his fate.
Right as that thought wrenched his moisture farmer's simple sensibilities into a knot, Luke managed to give him hope. The boy twisted, maneuvering his body in an uncanny way. Suddenly, Luke was on top with Tank pinned beneath him.
"Beat you!" Luke exclaimed, jumping up and down victoriously.
"Did not!" Tank protested.
"He did too!" Biggs insisted.
Suddenly outnumbered and apparently defeated, Tank puffed his plump torso. "That's 'cuz Luke moves like a Yando worm. So slippery and wiggly no one could hold onto him."
Biggs broke into a round of guffaws, and Luke's victory dance stalled in righteous indignation.
"Luke's a worm," Biggs snickered.
"A wormie worm," Tank embellished.
With that, the battle was back on. Owen stepped forward, meaning to break up the scuffle, until he realized there was more play than punishment involved. The tumbling melodrama continued for only as long as a trio of boys' attention spans lasted, then they separated and rallied into the next game.
Owen might have watched their antics forever, but his ever-wary mind sent a niggling urge that had to be heeded. Something in the red and orange blush of the twin suns' dying throes had caught his eye. To get a better view, he moved to the lip of the desert dune that jutted up to the homestead's edge.
Planting one leg up on the dune, Owen squinted. He assessed an indeterminate outline blurred by the heat of the day stored in the desert sand now rising into the early evening air. Not that he didn't already know who it was. Only one man would be foolish enough to brave a trek across the desert at this time of day. Only one man could dare such a feat.
Tatooine was rife with danger. If the sun didn't suck the life out of a person, the Sand People would. And those were just the immediate and prevalent threats. Still, Owen had to admit that the Tusken Raiders were seldom seen in these parts, certainly not like back in the days when Shmi had been stolen from them. No matter, not even one second's lapse was worth the price they had paid, and Owen made himself check the horizon once more.
Jedi or no Jedi, the safety of his family was ultimately Owen's responsibility.
Soon enough the former Jedi General, the war hero turned enemy of the Empire, climbed the small rise of dune, only stopping his deliberate march once he stood before Owen. "Good day for a walk," Obi-Wan said with a wry smile.
Owen regarded the heat waves billowing off the sands behind Ben. "Only if you favor a walk through hell."
There was a momentary flicker in the Jedi's blue eyes, then all Owen noticed was a few more wrinkles at their edge. "Ah. I have been to what some might call hell." He rubbed his beard. "I would favor here."
The words came out like a kindly adage, but there were layers of truth and pain that rolled through the air with them. Owen found no words of his own in reply. He simply stared at Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi and watched him disappear into the fa?ade that was now the veteran warrior's life.
Ben tucked his free hand back into the folds of his brown robes, and stepped to one side. With a dip of his head, he indicated the commotion of the three boys. "Luke is making friends."
Owen pivoted and matched step with Ben as he drifted in the boy's direction. "He has a few. It's hard out here."
"It is hard for any Force-sensitive child to relate. Young ones are so intolerant of differences once they notice."
Owen drew up. "No one notices."
Slowly, the Jedi turned. "For now."
"You listen," Owen said, crossing his arms. "No one wants to protect that boy more than I do. He means everything in the world to Beru and I -"
"Of that I have no doubt." Obi-Wan held up a palm, then returned it calmly to the folds of his robes. "Perhaps if I were allowed to work with Luke, he would be better able to control -"
"No." Owen shook his head emphatically.
"No," Owen said, louder this time. "Luke is not going to be sucked into your Jedi games. The same games that got his fath-"
Luke's excited call ended Owen's tirade before it had even begun. Both men turned to greet the thunder of six tiny feet scrambling over the hardened desert floor.
"Ben," Luke gasped as he slid to a stop with Tank and Biggs ending on either side. "Wha...what are you doing here?"
Obi-Wan kneeled down on one knee so he was at the boy's eye level. "I heard a rumor it was your life day."
"You did?" Luke practically floated off his toes. "Where?"
