As mentioned in the summary, this is a direct sequel to "Unafraid." It'll make more sense if you've read "Contradictions and Compromise" as well.


Death had hoped it wouldn't come to this. To call Stein back into the Death Room like calling a naughty child to the principal's office seemed the last thing in the world that would help him, but the situation was desperate. Stein had been crashing on Sid's couch for two months now, and Sid was concerned.

Look, I'm not the kind of guy who would chase away a man in need, but something's wrong with him. He keeps saying he's gonna move out but then I find him at the edge of town again, just staring into the distance.

He was afraid, Death knew. When Stein had come to him in the middle of the night, Death had felt—nothing. The kind of nothing that meant he should have been feeling fear. And so he had calibrated his responses poorly, and as a result had watched fear creep over Stein instead. Death knew himself well enough to understand when his actions were cruel. So, with a heavy heart, he'd asked Sid to pass on the message that he wanted to see Stein in the Death Room.

And now here they were.

In the hopes of diffusing the tension that couldn't be avoided, Death had prepared tea, and he sat at a low table with his knees bent up in front of him. He'd set a place for Stein, opposite, but the young man was still standing few feet away. Shaking. Death could see it from where he sat.

"Would you like some tea?"

"No, thank you," Stein replied in a trembling voice.

"Then will you at least sit?"

He didn't respond to that, instead reaching up to turn the bolt running through his head. The cranking noise echoed strangely in the wide emptiness of the Death Room, and Death felt that he had to speak up to be heard over the sound when he said, "Please?"

Stein flinched and jerked forward like defective clockwork, and Death realized belatedly that that last word had turned the request into an order that Stein felt compelled to obey. He held up his hands in a gesture of surrender and said hurriedly, "You don't have to. You can do whatever you want."

Stein stopped again. He was closer now, but not by much. He gave the bolt one last twist and it clicked into place.

Dropping his own eyes to the table and taking a forlorn sip of tea, Death tried to remember the feeling that had Stein in its clutches. It was unpleasant, he remembered that much; he remembered shaking hands, a shortness of breath. He remembered needing to act, if only to forestall visions of the worst-case scenario. There was always an undercurrent of desperation to fear. Long ago, he'd almost fallen for that mental trick more times than he cared to count.

It was dangerous for a god to be consumed by fear. No matter what, he still believed that.

Stein asked into the silence, "What do you want from me?"

Death shrugged. He knew his answer, but the child wouldn't have believed it if he'd said it. So he spoke in a dodge: "I was wondering if you're planning to go back to school."

Stein cringed, and Death had to hide a wince of his own. He'd thought that would be a safe topic. To reassure Stein, he said, "I've spoken with the Dean of Student Affairs and had your absence registered as a medical one. You won't be penalized if you head back for the fall semester."

But Stein was clinging to his own elbows, shaking his head steadily. "I can't—can't…"

Death tilted his head to the side.

"I can't leave the city," Stein finished in a whisper.

There was a brief silence. Death took another sip of tea and wished that Stein would drink his. "Why not?" he asked finally.

Stein lifted his arms, and Death thought he was going to turn his screw again, but instead he buried his face in his hands, his elbows pulled in close as if that would make his lanky frame smaller. "I don't know what will happen if I do, if I leave, I don't know what I'll do…"

"But it's good for you to be out of the city," Death reminded him gently.

Stein peeked at him from between his fingers and shook his head. Or it may have been a particularly fierce shiver. Either way, it was familiar; the similarity to Ashura, when Ashura had been young and not yet dangerous, made Death's heart ache.

He asked, "What are you afraid will happen?"

Stein's eyes disappeared behind his fingers again. His voice was muffled by the palms of his hands. "I'll destroy something. I'll kill someone. You'll have me killed."

To deny Stein's fear entirely was impossible, and to shrug it off seemed disrespectful. Death was silent.

