[57]

The next morning, Nihlus gets up early to prepare breakfast. The weather outside is still terrible. The storm had lessened during the night, but by the time he got back in bed, it had picked up again, accompanied by a fresh chorus of ferocious howls. Now, hard clumps of snow are smacking against the window like the wind’s percussive accompaniment. He swirls the leftover tequila and drains it in one gulp, setting the flask on the table with a loud thunk. There.

Right on schedule, Saren peeks out from the bedroom, his unblinking eyes pointing from the empty flask, to the plate of gnawed ribs in front of Nihlus, to the six small dishes (and one soup, all proper and shit) laid out for him. Nihlus doesn’t wait for him to begin an interrogation. He spears a cube of the hitherto untouched blue pudding on his talon and slurps it down, raising a browplate at Saren’s frown. “Why don’t you come sit and eat so my hard work doesn’t go to waste? I had to take all this from the deliverybot and put it in bowls all by myself, you know.”

Saren drops into his seat with a grunt. “You turned up the heating.”

“Yeah, because I was freezing my ass off last night. Don’t make that face, I know you can afford it. Heck, you can probably afford to burn this building down and build a new one, legal fees and all.” He looks out at the storm. “You’d be doing this place a favour. I can’t believe there are people who want to live on Noveria.”

“The volus, as a species, are well-suited for these conditions. Krogan, of course, thrive here as they would almost anywhere else. What remains of their culture drives them to extremes.”

Nihlus flicks a mandible. “I mean you, specifically.”

“Only here for business,” Saren says, carefully peeling off a single layer of the hundred-layer loaf and dipping it in an elaborate concoction of ground spices. Nihlus follows suit, except he grabs a good quarter of the thing and rolls it around in the spice, making sure to give the ends a thick coat. Saren begins to sift out conglomerated chunks from the powder, setting them with the bones. Nihlus shrugs. Hey, at least he’d used a fork this time. 

“Business requires you to live in a refrigerator?”

“The cold keeps me awake when the paperwork grows dull.” Saren offers him the soup; Nihlus refuses. “I should have changed the settings after you arrived.”

“Does it help you sleep, too?”

Saren looks at him over the rim of the bowl. A whiff of steam obscures his eye. “At times, yes.”

“How does that work, exactly?”

“It’s a habit. After I finally resolved the Virial’s heat dissipation issues, her HVAC system began to act up. Competent mechanics have eluded me.” Saren takes another long sip. “I know you don’t like satusan leaves, but this was a good choice. Thank you.”

It came as a set meal, but Nihlus had picked that particular set from a menu of dozens, so he feels justified to beam with pride before setting his mandibles at a more serious angle. “I think you might need medication more than a mechanic. Spirits know there are enough doctors on Noveria, crooked or not.”

“‘Crooked’ is euphemistic, extremely so, in ways I’d rather not discuss over breakfast.”

Or ever, really. But Nihlus shrugs and reaches for the loaf again. It’s mechanically prepared, has to be; they’d never turn a profit otherwise. It’s also the reason he’d picked this set over the others. Saren had cooked it for him once, cutting a small chunk of meat into dozens of paper-thin slices with a wicked silver knife. Not long after, Nihlus had bought the same trio of knives for himself, though it had ended up collecting dust at the bottom of a drawer, only opened on one memorable occasion for some impromptu surgery.

This restaurant’s offering pales in comparison to those he’d sampled on Tenebrae, and is not even in the same star system as what Saren had made. Still, he shortens the stack, five slices at a time.

Saren watches him eat, his expression blank. The soup bowl is empty, but the other dishes are practically untouched. The blue pudding wobbles as Nihlus takes a second cube. Saren seems fascinated by it, though he soon shakes his head and makes to stand. Nihlus pulls him down by the sleeve.

“I have messages at the console,” Saren snaps. “And need to find a matching shirt,” he adds more gently.

Nihlus raises his hands in mock surrender. “Nothing that can’t wait, right? Besides, all your shirts are grey.” Saren pointedly lays his wrist on his thigh to illustrate the difference, and Nihlus sighs. “It’s an expression. All cats are… Oh, never mind. I just want to talk for a bit longer.”

Saren scowls and the little voice inside his head, who can really be a fucking coward sometimes, mutters: this is how the hotshot Spectre’s life ends, with his mouth full of pudding. Nihlus swallows the food, stuffs the voice down the same pipe, and meets Saren’s eyes. The look is venomous, but it bears no fangs. 

“Have you heard about Avitus?”

“Avitus Rix?” 

Nihlus nods. 

“No. What about him?”

“He’s planning to retire. Gonna get out before he hits his limits, or so he says.”

Saren snorts. “He won’t.” 

