Nihlus finds himself in a tall concrete building. Tall, ha! It’s a spire, at least three hundred stories high. Just thinking about it gives him a slight vertigo. And he needs to come out on top. It’s important, to come out on top. He can’t remember why and he doesn’t need to: he’s been told to do so and while some orders are subject to his defiance, others are not to be questioned nor delayed.
I want to see you.
He looks at the gray things exposed in the bleached overhead light. Cold tiled floor, echoing walls, pink holo-seals blinking from locked doors. His eyes linger on a potted plant: vivacious green, thin glossy leaves, large blood-blue flowers that look alive, somehow. To his left is a narrow, steep staircase spiraling up as high as his stare can reach. Ah-ha!
But before starting the impossible ascent, he remembers: I’m a Spectre. Spectres don’t climb stairs. That’s for trainees. And indeed, the staircase encircles an elevator shaft that he’s somehow missed. He enters, the door clicks closed behind him, and he examines the control panel in the murky twilight. There’s something wrong with the controls, but at first he can’t tell what. Ah! There’s a slit where you’re supposed to insert a chit to make it work. He feels his pockets. The only thing he has on him is a bag of medigel. It would have to do. He squirts some in his hand and slaps it onto the slit. Nothing happens. He repeats once, twice, and there! The elevator comes to life and starts up. Nihlus decides to deposit the entire bag into the slit just in case. It’s a long climb and he should make sure the elevator is well fed.
At the top, the door opens directly into his little ship. He’s never seen it so clean, not since he first got it, the day when…
I hoped you’d come.
He turns to find Saren standing just by the airlock, arms open in a silent invitation. Nihlus doesn’t hesitate. He falls into the embrace with all the desperate longing he’s been nurturing for years now. He covers his lover in kisses, and Saren mirrors the gentle attentions the way Nihlus has always wanted him to. The lights go dim. They are naked on the floor, entangled in a thin blanket. Saren is hot and pliant in ultimate abandon as Nihlus worships him and Spirits! There is nothing, nothing that compares to making Saren tremble, tremble in his arms!
After a while, Nihlus wants to back off, look at Saren’s face, but he finds he can’t. He pushes with all his might and manages just enough to cast a quick glance down. Somebody has spilled glue between them and there’s no way to come apart except by tearing off the plates. They are glued together. It is not directly unpleasant, but definitely a bit unsettling.
“What’s the matter?” says Saren, and from the tone, Nihlus can tell he doesn’t think it’s a problem. Saren’s hands dig into his shoulders, he pulls Nihlus closer, mouth closing on his neck. Nihlus realizes he’s afraid, he’s afraid because they’re falling, falling from the top of the spire into the ocean of clouds below and they’ll fucking die if he doesn’t do something, but what? What can he do? He is utterly helpless and hopelessly happy and his eyes close in surrender as he recognizes the sinking sensation within him for what it is.
The fall takes them deep, deep down, into the basement of his old house on Cordis. It reeks of mold, the walls are chipped, and the bare stone floor slippery. They go through a dark antechamber littered with ancient hard-copies of books and magazines and old furniture that belongs in a garbage compactor. There’s a door ahead, lined with pleasant light. It’s coming from a lamp shaded with a blue silk scarf. He realizes Mother must have decorated this room. He can feel her hand is in all the little details. The scented candles, the collection of flat pebbles in a tall glass jar, the hand-woven rug depicting the Last Stand of Vitruvius.
And then there’s a flat-pic on the table in the middle. He picks it up and stares. There’s nothing in the pic but static.
“What is this?” he asks Saren, who politely stayed by the door. “Why is there nobody in the picture?”
“The signal got lost in the noise,” Saren says, and for some reason, the declaration makes Nihlus unbearably sad. He drops the frame. His knees are weak and he has to sit down on the bed.
The bed feels oddly familiar. He recognizes different parts: the mattress is from Saren’s cot on the Virial; the painted wooden frame is from his childhood bed in Father’s house; the gray, rigid pillow is from boot-camp, and he can trace the faint bluish stains on it.
“If I wanted to hide something, I’d stitch it in there,” Saren says.
Nihlus looks at him, then back at the pillow. It appears untouched, but he feels it anyway. And indeed, there’s a small object lodged inside. He tears the pillow apart without mercy: he always hated the damn thing with a passion, unaware as it might have been of the gravity of secrets confessed to its matted stuffing. Nihlus digs out the object and smiles. The Blue Tear.
“This is not mine,” he says.
“It is,” Saren replies. He looks like he wants to say more, struggling for the right words and Nihlus becomes painfully primed to receive them. It is going to be the most important revelation of his life.
