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Love and Other Lies

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Marie goes with Stein for a lot of reasons, but none of them are love. She knows better than to expect it from him. Stein's differences, in fact, are exactly what make the decision for her. In that selfish part of her heart -- the one she avoids lying to herself with by pretending it doesn't exist -- Marie doesn't want someone normal around her right now. She doesn't want the sympathy, the compassion. The judgement.

Marie doesn't expect to find love from Stein, and doesn't crave it, either. Her innards are raw, crosscut and flayed from within: once from Joe's reacceptance of her, twice from his loss. Joe's reminder of their breakup had torn up her established defense of avoiding it, ripping through all the ways she'd managed to protect herself by not letting it enter her mind. Their relationship split had been her first greatest failure as a weapon paired to a meister; it had been her first greatest everything, including shame. It had overshadowed even how she'd become a Death Scythe, how all that power hadn't helped her with what she'd really wanted.

It hadn't helped her now, either. While she had waited for Joe in her safe, lonely restaurant, he'd been busy dying.

If she'd been there -- maybe. If she'd sensed what was going on. Maybe. If she'd had a bond. A connection. Something. Anything.

So the absence of what Marie can't possibly have is exactly what she needs. She doesn't explain that to Stein, but she thinks he knows anyway; he leaves her alone as she rushes through packing their bags, remembering extra socks but forgetting vital things like toothpaste. He doesn't bother to ask if she's reconsidered yet. Instead, he watches her carefully, as if Marie's a wild animal whose behavioral patterns remain unmapped. Not because he's afraid she'll break. Stein watches her like that anyway, all the time, simply because she's human. This is nothing new.

Her hands are too rough with the bags. She drops her favorite hairbrush. Other people would ask if she's all right, would express concern.

"We could rent a car," is Stein's version.

Marie tosses her bangs. "No," she asserts, chin up, sounding braver than she feels. "We should save the cash."

"At least for the head start." Now he's being practical, because she doesn't want to be. "We shouldn't take advantage of running with Izuna's enhancements. Not -- not right now."

"Oh," Marie says; the guilt shames her. She should have thought about that. She'd been infected, after all. She'd been the one who helped Stein degrade to his current state. "I. I'm sorry."

Stein's answer is immobility, a perfect lack of reaction and emotion and existence. Then he turns, and slings one of the bags over his shoulder in a jerky frisson of cloth. "It's fine. We'll walk for now. Then we can rent a car further on."

"Okay," she agrees, and her voice comes out small and soft, and not at all as fierce as she was hoping.

Their energy rides high for days. They hike on foot and switch around buses. Stein's not exactly subtle, so Marie handles the tickets, but a blonde woman with an eyepatch isn't discreet either. Both of them are counting on the Academy to delay a search, to dismiss two missing adults as a secondary concern so long as they're not romping off to join Arachnophobia.

Marie feels a little dishonest when she realizes she's hoping that things are hectic to the point of chaos back at the Academy, but the more time she and Stein have, the better.

Eventually, near the middle of North America, they slow down to a halt in the smaller towns, ones with populations lost among the grain fields and where the number of streets can be tallied without reaching double digits. It's their second month on the run. They're reaching regions sparse enough in options that they can't afford to be picky, but where the motels can't be either: the stoic-faced service workers don't blink at Marie's eyepatch, and dutifully push keys across grimy countertops.

As they grind their way into the latest rural settlement, Stein's the one to go settle their lodgings for once. Marie's tired enough that she flops down in the shadow of their car, camping out gloomily in the pile of their luggage. She had the last shift in driving, and all her joints hurt from hours of immobility, cramped up in the car seat.

Stein returns with an iced tea that he offers in her direction. "I got one with a kitchenette. For you," he adds. "We can stay here for a little while, and you probably don't want to go through that much takeout."

She accepts the tea, wondering if he specifically avoided coffee to keep from reminding her of Joe. Everything reminds her of Joe right now. Everything reminds her of things she doesn't want to think about.