"Do you know—know why I haven't—" Stein choked on his own words and hunched further in, trying to shrink out of sight. "I should really j-just k—"

"Stein," Death said, as gently as he could muster, because he didn't want Stein to have to face the tail end of that thought. The boy's hands balled into fists in front of his face.

"What?" he asked, his voice hardly audible.

Death gave a long sigh. He wished Stein would look at him. He wished Stein did not have to be so afraid. He wished Stein had found some way, any way other than this one, to fit into the order so foreign to him.

"I think it's important for you to leave the city," he said somberly.

The boy gave a gasp so ragged that it sounded painful. Finally he raised his eyes again, seeking Death's, and the horror in them made Death stop breathing.

"Being here is crushing you," he said, trying to explain. And he couldn't bring himself to add the heart of the matter: I'm crushing you.

Stein shook his head slowly back and forth. "Being here is the only thing keeping me alive—keeping me from—from losing myself."

Death hesitated, but he couldn't let that statement stand. "From what I can see, you look pretty lost already."

Stein only shuddered in reply, clutching his arms to himself.

"Please leave the city," Death said again. "You don't have to go back to school. I don't care where you go. But don't you remember what you said to me? It's how you can make sure you're thinking your own thoughts."

Stein's face contorted in pain and his eyes squeezed shut. Was the idea of thinking his own thoughts so terrifying to him?

"Stein?"

There was a long silence, and finally Stein's eyes opened again. The fear had gone from them, replaced by a robotic apathy. "Is that an order?"

If it was an order, he would obey; if it was an order, this boy would follow it though it meant tearing out his own heart. Death couldn't let it be an order. But before he could open his mouth to speak, his pause had told Stein everything he needed to know. He pulled himself up into a salute, and the movement had all the uncanny hyper-realness of a Japanese puppet.

"Very well, then," he said, and departed.

x

He left, as he was commanded to. Not to school. He couldn't. Being in the city had been bad enough, knowing even as he huddled on Sid's couch that people were thronging a few blocks away. Sometimes he thought he could feel their collective body heat, boiling and bubbling against his skin, could hear them clicking their teeth together as they chattered. School would have only been worse. They would shove him into a cramped desk and make him talk back, there.

Instead he went into the wilderness. Far away from people, which was as it should be. The solitude was a substitute for safety, and as the days passed, he almost had to admit that it was helping. He didn't feel whole, but he didn't feel like every breath was a sin anymore, either.

It took him some time to realize that he wasn't just wandering aimlessly; he was traveling a path he'd taken once before. It had ended in misery then—well, more like hair-tearing vexation—but maybe this time it would be different. He knew what to expect this time. And if Death had discarded him, expelled him from order, then he needed to find a new set of rules to control him. Quickly. Before the feeling that was keeping him numb (was it fear? It must have been fear, but it was too enormous to parse) wore off and some other emotion moved him.

So he climbed up the cliff and trudged through the shallow stream at its peak, not minding the tatters it made of his clothes. They were ruined already anyway: he'd only had the sense to throw a few sets of clothing into his overnight bag before leaving school, and when Sid had brought the rest of his things—shipped from Germany by Death's command, no doubt—he'd found himself pretending they didn't exist. So he'd been rotating between a grand total of three outfits for two months straight. At least the laundry had given him something to do.

But now, after scraping his way up the cliff and sloshing through an ankle-deep pool of water, and with the stubble he still hadn't dared to shave (no blades—nothing sharper than a crayon, he knew the rules), Stein supposed he really looked the part of a madman. Ironic. No, not ironic. Ironic would be if it didn't make sense, and it made perfect sense. The fairies stayed out of sight, but he could feel their petrified gazes.