At last Saren opens his mouth to speak, but a high-pitched female voice comes out instead: “…up now. I’m afraid I have to ask you to leave.”
Nihlus blinks once, twice, and the blur crystallizes into a worried asari face. “What?”
“I’m sorry, sir, but we’re closing.”
He glances about, things slowly getting back into focus. Chora’s Den. He seems to be in one of the private booths. “Closing? What’s the time?”
“Three eighty two.”
He opens his mouth to ask, how did I get here, and… and who was with me? I didn’t get wasted all by myself, right? Right? But instead he just blinks some more and swallows the dead taste in his mouth.
“Would you like me to call for a sky car?” the asari asks.
“No.” Getting up proves to be more difficult than he expected. What has he been drinking? He can’t remember. The dream is still playing in front of his waking eyes, over and over again (yes Nihlus yes don’t stop oh please don’t stop). “No,” he repeats. “Need to buy some groceries on the way back.”
The asari nods with a forced smile. “I think this is yours.”
Nihlus frowns at the fistful of crumpled paper but takes it anyway. He waits for the waitress to leave before looking at it. A portrait riddled with drunken mistakes. The cheeks are too wide, the mandibles too curved, the perspective slightly off. Fancy decorations curling down from the fringe-blades to the fore-plate. Too fancy. Too curly. And the eyes… he sighs. He’ll never be able to do justice to those eyes.
All in all, not nearly as good as the one he’s done in FTL before docking here. That one was inspired by the same stubborn fantasy that has now found its way into his dreams as well. He pauses to close his eyes and recall the delight, but the memory is tinged with sadness. A dream. It was nothing but a dream. He crumples the drawing and tosses it over the railing outside the bar. The keepers will take care of it.
“Do you often have such vivid dreams?”
Sha’ira is seated in an utterly shapeless water-pillow. Today, water seems to be the theme. A rotating lamp is projecting alien ocean-creatures onto the azure walls, and she’s wearing a gown of evening blue such that Nihlus can’t tell if it’s transparent or not.
“No,” he says, distracted by the traveling lights. They caress her reclining form so perfectly. But on this occasion it’s really nothing but a distraction, because he’s not interested. Not interested at all. Not today. His stomach turns as his mind touches the sensitive spot. It was what he came to talk about for he felt he’d die in that ship, alone, waiting. But Sha’ira was way more interested in the dream than in the bleak reality. And perhaps it would be for the best to follow her lead in that direction.
She can probably tell he’s mulling something over so she doesn’t speak, urging him on with gentle silence.
“I dream a lot,” he says in the end. “Every time I sleep, there’s something. But not like this. Usually it’s one… scene, one absurdity. This was… Spirits. I have no idea what this was.” I have no idea what happened. What have I done? What the fuck have I done and how is it that I keep making these mistakes, like walking blind-folded through a fucking glass store?
“Do you think dreams have a meaning?”
He looks into her violet eyes. She is so beautiful. So wise, so gentle, a goddess of sparkling hopes and sprinkling fountains in the ultraviolet shine of an aging star. The need to fall on his knees, tell her everything, everything, and beg for absolution, beg for forgiveness, turns into a sizeable lump in his throat. But he cannot. Nobody but him can ever know unless Saren chooses to tell and Saren would rather die than tell, that much Nihlus knows for sure.
“My people believe in dreams,” Sha’ira continues, her voice melding with the mellow mood. “We believe they tell us secrets. Things we know, but don’t know we know. Things we know, but don’t want to know. Which do you think is your case?”
Nihlus snorts. “Things I want, but know they can’t be?”
Sha’ira rewards him with a slow, warm smile. “In truth, some dreams are no more than that.”
“How can you tell them apart?”
“By the way you feel.” Her words become deep and wavy. “A dream that lingers, that comes back to haunt you, a dream that hinders the rhythms inside you; a dream that lays waste of all you defenses, and makes you haste to turn off your senses. Again and again and again. Until all is clear, and nothing left to gain.”
“That sounds like a poem.”
“It is. Many of our finest teachings come in verse. But let us not change the subject.”
Nihlus nods. He is reclining in an overly soft seat as well; it bothered him in the beginning, but he has softened under the influence of the spell, and now he’s comfortably limp, arm curled under his head, the other hand fiddling with the corner of his shirt. A glance down, and he freezes all over again. His sharpened talon has made a hole in the fabric. Oh Spirits.
“Do you still experience emotion when thinking of the dream?” she says.
