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Care and Feeding

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It’s not that Cassian isn’t getting any useful information on this backwater planet. His reports include frequent scuffles among the local henchmen of various criminal syndicates, the activities of a couple of fairly obvious Imperial spies, and some encouraging signs of growing anti-Imperial sentiment. He spends half the day engaged in trading and repairing machinery and droids, the cover for their activities here, and the other half of the day writing up reports and pacing around the small adobe house and shop he’s sharing with Bodhi and K-2, until Bodhi or K-2 tells him to be still and he goes to sit on the roof and surveil the activities of people below.

It’s just that he’s aware that he could be doing more. He’s aware that this assignment is meant to be easy for Cassian and Bodhi and K-2, in the aftermath of Scarif. That is to say, it’s meant to be easy for Cassian and Bodhi, and K-2 is here because Cassian is here, although Cassian thinks K-2 is as shaken up in his own way by their narrow escape from death as he and Bodhi are.

The point is that he’s used to narrowly escaping death, and it grates that he’s been sidelined as too fragile to plunge back into the fray. Jyn wasn’t sidelined, and the argument that Jyn wasn’t injured, and also hasn’t been on active duty for years to start with is not one that Cassian has much patience for. It would be something of a relief to be stalked by bounty hunters or assassins or, really, anyone, just to prove that Cassian hasn’t entirely lost his edge.

It’s almost a relief to hear the skittering of claws behind him. He turns and draws his blaster in a single movement, and is about to fire when the being stalking him recoils, scrambling backwards with its eyes widening.

It’s some kind of little reptile, standing upright on its hind legs and wringing its front feet-- hands? -- as if in entreaty. It’s not quite a meter tall, sharp-toothed, and with a small enough skull that he thinks it’s some kind of local animal, not some kind of local citizen. It creeps slightly closer, and wrings its front feet again.

“Shoo,” Cassian says. He considers throwing a rock at it, and decides not to for reasons he doesn’t particularly want to examine. Not everything has to be a fight. “Go away, I’m not feeding you.” He turns his back on it, and tries to ignore the sound of skittering that trails him.

The door of the shop is wide open when Cassian reaches it, which is unfortunate, because it means the little creature has no trouble following him inside.

“Is that a customer or a product?” K-2 asks. “If it’s broken, I can’t fix it.”

“It’s a nuisance,” Cassian says darkly. He considers telling K-2 to get rid of it, but from long experience, he knows the result will be disruptive to their day.

“It’s a hissta,” Bodhi says, with something like delight. That’s startling enough to take Cassian’s attention entirely off the reptile, which darts forward toward Bodhi the moment Cassian stops glaring at it. Cassian draws his blaster again, but by the time he has it aimed, Bodhi is, improbably, down on one knee scratching the little creature behind the ears.

“It might bite,” Cassian warns.

Bodhi nods without appearing concerned. “They had them on Jedha. They’re very loyal if you raise them from babies like this one.”

“Babies,” Cassian says, reconsidering his initial assessment of how large individuals of this species might typically be. “How big do they get?”

“A couple of meters. It takes a decade or so for them to get that big, though. They make good watchdogs when they’re grown.”

“Huh. Should we be expecting a visit from an angry parent?”

“Probably not.” Bodhi is still scratching the creature idly behind the ears, and its eyes are half-lidded in apparent pleasure. “The adults lay their eggs in warm places and then leave. When they hatch, people chase them away if they’re not interested in feeding them. They don’t have a lot of natural predators, but --”

But a life on the streets of a city like this can’t be much of a life. Cassian is aware that he is irritatingly vulnerable, right at this moment, to manipulation. He can probably escape the temptation to take responsibility for an immature lizard’s well-being as long as Bodhi doesn’t--

Bodhi looks up at Cassian, entreaty in his eyes. It’s been rare enough lately for Bodhi to show any emotion lately other than grim determination to do his job or, in bad moments, confusion and panic. Cassian has essentially no defense against the expression of a boy who’s been offered something he secretly wanted but would never have asked for.

“I’m sure that predators could be imported,” K-2 says.

“Your grasp of ecology amazes me,” Cassian says, but he’s looking at Bodhi. “We would have to feed it. And … I don’t know. Train it?” Cassian has never had a pet, at least as far back as he can remember. His grasp of how pets work is theoretical, like many things about what most sentient creatures in the galaxy consider to be normal domestic life.

