torch, August-September 1999
flambeau@strangeplaces.net

Disclaimer: oh no, not again... Sequel to Happening to you, A healthy dose of pain and Nothing left to do. Title by Belle and Sebastian. Do not archive this story without permission.

Short of going

Dawn on a desert planet. Everything khaki and tan and gold, and the dunes looking soft as velvet. All living things that couldn't bear the unrelenting touch of sunlight were scuttling home to hide in rock crevices and sand tunnels. Others were just waking up, bracing themselves for yet another day.

One of them stood in a near-empty room in a near-empty house, looking out. It had been a cold night, and he felt it in knees and elbows, in his finger joints and in the small of his back. Felt it in every scar and every old injury. Leaning against the window sill, he thought about warming himself with some slow suitable exercise, something that would keep him in shape and remind him of his purpose.

He didn't want to be reminded. He didn't want to have a purpose. There had been enough of that in his life, usually followed by spectacular failure. As days went by here, one like the other, sand-colored, sand-flavored, unremarkable, sliding into years, a numbness grew within him that might have turned into forgetfulness, if it hadn't been for—

"There's tea if you want."

Obi-Wan turned his head. If he had not had the force to listen with, he would never have heard her coming, she walked so silently on bare feet through this house.

Her hair was striped with silver now, her face lined by decades of work and the sandy scouring winds of Tattoine. She wore a grey robe over a pair of his old exercise pants, mended over and over, and carried a steaming mug in one hand. Obi-Wan looked at her, almost reached out to touch her. It had grown easier over time to meet her eyes, despite all the things he never saw in them.

And maybe because he'd looked for those things so often, maybe because much as he wanted to be numb he couldn't quite manage it, maybe just because his knees ached so much, this was the morning when he found himself asking, "Shmi, why don't you hate me?"

She took his right hand and placed the tea mug in it, wrapped his fingers securely around it before letting go. "Drink," she said, and then in the same tone of voice, "I never hated anyone. And if I were to start anywhere, it wouldn't be with you, Obi-Wan."

"I've told you to call me Ben," he said into the mug, gulping down hot tea and burning his tongue like a careless child. Stupid, stupid to ask that question, to open the way for those thoughts. "If anyone hears—"

"There is no one here to hear."

And those words, even in her gentle voice, made the memories come and he flung the mug away, heard it shatter against a wall as he turned and left the room. No one will hear, no one will see, no one must know... the words and the knowledge rang in his head like the jangle of ugly discordant bells. He ran out of the house and into the sunrise, beyond control, stumbling and slipping, until he was well away and could hold on to a rock and be quietly, privately, thoroughly sick.

Hush, now.

The things he had done and the things that had been done to him, under cover of those words. And the silences afterwards. The knowledge that there was no one who would hear. He remembered kneeling on a cold stone floor long ago, listening to the tap of a cane, trying to sense the force currents in the room even as his insides became a small hard knot of fear.

"Wrong, it was," Yoda had said. "Thought you not that we would discover it?"

So they knew, they knew...

And his knees had been shaking and his hands had been shaking and his voice had been shaking. "You never said anything when it was Qui-Gon and—"

Unable to say more, seeing the look of shock and betrayal in Yoda's eyes. The meeting was over, just like that. They'd never spoken of it again. Once more he had failed, had failed everyone. There was no one who would hear.

He coughed and spat and straightened up, walked away from the acid smell of his own panic. Heat was rising and he flipped up the hood of his robe, shielding his eyes against the glare of the sun. Years of holding it all back, and now it seemed this planet had baked and dried him and he was full of cracks, he would fall apart because of a stray phrase spoken by a woman who had never meant him any harm. He reached for inner peace, for old familiar exercises to calm the mind and soul.

But it hurt. There wasn't anything in him strong enough to cover up the pain any more.

He sat down for a while, out of sight of the house, picking up a handful of sand and letting it trickle away between his fingers, over and over. Sand on calluses... he could barely feel it. It was too soft a touch, too gentle. There was a purpose to his being here, and he would always be reminded.

When he walked back he moved carefully, like a man with a serious injury. He went in through the back entrance and made sure the door was shut tight to keep sand and animals out. Shmi was in the kitchen, sorting through the components of two worn-out fuel injectors for shredder engines. He sat down to help her, and they worked in silence for a couple of hours.

It was Shmi's turn to cook, and so their mid-morning breakfast was a bland grain mush, gentle on the stomach. Even so, Obi-Wan ate slowly, cautiously. When he looked at Shmi his insides lurched and he dropped his spoon; she raised her head and met his eyes.

"I did terrible things," he said, pushing his bowl aside. "Don't you understand that?"

"Yes," she said quietly. "I know."

He had to make it clearer still, as clear as the pain of silence would let him. "I did terrible things to your son. And he turned to the dark side, because of me."

Because of his failure. The Republic had fallen, the Jedi had fallen, everything had come apart and here they were in this sandy prison, at the other end of the complex chain of events that had started with...

Shmi pushed her chair back and turned towards him, reaching out, not quite touching his hand. She shook her head. "Terrible things were done to you, Obi-Wan. And you did not turn. You were part of what made Ani what he is," her voice faltered only a little, "but you can only take part of the blame. Just as Qui-Gon can only take part of the blame and part of the credit for who you have been, and who you are."

He jerked back and stared at her. "How do you know—"

"I should have seen when he took Anakin away," she said. "But I looked with my dreams, not with my heart." Her hand settled on his. "You know it was wrong, Obi-Wan. You have learned more than you were taught."

Her forgiveness cut more sharply than any hatred. He slid off the chair, landing hard on his knees, feeling the impact shoot through his entire body and he fell forward and she caught him, cradling him close, holding him as he cried, and cried, and cried.

When he finally pulled away, wiped his face and blew his nose, he had a headache and his hands shook. Shmi put away the bowls and spoons, and brought more tea, and they went on working, finding enough functioning parts to turn the two broken fuel injectors into one that just might work. Towards midday, he took a break and walked around the house, stretching his legs.

So many empty rooms. He chose one where sunlight spilled in, despite the heat. Sitting quietly cross-legged on the floor, the warm floor, he called up two faces in his mind's eye and looked carefully at them. Qui-Gon Jinn. Anakin Skywalker.

"I loved you both," he whispered. "I loved you both."

* * *

Fades into morning

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