There were a few vital facts that had to be accepted when you entered Deepground. The first was that you were never going to go home; you'd be lucky if you ever saw the outside world again. Only the most trusted soldiers, in the most dire circumstances, were sent on missions to the outside. The second fact, following hard on the heels of the first, was that if you wanted to survive, you had to abandon the ideals of aboveground social interaction; ultimately, every action was selfish. The third fact, usually forgotten in a place rife with violence, was that it was no use holding onto grudges, because it would probably get you killed.
Twelve-year-old Shelke Rui, Shelke the Transparent as of a few months ago, had not yet accepted the first fact, even after three years, but she understood the second easily enough. Using that, it was easy to draw the conclusion that Nero the Sable, widely acknowledged as violent even for Deepground, was not helping her out of the goodness of his heart-presuming, of course, that he had any. But hanging upside-down over his shoulder didn't seem like the best time or place to ask for his motivation, even if she hadn't been slightly fuzzy from the beating Rosso had given her. Keeping her mouth shut, refraining from struggling, and waiting for him to put her down seemed like a far wiser course of action. Shelke hoped that he would actually tell her what he wanted from her. She had a feeling that he would react viciously if she tried to use SND to find out, and so far her dealings with Nero had not inspired confidence in her ability to tell what he was thinking.
The sound of a door opening pulled her out of this consideration. Being lifted off Nero's shoulder and dropped onto a bed made it flee entirely, and she yelped as her injuries protested this rough treatment. Shelke cringed at the sound, bracing herself for either mockery or a fresh set of bruises. Instead, Nero's footsteps receded. As the minutes passed without incident, Shelke gradually relaxed. Her eyes caught on something scratched on the underside of the top bunk, and Shelke reached up to trace it, brow furrowing. Then her throat squeezed in shock. The carving was a skull-a familiar skull.
Nero had not just carried her to the nearest available bed, but to her own room.
She was still staring at the carving when the door opened again and Nero walked back into the room. Shelke tried sitting up and managed an upright position on her second attempt, narrowly missing cracking her head on the underside of the bunk.
Nero held out his hand. There was a scream as a fist-sized sphere of darkness manifested above his own palm and dropped something small, round and orange in it. Nero dismissed the darkness with a flick of the hand that now held the materia, and held it out to her.
Shelke stared. After a moment, Nero exhaled heavily.
"Are you stupid?" he asked. "Take it."
Shelke eyed the materia warily. It was probably the fact that she was still woozy, not to mention completely confused, that made her say, "But it's not mine."
"It is now." Shelke had heard cold voices before. She hadn't encountered one that could actually make her shiver. She held out of her hand, and Nero dropped the orb into her palm. A quick mental probe only told her that it was a variety she hadn't encountered before-not exactly surprising, since her experience had been limited to the very basics.
Risking a glance at Nero, she asked, "What is it?"
For someone who displayed very little emotion, Nero's expression was surprisingly eloquent. It said a lot of uncomplimentary things about her intelligence. "It's a materia."
"Why don't you find out for yourself?" he asked, sweetly. Shelke recoiled. Only Nero could make 'sweet' sound like 'I'm going to maim you if you don't stop asking stupid questions'. "Do remember to actually use it. I will be...displeased...if you don't."
Shelke nodded. Nero smiled at her. It didn't make her feel any better. "Good lass," he said, and left. The door closed behind him with a metallic clunk, leaving Shelke to regard to pale orange sphere in her palm with deep mistrust.
She kept the materia with her. There were more cautionary tales about Nero than any of the other Tsviets-he had only recently been released from solitary confinement for nearly killing Rosso, and rumor had it that only Weiss's intervention had saved her life. Knowing and fearing Rosso as she did, Shelke had decided that crossing Nero would be idiocy. Whatever the penalties for theft were-and she was certain that this materia was stolen-they couldn't be as unpleasant as what Nero would do to her.