Scanning the sky for nothing in particular, Ben mulled over an answer. "Here. There. Anchorhead perhaps, or -"
"You ain't never been to Anchorhead," Tank interjected.
Luke rounded on his pudgy friend. "Don't talk to Ben that way. He's been lots of places."
Tank eyed the robed stranger. "My pa says you don't ever leave that shack of yours across the Dune Sea."
"Ben's been places much better than Anchorhead," Luke said. "I heard Aunt Beru and her friends talking about it."
Tank and Biggs scrutinized the hermit warily.
Ben chuckled once, placing a palm on Luke's defiant shoulders. "A man has got to eat, hmmm?"
His friends seemed unimpressed, but Luke hung on every word. By the look on the boy's face, Ben's answer had inspired an idea. "Can you stay for dinner?" Luke spurted out. "Aunt Beru's making Bantha burgers and blue milk cake."
Ben rose abruptly, and Owen caught a look in his eyes - wanting or wistfulness, he wasn't sure. "I am sure your Aunt doesn't need the extra burden. I...only stopped by to bring you a present and wish you well on your life day."
From under his heavy robes, Ben withdrew a parcel wrapped in plain muslin and tied neatly with a cord. The invitation was all but forgotten as Luke snatched the gift out of Ben's outstretched hand.
"Can I open it?"
A tip of the robed head was all the approval Luke needed. Biggs and Tank practically helped tear off the wrapping with their enthusiastic dance of anticipation, barely giving Luke a chance to unwind the weathered cord.
"Come on, Wormie."
"I'm hurrying," Luke muttered as the last of the covering fell loose.
Silence was all that was left once the surprise was revealed. For the boys it might have been a pause of disappointment, but for Owen it was stunned appreciation. In Luke's hands was a work of art no child should be allowed to hold - a rectangular box carved from dunewood in a manner that practically gave life to the natural flow of the grain. At first glance, Owen noted swirling patterns, but closer scrutiny revealed intricate details that seemed to crawl from the dunewood itself. A nexu head. A shaak's profile. A running tuskcat. A wuicka, a shoikler, even a rare llok.
The Jedi had waited patiently, without a sound, until Luke looked up from his present. Ben rubbed his beard, then crossed his arms. "When I was a pa- when I was a boy I had a similar treasure box."
"Treasure?" the three boys repeated in unison.
Ben offered his ward a rare smile. "Hidden inside are many unseen treasures. Every one is better than the next. The path to each is a series of puzzles..."
He bent down and slid a pair of the inlaid wood pieces, revealing a button. With an encouraging nod, Ben urged Luke to give it a push. Curiosity made the boy move quickly, and an instant later a latch swung open to reveal a concealed compartment.
Luke swung the treasure box so he could peer inside. "Whoa! Jawabreakers!"
The three boys had snatched one of the large spherical candies each before he could finish, popping them into their mouths. Three satisfied smiles erupted once their tastebuds were greeted by the sweet flavor.
"Dat's nead," Tank exclaimed, grabbing for the box.
"Mnn!" With lightning fast reflexes, Luke jerked it away.
Soon the three friends were off on a wild romp, with Luke juking and weaving across the desert sand bed, his box of hidden treasures in hand, while Tank and Biggs gave chase. Somehow, Luke always managed to squirm his way free - a slip one time, a duck next. It was like the boy just knew...
Owen watched until he felt the Jedi's stare was penetrating the side of his head. Turning to meet the blue-eyed gaze, Owen caught the arch of an eyebrow that said, He is special, and there is no point in avoiding the truth.
Only the fact that Obi-Wan had brought Luke into their lives kept Owen from hating him outright in that moment. And somehow Obi-Wan knew that too.
Looking away, Owen surveyed the reddening horizon as the first of the twin suns sank into night. "You'd best be getting back. It's a long dangerous trip across the Jundland Wastes this time of night."
Original cover by altaira. HTML formatting copyright 2005 TheForce.Net LLC.