This one-shot is dedicated to my wonderful beta, SerendipityAEY. Many thanks to Queen for her help with this ficlet!
During the long days of his self-appointed exile, Obi-Wan Kenobi allowed himself very few pleasures. Even in the time before he came to Tatooine, he'd never been one for the finer things in life; without a doubt he was able to enjoy those things, should they have ever crossed his path in his tenure as a Jedi, but he did not seek them out or pine for them when they were gone. In the wake of the more devastating loss of his fellow Jedi and the Republic, those trifles were minuscule at best and he did not concern himself with such things. He had lost far too much to worry about frivolities.
However, he did miss his tea.
There had been a favored kind, one he'd acquired a taste for long before the Wars, during his apprenticeship, as a matter-of-fact; it was minty and sweet, but with a spicy edge that made most others turn their noses up. Qui-Gon had started him on it, and in the beginning Obi-Wan remembered thinking that it tasted like something out of the vile end of a gundark. However, after giving it more than a passing chance – and possibly to please his Master – he developed a fondness for the drink and would take it in any form, at any temperature: warm, cold, somewhere in-between. It mattered not. Obi-Wan loved Cyrodil tea.
The Tatooine suns had just lifted above the horizon as he slipped out of his hut, and Obi-Wan shifted his pack and began his journey. When a breeze toyed with the hem of his robe, the cool edge that still clung to the air even after dawn reminded him that it was technically winter in the desert. Save for the pat of his boots against the sand it was quiet, which gave him ample opportunity – if not inclination – to think of old times.
Later on he'd managed to acquire a few other converts to Cyrodil tea; those who were able to get close to him knew of his predilection and would attempt to get a taste for the stuff. There were a few people he could recall off-hand who would have happily enjoyed a cup with him...but they were gone, now.
The thought of those he had lost made his head duck briefly, then raise as he continued the trek.
By early afternoon he reached Anchorhead. It was remarkably easy for him to slip through the streets without attracting attention, and soon he was pushing open the old-style rattlebang door that led into the Great Chott General Store. A soft bell announced his entrance, and he stepped up to the counter, his face falling into a frown as he was greeted by...no one.
As he was debating whether or not to leave, the dingy curtain behind the register peeled back, revealing a woman – perhaps in her mid-thirties – he'd never seen before. Although she was dressed in the simple, sturdy manner of most Anchorhead folk, there was a refined air in the carriage of her neck and shoulders, and the movement of her body was graceful as she approached the counter. "Can I help you, sir?"
"Where is Gerret?" Obi-Wan asked. "He usually helps me."
She frowned and pushed a stray bit of bronze-colored hair out of her face. "Gerret's away on family business," she replied. "I'm running the place for now." Her accent was soft and vaguely familiar, though it was unroughened by the Tatooine sand. "What do you need?"
There was annoyance in her voice and he realized that he'd been rude in his surprise, so he cleared his throat and lowered the hood of his robe to meet her eyes. "Forgive me. I meant no disrespect...?"
"Keren," she said, brow lifting. "I'm his niece. And you are...?"
Her hand extended; he noted that her skin was smooth as well. His own was starting to turn brown, and he'd only been here a few months. "Ben."
"Lovely to meet you, Ben."
They shook hands and he watched her eyes as she studied him. There was no trace of recognition, so he surmised that she had not seen the Wanted posters with his likeness that were – apparently – plastered all over the Core. No, there was no recognition, but there was something else. Her eyes were a curious color, falling somewhere between brown and green. He blinked once, then gestured to the curtain behind her. "Gerret has an order for me. Cyrodil tea."
At this her face fell. "Oh no...I'm so sorry." Suddenly she ducked below the counter and he heard the sounds of shifting flimsies and bits of metal as she rummaged around. "Gerret told me about this...wait one second...ah." When she reappeared, she was clutching a brand of datapad that had gone out of use at least two decades ago. He watched her lips purse as she consulted it for a moment before speaking again. "I'm afraid the distributor was out. He wanted to call you, but we don't have a comm code."