Shelke fingered the materia in her pocket. It was cool and smooth. It felt like she was carrying around an unexploded bomb.
What does he want me to do? The thought whirled around and around Shelke's head as she wandered through the complex; one of the few advantages of being a Tsviet was that you had freedom of movement through the complex. How could I be useful to him?
A familiar pattern of footsteps falling in behind her made her freeze for a moment. Shelke's strength as a Tsviet lay in her speed, her ability to control networks, her invisibility. None of them were of any use when Rosso decided to seek her out. Swallowing, Shelke began to walk again, hearing Rosso's stiletto heels clicking steadily behind her.
Shelke's strength as a Tsviet lay in her speed, her ability to control networks of all kinds, her invisibility. None of them would help against Rosso, who matched Shelke's speed and had talents that were far more suited to combat. There was nothing to do but keep walking, steady only through force of will. It was safer in the long run to play along with mind games that had all the subtlety of a brick through a window-and the same kind of devastating effectiveness-than to try to escape. At least she knew that Rosso wouldn't kill her. The older Tsviet was under orders from both the Restrictors and Weiss, which did nothing to stop Shelke's stomach churning, or her hands turning cold, or the hair on the back of her neck standing up. She thought she could hear the faint brush of Rosso's cape on the ground, rustling under the click click click click of heels that could double as knives if the fancy took the wearer. Shelke kept her pace, trotting ahead like a well-trained puppy while Rosso followed with almost audible excitement.
I don't want to do this. It was not a new thought. It was still as useless as the first time she had thought it.
Rosso struck without warning. By the time that Shelke's ear registered the sound of moving air, she was already tumbling head over heels on the hard metal floor, making her still-healing bruises scream in protest. She landed on the materia, crushing it painfully against her thigh, and groaned. She uncurled only slowly, making sure that nothing was broken, before she got to hands and knees, and then managed to stand back up.
"Hello, Rosso," she said tonelessly.
Shelke didn't need to look to know that Rosso would be smirking like she'd done something particularly clever. "Don't sound so pleased," Rosso said, as smug as any bully who knows that no one can stop them. Her red eyes gleamed with amusement. "I might begin to think that you actually like me."
Keep silent. Offer her nothing that might prolong this ordeal. This was Shelke's usual strategy. Instead, she said, "Get it over with." It was hard to say who was more shocked. Silence thickened the atmosphere to the consistency of clotting blood, and Shelke tried to brace herself without appearing to do so.
Then, as if no time had passed-maybe the strained moments of tension had only been in Shelke's head-Rosso smirked. "Well, if you insist."
After the first few blows, Shelke felt herself detach from the situation. Though tears of pain pricked at Shelke's eyes and itched on her face, mingling with blood from the scratches on inflicted by Rosso's gauntlets, there was a distance to the blows. It wasn't until Shelke heard footsteps approach again, some time after Rosso had grown bored and left, that she returned to full consciousness. Whatever courage or stupidity that had made her goad Rosso was gone; panic and adrenalin flooded her system and she struggled to get up. But she could move only feebly, and by the time that Nero crouched in front of her, she had managed little more than twitches of her bruised limbs.
Terror squeezed her throat as Nero's hand pressed lightly over her arms, legs, ribs.
"No broken bones," he said when he finished. "A lighter punishment than you deserve." He withdrew the materia from her pocket and held it in front of her eyes. "Did I, or did I not, tell you to use this?"
Shelke looked away. Nero snapped black-nailed fingers in her face. "Pay attention, Shelke," he said coldly, and she made herself look up at him. He looked disgusted. "While I'm sure that it was a great relief to render her speechless, goading her like that was an act of singular stupidity." Sliding his hands under her shoulders and knees, he lifted her as easily as if she had been made of cloth. Being carried was mildly more comfortable than being slung over Nero's shoulder, though every step jostled her injuries and made her wince.
