[21] Tea

Saren finally relaxes a little and drinks some of the tea, now cold. Evidently, the cup is not as insulated as advertised. Or its lid plays a major role in said insulation. But the curls of steam that rose from the surface were a comforting sight in the frigid bridge while he was typing away at the series of reports. Just as well. It tastes less bitter when cold anyway. Premium blend from Palaven, freshly unboxed.

After some time spent browsing through the catalogue for stabilizer upgrades–for the ship, not his weapons, though he should look into those too–he finds his hand hovering over a set of hotkeys. Not again. He sighs.

Just to be safe, though.

You’d murder an entire city to make it safe.

This is my ship we’re talking about, he chides himself, and presses the keys.

When Nihlus made Spectre, Saren scoffed at the antiquated bucket of a ship the Hierarchy allotted to him, and pulled a few strings behind the curtains on his behalf. And so, Nihlus found a top-of-the-line cabal vessel docked at C-Sec without ever knowing why. At first, anyway. He discovered the “upgrades” quickly enough. By 1400 the next day, he already removed the majority of the cameras and was in the middle of a complete VI reinstall. By the same time three days later, he pulled out of the dock with a ship that was almost completely his. He passed the test.

Saren’s eyes flicker over the live surveillance footage. Bridge. Engineering. Commons. His own ship. And the one camera Nihlus left untouched for months. A minimalist bathroom.

Nihlus walks in.

Saren never caught him before. Schedule has no discernible pattern. Time zones sway out of sync. He suddenly has the urge to check for the umpteenth time whether the protocols are secure. Absolutely dataproof. They must be.

Just to be safe.

Liar, he tells himself.

Nihlus strips his thermal to his waist. The white markings on his chest look fresh. Saren can almost touch them, badly pixelated as the image is. He can almost trace the lines with his tongue and feel the low thrum in Nihlus’ chest, the quickening of his breathing.

Just to check up on him. Look, he’s not going for the medical supplies in the corner, and no obvious wounds. He appears to be fine.

So disconnect. Now.

Nihlus takes everything off, tosses the suit over the sink with a casual flick of his wrist. And then heads for the shower.

Damn it, disconnect.

He’s retrieving some soap from the dispenser. Seems to spill some–the video quality is too poor to tell, but he seems to have a handful of it, much more than he needs. He’s swearing. The lipreading module captions the exact words with 96.5% accuracy. Saren doesn’t need it to understand the gist of things. Bureaucrats. Stupidity. Soap all over his hands. Oh, come here. Come put your hands to better use.

Nihlus likes his hot showers. Bad habit for energy conservation. Only acceptable when docked. Or under stealth mode; newer models incorporate water as heat sink. And then Saren thinks about having a warm body in this bridge. Beside him. On him. Beneath him. The warmth seeping through the weave of Nihlus’ clothing. The moisture making his youthful plates that much more supple. The notion becomes a little more acceptable. But look at those plates now; age and hardship have not left their mark just yet. Almost smooth as eggshells under his calloused palm. (Perhaps it is merely the blur from the transmission.)

The urge to disconnect grows faint. Time is precious. As demonstrated by the sight in front of him. Brevity is the stamp of beauty, or so they say. Nihlus’ pose is almost pornographic. Even from the normally unflattering angle. Stop it. For the ordinary citizen, this is a crime. Damn. Perhaps this is the driving force behind the galaxy’s vices. Something that can never be given up, someone who can never be let down; turning back to it time after time, caught in its gravity well. Feeling the effects across hundreds of lightyears because, for a moment, it makes you feel as if you’re not alone.

All too soon, Nihlus is done. He’s heading for the towel now, passing the camera as he does. Then he looks directly at Saren, across all those lightyears.

The caption says: HEY, SAREN. HOW ARE YOU.

Saren hits the emergency shutoff.

He sits in the dark bridge with a cup of cold tea, watching the stars burn.

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