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A Proper Cup of Tea

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CC-2224 stood at attention on Negotiator’s bridge. He had heard that General Kenobi had requested him personally after Hebriss, which was bewildering considering the lack of enthusiasm General Grimm had displayed over his actions. And not just as battalion commander. He was to be Marshall Commander of the whole of the Open Circle Fleet which was, frankly, rather overwhelming. Sure, he was a command series. Sure, he’d commanded a division, then the whole of the 516th, then General Grimm’s 431st, where he had utterly failed to cover himself in glory by improvising. Good soldiers follow orders. And the Marshall Commander of a whole battle group ought to be a good soldier. Not Cody.

“General on deck!” a trooper announced and Cody squared his shoulders, standing a little straighter.

The man who strode on winced and waved a hand at the softshell. “At ease – Bell, was it? And where is – ah, my new commander.”

Cody’s heart did a little fillip. It was the Jedi. The one who had come for them. Not the one who had led the finished troopers to Geonosis, that was General Yoda, but the one who had come to inspect them, the one who had finally given the vod a purpose. The one with the kind face and light eyes – he had never seen such light eyes on a humanoid before – the one after whose coming every second shiny had tried to grow a beard, against all regulations. The one about whom Alpha-17 had said, when Cody had told him about his new posting: “Good luck. That one’s a di’kutla. Try to keep up.”

“CC-2224 reporting as ordered, sir.”

“Yes, yes, quite right. Do take off your helmet. What’s your name?” He had a soft, lilting voice, sprinkled with humour. He hadn’t seen the High General on Hibriss, he and the 212th had been operating on the other side of the capital. Soft face, soft hair, soft beard. Up close, Cody saw that he was smaller than the clones, his build slight but solid. This was the man who had killed a dar’jetii? Who had saved Seventeen? The Alpha batches were tough. They didn’t have the time to put into that kind amount of genetic manipulation, that kind of training any more. And yet when Alpha-17 had called this man di’kut, there had been an undercurrent of awe in his voice.

Cody obediently took off his bucket and stared off at a space just above his new General’s shoulder. General Grimm had disliked it when a vod looked him in the eye. “CC-2224, sir.” Names were for vod. Neither General P’lell of the 516th Reserve nor General Grimm had wanted the men’s names.

“Oh, my. That’s quite a mouthful. See-See-twenty-two-twenty-four. That’s all of eight syllables. Take Bell, here.” The naval trooper blushed. “One syllable. Quite short. Easy to bark out orders to, isn’t it, Bell? Waxer – two syllables. I believe the longest we have so far is four. In a pinch, I’m simply ‘General’, three syllables, because Alpha was a bit of a stick-in-the-mud and never let the men call me Obi-Wan or even just Kenobi. Not that it makes much of a difference in length, I suppose.”

What was he expected to say to that? “No, sir.”

Call anything with a lightsaber “sir”, even if they’re no older than cadets, and you’ll do fine, Cody could hear Alpha-17 barking at the Command class.

Someone had raised a hand. Their cadets are wizards, too?

Seventeen had grunted.

General Kenobi (no more than six syllables) gestured towards the door. “Well, CC-2224, why don’t we adjourn and I’ll tell you what I expect of my commanders. Then we can take the tour.”

Cody felt something loosen inside. This was familiar ground. Both his previous generals had done the same – P’lell, nervous and unsure of herself, trying to sound authoritarian; Grimm in his gruff, no-nonsense way. This is how he kept his vod from decommissioning or reconditioning. Know the rules. Make sure the men know the rules.

Don’t piss the generals off.

To his surprise, the Jedi swept past the debriefing room, leading him down several corridors past the natborn officer’s quarters to a room between them and the clone CO quarters. Looking at the designation, Cody realised these were, in fact, his assigned quarters.

“I’m afraid I’ve settled in here – you can have mine. The shipyards didn’t consider Master-Padawan pairs when they conceived the accommodations, and even with him gone I’ve come to appreciate having a separate office. It gets cluttered.”

