First off: this is a sequel to my previous fic, "The Smell of Cigarettes." Read that first, pretty please. I suspect that Medusa will seem horribly out-of-character otherwise.
Medusa closed her eyes against the light when the cell door opened and tried to guess why she was blessed with a visitor today. The empty ache in her stomach was not yet unbearable, so she probably wasn't going to be fed. Was it time again for her to be walked around the prison like a dog on a leash, a bizarre consideration that kept her muscles from atrophying completely? It seemed too soon since the last excursion for that.
Male, and not a voice she knew. Probably a guard, then. They didn't often speak to her.
"Is there someone else you expect to find in Medusa Gorgon's cell?" she asked, her tone impeccably polite.
The guard gave a grunt, and Medusa heard the sound of him kneeling near her to do something with her chains. Cautiously, she opened her eyes. He was unlocking the chains that connected her to the wall. Was it time for a walk, after all?
"You've been summoned," the guard said abruptly.
Medusa's eyes flew open instinctively, but that let in too much light and she had to close them again as they watered. "Summoned," she repeated. Her mouth was oddly dry. Had they at last figured out how to kill her? "By whom?"
But the guard didn't deign to answer her; instead, he stood, yanking on the one chain he'd left attached to pull her to her feet. "Come along."
"Who summoned me?" Medusa asked again, trying to stand her ground—but the guard only had to give another tug for her to go tripping along after him. It was more dignified to do as she was told, and to keep her eyes open when she could in order to see what was coming.
He led her through the hallways of the prison, and then up a flight of stairs that left her sweating and panting faintly. More halls, these ones marginally better lit, and then another flight of stairs. When they came to a third flight (just how deep beneath this damn school was she buried, exactly?), Medusa said, "Wait," and tried to catch her breath.
The guard did have the courtesy to actually wait—but only until Medusa raised her head and tried again to ask, "Who summoned me?" Then it was up the stairs without mercy.
There was a door at the top of the stairs, and through the crack at the bottom Medusa could see a cheerful yellow light. The school proper, she realized—but as the guard opened the door, she had to squeeze her eyes shut against the piercing blast of electric light. She stopped walking without meaning to, and the guard was unsympathetic. He tugged again on the chain. Medusa was forced to stumble forward with her eyes closed, praying that they'd stop aching and watering soon and hoping that this guard (gentleman that he clearly was) wouldn't walk her into anything.
A minute later, maybe less, she managed to open her eyes into a squint, just in time to see that they had passed straight by the hallway that lead to the Death Room. She watched in puzzlement as they left that particular door behind. Not Death. Who, then?
The guard yanked on the chain. "You don't give up, do you?"
She hadn't meant to speak out loud. "I hardly think you can fault me for being curious."
The guard fell silent, but from the square of his shoulders Medusa could tell that he was biting his tongue. She waited. After a moment, he growled, "I'd think that thirty-five years in solitary confinement might've taught you a little patience."
Thirty-five years. "Is that how long it's been?"
"Thirty-six exactly, tomorrow."
"How precise—aha." Medusa smirked. "Has the Kishin's defeat become a holiday? Well, happy early whatever-you-call-it."
The guard was silent again. Medusa eyed his back narrowly and made an unfounded guess. "You're not even thirty-six, are you? This holiday doesn't mean anything to you, not really. You only know what you're taught in school." She gave a soft, affected laugh. "And I doubt that's perfectly accurate."
He jerked the chain, hard this time. Outdated instincts told Medusa to steady herself with her tail—but it was suppressed like the rest of her magic, so she fell to her knees. When she stood again, ignoring a pain that somehow shot all the way up to her shoulders, the guard brandished a strip of white cloth in her face.
"I could gag you, you know."
Medusa glared tiredly into his eyes. "Do it. I'm not going to be silent just because you tell me to."
He tied the gag too tight, catching some hair in the knot as if deliberately. Medusa tried not to imagine what she must look like.
