Beru stared out at the farm from the safety of the house, wide-eyed and trembling. It had never been threatening or frightening to her before, but it certainly was now.
This was her home - this small piece of the desert that belonged to the Lars family - and it had been for quite some time now. Up until today, it had been a place that offered nothing but familiar comforts and a sense of security.
That was why she had always laughed off Owen's protective impulses toward her. He was sweet, in his own gruff way, but she had always thought that his worries about her traveling to Anchorhead alone, or her being outside at all after a certain point at night - even with the farm's security screen on! - were senseless. She had lived on Tatooine her entire life, and had been in Mos Eisley for years, mostly on her own. Owen's worries, especially here on the farm, here in their house, seemed unnecessary. Still, she thought it was a lovely thing to have someone looking out for her that way.
It had been nice...quaint, almost.
Until Shmi disappeared.
Now it seemed her familiar home had been snatched from her, and a totally alien setting was dropped in its place. She stood at the same front door she had gone through countless times, and wondered what Shmi had thought when she walked out of it this morning. She stared at the vaporators, which she had helped maintain on a daily basis for so long, and wondered if Shmi had seen the Tuskens coming as she turned away from them, her mushrooms gathered in her basket.
Cliegg had found that basket overturned on the ground when they ran out to see what the commotion was. He held onto it while he stared at the Tusken sandstorm moving into the horizon, already far out of weapons range. They had attacked in near silence, but once they were safely away, their bellows and shouts had echoed throughout the farm.
Cliegg and Owen had left soon after that, and Beru sat alone, at the homestead, watching the horizon and waiting for their return. The suns had barely peeked above the skyline when Shmi had been taken. Beru had since watched them rise, and fall. She didn't want to think about how late it was now. She only knew that it was pitch-black out, and the darkness and shadows were dancing all over the farm and inside the hovel, playing tricks on her eyes everywhere they looked.
She was annoyed at herself. She wasn't a child, scared of ghosts that she knew didn't exist. She had to stop being afraid. Shmi didn't have the luxury of sitting in her house, biding her time. She had been taken by real demons, and Beru knew that Shmi would not cower before them.
Beru took a deep breath to strengthen her resolve, and felt a little better. She could -
A sudden, loud beeping noise blared out from the near the front door and her heart almost stopped.
Beru leaned against the doorframe with hand on her chest, trying to breathe past the lightheadedness of her fright. The sound continued.
It was just a warning signal. That's all it was.
She turned, still leaning against the door, and looked at the nearby monitor, already knowing what she would find. The temperature had dropped precipitously this evening and the vaporators were still functioning under the afternoon settings. The filters didn't respond well to cool temperatures, and even less so to high winds. The system was telling her to go cover the filters and shut the vaporators down. She should have done it earlier, but somehow, during her desperate watch of horizon, time had simply gotten away from her.
She could see that the perimeter lights were on, but they weren't nearly bright enough to make her feel safe. Even with the security screen running.
But she had to go. If she didn't, the filters would be brittle and cracked by morning, and they were expensive to replace, in addition to the days of moisture harvesting they would lose in the meantime.
Beru made up her mind, and ran back into the room she shared with Owen before she could change it. Everything was a mess. Owen had rifled through their closet and trunks early in the morning, looking for weapons, travel lamps, tracking sensors...anything that would be useful for their hastily put-together rescue mission.
She stepped over their things on the floor, and went to a trunk to grab one of her heavy shawls. She tossed it on their bed and sat beside it as she struggled to pull on a pair of boots. Then she clumsily pulled her hair up into a bun on the top of her head. She was soon out the front door, trying to draw the shawl around her as she went.
The chill from the winds was even colder than she had anticipated, and she shivered with her first steps up the stairs and out into the farm. Her shawl was whipped off one of her shoulders, and the sand kicked up in her face.
She ignored it, sprinting to the nearest vaporator as fast as her legs could carry her.
Beru opened the main control panel and let her trembling fingers move over the buttons that would shut the filter down, listening to the vaporator groan softly as it turned off. She closed it back up, reached above her head, and opened the compartment where the filter was housed. With a good tug, the protective cover came down over it.
Her hair was falling out of place and being blown into her eyes, and her shawl was falling off her shoulders again. She tugged and pulled irritably at both, feeling more and more anxious.
Anxious about what? The Tuskens? They had their hands full somewhere else, with Owen and Cliegg and the rest of the settlement.
She realized, bitterly, that she was probably safer here tonight than she ever had been before.
She fixed the filter on the second vaporator more quickly than the first, and moved onto the next one. Her thoughts raced as she went - she couldn't stop thinking about what was happening with the rescue party.
Owen had left to get help from their neighbors before Cliegg was able to bring himself back inside and put Shmi's basket down. The farmers had discussed the Tusken situation a week earlier - a tribe had been spotted outside the settlement, closer than any had been in nearly a year. The hope had been that they'd stay on the outskirts, and then move on. In the last few days, evidence of the tribe had almost disappeared...people had begun to relax.
But even if the Tuskens had been all over the settlement, Beru still wouldn't have believed that they could make it all the way onto their farm, take Shmi, and run. They were getting faster and deadlier as time went by. The family hadn't been prepared.
The shock of the abduction rattled every farm, and nearly all of them were represented in the group that gathered with the Larses barely an hour later. Thirty men made the largest group Beru had seen go out on any ride. They had left in a rush after a brief planning discussion.
Third vaporator done. Beru kept moving, and was soon accessing the control panel on the fourth.
Why hadn't they come back yet?
No fight with the Tuskens was a simple or short affair, and she knew it. And perhaps the tribe had simply gotten further away from the farm than she assumed. If they had taken Shmi without stopping to wreak havoc on anyone else, they could have covered a fairly large distance in a short time.
Owen and Cliegg simply had further to go in coming back. That's why they were taking so long.
The fifth vaporator wasn't responding to her shut down command. Beru jabbed at the controls repeatedly, and then simply brought her fist down on the panel. Nothing. Finally, she started shutting down all the systems, one at a time. It was a lengthy process, but was the best way to get around a stuck command.
Shmi had shown her the trick some time ago, right after Beru had started seeing Owen. It was one of the many ways Shmi had managed to slip her into the everyday activities on the farm, without directly saying anything about her and Owen winding up together. Shmi had seen that they would, long before either of them came to that conclusion. She had welcomed Beru into the Lars family with open arms, and that wasn't something Beru was going to forget.
Once Cliegg and Owen brought her back, Beru would be able to take care of her, as a way to return the favor for everything Shmi had done for her. And then, things would eventually get back to normal.
Beru continued to shut down the individual systems, and was beginning to think she should just skip it and do the rest of the vaporators. She could come back to this one later. She still trembled from the winds, and standing here waiting for the systems to respond was beginning to drive her mad. She angrily pushed her hair away from her head, and tried again to complete a total shut down. It didn't work.
It was then that she picked up a sound, something other than the wind and the sand and the vaporators. She looked out past the house, to the point on the horizon where she had been staring most of the day.
Joy leapt up in her heart as she ran toward it - the sound of an engine, of their speeder. They had turned off the perimeter screen remotely...she could just make them out now. They were back!
The vaporators were completely forgotten. Her shawl finally fell off her shoulders and she left it in the sand. She saw Owen driving, with Cliegg sitting in the back.
Beru ran for several seconds more, waving wildly at Owen, before she realized that she couldn't see anyone else in the speeder.
Where was Shmi?
Coldness spiked through her, and it had nothing to do with the chilly temperatures or the wind. Owen had spotted her, and changed course and slowed down to meet her. She could now see his panicked, ashen face. There was blood on his clothes, and his arm was injured. She thought Cliegg might be unconscious, lying there in the back seat.
"Owen!" she cried, running along the side of the speeder before it had come to a stop. "What's happened? What -"
"Jump in!" he yelled. "I've got to get him back to the house, now!"