After a few moments' concentration, she managed to persuade her mouth to co-operate with her brain long enough to speak. "Why are you doing this?" she asked. The words slurred from the effort not to spit blood on him. Terror had released its stranglehold on her-she was still afraid, but her need to know was stronger than her fear.
"Is that any concern of yours?" enquired Nero, sounding mildly curious. Shelke wondered how he managed to make tones that should have been neutral sound so...aggressive.
"Yes." She heard a door open.
"Really." Nero dropped her onto the bed. The darkness wailed next to Shelke's head, and she flinched backwards, fear flaring up inside her again. But it dissipated after only a moment, leaving the materia beside her. Nero's hand descended onto her head. He threaded his fingers through her hair and gripped-not tight enough to cause her pain, but the threat was there. "Do I have you attention now, Shelke?" asked Nero. "Answer verbally, if you please. I'd rather not have to hurt you if I don't have to."
It was so ingrained to nod that she started to move anyway. But before she had moved more than a fraction of an inch (Nero's grip tightening accordingly, bringing stinging pain), she stopped herself and slurred, "Yes."
"Good. Now, you are aware that I outrank you, correct?"
"Very good. Now, since I outrank you, do you have any right to demand answers from me?"
She wanted to protest that she wasn't demanding, but Nero's fingers were still buried in her hair. "No."
"Good," repeated Nero. He untangled his fingers from her hair, brushed them against his leg as though the contact had dirtied them, and left the room.
It was only when Shelke began to think about it that she realized how little she knew about the rest of the Tsviets. Her firsthand knowledge was mostly concerned with Rosso; everything else was secondhand and hearsay, questionable at best. Normally, she had no desire to increase what she knew-even if all the rumors that she heard about the other Tsviets were exaggerated, they were terrifying enough that the core truth behind them was likely to be frightening on its own. But this wasn't 'normally'. 'Normally' had been left behind three days ago when Nero committed two acts of altruism, something that no self-respecting Deepground soldier would do.
Shelke needed more information. The problem was that her avenues were limited: the Transparent form would be useless as an observational tool against the other Tsviets; they knew what to look for. She doubted that the Researchers would be taking note of what she needed to know-even if they hadn't, they had begun relying on hard copies after her spectacular temper tantrum three years ago, ruling out SND. Using the Transparent form to access those hardcopies would be another venture doomed to failure. The Researchers, after all, had been the ones to run her through the barrage of field tests; they knew better than Shelke herself how it could be used. Asking Nero outright had failed, and the probable consequences of pressing the matter made shivers run down Shelke's spine.
As far as she could tell, she was out of options.
She continued to turn the problem over in her mind while she wandered, leaving the corridors that were her normal haunt and making her way into the city that had grown up around the mako reactor. As she passed them, she brushed her hand along the houses in the same way that she had the planks of the fences back home. The rough feel of brick against her fingertips didn't aid her thinking process. The city itself was silent; most of its inhabitants were in enforced training and wouldn't return until late in the afternoon. Shelke's footsteps sounded unnaturally loud in the deserted silence, and she instinctively tried to move more quietly. Focused on that, she didn't to check the alley before she turned into it and almost walked straight into Weiss and Rosso.
She wasn't sure how long she stood there, rooted to the spot. Whether it was a few seconds or just one, her body made sense of what she was seeing before her brain did. Not waiting for one of them to move, she turned on heel and ran for her life.
However quickly she reacted, it wasn't fast enough. She had only run half a block before an energy blast struck the small of her back. The tarmac ripped open the left side of her face as she hit, too quickly to effectively cushion herself with her hands. The pain was such a shock that Shelke gasped rather than screaming, pushing herself upright with one hand. Her face and eyes burned.
Then a hand gripped a fistful of her hair and she did scream as she was hauled upwards until her feet dangled a few inches from the ground. Shelke scrabbled, trying to free herself, but succeeded only in lacerating her hands on Rosso's gauntlets. Tears ran down her cheeks. She thought she could feel each individual hair being pulled out of her scalp.
