Title: The Smell of Cigarettes
Fandom: Soul Eater, manga-ish
Misc. Notes: Do you like my attempt to obscure which characters this is about at first? It would work better if it weren't by me. This takes place after a possible end to the series. I'm on chapter 76 right now and WILL NOT APPRECIATE SPOILERS. See below for Hand Wave-ish reasoning in response to "Don't be silly, why would she still be alive?" Also, Happy Valentine's Day!
Disclaimer: If I owned the series, I don't think I'd be seven chapters behind...
The opening of the cell door shook the prisoner from her reverie. She did not look immediately towards the door, knowing that whatever lantern her visitor brought would only hurt her eyes; instead she kept her eyes on her lap and listened to the approaching footsteps. Their rhythm awoke something in her memory, and she let a private grin split her face.
Her visitor set the lantern down and nudged her knee with his foot. "Still sane, Medusa?"
Still sane might not have been the right way to put it, but Medusa was sane now, sane most of the time. Her eyes adjusted, and she looked up into her visitor's face with a tamer smile, girlishly innocent.
"…You're getting old," she teased quietly after a moment of observation.
"Not as old as you," her guest replied, looking down at her.
"I hope you don't mean for that to be an insult. A witch takes pride in long life; it means she's clever enough to survive persecution."
Her visitor scoffed. "Can you really say that now?"
"It is a little less relevant when spoken from the deepest, dankest cell Death has to offer, true."
She leaned against the cold stone wall of her cell—an attempt to appear, if not quite become, comfortable.
"What about you, Doctor Stein?" she asked.
Stein raised an eyebrow behind his glasses, deepening the wrinkles in his forehead that hadn't been their when they'd first met. "Me?"
"Are you proud of your long life?"
"Why wouldn't I be?"
"If you'd lived the way you wanted to—"
"I have lived the way I wanted to, Medusa," he said, glaring down at her. "Do you still not understand that?"
"I don't believe it." His eyes were as strong as ever, filled with an emotion that held too much fascination to be called hatred. Medusa gazed peacefully back and spoke of old times. "Not when I remember what you looked like when we fought. You enjoyed being that mad, that cruel, and when you spoke of the bondage you put yourself in, anyone would have been able to hear how much you loathed yourself for it—"
Stein dropped suddenly to a crouch in order to look her directly in the eyes. There were wrinkles at the corners of his mouth, too, thrown into relief by the proximity of the lantern. Medusa tried to remember how old he was now. Fifty, sixty? At times she forgot how long she had been in this private hell. But surely he was not yet at risk of dying of old age.
He'd said something. Medusa blinked and shook her head slightly. "Sorry, what? When you spend as long as I have with only your own thoughts for company, you start to lose the ability to focus on what's in front of you."
Stein scowled. "I asked if you thought that old strategy of yours was going to get you anywhere."
She would have shrugged if she had free use of her shoulders. Instead she just gave an indulgent smile. "Probably not, but let me have my fun. I don't get many visitors, and there's no one whose presence I enjoy as much as yours."
She waited to see if he would take offense, if he would be indignant. But he only stood again and leaned against the side wall of her narrow prison.
"What did you come here for, if not to play this game?" she asked him.
He smirked down at her. "Maybe I like seeing you trussed up like this." And then he reached into his lab coat pocket and pulled out his cigarettes. Medusa frowned.
He quirked a smile towards her and stuck the cigarette between his lips, digging in his pocket for a match.
"My cell will reek for days."
"It'll remind you of me. No complaints there, right?"
"Stein." She rose smoothly to her feet. Seeing him jump at the sudden action, she smirked.
He rolled his eyes. "You're not a threat," he reminded her.
"I know. So kind of you to jump anyway."
He'd found a match. Medusa leaned against the wall, idly considering her options. Her legs were relatively mobile, but not enough that she would actually be able to hurt him, and if she attacked and he tattled, they'd tie her legs too. Besides, a kick to the shins wouldn't stop him from lighting up, anyway. So she sighed and resigned herself to the stench of stale tobacco.
Lung cancer will claim him before age can.
Still, there was a kind of dignity to the way he lit the cigarette and released the first lungful of smoke into the air. And it reminded her of the past, too: of dangerous proximity, of cat-and-mouse games twisted by fascination and lust. When he left her in the dark again, it probably would provide a certain air of reality to her daydreams. She could admit that much to herself.
But not to him, of course.
"Why are you here, Stein? Surely not just to see me tied up. Deathscythe is the lech, not you."
Stein blew a smoke ring. He wasn't looking at her.
"Oh, come on. I appreciate your visit, I truly do, but you must want something out of it, too. It can't hurt to tell me what, can it?"
"Then I'll guess," she said, a little fiercely, and she fixed her narrowed eyes on him. "You're tired of—"
"Medusa," he warned, looking her way at last. But his apprehension only made her more certain of her theory, and her lips spread into a wry smile.