“Feeding it should be no problem,” Bodhi says. “They can eat what people eat.” He offers the little creature part of a ration bar. It sniffs at the dried protein concentrate skeptically, and then whines. “At least, they ate what people ate on Jedha.”

“Then it’ll eat the ration bar if it’s hungry enough,” Cassian says, and goes up to the roof where he can watch the street below and doesn’t have to wrap his head around the fact that he’s just encumbered their surveillance mission with an unpredictable animal with alarmingly sharp teeth.

He comes downstairs to find K-2 helping Bodhi to install some kind of large mechanical box in the disused fireplace of their living quarters. They built a coal fire in it a couple of times on very cold nights, but the smell of scorched stone kept Cassian awake tossing and turning, and after a while they came to some kind of mutual unspoken understanding that it was easier to bundle up in blankets when the nights were cold.

“What are we doing?” Cassian asks. The lizard chirps cheerfully as if answering him, and he frowns at it. “No one asked you.”

“Installing a stove,” Bodhi says, as if that made perfect sense.

“Why?”

“People have … ordinary people have stoves. For cooking. And heating. We talked about this.”

It’s possible that they did, on one of the early nights when the cold was sharp enough for even Cassian to notice it and wish for some way of thawing out his feet. Acquiring a stove had seemed like far too much trouble, especially since he’d hoped at that point that their mission would last days, not weeks that were apparently going to stretch into months.

“To enhance our cover,” Cassian tries out.

“Yes. Fine. And so that I can cook something that Stripy will eat.”

Cassian looks at the lizard, which is a solid olive green from head to foot. “Stripy?” he asks, and then is sorry that he did, because he suspects that he is about to hear a story about a childhood pet that Bodhi misses, and he flinches away from the probable emotions involved. He feels that he is prepared for almost anything right now except responding appropriately to other people’s feelings.

“He looks like a Stripy,” Bodhi says, with a light in his eye that suggests that might be humor.

“I don’t see why it needs a name,” K-2 says. “We only have one of it.”

“We only have one of you, Kay,” Cassian says.

“There is only one of me,” K-2 says, which at this point is probably true. Whatever made him distinctly an Imperial security droid has been scrubbed from his programming, replaced with a great many opinions he was never designed to entertain. It’s possible that’s a loss as well as a gain. K-2 sounds satisfied rather than distressed by the statement, though, so Cassian leaves it alone.

“There,” Bodhi says, wiping sweat away from his forehead and leaving a smear of soot behind. He switches on the salvaged oven unit, and looks entirely satisfied as lights go on. Cassian holds his hands over the stucco mantel, and finds that he has to draw them away after a moment as the heat soaks through his palms. “Why don’t you go buy us something to cook?”

He looks amused again, as if he expects Cassian to admit that’s a task that’s beyond him. Cassian takes that as a challenge. “All right.”

“I will go with you,” K-2 says.

“I can go to the market without a bodyguard.”

“No, you can’t, because I’m coming with you.”

“I’m not sure you need a watchdog,” Bodhi says.

“I’m the watchdog,” Cassian says, and settles his blaster more securely against his hip as he goes out.

He returns with some kind of meat, some kind of vegetables, and several spices with smells that reminded him of the scents of cooking food on Jedha. Bodhi looks more pleased than Cassian expected, and sets about peeling and chopping things with a survival knife. The little lizard makes expectant chirping noises, but Bodhi shoves it firmly away from the raw meat.

“You have to learn to be patient,” he says. “Are you going to help, or what?”

Cassian feels he’s reached the limit of his competence. “What it is supposed to be?”

“A tagine -- that’s like a baked stew. You know what a stew is. All you have to do is chop. Kay, why don’t you go next door and …” Bodhi realizes a moment before Cassian is going to interrupt him that asking Kay to borrow anything from the next door neighbors is fraught with complications. “I’ll go next door and borrow a pot.”

Cassian takes the knife and complies, to the best of his ability. Turning things into smaller things is a skill that is not beyond his ability to master. Handling the knife puts him on edge, though, making him think about the kinds of situations in which he usually needs a knife. He’s entirely happy to turn the task back over to Bodhi when he returns with some sort of clay pot with an odd conical lid.

