Disclaimer: I own nothing except a passion for Shelkero that gets me into trouble on online forums.
Her heart was still pounding against her throat as she followed him through the now-silent complex, their footsteps the only sounds in an immense silence. An hour ago, Deepground had rung with cacophonic sound – gunshots, the screams of the injured, the cries of the dying, the explosion that had rocked the underground city and driven the fear to unbearable heights. She could still feel herself trembling from the combination of adrenalin and exhaustion. It took effort to straighten her knees with every step. All they wanted to do was fold underneath her and let her fall.
She could not – would not – fall.
Nero's footsteps were as weary as hers; slow, uneven. His long hair was sweat-soaked and matted. She couldn't hear the howl of Oblivion – chancing a glance upwards, she noted that the darkness was completely absent. He must be exhausted.
Corpses littered some of the corridors, but she barely noticed. The stench of blood was strong enough to coat her throat and make her struggle to draw breath against the desire to be sick. She could almost hear the crack of guns firing, echoing and re-echoing in the metal corridors. There were black marks on the walls where some soldiers had resorted to materia blasts. She almost slipped in a patch of ice caused by a wayward casting of Blizzard.
She felt Nero's eyes on her as she struggled to maintain her balance, but when she glanced up, once again sure of her footing, he was already moving down the corridor again. As though nothing had happened. He clutched the muzzle in one hand. There were red marks carved into his pale skin where the edges had cut into his face. She followed him.
It was only when they reached the city that surrounded the mako reactor that she realized how long they had been fighting and how close they had come to losing the battle. They had been literally pressed to the wall. She swayed.
Nero's cold hand clamped around her shoulder, a silent command to stay on her feet.
She nodded wordlessly, forcing some steel into her legs and trying to ignore the cold patches on her neck and wrist, twins to the one on her shoulder when Nero released his grip. They moved down into the streets. Here and there, soldiers moved stiffly, clearing rubble, hauling corpses. Some halted and watched them pass. Nero ignored them. So did she.
The doors to the reactor were dinted and blackened, but they opened at Nero's touch. Weiss was sitting on the throne, head tilted back and eyes closed. The light from the mako below made him look like a sleeping god. Rosso, her skin rusty with the blood of fallen soldiers, was leaning casually against the sculpted metal, looking bored. Azul stood by the mako tanks. One huge arm was bright pink – a healed burn.
"Glad you could join us," said Weiss dryly, opening his eyes and sitting forward. "We were just about to come looking."
"So little faith," said Nero, sounding flat. "I'm wounded."
Shelke noted the disintegration of 'we', and automatically took one step back and to the side. Nero was several steps above her, and no matter what the situation on the battlefield, things weren't the same when your life wasn't at risk.
"Are you injured?"
Nero shook his head.
"Then I wouldn't advise sitting down." Weiss looked as exhausted as Shelke felt, but triumph gleamed in the icy-blue eyes. "You won't be able to get back up again."
Nero's lips twitched upwards, and Shelke looked away.
"Where is Argent?" asked the dark Tsviet.
Weiss' eyes darkened, and Shelke felt her stomach tighten.
"The north wing of the complex collapsed," said the Immaculate Emperor, voice flat. "No life signs are registering on our equipment."
"With your permission," said Shelke, inwardly startled at her own boldness, "I could run an advanced scan."
All eyes turned to her, and she fought the desire to drop her gaze. She focussed on Weiss, because she knew what she would find in Azul and Rosso's gaze, and she was afraid of what she might see in Nero's.
"Please do so," said Weiss eventually.
With a careful bow, Shelke turned around and left the reactor.
There was always a distance between her and the rest of the Tsviets – even from Argent, who was the only Tsviet that had not been extensively modified by the Researchers. She was the youngest – and the weakest. Oh, she was capable of so much more than an ordinary soldier, but the price she had paid for her skills was too high to make her a dependable warrior. Her skills lay in magic and technology, and those were the very things that could swiftly drain her to the point of uselessness. Small wonder that there was such a gap between her and her fellow Tsviets, who could fight for hours without feeling the strain.
She felt the truth of Weiss' words as soon as she sat down at her usual terminal. Her legs, which had long since ceased feeling like a part of her, reconnected. They felt like needle-filled rubber. Her joints – and her head – ached; nausea burned the back of her throat.
