For Shmi Skywalker, the best time of every day was the early evening.
This was her 'breathing out' time, the time when the long, slow inhalation of the day - head up, shoulders tense, eyes wary - finally could be released. Back in the shelter of her home, she could let go of the outward gesture of the expanding breath, at last allowing her body and spirit to sink softly into her secret, patient center. There, in her heart, she opened a space. She cradled this space inside of herself while she washed and changed her clothing and became the person she really was. She held this heart space open while she carefully prepared the evening's meal. She breathed out until the world outside contracted and disappeared. She created a refuge. And she waited.
The best part of the best part of every day was the time when the peace she'd made was shattered by the explosion of energy that came in through her door every evening and made its way straight for her. Knees and feet scrabbled in her lap so that he could reach her neck. Small, grubby arms circled it; they clutched her briefly. Too briefly, sometimes. Now that Anakin was older it was rare that she got more than a cursory kiss.
He flowed into the space she had made for him. Filled it. She could feel him settle down a little and begin to exhale.
Every day in the best part of the best part of the day, she received the same greeting. And every day she answered him in the same way, so that each day had its rhythm and its order.
"I'm so happy to see you, Ani. Come tell me about your day."
The cycle was complete. He had gone out, and he had returned. He was her heart, she was his home.
After that, Shmi rarely had to say much of anything for a long time, because his day, like all of Anakin's days, would have been crammed full of things that had interested and engaged him. She had only to take him by the shoulders and push him gently toward the washbasin while he told her about bargains and trades, star pilots and ships. She served their simple evening meal while he talked about friends and foes, struggles and schemes. After their meal the flow of chatter would end, and he would leave her to go work on his latest obsession, whatever it might be.
Often Shmi went out onto the roof then, to breathe the sweet night air, now that the day's dust had settled. It was quiet, except for the night sounds that drifted over from the neighbors and from the desert just beyond. Shmi liked to sit on her bench in the dark then, and to think about the way the world looked through the bright blue eyes of a young boy - eyes that were so unlike hers. My son. Shmi often tested the words in her mind, willing them to be true. My own. He was unlike anyone she had ever known.
However quietly she crept out to her roof, old Kimi next door always knew when Shmi was outside. "Can I come up, Shmi?" she would beg from around the corner in her old woman's singsong. "Come up for a chat?" Shmi would help her to climb the few steep stairs, and then she would make sure there was enough room for Kimi's broad, soft form beside her on the single low bench. There was never a question of Shmi walking down the steps to Kimi's hut. Kimi knew that, as long as Anakin was home, Shmi would not leave her dwelling.
"Oh, it was a hot one today," Kimi would begin, as always, fanning herself in memory of the stifling heat of midday, although the night air was much cooler. "Hot enough to blow an ember, I swear. Shmi, did you hear that commotion out on the middle street this afternoon? I could hear the shouting and bellowing all the way here, but nobody's come to tell me about it."
Kimi had no one. Her children had been sold on long years before. Kimi's master kept her because even with her gnarled old hands, she had a gift for mending damaged cloth that had been mishandled by maladroit droids. She was allowed to work at home. Every week Anakin would bring her a few bolts of the rough, hardwearing textile that was favored by local people who worked hard, and were hard on their clothes. Then, when Kimi was done with it, he would deliver the carefully mended cloth to the clothing makers on the other side of town.
"Two Banthas ran wild right in the middle of the market road," Shmi might explain, as though it were her own story; and it was hers because Anakin had given it to her over supper, one of the many gifts he brought her each day from his world. "Ani was out delivering parts, so he saw everything. He said the animals tore the awnings off three shops before they were caught." She didn't add that Anakin had somehow calmed and caught one of the huge beasts himself, and held it until the other animal had been chased down. Kimi wouldn't understand. She would worry.
"Banthas!" Kimi would exclaim, still fanning herself in the dark. "Oh, my! How did they get into town?" Shmi would describe the scene as Anakin had described it to her, and relay the news he had brought while the old woman clucked and exclaimed. "What else did he tell you, Shmi?" Kimi would always ask, and as always, Shmi would pass on Anakin's gift of stories. Their re-telling seemed to breathe some of his freshness and life into the old woman.
