First, do no harm.
"Where did Marie go?" Stein asked, suddenly noticing her absence.
"She left," Neigus said.
"While you were talking to that one," she answered, jerking her thumb at the blonde witch. Finding herself indicated, the witch looked from Neigus to Stein before wincing in a way that seemed more amused than embarrassed.
"Oops! I hope I didn't get you in trouble…"
"You didn't," he said flatly. But he could feel the movement of his colleagues' gazes, the way they looked at him and then away once they'd drawn their conclusions. If there was one feeling he knew, it was that one. "I think I should go see what's up, though."
Spirit waved him off, but before he could leave, Lord Death stopped him. "Stein…"
A pause, as if he actually had to think about what to say. "…Consider your priorities."
It was less harsh than what he could have said. Though don't date your partner was a rule that applied primarily to the students, it was easily extrapolated to Deathscythes, and for obvious reasons: just look what had happened with Spirit and Mika. And so the two of them hadn't said anything. They hadn't even really figured out if they were "dating." They were definitely something, though, and Stein was surprised they'd come this far without being confronted about it.
"I have my priorities arranged as I want them," he answered.
"Oh, really? That's good to hear."
Lord Death was neither sarcastic nor condemning. If that wasn't his blessing, then at least he would observe a hands-off approach. Stein turned away and headed home.
When he arrived at his lab, Marie was shoving the vacuum across the floor with unnecessary force. He gave her a smile of greeting that wasn't really a smile, and she turned it off.
"Welcome home," she said primly. "I see you haven't brought anyone with you."
"Neigus said you left while I was talking with that witch," Stein said, cutting to the chase.
"Flirting with her, you mean?"
Stein looked at her as if she'd said something truly stupid. "I wasn't flirting with her. I was threatening to cut her open and poke around until I could figure out what makes witches immortal. If that's recently become romantic, I assure you that no one informed me." He shoved his hands into his pockets. "And besides, it was a joke."
"The fact that it was a joke makes it flirting," Marie said, her hands on her hips.
"And besides, the way you let her just—just snuggle up to you—"
Stein tried to remember the events of the afternoon. "Was that while I was smoking?"
"I didn't notice, Marie." His mind had been elsewhere—deliberately kept away from the thought of slicing up her or any other witch. That had taken the majority of his attention.
Marie glared at him for a moment before her shoulders sagged. "Why do I believe you?"
"It's the truth," he pointed out. "On the whole, you're pretty good about knowing when I'm serious about things."
"Yes," she agreed. "I am."
And with that, she switched the vacuum back on, not looking at him. Her lips were still pressed together and her soul was still shimmering with tension. Grimacing, Stein worked the plug out of the outlet with his foot. The vacuum made a disappointed noise and fell silent.
"You're still upset about something," he said.
Marie didn't turn towards him at once. "I didn't like your joke very much," she admitted.
"I've made jokes like that before."
"Yeah, but—about me. I didn't like hearing you make one about another woman."
Stein gaped at her. His heart was starting to pound in what he recognized as anger. Marie wasn't making any sense. "You don't want me to cut you up," he pointed out.
"I know I don't!"
"Then why would you be jealous—"
"I'm not jealous!"
He sighed. "Yes, you are. You're not going to get anywhere denying that." That was the source of her anger; he'd known that since Neigus had spoken. Even if he couldn't figure out why the hell Marie felt threatened. It had just been a joke. A little mental vacation for his own amusement.
But Marie stood her ground. "I'm not jealous. I just think that—" Her lower lip trembled, and she pinched her mouth shut for a moment. "Maybe you'd like it better if you had someone you could—do that to."
Stein sighed, starting to see where her mind had gone. Though she was completely off track. "Marie, an empty-headed woman like that witch is the last person I'd want to spend more time with."
Marie shook her head, clutching her elbows to herself. A self-comforting gesture. She was still upset. And he didn't want to comfort her right now, not while there was still some kind of misunderstanding lodged in her brain.
"Tell me what's bothering you," he said, and he must have been a little more forceful than he meant to be, because she flinched.
"You're not making any sense. You can't honestly think I prefer someone like that to you. If that was what I wanted, I wouldn't be with you in the first place."
