"Look at them."
Saren ignores him.
"You don't see Alliance looking this relaxed much. Or this hot."
He’s doing it on purpose.
"They almost got the asari good looks."
He isn’t drunk, but more than half of the way there.
"You know," Nihlus leans next to his ear, breath smelling strangely sweet with a dull edge of bitter liqueur, "I can just imagine – I'd love it if one of them's wearing the stripper outfit beneath the uniform, and the other one...eh?" He nudges Saren in the ribs.
"What, Nihlus?" Miserable charade, this.
"Well, the other one would stick to that uniform, right?" He swirls the leaf-green liquid in his glass. "Maybe that Kasumi girl can give them tips on where to find a good set, ha..."
The tendons of his hand are taut beneath the glove. Nihlus, with the peculiar perception, instantly backs off.
"Don't even start. That's done and over with." Saren stares straight ahead, at the glowing sign advertising all-inclusive vacations to Thessia.
"I betcha it was the Euler's fault anyway," Nihlus says in a tone indicating that he considers the case closed, dead and reduced to ashes. "Now if you'll excuse me, I think they waved."
After making sure the din of the club is sufficient to cover his voice, Saren mutters: "You're excused."
"Hey, how's it going?" Nihlus says.
The music is laying waste to Saren’s neurons.
Saren turns. Nihlus, with an outsized grin, is giving him the two-thumbs-pointing-up gesture. It is, as far as he understands, a synonym for 'all's well.’ Each of Nihlus' arms is draped around the neck of a smiling asari dancer.
"What happened to the humans?"
"Oh. I... got sidetracked. Yeah."
He takes note of Nihlus' shirt. Clean, not too rumpled. His pants too, as far as he can tell. "Evidently. You wish to leave."
"Yeah, that too."
Saren reaches for his credit chit. But before he gets anywhere close, he finds Nihlus' heavy arms around his collar instead. "I owe you one. Spirits, big time."
"You owe me one more."
And then Nihlus kisses him, to the gasps and giggles of the young dancers.
* * *
Saren watches the three leave. One of the asari dancers has a round hole on the back of her fishnet stocking. It makes her look like a hooker. They stop in the doorway and she interrupts whatever Nihlus started to tell her by licking his mouth. Saren blinks, unbelieving. As soon as they are gone, he wipes his own mouth with the back his hand to erase the memory of the mock kiss. The heat in his face and the drumming in his ears must be due to the alcohol. He’s still too stunned to be angry.
But not too stunned to make a tactical assessment.
There are three decent hotels within walking distance. Depending on the pace and the efficiency of the selected route, the nearest one could be reached in seven to ten minutes. Saren knows of a maintenance passage that would make it five, but Nihlus might not. Let it be ten, then. Five more, to check in. Another two, to reach the room.
Eighty seconds in the elevator.
One woman giggles behind his back while he towers drunkenly above the other, his elbows planted into the mirror to fence her in. Mirror? He lifts his eyes and his tongue darts out to touch the purple recesses on her neck. She gasps and he smiles. He’s so gorgeous that being aroused by his own reflection doesn’t make him narcissistic. It makes him realistic.
“Excuse me? Sir?”
Saren opens his eyes to the sight of a salarian waiter blinking rapidly at him. He must have spoken aloud. Could he be drunk? It doesn’t feel like it. But then, what does he know about being drunk?
“Here,” he says, but it takes a few seconds to fish the chit out of his pocket. Yes. He must be drunk.
The salarian gives him a stiff smile and hurries back to the bar. Saren checks the time. If he hurries, he can still catch them.
Thick, gray carpet with a triangular pattern of orange and red. The bedding is crimson and so are the drapes, tied by silky black rope. One of the women pulls on the knot, playfully, and the drape unfurls with a lush rustle. The discrete glow of the bedside lamps replaces the pale shine of the nightscape outside. The rope has come undone. The woman watches it pool around her feet, drops the end she was holding and looks at Nihlus with eyes full of childlike guilt. “It’s OK,” he says, but his gaze lingers on the rope. He picks it up, measures it hand over hand, and gives the woman a dark, dark smile.
Saren shakes off the fantasy. An empty sky-cab slows down and drifts along his path. The face of the driver is a pale blue oval behind the shaded glass: another asari. Saren waves her away and she makes a point of splashing him with warm steam from the rear exhaust. He stops in his tracks, clenching his hands into fists to push back the sudden urge to strike the cab down with a biotic blast. No longer stunned, then.
