Distraction

Saren glanced at his omni and noted the time. He had been waiting for one thing or another the entire day and by now the humming and creaking of the L4 station, mixed with the chatter and clamor of the traffic in the spaceport, was well beneath the threshold of his senses or interests. Even the smells, the dirty scents of machinery and the greasy scents of fast-food stalls, and the disturbing scents of aliens everywhere, could no longer distract him from utter boredom and burning impatience.

He took to watching a boy dangle his short legs from the large crate where he’d taken position, the position Saren coveted but could not reach. Unlike Saren, the boy had a father to lift him up on the crate and Saren didn’t; Saren had Solas, but Solas was late. And even if he’d been there on time, Saren had grown heavy enough so that it would be a chore to lift him even in a suit with hydraulic joints.

He wondered if Solas got any suit upgrades in the new unit. He’d mentioned the new weapons, especially the pistols, for now he could choose to wear two, one in each thigh-slot; but he’d said nothing about the armor. Saren flexed his muscles, trying to imagine being encased in a round-proof hard-suit wired to his imaginary earpiece and maybe also an eyepiece that he’d be able to see people’s vitals with. He aimed the eyepiece at the boy on the crate, and digits scrolled readily in his mind’s eye: heart rate, elevated; perspiration, high; muscle tonus: high. He’s been taking stims, Saren concluded. He’s tired of sniping; soon he’ll make a mistake, and then bam!

The boy turned and looked him right in the eye. For a moment, Saren was startled. Had he made some suspicious movement? He scanned the people in the waiting area, but nobody else was looking in his direction; they were all reading their datapads and talking to their earpieces. Only the boy was staring. Staring right at him. Saren stared back. The boy had a round little head, dark skin and bright green eyes. He couldn’t have been older than seven, but he looked intelligent. He had a firm grip on his sniper rifle and a steady aim. The boy was good. But Saren was better. He had to be. He reached for his pistol, attached to the hip-slot, but the boy waved a finger at him: a-a-a, you’re in my sights.

Saren growled to himself, and showed his palms: a gesture of surrender. Perhaps he was fast enough to pull the pistol and kill the boy before getting shot through his forehead, but he was old enough now to realize that the other people in the waiting room might be alarmed at such sudden and violent behavior. Fortunately, the boy seemed to be well acquainted with the conventions of modern warfare, and accepted the surrender by putting his imaginary sniper down. And therein hid an opportunity. Saren mustered a quick biotic warp, left hand sparkling in imaginary blues. He aimed the strike towards the perplexed boy, then twitched his browplates at him, saying: you’re screwed.

But the boy cocked his head sideways, seemingly abandoning the game just when it was starting to be fun. Saren followed the stare which was no longer directed at his face, and realized with dismay that his hand was emitting the telltale sparks of dark energy. He hadn’t meant to actually do it, to actually call forward his biotics, meager as they were without the implant, though that would change soon enough. Saren ordered his hand to calm down, but it didn’t obey right away, and the unusual movements attracted several pairs of eyes, followed shortly by several sharp intakes of air and hushed whispers.

Saren begged the floor to open up beneath him and swallow him as the sparks finally died off. He kept a brave front, though, and inspected the onlookers one by one, searching for any that would dare meet his eyes. Only one barefaced soldier stood his challenging stare, and shook her head slightly at him. Saren showed her his teeth. He was no longer a child; no longer some helpless tainted thing to be pitied. He was old enough now to be feared. And it felt good to be feared.

#

Something touched his knee and he jerked, scaring the boy who’d come off the crate and closed in on him, catching him unawares.

“What?” Saren said, but the sound of his voice made him wish he hadn’t. It was lined with fear and embarrassment and everybody could hear it. It was the boy’s fault. Saren growled at him and he took a step back. Still, he didn’t look afraid.

“May I see your pistol?” the boy said. His voice was thin and Saren amended his calculation; he couldn’t have been older than five, his vocal cords still undeveloped beneath the first register.

Saren considered the request. The boy had been polite, and despite his grim expectations, didn’t ask him to “do the trick again.” So he nodded, and handed over his toy pistol, making a show of how he could unholster it without looking.

“Wow! It’s a Striker!”

“Series seven. With a recoil dampener and incendiary rounds.” Which were imaginary, but the boy was more than ready to play along, given such an impressive requisite.

“Where’d you get it? It’s awesome!”

To his credit, the boy handled the pistol with the appropriate mixture of confidence and respect. His little fingers could barely wrap around the grip, so he held it with both hands, and took aim in a direction where there were no people. Saren almost wanted to say, don’t worry, it’s just a toy, but that would have spoiled the game.

“My brother gave it to me. He’s in the Seventh Legion.” Which was no small matter, and the pride he’d woven into the words was deserved and well placed. However, the boy didn’t seem to appreciate the significance of the declaration. Instead, he said something that made Saren freeze.

“I saw your brother.”

“Where? And how would you know him?”

“Downstairs,” the boy said, struggling to unload the clip. He glanced up. “He has the… um…” and he made a gesture to describe a horn, tracking the imaginary length of it along his little crest.

“I see.” Saren seized the opportunity to hide his confusion by taking the pistol from the boy’s fumbling hands. He unloaded the clip, allowed the boy to inspect it, then slid it back into place with a click that was usually much more satisfying. If Solas had already arrived, why didn’t he call? Why didn’t he come? Why…

“Are you waiting for him?” said the boy, striking the cord. “You look like you’re waiting for something.”

Saren peered into the clear green eyes, wondering if he hadn’t mistaken the boy’s age on the wrong side. How in the world could a five-year-old, or even a seven-year-old, be so perceptive? And what did it matter anyway? He handed the pistol back to the boy, thinking. Should he call? Solas didn’t like getting calls. Solas didn’t like a great many things.