Beru did as he said, almost without thinking. She grabbed the speeder and pulled herself in, and Owen gunned it the rest of the way back to the main house.
"Owen, I -"
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Cliegg, and the rest of the sentence died on her lips.
His leg was gone.
He was lying across the back seat unconscious, as she had noticed before. But now she could see that his left leg was missing, cut off somewhere on his thigh. There seemed to be blood all over the seat and the floor...his leg had been tied up with clothing of some kind, but it was doing a poor job of stopping the flow from his open wound.
Owen was talking to her, but she couldn't turn the words into anything that made sense. She felt dizzy.
The speeder lurched to a stop, and Owen suddenly grabbed her arm, turning her away from his father, and forcing her to look at him instead.
"Beru, I need your help!"
She nodded. He let go and jumped out of the speeder. He reached back in to pull his father out, and began carrying him inside. He called back over his shoulder, "I didn't have anything with me to stop the bleeding, otherwise I would have taken him all the way into town. We need to get a tourniquet on him, and go. We have to find a surgeon!"
Beru pushed herself through the house, following Owen as they went into Cliegg and Shmi's room. Owen lowered his father onto the bed. She was already digging through their medical supplies, trying to find something that would work.
"What do we do?" Owen was asking frantically. "I don't think I can treat something like this...he can't keep bleeding this way. He'll never make it to Mos Eisley."
"We shouldn't go into town, Owen." Beru dropped a roll of cloth and a set of binders next to Cliegg on the bed. "Yatta is a good medic. We can get to his farm much more quickly and -"
"Yatta's dead," Owen said brusquely. "There's no one nearby who can help us. Can you fix a tourniquet?"
Beru blinked at him in horror, wondering what actually had happened out there. Yet there was no time to hear the story. "I think so," she said, taking the binders and cloths and wrapping them around Cliegg's thigh. The sight and feel of the blood - red and slippery and sticky - was making her ill. But she knew that Cliegg was going to die unless she made the tourniquet tight enough. Owen wasn't in good enough shape to help her, though he tried, holding and twisting where she asked him to. Finally, she wrapped a new layer of gauze over everything, and stood back to examine it.
Some blood was still seeping through, but the flow had slowed down considerably. She hoped it would hold - and that if it did hold, it would be enough to last Cliegg the trip.
"We'd better hurry. Do you know of any surgeons in Anchorhead?" she asked.
"He moved to Mos Eisley. We really do have to go all the way out there."
"Okay," she whispered. Then, on a sudden and overwhelming impulse, she grabbed him into a fierce hug. She wanted to hold him and be grateful that he was all right, just for a second.
He hugged her back and winced, then pulled away. He gathered his father in his arms again, his face stretched with pain.
"You're hurt, Owen," Beru said, touching the wound on his arm. "I should -"
"No time. Let's go."
She ran ahead of him out of the house, and climbed into the driver's seat in the speeder. Owen lifted his father into the back and jumped in the passenger seat beside her. Beru pulled away from the house and the farm as fast as she could make the speeder go.
They rode in silence for several minutes. Eventually, she glanced at him. "Owen...what happened to Shmi?"
He was staring out of the speeder, watching the landscape change as they passed it by. She turned away, thinking that he wasn't able to answer.
Finally, he said softly, "I don't know."
They didn't speak again until they reached Mos Eisley.
Owen stepped into his father's room and crossed to the window, pulling its heavy shades closed as the suns reached their midday zenith. The room immediately darkened and cooled.
His father was resting, asleep on his new bed - Beru had thrown the old mattress out rather than try to clean off the blood - and Owen thought he looked a little stronger. He had been improving quite a bit over the last week, as the doctor said he should.
They had been lucky enough to find a surgeon as soon as they reached Mos Eisley, and he had been willing - for a price - to operate right away. The bleeding was stopped and the wound was closed. Dad's life signs steadied, and Owen allowed himself the relief of believing that his father would indeed survive.
Owen smiled and pulled the covers up, tucking them under his father's chin. Dad had been alert and talkative for a good part of the morning, and that was great progress. Owen was beginning to think he might be able to use the hoverchair, at least for short periods of time, in the next couple of days. It would do him good to get out of this bedroom.
Owen gave his father's shoulder a pat, and then quietly left the bedroom. Once he was beyond the door, he stopped and heaved a great sigh, thinking about the nightmare he had lived through during the last week. Owen had never thought that anything could compare to losing his mother and his newborn sister within days of one another. Now he wondered about that. Shmi...that was like losing another mother. And though his father was recovering physically, he didn't know exactly how he would be able to deal with this, with losing another wife. With losing his leg and the ability to walk.
Owen had checked into getting his father some kind of prosthetic, but the expense was far, far beyond what they could even conceivably afford. That kind of item was a luxury on Tatooine, not a medical necessity, and Owen wondered if even the Hutts could afford one. Even the hoverchair, used as it was, had set the family back.
And he had paid a great deal to the surgeon.
And the vaporators needed to be fixed.
Something clattered in the kitchen, and Owen went to join Beru. She had been cooking constantly over the last week. Dad was only able to eat light soups and broths, so she'd made as many kinds of them as she could think up. Both of them were worried about keeping Dad's strength up, and about preventing him from becoming dehydrated. Beru had been good about waking him after a certain number of hours, no matter what, and feeding him soup or giving him water. He had grumbled impatiently at her this morning when she insisted he finish the whole bowl. Owen thought it was the best sign yet that his father was getting back to being himself.
She wore a faint smile and a reassuring look as she watched him enter the room. Owen had nothing to give in return. The pure shock from what happened had worn off, but he wasn't ready to start smiling yet.
"You should eat something," she whispered. It was a practiced refrain, repeated constantly over the last few days.
His response was also practiced, also the same. "I'm not very hungry, Beru. The soup will do more for Dad anyway."
He expected her to say that she had made more than enough for both of them, for all of them, but instead she turned back to stirring the food. "How is he?"
"Sleeping quietly. He had a good morning...maybe he'll be good again when he wakes up this evening."
"I'm sure he will be." There was a long pause, and Owen waited her out, taking a seat in one of the chairs behind her as she pretended to look at the soup. Finally, she added, "What about you?"
"Me? I'm fine."
"My arm is all healed up now, and compared to Dad, I wasn't that bad off to begin with. I'm fine."
She spared a brief glance back at him, then went back to her pot.
Owen settled into the chair, moving so his back was to her completely. His hands rested on his knees, and he stared at them for a moment. "I know that isn't what you meant," he said quietly.
"Then how are you, Owen?"
"I...I really don't know...Beru, I..."
She was beside him instantly, crouched next to the chair, taking his hands in hers and squeezing them tightly. She kissed the back of one of them, and then rubbed his arm. "It's all right, Owen."
He wondered if he should have been crying. There were no tears - he didn't even feel any beginning to sting or well up in his eyes. But the weight of what had happened was there, sitting in the middle of his chest. "No, it's not."
"Tell me," she whispered. "Tell me what happened."
Owen untangled their hands so that he could stretch around her and pull another chair right next to his. She sat in it, and hung her arms around his shoulders, holding him.
He had only told Beru stray bits and pieces of what had happened on that rescue mission. She hadn't pushed him for any information beyond confirming that only he, his father, and two other men had made it back, and that the rest were indeed dead. After absorbing that news, she had let them both concentrate on getting Dad well again.
But now, he felt badly for having kept it all from her. And he needed to lighten the burden from his chest.
"This fight with those...with the Tuskens...it's been going on the whole time we've been on this farm. Practically my entire life...but I knew it had been getting worse lately. I knew they were just itching to do something. But, I didn't think..." His voice trailed off. She ran a hand lightly through his hair, and pulled him closer.
