Chapter 5 of The Precedent
They sat in the cockpit with the lights turned down. A sparse scattering of lonesome stars blinked through the hazy glow of the nebula. At sublight, Nihlus thought, they could travel for ten years before the starscape changed in any perceptible way. It was always comforting to remember the vastness and utter disinterest of space. Their ship was but a speck of dust; the two of them, a couple of moderately complex molecules in it; and their many concerns and duties and memories and feelings were nothing. Nothing at all.
Nihlus rolled his head to look at Saren. He too stared through the viewport at the pink and purple mist, his hands hanging limply from the armrests. No one had said a word in minutes. It was more than sheer exhaustion, though there was plenty of that too. An oppressive air filled the Virial and no amount of filtering and recycling could drive it out. The urgency, the secrecy, the blame not yet placed, the indecision, so unlike Saren—it felt like they moved not at sublight, but at sub-snail, struggling through a sea of sticky, clingy jelly.
At least they were alone for now, and free of concern for their strange guests. Elethea needed rest, and Eleni quietly complied to being left alone in the cabin, behind the door that Saren discreetly locked behind her. Nihlus might have raised some objections to that if he hadn’t spent the better part of the evening searching the hangar for her. The Rhino had failed to capture her interest and after tolerating Nihlus’s lame attempts to provide entertainment for a while, she slipped out so quietly he only realized she was gone minutes later. Thank the Spirits for the thermal scanner, or he would’ve never found her. She had crawled into a disused exhaust pipe, a part of a temperature-regulation system made obsolete by the heat sink that had been installed in the long year after Nihlus’s induction. Pulling her out had left him breathless with panic and effort, but she seemed no worse for wear, with only a few specks of engine grime on her hands and crest and deep blue leggings. Thankfully, Saren and Elethea had taken their sweet time, leaving Nihlus plenty of room to cover his tracks.
“Did you manage to debrief her?” he said.
Saren didn’t reply at once. Sometimes it took him a while to register questions. Or perhaps just to deign answering them. “After a fashion.”
“With yes-no questions?”
“She offered to meld.”
“Ah.” He had guessed it would come to that. “Then you saw what happened to her.”
Another long pause. “I suppose.”
Nihlus waited for more, frustration mounting, until it became clear Saren would not elaborate. “Can you please explain it to me? ‘Cos I sure don’t understand. What did they do to her, to jumble her mind like that? What kind of twisted…”
No. Trying to put the experience into words again was really the last thing he needed right now. He swallowed and turned away to look out the viewport again, just as Saren finally turned to look at him. Neither had the energy to even lift their heads from the headrests.
“Forced melding,” Saren said. “We’ve seen it before. Granted, not with such consequences. This was surgically precise. They kept her alive for the exchange but made sure she couldn’t share whatever secrets she had learned. Barbaric, but effective.”
“It sounds like you admire them. Surgically precise?” He looked Saren in the eye. “It felt like rape to me.”
“Yes.” Saren held his stare. It had been difficult enough to read him before he had his eyes replaced with implants, but it was near impossible now. “It’s unfortunate you witnessed that. I had to, but you didn’t.”
Nihlus huffed. “It’s unfortunate that it happened in the first place. Who are these people? What do they want?” A flash of memory struck him like a disruptor round, making him jolt. “Those masks they wore. They looked like the Collectors. With them insect eyes and all. Is there a connection?”
“I don’t think so,” Saren said after some consideration. He rolled his head straight. “But you make a good point. The similarity is undeniable.” For a while, his mandibles worked in silence. “Obviously, I don’t know half as much about the Athamists as I’d like. I resorted to putting an agent in because I was out of options. But it was a mistake. Not just because Elthe suffered. All my networks in asari space have gone silent. That’s nine good operatives, not counting the locals. Some of them will be difficult to replace. Three had families.” His hands curled into fists, then slowly uncurled. “I underestimated the enemy. If you’ll take another lesson from your old mentor—” he looked at Nihlus again— “take that: you can never be too cautious.”
“I know,” Nihlus breathed. There’s no such thing as paranoia, was the way Saren had put it in the past. If you’re feeling safe, you’re missing something obvious; and half a dozen other formulations. Slowly, as if approaching a cornered animal, Nihlus stretched his arm till their talons touched, and then, as there was no recoil, he took Saren’s hand. It was warm and dry and comfortingly familiar. “I know, my love.”