"I could have lived without it," she protests, but a trickle of happiness makes its way through her sulk. A kitchenette will give her something to do with her hands when she needs to fuss or feel normal, instead of being on the run. Her mind, in turn, is happy to switch tracks; it doesn't like being morose. "Groceries -- I'll have to look at a grocery store in the area. And make something to eat for tonight. Probably something simple to see how well the stove works. Maybe pasta? Stir-fry?"

Stein's expression is neutral to her suggestions, uninterested in voicing his opinion; after a moment, he shrugs and starts to gather up the luggage without further comment. But before he does, Marie glimpses the truth in the whites of his eyes, the way that they're just barely widened like an animal catching a threat-scent in the air: a lack of knowing how to react, and the terror that comes from being aware of it.

She lets Stein go, retreating into work he's comfortable with, where he knows how to behave around paperwork and numbers.

The kitchenette doesn't have much room to maneuver, but it comes stocked with a battered frying pan and a few spatulas. Marie sorts through them, humming atonally. She's in new territory now: a species of one, with no observed rules for behavior except the ones she knows distantly that society expects. She chooses to be alone, not because she doesn't want people, but because she's aware that she has no idea what to do with another human being right now.

Like Stein must feel, she thinks. Like Stein must feel, all the time.

They take advantage of the lull to regain their bearings more concretely, mapping out routes through North America. Chances are high that their Academy positions haven't been revoked yet; though they can't risk visiting any prominent connections, there are more remote contacts they can check in with. If they stick to the outskirts, visit only workers and researchers who are so remote that they won't have heard of any gossip, then Marie and Stein can stay far enough under the radar that they can make use of the community without being caught.

Stein doesn't like any of the risks. Marie wants too many. He's tired and she's tired, and they're both critically in danger of watching everything crash and burn around their ears. But becoming refugees already has its benefits. Running away from Death City itself wasn't a cure; being alone is the real balm, even though they're together.

Here, Stein can focus on the problem of finding the culprit without suspicion hanging over him at every moment. He's not under house arrest, not being threatened. As physical threats, they're laughable; as social threats, they're paralyzing.

Here, Marie can be as strange as she needs to be, because humans are an eternally foreign country for Stein, and nothing she can do will revoke her citizenship.

She serves up noodles with chicken and basic alfredo from a jar, letting the tasks of food preparation and arrangement soothe her nerves with their routine. Stein's working at the kitchen table still, sorting through newspapers carefully and trimming out whatever looks suspicious. There’s a small folder of information beside them that he's taken from the Academy. Every few minutes, he opens it to review the list of accusations against him, over and over, line by line.

She comes to a halt near his elbow, both dishes balanced in her hands while she scans the table for a safe place to rest them. Steam curls around her face, savoury and rich with all the primitive triggers: protein, oils, fat.

Stein glances up. She sees his nostrils flare in hunger. Then he regains his composure.

"I don't have much of an appetite," he claims, dropping his eyes back to the news clippings. His fingers wrinkle a corner before he can stop himself; he smooths it out with rapid strokes, pressing hard on the paper even when it lies flat again. "You should take some of my portion."

"It hurts that much to be suspected," she replies quietly. "Doesn't it."

His hand stills.

"Yes. If the people I trust to have sound judgement consider me to be insane, then there's no one else I can rely on. When I can't trust my own self-perception, I have to rely on theirs. And if they don't trust me -- "

"When someone you trust to know you doesn't, you don't know if they're right, or if you chose wrong from the start," she finishes for him.

He nods. She sets down one dish on the far side of the table, and takes hers away to eat beside the window. She doesn't want to admit that right now, being known completely is exactly what she wouldn't be able to bear.

By unspoken agreement, both she and Stein refuse to talk about each other for anything longer than a few words at a time. Instead, their most common topic revolves around what to do when they actually catch the culprit, as if they're two strangers thrown together for an impersonal job. Mercenary work. That's all they are to each other. Temporary.

