Lonely Little Boys
Zett scratched out the last few figures of his astro-math homework and sighed. Now with all his homework completed, he had nothing left to occupy his time for the rest of the weekend. Unlike most of his classmates, he would've liked to have some big assignment or something assigned. It was so much nicer to have something to do, than to wander the castle halls with nothing at all to do.
There was babysitting the twins, and helping Lady Padmé or Miss Sabé or Captain Typho, and teaching Maré, but he didn't feel up to any of that. And with his training with Master Anakin done for the day, he was at loose ends. So what was there left to do?
He couldn't go out and play with other boys. The only child near his age was Joh Wilk, and he was only nine years old. Zett was twelve, less than a month from being thirteen, and the only thing he had in common with Joh was that they lived in the same general area.
Packing up his homework in preparation for returning to classes in roughly a day and a half's time, Zett abandoned his room to try and find something to do. Glancing at the time, he guessed that Maré was out grazing somewhere on the property. Miss Sabé and Lady Padmé would be starting lunch soon. And Master Anakin would be watching the children, perhaps with Captain Typho and the droids as well.
Sure enough, as he passed the playroom he could see Master Anakin and Captain Typho entertaining the two-year-old twins. Captain Typho was staging a mock space battle with Luke and his toy ships and poor Master Anakin had been roped into playing tea party with Leia and the droids. Seeing that there was still one chair open at the tiny table, Zett moved on quickly before he was sucked into the party too.
When he passed the kitchen, he found his prediction concerning Lady Padmé and Miss Sabé to be equally accurate. They darted around the room, throwing to together whatever lunch was going to be for that day. Things were well in hand, so Zett moved on.
Since it hadn't rained yet, and it didn't look like it would rain for several hours, Zett decided to take a walk outside. The air was sticky, but he'd adjusted to the climate enough where it didn't feel oppressive anymore. It would feel better after it rained, though.
Circling around the castle, he came to the start of a trail that he particularly liked. The narrow path looped around Agate Lake through the dense jungle and ended up in the grove of Ambrosia trees. Then, to return to the castle, he just had to follow the pipes to the shed where the collection vats for the sap were, and then go past it to the clearing where the castle was built.
It seemed that he hiked along this trail more and more lately. Master Anakin was busy with his children and his wife, he had only a few hours a day to spend with Zett. And those precious few hours were focused almost exclusively on Jedi training.
Every day it was one hour of physical training, which consisted of hikes in the jungle, hand-to-hand sparring, katas, and lightsaber drills. Then another hour later in the day of Force skills, like meditation and levitation. However, about half of both training sessions were consumed by trying to catch Maré up.
Maré was, at best, skittish. Anything that she perceived as violent sent her cowering, if not fleeing. They had to tell her that the katas and lightsaber drills were actually just traditional dances for her to agree to do them. She found Master Anakin to be intimidating, and Zett found himself pressed into the role of teaching aide and intermediary.
It was frustrating. He spent more time teaching her basic skills than learning anything new. He knew that she needed the help, she at least needed to know the basic self-defense and Force skills before she could move on to any specialized Healer training, but some days he just wanted to say that he quit and walk away.
I can't quit, Zett sighed. Not if I want to be a Jedi. A Jedi doesn't just quit if things get frustrating. He keeps on going until his mission is completed and does his very best.
It's an honor to be entrusted with such a great responsibility as teaching someone else, he reminded himself. It's rare that a Senior Padawan would get such a duty, and I'm just a Junior Padawan. I'm not even thirteen yet.
Thinking of his upcoming birthday put a halt to his efforts to cheer himself up. Master Anakin was so busy to take care of his family that Zett feared that his Master would forget all about it. Normally this wouldn't bother him, but the thirteenth birthday was special for Jedi Padawans, almost like how the sixteenth and eighteenth birthdays were important to non-Jedi.
If a Jedi Initiate wasn't chosen by his or her thirteenth by a Master, he or she would be shipped away to be part of one of the service corps, like the Agri-corp on Bandomeer. If the Initiate became a Padawan, his or her Master would celebrate by giving them a gift of special significance or taking them on a special trip. While all Initiates feared their thirteenth birthday, all Padawans looked forward to it eagerly.
