First of all: happy birthday Zaz9-zaa0! I know you saw the original rough of this, dear, but it's undergone quite a bit of revision since then, which I hope will add to your enjoyment. :)
Second, I owe so much thanks to Poisonberries, who beta (and gamma!) read this piece, helping me to expand, fine-tune, and just generally push me to make this fic as good as I could. I owe you bigtime, sweetie. (Whether or not I take this back for waking up the Tsviets is another matter entirely. ;))
Disclaimer: All characters, locations, etc., belong to the powerful and mighty Square-Enix. I'm just playing in their sandbox.
A Matter of Trust
Deepground was always cold. Shelke had vague memories of what sunlight felt like, gentle warmth that banished goose bumps or scorching heat that reddened the skin and peeled it like an orange in the days that followed. There was no equivalent in Deepground. Daily vitamins, pills that coated the mouth with their residue and slid sickly down the throat, replaced the only function of sunlight that the Researchers considered necessary—the production of vitamin D. Heating systems grudgingly kept the structure at a temperature that humans could survive in, but not at one that would provide any comfort.
Shelke mused and cocked her head, listening as she often did to the machines breathing. There wasn't even a sense of camaraderie to add an illusion of warmth to the sterile underground construction—no idle chatter, no jokes, no laughter. Nothing that would hint at humanity—something that no one in the complex could claim. Even the vague sense of suppressed anger had left the corridors since the Restrictors had been thrown down and Weiss had taken his rightful place as Deepground's ruler.
Maybe it was that Weiss hadn't been seen since then.
Deepground had lost its drive.
Shelke wandered the corridors. She had nothing better to do. For the first time in many years, she had been assigned no tasks to complete—by her official masters or her true one. She was one of only a handful who knew why Weiss had not left the mako reactor, and the knowledge—and her helplessness—bothered her.
There was a vague sense that she should be doing something about the virus. But what, she didn't know. She had already searched for information about it when she and Weiss had concocted the plan that had brought them victory. If there was information, it was not stored electronically—of that much, she was absolutely certain. It left her at a loose end. She didn't even bother with the training rooms. Rosso and Azul might not be there at any given time, but the blood they left remained. Nero had put a stop to wholesale slaughter when the matter had been brought to his attention, but he knew and Shelke knew that it was impossible to halt Rosso entirely. She had been held back too long. The only thing to do was slow the killing long enough for Weiss to recover and reassert control.
If he could recover.
Shelke pushed the thought away. Weiss had to recover. He was the Immaculate Emperor. He could—and would—survive anything.
Almost unconsciously, her hands clenched into fists to stop them from trembling. The rational part of her—almost buried beneath the faith that she had needed to hold in order to survive in Deepground—reminded her that no one was immortal. The faithful part ignored it. It—no, Shelke—did not want to consider what the consequences would be if Weiss succumbed. No one's life would be worth anything if Nero's only anchor was lost.
Strange that he should be the one most feared. Or perhaps not. Weiss was respected. Weiss was worshipped. Darkness to his brother's light, Nero was the shadow behind the throne, the enforcer, the fear. Shelke had sometimes wondered if Weiss would be so effective a leader without Nero's terror to provide contrast. Would the soldiers ever have bowed before the god without the demon?
She had always abandoned the train of thought as useless and irrelevant.
The houses were quiet, but it was the quiet of a storm approaching. A long way off, yet, but coming. If Nero couldn't find some way to keep the soldiers busy, they would throw off their leash and riot. They would obey Weiss, but they would never obey Nero, not the demon unleashed, without a master. Neither would they obey Rosso, who was unpredictable and crueler than the Restrictors in her own way, or Azul, who was recognized only as a more powerful soldier and not a leader. Weiss held the reins, the only one who could, and he might not last much longer.
Shelke's footsteps took her to the Research centre. It should have been pervaded by the stink of rot, or of old blood if old blood had a scent beyond a hint of iron oxide. But Nero had ordered the bodies removed and disposed of when he and Rosso had finally exited, both of them soaked in the blood of the scientists that had tortured them since birth. The dark stains remained—perhaps the odd splash of brain on the wall, or a few shards of bone and the fragments of bullets, but nothing that would give the place the smell that it rightfully should have had.
Instead, it stank, as it always did, of antiseptic.
