Nihlus turns a full circle, staring, unseeing, at the objects surrounding him, too familiar to spark interest or insight.
“You win,” he says, like it needs saying. “Where is it?”
Saren stands by the door, leaning on the wall with his arms crossed and one leg bent at the knee. An uncharacteristically causal posture. He’s playing with Nihlus. The smirk that doesn’t quite reach the eyes confirms it.
“Giving up so easily?”
“Easily?” Nihlus coughs. He’s been searching the ship for two hours straight now, with Saren’s silent scrutiny peeking over his shoulder like a hovercam. The barefaced bastard is probably laughing his ass off on the inside. “You enjoy this, don’t you? Seeing me squirm?”
The grunt says, who, me? I would never. Or maybe, I enjoy seeing you, period. Heat rushes in his neck. He wonders, not for the first time, how much of their connection exists only in his wishful thinking. Such daydreams make him blush a lot more often than Saren’s actual words or actions.
“You squirm because you’ve forgotten your training.” Saren pushes away from the wall and walks out of the hangar.
“You’re playing me,” Nihlus yells after him, then hurries to catch up before the door closes. “You’ve hidden it somewhere you know I won’t look.”
“But that’s not fa—” He freezes half-way up the stairs. In his unbearably roundabout way, Saren has just given him a clue. The layout of the Virial flashes in front of his mind’s eye in a new light. What place, or places, would he never think to search? “I can’t be that dumb,” he mutters, taking the rest of the climb in two leaps.
Oh, but he is. The weapons workbench that used to be ‘his desk’ while he lived here is still in the commons, tucked away now next to the viewport, as inconspicuous as ever. He feels Saren’s eyes on his back as he fumbles to open the drawer. The damn thing is stuck. There was a trick to opening it, but he can’t remember what.
Ah, finally! The things inside inspire generic recognition: yep, that’s what his crap usually looks like. Crumpled bits of paper, probably with discarded sketches, an ammo block, an old credit chit cut in half. Wait. Why does Saren still keep this junk? He has no time to puzzle that one out, though, because at the bottom of the drawer, there’s a wooden box that’s most certainly not his.
“Ohhh.” He glances back at Saren, who has taken a step closer. “This is it, isn’t it?”
The grunt says, yes, Nihlus. You win, this time. Ha, that would be a first. More likely, it means, you should have been able to find it yourself. What was the lesson on personal blind-spots again? Damn. He has forgotten his training. He’s about to ask for a reminder when Saren lays a hand on the small of his back.
“Open it,” he says, and his voice, deep and quiet, travels through the hand, enters Nihlus’ body, and plucks a string inside that makes him shudder all over. It’s the first time Saren has touched him since he came on board. The embrace at the airlock hardly counts, seeing how it turned into an awkward retreat after the entirety of three seconds. Which was one more than he got when they were saying goodbye the last time, so it was good! Definitely better than nothing. But it was a courtesy, not contact. This, now, is.
Nihlus bites his mandible to stop himself from smiling. The wooden box. He has finally found the treasure. He has been instructed to inspect it. And he wants to. Yet all his attention is glued to the feverishly warm place on his back where the hand rests. He fears any movement might scare it away. He doesn’t even dare breathe.
Sensing it, Saren moves the hand up his spine. A solid, deliberate motion, feeling him. The focus Saren invests in it is so tangible and intense, it’s physically impossible for Nihlus to think about anything else. The hand ends up on the back of his neck and releases some tension by kneading the perpetually cramped muscles there.
Nihlus laughs breathlessly. “Fuck.”
Right. The box. Nihlus runs his fingers over the carvings. An abstract pattern, no motifs he can recognize off the top of his head. The wood is dark, dense, with an air of antiquity. “I feel like I didn’t deserve this.”
“You found it on your own.”
“Only because you told me where to look.”
“I didn’t tell you anything.”
“But you were there to guide me.”
“Just open it.”
He sighs. “Yes, sir.”