Surprisingly, Stein's more direct about their eventual destination, as if keeping his eyes on the horizon helps remind him that there is one. "Do you want to punish him, Marie?"

She tops off her morning tea with hot water, and then his next, without being asked. "I want to clear your name. I'm responsible for that, too."

Stein doesn't let her escape that easily. "Do you want to punish him?" he repeats, delicately, gently, while watching her face. So gently, in fact, that she realizes the real reason for his question: he's looking to her for direction. He’s not asking in order to judge her. In the serene disconnection of Stein's world, he's still not sure which of his impulses he should follow. He needs someone else to tell him what's right.

Marie's the only one present to be his weathervane.

She's already led him astray once.

"He killed B.J.," she replies, staring at the sink. She wants to be angry, wants to defend the Academy, but right now all she can do is feel sad. Sad, and jealous. "Let's just stop him. Let's keep him from killing anyone else. Then we can decide."

They move motels again at the end of the week. They move states. They move identities, perspectives, opinions. They change everything about themselves except for their goal -- but Marie's still stuck in place.

She can't focus on B.J. properly. She can't mourn only his life -- she mourns his life without her, all the things she doesn't have, everything that's been denied. She should be noble about Joe's death, but every time she comes back to addressing it, she feels selfish: selfish because of what she lost, of what she never had, of what she still wants. She hates that she doesn't have him, even though he no longer has anything anymore, and should take precedence. Everything about him is caught up in herself. Everything's about her own loss.

There aren't guides on how to mourn. Marie isn't sure she'd read them right now anyway.

It's selfish. It's self-centered. And mourning should be selfless, she tells herself, over and over as she and Stein drive on long dusty highways through cornfields and cows, and Marie stares out the window and sees nothing.

Stein offers for her to have the first wash that night when they finally get the key to their motel room. Then he settles down on one of the beds, unpacking his files and newspaper clippings to lay them out on the mattress with ritual precision. Marie squints at the bathroom skeptically, suspicious of its state of hygiene, but the heavy reek of bleach reassures her: she'd die from fumes before any lingering bacteria have a chance to get to her.

It's not threatening, to have Stein outside her door in such small quarters. Stein doesn't frighten her, not any more than large animals might. Everyone else sees someone terrifying because they keep trying to associate humanity with curiosity, and then curiosity with malice. Stein's lack of typical emotions must mean he's filled with only dangerous ones. That's how most people operate, after all. That’s how they assume everyone else will.

Marie knows Stein doesn't feel things like most people do. But even he wants friends -- wants people who trust him and believe he can be better than any nightmares, that he can overcome whatever his insanity tempts him to do -- and Marie, Marie needs someone around her right now who's different enough that she's not tempted to fall in love with them, that can comfort her without the pressure of reciprocation. Someone who's inhuman enough that it doesn't mind if she's a little inhuman too, pacing herself through the process of mourning at whatever speed she needs. She can't go back to ignoring the past. She has to resolve Joe forever, now there's no chance of a life together with him, and no one who will be the same again.

People had all sorts of opinions about the fact that Marie had been living with Stein, but it was a matter of simple comfort. Usually, those same people were the type who couldn't understand Stein in the first place. When she was younger, she'd fallen for him, of course -- but she'd fallen out of love just as fast, once she'd realized the gap between her first impressions. She'd accepted him for what he was: Stein.

And Stein was someone different, but who tried so hard to fit in anyway, in his own way. He was always alone, always fragile in his brilliance, and Marie felt bad for that. Like watching an animal trying to walk softly on monster paws -- it would kill you, if you got in its way, but it didn't have to as long as you respected its boundaries. Asuza didn't see that about Stein. Sid didn't. Not even Spirit did, and Stein always ended up standing on the outside.