The inner chamber was as he remembered it: serene and solemn and unblemished. In the center, protruding from the marble dais, was the Holy Sword. Stein made his way forward, his heart pounding. When he wrapped his hand around the hilt of the sword, for a moment he was gripped with a devastating dread: what if something had changed, what if he had become so corrupted that he could never hope to be good and he could not draw the sword as a result? The terror was almost strong enough to make him pull his hand back. But in the next second—it could have only been a second—he recognized that his wavelength had matched with Excalibur's already, and he pulled the sword from the stone as easily as he had the first time. In a burst of light, the weapon transformed and promptly thrust his cane in Stein's face.

"Fool!"

Stein stared down the length of the cane, refusing to let this thing drive him away again. Excalibur stared back, his knothole eyes unblinking, and finally he spun the cane with a flourish and leaned on it. "So!" he exclaimed. "You've returned! Dracula, wasn't it?"

Stein gritted his teeth. "My name is Franken Ste—"

"Fool! Did I ask for your name?"

Stein crossed his arms and was silent, taking deep breaths through his nose to counteract the emotion that swelled in his chest. Excalibur clearly wasn't waiting for an answer anyway, because he turned away with a swish and began to pace across the platform as though it were a stage and he intended to begin a monologue.

"You have returned!" he said again. "Not many come to visit me a second time, youth. Have you finally acknowledged the victory and glory that await you if you have me at your side?"

"Yes," Stein said, the word feeling thick in his mouth. "I'll follow all your ru—"

"Fool!" And the cane was back in front of Stein's face again, an inch from his nose. Excalibur glared up it from under the brim of his hat. "Do you expect me to believe that your motives are that simple?"

"What else would I want?"

Excalibur, oblivious or impervious to his irritation, began to pace again. "I had a repeat visitor once before. The second time she came to see me—it was a sunny day, I believe. No, I take that back. It was a dark and stormy night, as the saying goes. At least, it was dark. Nights are often dark, you know. It was a dark night, and the moon shone down as brightly as the sun. So it wasn't dark. It was almost as bright as day. No, wait—upon second thought, it was in fact day, the second time this maiden came to try her hand with me." He brandished his cane once more. "The point is, this maiden's motive was darker than it first appeared!"

Stein grimaced, his stomach churning at the implied accusation. "I'm not like that. I just want you to be my weapon. That's—"

"It matters not!" Excalibur swung his cane to the side. "My legend began in the twelfth century. That maiden is but a footnote in it."

"Then why—"

"Fool! What right do you have to ask why?"

Again with the cane. Stein seized it in his left hand and pushed it out of his face. He felt anger begin to break through the numbness like kindling catching flame, felt his face flush with rage. "Don't tell me what I do and don't have a right to ask," he said, his voice level in the most dangerous of ways.

But the cane slipped out of his hand, and Excalibur thrust the tip of it into Stein's stomach. "Are you angry, youth?!"

"Yes," Stein snarled, and this time when he reached for the cane there was a soul menace fizzing in his palm. But it didn't connect with anything. Somehow, Excalibur had wound up behind him. When he whirled around, the thing was sitting at a table that appeared from nowhere, drinking from a British-style teacup. He looked up with a glint in his eye.

"Just what are you so upset about, hm?"

Stein gave a loud laugh, like the squawk of some ungainly animal. "As if your idiocy weren't enough—"

"There are some who would say that I am perfectly poised to understand anger," Excalibur said mildly, his resonant voice carrying over Stein's. "Why don't you tell me about it? I can provide a listening ear."

"I'm trying to!"

"Fool!" Excalibur sprang up onto the table, gesturing widely. "Do you think your impatience could be explained as a reaction to my glorious personality alone? Were you not angry when you first entered my domain?"

"I—" Stein began, ready to deny it, but the words caught in his throat. Standing atop the table, Excalibur was not quite as short as he normally was, but Stein still had to look down quite a bit to look him in the eye. The contrast to staring up into the face of Death was absurd. But now, as Excalibur's dead fish gaze held him in place, the same unease as always sent a thrill into his stomach. Could Excalibur see through him as easily as Death could? And what the hell gave either of them the right? And—

And then his exasperation at the holy sword gave way smoothly to the rage at Death that his fear had been keeping in check for weeks now. Aware of it at last, Stein almost choked on the depth of it. His heart threatened to beat its way out of his chest.