As they rounded a certain corner, she realized that she was familiar with this path. This was the way she used to come every morning, often stifling yawns from a late Mass or an all-nighter spent brewing and researching—the way to the infirmary. What on earth could someone want with her there? For a moment, her child's face came to mind; but Crona would be almost fifty now, far beyond the point of needing a sympathetic mother's care (and Medusa had never been that, anyway). Perhaps if something were happening with the black blood…
The guard opened the infirmary door without speaking and led her into a back room partitioned off by curtains. Inside the partition were a handful of life-support machines, an incongruous velvet armchair, and a single patient, who was lying back in bed and looked their way as they entered.
It wasn't Crona, but—
Without the screw through his head, the scar across his face, the brimming ashtray on his nightstand, would Medusa have recognized him? It had to be Stein, yes, but he looked like some kind of imitation, a doppelganger created by someone who knew Stein's appearance but not his personality. He had lost his hair—all of it—and his eyes had lost their sly glimmer. Now there was only exhaustion and resignation. His lips pulled into a smirk when his eyes met Medusa's, but even that seemed strained.
He turned his gaze to the guard next and spoke in a thin, gravelly voice.
"I did tell you to avoid talking to her."
Medusa would have grinned if not for the gag. The guard straightened. "Yes, sir. Sorry."
"No use apologizing to me." Stein pushed himself up into a seated position. "Take that off her."
The guard picked at the gag's knot unenthusiastically, and Medusa lost a few strands of hair as he removed it.
"The restraints, too," Stein said.
Medusa didn't speak, only narrowing her eyes at Stein in confusion. He was looking at the guard, not at her. "I can handle her, Jeffery."
Off came the chain, then each of the wide leather bindings that held her arms close to her body. For the first time in decades, Medusa was free to move her arms. But they felt bare and pitiful and strange, and her attempt to stretch only ached. She lowered them to her sides.
"Thank you, Jeffery," Stein said, dismissing the guard. Medusa glanced over her shoulder to see his stricken expression.
"Sir, I can't—"
"You can and you will. She can't harm me. Wait outside the infirmary and make sure no one comes in."
Bristling, the guard half-marched out of the room. Medusa watched him go and then turned to Stein, lips stretched into a mirthless smile. "I may not be able to use my magic, but does it occur to you that I could still strangle you?"
Stein gave a wheezing laugh that sounded like a cough at the end. "Why don't you try? I'll bet you can't even make a fist right now."
Medusa looked down at her hands and strained her weakened muscles in an attempt to clench them. With effort, she could touch her index fingers to her thumbs. She suppressed a shudder and gave up.
"If he were any older," Stein mused, "do you think he'd worry that I would let you escape?"
"Is that the plan?" Medusa asked.
"Do I look stupid?"
"You're dying, obviously of lung cancer, and yet there's a full ash tray next to your bed. I wouldn't call that intelligent."
Stein laughed again, and this time it did turn into a coughing fit. Medusa cast her eyes around the room, her gaze eventually drifting out the window. At the first glimpse of blue sky, her stomach twisted and she averted her eyes.
Finally Stein drew a rattling breath and sighed it out again. Medusa looked back at him. His eyes were watering from coughing, and his skin seemed sunken against the bones of his face. What a mess he was.
"The chair is for you," he said. Medusa eyed the piece of furniture in question. He snickered at her suspicion. "It's not going to bite."
She ignored his amusement, her eyes still on the chair. She didn't want his patronizing "kindness," didn't want to give him the satisfaction—
But the chair looked so nice…
Her exhaustion from climbing all those stairs won out. She meant to sit carelessly, disinterestedly—but the moment her thighs touched the soft fabric, she let out an instinctive ohh of pleasure and sank deep into the chair. Her eyes closed as she leaned all the way back, placing her arms on the armrests. She had long since ceased to notice the soreness of her back and sitting bones, but with them cushioned and supported by the cushioned chair—this was heaven.
Stein laughed, rudely. Medusa didn't even care. "You have no idea how good this feels."
He didn't argue with that. Medusa let herself lounge for a minute longer before opening her eyes again. She found that Stein was gazing steadily at her through tired eyes.
"It's a strange sight, your sitting docilely at my deathbed."
