After three hours of slaving through the backlog of mission reports, Saren turned on the video feed. The entire ship was covered with hidden cameras – every space other than the bathroom. None of them showed anything, now. Nihlus was out drinking himself to death or whatever it was he liked to do on leave and Saren was enjoying the brief spell of solitude.
Not that Nihlus’ presence bothered him. Not anymore. He had become a slightly inconvenient fact of Saren’s life, not unlike the tiresome recoil compensators on the Virial’s primary cannon. The ship was getting old, and needed upgrades Saren would never have considered, say, five years before. It was undeniable that the systems worked better with the upgrades, but they were mismatched with the underlying outdated technology, and needed weekly maintenance – checking, cleaning, oiling – which was often more than Saren could afford to do. And then, when he needed the cannon to shoot, it would use Nihlus’ voice to say, nah, I’d rather watch stupid extranet sitcoms.
He narrowed his eyes at the unchanging feeds. The analogy was severely flawed, of course. He didn’t need upgrades and he certainly wasn’t outdated. But comparing Nihlus to a deadly yet unreliable weapon that sometimes refused to fire because it didn’t feel like it, seemed perfect. Perhaps the trouble with the main cannon could be traced back to an issue with excessive fuel intake? A neat idea, but it would have to wait for the next maintenance cycle. Dabbling with machinery required a certain mindset, and he was in the mood for something completely different.
A tap on the control panel to enter the date and hour. Last week when they had been docked on Ilium, Saren had needed to go out on business and Nihlus had been left alone on the ship for several hours. He was a meddlesome brat with no respect whatsoever for the privacy and property of other people. Which was why Saren had decided to organize surveillance to begin with.
Not that Nihlus’ nosiness bothered him. Not anymore. It even flattered him, though he was loath to admit it. Many people were curious about him, but they were mostly sycophants, their mundane interests fueled by petty, selfish goals. Nihlus simply… wanted to get to know him. Sometimes this got on Saren’s nerves, but he was reluctant to try and suppress it. This need to dig under the surface instead of accepting the most obvious answers was one of the things that had made Nihlus such a promising candidate in the first place.
Saren played the recording. Cam1 caught him in the airlock, putting on his boots. On Cam3, Nihlus was in the kitchen, picking crumbs from a plate and then finally licking it. Saren cringed. His airlock self called out, “I’m gone,” and Nihlus replied with a, “Have fun!” delivered in an unusual, edgy tone.
The airlock closed, but Nihlus resumed licking the plate for some seconds before he left the field of view of Cam3 and reappeared on Cam2, looking through the viewport as Saren’s distant figure, no more than several pixels tall, walked away along the stardock. Nihlus turned to his desk and got a datapad out of the drawer, then splayed his long limbs over his cot and started watching something. The lights in the commons were dim and the faint blues from the tiny display danced over his face, reflecting off the freshly applied colors. Saren thought he had a fairly good idea of what Nihlus would be watching while alone, but the movement of the lights lacked the… rhythm. And after a minute, Nihlus yawned. In the cabin, Saren yawned as well, then fast-forwarded the recording until he saw Nihlus get up and walk to the conferencing projector.
“Gotcha,” Nihlus muttered. He linked the datapad to the projector and stood exposed to the sudden bright light. Cam2 couldn’t see the projection: it showed Nihlus from a close profile. The holo was visible on Cam4, however, and even though it was too far to discern fine detail, Saren recognized the scene immediately. It was a recording from one of their recent missions. A group of disgruntled employees from Serrice Biotics Research Center had thought that turning to terrorism would somehow make their lives better. It had only made them much shorter. Saren straightened up in the chair: nobody had notified him about the existence of security footage. And he didn’t like being caught on camera.
Nihlus flexed his shoulders, rolled his neck to the sides and shook his arms out, as if warming up for exercise, then unpaused the video. There was a burst of chaotic action that Saren couldn’t quite catch. It had been a routine assignment that only called for the expertise of a Spectre on account of all the industrial secrets hidden in the facility. Neither he nor Nihlus had been injured; barely a handful of rounds had been fired. Nihlus’ performance had been exemplary, as usual.