Zett was no different. When Mierme Unill had been his Master he had wondered what special treat he would get on that special birthday. And when Master Anakin had agreed to train him, he was even more eager to find out what was going to happen on his thirteenth birthday. But now it looked like Master Anakin was going to miss it.
He might not even know that the thirteenth birthday is supposed to be special, he realized. Master Kenobi began his training when he was fifteen, he never had a thirteenth birthday with the Jedi. Master Anakin didn't even know how to form a training bond with me until Master Kenobi taught him how…
Feeling a bit gloomier, Zett trudged along the trail. On his right he could sometimes catch glimpses of the clear, shimmering lake through gaps in the trees. On his left there was nothing but dark, dense jungle. Above him there was a solid roof of dark green leaves and a tangle of vines that barely let any light through. It was kind of like a green cave, or a tunnel. He rather liked it.
All around him he could feel the life energy of the jungle pulse like a heartbeat. There was so much going on around him – birth, life, and death – that he felt quite small. But he felt connected to it, unlike how he felt in his Master's house.
Everyone had ties to Master Anakin. Lady Padmé was his wife and Luke and Leia were his children. Miss Sabé and Captain Typho were old friends. Orbie was a droid that he had owned and personally modified and R2-D2 was a droid he'd worked with extensively in the past. And Maré was a student like Zett. Zett's only tie in the house was to Master Anakin, and with so much going on around his Master, he felt very much on the fringes of things.
And it's only going to get worse, Zett sighed.
While Master Anakin's wife had plenty of money, funds were starting to get a tiny bit tight. Before faking her death, she'd managed to hide away almost all of her money. What little she'd left behind had been divided into fifths: a share for each of her two nieces, a share for her sister and brother-in-law, a share for her parents, and a share for her school on Naboo. The money that she'd kept she'd invested wisely and she'd gotten her house on a good discount from the previous owner. But after supporting herself, her children, and her friends for a few years, and now buying a shuttle, things were starting to run low.
Captain Typho was already in the habit of accepting odd jobs and he would continue to do so unless he found a better employment opportunity. Zett had overheard Miss Sabé mention that she was considering taking a job at the local bakery soon as her other skills (impersonating Lady Padmé and firing deadly blasters) was unlikely to earn her much money. And knowing Master Anakin, his mentor was assuredly going to get a job at the repair shop in town in a year or two. With Lady Padmé's careful investing, the small paychecks could be turned into comfortable living for years to come.
It's a nice house, I suppose, and it's nice to have decent clothes and food all the time, but… But I miss all the traveling, the excitement of going to new places and completing missions. Staying on Xendiir means that we don't go anywhere anymore. I train, I go to school, I help around the house and with the kids, and that's pretty much it.
Zett tugged at his stubby braid, kept short so that it was less obvious and looked up ahead to the grove of Ambrosia trees. They were younger than the surrounding jungle, which made them much shorter than the skyscraping giants that covered most of Viscan. They also were more colorful with their dark purplish leaves and light gray bark. The grove had been planted several decades ago for the sole purpose of collecting their sticky pink sap. By some weird quirk of evolution, the trees produced an excess of sap and oozed out of pores on the tree trunks. The Humans that had settled Xendiir's many tropical island chains used a system of pipes to collect the stuff and keep it closed off from the stinging insects that normally fed on it.
It was really weird seeing pipes connected to trees, but Zett was quite pleased with the stuff that the pipes were meant to collect. The locals used the pink sap to make candy, mix into drinks, or add to sauces and salad dressings. It was good and worth the effort it took to keep the pipe systems functioning and leak-free.
Just as Zett was reaching the point where the trail ended and the Ambrosia trees began, he heard a sound that made him freeze. It sounded like someone had screamed in pain from somewhere ahead, but he couldn't identify who had cried out. He knew that it wasn't either of the twins, and the scream was too young-sounding for it to be any of the adults, and it couldn't be Maré as she didn't scream like Humans did. Could it be one of the neighbor children, like the Wilks?
