Stein opened the door and let Marie into his lab, but just as she opened her mouth to make some sort of vague compliment, he said, "Can I have you wait here?"

She tilted her head in a picturesque sort of way. "Eh?"

"I need to get a room ready for you, so stay here. You can…" Not use his computer, and his books probably wouldn't hold her interest. "…sit in that chair."

Marie's gaze went to his desk chair, her smile unwavering. "All right. Do you want any help?"

"No. I won't be long."

As he left her behind, he felt some of his tension recede; he could breathe easier without her warmth pressing in on him. Soon, he knew, it would be that warmth that kept him sane, but for now, while he still had the luxury, he wanted to believe it was unnecessary.

The room he had in mind for her was a secondary storeroom. Currently he was using it to hide from himself the materials for an experiment he'd thought better of at the last minute. He would prefer that Marie didn't see them. To be fair, the name on that bottle wouldn't conjure in her mind, as it did in his, the image of an unlucky victim writhing in pain and bleeding from the eyes, but there was no point in giving her the chance to ask. And even she would realize that the devices in the corner had no purpose but to cause pain.

It wouldn't have been a bad experiment, not entirely evil—disabling a creature's ability to feel pain could have long-reaching implications—but at the last minute he had begun to doubt its ethicality, and worse, his own motives. Had he wanted to solve the problem of physical pain, or had he wanted to watch his failures suffer? Mice made such exciting little sounds when they were in pain, desperate and primal and—

A metallic tang hit Stein's tongue and he realized he was biting his lip. The buzzing in his head could not be entirely attributed to his recent lack of sleep.

A deep breath, a slight shudder, and he began making piles and bringing them to the storeroom across the hall.

Marie, if somehow she had discerned the point of the experiment, would have been sympathetic to the mice. She would have made him stop. As it was, he would probably have to put a number of his projects on hold so that she didn't stumble across them. Frankly, he wasn't glad to have her here. He acknowledged that she would become necessary and he liked her as a person, much more than he liked a lot of people, but he'd never enjoyed living with others. The solitary life suited him. When he lived alone, there was no one to drag him away from his work for something as bothersome as meals, no one to needle him when sudden inspiration pulled him out of bed and into the lab in the middle of the night. But now he would have to chatter, eat meals at regular times, walk home from the Academy at a leisurely pace while discussing what to have for dinner. He would have to endure her care for him, and frequently he found himself wishing that people would care less and simply leave him alone. Care so often took the form of scolding. Of telling him what he couldn't do.

Spirit had been particularly bad about that, back when they were partnered. He'd developed a habit of digging through Stein's trash for evidence of the experiments he tried to hide, and when he found them, it was always the same line. "This isn't okay," he had insisted, brandishing whatever refuse he had in Stein's face. "You can't do this." And now Marie would be the same but different; she would use the same words and the result would be the same but she would have this concern on her face as she tried to understand but just wound up disturbed by the attempt…

He didn't want to contemplate that yet.

If instead of Marie, it had been—

His stomach lurched and he tried to turn his thoughts away from where they were headed, but it was too late now that he'd started. Because it was true. Medusa would have understood. He knew that from what little honesty she had deigned to display, and that was why his mind kept coming back to her. Part of him was disgusted that he'd turned down her offer—though that same part had been laughing the loudest when he'd sliced her to pieces, so who knew what it really wanted—but even his most docile side couldn't deny that it was refreshing to have someone hate the façade for once. It was refreshing, invigorating, to have her show interest in his real—his hidden side. He couldn't help wanting that, and dammit, he was trying but it was getting him nowhere.

