Out of the Blue
I will never forget that boy. He was just one of those things that fall out of the sky, into your life, like unexpected rainfall - and then pass away again like the clouds that bring them. Not that we ever see real clouds here on Coruscant – heavens, no. The atmospheric weather regulators keep everything so beautifully, impeccably oiled. So groomed and polished, like the Senatorial and diplomatic parties my business caters to. And who am I to complain? Our perfect, well-mannered skies, like our perfect, well-mannered society, are why I am here. I can make thousands of credits a day here on the city planet, creating pastries for my cultured clientele. And I can enjoy some sunshine. I grew up on Miromeer, where it rains four hundred days a year.
That might be another reason I remember the boy so well. He happened on one of those rare days when the weather service scheduled a downpour. They don't tell you about those in the tourist brochures. But nature has the last word, even here on Coruscant. Sometimes the latent precipitation is simply too much to be diffused and channeled, and the regulator stations have to allow for a controlled storm. They just schedule its time and place, send out warning holos a week in advance, and let the equipment cycle down for a few hours. It's a tremendous inconvenience: traffic comes to a standstill, pedestrians scramble for cover, businesses close. You would think the people here have never seen rain, much less gotten their precious feet wet. Well, maybe some of them haven't.
I left my shop open. After all, the rain wasn't scheduled until afternoon, and I remember I had a huge order to fill for Orn Fre Ta's dinner party that evening. Six thousand dessert pastries, to be delivered by fifth hour postmeridian. Talk about pressure. But I was cracking along fairly well, my two assistants doing all the prep work, the kitchen droids working on overtime. About seven cups of caff later, I was in what I call genius mode. The charrilion rolls were exquisite, the éclairs au-rancor the best I had ever created, and my house specialties – the ones I made up myself – sat ready in their serving trays, mounds of beautiful crystallized silpa sugar adorning each miniature cake. No doubt a food critic or two would be present at the festivities later. My shop was going to get number one rating again in the press. That was good for business.
"What about the bakkarva?" Ti-Lo asked, as I was contemplating the pedestrian arcade through the front window, sipping my eighth cup of caff.
"I'll do it myself," I told her. She wanted to get home, before the rain. Most employees got the day off or had abbreviated hours. Ti-Lo was born here on the city planet; she thinks of rain as some kind of deadly plague. Something you have to be inoculated against. I let her go – gave both the assistants the rest of the day off. Shut down the droids, too. I would need them to recharge before the evening delivery. I lowered the lighting. Sometimes I enjoy working that way – just me and my own hands and the dough and sugar. In the quiet, layering one hundred flawless layers of piffa dough and ground helmu nuts, humming to myself, I watched through the window as the crowds began to thin. The rain wasn't coming for another hour, but already people were hurrying for the safety of homes, offices, luxury spas, clubs, abandoning the business and mercantile district. Traffic thinned. You could almost hear the fountain in the plaza.
That's when I saw him. He was staring in the window at the stuff I keep on display in the front counter. I generally have samples laid out for potential clients, some basic pieces and a few specials, one or two decorative numbers – just a smattering of my wares. The fat Senators' wives like to come and "sample" them for free – as though I don't see through them. But it's good for business, so I let it go.
The boy caught me looking at him, and he blushed. He was cute, I thought. Round blue eyes in a round face. Small upturned nose. Small, expressive mouth. Crop of dirty blonde hair sticking up straight from his head in a riot of spikes. Stubby little braid hanging on one side. He might be a tall seven, or a baby-faced ten. It was hard to tell. He made a rueful expression, and then he came barging in. The motion sensor by the door chimed, and he looked up at it with mild curiosity.
"That's gonna run down the power cell," he told me, in a broad, Outer Rim accent. "If you fine tune the lapse gauge, it won't go off every time someone passes by – just when the door opens."
I stared and laid down my brush, still dripping with clarified butter. "Are you a mechanical engineer?" I asked, pointedly.
"No, ma'am," he admitted. "But I can fix most things."
He wasn't kidding. I could tell. And he had good manners, too. I'm a sucker for good manners. These rich Coruscanti kids are a spoiled lot, for the most part. A simple "please" or "ma'am" is such a breath of fresh air that it almost knocks me over when I hear it. "You can fix my door chime?" I asked.
"Sure!" Those blue eyes were bouncing with eagerness. He wanted to help. Or maybe he just liked fiddling with things. "I can do it now, if that's okay. I mean, if it's okay that I'm here…I mean, I won't steal anything. I promise."