She wondered, humourlessly, if she would survive the rebellion only to succumb to mako withdrawal. How Rosso would laugh.
The terminal, thankfully, still worked. Shelke's fingers rattled over the keys, setting up an advanced biometric scan for the collapsed north wing. She knew that Argent's chances of survival were slim to none, but she would have taken any chance to leave the reactor. There was too large a gap between the other Tsviets and her, and no chance of bridging that gap.
None at all.
She spent as long as she plausibly could constructing the scan parameters and running several unnecessary validation checks, just to give herself something do. The scan itself took only moments, and Shelke felt the frozen knot inside of her shift a little to accompany the new loss. Bracing her hands against the desk, she tried to rise. Her legs collapsed, refusing to take her weight. Something inside her sobbed with frustration, but the display did not translate to a real movement. All her tears had dried up long ago.
Taking a deep breath, Shelke folded her arms on the desk in front of her and put her head down on them. If she couldn't move from the chair, then she might as well get some rest. She would deal with the consequences of that when she awakened.
Her legs trembled as she tried to stay on her feet. Her muscles were on fire, but she would not, could not fall now. She would only have one chance.
"Give up." The voice was cold and mocking, and icy hatred provided the incentive to stay upright. She straightened.
"Never." For all its volume, the defiance was flung out with all the force that years of cruel treatment could give it.
The laughter began; mocking, cold, endless...
She tried not to wince at the ache in her muscles as she moved through a basic training routine with her sabers, keeping the movements slow. Her legs had already cramped once during this session, forcing her to abandon the pattern to knead the painful pull from her calf and thigh. Her arms threatened to seize every time that she lifted them.
It was with relief that she finally finished the routine and lowered her arms, grateful for the absence of the other Tsviets on the practice field. They had not felt the strain of the fight the way she had – Rosso, Azul and Weiss could probably have awoken the day after the battle and been ready to take on the Restrictors all over again. Nero -
She didn't want to think about Nero.
It had taken her three full days to recover even this much, and one of those days had been spent in a mako tank. She had come close to killing herself, and she was amazed that she had remained on her feet long enough to reach the mako reactor.
The temperature of the training room suddenly dropped several degrees, and Shelke shivered involuntarily as Nero stepped out of the darkness. She saluted him carefully, schooling her expression to give away nothing.
"Come with me," he said coldly. She obeyed.
She felt bruised.
She should have known what was at hand as soon as Nero appeared. Why else would he have sought her out? She had not been thinking analytically, or she would have realized sooner. She would have remembered the significance of three days from the deaths of the Restrictors, and the significance of Nero coming to get her rather than Azul or Rosso.
An SND would have been faster, but she was still too exhausted to risk a mental uplink into a system with still-active defenses. Compensation came in the fact that she probably would not sleep tonight, still trawling through records of the horrors devised by the Researchers. Nero had offered to help her, but she had refused. Better, she said, that he attempt to get answers from the Researchers themselves, who had retreated into their center.
The reports had come, later, that Nero had razed the center to the ground. She could guess why.
Every mention of the virus injected into Weiss made it clear; there was no cure, no antidote. Weiss had fought for his freedom and won. Now, he would die for it.
The temperature in the room dropped, and Shelke halted her typing.
"Anything?" asked Nero, voice lacking its usual smooth tone.
She shook her head, not trusting herself to speak.
For a long moment, there was flat silence. "It never happened, Shelke." It was a cold, angry statement, and she stiffened at the implication.
"I am not so petty as to withold the information that could save Weiss' life because of that," she said tonelessly. "I will inform you as soon as I find something."
She heard him leave, and reflected with sudden bitterness that he would probably tolerate such behaviour from her as long as she could find something that would save his brother's life.
Nero's eyes burned into her, facial expression all but unreadable behind the restraining muzzle. From the way that his eyes were slightly narrowed, though, she could guess that he was smiling bitterly.
"So," he said. "This is how it ends."
Behind them, the Restrictor laughed, hand still raised to keep the compulsion on Shelke as obvious as possible. As if Nero needed the reminder, with the white streaks of light that danced around the youngest Tsviet.
"Yes," she said. "This is how it ends."
Sabers glowing fiercely, she lunged at him.
Shelke lifted the heavy device from her head and resisted the urge to put her head in her hands.
Two weeks. Two weeks since Nero had come to 'request' her help in finding a cure for the virus. Two weeks of unrelenting searching. And what did she have to show for it?