“Yeah.” He’s staring at the hole. He forgot. He can’t believe he forgot about the talon and left it like that. Murderous like that. He glances about: nothing in here that he could use to dull it. It would have to wait. “Oh yeah.”
“Longing.” To hold him and be held in return. Just that. Nothing more.
“You can do better than that, Nihlus. Talk to me.”
“You think I should try to interpret the dream?”
“I can help you. That’s why you’re here, remember?”
Yes. Help. I need help or I’ll just go out of cover a millisecond too early on the next run and be done with it. He is not serious, of course. But he’s not laughing either. “Okay. Okay. What do you want me to do?”
“Pen it down.”
Nihlus arches his browplates at her, not sure he’s heard her well. Sha’ira gestures to the little table next to the sofa. And what do you know; there’s a writing pad there, and a pen. He can’t remember when he’s last actually written something down, and wonders if he still knows how to do it. But it feels strangely familiar; not all that different from drawing. The words flow out of him like a stream fed by melting snows in springtime, and in a couple of places, he has to blink to force his eyes to dry.
Sha’ira takes the writing pad. “Oh, Nihlus,” she says, smiling, touching the script with her long, thin fingers. “Such elegant handwriting.”
But he can tell she’s really looking at the illustrations. He knew she’d like them. His reply is barely more than a soft rumble.
And that makes the Consort blush. She clears her throat a bit before proceeding. “I’ll tell you a keyword, and you tell me the first thing that comes to your mind, all right? Let’s start with, spire.”
Nihlus smiles. “That’s easy. The Vertigo Towers.”
“You say that as if I should recognize the term.”
“They are quite famous. At least in the Terminus. Built by a smuggling faction… but that’s not what makes them special.”
“It’s where I met Saren the first time after I became a Spectre. After we…” and he makes a clumsy gesture. It is one thing to write about it, and another, to speak about it.
But Sha’ira chases away all the awkwardness with a knowing glance from her half-lidded eyes. “I’ll take that as the explanation for vertigo as well.”
“What else comes to mind when you think of a spire?”
“All right… Height? Pinnacle? Swaying in the wind?”
She gives him a significant look, but he doesn’t understand. Finally she sighs. “A dizzying relationship.”
That makes his heart skip a beat. Of course. To and fro. One step forward, two steps back – that has been their story since day one. But dizzying pinnacles… have also been a part of that story. A very important part. He swallows, no longer sure he has it in him to talk about this. He’s never spoken to anyone about his relationship with Saren and now he starts wondering if this constitutes a betrayal? Another betrayal? But after today – and again he looks down at his vicious, sharpened talon, wondering if he could still taste Saren’s blood on it if he licked it – it probably doesn’t matter anyway. Saren usually returns his calls at once, with the understanding that Nihlus wouldn’t abuse this privileged treatment with trivial messaging. But he hasn’t answered any since the morning.
“I’m not sure I….”
“Your words are safe with me, Nihlus,” she says before he can finish. How did she know? Not that it matters. Perhaps it’s wrong, but he wants to tell. He feels like he’ll wither and die if he doesn’t. So he just nods.
“Yeah, I guessed you’d ask about that. See, when I was in training, I kept dreaming about climbing stairs. And then when I was appointed – I started dreaming about elevators instead.”
“Elevators that go up, or down?”
“Well. Usually they’re supposed to go up, but then they break down and either stop or fall.”
“Not in this dream.” She looks at the script, then quotes. “’It’s important, that I come out at the top.’ Do you know why?”
Nihlus shifts, flexes his shoulders. It’s pretty obvious really, at least for him. Only one thing comes to mind when he thinks, top, and it’s a verb. But talking about that is far, far out of his comfort zone. “Yeah. Let’s not go there, okay?”
She studies him for a second, but doesn’t look offended. “Fair enough.” Then she smiles, as if something pleasant crossed her mind. “I am aware that, in most cultures, a spire is a phallic symbol, but it has been slow to enter the dream theories of my people.”
“Oh, but you were the first to popularize medigel as a lubricant,” Nihlus replies, and they both laugh a little, making the tension vaporize. But then Sha’ira glances at the script and blushes again.
“What of the following scene?”
“I think we can scratch that part as pure wish fulfillment,” he says, trying to sound humorous, but it’s not really working. It’s one of his most persistent fantasies. Nothing fancy; in fact, nothing he hasn’t done with Saren many times before. The fantastic part is in Saren, losing himself in the pleasure. In real life, Saren simply doesn’t lose himself. Ever. He grunts his way through orgasms as he does through weight-lifting. They’ve been having sex for years now, and Nihlus has heard him cry out in earnest only once. He wants to hear that again. Oh Spirits, he wants it more than anything in this fucked up universe. And never has he been more unlikely to actually make that particular dream a reality.
