The Other Beginning

BY MISFIRE ANON

The rules of convergence

The answer to your question is yes. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I want to start at the beginning. The other beginning.

His parting gestures were still heavy on my mind a week after the dedication ceremony. I don’t know how long he stayed there that night, only that he wasn’t there at dawn. I berated myself, then, for not staying with him. I still do.

So I wrote him a letter much like what I’m writing now. Well, not exactly. But the frankness was the same. I told him that I’d noticed the seal of approval for his leave application. I asked if he was fine when I knew he wasn’t. I asked if he wanted to have a talk, maybe a friendly match; I could certainly arrange it at the base.

He said yes. As in, that one word. Yes.

I didn’t know what to expect. From him, from myself. I booked one of the practise rooms, as out-of-the-way as possible. I told the security to let him through with his mismatched ID – he wasn’t technically cleared for the place after the divisions relocated. Then, at fifteen-fifty sharp, I returned to my office and waited.

I busied myself with disassembling and reassembling one of my sidearms, re-fitting some old mods into it simply to see if I still could. Its guts were laid out on my desk when Saren ringed. I told the system to let him in.

He was carrying a plain cloth bag, the straps at the top tied together. He wore the twin swords crisscrossed on his back.

“Baratus. Sir.” He’d stopped calling me by my clan name some time ago, but he couldn’t keep the formality out of his voice.

“Sit,” I said. “Let me clean this up.”

He put the bag on the desk and casually nudged a block of ammo so that it lay parallel to everything else. “There’s no need. I brought—“

“You didn’t have to.” My fingertips touched the back of his hand, lightly, just as he made to open the bag.

“I don’t mind.”

It turned out that he’d brought us handsome portions of home-cooked fish. When I complimented him, he flicked his mandibles and said it was nothing compared to my hospitality. Which, mind you, I had yet to show him. I couldn’t help but remember Desolas, lounging with the men during lunch and boasting that he was the worst cook in recent turian memory – even worse than the one who made the food in their bowls.

We decided to leave the still-warm boxes in my office; we could pick them up on the way to the canteen later and reheat them there. I took the lead at first as we walked, but eventually we ended up side-by-side. He passed me one of the swords – the one you currently possess. I inspected the worn grip. My fingers were paler that Desolas’. It didn’t look right.

“It belonged to him,” Saren said, echoing my thoughts. “I have my own.”

“You were both very skilled. I was impressed.”

He flicked a mandible. “Thank you, sir.” His voice was strained.

“Where did you learn the kata?”

“He taught me.”

“He did?”

“He said he used to practice it, reimagine it with someone from his old unit. At one point, I thought it was you.”

“It wasn’t me.” An icy hand gripped my insides. I wished it had been me. Surely I’d have taken things further, had it been me?

“I’m afraid I’m not as familiar with other forms,” he said, shaking me out of my reverie.

“It doesn’t matter. I want to learn.”

He was quiet for some time. We didn’t meet many people on the way, and none whom I recognised. It was after hours for most, and the base was no longer heavily staffed. The time for men of peace and parlay, not the likes of us, was at hand. Fortunately, the passers-by didn’t seem to recognise Saren either, even though his face was clearly shown for a few seconds during the broadcast. I would know. I had watched it on the net several times over after I got home. If you look up that cast, you can see him. You can see me, too, in the first row.

The walls inside the practice room were lightly padded and heavily worn. The panels were supposed to be refitted on a regular basis, but the men rarely booked this one, and it suffered from some degree of neglect. The room was also smaller than the others, hardly large enough to accommodate more than five or six. Worked fine for us, though.

I don’t know how he instructed you, but he was rather hesitant that day. Hesitant, and slightly unsure of his own methods. But he was very young then, as difficult as it may be for you to imagine, and the raw confidence we’re used to now was once reserved for the heat of battle.

“There’s a particular draw that we used. Are you interested?” He asked.

I was curious. Draw styles weren’t generally the focus of duelling. “Of course.”

He nodded to himself, then bent his knees slightly and began the slowest and most elaborate draw I’ve seen to date. He seemed to use the scabbard itself as a weapon, moving it sideways, swerving behind his waist before even showing a millimetre of blade. He finished in the standard begin position, strangely enough.

“That’s fascinating,” I said, hoping he’d elaborate.

“It’s done much more quickly in practice. Its purpose is to defend against multiple armed opponents simultaneously.”

“Care to show me?”

He looked at me, tilting his head a little; paused. Finally, he sheathed the sword again and held the scabbard to his hip.

“When you’re ready.”

I drew mine. “I’ll aim to your left.”

“You needn’t tell me.”

And I really didn’t have to. He blocked the first strike easily, then swung the scabbard around and he was suddenly at my side, already intercepting the return strike behind his waist. He drew in a glint of metal at the corner of my eye, and we found our swords crossed at the hilt, our knuckles almost touching. Right in time for my third strike.

“Impressive.”

Saren tucked his mandibles, perhaps in modest embarrassment. “He told me it originated from the mountains of the Rakan Sector, for swordsmen to protect themselves from bandit ambushes.”

Desolas had always liked history. I thought of the Temple again and my face must have grown rigid, because Saren started shifting his weight from one foot to the other and back, looking uncomfortable.

“It’s a beautiful technique,” I said quickly. “I’d like to try it. Will you show me again?”

I smiled at him. He blinked several times. “All right.”

I managed to get the basic form down that day. I could block his first strike, but the scabbard felt strange when I turned and I almost always missed the next. We used standard forms after the first fifty minutes or so. Of our two trial duels, I disarmed him in the first and had him at swordpoint in the second. It wasn’t his best performance. I expected that. The lethal eyes were absent.

“Thanks for coming,” I said as we pulled on our jackets. His plates were slightly lifted; it was a strenuous workout, and the small room didn’t help with the heat. I could see the ridges of his spine clearly through his undersuit. “I appreciate it.”

“Thank you,” he said.

We agreed to meet two days later – on my day off – at his apartment. It was under the pretense that I needed a bit of fresh air, some change of scenery, some pleasant companionship. I could’ve found all that at the recently refurbished Square Zero club atop the Elanus Tower, I reminded myself, but he didn’t seem reluctant to issue the invitation and I wasn’t going to refuse. I was already starting to grow fond of him, in a way.

He lived near the mountains. I took a skycar to the edge of the metropolis and the river delta, which took about an hour, and got on a land shuttle to his city. If I were to truly experience a change of scenery, I figured, I might as well take the scenic route.

It was quite scenic. The summer was officially at an end, but the sunshine and the wildlife clearly disagreed. My fellow passengers were an elderly couple and a much younger couple with a small child. The elderly couple was quite taken with the child, and they struck up a conversation with her mother. I smiled and looked out the window at the upcoming bridge over the Sonta. I should visit my own parents sometime. Take my mind off things.

When I arrived at the terminal, I found Saren sitting in a grey, plastic chair, datapad in hand.

“Have you been waiting for long?” I asked.

“No.” Though he probably has. He folded the thing and tucked it away. “I don’t drive, so we’ll have to take a taxi.”

“What about transit?” I wasn’t in any hurry.

But Saren was glancing at the young couple, now stepping into the lift for the transfer. The woman carried her daughter on her shoulder.

“The taxi’s better.”