"—tired of living the boring life of a 'good person' and you came to me for a little temptation. Nothing effective, mind you—I am, as you said, no threat—but just a little something to shake up your thoughts."
"Am I right?"
"Not a bit. I'm just here to gloat."
But his flat tone of voice told her he was lying, and for formality's sake, not his own. So she continued as if he hadn't answered. "Of course I'm right. Because that's the only reason you've ever come to see me, isn't it? Tell me, Stein, am I anything more than a metaphor to you?"
"For temptation. You come to hear me argue for insanity, so that you can pretend the thoughts don't originate in your own mind. And to convince yourself that the thoughts are as captive and harmless as I am."
He didn't deny it, and Medusa's lips twisted in self-mockery.
She should have hated him for treating her like an outcropping of his own mind—but she kept playing along, every time he came back, because he was the only entertainment she had left to hope for in her captivity and the only thought that kept her from giving in to the black hounds snarling incessantly at the edge of her mind. She knew it was pitiful. When she'd first realized how far she'd fallen, she'd given in momentarily—for what she'd meant to be only momentarily, just to delay self-loathing, but she'd come to maybe months later and found herself in a smaller cell, with less frequent meals brought to her by burlier guards.
Did I hurt someone? she remembered asking, and then when the guard didn't answer, I hope they died. She remembered his fist against her cheekbone, the crack of her head against the wall, the ache of her throat for hours from laughing so hard. She remembered fighting back tears after the guard had left (without feeding her) because she had no control over anything anymore save her own mind and even that was slipping and to keep it she obsessed over a boy, Death's tamed wildcat who would never care for her.
—But there was no point in dwelling on that now, not when he was here to distract her. She would play the game he'd come to play. And as always, she would lie to herself that maybe this time she had a chance. "Do you miss the threat of going mad?"
"Of course not," he said in that flat voice again.
Medusa sighed. "Why bother to lie when we both know what you're thinking? Play along with me, Stein. I know you love the subject. Talk with me about how restricting sanity is, how the voice of madness is always tempting and never silent—"
"You undermine your own argument. If you believe that, then why do you still exist? Why are you still Medusa Gorgon? Why do you hold onto yourself when all that awaits you in reality is endless darkness?"
This was a new question. "Are you asking me to argue for sanity's sake now? That, I won't do."
"Why do you bother?" he continued as if she hadn't spoken.
She fell silent. He tapped ash from his cigarette and it fell to her floor, but he didn't take his eyes off of hers.
"Is this a new game?" she asked, her voice as light as it had been, but she knew he was perceptive enough to read confusion somewhere in her face. "What are you after this time?"
"I'm just curious. What makes it worth it, Medusa? Are you that afraid of losing yourself?"
"I'm not afraid."
He arched an eyebrow at her, but it was true.
"Nothing feels like fear anymore."
Not after Ashura—not after her centuries-long experiment had come to fruition and yet not to success because she couldn't even remember what she'd been trying to accomplish. She had vague memory of some kind of plan, a belief that that degree of madness would make her somehow infinite, in power or knowledge or existence, but in the first split-second she'd realized that she was going to lose herself and then in the next moment she'd been devoured by fear, terror, a sensation so complete and beyond her scope that she couldn't even grasp it properly on her own. Even when the memory of it came to her in dreams that woke her in the middle of the night, dreams that kept her awake with paranoia for days afterwards, it was incomplete.
In the face of that, nothing felt like fear.
Stein's gaze wandered towards the door for a moment. And then, still looking away, he said in a low voice, "Did you know I envy you for knowing what that feels like?"
He looked back at her, and she smiled wryly.
"It isn't something to envy. You know that, Stein." She left unspoken you saw what it did to me, partially because she didn't want to remember.
Stein didn't seem to dwell on it either. "But to have such singular knowledge, knowledge of that magnitude…"
She had thought the same thing. She'd mistaken the Kishin's madness for something that could be grasped, held in the hand, displayed smugly as a trophy. But he was a different class of madness. A different class of being.
"It isn't worth it," she told Stein. He still looked skeptical. She said, "What good is knowledge you can't analyze? There are still pieces of him inside of me, but I can't do anything about them because I can't get near them without going mad."
Stein only stared at her. Then they both realized in the same instant what desire fueled the intensity of his gaze. A shiver went down Medusa's spine and a smile played on her lips as Stein turned his head away sharply.
"If you could get permission, I'd let you."
"If I had permission, your consent wouldn't mean a damn to me, witch."
His brusque tone was belied by the trembling of his hands. For a moment, Medusa indulged in the thought of those hands at work on her, opening her up to touch her tainted soul—of satisfaction shining through pain as the contagion spread once again to his mind—
It was pointless to consider this. He'd never get permission.