Stretching out his senses, Zett continued on into the trees much more cautiously. There was no telling what had made that sound or why. It could be a wild animal or a dangerous stranger. He frowned when he sensed…something…shrouded, afraid, and hungry. With a deep breath, he stepped around one of the trees at the fringe of the grove and saw a small huddled shape crouched near one of the collection pipes.
"Hey you!" he yelled boldly. "What are you doing?"
The mysterious shape jumped and spun around to reveal a filthy young boy that Zett had never seen before. He was light-skinned underneath all the dirt smudges, dead leaves, and scrapes, he had dark eyes, and he possessed startlingly blonde hair, almost white. Besides being dirty, his clothes were dingy-looking, torn, and getting to be too small for him as his bare wrists showed. The boy was younger than Zett, nine or ten years old at the most, and he looked scared out of his mind.
"Who are you?" Zett asked more quietly. "And what are you doing?"
"Kam," the boy croaked hoarsely. "Who are you?"
"Zett," he replied. "So…what are you doing?"
"Nothing," Kam answered quickly, guiltily.
Even without the Force's guidance, he could tell that the stranger was lying.
"Right," Zett frowned. "Where did you come from?"
"Nowhere," Kam lied again.
"You had to come from somewhere," Zett snorted. He studied the pipe that ran near Kam's feet. "Did you find a leak in the pipe?"
"Uh, yes," Kam squeaked anxiously.
Zett walked over to study the pipe. He noted the number painted on the pipeline so either Captain Typho or Master Anakin could find it and repair it. It would be bad if the leak went unfixed and attracted a nest of sting-beetles or bite-bees.
As he made a big show of inspecting the pipe, he wondered about the strange boy. This Kam looked like he was homeless, which was impossible—at least on Viscan and the Human population centers of Xendiir. There were plenty of poor people on nearby Verdant, but Xendiir was relatively exclusive and poverty-stricken drifters simply couldn't make it here. This scruffy little boy in ill-fitting clothes couldn't be a local, so where had he come from?
And there was something else that he'd noticed. The shrouded nature of his presence in the Force indicated that not only was he Force-sensitive, but he knew it and knew enough to try and hide himself. Since the boy was lacking any sort of Padawan braid he could only guess that he'd had his cut off completely, or he'd been apprenticed shortly after the Purge. But since Kam didn't seem to notice Zett's short Padawan braid, and since he was so wary and untrusting when he should've recognized a fellow Jedi, it made him wonder if something else wasn't going on.
"Did you just get here?" Zett asked neutrally, still staring at the sap build-up around the loose pipe connection.
"No," Kam lied.
Yes, then. Zett glanced at the sticky, pink residue on the tips of Kam's filthy fingers. "Are you hungry?"
"Yes," Kam whimpered miserably.
"Well it should be lunchtime at my house. Would you like to come over?" Zett invited.
"Yes!" Kam gasped. "That-that is if…if it's okay…"
"Sure it is. Come on, this way," Zett beckoned as he started to follow the collection pipes to the shed.
Kam tried to follow him, but promptly fell over. The boy tried to get up again, but it was in vain. It seemed that Kam was in worse shape than Zett had thought.
"Here," Zett sighed and crouched down in front of the younger, smaller boy. "Climb on my back and I'll carry you."
"Thanks," Kam whispered, embarrassed. "I think I ran too much."
"What were you running from?" Zett asked curiously.
"A nasty, slimy monster," Kam replied quietly. "It looked like a ball of snot."
Zett couldn't help but laugh a bit. "That was just a slime slug! It's just a mobile slime mold that eats dead leaves. The worst thing it would've done to you is get you all slimy."
Kam cringed in embarrassment as Zett picked up the boy's bag and staggered towards the shed and ultimately the castle. "Oh."
"I thought they were pretty scary-looking when I first saw one," Zett admitted.
"What is this place called?" Kam asked.
"This is the island of Viscan, on the planet of Xendiir, the third planet in the Verdant system," Zett replied as he soldiered on.
"Are there any dangerous animals here?"
"If there were any, the sport hunters probably killed them all years ago."
"Is it always so hot here?"
"Pretty much. It'll get cooler after it rains."
"When will it rain?"
"Soon, I think."
"How much further is it?"
"Do a lot of people live here?"
"'Here' as in the island or 'here' as in my house?"