“Not bad,” Bodhi says. He offers Cassian a piece of some sort of scarlet vegetable, or possibly fruit, Cassian can’t tell from the scent. Cassian takes it, cautiously, and bites down. The taste is salty-sweet with a lingering heat. He can’t decide whether he likes it, but when Bodhi hands him another piece, he eats that, too, trying to accustom himself to the steadily building intensity of the mingled sweetness and heat.

The stew cooks for a while, and Cassian paces, which is usual in the evenings. He’s bad at keeping still. He hears the skittering of claws behind him, and turns to see the little lizard following him. It’s pacing, too. He turns to see Bodhi watching him with barely concealed amusement.

“Sit,” Cassian says. It ignores him.

“Maybe if you were still, he’d be still,” Bodhi says.

Cassian shakes his head at the creature. “Don’t look at me as a role model.” It tilts its head, and he shakes his. He’s regretting this decision already.

The stew tastes amazing. “My aunts tried to teach me to cook,” Bodhi says. “I’m not sure I really have the knack of it.” It’s hard for Cassian to believe that when he’s eating something that makes him actually appreciate food for its taste rather than just its ability to sustain life.

There’s something about this, being fed by someone who is smiling at him, who is not a cook in an institutional mess hall or a service droid in a restaurant, that reminds Cassian of … he’s not sure what. He turns the bowl around in his hands after it’s empty, soaking up its lingering warmth.

“It’s good enough for you, isn’t it?” Bodhi says to the lizard. It has its head down, stuffing itself with the stew. Bodhi seems to find this a comfortingly domestic sight, although Cassian still can’t entirely get past the size of those teeth. After it finishes eating, the lizard settles down at Cassian’s feet, or, rather, on Cassian’s feet.

“Move,” he mutters. It makes a satisfied chirp and settles more heavily there. “I don’t want you. Go.” He could, he’s aware, divest himself of the creature by kicking it, but Bodhi gives him a look that makes him feel ashamed of considering it. “Why is it on my feet?”

“He likes you,” Bodhi says.

“I don’t know why,” K-2 says.

“You like me, Kay.”

“Yes, I suppose,” K-2 says, so grudgingly that Cassian is almost but not entirely certain that it’s a form of humor.

“Go sit on the droid, he’s warmer than I am,” Cassian says, but the lizard declines, and Cassian sits long-sufferingly for a while with his feet under a warm lizard blanket.

He and Bodhi have been sleeping on bedrolls in the shop’s upper room. The lizard is still sleeping in front of the stove when they go up to bed, and Cassian hopes he won’t wake up to find that a reptile is using him as a pillow.

He wakes, instead, to the sound of Bodhi muttering in his sleep, a long and urgent and familiar incoherent plea that chokes off into a scream. He sits up, wondering as always whether he’s helping or making it worse by coming nearer, and crosses the room cautiously.

Bodhi is standing up by the time Cassian reaches him. “Don’t -- I don’t -- just let me--” He stumbles out of the room, and Cassian scrubs a weary hand through his own hair. He goes back to lie down, but it’s harder to sleep in the empty room. In a fitful half-doze, he hears Bodhi come back, hears him settle back down on his own pallet, and finds it easier to sleep listening to the slowing sound of someone else’s breathing.

He jerks awake, again, to the scrabbling of claws at the blankets. “Don’t -- get off!” The little lizard doesn’t listen, scrabbling and biting at the blankets, making a strange chirruping noise deep in its throat. “Bodhi!”

Bodhi sounds sleep-mazed. “What?”

“Your pet is trying to eat me.” He’s more indignant than afraid.

“He’s probably just …” Bodhi begins, and then the lizard makes a sound of triumph and raises its head with something menacingly scorpion-like and dead in its mouth. “Stripey, you are a good boy.”

“That definitely looks venomous.”

“I should think.”

They haven’t seen horrible venomous creatures crawling into their bedrolls before, but then their bedroom hasn’t been warm enough to attract them. “Perhaps the stove was a bad idea.”

“No, it’s fine, we just probably need actual beds,” Bodhi says. “Like people sleep in.”

It’s not that Cassian isn’t used to sleeping in beds, but--

“You remember that we don’t live here, right?” he says, sitting up and bracing his back cautiously against the wall.