Don’t be so stingy, he censured himself. Nihlus had been exquisite.
And for once, there had been no outstanding issues of morality for the two of them to argue about. So why would he go back and analyze it?
It became clear seconds later. Nihlus paused the recording, took up a combat stance, then made a slow, careful pirouette, holding his arms up in guard at first, then opening them by degrees and swiping a wide circle. Saren couldn’t help puffing out a surprised chuckle. It was the Deccretion Disk mimetic.
Not bad for a beginner. A non-biotic beginner. Who had no business stealing Saren’s moves, yet took every opportunity to do so. Saren had even taught him a few himself, but that brought him no closer to understanding why Nihlus would want to learn them. They were of no use to him in combat, and they weren’t physically demanding enough to make for effective training.
Perhaps this too was a part of getting to know him. Something about the way Nihlus treated his biotics – with just the right balance of respect, admiration, perhaps even envy, unburdened by superstitious fears and prejudice – made Saren vaguely grateful. And now, as he watched Nihlus try it again, a bit faster, with a bit more confidence, he was vaguely proud as well.
Nihlus rewound the mission recording and played it again. Now that Saren had the idea of what was going on, he recalled using the mimetic. It was the natural choice, when surrounded. Lethal, but very taxing. He had only used it in front of Nihlus once before, in a situation of special significance for them both. That explained a part of it, then.
“Son of a bitch,” Nihlus said, shaking his head, then started to examine the mimetic frame by frame, trying to catch the nuances. When he made the move again, it was almost passable. His arms were flaring too far out and his weight wasn’t distributed optimally, but for the third try… Saren was impressed. Not an uncommon occurrence in relation to Nihlus’ physical prowess. If only he had been born a biotic… The satisfied half-smile slowly dried away from Saren’s face. If Nihlus had been a biotic in addition to being an outlander among his own people, he’d have drowned in loneliness and self-loathing. He hadn’t been far from it when Saren had taken him in.
Nihlus tried the move several more times, getting better and better, but missing several key details that couldn’t be resolved from the footage. It was an advanced mimetic, perhaps one of the most complex moves in Saren’s repertoire; without proper instruction, blind repetition would only lead to building up bad habits. As if thinking the same thing, Nihlus stopped and muttered, “Got to get him to show me.”
You just need to ask, Saren thought.
Again, Nihlus appeared to have had the same idea. “Hey, Saren,” he said to the projection. “How about you teach me that sexy move?”
Saren snorted at ‘sexy’; he took his abilities seriously. Which Nihlus seemed to know very well.
“There’s nothing ‘sexy’ about using biotics to kill people, Nihlus,” he said in a surprisingly good imitation of Saren’s voice. A bit too wordy, Saren thought, but he was well amused.
“Awwww, come on,” Nihlus continued, making a parody of his own supplicant persona. “Please? Pretty please?”
“No,” he answered himself in Saren’s voice, and this time, the tone and the inflections were perfect. “This is a waste of your time. And mine.”
Saren paused the feed and leaned back. The tone and the inflections were too perfect and suddenly he was sure that Nihlus was spot-on: that was what he’d have said. Here, in the privacy of his room and his thoughts, it was easy to think that he would have been kind, but apparently Nihlus had the better grasp of his behavioral patterns. Which wasn’t surprising. Nihlus was a keen judge of character. Still, it was unsettling. Why should it be difficult to be kind to him?
He let the video play on. In it, Nihlus stood still for a moment, then resumed the imitation. “You’re a waste of time, Kryik. Look at you. Talking to yourself? Watching me shed blood instead of whatever normal people watch to get off? That’s sick.” The pretense of Saren’s voice fell away around the halfway mark, and Nihlus uttered the last part through hands he’d raised to hide his face. He shook his head. “That’s fucking sick.”
With a deep frown, Saren rewound the video, turned up the volume and, after a moment of debating with himself, the auto-captioning too. “TALKING TO YOURSELF? WATCHING ME SHED BLOOD INSTEAD OF WHATEVER NORMAL PEOPLE WATCH TO GET OFF? THAT’S SICK.”