"Lots of people live in my houses. Not so many people live on the island. Most of the people around here are rich."
Zett grinned as they rounded the storage shack and Dannarak Castle came into view. The vine-draped walls and towers of gray stone finally choked off Kam's torrent of questions. Well, it made him pause for a few minutes.
"You live there?" Kam gasped in awe.
"Yes," Zett nodded as he headed for the nearest door.
"Are you a prince?"
Zett laughed a little bit. "No, I'm no prince."
"You're parents must be rich to live there."
"They're not my parents, and they're not terribly rich. Most of the neighbors are a lot richer."
"Wow. I really picked the wrong ship."
"Maybe you did," Zett grunted as he worked the door open with his elbow. "Maybe you didn't…"
Padmé had no idea how she managed to hold it together for the rest of the afternoon after Zett had dragged in a filthy ragamuffin of a boy that he'd found sucking on one of the Ambrosia tree sap pipes. The longer the day had worn on, the more angry and upset she became. But she held it together, if only to keep her babies ignorant that something was wrong.
It had started with the appearance of nine-year-old Kam Solusar in her house. Not only was the boy filthy, he was starving, scratched up, and entering into the early stages of dehydration. He was fearful of everything and incredibly reluctant to say anything about himself.
Before feeding him, Sabé had whisked him away to clean him off and tend to his numerous scrapes. When she brought him back, he was squeaky clean with a few sticky bandages on his cheek, forehead, and wrist, and wearing a set of Zett's oldest clothes—too big for him, but they fit much better than his own clothes had. Her expression had been grim as she settled him at the table and worked at feeding him.
Watching him eat, Padmé had wanted to strangle whoever was supposed to be responsible for the boy. What was a nine-year-old doing wandering the jungle all by himself in the condition that he was in? Where was he from? Where were his parents? Why was he alone now?
After he'd eaten his fill, Kam had distracted himself with playing with the twins, Maré, and Zett. Padmé, Sabé, Typho, and Anakin had all tried to carefully extract information from the boy, but he was very resistant to answering, or answering truthfully. Only after dinner had they managed to find out anything from him.
Kam finally admitted, after much careful probing, that he had run away from his father. He'd wanted to go home to his mother on a world named Nentan, but he'd picked the wrong ship and ended up on Xendiir. They'd tried to find out more about his family without much success until it was nearly time to bed him down for the night.
With much sniffling and almost-crying, Kam had explained why he didn't want to stay with his father anymore. His father, Ranik Solusar, dragged him all over the remote corners of the galaxy, never settling down for longer than a few months at a time, usually less. He described his father as a stern man, who never smile or laughed or hugged him or even seemed to like him very much. Kam had hurried to add that his father never, ever hit him or let him go hungry, but beyond that his father didn't appear to care very much for him. He hadn't wanted to leave his home and mother in the first place, and all he wanted was to go home to her.
It took him a while to get him calmed down enough to sleep. Padmé put him on a spare mattress on the floor of Zett's room as Kam seemed to have taken a real liking to the older boy—perhaps seeing him as the older brother he'd never had. Thankfully Zett didn't seem to mind the guest in his room and the two boys were soon fast asleep.
Padmé couldn't even think of sleeping. She, Sabé, and Typho couldn't help but be furious at all that they'd heard. At best, this Ranik Solusar was in over his head and down on his luck. At worst, he was an inept and negligent father, taking care of his son but treating him as little more than an unpleasant burden.
Anakin had been just as upset as the rest of them, but that was tempered by a thoughtful look that had settled over his features around dinner time. It had only intensified when he had carefully teased information about Kam's father out of the boy. Now he was outwardly calm and completely lost in thought as he sat at the end of her bed.
She had no idea how he could even pretend to be calm or thoughtful. Every time she tried to think about something else, her thoughts would get sucked back to Kam's sad predicament and she'd get furious at his father all over again. She could barely get a brush through her hair; her hands were shaking so badly with barely controlled fury.
"I don't know how you can sit there like that, Ani," she sighed.
He didn't answer her.
"Huh?" he glanced up. "What?"
"I said: how can you sit there like that?"
He blinked. "Like what?"
"Like nothing's wrong," she sighed and put down her hairbrush.