"Yes, I was angry," he said, barely able to hear his own words over the rushing of blood in his head. "I've been angry. How dare he rule over everyone with fear when he can't—he can't be afraid—because of what he did—"

He drew a shuddering breath. Excalibur was standing on the table still, watching Stein with an unreadable expression. For once, he didn't interrupt.

"He doesn't tell anyone," Stein continued, his voice rising. He could feel that he was raving but he couldn't stop himself. "No one knows what he did. He feigns innocence, he feigns kindness, he traps his demands inside of jokes and friendliness so that his way seems like the only reasonable way, and I—I've always hated myself for hating him because he makes himself seem blameless, and he let me! He let me afraid, he tells us to be afraid, because to lose one's fear is reckless—"

And all of a sudden he was clutching his head against the scream that was trying to erupt out of him. The familiar words were making him shake with nausea. He was on the ground, his knees stinging with the force of his fall, his breath coming out in wheezes. He had to be afraid because to lose one's fear was reckless, because to lose the fear of consequences meant to court madness, because Death had thrown it away and look where that had gotten him and it could never happen again, never—

He pressed his hands over his mouth, nearly tight enough to suffocate himself. Writhing in his throat and stinging in his eyes was an anger beyond what he'd ever felt before; it threatened to turn him into an effigy of himself, only fit to burn up and disappear. He couldn't catch his breath, he thought he could feel his grip on everything that made him human slipping and the thought of Death only made him angrier, only made him slip further away—

And then something solid collided with the top of his head.

"Fool!"

Stein clutched his head where Excalibur had struck him with his cane, making an inarticulate sound of rage. Excalibur remained oblivious; he only hopped off the table and began padding back and forth.

"You know so little of Death, and yet you judge. You weren't there."

Stein's stomach turned. "What is there to know that would make it any better?!"

"Nothing!"

At the unexpected answer, Stein raised his eyes, breathing heavily. Excalibur was brandishing his cane once more, but when he caught Stein's eye, he lowered it and bowed his head so that his face was hidden by the brim of his hat. "The fragment was a mistake, the most damnable action of a fool. In time, even he came to know it, but I saw it at once in a flash of clarity. How I tried to counsel him against it! But he needed devastation to beat the lesson into him. Alas! Had I known, I would have administered the beating myself. I have often wondered what particular attack would have best gotten through to him. I am no novice when it comes to the martial arts. Would you care for a demonstration?" he asked, turning towards Stein.

"Keep talking," Stein answered, his voice coming out strange. He couldn't tell whether his head was clear or not. Excalibur's words and the scorn in them were gripping his chest, and he had to hear more.

"Hmph!" Excalibur looked down again. "The rest, you know. What damage the Kishin wrought and how Death sealed him, and how he built his school to ensure that children are raised up within his order. After the suffering his foolishness caused, he still positions himself as a benevolent ruler. Tell me, does that not strike you as the action of a tyrant?"

Tyrant. The word slotted into place in Stein's mind as if it had always belonged there, comfortably and horribly. A tyrant who won the entire world's trust with lies. A tyrant who maintained order through fear. He tried to answer yes but his mouth wouldn't make the word.

And Excalibur thwacked him on the head again.

"Damn it, what the hell—"

"Fool!" Excalibur cried with unusual vim. "Now that you know, are you going to let fear keep you from being angry about it?"

Stein swallowed. Trembling, he shook his head. No, he would deny his fear and if that made him reckless, fine, he was going to be as angry as he deserved to be, and he was going to make sure that Death knew it. "I'm going back," he said, his teeth gritted.

"Superb!"