He rewound some more. “YOU’RE A WASTE OF TIME, KRYIK. LOOK AT YOU.”
“I’d never say that,” he muttered to himself, and the sound of his own voice made him wince. Hoarse and raspy and laden with doubt. When he’d set up the cameras, he knew there would be things he didn’t want to hear, things he didn’t want to see, but what he’d had in mind was, say, catching Nihlus drinking on duty, or hiding drugs inside the ship, or taking out dirty clothes from the washer and wearing them, or snooping through Saren’s closet. He wasn’t expecting… this, whatever it was.
Saren had an epiphany. He wanted Nihlus to see him the right way. Not like this. This was nonsense. He never thought Nihlus was a waste of time, not even in the beginning; otherwise, why would he have taken him in? And the way Nihlus was learning and improving with all the eagerness of a protostar about to shed away the dust cloud that had given birth to it and shine for everyone to see, chances were that he’d turn out even better than Saren had expected. What had he ever done to make Nihlus think he had such a low opinion of him?
And then he had a chilling idea. Perhaps it was the same as kindness. Perhaps it was easy to be impressed, to be proud, here in the safety of his solitude. Spirits knew how he actually behaved.
But he was in the perfect position to find out, right now. His hand hovered above the controls for far longer than it was supposed to before he rewound the feed to half an hour earlier, before he’d gone out. He passed Cam3, already dressed up, and looked at Nihlus, who was eating.
“What?” Nihlus said through a full mouth.
“That’s disgusting,” week-ago Saren replied, frowning. What had that been all about?
Nihlus just rolled his eyes. “I had the same thing an hour ago. And it’s all dry. Why should I wash it?”
Ah. The plate. Nihlus made a habit of reusing his dishes. Many times over. Saren didn’t like it. But here and now, he thought it no more than slightly annoying; certainly not disgusting. It was like he had been provoking Nihlus on purpose. But why would he do that? He had no memory of the incident at all, so it wasn’t something that Nihlus had done to unnerve him – that he’d remember.
“You’re a mess,” had been his reply a week ago, and it was delivered in such a taunting, condescending tone that Saren shook his head in disbelief. If someone were to speak to him that way, they’d lose all their teeth. Perhaps their tongue too.
“Fuck you very much,” Nihlus said with a fixed smile that Saren knew all too well. But obviously he hadn’t registered anything wrong with it then. This time, when he heard Nihlus call, “Have fun!” he knew what the strange subharmonics meant: you might as well stay out.
Saren crossed his arms over his chest. I’m obnoxious, he concluded. Nothing new, of course, but it was supposed to work on demand, and only on people who deserved no better. Which was to say, on the overwhelming majority. But Nihlus… Nihlus was something else.
Gritting his teeth, he fast-forwarded again. Nihlus delivered the line for the third time, and for the third time, it wrenched at Saren’s gut. “You’re a waste of time, Kryik. Look at you. Talking to yourself? Watching me shed blood instead of whatever normal people watch to get off? That’s sick. That’s fucking sick.”
He stood there, motionless, hands cradling his face, breathing loud enough for Saren to hear from the recording. Finally, he disconnected his datapad and returned to his cot. He didn’t lie down: he threw himself on it, face down, like a lifeless corpse. For a long time, he didn’t move, and Saren was about to fast-forward further, thinking he had fallen asleep, but then he caught motion and stopped. He couldn’t quite see what Nihlus was doing. Perhaps he was asleep, having a very vivid dream? Saren cocked his head to the side for better perspective. Maybe he was scratching.
Yeah, right, said Nihlus’ voice in the back of his mind. Saren tried to brush it away, but it wouldn’t go. Come on, Saren. Be a man and admit it. Sure, this isn’t what you expected to see… but it’s what you hoped to see, isn’t it?
And as if it were really Nihlus speaking, he turned around in the video, half-sitting with his back in the corner, his right hand on his groin. Saren tried to swallow the embarrassment, but his mouth was dry.
