The airlock cycle had never taken so long before. Both of them stank so horribly that even the violent torrent of repressurization wasn’t able to blow it off and away from Saren’s nostrils. Disgusting damp swamp. He hated dampness with a passion. He hated wet clothes, wet skin, wet planets. He hated sweating, sinking knee-deep in opaque green puddles of suspicious appearance, he hated being sprayed with mud while pushing the back of the lander (it was a fucking lander how the fuck did a lander manage to get stuck it was the driver it’s his fault it’s all his fucking fault). But most of all, he hated when people didn’t listen to him. When people failed to recognize the signs even when he intentionally broadcasted them on all the fucking frequencies. When people who knew him pretended they didn’t. When people thought that because he wasn’t in a talkative fucking mood it meant that he was immune to the shit they had both been wading through for hours. Fuck!
The door finally hissed open and he watched in silent horror as Nihlus stomped inside making two dozen sticky, black footsteps on the pristinely polished floor in a matter of seconds. He then kicked his boots off and Saren was perfectly, mercilessly able to trace the droplets of liquid shit as they landed with surgical precision on top of the kitchen counter. As if that wasn’t enough, Nihlus then stepped into the mess he’d made and smeared it with the socks of his thermal. He slipped and cursed. Presumptuous squeamish little bastard, acting like it was his fucking ship, his fucking house, with never a single word or any sign of awareness, let alone appreciation for the fact that Saren had been cleaning after him.
He took a deep breath to contain the rage. He’d already lost patience once today. Let go. Don’t think about it. Later.
He clenched his jaw and tore his eyes from Nihlus. Had he been alone, he’d have taken off the entire armor in the airlock and come back to clean it later. But with the floor messed up as it was he’d get even dirtier that way. He stepped in, and a low growl escaped him.
Nihlus turned, followed his gaze. “Whoops.”
“Take your armor off in here,” Saren said, keeping his voice strictly controlled.
“But I have to go to the loo.”
“Take it off quickly, then.”
For a second, Nihlus looked like he’d try to discuss it, but then he probably realized obeying would be quicker, and started unfastening the armor. “Everything?”
“The thermal as well.”
Saren started undoing his armor too. He was terribly tired and had a headache. The new amplifiers were acting up again. He considered taking them out, but decided against doing it in front of Nihlus. If there was anything more unnerving than his disrespect, ingratitude, filthy habits and lazy ignorance, it was his pity. One word in that careful, flimsy tone that he associated with sweaty palms and trembling arms, would be enough to push him over the edge now and make him do something he’d hate himself for later.
He was aware of the contradiction. He’d consciously worked to make Nihlus fear him, and now he hated when Nihlus feared him. Now he wanted something else. Understanding. Yes. Was that so much to ask for? The thoughts distracted him and he undid the final fastener of the chest-piece before securing it. It fell down with an awful clang that spiked into his brain like a glowing needle, and worse still, it landed on Nihlus’s unarmored toe.
“Shit! Shit-shit-shit!” he wheezed, hopping in place on his other leg and squeezing the injured foot in his hands. Saren started to warn him of the slippery floor, but he wasn’t fast enough and all he could do was watch helplessly as Nihlus lost footing and dropped hard on his naked bottom. “Aww, fuck!”
Saren sighed and started piling the discarded pieces of armor in the corner by the door of the airlock, careful not to step in the stain on the floor. Every time he’d lean down, the pain in his skull would bloat a bit, growing like some loathsome bubble. The need to take out the offending amplifiers became acute. Why the fuck was Nihlus still rolling on the dirty floor? Neither the injury nor the fall could have been that bad.
“I like it here. Hey. Can I take a blanket and sleep here? It beats that awful little cot.”
Saren bit into his tongue. You ungrateful little shit. “Then I’ll go shower first,” he said instead.
“No no no. See? I’m up. I’ll be done in a sec.”
“Take your time.” Take more time. A couple of hours would probably do the trick. Is that too much to ask for? Of course Saren could always shut himself in the cabin and pretend to work – that was about the only way to keep Nihlus from speaking to him for any significant length of time. But it was his ship, damn it, and if he wanted to be alone he should fucking be able to.
The gritting of teeth didn’t help the headache, and as soon as he heard Nihlus go down the stairs, he popped the amplifiers from the slots behind his jaw. He knew not to expect the headache to disappear at once, but still he was disappointed with the results. Sliding the amplifiers into a pocket of his thermal, he entered the little kitchen and sat on the stool. The black droplets on the counter looked at him with spite and spoke to him in Nihlus’s defiant voice: why’d you make a kitchen on the ship anyway? What a waste of space. I’d put a couch in there instead. And a big projector.
“Hey,” Nihlus said. Saren hadn’t even heard him coming up. “Are there any leftovers from that thing you cooked yesterday?” He opened the cryo-storage unit and started sniffing and roaming. Saren closed his eyes. Let go. Don’t think… He caught the smell of the swamp and his eyes shot open.
“Please tell me you at least washed your fucking hands.”
Nihlus closed the storage and looked at him. “Are you angry with me?”
“You are. You’re still angry with me.”
“I am not angry.”