I couldn't help but laugh. Where did this little tot come from? He didn't look like a street ragamuffin. He was well-fed, and his clothes were clean. White tunics, new boots. Actually, the style of clothing and that little braid thing made me wonder…
"Good," I said sternly, just to be on the safe side. "I wouldn't want my automated security system to frazzle you."
He cocked his head, nose scrunching up. "You don't have one," he said.
There's nothing like having your mind read to give you the heebie-jeebies. Especially when it's a little boy doing the mind-reading. And that pretty much confirmed any lingering suspicions I might have about his origins. "Go ahead, fix the chime," I told him, watching as he stood on the nearest table to pry it off the wall. He plopped back down in the chair, legs swinging off the floor, and set to work. He carried a little micro-tool kit with him, I noticed. He spread out the chime's innards on the table and set to work, while I went back to the barrava. We worked like that, in silence, for about half an hour.
Of course, I should have called the police. Or I guess I should have called the Jedi Temple, however you do that. Really, I knew he shouldn't be sitting there in my shop, fixing my door chime. But he was so unexpected, so out of the ordinary, that my mind couldn't quite grasp the situation. I was like the people outside, so taken off guard by the rain that they simply…stopped and gaped. The first spatters were falling now, leaving an occasional splat on the windowpane. The real storm wouldn't hit for another twenty minutes.
The boy didn't notice. But I noticed something else. He was sitting there, at my table, fixing the chime…and little spats of rain were falling in the table-top, as well. One by one, slow tears cascaded down his small nose and splattered on the synth-wood. His eyebrows were drawn together in a sharp line. He had the look of a child who is well-practiced in the art of stoicism. But that made a sad kind of sense, didn't it?
That's where I completely broke down. I'm a sucker for things like that. Middle age does that to you – your sentimental, maternal side comes out, even if you have no children of your own. I was across the room and sliding in opposite him in a heartbeat. ""What's the matter, sweetheart?" I cooed.
Stupid move. "My name's Anakin, " he supplied, tersely, hating the tone I had adopted. The tears were dashed way with the back of one hand, and he held up the completed chime. "It's finished."
"Thank you – very much," I answered, taking the chime back to its place. "I really should offer you payment for your services."
There was a silence behind me. "I'm not allowed to accept payment," he said, flatly. "I did it just…because, anyway."
"Well, uh….can I offer you a ride home?" I offered. I didn't really have time for any such thing, but it was going to rain, and …well, I felt protective of him. It's hard to explain. He just had that kind of presence about him.
Another stupid move. "I'll find my own way," he said, even more tightly than before.
I stood, looking down at him with my hands on my hips. I was not going to let this boy find his own way home in a city rendered crippled by the impending storm. "Listen, then," I ordered. "You're going to wait here until the rain's over." I flicked off the open sign and locked the door. "How about some cake?"
Finally, I had hit the right note. He sank back against his chair, looking relieved, and happy. "Cake?" he repeated, eyes hungrily sliding over to the display case. "Yes, please! I've never seen cakes like that. Do you make them?"
"I do, and lots else besides. Lets' see….what would you like?"
But he paused again. "I don't have any money, actually," he said apologetically.
"It's payment for services rendered," I replied gravely, sensing that his dignity would be offended if I offered the cake for free. "I estimate that I owe you about three of these desserts. Your choice."
He took a long time deciding, squatting in front of the display case with his nose practically on the glass. His breath fogged up the surface, and I made a mental note to clean it later. At least he didn't smear his grubby hands all over it, like some of these rich brats do. He just balanced there on his heels, meditating on each confection as though he were at the Coruscant zoo in the exotic reptile house.
"Never eat cake before?" I joked.
He tilted his head again, looking up at me seriously. "Well, Mom used to make me a honey-cake on my life-day every year. It's a custom."
Mom? That threw me for a loop. Maybe I wasn't right about him after all. But then again, he just had that certain something in his bearing, that way about him that made him seem ten times his natural age. No, I couldn't possibly be mistaken. I wondered if harboring him here were illegal, somehow. Was I going to get in trouble with the authorities? For that matter, was he going to get in trouble with his authorities?
"When's your life-day?" I asked, shoving the uneasy thought out of my mind.
"Today," he shrugged. "I'm ten." That last bit was shot at me before I could make an incorrect and insulting guess of eight or nine.
"Happy life-day," I said, automatically. The look he gave me was so sardonic, so pained, that I immediately regretted blurting out the felicitation. His hand went up to his eyes again, and then he stood up.
"I'll have ..that one, please."
