Fish Out of Water

By Misfire Anon

There existed many descriptions for a Spectre’s protégé. Shade was apparently the term that had been historically adopted. But like everything else with the Spectres, the definition was highly fluid.  Perceptions of these trainees went all the way from “comrade‐in‐arms” to “promising candidate” to “I’d‐shove‐you‐out‐of‐the‐airlock‐if‐ the‐Council‐wasn’t‐watching‐my‐every‐move”.

Nihlus wasn’t sure of his position on the sliding scale, but he knew it wasn’t admirable. For one thing, his list of tasks now included “errand boy”. He tried to look nonchalant. It wasn’t working. The bulky crate in his arms had completely blocked his line of sight. Therefore, he had not happened to see the pair of krogan standing in the middle of the walkway. The results had been unpleasant.

The crate went on its merry way through the customs scanners. The turian officer at the gate glanced at him, frowning. “What happened? You were fine just an hour ago.”

Nihlus smiled lopsidedly and tried to un‐shred his sleeve with zero success. “Took a tumble in the warehouse. Inadequate lighting, you know. Could only see by a damn Tupari machine.”

The officer rubbed his forehead plates, clearly exasperated. “Yeah, sure. Just be careful next time.”

Nihlus nodded, the smile steadily stiffening, and picked up his armful of crate. It was slightly blood‐flecked; he tried to wipe it down with a corner of his shirt. Its contents seemed to be growing heavier by the minute, because parts of his arm were going numb. Why didn’t Saren tell him that he’d need a kinetic exoskeleton to pick up the package?  

Whatever it contained, he sure wasn’t going to be the first one to open it. Maybe from the opposite end of the room, with a long pole. He had learned his lesson from an incident involving a folded mech, a bag of concrete extender, and a particularly nasty comment in his service file.  

The spaceport seemed to stretch on forever. A few hanar floated past, apparently a group of tourists fresh from Kahje. A drell boy followed eagerly. Nihlus had a flash of insight: carrying crates would be so much simpler if he could get his hands on one of those nifty gravity‐defying devices! Mind, they also cost his funding several times over, but it was an idea worth holding on to.  And would it kill the Keepers to install some conveyors in this place?

He returned to the ship, ready to give Saren a piece of his mind. He stormed inside with an absolutely furious expression. The effect was dulled somewhat by the facts that his face was still hidden by the crate and that he couldn’t exactly ‘storm’ under its weight…but it was the thought that counted. He bent to set it on the ground, glancing in the general direction of a scraping noise.  

Then promptly dropped the crate, missing his foot by a talon’s edge.

“Get over here, Kryik. I don’t have all day.”

Saren was in casual dress, examining a set of knives. They were not combat knives. Rather, they were…

“…Cooking?” He managed to work out the concept of speech.

Saren didn’t reply; he picked up a particularly vicious-looking blade and tested it with the pad of his thumb. Something about that gesture sent shivers down Nihlus’ spine. Needless to say, he approached the corner kitchenette immediately, pushing the crate along.

“Thank you,” the older turian said, circling around the counter slowly. “Now clean yourself up. You look like a varren’s chew-toy.”

Jerk. That was his favourite shirt, too. He dropped it unceremoniously in the compactor. As he neared the kitchen area on the way back, he heard a peculiar sound. Rat-ta-ta. Scrape. Rat-ta-ta. Scrape.

He stared at the lump of violet…thing Saren was chopping into bits. Er, ‘mincing’. Two knives moved in a perfect rhythm, which didn’t change even as he acknowledged Nihlus’ presence with a curt nod. Rat-ta-ta. Scrape.

Nihlus leaned over, peering at the faintly glistening mass. “What is this stuff?”

“Decent food. Pass me the fish.” He scraped the blades against each other, apparently enjoying the rich metallic sound. The ‘stuff’ in question was dumped in the middle of a pan. Saren began to spread it across more evenly, but noticed his inaction. “Bottom of the crate. The—“ followed by some name he didn’t recognise—“too, while you’re at it.”

Tearing his eyes away from the performance, he looked down at the open crate. It was a self-refrigerating unit, and there was indeed a huge slab of translucent blue fish at the bottom. He poked at it with his talon. It was surprisingly elastic. He poked it again. A little rubbery, even. Maybe there was a more appetising term for that? Okay, so that was fish. Now he turned to the bewildering arrangement of violet, red, and green plants.

“Pass it over.” Came the impatient voice from above. He hurriedly picked up the slippery piece and placed it on the cutting board. “What took you?”

“It’s surprising. I never thought fish would feel like that. Thought they’d be tougher.”

Saren brought the blade—a different one, he noted—down, cutting the piece squarely in half. He paused.

“You’ve never had fish before?”

Nihlus shifted his feet. “No, I haven’t. You know how it is on the colonies. People run on vat-grown and export most local produce. I’ve had fish chunks, of course. But it doesn’t look like the same thing at all.” Should he be quiet now? Saren was staring at him. Yeah, probably his cue to shut up.

Thump. The fish is now in four pieces. “You’ve had shore leave.”

“Who goes to fine diners on shore leave? No offense, sir, but everyone wants to get smashed.”

“Fair.” He said after a moment. “You know what”—there he went again with names he didn’t know—“are?”

He gave a blank expression.