Nothing. Nothing at all. She had searched every record of the Researchers, every file, everything. She had checked for hidden files, searched for anything that might have been deleted, and there was nothing there. She would stake her life on it.
And she might very well be doing so, given that now she had no excuse not to report her progress, or lack of it, to Nero.
The dark Tsviet had left her alone since the first day, leaving her to make her searches. She had not seen him. But when Weiss' life hung in the balance, she had no doubt that Nero's patience and nerves were at breaking point – and in a state like that, he might not hesitate to literally shoot the messenger.
Steeling herself, Shelke left the room and headed for the mako reactor. The corridors were silent and empty – Nero had forbidden anyone but the Tsviets to enter. Rosso and Azul were too busy revelling in their new freedom to care about what was happening to Weiss. No doubt Nero would eventually curb that freedom in an attempt to coerce them into helping save Weiss' life. Eventually. Even the dark Tsviet would have to be pushed beyond the point of simple desperation in order to recruit an unhinged woman and a brutish man who, for all his intelligence, preferred to smash the problem rather than find a quiet solution.
The doors opened as she approached, and Nero whirled, guns out and aimed at her heart before he registered her identity. Something in her smirked at the irony.
"Shelke," he said, holstering his weapons in one smooth movement.
"I have searched the records of the Researchers," she said quietly, trying not to look at Weiss, slumped unconscious on the throne. "There is no mention of a cure or antidote." She looked Nero straight in the eye. "I have searched for hidden files, and retrieved deleted items. There is nothing."
"There has to be," said Nero softly.
"There is nothing," she repeated. She didn't see him move, but she felt his cold hands grabbing for her, and took one hurried step back. They closed around her wrists as she brought her hands up defensively, but it was better than a grip on her upper arms or shoulders, which could not be easily broken. His grip tightened enough to leave bruises. "There is nothing," she said a third time. "And no matter what you do, Nero, that answer does not change. The Researchers would never have bothered to create a cure for this, and your hasty execution –"
He struck her. She went limp as she fell, hit the floor and stayed there for a moment – long enough that Nero would realize what he had done. That blow had been out of temper, she knew. She rose with slow dignity.
"I will continue my search," she said with icy politeness, then saluted, and left the reactor. He did not call after her.
The howl of the darkness unleashed wrapped around her, but she was safe – she was not the target. Nero had one cold hand encircling her wrist through the frayed sleeve of the straitjacket – he had used Oblivion to clumsily absorb part of the straps that bound his arms across his chest. She wasn't sure whether the contact made her register as something that could not be harmed, or whether Nero had pushed the darkness away from them to create a bubble of safety.
Nonetheless, the experience was an unnerving one, and, unconsciously, she shifted closer to the dark Tsviet. Even in her fear, though, she didn't dare touch him. Nero always held himself apart from whoever was around him, and initiating more physical contact than he was willing to endure would be suicidal.
She swallowed hard, trying to restore her heart to its proper place in her chest. The rhythm that hammered on the inside of her throat was restricting her breathing.
The howling faded, and she could see the faint glow of the strip lighting above her. But the metallic screaming continued to echo in her ears, drilling into her mind; she wondered if it would ever vanish.
"Shelke?" Nero's voice was hoarse. The hand that clasped her wrist trembled with exhaustion.
"I – I'm fine," she managed, looking up.
Nero's eyes were wild.
Days passed into weeks. Shelke continued to look for any hint of something that could help Weiss, who continued to fight for his life. Shelke's respect for him grew every day that he fought against the debilitating effects of the virus. Unfortunately, there was only so much that she could do – the Shinra database was half-destroyed, and the Worldwide Network was still fragmented. Someone was obviously trying to make repairs, but it was slow going, and taking time that they didn't have.
Weiss continued to fade, and from the reports around Deepground, Nero was getting increasingly hard to deal with – more than a few soldiers had suffered for his frayed temper and strained nerves. Even understanding the reasons for this, Shelke felt her sympathy for Nero decrease with every new incident. At this rate, his cruelty would equal Rosso's by the time they found a cure.
She had to believe that they would find a cure. If Weiss died, then everything would, concisely, go to hell.
Finally, the day came when most of the Worldwide Network had been restored, and she ran into another problem – even in an SND, when she could process massive amounts of data, it would take far too long to search the information.
