After a rather run-of-the-mill mission, Saren had them go back to the Citadel to resupply, make their reports and receive new orders.
To Saren's considerable annoyance, there was this time no space available at the dock at C-sec, where he and other Spectres and privileged Council agents usually left their ships, and they had to make do with one of the large public docks for the time being. Nihlus seemed to find this amusing, for some reason, while Saren really couldn't see the humour in all of it. Still, there was nothing he could do about this, so he grudgingly left his ship in a partially closed-off part of the docks, mainly because he didn't want any civilians around the ship if he could avoid it.
He didn't intend to leave it there for an extended length of time, his reasoning being that someone from the C-sec dock could always go and retrieve it later when conditions there had become less crowded. It had to be done anyway, because the small vessel was in need of maintenance.
Still, his mood was according as they made their way through the deserted docks, cutting across the closed-off sections instead of walking around them, because Saren was of the opinion that he had already wasted enough time.
Both of them went armed even on the Citadel, of course, but while a Spectre technically could even on the Citadel do as they deemed necessary, there were rules of protocol and courtesy, and even Saren didn't walk the Wards carrying his full arsenal including explosives and heavy weapons, although he kept his normal armour, and both pistol and sniper rifle. Nihlus had swapped his armour for dress uniform and limited himself to just a sidearm.
Neither of them was expecting any particular trouble, and the Citadel wasn't really the place where a Spectre needed to expect to get into firefights.
For that reason, there was a certain element of surprise as they entered another section that was supposedly closed down for maintenance, but in reality contained a scout ship, a lot of presumably left-behind cargo crates and a handful of individuals with enough of a guilty conscience to immediately start firing upon the two of them.
"Oh, you have got to be kidding me." Nihlus snarled as they both dove for cover. "What's the Citadel coming to?"
Saren didn't reply, and just growled as he unclasped his sniper rifle and tossed it to Nihlus. Without armour and shields, it made sense for him to stay back and try to do some damage from afar while Saren drew their enemies' attention.
He didn't need to tell Nihlus any of that; they were well used to fighting together by now and knew each other's tactics. Saren snarled in annoyance. He'd have liked something with better firepower than just his pistol, but that couldn't be helped. He went forward, shots glancing off his kinetic barriers, but the fire wasn't as concentrated as it could have been. Nor were the shots aimed all that well, either.
He counted at least five batarians in light armour across the hangar, all of them apparently armed with assault rifles. From what he could tell, they seemed reasonably well armed and armoured, but it seemed their training left a lot to be desired, because they still were mostly surprised instead of already adapting to the situation.
He fired at the closest of them, methodically bringing down his barriers while steadily advancing and ignoring the state of his own shields.
Just as planned, he had the batarians' full attention, at least until a sniper shot took out the one he was advancing upon. He vaulted over the crate the batarian had hidden behind and dropped down and out of sight.
His shields needed time to regenerate, and he took the chance to upgrade from his pistol to the batarian's assault rifle. He winced as he examined it briefly, classifying it as of low quality, a cheap knockoff of a common military model, but it would do for the moment. The rifle's previous owner had enough of his face left to make him pause for a moment, scanning the man's face with his omnitool to try for an ID.
Surprisingly enough, the uplink to the Citadel's security system worked for once, and the result came in after seconds. He sent it over to Nihlus' omnitool, just skimming over the contents quickly. Part of a known terrorist group, grudge against the Citadel Council for their decision in human/batarian conflicts, wanted by both their own government and C-sec. That was more than enough for the moment.
Well, at least he knew who they were dealing with.
Saren didn't bother to specifically alert C-sec. Nihlus would already have done that.
Overhead, there was more gunfire, and some more sniper shots, so he decided his shields had had enough time to recover and got up again, scanning for his next target.
One of them had made the bad decision to come forward and try to get past him at Nihlus, and Saren caught the idiot more or less out in the open. At close range, his shields weren't of much use, and he was simply too surprised by Saren's continued presence to do more than stare in terror as Saren cut him down.
Amateurs, Saren thought with contempt.
He had planned to either pick them off one by one or just keep them busy until C-sec came in, but unfortunately they didn't oblige him in that and instead broke ranks and started to run for it. A sniper shot at least hit one of them, but the batarian kept moving, and there was too much in the way of obstacles between them now to get another clear shot.