"We weren't prepared. They were. They're traveling in bigger groups now - we took thirty men, we needed twice that many. It was like two or three of the roaming clans had met up, and were fighting together. They had so many weapons, there were so many of them..." He stopped to draw in a shaky breath. "We've all been thinking that they were getting ready for another round of fighting, but we weren't prepared for them. They were bearing down for war. We weren't ready at all."
"Owen, there was no reason to think that things had escalated to that point, that things had gotten so out of hand -"
"We should have known that they wouldn't have come this close to the settlement unless they were ready for us!" he cried in anguish. "We should have known...They were coming at us from everywhere. Every time we killed one, there'd be two more right behind him. They were vicious. We could have brought more men with us."
"Owen," she said intensely, "you took nearly the whole farming community with you. You and Cliegg did everything you could to get Shmi back. You can't blame yourself for not thinking like those beasts. They caught us - all of us, everyone in the settlement - by surprise. That isn't your fault."
Owen shrugged and shook his head. He didn't mean it as a dismissal of the comfort she was trying to give, but his thoughts were a jumble and had already moved on to the next point. "I can't imagine her with them. I can't picture Shmi being held by the same monsters who were killing all those men, who cut off Dad's leg..." His throat tightened, and again his voice trailed away.
"Did you see her?" Beru whispered. "Was she with them?"
"Then, then she's -"
"I don't know," he replied. "By the time we caught up with them, it was just the men riding. The rest of them probably had set up camp somewhere nearby. She could have been with them. Who knows where they are now.
"You know," he continued, "when my mother died, I blamed myself for a long time. I knew she was sick, and I knew the baby was sick, but I still thought that I should have been able to do something."
"You were young, Owen. Kids always blame themselves."
"Yeah well, I'm not a kid anymore. And I know we let Shmi down. I hope she isn't in their camp. It'd be better if they killed her right away than for her to have to endure...endure the kinds of things I saw when we fought them. I know that's what Dad was thinking. We stayed there much longer than we should have because he couldn't stand the thought of leaving her to them."
"You both did everything you could," she repeated. She touched his face and stared at him until he met her eyes. "You both could have died. There wasn't anything else to be done."
"I didn't see Dad lose his leg," Owen said, his voice dropping to a whisper. "I was fighting off the one who gave me this -" he gestured to his arm, which was still bandaged, even though it was almost healed "- when I heard him scream. I don't know how I got over to him. Or how I got him to the speeder. I was still firing at some Tuskens who were following us while I was trying to stop the bleeding. When I finally climbed in to leave, I looked back to see who I could take with us. All I saw was bodies. I just left then."
He closed his eyes and exhaled forcefully. "It wasn't right to leave her like that. I should go back."
"Owen," she whispered gently.
"I should! I could!"
"No," she said plaintively.
It was a long while before Owen was able to accept what she said, and what it meant. When he did, he said nothing, but he felt his shoulders sag, and his head drop forward.
"I know, Owen, I know," she whispered. "I miss her too."
She drew him into a full embrace, letting him lean against her heavily. Owen rested his head on her chest, and he listened to her heart beating, while they mourned Shmi in silence.
Cliegg was sick of lying in his bed. He was just plain sick of it.
With that decided, Cliegg swung his legs - his leg - over the side of the bed and pulled himself up into a sitting position. The bed groaned underneath him. This "new" mattress Beru had bought was old and creaky and not terribly comfortable. But he hadn't complained. He knew why they had gotten rid of the old one. And, he thought sullenly, the change was rather appropriate. He wouldn't have wanted to sleep in his real bed without his wife anyway.
He hoped all the noise wouldn't catch his son's or Beru's attention. They'd rush in here and fuss at him, telling him he needed more rest and to not push himself too hard. They meant well, and he knew that, and they had taken good care of him over the last two weeks. But he wasn't on the verge of death any more, and it was time he stopped acting like it. He was strong enough to get into that damn chair on his own.
It was right beside the bed, the little hoverchair Owen had found the day after Cliegg had had his surgery. It was actually in good condition and had gotten him around a few times so far, even if it moved too slowly for his personal taste. He didn't think he'd ever get accustomed to using it all the time, but what he was worried about today was getting out of bed for a few hours. He needed to get back to his farm.
He grabbed one of the chair's arms and leaned on it heavily as he stood up on his good leg. He was careful to balance himself before moving again. Cliegg realized he was getting better at that - the first time he had tried to get out of bed, Owen had caught him before he teetered wildly to the floor - but that thought only made him think he was getting used to what happened, and that only made him feel angry.
He was steady enough to lean over and grab a shirt, which he pulled on roughly. Then he hopped and turned himself around, and slid back into the chair.
He settled into it as he activated its repulsors. It hummed and whirred, and he winced at how loud it sounded, but he didn't hear Owen or Beru coming. He suddenly realized that they weren't in the main house at all. He pushed the small control stick and the chair rotated slowly, away from the bed and toward the door. He then pushed forward and left the room.
The house was clean and orderly, and he looked things over as he floated by. It was all pleasant enough, he supposed, but a different order had been established in the last two weeks - Beru's, instead of Shmi's. Even the minor changes...books stacked this way instead of that, clothes folded instead of hung, food set out on the counter instead of the cabinets...every point innocent enough on its own, but together, they all left the room with a sense of the terrible thing that had happened.
Cliegg suddenly had an overwhelming urge to simply crawl back into bed. Instead he swore and cursed out loud, and went outside, finding Owen and Beru working in the plaza.
"Dad!" Owen cried. He was instantly on his feet, kicking away some of the parts that were closest to him.
Beru was already running over to him, frowning at him - but in a way that showed concern instead of anger. "Cliegg, why didn't you call for us like we told you to? We would have helped you out here."
"Well, you can see that I didn't need a whole lot of help, Beru. I can get around just fine," he said irritably.
She squeezed his shoulder, and completely ignored his tone. "I'm glad you're feeling so much better then," she answered, her frown smoothing out into a slight smile.
He sighed, immediately wishing he hadn't snapped at her, but feeling too agitated to offer her a proper apology. He gave her hand a light tap instead and hoped that would suffice. He thought it was fortunate that neither Beru nor Shmi were quick to take offense to his - or Owen's - moods, or what Shmi had kindly referred to as their "endearing grouchiness."
His smiled at that memory, but it was pained. He moved his chair away from Beru and over to where Owen had retaken his seat, in the middle of a scattering of tools and parts. His son was frowning at him now.
"You don't have to worry about me, all right?" Cliegg said. "I'm not about to spend the rest of my days in bed, staring at the ceiling. And...Shmi would probably kill me if she saw the way I've been moping around the last couple of weeks."
"Dad, you were seriously hurt. You've had major surgery. You're entitled to take some time to recover."
"And I have," Cliegg replied. "Owen...you know that self-pity didn't help me much when your mother died, and it's not helping me now. I'm not trying to be difficult. I know you're both worried about me and that you both miss her. And I appreciate it. I just want to stop being babied."
Owen nodded, and didn't say anything more. Cliegg took his hand briefly and squeezed it. "I know this isn't easy for you, son. But we've been through this type of hell before. Let's hope it's the last time."
The words came out with an ease that Cliegg hadn't expected. Was that it? He had lost another wife and that was all there was to say and do about it?
Cliegg was overwhelmed for a moment before deciding he could grieve in some better way later, on his own. Right now, he only wanted to think about something - anything - else.
His eyes fell on a data pad that Owen was holding. "Are you doing inventory? We did that about a month ago."
"I know..." Cliegg watched him exchange an uncomfortable glance with Beru. "Ummm...well, you're not the only one who needed something to do. I thought we could get a head start on the next one. Maybe finish it a little early."
"What? Why? What could have changed in a month?"
"Well..." Beru began.
"What?" he asked again.
"Cliegg," she said, "do you really want to discuss this now?"
Beru took a seat next to Owen and the two exchanged another glance before facing him again. There was a long pause, then Owen began speaking.
