For Zaz9-zaa0, who always reads the first drafts; for ShiningSugar14 and Nero-the-Sable, who can never get enough of the Tsviets; for Sunnepho, whose marvelous fic Claret Sky inspired the style of this one; and for Poisonberries, who reads not only the first draft but also the second, third, fourth and fifth, and helps me make it better.
Disclaimer: They belong to Square-Enix. Sadly.
Nero was eight the first time they let him leave the Research Centre.
He makes two promises that day. The first is that he will be good - the best, because that would please Weiss. The second is that he will not go back. Ever.
The promises are broken within days, and he has revised them since then. (They are more realistic now, and he believes that Weiss approves.) He will be as good as is necessary to keep himself from punishment; and when he is forced to return to the Research Centre, he will make the scientists share his fear.
The process has been educational. For example, he is now familiar with the pleasing sound made when eyeballs are forced to the back of the skull, and that it is not possible to tear someone's throat out with teeth alone.
He usually stops short of killing, these days. The pain is not worth the effort. And he is even docile, on occasion, when they succeed. It is only when they fail that he makes them scream.
This feels like another failure. The skin around the stitches swells with fluid, until the thread cuts channels in his flesh and trembles with tension. He tries, and fails, to muffle a scream.
When they loose the restraints on the operating table - a necessary measure, when anesthetic is short-lived and ineffective - Nero ignores the sharper pain of tearing stitches and throws himself at whoever is closest.
He cannot move as he wants to, which makes strangling impossible. Changing tactics, he tries to smash the eyepieces of the mask. The splintering glass might well puncture an eye. That would be an achievement; he hasn't managed to take one of their eyes in some time. Disappointingly, he misses, but there is a satisfying crack as he makes contact with the plastic guard that covers the nose and mouth.
He decides, after some internal debate, that a broken nose is an acceptable substitute.
The familiar hiss of knock-out gas fills the room and the man staggers back. His scream of pain is muffled by the mask. Head spinning, Nero clutches at the side of the operating table. His fingers slip in his own blood. He crashes to the floor. The stinging pain on his left arm tells him he scraped half the skin off on the edge of the table. He can feel the beading of the blood.
He probably won't get the opportunity to do this again, so he bares his teeth in a feral grin at the man whose skull he tried to smash.
The last thing that he hears before losing consciousness is a snarled, "Son of a bitch."
He wakes up in one of the restraint rooms - one of the sealed ones, where he can be gassed at will. Given his resistance to healing materia, they haven't bothered casting Cure on him this time, and his wounds throb.
There's a window in one of the walls, and there are Researchers watching him. He stares back, knowing that it unnerves them, and decides to try an experiment of his own.
Imperceptibly, his right hand flicks. There are shadows in the corridor - there are always shadows - and he places a shred of the darkness within them. Another scrap of it winds itself through his hair close to his ear. Distant screams are white noise behind the conversation that filters through.
"-didn't expect it to be vicious."
This voice is young, male, and nervous. Good. Nero toys for a moment with ways to make him more so - closing his throat with the darkness springs to mind – but decides he is curious.
"Get used to it," sneers the second, which is older and female. "They're both vicious. They know they're not expendable, the bastards, and they take advantage of it."
Nero fights a smile. He might not be expendable, but that only means that they cannot kill him. And sometimes, when his darkness is turned against him, he thinks that death might be preferable.
"Personally," continues Second Voice, "I'm not sure that this one is worth what we paid for him. The older one's potential is...infinite...but this one is an abomination. We should have disposed of him when he was born."
This is not precisely a new sentiment. Nero heard many variations of it when he was a child. He almost learned to speak from them.
"I heard that the experimental period was extensive," offers First Voice, attempting to be conciliatory.
Second Voice snorts. "Experimental period? The length doesn't matter, so long as we get results. No, what I object to...She never should have carried him herself."
"Its mother was one of us?"
In his shock, Nero loses his grip on the darkness, and the conversation is once again blocked by metal and glass.
His nails dig into his palm hard enough to break the skin.
He has always known that he was responsible for his mother's death. He can't remember hearing it for the first time, he has known it so long. He also knows that he and Weiss shared a mother. He even knows her name - Harmaa.
He did not know that she was a Researcher.
He plans the systematic destruction of his room. As an exercise in restraint, he would see if he could vanish the individual screws that held his bed together. Perhaps he could simply weaken the structure, leave it to be destroyed by the next one confined here. The idea of someone else's pain soothes him a little.
He wishes for claws. He wants to rend something, someone.
It makes sense. It makes sense, and he never saw it. She couldn't have been just another subject, or they never would have mentioned her loss. His blindness eats at him, stronger than the hate.