They'd have to hunt them down the hard way.
Then Saren's combat scanner came alive, detecting movement close by on the other side of the ship, and that decided it for Saren.
"There's some of them still left here. I'll deal with them. Go for the missing three, I'll catch up with you." he told Nihlus via comm, not even waiting for the other turian's reply as he started at a run around the scout ship.
Just like on the other side, there were cargo crates stacked here, providing far too much cover for Saren's liking as he slowed down and chose his way more carefully.
His combat scanner insisted that something was still alive straight ahead behind a large empty crate that had fallen on its side. Saren grimaced. Under normal circumstances, he'd have thrown a grenade and flushed out whoever was hidden there. So much for trying to adhere to the Citadel's restrictions.
"I don't have time for this." he said aloud. "Come out and I may decide not to shoot you after all."
There was a shrieking sound that wasn't completely unfamiliar, then the crate came flying at him. He narrowly avoided the crate, aiming the rifle at the area behind where a figure was crouching and pulling the trigger, but the rifle overheated and jammed after the first shot.
He snarled and threw the useless weapon aside, and was still fumbling for his pistol as the figure jumped forward and came at him.
Saren had enough time to wonder in disbelief how the hell a vorcha had made it onto the Citadel, of all things, then he noted that while it wasn't holding a gun, it wasn't unarmed either. There was a large welding torch in its claws.
There wasn't enough time to avoid it, and his shields were no good against fire, so his only chance was meeting it straight on, keep his head down and hope against hope that he was fast enough to get it before it could turn on that torch.
The torch went ablaze, and his world dissolved into fire, a terrible melting sensation, then simply darkness.
The terrible, searing pain in his face wasn't something he could ignore even with his training and experience, but pure forward momentum kept him going, and instinct made him lash out with clawed gauntlets as he crashed into the vorcha. Distantly, he registered it screaming and falling away, then he was down himself, blinded and disoriented, and the only reason he wasn't screaming his throat raw was that he couldn't seem to force enough air into his lungs.
He'd been injured in the line of duty more times that he could remember, but this was probably the worst, and by far the most painful. He clawed at his face, an instinctive move that he knew was futile and made things worse, felt and heard his facial plates give way and break, but reason had no place in his mind anymore. His face was pure agony, every shuddering breath like fire in his lungs.
Pain was like a physical weight on him, or maybe it was more than that, because there definitely now was someone gripping his hands, forcing his claws away from his head, and he remembered the vorcha and tried to fight back, and found he didn't have the strength anymore.
He felt rage at that, not fear.
Something was slapped against his neck, and he tried to snarl reflexively through the haze of pain and darkness but only managed a rattling, weak sound. Not a good sign.
Then the fog of pain lightened abruptly, and his mind cleared enough to let him understand the voice of his trainee.
"Stop fighting, it's me. Stay down, I got you. Spirits, you're a mess."
What the hell was Nihlus still doing here? Saren tried to snarl again, failed, but his renewed anger gave him a short boost of strength, enough to even form words.
"Don't bother with me. Get them." Something was wrong with his voice, he himself almost couldn't understand what he was saying.
Nihlus snarled. "Not a chance. They can wait. I'm not leaving you here."
Saren's enraged snarl at this open disobedience ended in a strangled wheeze, and something in his airways tightened up and made him choke. He almost blacked out, and he wondered vaguely why he was even fighting to stay conscious. There didn't seem to be much point in it, and it seemed far too much effort.
"Really, I don't know why you did that." Nihlus' voice was exactly that casual, too-familiar drawl that was guaranteed to raise Saren's hackles. "Your face wasn't much before, but even so I doubt that removing it with a welding torch will improve things any. Or were you just too slow to duck? In that case, I would have expected better from a fully-trained Spectre, let alone from a veteran like you."
Saren didn't quite understand why Nihlus was doing this, because really, they had established some mutual respect lately, or so Saren had believed, but the insult was obvious, and again rage pushed him to react. He wasn't too sure what he was trying to do, but Nihlus was close enough, and his right hand was on the younger turian's arm, so he tensed his claws, felt them pierce uniform and plates below.