When the stories were done, the women would sit companionably together until Shmi's unerring instincts told her that Anakin was tired. When at last she stood up to go, she never needed to explain why. Old Kimi would heave herself to her feet without protest, and accept the Shmi's offer of a steadying arm back down the stairs. "Good night," she would call to Shmi's retreating form. "Good night, and give that boy of yours a kiss for me!" Shmi would wave, her heart already inside the house. Anakin was no doubt aware that she was on her way, and already forming the arguments he would use against her steadfast insistence that he go to bed.
Anakin never wanted to stop what he was doing, however tired he was. He was always in the middle of something important and interesting that absolutely couldn't be abandoned.
"I just have a couple more adjustments to make on the compressor, see?" he would protest eagerly, wanting her to share in the accomplishments of the evening. "And look what else I made!"
Shmi would look and admire his work, and then insist that he put it away. "Bed," she would say firmly.
"Oh, Mom," he would whine ritually; but finally, reluctantly, he would do as she asked. Shmi could hear the tiredness in his voice, but that wasn't the reason he complied. In the long-established rhythm of their days, it was her turn to talk now, and she knew that he was ready to let go of his busy life and to listen while she told him one of the ancient tales. Occasionally, though, before she settled down to tell her story, Shmi would have some questions of her own for the sleepyhead who was nestled against her.
"So, Ani," Shmi might say when she sat close beside him on his small, narrow cot, and his eyelashes were beginning to whisper against his cheeks. "When you told me that you helped your friend today..."
"Kittster," Anakin might murmur sleepily.
"Yes, Kittster. Did you get into a fight for him?"
"I didn't mean to fight, Mom. But Kittster was already late for work, and would have been in real trouble. Tebba gets so mad. And then P'aat stopped him on the street and started pushing him around. You know. The way he always does."
Shmi knew. The streets of Mos Espa were not the place a mother would choose to raise a child. And yet Anakin had been fending for himself on them since Watto had deemed him old enough to run deliveries.
"Why did P'aat pick on Kittster?"
"Just because," Anakin would murmur. "Just to show that he's powerful."
"And is he powerful?"
"He is when people are scared of him." A little pride would creep into his voice. "I'm not."
"So you felt you had to step in."
"'Course I did, Mom. Kittster is my friend." His blue eyes would open again, and see directly into her heart. "Don't worry. I'm all right."
"I don't like it when you fight, Ani. It's good that you wanted to help your friend, but you must always try to find a better way to solve a problem."
His lashes would lower again, and he might sigh and burrow deeper into his pillow. "I will, Mom. But people leave you alone when they know you'll fight back. Can you tell me a story now?"
Shmi would fall silent for a moment, thinking over the conversation, and then would tuck it away inside together with all the other things she knew and understood about her son. His heart was great and good. The streets of the town were mean, and so were many of the people in it. He accepted this world, and was learning its ways. It was all he ever had known. What would become of him as he grew older and her influence over him waned?
It was on nights like this that Shmi chose to tell a heroic tale of ancient warriors and Jedi Knights who fought for right and justice. It was the kind of story that Anakin liked best.
Kimi died suddenly one night, all alone in her hut. It wasn't until the following evening that Shmi finally went to look for her, after she had sat alone on her roof all evening without hearing the old woman's voice. Shmi found Kimi's lifeless body slumped in an old armchair by the hut's only good glowlamp, still clutching a long length of heavy brown cloth. She must have died quietly; she was still bent over her sewing. Her petal-soft old woman's cheek was cold.
Shmi had no choice but to call Anakin over to help her lay the old woman's body out on the bed before it became completely rigid. He came flying, and then stopped abruptly at the hut's entrance.
"Come, Ani, please. I can't carry her by myself. I want to treat her as gently as possible."
"She looks like she's sleeping." Anakin didn't move.
"Well, now she needs to go to bed," Shmi said simply, "and I need the help of a strong boy to take her there."