He cannot decide if he invented Weiss's reluctance to speak of her. The memories are dim and distant, unreliable.
Nero struggles with the matter for the remainder of his stay.
Sparring with Weiss is the closest that Nero has ever come to careless play. Because the blows are not intended to kill, he needs only to be careful, not guarded, and he can focus on technique.
For the time being, it helpful that Nero is far more comfortable with a gun than a sword. The split second of conscious thought required to stay in time with his brother drives out unwanted thoughts. But it is temporary. When they have both worked up a sweat and Weiss calls a halt, the new knowledge returns.
Without preamble, he asks, "Do you remember our mother?"
Weiss goes as still for a moment, and when he looks at Nero, his eyes are sharp, as though they look upon an enemy. A downward flick of Nero's eyes confirms that Weiss's grip on the hilt of the practice blade has tightened, and he feels that he has misstepped.
"Why do you want to know?" Weiss's voice is a warning in itself.
Nero looks away, and shrugs. "Curiosity," he claims.
There is a short silence before Weiss says, "It was a long time ago. I don't remember much."
His voice warns Nero not to press, and he does not.
Watching Shelke perform a Synaptic Net Dive is a singularly boring experience.
They have been hiding in the laboratory for more than an hour and Nero watches her with a sniper's intensity when she finally shows signs of emerging from her trance. Her limbs twitch one by one, as though she is testing them.
It is with difficulty that Nero restrains himself from stalking across the room and tearing the cycloptic helmet from her head.
She fumbles with the heavy device, deposits it on her lap, and starts when she sees him. He hasn't moved since she began her Dive, and this clearly disconcerts her. Nero tucks the memory away with a smile, and Shelke fidgets with one of the lines for a moment before she pulls herself together.
"There are a considerable number of files on the system about...her."
He notes the momentary scramble for terminology and the eventual arrival at a term so neutral that it approaches significant from the other direction.
Since Nero himself doesn't know (Doctor Werner? Harmaa? Mother? That bitch?), he lets Shelke's indecision go without comment.
She fiddles with the line. "I was not able to analyze them all completely, but her research has not been continued, since..."
"Her death." My birth.
Shelke inclines her head rather than trying to finish her sentence, and Nero awards her a point for hearing what was left unsaid. "Because of that, there should be few irrelevant references." Her hands ghost up the sides of the helmet, ready to replace it on her head at his command. In the blinking light of the computer console, she looks like a hologram - a false human search engine. "What do you want to know?"
Nero cocks his head as if thinking, but he has already made up his mind. "Everything."
Falling pages flutter in Nero's peripheral vision, and his free hand twitches towards the gun at his side. With an irritated shake of his head, he forces a halt to the movement. He does not want to wear through the grip.
Much of what the files contain is beyond him. The education of a Deepground-born child does not include the science that creates them. Almost all of what Nero does recognize, he overheard while there were scalpels in his skin or narcotics in his blood. There are countless references to other files that he does not have access to; pages of esoteric calculations that may as well be gibberish for all the sense he is able to make of them; dissertations on substances whose names he would not care to attempt pronouncing; other similarly opaque matters.
The only things that make sense to him are the records of experimental failures. The darkness croons to him as he reads of adults, adolescents, children and infants, consumed by screaming shadows.
Nero is mildly impressed. Without ever dirtying her hands, his mother killed as many as he has.
Still, he's dissatisfied. Something is missing. What he has is a portrait of a scientist - or more accurately, of the series of experiments that lead to his creation. There must be something more to learn.
What is it that I seek? The thought is persistent. It resurfaces every time that he pauses in his reading, head spinning with words he cannot understand. And every time that it does, he pushes it away.
I will know when I find it.
He drops another file on the floor, and keeps reading.
Weiss has been standing in the doorway for perhaps twenty minutes now, and he is making Nero nervous. He puts on a show of disinterest, but his skittish fingers run up and down the edge of the file's pages.
At last Weiss stirs, and speaks. "You're getting blood on the paper."
Nero looks down. Red smudges smear the margins. He turns his hand palm up and watches blood well from several paper cuts.
"Rosso is commenting on your absence."
The words are a warning. There is a hierarchy among the Tsviets that depends on presence, and Nero has been neglecting it. He curls his fingers into his palm, feeling the blood smear his skin. He is familiar with shame. It is his least favorite emotion.
Still, he doesn't put the file aside.
"When she got something she didn't like from the other scientists, she let me tear it up" Weiss offers, unprompted. Nero turns his head towards his brother, but does not look. "I thought it was fun."
"Do you hate me because I killed her?"