The materia. Unable to see, Shelke fumbled for her pocket. Rosso got there first. Without loosening her grip on Shelke's hair, Rosso forced the younger Tsviet's groping hand aside and pulled out the pale orange sphere. Shelke blinked rapidly, trying to clear her vision, but there was blood dripping into her eye and she couldn't focus.
Rosso dropped her, and Shelke collapsed in a heap. "Don't interfere," she said.
Shelke was sure that she was hallucinating. Rosso sounded pleased.
"Did you hear me?" asked Rosso. "'Don't interfere'. Pass the message on to Nero. Won't you?" Shelke's head swam as she nodded. Nero wasn't the only one who could make a sweet tone sound aggressive.
"Good girl," purred Rosso. The clicking of her stiletto heels receded, and Shelke blacked out.
Nero was waiting in Shelke's room when she was discharged from the Researchers' centre the next day, heavy-eyed from lack of sleep. His presence had the same effect on her as a shot of caffeine would have on anyone else. Taking in the carefully blank look on Nero's face, Shelke wondered if she should be employing this newfound energy by running away. Her reason told her no; what Nero would do would doubtless be as unpleasant as anything Rosso could come up with.
"Explain," he said, very quietly.
Shelke felt her newly-healed face heat. "I-" This was a promising start, but her extreme reluctance to remember what she had seen became yet more pronounced when she considered having to explain it to Nero. "Rosso-" she tried.
"Of course it had something to do with Rosso," said Nero with acidic contempt. Shelke found herself wanting to stare at her feet like a child being scolded; it was an effort to keep her eyes on Nero's face. "She has selected you as her designated target," continued Nero, "and this will continue until such time as she becomes bored." He arched one eyebrow. "I notice that you are doing very little to hasten the arrival of that time."
"Your brother," blurted Shelke. Her throat locked again, but as far as Nero was concerned, she had said the magic words. He flushed as well.
"Bitch," he breathed. Shelke didn't think he was referring to her, which was a great relief. With a visible effort, Nero pulled himself back together. "So," he said, very calmly. "You walked in on them."
"And like any sensible person, you turned around and ran in the opposite direction as fast as you could."
"And Rosso came after you."
A third nod.
"It has not escaped my notice that you do not, currently, have the materia in your possession."
Cursing her form-fitting clothing, Shelke cleared her throat and said, "Yes."
"I would imagine that Rosso has it."
"Yes." Shelke braced herself. "She said to tell you not to interfere."
"Did she." It was not a question.
Shelke only nodded; her throat had locked again.
Nero brushed past Shelke without another word, and the door hissed shut behind him. On trembling legs, Shelke walked over to her bed and sat down. Knowing the reason for Nero's hitherto inexplicable attack of altruism did not make her feel any better.
Usually, Shelke was a very light sleeper. Being kidnapped from your home in the middle of the night tended to affect how you felt about being unaware of what was going on around you. But after four nights of restless, fitful sleep, Shelke had finally dropped into true slumber, and her rise to consciousness when she heard the howling near her head was less a leap to her mental feet as a struggle through sticky quicksand. As something dropped onto the covers near her, rolling towards the depression caused by her body, Shelke flailed free of the covers and sat up, narrowly missing the underside of the top bunk and-at the speed she was moving-a concussion.
The materia rolled off the bed and onto the floor with a muffled thunk.
Shelke looked up at Nero. There was a shiny-looking patch on his right cheekbone that would probably develop into an impressive bruise and a black eye if it wasn't treated. A graze on his temple had left trickled blood trails down the side of his face. He looked even more like something out of a nightmare than usual.
In complete silence, Nero bent and picked up the materia. Shelke held out her hand wordlessly, and Nero dropped it into her palm.