“How can you be angry with me? It was you who threw the lamp in the water, not me. It was you who said, drive through the pond, not me. It was…”
Nihlus nodded. Good.
But then he spoke up again. Not good. “Do you want me to clean this up?”
The notion was so preposterous that Saren nearly laughed. He could just picture Nihlus fumbling with a cleaning cloth, smearing the alien grime over the entire ship until it was thin enough to pass as his idea of clean. Once Saren had allowed him to wash up after a meal and observed in disgust and fascination: Nihlus seemed to think that it was perfectly fine to wash the dishes from the inside only, and didn’t even let the water run over the outer walls of glasses, matted with greasy fingertips. Saren had had to redo it after he’d made sure Nihlus was asleep; normally he didn’t mind eating from hand-washed dishes, but on that occasion, he’d sterilized them just in case.
Sometimes he wondered if perhaps Nihlus was doing it on purpose, if he was being sloppy and stupid on purpose, so as to make it preferable for Saren to do all such things on his own. The rage rose up again and shot another bolt of pain into the back of his head. He thought, go away, go away now, read my fucking mind now and go away before I say something I really don’t want to. But all he said was, “No.”
“Come on. Don’t be like that. Go and take a shower, and I’ll clean up. I’ll clean the armor too. I can even make us something to eat if you’d like…”
Again, Nihlus nodded, and this time, it looked like the message got through to him. He turned to leave and Saren felt some of the weight ease off his chest. But Nihlus changed his mind and stopped in the middle of the room. “Do you want me to bring you something for the headache?”
And there it was, the voice of pity. It set the volatile mixture of anger and loathing on fire. Saren showed his teeth. I don’t want you to clean and I don’t want you to cook and I sure as hell don’t want you to fucking nurse me. “No.”
“What do you want then? Just tell me and I’ll do it.”
A moment ago, Saren had wanted just to be left alone. Now, he wanted to annihilate the transgressing presence. He could no longer hold it back. He stood up with a growl and stepped forward, towering above Nihlus, who took a step back and put a hand on Saren’s chest. Hah! As if that could stop him.
“This is what I want from you. Read my fucking lips. I want you out of my fucking sight. Is that simple enough for you? Do you understand now? I want you to get the fuck out of my sight!”
He’d pushed Nihlus as far as the little room would allow and now he held him pinned against the wall, Nihlus’s arm the only thing standing between them. Saren felt great. The weight was gone, it had exploded and was no more, and the headache went off with it. He was excited, exhilarated! Alarmed to discover he was also extremely aroused. He growled at Nihlus again just for good measure, then disengaged. A cold shower. Yes. That was what he wanted. That was where he could be alone.
He took his time. He liked to take long showers. Shower was a good kind of wet. There were other good kinds of wet.
He cranked the water all the way to completely cold.
Finally clean, finally calm, he dried himself as he went upstairs. He wasn’t entirely sure what he’d say to Nihlus. Some sort of apology was probably in order, though he had no idea how he’d frame it; these things had the unpleasant custom of sounding good in his head and coming out totally disfigured. Or maybe he shouldn’t say anything and just… just…
The first thing he noticed was that the floor in the commons was clean. Not Nihlus-clean. Clean. He looked at the counter, searched for traces of the droplets. There were none. Not even an imprint from the texture of the cleaning cloth. Next his gaze went to the corner by the airlock. And indeed, the pile of armor was gone. He opened the inner door and saw a suit hanging in perfect order, cleaned and shined. One suit. His.
Only then did he notice that the Virial was strangely quiet. After a moment of listening, Saren swallowed a knot. Would Nihlus leave without saying a word?
He went through the ship and found nothing. No Nihlus, no messages. He sat down on the stool in the kitchen again and scratched his head. Apparently, Nihlus could still surprise him. He hadn’t expected such an extreme reaction. But then again, he’d never displayed such extreme behavior. He stood up and retraced the steps across the room to the far wall, leaned against it on one arm and closed his eyes. The scents of the swamp and Nihlus’s unwashed body were still discernible. Saren pressed against the wall. Pressed his forehead against it. Pressed his hips against it. Perhaps it was for the best, to take a break. Do a few missions without him and then pick him up again when this silliness passes. Perhaps it would be even better to file that evaluation report he’d written some time ago. Uproot the silliness once and for all.
Is that what you want?
He went back to the kitchen to fix himself something to eat. It was rather pleasant, being alone. No matter how hard he tried to search his feelings, he could find no signs of actually missing Nihlus. Perhaps he’d start after a day or two, but for now it was perfectly fine, the loneliness.
Solitude. I meant, solitude.
He opened the cryo-storage and a bowl of his favorite Hjalti salad stared back at him, with a little sticky note at the top of the translucent foil.
Enjoy the salad.
Hope you choke on it.
Saren smiled, read again, pocketed the message. The salad smelled fantastic. For a moment, he considered the idea that Nihlus might have poisoned it, and saw himself choking in loneliness. Solitude, damn it. It certainly wasn’t impossible. Obviously he didn’t know Nihlus as well as he had thought. He started eating anyway. And damn, it was the best Hjalti salad he’d ever had.