"Dad, we have to re-think a few things. Your medical care - it cost us a lot."
"A lot," Owen said. "We had to get a surgeon to come and operate on you in the middle of the night...and then we bought your chair. And there were some other issues we had to take care of on the farm, and repairs that had to be made. All these costs were necessary, of course, but they're not something we can absorb very easily. And besides that, there's...another issue."
"What would that be?"
"We - we have two less workers than we did before."
His son had said the words gently, and Cliegg sharply reminded himself that he was the one that had insisted on being out here and having this conversation in the first place. And he would have pushed Owen for the admission anyway. He tried to swallow back his despair.
Owen was watching him nervously, and continued with a slightly unsteady voice. "We might need to sell some things. To make sure we have enough money on hand for the immediate future. I'm trying to put together a list of things we can try to sell to the Jawas, or maybe out in town."
Cliegg leaned over to look at the list, and was taken aback by how long it was. "I can still work, Owen. I can get around in this chair."
"I know, Dad. But we still need to adjust to the way things are now."
"We can't give up all this!"
"We might not have to sell it all. I was listing what we could sell. I want to make sure we make it to harvest all right. Once we sell the water for this season, things will be much more secure." Owen tried to move the list out of his father's view, but Cliegg reached out and took the data pad from him. He studied it, occasionally making notes as he went along.
His family hadn't ever been rich, but the money it had taken to free Shmi years ago had set them back permanently. Maybe not drastically, as they weren't suddenly destitute, but they had moved down into a different level from which they still hadn't climbed out of. It had been worth every bit of what he had paid - he had always thought himself lucky that her owner hadn't completely fleeced him, because Cliegg might have sold the farm itself to get her. Still, he knew that the family wasn't as prepared now to deal with a financial setback, not another major one. Selling all these things would give them relief for the short-term, but Cliegg preferred to hold on to what they could and live a little leaner, and not hurt the farm any more than it already had been.
"Pay that doctor, and then don't sell anything else. We don't need to have money lying around," he said. "You're right, we can hang on until harvest."
His eyes rose from the list, and met Beru's.
"There's at least one other expense besides the doctor that Owen and I think we have to cover. And it's not an insignificant one."
They both were agitated, and Owen even took her hand before she went on. "We need enough to send a message to Coruscant. A full holo-image one, not a text message. That will definitely cost us a few more pieces of equipment."
"A message -?"
"We have to find a way to let Anakin know what's happened," Beru said passionately. "Shmi would have wanted that. And he's owed at least that much. There's no way we could afford passage out there, so we thought a message would have to do."
"What? For goodness sake, Beru, what could we possibly say to him?" Cliegg asked, anguished. "We can't even tell him for certain what happened to her! He doesn't even know us! And how do we know that he's on Coruscant? These Jedi are all over the place, he might not even get the message if we send it there!"
"We've thought about all of that," Owen said. "But it's not like we have a lot of options, Dad. And we have to tell him."
Cliegg was suddenly struck with an image of Shmi, a sad one, of the times when she appeared to him as a little more than a childless mother, when she couldn't fight the pain of her loss, and she let herself feel the sorrow of not having Anakin with her.
That image though, was not the usual one - most often, she had found joy in remembering Anakin, and she shared that with all of them. She had been embarrassed at first about speaking of her son practically every single day, of telling certain stories over and over again. But none of them had minded. Anakin was such a part of Shmi that Cliegg couldn't have imagined not being able to accept him as part of the family, even in his absence. He had looked forward to meeting him finally, at some point in the future.
And now, to have to tell him that his mother was gone...?
"Son, I don't think we can...I don't think I can...how are we supposed to tell him something like this?"
Owen took the inventory list from him and shut the data pad off. He began putting some of the tools away. "I don't know, but you shouldn't worry about it now. Like I said, these aren't things that we need to discuss right this second. Take some time, Dad."
Cliegg almost instinctively began to disagree with him, but the impulse died quickly. He knew he wasn't ready to deal with this.
He pushed the control on his chair, and silently returned to the inside of the house.
"Did you get it?" Beru asked.
"Yes," Owen replied. He removed the holo-imaging recorder from his bag. "I found a place that loans these out." He sighed heavily. "I wish it hadn't taken so long, but there's no way we could pay all that money to buy one and never use it again after this. And to actually send the message - we're going to have to sell a few more things first, and that's going to take some more time."
"Is it really that expensive?"
"I want to put those tags on it. At least then we'll know that someone read it after it arrived." He put the device down on the kitchen table and shrugged. "The guy I talked to in town said that there were no individual message-receivers for the Jedi, there was only a general one for their Temple. He said we should send it to the Temple with Anakin's name on it, and hope for the best."
Beru grimaced. "That's not terribly reassuring."
"No, but we're going to have to live with it." He sat at the table and began fiddling with the recorder. "Where's Dad?"
"Out in the garage with 3PO. They're working on one of the speeders."
Owen smiled at her - a genuine smile, a rarity - and she returned it. 3PO had been conspicuously absent throughout everything that had happened. Owen had shut him down shortly after Shmi was taken. He had felt a little bit guilty about doing it, but 3PO's panicked stammering had driven them all crazy after a few minutes, so the droid had been unceremoniously turned off and left in the extra bedroom. Beru had reactivated him a few days later, but Dad simply couldn't deal with him, despite 3PO's honest attempts to be calmer and quieter than usual. Owen was happy to hear that this piece of their family life - one of the pieces still shattered by Shmi's disappearance - seemed to be returning to normal.
"Well, I hate to interrupt, but we should get Dad in here," Owen said. "The sooner we get this done, the sooner I can return this thing, and the less we'll owe."
"I'll go get him," she said, and she ran off to the garage.
Owen continued playing with the recorder while he was alone. Contacting Anakin was the last step they had to take to finish dealing with what happened, at least as far as he was concerned. Nothing was going to magically be better, and the pain wasn't going to go away, but he expected there would be a finality in this. He hoped they'd be able to send it out soon.
Of course, this wasn't about to bring closure for Anakin. It pained Owen to think about what this message would do to him. He had some vague notions in his head about Anakin, about this stepbrother that he had never met, but he couldn't fathom how he would react to this news, or to receiving it this way.
Owen heard the clanking of 3PO's footsteps, and saw the droid trailing Dad and Beru into the kitchen. All three of them took seats, and they stared at the recorder, lying in the middle of the table.
No one said anything.
"So," his father began, "you two have any great ideas on how to do this?"
Beru shrugged helplessly. "We probably should be direct."
"I don't think so," Owen said. "'Anakin, your mother's gone' is not going to work."
"I didn't mean that direct," she replied. "But I don't think we should make ourselves crazy when there's just some terrible news we have to give, and not that many different ways to say it."
"Do we introduce ourselves?" Dad asked. "Do we want to take all that time setting up who we are before we tell him why we're sending the message?"
"He'll guess before we say it if we do that," Owen answered. "There's no other reason for us to be talking to him. If this were a normal message, his mother would have sent it. Which brings up the question of who we're addressing this message from. He has no idea who 'Cliegg Lars' or 'the Larses' are."
Beru shook her head. "We have to introduce ourselves. You both know that. We'll keep it brief. And...I don't know how we're going to address it. You'd think that if he saw a message from Tatooine, that would be enough to get him to read it, even if he doesn't recognize the name on it." She paused thoughtfully. "Maybe we should mark it as an emergency message?"
"Good idea," Dad said. "It might help make sure he actually gets the damn thing. You don't think they'd actually keep it from him? Not something like this?"
"No," Owen said, with more certainty than he actually felt. He had found it...distressing...that Anakin had never been able to visit or contact his mother in ten years. Ten years! Owen had always thought Shmi dealt with it in a remarkably patient way, saying as matter-of-factly as she could that none of them knew much about the Jedi way. That the Jedi Master who took Anakin had said that the life would not be easy. But he knew that she had never given up the hope of seeing him again, and he couldn't stand the thought that her dream had not been realized. He hoped that the Jedi knew exactly what they had cost both Shmi and Anakin. "This isn't just another message Anakin's getting. Even they have to know that."
