Nihlus was sitting at his small desk by the viewport, pretending to work, when Saren emerged on top of the stairs. Nihlus had actually been chatting on Nebulosity the entire morning, but now he hid the app behind a carefully prearranged menagerie of status reports, instrument schematics, and even a textbook on the theory of stellar evolution thrown in for good measure.
“Where to?” he asked, although Saren’s attire spelled it out. He was wearing one of his black and silver robes and of course Nihlus’s gaze lingered on his hands, littered with shiny jewelry. If only he knew where Saren kept those.
“The Tower,” Saren said, straightening the hood over his crest. He shot a silent look at Nihlus, who gestured next to his right ear. Saren pulled the fabric to his left.
“Perfect,” Nihlus said. In truth, there was still a slight wrinkle there and he wished he had the guts to walk over and fix it himself. He’d let his fingers brush against those gorgeous silver crest-blades – an immaculate touch if there ever was one – but Spirits, even thinking about it made his blood rise. And then he’d lean in close to check if everything was just so, and steal a breath of Saren’s clean, fresh-out-of-shower scent. A man could dream.
Saren left then, and Nihlus sat on the edge of the chair, waiting to see him pass by the viewport and enter the elevator. Saren moved at a quick, determined pace, and never came back for something he’d forgotten. Still, Nihlus would give him a good ten minutes head start.
He spent five drumming on the desk with his talons, and then he could wait no longer. He leaped up and snatched the half-eaten pastry from the plate he’d left in the kitchenette last night; it was dry but still good, and the image of Saren’s reaction, had he been there to see Nihlus eat it, made him chuckle. He then went straight down and into the cabin, Saren’s lair, a place of mystery and secrets. Nihlus loved to sneak into the cabin. It made him feel like another secret.
The door was locked, but he’d busted the code a long, long time ago. Sometimes he liked to think he was so good that Saren didn’t even suspect his extracurricular activities, but in all honesty, it was much more likely that Saren simply didn’t care. He probably had the good stuff like the jewelry hidden someplace else, in some stash Nihlus hadn’t sniffed out yet. He’d find it eventually. For now, he was content to browse the lair.
He had developed an entire search algorithm. First, he went for the bed. Looked under the pillow, under the mattress. Between the mattress and the bulkhead, where one could stuff, say, a datapad or a small hard-copy. He kept hoping he’d find porn, or a book, or a crumpled handkerchief, or a pair of warm socks – anything to give him more insight into Saren’s cryptic private habits. He never had, though.
Before moving on, he sniffed the air just above the pillow. That wasn’t a part of the algorithm; that was just Nihlus, trying to get closer. The sheets smelled of the wienensis silver fruit; one of those Palaven-things that he had only seen on the extranet.
Next he opened the closet. Saren was an elegant man; well, at least his civilian persona was. He had a lot of clothes and they were all meticulously pressed and folded and hanging in a neat monochromatic gradient from identical hangers. White, light gray, dark gray, black. Holding the pastry between his teeth, Nihlus wiped his greasy, crumb-covered hand on his pants. If Saren were to see that, he’d go stark crazy. Hehe.
He proceeded to roam through the wares. Not that he hoped he’d find anything new: it all looked pretty much the same as the last time. But the closet and everything in it smelled of Palaven rain pine – Saren’s favorite plate balm – and Nihlus felt an irresistible urge to dive into the clothes and breathe his full of it. The pastry in his mouth got in the way, though. So instead of going in nose-first, he took out a white robe. It was heavy and reflected a dull shine in the artificial daylight. Nihlus inspected the embroidery: geometrical patterns, favorite pastime of turian artists, done in delicate cobalt thread. Definitely hand-made. Possibly even unique. He toyed with the idea to try it on, but rejected it in fear he’d step on it, or pull out a thread with his talons or crest. But he could… study it. Study its anatomy. Just for the unlikely case that someday he could find himself in the position to take one off Saren. He chuckled through the pastry, lifting the folds and looking under. It turned out to be quite simple. He was a little disappointed.
He then sat in front of the workstation and wolfed down his snack in three quick bites. The terminal came to life and asked for a password. Low security, no fingerprints or retinal scans, but the password had proven to be a tough nut. He’d tried to hack it three or four times already. A good decryption program would bust it, but all the really useful software went out with Saren and his omnitool. He surveyed the desk: empty save for a writing pad with half the sheets torn off. Nihlus felt the surface with a fingertip; nothing there. Saren probably ripped the paper before writing, to avoid making imprints that could be traced later. Heh. Nothing like some healthy paranoia.