Cody saw what he meant. He didn’t think he’d ever seen so many datapads in one place. They invaded the kitchen nook, the dining table, the actual workspace and the camp cot someone had shoved in there, all in very neat, orderly stacks. A few desultory succulents were bravely trying to keep them at bay. Cody didn’t like to think of what the natborns would say if they saw him come out of the Jedi’s assigned quarters and vaguely wondered where he was supposed to do his own paperwork.

The General set about clearing space at the table, stacking them tidily into a corner, and gestured to a chair. “Your quarters have a workspace, too, I simply found it easier to have a separate room for Anakin so I didn’t disturb him when I worked late,” the General told him.

Cody twitched as he sat, his bucket still under his arm. Could the Jedi read minds?

“Or if you like, I think there is an actual office somewhere. Ask Admiral Yularen, he would know. I like limiting the places the men have to look for me.”

Cody settled into his chair. “Aye, sir.”

“Or you’re welcome to make that chair yours and do it with me. I need to sign off on most of your documents anyway.”

“Aye, sir.”

He waited for the General to begin his briefing, but he seemed distracted by something on the datapad near his elbow, stroking his beard while lost in thought. Finally, Cody ventured: “Sir?”

“I’m sorry. Vos’s reports get more flowery every time. Where were we?”

“Your expectations, sir.”

“Expectations! Right.” The general stood up and rubbed his hands together. “First off, how to brew a proper cup of tea.”

“Sir?”

“Tea, CC-2224.” And the General proceeded to make them both a cup of tea. Cody knew about tea, both his previous generals had drunk it, but it was one thing he hadn’t been expected to know how to do. So he watched carefully as the General turned on a water heater, took out two sieves, added two teaspoons of tea from a tin each and then poured the boiling water into two flimsy-looking cups. As he prepared it and let it steep, leaning against the kitchenette with his arms crossed before him, he explained the organisation of the Third Systems Army and the various tasks Cody would be taking over. Cody nodded, intent on the tea. He had read the brief and understood it; now he listened with half an ear to try and filter out new information. If necessary, the Captains could fill him in. But if the General was the kind to take out an improperly brewed cup on the vod, it wouldn’t happen on Cody’s watch.

Then the General set down in front of him one of the most delicate-looking pieces of porcelain Cody had ever laid eyes on, patterned with tiny blue flowers snaking around a translucent white background. He didn’t dare to touch it, afraid his strong, callused hands would break the paper-thin cup.

The General added a dollop of honey to each cup. “You got that?”

Cody nodded. With P’lell, it had been the temperature of the bridge, and the precise pronunciation of her name. With Grimm, it had been being as invisible as humanly possible. Tea was easy. “Boiling water for black, 70°C for green. Steep no longer than two minutes, five for black.” What the kriff was the difference? He supposed he ought to learn, quick. “You take honey.”

“Excellent.” The General sat down opposite Cody, quirking an eyebrow at him. “But I meant your duties.”

“Yes, sir.” Was this a test? Distract Cody with tea and catch him not listening?

“Any questions?”

A hundred, that would probably mostly be answered by actually doing the work. Still, he ought to show he had been listening. More or less. “I’m not entirely certain of the status of the 501st, sir? They seem to operate outside of our assigned operating theatre?”

“Oh, them. If only we knew. Technically, they are a part of the Third Systems Fleet, but the Chancellor sometimes seems to consider them his own personal battalion, to assign as he wishes.” The General leaned back and sighed. “To be fair, we try to play to each General’s strengths. I might lend Master Ploon to another fleet if they are short on air support – that’s his speciality, though he also has ground troops like anybody else – Master Luminara takes the brunt of the cleanup and relief work, while we tend to take over a lot of diplomatic missions. I don’t think we ever bothered to assign Master Fisto to a specific fleet.”

Kriff. That explained so much that had puzzled him while he was in the 431st. “Er, may I ask why?” It made sense when he said it that way, but it went against every cell of his being. Clear chains of command. Clear assignments. Everybody needed to know exactly what was expected of them.

