Nihlus went through the airlock, kicked his shoes off, and initiated the cycle by hitting the control panel with his elbow. The hangover hadn’t been bad an hour ago but it got worse on the way. Water. He needed to drink lots of water. If only he had time to stop by the pool and swim it off; if only he had a nice, deep bathtub with the…
There was someone else onboard. Suddenly he was as sure of it as he was of his headache. His body reacted before his mind could catch up, going into adrenaline overdrive and making his heart pound like crazy. Is that really necessary, Kryik? He could barely think through the painful throbbing in his temples as he readied his sidearm and pressed his back against the corner of the little one-man vessel he’d learned to call home.
“Don’t move!” he said, spinning and pointing the pistol into the intruder.
“Subtle as always, Nihlus,” said the voice, and the hangover retreated in shame and disorder in front of the unstoppable tide of emotions, astonishment riding the top of the wave, disbelief, joy and arousal following close behind. Nihlus was almost literally swept off his feet. His hands shook as he lowered the weapon and his mandibles hung loose, unresponsive to his attempts to smile.
“Spirits, Saren. I could have shot you.”
“You’d never shoot a man in the back.”
And indeed, Saren hadn’t yet turned to greet him. He was looking down at something on the navigation console.
“You broke into my ship,” Nihlus observed, still in shock.
“What is this?” Saren touched the object of interest with an ungloved hand.
Nihlus drew a deep breath and holstered his pistol, then took a small step forward. He peered over Saren’s shoulder. And his blood froze in his veins.
“Uh…” he muttered, shook his head and blinked at the incriminating thing, rendered speechless by the obliterating mix of surprise and mortification. Saren wasn’t supposed to see it. Nobody was ever supposed to see it. How the fuck did it get there? And what the fuck was he supposed to say?
Saren turned to look at him sideways and the weight of the dark stare threatened to crush Nihlus to dust. Obviously, he didn’t like what he saw. Worse than that. Much worse, if the cold, menacing gleam was any indication. But Nihlus was too confused to make sense of it.
“You went through my things,” he managed, barely. A weak defense, pathetic in fact, but his brain was shooting blanks. “You broke into my ship and went through my things. I didn’t know you had it in you, to stoop so low. Me? I’d do it any day. But you? I thought you were…”
A well-manicured, extremely sharp talon tapped the piece of paper. The words came, then, carried on a tone the likes of which Nihlus had never heard before, and Spirits knew he’d made Saren angry, disappointed, offended and hurt more times than he dared remember. “I didn’t know my lack of markings bothered you so.”
There was something wrong with his voice. It was broken, and it wrenched at Nihlus’s heart with such force that it ached. “Spirits, Saren,” he breathed. He was only beginning to feel the horror of the possibility that this was an insult their friendship might not survive. But it was working to assert itself, that horror; it was clawing up his throat like a trapped beast. “If anybody can read me like an open book it’s you. You must know better than that.”
“So what then? What is the meaning of this?”
“It’s… it’s just a doodle. It doesn’t have to mean anything. In all honesty, I don’t even remember adding those… decorations.” He stared at the drawing, feeling Saren’s gaze on his face, feeling it drilling holes through his skull. “It’s a… you know. Artistic license?” And he waved a hand over the portrait, then stilled and finally touched the lines himself. They looked different, in the fake daylight coming through the viewport; he remembered working out the perspective, the expression, but truly had no memory of marking Saren’s face. Marking his face. Spirits!
“I’m sorry,” he said, allowing the horror to roll out on his undertones in all its intensity, wondering if Saren could pick up the frequency of the panicked hammering in his chest. “I’m sorry I made it and I’m sorry you saw it.” A careful glance up. Saren’s eyes were shining like cold, distant stars. “But it’s your own damn fault,” he added with a nod that was supposed to be firm. “I can’t believe you went through my things.”
“I didn’t. I found it like that.”
His faculties slowly returning, Nihlus stopped to think about it and looked around. And sure enough, there was a piece of charcoal on the console, and dirty gray fingerprints on the leather arms of the pilot chair. A requisite pair of empty bottles lying on the floor. Damn. He’d really left it there, hadn’t he? But how was he to know….? How was he to ever guess?
He swept a hand over his face, dared to glance at the silver eyes again. “It’s been a while. I wasn’t… expecting you.”
“Five months,” Saren said. His voice was back to normal now. Almost. “Two weeks and four days.”
Nihlus hazarded a smile. “That long, huh?”
Saren turned back to the drawing. “Any other fashion ideas I should know about?”
“Only that you look better without clothes.”