The lid is heavier than he expected. When he lifts it, the shine of the treasure makes him gasp. Now delightfully close, Saren drapes his arm over Nihlus’ shoulder as he leans back in wonder.
“Hell, yeah.” Nihlus reaches for the treasure but remembers his manners in time and his hand freezes above it. “May I?”
He has seen some of Saren’s jewelry before, but this stuff is on a whole other level. It’s insanely intricate, fine and probably more valuable than the sum of everything he has ever owned. He dips a talon in it and stirs the trove, relishing the sense of depth and weight. “Where did all this come from? Is it new?”
After many seconds and no elaboration, Nihlus turns to look at Saren sideways.
“I kept those in a safe.” Saren’s gaze seems fixed on Nihlus’ mandible. “On Noveria,” he adds, then leans in close—millimeters from touching—and breathes Nihlus in, closing his eyes.
Nihlus struggles to keep from reacting. Wouldn’t want to slap Saren on the nose with a silly slanting mandible. He would recoil, Nihlus knows it. And the recoil burns like acid. “What’s on Noveria?” he says, carefully, to distract himself.
The grunt says, I have said too much already. Or perhaps, let us not talk about the real life, please. Again, Nihlus makes himself blush. Please. To hear him say that! Just once, and he could die happy.
“Got an apartment there,” Saren mutters instead. His eyes are still closed. His face moves to sniff the side of Nihlus’ neck.
With a license to smile, Nihlus spreads his mandibles wide. His finger is still talon-deep in the treasure-chest. “I didn’t know that.”
The much less ambiguous mhm is for yes, Nihlus. There’s a lot about me you don’t know.
“Why Noveria, though? It’s cold as hell there.”
“Let’s not talk about that.”
Yes! Not a 100% match but close enough. “Okay… what do you want to talk about?”
“I don’t want to talk.”
Nihlus laughs. A cheap trick, works every time. But then it hits him. “I don’t suppose that… putting these on you—” he fishes out some chained thing of glistening gold and nameless beauty and lets it dangle off his finger— “could be considered… like… a part of my reward? For mission successful and all that.”
“If you wish.” His breath is hot on Nihlus’ skin.
If? If? It’s been one of Nihlus’ most favorite fantasies since back in training. “Fuck, yeah,” he says. His mandibles, tired from smiling, fall loose and one of them clicks against Saren’s face. Nihlus almost recoils on his own—a preemptive strike—but nothing happens. Better than nothing. Saren’s head finally sinks into his collar and his mouth press against Nihlus’ skin.
An array of ridiculous endearments—dear, sweet heart, really?—files through Nihlus’ mind but he just closes his eyes and enjoys the moment without a word. Then he slowly turns around and enwraps Saren in his arms.
“Hi,” he says, for whatever reason.
The grunt is a hello muttered into his neck. And a few seconds later, Saren’s arms clasp around his waist.
Time winds down.
“And this?” Nihlus rolls the tube-like thing between his fingers. It’s gold in color—most of the treasure is—but it’s not aurum. It’s something inflexible and feather-light. Saren would know the name of the material, as well as the entire history of its usage for jewelry-crafting and a dozen other applications. But Nihlus doesn’t ask about it because it might launch Saren into a lengthy lecture. He focuses on the fine artwork lining the edges instead. Is it a script? Hard to tell by moonlight. Saren has turned down the room lights to the lowest setting. A headache brewing, no doubt. Nihlus doesn’t ask about that either because an overt show of concern invariably causes irritation. He sighs, angling the tube this way and that to make sense of the thin chains that hang from its ends. “What’s it called?”
Saren looks up and blinks, as if woken up. He’s been fiddling with the rings that are now adorning his fingers, setting them up just so. Not all are from this treasure trove. Some are old friends. One of them, a plain-looking silver circle, has indiscernible moving parts that Saren likes to fidget with when he thinks no one’s watching.