He stalks toward the C-Sec, where his ship is docked. There are no vorcha nests on the Citadel, but some alleys smell like there are. The Wards have become dirty and dangerous. Saren remembers them differently, from the days when he’d been appointed. But perhaps it is he who has changed. His fuse is getting shorter as he’s getting older. The smell wouldn’t have bothered him a few years back. Nor what has happened in the bar. What is probably happening right now.
While working out the rope on one woman – nothing fancy: he’s too drunk for fancy – the other one is kneeling behind him, pliant hands groping under his shirt, sliding under his waistband. His breathing quickens. The first woman squirms, testing the restraints, and Nihlus traces a wet path with his tongue from the topmost knot, between her shoulder blades, to the base of her skull. She whimpers, trying to spread her legs wider, seated as she is, on her heels. Nihlus indulges her: just as he unplates for the woman behind him, he slips a finger between the slick folds of the woman in front and his breath turns to soft growls.
A part of him expects to find Nihlus at the docks, leaning leisurely on the side of the airlock and smiling. He’d boast that he’d fooled him good this time, and Saren would pretend to be disinterested. They would share a late-night snack and make love till the morning and the inevitable parting.
But there’s no one near the Virial. Saren keys in the entry code and remains standing in the airlock a minute after the cycle has finished. Then he fetches the bottle of plain turian brandy he keeps in the kitchen for Nihlus and takes a swig. It’s disgusting. It burns. He takes another. And another. It renders him stunned again immediately. Good. He takes off his shirt and slouches on a chair in the middle of the room.
He opens his eyes to the sound of the outer hatch, lifting. It was locked, but Nihlus has the entry codes. The ventilators spin up with a resonance he can feel with his bare feet through the floor. His head is swimming, vestiges of bad dreams still veiling his vision. The inner hatch opens to reveal the lean figure of his unfaithful lover, fresh paint on his face almost fluorescent in the dark.
Saren’s blood turns to fire. To call it anger would be a pathetic oversimplification. Saren knows more varieties of anger than there are kinds of snow on Noveria. This is the hot, smoldering sort that gets stuck in the throat like a lump of burning resin. It makes him thirst for violence. The thought of smashing Nihlus into a bloody pulp rises hot in his groin. Oh yes. It’s the kind of anger that runs so close to lust he can’t tell where one ends and the other begins.
“Hey,” Nihlus says, noticing him at last. The drunken slur is hardly noticeable. “Didn’t see you there.”
He takes off his boots and leaves them in the airlock. His sidearm and his army knife too.
“What are you doing, sitting there in the dark?”
Nihlus steps in, and when the inner hatch closes behind him, the air it pushes inside carries the smells of cigarette smoke, cheap alcohol and sex to Saren’s nostrils. It’s offensive. He dreamed of snapping soft asari necks and forcing his ungrateful, disrespectful trainee to crawl at his feet amid the carnage, he remembers now.
“Were you sleeping?”
Nihlus takes a few more steps and stands in the cone of silver light coming from the viewport. There’s a large wet stain on his shirt.
He’s sitting on the bed. One woman behind him, covering his neck in kisses. Her dark lips touch his skin in time with his sighs. Nihlus has never been one to whisper his pleasure. He’s voicing it in a string of rhythmic ah, ah, ah, ah, while he pushes the other one’s head down his cock, lower with every stroke. Then his thighs tremble and he pulls out to let the other one finish him off from behind in a series of quick, slippery strokes. A violent shiver, a familiar groan, and a shot of cum lands on his shirt.
“Oh boy. I shouldn’t have done that, right?” He chuckles, taking another cautious step forward. “I’m sorry,” he says, but there’s no regret in his voice. Not a pinch. “You could have joined us. I kinda hoped… that was stupid of me, wasn’t it? I mean, the thought of you fucking someone else makes my stomach turn, but if you were to do it while kissing me… Spirits. Or, you know. Touching me.”
A new setup. One of mind-boggling complexity. The first woman, the one with arms squared in the elbows and immobilized on her back in a quick box tie, is pleasuring the other with her mouth and teeth and tongue while Saren fucks her from behind. And Nihlus stands next to them, feeding his straining cock into Saren’s throat and making those irresistible, rumbling moans. One hand on Saren’s mandible, sliding his thumb over it in distracted circles, the other on the woman’s back, holding the rope like reins.
“Sucking me,” Nihlus whispers in real-time, reading Saren’s mind. Fury wells up in him again. Why didn’t you read my mind earlier, in the club? Why didn’t you…
Ah. But you did, didn’t you. You knew, and you acted as you have anyway. It wasn’t an accident, it wasn’t stupidity. Nihlus did it on purpose, to make him angry, to make him jealous, to make him show emotion.