The General took a sip. “Oh, Kit – Master Fisto – is from a semi-aquatic race. He’s trained his men in underwater operations. We have other aquatic Knights, of course, whom we have tried to scatter around the various fleets, but Kit is invaluable for large-scale operations.”

“Oh.”

“And Master Luminara is quite strong in the Living Force. Combat puts undue strain on her and her padawan, though Force knows we have to send her to the front too often.”

“Oh.” That sentence must have made sense to someone, but it wasn’t Cody. He sometimes wished for a manual. Force 101 or something. The General continued sipping his tea, and Cody searched for something to say. His gaze fell onto the open cupboard over the kitchenette. It was filled with tins.

“What’s the difference between them, sir?”

“Between whom? Master Fisto and Master Unduli? One is a Nautolan and entirely too convinced of his charm and good looks while the other is a Mirialan who likes to cultivate an air of otherworldly wisdom.”

“No, sir. The teas.”

“Oh.” The General looked surprised and a tad pleased. “Of course.” He got up and went to the cupboard, taking down tins. “This is my usual brew for the day. In the mornings, I like one of these. This is Anakin tea.”

“Sorry, sir?”

“Whenever Anakin is being particularly obtuse. It was my own master’s favourite, it allows me to connect with someone over difficult padawans.”

“Anakin is your cad- your padawan commander, sir?” Kriff, that would mess things up. Padawan commanders were generally considered higher ranking than clone commanders, but Cody had read the heart-stopping lines that said that as Marshall Commander he outranked all of them. Theoretically. But there had been no mention of General Kenobi’s padawan in the crew manifest they had sent him. And hadn't he said -

“Oh, no.” General Kenobi waved a hand. “He’s all grown up and commanding the 501st, now. But somehow, he still manages to give me headaches.” Kriff. General Skywalker had been Kenobi’s padawan? He thought of Rex’s surprisingly affectionate rants and wondered why Seventeen had called General Kenobi a di’kutla. It didn’t bode well. The General opened another cupboard. “These are my meditation teas – the gestures and precise rules for their preparation are a nice little mindfulness exercise, sometimes. The vod'e needn’t bother about them. Please don’t use the teapots and cups for anything else, though.”

Cody nodded and started thinking about how to pack the water heater and sieves and tins into the material for the command tent. He thought of something. “When do you take it, sir?”

The General sat down again and picked up his cup. Cody couldn’t help but notice that his hands were calloused and scarred. “Oh, I am perfectly capable of making my own tea, as you can see. But if it’s not too much trouble, you might tell some of the troopers. The men very kindly bring me cups of tea on the bridge or when I’m working, but they underbrew it or use lukewarm water and it’s really quite horrid. It’s quite endearing, really, but perhaps you might show them how to make a proper cup?”

Cody blinked. “Aye, sir.”

“You can put your helmet on the floor, by the way. Try the tea, it’s a lovely Alderaanian blend.”

“Aye, sir.” He put his helmet down and gingerly picked up the cup. It smelled a bit like flowers. He sipped it and slowly set it down. He wasn’t sure about the taste yet, but it was better than caff and it warmed him.

The General smiled, his grey eyes dancing. Cody wondered if any of the vod'e might get that particular mutation someday. Then the General leaned forward and said in a conspiratorial tone, “Now, when there is room for them, I bring a water heater and a caff machine for the command tent. It’s available for anyone in the vicinity. But if you’re on your own…” He waved a hand and another cupboard opened by itself and a little white packet soared to his hands. “May I have your ration clip?” he asked, motioning to Cody’s utility belt.

Cody simply nodded and unclipped it. He had seen the Force in use before. This was nothing new.