Excalibur spread his arms and began to shine. In a moment, he had transformed back into the holy sword. Stein reached out and grasped the hilt.

"Then we shall go together! I shall be your mediator. And on our journey, if you would kindly participate in provision number 452, the five-hour recitat—eh?!"

Having returned Excalibur to the hole in the platform, Stein was already walking away as the holy sword began to squawk in protest. He didn't need Excalibur's help, didn't need Excalibur's rules to control him. He was going to do this alone.

x

And so.

Into the Death Room, one more time.

It was as easy to enter as ever, though Death had sent him away before, though now he could feel anger running through him like quicksilver. It wasn't the same overwhelming fire that he'd felt in Excalibur's cave, but at least he could believe that his anger mattered more than his fear. Maybe he should have been grateful to the little bastard for that.

He stormed down the impossibly long walkway, not so much rehearsing what he wanted to say as letting the words reverberate inside his skull. Fool, Excalibur had said, and tyrant, and though the words tasted like bile to Stein at least they had a place on his tongue. If he focused, he could imagine himself spitting them at Death. The guillotine gates hanging above him imbued him with a paradoxical sense of calm.

But when he made it, at last, to the center room, none of the words were sufficient.

"Howdy, Stein. Welcome back."

Death was sitting at that low, pathetic table again, with another pot of tea from which steam wafted gently, as if mere seconds had passed since he'd turned Stein away. Stein clenched his fists tight enough to draw blood with the effort of not letting out a wordless cry of disgust. He would speak, he would force his anger to be articulate, and if Death shrugged him off it would not be because he was unclear.

Between gritted teeth, he choked out, "Do you think you get to play humble?"

Death only stared back, his mask blank and meaningless. For a moment, his eyes dipped so that he could take a sip of tea, but then he looked back up at Stein. It gave the impression that he was listening to Stein, waiting for him to speak again, and Stein hated it.

"You can't just sit there, pretending you care about any of this. About how one stupid little human fits into your big, grand order. Things fit or they're eliminated, right? That's what you did to yourself, that's what you did to him, you just holed him up under the school and started telling everyone that losing their fear is reckless. Like your fuck-up can be reduced to a stupid platitude so you can sit above everyone else, all high and mighty, without anyone to come punish you for what you did!"

Death took another sip of his tea. The slurping sound rang in Stein's ears and he swung a furious kick at the table, imbuing it with a soul menace almost by accident. With a crack, the table split in two and the teapot shattered. Some of the boiling liquid splashed onto Death's knees, and Stein felt the far reaches of his wavelength make contact. A warning seized in his chest, made him choke with panic because he'd attacked Death, because the attack had hit, because now, surely, now Death had to take action against him—

And yet the bastard was still just staring. Like he was waiting. Like he wanted something.

"I'm not going to ask you what you want again," Stein snarled. "I refuse to care. If you want something from me, you have to ta—have to take it. If you want me to fit into your order, you'll have to fucking make me."

At last, Death moved. Stein took an instinctive step backwards, but Death only set the teacup and saucer down on the ground by his side. Then, with the same gratingly comical air as ever, he tilted his upper body to the side.

"What do you mean by that, Stein?"

Stein sneered. "Don't play dumb with me."

"I'm not trying to," Death protested. "I really don't know how much you think you mean. 'Cause I am capable of that, you know."

A shudder clutched Stein's heart. He clenched his teeth and grimaced, refusing to be afraid. He was angry. He would keep being angry, right up until the end.

But Death only gave a long sigh. "Is that what you're expecting?"

Stein flinched.

Death rephrased the question: "Is that what you want?"

"Stop!" Stein shouted it, clapping his hands over his ears. He wouldn't listen. Why couldn't he just be angry, why did it have to turn into this every time? Why did Lord Death always ask those questions that made his chest tight and his vision blurry?

With a rustle of fabric, Death shifted so that he could sweep the shards of the teapot into his sleeve. He held the two pieces of the table together and it healed without a seam. From the opposite sleeve, he produced another teapot and a second cup and saucer.

