Chapter 9 of The Precedent
I knew it, Nihlus thought. I bloody knew it.
Under the white sheet, Elethea lay, dead. Nihlus carefully wiped the crusted droplet of blood from the corner of her cold lips. Her arms were folded somewhat clumsily over her chest. The deathly stiffness was already settling in.
Nihlus blinked his eyes dry and pulled the sheet back over her face. There hadn’t been enough time for him to get to know her, but he felt the pain of those she was leaving behind. It was all too easy to imagine learning, one day, that Saren had been killed. Remembering the real experience of loss when his father died was much more difficult; it had happened too long ago and now felt like a story from someone else’s life. Nihlus thought of Eleni and tears blurred his vision again. Damn.
Out of a lifelong habit, and because he craved a distraction, he gave the room an investigative look-over. No signs of struggle, obviously. The med-kit was still on the desk, open and uncharacteristically messy. A plastic syringe lay on the floor, crushed under a hurried foot. Dried drops of medigel shone from the desk, the armrest of the chair, the frame of the bed. His old fluffy blanket was stuffed into the trash bin on top of a bunch of tissues stained with asari blood. Probably soiled or torn. Everything else looked the same as always.
Apparently, the morning’s sport Elethea had subjected herself to, what with going down the stairs, using the toilet and taking a shower on her own, had aggravated her internal injuries. After Nihlus had taken Eleni out, Saren attempted another debriefing and had been, by his own admission, “too insistent”. She became upset and he grew frustrated and when he left her alone, he didn’t think to run a scan on her. He went upstairs and only heard her cough and choke when he came back down to the cockpit to plug in his omni, which had suffered a mysterious malfunction that rendered him unable to take Nihlus’s call. But at that point, it was already too late. Elethea’s lungs had filled with blood and she died of suffocation.
Deep down, Nihlus had known she would die since the moment he had found her in that cave. That was why he had “panicked” about her “non-lethal” condition and felt that the Virial had become a tomb, a vessel for the dead. Of course, he couldn’t say so to Saren. Because, one, Saren despised his superstitious reliance on intuition; and two, he was grieving and was in no need of smartassery. Walking out of the cabin, Nihlus decided to also spare Saren the dubious benefits of insisting that it hadn’t been his fault and that he couldn’t have done anything to prevent it. He could’ve taken her to a damn hospital.
He was in the commons, seated on a barstool and rocking gently back and forward, with one arm crossed over his chest and the other holding his heavy forehead. Silently, Nihlus embraced him from behind, mandible to mandible, and joined the rocking.
After a while, Saren cleared his throat. “Where’s the girl?”
“I left her with Sha’ira.”
“You took her to a whorehouse?”
“She’ll be safe there. And Sha’ira is as sensitive as they get. I’m pretty sure no one at the C-Sec or even the Huerta could handle Eleni better.”
At that, Saren shook his head, and the rocking intensified. But Nihlus knew it wasn’t about leaving the girl in a “whorehouse”. It was about the future. Who would take care of the kid now? A special kid like that? He remembered that Saren too had lost his mother at an early age, but he’d at least had an older brother. Until he had lost that too.
Nihlus held him closer. “I’m so sorry, my love.”
“Don’t,” Saren croaked. He cleared his throat again, regaining control of his voice. “I don’t want your sympathy. And even if I did, I don’t deserve it.”
“You could say the same for the lot of what I contribute to this relationship.” Nihlus rubbed his nose on Saren’s ear. “I don’t care if you deserve it. And you don’t have to want it to get it.”
“It’s not helpful. Makes it worse, not better.”
“Ain’t nothing gonna make it better. Not for a while.”
Saren groaned, pushing him away. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” He stood there for a few seconds, holding on to the counter-top like someone unsure of their balance, then dragged his feet to the viewport and locked his hands behind his back. The clicking of his talons, one against another, outvoiced even the ticking of the clock.
“Right,” Nihlus muttered, nodding at his back. “What could I possibly know about losing someone I love.” Since his own family was obviously living happily ever after somewhere nice and safe, he had never been left behind or outright betrayed by a friend, or sent an operative under his command to certain death. Stung, he clasped his mandibles tight to stop himself from saying it all out loud.
Saren drew a long breath. “That’s not what I meant.” In the long pause that followed, he stopped tapping his talons and curled his hands into white-knuckled fists. “I killed her, Nihlus.” He turned halfway, mandibles twitching in search for words. The shadowless light of the Citadel afternoon bounced strangely off his pale carapace, framing his profile in a sort of a hazy halo. He turned away again. “I killed her as surely as if I shot her.”
“But you didn’t, ok? You didn’t cause her injuries, or her state of mind. You just… couldn’t save her.”
“It’s not the same. You didn’t choose this.”
“I chose to use her.”
With a tired sigh, Nihlus walked past the seat Saren had vacated, absently feeling it for leftover warmth, and stood at an arm’s length behind him. What was the use of debating? They both knew all the arguments and counterarguments one could possibly bring forward. How death was an inextricable part of their work, just as deception and seduction were necessary tools of their trade; how they both could’ve easily died in place of their agents dozens of times in not for sheer luck; how men like them had to do the things they swore to protect others from because it was the only way to keep those others innocent and worth protecting. But it would be a waste of breath.
“You can hate yourself all you like,” he said in the end. “But I still love you.”
Saren shook his head. “You don’t know the things I’ve done,” he said in a coarse whisper.
“I don’t need to. I know why you’ve done them.”
Finally, Saren turned to face him. For a moment it looked like he would insist on his point, but then he changed his mind and took to staring at Nihlus’s midsection in silence. Good, because there was only so much patronizing Nihlus could take, even from his old mentor. Had Saren forgotten that Nihlus was a Spectre too? That his own hands were far from clean?
He placed one of them on Saren’s left shoulder, and after some hesitation, Saren covered it with his own. His brows were gathered, his breathing labored, his subvocals an odd mix of alarm and suffering. “Nihlus—”
“I’m sorry.” Perhaps he had been the one to patronize and unduly insist on making a point. This was hardly the time to be telling Saren how he should feel. “Sometimes I don’t know when to stop.”
Saren’s hand slid down to clutch at his chest as a grimace of pain replaced his neutral expression.
“What’s the matter?” Sudden fear surged up from his stomach. “Saren, what’s wrong?”
But Saren was unable to answer. Fighting for breath like there was something stuck in his throat, he collapsed on his knees and would’ve bitten the dust if Nihlus didn’t break his fall and laid him, convulsing, on his side. A blind panic took him, and later he would remember little of what followed; only that his own trash poetry returned to haunt him and looped through his head, mocking, while he went through the motions of resuscitation on autopilot.
A tomb, a tomb, a vessel for the dead.