“Yeah,” Nihlus says. “I think I could get off just watching you, as long as it’s for me. You know?” He unbuttons his shirt, pausing at the waistband of his trousers to stage a lopsided smile. “Though I’d do more than just watch.” And he starts to undo his fly.
Saren growls a wordless warning. But instead of a warning for Nihlus, what comes out is a warning for everyone else to stay the hell away.
Nihlus stills. “Saren?” For the first time this evening, he sounds appropriately unsure of himself. “Did I… cross the line?”
You crossed the Perseus Veil, you idiot, Saren wants to say, but his jaws are too clenched to speak. Better that way. The only proper way to punish him is to deny him the raise he wants. Because, no, absolute loyalty and silent adoration aren’t enough, are they.
But then Nihlus unfreezes and opens his fly, dealing a deadly blow to Saren’s determination. “I’ll make it up to you,” he says, pushing his trousers down. He is unplated, coated and fully extended. Saren swallows, tempted beyond reason. And Nihlus knows it. The way he poses is subtly artistic and incredibly slutty at the same time. His tongue darts to wet the edge of his upper lip.
Perhaps Saren doesn’t have to punish him. Perhaps he can just have his way with him, this once. Disregard everything but his own pleasure just like Nihlus has done, time after time. Make him his again.
“Please,” Nihlus says. “I’ll do anything you want.”
The next second, Nihlus is approaching him on all fours, step after careful step, bare talons clicking on the floor, challenge sparkling in his eyes. It occurs to Saren that Nihlus has never seduced him before. Oh, sometimes he’d make a little show, but this is different. He is drawing on all his resources, and damn him, he has more resources than anyone Saren has ever met. Knotted muscles ripple under the dark skin as he crawls forward, raising up his rear like an animal in heat. The nervous tension vibrating through his powerful body makes the submissive posture look predatory. A wild beast, briefly tamed.
Saren shivers in anticipation of contact. But the move Nihlus makes is disarming. He rubs his forehead on Saren’s knee and lets out a gentle rumble. Saren’s hand, poised above his head, trembles. He holds still for a few more breaths, waiting for Nihlus to look at him again. A spark fires between the tip of his talon and the longest blade in Nihlus’ crest, disturbing the precarious balance. He pulls Nihlus in by the back of his head.
“Yeah,” Nihlus breathes. “Yeah.” He kneels and starts to undo Saren’s trousers. But Saren discovers that his old aversion to being touched has returned in force. It had taken him years to get over it but once he did, he forgot about it completely. Now he remembers. His whole body stiffens.
Nihlus backs off, lifting his hands in the air as if to show he’s unarmed. “Yes, sir,” he whispers. His right mandible slants in an attempted smile but it fails to hide how deep that stung. He remembers too. “No touching. Got it.”
Saren gathers his mandibles. Taking breath, he pulls Nihlus’ face into his crotch and ungh. The shock of pleasure courses through him, igniting every nerve. He has managed to stay plated so far but it’s impossible to keep it up any longer. The fine fabric of his clothes is coarse and abrasive on his oversensitive skin, but he relishes the irritation, pushing Nihlus’ face still closer. Nihlus offers no resistance at first but after a while he attempts to push back, starved for air. Saren holds him down a while longer. It feels good to see him struggle. His hands, hovering uselessly beside him, clench and unclench in something reminiscent of panic and eventually he grabs the armrests of the chair for leverage.
Saren pushes him away. Nihlus’ ragged gasp is deeply satisfying. While he recovers, Saren undoes his trousers himself. Still out of breath, Nihlus glances between his legs, making Saren shudder involuntarily. He takes Nihlus by the back of the head once more and pulls him back in.
That’s right, Kryik. Take it in your hungry mouth. Lower, lower. Take it whole. You said you’d do anything, did you not? Hold it there. Yes. Now breathe. Hold—hold—breathe.
It is remarkable, how much he can take. In a flash of irony so brilliant it’s almost funny, Saren feels an absurd envy on top of everything else. He couldn’t take that much. Long ago, Nihlus stated that he has no gag reflex. It was not clear if it had been a joke. How odd, though, that it has never occurred to Saren to test the claim.
He pushes lower still and at last Nihlus’ throat starts working. He gags, clasping tight, and his muffled, gurgling utterance vibrates through Saren in maddening waves. It’s too intense to bear. He holds his breath and pulls out just before the point of no return. A thick, translucent thread of their juices lingers between them before breaking and dripping down, right into Nihlus’ collar. His face is wet with tears and spit and more beautiful than ever.