Obi-Wan felt his body sink into the duracrete floor, just a little. "Oh...that's...well, I usually just stop by once a month."
Keren shook her head. "I'm sorry, Ben. But they said that they should have some next month..." Her words trailed off and her gaze fell to something behind him. Turning, Obi-Wan frowned, trying to see what it was that had caught her attention. The store appeared to be like any other: close-fitting rows of shelves with assorted necessities; dingy stands of merchandise that had once been new but now had the appearance of something outdated; chipped tiles on the walls and peeling paint on the fixtures.
As he was about to look back and ask her if everything was well, she hurried from around the counter and made her way to a shelf across the room, face set in determination. While Obi-Wan watched, she began rooting through various boxes and tins of – in his mind, anyway – lesser teas, before she made a noise of triumph. Keren stuck her hand between the boxes, reaching in as far as she could before pulling out her arm.
"I remember...I saw it a few days ago while I was taking inventory." In her grip was the familiar, pale-green box, and Obi-Wan smiled despite himself.
She glided back to the counter and set the box down, eying him. "I've never met anyone else who likes Cyrodil tea," she added. "Actually, I was craving some the other day, but it's been difficult to get."
"The usual price?" Obi-Wan asked, reaching into his pack.
She smiled and nodded; he handed her the money and the exchange was complete. As he turned to leave she said his name. When he turned, Keren gestured to the box he was stowing in his pack. "We should have it next month. See you then?"
He did not answer, but he did give her a small smile and an accompanying nod, before he made his way back into the desert.
A month passed, and Obi-Wan again found himself stepping into the confines of her little shop, though, oddly enough, his steps were a bit quicker than they had been before as he made his way to the counter. Keren was not there, but after a moment he could smell the tea: a rich, minty flavor underwritten with notes of cinnamon and other spices. The scent was thick in the air, and after a deep inhale he actually felt his mouth start to water.
With his attention on the delicious aroma, his eyes closed and, at first he only felt the brush of air on his face as she emerged from behind the curtain. There was a light bit of laughter; when he opened his eyes she was holding a familiar box in one hand and a cup in the other, and was smiling at him. Feeling his own cheeks heat at the fact that she'd caught him unawares, Obi-Wan cleared his throat and – after a hesitant moment – returned the smile with a small one of his own. "I see that you're a woman of your word."
"Of course I am," she said, arching her brow as slid the box over to him across the counter. "Did you doubt that I'd come through for you?"
"It never crossed my mind," he replied as he pulled out his money, offered it to her and then stowed the box in his pack, taking care to see that it would not be crushed during his journey back to the Wastes. Once he'd done so, they stood in silence for a moment, and Obi-Wan suddenly felt very aware of himself, and more so of her: of the way her fingertips laced together around the mug of tea, and of the way that her mouth moved when she blew over the rim of her cup.
As if mirroring his own thoughts, she seemed to hesitate, then took a breath. "Do you have a few minutes? I have a whole pot in the back...it seems silly for you to have to wait until you get home to have some."
At this point, the invitation was expected and – he thought – not unwelcome, though Obi-Wan realized that he was unused to such a casual gesture of hospitality after the last few months of his time on the desert world, particularly from such a lovely woman. He considered what it would mean for him to acquiesce, to step with her behind the curtain and into her quarters, to see where she spent her evenings and ate her meals. There were no illusions that the interaction would lead to anything more serious than the sharing of a simple pleasure, but the door would be open for more of its kind, and he wasn't exactly sure how he felt about such a thing, now.
The thought occurred to him that it was just a mug of tea, not a marriage proposal. Perhaps I'm overthinking the matter entirely. Of course-
He was broken from his reverie by the small clatter as she set her mug down and dropped her eyes, suddenly interested in a stray smudge of dirt on the countertop. "Or not, if you prefer."
"No..." he said, lifting his hand as she glanced up at him. "Forgive me...I find that lately I'm spending a little too much time alone with my thoughts." Obi-Wan gave her a smile that she returned, and decided that he would rather see her smile than not. "Another time. Next month, perhaps?"