"Oh, um… How should I be sitting, then?"
"You know what I'm talking about, Ani," she sighed and sat down beside him. "What have you been thinking about for the past few hours?"
He ran his mechanical hand through his curly hair and sighed. "Kam's situation is more complicated than he's told us."
She frowned. "How do you know that?"
"For one thing, Kam's Force-sensitive and he knows it. Not only that, but I'd bet good money that his father knows it too, and knows what the possible consequences of that fact are."
"Consequences?" she repeated blankly. "Ani, what do you mean?"
"As a Force-sensitive, he is a potential danger or a potential asset to Palpatine," he replied. "If found by Imperial forces, he'll either be killed or corrupted into one of Palpatine's Dark Side pawns. The only remotely rational reason I can think of for Kam's father to suddenly appear and take him away from his mother to lead a transient lifestyle far from the Empire is that his father knows of Kam's sensitivity and the dangers that go with it. He's clearly in over his head, but he's done what he's done to try and save Kam from death or a life of pain and Darkness."
"I suppose that makes sense," she murmured slowly.
"And I went even further," he continued. "It's unlikely that an ordinary man would have more than an inkling of the possible consequences of a Force-sensitive child. Kam also has some very basic skill with the Force, more than he could possibly discover on his own—I could feel him try to hide from me. And then there is his emotional distance from Kam. Taking all those things into account, it makes me think that this Ranik Solusar is either a wash-out from the Jedi training program or an actual Jedi."
She bit her lip. "You think so, Ani?"
"I do," he nodded. "It makes sense. Children placed in the care of the Order are taught the Jedi Code from their earliest days. They are taught that there is no emotion, there is no attachment. Wash-outs might still cling to those early teachings which would lead them to keep their distance from any family they might have. A Jedi Knight or Master would be even worse. If he wasn't thrown out for siring Kam, he would've been seriously reprimanded, and – as awful as it is – Kam, his bastard son, would be viewed, by himself and other Jedi, as a mark of shame."
"That's awful!" she gasped, absolutely horrified. "How could anyone see Kam as shameful? He's such a sweet boy." She stared down at her hands for a moment. "But…how could a Jedi have a child? Isn't that forbidden?"
"It is," he agreed. "Attachment is forbidden, marriage is forbidden, siring or bearing children is forbidden, but casual, meaningless sex with no strings attached…there's no rule against it. So long as it doesn't interfere with a Jedi's duties and so long as it is done on his or her own time, there's no rule against it. The Jedi have no vow of celibacy. It's encouraged, but not required."
He got up from the bed and walked over to the window to stare out at the pitch dark jungle. "Most Jedi never take advantage of that little loophole. But some do, either just once to see what it feels like, or more often because they really enjoy it and don't mind sticking to a string of one-night stands. I imagine that more Jedi have gone for the loophole during the war—with all that death and destruction they'd need something to remind them about the good part of life and forget the pain, and indulging in sex is a heck of a lot better than becoming a Spice addict or an alcoholic."
She followed him to the window and hugged his arm. "Did you ever think of doing that during the war?"
He glanced down at her. "Hm?"
"You know, look up a hooker or something," she shrugged.
"What?" he squeaked. "No, never! Besides I…I was too busy pining over you to even think of such a thing."
She blushed and patted his arm. "You're sweet. Come to bed, Ani, it's late."
"Okay, Angel," he grinned.
Padmé rolled her eyes at him and crawled into bed with Anakin right behind her.
Not long after their courthouse marriage Anakin developed the habit of ending up in her room at night more often then he was in his own. Just last week they'd just given in and he'd moved all his things into her room. Padmé had to admit that it was a nice development; Anakin could be quite cuddly when he wanted to.
Despite her anger at Kam's father, the busy day had taken its toll and she was ready to get some sleep. "'Night, Ani."
"'Night, Angel," he replied. "Hey, I was just thinking…"
"What?" she muttered into her pillow.
"I should take the Angel's Feather on a short shakedown cruise, just to test it out."
"We'll talk about it tomorrow, Ani," she yawned.
"I wonder what the weather's like on Toprawa this time of year…" he mused.
"Ani, shut up and go to sleep."