There was a drawer, and Nihlus opened it to look at the uninspiring objects inside, although he already knew what he’d find. A block of ammo, with Saren’s name carved into it – a souvenir from ATT. An old omni-tool; Nihlus had turned it on once, but it had been purged of all software and data. Some credit chits. An ID with one of Saren’s minor aliases. A sturdy, often-used talon file. Saren kept his talons very sharp. And of course, there was the faithful old Striker from his cabal days.
Suddenly, Nihlus became aware of the passage of time. He glanced at the greeting screen of the workstation; just over half an hour since Saren had left. He was still in the safe zone. The elevator ride to the Presidium and back took twenty minutes alone.
But there was nothing else to sniff or touch or explore. This was his third raid on Saren’s cabin. The first time, everything had been new and exciting, and he’d even pocketed a couple of convenient items, things that could easily get lost on the ship and that wouldn’t be missed much: a handy little pocketknife and a pair of black gloves. He smirked at the memory. It was silly to lift Saren’s things, he’d learned that soon enough – he simply had no place to keep them. The little drawer of his desk in the commons was far from safe. He’d hidden the trophies in the space between the mattress of his bed and the bulkhead, which was getting cluttered anyway. With porn, yes. But also books, some of which were not porn. A few. Ok, maybe that one.
Nihlus stood up and stretched, raising his arms high and hitting the sloping ceiling pretty hard. He cursed, shaking off the momentary pain from his wrists. Then he stared upwards, not really sure why the ceiling was important all of the sudden. But it was. Something about the sound… he knocked on the panel again.
It sounded hollow.
He knocked on the panel next to it. That one sounded solid. And the one above, and the one below, and to the other side.
Suddenly his heart was pounding. Eyes wide, tongue in the corner of his gaping mouth, he started tracing the edges of the hollow panel, feeling for some groove in which his talons could find purchase. He started scratching, and there! A corner came off, and then, the entire thing.
This was it, he realized with something very similar to religious awe. It was the stash. Behind the panel, there was a hidden compartment. A shelf cut into the bulkhead, no more than a meter long and half that in depth and height.
Nihlus blinked at the items stored inside. The most prominent was a weapons case he recognized immediately: the Spectre-grade pistols Saren had worn when they first met, and that he’d replaced with newer, even deadlier prototypes some three months ago. Nihlus had been wondering what had happened to the old pair; he had hoped, for a time, that Saren would give them to him. But apparently he had other plans.
Next to the weapons case stood a metal cylinder guarding a bottle of hanar liquor. The cylinder was still wrapped in its original cryo-foil. Nihlus perched on his toetips to read the production date: five years old. Probably worth more than all the credits he’d ever earned, squared. It looked positively yummy.
He tore his gaze from it with difficulty and directed his attention to a folded uniform enclosed in a translucent plastic cover. He took it out, biting the sense of guilt out of his tongue. There was a fat strip of decorations on the front. Nihlus unsealed the cover and sniffed. It wasn’t Saren’s.
His heart climbed up his throat and he hurried to seal the cover and put the uniform back with reverence. Spirits.
Suddenly what he was doing felt very wrong, very wrong indeed. The voice addressed him from the back of his head: I took you in and this is how you repay my trust? I gave you a place to stay, I gave you a future, and this is what I get in return? One thing, Nihlus, one place that I don’t want to share, and you had to defile it.
Oh, but if it were really just this one thing, just this one place.
Curiosity waning, he almost returned the panel. But there was only one item left. A wooden box that had a pronounced air of treasure-chest about it. Nihlus stared at the box, and the box stared at Nihlus. It whispered to him in a language of secret smiles and promises of delicious discoveries. It didn’t even have a keyhole.
“Oh, fuck it,” he muttered and slid the box out. It wasn’t as heavy as he’d expected, but the rolling of trinkets inside made his mandibles work in anticipation. He put the box on the desk and lifted the lid. And sure enough, there was a trove inside. Nihlus smiled. He recognized most of it: finger-rings, wide for the lower knuckle and narrow, for the upper; crest-rings that Saren rarely wore even though they looked so sexy on him; the solid, wide bracelets he put over the gloves on special occasions. Nihlus ran his fingers through the treasure, then picked a ring to try on. Oooh! Perfect fit. He smiled and adorned his entire left hand in rings, the way Saren would do. They didn’t look half as good on Nihlus, though. Saren had pale skin and long, shiny talons, and Nihlus’s hands were rough and dark. But it felt good. He flexed his fingers and resumed the research.