Anakin crept closer.
"Why did she die?"
"I don't know, "Shmi admitted, gently placing Anakin's hands underneath the old woman's thick ankles. "She was very old. I imagine it was her time. Now, you lift her legs carefully while I take the weight of her shoulders."
Between the two of them they managed to maneuver Kimi's heavy body out of her chair and to her little bedchamber, where they stretched her out on her cot. Shmi carefully and lovingly smoothed the old woman's worn clothing and tucked the single blanket around her, exactly as though she was asleep. Anakin watched from a distance, scowling.
"She's not there any more," he said at last. "That's not Kimi. She's gone. She's left us." Kimi had been their neighbor as long as Anakin could remember. She must have seemed like an immutable part of his world, like the houses and streets of the town, or like the desert that surrounded them.
"Yes, Ani. That's right." Shmi smoothed the blanket one last time.
"Why are you bothering with that?" his voice was hoarse. Strained. "She's not there!"
Shmi looked up to see him scowling fiercely, with his hands clenched into fists by his side. She went to him immediately, knelt in front of him, and pulled him into her embrace. "I do it out of respect, Ani. Respect for who and what she was, and for how bravely she led her life."
He stood rigidly in her arms, not yielding to the proffered comfort. Shmi decided that she could pay her last respects to her friend later, when Anakin was asleep. Right now, she needed to get him home. Keeping one arm securely around his hunched shoulders, Shmi drew Anakin outside of Kimi's empty hut and up the steps to their own roof. The stars were huge and bright by now, and the twin moons were almost at conjunction, making it possible to see the vast expanse desert just beyond the edge of town. Shmi brushed some sand off her bench and pulled her son down beside her.
"What is upsetting you, Ani? You have seen death before. Animals die all the time, and people do, too. Do you remember the two traders who killed one another in that duel in the marketplace near Watto's? You were the first one there to see what had happened. You didn't seem frightened then."
He didn't say anything.
"And we went to Annik's funeral, you remember that, don't you?"
"Well, Ani, this is the same thing. Eventually, people die. Especially when they're old."
The silence grew deeper and darker. Shmi waited.
"I didn't want her to die," Anakin muttered angrily after a while.
Shmi hugged him when she realized that to Anakin, Kimi had been part of his family. They had no one else. "Of course you didn't. But think about this. She had a hard life, and she was very lonely. Maybe it was a relief to finally close her eyes and have a nice, long rest."
Anakin rubbed his nose violently with the back of his hand. "Should we have helped her more, Mom? Is that why she died?"
Shmi sighed softly. "No, Ani. There was nothing more we could have done."
He didn't say anything for a time, but little by little he leaned into her embrace until at last his head lay in her lap. She stroked his hair. There were only the two of them from now on. They only had each other.
"Mom, are you old?" Anakin finally asked.
Shmi's hand stopped stroking his silky head for a moment.
"Not as old as Kimi, no," Shmi reassured him. "Not nearly as old!"
"Are you lonely?"
Shmi ached. He had been wondering whether she would die, too. "No, Ani. I'm never lonely. I have you."
"But what if I go away some day? What if I go to see the stars?"
"Well, you should go see the stars, Ani. I won't be lonely because I will know that you're out there somewhere among the stars, and enjoying yourself."
"What will you do when I'm gone?"
"I'll do what I always do. I'll wait for you to come home." If he is meant to return to me. I wish I knew.
"I will come home, Mom. I promise."
"I know you will, Ani." Shmi felt him grow heavy in her lap. "I know you will." She kept stroking his hair. "I know you will."
He was almost asleep now, soothed by the lullaby of her reassurances. She roused him just enough to steer him, stumbling, down the stairs to his cluttered sleeping chamber where the remnants of this night's project still lay strewn about, and straight into his bed. This time there were no arguments, only the soft, deep sigh of a child that is ready to sleep.
Fear changes the gentle, nourishing rhythm of the breath. In fear it becomes shallow, or choppy, or occasionally stops its cycle entirely until a sudden gasp pulls the air in, only to have it torn out again in a violent exhale.