He would not look away. He was indeed man enough to admit it: not so much that he’d been hoping to see this, but that he was curious enough to see it to the end. In the video, Nihlus pushed his pants down, paused, then took off his shirt too, piling the clothes on the floor. Saren’s fingers curled into a fist above the controls, then uncurled and dismissed the other feeds, allowing Cam2 to fill the whole display with Nihlus’ naked body.
Nothing there he hadn’t seen before, of course. But this was so much more than plain nudity. He leaned forward to study Nihlus’ anatomy, marginally aware that his own had started sending unambiguous signals. Nihlus was… exemplary in this regard as in every other, he concluded, trying to swallow again, and failing again.
The gentle sounds he was making resonated with something deep, warm and very lonely within Saren. His mandibles twitched to every quiet, delicate moan and soon he discovered that his breathing had taken up the same unpredictable rhythm. When Nihlus’ breath hitched (there, Nihlus, touch it there, let me, let me touch it) Saren’s breath would hitch as well. And when Nihlus held his breath in concentration, tip of the tongue trained on the upper lip (let me hold it let me taste it let me put it in my mouth) Saren too would stop breathing until a soft, barely voiced exhale allowed him to resume.
He frowned, trying to shake away the imagery because it was (hot slick pulsing in my throat deeper go deeper I can take it) entirely inappropriate and wrong. This was wrong and not only was it making him the same as Nihlus, it made him worse than Nihlus. He may sniff my clothes and steal my possessions, but he wouldn’t hide like a coward and watch me do private things in secret.
How could he? You never do any ‘private things.’
And why the hell can’t he do it in the shower like normal people?
Normal people don’t ‘get off’ on watching you shed blood.
Saren shook his head, alarmed to note how quickly his mental faculties had dissolved under the attack of Nihlus’ subdued mating vocalizations. They were driving him mad. How was he to guess that hearing him would be even more arousing than seeing him? Saren reached to mute the audio but ended up turning it up louder still. He caught himself wondering if his sounds would have the same effect on Nihlus. If his hands, hardened by age and bitterness and violence, could make Nihlus tremble so. If his tongue could tease out such delicious sighs. If his…
“Yeah,” Nihlus whispered. He had an arm behind him. A finger inside him. He arched back with a hiss, presumably upon hitting the famed sensitive spot. “Oh yeah. Oh yeah.”
Just trying to imagine the feeling (warm soft throbbing around me so tight it must stretch it must hurt it must feel so good) made Saren shudder. His body was sending demands now, but he ignored them, clutching the armrests of the chair. He could hear his own heart drumming and blood pumping, making everything pulse.
Nihlus raced, indulging himself the way no man can do with a lover other than his own hand, a hand moving so fast now that it was but a dark blur. It couldn’t last long, not with the smothered moans of oh and ah and yeah and fuck yeah, and (look here I want to see you when you come I want to see your eyes I want to see inside you) Saren knew that Nihlus was on the precipice from the way his entire body tensed up. He was no longer working with his hand so much as he was desperately thrusting with his hips, his climax an eruption of sound and motion. His young face relaxed in an astonishing expression of pure bliss and it was perfect and beautiful and…
“Yes… Saren… oh… Saren… yes!”
Saren stopped breathing and time slowed to a standstill, the entire world collapsing into a string of echoing moans.
Many seconds later, he let out a long, ragged sigh, watching Nihlus calm down, watching Nihlus tremble through the many aftershocks of what must have been the longest, most intense orgasm Saren had ever witnessed. Nothing even close to that had ever happened to him; not with a partner, let alone with himself.
And the way Nihlus cried out… that sort of voice was supposed to require… feelings.
Which was nonsense, of course. Wishful thinking. Nihlus was attracted to everything with matching receptacles. And, damn his perfect body, voice and smile – everything with matching receptacles was attracted to Nihlus. Saren knew it with a bitter certainty: a week before that mission, Nihlus had surely been crying out some other name in abandon. Not his. Just like he was surely doing this very second, in the arms of some one-night lover. Not him.