Nihlus woke up from a light drowse, the absence next to him still warm. He got up and peered into the cockpit. Saren was going through his things. But only those that were lying about, and they were abundant: clothes, weapon mods, rations, bottles, data pads, cables, dishes.
“Looking for something?”
Saren caught his gaze, followed it to the tiny garbage compactor. “You didn’t.”
“Can you do it again?”
Nihlus frowned, getting suspicious. “Whatever for? You hated it.”
“Can you do it – here?” Saren touched his left horn, and Nihlus felt his body tensing with anxiety.
“You’re not serious, are you?”
Nihlus swallowed. Careful, now. One wrong word and it’s all gone to hell. “I… yes. Yes I can. But I need some color… which color…?” His heart was in his throat again.
It took some time for Nihlus to process the meaning. But it was crazy, crazy! He didn’t want to be responsible for that. Scars on carapace were for life. He opened his mouth to say no, closed it under the relentless stare. Of course Saren was sure. Of course he knew what it meant. It was Nihlus who didn’t.
Instead of speaking, he nodded, and Saren nodded back. Nihlus went back to the little room with the cot and fetched the talon file; he couldn’t believe this was happening. Was there a way out? Should he… refuse? Could he? The horror awoke, stretched its paws within his guts. The answer was no, of course. Not if he wanted to save the friendship. He went back to the cockpit like walking through a dream, watching the dream unfold with hardly any say about the events within. He stood in front of Saren, holding the tiny tool, unsure how to proceed.
Among the many little things that had always fascinated him about Saren’s private habits, his manicuring expertise was most certainly among the top rated. He wielded the file with the effortless skill of an artist. In under a minute, the index talon of Nihlus’s right hand was transformed into a glazing, deadly blade. Nihlus studied it with a fixed smile that probably did more to stress his discomfort than to hide it. The talon looked sharp enough to split the atom.
“Alright then,” he said, and they both sat down on the floor. A feverish blend of terror and excitement tainted his blood into cobalt shades. He was scared witless. He took Saren’s face by the chin with his left hand, positioned it just so, examined the flexibility and the texture of the cartilage. How many times had he touched and studied Saren’s horns? He’d always worshipped them in secret; they gave that stern face an air of subtlety, a layer of complexity, a striking streak of predatory cruelty.
But now the horn was a canvas and the new role made it alien. Nihlus traced the shape with the pad of his finger, planned out the moves. The cartilage wouldn’t allow him to pull out lines in single, clean slashes; he’d have to work short, repeated strokes.
It would hurt like hell. He wanted to ask the question again; are you sure? Really sure? But he just said, “Don’t move.”
The first incision, decisive and precise, starting just below the browplate, caused a sharp intake of air and the blue blossomed in a string of tiny pearls. Nihlus licked the cut clean; the line was well placed. It would appear as a continuation of the eyeridge. He made another short cut, and another, following the natural curvature. There was no more fear in him, it had been replaced by deep concentration. The carapace was unforgiving; there was no margin for error. And on top of that, it was resisting him. It had a will of its own, a structure suited better to organic curves than to geometric patterns.
Before long, Nihlus was so absorbed in the artistry that he’d all but forgotten everything else. About half of the work on one horn was complete: two long lines, making a triangle with the cheekbone. He paused for a moment, leaned back for better perspective. The lines were perfect in shape, but needed to be thicker.
“Have to make another pass,” he murmured.
Saren rumbled in response, freed his chin from the grip. “Hurts like a bitch. Give me something to clean my face.”
It was unlike Saren to swear, and it was unlike Saren to sweat. Injuries in battle were one thing, and subjecting oneself to pointless, prolonged pain, and lots of it, was quite another; apparently Saren was beginning to discover that. Nihlus looked about, and handed him an open pack of tissues. He made no comments. What was there to say? Told you so? You asked for it yourself? The only thing he could do at this point was to finish as quickly as possible. There was no turning back.
The second pass was easier, but obviously more painful and soon Nihlus was sweating as well. To make the marks scar properly, he had to carve out entire slices of cartilage. Blue was dripping everywhere. The smell and taste of blood mixed poorly with intense discomfort and at one point, Nihlus had to move back and take a breath of air uncluttered with the scents of pain attacking his senses. Good thing he hadn’t eaten in quite some time.
“On to the vertical cuts,” he said when he was satisfied with the long lines. He cleaned them one more time with his tongue. The natural antibiotics in the saliva would help the healing. Of course, one could also use medigel, but that would be no fun. And we’re having such good fun, aren’t we? He shivered. “Can you sharpen my talon again?”