We arrived at an entirely nondescript group of buildings, of the kind you’d often see on well-established, temperate colonies with a steady stream of funding. Open balconies, open quad. There were a few children playing a game of tag. There were men and women leaning against the banisters and chatting; some with glasses in hand, some with small dishes of fruit cubes. An elderly lady was hanging some laundry. She waved at Saren. Saren waved back.

I had never been in the area before. Desolas would have treated me to a night out at Square Zero instead.

“How long have you lived here?”

He didn’t look back while unlocking the door. “Since I was born.” Pause. “It was issued to my mother as compensation.”

He has a habit of doing that, doesn’t he?

The words it’s a nice place died on my tongue. Instead, I busied myself with putting away my jacket, fumbling a bit with the civvie fastenings.  I almost forgot about the paper-wrapped package in my pocket.

“You didn’t have to,” he said with a ghost of a smile.

“I don’t mind.”

I think he appreciated the gift. It was fifty-five grams of Thessian tea. He immediately prepared some in stainless steel mugs. He passed one to me.

“It’s quite hot,” I commented. I put my hands around the large mug. My fingertips barely crossed on the other side.

Saren nodded, and then opened the window at the far end of the commons. Since the door had been left open as well, this let in a pleasant breeze that certainly helped to cool the tea.

We settled on the couch, which was devoid of cushions just like the walls and shelves were devoid of art, and even kitsch. There was only the box-planter on the windowsill and the miniature, dark-leaved hedge that grew from it.

“Extremely tolerant to drought.” He’d been following my gaze. “I watered it months ago.”

That was before.

I looked at him sideways. Whereas Desolas would’ve leaned back and put his feet on the table, Saren was sitting more or less upright, balancing the mug perfectly on his knees. His fringe was more even, his mandibles shorter at the front. Not the same, Baratus.

“I’d still manage to kill it, I bet.” And then I laughed. To my surprise, he smiled behind a sip of the tea.

“Of course.” He stared into his mug. “It’s what we do.”

“You accept it?”

A pause. “No, I don’t.”

“I see.” I thought I did.

“It wasn’t fair.”

“No, it wasn’t fair.

“I don’t understand.”

I wanted to put my arm around him. And I grew uncomfortably warm. Because I could have. I very well could have. It would be like embracing a memory. I don’t know how you think of me as you read this. Not very highly, if I may fathom a guess.

But Saren was sipping his tea and paid me no attention for once. I took a second survey of the apartment. It was very small, and I could see both the commons and the kitchen at once. I noticed there were no holoframes, but there was an analog clock. It was early afternoon.

I sipped my own tea; it was very bitter. “We all have to cope.”

I remembered sitting on the cot with Desolas and looking at that wound. It had proven to be shallow on close inspection, the kind that would scar very little, if at all. I had taken my time with the antiseptic, and I had applied the bandage more carefully than ever before. Desolas only laughed at me. “I owe him one,” he’d said.

“Why?” I had asked.

Desolas had gestured to his forehead, indicating an invisible scar. “Gave him one right here. He wasn’t too happy about it.”

“I wouldn’t be either. He’s good-looking.”

Desolas had laughed again.

And now I was sitting with Saren and a mug of bitter tea, and neither of us were laughing.

Saren looked directly at me, as if searching for something. “You were close?”

I had grown offended somehow. No, probably just teasing. Desolas had looked ridiculous with the bandage, after all. “Unlike you,” I’d said to him, elbowing his ribs. “How are you even related?”

“Unfortunately.” But he grew serious. “He’s very good at what he does.”

I had raised an eye ridge. “Evidently.”

“I need to introduce you properly sometime.”

So he had, twisted as the circumstances were.

“You could say that,” I replied to Saren, who nodded and relapsed into silence again. How could I begin to help? I doubted myself, for I mourned just as deeply. And I was beginning to see things. Such as how his silver eyes reflected light rather than soften it like the blue-gray of Desolas’. Similar, different. Different, similar.

I had muttered a quick ‘sure’ to Desolas. I couldn’t have cared less about introductions, but if it meant getting more familiar, then I’d prepare the utmost enthusiasm as a matter of course. My forearm had been resting on his leg for a while. I left it there for a little longer.

“You forgot to close the door,” he’d remarked dryly.

You know, they both had a habit of doing that.

“Sorry.”

“It’s quite peaceful for the eve of battle,” he’d said as the door slid closed. “Only, it’s a bit cold.”

I didn’t dare.

I didn’t dare. You would’ve done it, I suspect. Not I. Maybe all I did was trade one more wound for one more regret.

I recall myself saying: “Strange. It’s only midsummer.”

“It’s only midsummer,” he’d repeated.

—  

Saren and I eventually, somehow, managed to relax. Perhaps it was because we decided to step out for a bit, roll up our sleeves and lounge against the banister like the people across the quad. The sun favoured our side, and the tea tasted less bitter when cold. We talked about things I’ve now forgotten. There were some new rifles being field-tested, some dreadnought being decommissioned in orbit and so on. He refilled our mugs once.

It grew dark without our noticing. We only went back in when Saren gave a sudden start and apologised for having forgotten about dinner. I told him not to worry, but he said he’d make a quick stew.

I rarely cooked for myself, so it was a pleasure to watch him work. He set the stove to let the stew simmer for a while. “We could have some cold cuts in the mean time. This’ll take a few minutes.”

“I’m fine.”

I had been leaning on the counter on my elbows; he moved to copy me, leaning in from the other side. “It’s nothing fancy. Vatgrown.”

I smiled. “What do you think the canteen serves every day?”

“You’re a first-class general. I thought—“

I could have made special orders had I wanted. Of course, Desolas never had; he was always in the canteen or in the beat-up commons, watching the men play on an ancient gaming console and occasionally getting cajoled into a round himself. I was often there with him. He’d laugh at all the inappropriate jokes, even gossip about that new Major and a smitten Lieutenant’s chances, or lack thereof. Oftentimes I felt as out of place as a krogan in a china shop. Or china in a krogan den. But I stuck with it.

“I like to mingle,” I said.

“I see.” Pause. “So did he.”

“What about you?”

“Not really.” He looked at his own fingers. I still thought he was shy. Maybe he was – who’d know? – before the years turned it to a wall of silence.

“Sometimes though … I tire of it.” I looked around. It was completely dark now, except for the thousands of lit windows in the distance. I noticed that Saren’s windows came with blackout screens. “This is nice.”

“It is.”

“We should do this more often.”

“We should.”

If he hadn’t told me beforehand, I would not have guessed in a million years that the stew was vatgrown. Usually, people cooked it sloppily – hey, it’s cheap, why not – but Saren did it well, and I even had some seconds.

True to our word, we decided that he should visit the base more frequently. I was eager to continue our duelling sessions, and it was convenient because he could get there just as my work was finished, whereas I’d have to spend extra time commuting if I were to come here. I offered to rent a shuttle for him. Of course he said no thank you, he’d manage. I mentioned the speed, the convenience. He said he had a bicycle.

On a whim, I took the land shuttle again on the way home. There was little to see. Occasionally, I could distinguish the hazy outlines of landmark skyscrapers, and the night traffic at the civilian spaceport was always a sight to behold. Eventually, though, I drifted off.

