This'll complement "Contradictions and Compromise," "Unafraid," and "Humanness" as well.


Everyone else trickled out. Even Spirit looked from Lord Death to his one-time meister and slunk away.

Stein couldn't have moved if there had been a fire.

Soon he would have to focus his eyes on the god before him; soon he would have to speak, to ask questions and hear answers and take in the reality of what had just happened and what would happen in the near future. In this moment, though, there was only echoing silence and empty horror in Stein's head, and the possibility—however faint—that Lord Death could relieve it with a few simple words.

No such words materialized in the air between them.

Stein raised his head and formed an objection that felt dull even as it sunk out of his mouth: "You can't send me there."

It was as impotent as any protest he'd ever offered to the implacable being in front of him. Lord Death didn't answer. There was no, "Oh, you're right—my mistake." Nor was there any hint of "Why not, Stein?" The skull mask stared down at him, and there may as well have been no one behind it at all.

"Do you know what you're asking of me, Lord Death?" he asked, his voice barely audible.

The god answered, "Yes, I know," and Stein felt the trembling begin. It wasn't just in his hands or his knees; it was throughout him, shaking his heart and making it hard for him to breathe. Some irrational part of him was still protesting—there had to be a misunderstanding somewhere, had to be—and the rest of him was trying and failing to grasp the enormity of the truth in front of him. The only response to either was to keep bludgeoning himself with more answers until his unruly mind was beaten into submission.

"After all this time—" he said, and stopped to qualify the way his lips pulled up at the corners. No, this was not a smile of madness; it was despair and it was the part of him that was still waiting for the punchline to this horrible joke. And this tripping laugh was not a laugh but the threat of a sob. But tears would accomplish nothing.

"Twenty years," he said, breathless with awe at the sheer amount of wasted time. "Twenty years spent holding back for you, just so I could go mad on your schedule instead of my own."

"Marie will be there," Lord Death offered.

"Marie won't be enough." She was barely enough now. "You are damning me."

Again there was silence, Lord Death not refuting Stein's accusation. A thousand more words crowded Stein's mouth: claims of an identity outside his madness, protestations of loyalty, screams of traitorous hatred. But why waste them on this unhearing god? It would have been as pointless as shouting at a wall.

"I need your strength, Stein," Lord Death said finally. "We all do."

"A-ha-ha-ha." Something like a laugh, but it didn't feel like one. His strength. His insanity, was what that meant, and the lack of control that had terrified him all his life. All of it was fated to be a tool in Lord Death's hands, and nothing more. If Stein's mind was lost in the process—who should care? (He thought of Marie, looking up into mad eyes and pleading; he made himself shove the thought back into the depths of his mind.) Who had the right to care, if his god did not?

He gritted his teeth and raised his hand to turn his screw: four times before it clicked into place, the sound echoing in the empty air.

"Is that an order?" he asked, because his disbelief had been vanquished. He only needed to hear it one more time, now.

Without hesitation, without the faintest note of regret or apology, the answer came: "Yep."

Order pulled his spine straight and brought his hand into a rigid salute. Like a little tin soldier. "Very well, then," he said, and he let order have him for the last time, until chaos came to stake its claim instead.