Bodhi doesn’t answer right away. He clucks to the little lizard, which munches its disgusting prey and then scurries over to Bodhi, settling down next to him with an expression of reptilian satisfaction. Bodhi rubs the scales behind its ears.

“We’re living, and we’re here,” Bodhi says finally.

Cassian closes his eyes, and for a while he can’t think of a reason to open them. He finally opens his eyes when he hears Bodhi settle down to sit at the other end of the bedroll. The lizard flops cheerfully down between them and chirps. Maybe it thinks they’re making a nest.

“Will you teach me how to cook?” Cassian asks finally. It feels like an alarming amount of investment in -- not even in a future, he’s not sure he believes in one of those, but in really being here, now, rather than mentally already on his way to the next mission, the next set of hard decisions, the next set of brutal consequences. “I may not be teachable.”

“I have hope for you,” Bodhi says, and Cassian knows that’s somehow, inexplicably true.

The little lizard looks up at him and chirps questioningly. Against his better judgment, Cassian reaches down to stroke the scales behind its ears. “You shouldn’t start thinking I like you,” he says.

“He doesn’t mean it,” Bodhi tells the lizard, and Cassian feels that’s insubordination, but just for tonight he’ll let it go.

In the morning, they eat some kind of porridge, which Bodhi apologizes for again and which Cassian feels is not even in the same universe as ration bars. He considers asking how Bodhi makes food actually taste like something, and decides it will make Bodhi suspect that Cassian isn’t sure how humans work, despite being one.

“Today: building beds,” Bodhi says, brandishing a wrench.

“It might be more efficient to hang you from a rack,” K-2 suggests.

“Humans can’t sleep like that, Kay,” Cassian points out.

“I don’t see why.”

Cassian opens the sliding door at the front of the shop to let in the cool morning air. He can deal with customers while Bodhi and K-2 bicker over their construction project. He’ll even take on the task of discouraging Stripy from following customers around and smiling at them with its alarming teeth.

There’s an unfamiliar feeling in his chest, and he stops, taking it as a warning, until he realizes that what he feels at this moment is content. Possibly even happy. Clearly that can’t be trusted.

“Are you going to the market again this morning?” Bodhi asks him, and, reluctantly, Cassian supposes that he is.

By the time it ends, they’ve made themselves appallingly comfortable. There are woven blankets on the beds and clay pots and dishes that belong to them on shelves in the kitchen. There’s a holo unit, cobbled together out of electronic bits and pieces, on which Bodhi likes to play comedies in the evenings, only somewhat spoiled by K-2’s insistence that they explain why the punchlines are funny. The lizard has acquired a collar and, most shamefully, a little woven jacket to wear when it’s cold.

Cassian picks up his dispatches at the usual message drop and opens them at the kitchen table to read them while eating Bodhi’s latest attempt at baking bread, not quite what either of them would consider a perfect bread shape but entirely edible. He reads their orders, and for an entirely uncharacteristic moment considers how long he could plausibly pretend that the orders have been mislaid.

“They want us back, don’t they,” Bodhi says, and Cassian wonders what kind of spy he is if he can’t even keep his feelings off his face. “It’s all right,” Bodhi says after a long moment. “Come on, you can help me pack.”

“Pack?”

They are, it becomes clear quickly, returning to the Alliance with blankets and dishes and various odds and ends they’ve bought or made or repaired over the last weeks. Cassian considers protesting that they can’t, and then isn’t sure why.

He looks Bodhi over as they finish packing. The man looks better, clear-eyed and confident in his own quiet way. Cassian resists the idea that he himself looks better too, but suspects that it’s true. It’s possible that experimenting with domesticity hasn’t actually been bad for either of them.

Bodhi dresses Stripy in the little lizard’s jacket, and Cassian considers more seriously protesting that pets are not really consistent with having a serious resistance movement. But there are things he can do and things he can’t.

“He’ll have to get used to eating Alliance rations,” Cassian says.

“I know,” Bodhi says, and for the first time Cassian can hear worry in his voice.

“I’m not finding a way to cook for a lizard on an Alliance base,” he says, in a tone that makes it clear that he probably will.

“I knew you liked him,” Bodhi says, and just this once Cassian doesn’t argue that’s not true.