I should be ashamed of telling you what I’m telling you now, but for the sake of honesty I’ll go on, if you’ll forgive me. When I slept on the shuttle, I dreamed of Saren.

I was taking Desolas to the washroom, you see; the bandage was ready to come off, and I was determined to show him that there would be no scar. I had one arm around his waist while my other hand peeled off the plastic. There was no scar. I smiled at him and looked in the mirror.

Of course it was Saren in my arms now. His body felt hot; his spinal plates were lifted, perturbing the undersuit. I touched his face. Spirits, there was some give to it, just enough for me to press my thumb exactly into the hollow of his cheek. He was taller than me – Desolas wasn’t – but the bewildered look on his face made him look even younger than he was. And I wanted to sleep with him.

In the dream, I did. Which meant that I woke up flustered and alone. The shuttle was just pulling into the station, thank goodness, and my jacket was long enough.

Once the image was in my mind, I couldn’t dispel it not matter how hard I tried. Maybe because I didn’t try very hard. I tried to convince myself that it was fine. I missed Desolas, that was all. We both did.

Except there was always that nagging little voice in the back of my head. They look exactly alike. Even their voices are alike.

I never had the strength to tell it to shut up. Instead, I busied myself with examining the ridges on Saren’s back; I always booked that tiny room with the faulty air conditioning, because I could. I defeated him often. Every time I did, and our blades crossed centimetres from his face, I had these little flashes, visions. I’d hold him, yes; I’d run my hand down his back and feel those raised plates for myself. And perhaps, I’d unfasten his—

You get the idea.

I’m not particularly pious, but back then I wondered, daily, what Desolas would think of me. I never asked for forgiveness. Only explanations. To this day I have received neither.

We would often sit in my office and chat for a while before he went home. I never offered for him to stay overnight. I was afraid he’d accept; I was afraid he’d decline.

He was reading the news on his datapad with his legs crossed, one arm draped over the armrest. And then he looked up at me.

I was going through some reports, though my heart wasn’t in it. “What is it?” I asked.

“Are you free the day after tomorrow?”

It was my day off. I was going to visit my parents, but I had decided against it a few days ago. It felt wrong. Saren didn’t have anyone else.

“Yes. What do you have in mind?”

He swallowed. “I… wanted to spend some time here.”

“Ah. Well, there’s the museum. I haven’t been there in a while. Or how about a short cruise?”

“I want to go to the Temple.”

“Ah.” Ah.

“It’s fine if you have other things to attend to,” he added quickly. “I don’t—“

“I want to go with you.”

It was a bright, summery day again, even though we’ve pushed yet another week into the realm of autumn. I brought an extra jacket and an umbrella in my daypack, just in case. At that time of the year, the weather tended to change its mind quickly and frequently, even if there were no clouds on the horizon when I looked out the window. The ocean was a deep teal that day, and I could see leisure boats like so many specks of dust, occasionally drawing apart to admit behemoth cargo ships and the rare fishing rig. From this altitude, even those looked like toys.

I looked towards the east, down the escarpment. The military base was there, the off-limits spaceport where we received our returning troops. Its metal blast shields reflected the golden light. The Temple site was even further east. I couldn’t see it; a highrise was in the way, and it was half-hidden in a forest of rock formations.

I used to go there on occasion, when I was a child. The Temple sat low in terms of elevation, and the tide would cover the grounds every so often, sometimes even lap at the front steps of the entrance. The stone used in the structure shone a bright jade green when stricken by light, and, in turn, so would the water. It had been fun to explore the shallow pools left behind, and the creatures in them.

I pulled away from my apartment window and checked the time. Eight. I should go.

I picked him up from the terminal in my second-hand skycar. He wasn’t dressed for mourning: a simple black shirt, grey pants, messenger bag.

“I want to see it again,” he said as he slid in the front passenger’s seat, before I even opened my mouth. “I didn’t, last time.”

We passed by the Spire on the way there. It was atop the escarpment, and only minutes away from the Temple. There was no singing today. I activated the external feed, too; nothing. Too bad.

At least it meant we could find parking almost overlooking the Subourus Plaza, now reconstructed in white marble. There was a long, winding staircase down the side of the cliff – the narrow way. I almost reached for his hand as we descended, but checked myself at the last second.

Saren stopped in his tracks when he reached the bottom. He took a few deep, even breaths, his eyes closed. I copied him. The smell of the ocean was heavy and calming.

“The tide’s in half an hour,” I told him.

“That’s good.”

The Plaza consisted of a network of intricate walkways, carved from whole blocks of stone. Beneath that was an equally complex system of water channels, rock beds, shallow pools – a sight to behold once the tide comes in. I thought he was going to rest at one of the stone benches lining the side, but he pressed on.

A sunny day meant the Plaza was full of people, half residents, half camera-toting tourists. I had an easy time blocking out the chatter because I had to keep my eyes on Saren, who was moving through the crowd with such purpose that more than a few actually stepped out of his way. He only slowed down near the other side.

The front steps were still there. Redone, of course, but the incoming water would be able reach their foot, just like old times. Beyond that was a maze of stone planters and native plants growing out of the gravel.

“Shall we?”

Saren’s eyes searched upward until they rested on the tip of the obelisk. “Yes.”

It took us longer to get to it than it did for the water. We watched it rush past our feet. We smiled at each other. That part of the walkway was nice and cool, and I observed the shadows of leaves dance across his face, all without a word. I can’t write down the feelings that flowed through me. I can’t. But I know you understand.

“Come on,” he finally said, and took my hand.

We settled on the edge of one of the planters, which had been subtly sculpted to serve as a seat. Our fingers had become entwined along the way and I was in no hurry to disengage, but Saren pulled away first.

“Water?” He pulled out an aluminum bottle, opened it, and offered it to me.

“I’m fine.”

He sipped from it and put it away.

“What do you think?” I asked.

I took in the view with him. The obelisk mimicked the spires of the Temple, but in white. Only its base was made of that green stone; judging by its appearance, it could have been part of the original structure. The whole area was surrounded by tall, close-grown trees, mimicking the green walls of the great domed hall. But the sky was our dome now, high overhead, crisscrossed by airplanes and birds alike.

“It’s beautiful.”

It was, compared with last time.

I had a flashback of journalists and flashing hovercams, of an amorphous mass of robed men, women, and children all blending in with the pitter-patter of the rain. Saren had been wearing that plain black cloak with the hood pulled low. It had kept his clothes dry, but his shoes had been soaked; even though the tide had been low, a centimeter of rain had gathered beneath the steps. My deepest recollection, however, had to do with his eyes. He had not looked away from Desolas’ name even for a second.

After the dedication ceremony had concluded, he had stayed behind. So did about a dozen others, presumably fellow mourners. But, one after the other, in twos and threes, they had all eventually faded into the oncoming night. I had coughed, alerting him to my presence.

“Are you leaving?”

“Eventually,” he’d said. His voice had been hoarse. “Go ahead, Baratus.”

I had pretended to leave, but stopped where the entrance to the great hall would have been and watched him for a while. He had stayed completely still for the longest time.

I had left first.

I reached for his hand again and didn’t stop this time. I drew my fingers over the back of his hand more firmly than I had the first time he’d brought dinner to my office. He looked at me questioningly.

“Beautiful,” I said. I tucked my mandibles. “He was.”