Medusa shrugged. "As you were kind enough to point out just a moment ago, I have very little choice otherwise."
"Would you try to kill me if you could?"
Medusa contemplated the question: imagined herself (somehow looking cleaner and better-groomed than she had in years) wrapping her hands around the throat of this corpse-to-be and squeezing out what little life was left in him. She frowned.
"As pathetic as you already are, I don't think there'd be any point."
"Ha." Stein cracked a grin. "I know what you mean."
And this was where they marveled again, in the alleged privacy of their own minds, at the similarities they shared. At the fact that they could speak so plainly of the cruelty that horrified anyone else and receive a listening ear and an understanding grin. This time, though, the comparison implied also the similarity of their pathetic fates, a thought Medusa did not desire to dwell on.
So she leaned forward and reached out her hand—and finding her arm too stiff to stretch fully, leaned further forward—to stroke his cheek in parody of a lover's care. His eyes followed her movement impassively and then returned to her face; he was silent. Medusa hid a shudder. This was wrong. She should have scratched him to disabuse him of the notion that she was harmless, but instead it was all she could do to keep from flinching backwards.
"You're dying, Stein," she said, managing to instill a tone of mockery into her voice.
"I think we established that already," was Stein's reply.
"And this is how you choose to do it." She gave a faint, derisive snort. "This is pathetic. It doesn't suit you. Why didn't you call for me earlier?"
"What, so you could have suggested a more…" He paused to search for an appropriate word, and then gave a crooked smirk as he found one. "…eventful way to go about it?"
She could see in his eyes that he had already weighed the option she had in mind. It was his choice, then, to fade away in a hospital bed rather than give his madness free reign at last and wreak a little havoc before some solemn three-star meister was dispatched to put him down.
His eyes focused somewhere over her shoulder, he muttered, "I would have called you earlier, if I meant to be convinced." Then he sunk back into his bed with a slow sigh. "At this point, though, you can lace your words with poison all you want—I'm too weak to drink it."
Medusa withdrew her hand and folded her arms, her mouth a sour line. "You disgust me."
"Do I? How is my attitude towards my impending death any worse than yours towards your captivity? –Or is that what disgusts you?"
Disregarding the last part of his question, Medusa sneered, "You've given up. You gave up before your freedom was taken from you, and now you have the gall to sit there thinking that makes you some kind of hero."
"It doesn't make me a villain, that's for sure."
"This isn't the time for wordplay—" And Medusa was startled to hear her voice come out as a kind of shriek. She swallowed to try to calm herself. Damn this man. Damn him and every breath he took, for holding sway over her imagination and sanity for so long and then turning out to be this pathetic, spineless excuse for a human being.
But he seemed to be ignoring her outburst entirely, his gaze directed instead towards the infirmary entrance. "Sorry. She was supposed to be busy today," he said cryptically.
Before she could ask him what he meant, there was a commotion in the hall. Medusa heard Dr. Evans, you can't— before the infirmary door slammed open and a middle-aged woman yanked back the curtain partition. With a strange twinge of satisfaction, Medusa realized that she recognized the furious green eyes staring down at her.
"What are you doing here?" Maka Evans, née Albarn, spat.
"I invited her, in a manner of speaking," Stein answered before Medusa could speak. Maka's eyes clicked onto his as he continued, "Aren't you supposed to be helping with the preparations for tomorrow?"
"Did you think I was going to ignore that disgusting wavelength?"
"A man can hope. You do realize that your concern is misplaced, don't you? I'm quite capable of—"
"Would you two stop talking over the top of my head like I'm not here?" Medusa cut in. Once again, she became the target of Maka's glare. But Medusa only gave a shallow smile back.
"You're looking well, Maka—"
"Dr. Evans, to you."
"Dr. Evans." Medusa nodded politely, and her mouth formed the next words before she had time to think about them. "If you would indulge a mother's concern? How is Cr—"
The fist that slammed into her face was not really a surprise. As Medusa touched her nose gingerly and found it dripping black blood, Maka looked again at Stein.
"Send her back."