With a mind to end it, Saren lowers himself on the floor as well, chest to chest, hip to hip. He grabs them both in one hand, drapes the other over Nihlus’ shoulder, and draws him in for a kiss that might just—
—but then he catches the disruptive, offensive scent on his lover’s skin—some sugary perfume, the smell of those women—and recoils with a growl.
Nihlus obeys without hesitation, and the way he spreads his legs for Saren is nothing short of pornographic. The sight of it alone is almost enough to roll Saren over the edge. He finishes himself off in several hard, fast strokes. Considering the lead-in, the climax is underwhelming, no more than a soundless jolt. But his cum shoots out in rope after thick rope and he keeps stroking for many long seconds after any semblance of pleasure has left him.
Finally, some silence within. He sits on his heels and observes his handiwork. He has coated Nihlus in his cum. Pools and lines of clear liquid sparkle in the recesses of his chest, inside his collar, on his neck. There’s even some on his face.
His face. Saren takes a moment to study it, but conflicting emotions have made it unreadable. He leans over Nihlus and applies both his hands in smearing his cum over everything he can reach. The slick liquid is still warm and alive. As he takes it from chest to shoulders and arms, from stomach to thighs and legs, Nihlus hums and writhes under his touch. Saren’s greedy hands slide down to Nihlus’ crotch, finally getting to mark that too as his. Nihlus releases a ragged groan, bucking up and craning his head back to reveal his neck.
“Yeah,” he moans. “Oh yeah. Spirits, Saren—”
Saren replies with a quiet snarl and denies him. He is yet to smear the final droplet, sparkling on Nihlus’ mandible. Saren dips his finger in it and holds his breath as he traces the white stripes on Nihlus’ face. Nihlus closes his eyes, and his features tremble under Saren’s finger.
That breaks Saren’s resolve. He presses a firm, demanding kiss on Nihlus’ mouth to stop the unbearable shivers. The alien scents are almost gone. Nihlus is melting in his arms, a mellow mass of rumbled groans, soft and boneless, save for his erection. He is hot. Literally. He radiates heat like he’s running a high fever.
Beg, Saren thinks, digging his fingers into the nerve plexus under Nihlus’ elegant crest, tasting his own cum from Nihlus’ chin and mandibles. Read my mind now and beg. I’ll give it to you. I’ll give you everything.
“Please,” Nihlus whispers.
Saren shuts his eyes. Breathes.
“Please, touch me. I’m dying here.” He squirms in desperation. “Come on. Please.”
Not yet, Saren thinks, but when he says nothing, does nothing, Nihlus takes matters in his own hands. He lays them on Saren’s arm, on Saren’s hip, he tugs and pulls, seeking friction, demanding his pleasure.
It’s a slap in the face. Saren snarls and jumps back.
“I’m sorry,” Nihlus says. “Spirits, I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking. I didn’t mean—"
But a fresh onslaught of rage, black like old blood, has already blurred Saren’s vision. For a moment, he sees himself bashing in Nihlus’ face. He has nowhere to run; he wouldn’t see it coming; he’s too drunk to stop it anyway. Perhaps Saren could even kill him with a well-placed blow, swift and savage and Spirits help him, he is so far gone that the dread of the vision merges with the heat rising between his legs.
You can’t follow one simple rule, and you said you’d do anything? What worth have the promises of someone with the attention span of a drunken fruit-fly? You said we’d be ‘exclusive’. Do you even remember it? Have you even meant it?
He turns around, wildly, barely seeing anything, not knowing what he’s looking for, until his eyes zero in on the pile of Nihlus’ discarded civvies. He walks over and pulls the belt out of the trousers. Good, strong leather with a clasp that can adjust to a loop of any length.
“Saren.” Nihlus has got back on his hands and knees. “You don’t have to. I’ll be good, I promise."
You said you ‘loved’ me.
Saren’s heart pounds in a strange way as he grips Nihlus by the wrists and moves to tie them together behind his back.
“Wait,” Nihlus says, squirming. “I don’t… I’m not…”
He waits. Nihlus’ face is hidden from view but his posture spells out just how ‘not sure’ he is with abundant clarity. It’s not ‘his thing’ to be tied. Saren knows this very well. But it’s not about Nihlus anymore. He’s had his fun. It’s Saren’s turn.
He waits, but Nihlus doesn’t say ‘no’. He doesn’t say ‘stop’. Good, because Saren isn’t sure he’d be willing to oblige him. And after a while, his shoulders drop, his stance relaxes, his arms become limp and Saren proceeds to secure them.
When finished, he stands up and starts pacing, trying to clear his head. The anger has ebbed away but he’s far from feeling like himself. They have played games like this before. But that was different. Agreed upon. Arranged. This doesn’t feel the same. Not at all. This doesn’t feel like a game.
