Most of the time, I manage to take Deepground and its inhabitants seriously. This is not one of those times.
So, happy birthday, ShiningSugar14! I know that you'll enjoy this in all its crackiness.
Everyone else...well, I hope that you at least get a giggle out of it.
Disclaimer: I own nothing. This is probably for the best.
It wasn't that Shelke wasn't grateful to Nero. She was, really. Without him, she was sure that she wouldn't have survived this long in Deepground's cutthroat environment. Not that she needed him to protect her all the time - for a start, he wouldn't (that would be far too much like emotional attachment for his comfort or hers), and she didn't need it. It was more that by needing him, and being needed by him, she kept herself from becoming nothing more than a robot. As long as Nero was around, Shelke had a purpose.
But all that being said, this was going a bit far.
For the third time in five minutes, Shelke leaned against Nero's entrapping arm. While she had a certain appreciation for its size and shape - a reaction that she'd filed away for later examination, in case it was an indication of physical puberty finally making its appearance - she felt frustration twist inside her when it wouldn't budge, even when pressure was continually applied. In fact - as she gave up and relaxed back into her previous position - his arm actually tightened around her.
When she had agreed to spend the night - such as agreement went, when the person making the 'offer' was fully capable of killing her without so much as lifting a finger - Nero hadn't mentioned that he was a chronic cuddler.
Shelke wished that she could move. Ever since her long initial period in the Research Center, upon her arrival to Deepground, she had hated being restrained. The differences in the situation kept her from devolving into the trauma response of blind panic, but it still made her deeply uncomfortable. In an attempt to distract herself, she focused on Nero's breathing. His mouth was less an inch away from the back of her neck, and his breath stirred the fine hairs there. Actually, they were currently standing up in anticipation of contact - an anticipation that was unlikely to be fulfilled at any point soon. As well as being a cuddler, Nero was also - apparently - a deep sleeper.
When the anticipation became too much, Shelke rerouted her attention to working her arm out from under her body. This was difficult - both in consideration of the fact that her arm had gone numb, and because she didn't want to wake Nero. Much like being present to save her at all times, this situation screamed of an emotional attachment that she was certain he would disagree with.
As she inched her numb appendage out from under her body, Shelke mentally swore that she would never go to Nero's aid when too tired to use SND ever again. If she hadn't been so tired from the training exercise, she could have simply used her ability to help clear his mind of darkness the normal way - which, while it still smacked of attachment due to needing prolonged eye contact, was at least quick - and they wouldn't have needed to experiment with an alternative method. Human contact, Shelke had discovered, was an anchor for Nero, but freeing himself from the dark emotional spiral that was the side effect of using his darkness was still a lengthy and precarious process. So much so that when the curfew siren had sounded, he had told her to stay because he still needed her.
Because she had been tired - and because she hadn't wanted to risk being caught if she were to try sneaking back to her room when curfew was already in effect (trying to use the Transparent form would have caused immediate collapse in the state that she had been in) - she had agreed. Because the floor was uncomfortable, they had moved onto Nero's bed. And somehow, in the night, they had ended up like this. And now Shelke didn't know how to extract herself from it in such a way that she would escape intact. The only thing that she could do, she concluded, was wait for Nero to wake up. If she was sufficiently detached, proving thus that she didn't care about what had happened, then she might still manage to get out alive.
She became aware that she was leaning into Nero's chest, her breathing synchronized with his. Now that she wasn't trying to escape from it, the position was...well, relaxing. She hadn't had human contact like this in...years. Nothing that wasn't quick or furtive or both. But Nero wasn't going anywhere, and neither was she. And she rather liked Nero, for all that he could be intimidating - or downright terrifying. He was clever and cunning, and witty when he wanted to be.
And he had lovely strong arms.
Shelke froze, then resumed her efforts to escape. Clearly being so close to another human being after so long was scrambling her brain. She should definitely escape before any further thoughts like that one crossed her mind.