Shelke swallowed, and cast around for something to say. Was 'thank you' appropriate? She hadn't asked to be given the materia in the first place, let alone for Nero to take it back from Rosso. "You should get those looked at," she finally mumbled, risking a glance into his face.
She had managed to startle him. Nero blinked, his face loosening from its usual blank expression. Shelke's eyes flicked downwards as one of Nero's hands twitched and moved as though to touch the injuries. Then it abruptly lowered again. "I am not under discussion," said Nero coldly. Shelke kept her eyes on the floor, and curled her fingers tighter around the materia. It was cool against her palm.
"Go back to sleep," said Nero after a lengthy silence. Without another word, he left the room.
Shelke spent most of the next few days hiding in the terminal room at the edge of the mako reactor. The computer itself was not connected to the main Deepground system, but the whir of active machinery still soothed some of Shelke's anxiety and helped her to concentrate. She spent a lot of time rolling the materia around in her palm and staring into its centre like it held the answers to her question. It revealed nothing to her, and she still didn't dare test it. Shelke had been taught the broad categories that materia usually fell into, and this one didn't match any of them. Having handled only a handful of the precious orbs in her life, Shelke also knew that the fact that she didn't recognize the feel of the spell within didn't mean it wasn't something that could cause immense damage.
She was reasonably certain that Nero wanted her to protect herself from Rosso. But Nero had been born and raised in Deepground, and according to Deepground, the best defense was a good offense. It was something that Shelke had heard so many times since arriving in the complex that the phrase had almost lost meaning to her. But Nero didn't fall into traditional categories either, so she couldn't be certain that this was an offensive materia, either.
Shelke hated answers that only raised more questions. She almost dared to hate Nero for complicating her life like this.
What did Nero hope to achieve by helping Shelke to defend herself? What possible use could she be as an ally, when the Restrictors wouldn't even let her into the Deepground network without supervision?
On the third day, a week since Nero had given her the materia, Shelke took a deep breath, slipped the orb into her pocket, and made her way to the shooting gallery. She was in luck, if one could call it that-Nero was present, alone, grimly emptying another clip into one of the targets. Judging by the other, hole-ridden effigies, he'd been at it for a while.
As she watched, he fired a slightly lop-sided circle around the marked heart on his current target, then put a bullet directly through the centre. Shelke swallowed.
"Did you want something, Shelke?" Nero turned his head towards her only a fraction, and his tone warned her to think carefully about the answer that she gave.
Shelke had been thinking steadily about the answer for three days. She still hesitated before approaching and holding the materia out to Nero.
"I don't know what you want," she said. She was glad her voice didn't shake. "But I don't think I'm the right person for it."
"Don't you?" Shelke understood the tone clearly enough.
She stood her ground. "No, I don't."
Her body registered the barrel of the gun pointing in her direction before her brain did, and she dropped to the floor as Nero fired. She rolled-don't be a stationary target-leapt to her feet, and ran for the door. Going to Nero alone had been a calculated risk, considering that approaching him in any other company would reveal his machinations and get him into trouble, at which point her death would be certain.
She was still probably going to die.
Darkness erupted in a wall in front of the door, and Shelke skidded to a halt. Her heart did not sink; that was too mild a reaction. Instead it leapt into her throat and lodged there, making her fight for breath. She turned back into the room. On the positive side of things, wielding his darkness meant that Nero could not shoot her; he needed his hands. On the negative side, she had no means of escape, and Nero was still a formidable opponent. Never taking his eyes from hers, Nero raised one hand. Dark energy gathered around it. Shelke dodged as he hurled a ball of it at her, miscalculating in her panic and hitting the wall. She stumbled, and the materia dropped from her hand, hitting the ground with a thunk almost inaudible over the howling of the darkness.
Nero raised his hand again, charging another blast, and Shelke dived for the materia, staggering to her feet. As the blast hurtled towards her, she flung out her hand and cast the spell.