Several things stood out. He examined a vial of light purple facial paint. It had expired more than ten years ago, though it didn’t look dry. Nihlus knew what that was. He caressed it and put it back with care.
Next he took out a plastic case with a magnetic seal and looked inside. A pair of bio-amps lodged in velvet padding. Saren’s first? How curious. And endearing. The plastic and the velvet were a faint eezo cyan. He smiled and put the case down.
And then there was a small leather bag. Nihlus let his imagination run wild, feeling the contents through the soft material. Precious stones? Big ones! Or… a pendant for a necklace? More than one? A bone charm? No. Saren wasn’t superstitious. Nihlus undid the lace and emptied the bag into his left hand.
What came out were the pieces of a broken ceramic badge. It looked as if it had been oval in shape, sized more or less to comfortably fit the palm, heavy and sturdy. It didn’t appear to be jewelry; more like some… medal? He singled out the largest piece and studied it closer. It bore a carved pattern, painted in a lovely shade of evening-sky-blue. But what was its significance? It didn’t look particularly valuable; the artistry seemed rather generic, and the materials were common enough. A memento, then. From his brother? Some friend? A lover? Now that he had the idea, he felt almost certain that there was something feminine about it.
“Put that down,” said the voice and Nihlus jumped as if electrocuted, sending the pieces of the badge flying in the air. Some fell on the desk with an awful din, and others, silently, on the carpeted floor. But the largest one, which he had been holding between his talons, hit the hard back of the chair and broke in two.
Nihlus froze in horror. He didn’t dare turn around and face the inevitable and for the longest time, the staccato of his heartbeat was the only thing he could hear, the treacherous shining of the rings on his fingers the only thing he could see.
But then he became aware of the sound of Saren’s breathing, deep, ragged, almost growling. That wasn’t good. He swallowed through his dry throat and hazarded a glance towards the door.
Saren was standing there, a black, looming shadow. His head was down, chin almost touching his chest, mandibles slanted to reveal his teeth, eyes shining with menace that made Nihlus’s crest crawl. There was something so savage about the stare, so raw and cold and devoid of sympathy or any feeling other than blind rage or perhaps even hatred, that Nihlus was sure Saren would charge at him right that moment and rip his throat out with his bare hands.
But Saren interrupted him by lifting up a hand. It meant: shut up or you’re dead. And this time, the gesture was underlined by a cloud of biotic sparks that seemed to flare up and die off at random over Saren’s entire body. Nihlus was pretty sure the display wasn’t intentional, as Saren wasn’t the type to do parlor tricks with his powers. And that made it all the more terrifying.
So he nodded, and started taking the jewelry off his fingers. Not really surprised to find his hands were trembling. The hurtful ringing noises were tearing holes in his ears. In his chest. Perhaps it was for the best, that Saren had shut him up. What was there to say? His mind struggled for ideas, but there were none, nothing, only the overwhelming feeling that he’d messed up, that he’d messed up bad, and that he would probably find himself on the wrong side of the airlock within minutes. It scared him more than death by Saren’s hands. He didn’t dare look at him again. He didn’t know what to do. Spirits! What the fuck have I done? He wished he knew. And how the fuck do I fix it? Provided that there was anything left to be fixed. Oh Spirits. Oh Spirits.
He clenched his teeth and knelt down to collect the pieces of the badge. Was it the right thing to do? Must have been, since Saren didn’t try to stop him.
“I’m sorry I dropped it,” he muttered at last, only realizing how terribly ashamed he was from the tones of his own cracked voice. “I just wanted to see… to… you know?” He gestured helplessly in the silence. “And it was already broken.” Like Saren didn’t know that. What a stupid, stupid thing to say.
But Saren made no reply. Nihlus turned towards the door. There was no one there.
He awoke in the middle of the night. A glance at the clock on the conferencing terminal, 4:04 AM. Sounds were coming from downstairs. And there was light on the staircase. Nihlus jumped like someone had spilled a bucket of boiling water on him, hit the low ceiling with his head and stumbled forward with the blanket still entangled around his legs until it strangled him and he fell face down.
“Fucking motherfucker,” he gritted, struggling to free himself, then leaped up and ran down the stairs.
It had been more than two days since Saren went missing. And now he was back.