In the long months after Kimi's death the rhythm of their lives began gradually to change. Some days - golden days, Shmi would think later - continued as they always had. Anakin grew a little taller and even cleverer, and took on larger and more complicated projects. Shmi often wished that he would hide his talents from old Watto, but to ask him to do that would mean teaching him to lie. In the life they led, the need for deceit would come soon enough. So Shmi had to watch silently as the old gambler took note of the boy's increasing usefulness and skill.
On the day that the talk turned to podracing, and Anakin begged Watto to be allowed to try out his new racer, Shmi couldn't catch a proper breath all day, no matter how hard she tried. The day he flew the pod for the first time, as skillfully as if it he were joined with it, Shmi wept all night. The day Watto let him race, and there was that terrible smashup, Shmi spent the night awake on her roof, staring at the desolation of the desert with dry, burning eyes and wondering what kind of a world it was where a gift like her son's life could so casually be bartered for money.
But the racing wasn't just Watto's whim, of course. It had become Anakin's new passion. Forbidden from flying again by their miserly Toydarian master, Ani had begun building his own podracer from scavenged parts, out in back of the slave settlement. The first time he dragged her out to see it, Shmi had marveled at his skill, while guessing shrewdly that not all the parts could have been scavenged. They had to come from somewhere. Between the miraculous appearance of exactly the parts that he needed, and the fact that Anakin hid his project from Watto, it was clear that his inevitable schooling in deceit had begun.
The project took up much of Anakin's time, and some evenings he didn't come home for supper until very late because he wanted to use every last shred of daylight to work on his podracer. His conversation at dinner had changed subtly, Shmi noticed. He talked more about himself and his own plans and doings, than about the doings around town, or the lives and hopes of other people.
"Did you get that cooling unit fixed up for Jira?" Shmi asked several times. "The heat is affecting her more than ever. She doesn't complain much, but I know it would really help her."
"No, Mom, sorry, I haven't yet," he invariably said sheepishly, his good intentions shining out of his eyes. "But I will. I just got so busy..." And Jira's broken cooling unit continued to languish in the shed.
"Have you seen Kittster and your other friends recently, Ani?" Shmi asked once or twice.
Each time, he mumbled, "No, not too much. Only when they come to see how my work on the racer is going." And then his eyes would light up and he would spend the rest of the meal describing his latest engine modifications, or the colors he was going to paint his treasure when it was done.
One evening he slipped in the door earlier than usual, but silently, more like drifting sand than an explosion.
"Ani?" Shmi stopped what she was doing and looked him over. His tunic was torn in a couple of places, and covered with dirt and something that looked like blood. "What happened?"
"I'm fine, Mom." His voice was duller than she'd ever heard it.
Shmi didn't ask him any more questions, but went with him into the washroom and helped him to undress and to clean up, searching with sharp eyes for wounds and other hurts. Her breath caught when she saw the big, fresh bruises on his arm and shoulder, but he had no cuts.
That meant the blood wasn't his.
Shmi's lips tightened into a white line, but Anakin didn't seem to notice. His eyes were dull, too. He seemed to be somehow sunken into himself. She gave him his dinner, which he ate in silence. He retreated into his chamber then, and Shmi left him alone for a little while - but only a little while - before she went to him.
Anakin was sitting at his workbench as usual, but it didn't seem that there was a lot of work going on. He looked up when she came in, as though he was surprised to see her there.
"Is it bedtime already?"
Shmi made an instant decision. "Yes."
Anakin only sighed. "I don't think I should have a story tonight, Mom."
"Why not?" Shmi slipped further inside the room and sat down on his cot.
He swiveled around to face her.
"I'm getting too big for stories."
Shmi looked at her very young son and saw that for the first time, his eyes looked too old for his cherubic face. She had seen that look in the eyes in other slave children before, but never in Ani. Never before this. Her heart twisted with grief. He was a child. A child! He shouldn't have to carry such a weight. Not now. Not yet.
"What happened, Ani?"
Anakin frowned and played idly with one of the tools on his table, turning it over and over in his fingers. "Watto asked me to collect some money that some traders owed him."