Weiss goes still. Nero watches his brother's face carefully, both hands now white-knuckled with tension. Immediately, he regrets the question. He's terrified of the answer.
The silence stretches, then tears as Weiss turns his back.
"I'll tell Rosso that you're not dead," he says.
The scattered pages flap as the door shuts behind him.
Nero has never defied Weiss's wishes before, and it's more than a little frightening to find himself rationalizing the situation to one in which he can keep both his brother and his search. He rebels against the thought of something else having such a strong hold on him, but he still finds himself picking up the next file.
What is it that I seek? The thought bangs inside his skull like a headache.
What does it matter? another part of him answers. She is 's long dead. Weiss is not.
Nero shivers and looks down at his hands. Aside from the dark nails, they are almost as pale as the page beneath them. Her name heads this one. It's her death certificate - the last file. Having come this far, it would be foolish not to see it through.
Inside his head, the acidic darkness screams. Is one of the cries in the chorus yours? he wonders, allowing a bruise-black tendril to unfold above the page. Did you scream when I killed you? Or were you silent?
The dark fragment swirls like smoke, and offers no answers.
With a flick of his fingers, he banishes it and begins to read.
When Weiss finds him again, he is calmly shredding the files. His fingertips are black with ink, and the pile of scraps in front of him is considerable.
"Huh," murmurs Weiss, almost too quietly to be heard. He shoves the papers to the side with one foot and sits down beside his brother. Nero's skin tingles with radiant heat.
For some time, the only sound is paper tearing as Nero waits for Weiss to speak.
"Did you find what you were looking for?" his brother asks, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees.
"To find what I was looking for, I would have to have known what it was I sought," says Nero. He drops the fragments of an experimental report on the pile.
Out of the corner of one eye, he sees his brother's razor grin. "That would help." He reaches out and snags a page. "Did you find anything you weren't looking for?"
Nero pauses in mid-tear to consider his answer. Eventually, he gives the paper a fresh twist and it joins its dismembered brethren. "Yes," he says. "A scientist."
Weiss nods, and begins to help destroy the files.
Weiss tosses the last of the fragments onto the pile. He rises to his feet in one movement and stretches, seeming to fill half the room. Though lacking his brother's grace, Nero follows his example. His feet sting in protest of movement after so much inactivity, and his fingers crack as the bones settle back into their usual joints.
"Do you want to burn it?" asks Weiss as he lets his arms fall back to his sides. He jerks his head towards the drift of paper scraps.
"You know I hate materia," says Nero. The files have been useful after all; he now knows why mako and materia burn to his touch. Soul wrought of terra corrupt, he quotes to himself. He is not Chaos, but he is certainly corrupt.
"Do you want me to burn it?" There is something tight in Weiss's voice.
"No." Nero lifts one hand. "There are other ways."
To his ears, the screams are a song as the darkness leaps from the floor to the ceiling and swallows everything in its path.
He does not see Weiss's leap back. One moment he is standing by the pile of paper; the next, he is by the far wall. Nero watches his brother's chest rise and fall in tense rhythm with some surprise; surely Weiss knows that Nero would never allow the darkness to touch him?
The pale, wary eyes tell him that Weiss does not, and that knowledge bites deep. "Show-off," says Weiss. He tries to relax, but the tension remains in his shoulders. "Warn me before you do that."
Nero looks back at the column of darkness. His pleasure in it is gone, even though not a single scrap of paper escaped him. "Yes, Weiss," he says, and he flicks his hand to dismiss the shadows swirling in front of him.
As it dissipates, a single scream rises above the rest - a woman's. Nero nearly staggers from the force of it - it rings with madness, pain, loss, and something else.
It takes him several seconds to remember to breathe.
The light flicks off something in his peripheral vision, and he turns in time to see Weiss sliding his weapons back into their sheaths. "Does that usually happen?" he asks, voice tight.
Nero shakes his head. His throat is tight, and he doesn't trust himself to speak. .
Without a word or sound, Weiss turns and leaves. His stride is longer than usual, and his footsteps faster, and Nero has the feeling that he will not be welcome company.
He lets his brother go, and turns back into the room.
His eyes and eyes tell him that there is nothing there, but his other senses say otherwise. He turns inwards, seeking contact with the shadow inside him. He is used to scraps of emotion being preserved in its weave, the fragments of souls he has broken, but he knows that what he just felt and heard and saw was more than that.
It takes little effort to find it. It twines around his mental touch, a madness not his own.
"So that was it, then," he says, quietly.
Inside him, the screams soften slightly, as though to purr. She shifts in acknowledgment.
And as he leaves the room, Nero smiles.