"Not until I've finished with her," Stein replied. "You're welcome to return to your work at any time, though."
"Don't you realize what she is?"
"A witch? A prisoner? The source of the terrible stench in this room?"
(Medusa wondered if she could slap him. Probably best to wait until Maka had left, at least.)
"That bitch is one of the DWMA's greatest enemies—"
Stein snorted. "Not anymore, she's not," he said dismissively. Something hot and sharp pierced Medusa's chest. Shaking, she got to her feet and turned towards the door.
Maka was immediately on her guard. "What are you doing?"
"I'll have that nice gentleman—Jeffery, was it?—take me back to my cell. That's what you want, isn't it?"
"Sit," Stein rasped from behind her. "Is what I said untrue?"
Medusa grimaced and didn't look his way.
"Is your pride that important to you? You don't want to go back to that cell yet."
"Don't tell me how I feel."
"Medusa," he said, and she rounded on him furiously. But she would have lost her balance had she not grabbed the chair's armrests, and he only stared, face devoid of mockery or any other emotion. He was simply looking at her and understanding her. It made her skin crawl. There was no escape from this trap save returning to her cell, and yet he was right: she desperately didn't want to go back to that dark hole any earlier than she had to.
Without another word, she stalked around Stein's bed to the window, effectively turning her back on him and Maka. So Stein returned his attention to his former student; they bickered for a minute more before Maka finally sulked away.
"Papa's right, you know," she said as a parting shot. "There's no helping you sometimes."
"He would know," Stein agreed, and a few seconds later Medusa heard the infirmary door open and close.
In Stein's little curtained-off room, there was silence for several minutes. Medusa rested her forehead on the sun-warmed window glass, her eyes closed. If she opened them, she would have seen—depending on how she focused her gaze—either the sun setting over the Academy's stone-paved courtyard or the reflection of her own grimy, unrecognizable face. Neither option appealed to her.
"How's your nose?" Stein asked.
"What was the point of asking that, anyway?"
"Is it so hard to believe that I might actually care about the fate of my child?"
Stein snorted and gave the obvious answer: "Yes."
Medusa smiled bitterly into the glass as Stein continued. "Wondering about the state of your experiment I could believe, though I don't know why you'd think asking Maka would get you anything other than a punch in the nose. If I had to guess, I'd say you just saw some easy prey and took a shot at it. You're always looking for someone to hurt, aren't you?"
He was right. Medusa had spoken on instinct, knowing that that was what she would have said years ago when she was still herself, and had not paused to discern the source of the instinct. But yes, she had hurt Maka through her relationship with Crona before. Easy target. And as a reward—as an utterly predictable reward—for hitting that target, she now had a bloody nose. What an idiot she'd become. She shook her head in self-disgust before turning back to face Stein.
"You're not any different, though."
"You had me brought here to hurt me, didn't you? One last petty twist of the knife to prove that at least someone's still weaker than you are."
"Is that what you think?"
"What else could it possibly be?"
It was a sincere question. Once, she had been able to read his face as easily as her own, but at some point in the last few decades, he had become inscrutable. She had no idea what lay behind the nothingness in his eyes—and so was not at all expecting his next words.
"Did you ever consider that maybe I wanted to say goodbye to you?"
Medusa laughed. She couldn't help it; it bubbled out, a shock even to her. But Stein's face remained blank, so the laughter caught in her throat and unease twisted her stomach.
"You're not serious."
He was silent.
"I don't believe you."
"Don't you? Or do you simply not want to believe me?" Stein asked. "You don't want to think that maybe I've been thinking of you in the same way you've been thinking of me—as something I can't help wanting even though realistically it's impossible on almost every level. As some ill-tempered joke of fate that I'd be better off forgetting, except that there's a richness to my thoughts of you that anything else lacks—"
"Shut up," Medusa snapped. Again her skin was crawling. He had to be toying with her by crafting her weakest thoughts into words, but then why wasn't there any malice in his eyes? Why was his gaze focused on her as if he actually cared? The logical answer was too terrible to contemplate.
She gave a short sigh. "You're lying," she said, her voice deliberately calm.