"I could break all of that again," Stein said. Even to his own ears, it didn't quite sound like a threat; it sounded more like he was trying to convince himself.

"Well, the table's had worse," Death answered. "But I might run out of tea, so if you want some, maybe it would be better not to do that. I figure you must be thirsty after all that traveling."

Stein was thirsty, but it was more from shouting than from his journey. And Death must have known that. To suggest otherwise was just more of his bullshit compassion.

When Stein didn't take a seat, Death dropped his attention to his own tea for a quiet moment. Then he said, "You've probably guessed this by now, but I have no intention of crippling you just so that you fit into my order."

"You have to," Stein said automatically. What other fate could possibly await him?

But Death shrugged. "Nope. I don't want to. I like you too much to do that."

Stein shook his head. "You don't like me. You can't." Why should an ageless, unchanging god made of everything that Stein despised give a second thought before forcing Stein into line?

"I do, though. And besides…" Death tilted his head, momentarily stymied. "It's hard to put into words. I don't think I've ever really had the right to do that to anyone. It isn't fair. It takes away from their humanness."

With a bitter laugh, Stein asked, "My humanness. Is that what you call it?"

"Yep."

Stein grimaced at Lord Death's immediate, unwavering answer. And not just because it was bullshit to think he counted as human. Since when did Lord Death care about things like that? What good did it do, to care?

"Is that why you didn't stop him, either?"

It was obvious who "him" was. Death looked up at Stein and gave a long sigh. "Mm-hmm," he said mutedly. "I kept thinking about it, because if I had the right to do it to anyone, it was probably him—but in the end, I couldn't bring myself to. It seemed too cruel to strangle the heart out of him when it was my fault he was so afraid to begin with."

Stein wasn't fooled by his mournful tone of voice. "And then everything went to hell."

"Yep. It sure did."

"So that's proof that sometimes you need to—"

"That's my call to make, Stein," Death said, so serenely that it was hard to tell that he had interrupted at all.

But Stein would not be fooled. "Then make it, already!"

"I am making it. I'm telling you that I won't do that." Death stared at him. "That's my final answer. It would be wrong to inflict you or anyone else with the madness of order. Just like it would have been wrong to inflict it on Ashura."

"But…" Stein protested helplessly. He could only think of how much safer he would have been if he didn't have fear and anger boiling inside his lungs. Surely, surely it would have been the same for Ashura.

Death sighed and said, "I'm not saying that the path I chose was perfect. But there wasn't anything I could have done that would have had a perfect result. That was impossible as soon as I created him. I just didn't realize that quickly enough."

This time, the sadness in Lord Death's voice was too obvious for Stein to pretend he didn't hear it. It wrenched in Stein's chest and made him shake with something that wasn't anger or fear—something that was closer to defeat. At long last, he let himself collapse onto the stool that Lord Death had prepared for him. He covered his face with his hands and heard the burble of tea being poured and knew that in a few minutes he would find himself drinking it.

"You know, Stein," Lord Death said, "you have every right to be angry about what I did. Maybe everyone has that right, but I think telling people would cause undue chaos, and well… I really don't like causing chaos. There's nothing I can do about that, any more than you can stop yourself from being curious."

He paused there as if waiting for agreement from Stein. But Stein didn't agree. The difference, he thought in the privacy of his own mind, was that he had things that kept his curiosity in check: the laws of this god before him, and the very fear which that same god had rejected. Together, they formed his self-control, and if Death couldn't manage that much, then—

"Then maybe you shouldn't…" He twisted his screw twice to steel himself. "Maybe you shouldn't be in control at all."