And he fell silent because she was crying. Clearly, he wasn't succeeding in comforting her. "What?" he asked, his voice tired and defeated.
She took a breath that was shaky with tears. "I just need to know if you love me."
His stomach plunged. He felt himself cloud over and grow cold. "Marie, you know I don't do love."
"No, I don't know about that anymore." She swallowed. "I think you kept hearing that, from all around you, and you started to believe it was true because if it wasn't then people were just saying awful things to you without any basis at—"
"Did I ask for your opinion?"
He must have sounded as dangerous as his anger felt, because she shut her mouth and gave a small shake of her head.
"If I wanted to hear wild conjectures made about the inner workings of my mind, there are people with degrees I would go to," he said, his voice low. "It's been a few years, but I'm sure they'd be thrilled to take another look."
"I didn't mean…"
"I don't care what you meant," he said flatly. He crouched to plug the vacuum back in and then left the racket it produced behind him. Today had been long and ridiculous. He wanted to take one of his rats apart.
By the time Marie turned off the vacuum (not much later at all), he'd realized that he had no particular desire to poke around in animal guts. The thought of having blood on his fingers turned his stomach, for once. But he still preferred to be in the operating room, with the heavy door between the two of them. There were things he could tinker with. He could allow himself to smoke in here, just for today.
It was considerably later—an hour or two—when he first allowed himself to consider the possibility that he had been in the wrong. Marie's jealousy was misguided, bordering on inexplicable. But she wasn't wrong to guess how much he wanted to anesthetize and operate on one of the Chupa Cabra's witches. She wasn't wrong that he would always want something like that, would never get it from her. Maybe that was what had bothered her. And maybe he should have thought of that sooner instead of trying to beat her over the head with logic.
With a sigh, he let himself out of the operating room and went to find her. The smell of food greeted him once the door was out of the way—lemon and parsley and some kind of mild fish. One of Marie's best dishes.
She was, therefore, in the kitchen, sitting atop the table with her back to the doorway.
"I hope that's not meant as an apology," Stein said.
Marie only shrugged, not turning, and Stein squeezed his eyes shut. That was still wrong. He tried to put himself in her position, tried to imagine what he'd want to hear if he had been arguing with someone he cared about so desperately. It shouldn't have been so hard, considering that he had also been arguing with someone he cared about. But the dynamics had been different between the two of them. She hadn't made demands about how he should feel.
"Can I come sit next to you?"
She wilted. "You don't need to ask permission for that."
"Sometimes I do." Because he was cruel, because he was all sharp edges, even to people he liked. Sometimes he was awful to be around and it was right that he should be banished, forbidden from interacting with those who were vulnerable. He sat down by her side and was surprised when she took his hand and leaned her head on his shoulder.
"You shouldn't need to ask permission," she murmured, and Stein's stomach shifted. She was reproving, but the irritation he sensed was not aimed at him. Her wavelength was soft and inviting. He resisted it for now.
"I was hurting you earlier."
A deep breath. "Yeah."
"I didn't get it. I still don't know if I do."
"I know," she said, her voice sad. She crossed her free arm across her stomach. "It's okay."
It wasn't okay. "I haven't even apologized yet."
"Are you going to?"
"Yeah," he said. But he couldn't figure out what to say "sorry" for. "…Soon."
She nodded. "Want me to start?"
"No," he said, pulling away slightly out of distaste not for her, but at himself for putting her in this position where she should have to apologize first. Had she even done anything to apologize for? Her own bed was empty every night now; they kept each other warm whether intercourse occurred or not. Was it unreasonable for a woman to ask the man she was sleeping with if he loved her?
But she pulled him back. "Can I?"
"I don't want you to."
But that was wrong, too; here he was again, making demands about how she felt and how she interacted with him. And she holding him close even though she could have found someone, anyone more suited to emotional matters than he was. He gave a heavy sigh.
"You could find someone better, you know. Someone who'll talk to you gently, who'll be able to tell you he loves you without it completely invalidating everything he knows about himself—"
She teared up again. "I don't want someone else, Franken, I want you."
He stiffened, seeing his escape routes closing before him.
"Do you want someone else?" she asked, a tremor in her voice.
