[62]

Nihlus’s body flopped into the navigator’s seat. Nihlus’s mind was still in the corridor; checking the VI’s notice board, turning down the lightstrips, salivating at the smell of lightly-burnt rations wafting from the miniature oven. Must have set it for a few minutes too many. Damn colonial models. Seemed like everyone out there ate their food raw, their kitchens all automated and sterile, like medical labs. No feral varren to fight you for your share on your way back to the hab, no need for fires to scorch away the dirt. Just as well. He’d never fancied the taste of ash.

The screens in the cockpit flickered like the flames in his memory, but without warmth. That came courtesy of the vents on the ceiling, roaring in overtime. A yellow ribbon fluttered in the stream. The thermochromic fabric had turned white at the knot, his favourite litmus test for the temperature of home. A pleasant 310K, long attached to a bill he couldn’t afford. He put his feet up on the console. And now? Who’s got the last hearth now?

A syringe fell beneath his chair. He picked it up. It was capped in red plastic. 

“Hey,” he said, “catch.” 

Saren caught it without looking, and tucked it away in a pocket.

Nihlus leaned back into the cushioning. “How’d she treat you? Good? Put her through her paces against the Zero Regrets? I’m gonna dock at the Citadel in a few days. If there’s a single scratch on her, you’d best be having some regrets, then. Expensive ones.”

“She performed admirably. As was expected of a seventh-generation Venthalus-class.” Saren took the syringe out again and rolled it between his fingers. His hands were steady, Nihlus noted. The self-correcting paths of the diverted comsats rippled across his silver fringe. “Even one whose torpedo bays haven’t been inspected in–”

“Come on,” Nihlus chuckled.

Saren turned around, pinning him with an icy glare. “You should keep yourself in better shape, at least.”

“What?”

Briefly, Saren’s eyes flicked to his brow. Painted a damning line down his chin. Nihlus traced the path with his own palm, warm and damp from the shower, and unsteady from the stims. Didn’t know if it was a blessing or a curse to have no tolerance for that stuff. Probably a blessing. Helped him stay sharp. And besides, nanobots inside his bloodstream sounded like an awful, awful idea, especially after the last forty hours.

“I will,” Nihlus replied. “Once, you know.” His talons clicked against his cheekbone, providing involuntary punctuation.

Saren sighed. Nihlus splayed his mandibles, and added: “Why don’t you help me?”

The syringe stopped spinning. The label was stuck warning-side up, framed by long fingers in a white glove. Not to exceed 2 doses in a 20-hour timeframe.

Saren looked at him then; really looked at him, the intensity of his gaze betraying all the admonishments he’d tossed aside: shouldn’t have helped the rescue crew, didn’t need you for triage, the fires will burn out on their own. Nihlus knew them like the insides of the torpedo bays, which didn’t fucking need an inspection every three weeks. Really. He smirked. Three weeks! If only. What he’d give to see him every three weeks! He’d give his ship and his stash and — and more, to see him, to be with him, to hear him say —

“May I?” Saren’s hands were still steady but his subharmonics trembled like paper, like the little yellow ribbon tied to the air vent. 

Which was fine, because he didn’t need his voice to paint Nihlus’s face. 

Nihlus shrugged with one shoulder. “That’s what I’m asking, yeah.”

Saren stumbled gracefully out of his seat, casting a looming shadow in the tiny room. Nihlus narrowed his eyes. Stumbled gracefully, ha. What a paradox. He’s about the only turian Nihlus knew who could move like that, even after exceeding recommended doses several times over. Each step is a drumbeat, thunder trapped in a bottle. Saren crouched beside his armrest and laid a hand on his shoulder. 

“Is it? You don’t use stencils.”

“And you’ve never done this before.” Nihlus smiled. “Just a lucky guess.”

Saren pressed his cheek against his own. Both their faces were burning hot. 

Briefly, their mandibles touched. 

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