Dark energy splattered on the shield that appeared a few feet in front of her, and Shelke felt her mouth drop open.
Nero lowered his hand, and the screaming behind her vanished as he dismissed his darkness. He raised one eyebrow. "Now do you understand?"
The holographic room was a poor imitation of the outside world. Even though the image was identical to reality, the stale-smelling air, the same as everywhere else in Deepground, gave it away for what it was. Still, it was something of a comfort to Shelke. She hadn't been in this room for months for fear of attracting Rosso's attention. The greater comfort, though, came from the materia she held, loosely clasped in one hand, while she waited for Rosso to make an appearance.
It wasn't long before she heard the crunch crunch crunch crunch of Rosso's approaching footsteps, and her hand tightened around the materia before she turned.
"Good morning, Rosso," she said calmly, looking up at the other Tsviet. Rosso blinked and stared, taken aback by the greeting. Shelke fixed the event in her memory, in case what happened next went horrible wrong.
"You are surprisingly cheerful," said Rosso, recovering her powers of speech. She stepped a little closer.
"Is there a problem with that?"
Rosso's reply was an overhead swing of her weapon. The blade crashed down onto the solid barrier that appeared between her and her intended target. There was a moment when Rosso's face displayed nothing but shock. It made her look oddly vulnerable, almost childlike, and Shelke nearly lowered the shield. Then Rosso's face contorted in a snarl and there was another crash as she swung again—and again—and again. Shelke swallowed the odd feeling of pity, dismissing it as unimportant, and tried to judge how much magic she was losing. It was better than thinking about what would happen if Rosso ever caught her without this defense.
Eventually, the blows ceased, and Rosso lowered her weapon. "Casting your lot in with him will only lead to your demise," she said, voice roughened only slightly by her exertion. "You will learn to your sorrow that he cares for nothing and no one but Weiss."
There was no doubt whom she was speaking of. "I don't expect him to care for me," said Shelke evenly.
"Then enjoy your tenuous security," said Rosso, and stalked away.
She was sitting on her bed, still gazing at the materia in her hand, when Nero teleported in. "Were you there?" she asked.
"Was it worth it?"
"But this won't chance anything." Shelke pushed the materia under her pillow-she would have to find a better hiding place soon-and looked up at him. His expression was as unreadable as it usually was.
"This will ensure that Rosso is less smug," said Nero. "I will settle for that."
Shelke hesitated before saying, "You've gone to a lot of effort for such a small victory."
Nero raised his eyebrows. "I wouldn't have had to have gone to so much effort if you had simply used the materia from the start."
If I'd trusted you, do you mean? Shelke swallowed the words. She was reasonably sure that Nero wasn't going to kill her, but he wasn't encouraging familiarity, either. Despite turning up in her room four times in a week. "I'm sorry."
"You should know by now that that is a meaningless word," said Nero. "What is said can be twisted, and even actions can be differently interpreted."
It was a reminder of Deepground's usual dynamics. Shelke met Nero's eyes steadily and did not believe him. "I will remember that," she said, carefully toneless.
Nero's eyes narrowed slightly in acknowledgment of her subtle skepticism. "Good." He opened a dark portal behind him. "If there's nothing else?"
He didn't wait for any sign from her, but stepped into the darkness and was gone. Shelke lay down again, moving the materia so that she wouldn't roll onto it while she slept. She hoped that Nero, a puzzle if there ever was one, would begin to make more sense once she came to know him a little better.
Author's Notes: And thus begins one of Deepground's stranger alliances. It's taken me the better part of three years to get this series of events down satisfactorily. I do plan to write a longer fic about all the Tsviets and their time in Deepground at some point (and this story does contain references to several other events that would eventually be expanded on), but I couldn't say when that would be. So I thought I'd just post this.
Much thanks to my faithful friends Medli, Zaz, Meg and Yuki, without whom any and all Deepground writing I do would be much harder, if not completely impossible.