Saren paces along the edge of the fountain. The air is cooler here and people tend to keep a distance because the wind occasionally sprays the walkway. He has chosen a public place for the meeting on purpose, to decrease the likelihood of drama. But it’s not helping with the anxiety. He starts clicking the strings staccato from the coda of Alienation with the gloved fingers of his right hand. The left is supposed to fall in line and do the percussion beats. But it doesn’t. Not on its own. He must think about it. What good is it if he must think about it? He crosses his hands behind his back, left gripping the right by the wrist, and does the strings only. Pitiful.
The longer he waits, the worse it gets. It’s his own damn fault, of course. An unfamiliar venue meant unpredictable commute times. He arrived twenty minutes ahead of time. Thirty, after accounting for the inevitable lateness of the other party. He eyes the mall across the plaza. He could get something to eat. Focus on the external. Take the edge off. But the place is swarming with activity. His stomach twists. So much for that.
He spins on his toes and starts back the way he came once again when he sees Nihlus on the other end of the walkway. He freezes. His heartrate rises. He can feel the blood pumping into the prosthesis. The artificial vessels in it are thin and flexible, allowing for higher pressure and more power. He can feel them swelling and pulsing against synthetic flesh. Like some parasite with a life and a will of its own, worming through his body.
He knows he would get used to it with time. But not enough time has passed yet.
Suddenly, Nihlus is in front of him. He must have closed the distance, unobserved, while Saren was occupied with his heartbeat. He stares with his mouth hanging open.
Of course. What did you expect? That he’d conveniently overlook it?
He could at least pretend.
Hypocrite. You’d hate that even more.
Fine. Let him stare.
The prosthesis is naked and exposed. None of his clothes or gloves fit. He had to rip off the sleeve of this tunic to accommodate it. The robe can hide it, but he has intentionally arranged it so that it doesn’t. He releases the grip and lets it swing by his side. Its weight, unnatural, asymmetrical, tugs on his body and he has to adjust. The movement is minuscule but Nihlus twitches as if Saren pulled out a weapon.
“What?” Nihlus mouths, but no sound comes out. “When?” He blinks, for the first time in too many seconds, and two tears roll cleanly down his carapace, already moist from the fountain spray.
“I told you I had an accident.”
Nihlus looks him in the eye and cuts him in half. “An accident.”
I know I should have warned you.
I know it’s a shock.
I think I’m still in shock myself.
He says nothing. Nihlus must do the talking or there will be no talking. But Nihlus seems too stunned to speak. His eyes dart down, homing in on movement. Saren has started clicking the talons of his right hand again. He makes a fist. His fingers are numb and prickly. The other hand had too strong of a grip.
He knows control would come with practice. But he has barely had any.
He hates the thing. It’s a thing. It’s not him. It was made a part of him without his consent. To save his life, yes. An old rhetoric, abused many times over.
Is it still his? The life?
Is it still him?
Suddenly aware of the passage of time, he hurries to school his face. How long has he been absent? Nihlus still looks the same. Petrified.
The silence gets unbearable. For once, he wants Nihlus to talk. All those words, where are they now? All the delightfully insignificant details of his day for Saren to pay no heed to while enjoying the color and the texture of his voice. What he ate. What car he rented. What his hotel is like. What’s in the gift bag he carries. Please. Just. Speak.
He’s pretty sure he hasn’t said it out loud, but Nihlus hears.
“Spirits, Saren… Why didn’t you tell me? I could’ve helped. Or just… be there. Or… something.” He drapes a hand over his mouth to hide the tremor in his chin and mumbles underneath it. “For fuck’s sake.”
Naturally, Saren now wishes Nihlus had stayed silent after all. He could almost laugh. He just shakes his head.
“Are you… in pain?”
“Is it… fully functional?”
“Mostly. I’m still getting used to it.”
Saren holds his breath, looking at the outstretched hand reaching for his left shoulder. The thing has never been touched. Except by other things. He pulls the flap of his robe over it. “Later.”
Nihlus retracts the hand and lays it over his own chest. “Spirits,” he whimpers.
“There’s nothing you could’ve done.”
Nihlus nods. Once. Twice. He covers his eyes while his mandibles tremble. But Saren knows very well what’s happening behind the curtain. An unsung battle to put another’s emotional needs before one’s own. Not a fight Nihlus often wins. But perhaps this occasion is exceptional enough. It better be. Because Saren is out of resources. A bottomless, black void awaits within, eager to consume him.
Perhaps Nihlus hears that too. He sniffs and swallows and wipes his face, then boldly steps forward and takes Saren in his arms. The gift bag bounces off Saren’s back. Something hard but light. Compact. Plastic. Small enough to fit in a hand. Possibilities start to rifle through his mind.
“What’s in the bag?” he says at last. It’s a whisper. His voice is offline.
“I’ll show you later.”
Nihlus has been rocking him from side to side in slow motion. It feels good. He could fall asleep like this. On his feet. Enveloped by safety and love he doesn’t deserve.
“Show me now.”
Nihlus laughs a little and rubs his face against Saren’s cheek. “Nope.”
“Cruel and unusual punishment.”
The thing has found a way around Nihlus’s waist. Saren can’t remember telling it to go there. Nihlus tries and fails to pretend he didn’t notice, but says nothing. The soft leather of his worn jacket feels strange on synthetic skin. Mountains and valleys and riverbeds, a whole landscape of alien sensations. The dissonance between what he knows he’s supposed to feel and what he actually feels threatens to hurl him over the edge of the dark abyss. He curls the fingers and puts the thing behind his back.
“—just across the way. It’s not far, I promise.”
“My car.” Nihlus leans back to give him a searching look. “You didn’t hear anything I said, did you?”
“Uh-uh. What was I talking about?”
Nihlus laughs again and kisses his right hand. Their fingers have unaccountably become interlocked.
“Come on. You’re soaked.” Leading him away, Nihlus keeps talking. “The room is… turian pillows… hear everything through the… give you a good long…” Water keeps dripping from his mandibles throughout the ride. Only later it occurs to him the fountain spray couldn’t possibly account for all of it.