Nihlus stopped in the doorway to the cabin. The overhead lights hurt his eyes but he couldn’t be bothered to think about that no more than he could be bothered to care about being naked, breathless and barely restraining himself from jumping forward and crushing Saren in a huge hug of joy and relief. Saren was wearing the same robe and smelled of sweat and streets and crowd. He appeared to be looking at the cyan case resting on the table, beside the big wooden box.
Finally he spoke, and for the life of him, Nihlus couldn’t interpret the color of his voice. “You have done this.”
Was he still angry? Didn’t sound like that. It didn’t sound like anything he’d heard from Saren before.
“I have,” Nihlus said. “Was I… was it the wrong thing to do?”
Saren turned now and looked him in the eye. It was just a short glance, but Nihlus melted under its intensity. Literally. His heart skipped a beat, or maybe ten. Because Saren shook his head. Once, shortly, then again, to confirm. He was staring at the badge in his ungloved hand and didn’t speak for several long breaths. “They told me it was impossible to fix.”
Nihlus wanted to smile, but he couldn’t. “They were wrong.”
“Nihlus… this is remarkable.” Saren looked at him again and for the first time, Nihlus thought he could see an opening there, a tiny crawl-space, a crack in the wall. Again, he tried to smile, but all he could muster was a gentle flick of the mandibles. Saren stepped towards him, stood close enough so that Nihlus could feel the warmth of his breath as he spoke. “I’ve been looking… I can’t find a single seam.”
“Of course there are seams. They’re just… hidden. Had to add some paint. Hope that’s alright?”
He looked up and found Saren looking back, an alien air of vulnerability lingering about his face like an early morning mist. “Look,” Nihlus whispered, and pointed at the badge with a talontip. “See here?” And as he traced a microscopic seam that ran from tip to bottom, his fingers brushed against Saren’s dry, warm palm. Another second of hesitation, then he closed his hand around Saren’s, with the badge in between.
And unbelievably, Saren squeezed back.
It only lasted for a moment, but Nihlus was left dizzy and barely able to speak. “Will you tell me what it is?”
Saren nodded, but first he carried the badge back and placed it in its casing with something akin to a caress. “It belonged to my mother.”
“You never mentioned your parents,” Nihlus said after a pause. In truth, Saren never mentioned anything from his past. “Is she…?”
“She’s gone.” He lifted a hand to shut Nihlus up before he could deliver words of sympathy. “She died when I was a little boy. But the badge… For a long time, I thought her spirit was in the badge. I liked to hold it, carry it around. Desolas was always terrified that I’d break it. Which of course I did, in the end.”
Nihlus waited for some time before speaking again. “How did you break it?” Somehow he couldn’t imagine that Saren had just dropped it; there had to be a story behind it. Spirits. Who knows how many stories hide there, in that lair full of secrets? And nobody will ever know. That thought made Nihlus incredibly sad, and all the more determined.
Saren sat at the edge of the desk and looked around, as if searching for another hidden place where he could safely put away his secrets, before peering into Nihlus again with that strange, gut-wrenching intensity. “I shattered it after Desolas was killed.”
Nihlus swallowed. “Was he the last of your family?”
And now the badge was whole again. They both realized what it meant at the same time, and it was too much. Nihlus averted his eyes, and Saren turned to close to box. He put it back into the sanctuary and fixed the panel over it.
The next evening, Saren went out again. He told Nihlus not to wait up, for they would be heading off on a mission the day after, and he should get as much sleep as he could. Nihlus gave him his meekest nod, then hid next to the viewport until Saren passed by and disappeared in the elevator.
Not that Nihlus was particularly interested in going through Saren’s stuff so soon after his last raid, but there was one thing he had to know.
He stood in front of the cabin door for a long time. This was to decide it all: had he really fixed it?
Finally, he entered the old entry code with a trembling hand. And the door swished open.
Nihlus stood there, smiling, blinking the happy haze out of his eyes. He went in, then, and felt between the mattress and the bulkhead. But no, Saren hadn’t hidden any porn there in the meantime. Nihlus chuckled and sat on the floor, leaning against the bed, crest resting on Saren’s pillow. There was something about the cabin. It was a good place. He simply liked being there.
When he awoke in the dense darkness some hours later, he had no idea where he was. But then he heard soft snoring somewhere up and to his right, and discovered there was a pillow under his head and a blanket over his body. He started weaving an elaborate fantasy about ravishing Saren in his sleep, but then he drifted away. He had a dream in which he was a little boy again, and hurried behind Father’s long steps. Father took him with his strong arms and lifted him up on a tall crate. Nihlus held onto Father’s shoulders and looked into his eyes. They were made of silver.