"I'll have your order ready." Keren's head ducked as she nodded along with her reply; he sensed disappointment from her, but not too much. They hardly knew each other, after all.
There was one more smile, shared, and then he left again.
True to her word, Keren provided him with a box of the tea next month, and the next few after that. Each time he entered the store she greeted him warmly, and he found that he was starting to look forward to his trips to Anchorhead more than he ever had. Part of him was wary of the fact, as he had to be these days. For a man who had so little to his name, he had much at stake. But another part of him enjoyed their small but pleasant interactions. He didn't speak to anyone else, really, save the other vendors he visited to get supplies, or to sell the various desert plants he'd begun cultivating in order to earn a bit of income.
Keren...he considered her as he again made the walk to Anchorhead, albeit a few days later than normal. She was kind and intelligent, like many of the women he'd known. However, despite that, she reminded him of no one at all, and he found his thoughts turning to her more often than not.
But I have a duty, he told himself. A mission I cannot deviate from. I must not let anything, or anyone distract me from what I must do. No matter how much I might wish for a distraction. However, he knew that duty would only be a deterrent for so long, as he often recalled the sound of her laughter during the long, dark nights, or saw the color of her eyes mirrored in the plants of his garden.
Naturally, his next thought was: I wonder if her eyes are green or brown? He'd seen hazel colored eyes before, of course, but hers were...different, somehow. It was the oddest thing, and every time he met her, he tried to figure it out, but had thus far been unable to manage. Obi-Wan sighed and pulled his hood closer to his face as the wind picked up and sand scraped across his fingers.
It was a long walk.
When he reached the township, the afternoon was fading and he realized with dismay that he wouldn't make it back to his home before dark, when the temperatures would drop to dangerous levels. The wind was also starting to whine in the manner it often did when a sandstorm was approaching, which did not bode well, either. Obi-Wan wasn't worried about brief encounters with the harsh climate of the desert, as he could use the Force to protect himself, but he didn't like doing so; he felt as though it was the equivalent of sending up a flare to any Force-sensitives in the area: Imperial agents whom he always imagined lurked nearby.
However, his desire for the one luxury he would allow himself precluded his thoughts of the night and the storm, and he refused to let the trip go to waste in any case, so he turned for the general store, trying to act as though there was no other reason for his quickening steps. As he entered, the bell announced his presence and he watched as her head lifted; she'd been engrossed with the datapad on the counter – bookkeeping, he supposed – and gave him a smile of welcome.
Normally she'd fetch the tea immediately, but today she set the 'pad down and met his gaze with apprehension. "I'm so sorry, Ben..."
Obi-Wan sighed. "They were out?"
"Not exactly." Her lips pursed and he knitted his brows as she explained. "You see, I've been ordering some for myself as well – talking with you made me realize how much I missed it – and..." She actually flushed a little, and he tried not to smile at the blossoming color in her cheeks. "Well, they weren't out, but they only had one box."
As if to illustrate, she reached below the counter and pulled out the item in question, the pale green contrasting with the aged wood of the surface. Obi-Wan didn't hesitate. "It's yours."
"Well, I got a little ahead of myself..." Her skin flushed a deeper shade of pink before she cleared her throat. "I misread the invoice and drank a bit before I realized that my supplier had only sent me the one."
Resisting the urge to sigh again, Obi-Wan shook his head. "It's alright. I can do without." At her look he couldn't help the smirk that came to his face. "Clearly I don't have a problem with it as you do."
"It's addicting, isn't it?" she replied with a guilty smile. Suddenly her eyes lit up. "Let's share." At his look of confusion she nodded to the box, resting between them. "You take half, and I'll take half. I'll even give yours to you at cost, minus what I drank, of course."
She smiled at him and he found himself returning the look again before he shook his head. "It's alright," he said again. "I'll wait for the next shipment." With that, he turned to leave, pulling his hood up.
But her voice stopped him in his tracks. "At least share a pot with me before you go. You promised, after all."
"I should try to get back before the worst of the storm hits," he pointed out, looking between her and the door, beyond which they could barely make out the streetlights through the dark and the increasing haze of wind-tossed sand.