She'd been in love with Stein, and when the other girls had cringed and called him scary, she'd just seen someone who fumbled a lot with social conventions and was a little shy and a lot goofy and whimsical and awkward from not really understanding how and why people behaved as they did, but tried to imitate it anyway. She'd found it charming. But she'd wanted love, and she'd known that Stein offered only what he could in his own way, and then Joe --

All these history, all this experience doesn't help. She fills the bathtub, brooding still; the temperature is as hot as she can stand. She reaches out and turns it a little higher. Two months on the run and it still feels like she's full of anger and disappointment and other ugly emotions that are unforgivable when she takes them out and looks at them under the light.

The water bubbles up. Steam congeals clumsily in the air, wan rivulets that dissipate before they can hit her face. She breathes in deeply anyway, pretending she can inhale the moisture and drown.

Joe's life had been defined around the truth. Her life with Joe had been interrupted by it. Personal interactions hinge upon including deceptions: small lies to keep everything calm, to keep a certain distance between people, to respect personal space. You put up a brave face sometimes. You don't admit when you dislike a chore. You don't always understand someone else. You disagree.

But that's necessary sometimes if you want to have relationships, Marie thinks. You have to give people the room to be uncertain about themselves, to flip-flop between directions while they try to figure out which one works best for them. Which parts of them might not be sincere yet, but that they want to become real eventually. Everything's a lie until you can practice it into truth.

And right now, Marie is nothing but calm, and nothing but upset, and the rest of her is topped off by deception. She's not one. She's not both. She doesn't know what she is, except that she's escaped a convenient label for her life, and hasn't come back in orbit of any others yet.

The motel provided liquid soap. She pours a capful into the bath. She should probably steal it, because they'll certainly need it out on the road, but in her heart, Marie's not ready for petty larceny just yet. The soap foams up faster than she expects, and she regrets using as much of the bottle as she did. Then she pours in the rest.

When she slides into the bath at last, she hisses at the heat. She lifts her feet one by one out of the water, dancing like a restless horse, until her body acclimates and allows Marie to force it into the liquid. Angry with how easily it surrendered, she folds up her knees to sink down deeper, fraction by fraction, until she slips and water goes up her nose.

She chokes, sputtering, lunging up like a seal towards the towel, which hangs like a limp terrycloth flag of rejected peace. The rail is further than it looks. Her fingers paddle at the air, grabbing, failing. She flails her arm. The empty container of bath gel goes soaring with a rubbery thunk, ricocheting off the rim of the tub and then the floor.

Stein's voice is immediate. "Marie?"

"I'm fine!" she calls out, scrambling to get her legs underneath her. "I just can't reach the towel -- "

The door opens; she slides back into the tub, yelping, blushing even though there's no reason to blush. Stein, of all people, knows what a human body looks like. Still, she retreats into the water; soap suds float around her, a dispersed country of melting clouds. One lock of her hair slips free of its clips. It dunks into the water, and she stares at it moodily, trying to ignore the rustling sounds of Stein's clothing as the man paces around one of the puddles she'd splashed out, and fetches the towel.

"Here," he says. When she looks over, he's got it spread between his hands, extended far enough for her to reach without letting it drip into the water.

Rational thought identifies the difference for her. From anyone else, Marie might assume they're protecting her modesty. But Stein's not anyone; he’s not shoving it out with his eyes averted, just in case an errant glimpse shows through. He's got the cloth spread to make it easier for her to grab, that's all. Practicality, for him, in his world view.

"Come here," she tells him, and reaches past the towel.

She dismisses her name being spoken in question as a simple vibration in the air. Her fingers shove the towel aside and latch onto Stein's clothes. She pulls at him, hard against his automatic resistance, until he's bent over the bathtub with his hands braced on the tiles and the shape of his body blotting out the one-bulb light.

She buries her face in his cross-stitch shirt. Then she rears up and finds his mouth with her own.

She kisses him as if she could fill the emptiness in her chest with the breath in his lungs, pulling it out of him to keep herself alive. Her skin slips again against the bottom of the tub and her weight drags him down -- the towel tumbles to the bathroom floor, Stein's knees hit the ground -- but she doesn't let go. He's forced to catch himself clumsily on the rim, knuckles stark under his skin.