He didn't tolerate insult, ever, and this was something his trainee had to learn, the hard way if necessary. Strange. He really had believed Nihlus had learned that already.
Nihlus growled and there was some pain underlying the tone, but didn't sound really cowed. "Oh, so you're still awake. Surprising. I really had thought you'd given up. But really, that's the best you can do? That's kind of pathetic."
Saren's vision had turned from nothing to a red haze, and he really would have liked to claw off the younger turian's face right now, but somehow he couldn't quite find the strength and the coordination, so he just clenched his hand until his claws almost met, and he could hear plates and bone crack.
His trainee hissed, but didn't even try to pull away. Instead, he started talking again, and even though Saren had for some reason difficulty to parse the words, the tone alone was enough to keep him wanting to lash out and rip the other to shreds.
Some other, more distant part of him wondered at the fact that Nihlus' voice had no subtones at all, which made even less sense.
Then there were other sounds, other voices, blending into each other until he no longer could make any sense of them, other hands on him, and he finally blanked out.
Saren disliked hospitals, and he downright hated being a patient. Usually, when he did get hurt badly enough to warrant some mandatory downtime for him, he simply dropped out of sight and holed up somewhere where didn't have to deal with anybody until he had healed up enough. He rarely even thought about it, but he freely admitted to himself that while he could give the impression of a textbook disciplined, cultured turian if he chose to, there was a part of him that was and would always be a solitary, more feral creature than the average turian, with the instincts to match. It was just behaviour established and reinforced when he'd been much younger and lived in far less civilised environments than averagely found within Hierarchy space. He wasn't sociable at the best of times, but was even more wary of other individuals when not at full health and efficiency, because alone meant safe and not having to worry about anyone taking advantage of his weakness to settle some score or another.
It wasn't precisely paranoia, either, because too often it had been true. In any case, being both weakened and confined to some environment he couldn't control put more of a strain on his mental health than he cared to admit, and he avoided that sort of situation as much as he could.
Apparently, his dislike had been anticipated, because the doctors had kept him sedated for about a week.
His mood, when he finally woke up in what was clearly a hospital bed and discovered this fact by means of a standard medical VI that greeted him cheerfully and asked about his status, was foul beyond words. His head hurt, a dull but diffuse ache he couldn't quite pinpoint to any given location, and while his vision was, surprisingly, back, the colours were all wrong, and some angles were somehow unfamiliar, hurt his eyes and made him feel dizzy.
None of that served to improve his mood.
No matter. He wasn't going to stay here.
He got out of his bed, carelessly ripping off one IV and some monitoring sensors, which made the whole monitoring equipment throw some sort of electronic fit, accompanied by shrill noises that accentuated his headache. He barely restrained himself from hitting it just to stop the sound, and instead unplugged it none too gently. The VI started complaining until he unplugged its interface as well.
That finally gave him some quiet.
Saren felt disoriented for a moment as he stood on his own legs again, then forced the feeling down, and it subsided. Better. He'd be able to move out of here on his own. As all Spectres he did have an apartment on the Citadel. He rarely had used it before, but it would do. It wasn't that he was feeling trapped, of course, but he wanted out.
First he had to assess the damage done to his person, however.
The adjacent small bathroom held a mirror, as expected, and Saren took a long look at his own reflection.
He wasn't a vain creature, at least not with regard to his appearance, but he couldn't quite suppress a wince. Most of his face now was clearly cybernetic, the rest badly scarred. His eyes were cybernetic replacements in silver and blue, which explained the problems with his vision. His optic nerves probably hadn't adjusted properly yet.
He tapped a claw ruefully against his mandibles, which were held to his jaw by implanted metal rods. He tried to twitch them into any expression, but there was almost no play to them anymore. It was probably better that way, though, because the muscles responsible for moving them didn't quite respond anymore. Maybe nerve damage, or just muscle tissue atrophied by heat. He didn't know, but the details hardly mattered.
The overall effect could be rightfully described as rather nightmarish.
He allowed himself a sigh.
There wasn't much he could do about it than accept it. In the end, it didn't matter what he looked like. In fact, given his profession, it might even give him an edge. He'd learn to use it as an advantage, just as he always had.
He left the bathroom again, and came face to face with am asari nurse that seemed rather shocked to see him on his feet.