He is keenly aware of how Nihlus’ eyes track every move he makes with the instinctive attention of prey, always keeping the hunter in visual. After a while he stops, returns the gaze and stays still more than long enough to be talked out of it. Nihlus doesn’t say a word. And although some anxiety is still evident in the way he holds himself, in his shallow breathing, his face is calm, and he looks at Saren the way he always does: with unconditional trust.
Idiot. What if I decide to cross the line, like you have? I could break you so easily. One degrading word, one humiliating act. Nihlus is riddled with well-hidden structural weaknesses but Saren knows them all. Nihlus has laid them out for him like a blueprint, proud of his courage, blind for his folly. Saren ponders on his enjoyment of violence. Would he be capable of inflicting it on Nihlus, humbled and helpless like this? Could he hurt Nihlus? For real? Would he find pleasure in it, and would it be the same pleasure he finds in being tender to him?
It should be a simple thing. Either this or that. Yes or no. But it isn’t. Not tonight. His body answers by sending another heat pulse into his groin. His heart makes him kneel to give Nihlus a slow, deep kiss. His mind has slipped out unnoticed.
Minutes pass in kissing, kissing, before his eyes open again and stare into Nihlus’. Their clear green is fogged by regret, darkened by desire.
“I’m going to fuck you now,” Saren whispers. He looks around. “Against that wall.”
Nihlus nods and shimmies over to the designated place on his knees, where he sets up with his chest leaning on the bulkhead. Saren kneels behind him, presses close against his back and plants his mouth on Nihlus’ neck, tasting the involuntary rumbling and the sweet, nervous shivers.
He guides himself into Nihlus. The hot, gripping softness envelops him in a hazy darkness. He moves slowly at first, thrusting deeper every time, trying different vectors until Nihlus begins to cry out upon each hit. But then he remembers his purpose, which is for once not to tend to the pleasure of the other. With a deep breath, he places one hand under Nihlus’ chin and the other between his legs and builds up an unforgiving, bestial tempo. What few inhibitions have survived so far, vaporize in the bittersweet heat of his lust and fury. And that’s fine. It’s how it’s supposed to be. Nihlus is his to ravage, his to kiss, his to grip in his iron fist. His to bind, his to please, his to be rough or gentle with.
The world recedes completely, leaving blurry stripes of reality behind the all-consuming void of pain and pleasure.
His awareness comes back after who knows how long in a rush of strange thoughts. Right there, when they swayed on the precipice… Nihlus screamed. Yes. Saren remembers it through a fog, although it has just happened. It was a scream of pleasure, but…
He slowly becomes conscious that his mouth is full. Something warm and juicy. When he opens his eyes, they tell him nothing. It’s dark and the air is cluttered with the scents of sweat, sex, and blood.
His mouth is full of blood. He tries to move back, but Nihlus yelps and Saren finally connects the dots.
Carefully, he disengages. There’s blood dripping from his mandibles (but it tastes like heaven you knew it you knew it you always wanted to do it) and the gravity of the violation crashes down on him with the weight of worlds. His body goes into the panic routine, flooding him with adrenaline and other, not-so-manly things that make him want to run away and never see the light of day again. He is grateful that Nihlus can’t see him. See the shame and disbelief of someone who lost it, again. Who hurt his loved one, again, and over what? He tries to swallow. Nothing in there, however, except for Nihlus’ blood, and although it tastes like the nectar of the gods of old, it makes him gag.
Nihlus seems to think Saren is trying to make conversation, and lets out a sound that’s half chuckle, half choking. He’s leaning on the wall with his chest and his head, clinging tiredly and sporadically shaking.
He says, “I’m okay.”
Okay? Okay? You’re not okay. I’ve just bitten you. Saren leans in for a closer look. Blood is pooling in Nihlus’ collar. That does it. He stands up and hits the light controls.
There’s a lot of blood. It’s oozing from the teeth marks (marks you marked him you wanted to just admit it you always wanted to) in a sickening rhythm. Spirits. You didn’t only bite him, you lunatic. You hit the damned artery.
Fortunately, Saren works best when under pressure. He flies down the stairs, through the tidy cabin, into the washroom and back at a relativistic speed and Nihlus is still keeping himself up on his own when Saren injects him with a well-measured dose of medigel, but just barely resisting the urge to empty the entire syringe into his neck even if it meant he’d be out for half a week.
The bleeding stops within seconds and Saren calms down, a little. He looks at Nihlus for real.
Unsurprisingly, Nihlus is smiling.
“You done fixing me?”
