Chapter 7 of The Candidate

Nihlus stared at the mirror in the bathroom of his prefab for the longest time. He felt like years had passed since yesterday and he wanted to see if he looked any older. But he only looked tired. Tired, spent, hungover. The colors on his face were fading. He had some scratch marks on his neck, a little souvenir from Vakarian. It was good for what it was. Not quite good enough to replace the painful memory with a pleasant one, but he was grateful anyway.

He splashed his face and neck with cold water, changed his sweaty civvies, and went to look for Saren. He didn’t fear the confrontation. He wouldn’t hide a thing: neither the scratch marks, nor the pain caused by something altogether different, and yet not different at all. There was only one wish, one plan he’d try to see through. He didn’t want to say goodbye like this. He didn’t want to say goodbye, period. But that – that was just wishful thinking.

Like last night, he found the door to Saren’s prefab open, and Saren was sitting at a terminal that he’d turned so as to face the entrance while working. Nihlus smiled a bit, though his heart sunk the moment he’d laid eyes on him, the merciless sound of flap-flap-flap-flap repeating itself ad nauseam in the back of his head. He took a deep breath that didn’t do much for him at all, and stepped inside.

Saren made no motion to express awareness of his presence, though he must have seen and heard him. Nihlus turned about, saw breakfast things on the table to his right, groceries that were surely not from Ganima. Saren probably brought a whole case of supplies along for his two-day stay. Saren didn’t like vat-grown food. Saren didn’t like a great many things.

“Help yourself,” he said, never lifting his gaze from the terminal.

Nihlus considered it, but his stomach grumbled in rebellion. “Maybe later,” he said. He was surprised to hear his voice coming out so calm and even. He walked over to the terminal but stopped at a respectable distance. “Are you looking over my report?”

“Yes. Vakarian and Helas. Is that your recommendation?”

“Garrus is the one. Lavena is second-best.” In all things imaginable.

Finally Saren looked at him. And Nihlus froze under the stare. Cold and loaded with malice. Some unfathomable emotion rippled over the steel features but it was not a wave so much as it was a shadow of a wave and Nihlus couldn’t catch the meaning before it was gone. But then Saren spoke in a tone of ultimate loathing that made everything clear.

“His smell is all over you.”

Taken by surprise, Nihlus started to say something, then let his mouth close with an empty click. He had nothing to be ashamed of, yet his face was on fire. He should have taken a shower. Fuck, he should have taken a shower.

He wanted to say, and hers is all over you, although, technically speaking, it wasn’t. He wanted to say, it could have been your scent, if you had cooperated, so shut up and take your own damn medicine. He wanted to say, I didn’t do it to hurt you, and I know you didn’t do it to hurt me – we both needed to blow off some steam and that’s what we’ve done. I only wish we could have done it with each other. Why the hell not?

“Excuse me?” Saren said.

Nihlus wasn’t aware that he’d spoken. “So what?” he repeated on muscle memory.

“It makes your recommendation invalid.”

The line was delivered in such an isn’t-it-obvious, matter-of-fact way, that for a second, Nihlus almost believed it. Of course it was nonsense, from his point of view. But looking at Saren now, seeing that his gaze had softened, if only by a tiny degree, seeing that he was aware he was answering a question altogether different and yet not different at all, Nihlus came to a mind-blowing revelation.

Saren believed it.

His face must have looked strange, because Saren frowned. “What?”

“You really believe that, don’t you? You think that, since I slept with him, I’m no longer objective?”

“Are you?”

Nihlus laughed, but the cynical note sounded alien to him, let alone to Saren, who was becoming increasingly suspicious. “Spirits, Saren. It was just sex. A quick fuck against the wall.”

The pun was intended. Saren’s eyes narrowed, then darted to what Nihlus believed was Lavena’s file, displayed on the terminal. Nihlus would have given his arm from the shoulder to hear his thoughts right now. The analogy was flawed, of course, and Nihlus was just starting to realize that. “Just sex” had no more bearing on objectivity than “just food” or “just rest.” As Saren’s left mandible flicked to confirm this, Nihlus found himself bathing in cold sweat. The two of them, they could never just “blow off steam” together.

And the pieces of his heart came together again, like scraps of iron latching onto a magnet. There would be scars, but at least it was whole again. Beating and feeling. Oh, how it was feeling!

“No matter,” said Saren after a while, and his voice was unusually quiet. “Even if I sign your recommendation, the Council will reject it.”

“Spirits,” Nihlus said, slow to go back the here and now. “I totally forgot about that.”

“Should I sign it anyway?”

They looked at each other for a long time. The question entered into all facets of the multi-layered conversation. How can you be sure your report about Vakarian was objective? Was my report about you objective? Are you certain it was nothing more than a quick fuck? Would it have been more, if it had been me?

“Yes. Absolutely. And, you know, I only slept with him when I already filed the report.” Just like you have already filed yours.

“But you must have wanted him… before.”

The words were spoken in a deep tone that echoed the terrible weight of all the suppressed emotions Nihlus suspected were hiding within, and it wrenched at his guts. This was the closest Saren had ever come to actually making the move. Though perhaps for him it was more of a leap. A leap of faith.

“Him? Not particularly, no.” Nihlus took a deep breath and let all his emotions tremble on his subharmonics. “But I understand what you mean.”

Do you, the mirror eyes asked.

I do, he nodded. I really do.

Saren looked away and typed something into the terminal. “Sent,” he said. “It’s out of our hands now.”

Our. Nihlus could never hear enough of it. “Thank you.”

Saren huffed, then seemed to start to say something. But didn’t. Instead, he just stared at Nihlus again. I’m sorry.

And Nihlus smiled. I forgive you.

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