The sharpened talon has somehow found its way under his shirt, and even under his undershirt, which was supposed to be tucked in his pants, but no longer. He presses the tip to the unplated skin on his stomach. Is he crazed enough to draw his own blood? He isn’t sure. The unanswered messages – more than twenty – more than he’d sent out in all the years of their friendship – start replaying in front of his waking eyes.
Are we ok?
“What’s next?” he says to terminate the dangerous silence.
“Glue,” comes the reply, and it doesn’t help one bit.
“Restraint, control, fixing broken things, staying in one place, bonding, bondage, unity, mating, nesting… I could go on for hours.”
“Restraint,” Sha’ira repeats. “But you said it wasn’t uncomfortable.”
“It wasn’t.” Of course Nihlus wouldn’t mind being glued to Saren. Bring it on! The problem is…
“He didn’t think it was a problem.”
“He doesn’t have a problem,” Nihlus says before he can think it through. Saren has… Saren had no issues with meeting Nihlus once every two months, sometimes not even as often as that. Oh, he had a healthy libido when they were together – more than healthy: ravenous! But when they were apart, he’d revert to his old, disinterested self. Nihlus couldn’t live like that. “I do,” he adds in the end.
Sha’ira raises her eyebrows, but Nihlus is done talking about that and after a pause, she returns to the script. “Next comes falling.”
Nihlus nods, and sits upright. He opens his mouth to deliver his associations, then realizes he can think of only one. “Spirits,” he breathes.
“Say it, Nihlus.”
He looks at her, a strange understanding unraveling before him. He’s always known it was so. He’s never tried to lie to himself about it, the way Saren sometimes seemed to do. What he has never been aware of, however, is how much he feared… “Falling in love.”
“In dream interpretation, going underground usually signifies a deeper penetration into one’s sub-consciousness,” Sha’ira says after a long silence.
“Makes sense.” Nihlus looks at his hands, and discovers that he’s pricked his left palm with the sharpened talon on his right. There’s a perfectly spherical little droplet of blue blood over the microscopic wound. He hasn’t felt a thing. “It’s no surprise that mine is damp and moldy and full of crap.”
“No,” Sha’ira says, and something about her tone makes him pay attention. “Don’t judge yourself so. You are a beautiful man, and the surface appearance is not what I mean.”
It is difficult to suppress the need to apologize, but he has the presence of spirit to tell that it would only underline her point. When emotionally threatened, Nihlus often reverts to that scared, wiry boy, displaced so far from everything he knows, and feeling inadequate. So very exposed and inadequate. Saren always disliked that persona and Nihlus had to give it to him – he went far out of his way to make it clear that the respect, even admiration, was mutual. Nihlus smiles at the fleeting memories, but all must now inevitably converge on the disaster that took place in the morning.
Is that what you want?
The talon stings deeper. He wonders, almost idly, if Saren would really leave the cuts alone, or if he’d try to sterilize them, diminish the scars. Hell, he might even seek out a way to erase them. Barefaced bastard.
Nihlus swallows. “I almost never dream of my parents,” he volunteers. “My mother still lives, I think. I don’t know if I’d recognize her if I saw her in the street.”
“What of the flat-pic with static?”
“The signal got lost in the noise,” Nihlus quotes, smiling, but it’s a sad, sad smile. He still can’t say why and looks at Sha’ira for help through a slight haze.
“That kind of a frame would normally hold…”
“A family photo. A portrait of a loved one?” He smiles, understanding dawning on him. “His picture should be in the frame but it isn’t because I… fear it? I’m afraid to think of him as… family?”
Spirits. It certainly rings true. But Sha’ira shrugs. “I can’t tell you the meaning. I can only give you the tools to help you find it.”
But now Nihlus is impatient and excited, as if on the verge of some revelation. “The pillow – the pillow is a place for secrets. That’s why he says he’d hide something there.”
“The ‘Blue Tear.’ What is that?”
“Heh.” Nihlus doesn’t know whether he should spell it out or not. What if, by saying it out loud, he ruins the magic behind it?
The only thing worse than nurturing superstition is actually acting on it, Saren’s voice reminds him, and he smiles. “It’s a… let’s say it’s a symbol for Saren’s heart.”
“In the dream, you say it is not yours.”
“But he says it is.”
They spend some time in companionable silence. It is no chore, sitting with Sha’ira and doing nothing. Whatever her power is, she has used it again, and despite the gaping hole in the center of his being, once comfortably filled with the certainty that he’d see Saren again, even if it is in more than two months – Nihlus is feeling a little better.