Nihlus repeats the unfamiliar word, but that fails to imbue it with meaning. “What’s it for?”
Saren takes the tube and fits it loosely on the tip of his right horn.
“Ohh,” Nihlus utters. “Oh, that’s fancy. I’ve never seen that before. Wait, let me.”
Now that the fileyus envelops the horn, the chains make sense, but latching them from underneath is quite a challenge. Saren tilts his head up to help, exposing the long curve of his neck. For a moment, Nihlus forgets where he is and what he’s doing. The skin pulses over the jugular at a lazy, calm pace. He wants to put his mouth there, his teeth, make it race! And as he stares at it, transfixed, the rhythm does quicken. He glances as Saren and finds him staring back. There’s no need to explain. He twitches his mandibles apologetically and proceeds to tighten the decoration.
Seated on the small couch under the viewport, with Saren kneeling comfortably in front of him, Nihlus must do quite a bit of maneuvering to fix a fileyus on every crest-blade. He relishes every moment of it, and Saren seems to relax a notch with each accidental brush of plate against plate, skin against skin. His head lolls drunkenly when Nihlus releases it after fitting the final fileyus on the other horn. He has made a full circle.
“What else?” he says. The long silence has made his voice raspy.
“These,” Saren whispers in reply, opening his hand to reveal a pair of ornamented mandible rings, sparkling in the moonlight.
“Whoa. Have I seen you wear these?”
“How should I know?”
“You know everything. I bet you can remember when you last wore them down to the hour. And then you’d know if I was around or not. If I was—”
“You have not seen these.” Saren extends the hand holding the rings farther and Nihlus takes them. “You have seen me wearing another set,” he adds. “A simpler one.”
Nihlus takes hold of Saren’s left mandible. Feeling for the nearly invisible piercings, he lifts his eyes and meets Saren’s. Something like electrical current runs through him and robs him of his breath.
“I have never worn this,” Saren continues, struggling to enunciate with one mandible locked still, “in public.”
The first ring is set. Nihlus busies himself with the other. “Why not?”
“Like you need flashy to stand out in a crowd.”
Ah, and there it is. The recoil. Saren leans back out of reach and gives Nihlus an icy glance, then pointedly turns away. He doesn’t look hurt. He never does. But Nihlus knows better. An insult was the last thing on his mind, of course, but—lesson thirty-six, Kryik: think before you speak, and you’ll never regret it after.
Yep. He has definitely forgotten his training.
“I meant that in the most positive way imaginable.” He makes his undertones warm and soothing, although he knows it’s not a battle he can win with a frontal assault. “You know that, right?”
“It’s only a compliment if you assume standing out is the intention. Or that it is desirable, when it’s not the intention.”
“You can blend in as well as anyone when that’s the intention. As for what’s desirable—” he takes courage, reaches for Saren’s chin again, and turns it until they’re facing each other again— “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
Saren’s eyes drill into him, searching for falsehood, or maybe for an excuse to keep insisting until he has proven his point. But he doesn’t find it, thank the Spirits, and his stance softens as suddenly as it stiffened moments ago. He pries his chin free again, but gently, and brushes Nihlus’s fingers with his mouth in passing.
“It’s not about beauty,” he says, gesturing at the jewelry.
“Oh?” Nihlus brings his hand to his own mouth and touches the same spot, still holding Saren’s gaze. He’s up for so much more than conversation, but Saren’s not quite there yet. “What’s it about, then?”
It’s a sigh rather than a word, one Nihlus knows well. Too complicated; can’t be bothered. He chuckles and waits. Pretending he misunderstood some silent gesture is a trick that often makes Saren speak up.
“I like them,” he says, wriggling his bejeweled fingers. He spreads his hands and angles them toward the light, creating a web of barely visible water-like reflections on his face. “I like the shine. How they reflect the lights. There’s always enough light for it, you know. Even starlight would do.”