"They haven't known it in ten years," his father grumbled. "His mother shouldn't have to die for him to able contact his own damn family."
Beru sighed. "Cliegg -"
"All I'm saying is that if rules are rules, this might not work."
That brought on another uncomfortable silence.
Beru was the one to break it. "If they read it, they'll give it to him. Shmi wouldn't let her son leave with a man callous enough to not tell him this kind of news. So we should stop talking in circles."
Owen's eyes wandered, and eventually stopped on the droid across the table from him. An idea dawned on him. "3PO...maybe you could..."
3PO snapped to attention and gave his best approximation of panic once he saw the way Owen was looking at him. "Me! Oh, Master Owen! I couldn't possibly -"
"Anakin knows you. If he sees you in the message -"
"Master Owen! My understanding of human relations is quite extensive, but I don't believe I have the proper protocols for this situation."
Owen blinked at him in surprise. "3PO, I've never heard you downplay your vast knowledge of humans."
"I simply believe that it might be better for one of you to record the message."
"And perhaps that shows a greater understanding of humanity than you give yourself credit for," Beru said kindly. "I don't think you should give the message, 3PO, but maybe it isn't a bad idea for you to be in the picture, where Anakin can see you."
"Aw hell, give me that thing." Dad snatched the recorder and set it. "3PO, get over here."
3PO jumped up and stood behind him. The indicator light flashed on.
Dad took a deep breath, and then launched into his message. "Anakin, my name is Cliegg Lars. You don't know me, but I married your mother more than five years ago. Son, I'm sorry to have to give you this news this way...Ah..." He waved his hand in disgust and stopped talking. Owen shut the recorder off.
His father looked at him in dismay. "Owen, that sounded even worse out loud."
"It wasn't that bad," Beru said. "Why don't you try it again? Do you want me or Owen to do anything?"
"No...No. He needs to hear it from me."
"3PO," Owen said, "you're the only one of us that actually knows him. Can you give us any advice on this?"
"I haven't seen Master Anakin in quite some time," the droid answered thoughtfully, "and I've never known him as an adult."
Dad gave a small laugh, and smiled a little. "Come on, now. We heard a hundred stories about this kid. I bet we know him as well as the droid. Don't know if we've got anything that will help though. Remember all those podracing stories? Or how he spent all that time building 3PO?"
Owen smiled too. "Or how he used to go off exploring with all his friends -"
"- and come back with used speeder parts and covered in grease -" Beru said.
"- and he could fix anything anyone threw at him," his father finished. Then his smile faded. "You think he might come here to see us after he gets this?"
"I would," Owen said.
"He hasn't come so far," Beru pointed out. "But this is different."
"Okay, okay," Dad said in exasperation. "Let me do this." He reset the holo-recorder and waited for the light to come on.
"Anakin, I'm sure you're surprised to get a message from Tatooine, especially from someone you don't know. My name is Cliegg Lars. I freed your mother from Watto more than five years ago, and we got married shortly after that.
"I'm sorry this has to be the first time we've 'met' - I'm sorry you have to get this news from a stranger.
"More than three weeks ago, your mother was attacked and kidnapped by Tusken Raiders. We tried to stop them, we tried to save her...we went after her as soon as we could, with as many people as we could get. I'm sorry - we couldn't bring her back." He stopped, and Owen worried he wouldn't be able to finish. But he swallowed hard and continued. "For her to have lasted this long...well, there's almost no chance of that. I'm sorry, Anakin.
"I'm sending you this because we owed it to you to tell you what happened." Another pause, and then he apparently decided there wasn't much else to say. "I'm going to include in this message where on Tatooine you can find us, if you...if you ever want to do that." There was a helpless silence. "Again, we're sorry, Anakin."
Beru reached out quietly, and shut the recorder off.
He didn't ask what they had thought. He only asked, "When can we send it?"
"Maybe in another week or so." Owen took the device off the table and put it back in his bag. "I'll see what I can do."
Anakin closed his hand around the small data-chip that Watto had given him. It contained the location of the farm that Mom lived at now. Anakin had been surprised that Watto's records held that type of information - very few owners worried about where their slaves were going after they sold them off. Watto had explained that his mother made certain he had the information before she left. She had stood over Watto, watching him save it to his files. "Anakin won't know how to find me otherwise," was what she had said.
Why hadn't he come to find her before now? Why hadn't he ever really forced the issue?
His head snapped toward her, and he realized that he had simply stopped when they reached the rickshaw, and he was standing beside it, staring blankly, with his fist clenched at his side. He offered her a weak smile, and held out his other hand to help her into the seat.
She took it, but that obviously was not what she was waiting for. "Are you okay?" she asked as he sat down next to her.
She said, "You should try not to worry," and their eyes met for what felt to Anakin like a very lengthy moment.
After the conversation they'd had the night before...well, Anakin honestly hadn't been sure what to expect from her when they saw each other again in the morning. Would she try to be distant with him? Would things become uncomfortable between them? Would she be upset?
None of those things had happened so far, and Anakin was relieved beyond words. He knew what an enormous risk he had taken in saying all that he had. But it seemed that even if they couldn't be together, they could still get back to their friendship, and go on with their lives as normal.
Go on with your life? She is your life.
Anakin tried to ignore the words, which gave voice to his broken heart. He had respected her decision last night, and would continue to do so. But, even aside from the pain he felt at being rejected, he was troubled because he had not yet been able to picture his future - any future - without her. There was an empty void where the rest of his life should have been.
He was nothing without her, and he knew it.
Their carriage rolled along slowly, taking them through the winding streets of Mos Espa and back to their ship. Neither of them spoke again, but Padm? placed her hand over his. Anakin managed to resist the urge to squeeze it, or to lace his fingers between hers. He simply tried to enjoy the warmth of her hand resting lightly on his.
If they could remain friends then he wouldn't have to be without her. Not completely.
They returned to the landing space and quickly boarded the ship. Anakin entered the data-chip into a small slot on one of the consoles, and the coordinates for the farm flashed on one of the screens. A flight plan was displayed on another one. He entered both into the main navigation computer, and readied the ship for take off.
She settled into the co-pilot's seat, and was watching him quite openly. After a moment, she asked, cautiously, "Anakin, this is good news, isn't it? About your mother?"
The ship took off, and glided out of the city toward the desert dunes. "Yes. She's been freed, that has to be a good thing for her."
"And she's married."
"And she's married." Anakin hadn't really had the chance to process this new information yet. This certainly was not what he had expected to find. It was probably na?ve for him to never have considered that Watto would eventually sell her off. His former owner had never been great at keeping his money, and his mother had never been as valuable a slave to Watto as Anakin had been. But it honestly hadn't occurred to him that he wouldn't find his mother living in their old house, or working in Watto's shop. Still, Anakin knew that his childhood nostalgia was not important now. "This Lars person...he must be a decent guy. I mean, he freed her first."
Padm? gave him a puzzled look.
"So," Anakin continued, "when they got married, Mom was able to make her own decision. It wasn't like he owned her and demanded they get married. After spending the money to buy her, he still freed her and gave her the choice. That's not a small thing."
Padm? nodded slowly. The hood on her cape fell back, and she turned to face him fully. "Then, does this mean...maybe your dreams were wrong?" She was trying to keep her tone neutral, but he could hear her hopefulness. He winced.
The images of the nightmares, particularly the last one, last night, were still very fresh in his mind. He was walking away from Mom, as he had done ten years earlier. But instead of hearing her voice in his mind, saying, "Don't look back," he heard her crying out in fear and pain. Instead of keeping his eyes on Qui-Gon, who had patiently waited for Anakin to decide to leave with him, he only saw shadows before him, and heard more screams. He wanted to turn around, to help his mother somehow, but he kept walking forward...