Shelke's throat tightened. She hated that smell. A strong desire to leave rose as her stomach threatened rebellion. Forcing down the nausea, she took another step into the entrance, then another, and another, until she reached the grid of corridors and rooms that had once housed 'patients'—those who would be selected, in their helplessness, for the next round of experimentation. Each room, though made individual and distinct by the particular marks of those who had died there—every bloody streak and smear would have told its story, had she cared to stay and look—called to memories that she would rather forget.
Shelke didn't know why she was here, and didn't intend to stay long.
But the tapping of her feet against the tiles carried her to the file room, and she realized that there was a purpose in her being here. She could check the physical files, the true notes, for what she hadn't been able to find on the network—information about the virus that threatened Weiss's life. The scientists hadn't truly trusted the computers since her desperate outburst nearly ten years ago had burned out their electronic records and disabled nearly a quarter of the life-support systems in the building. Her endurance might have been far less than they wanted, but her ability to do damage to systems was rightly feared.
It became obvious, as she touched the light switch and was rewarded only with spluttering and sparks, that someone had already been there. Shelke stepped into the room and held aloft one saber, activating it as she did so. Orange light—makeshift and faint, but enough to illuminate the room dimly—pulsed from the weapon. The file drawers had all been opened. The files themselves were stacked in haphazard piles, some of which had slipped over to cover the floor. The loose pages at the edges of the room testified to someone angry and desperate enough to hurl them at the wall. The coverings of the lights were pitted. It looked as though they had been partially melted with acid. Wires protruded from the roof and walls. The whole room was several degrees colder than the corridor outside.
One week ago, mere minutes after the death of the last Restrictor, Weiss had ordered Shelke and Azul to the room that had housed Nero for the past three years. When they arrived, Nero had been hanging limply from the restraints that bound him, and nothing seemed to rouse him. Even Azul's ground-shaking tread had failed to draw any response. Even Azul approaching the pillar and beginning to tug at the chains. Shelke watched as the veins on Azul's immense muscles stood out, thickly blue, as he strained to break the thick links.
"Careful, Azul," she said from her place by the door, observing the way that the leather straps—pads? She had never gotten close enough to take a proper look at Nero's restraints—were cutting into Nero's flesh. The man may not have done so much as stir, but Shelke had not failed to notice that the darkness was swirling more quickly around the pillar than it had before Azul began his rescue attempt. It would be disappointing indeed to lose a Tsviet because he had failed to take proper precautions against a power whose basic limits he should have known.
Azul paused, and glared at her across the distance. The 'whites' of his eyes—a misnomer, since they were as black as pitch—made his yellow irises appear as beastly as those of the true monsters that roamed the outside world.
"Do you not wish to free him?" he asked, each word dripping with challenge.
"If you harm him in your attempt, his darkness will consume you," said Shelke. "It is Weiss's wish that we all return alive."
Azul made a sound that might have been thoughtfulness and might have been disgust, and jammed one fist under the strap at Nero's side. When he had wedged it firmly beneath strap and chain, he resumed his attempts to break them. When those attempts at last bore fruit, the chains rang against ground and pillar like bells, and Nero dropped to the ground like a stone.
For a moment, the wisps of darkness that whirled around him became a solid wall, black marbled with deep blue and purple, and the howling rose to a ghastly chorus of shrieks that echoed from the walls.
Azul took a quick step back, fists clenched and half-raised in an automatic defensive gesture. Shelke thrust a hand into the pouch at her belt, wrapping her hand around the cool sphere of her Shield materia.
The shrieking subsided, and the darkness faded. At the foot of the pillar, Nero stirred. As Shelke and Azul watched, too wary to approach, he brought himself to an awkward crouch, using the hands on his wings as a substitute for the ones bound by his containment suit. Each movement was slow and stiff, and the resulting position looked agonizing.
"Azul," he said.
"Yes?" asked the behemoth. He had lowered his hands when Nero had stirred, and his voice gave no sign of the fear that he must have been feeling.
"Your job, I believe, is done," said Nero, his voice becoming stronger with each word. "Leave."
Azul's head dipped the merest fraction. "As you command." He left, something akin to a sneer on his face as he glanced at Shelke on the way past. She met his gaze steadily. Azul could do nothing to her.
When his footsteps finally faded away, she returned her gaze to Nero, still huddled on the floor.
"Do you want me to leave as well?" she asked, operating under the assumption that he might have missed her presence, standing by the side of the door as she had. There was no proof that he had been aware as Azul had struggled to free him.