But just as he was about to bring up his omni and dial the number, the boy’s father emerged from corridor A3, carried on long, hurried strides and glancing behind his shoulder. Saren absently took note of his dark-gray medium armor and the Haliat Stilleto attached to his right thigh slot. A mercenary.

“Nihlus,” the father said, snapping his fingers to indicate urgency, and the boy ran off.

Saren opened his mouth to say something, but then forgot what it was, he forgot about the boy and the father and the people around and everything as Solas appeared on the top of the escalator, scanning the crowd for the familiar face. Saren leaped from the bench and waved an eager hand, then ran forward to meet him, stopping just short of slamming into him.

Solas lowered his bag on the floor, knelt in front of Saren and studied him with a wide smile. “Spirits, how you’ve grown.”

Saren stood, waiting, and then he could wait no longer and threw himself around Solas’s neck, held him tight in a silent embrace. Solas laughed a bit, tapped his back. “There, there. It’s ok.” He allowed Saren to hang on for a few more beats, then gently pushed him away. “So what did they say?”

“Going under in a month.”

“A month?” Solas swallowed, the smile turning into a frown by degrees. “A month.”

It took Saren some seconds to process the expression. The meaning hung between them and suddenly the world became very distant, silent and bleary, filled with ghosts of unwelcome realizations.

His throat tied itself into a knot. But he didn’t want Solas to see and he was old enough now to know that Solas didn’t want to see either, so he turned to the escalator, directing attention elsewhere, away from what felt like a huge hole in his midst. Solas uttered the words then, but Saren couldn’t bear to look at him. He was counting the people who came up: an asari in a long green robe that shone all colors of the rainbow under certain angles; small suitcase, here on business. A volus, busy speaking to someone on the other side of his earpiece and gesturing wildly with his short arms. Another barefaced soldier, female, decorative piercings lining her crest-blades. Was it the same one from the waiting area?

Which reminded him of the boy. The boy, who had a father to lift him up; the boy, who’d grow to receive the white colors of his clan; the boy, who’d never have to face the prospect of submitting to life-changing surgery alone.

The boy who didn’t give him his pistol back! Saren gasped and slapped his holster but of course it was empty. “Son of a…” He turned to stare in the direction of corridor A5, frustration rising in him like water in a boiling kettle, but by now they must have gone far, far beyond his reach. “I can’t believe it,” he exclaimed. “The little bastard stole my gun!”

“Saren, did you hear what I just said?”

He didn’t want to go back to that. There were more pressing matters at hand. He glanced at Desolas, no longer desperate; just angry. “Yes. It’s fine.”

“It is?”

Saren growled and threw his arms in defeat, looking back towards A5. “I can’t believe he stole my gun! Argh! If I ever get my hands on him, I’ll kill him, I swear. You just wait and see.”

Desolas stood up, shaking his head. “No use talking when you’re this way. Come on. We’re running late.” He was already walking away. Which was just as well. It gave Saren a chance to blink the blur away in the privacy of his own denial.

#

Saren stepped around the young soldier who was now sweating under scrutiny. Which was just as well. It was only appropriate.

“And now the sniper rifle,” Saren said, probably for the fifteenth time, but he had to be sure. The soldier holstered his side-arm and extended the barrel of his standard issue Elanus Hammer. His arms were trembling slightly. He’d been posing for the better part of the last three hours. “Aim at me.”

“Sir?”

“Don’t make me repeat the order.”

“Yes, sir.”

Saren stood in his sights. At first, the soldier kept his free eye closed, but after a while, he opened it and studied Saren in return. It was an eye of pure emerald green. But the striking white paint on the soldier’s face made the matter somewhat uncertain; after all, it had been almost twenty years. Saren sighed.

“You may put your weapon down. At ease.”

The soldier put away the rifle and relaxed with his hands clasped behind his back, gaze fixed on some point behind Saren’s right shoulder.

“Do you… remember me? And don’t lie, because I’ll know.”

The green eyes widened in surprise and darted to meet Saren’s. The soldier’s mandibles flicked this way and that, and then he forced them tightly next to his chin. He swallowed and said, “Yes, sir.”

“How old were you?”

“Five, sir. I think.”

Saren nodded. It hadn’t been his first guess, but his final estimate had been correct. He had only been twelve. “But you remember anyway?”

“I remember the… um…” and the soldier tracked an imaginary horn next to his long crest.

“I see.”

But now the soldier’s face became a study of disbelief as Saren pointed his pistol square between those green eyes. “How about this? Do you remember this?”

To his credit, the soldier’s voice did not falter. “No, sir. That was a Striker. I can’t tell the make of your um… current pistol. But I’m guessing it’s not a toy?”

And unbelievably, the soldier smiled.

“Spectre gear,” Saren muttered, distracted. He’d made a promise to Desolas that day, and he would see it fulfilled. But maybe he didn’t have to do it right away. He lowered the weapon, and the soldier’s gaze followed it, not in fear, but in envy. He’d have to watch his things around this one. “What’s your name?”

“Kryik, Sir. Nihlus Kryik.”

“Nihlus,” Saren repeated. Yes, that had been the name. “What else do you remember, Nihlus?”

And as they talked, Saren began to remember how good it felt not to be feared.


Notes

This story is not a part of the Saren/Nihlus verse all my other stories are set in. One problem is with the age difference: to make this work I had to shrink the difference to seven years, and in all other stories it’s eleven. The other problem is that I don’t actually believe they met as children. Too much of the everyone-knows-everyone-in-fanfiction. Still, this was incredibly fun to write. Hope you had fun reading!


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