He knew - he knew - that something terrible had happened to her. Whether she was free or not.
Anakin was gripping the controls so tightly that his hands had flushed red, then turned white. His whole body felt clenched. He was even holding his breath.
"Anakin?" she began, looking at him anxiously. "Anakin, I'm sorry."
"What? What are you sorry for?"
"I don't mean to worry you before we get there."
"It's not you," Anakin replied. "Not at all. It's the dreams. They're...disturbing."
"But you don't think - you don't think this new person is the reason she's in danger, do you?"
"No...But something is wrong, I know it. That feeling hasn't changed at all, despite what we've learned." He sighed. "I should have come back before now."
"Anakin, you couldn't have -"
"Yes, I could have," he said quietly. "I'm here now, and I'm risking a lot of trouble with Obi-Wan, and the Council. I'm risking expulsion. I could have taken that risk a year ago. Or five years ago. And I thought about it all the time. The only thing that's different now is that I know she's in trouble. But it shouldn't have taken that. I should have been here to see her anyway."
"She wouldn't have wanted you to do that. I know it doesn't seem fair, but you had a lot of hard choices to make." She touched his shoulder briefly. "Don't blame yourself for not making this choice earlier."
"I just wish...I wish had kept my promise to her," he whispered.
"To free her?"
"Yes," Anakin said. "You remember that?"
"You told me about it, after Qui-Gon freed you and we were on our way to Coruscant. That night we were talking."
Anakin couldn't help feeling pleased that she remembered that. "Yes, that's what I mean. I guess it doesn't really matter though. I'm glad she managed to get out of that life, whether I was the one to do it or not."
"She's going to be so happy to see you, Anakin. That's all that will really matter."
He nodded. "I hope it's that simple."
The ship had passed over Mos Eisley by then, and was approaching the farming communities beyond the main city and spaceport. It wasn't long before he spotted the small farm they were looking for. He landed the ship near the outskirts, and shut the systems down.
Anakin took a deep breath. "I guess this is it."
He shared another long look with Padm?, but this time didn't bother trying to decipher what it meant. He simply drew comfort and strength from her.
He stood up from the pilot's chair as the ship's ramp lowered. "Let's go."
Anakin seemed to vanish from sight instantly, leaving a kicked up trail of sand in his wake as he sped for the horizon. Padm? stood outside the Lars hovel, staring at the last spot where she had been able to see him. It was so far away - he had been nothing but a speck at that point. But he had still been visible.
She wanted to will something good to happen for him...or to at least ward off something terrible. She suddenly felt very alone and helpless. She knew Anakin must be feeling the same way, but could hardly imagine how much worse it was for him.
Padm? hadn't disbelieved Anakin when he talked about his dreams, but she hadn't truly understood either. What did a Jedi's nightmares mean? She had worried about what they would find here, but had never expected them to come into a month-old tragedy, with Anakin's chance to help taken away weeks ago.
She had come outside to try to support him, to try to do anything that might make this better. But the only thing she could do was whisper his name and hold him, and then he was gone.
On the ship, while they were coming to the farm, Padm? had mentioned that Anakin's situation wasn't always fair. Now she was almost choking on the injustice that fate had laid on him.
Ten years pass, and he doesn't even get to see his mother, much less save her?
Ten years pass, and he finally gets to see you, and he pours his whole heart out to you, and you reject him? While claiming that it's somehow for his own good?
Her eyes fell from his spot on the horizon, and she stared at her feet for a moment. Then she decided that it was time for her to go back inside.
The family was still sitting at the table, watching and waiting for her. She took the seat that Anakin had been in.
"Has he left?" Owen asked.
"Yes," she whispered. "You...you said these people are monsters. What do you think they'll do? Will Anakin -"
"That kid's a Jedi," Cliegg said. "He'll take care of them."
"How many men did you say you took to go after her?"
"Thirty," he responded. "All of us were just farmers though."
Padm? frowned. She wasn't worried about Anakin being hurt, or not being able to handle the Tuskens - well, not much, anyway. Padm? had seen the way Anakin reacted to a threat to her back on Coruscant, and knew he could certainly take care of himself when there was danger. That wasn't the point. "If she's been gone for a month with these monsters, what can he possibly find now?"
The three of them were silent; they barely looked at her. Finally, Owen said, "He may not find anything at all."
Padm? shook her head. "He won't come back until he does."
Beru looked at her with concern. "Are you okay?"
She made herself nod. "Yes, but I'm afraid for him." Padm? was going to add how horrible this situation was for Anakin when she realized... "I'm sorry, this must be so difficult for you. You've - lost Shmi too. And to have us show up out of nowhere like this couldn't have helped."
"No," Beru said, "we're glad to meet him, even under these circumstances. We've been hearing about Anakin for years. I think we've heard about you as well."
"Me?" Padm? asked, her eyebrows raised.
"I think so. You're the girl that came with the Jedi that took Anakin to Coruscant. Right?"
She grinned. "Yes, that's me. I was with Qui-Gon, and we all stayed at Anakin's home while we were here."
"Well, then we've definitely heard about you," Owen said. He was smiling too. "You know, Shmi would have loved to see the two of you together. She always said that Anakin had the biggest crush on you. And she was worried that Anakin wouldn't be able to do the normal things that someone his age..."
Padm? wasn't certain what expression he saw on her face, but he stopped talking abruptly. His smile vanished.
"I - I'm sorry," he said. "I assumed that you and Anakin - well, I'm sure you know what I assumed."
"It's not our business anyway," Cliegg said. "As far as I'm concerned, you're a friend of Shmi's, and you're welcome here."
"Thank you," she said absently, her mind back on the little boy who had called her an angel, the man who said he would do anything she asked. She exhaled heavily, and felt an urge to explain herself to them, whether it was necessary or not. "Anakin and I...we're...it's not as simple as either one of us would like it to be."
"Can I ask you a question?" Cliegg leaned forward in his hoverchair. "Though it's probably not any of my business either."
"What is it?"
"Why didn't that Qui-Gon person let Anakin come back once in ten years? I want to know."
Padm? felt her eyes bulge out at him.
"Dad, we shouldn't ask her that, she's not a Jedi," Owen said.
"No, it's all right," she said. "But promise me you won't ever say anything like that with Anakin around. Please." Cliegg nodded vigorously, and she continued. "First of all, Qui-Gon did not become Anakin's master. He was killed in battle shortly after we left Tatooine. Anakin has been taught by Qui-Gon's student instead." They all looked shocked, and Padm? realized she was completely changing the story that they - and Shmi - had built up in their heads for a decade. "I'm not a Jedi, so I don't necessarily understand all of their rules. They are very...concerned...about family issues, it seems. His Master is a good man, but I can't answer the why of this for you. I'm sorry."
One of them said something about her not having to explain, and something else about Anakin, but she was barely listening. She was wishing again for something good to happen for him, trying to will it through the force of her wanting it for him so badly. It was futile, of course, and she knew it. Maybe it would be better to put her energies toward hoping he'd come back soon, regardless of what happened.
"Anyway, Padm?," Beru said, and she returned her attention to their conversation. "It's going to be a long night. Can I get you anything, or fix something for you?"
"No, thank you. I don't feel much like eating right now."
"Would you like me to show you the room you can stay in?"
"Yes, that would be great."
All three of them escorted her through the hovel to a small bedroom in the back. "I'm sure it's not the best accommodation," Owen was saying. "Maybe we should try to straighten it up before we leave you in here."
The room was small and cluttered. It might have made a quaint guestroom much earlier in the life of the house, but it had evolved into a cross between a storage closet and a workroom. The bed and floor had all sorts of things scattered on them. Parts and tools and little machines were everywhere.