"If I wanted you to leave," said Nero, "I would have ordered you to do so."
His head was bent, so she couldn't see his face—not that it would have been much help, in any case, now that the Researchers had bound it into a muzzle made of Planet-knew-what. If pressed, Shelke would have insisted that her anger at the Researchers and the Restrictors for what they had done to Nero grew out of her fear. If Nero wasn't safe, how could she possibly be?
But no one asked, and so she was never forced to lie. Everyone—Weiss included—assumed that her anger was, as theirs was, the cumulative result of years of mistreatment, and outrage at their treatment of one who should have been their superior. The truth was more complicated.
After a long pause, Nero said, "Help me."
It was a flat order, without inflection. It took Shelke several seconds to process it, nonetheless. Nero said nothing while she added one to one and came up with the inevitable conclusion, which argued that he was fully aware of the implications of his order.
She felt oddly flattered as she descended the steps and knelt beside him, reaching for the buckles on the straitjacket and flicking them open. Nero's arms fell from their crossed position, clearly numb from being held in one place too long. Shelke pulled one arm around her shoulders. The wings twitched and skittered across the floor. The occasional tremor wracked Nero's body, but otherwise he did not move.
Could he move?
Bracing herself for his weight, Shelke stood, and nearly fell again. She had forgotten the weight of the wings, and it took her a few moments to adjust. Nero's head was still bent, and his long, unruly hair—uncut, unbrushed, unwashed—hid his face. He leaned heavily on her.
"I've lost feeling in my legs," he said. His voice was still flat.
"Can you move your arms?"
The hand in front of her twitched. "A little," said Nero.
Shelke reached out and took it in hers. At this, Nero did flinch. He was not used to physical contact with other humans—not after three years of enforced solitude. Even before that, he would have tensed. Nero was not someone touched by others. Shelke ignored the paranoia that said that she was undertaking a course of action that would likely end in her being snubbed and possibly executed unceremoniously, and began to rub Nero's hand, attempting to restore circulation. There was a faint bluish tinge around the tips of his fingers that worried her. In the final days of the quiet rebellion against the Restrictors, there had been no orders to let Nero down in order that he would retain his strength and not succumb to blood pooling. There had been no way that she could have freed him early.
It didn't stop the vague sense that she should have done something.
Gradually, Nero's fingers curled into a fist, released, flexed again. Shelke reached across him and took his other hand, repeating her actions. By the time the other hand began to move under its own power, Nero was trying to stand on his own. He stumbled several times and fell heavily against Shelke, nearly overbalancing them both—even mako-enhanced strength was barely enough to support a full-grown man when her base strength was that of a nine-year-old girl—before he was able to get both feet under him with enough feeling to keep him steady and balanced. For a long moment, Shelke remained in position, ready to catch him if he fell again. When it became clear that he intended to remain on his feet, she eased away until she stood before him—close enough to move to help him if he fell, far enough away that he wouldn't feel crowded. Even though her assistance had taken only minutes, she felt drained. Feats of strength were Azul's department, not hers.
She wondered why Nero had insisted that she stay, rather than the one who was logically more equipped to help him.
"My brother," he said quietly.
"He is well," she said. She did not add, For now. She didn't need to. She could see the tightness around Nero's eyes.
"I must go to him." The whisper was feverish in its desperation, and Shelke felt a chill run down her spine.
"It would be better if you walked," she said, fighting the urge to reach for her Shield materia when Nero's red gaze pinned her in place. "You need to restore circulation in your extremities," she said. "You have been hanging there for several days without significant movement."
"I will be fine." There was an edge to Nero's voice.
Weiss will understand. She didn't say it. It would be an invitation for Nero to kill her on the spot. He permitted no one to assume that they knew Weiss's mind. Instead, she only stood there, silently, her advice having been offered. She could not press the matter. Nero would walk, or not, as he chose.
There was a long silence. Finally, Nero made a disgusted sound and took one shaking step forward.
"Lead the way, Shelke." His dry tone was mocking. She ignored it, turned, and left the room with Nero following behind her.
It had taken more than an hour for them to traverse the corridors, but by the time they reached the central complex, Nero had been walking with his usual smooth gait. If it caused him pain, he had given no sign of it.
When Nero walked into the mako reactor, Weiss had dismissed the other Tsviets, and they had withdrawn without comment—leaving him to his reunion with his brother. They hadn't seen each other in nearly three years.
