Common Interest

Chapter 7 of The Precedent

When Saren entered the cabin, short of breath and pale as death, Nihlus thought he might soon find himself with not one, but two sick people on his hands. Agitated with that special flavor of frustration parents exhibit when they’re prevented from reaching their children, Elethea tried to shuffle her legs over the edge of the bed and get up the second time in as many minutes, cried in pain and threw herself back on the pillow, cursing in her gibberish dream-speak.

“For fuck’s sake,” Nihlus said. “Stay put! We’ll find her.”

“What’s happening?” Saren said, clutching the doorframe as if he was about to faint.

“The whole time the person is like a hotel of some sort,” Elethea said.

“I can’t find Eleni,” Nihlus said at the same time. “Elethea must’ve drowsed off and she slipped out of the cabin. I left the cockpit door open, but I didn’t hear a thing. Saren, I looked everywhere. I checked every damn corner, pipe and storage compartment. I scanned the whole ship. She’s nowhere to be found.”

“I tried to jump on a few different times because he can’t believe my little university,” Elethea kept explaining in vain. “We lie on the stairs and look at the door and the path is the window to go home.”

“She can’t have gone out,” Saren said, ignoring her. “Did you check the car?”

“Yes. It’s the first place I looked.”

“Did you check under the car?”

“Yes! And on the car, and on every shelf in the hangar. I looked in the toolboxes too,” he admitted. “She’s not there.”

“What’s going to return to the right part of the house?” Elethea asked. For a moment, Nihlus was caught off guard, thinking her normal speech was back. But then she went on to add, “I don’t think that I don’t know. I can’t find the order!” She hit the mattress, then sniffed and took a deep breath. “Struggle with the knowledge of the water,” she said in a calmer tone, making a gesture like she wanted something from the desk.

Before Nihlus could wrap his mind around it, Saren stepped inside and fetched the datapad. He drew up the plan of the ship and handed the datapad to Elethea.

“Good idea,” Nihlus muttered as the two of them converged above the map, shoulder to shoulder. While Elethea turned and panned the plan, frowning at the tiny turian sigils, he noted a strange sound and, glancing sideways, caught Saren breathing through his mouth.

What was going on with him? He had been distant and grouchy since they woke, but whatever business he had conducted in the privacy of the emptied commons seemed to have drained the last bits of energy from him. It was strange to see him like that, tired and defeated. Just as it had been strange to see him drink, or ask for help, or for sex, like last night. Elethea must have meant a lot more to him than he ever let on, and even Nihlus, who took pride in being able to glimpse past Saren’s detachment, hadn’t realized just how much.

Based on near a decade of experience, Nihlus firmly believed that, one, Saren couldn’t possibly have any personal problems, as he practically had no life outside his work and their love affair; and two, if Saren ever did have a personal problem, it would certainly not affect him the way such things affected common mortals. That he would plow through it with his signature force and determination, like he did through any other obstacle.

Well, guess what, Nihlus thought. I was wrong! At least that was nothing to wonder about.

“Uh…” Elthe had been staring at the datapad for half a minute now. “It’s a rat, a hawk, a varren, a woman,” she said, irritated. “No candy. No mountain, no water.” She dropped the pad on the sheets and covered her face, shaking her head.

“You can’t read it,” Saren translated, with something uncomfortably close to despair in his subvocals. “Never mind. We’ll search on foot.”

Just as Nihlus was about to point out that he had done that already, something clanked; a metal thing dropping on the metal floor. “The commons,” he said, but Saren had already gone out and up the stairs.

Nihlus turned to give Elethea an apologetic look, but she gestured him to be on his way. “I know the dresses,” she said. “It is shaped still. Pray!”

He hurried after Saren, scaling the stairs three at a time. The commons were lit brightly, as if every possible light source had been turned on to the maximum, and he had to shield his eyes while he looked around. Saren crouched on one knee in the corner with the projector. Walking over, Nihlus saw that Eleni was there too, sitting on the floor and pulling apart a piece of her jerky snack from yesterday with her densely packed, little white teeth. She was watching a news report from Irune with rapped attention and paid no heed to the two worried turians hovering around her.