And that made Saren grip the armrests with a renewed vigor, relishing the physical pain, letting it overshadow that other, unspeakable thing.
“Spirits,” Nihlus whispered. He had both his hands pressed just above his crotch, as if struggling to keep his entrails from falling out of some horrible wound. “Fucked up,” he whimpered. “Spirits, I’m so fucked up.”
Saren could watch no longer and turned the feed off. He crossed his arms over his chest, palms almost numb from the vicious grip. His mind was still tempting him with fantasies, his body was still demanding, and his heart still racing.
It would pass. Yes. Eventually, it would have to pass.
The next morning, Saren went up for breakfast in a foul mood. The sense of trepidation at meeting Nihlus face to face after what he’d seen last night was pitiful, and the best way to purge it would be to indulge in some violence. Fortunately, he had received instructions for locating and eliminating a lair of batarian pirates who were pestering the new turian colony on Helas. His fingers curled in anticipation.
But when he emerged at the top of the stairs, he froze. Nihlus was standing in front of the projector, just like in the video, watching the same security footage.
“Morning,” he said in a bright, chirpy tone that made Saren frown even deeper. Nihlus observed him for a second, then chuckled. “You look more hung-over than I am.”
“What’s that?” Saren said, indicating the video. He was uncomfortably self-conscious, his own brash voice rasping in his ears. Oh yes. For some reason it was very difficult to be kind to Nihlus. Irrational. Ridiculous! But first and foremost: unfair. Nihlus deserves better than this, he reminded himself, as he forced his jaw to loosen.
“Got my hands on security footage from Serrice,” Nihlus said, happily unaware of Saren’s internal struggle. “Oh, don’t worry. I demanded they delete all other copies. Used your credentials. Hope that was okay?”
Yes, say yes, don’t be obnoxious, say – “Yes.”
Nihlus had already opened his mouth to defend himself and now it clicked shut. His mandibles flared in a surprised smile. “Okay,” he drawled, then nodded. “Okay.”
Saren tore his eyes away as if to look at the kitchen things. He had forgotten why he’d come up in the first place and his stare went from tray to faucet, not really seeing anything other than a dark figure with striking white stripes, trembling with pleasure and saying…
He jumped at the sound of his name.
“What do you call this move?” Nihlus played the bit with the mimetic he’d practiced on Ilium.
Nihlus smiled. “Hot damn.” Then, as Saren abstained from a reaction, he took a deep breath, mandibles flicking to betray how nervous he was. “Teach me?”
Saren measured his next action carefully. It would be no good to give in completely. After all, teaching Nihlus every single mimetic he knew would indeed constitute a significant waste of time. But this once… “All right.”
Nihlus blinked in disbelief, once, twice. Then he stretched, looking altogether too happy, and fell into a generic combat stance. “This is what I figured out on my own,” he said, and performed the move. “I know it’s not…”
“It’s good,” Saren said, and stepped closer.
“Don’t throw the arms so far. Firm wrists. Supple knees. Got to bend them a little.”
“Like this?” Nihlus took the mid-turn position, observing Saren for a reaction.
“That’s too low,” Saren said, then sighed and performed the pirouette himself. “It’s difficult to explain. You’d adjust the height to the environment. The field flows along the arms, so if you have targets above you, you’d lift the arms above your head. But the field has its own inertia, so to speak. It ‘likes’ to fall down. At least, mine does. So you’d have to compensate for that. Aim higher, like with a sniper rifle. Takes a lot of practice.”
Nihlus was watching him with a fascinated smile plastered to his face. “You know, I’d give anything to be a biotic for a day.”
“Ask one of your asari lovers to share the experience.”
“You make it sound like I have twenty, just waiting in front of the airlock.”
Saren lifted a suspicious browplate, already regretting he’d steered the conversation this way.
“I don’t,” Nihlus said, and after a second, his face became serious. “In fact, I haven’t been with anyone since…”
“That’s none of my business, Nihlus.”