That had been a week ago.
Standing straight and immobile amidst the shifting paper debris of the files, Shelke wondered why Azul tolerated Weiss and Nero's attachments to one another—a connection that he would normally dismiss with scorn. Her only conclusion had been that the brothers' power was sufficient that Azul was willing to make an exception to his judgment. If Rosso had an opinion on it, Shelke had no wish to discover it—the knowledge that Rosso admired Weiss and hated Nero was enough for her. Learning anything more would mean enduring the playfully cruel attitude that Rosso displayed towards Shelke herself—and, of course, the injuries that came with it. As for Shelke, she had no opinion on the matter. Weiss and Nero were not only her superiors, they wielded power that vastly outstripped her own. Disagreeing with them, especially on a matter that was clearly important to them both, would not be a sensible decision.
She made herself scarce whenever the brothers were together, for fear that they would be able to tell that what she said (or did in tacit support) did not match what she felt. Weiss, in particular, could be disturbingly perceptive—a side-effect, perhaps, of his SND ability. The moment's connection between his mind and another's would be enough to sample their thoughts and feelings with minimum damage, and that would be all he needed to choose the right thing to say in order to persuade someone—or to trap them mercilessly, without hope of escape.
Shelke supposed that she could have been called jealous of Weiss and Nero's connection. Certainly, there were times when she felt resentment welling up inside her. Trust. Love. Safety. All things that the average Deepground soldier, and even most of the Tsviets, could never hope to obtain. All things that Shelke would never experience again. To trust someone was to be vulnerable to that person; to love someone was to be vulnerable not just to one, but to many. And safety…
Without power, one could forget about safety in Deepground.
But jealousy did not explain why she felt a tinge of sympathy for Nero—something that tempered her fear. She let the power drain from the saber and holstered it again. She could double-check the files, but she should ask Nero's permission first. He could be touchy when he was emotional, and he might take her action the wrong way—suggesting, in fact, that he had not looked hard enough, not tried hard enough to find something to save Weiss. And such a suggestion, no matter how unintentional, would mean certain death.
The Tsviets had rooms in the mako reactor—sterile, unadorned ones, only slightly larger than that of a common soldier. They had been handed over unceremoniously, and in Shelke's case still possessed the original two bunk beds. Nero's room had been used one night in four when he was free—the others had been spent in Weiss's.
It was therefore something of a surprise to find that Weiss's room was empty. Shelke listened for a moment, heard only silence, and let the door slide shut again, continuing to the next doorway. It opened at her touch to reveal Nero sitting on the bottom bunk, containment suit unfastened to his waist. There was a first aid kit open by his feet, the contents scattered across the floor as though they had been rummaged through in a hurry.
Nero's torso was mottled with bruises, and he was cradling his left arm to his chest. The darkness howled around him as he lifted his head.
"Well, Shelke," he said. "Come in. Or are you planning to stand and stare all day?" The mocking words reassured her a little, but it didn't hide the dark circles under his eyes, or the edge of pain in his voice.
She stepped into the room, and the door slid shut behind her. She found the sound more reassuring than concerning, which was unusual. Still, it made sense. The last thing that they needed was for Rosso to know that Nero was injured.
"What are you looking for?" she asked, examining the medical supplies strewn across the metal floor.
"Bandages," said Nero. "And a splint."
"A splint?" repeated Shelke before she could stop herself. The edges of Nero's eyes crinkled. She could guess at a wry smirk. He gestured vaguely to his cradled arm, swollen and angry-looking.
"Greenstick break," he said. Shelke blinked; she had spent enough time in the Research Centre to know that such fractures were usually only seen in children. It wasn't impossible for an adult to suffer such an injury, but...were his bones really so soft…?
She dismissed the concern. The exact pathology of the injury was neither relevant nor a useful consideration. But then, it was probably some strange result of the darkness in Nero's system; it was capable of absorbing foreign substances in Nero's body (the Researchers had tested him with various poisons in his teenage years; she remembered it distinctly), why shouldn't it prevent ordinary adult calcification from occurring?
If it were true, then they had something in common. Enough, Shelke concluded, to explain the sympathy.
"That kind of injury requires a cast, not a splint," said Shelke, still feeling odd. She couldn't remember the last time that Nero had been injured.
"I will heal in a few days as long as I can keep the limb immobilized," said Nero. "I need a reminder, not a hindrance."