You may have noticed that my younger self was a complete and utter fool. Now that I’m old, I use that as a convenient excuse.

Saren grew very still. “I see.”

What could I have said? As are you? I winced just thinking about it.

“Something wrong?”

“Nothing,” I lied.

Saren nodded. “I think Solas – Desolas would’ve liked to hear that.”

And then, would you believe it, he shuffled closer and rested his head on the edge of the planter, looking into the sky. I stiffened, then relaxed so much that our legs touched because I didn’t want him to sense me stiffen. He seemed perfectly fine with it, though; his eyes eventually fluttered closed. I knew he wasn’t sleeping, but I slowed down my breathing as well, letting myself go under bit by bit.

Why, Desolas, why?

I dreamed, as was usual in those days, even in my half-waking state. I don’t remember the details, only the swirls of whites and greens and the silver of Saren’s face beneath my lips and the trail of plates down his back and the smell of Palaven rain pine. When I came to, Saren still had his eyes closed and his fingers interlaced over his stomach, blissfully unaware of me crossing my legs and blushing in embarrassment.

Eventually we did sit apart. He took a gulp of water again and wiped his mouth on his sleeve.

“How many more weeks of leave?”

“Many. I asked for two months.”

I leaned back, considering. “What do you plan to do?”

He shrugged and said nothing.

“Are you looking forward to going back?”

He shrugged again. “Somewhat.”

“Tell me more about your work.”

“It’s challenging,” he said after a pause. “No two situations are the same. Improvisation is key.”

I remembered the night duel, backlit by the floodlights. “I can imagine. How long are your missions? Do you often work with the legions?” Things I knew already, but Spirits, I wanted to hear that voice.

“A few weeks, in general. We have our own specialists. If the legions are involved, we’re support or spec-ops.”

“I see.”

“May I ask about your work?”

He was just being polite. “It’s rather dull. You’ve seen me at it.”

“What about recreation?”

“I can’t remember now, since I spend so much time with you.” I laughed at his aghast expression. “I’m not into much. This is the best week I’ve had in a while. You?”

“I don’t have many pastimes, either.”

But he didn’t praise our time together.

We ended up going to my apartment some time before the evening tide, mainly because Saren had shown no inclination for going home, and there was a restaurant with excellent take-out that had recently been opened on Caralis Street. His eyes were wide when we stepped out of the parking tube and into the tower lobby.

“Millions on interior work, and one in three elevators still out of service. Come on.”

I pulled him along by his wrist. It wasn’t limp, but he didn’t offer any resistance. I was very nervous about what I was doing and tried to keep the tremors out of my body as we rapidly crossed the polished marble floor. My neck flushed blue instead; I caught my own reflection in one of the wall-length mirrors, and immediately looked away.

My place was in complete disarray. Not more so than usual, but I couldn’t help but wonder what Saren thought of me when he looked from the dusty bifilari case, to the couch piled high with cushions and clothes, to the haphazard pile of hardcopies on the dining table, and, finally, to the overturned shoes near the door. His apartment had been spotless.

“You can leave yours anywhere. I don’t mind.”

I watched him leave his boots in a corner, perfectly upright, and wondered why did I ever think this would be a good idea.

“Come on in,” I said when he wouldn’t budge from the doorway. “Here, sit.” I rapidly cleared an area on the couch, by which I mean transferred the mess to an unfortunate dining chair. The side table was a bit low, but relatively uncluttered. It would do for eating. I was in the middle of unwrapping my box and stifling a growl from my stomach when my omni rang. It was my sister.

“Be right with you. I have to take this.”

“All right.” He made to put his box back. I stopped him, waved a quick ‘you go ahead’, then picked up.

“Hey,” I spoke quietly into the mic on the way to my bedroom. “What’s the occasion?”

“Pa called yesterday.”

“Oh,” I replied, tiredness suddenly dripping from my voice. “Well, what’d he say?”

“He wants to have a reunion soon. You know, since he and ma are about to go on that vacation.”

“Are they coming back to Palaven en route or something?” I lay back on my bed, arm behind my head.

“That’s just it. Only in orbit for the transfer. I’d love to take Ika offworld, but I’m not sure if I can get time off at the agency.”

“Yeah, I see,” I nodded, half-listening.

There was a pause. “So do you think you can make it?”

“I’m not sure either.” I was sure. Time with Saren was more important. “Probably not.”

“Is work that bad? You sound completely worn out.”

I looked around the room. The bed, with its navy blue sheets, wasn’t meant for one person, and Spirits knew how many times I’d woken up with the taste of his skin on my tongue, eyelids heavy with sleep, and—

“It’s pretty bad.”

Another pause, and I realized I had to give her something. “You know the dreadnought we’re decommissioning? Do you know how much classified tech is in that thing?” I mock groaned. “Guess. I dare you.”

“Billion credits.”

“Not even close. And that’s not counting the eezo.”

“Spirits.”

“Yeah.”

I allowed the silence to speak the words I wouldn’t. Thankfully, she was a good listener.

“I should let you rest.”

I smiled. “Thanks, sis.”

“Bye, Baratus.”

I shut off the feed and collapsed into the sheets. I hadn’t realised that my back muscles were all tense and knotted until I tried to relax them. I needed a hot bath and a shot of liqueur. Yes. And trade these pants for something more loose. Then I remembered that Saren was still in my apartment and leaped up with renewed vigor.

If he’d heard anything from that exchange, he didn’t show it. He was almost halfway through his food, and seemed to be quite interested in a holoframe on a corner table. It was displaying a slideshow that my mother had compiled months ago.

“Is that your sister?”

“Yeah. And that’s her husband.” I finally got to my dinner. “That’s my niece. And those are my parents. My father was in army intelligence. Really fond of that uniform, you can tell.”

I talked about my family briefly. Saren lost interest in eating by the time I got halfway through my meatloaf; nothing I could do but put down my utensils as well.

“Can I get you something to drink?” The question slipped out naturally. If it were Desolas in his place, he’d be raiding my cabinets on his own and pouring some pomdargent cider. He liked the sweet type, brought from the tropics by those behemoth cargo ships coming and going through the harbour. I looked at the floor-to-ceiling window in the commons, but it was so dark out that I could only see my own reflection.

“No thank you. I don’t drink.”

How many times had I told Desolas to quit it? Never seriously, of course. But I had warned him that this behaviour could get us broke. And he’d just smile and say, “Sell this place, then. We can room like cadets.” I’d blush and mutter something about my father getting a hernia and pour us another round, as if that would solve everything.

“Water? Tupari?”

Saren looked out the window, too, as if he could see something beyond our reflections, doubled in the layered glass. He frowned. “I should be going.”

“Stay,” I blurted out, yet somehow managed to salvage it. “Stay. I can drive you back. When’s the last shuttle?”

But he was already standing up and slinging his bag over one shoulder. “My bicycle’s at the terminal. Better go by myself.”

“All right then.” I sighed, bit my tongue, and walked him to the door. Along the way, I picked out my long jacket from the rack and dropped it around his shoulders. “It’s cold out. Ten, I think.”

“Autumn’s finally coming.”

“That must be it.” I sighed again.

A road of his own

Let me tell you about Palaven rain pine.