Saren ignored whatever she was going on about, having no patience whatsoever for that sort of thing, and finally snapped at her. "Get out of my way. Or rather, get my gear. I'm leaving."
The nurse tried to voice her disagreement with that, and he lost his patience and snarled at her. Coupled with the way he looked, that got rid of her quickly enough, though he didn't delude himself into believing that that already was the end of the matter.
The appearance of a tall turian female in a doctor's uniform a few minutes later proved him right. As expected she wasn't as easily intimidated and met his glare calmly, no sign of apprehension on her dark, white-marked face. Saren didn't recognise the markings, and she made no attempt to introduce herself.
"You do realise you have still extensive injuries and almost died?" she asked without preamble.
"It didn't quite take." he snapped, and to his vague surprise she twitched her white streaked mandibles into a rather sardonic grin.
"Obviously." she replied dryly. "Well, I know your reputation, and I have had my share of specialists like you as patients before, so I have no illusions whatsoever that you will do the sensible thing and let yourself be treated until I judge it safe to release you."
The undertones in her voice made it clear she thought him a bloody idiot, and usually he'd have resented that, but as things were, he couldn't in all fairness fault her for that. It didn't change his mind, though.
From the way the doctor held her head, Saren could tell she was aware of all of that, too. "I can't hold you against your consent, of course, and something tells me that nothing I can do or say will change your mind." The undertones of her voice changed to something like resignation, a long-suffering multitonal sigh. "I did some good work on you, if I do so myself, and if you don't put too much strain on yourself and take enough of the medication that I'm going to leave you with, you might even avoid infection and further complications and get this healed up enough for you to die of something completely unrelated at some other, hopefully distant, point in the future."
Saren felt he probably still was drugged, but something about that speech amused him enough to make him give a wry grin, then a pained snarl as he realised that he really didn't want to move these regions of what was left of his face just yet. Then again, if it only hurt if he tried to laugh then odds were he wouldn't notice it much.
The doctor shook her head, not surprised. "If I saw this sort of behaviour for the first time I'd even be depressed, but I've been doing this for too long now, so I'm saving myself the trouble. If you can refrain from terrorising my nurses any further, I'll send you one with your possessions and your meds. Try to be somewhat sensible, and at least get proper rest for a while. And if your cybernetics give you trouble, come and see me."
He made a noncommittal sound. They both knew he wouldn't.
Still shaking her head, she left, grumbling under her breath about damned military specialists with no sense in their bony heads.
Saren dismissed her from his mind and settled in to wait.
He wasn't really surprised to see his trainee in the lobby of the hospital when he finally got himself discharged, and if he had had any doubts about the changes to his appearance they were removed by the very visible wince Nihlus gave as he approached.
He looked ill at ease, and Saren wasn't sure why that would be the case.
"I can't believe they let you out yet." he said instead of a greeting, and Saren shrugged.
"I'm awake now and can see no further reason to stay."
Saren turned towards the exit, and the younger turian fell into step as his side.
Nihlus didn't try and strike up any conversation, which was both a relief to his still very persistent headache and not consistent with his trainee's normal behaviour.
"You ignored my explicit orders." he said, after a while, keeping his tone neutral.
"You weren't precisely coherent at the time. I made a decision based on my own judgement of the situation." Nihlus replied, his voice perfectly collected and even, undertones just as calm. "The possible gain wasn't worth the loss of your life." He twitched his mandibles into a vague grin, and his undertones were back to normal, broadcasting a touch of smugness. "Besides, I apprehended our suspects shortly afterwards. They are in custody with C-sec - well, the survivors, anyway, I was in a bit of a hurry there. In any case, our job is done."
Saren nodded. "Then I can only offer congratulations on a mission well accomplished."
Nihlus was regarding him, with still some apprehension visible in his stance, and that suddenly was too much.
"What happened to me wasn't your fault, and it will not reflect badly on your performance. You can stop worrying about your career. I shouldn't tell you, but your training officially was ended before we touched down on the Citadel, and my report's been with the Council for weeks now. It's their decision, of course, but I expect you to leave the Citadel with full Spectre status."
Nihlus' eyes widened, then he snorted. "You think I was worried about that?"
Saren cocked his head to one side. "What else would you be apprehensive about?"
The younger turian just shook his head. "You're unbelievable."