To say nothing of the fact that neither of them knew how to apply a cast to a broken limb.
"Materia?" she ventured.
"Have you ever used magic on a broken bone, Shelke?"
She conceded his point. Who knew what difficulties would arise? Simple breaks were almost unheard of in Deepground. At Tsviet levels, dealing with amputation or shattered bone was far more likely than something that could be treated with a cast. She didn't want to think what might happen if Nero healed incorrectly. Better to let it heal on its own. Kneeling slowly, giving him time to object, she began to sort through the supplies on the floor until she found the bandages.
"It might be better to bind your arm to your torso," she said. "You will not require a splint, and the limb can be kept still." Nero inclined his head, and Shelke placed several bandages on the bed beside him. "Have you set it?"
"I hadn't gotten that far," said Nero. There was a tenseness to his shoulders. The darkness in Nero's system made the effects of any drugs – including anesthetics – short-lived and fleeting. He had endured all manner of experimentation by the Researchers – torture in all but name – without anything to numb the pain. And for Weiss's sake, he would endure much, much more.
That did not mean that he had to enjoy it.
How did this happen? No. I don't want to know.
Shelke sat down on the bed beside Nero and pulled the injured arm gently towards her. It was easy to see where the break was. Thankfully, it was on the upper arm—binding that to Nero's chest wouldn't unduly impede his movements. Feeling her way along the swollen skin, trying not to cause undue pain, Shelke found the place where the humerus had been fractured and got a firm grip on either side of the break, trying to take a deep breath without being obvious about it. She knew that it was difficult to set a broken bone, and she told herself again that she and had reason to be thankful again for the experimentation performed on her.
No nine-year-old child could do this, she thought, with something that might have been pride.
As she began to manipulate the bone, Nero voiced a strangled cry and jerked against her hands, nearly throwing her on top of him. Something cold licked over her hands as she set her feet again, and Nero sucked in deep, shaky breaths. He was even paler than usual, and Shelke could see that sweat had broken out on his face and shoulders.
The shadows in the room had deepened.
Shelke swallowed. "Perhaps I should—" she began.
Shelke suppressed an urge to protest that he hadn't even allowed her to finish, conceding that there were only a limited number of things that she could suggest in this situation. She could call another soldier, one physically stronger than she, to set the bone, who would then have to be killed to ensure his (or her) silence. She could see if there were any field medics who had experience in setting broken bones rather than simply immobilizing it until the patient could be handed over the Researchers – unlikely, as field medics tended to be trained by the Researchers and had likely been purged along with their masters. Or she could retrieve some of the anesthetic from the Research Centre and attempt to administer it without any prior knowledge, which might or might not have any effect before the darkness removed it from Nero's bloodstream.
None of them were palatable options. Neither was setting the bone herself.
Nero laughed. It was a high-pitched, bitter, and stilted, and it made the hair on the back of Shelke's neck prickle. "Don't fret, Shelke," he said, sardonically. "I have endured worse than this in my life. I can give my word that I won't lose control."
The words did nothing to make Shelke feel better, but they gave her no choice in her actions. Forcing her fear down, Shelke began to shift the bone. Nero flinched again, but this time he kept his cries behind his teeth until she had finished. When she released his arm, he slumped as much as the struts in his back would allow. His face and shoulders were shiny with sweat, and he panted as though he had just finished running an endurance course. Shelke tamped down an urge to apologize as she gently lowered his arm to hang by his side, keeping a careful grip on it to avoid the fracture moving out of position again. It might have been unnecessary—she didn't know. She had once heard that the setting of a broken bone was as painful as the breaking itself, and she had no wish to repeat it simply because she failed to take a simple precaution. She reached for the bandages and paused. They were in an awkward position to conduct this.
"Can you stand?" she asked.
Nero made an effort to control his breathing. His shoulders were just barely hunched – the faintest suggestion of a slump, all that he was physically capable of. The arm she still held trembled, presumably with the aftermath of the pain. His head was down again, hair hiding his face, as it had been a week ago when he crouched at the foot of the pillar.
He looked so tired.
"Nero…" Shelke realized that she had no idea what to say, and so settled for the first thing that sprung to mind. "How did this happen?"