Saren put the knife down and approached him. Somehow, this was more frightening than that blade-testing motion he had made earlier. Especially when the tips of his talons were slightly wet from handling food.

“Here. You need to roll up your sleeves.” But he went ahead and did that himself, taking Nihlus’ arms one by one. Never mind the essence of fish on his fingers. “The cafe charges a ludicrous amount of credits for fresh shipped. In that light, you might as well learn to work with it now.”

“Yeah. Thanks.” His plates tingled where Saren touched him. Choosing to ignore it—because this was not the time, he bravely picked up a bundle of red leaves. “What’s this?”

“To be sliced.”

“Most ovens have worse insulation than this,” Saren said, giving the said piece of equipment a critical look.

“By necessity for a spaceship, I suppose.”

Nihlus was still picking up the bits of raw food from the floor. Who knew knife strokes were so hard to control? Who knew bright green juice stains were permanent? Most importantly, who knew those seeds would ricochet around the room if the pods were opened the wrong way?

“Leave it, Nihlus. Come over here.”

He refused to give up the pursuit of the last of the seeds, which kept rolling just out of his reach. Finally, with a triumphant grin, he converted it to mush by stepping on it. He proceeded to scrape the remains off of his shoe and hop towards the oven at the same time. Saren was looking at him with arched eye ridge, sitting in front of the little glass window that let you monitor the food. Nihlus plopped down next to him.

Saren spoke first. “You seemed surprised when you came back. Why?”

“I didn’t really think you were the type to…cook.”

“I see.” He said flatly. “What reason would I have for putting this”—he gestured—“in my ship, then?”

“I don’t know.” He rubbed his fringe ruefully. “It came with the ship?”

Saren shook his head, wearing what may have been a smile. Maybe. On the off chance that it was, Nihlus pressed on. “So do you cook often?”

“Occasionally. When I can get an order in. Did you not help your parents when you were young?”

“Yeah, I did. But my mother had this strange habit. Apparently, for her, ‘cooking’ equalled putting Tummy Tingling Tuchanka Sauce in a pot of nutrient paste. Not that we were able to buy much else, for that matter, but…” he drifted off, not wanting to sound like he was complaining. Not wanting to remember, either.

“Go on.”

He sighed. “It tasted good at the time. And then I was out touring with the Hierarchy, and realised people actually raised live meat. Got some perspective.” A sudden recollection of his first time in a prosperous city, the bar’s patrons pointing to small holos representing dishes made from real livestock…he had settled for a stiff drink or four.

“You weren’t curious.”

“Not really.” His mandibles twitched. “It seemed like a lot of fuss and creds with the same end result. I preferred the aftereffects of liqueur.”

Saren’s gaze flickered to the temperature display. “There are two bottles of wine in the crate. Help yourself,” he said, dismissive.

“Saren…” The Spectre closed his eyes. Damn, he needed to salvage this. “That’s not what I meant. Honestly. It was just an offhand comment. You know I’m grateful for this.”

“Then watch your tongue, boy.” He enunciated, the syllables clear and distinct. Nihlus was reminded of the fish on the cutting board, split exactly in half. The arc of the blade had seemed just as slow. “You had better hope I didn’t order any poison.”

He smiled weakly. “You wouldn’t do that.”

To his surprise, Saren nodded. “I’m not one for subtlety.” A hand tugged at his waist, drawing him closer.

And then he kissed him.

When that pleasant fog in his brain had lifted, he pulled back. “So you’d prefer to shoot me in the face, right?”

The older turian pulled on his legs, making him sit across his lap. Nihlus curled up in accordance, shivering pleasantly. When had this sort of thing become a regular occurrence? Probably not soon enough, because it felt strange and disturbing and so perfect at the same time. Saren stroked his cheek, hand smelling faintly of fish.

“Every time.” His talons caught the tip of a mandible, and lifted his face up for another kiss. And by the way his progress reports were going, this state of being will last a while; he smiled. When he opened his eyes, he found the overhead lights dimmed. They were replaced by a warm glow from the interior of the oven, which he hadn’t noticed before. Nihlus sighed, shifting to lean against Saren’s chest instead of the counter.

“You’re not very caustic today,” the Spectre commented.

“You won’t be either after bumping into two krogan. Literally.” Saren rubbed behind his fringe, and he had to stretch luxuriously at that. “Anyway, I kind of figured that it’s not very wise to, ah, chomp the hand that feeds me.”

“Wonderful.” Nihlus looked at him, and he gave a deadpan expression. “Their insurance claims will be forwarded to our file shortly.”

“I thought they didn’t insure krogan.”

A look of amusement flashed across his face. “Then well done.” Pause. “And I hope you don’t want to make that second item literal, too.”

“Of course not,” he replied, nuzzling him gently. Saren responded by tightening the grip around his shoulders. “I’d be busy stuffing my face.”

“It’s been a while since I’ve cooked for someone else. You may want to take that back.”

Nihlus almost asked him about the last time he cooked for others, but bit his tongue. The way Saren was treating him—soothing touches along his spine, occasionally pressing talons against the fabric—suggested something that was, at the moment, beyond his grasp. And Spirits knew that digging wasn’t a good idea.

He had an inkling, though. Saren wasn’t comforting him. He was comforting himself.

So instead, he laughed.

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