When Desolas visited me, and it was often, two or three times a month, there were two possible reasons. One, we had work to do and preferred to do it in the peace and comfort of my home; or two, we were drunk. In the first case, then, he would always be prim and proper and freshly groomed, and in the second, we would support each other in unsteady steps and the smell of Palaven rain pine would overwhelm even the alcohol. Desolas had living privileges at the base, but sometimes we were so out of it that he’d just sleep on the couch and wake up complaining that there were too many hard spots. I had quite the collection of cushions by the end. And they’d all smell like that.

So after I saw Saren off at the lobby, I returned to my apartment, added one more pair of shoes to the disarray, and checked the couch. And sure enough, I hadn’t mistaken at the memorial park. They even smelled the same.

“Fuck,” I said to no one in particular.

I kicked off my pants and tossed them on top of another dining chair, then changed my mind about getting a baggier pair. I slept half-naked on the couch that night. And damn, were there some hard spots.

Inevitably, it led to an uncomfortable morning. Uncomfortable cold shower, uncomfortable scratchy clothes because I’d forgotten about the laundry, and uncomfortable hunger during the morning because I’d run out of quick-heat breakfasts. On the bright side, though, the chef’s special had never tasted better come lunchtime, and there were some intriguing messages in my inbox.

For obvious reasons, I had always tried to keep my relationship with Saren a secret, and succeeded. The gate guards were as imperturbable as their reputation whenever I talked with them, and my staff certainly didn’t treat me any differently. Even the men made only your average number of innuendo-based jokes in the canteen, none of which had been directed at myself. My reputation had been safe.

Until Saren showed up that day.

He came at the same time as usual, after most have checked out for the day. Carrying one sword only, since by the second session he’d let me keep Desolas’ blade in my office. But damn it, my jacket was obviously too broad in the shoulders and too loose at the hips on him. I was talking to Nekil at the front desk to pass time. The hall was far from empty. And then he walked right up to me and draped the jacket over my arm. His chest was this close to mine.

“You were right. It was cold. Thanks,” he broadcasted to everyone within earshot.

I put on the best smile I could manage, which amounted to a crooked one showing too much teeth, and my words must’ve sounded like machine-gun fire. “Welcome. Now let’s go. See you around, Nekil.”

“Have fun,” she said, sly grin growing steadily wider.

But I couldn’t ponder its significance for long. Saren was a worthy opponent, and I had to divert all my attention to the fight, especially when I was trying to learn that strange, fluid kata. Saren had spent hours upon hours perfecting the draw with me, insisting that everything else would come easier once I got used to the opening. That’s what my old instructor used to tell me back in ACT/+, and it was true. I had finally managed to block your average first two incoming strikes just days before, and the pace of my progress had picked up steadily since then. The approval I could sometimes catch in his eyes sent pleasant shivers through me.

Saren, meanwhile, had recovered some of his finesse in the regular forms. I was finding it increasingly difficult to anticipate his moves, and, in a rare flash of insight, I somehow knew that the shroud of mourning had let in a ray of light; he was on his way back to his brand of normalcy. I suppose I was happy.

We ended with a draw that night, his blade coming up to slice my ribs, mine resting gently on his shoulder.

“You’re getting better,” I said.

He shifted a mandible. “Your mind was elsewhere.”

I ignored his comment; it was innocent. “Have you been practicing at home?”

“No.”

“What…”

But he foresaw my question. “I read. Hike.” Pause. “Meditate.”

“So your schedule is full?”

He slid into his shirt, fixing a crumpled collar. “What do you want, Baratus?”

“I was wondering if you’d like to go to Square Zero.” Smooth. Just like that.

He frowned. “At the Elanus?”

“That’s the one.”

“Now?”

“Whenever.” I put my own shirt back on despite the lingering heat inside the room. “How about it?”

“You have work tomorrow.”

Oh. Right. Work. “I do. But it doesn’t matter,” I challenged.

Saren seemed to consider it. “How about in four days?”

The day before my next break. “Sounds good. Should I pick you up?”

He tilted his head. “We can go after practice.”

Oh. Right. Practice.

The rest of the week was a blur. I vaguely remember booking us on the guest list; I definitely remember sleeping on the couch for one more night before deciding that a sore back wasn’t worth it. I was so full of anticipation and anxiety that I shut my ears off to the comments, such as an “always thought you hated the cabals, eh?” with the accompanying nudge, or the more blatant “way to think fast, you sly thing” with a roguish wink.

The funny part was I didn’t even know why I was so anxious. Sure, Square Zero was one of my favourites. Sure, Saren was coming. But it didn’t mean anything. I hadn’t planned anything. I wouldn’t dare.

But in the back of my head, something was brewing. Why else would I have taken him to a club? Him? Who, purely to remind me of how wrong I was, showed up four days later in a cabal uniform?

“Nice outfit,” I said as we lifted off from the pavement.

Saren was peering out the window, watching the ground recede underneath us. “I don’t have anything else formal.”

“What about the standard uniform?”

“White. Too visible.”

I made a mental note to introduce him to a tailor sometime.

The skyways were cluttered at night – they always were, but it seemed more frustrating than usual: learning drivers, speeders, even a truck with minor-axis spin. Despite the magic of the autopilot, I had a hard time with it. Saren unhelpfully remarked that public transit would have gotten us there already. I replied by snarling. He gave a rare chuckle and reminded me that we were in no hurry. I drove more patiently after that.

Fortunately, things went smoothly at the club itself. I’d been there more than a few times before the renovation, and the doorman had an incredible memory. It was crowded inside. The back-to-back, hip-to-hip kind of crowded. And the dance floor, raised a metre off the ground, was full of twentysomethings making fools of themselves, backlit by violet and ultraviolet spotlights.

I resorted to BCT gestures to tell Saren: Let’s go. Next room over. He was clutching his head with one hand. His eyes seemed unfocused, trying desperately to dodge the light beams that fell to his face every so often. His other hand had one of my fingers in a titanium grip. Unlike at the Plaza, no one moved aside or even seemed to acknowledge our presence, so I made use of my years of experience breaking up brawls to elbow our way through, stepping on more than a few toes.

After a restricted corridor and a handsome set of double doors, a completely different sight greeted our eyes.

“Finally,” Saren said, then looked around and up. “Ah.”

I was glad they didn’t retouch this place much. “They grew that dome in a lab. One piece of crystal.”

We were on the roof of the Elanus, safely sheltered from the high-altitude winds by a single, giant crystal dome high above our heads. When hail or whipped-up pebbles were on a collision course, you could see the hidden mass effect field come into play, much like your kinetic barriers. But the sky was clear that night, though the light of the city obscured the stars.

The clientele here was slightly more sophisticated, the floor definitely less crowded. Even the bar was visible, and I could catch occasional glimpses of the bartenders.

“I can get us something.”

Saren didn’t refuse; must be politeness. “Thank you,” he said. “I’ll be over there.” He pointed towards the rim of the dome.

I knew and liked the club favourite – Skydiver, advertised as an adventurous mix of hard liquors, with or without ryncol depending on the bartender’s mood. What about Saren? Would a more classic drink, like an Artillery, be better? But I’d already made my way to the front, and the barman was looking at me expectantly.

“Two Skydivers,” I said, pressing a chit to the counter.

He ended up leaving out the ryncol.

