They all turned to shuffle out, but Lord Death called only Stein back.
"Could you stay a minute? There's something I'd like to discuss with you."
Marie looked at him in concern. But Stein's eyes slid over to Spirit on instinct; Spirit wasn't quite looking at him, but he didn't seem to be worried. He didn't have that shamed dog look to him that he sometimes did. So, Stein concluded, perhaps there wasn't a problem. He gave a little smile and wave to Marie, and to Maka who had looked back as well, and waited for everyone to leave and Lord Death to speak.
"It's good to have you back, Stein," he said at last. "We were hard-pressed without you. Especially since we lost Justin as well…"
Stein bowed his head. "Yes. I'd hoped we could apprehend him, but…"
"Well, you know. He's a deathscythe too. He's no pushover."
No, Stein supposed he wasn't. But he and Marie had almost managed, and it wasn't Justin's deathscythe ability that had stopped them.
"Is that what you wanted to say?" he asked politely. It wasn't, obviously, but this was the best way to prompt Lord Death to get to the point.
"No, that's not it. Honestly, I have a bit of bad news, and I thought you might prefer to hear this in private." He fixed Stein with a stare from behind his mask. "Medusa is back."
Stein froze. A chill danced across his back, the kind of chill he felt sometimes when she spoke to him. But that was only a hallucination. To hear that she was really still alive—
"Are you sure?"
"As sure as sure can be!" Lord Death answered. "It's a long story, but she was the one who led our offense against Arachne. She was pretty quick to dissolve the partnership upon success, though. By attacking Maka."
Stein was having trouble breathing. Without realizing, he raised his hand to his screw and twisted it absently. "I killed her." He was sure of it. He'd stuck a scythe through her damned skull. She may have confused his thought processes somewhat, but not that badly; he remembered the crunch of her cranial bone.
"Yes, well." Lord Death shrugged. "You know how witches are. As I'm sure you've noticed, Medusa is particularly prone to doing whatever it takes to have her way. She hijacked a little girl's body for a little while, but when Arachne died she took over her sister's body."
Stein catalogued this information (she would have black hair now—but that didn't matter) and tried to still the shaking of his hands, looking towards Lord Death. "Why are you telling me this?"
"Wellll…" Lord Death leaned to the side. "Truth be told, I'd rather not let her just do whatever she wants. I've had about enough of that. I need someone to get rid of her. And I thought, since you've already taken her down once…"
"Mostly taken her down," Stein muttered.
Lord Death shrugged. "Better than anyone else has managed. I thought you might want to give it another shot."
Stein felt a smirk tug at his lips. Oh, yes. He certainly wanted to. He was not as horrified as he might have been to hear that the witch was still alive. More than that, he was angry that she'd dared to take his victory away from him. He'd killed her (and felt triumph tingle through his limbs like champagne), and if she didn't have the sense to stay dead, he would be viciously glad to do it again.
But he remembered, too, the feeling of her breath on his ear: at the dance, and then after it only in his mind. Remembered how his thoughts of rebellion had taken her shape and tempted him. Remembered a desire that shame and Marie's soft wavelength could not push away. Spirit had known—had seen it in him during the fight. Spirit must have told Lord Death. And so Lord Death must have known that lurking behind Stein's urge to kill Medusa again was the infinitely more dangerous longing to simply see her again.
"I could send Spartoi," Lord Death was saying. "Not Maka, of course, since Medusa seems to be itching to kill her, but some of the others. But they just don't have the experience that you do."
General experience, or the experience of beating back her vectors in the desperate, exhilarating fight to lay a scratch on her? She was a challenge. She was the most fun he'd had fighting in a long time, more so than Justin, much more so than the occasional piddling assignment Lord Death sent him out on. He twisted his screw again until it clicked into place. His fingers still remembered the satisfying thunk of driving Spirit through her skull.
Stein gave a little jump and, with difficulty, focused his gaze on Lord Death's mask. He was getting too lost in thought. He was getting carried away.
"…May I have a little time to think about it?" he asked.
"Mm-hmm!" Lord Death answered at once with a nod. "Not too long, though. Azusa's got a location for her now, but she could move at any time."
"Understood. I'll let you know by tomorrow morning."
Back at home, Marie made dinner. Stein had tried to tell her that she didn't have to— that they could order delivery— but the look on her face was enough to cut off that train of thought.
"I have had enough cheap delivery to last me the rest of the year. I'm going to make some real food."
"Can I help?"
"Only if you really want to. If you don't, you have to sit down and relax." She thought for a moment. "Or do some experiments, whatever you want to do. We're home, Franken. We can relax now."