Such a simple question, yet Saren is taken aback. He can’t tell if it’s about the current situation, or about their relationship, or perhaps about life in general.
He says, “You’ll live.”
Possibly the most idiotic thing to say in the circumstance, and Nihlus seems to agree, because he laughs. “Yeah.”
Saren breathes in, breathes out. He knows Nihlus wants to talk, and it’s the least Saren can do to make up for this mess. But his mind is a blank slate. For all the years of education, for all the books he’s read and all the things he’s seen, he can think of only one thing to say. And it’s not easy to say it. The resistance is massive. He fights to relax his jaws.
When he doesn’t answer, Nihlus becomes serious. “Hey,” he says softly, like Saren is the one in need of aftercare. “It’s all good. I feel good,” and he flexes his neck to prove it. “No, scratch that. I feel great.”
Saren lifts a browplate.
“Oh, come on. You know I wanted this since day one. Don’t play stupid.”
“For the right reasons. Not like this.”
But his tongue is tied again, and he gestures, pointing out the evidence. The blood, the bonds. He remembers the state of mind he’s been in just minutes ago and shakes his head.
“Talk to me, Saren. What is it?”
“I wasn’t in my right mind.”
“You mean, because you’ve been drinking?”
Saren shakes his head.
“Yeah, you weren’t all that drunk. So what are you saying?” Nihlus frowns. “That you didn’t want to do this?”
“So, what then?”
“I was angry,” he forces out.
“Because of what happened in the bar? Yeah, I uh… I’m really sorry about that. I had a few too many and—”
“Because of what happened after.”
Nihlus blinks at him. His voice is no longer laced with laughter. “What happened after?”
Saren snorts. “Do I need to spell it out? You went with those women.”
“Yeah. I put them in a cab down the street and took the long way back, to sober up. If you came along… but since you didn’t…” he shrugs. They gaze at each other and time slows to a standstill. “Wait. You thought I went with them… to, like… have sex?”
Saren’s blood has turned to ice. “You didn’t?”
Nihlus just stares at him, silent, motionless. He’s not even breathing, and Saren realizes he’s holding his breath too. The decadent analog clock hanging almost directly above them ticks away the seconds, louder and louder, until it becomes unbearable.
“You didn’t,” he says in the end.
“Spirits,” Nihlus whispers. A strange pallor spreads over his neck and shoulders and he sits heavily on his heels as if his legs have given out. “Spirits, Saren.” His forehead is boring a dent in the bulkhead, but Saren can see, in merciless detail, the way his brows are furrowing in pain. “You think I’d do that. You really think I’d go fuck someone else while you’re here, waiting for me.” He laughs, but it’s more than half a sob. “And there I thought we were making progress.”
His mandibles tremble – making something in Saren’s chest tremble – and he forces them tight next to his chin – just as Saren curls his fingers into fists, awaiting judgment.
Nihlus opens his eyes and the defeat in them is a noose around Saren’s neck. “You wouldn’t trust me with a heart drawn on a piece of paper, let alone the real thing.”
The noose tightens. Saren tries to swallow but it’s difficult. It hurts.
By degrees, the expression on Nihlus’ face changes. “Get this off me,” he mutters, wriggling his hands in the improvised restraint.
Nothing short of instantaneous action will do and Saren is lagging about two hours behind the conversation. By the time he stands up, the wriggling has already turned into a struggle, breathing into panicked panting.
“Get it off!”
The desperation in Nihlus’ movements, the raw, animal fear of being tied down freezes Saren in mid-motion. Getting closer would only make it worse. He watches Nihlus pull on his wrists with all his strength.
Of course, he can’t free himself like that. The tie was quick but secure. Nihlus knows this, on some level he must know it, but he isn’t thinking. He stands up on shaky legs, takes air and tries to explode his arms out of the restraint with enough force to dislocate joints and arrest the heart. Saren rushes to hold him steady but it’s too late. He loses his balance and stumbles down.
He knows how to fall, even with hands tied. And he’s just had a dose of medigel. He will be fine. But the heavy thud in Saren’s chest doesn’t care for his reasoning. For a few moments, everything stills. Nihlus lies on the floor like a corpse and Saren hovers above him, suspended between horror and disbelief.
At last, Nihlus stirs. A whimper escapes him. Saren takes courage and kneels beside him. “Stay still.” His own voice sounds strange to him. “I’ll release you.”
Nihlus nods weakly. He’s gone limp, his breaths, long. If not for the trembling and the bizarre pose, he could be asleep. Undoing the restraint takes time. A sloppy tie, with ‘out of control’ and ‘desperation’ written all over it. Saren struggles to loosen and release the buckle but after that the belt just unravels on its own.