It was easy to find Saren; his choice had been wise, as I only had to walk along the rim before noticing a dark figure leaning on the outer banister, a healthy distance away from anyone else. Here where people could see clearly, the cabal uniform was doing wonders.

“The building has two hundred and ten storeys,” he said as he received his drink, “I think I can see my city from here.”

I didn’t peer over the brink. I was already feeling the effects of vertigo from being near him, and didn’t need more… encouragement. “Some days there are clouds below. They brighten it with searchlights. It’s a great view.”

“Nothing a ship can’t provide,” he smiled over the rim of his glass. He’d already taken a few sips.

“Speaking of ships, I’m finally through with the Relentless business. Frees up a dozen cruisers for more important duties, thank goodness.”

“How was the bid on the core?”

“It’ll be stockpiled.” I scoffed. “It’s too late to alter the plans for the replacement, and they’ve sent out the orders.”

We talked about ships for a little longer. He praised the speed and manoeuvrability of the cabal’s fleet, but also expressed his appreciation for the firepower of my legion’s numerous cruisers and three dreadnoughts. He knew their names, plus those of the Hierarchy’s other thirty-one.

“If you were to captain one, which would you choose?”

He thought about it. “I would stay with the cabal. A Giliath-class, perhaps.”

“I heard Spectres favour that, these days.”

“Where…?”

I shrugged. “I go through a lot of asset requests. What do you think about them?”

“The Spectres?”

“The Spectres.”

“They deserve the best.” He drank a mouthful at once, but it seemed to go down smoothly. “They’re the will of the Council.”

“I idealised them, too, when I was your age.”

“They’re not an ideal. They’re a fact.”

I smiled. “You’re right. I would’ve made for a poor Spectre, in any case.”

There was a period of silence. Even the music dimmed in my ears.

“I don’t know how I’d fare,” he said, looking into the distance. There was only a finger of liquid left in his glass; he swirled it around and around. I drained mine.

“Do you want to find out?”

The swirling stopped. The vortex died. His silver eyes were fixed on the horizon.

“What are you asking me, Baratus?”

“I go through a lot of asset requests.”

“Asset requests—“

“Indeed. For example, this week, I was approached by the Grand Marshal to select a suitable candidate for entry to the prestigious Special Tactics and Reconnaissance branch of the Council’s forces.” I looked to him for a reaction. Nothing. Just silver eyes, wide open.

“I considered a number of outstanding soldiers from my legion, as well as portfolios forwarded to me by cabal liaisons. Just by glancing over the selection, though, there was one obvious choice.”

I smiled. “And he’s standing right beside me.”

“Why?” He asked. His voice was steady, but the hand clutching the glass was trembling.

“Deep down we all know what the Spectres do for a living. Though not many dwell on it.” I looked outside with him. I sighed deeply. “They make decisions others can’t. They make sacrifices others won’t. They put the good of the galaxy before their own. Before their own lives. Even before the lives of their loved ones, which is by far the more difficult. And they operate in secret, so they must have the strength of character to carry this burden with them, always, until the end of their days.

“Still wonder why I gave them your name, Saren?” I didn’t have to turn; I could see his clear image in the crystal.

“No,” he said quietly, his eyes more reflective than ever. “I don’t. Thank you, Baratus. If there’s anything—“

“Do you want to leave this place?” I put my hand over his.

“If you wish.” He downed the rest of his drink.

When we got in the car, the first thing I did was set the autopilot, instructing it to take the least populated path. Then, I peeled off my gloves and made to wipe his cheeks with the soft cuff of my undershirt.  He sat still and let me do it, closing his eyes obediently. His breathing was warm and even; it tickled the insides of my wrists.

I cupped his face in my hands, making him look at me straight on rather than sideways. “Will you come home with me?”

“You’ve already set the address.”

My heart was threatening to beat itself to death, and all that betrayed it was the smallest of smiles. “Will you?”

“Of course.” He said it like it was the most natural thing in the world.

Why, Desolas, Why?

I held on to his hand the whole way back, but he wouldn’t look at me for any period of time. It was always a hurried, curious glance my way before returning to examining the nightscape, and I couldn’t bear it. I’d make him.

Yes. I’d make him look at me. He’s never done it. Not seriously. Not for two years.

It was the alcohol speaking. Damn it, I thought, I usually didn’t let it go to my head like that, especially not when I’ve only had one. I’d have to be careful. Every step must be perfect before I could congratulate myself, come to peace with myself.

You’ve always wanted to taste those fringe blades, it piped up again.

I rubbed my jaw. Shut it. I don’t want to hear that crap.

Such was my internal monologue for the duration of the journey. I don’t think Saren had any clue. When we finally parked, he stepped out, patted his shirt flat, and waited at the door for me as if everything was normal, as if it was exactly like the first time he’d been there. I decided that either he was a tease, or he wanted to wait until we were out of sight before providing any truly gossip-worthy material.  His eyes were dry now.

Tease, I thought as I watched his backside, his exotic profile. Definitely a tease.

I waited only as long as it took for the apartment door to close and lock behind me. He was bending down and removing his shoes when I sneaked an arm around his waist.

“Baratus?” He froze. Oh Spirits. He was so warm, and I was so dizzy.

“Saren.” I leaned down as well and breathed into his ear, cursing the piece of cloth in the way. “Hurry.”

He kicked off his shoes, somehow managing to leave them perfectly aligned. “What is it?”

“Don’t act like you don’t know. Come.” I began dragging him by the wrist.

“Are you drunk?”

Was I drunk? I remembered Desolas calling me drunk. Many times. He’d offer another shot, pat me on the back and say I was an awesome boss—

I turned around, backed him against my bedroom wall, shoved myself into his personal space like I had every right.

And I kissed him.

He resisted. Of course he would. Once a tease, always a tease. But where his lips wouldn’t yield, his shirt did. I took apart all the fasteners and he didn’t stop me. Maybe couldn’t, because I’d sneaked a hand into his undone waistband and started groping everything I could find, and my other hand was running up and down his side, tracing the sharpness of his hips and the fluid curve of his waist.

Saren opened his mouth for me, then, with the softest sigh transitioning into an equally quiet moan. His eyes were half-closed, but they were on me and made me kiss him with more fervour, more energy than I had thought possible.

You’ve waited for two years. What’s not possible?

I was too busy to nod. His tongue was awkward, unsure, on the threshold between his lips and mine. His arms were loose around my waist. I recalled the very first time we sparred. Are you interested?

“Let me teach you something,” I muttered into his mouth, sliding the tip of my tongue against his. “Something good.”

He started doing the same. First experimentally, circling the opponent, gauging his size, his skill, then with more confidence and slick warmth, not minding the occasional lick to the mandible. Quick study. “Hm?”

“Yeah, like that.” I was more aroused than I had thought possible, too. So I shoved a knee into the space between his thighs, kept it there, and pressed my crotch into the hollow of his hip. I was unplated. I’m sure he could feel it.

“But that’s not what I meant,” I told him.

“What—“

“Shh,” I whispered, biting his mandible. The surface was almost soft, like a leather scabbard around a sword. “Come.”

I released him from the wall and led him to my bed; his hands were clenched. He’s as excited as you are. All this time, he wanted you too.

