Repeat, in case you missed it the first time: this has a pretty serious spoiler for chapters 107 and 108 of the manga and I don't recommend reading it if you don't know what I mean by that.
If you do, though, enjoy!
Stein stood in front of Professor Gail's closed door, breathing roughly and shaking. The blasphemous words still swam in front of his eyes no matter how many times he shook his head to clear it.
He had hated god since he was a child, but never like this before.
He rapped twice on the door and entered without waiting for her response. She looked up, a flash of annoyance on her face at first, but that gave way to a wary sort of sympathy when she saw that it was him.
"Can I help you, Mister Stein?"
"I won't be in class tomorrow," he said bluntly, holding his head high.
She straightened with surprise, the sympathy falling off her face. "Tomorrow's the exam."
"You will fail the class," she said. "I'm not making another exception for you. Not even for that."
"I know," he sneered. "Isn't that what you wanted, though? To prove that a DWMA graduate couldn't get through a class on witch-human relations? That some of what you had to say wouldn't be to their liking, and they'd storm off?" He spread his arms wide. "Well done. You got me too."
"Mister Stein…" She sighed heavily and put a hand to her forehead. "That wasn't my intent."
He gave something like a snicker. His ears were still ringing and now his fingers were starting to itch, twitch. He shouldn't let this conversation continue for too long (because he'd never cut up a witch before…).
"I know it wasn't. You wanted me to know. You thought I deserved to know, didn't you? You thought I could handle the truth of it."
He felt like he couldn't.
She stood and reached for him. He batted her hand away, reaching for his screw instead. The grinding clicks of it against his skull were enough, for now.
Gail said, "Just stay through the exam tomorrow. I don't want you to fail my class. I want you to prove me wrong."
He shrugged and shook his head and couldn't meet her eyes.
"Mister Stein, if you want to take the test now…" She reached for him again, and this time gripped his shoulder before he could push her away. Now he met her eyes as a grin pulled at the corners of his lips.
"Do you know what I did to the last witch who touched me?" he asked, a hint of mocking euphoria slipping into his voice. That had been a fun battle. Not as fun as slicing people open with Spirit, but bashing their heads in had its own sort of charm.
She lifted her chin and glared at him. "I'll give you a chance to take that back."
A snicker. "You can't make me. You don't have that kind of magic."
She shoved him away. He moved like a rag doll. Like a discarded puppet. "You will fail my class if you are not in the classroom tomorrow precisely when the exam starts. Get out of my office."
"Gladly," he said, and gave an elaborate bow. "I have to be on a plane in three hours."
But the plane was hell—sitting trapped in a cramped space with so many people around him. If only he'd brought an anesthetic to go with the scalpel he'd snuck on board, he caught himself thinking more than once. He could have juiced up the fat idiot next to him and at least taken some of the pressure off. No such luck, though, and the idiot was awake and alert the whole flight. At least he was not talkative. That was very, very fortunate for him.
He arrived in the dead of night and took the first cab he could catch to Death City. The cabbie was talkative, or at least would have been if a single deadly glare from Stein hadn't silenced him. He tried a few more nervous questions but eventually gave up.
It was just after 2 a.m. when Stein was dropped off at the gates of the Academy. He took the stairs three at a time, his thoughts still ricocheting off one another. It couldn't be true. It had to be true. There was no doubt in his mind other than a stupid, naïve part of him that wanted to believe the best.
So he stormed into the Death Room. The ease of his entry had to mean that Death knew he was coming, but wasn't that always the case? Somehow Death realized he was coming and welcomed him with an impassive compassion. His care was wide and targeted, but shallow. Always shallow.
When he reached the mirror, Lord Death was waiting for him. Stein only stared for a moment, looking for something that would tell him one way or the other. But it was the same as always: the blank mask, the posture that could shift at a moment's notice to become threatening or ridiculous. There was no sign. The naïve part of him gave up.
"Why did you do it?" he asked, his voice hoarse from the dryness of the plane. He reached up and twisted his screw. "Why did you make him?"
He'd been wrong. Lord Death wasn't waiting with compassion this time. This time, he was as uncaring as stone. "Why should I tell you when I've told no one for eight hundred years?"
"Because I already know." If he was going to be cold, then Stein could be, too. He stood up straight and looked into the empty sockets of Death's mask. "And because you and everyone else have spent my whole life telling me that I could become what he was. That I was mere inches from becoming a Kishin."
"How did you find out?"
Stein gave an emotionless smile. "I'm not telling you that." He wouldn't endanger Gail, or whoever had written the book that Gail had subtly pointed him to.