Saren was a bit confused at that, but chose to ignore the comment.
Truth be told, Saren was exhausted. Maybe that, and the fact that he had gotten so used to Nihlus' presence, was explanation enough that he didn't question the younger turian's continued presence until they made it to his apartment.
It wasn't until he had settled himself on the couch in the living room that Saren gave his trainee his best grumpy look.
"You are aware that technically you're no longer required to tag along with me?"
Nihlus settled himself in one of the chairs, resting his feet on the couch table. He looked more serious than normal, which Saren found vaguely disturbing.
"When you made me fight you the first time, you didn't really care about technique or skill, because that is something that can be learned." Nihlus said without any preamble. "You wanted to see how I react to defeat, and whether I'm likely to give up if you scare or confuse me enough. And if I had surrendered you'd probably not have killed me, but you'd have ended this training and shipped me back to whatever unit would have taken me in. " He absently prodded the table with a toe, apparently trying to determine the stability of the piece of furniture. "Did I get it right?"
Even in his current state, Saren knew immediately what Nihlus was referring to. He leaned back, satisfaction warring with annoyance at his own weakness. "You are correct." He suppressed a growl. "Which means I owe you another lesson."
Nihlus' mandibles twitched into a rather sharp grin. "And you're in no state to give that lesson and won't be for a bit."
Saren gave a sour growl at the unnecessary reminder.
"Doesn't matter." Nihlus said calmly. "It can wait. I had no intention to leave right away, anyway."
The Spectre blinked, confused. "Why would you-"
He was taken completely by surprise as Nihlus suddenly was up and leaned over him, staring into his face. Reflexively he tensed, although he didn't think that this was an attack. His mind was sluggish, the combined effect of drugs and injuries and fresh cybernetics making him think slow. It was strange, the way his instinct didn't object to Nihlus' presence. He was used to him, certainly, but he didn't trust him that far. Did he?
"You really look a mess." Nihlus observed. "And that face of yours now makes it almost impossible to read you. You'll probably count that as an advantage." He growled, as if losing his patience. "And you're still wondering why I'm still here. I'll chalk it up to your current state, but that still makes you the idiot this time. You always know how I'm going to react. And yet you seriously expected me to just leave you while you were injured, and not even for any good reason? I don't abandon members of my squad. Got into trouble for this several times, was reassigned twice for that, as you very well know." He snarled again, something strange in his undertones. "And I'm even less likely to abandon a friend."
He suddenly leaned in close, resting his cheekplate against Saren's, the tips of his mandibles grazing against Saren's neck.
Saren couldn't help flinching. This wasn't any sort of formal touch, nor was it anything casual. This was an old gesture, something left over from long back in evolutionary history, when a bite to the throat was still the way to end a dispute, temporarily or permanently, depending on how much force was applied. There wasn't even much symbolism involved, not much imagination required for interpretation. It just meant 'I may have my teeth close to your neck, but I won't bite you, and I'm leaving myself open to the same from you and will trust you to do the same.' It was very basic, something readily understood on an instinctual level, even if it was uncommon in civilised interaction.
Whatever the origin, it was a raw, impulsive, inexplicable offer of trust, and he didn't know what to do with that.
He knew how to keep himself aloof, apart from feeling anything, how to counter threat, or manipulation, or seduction. He had no idea how to respond to a genuine display of friendship. This situation had never come up before.
He hadn't thought Nihlus trusted him that way. He'd certainly given him no reason for it.
There should be a lesson in that, because Saren knew very well that once one let anyone get close, once one left oneself open to this sort of emotional weakness, it was inevitably going to be exploited, and it was beyond stupid to invite that sort of pain. As a Spectre, he couldn't get emotionally involved, ever, and it had taken him time and practice to learn not to care.
Nihlus apparently hadn't learned that all-important lesson yet, that he wasn't supposed to give his trust, because in the end, given the right incentives and reasons anyone was capable of turning against one. There were no exceptions. There was no trust, only the illusion of it.
For both their sakes, he should push him back and throw that offer back into his face, maybe leave a claw cut on Nihlus' neck, deep enough to scar and serve as a reminder as to how dangerous it was to trust.