“Do you understand the dream now?” she asks.
He wants to say yes, but he can’t. Some parts seem clear, but not the essence, not the whole. Like knowing all the words, but lacking the context to string them together in a coherent sentence. “No,” he admits.
“Do you want to?”
What kind of question is that, he starts to say, but bites his tongue. What if the dream tells him something he might have used to… avoid the fallout? Prepare himself? Stop himself from driving him away?
What if? Saren shrugs in his memory, an elegant, strangely seductive gesture. You are many things, Nihlus, but you are no coward.
“Yes,” he whispers before he can think himself out of it. There’s nothing he can do to stop a nervous tremor running under his mandibles; he has no idea what his face looks like. And when she reaches for him, he stumbles forward like a drunk, ending up on his knees before her, and somehow that’s just right, just the way it’s supposed to be. Their fingers twine; her hand is dry and cold, curious fingers trailing the skin on his palm, turned upwards in surrender.
“Close your eyes.”
Nihlus obeys, and the half-lit room recedes in a blur of colors.
Another dream, it’s another dream – a lucid dream, and oh! What should I do?
Nihlus looks at his hands. His talons. Grow, he thinks, and in front of his euphoric stare, they start growing, sharp and shiny like Saren’s.
It is not a dream, someone says, and he looks up. Sha’ira is there. She is naked and the sight makes his plates loosen. Focus, Nihlus.
Yes, I should. He looks at his hands again and orders the talons to grow back in. The sharp one too. That reminds him and he looks around. The white marble of the Plaza is covered with several inches of water. High tide. Nobody there: the weather is lousy. Been raining the whole day, cloudy and cold. He turns and finds that the giant doors of the Spire are ajar.
Go, she says. She’s wearing a white gown now, flapping around her in the gentle breeze. Must be Armali silk: the finest threads are just five molecules thick. He nods, and enters.
It’s beautiful inside when it rains. A column of droplets coming from the top, gathering in a glistening basin in the very center. Saren is standing behind the pillar of raindrops, silver and black and beautiful. Nihlus stops at the opposite side. Swallows. His heart is drumming so hard he can feel it pulsing in his ears.
The ethereal scene is almost true to his memory. It had indeed been raining, and Saren had pulled some strings to move the morning choir rehearsal for the afternoon. They had the place for themselves. Locked in, just in case they got ideas.
Try here, Saren says, and Nihlus obediently intones on his natural frequency. Hear that?
Nihlus listens, but there’s nothing. No echo.
Nothing, Saren confirms. The center is a sweet-spot. Hiding in plain sight.
A wide smile spreads over Nihlus’ face. So I could yell, and nobody outside would hear?
Nobody but me would hear.
That gives him shivers and suddenly he’s all serious. Memory-Saren spoke, but vision-Saren hadn’t moved his lips once. Nihlus wonders if he should enact the memory, or try something different.
“What do you want?” he says.
The real question had been, what do you want me to sing?
But it is no surprise that the answer is the same.
“Allegiance,” says the dark voice.
Blood is trickling from Saren’s scars. He doesn’t have a problem. Nihlus does. Marked for life, his for life! And what has he given in return? Nothing! Nothing! Not even basic fucking comprehension. How many times has he asked? What am I to you? And Saren always told the truth, the simple, undecorated truth: that is for you to decide. Nihlus thought it a riddle, another fucking riddle, but it wasn’t, was it? And what did he do with it? What did he do with that trust, with that unspeakable power?
Is that what you want?
The gentle tones of crystal and silver coalesce and he’s back in the water-room. Oooh! The scaled whale of the Avelean Sea on Palaven. Extinct. Nihlus tracks its lazy movement over the wall, wondering if perhaps all the creatures here are actually no more, swimming in the vast oceans of oblivion. It takes him many seconds, too many seconds, to remember that he is not alone. Sha’ira is still holding his hand. Dark tears have gathered under her eyes and impossibly, she’s even more beautiful like that.
“Let me hold you tonight,” she whispers, bites on her lower lip.
Nihlus moves to touch her cheek, but catches the glint of the sharpened talon in time and pulls back. An apologetic smile is all he can muster. Pathetic, but at least he tries. He has to try, damn it, even if it’s too late. “Can’t.”
“You don’t owe him anything.”
“I owe him everything.”
“It’s not true. Nihlus, it’s not true.”
Nihlus takes a moment to think but his mind is strangely empty, strangely quiet. No longer does his heart pulse in his eyes, in his throat. He smiles, even laughs a little. “That is for me to decide.”