But even in sleep, Nero was implacable. He simply wouldn't move, and eventually Shelke was forced to concede defeat. If Nero woke up and found her trying frantically to escape...well, she could picture him being amused, but that was contingent on him not objecting to being woken up. Something that she didn't think that he would be. Equally, if he woke up to find her awake and relaxing against him, he wouldn't like that either. In fact, she couldn't think of any situation in which she woke Nero up and it ended well.
So she held herself stiffly away from him as much as she could and focused on the wall on the opposite side of the room. This situation, she thought recklessly, could not possibly get any worse.
Then the door slid open, and Weiss walked in.
There were definitely people that Shelke could think of that she wanted to see less than she did Weiss at this moment. Rosso, for instance, who would milk the situation for all that it was worth and remember it forever and ever. Shelke could predict some of the snide comments that the Crimson Tsviet would make, and they made her want to cringe. A Restrictor would be worse. They would probably both be punished, and then Nero would punish her for letting them be caught in this situation, despite the fact that she couldn't have done anything about it. And a Researcher...well, Shelke didn't want to think about what a Researcher might do with the possibility of a relationship between herself and Nero.
Except that this wasn't a relationship. This was a situation that had managed to arise because they were both tired after training and she had foolishly tried to help him.
But in any case, even though she could think of people that she wanted to see less, Weiss was nonetheless someone that she hadn't wanted to see. Shelke still didn't know what he thought of her, although she believed he tacitly approved of the way that she helped Nero out. There was always the possibility that he would kill her himself. It was not, perhaps, likely, but Shelke was aware that she wasn't thinking entirely rationally at this point in time.
She saw the moment when Weiss noticed her presence. His eyebrows rose. Then he saw the way Nero's arm was wrapped around her waist, and they rose higher. Shelke attempted to convey silently that this had not been her idea.
Slowly, Weiss began to grin. Shelke felt her heart sink. It appeared that she wasn't going to die, but Weiss being amused...well, that was going to have consequences as well. It all depended on how Nero reacted when he woke up, and Shelke really didn't like having to rely on Nero's mood to stay whole.
She ducked her head and swallowed. She wasn't proud of what she was going to do next. It was an instinct that she had tried very hard to repress since her arrival in Deepground - it didn't help, and it often made things a lot worse. It had, however, been an effective technique when she was younger, and perhaps Weiss would be amused enough to go along with what she wanted.
She turned pleading eyes on the other Tsviet.
Weiss's grin disappeared and his mouth opened slightly in shock. Shelke wondered whether she had miscalculated. Weiss's head ducked, and he began to shake. Shelke felt her pleading expression slip from her face as she tried to figure out what was wrong. Was he ill? Had he come to Nero for help after some experiment?
Then faint wheezing noises began to escape from Weiss's mouth, and Shelke realized that neither of her above guesses had been correct. This was, in fact, something worse.
Weiss was laughing.
Shelke bit back a moan and let her head drop again. No, this situation definitely couldn't get any worse - without a Restrictor coming in, she hastily added, because there were some consequences that she just wasn't ready for.
The universe apparently decided to take this declaration as a challenge. Behind her, Shelke felt Nero begin to stir.
Her hopes that Nero might be a slow waker, and that she could slip out from under his arm before he was really awake - and be out the door before she could be stopped - were dashed when she felt him freeze. This was the only warning she got before Nero somehow got one knee up behind her and shoved her unceremoniously out of his bed. Shelke tumbled onto the hard floor, collecting bruises and ending up sprawled on her stomach.
"What do you think you are doing, Shelke?" demanded Nero.
Shelke rolled over and sat up. For no reason that she could think of, she tried to smooth down her sleep-mussed hair. "I had no intention of waking up in your bed," she said. She felt embarrassed, which - when combined with fear - lit the flame of anger inside her. "If you hadn't seen fit to cuddle me, I would have already left."
Nero's eyes snapped cold. "I do not cuddle."
Shelke raised an eyebrow at him. It was a technique that she'd picked up from him. "Really? I see. I amend my wording to clinging, then."