“Just saying. And anyway, not all asari like to play with biotics in bed.” He paused, and the words that followed came carried on an unexpected undercurrent of fear mixed with desire. “Do you?”
“That’s none of your business.”
Nihlus averted his eyes, tucking his mandibles close, and Saren cursed himself for being obnoxious again. It was the only answer he could give to that particular question, but it hadn’t been necessary to deliver it in such a hostile manner. Why was it so damn difficult?
“There’s always the sand,” he said to break the tension.
“I can’t believe I’m hearing this.” Nihlus laughed nervously. “Is that a recommendation?”
“I’m sure you’ve tried it already.”
“Sure. But I don’t think it’s the same. It gives you a buzz, makes you see red, and at best, you get sparks all over the skin. Which is sexy, for sure. But I’ve never been able to do anything with it.”
Saren nodded. “The sparks mean you’re accumulating surface charge.” Nihlus blinked in incomprehension, and Saren proceeded to explain. “Your body generates the field but since you don’t know how to discharge it, it boils up to the surface, where you can no longer control it.”
There was a deeper wisdom to this, Saren could sense it even while he was still speaking. Another analogy. All too perfect. Did Nihlus catch the meaning? Why else would he be looking at him—
“Like that?” Nihlus said.
Saren glanced down to see that he was sparkling all over and a tide of heat rushed into his face in embarrassment. This hasn’t happened to him since… he wanted to think, early adolescence, but then he remembered it had actually happened quite recently, when Nihlus broke his mother’s badge. The first instinct was to crouch and discharge the surplus through the floor, but then he had another idea, one that sent chills as wonderful as they were dreadful, down his spine.
“Take position,” he instructed, then stepped behind Nihlus and stood in a parallel stance, chest to back, crests catching, dark-skinned neck centimeters from his mouth. He kicked Nihlus’ knees a bit with his own to adjust the height, then took him by the wrists, and aimed a little lower. Biotic sparks kept bursting from his body in wave after wave, timed with his heartbeat, and they spilled over Nihlus’ arms and back, probably tingling, possibly burning, but he didn’t flinch. Saren knew he wouldn’t. He closed his eyes and imagined the slightest touch, the briefest contact, brushing that neck with his mandible, tasting that skin with his tongue, and it was the closest he’d ever come to making the dream a reality.
“What are you…” Nihlus started, but Saren didn’t give him a chance to finish. He began the deadly pirouette in slow motion and Nihlus’ body responded, even if his mind was still asking questions. As they made the circle together, Saren allowed his field to flow through Nihlus’ hands, but gently, gently! He didn’t want to make a mess in the room, and more importantly, he didn’t want to harm. Again, he heard his heart hammer and felt his stomach go rigid, but he hardly cared, fully immersed in experiencing the smell and the warmth and the intoxicating proximity of the other. On the far borders of his awareness, he heard things around them move and clang and some must have toppled over and fallen.
Then the spell was over, and he slowly stepped back, letting go after too much hesitation.
“Spirits,” Nihlus breathed. The tone of his voice was eerily similar to what Saren had heard in the video last night. Nihlus turned to him, then, eyes filled with emotion. His mandibles hung loose. Saren made a careful test and discovered that his did too. How embarrassing. But Nihlus was probably too far gone to notice. And Saren was definitely too far gone to care.
“Thank you,” Nihlus said. For a moment, Saren thought that he would cross the line and try to… do something, but he didn’t. Residual biotic sparks still twinkled over his arms here and there and he stared at them. “Red sand can’t hold a fucking candle to this,” he concluded, then swallowed. “And neither can any asari.”
“Good to know,” Saren said, for who knows what reason, and if there had been any doubts about whether or not he’d managed to hide his state of mind, they were blown to the wind with what came out on his undertones.
They stood looking at each other for what seemed like an eternity. Then Saren’s omni beeped to remind him of the time. They were supposed to go on a mission. One of the few remaining before Nihlus became a Spectre and went his own way.
And that made him wish that Nihlus had crossed the line. For he wasn’t sure if he would ever have the courage.