He sat down obediently when I put a heavy hand on his shoulder. Looked at me with an undecipherable expression while I drew away that piece of cloth so I could finally access the side of his neck, where there was no trace of the scar. No, don’t go for his neck yet. He needed to be flat on his back and exposed before I did that, and I had all the time in the world.

But I could do all that in seconds, so why not? I put an arm around him and kissed him again, lowering him degree by excruciating degree until his head hit the pillow. Then I climbed over him. Realised I didn’t take off his shirt. Realised I could fuck him anyway.

He isn’t some cheap fling, you bastard. Help him out of it.

He can deal with it.

How can you be so fucking impatient?

“I’ve waited for two whole years. I don’t give a damn.” Yeah, that sounded about right. But he stiffened; the soft abdomen I’d been ghosting over went rigid, and his knees, once so enticingly spread, snapped together.

“What’s wrong?” I dipped my head into his cowl, finding the spot where I’d removed the bandage just moments ago. It was warm, moist with sweat, and I could find a pulse if I pressed hard enough. And the Palaven rain pine. Finally. Beneath my tongue. Beneath my body and its familiar hunger.

“Baratus…”

The young turian beneath me had killed before. He had met alien species on foreign worlds and fought them and conquered them. He had resurrected legends and buried them again. But Spirits, his tone was so disarming that I chuckled mid-lick.

“I’ll be gentle,” I breathed as I made a trail of kisses towards his ear and a beautiful Valluvian horn I had always wanted to nibble. “Trust me.” I tugged at his pants. “It’ll be good.” I traced the few accessible spinal plates. They were not raised.

He batted my hands away. He was being silly. Childish. But I would convert him. The patch of skin beneath the ear was usually a good spot.

Then I encountered a problem. A strangely regular plate. Metal against my tongue.

Amp slots at the age of twelve. Can’t forgive myself for missing the operation—

It was like liquid nitrogen pouring into my veins, making my limbs stiff and brittle, piercing my heart with my own frozen blood.

I just got deployed. You remember, right? That time when–

“What?” I managed, from an aching jaw and a throat that felt like it was ballooned to twice its normal size.

Couldn’t be there for him most of the time. I don’t know. When I look into his eyes sometimes– but those mirror eyes have already told their truth.

I stumbled into the bathroom, ducking because I did not, did not, want to see my reflection. I collapsed into a boneless mass over the sink and vomited until it felt like my guts were dribbling out my mouth and I was seeing black spots and then I just dry heaved for a good eternity or so.

Unsurprisingly, when I finally peered outside, he was gone.

I left the mess for the morning. You know, by now, I tended to do that. I’m not ashamed to admit that I was ashamed.

I walked out of the bathroom eventually. The barren faux-stone floor was cold beneath my feet. Saren had left a shallow impression on one side of my unmade bed; I slept on the other, fully clothed, above the sheets. I did not dream for the first night in a long series of lonely nights, and I woke to the midday sun in my eyes and the rush of traffic in the distance.

There were no messages in my personal inbox—none from Saren. My mouth tasted like my innards and my throat was dry as the flatlands of Tuchanka. I stuck my face under the bathroom tap and stayed like that for a while, until all the filth I’d left in the sink washed down the drain and my tongue became numb. I looked up at the mirror, as if for the first time. My markings were fresh, but my face was worn.

“I fucked up,” I said to myself.

The reflection nodded.

I ducked back down and took a few more thirsty gulps of water. This was stupid. The situation never should’ve happened. And now that it had, I better un-fuck it quick. Listening to my own reflection wasn’t going to do me any good. But as soon as I stepped into the bedroom again, the sight of the impression he’d left made me stop in my tracks.

I tucked my mandibles. Don’t be thick, Baratus. I picked up my datapad again. And I wrote him a short message, so unlike this letter. But ah, the frankness was the same.

Saren, I wrote. I want to talk. Do you?

I considered adding more, but decided against it. What would be the point? Yes or no. That was all I needed. Yes or no.

I got more than I bargained for. He replied within an hour, rousing me from my half-coma, half-doze. The sun was still in my eyes.

In a week, my apartment?

I wrote back immediately. Thank you. See you then.

And immediately collapsed again. A week. An entire week.

Needless to say, it was a terrible week. I arrived at the base promptly at morning and left promptly at night, never putting more than a strained smile between myself and the gate guards. I brought Desolas’ sword home. My staff must have had their suspicions, but they said nothing about Saren’s sudden absence. Even Nekil was nothing but polite. Perhaps it was because I scowled so often, and signed documents more viciously than usual.

I stopped going to that restaurant on Caralis for dinner. The taste was too good for my stomach to handle. Instead, I invested in frozen foods and cans of stew.

I did not turn to drink. Whenever I felt the urge, I simply lay on his side of the bed and stared at the ceiling until I fell asleep. The dreams no longer came, as if they were afraid of the rage and self-loathing buried in my chest. The pillow did not contain the faintest trace of rain pine.

My sister called one day, as I lay in that lifeless state. Ma and pa were on vacation now, they’d just left yesterday, and did I need anything, and should we meet in the meantime? I told her that the Relentless’ hull was just beginning to be dismantled, and yes, I’d love to meet, but no, I had so much work to do. I had just too much work to do. Well, she said, we could always do it another time.

Sure, I said, call me. I disconnected.

And then I could see Saren, sitting in front of an old terminal and peering into a pixelated image on the flickering orange screen. Pleading with a microphone. Call me, Solas. Call.

Please.

Damn it.

I stood up and peered inside my closet. Yes, the white uniform of the legion was highly visible, especially among my autumn coats in browns and greys. I pulled it out and inspected it. Pristine. Did I dare?

I changed into it, careful to not catch my fringe or talons. Then I left, Desolas’ sword strapped across my back.

Fortunately, it wasn’t late enough for the taxis to evacuate the residential levels for the entertainment district. One came within minutes of my request, and I told the driver to take me to the air shuttle terminal. My mind was in turmoil and I did not trust myself with driving even with the autopilot. I had to restrain myself from crumpling the edges of my shirt, and I diverted my frayed-nerve attentions to the already battered seat. The radio was playing synthesised pop songs I’d never heard before. My head hurt.

It was much the same story on the shuttle. I wasn’t alone, but for all intents and purposes I might as well have been. There was no music, only the rush of the air and the occasional rattling of the window when something hit its natural frequency. I put the sword over my knees and examined it. Wrapped my fingers around the hilt, remembering the very first time. They were the wrong fit, then. They still were. But had I accepted that?

Saren’s would’ve been the right fit.

I sighed. Yes, they would’ve. But he had a road of his own, now. He’s always been on a road apart.

I hailed a taxi at the destination terminal, too. I only knew the address, not the way there, and I didn’t want to look it up. If I must forget this place, I might as well make it easier. The gates to the quad were jammed open. The elevator entrances were illuminated by low-hanging fluorescent lights, which let me see the puffs of dirt I kicked up as I walked across the courtyard. I had to squint to find the staircase. It was very cluttered. There was plenty of junk—wooden beams, sheet metal, broken appliances. But as I passed the third floor, I saw that someone had cultivated a whole potted garden around the landing, and it made me smile. I remembered the memorial park, the heavy smell of the ocean.

The balcony was no less crowded. There were oversized storage bins, and even an upside-down bicycle hanging overhead. I stood in front of his door; checked the time. It was eighteen. Would he be asleep?