I retreated into the back, to fetch plates and utensils, and of course, some more caff. I wondered if he might be a little young for caff, and I poured some bantha milk in a cup instead. I had been using it for blue whipped cream, a nice touch on some of the crisp tarts for the evening party. When I returned to the front, he was kneeling on a chair, nose pressed to the front window. His every muscle was rigid with tension.
"Something's gonna happen," he said. He almost whimpered. " I can feel it. I think a sand storm's coming."
"A sand storm?" I laughed, and he scowled. He was touchy, easily offended, that was for certain. "It's a rainstorm," I told him. "Weather announced it a week ago. Didn't you know?"
He shook his head, still staring out the window. When the first lightning flashed, he flinched. When the thunderclap followed, he literally jumped. Then the downpour started. Anakin kept his nose pressed to the window with an intense fascination I have never since seen in any human being. His mouth was hanging open.
I set the cake and drinks down on the table and slid back into my chair opposite him. I could watch him in profile now without provoking any resentment. He really was cute. Imagine a mother giving him away – she must be callous, cold-hearted woman. But she made him honey-cake,…so that wasn't true, either. I had always thought that Jedi would not remember their mothers. This one did. It seemed cruel. And what was he doing wandering alone in Coruscant's mercantile district on his tenth life-day?
"I'm taking a break," he answered, eyes still glued on the torrential rain outside. Puddles formed, overflowed, slicked the permacrete and fell in endless waterfalls over the edges of the hoverwalks and the platforms. The underlevels of the city would be flooded by tonight, and a drainage operation would be mounted. Meantime, our city was transformed into a spectacular cathedral of waterfalls and rivulets, all veiled by the sheets of pounding rain. "I've never seen rain before," he announced.
"It's supposed to last two hours," I informed him. "You have time to eat."
He shifted round. "Two hours? Where does it all come from? No – don't tell me. I'll look it up when I get back." He seemed to notice the desserts then, and he flashed me a white smile of gratitude. Then he laid into the cake with a hearty appetite.
The sweets seemed to do him some good. Halfway through the first enormous helping he grew quite chatty. "I'm not s'pposed to be here," he offered, unashamed, gulping down the bantha milk with great relish. It left a thin blue mustache on his upper lip. "I ran away. It's my life-day, and I thought…well, I don't know what I thought. I miss my home," he ended wistfully.
He must mean some other home, not the Temple lying so many klicks distant from here. I pushed the second dessert plate toward him, and he started in on that one, too. "It's funny," he said between mouthfuls. "You make food for parties all day long, every day. That's all you do. Celebrate. Me, I'm not going to ever celebrate anything again. Not in the same way, at least. I mean, we can celebrate things. Or other people. Just not ourselves. Not just…existing and being happy about it." He frowned. "At least, we have to be serious when we celebrate, I think. Does anyone ever meditate at one of your fancy parties?"
"No," I said, shaking my head. Good stars, no. People occasionally have too much fizzing champagga and fall into an intoxicated stupor, but that would not qualify. The sorts of parties I cater are stuffy affairs, it's true – but meditation is out of the question. "That's not how the upper crust parties here on Coruscant."
The boy nodded. "Thought not. Hutts don't do that either. And neither do human beings." He said the last words with such a vehement rush of emotion that I thought he might start weeping again. But he just scowled away the unshed tears and rambled on. "I'm glad I found you. This is nice. It's more like a life-day should be. Not meditating all day in a quiet room and then –" His voice snapped off, and his eyes widened in alarm. I could have sworn that I saw a flicker of fear in that bright, round face, but he was so mercurial, so complex, that I could not be sure.
"Uh-oh," he breathed.
I glanced out the window, seeing nothing but the heavy sheets of rain. What had startled my little friend? I looked back at his face, now composed in a perfectly expressionless mask, a little too tight around the mouth, a little too wide around the eyes. He hadn't been expecting…
The figure which appeared out of the veiling rain and leaned in under the awning for a moment, peering through the window at us. All I saw was a long, shrouding dark cloak, the hood drawn well over the face. There was something positively sinister in the way the dark figure just appeared out of nowhere, and yet seemed to know exactly where to look. I felt a chill crawl down my own spine, watching the frozen expression on Anakin's face.
But we were safe, I thought. The door was locked.
How wrong I was. The latch – the magnetic clamp lock – released of its own accord. Just like that. And the door opened, to admit a gust of cold air and rain onto the tiles. In stepped the brown-robed figure, as nonchalant as you please. As though he owned the place. As the panel shut behind him, he lifted two hands to lower his hood – and the face that looked down at poor young Anakin had the wrath of the gods written on it.