"Don't be ridi—" He made himself bite the word off. "No. Sorry. No, I don't. I couldn't have—whatever we have with someone else. I'd be alone."
"I don't want you to be alone."
"I've been alone all my life, Marie. I have practice."
He looked at her. "No?"
"No, that isn't practice. That's pain."
His heart clenched. "It isn't always pain." Sometimes it was a scar rather than an open wound.
Marie gave a shaky sigh and squeezed his hand. She, at least, had the kindness to not argue with how someone else felt.
Stein tried again. "Maybe there's not anyone else now," he said, "but someday you're going to meet someone who doesn't have to be peeled apart like I do, and you'll wish things were that easy for you. If B.J. were still alive, would you want to be with me?"
"That's the sort of person you belong with. Someone kind."
Marie tilted her head up as if she wanted to kiss him, but her lips only barely brushed against his cheek before she turned away again. "I belong where I say I belong, Stein."
"…I suppose so."
That was, after all, how it worked for most people. They made their own decisions and didn't have to reexamine every last thought for ulterior motives. There was nothing hanging over their heads to suggest that maybe their happiness wasn't really the greater good.
"You want to belong with me, then?" he asked, even though any answer she could give would be terrifying in some way.
"As long as you don't want me to go," was what she said, and the gentleness of it was overwhelming. With a chill in his stomach, Stein realized he was terrified of that choice. It bordered too closely on a moral one, and he wasn't allowed to trust himself on those. If he wanted her to stay, then she mustn't. Then he was being selfish and cruel, putting his own corrupted feelings in front of everyone else's. But he wanted her to stay so desperately.
She squeezed his hand. "Franken, I have to check on the fish."
He released her without a word and sat, not really seeing what was in front of him. Her warmth returned a moment later, and after a few seconds he realized that he had been the one to reach for her hand.
"Are you alone in your head right now?"
No, he wasn't, but she wasn't there either. His mind was crowded with the past, with the glittering eyes of parents and doctors and the blank ones of Lord Death. All looking at him as if to say you know what you must do. And he did. He knew. He just couldn't form the words to hurt Marie again, even though he was so good at hurting people.
Marie's voice brushed against his temple. "I love you."
A swell of her wavelength accompanied her words, sneaking through the darkness in his mind like the creeping tendrils of a plant, and he remembered that he was in his kitchen—their kitchen. There was no sense in pretending it was only his kitchen now when she was the one to use it more often. She had settled into his life, first by Lord Death's command and then simply because she fit there. As she fit into the cracks in his mind, the enormous chasms between what he wanted to be and what he feared becoming, and made the dark places seem lighter. As she fit into his arms, when he was desperate enough to ignore all the voices telling him he couldn't have her.
She stroked the back of his hand as slowly, slowly, tension began to drain out of his muscles.
"Do you want to stay?" he asked, his voice sounding like something foreign.
She nodded, burying her face in his shoulder. Her hands shook, but he could tell from her wavelength that she was happy.
And so he said, "I want you to stay. I don't know if it's right—"
Her hand tightened around his and she raised her eye to his face. "Don't," she begged.
"Don't tell me whether it's 'right' or not. It's too heartless. You're not a machine spitting out 'yes' or 'no' based on some secret formula."
He gave a rough chuckle. "If I were, the answer wouldn't be 'yes'—"
"I know." She touched her lips to his cheek once more. "And I think that would be wrong."
He leaned into her touch and breathed. The eyes inside his mind were turning their backs on him, turning away so that their judgment was no longer there to keep him on the narrow path he had to walk. But he had Marie at his side, and if the path was wide enough for two, then maybe there wasn't as much danger as he'd thought.
"I'm sorry I hurt you," he said.
"You're already forgiven," she answered softly.
"I'm not any good at this. It's going to happen again." And he felt his heart crumble as he said it, knowing it was inevitable but desperately wishing it weren't.
"We'll talk through it then, too."
She reached for his cheek, then, and guided him into a gentle kiss. He felt his tension fade, felt all the guards and railings that kept him on track fade into nothingness, and yet. Even with them gone, he didn't want to hurt her.
Maybe that was a part of love, he thought, and the idea didn't sit as uncomfortably in his chest as it might have.