Listen to those undertones, Kryik, and understand precisely why you should shut up and count your blessings. Won’t even consider it for someone else, never mind himself. In fact, when you wrangled him into civvies – Nihlus frowns, his stomach fluttering. The voice is drowned, though it’s trying to claw its way back up. “Don’t be so sure. Look at you. You’re more of a businessman these days.”

“I have found my limits.”

“You have? And what’re you going to tell me next, that your plan is to become a broker? A venture capitalist, even?” He chuckles. “Or that you really like Noveria’s weather, and that the alpine regions aren’t so bad during the summer. That you want to settle down here, adopt a couple of baby krogan. Don’t lie to me.”

“That’s a vast misinterpretation.”

“Enlighten me, then. What’s the retirement plan?”

Saren looks at him like he’s a modern sculpture, the one in that Thessian gallery that’s just a solid block of granite. Very dense granite. “The Council and related authorities decide when–”

“The Council,” Nihlus interrupts, “spent three days on an agricultural tax bill for some asari colony, added hundreds of amendments, and just left it on the table for next month. Pardon me when I say that they shouldn’t be the arbiters of our lives.”

“I see you’ve acquired an interest in Citadel governance. Recent?”

“Reluctant. Has its own charms, but best appreciated when I’m no longer slogging through Omega on their behalf, I’m sure.”

“Politics won’t suit you. Perhaps you should revisit the works of those elcor poets you praised not long ago. Your voice brings them to life.”

“Are you saying that I should do poetry readings at local dives for a living? Do they even have those on Noveria? I didn’t think so. It’s all so… modern. Clean and corporate. It stinks here, Saren.” Saren hums his assent. “If you’re trying to correct things, if you think they’re better than the slavers in the Traverse – well, that may be, but the roots of all evil are the same, aren’t they? It seems futile. And besides, every adoption agency’s going to take one look at your face and hide their babies, krogan or no.”

“I’m only here for business,” Saren repeats irritably. “If you want to announce your own retirement, stop avoiding the topic.”

“Like how you’re avoiding yours?”

Saren glares at him then, and he’s pretty sure the delicate display case behind his skull now sports a couple of cracks. The little voice trapped in his gizzard lets out a squeak, which he quashes by helping himself to a generous serving of the bevelled cake. It’s cold now, but meaty enough. As he drops it into his mouth, he glares right back into those cybernetic eyes. Nihlus won’t be the first to look away. “Yeah, I mean it. Call me cocky, but don’t call me wrong. I worry, you know.”

Saren flexes the fingers of his prosthetic, and clenches them into a fist. Shards of ice are beating relentlessly against the windowpanes. “We can put those worries to rest.”

“Gladly, after you finish,” Nihlus makes a sweeping gesture over the remaining food. “Not sparring when you’re hungry.”

Saren impales some cake with vehemence. “Your remarks on the Council can be interpreted as treasonous.” Nihlus opens his mouth to speak, but Saren holds up his hand, the ugly mechanical hand he’d earned in their service. “It’s important to maintain our reputation of loyalty, especially in these times. We must keep other powers in check.” 

Nihlus works his jaw. Need to divert that combustible train of thought to safer tracks. “I get it, Noveria is a bad fit. You could settle in the Traverse instead; that’s a better idea. I’m sure they’d be grateful if you just shot down some pirates from time to time, retired or not. And then you can tinker with the Virial all day long, no distractions, no dockworkers. Plenty of unclaimed planets out there. How’s that for personal space?”

“Nihlus,” Saren whispers, and Nihlus suddenly gets the impression that he is speaking from a great distance, from the future, perhaps, where Nihlus’s earnest pleas can find no echo. From the distant past, back when Nihlus had believed himself beneath the notice of that famous Spectre, the youngest turian ever inducted, and now the longest to hold that post. Those ageless eyes are still mesmerising, though they no longer reflect his face. 

But then, then – he realises that he’s tired. He slinks out from that gaze and gently shakes his head. 

“I’ve heard it all before,” he says. You believe you were forged, not born. Saren blinks, and Nihlus smiles. Feels like he spent hours getting Saren into that shirt last night. Under the sterile lights of the dining room, its narrow stripes clash horribly with his differently-striped pants. “I know, it’s okay. But it only means you’ll have time to find the perfect LZ with your Spectre privileges. I’m counting on you, because I’m not making hundreds of decision charts to find a place to call home. Tropical climates only, please. And preferably not like Invictus.”

The shared memory is enough to lift Saren’s mandibles by a precious few degrees. “And if the search is fruitless?”

Nihlus looks outside. What were once icy flakes had turned into dice-sized hailstones, and the window’s noise-cancellation function had automatically engaged itself. So much for the Noverian summer. The gravy around the meat, too, had cooled to an unappetising jelly. He shoves it around with his fork, making a little pile atop the last remaining slice. 

“This isn’t half bad,” he replies.

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