"What?" The word came out as a wail. "He has you collecting debts for him now? You're only nine years old!" Debt collecting was a task most often carried out by the kind of half-grown young thugs who relished creating trouble. It was, more often than not, an invitation to a fight, and not the kind of fight that took place between children.
Anakin shrugged. "He said...he said I might as well get used to it."
Shmi slumped. So soon. She knew it would come, as it did to so many other slave boys: the gradual hardening, the dulling of the eyes. But it shouldn't happen to Ani. Not her Ani. He was so different from the others. He had so many gifts.
"I will speak to Watto about this," Shmi decided. "He has no business making you collect debts when you are more valuable in other ways. I didn't think he was that foolish."
For a moment, just a moment, Shmi thought she saw a bright, fierce light in Anakin's eyes - a flash of the kind of daring that might have lit up the eyes of the ancient warriors in her tales. Then he looked away.
"Don't, Mom. You know he won't listen to you. Besides, he made a bet with one of the cargo jockeys who delivered this morning's shipment that I could get them to pay up, even though I'm small. "
"Did you... did he win?" Shmi felt tears stinging behind her eyelids, but kept them at bay for now.
Anakin rubbed his nose with the back of his sleeve. "Of course he did."
Of course he did. Such proud words, for one so small.
There was no story that night. There wasn't much sleep, either. Shmi spent her night in a restive vigil on the roof, trying to think of ways to bring their lives back into its former peaceful rhythm. Several times she slipped downstairs to check on Anakin. He lay quietly with his eyes closed, but she knew with the same instincts that told her when he was tired, or hungry, or needed to talk, that Ani, too was awake. He didn't stir or acknowledge her, though, so she didn't disturb him.
Children are resilient. Within days Anakin was once again a bundle of energy, tackling his projects with enthusiasm. Shmi had a quiet, humble word with Watto, reminding him what it would cost to replace all of the services that Anakin provided him, if something happened to the boy, and for the moment, Anakin hadn't been required to collect debts again. But while things looked much the same on the surface, the underlying rhythm of their lives had shifted out of kilter, like a chrono that begins to loose lose its synchronization minute by minute. Anakin no longer chatted quite as freely, and no longer asked her to tell the old stories. Shmi couldn't help noticing that he had energetically resumed work on the protocol droid that he was building to help her.
Why would he think that she needed help, when she had him?
For these reasons Shmi was not as surprised as she might have been on the day when Anakin came home on the wings of a sandstorm, in the tow of a tall man with warrior's eyes, like a small barge being pulled by a sail.
Shmi had never had so many people in her small home at the same time, but she decided it wasn't their number that took up all the space. Even by himself, the tall man seemed to fill every corner of her home with his presence, despite his quiet ways and rough courtesy.
A real Jedi. In their home. Anakin glowed with the joy of it like the suns in the slow blaze of midmorning.
It was Anakin who had discovered the Jedi's true identity. Shmi could see the hero worship in her boy's eyes. In the miracle of the man's coming, Anakin's blue eyes had regained their unmarred innocence. His world had expanded again; the wary inwardness had vanished. Anakin had offered his home, his life, his soul, and his precious pod racer, to help strangers in need. Even Jira's cooler had suddenly been repaired and delivered.
The girl who came with the Jedi took up very little space. She spoke rarely, but watched everything that went on with eyes veiled in sadness. A strange sense of weightiness hung over her slight frame like a heavy garment. She was graceful and lightfooted, and yet every gesture she made, and every word she said, seemed deliberate and well considered. Even her interactions with the odd creature they had brought with them seemed somehow formal and courteous. Only with Ani, who clearly adored her, did she become at all girlish and natural. They seemed to cling together for comfort, the young people, in the midst of the chaos the Jedi wrought.