Nero tried to sit up, indignantly, and ended up cracking the top of his head on the bed above him. He yelped. It was the most undignified sound that Shelke had ever heard him make. He closed his eyes and exhaled as he waited for the pain to subside, gritting his teeth in the process - Shelke could see the muscles in his jaw clench, even from this distance. When he opened his eyes, they were colder than anything Shelke had ever seen.
"And why didn't you leave? Or were you so desperate for human contact that you were willing to grab at the illusion of affection? Pathetic."
Shelke felt heat rise in her cheeks, remembering the pleasure that she had felt at the contact. She should yield right now, she knew that. But somehow her combat instincts had taken over, and yielding wasn't an option. Yielding meant death. At least, that was what she told herself. She could justify her own pleasure, but the implication that Nero didn't care for her in the slightest hurt.
Even though she had been telling herself that for ages.
"An accusation that I could make in return," she retorted. "I know that I certainly didn't encourage you to put your arm around me."
"Since I have no desire whatsoever to get that close to you, I don't believe that."
"If you had no desire to get that close to me, what could I have possibly done to entice you into that kind of behavior?"
Nero opened his mouth to reply, but was interrupted by hoarse wheezing. Shelke froze. She'd forgotten Weiss's presence. She saw the moment that Nero noticed his brother, because his face went slack with shock. She closed her eyes. This was it. She was definitely going to die. She could only hope for a quick end.
"Weiss," said Nero, sounding oddly nervous.
This seemed to break Weiss's self-control entirely, because he stopped wheezing and started absolutely roaring with laughter. It seemed to fill the whole room, echoing off the walls. Shelke, in a response that she thought had been buried long ago, could feel her whole face burning. Because she didn't feel that she could look at Nero, she turned around and looked at Weiss. It seemed like a long time before his laughter died away into little hiccups of mirth, and finally into silence. He wiped his eyes.
"You two are hilarious," he said, his eyes still sparkling with amusement. His gaze fixed on Shelke. "Just in case you hadn't figured it out, he's embarrassed because he enjoyed holding you."
Shelke felt her blush deepen. Nero yelped again in protest. "Weiss!"
"Oh, don't worry," said Weiss, still blithely. "She's just as embarrassed - for the same reasons." He got up from his crouch and wiggled his fingers at the two of them. "I'll leave you two to sort this out between yourselves. You're not allowed to kill each other - and bear in mind that if you decide to fight, you'll probably have to explain yourself to the Restrictors. And you don't want that, do you?"
Shelke and Nero exchanged horrified glances before either of them thought about it. As soon as they realized what they were doing, they looked away again.
Weiss waved jauntily at the door, and it slid shut behind him. Shelke and Nero sat in silence for a long time, studiously not looking at one another.
Finally, roughly, Nero said. "I...appreciate your...help. Last night."
"And I appreciate your saving me from trying to sneak back to my room," said Shelke stiffly. "I would not have made it back without being caught."
More awkward silence reigned. Shelke couldn't remember a situation like this one ever having arisen before. Awkward simply did not seem to exist in Deepground - it was far too ruthless for that.
Finally, Shelke said, "If this were to happen again..."
"It won't," said Nero sharply.
Shelke swallowed and continued. "I was only going to say...there are bunk beds. I could take the other."
If possible, the awkwardness seemed to deepen. Shelke wondered whether it were possible to burst a vital blood vessel in the act of blushing, because it certainly felt like that was what her body was trying to do. Perhaps she might escape this after all.
Then again, that would leave Nero to have to explain things to the Restrictors. And she wouldn't wish that on him.
Eventually, Nero cleared his throat. "I think it would be best if we attempted to avoid repeating this situation," he said. "Or speaking of this." He muttered under his breath, "ever again."
Shelke nodded, stiffly. "I agree." She stood up. "I...will go now."
"Goodbye," said Nero, when she was halfway out the door. Shelke froze. It was probably an automatic response, she knew - basic manners still survived in Deepground, a bare veneer of civility to cover the savagery beneath.
But she didn't want to be rude. So she forced a faint, "goodbye" from her throat. The door slid shut behind her, and Shelke sighed with profound relief before taking off at a trot towards her own room.
If these were the kinds of situations that puberty induced, then she hoped that she never had to deal with it.