"We suit each other too well." She heard the wistfulness in her voice as if someone else had spoken. "I think that's why I love you."
"This again?" he said scornfully. She could tell that he was seizing the opportunity to change the subject, to rebuild the flimsy barrier between them.
"It hasn't changed." —Which wasn't exactly true; concrete lust and the desire to obtain had shifted, necessarily, over the years. Now he was little more than a metaphor to her, too: the one experiment that occasionally fell back into her hands.
"You're an idiot."
"I'm unlucky in love." It wasn't really a denial of what he'd said. "I think most witches are."
"I'd think most witches would know when to cut their losses."
She nearly laughed. "My losses? Stein, save for my guards, you're the only repeat visitor I have."
A conspicuous silence. Stein dropped his cigarette and ground the embers out with his foot.
"You didn't know? You must have suspected. Who else would have any use for me in this state?"
She stared at him until he looked back at her. His face was expressionless as if he couldn't quite summon up scorn.
"You're the only thing I haven't lost, Stein."
He'd taken out another cigarette, and he held it in his lips for a moment without moving to light it. "I'm not yours to lose or have." But his eyes, narrowed, didn't leave hers. She could feel the gap between them as an ache, could feel in her bones that if she had been able to approach him now, he would not have pulled away. Damn the chains that held her near the wall.
She only turned her head and said, "I know."
He snorted and searched for a match. "What the hell are you going to do with yourself once I die?"
"Go mad, probably."
In the process of striking the match, he paused to try to read her face, and under his scrutiny she felt—what? She felt her lips stretch into a smile, but she had no idea what emotion she meant to convey, no idea what words she wanted to come out of her mouth. To feign some kind of power here would be transparently false, but to show vulnerability would only get her mocked, and that wasn't, wasn't what she wanted—
The lantern's flame guttered, drawing both of their gazes.
"I guess that's my cue to go."
Medusa's stomach twisted in an intense despair and she hated it, hated the knowledge that Stein would leave her to the darkness and it would mean nothing to him, hated herself for wanting (needing) more than that from him. She controlled her face carefully and watched him pick up the lantern.
Don't, she wanted to say again, or Leaving so soon? Stay a little longer. The words had shape and weight in her mouth and she refused to let them out. Her pride made her sick. But abandoning it, were she even capable of such a thing, would accomplish nothing. He was so out of her reach.
Lightly, slyly—remembering that it had always been her goal to tease him into camaraderie—she said, "Don't be a stranger. Make sure you come back at least once before you die."
But his piercing gaze revealed her failure, told her that he sensed the emotion behind her words, and for a moment she felt unable to breathe. That had been a mistake. Telling him she'd go mad once he died had been a mistake, too. When had she lost control of this conversation? When the Kishin had come up?—if so, that couldn't be helped, perhaps, but even that had been years and years ago and she should have been over it by now, but darkness and silence were keeping her from recovering—
Stein had stepped closer; if her arms had been free, she would have been able to touch him. She fought to keep her breath even and her face blank. This was what she wanted—and yet it was wrong; he wasn't supposed to be the one coming to her, wasn't supposed to be in control, wasn't supposed to look at her with mocking eyes. But to flinch away or try to avoid him would only emphasize her own powerlessness. She could only stand paralyzed as he reached out to stroke her cheek with the back of his hand.
"Do you hate me right now, Medusa?" he asked with a smile.
The tobacco taste of his breath played on her lips and made it easier to answer, "Yes." It was not a hatred that precluded love or desire or fascination, and Stein probably knew that, but it was certainly hatred.
"You'll get over it in a few days. A few weeks, maybe. But by the time the smell of cigarettes fades, you'll find yourself longing for even this, longing for my touch even if it means your vulnerability, because you're lonely and there's no denying that I'm the only one who still cares about you."
He dropped his hand. There was no sympathy or kindness in his eyes.
"Do you know why I come here, Medusa? You aren't entirely wrong. The 'metaphor' you speak of does exist in my mind. It is a consideration, but more than that—"
When he stepped back, some of the tension in Medusa's muscles released. To him, it must have looked like a sigh.
"—if there's anyone in this world that I'm allowed to hurt, it's you." And his face spread into that old sick smile, more relaxed, more honest than any other he ever gave, and inhumanely cruel. "Farewell, Medusa."
He turned and left her. When she heard the door shut out the light, she slid her back down the wall until she was seated, crossed her legs, and stared into the darkness. In a few days, or a few weeks maybe, she'd recall this memory and pick through it and examine the steps he'd taken to manipulate her emotions so deftly.
But for now, she could only breathe the polluted air he'd left behind.
1) This assumes that Medusa resonated with the Kishin at some point.
2) Death didn't-perhaps couldn't?-kill the Kishin the first time.
4) Profi-I mean, invincibility!
I know it's flimsy and beg your patience. I just really wanted to write this.