"We can trade information," Lord Death offered, as if this were a reasonable trade. But Stein could guess what would happen to the author.
"Whoever it was, they didn't know for sure," Stein said. "It's a fringe theory, it seems."
"Then why believe it?"
"Because I know you," Stein answered. Because he knew too well that Death's decisions were made based only on a careful weighing, that fear and loss did not tip his scale. It was all too easy to believe that he was missing something crucial—the one thing that had bound Stein to him in the first place. He had never felt such a gulf between himself and his god. Fear was how Stein functioned. Fear of punishment, of hatred, of death; pathetic little childish emotions that most people grew out of. But also fear of stagnation. Fear of irrevocable actions. Caution was part of fear, too, and that fed into his desire to observe and take only the best action.
Yet all this was precisely what Death could not know. Stein thought of his own rebellion, his fiercest moments. The moments when he'd spat in this god's face and threatened violence and been met with an unmovable wall. And he'd been comforted that the world was in the hands of one who did not fear him, even if everyone else did.
But it wasn't that Death was unafraid of Stein.
He was incapable of fear to begin with.
The one reason that Stein had begun to believe that he was not irredeemably fallen, that maybe there was some seed of light within him worth fostering—a misunderstanding. Death did not, had never, believed in him. It was as Stein had assumed from the beginning: If he was a failure, he would be eliminated. Lord Death did not fear this possibility because he feared nothing at all. It was not faith he had placed in Stein; it was the same impassive power and confidence that he wielded over everyone else in the world.
The voice was nasally and lighthearted. As it always was. Violence flared inside Stein and then died as he realized that all the violence in the world could not shake this god. He would only be crushed.
The fear was returning already.
So maybe he should have understood why Lord Death had done it. Why he'd split his fear off into a separate being and then underestimated it for so long that it became a threat. Had he looked at Ashura and assumed the fear that defined him would keep him in check? Or had he pitied the Kishin, the fragment of himself that was all his weakest parts, and coddled it blindly for too long? Stein should have known. Because he coddled himself in the same way. Because he scorned the part of him that cowered and did not dare to resist, but he knew it was safe.
Stein clenched and unclenched his fist. If only he were brave enough to reach into his pocket for the scalpel. He didn't want to understand. He wanted to hold onto this anger. He was betrayed so he wanted to betray. He was hurt so he wanted to hurt, before fear beat him into submission once more. But he could not look back at Lord Death.
"It was never me who said you might become a Kishin," Lord Death pointed out. He didn't sound like he was defending himself. He sounded like he was coaxing, as if what he had to say was a reasonable point rather than an attempt to shrug off responsibility. "I admit, I may make a lot of misleading statements, but they're for your own good. For everyone's good."
A sneer twisted Stein's lip. "And what if I disagree?"
"Well, that's not something I should decide, is it?"
Stein dared to raise his eyes. Lord Death was as unreadable as ever.
"What if you disagree? What will you do? What should you do? …That's what you're asking me, right?"
"I won't take 'should' from you anymore," Stein snapped.
"But that's what you're asking me."
"If you want to disagree, Stein, you're welcome to disagree. And it's your decision what to do with that."
Of course it was. Stein's opinion was irrelevant. There was nothing Stein could do that would shake Lord Death; there was no way to surprise this god and bring his apathy crashing down around him. If Stein turned traitor, he would die. There would be no mourning and no surprise, and the world would not change. No matter how much it deserved to.
"I could tell," he said in a whisper, because that was his only hope. Tell who? Someone loyal, but intelligent. That left few options. Azusa, perhaps, or the bitch—
But as his mind flitted from one face to another, Lord Death only said, "No."
It was all he needed to say. Fear crackled down Stein's back and drained the blood from his face and stole all the power from his bones, and all it took was a single, tiny word.
Oh, yes. Stein could understand why Lord Death had wanted to get rid of this.
If he stayed much longer, the fear would twist him back into shape and he could not allow that right now. He turned and stumbled away, and Lord Death's voice followed him.
"Are you going to tell?" he asked. It was the lighthearted voice again. As if he weren't asking, are you going to betray me? As if he weren't asking, are you going to kill yourself?
Stein halted mid-step and reached his hand up to his screw. He cranked, and cranked, and cranked, but no answer fell out of him.
"I haven't decided yet."
Stein gave a little laugh, but he was not mad. There was no room in his head for madness right now. He continued his retreat from the Death Room, and Lord Death did not stop him again.