Nihlus breathes through wide open mouth to hide the huffing and puffing. He’s gone short of breath half way up but he won’t be the first to ask for a break, no sir. The slope is steep and the angular stones that used to mark the path have either fallen away or got buried by the patient labor of the elements. Sandy dirt and pebbles roll and skid under his feet and he must pull himself up, tugging on bare branches and roots. He can see the top from here, but he’ll need to scale a particularly nasty climb, where part of the path has slid down the cliff completely. He stops, waging his options. And catching his breath.
“Come,” Saren says and offers a hand from above. The old goat has had the advantage since foothills.
“The other hand,” Nihlus grumbles. Saren’s old habit, to do the heavy lifting with the prosthetic arm, refuses to let up even though the new prosthesis, the normal one, has been in place for almost a decade.
“The other leg,” Saren replies, switching sides.
“Right.” Nihlus has already stabbed his cane into the ground for support and now he must pluck it out and rethink his tactics from scratch. The knee surgery has relieved him of the worst of the pain and now he’s forgetting that he should spare it.
They both grunt as Saren pulls him up. A moment of panic, when all forces cancel out and they freeze in precarious balance, comes and goes. Finally on solid, flat ground, he stumbles forward, laughing.
“Spirits! This used to be an easy stroll.”
But Saren has gone to the edge of the cliff, staring down, and doesn’t reply. He’s not complaining—he never complains—but Nihlus can tell that he’s tired too, by the way his shoulders droop and his hand clutches the cane. Time to take a breather, then, and this is a good spot. They might even camp here, if the wind allows. And it just might. The sky is clear enough to let the brightest stars compete with the moonlight. Only a few wisps of cloud hover around the distant spires of the ancient prothean city.
He takes some water, then fumbles in the bag for an energy bar. The crumpling of the cryoplastic foil makes Saren turn and give him the look.
“What?” Nihlus says with full mouth. “I haven’t eaten in hours.”
“You ate one just before the climb.”
Saren just shakes his head. Easy for him to criticize when he never gets fucking hungry anymore. He’s lost a lot of weight in the last few years, and Nihlus, well, he keeps gaining! He can’t be bothered to care, though. Not until he discovers yet another good outfit that he can no longer zip up. But he’ll worry about that when they get back. The hike has been hard enough on him without arbitrary dietary restrictions, thank you very much. He munches the bar and stuffs the foil in the bag, then knocks the water bottle on Saren’s shoulder.
Saren takes the bottle, but doesn’t drink before settling down on the ground, cloak folded under his skinny butt. Then he sips, still staring over the edge.
“Have we been here before?”
With a sigh, Nihlus sits down behind him. “Two years ago. You don’t remember?”
“I remember the holo we have at home. This exact scene…” he swipes a hand over the bowl-shaped valley below, filling up with pale-pink moonlight. A strangely tender, elegant motion, like a part of a slow dance. “…only in daylight. But I don’t remember being here.”
Oh, but Nihlus remembers. He smiles. “There’s a small cave down on the other side. The path was in better shape, but it was so fucking hot. We went in to hide from the sun and—”
“Ah,” Saren says. His mandibles twitch. “I do remember that.”
“I bet you do.”
Nihlus puts a hand on the back of Saren’s neck, feels his warm skin and tout muscles, then starts to knead them slowly, coaxing them to relax. Saren tends to tense up when they touch on his troubles with memory. He says he’s not bothered, of course. And he probably believes it. But Nihlus sees it all. The subtle change in posture, the clenched jaws, the shallow breaths.
His fingers dip into the soft hollows for the biotic amps. Saren doesn’t wear them anymore, thank the Spirits. No more headaches, no more maniacal appetite, and no more wild static with the morning wood. Nihlus chuckles. In truth, the morning wood is getting increasingly rare too, but that doesn’t make their days, evenings and nights together any less enjoyable.
For a while they sit in silence. The jagged shadow of the cliff moves slowly closer and closer, revealing more of the valley to the inquisitive moons. Wind rises and falls in sudden gusts, lifting the green smell of the pines from down below.
“I dreamed last night,” Saren volunteers. “We woke up, one day, and went out on the porch, to find that everything has turned to dust. All the man-made things. Only nature remained. And we, as part of it. And of all the knowledge gathered in this cycle, only that survived which was in our memories. But without technology, we were isolated, with no means to reach anyone else. All we had was each other, and the fruits of the land.”
“Doesn’t sound so bad to me.” He rubs his nose on Saren’s mandible. “How did you feel about it?”
Saren snorts. He doesn’t even have to say it. Pop-psychology. But after a while, he answers anyway. “Terrified.”
“It’s the fear of death.”
Ah. Nihlus smiles, although his eyes sting a little. “Forgetfulness is death to those who live to laugh and mourn,” he quotes.
Saren turns to face him and picks up the verse in a whisper. “I will listen while you sing—”
“A shining tale of star-crossed love that never dies—”
“And I, though blind, will see it through your eyes.”
Dear heart. Nihlus leans in and rests his forehead on Saren’s. Age has softened the emotionless bastard like the ocean waves soften the edges of rocks. And like a rock still stands on the beach, defying the tides, so does Saren keep his bare face straight. But Nihlus sees it all. The dreamy glint in his hooded eyes, the loose mandibles, the boneless weight of his head.
Eventually the wind does pick up and with it an unpleasant chill. Nihlus rises with a groan, his joints popping and his cloak billowing behind him. He stretches and walks over to where the path should continue downhill toward that cave. No, the descent is nowhere near as nice as he remembers it. A loose, dry bush tumbles away into the night when he pokes it with his cane.
“Come on,” he says.
Saren hasn’t moved. He looks around, then looks at Nihlus. “Have we been here before?”
Nihlus swallows a knot. He stalks back and caresses Saren’s crest. “It doesn’t matter. Let’s keep going.”
Inspired by the lovely painting with the same title, Let’s keep going, by Gladius.
Verse is from The Guide by Logsig.