"It looks dreadful out there, Ben," she replied. "But these storms never last too long, you know. A few hours at most. Enough time to share a pot of Cyrodil tea. Or two." Arms on the counter, she was leaning forward, regarding him with an expression that he couldn't read.
Obi-Wan glanced outside again. There was not much of a sunset today; the sky had just grown darker with none of the fiery coloration that often made Tatooine interesting. He could hear this faint whistle of the wind through a few hairline openings along the seam of the windows, and knew that the approaching storm was going to be particularly nasty.
Seeing his hesitation, Keren cleared her throat. "Very well: just one cup," she added, shifting the box towards him. "I'll close the store, we can go sit at the table and enjoy a nice, hot mug of tea. Afterward you can go face the storm all alone, if it will please you."
There were traces of humor in her tone, which was otherwise solemn. Outside, the sand was lifting with the wind and Obi-Wan remembered the bite of it against his bare skin. His fingers moved to the box but did not touch it as he considered the ramifications. Finally he nodded once. "One cup." Looking up, he found that he had to smile at her expression, which was nothing short of satisfied. "If for no other reason than to attempt to staunch your addiction," he added, lifting his brow. "It's better to back off easily than quit all at once."
"Wise words, indeed," she said with a grave nod that was belied by her grin.
The living quarters behind the curtain were small, but warm in a way that had nothing to do with the heat of the twin suns. Obi-Wan had never seen the area when Gerret lived here, but he doubted that the grizzled, elderly man had concerned himself with the décor of the main room as Keren had.
Colorful, patterned blankets draped across a few slender chairs, and trinkets and holo-pics were placed along the walls and shelves that circled the room. Soft lights, recessed into the ceiling, gave everything a faint golden glow that contrasted with the darkness that he could make out through the curtains over the lone window. Braided rugs of in rich jewel-tones rested on the floor, silencing their footsteps as he followed the bronze-haired woman through her home.
"Take a seat, please," she said, indicating a square, careworn table at the far corner of the room. "I'll heat some water and be right back."
As he sat, she bustled into the kitchen, which was really just a sectioned-off space with a modest stove-top, conservator, faucet, and heating unit. The sound of briefly running water met his ears and out of habit, Obi-Wan took a moment to extend his Force awareness to her. The water ceased and she spoke again. "Do you take it with sugar?"
His nose wrinkled involuntarily. No self-respecting Cyrodil tea-drinker would taint the experience with such a thing. "No, thank you."
A trickle of amusement left her at this, but she said nothing. Obi-Wan watched as she emerged from the kitchen a few moments later, a tray with a pot and two mugs in her hands. Keren took the seat across from him and reached for the pot, but he stopped her. "Allow me."
She smiled, and he couldn't help his own in return. The pot was a faded sky-blue. The handle was chipped in one spot, but it was good quality, heavy in his hand. He poured her cup first, watching with appreciation as the water instantly darkened, the little mesh sphere that held the tea leaves bobbing with the motion. His own was next. For a few minutes they sat in silence, watching the steam rising from their respective mugs as the brew steeped.
Finally he cleared his throat. "This is a lovely room."
Keren glanced around and shrugged. "It's nice enough, I suppose. Though I do miss Chandrila at times." She blew over the rim of her mug but did not pick it up.
Obi-Wan folded his hands before him on the table. "Chandrila? Is that your home?"
"It's..." She frowned and her eyes grew distant for one moment before she looked back at him. "It was my home." There was a tint to her words that he recognized, so he nodded but said nothing else. Another minute of silence passed before she lifted the mug and took a tentative sip, wincing at the heat. When she set it down, her hand did not lift from the handle and her eyes remained on the dark liquid. "I suppose this is my home, now."
It was a true enough statement, he realized. "It's much the same for me," he said, placing his fingertip against the mug's side. It was still too warm to drink, but the increasing spicy-mint smell was ridiculously enticing. "Only I've never lived on Chandrila."
"Your accent is Coruscanti," she replied, blowing one more time before lifting the mug again while he tried not to notice the purse of her lips.