If she had been here—and he shouldn't have been dwelling on this but the thought snuck up on him—she would have approved of his experiments. (A good sign they were wrong, some sensible part of him managed to interject before everything else careened into distraction again.) She would have stood there and run her eyes over his materials, a smile of appreciation on the lips he had so nearly—

His breath caught in his throat and he turned his head away sharply, his heart rate skyrocketing. No. No, that was impossible, it wasn't real, it was—insane—but out of the corner of his eye he saw her slender form weaving slowly through the boxes to approach him. He held his breath, hoping that it would make her vanish, but to no avail. She touched his shoulder. He could feel it, right down to her manicured nails; he would have sworn before a judge that the sensation of her fingertips was real if it weren't so patently impossible. He couldn't help turning towards her. She looked solid, horrifically real, down to the pores of her skin and the few strands of hair escaping from their twists. She looked as real as she'd been when they danced or when he'd dismem—no, he could not let himself arouse that memory in this state of mind but he did have to remember that he'd killed her, he'd killed her. This wasn't real.

"You don't have to be like this," she said.

Her eyes were guileless, but not innocent. She looked sincere, and that was what made him shudder and repeat again that she wasn't real, wasn't real—he'd killed her, she was dead, this was just his mind playing tricks on him—

She rubbed his arm gently, as if to calm him. "There's nothing to be afraid of. Nothing. Aren't you tired of living in fear?"

The evil part of him was snarling YES and by the look on her face she could hear it. She heard it and understood it and appreciated it and wanted it to be free, and by her very presence (hallucinated presence) she was drawing it out. He couldn't look away from her eyes, couldn't catch his breath.

Was the first time I killed you too quick? I'll make sure you suffer when I do it again.

By biting his lip, he kept from saying it out loud, but her mouth curled into a smile as if she perceived and welcomed the threat. Now she was holding his other shoulder, too, and there was something wrong about being this close to her, but was it saner to push away an incorporeal hallucination or to try (and fail) to ignore it? This reminded him of the dance, and if he'd thought that he'd burned with curiosity about her plans then, it was nothing compared to this—


Marie's voice. Not Medusa's, Marie's. The witch's touch faded and in a moment so did her form, and Stein suddenly became aware of the sweat beading on his forehead.

"Stein?" came Marie's voice again. "Can you come out here? I need to talk to you."

There was a tone to her voice that said you've got some explaining to do and guilt gnawed at his stomach. What had she found? What had he carelessly left in sight? And how was he supposed to explain anything when he could barely string two thoughts together—

He wiped the sweat from his forehead, took a deep breath, and slunk back down the hall. Marie was waiting in the kitchen with a scolding sort of look on her face.

"This is not okay, Stein."

She was pointing, not to some carelessly discarded piece of animal waste, but to the cabinet he kept stocked to overflowing with cup noodles. For a moment, Stein was dumbstruck, looking from her to the Styrofoam cups. His eating habits? Of everything that wasn't okay about him, she was concerned about nutrition? It couldn't be.

"You are a grown man. This is not how you feed yourself!"

It was.

And before he knew it, Stein had burst into giggles. Not mad ones, not cruel ones—giggles of relief. He hadn't been discovered. And Marie was looking at him as a person, not an animal that needed to be penned in, and even in a world that was about to start falling apart she was focusing on something as simple and mundane as cup noodles.

"I'm serious!" Marie protested over his laughter.

"I know you are. Sorry." Stein controlled himself and felt his face settle into a frivolous, harmless smirk. "They're not the only thing I eat, you know. I just keep them around in case I get really involved in something I'm working on."

But she didn't let up yet. "There are better options. Make soup and freeze it, something. This is not how you make a 'sound body.'" She narrowed her eye. "Do you have soup-making ingredients? I'm going to fix this little situation right now."

Together, they dug through Stein's cupboards. And fridge. And freezer. Stein's stomach lurched again when Marie pulled a rock-hard mouse corpse from the freezer, but she just pushed it into his hands and said, "I'm not gonna ask." And when she had gathered enough ingredients and made what she deemed a decent soup, they sat down together and had dinner. It felt… strange. For a moment, Stein questioned the smile on his face, but he let it go. Later he would puzzle out whether his change of mood was inspired by fear from the incident earlier or simply a revision of his assumptions about Marie. But for now, he would simply accept this moment of peace.