Don't misunderstand me. It was quite the face. I remember feeling relieved that I had sent my two young assistants home for the day. Both girls likely would have swooned on the spot – as humans go, this particular young fellow was an absolute masterpiece. His tousled hair was damp with rain, like his cloak, and he bored into the poor boy with eyes like burning blue coals. I quite literally shrank back in my chair – the room seemed far, far too small to contain the newcomer, and the air felt charged with an electricity that no rainstorm could possibly explain.
"Master?" Anakin peeped. I had to hand it to him – he wasn't quaking in terror like me. He was just stunned, like someone who's just been hit in the solar plexus.
"You could have been killed," the young Jedi said in a tight voice. His was perfect Core-world upper class. And the soft undertones didn't quite match the furious potential energy swirling in that small room.
I coughed, and the spell broke. Almost startled, the young Jedi glanced up at me, and in an instant the unbearable, invisible storm was rolled back into whatever mysterious place it came from. The air sagged, relieved of its awful tension. I felt my body sag a little, too.
And then he bowed. I'm not kidding – a short, formal bow, elegant and tinged with apology. "I'm sorry, madam, if my apprentice has been an inconvenience to you."
I gaped. This was turning out to be quite the afternoon. I now had not one but two Jedi under the roof of my pastry shop, on the same day that Coruscant enjoyed one of its spectacularly rare rainstorms. What else would fall down on my head from the skies?
"He's been no such thing," I replied, hastily, that protective instinct rearing its head again. "He's quite welcome."
"She gave me cake," Anakin piped up, tilting his chin almost defiantly toward the other Jedi. Light sparkled behind his eyes. "You should join me. It's a custom on someone's life-day. To wish the person health and well being."
The older Jedi lifted one sarcastic eyebrow. "Health and well being? To someone who exhibits suicidal tendencies? If I wished you health and well-being, Padawan , I would do better with a pair of binders and a stun stick."
The boy slumped.
I braced myself for another cutting reprimand, but instead of laying into the errant apprentice any further, the young Jedi knight ran one hand distractedly through his hair, leaving it standing in wet spikes much like his student's. "It took me a very long time to find you, Anakin," he said, in a tone which held more complaint than admonition. In fact, he sounded distinctly relieved. Relieved and exhausted. Anakin stared up at him mournfully. I watched as they just stood and stared at one another, locked in a private impasse. It occurred to me, watching, that the one Anakin called "master" had a great weight of responsibility on his shoulders. He was less the harbinger of doom that he first appeared, and more of an older brother thrust prematurely and reluctantly into the role of protector and parent.
I knew what to do. I stood, peremptorily relieved the Jedi of his sopping wet cloak, and pointed to the chair beside the young boy. The Jedi's eyes widened and he fixed me with a look that went, painfully, right through me and out the other side. But I must have passed the test of this scrutiny, for a quirk of wry smile tugged one corner of his mouth, and he obediently, almost ironically, sat down. I placed a large cup of my very strong house specialty caff in front of him, and Anakin happily served up the last cake.
"Master?" he asked again, looking solemnly up at his mentor. Begging for something. Forgiveness? Affection? Guidance?
The young Jedi took a long, grateful drink from the cup, and gave the boy a look which I still can't quite describe. It was full of chagrin, but not precisely directed at Anakin. It was more self-deprecating, a frustrated admission that he had lost some internal battle, one which he clearly felt obliged to fight. He slowly shook his head back and forth, just once, eyes saying something silently.
I was quite sure Anakin understood. He suddenly beamed, and stuffed an enormous bite of the cake into his mouth. "Happy life-day to me," he said, the words muffled by crumbs and thick frosting.
The other Jedi reached out a hand and placed it gently on the boy's head. "May the Force be with you today, and every day, Anakin Skywalker," he said solemnly. "And with me," he added sotto voce, as his hand dropped away again.
They stayed until the rain had ended. By that time, the wet cloak was dry and the cake and caff had long been finished. The afternoon was wearing on toward fourth hour, and I had a delivery to make at the Twi'Lek Senatorial residence. I bustled about in the kitchens, reactivating the droids, and making last minute preparations. The Jedi stood to take their leave, offering me many polite thanks and many apologies for the extended intrusion. I gave Anakin a box of goodies to take home. And then they were gone, scudding away on their own mysterious business, just as the weather regulators swept away the last lingering wisps of cloud, revealing a sky deepening to purple like a plum-tart crustulli.
As I said, I'll never forget that day – or that boy.