Nihlus listens, smiling. It’s rare to hear Saren make long sentences, unless he’s lecturing. And even rarer to hear him elaborate on his oddities. A profound feeling of… tenderness… rises from Nihlus’ chest, shortening his breath. He wants to touch the reflections on Saren’s face, trace them with his fingertips, cover them with kisses, but making a move now would only break the spell.
Saren angles his hands the other way. “See?”
“What?” Nihlus blinks stupidly. “Oh!” The reflections are on his face now. But the glitter looks no different than it did before. He tries a few perspectives, then shakes his head.
“Hm.” Saren reverts to playing the light show for himself. “I like it.”
Finding he can hold back no longer, Nihlus inches onto the edge of the seat and leans down to take Saren’s hands. The lingering risk of something going horribly wrong at any moment makes even such an immaculate gesture strangely thrilling. But Saren doesn’t react. He lets Nihlus turn his hands palms-up and remains motionless when Nihlus dives face-first into them. Nihlus doesn’t mind. He rubs his cheeks and forehead against Saren’s dry, warm skin, inhales the metallic smell of jewelry and a faint herbal scent of soap.
After a while, Saren’s deepened breaths become audible, and his fingers move to feel Nihlus’ browplates and mandibles. “Silly,” he whispers.
Nihlus just rumbles in return. “Brings back memories.” He lifts his face, with a mind to close the gap between them, but the striking sight of Saren’s bejeweled crest reminds him of another important question.
“What of those?” He points with his chin when Saren gives him a blank look. “You can’t see the shine from those.”
This time, the grunt is accompanied by a smirk. I knew you wouldn’t leave it alone, Kryik. No, too wordy. Nothing escapes your attention. Too clichéd. You wouldn’t understand. Yeah, that one sounds more like it. Probably true too. Not that it has ever stopped him from trying.
“Come closer,” Saren says instead, shuffling forward until his knees hit the couch. Happy to oblige, Nihlus leans in as close as possible himself. Their faces are centimeters away. “Listen.”
Nihlus nods, all ears, heart racing in anticipation of some secret personal and deep enough to require such preparations. But Saren just shakes his head.
“That.” Saren shakes his head again. But it’s only after the third time that Nihlus gets it.
He gasps, but Saren puts a finger over his mouth before he can state the obvious. It’s the chime. The hanging chains, set with tiny, deep-blue stones, create a crystal symphony just above the hearing threshold. The fancy rings are a part of the orchestra, Nihlus realizes when Saren twitches his mandibles to make them sing. Like everything in this magical setup, they have moving parts that play minute silver tones.
Struck with wonder—always the same wonder, the same unutterable gratitude and honor and… damn… tenderness—Nihlus feels his eyes fill with tears. He bites his mandible to stop them from spilling, but it’s too late.
Saren’s finger, still hovering over his mouth, catches one. “Why?”
“Oh, you know.” Nihlus sniffs, shudders, and laughs it off. “High emotion.”
“Hm.” After studying the tear on his finger for another beat, Saren licks it off. “Over this?” He shakes his head again, making his barely audible music.
“All of this.” Nihlus makes a sweeping gesture, hoping to catch the darkened room of the ship that he still thinks of as home, the violet rays of Menae, nearly full, Saren’s closeness, and their bond, and the miracle of life itself. More tears threaten to spill but he sucks them up. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” Saren says after a brief, thoughtful silence. It’s just a thing to say. Exactly the right thing to say. But knowing that Saren has given it thought, because he never speaks on impulse, Nihlus can’t resist looking for a deeper meaning. In my ship, he auto-completes. Or perhaps, to my friendship. Possibly a bit of both.
“Kiss me,” he whispers.
Saren doesn’t comply at once.
Calm like the depths of a clear mountain lake, he considers. Kissing is serious business. A door to another world, where raw sensation beats logic, pain is pleasure and power a willing gift. Nihlus’ heart hammers against his ribcage violently enough to visibly shake his chest—then nearly stops when Saren closes his eyes, inhales, and gives in.