That was the thought that had been flitting around the edges of his mind, afraid to make itself known. It was the suggestion that had hidden behind Excalibur's disgust, and the reason Excalibur was holed up in a cave that was almost impossible to reach. Death and his fragment and his generals had wreaked havoc on the world, and of them Death was the only one who still thought he had a right to interact with humans. But it was treason just to think this, suicidal to say it out loud—so Stein felt the wind knocked out of him when Death's response was one of agreement.

"Mm... You know, I've been thinking about that lately."

Stein raised his eyes and stared.

"In some ways, I've done a lot of changing since I first made Ashura, but in others, I'm the same person I've always been. And they're some pretty important ways. It's hard for a god to change, you know. I don't have that potential. But meanwhile, changing is all the world ever does. I think I've overstayed my welcome, how about you?"

Stein gaped at him. He was capable of nothing else. He remembered sneering as a child, wishing he had been born in a world ruled by no god, but if that was what Lord Death was proposing now, he wasn't prepared. He didn't know how he would define himself in a world like that.

Finally, after a fortifying gulp of his tea, he found the words to ask, "What do you mean?"

Lord Death shrugged. "Well, I'm not about to just disappear overnight. The seal on the Kishin aside, I think a power vacuum like that would cause more harm than good. So I've made myself an heir."

"An heir?" Stein repeated.

"Yep! He's… well, it's complicated." Lord Death made a few vague gestures with his hands. "He's a fragment of me, so he'll grow up to be a reaper, but he'll also grow and change like a human. That way, he can learn some things that I can't. He'll be capable of fear, for example. And I think that will be a good thing."

Stein narrowed his eyes, reaching for his screw once more. "You do?"

"Yep. I think fear is important! Not just for what it keeps people safe from, but for the sake of understanding others. Almost every creature is moved by some kind of fear, right? So if you can't grasp that, you're missing out on a lot of potential connections."

"You mean you are," Stein said faintly.

"Mm-hmm," Lord Death agreed.

Silence. Stein found, when he lifted his tea to his mouth, that his hands weren't shaking anymore. But he wasn't at peace yet, because there was still a contradiction here. The first question he'd asked was on his lips again, and this time, he thought, Lord Death might answer. He took a deep breath.

"Then why did you do it?"

Lord Death stared at him, but the curve of his shoulders was not as implacable this time. Now there was sadness in it. "I thought it would help things," he said. "I thought it was what was best for me, and for the world I was defending. I was wrong. I'm sorry."

Stein's mouth went dry. "Why apologize to me?"

"Because apologizing is about all I can do at this point, and it's kinda nice to say the words to someone who might actually be helped by them."

Stein squeezed his eyes shut. Yes, that was what he was feeling: yes, he was close to forgiving Lord Death and the idea of doing so wasn't as abhorrent as it had been. He twisted the bolt in his head four times, long and continuous, and all the thoughts that had been rushing through his mind for months began to find their places at last.

"I still think you shouldn't have made him," he said.

Lord Death made a noise of patient assent.

"And I think keeping it a secret is wrong, but—" But there were so many things to be taken into consideration, more than he could pass judgment on, and his judgment was so rarely sound, anyway. "That's not my decision to make."

"Thank you. That does mean a lot to me."

He sounded… not chipper, not cheerful, but honestly glad. He sounded touched. And something about that softened Stein's heart. If Lord Death was not perfect, then at least he was kind.

He finished up his tea in silence, turning his thoughts over in his mind at leisure. It was a relief to be able to think clearly once more. "I think I'll go back to school," he said at last, and the sense of joy that flowed through him took him by surprise.

"I'm really glad to hear that," Lord Death said. "You seemed so happy there."

He raised his eyes. "I did?"

"Mm-hmm. It seemed like you were really in your element, I guess? Much more so than here, at least."

Stein looked into the face of his god. It was the same blank mask as ever, but somehow, he thought he understood the person behind it a little better now.

"I never knew you cared," he said, and he let himself smile. Yes, a smile—uncertain and a little mocking, because he was that way, but it was honest. For the first time in a long time, he felt like he could be honest.