His fingers tensed, but somehow he couldn't find the strength to strike. It was weakness, but he could blame neither drugs nor injuries for it, and it shocked him. It wasn't that he didn't want to do that, because that was only to be expected, and personal preferences weren't important either when he knew it was the right thing to do. Much worse, he simply couldn't do it, and he should be appalled at his own lack of resolve, but all he could admit to was confusion.
There had to be a fault somewhere in his reasoning, some fact he had overlooked that would explain his sudden inability to do what was necessary.
Yet his mind came up with no resolution, and he didn't know what to do.
It wasn't reason but instinct that provided the answer, making him lean his head against the younger turian's, his hand coming up on its own to brush over the back of Nihlus' neck briefly, the gesture meaning both acceptance and confirmation. Rationally, he knew that this was probably even more of a mistake, because having an unexpected weakness like that was bad enough, but admitting to it openly was quite another level of foolishness, but somehow he was suddenly too tired to care.
Only by his sharp intake of breath could he tell Nihlus' surprise at response, and he realised Nihlus had fully expected him to ignore or reject that display. He'd done it anyway, which spoke volumes about both his courage and foolishness.
Nihlus drew back, still regarding him with a strange expression. "Well. That was actually the least probable response I have come up with." He straightened up, and there was some strange humour in his undertones. "Just for ease of reference, how close was I to getting my neck clawed?"
Saren blinked, then tried to flare his mandibles into an amused snarl before fresh pain shot through his face and he remembered that he really shouldn't do that right now. "The impulse crossed my mind." he admitted. "If you predicted that, why risk it?"
Nihlus' reply was a careless shrug as he returned to his chair. "I just thought you should know." He suddenly laughed. "Besides, it's not like I'm not used to the fact that any interaction with you is risky." He pushed back the sleeve of his uniform, displaying three marks on his lower arm, deep wounds that were almost healed, but the plates were already scarring there.
Saren had privately hoped that his memory had been incorrect on that account. Apparently not. "I'm sorry about that." he said, the words unfamiliar on his tongue. He wasn't used to apologising.
Nihlus threw him an incredulous look as he drew down his sleeve again over the scars. "Why? I sort of expected that. After all, I did provoke you." He flared his mandibles in a wide grin. "Granted, I did that to keep you awake. I figured that getting you angry would be much more effective than talking to you in a calm, comforting tone, telling you that all would be all right and asking you to stay awake." Saren just snorted, and Nihlus laughed again. "But really. Everything else you put me through during the past months, and that's what you apologise for? Really?"
Saren met his eyes calmly. "Everything else was necessary, and I won't apologise for something that must be done, even if it's unpleasant. This...I didn't intend to do."
"Forget it." Nihlus shook his head. "Anyway. I always had intended to stay around for a mission or two after this training, simply because I wanted to know how you behave when I'm not your trainee but your equal. And because I suspect that there are some insights you have that you don't share with a trainee but might share with another Spectre, if asked. I couldn't foresee that you'd go and let a vorcha do plastic surgery on your face, but knowing you, that will sideline you for a short time only."
Saren growled. "You're very certain of yourself, and of your welcome here."
"Not really. If you really don't want me along once you're fit for duty again, I won't push it, but I'm not going to leave until you're back to your old insufferable self."
His words could have given Saren reason to reply sharply, but his undertones, once more unmasked, held both determination and worry, and that was clear enough.
"I'm probably less sociable if I'm injured," Saren said, supposing that he should give at least some warning.
Nihlus gave him a dry look. "Less sociable. Right. You mean I'm going to notice any difference?"
"Good point," Saren admitted privately wondering whether he had taught Nihlus a bit too well.
But for some reason, the other turian's presence wasn't really unwelcome.
He gave up and did the sensible thing, which meant stretching out lengthwise on the couch, closing his eyes and ignoring Nihlus, who apparently had found the remote for the vid wall and was switching between channels, the volume mercifully low.
It was strange, he mused. His head hurt enough to make him want to shred the couch's upholstery, his face was a cybernetic nightmare, and the trainee he never had wanted along in the first place was preparing to torment him with music vids.
And yet... the pain was bad but bearable, what he looked like never really had mattered, and the trainee wasn't a trainee anymore, but a friend.
It didn't make any rational sense, but at this precise moment the universe inexplicably wasn't a completely dismal place.