“Now, there’s a little pouch here – it’s actually for nutrient packets, but I’m sorry to say we almost never get them. I generally fill a number of these little tea bags and as you can see,” he demonstrated with a smooth gesture, “you can slip them easily in there. So if ever you fancy a cup, you know where to find it. And away from the command tent, what you do is strip the silver outer lining – that’s the insulating material – from a self-heating ration bar, leaving only a bit to hold on to, and dip it into a cup of water with a teabag while it heats. That way you have a warm meal and the worst cup of tea in the history of existence at the same time.”

Cody almost snorted, quickly raising the absurd little cup to his lips to mask it. It’s the image of this cultured man with his trimmed beard and high Coruscanti accent covered in mud and making the worst cup of tea with a ration pack that gets to him. Jedi never get dirty, at least, not the ones he’s served with. And they rarely eat outside the command tent.

He’s always been good at stoic. But the crinkles around the General’s eyes deepened and the edges of his beard turned up. Mortified, Cody drank again.

“Sweetener, on the battlefield. And now, if you’ll follow me, I’ll show you how to make saloop.”

He’s off and out of the door before Cody is standing, but he managed to catch up and stand back and to the side of the Jedi, just as he’s been taught. Is that a slight hitch in his step? Has he been injured? Cody found he likes this man and his mischievous grey eyes, but he was also worried. If how to get tea on a battlefield is his greatest concern, Cody will really have his work cut out for him. But if he was close enough to the action to get injured…

As they make their way through the corridors, General Kenobi pointed out important landmarks – the mess, the main lifts down to the hangars, the supply rooms. The vod they pass all exchange nods with the general, not a single one of them wearing their helmets and none of them actually saluting. Cody made up his mind to give the next one they pass a dressing-down but then he realised that the General addressed every one of them by name.

Every. Single. One.

Even the shinies with their regulation buzzcuts and white armour. Every one.

Cody glanced over at the General. Even he sometimes had trouble telling shinies apart, especially those he didn’t see every day. Was it some sort of Force thing?

General Kenobi led Cody to one of the general storage rooms off one of the hangars. He wandered around the shelves until he found a small portable heating unit and set it down on the floor with a clunk. “These are, unfortunately, much better built than in my youth, so it’s a tad tricky. But when you pop this panel, you can fiddle with the heat regulation here. Not too high, because you might not want to drain the battery too fast. And if you twist the top like this,” he demonstrated, “you can place a container on top. I know some troopers use their helmets, but that can’t possibly be hygienic. Look, you can twist the rain ponchos together like this instead and hang them from a makeshift tripod. Works if you heat stones and put them in, too.”

Cody stared in fascination as the General demonstrated true battlefield grit. The art of making something when you have nothing. Like the ration pack. Of course, this Jedi had been on the front since the beginning, but this was – it was something the vod would figure out. Not the Jedi.

“Did a vod show you this?” He almost bit his tongue. This wasn’t any way to talk to his commanding officer. Even if he did get it from a vod, it was rather endearing, how enthusiastically he was going on about it. Cody should just leave it be.

The Jetii are – they have their idiosyncrasies. Don’t exactly live in the same universe as us. Better to just leave them to it. Alpha-17’s eyes glazed slightly and he sighed. Guard them with your lives because they are worth twenty vod, and leave them to their magic. There had been a certain wistfulness in his voice.

“Hmmm? Oh, no. This is something I picked up – well, let’s just say that this is not, as they say, my first rodeo. Finding out how to twist the top off those heaters saved my fingers on more than one occasion. Most of the vod’e do come up with some variation of it at some point, but some of them just pop the fuses off or bend the grille on the sides and that’s quite dangerous. This is safer.”

Cody shook his head as it dawned on him. This wasn’t about the General, not really. It was about the men. Things the General couldn’t say to them directly. Things he was counting on Cody to get across. So the vod'e wouldn’t be embarrassed if the General didn’t drink their underbrewed tea. So they wouldn’t kill themselves brewing a hot drink on a cold night. It was sweet, really. Pretty useless, in the long run. But sweet.

Wait. Not only had he called the men “vod” a few times, he had used the correct plural.