Nero went absolutely still. The sudden lack of movement sent a wave of sickening cold through Shelke: fear. Of all the things she could have said, why that? I don't want to know what happened. It's safer not to know. If jerking away from him wouldn't cause him such sudden and ferocious pain that it would transform her death from a probability into a certainty, she would have sprinted for the door. Instead, she held very still, hardly daring to breathe – too afraid to say anything, terrified that she should be.
Long moments passed in silence, Nero as unmoving as stone under Shelke's hands. A troubling thought crossed her mind—was he breathing? Had she shocked—or angered—him that much? Slowly, she angled her eyes to the left. The bared chest was spattered with dark bruises, but it was rising and falling. Shelke swallowed relief—and very nearly jumped when a distant, dead, defeated whisper told her, "He didn't mean to."
Shelke had thought that she was cold before. She was wrong. There was only one he that Nero could possibly had been referring to, and Shelke looked with newfound horror at the broken arm and the bruises on Nero's skin. Weiss had hit Nero. Weiss had hit Nero.
I shouldn't have asked. I shouldn't have…
Shelke became aware that she was trembling only when Nero's head snapped around and his gaze pinned her in place again. She could hear the rising whispers of the darkness, and didn't have to look down at Nero's hands to know that there would be dark wisps twining around them—living ropes, ready to seize her and drag her into the hellish void at a moment's notice. In Nero's red eyes was the same feverish desperation, overshadowed by anger, that she had seen a week ago. "Do you question him?" he asked coldly.
Shelke lowered her head. She couldn't think properly.
Nero's free hand circled the wrist of the hand that wasn't holding his arm in place, and tightened his grip enough to make her bite the inside of her lip.
"Do you question him?" Nero repeated, his voice warming to a dangerous amiability as the whispers of the darkness rose to an audible scream.
The idea of Weiss deliberately trying to injure Nero, was…unthinkable. It was like Rosso displaying tenderness—so far beyond the realm of possibility that it was laughable. It was like Azul letting go of his primitive perceptions and respecting anything but brute strength in a fight.
It was like a sister rescuing you from hell, like a knight out of a children's storybook.
Nero's grip tightened enough to bruise. Raising her head to look him in the eyes, Shelke said, "I'm sorry."
His fingers fell away from her wrist as he stared at her. For once, his expression was unguarded. He looked shocked – and vulnerable. His words of a bare five minutes ago replayed in her head: he didn't mean to.
He was not speaking to me, but attempting to reassure himself.
Familiar pain hooked its claws into what remained of her heart, and Shelke lowered her head before Nero could see it register in her eyes. "I apologize," she said, keeping her voice steady. "I should not have asked that question."
Despite Nero's shock, which theoretically should not trigger an explosion of the darkness as anger would, she half-expected to hear the howling to increase to deafening levels, to feel the cold embrace of oblivion. As the seconds ticked by and she suffered no such fate, she raised her head. Nero stared at her still, but his face was unreadable again.
"Why did you come here, Shelke?" he asked. His voice was soft, and betrayed a hint of confusion.
It took a moment to remember. "I was in the Research centre…" How long had it been? Did it matter? "…I remembered the files. I thought…" She trailed off.
She flinched when Nero's hand descended onto her head. He did not stroke, merely let it rest there, heavily. After what seemed like an eternity, he removed it and stood, letting Shelke feel as though she could breathe again.
"Help me," he said. A command.
It took less than five minutes to wind the bandages around Nero's torso, pinning his injured arm straight. By the way that he flinched when she pulled the bindings tight, Shelke guessed that some of his ribs were also cracked, making her thoughts swim again. This was not right. But she couldn't bring it up.
She could still feel the cold pressure on Nero's hand on her head. Like a judgment, though of what she couldn't guess.
Nero shrugged one half of his containment suit back on.
"Perhaps I should have redressed before being bound again," he mused. Shelke thought he laid delicate stress on the word 'bound', but it wasn't obvious enough for it to be a criticism. "Recheck the files. Any reference to the virus should be brought straight to me."
She lowered her head in acknowledgment of her orders and made to leave the room. He stopped her at the doorway.
She twisted to look at him. His gaze was unreadable again.
"Thank you," he said. It was as flat and devoid of inflection as any order he'd given her, but it still took her several seconds to process.
Lessons otherwise forgotten kicked in, and she said, "You're welcome."
She left before she could say anything further, and wondered why she thought that she might.
Any thoughts or constructive criticism that you, the reader, might wish to offer would be greatly appreciated. :) Thank you very much for reading.