Chaos, yes. The Jedi's coming was like a blow to the stomach that for a terrifying interval makes it impossible to draw breath at all. The price the wonderful changes in Ani was turmoil and uncertainty, the death knell to any rhythm that remained in their lives. He was strong, this Jedi; strong in a way that Shmi had not seen before. In hindsight, Shmi realized that he had gotten everything he wanted from them, and yet he had resorted to none of the dominating or bullying tricks used by the men Shmi knew. He had presented the options fairly. He had offered her and Anakin free choice. But how free are the choices of a child who worships a hero? Anakin would have done anything the Jedi asked of him. Surely he knew that. And Watto - well, even Watto couldn't be said to have much of a choice when his weaknesses were used against him so skillfully.
The stars in Anakin's eyes showed that this was the kind of man he wanted to become. And he was willing to race away his life to prove himself worthy.
The night before the pod race Shmi felt as though the breath was leaking out of her, bit by bit, leaving a great emptiness behind. She escaped to the roof to search for the peace that had eluded her since the sandstorm had retreated, leaving destiny in its wake.
"May I join you?"
Shmi startled. She hadn't heard him come up behind her. He moved as quietly as a shadow, this big man.
"Yes." Why not? Shmi slumped a little under the weight of inevitability. This Jedi would have his way regardless.
Her bench creaked with his weight as he slid onto it beside her. Shmi waited for him to speak.
"I don't believe that any harm will come to Anakin tomorrow," he began. "I would not have allowed him to race if I did."
"I'm afraid you don't know much about podracing, then." Shmi was trying to be polite. "They gamble on it because it is so unpredictable."
"In fact, I think he will win."
Shmi tensed. "But you cannot guarantee me that he will be safe."
"Then you have gambled more heavily than you know."
"I think I do know," he said with surprising gentleness. "I know more than you might imagine."
"He is all I have." Shmi hadn't intended to say those words out loud. She barely allowed herself to think them. But there they were - out in the open and blowing away in the night air.
"It is difficult for a parent to let go of a child," the Jedi agreed.
Shmi looked down at her hands, took a breath, and then, more boldly than she was accustomed, looked straight at him. "Forgive me, but how could you possibly know that?"
A smile played around his mouth. "I have a son."
"In a certain respect. I have a Padawan Learner. I have raised him since he was very young. I have taught him, trained him, encouraged him, scolded him, and cared for him. For many years his needs have been my primary responsibility. He is grown and almost ready to be on his own, and he will leave me soon. I can only hope that I have given him everything he needs."
"So now you want my son in his place," Shmi suggested, with the faintest hint of a snap.
It was the first time Shmi had heard the Jedi laugh. She did not share his mirth.
"Anakin is an exceptional boy. I think he has a special destiny. But he is not mine to take."
Shmi stared out at the desert. "Are you asking me to give him to you, then?"
"He is not yours to give."
Shmi burst into tears - hot, brutal, embarrassing, unbearable tears that burned her cheeks and filled her throat and made it impossible to do anything but sob them out in great, wrenching gasps. In between waves of anguish, she wished that the Jedi would go away. She wished that he had never come. She wished that he had not unerringly honed in on the greatest fear of her life - the fear that Anakin was not truly hers, and that he would disappear again as inexplicably as he had come to her.
It seemed that even this Jedi could not defend against the onslaught of a mother's tears. "I'm sorry," she heard him say, and a tiny part of her mind that wasn't buried in grief thought he actually sounded ill at ease for once. "I didn't mean to upset you. I only meant to say that since he is indentured to Watto, you cannot choose his path. " He seemed to be awkwardly patting her back, just like any normal human being who doesn't know how to provide comfort. The urge to laugh at him mixed with Shmi's fierce need to cry, and made everything worse. She ignored him until the wave subsided into small gasps and hiccups.
Shmi wished fervently for a cloth to wipe her face, and if by magic, the Jedi produced one out of a pouch in his belt. It was clean and serviceable. Shmi took it without thanking him and tried to mop up the damage.
"It is not for me to choose his path," she said finally, through the blockage in her nose. "That is for Anakin to decide."
"You are quite right," the Jedi said gravely, without the slightest sign of mockery. "Only actions taken in freedom carry with them the power of truth."
