Near the end of The Path

On the eve of Nihlus’s induction into ST&R.
In the empty vehicle hangar of the Virial, docked at the Citadel.

Saren and Nihlus are practicing Hallori. Perhaps for the last time. They are both nervous and they push each other to the limits. Nihlus feels fairly focused, given the circumstance, but Saren seems distant and keeps making mistakes. He quits in the middle of the fifth form with a growl.

N: Wanna take a break?

S: No.

He takes some water and shakes his limbs out.

S: From the top?

N: Okay.

They start over. But two minutes later, Saren steps back once again.

N: You ok?

S: Yes.

N: We can leave the sixth for—

Tomorrow. But there will be no tomorrow. Everything will change. This is the last day of training. He never finishes the sentence.

S: Let’s start with the sixth, but slower.

N: Okay.

They haven’t done the sixth form often. It’s the most intricate and the most intense, and Nihlus has the nagging feeling that this isn’t a good time for it, but no way he could say no. If Saren told him to jump into the heat exhaust with him right now, Nihlus would do it with the utmost gratitude.

And so, they start the sixth. But only a few moves in, Saren misses his cue and they stumble past each other, narrowly missing injury. Saren curses and stomps away into the corner with his back turned to Nihlus, leaning on his knees. He sounds winded. At least that’s what Nihlus thinks Saren sounds like when winded.

N: Hey. It’s ok. No damage done.

Saren doesn’t reply. He doesn’t move.

Nihlus gets anxious. This isn’t like Saren and he doesn’t know what to do. Usually it’s he who makes mistakes.

Pulled by sudden and deep sympathy, he walks over and puts a hand on Saren’s sweaty shoulder. There’s a hiss. Scratching of bare talons on the metal floor. Nihlus registers movement so quick he can’t make sense of it. The next moment, Saren’s facing him with something wild and alien in his eyes while hot fluid drips down Nihlus’s side.

They both look down as one. Two long, parallel gashes have appeared on Nihlus’s waist, oozing with blood.

Nihlus inhales. He didn’t feel a thing. Just a streak of heat. But now it’s starting to hurt. And not just the cuts. He feels his heart might stop. Two fat drops of blood fall off from Saren’s talons-tips and splash on the floor in the deathly silence.

Nihlus steps back, dizzy. He’s seen plenty of blood spilled, blue and red and purple, belonging to him and his friends and his enemies alike. But he can’t process the sight of it in this context. It’s reached his waistband and started to soak it. He speaks without thinking.

N: Why’d you do that for?

Saren breathes heavily. Nihlus smells the fish he ate and the tea he drank.

S: You were going too fast. I told you to slow down! But no. You keep insisting! Pushing me. Running ahead of me, like always. This is your fault. Not mine.

N: What? How is it my fault? We weren’t even—I thought we were taking a break!

Idiot. Moron. Cretin. Fool.

Of course Saren didn’t mean the bloody exercise.

Still, Nihlus can’t take the blame for this. No, sir. This wasn’t an accident. Saren has hurt him on purpose and it’s all he can do to swallow the anger and ignore the alarms going off in ever corner of his inner being.

N: Whatever. It’s no big deal. I’ll go slap some medigel on it and call it a night.

His voice wavers. His eyes sting more than the cuts. He moves to leave.

S: Stay where you are.

Nihlus stops. A disproportional sense of relief washes over him. He blinks his eyes dry while watching Saren stalk away—then blinks some more as Saren licks his talons clean of the blood like it’s the most natural thing in the world. Fuck.

There’s a first-aid kit on the far wall. Right. Nihlus has forgotten about it. They posted it there in the early days of their sparring, just in case. A case like this. It has never been used.

Saren cracks it open, wipes his hands with an antiseptic tissue, then pops open a baggie of medigel. He looks at it intently on his way back, avoiding Nihlus’s eyes.

Nihlus puts his hand out and waits for the baggie.

S: Put your hands behind your head.

N: Give it to me. I can do it myself.

S: No.

Okay… Nihlus is no longer sure how to feel. He’s still too angry to get excited about the prospect of Saren patching him up, but not angry enough to stage a rebellion.

As he reluctantly lifts his arms up to interlock his fingers under his crest, Saren discretely sniffs the air, then squirts some medigel on his finger and applies it sparingly on the upper cut. Nihlus hisses. Not so much because it hurts, but because it’s cold. Saren ignores him. He takes another squirt and drapes it over the lower cut.

That should do it. They have both dressed hundreds of flesh wounds, each other’s and their own, and they both know that’s enough, and they both know the other knows. Yet Saren squirts more medigel on his finger and starts to gently rub it in and around the cuts.

N: So… it’s ok for you to touch me, but it’s not ok for me to touch you?

S:

N:

S: Yes.

His voice is still edgy. Dark and dangerous. Nihlus wonders if that flare is still in his eyes but Saren stubbornly refuses eye contact, staring down at his handiwork.

N: That some kind of rule, or something?

Saren squeezes more medigel out of the baggie. He seems bent on cleaning Nihlus’s side of every trace of the foul deed that wasn’t his fault.

S: Yes.

N: You could’ve just told me.

To be fair, Nihlus is well aware that Saren doesn’t like to be touched. But a pat on the shoulder was commonplace and innocent enough, like a handshake, tried and tested many times.

To be really fair, that was as much a pat on the shoulder as diving face-first into his hand would be a handshake.

S: No.

N: Why not?

Distracted by the conversation, or perhaps thinking that Nihlus is, Saren has progressed from rubbing in the medigel with his finger to smearing it over increasing areas of sensitive skin on Nihlus’s waist with his whole hand.

S: Because I don’t know the rules.

His voice has turned soft and quiet. Something warm descends from Nihlus’s chest and pools in his stomach. He suddenly realizes how incredibly close Saren is standing. Only a few centimeters divide their noses. And his attentions have long lost the last trace of their initial purpose. He seems as absorbed by the feeling of Nihlus under his warm hand as Nihlus is by the feeling of Saren’s hand on him.

N: Saren.

S:

N: I’m sorry.

S:

N: For running ahead of you.

Now he’s the one breathing hard, but if Saren notices, he makes no show of it.

N: You did warn me. And I heard you. I wasn’t doing it out of disrespect for your wishes. I was doing it… fuck. I am doing it… because I’m terrified of what happens tomorrow. And after.

He hears Saren swallow. His eyes sting again. He closes them and whispers.

N: I just want you so much.

Saren’s hand stills, but doesn’t move away.

When Nihlus dares open his eyes, he finds Saren finally looking back. But it’s never been harder to hold his gaze.