For one second he smiled; then the memories flooded him and the smile faded. "I lived on Coruscant most of my life," he replied in a careful voice. "But I'm not sure I ever called it home."
The conversation was nearing a place he did not want to venture, so he decided to try and change the subject. "Gerret's your uncle? I didn't know he had any family."
"He was my husband's uncle. Mine by marriage, I suppose."
"Was?" The word slipped out before he could stop it, though if he could have taken it back he would have; her face fell and her eyes tightened as she looked at her mug.
"Jak died in the Wars," she replied in a quiet voice. "On Sufani, when the Separatists attacked the Republic base – it wasn't one of the more well-known battles. He wasn't a soldier, he was an engineer," she added, seeing Obi-Wan's expression and mistaking it for confusion. "Afterward, I couldn't stay on Chandrila, knowing that he'd never return. It was too..." Her voice broke; she blinked a few times and studied the steeping tea.
His own tea was still too hot to drink, so Obi-Wan only nodded. "I'm so sorry."
Bronze hair swayed a little as she shook her head. "There are those who lost so much more than me...everything, in fact." She took a deep breath and smiled at him again. "In a way, I'm lucky. I'm still alive. I had a place to go, after the war ended. I can make a home, here."
"It's difficult," he replied, thinking of his hut in the Judland wastes, of the biting wind and sand, and of the old life that was as far away from him as anything could be.
"But not impossible," she said, lifting the mug with both hands and taking a careful sip.
Obi-Wan did the same; the rich flavor of the tea filled his mouth, mint and spice mingling together in a way that sent a rush of memories through his mind, and for an instant he was overcome and beyond speech. "No," he said at last, smiling at her as he set the mug down. "Not impossible."
They were quiet for a moment before he took a breath. "Thank you for inviting me here, Keren."
Suddenly her hand was beside his, not touching, but close enough so that he could feel the heat from the mug that had warmed her skin. In the soft light of her home, Keren's eyes looked more green than brown, especially when the smile she was giving him widened. "Thank you for coming, Ben."
It became a habit, the sharing of the tea. Though at first he'd been reluctant to fall into any kind of pattern, lest someone catch on and follow him, Obi-Wan found that he could not keep himself from the visits, the regularity of which began to increase as months passed. He would arrive at Anchorhead as her store was about to close; if it was quiet she'd close early and they'd retire to the back to talk or listen to the radio. Sometimes he'd have to occupy himself as she assisted customers. If that was the case he'd learned where she kept her cleaning supplies, and he would make himself useful by dusting the shelves she couldn't reach, or wiping down the windows.
The thought occurred to him once that some may have found it odd that Obi-Wan Kenobi, Jedi Master and High General was working in a dingy general store in the middle of the Sand Flatts on Tatooine, but it was a fleeting one. That man was gone, and Ben didn't mind such self-appointed tasks.
For a while, life grew about as normal for him as it had ever been, and he realized that he was strangely content with their talks and their tea.
But it couldn't last.
He received the message the night before he was supposed to visit Keren, and spent hours debating. If I leave, I may never return. There is still much work to be done, it seems.
No matter how close they got, he couldn't tell her anything real. They'd spoken of the war a few more times...he'd led her to believe he'd served alongside other enlisted civilians, but nothing beyond that. Keren had her own shadows that followed her, so she respected his and did not press him for details. It had been enough for each of them.
The thought of leaving her pained him, but not as much as the realization that if he died out in the void, she would have no idea how, or why. I shouldn't see her again, he thought as dawn began to peer over the horizon. I shouldn't ever go back to Anchorhead. It will be easier if she never thinks of me again.
Despite all of this, he didn't want to leave without at least telling her goodbye. One more regret would, he knew, be his undoing.
So he made the journey and wondered if it would be for the last time. And when he stood before her in the peacefulness of her home, the words fled his throat.
"Ben? What's wrong?" She put her hands on his shoulders, a light touch that felt intimate despite the fact that they had hugged before, if not much else. "Are you okay?"
"I have to leave," he replied, taking her hands in his and setting them back at her sides. "I don't know when – or if – I'll be back, but I wanted to say goodbye, either way."