Saren grunted and took his hand. It was covered with blood, some fresh, some already dried. Regretful? No, no, it didn’t look that way. Saren was caressing the hand that had bled him. He brought it close to his face, drew his tongue between Nihlus’s fingers.
“Don’t,” Nihlus said. He didn’t find any of this even remotely sexy.
“Very well.” Saren took the file and did his thing again. The rasping grated on Nihlus’s nerves, and he winced away from it. It was a terrible thing, to hate a part of your own body for causing so much pain to the one you…
Saren nodded and allowed Nihlus to hold him by the chin again. His mind drifted off as he completed the first vertical line and started planning the others. Like he would with a pencil, he let his talon practice the motions just above the carapace, and he noticed with the corner of his eye that Saren’s breathing followed the movement. Such was the nature of pain, it brought you close to your tormentor in ways you could never have imagined. Nihlus would know. Oh, yes; yes he would.
He leaned away, took a breath of air, checked the spacing, checked that the lines were parallel. It was shaping up beautifully. Saren tapped the sweat from his face and neck; Nihlus was well aware of the tension in his shoulders. He could almost feel it himself. Just a little longer, friend. Friend? Just another couple of notches. The short lines near the tip of the triangle were the easiest of all, but unfortunately also the most painful, since he had to dip into the carved paths that had already started to dry up. He could feel Saren clenching his jaw; he could hear his teeth grind.
“I’d offer you a glass of ryncol,” Nihlus murmured, making the final strokes. “It’s almost as good as general anesthesia, and I think I have some… somewhere.” He made the final incision. “But I know you better than that. One side, done.”
They exchanged a long look. Then they exchanged positions. By the time it was all done, and it took the better part of two hours, they were both exhausted.
Nihlus sat back, turned Saren’s head this way and that, observing his handiwork. “It’s perfect,” he said. It really was a piece of art. And not just for its technical precision; it was a thing of beauty. The kind that can only come from the heart. Nihlus suddenly realized this was probably the work of his life. Not that he doubted his ability to improve; but he sincerely doubted he’d ever again be so invested, so deeply rooted, so personally involved with any creation. A creation that would decorate Saren Arterius, his mentor, his hero, his lover, to the end of his days. If only he could communicate how honored he was by this… this gift, this… this crazy act of trust. Of belonging.
Nihlus swallowed. “Let me get you a mirror.”
“No need. I believe you.”
Blued talon still lingering in his mouth, Nihlus frowned, unspecified fears starting to whirl within. Something… there was something about the voice. It was too self-satisfied. Almost… gloating? And now that he became cautious, he saw it in Saren’s eyes as well… something. Something wrong. Very wrong. He felt the weight of the deed bearing down on his shoulders. Saren wanted Nihlus to mutilate him; and blinded with trust, belonging and love, Nihlus never thought to ask why.
“You didn’t…” Nihlus laughed, but it was a dreadful, dead laughter. No no no. Couldn’t be. “You didn’t…?”
He was afraid to say it. Afraid to make it real by saying it. But he had to. He had to know.
“Saren. You didn’t do this… to get back at me… for that drawing? Did you?”
You didn’t, right? Tell me you didn’t, please, please tell me you didn’t?
No, not that look. No no no. Spirits. Spirits! You did. You did, didn’t you? You sick bastard. You did it to punish me. You fucking idiot. Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck!
His stomach churned, acid bubbling up, acid with the taste of blood.
Saren cocked his head, pretending to be taken aback. “Is that what you want?”
I can’t deal with this. I can’t. I just – can’t. You’re crazy. You’re too crazy. You’re too crazy for me.
An old, worn litany.
When Saren left, after he’d tapped the blue from his horns one last time and added the stained tissue to the pile of discarded civvies, the first thing Nihlus did was to vomit his guts out. He was shaking. He pressed himself against the bulkhead face-on, but he couldn’t stop it. He could just stand there and wait for it to stop on its own.
It was a long wait.
Later he opened the hidden compartment in the weapons locker, took out the thin stack of papers, various sizes, charcoals, pencils, and the canvas roll of three oil paintings. Different media, different techniques, same subject. The one from the morning was there too; of course he hadn’t thrown it away. He shuffled through them. Not one was without some addition to that bare face. Perhaps it did bother him after all? Not consciously, but… Spirits. Saren always could read him like an open book. Only it wasn’t what Saren had thought; Nihlus couldn’t have cared less about the stigma of being barefaced. All he was trying to do was… fill in the blanks. He closed his eyes.
The garbage compactor worked overtime that day. And the hidden compartment acquired a new secret to hoard. A crumpled tissue, stained with blue.