The next instant, a blow to the head blinds and deafens him. It was so fast he didn’t even see it coming. The left side of his face is on fire. A fire that spreads inward and turns into a dangerous, dull throbbing. His mouth is full of blood again – this time his own. The punch toppled him on his back and he tries to roll away from the inevitable follow-up but Nihlus is on top of him already, locking him down with the weight of his sweat-soaked body and righteous rage. Dark blue blobs clear from Saren’s eyes to the sight of his friend and lover pulling his fist back for a vicious ground-pound.
It could kill him.
Oh, he could save himself in any number of ways. He could kick Nihlus from behind or buck up from under him to compromise his balance. The belt is still in his hand, doubled up, and could be used as a weapon. The leg of the chair is within reach too. He could use biotics. At the very least, he could lift his arms up to shield his face.
He doesn’t. He just stares in Nihlus’ eyes. Surrenders. After all, it’s only appropriate.
In reply, Nihlus pulls his fist further back with a snarl.
Tears blur Saren’s vision and he blinks them out.
Nihlus disengages and stands up. His legs are still shaky. He puts a hand over his forehead and paces to and fro, then roars again and lands a bone-shattering jab into the bulkhead.
He shakes his hand, then cradles it over his chest. He made a dent in the bulkhead.
Saren rises on his elbows gingerly, anything but ready to take on the world again. He almost wishes Nihlus did strike him down. But that would be the easy way out.
“Calm down.” He spits out the blood and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. “You’ll hurt yourself.”
Nihlus gives him a lucid look, as if considering, then bursts into laughter. He laughs heartily, and for a brief while Saren entertains the cowardly thought that it might all end up a big, bad joke. But the fit lasts too long and turns hysterical and Nihlus bends over, clutching his stomach. He coughs, then starts dry-heaving, then sits heavily on the floor with his face hidden in his hands and sobs.
Drained and numb, Saren sits up and feels the hot lump on his left temple. The pain in his head pulses in time with his heartbeat, heavy enough to affect his vision.
He stands up, warily. Fluorescent worms writhe on the margins of his darkening field of view but after a second it passes, and he takes a step forward.
“Stay away.” Nihlus’ voice is horribly broken.
Saren takes another step.
“Don’t touch me.”
“I hate you. I fucking hate you right now.”
Ragged breaths threaten to turn to sobbing again. “But I fucking love you.”
“If I had any brains whatsoever, I’d avoid getting within a hundred parsecs from you.”
Nihlus wipes his face, then wipes his hands on his bare knees. His breathing has become calmer. “Well, you know what? That’s exactly what I’m going to do.”
Dread washes over Saren in a splash of liquid helium. He has faced certain death many times, but it is now that he experiences ‘his life flashing in front of him’ for the first time. The years of his friendship with Nihlus, as long in separation as they were short in closeness, shoot through him in a rapid-fire burst of images and emotions. This is it, then. The end of the line.
Then Nihlus adds, “Unless you own up.”
Saren gasps, pulling back from the abyss. “What?”
Nihlus wriggles his shoulder to indicate the bite. “Fucking own it.”
Still recovering from shock, Saren doesn’t understand what’s expected of him. Own it? Own… the bite marks? Own… Nihlus? He’ll do it, whatever it is. But what is it?
“Oh, for fuck’s sake.” Nihlus turns to give him an irritated glance. “Say the fucking words! Or you’ll never see me again, so help me—”
“Yeah, the words.” The annoyance is gone from Nihlus’ voice, and the rebellious tension from his stance. He’s tucked his head in his collar but Saren can hear the nervous chafing of his mandibles. He looks more vulnerable than ever.
Saren takes the final step and puts his hands on Nihlus’ shoulders, then kneels behind his back and embraces him around the waist. By accident or some treacherous subconscious agency, his lips end up at the same spot as before, over the fresh teeth marks, and a wild tremor goes through Nihlus’ frame.
“Please, just do it. Please.”
The warmth of contact, reestablished, thaws something inside Saren and his thoughts, remarkably quiet so far, swarm feverishly around this new concept. A life-altering decision, with far-reaching and unpredictable consequences. Yet he tries to predict them, he desperately tries to look at the request from every angle in the few seconds he has before his silence is interpreted, correctly, as hesitation. It’s hopeless. This is too large, and his mind is in shambles, and his emotions are running rampant.
“Will you say the words too?” Information first.
Nihlus deadpans. “Yes, of course. That’s the whole point.”
“Maybe we should—”
“Think about it? Talk about it? You should’ve tried that before assuming the worst-case scenario, you sick, paranoid, fuck.”