Padm? thought that Anakin would have liked the room very much. "No, don't worry. It's perfectly fine. I think I may try to get some rest now." It was a lie, and she thought they knew it. There was no chance that she'd be able to sleep tonight.
"Well, if you need anything, ask," Beru said.
"Don't be afraid to come get us or wake us up," Owen added.
"Anakin will be fine. Try not to worry yourself too much," Cliegg said. Then he turned his chair and floated toward his own room.
"We'll be out in the common room for a little while longer," Beru told her. "Good night, Padm?."
She wished them both goodnight, and shut the bedroom door. She cleared most of the things off the bed, and laid down on it, staring wide-eyed at the ceiling.
A part of her still wanted to believe that Shmi was alive. Because if she was, Padm? had no doubt that Anakin would be able to find her, and bring her back.
A month though. It was such a long time.
Padm? had come to like Shmi a great deal during the short time they had spent together a decade ago. She had opened her home to all of them, and Padm? was very cognizant of the risk she had taken in allowing Anakin to enter that podrace on their behalf. In fact, that was the clearest memory she had of Shmi - the two of them, sharing a small viewscreen, watching Anakin race, both praying that nothing would happen to him. That had been an awful feeling of fear that they had shared, a feeling of foreboding and dread that had come with every twist and turn on the track.
She had felt the same way this evening, watching Anakin shrink into the horizon on his speeder.
Did he know that she would be there for him, no matter what he found out there? She hoped he did. She hoped that the fact that she had accompanied him here was more significant in his mind than the words she had said to him last night.
Even if she had been right last night. And she had been right. It was as she said to the Larses - things were too complicated.
It's you who've made them complicated. Anakin's feelings for you couldn't be simpler.
It's not complicated in your heart.
This wasn't the time to think about it. Anakin had other concerns, and those were paramount right now.
She needed him to come back to her, and to be all right. Nothing else could happen until then. Going over last night in her head time after time wasn't helping anything.
Padm? turned over, burying her head flat into her pillow. She lay there, still and silent, for hours.
When she turned back over to stare at the ceiling again - without having slept for even a few minutes - she could see the first of the suns rising, bathing her room in a soft pink and orange hue.
She repeated the line she had been telling herself all night. He'd be back soon.
He'd be back soon.
Padm? and Anakin finally returned from their long talk in the garage.
Anakin looked like hell.
Owen watched him closely. The fury Anakin had worn all over his face when he first returned was gone. Now, he looked hollow and depressed. His arm was draped around Padm?'s shoulder, and he leaned against her heavily. It made for an odd sight - Padm? was so slight and small, but she looked as though she were the only thing holding him up, and keeping him on his feet.
Owen supposed it could have been worse. Much worse. Anakin might have needed her help, but he was holding on.
Dad was watching Anakin as well, trying to get a read on how he was coping. Owen wasn't sure what his father saw, but he was fidgeting uncomfortably in his hoverchair, and glancing furtively at Owen and Beru. He wanted their permission to proceed. Owen frowned at him. Yes, there were questions that they needed to deal with, but he was loath to push Anakin into anything he wasn't ready for yet. Beru apparently agreed, and Owen saw her give Dad the tiniest shake of her head.
Anakin didn't seem to notice their uneasiness. He pulled away from Padm? and sunk heavily into one of the chairs in the small sitting room. She remained standing next to him.
To Owen's surprise, Anakin brought up the subject Dad wanted to address without any prompting from them. "Have you already decided on..." he swallowed hard "...on arrangements?"
"No, we haven't decided a thing," Dad said. "We weren't about to do anything without discussing it with you first, son."
"Thank you," Anakin said sincerely. "I appreciate that."
Owen waved him off. "You're her son. You don't have to thank us."
Anakin glanced at Dad. "You must have some sort of plans in mind though. What would you have done if I weren't here?"
"Well...we would lay her to rest here on the farm," he answered. "With the other members of our family. We were thinking of having a short ceremony. Just us."
"Did you have any ideas?" Beru asked. "Or would our plans be all right?" She was anxious, though she tried not to show it. Owen certainly understood why.
They did want to take Anakin's wishes into account, and didn't want to make the situation any worse by getting into a disagreement over what to do. But, they were also Shmi's family, and they needed resolution, especially Dad. If Anakin wanted to take his mother back to Coruscant and carry out some Jedi ritual...or if he had some other plan where it would be impossible for them to compromise...
Anakin didn't answer. He sighed and shrunk in his chair a little. Padm? squeezed his shoulder and said softly, "We don't have to make any decisions right away. If you need time to think about what you want, Anakin, you should take it. I'm sure they understand."
He was staring at the floor, and seemed to be very far away in his thoughts. "You know," he whispered, "she was really happy here." He closed his eyes, made the decision, and snapped them back open. "This was her home. She belongs here. Whatever you have planned is fine."
Owen watched his father sigh with great relief. "Thank you, Anakin," he said. "We'll give her a proper rest."
"I haven't told you how grateful I am that you freed her," Anakin said, his voice a whisper. "And that she had something good in her life...before, before she..."
"I loved your mother. Don't feel like you owe me a thing. I'm just sorry that we weren't able to save -"
Anakin shook his head fiercely. Dad never finished the sentence.
Owen stood up slowly. "We could have the ceremony today, if that's all right with both of you." He actually knew it was fine with his father; he waited for Anakin to answer.
His response was to stand as well, and say, "I want to - let me prepare the grave."
"Of course," Owen replied. "I'll show you where the tools are."
Anakin followed him closely into the main plaza. He grabbed two shovels, handing one to Anakin. He also grabbed four sand barriers. The two of them went back up through the house and out into the farm.
Anakin wandered to a stop in front of the smaller headstone while Owen dropped the barriers and his shovel on the spot next to his mother's grave, the spot that would now be Shmi's. "How old was she?" he asked.
"A little less than a month," Owen answered. "The birth and delivery were very difficult. My mother died just before she did."
Anakin's face was set in grief. "What did you do...after that?"
"Well...I..." Owen stumbled for the words. Honestly, he still didn't know how he and his father had gotten through that. But that wasn't what Anakin needed to hear now, and Owen was willing to commiserate if it would help his stepbrother cope.
Anakin, though, had already shrugged off his own question, and readied his shovel instead. "Right here?" he asked, gesturing to the general area where Owen was standing. Owen picked up his own shovel and nodded, and together they started digging. Soon, they were pushing the barriers into the ground, forming a small wall along the sides of the grave, so that the sand wouldn't slide back down into it.
"Weren't you angry?" Anakin asked after a long silence.
"I was," Owen answered. "There wasn't really anyone to be angry with - my mother was sick and there was nothing we could do for either of them - but that didn't do much to stop me. I was mad at everyone and everything for a long time. Now, I do have someone to blame. And I can't do a damn thing about it." He shook his head. "Those Tuskens...the worst part is, I know they're not done. There'll be no one here to fight them the next time they come."
Anakin spiked his shovel hard into the sand with a grunt. He left it there, standing straight up out of the ground.
"They won't come back," he said with effort.
Owen came close to asking, "What do you mean?" but managed to stop himself short. He wasn't prepared to ask Anakin exactly what had happened when he found Shmi, and the look in Anakin's eyes clearly said that he wasn't ready to talk about it. Owen was sure Anakin had made them pay for at least part of what they had done, to Shmi, to his father, and to everyone in the community. So, he simply said, "Good," and left it at that. Anakin wrenched his shovel out, and they got back to their task.
"You couldn't have been very old when your mother died," Anakin said.
"No, I wasn't."
Anakin stepped down into the growing hole, and kept digging, lifting the sand up and over the barriers. "I guess it must have been hard for you, when your father married my mother."
"Not at all." Owen jumped down, joining Anakin. "I mean, there was a part of me that was sad. I guess I'll always be sad. But it was so good to see Dad happy again. Anything was worth that. Besides, your mother was wonderful. She made everything easy. I was glad when they got married."