I pressed call.

“Saren,” I said plainly, “it’s me.”

One long, long minute later, the door opened, startling me. “Come in.”

I can’t tell if he’d been asleep. He was dressed casually. There was a fresh kettle of water boiling, and the stainless steel mugs were on the counter beside it. The light in the commons was off, but a lonely yellow strip lit up the kitchen.

“I guess I better explain myself, huh?”

He regarded me with a pensive expression. “You don’t have to.”

“That’s why I came.”

“I see.” He turned his back to me and paced slowly to the window. There weren’t many buildings between us and the mountains. I could actually spot a few stars.

“I don’t know why I came,” I confessed, and followed him.

“You wanted something.”

“I don’t know what I want.”

“You wanted my brother.”

“I did,” I said, defeated.

“And now?”

“I don’t know.” I simply didn’t. “It’s hard to say.” Pause. “It’s just hard.”

Hard for both of us. There was a pause of a minute or two.

He shifted his weight. “I apologise.”

“Why?”

“I should’ve seen it. If only I looked deep enough.” He closed his eyes. “If only I tried.”

I put a hand on his shoulder, as gently as I could manage. “It doesn’t matter. I’m all right. Are you?”

“Of course it matters.”

“Are you?”

But I could tell by the way he let my hand rest where it wanted. “I am.”

“Will you accept my apology?”

“Yes.”

My throat was suddenly constricted. “Truly?” I croaked.

He looked back at me, unfazed. “I’ll get you some tea.”

I looked back, too. The water had finished boiling.

We sat in the commons like we had the very first time, but it was starlight that rippled across the dark tea in my mug instead. We were quiet for a long time.

“I can’t see the stars in the city,” I said.

“They’re brighter in the mountains.”

“Have you been out there at night?”

He put his drink down and nodded. “Hiking, yes. Good time of the year.”

“Night hiking. Still not as impressive as night duelling.” I smiled at Desolas’ sword, lying across the table. Saren was silent.

“Well, it’s getting late.” I was halfway done, but I didn’t want the silence to stretch on. I couldn’t bear it. “I should go.” I stood up and straightened my suit.

“The last RT is in ten minutes.”

“Thanks.”

When I made to step out of the commons, he reminded me quietly: “Baratus, you forgot your sword.”

I swallowed. “Perhaps I should leave it here. Until I’m off in two days. If you’re still up for that.”

“Nonsense.” He stood, too. Picked up the sword and pressed it into my shaking hands. “We have practice tomorrow.” And then a light frown appeared. “Unless you want to practice right now?”

“Tomorrow.” I gripped the scabbard tightly and made my way out. “Let’s practice tomorrow.”

“Good night, Baratus.”

The door slid shut behind me.

That night marked the end of his recovery, and the beginning of mine. Or so I had thought. We know now, of course, that he has never truly let go of the fury and the terrible sadness in his spirit; rather, he’d drawn it into himself to fuel his ascent through the Spectre ranks, until the Council preferred to turn to no one else, until they could turn to no one else. But that was years later. The Saren of autumn 2157 was finally at peace.

I, too, found peace in the afternoons we spent training; in the preciseness of his strikes and in their lethality; in the outlines of his raised spinal plates, visible through his undersuit. I found peace in the knowledge that he was not Desolas, and never would be. We went to my apartment sometimes. He scoffed at my collection of frozen foods and I came back the next day with armfuls of groceries for the first time since I’d run errands for my mother. I felt accomplished. I felt less accomplished when I managed to set the cryo-foam off, but that’s another thing altogether.

Desolas would’ve snapped a picture of my pan on fire and kept it for blackmail, no doubt. I smiled at the thought in the privacy of my kitchen.

Time has a way of slipping away between my fingers. One moment it was all sun and sky and warm summer breezes; the next, it was the endless grey of early winter. But the little practice room was windowless, and the passage of time stopped for me when I was inside, learning, laughing. Living.

The end of the beginning came too soon; it was inevitable.

“Baratus,” he said one night, tapping my arm to get my attention. “I can’t make it tomorrow.”

“Why not?” I stopped struggling with my broken fastener and looked at him.

“I’ve been called in for evaluations.”

I stopped completely. “What kind of evaluations?”

“Physical. Psychological.” He paused. “Biotic, too.”

“Cabal?”

He flicked a mandible. “Or so they’d have me believe. I think it’s them, Baratus.”

“Oh. Good luck, then.” Relax. You knew this moment would come. You’ve always known. Even before the Grand Marshal set his fingers to the haptic interface.

“Thank you.”

I looked into his eyes, and almost caught my reflection.

The news came a week later. I received a duplicate of the official letter, of course, but I didn’t open the e-mail until Saren told me the relevant contents himself, behind the closed doors of my office.

“I’m flying to Menae in sixteen hours,” he said.

I closed my eyes. “That’s some very short notice.”

“My leave officially ends tomorrow. Good timing. In fact, I’m getting an extra day out of it.”

“One extra day. What will you do with it?”

“Are you free tonight?”

I leaned back. “Yes. What do you have in mind?”

But I already knew the answer.

The staircase going down the side of the escarpment wasn’t quite treacherous, but it was steep enough that we held each other’s hand as we descended, guided by a series of minuscule lights embedded into the stone steps. When we reached the bottom, I automatically took a deep breath. The smell of the ocean was fainter than before.

The Plaza looked ghostly in the night, lit only by the reflection of the city carried on the distant waves, and the pale Menae, half-full. The wind brought a hint of saltiness—and the sound of music. There was a performance in the Spire.

It was a majestic choral piece; I wasn’t a connoisseur and I couldn’t remember which it was, but I could swear I had heard it before. We stopped to listen. Beneath the walkways, I glimpsed little creatures scurrying in and out of sight.

“Ascension,” he said, looking up. The tip of the Spire was barely visible over the cliff edge. “Concert must be almost over.”

The potted trees and shrubs were still green. Hardy plants, with waxy leaves that resembled the stone of the Temple even more in the moonlight. The white marble was reminiscent of less pleasant things in its depths: the skulls of turians of ages past, the heart of the Monoliths, the light that shone from the depths of the monsters’ eyes. But we marched onwards with the Litany of Ascension, on to the centre of the memorial.

“I can’t believe it’s been four months,” I said, crossing my hands behind my back.

“Four months. Five days.”

“Is it?”

He nodded.

“How long do you think you’ll be away?”

He walked closer to the base of the obelisk, reached out, touched Desolas’ name with his talontips. “I can’t say. A year. Maybe more.”

“Running dark?”

“Possibly.”

“If there’s anything you need—“

“Thank you,” he turned to look at me, “but I have everything I need.”

There was only silence left. The concert was over.

On the way back, after I’d dropped him off at the terminal, I began to feel the grip of unease twisting my guts. He may never come back. He might actually never come back, and I wouldn’t even know. The view of the city grew blurry.

But you know how he is. When I arrived at my office the next morning, tired and lacking sleep, I found Desolas’ sword on my desk. There was a folded note attached, written on a scrap piece of paper with the legion’s beamer to the side. I didn’t read it.

And this is the end, as they say, of the other beginning. The days were long, but the years were short, and he didn’t come back to Palaven for quite some time. Not once more during my remaining tenure there.


Yours,
Baratus Malivian
2177

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