Keren's face did not fall. Tears didn't brighten her eyes and she did not gasp. She only studied him; there was some spark of recognition in her gaze but it was not the look of a person who'd seen a Jedi. "I'll miss you," she said at last in her soft accent.
"Not as much as I will, you," he replied, frowning. The words had come of their own accord, it seemed. He didn't know what to make of the fact. "But I wanted to thank you," he added. "For your hospitality. For your kindness. For sharing...your home with me."
She shook her head, and he noted that now there was a brightness to her eyes that he recognized as inchoate tears. Her mouth opened as if to speak, but she said nothing. Instead she leaned up and kissed his cheek once, gently. The touch of her lips left his skin warm. "I know there are no promises in war," she said. "But please come back, if you can."
"The war's over," he replied, willing himself to believe it.
Her head shook again, bronze hair falling over her shoulders. "Please try to come back, anyway."
Nodding, he reached forward and stroked her cheek once before he turned to leave.
It was far, far too long, but he returned to her.
He should have gone straight home, to check on his garden if nothing else, but instead Obi-Wan made his way to Anchorhead, to the Great Chott General Store that was already closed and dark for the night. The streets were too quiet, he was uneasy after being on the move for so long, his body ached and he had a few new scars for his troubles. In hindsight, he knew it was unwise to rap against her door so late, when the sound of anything but the wind was cause for suspicion, but he needed to see her – just once – to assure himself that she was real.
Then you can go back to your life, he told himself as he felt her approach. Then things will return to normal.
The door opened. Her hair was messy and her eyes squinted at him, still hazy with sleep. When she spoke her voice was broken by a yawn. "Ben?"
Nodding, he stepped inside at her behest. The door closed, the bell jingled as she blinked up at him, a smile spreading across her face. But he didn't give her time to speak, only reached for her and pulled her close, inhaling the warm scent of tea. Keren's arms wrapped around his torso and she pressed her cheek against his chest. "I thought you were..."
"It's been so long."
He kissed her forehead. "I'm sorry..."
"No," she said, pulling back to look up at him. "Don't be sorry. I just..." She gave a small shake of her head. "I worry for you, Ben. I think someone has to."
Had it been another time, he would have told her that it was unwise to worry for someone in his position. But now...well. Everything in the galaxy is different, so why not this? Thoughts of his hut and his garden fled his mind, but he did not watch them go.
"I thought about you every day," he said at last. "More than that, sometimes."
When she laughed, he felt the movement of her body against his. "Me too. About you, I mean." He smiled into her hair and breathed in her scent. After a moment she tilted her head up to him. "You have a back-log of orders, you know. I've tried to restrain myself while you were gone, but it's been difficult."
Obi-Wan chuckled at her sardonic tone, but he was aware of the meaning beneath the simple words. "Then I suppose I should collect before you wreak havoc on my tea, and I'm forced to deem myself an accessory to your addiction."
Later, he would not remember if she kissed him first, or if he did, but it didn't matter, as it happened many more times.
It was a small thing, really, in the light of such companionship, and of finding a place in one's own heart that had once been thought too full of sorrow to contain anything else.
It's said that writing is such a solitary practice, and it's true.
When Serendipity first started beta-ing for me, it was difficult for me to "handle" having another person pick apart my writing and point out things that could be done better. It was difficult for me, partly because I wanted my stories to be perfect as they were – without anyone's help – but also because my writing is very personal and close to my heart...it was so hard to "let someone else in."
But I'm so glad I worked through my "issues." With Serendipity's patience, eye for detail, editing know-how and boundless good humor, my writing has grown in leaps and bounds. She challenges me to be better, and I'm grateful every day for her insight, continued encouragement and general awesomeness.
However, it felt like – no matter how many times I thanked her – it was never enough. Even this ficlet doesn't really cut it, but I hope it's a start. And there's always Interludes. :P
Thank you, SerendipityAEY. You totally rock. :D
PS: If you have yet to read any of her work...do so. Immediately. It's phenomenal! :)