With a deep breath, he let himself know that she was right. The world was still going mad, and the witch behind the whole mess wasn't dead after all, but they were home, and for tonight, at least, they could let themselves rest.
Even so, as Marie headed out the door with a grocery list in hand, Stein found his mind wandering back to Lord Death's request. He imagined Medusa's face, lined with dark hair rather than light, her eyes still as mocking as ever. She smiled her carnivore's smile, and when the words Come play with me again echoed in his mind, he knew they were his own imagination. That didn't make them any less tempting. He could still feel in his gut the satisfaction of killing her, the purity of slicing through her body and then her skull. He wanted that again. He wanted to best her again.
And yet he never tried to kill his hallucinations of her.
They hadn't been as complex recently; spending so much time with Marie had calmed his mind in more ways than one. But the potential for them was still inside him, entwined with his madness. Waiting for him to lower his guard so that she could tempt him and drag him to hell.
"What's bothering you?" Marie asked once the pork was in the oven.
Stein grunted. "Something Lord Death said."
"Before the rest of us left, or after?"
Marie pulled off her pink (mauve was the word she used) oven mitts and hung them on a ring stand. "Tell me about it?" she proposed.
Stein sighed. He would have to eventually, wouldn't he? If he was going to hunt that snake witch, Lord Death would know better than to send him alone. Marie would be the perfect counterbalance to what she offered. More perfect now than ever, said a particularly sardonic part of his mind. Everything emotional, everything physical that you could want from Medusa, you have in Marie. It wasn't true, though, not even after the recent developments in their relationship. Marie was a different creature entirely from Medusa. Better, in many ways. But she didn't make his stomach turn over like the witch did.
Marie was watching him. Her cheeks were a bit pink. "You didn't tell him about us, did you?"
Stein frowned. "Of course not. That's not what he asked about."
"Oh." She turned even redder. "Good."
"Medusa's still alive," he said.
Her eye widened and her mouth dropped halfway open. "No."
"Apparently she worked with the DWMA to defeat Arachnophobia, but now she's after Maka."
There wasn't a gentle way to put it. Marie paled, and Stein knew that it was anger rather than fear that was making her hands shake. "We can't let her near Maka."
"No," Stein agreed. "Lord Death says Azusa has a location for her. He wants to launch attack against her ASAP."
"Who's leading it?" He stared at her until realization dawned on her face. "You?"
"I've killed her once before," Stein pointed out.
"But you need a break! We both need a break, we've been…"
"Dodging Lord Death's justice?" Stein suggested. "He's not really required to let us sit on our asses after that."
"Was he angry after all then?" Marie asked.
Stein waved his hand in dismissal. "No. There's simply a strong possibility that we're the best candidates for the job."
"…All right then." Marie wiped her hands on a tea towel idly. "What are you thinking so hard about?"
"He offered to send Spartoi instead."
Marie frowned. He'd known she would. She knew the students were strong, yes, but she still hated to see them sent into danger. Perhaps that was a motherly instinct. Or maybe it was just the way her mind worked.
"I told him I'd have an answer for him by tomorrow."
"Do you not want to do it?"
Stein sighed. "I wouldn't mind the chance to rest, but I'm not sure about sending Spartoi after them."
"Yes." Marie shivered. "Especially Maka."
He wouldn't send Maka. Stein believed that much. But none of the students had the subtlety it took to oppose Medusa and her schemes. She had to be handled without any inkling of mercy. It would take more than a sense of duty to tear her apart; it would take real desire.
"I want to do it," he said, surprising himself. He wasn't surprised to discover that he wanted to— the desire had been preying on him since Lord Death's first announcement; more that he felt able to say it so confidently even as his sanity tried to shove the thoughts under the rug. Maybe Marie's wavelength was doing too much for him. There were some things that he should still feel shame for. He stumbled over his words, looking for an excuse to feel so conflicted. "I don't want to drag you into something new if you need to rest, though."
A little smile appeared on her face, and she pressed her fist into her chest in a sort of salute. "I am a deathscythe, you know! If duty calls, I'm there."
Stein's stomach turned. It was fear, wasn't it? It had to be. Fear because his one possible excuse was looking at him and smiling, not being an excuse at all. He couldn't be eager. He refused to be eager.
The memory again of Spirit slicing clean through her torso and her blood seeping into his skin, and a shiver deep within his body.
"Very well," he said, his mouth moving on its own. "I'll tell Lord Death in the morning. We'll probably head out in a few days."