Steeling herself, she approached the mako reactor. However, she was spared entering the throne room – Nero left the room just as she entered the preceding corridor.
For a long moment, they stared at each other. Tension thickened the air and made it difficult to breathe.
Finally, Nero asked, voice brittle, "Have you found something?"
She resisted the automatic urge to shake her head. "The Worldwide Network has been reconnected," she said, carefully. "It contains a vast amount of information. To search on my own will take too much time." She tried to take a deep breath without being obvious about it. "I request assistance."
Slowly, Nero nodded. "I can assist you."
Her stomach constricted, but she kept her face expressionless. "Thank you."
It wasn't as bad as she had feared it would be. Nero chose a terminal in a different room, and they both set to work, trawling through massive amounts of data in search of something that could provide a cure, or even prolong Weiss' life. Setting up a connection on their computers to alert the other when something had already been accessed was the work of minutes – and she had to admit, she covered nearly three times as much data when working with Nero. He was intelligent and thorough, whatever else could be said about him.
That didn't change the fact that what had been an easy awareness of the other's existence prior to the rebellion was strained to breaking point by this sudden working in tandem. If he hadn't –
Her phone rang.
"Yes?" There was no need to say who was speaking. Only five people had her number, and of those five, one was dead and another was lingering on the threshold between life and death.
"I've found something." Nero's voice was trembling – with excitement or exhaustion, she couldn't tell. Perhaps both.
She didn't feel the need to ask for further clarification. When the dark Tsviet was sure, he was bedrock certain. "How can I assist?"
"At this point, I can't say." Nero's voice took on a distant cast; she guessed that he was scanning whatever information he had found, trying to figure out how she could best be put to work. "For now, you should rest."
She didn't feel like resting, but the subtle shift in Nero's tone made it an order, not a request. "As you wish." She hung up.
Shelke felt as though she had been slapped when she went to her terminal the next morning and found Nero standing there. He was dressed in restraints again – and he had somehow repaired the muzzle that she had cut from his face during their battle with a Restrictor. The red eyes, defiant, dared her to comment on it. She did not.
"Do you have orders for me, Nero the Sable?" she asked, deliberately using his full title.
"I do." Nero shifted, moving from his casual pose of leaning against her desk to stand at full height. As far apart as they were standing, she could look him in the eyes without too much trouble. That didn't stop the remembrance that when they were standing close, he was more than a foot taller than her, and not even standing on tip-toes would allow her to look into his eyes without him bending down.
Mentally abandoning that train of thought before it plunged her into an emotional chasm, she followed his gaze. There was a slender file lying on the side table, which she cautiously approached. A quick scan gave her the information she needed. She put the file down and returned to her place.
"Who is she?" she asked.
"Doctor Lucrecia Crescent," he replied.
"Then I am to collect the data files – the fragments she left within the network?" She understood why he had come, instead of just leaving the file. He was enforcing the distance between them again, the distinction in rank that had blurred during the last few weeks.
"Correct." Nero's voice was flat, professional – and slightly condescending. She resisted the urge to clench her teeth. "Then you are to use that data to find the Protomateria. That is where he requires your assistance."
"He?" The question was asked out of spite, despite the innocence in her tone. Of all the Tsviets, she knew that, besides Nero, she was the only one truly aware of Weiss' situation.
Nero tilted his head to the side and gazed at her through half-lidded eyes. He did not speak.
She backed down. "With your permission, I will begin immediately."
The howl of Oblivion rose and fell as he left the room.
Shelke took a deep breath as she placed the heavy SND device over her head. The preparations had been made – the neurodata files readied for upload.
She had never uploaded another's neural fragments into her mind before. Oh, the theory was sound, and she had previously used her abilities to place false memories and images within the minds of others, but this would be a far cry from anything she had previously experienced. She was not sure that she was comfortable with the idea of sharing her mind with the memories and feelings of another woman.
Of course, her comfort didn't matter to Nero in the slightest. He was concerned only with saving his brother's life – no matter what the cost.
She took another deep breath, lying back in the chair, feeling it tilt back slowly. "Commence data fragment link," she said aloud, feeling the machinery shift and whir inside the helmet. She felt the connection as that of a mental injection – a moment of sharp pain followed by the feel of something being poured into a vessel that was not quite big enough to hold it. "Data fragment link successful," she said automatically, amazed that her voice did not even quiver. "Commencing neurodata upload."