It stings. It sparks the anger again. No wonder. They’re both stripped raw and every word strikes like a whip.
Nihlus starts trembling anew and Saren realizes he has pulled back, leaving a cold gap between them. He closes it, matching Nihlus curve for curve and landing a gentle kiss on his neck, over the bite mark. A strange heat blooms inside his chest. His bite marks. His.
“I am—” his voice betrays him, and he must go on in a whisper— “prepared for such a commitment.” He swallows, hard. “Are you?”
Nihlus snorts. “Do you know how long it’s been since I slept with anyone other than you?”
“No.” And I don’t want to know. I don’t want to think about it. Not now, not ever. That’s the whole point.
“No, guess. Humor me.”
Saren sighs. Shakes his head. He doesn’t think about it, because it hurts to think about it. He just blurts out the first thing that comes to mind. “A month?”
“Uh-huh.” Nihlus laughs bitterly. “Figures.” He turns to look at Saren accusingly. “Two years. Almost to the fucking day. And you know what day it was, two years ago, don’t you?”
Thrown off by this new context switch, Saren struggles to remember.
“Palaven,” Nihlus whispers. “Primarch’s wedding.”
Ah. Their first meeting after the long break… after Nihlus had marked him. The dates don’t match. Not even close. The anniversary was two weeks and five days ago. But that’s beside the point. Two years were a long time for Nihlus to… abstain. They have met – in private, like this – fewer than a dozen times since. Saren would never have believed it, had such an idea occurred to him in solitude. He’d have written it off as wishful thinking.
How could he have he been so wrong?
What else is he wrong about?
Nihlus leans back on Saren’s shoulder and rubs his head absently on Saren’s cheek, catching the painful lump, but Saren doesn’t flinch. The gratitude for getting a second chance wells up in him and his eyes blur again. He rubs back.
“I was so envious of them,” Nihlus says. “You know? The ceremony, the words, the singing and all, even if their scars were fake. I’ve been dreaming about this since the day I met you. And so have you, on some level.”
He reaches up to touch Saren’s face but stops centimeters away as a spark ignites between his talontip and Saren’s mandible. When he speaks, his voice trembles. “May I?”
Spirits. He has forgotten about that. He takes Nihlus’ hand and presses it tight against the good side of his face. With eyes shut and jaws pressed tightly, he’s just barely able to keep himself together.
“The way I see it,” Nihlus says, feeling the scars on Saren’s horn, “either we make this an act of love – because, underneath all the crap, that’s what it was, right? An act of love? ‘Cos if it wasn’t – if it was just anger, as you say, and nothing else – then I’ll have it surgically removed.” His hand drops from Saren’s face and curls into a fist in his lap. “I’m not wearing this as a reminder of just how little fucking faith you have in me. No, sir. And I’ll find some asari to wash my brain of you, I swear. Make me forget that Saren Arterius was ever anything more than a fellow agent.”
A chill colder than death slithers up Saren’s spine and under his crest. “Don’t say that. You don’t know what you’re saying.”
“Maybe. Which doesn’t mean I won’t do it. I swear, Saren, I’ll quit you, even if it kills me. I’d rather die a hundred times than let you use me as a tool for self-inflicted suffering—again! And you know I’m not in the business—"
“With these scars I mark you mine—"
“—of making empty threats.” Nihlus’ voice trails off.
“—to hold, cherish and protect.” His own voice rings clear. It’s shockingly easy, to say the words, now that the decision’s been made. He feels like he can fly.
A numinous stillness has arrested the world and suspended them together in zero-g. Nihlus blinks in slow motion, and a tear rolls down his cheek. Then he gasps for air. He’s been holding his breath for who knows how long. Since the day they met?
“Your turn,” Saren whispers.
Nihlus nods, swallows, and nods again. “With these—” He clears his throat. “With these scars—” He can’t find his voice. All that comes out is a scratchy rasp.
Saren smiles, and feeling it, Nihlus laughs. “Performance anxiety.”
“That would be the day.”
They both laugh. The Citadel dawn has unaccountably painted the room with swats of soft pink glow. Nihlus turns around to face Saren and they assume mirroring positions, sitting comfortably on their heels, far enough to speak without obstruction, yet close enough to kiss should the urge strike them. They join hands and Nihlus says the words, and his voice is like a mountain stream in early spring, boisterous, reckless, unstoppable. They intone the rest together, looking in each other’s eyes without fear, without guilt, without blame. In that moment, nothing can come between them. Not the past, nor the future, nor the fate of the Galaxy.
As per the words.