"You're a fine one to talk. You bend events to your will," Shmi shot back, with a shock of surprise at her own words as soon as they had slipped out of her mouth. She had never talked this openly and honestly - or as sharply - to anyone. Never.
The Jedi seemed to take no offense. On the contrary, he turned toward her slightly as the conversation deepened, creating an inviting space for discussion between them. "Have you ever thought," he said earnestly, "that we - all of us - are only small players in something much larger? That everything we do is in service to something beyond us, so far beyond us that at some point, reason and knowledge must give way to faith and trust?"
Shmi crumpled the sodden cloth in her hands. "I believe in destiny, if that is what you mean."
"That is a part of it," the Jedi said thoughtfully, and Shmi realized to her utter surprise that was speaking to her as an equal, and had been all along. He wanted to know her thoughts. He did not judge her for her condition in life, but asked for her understanding. Unlike the other men she knew, he not only seemed comfortable with the truth; he demanded it.
"He fights," she said suddenly.
The Jedi gave her his full, quiet attention.
"Anakin gets into fights with other children. I think he always did it to defend the weak, but now Watto is giving him tasks that I am afraid will turn him into a bully. He never has lost a fight, you see. Even though he is so small."
The Jedi crossed his arms in what Shmi already understood was the pose he took on when he was considering something. "What if he were in a place where he would be taught to fight properly, and for the right reasons? To serve justice and to defend the oppressed?"
"He has learned to lie," she persisted. "He hid the podracer from Watto, and I'm sure he hides things from me. Even if they are only things he feels will upset me..."
"In that place of learning, truth is the only currency," the Jedi said. "All those who teach and guide insist upon honesty above all else."
"I'm afraid he has lost his innocence far too soon," Shmi admitted. "Tatooine is a harsh and unforgiving world that does not respect childhood."
"Jedi teachings foster the sense of wonder and awe, even as the student leaves childhood behind." Even in the semi-darkness, the big, hard Jedi's eyes gleamed with something soft and otherworldly as he talked about his "place of teaching." Shmi believed him. She believed everything he said to her.
A place of honor. A place of truth. A place of wonder.
"Anakin has dreamed of becoming a Jedi. Would you teach him, if you could?" Shmi asked in a whisper. Most of her breath had left her. She hardly had enough left to speak.
"I believe that it is my destiny to be the instrument of your son's dreams." His smile gleamed in the dark. "But as we have said, that does not seem possible. According to the laws of your world, he is the property of the Toydarian junk dealer."
"Double the bet," Shmi whispered, with nearly the last breath left to her.
"How do you mean?" The Jedi hadn't moved, but Shmi could sense that he was all attention.
"Your faith in Anakin's abilities is changing the odds. Raise the stakes. You already have gambled everything else. Now gamble with his freedom."
"And you?" The Jedi looked at her sharply.
The last few tears left in Shmi's body leaked silently down her face. "He never was mine to begin with," she said forlornly, while the very core of her being drained slowly away into the hot, harsh, indifferent desert air of a planet that didn't matter.
"Mom?" It was a question, spoken with uncertainty and pain in an unfamiliar voice. A man's voice. But it wasn't his voice or the painful jostling as her bonds were cut that roused her even at a point when she was beyond rousing. It was the feeling in her heart.
"Ani?" She knew. She just knew. "Ani? Is it you?"
"I'm here, Mom... You're safe now... We've got to get away..." The words were irrelevant. Shmi felt, rather than heard the tears in his voice. She struggled to see him, and was rewarded with a vision of such beauty and rightness that all she wanted to do was to smooth away the sorrow on his face. He had grown into a man. His arms were strong. He was carrying her, now. She felt that she was floating.
"My son...I'm so proud of you..."
"I missed you, too, Mom..."
So he knew what it had cost her to let him go. He knew. The empty space in Shmi's heart, the one that she carefully and reverently had cradled within her all the years that he was gone, filled up again at last.
Holding her in his arms, he flowed into her heart and made possible the ineffable peace of that last, perfect, exquisite breath.
"Now I am complete..."
Original cover by Darth Breezy. HTML formatting copyright 2005 TheForce.Net LLC.