She gasped as images assaulted her, sensations, feelings, sights, smells.
...a glittering grotto with a pool of clear liquid in its centre...
...a place in the shade beneath a tree, grass beneath and a warm breeze blowing...
...frustration bordering on hysteria as the computer screen flashed red...
...a glowing materia the size of two clenched fists...
Shelke struggled to regulate the flow of information that was pouring into her skull. She heard screaming, and found herself unable to tell whether it was her or this Lucrecia crying out in pain.
...hysterical screaming; "Doctor Valentine! Doctor Valentine!"...
...give him back! Give my son back!...
...I can't take it anymore...
...I never wanted to lose you...
...born of the Lifestream...
Shelke wasn't sure whether the words were her own or Lucrecia's as she tumbled into darkness.
He tasted like darkness – bitter and sweet at once. She could also taste blood, though she couldn't say from whose lips it dripped.
He was cold. He was so cold. Perhaps she was numb with it, and that was why she couldn't feel her lips. Not that it was unwelcome – her muscles burned, and a part of her was clearly aware that she would not be able to move easily in days to come. The cold that flowed from his body to hers would hold pain at bay for some time.
Insistent, desperate, rough. Crushed close enough to be one body, she couldn't tell which one of them was shaking, though she suspected that they both were. Exhaustion, elation... Adrenalin. Mostly, adrenalin. They were still ready to fight, though the Restrictor was gone, absorbed by the darkness.
She submitted to him. They were too tired and too full of adrenalin to maintain the strong illusion of civilisation that normally characterized them both. Stripped back to primal emotions and reactions, perhaps it was not really surprising that this contact was so rough, more like a blow than a caress.
Realization of what they were doing came in a sudden rush. She felt him tense, and nearly fell as he shoved her away.
There was a long moment of silence, broken only by their ragged breathing. Red eyes met blue, still raw. Nero was the first to break the eye-contact. He bent to pick up the muzzle that she had cut from his face, freeing him from one of the restraints that the Restrictors had placed on him to control his power.
"This never happened," he said in a hoarse voice, face hidden by the dark hair. "Do you understand?"
She understood. "I understand."
He looked down the deserted corridor, avoiding her gaze. "We have to reach the mako reactor," he said softly. "Come on." Wearily, he started walking.
She awoke in her bed, lips still tingling fiercely from the memory.
Adrenalin. Just adrenalin. Primal fight or flight reflex, increasing heart rate and the body's demand for oxygen, heightening senses. She knew the physiological reasons for what had happened. Just excess adrenalin left over from a fight already won. Nothing to dwell on; something to forget.
Except such a memory would not be forgotten. She could recall exactly the smell of their sweaty bodies pressed together, the pattern of his splayed fingers on her neck and wrist, the feeling of his dark hair brushing against her cheek and crushed to her forehead where it flopped over his in spikes. The way he tasted.
She shook her head. Just a memory. Just something to be forgotten.
She had other things to attend to.
"Vincent Valentine." Nero repeated the name slowly, as though tasting it. She kept her eyes on the strap of the muzzle that crossed his nose – away from his eyes, and away from the strap that covered his mouth. "You are certain?"
"I am certain," she said, echoing his words of a week ago. It had taken several days to sort out the memories to locate the information that Nero needed. "He is the Keeper of the Protomateria."
"Then we need to find him," said Nero, simply. "Go find Rosso and Azul. It is high time for them to receive their orders."
Shelke nodded. Saluting with bitter precision, she turned and left Nero's presence.
Notes: Witness me try to work something canon with these two! It's not easy. But I must thank Marilena for kick-starting my work for these two – though I'm sure that's not what she intended. She's not convinced, and don't think this is going to convince her, but it was good for something to do until I can work out the next path to take on NTL. And good practice.
The original drabble for this was 268 words. It didn't do the idea justice. Hence, this. Though this is longer than I expected it to be.
Other than that, I wrote this because the way that Nero deals with Shelke in the flashback is much more formal than the way he deals with Azul and Rosso. I wondered why that might be. And I wondered why Shelke would ask, 'He?' It struck me as a silly question. Everything all sort of solidified when I decided to write some semi-canon Shelkero.
Reviews would be appreciated, even if you just want to tell me that I'm nuts.