“Now, saloop. It’s brewed with soluble tea powder – it takes up less space, you see, despite being an abomination unto teakind – and lots of sweetener. It’s perfectly horrid and perfectly marvellous. Nothing better when it’s cold and damp and you’ve been marching all day. Give the men half an hour and someone will have a container going. However, you will find Fever, Phantom and Spectre companies all run on caff, and Loth and sometimes Baby will have hot chocolate.”

“Hot chocolate, sir?” That was not available on the requisition forms. Which meant, “That’s contraband, sir!”

“Hmmm, yes. Quite tasty, though.”

Jedi. So kriffing otherworldly they failed to see the obvious. “So where are they getting the credits for contraband?”

The Jedi rubbed his beard and raised an eyebrow at him. “Kiss from Loth ghostwrites the most dismal Romance novels I have ever had the misfortune to read. And Brushes from Baby Company paints mugs.”

Cody sat down. “Writing? Mugs?”

General Kenobi laid a gentle hand on his arm. “In his downtime, Kiss is never without a datapad. Which he puts away the moment an order comes in. He’s broken two and left one on the battlefield and never complained. You’ve seen my collection. I’d hardly miss it if I occasionally ‘forget’ an empty datapad in the mess. And as for Brushes – well, a dozen or so regulation mugs per month is a perfectly acceptable rate of breakage for a mess serving several hundred, wouldn’t you say?”

“But sir, it’s contraband!” Clones were not allowed to earn money outside of the carefully-regulated ‘expenses’ they received sometimes when they were on leave. This was… And the Jedi knew?

“It’s hot chocolate, CC-2224.”

“Yes, sir. And it’s holoporn and mags and alcohol and-“

“Oh, no. Not alcohol.”

Cody opened his mouth to protest – had he even met the men? – but the General went on, “There’s a still somewhere I pretend not to know about. It’s almost palatable, though I’m not exactly what you would call a connoisseur.”

“I – sir – what?!”

“Though you might want to tell Groat to move it away from medbay. The medics have been complaining about the fumes.”

“But… sir…” Cody looked up at his new general helplessly. “What about discipline?”

The General’s face stilled and turned grave. He sat down on the floor of the storage room, favouring his right leg, and motioned for Cody to sit down beside him. “Discipline is important. It saves lives. You will find we have regular drills and exercises. But downtime is important, too. Waging war, I have found, is a delicate balance between ruthlessness and compassion. Our enemy does not feel pain. It does not require food or rest, only a mobile power source of some sort. It does not feel.” The General’s stormy eyes, the colour of a Kaminoan sky, met his. “Yet we will not win this war by making the men into droids. The moment we do, we could win every battle, invade every Separatist planet, destroy every one of their weapons – and still we will have lost.”

He gestured to the repurposed camp heater with an elegant sweep of his hands. “And so, tea.”

 

***


It felt good to be back on a battlefield. Here Cody knew what was expected of him, beyond the absolutely staggering amount of paperwork associated with heading the Third Systems Army and the seemingly endless briefings.

He smiled as he saw the troopers set up the small portable heaters, one or two per company, and start taking out the necessities for tea. He caught one of them trying to pry the grating on the side loose for greater warmth and stepped up, showing the trooper – Habeas, he was learning their names now – how to remove the top instead. In the wake of Habeas’ thanks, he grabbed a ration bar from his pack and dug out a bag of tea.

By the time he reached the command tent, the ration bar was warm and small curl of steam rose from the mug he had snagged from a passing trooper. His General was bent over the mobile Command Centre, frowning over the holographic table. Alpha had been right. His General was intelligent, compassionate and utterly di’kut. On the battlefield, the man was glorious. Whatever Cody had thought he knew about the Force had been thrown out of the window and he found himself looking forward to seeing him work with Rex’s General with equal parts anticipation and dread.

The General glanced up at Cody and smiled as he accepted a ration bar and the worst cup of tea in the history of existence.

“Cody.”

“Sir.”

And they set about improvising.