Nihlus puffed out a sigh of relief. “Thank the Spirits.” He turned about, wondering where she might’ve come out from, and spied another piece of the jerky on the floor near the kitchen counter. Another lay half a meter farther. Following the trail of evidence, he discovered the upturned metal plate next to the fridge and waved it in Saren’s direction.

Saren nodded and stood up with a grunt. He had gained more weight lately and Nihlus suspected it wasn’t all muscle.

“You didn’t do that, did you?” Nihlus pointed vaguely at the lights.

Saren shook his head, squinting.

“Where was she hiding?”

“The heat sink.” He sniffed loudly before Nihlus could ask what made him think so. And indeed, when he stepped closer, he could smell it too: the unmistakable phosphorous scent of the core coolant fluid.

“But I looked there.” The engine-room was locked by default and there was nowhere to hide near that door—apart from a ventilation shaft right under the ceiling. Which would, in truth, also hide the kid from the thermal scanner, but he had overruled it as far too high.

“Obviously you didn’t look close enough.”

“There’s nothing there to climb. I don’t see how she could’ve got in, unless she can fly.”

“Fly!” Eleni echoed, as if to confirm.

Saren was about to give him another piece of his mind on the subject, but Nihlus put a hand on his shoulder and patiently steered him toward the airlock and out of earshot. “This is no place for a kid,” he whispered. “Not only because of the dangers—she hides because she has nothing else to do. She must be bored out of her fucking mind.”

Saren’s gaze switched from his face to where Eleni was sitting and back, loaded with suspicion. Nihlus braced for, which kid do you mean? Or the more straight-forward, you’re the one who’s bored. But instead Saren said, “What do you suggest?”

“Let’s dock again. I’ll take her out for a tour of the Presidium. See the lake, the park, the zoo. Let Elethea get some rest and—”

“You’ve got some business there.”

“Well…yeah. I suppose so. Thought I’d run by the office and the human embassy. It’d be on the way. But that’s not why—”

“Can you run by Huerta’s too?”

Nihlus blinked. He had wound himself up to defend his picknick thesis from fervent objections and Saren’s sudden approval caught him off guard. “Uh… sure. Why?”

“The med unit is low on blood replacement foundation. I could have some delivered, but—”

“No problem.” Nihlus tried to maneuver his face in such a way as to make Saren look at him, with no success. “Hey.” Saren jerked his head away when Nihlus touched the tip of his mandible. “Are you alright?”

“I’m fine,” Saren said, giving him an annoyed glance. Nihlus could see sweat trickle down his neck. “Woke up with a headache,” he admitted after a moment. “Nothing out of the ordinary.”

That explained a lot. Nihlus nodded, knowing better than to offer sympathy. “Can I help?”

“Taking the girl out will help.”

And taking yourself out too, Nihlus could almost hear him thinking. Fair enough. He was long past feeling bad when Saren sought to be left alone. “Thought so.”

While Saren talked it out with Elethea and prepared a lunch-pack for the kid, Nihlus pondered on his own eagerness to get off the ship. He hadn’t even been aware of it before speaking to Saren. Was it jealousy? Because of Saren’s manifest concern about their guests and his history with Elethea? It didn’t feel like it. And usually he liked nothing better than getting bored, alone with Saren, on the Virial. Perhaps that was the problem? That they were not alone? But he didn’t mind having guests. He liked them. Elethea seemed to be someone worth knowing, and Eleni was a bundle of weirdly Saren-like cuteness.

“Do not, at any time, let go of her hand,” Saren instructed as they entered the airlock.

“Don’t worry—” and he swallowed my love just in time. Glancing back, he thought Saren had heard it anyway. He looked like a thundercloud, about to smite him with lightning. “Agent Kryik is on the case. Right, Eleni?”


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