"What kind of wedding did they have?" Anakin asked.
"They went to a cleric who lives in Anchorhead. It was a simple ceremony."
"Did you stand for her?"
"Technically, no," Owen said. "I had to act as her witness for official reasons, but I was there for my father."
"So then who -?"
"She didn't want anyone, really. She wanted you as her witness, even in your absence...she felt that it was such a family role that she didn't want one of her friends doing it in your place." Anakin grimaced and looked away. "It was a wonderful day, she was very happy. So was Dad. I don't know what he'll do now."
"He has you," Anakin said, "and you're lucky to have your father. That must help in getting through something like this. Both times."
Owen spared Anakin a curious glance as he checked the walls of the grave one last time to make sure they would continue to hold. He knew that Anakin had never known his father...all Shmi had said was that it was just her and her son, until he had left for Coruscant. "It does help. Won't your Master be able to help you?"
Anakin paused again, letting the sand fall off his shovel and back into the hole. "I'm sure he'll try to." He hastily added, "Yes, he'll help, of course he will."
Owen didn't know what to make of Anakin's answer, or his tone, but didn't press him. They now had to throw the sand pretty high to clear it out of the grave. They would be done soon.
"I hope you know you and Padm? are welcome to stay as long as you want. We're actually hoping that you'll stay. This isn't how we wanted to meet you."
"This isn't how I wanted to come home," he said bluntly. "I don't know if we can stay. Maybe, for a short while...I'm certainly in no hurry to get back. And your family has been very kind to us."
"You are family, Anakin. You just didn't know it."
Owen thought, briefly, that he saw a small smile cross Anakin's face. It passed, and the two tried to finish their work.
"Master Ani, does that name mean anything to you?"
Anakin felt his heart - already overburdened, already broken - sink all the way down to his feet. The rest of his fistful of sand sifted through his fingers and fell to the ground.
Dimly, he heard the rational part of his mind tell him that his impulse was unfair. And he knew that the voice was right. So he added shame to the rest of the emotions that were wearing him down.
It didn't matter what Obi-Wan's message was. Even if it were a 20-minute lecture about how he had ordered Anakin to stay on Naboo, Anakin knew he would have to sit there and take it, despite believing in his soul that he was right to come - that he should have come sooner, whatever Obi-Wan would have said or done about it.
But he had had far too many uncharitable thoughts about his Master lately, and they had to stop. Obi-Wan didn't deserve that, no matter what Anakin sometimes thought of his teaching methods, or his rules. Anakin knew that his Master - his friend, his father - would never have wished this tragedy on him. Anakin had to get himself re-focused on that.
Padm? was waiting for a signal from him and he simply nodded.
Cliegg was frowning irritably. "So that's it? You have to leave right this minute?"
Anakin took his annoyance as a sign that Cliegg didn't want them to leave yet. He had to admit he was touched. "I'm afraid we do."
"Who is this person?"
"Obi-Wan is my Master," Anakin said.
"Do you think something's wrong?" Beru asked, concerned.
"I know something's wrong. I'm not supposed to be here at all. If he's contacting me here, that means he's found out that I've left my assignment. At least, I hope that's all it is." Anakin sighed. "I'm sorry we have to leave so abruptly."
"You're not going to get in trouble, are you?" Owen asked him incredulously. "Not after everything that's happened? They aren't going to try to punish you or something like that, are they?"
The anger, the blame, the despair - they all came rushing back, and Anakin had to take a deep breath to dissipate them and find his center. He forced himself, again, to not think any more unkind thoughts. Not about Obi-Wan, not about the Council. He loved Obi-Wan. And blaming the Council was useless.
"My Master doesn't know what's happened. I'm not sure...I guess I'll have to see how he'll react, and what he wants to do." Anakin decided that he ought to try to reassure Owen, at least a little bit. "He is going to be sorry about what happened though. I'm sure of that." Owen gave him something between a nod and shrug.
Anakin turned to Cliegg and reached out his hand, and they shared strong handshake. "Thank you again, for everything."
"You don't have to thank us," he insisted. Then he added, seriously, "I hope you know, Anakin, that your mother was proud of you. I know she still would be." He clapped Anakin's back. "Take care of yourself, son."
Anakin almost thanked him again, but caught it. "I will."
Padm? was speaking quietly with Owen and Beru. Anakin couldn't quite make out what was being said, but she was smiling. She took Beru's hand briefly and squeezed it. Anakin stood behind her, and lightly rested his hands on Padm?'s shoulders.
"I was telling Padm? that you ought to take 3PO with you," Owen said.
"Really?" 3PO started at the sound of his name, and Anakin couldn't help but smile. "Are you sure?"
"Absolutely. He's yours."
"Oh! Master Ani, I would be so pleased to return to your service," 3PO said. Anakin thought he actually did sound rather gleeful.
"Well, then that's settled," Beru said.
"For whatever it's worth," Owen added, "you're both welcome here, any time."
"It's worth a lot," Anakin replied. He shook Owen's hand, and Beru's.
He looked at Padm?, and at the droids. "Ready?"
"Yes," Padm? said. R2 whistled happily and began rolling away, with 3PO following behind.
He and Padm? walked together back to the ship. Anakin decided not to look back at his mother's grave as he went.
The three of them watched Anakin and Padm? walk away, and board their ship. The ramp was drawn up.
Owen had expected them to get in and take off, but the ship was still idle and there was no indication they were about to leave.
"Maybe once they get the message, they can just respond, and they might not have to actually leave?" Beru said hopefully.
"Maybe," Owen agreed, though he didn't really believe that. He pulled Beru closer to him and she wrapped her arms around his waist as they continued their watch on the ship. Owen kissed her forehead.
Dad returned to Shmi's graveside. Owen glanced back and saw him sitting there, talking softly to his wife. It was a heartbreaking scene, but at the same time, Owen couldn't help being glad of it. Shmi had been found and returned home, and laid to a proper rest. Anakin had been able to come and say goodbye.
None of that had seemed likely at all that horrible first night, when they had failed to find and save Shmi. So, even though they still would have to live with the grief of losing her, and Dad would still have to adjust to his injuries, Owen was relieved that they wouldn't have to live with the gnawing uncertainty any longer. The family had gotten their closure.
Suddenly, Anakin's ship came to life. It took off and headed straight for the atmosphere, moving so swiftly that Owen had to wonder what they found when they got on board, and what Anakin's Master's message had said.
"I wonder where they're going," Beru said, mostly to herself.
"Back to Coruscant?" Owen guessed. "Or probably somewhere we've never even heard of." The ship was already out of sight by then. "You think they'll come back?"
"I don't know about that," Dad said gruffly. Owen hadn't noticed him come up behind them. "He's got those rules to worry about. And this wasn't exactly a pleasant visit." Cliegg shook his head. "I wish there was something else we could have done for him."
"Don't be so hard on yourself," Beru said. "It's not like he blamed us for what happened."
"I don't think he did," Owen concurred. He had felt some kinship with Anakin - over losing one's mother, if nothing else. Anakin's anger, as real and powerful as it was, hadn't been directed at any of them. Owen privately wondered if they'd be having such a casual conversation about it if it had been aimed at them. But he thought he understood Anakin's feelings, at least up to a point.
"You're probably right," Dad finally said. "But who knows about seeing them again." After a moment, he added, "I'm going to go back inside. Maybe get some rest. It's already been a very long day."
Beru pulled back from their embrace and looked up at him. "Shouldn't we join him?"
Owen's eyes went back to the sky, which was clear and blue as far out as he could see. The ship, of course, was long gone, but he had a silly, sentimental impulse - to wish Anakin luck, or something equally foolish.
Eventually, looked back down at Beru, and gave her a kiss. They went back inside together.
Original cover by ami-padme. HTML formatting copyright 2002 TheForce.Net LLC.