"I'm not," he said, just as calmly. "Come on, Medusa, even you have to admit that we never played enemies well. Is it so unbearable to think that I might harbor a positive emotion or two for you?"
"Yes." What was he asking? Of course it was. Even if they were obsessed with each other, even if they lusted after each other, there should have been nothing positive involved. "You make me sick. Whatever delusion you have in mind doesn't suit us—"
A hint of amusement appeared in Stein's eyes. "Oh, is there an 'us' now?"
She lunged at him without even meaning to, ready to slap him or scratch his face or something, but with a quick tug on her outstretched wrist he disrupted her balance and sent her sprawling over his body. Then, without missing a beat, he caught her chin in one hand and dragged her mouth up to meet his. His lips were dry, chapped, and hers must have been too; his breath tasted of cigarettes and his skin smelled of disinfectant and she didn't even want to imagine what she smelled like, and no, no, this was wrong, everything about it was wrong—
He released her after a few seconds, and she pushed herself back to her feet and took several rapid steps away from the bed, looking down at him in furor. She was shaking.
"Is that what you want?" she demanded, acid in her voice. "Is that what you imagine when you picture kissing me? Because if it is…" She trailed off and let her (forced) laugh imply her opinion.
Stein only directed his gaze towards the ceiling, face devoid of any vindictive triumph. He was silent.
"You are stupid," Medusa finished at last.
He gave a strange smile. "Didn't I say the same thing to you once, in a rather similar context?"
Medusa gave a curt shrug. She couldn't remember. She couldn't distinguish, sometimes, between his frequent appearances in her daydreams and his actual (very rare) visits to her cell.
"Of course, I've also said that neither of us is capable of understanding love, and look where we've wound up," he mused.
"This isn't love."
She had to deny it. The word repulsed her, suddenly. She'd played with it before, wielded it against him, meant it, even, or thought she did, but now—she couldn't take it right now.
"I think you're wrong," Stein said. "Or mostly wrong, at least. What we're dealing with right now is a lot closer to the average view of love than what you—we—felt long ago."
"No," Medusa said. She shook her head, trying to clear it, and gave an empty smile. "No. I hate you."
"Love means vulnerability," Stein continued as if she hadn't spoken. "And that's why neither of us has ever been capable of it, and it's why you're so damn uncomfortable now. But you're—"
He broke off suddenly to cough. She should have taken this chance to deny him again, but no words came to mind. She stood rooted to the spot as if with his Soul Sutures.
Stein breathed heavily for a moment, then raised his arm to point through the curtains. "There's a sink on that wall," he rasped. "Could you get me some water?"
"No," Medusa answered, baffled that he would even ask. And she knew where the damn sink was.
Stein nodded acknowledgment to her disbelief and then fell silent. Medusa frowned.
"But I'm what?" she prompted in—exasperation, of course. Not curiosity.
"And that's why I'm uncomfortable, but I'm… what?"
"Oh. Right." He gave a soft sigh. "You're right to say that this doesn't suit either of us. Not as we once were, at least. I suppose you could say we're different people now—"
"Don't be trite."
"I'm not being trite. It's scientific fact. Do you know the grandfather's ax paradox?"
Before she could snap at him to not speak nonsense, he continued.
"I have my grandfather's ax. My father replaced the head, and I replaced the handle, but it's still my grandfather's ax."
Medusa saw what he meant. Narrowing her eyes in thought, she slowly returned to the chair and sat down again. "The body's cells die and renew themselves regularly. Memory is… unreliable."
"Personalities change. The observing consciousness that you think of as your 'self' is interrupted by anything from sleep to madness, so it's not very reliable, either."
"There's the soul," Medusa suggested, but Stein shook his head.
"As fluid as personality. Face it, there's nothing to concretely say that you're the same person you were forty years ago."
Medusa was silent. She didn't agree, exactly, but on the other hand she couldn't figure out why she didn't relish the chance to divorce her past self from the pathetic creature she'd become.
Maybe because I'm stuck as this one.
It wasn't a pleasant thought. She asked Stein, "What's your point?"