Sitting at an arm’s length, Saren was still light years away. A full minute passed before he reacted and felt Nihlus’s hand in return.
“Is she going to recover?” Nihlus asked.
“Probably. With time. And with help.”
He knew better than to ask if Elethea’s mission had been successful; Saren had already said more than Nihlus could’ve hoped for. He wanted to ask about the kid, though. At one point, earlier, it seemed like Eleni could understand her mother despite all the wrong words. He wanted to ask about Eleni’s obvious weirdness, and a dozen other things. But it would have to wait. Saren’s hold on his hand turned into a gentle tug. Eager as ever, Nihlus left his post and with a stripper’s move—one leg stretched high and swishing through the air to make a circle above the pilot chair—straddled Saren’s lap.
He had taken a shower and changed into a tracksuit, but Saren was still in the same attire Nihlus had tried to peel off him last night. He didn’t mind. The musky scent of Saren’s unwashed skin was a rare delicacy. His hands rested on Nihlus’s hips, then moved upward to feel his waist. Nihlus got busy undoing the shiny clasps and hidden buttons that kept Saren’s neck and collar out of sight.
“I’m not sure—” Saren started, but Nihlus had planned it all out long before.
“The door’s locked. All your fancy motion sensors are on: we’ll know if anyone takes to moonwalking. And we can be quiet.” He stole a nip behind Saren’s mandible. “If we have to.” He decided that Saren’s grunt was a kind of laugh. “And if you’d rather not think about it…” Straightening up, he brought up his omni and executed the sound-proofing app he had stolen from the C-Sec library the other week. “There. With this on, you can moan your heart out and ain’t no one gonna be the wiser for it.”
Saren did laugh now, in his abrupt, clipped manner that was more like a cough or choking. But Nihlus loved it. Spirits, he loved everything about him. The grip on his back, still uncertain, the barely perceptible grind of his hips, shyly looking for friction. Nihlus felt like crying. Not with joy or sadness but just the sudden, pure intensity of sensation and emotion. Yeah, he used to be like this early on a lot. It wasn’t a thing he recalled often or gladly but he used to cry after lovemaking, sometimes even in the middle of it. What the fuck, right? He’d hide it as best as he could but Saren always saw through him.
That hadn’t changed. “You’re still upset,” he rumbled softly.
“Looks like it.” Nihlus tried to laugh it off. “I’m sorry. I don’t feel bad, just—”
“Don’t be sorry.”
Nihlus nodded, then rested his forehead on Saren’s till his eyes were dry again and his attention moved on from his racing heart to his aching groin. They kissed, and Saren’s light touch turned into a steady pressure on his lower back, pulling him closer. When he looked in his artificial eyes now, Nihlus had no trouble reading the desire in them, an almost feral and not altogether healthy craving.
Being the self-centered, blind ass-cheek he had always been, he had forgotten that Saren too was stressed, likely far more than he, and upset, yes, even if it wasn’t showing. He swallowed. “Would you like to lead?”
Saren shook his head. His mouth opened, but no words came out, just a gasp for air. He shook his head again, as if to confirm. “I can’t,” he whispered at last. “I need… I need you to—”
“Hush.” Nihlus rubbed his face against the side of Saren’s neck, inhaling him. “I got you.”
“Take them out if you want,” Saren said, turning his head all the way to the left to expose the biotic amp slot behind the jaw.
“Ooooh.” An unexpected treat. Nihlus bit his mandible in concentration while he detached the amp. The prickly sensation it caused in his talons was neither pleasant nor unpleasant, but he loved it. “Where do I put it?”
“Just drop it on the board.”
Nihlus lowered it on the glossy, squeaky-clean surface of the ship’s control panel, gently. The other one wasn’t so kind and gave him a straight out little biotic shock. But he didn’t flinch, and neither did Saren. He loved it all. The pleasure, the pain, receiving, but most of all, giving.
“What are you going to do with that?” Saren asked as Nihlus slowly tugged the headscarf from behind his horns.
“The only thing it’s good for.”