Even as his mouth responds to her efforts, his shoulders stiffen -- and Marie can recognize the tension, the hesitation in the way he starts to pull back and pauses before it's an official rejection. She's seen the same motion enough times in her partners to know when they don't want to take the next step. When they end up sensing the gaping hunger in her for a relationship, and then Marie would only hear from them afterwards in letters and messages, saying they were out of town, reassigned, gone forever. Dead.

Stein needs a friend, she'd told everyone back at the Academy. He wasn't the only one.

Another time, another life away, and she might berate herself for aggressively plowing through Stein's careful boundaries. But right now, she's Not Marie, not herself, able to act and react without anyone holding her to expectations of proper behavior. She pulls her face away anyway, and buries it against his shoulder -- not out of shame, but because it'd be too easy to push even further, acting only on selfishness and short-sightedness. If she asked it of Stein, he'd give even more to her right now -- but that's a kind of comfort that she knows she doesn't actually want, even if it would be so simple. To Not-Marie things into a choice that both of them might regret later, when they remember how to pretend to be sane again.

"Marie," he says, still gentle, almost tender, and she inhales sharply at the possibility of generosities that she can't endure.

"I'm fine," she says, with her eyes still shut, her fingers unclenching slowly on his clothes. Like the teeth of a bearclaw trap, they loosen grudgingly, opening in fractions of resentment.

She lets him go at last; only when she releases his shirt completely does he finally pull himself to his feet and step away. She doesn't open her eyes until he's left the bathroom, closing the door behind him. The towel is folded up carefully on the side of the tub, in easy reach this time.

She wraps herself up in her pajamas, her fingers and toes wrinkled, hair snarled and slipping loose from its clips.

Outside, Stein's heated up water with the cheap electric kettle. It's an awkward imitation of a real tea setting, with instant bags floating in two mismatched cups, their string ties and paper tags wrapped around the handles. Her cup is set on the endtable of her bed, waiting for her evaluation.

"You can talk if you need to, Marie," he tells her, kindly -- and people don't expect that from Stein, because they don't think to look for it, making assumptions from how he reacts to them without thinking about how they're approaching him in the first place.

She goes to him, and doesn't speak.

Encircled in his arms, sitting halfway across his lap, she chooses to cry on him instead, drippy and horrible and undignified. It's comforting that he doesn't expect more, doesn't want more, but simply holds her in that silent way of his and lets her be as strange as he is. Even with him right beside her, Marie feels absolutely alone, and lonely, and she cries for them both: for her, for everything she's lost, for everything they all lost with Joe's death. For Stein, for the way people think that she's in love with him still, or that he wants her or whatever it is the two of them do together every night, instead of how he's twisting the screw in his head in muted panic at his workbench and she's wandering from room to room struggling to figure out how to protect people she loves from other people she cares about equally.

In a world with just herself and Stein, nothing is normal.

Here, Marie doesn't have to worry if she's handling Joe's death the right way. She and Joe were meister and weapon, and then exes, and then not-exes -- and the entire range of futures she's lost seems too vast to grasp at, as if it's wrong for her to feel numb most of the time and not want to talk about it, as if that disrespects Joe's memory. There are parts about Marie that she doesn't like to confront, and that had scared Joe away -- but he'd come back. He'd come back and that was the dream that most people looked for all their lives, the one beautiful goal that made everything else in the world bearable: to have someone accept you in all your mistakes, and love you anyway.

"Marie," Stein says again, and she can feel his uncertainty,

"That's enough," she tells him, and the tension starts to leak out of his bony shoulders. "You're enough as you are."

"You are too," he says back, and for a moment -- just a moment -- she's absolutely dead certain that he's only mouthing the words because that's what a human being would do. Formulaic. Nothing more.

But he tries. And she lifts her head, pawing at the blotchy mess of her face, knowing that Stein won't think any less of her for her behavior. He never has.

"Thank you," she says honestly, and means it.