"My point? I don't know. Maybe I'm having an identity crisis."
"Are you?" Medusa gave a dismissive laugh. "Why bother? You'll be dead soon enough, and then it won't matter."
Stein didn't respond right away, and when he did speak, his voice was weak.
There was tension in the furrow between his eyebrows, and Medusa should have bolted from the room because he was about to say something, about to treat her like some kind of damned confidant, and she suspected she'd never get the feel of his words off her skin. But before she could stand, he continued.
"I don't want to die like this."
Medusa managed to stifle her shudder but not to discern its cause. She didn't want to know this. She wanted to scrape the knowledge out of her skull with her dirty fingernails. Of course he didn't want to die like this, of course he didn't want to die like this, but what the hell was the point of giving voice to things that were impossible to change?
"Do you want sympathy?" she asked. "You won't get it. You made this choice. If this isn't what you wanted, you should have called me sooner."
He shook his head. "There was never any real chance of my calling you sooner. The part of me that proposes shit like that is out-argued every time. It never shuts up, never gives up, never stops being appealing, but it never wins, either. So who am I, Medusa?" But he closed his eyes and turned his head away as if he didn't want to hear the answer. "Does that voice have any say in my identity, or am I just a coward through and through?"
"You're a coward," Medusa answered at once: because here was a way to hurt him at last, and because it was true. He was a coward, a docile, malleable coward, molded into submission by fear, and that made Medusa a fool for believing that he would ever become anything else.
She stood and approached his bed, silently. He didn't notice that she'd drawn near until she placed her weak hands on his throat and leaned over him; then he opened his eyes and stared into hers. Oh, for the days when this would have meant real danger—when it would have sent breathless electricity fizzing between them, the threat of death reassuring them both that they were alive. But this was wrong.
"Is this what you need from me, Stein?" Medusa asked, and pressed her useless hands to his throat with all the effort she could muster, which still wasn't very much. She felt his Adam's apple move as he swallowed. "Do you need someone to hate you for the person you chose to be? Fine, then. You have it."
For all that she'd used the thought of him in the past thirty-six years, perhaps she owed him that much.
She stepped back, and he rubbed his neck thoughtfully.
"I'm leaving," she said. He nodded, and she couldn't help but add, "Enjoy dying."
"Have fun going mad," he answered, his voice hoarse but as sardonic as hers.
She slipped through the curtains and out the infirmary door without another word. The guard was waiting for her in the hall, as was Maka.
"Take me back," Medusa said to the guard, and then to Maka: "I suppose you plan to go in there and 'comfort' him?"
She'd reassure Stein that he had a place here, wasting away in these well-lit and ordered halls. And he'd probably let himself be reassured.
Maka only glared. "You want a black eye to go with your bloody nose?"
But Medusa turned to the guard and folded her arms around her torso. "Are you going to do your job?"
He wrapped the leather bands around her once more. Maka watched, her eyes narrowed scornfully, but she was out of luck if she hoped to induce humiliation. Medusa was beyond caring.
He didn't gag her this time and was pointedly silent. Down they went, back into the dungeons and the dark; when the door shut out the school's electric lights, Medusa had no choice but to notice the ember of panic that had been burning in her chest, the echo of the Kishin's madness or her own instincts fighting the reality to which she was returning. But she kept walking, though her legs and shoulders began to shake, until they reached her cell and the guard pulled all her chains back into place. As he turned his back on her, she sank to the floor; as he shut the door, she drew her knees up to her chest, shuddering uncontrollably. Soon something in her mind was screaming was pulling her in all directions and she was nearly choking on the horrible, lingering knowledge that she was trapped like this, in this perpetual darkness, and now there would be nothing to interrupt it and Stein, Stein was…
Time passed. She didn't know how much. Long enough for her eyes to dry. But eventually, the panic began to leave her and her racing heart slowed to a languid pace that better suited her inactivity. At some point, she gave a deep sigh and let her tense muscles relax. She had no idea whether the feeling gnawing on her consciousness was madness or ordinary, logical exhaustion—but she let it come and take her away from herself for as long as it wanted her.