Marie was seated very primly on one end of Azusa’s couch, where she’d slept for the last several nights, and panicking.
She’d done a lot of that recently.
Azusa had, as always, been very matter-of-fact about it. “You’re just going to have to tell him,” she’d said, after surmising the source of Marie’s anxiety with preternatural speed and accuracy. There were downsides to having a best friend with the deductive reasoning capabilities of Sherlock Holmes’ wet dreams. “You can’t just avoid it. No one can avoid something like this, but in this particular case especially.”
Unfortunately, it just wasn’t that simple. Not for Marie, anyway. Maybe if the circumstances were different – maybe if she weren’t so impulsive. But then again, if she weren’t so impulsive, she wouldn’t have gotten herself into this situation in the first place, would she? Ah, she could ride this self-blame train around in circles forever, but it wouldn’t get her anywhere new.
Which was why she’d been avoiding Stein like the plague for over a week now, as she tried to come up with her next move. Any move.
She felt badly. She would have anyway, but she felt even worse because, apparently, he was actually worried about her, at least a bit. Spirit had been the one to look for her at Azusa’s place, and she supposed she was grateful it had been him and not someone less oblivious, though frankly she sort of wished not to be found at all. At least while she was still thinking.
“There you are!” he’d greeted cheerfully, after Azusa had opened the door. He’d pushed his way through, ignoring Azusa’s clear distaste, and threw himself down into an easy chair. “Stein’s been wondering where you got to. He said it’s unusual for you not to come home all night. He almost resorted to hunting you down via Soul Perception.”
“No!” Marie had squawked, too loudly, a jolt of fear running down her spine. The news was still barely twelve hours old and she hadn’t really thought that far ahead yet but – oh, no.
Spirit stiffened then, looking at her with startled eyes. “Is… everything okay?” he’d asked slowly, his good mood abruptly sobered by her outburst.
“Everything is fine,” Azusa had answered quickly, before Marie could blurt out anything foolish in her alarm. “Marie just needs a little time to herself. Spirit, let Stein know that she’s safe with me, and he needn’t worry.”
“Oh. Uh, okay,” Spirit had responded, looking back and forth between the two women, puzzled now. He’d pushed himself back to his feet, then asked awkwardly, “Um, do you need anything, or…?”
“Everything’s fine,” Azusa had assured him again, her tone clearly ending the discussion. She’d ushered him out the door, and when he was gone, she’d turned back to Marie, who let out a dismayed wail.
“Azusa, when does the baby have a soul?” she’d cried. “Like, a visible one? Is it there from the very beginning, or does it develop later?”
“I don’t know,” was the blunt answer, accompanied by a shrug. “We could ask someone to come check.”
Marie dropped her face into her hands. “I don’t know if Sid has it in him to keep a secret like this.”
Azusa had snorted. “Spilling the secrets of a dear friend? Come on, Marie. That’s not the kind of man he was.”
After another day, Marie beginning to crumble under the uncertainty, they had called on Sid. Confused but amiable, he had obliged Azusa’s request to check on Marie’s soul, and he’d noticed it right away – the tiny, second soul nestled in the bottom of her abdomen. Initially he was overjoyed for her, but he reeled it back a little when he saw Marie’s dismay.
“He’ll know,” she’d whispered, eyes wide with horror. “He’ll know immediately.”
“Well – but only if he uses Soul Perception, right?” Sid had asked. “So you’ll have time to tell him first.”
She shook her head. “He uses it all the time. Especially if he thinks something is wrong. He says it’s easier for him to understand how I’m feeling that way.”
She was grateful no one asked her how she’d found out so quickly, in that case. She didn’t want to admit to anyone that in a strange fit of anxiety, she’d gone and bought one of those contraband magical tests – the ones that the witches made, that were supposed to be able to tell weeks before the standard ones could.
Later, she’d been in the bathroom and overheard Sid say to Azusa, “I really never imagined Stein as a father. It’s an odd picture.”
Oh, if only that were the only thing that worried her.
It was true – Franken Stein had been called many, many things in his life, but no one had ever once taken him for a family man. Even in recent years, as he began to develop qualities resembling compassion and care for others, he still clearly stood alone. It wouldn’t even entirely shock Marie to find out that some people assumed him to be abstinent, whether due to a disinterest in sex or a complete inability, with his scars and his scalpels and his arrogant cruel streak, to attract a partner. The mental image of him holding an infant was one that might inspire any emotion on the sliding scale from confusion to acute alarm.
But for Marie, the problem was so much more complicated than that. Of course she worried for the wellbeing of her unborn child, worried over whether they’d grow up with a father that even wanted them. But what really seemed so much bigger, so much more pressing at this stage of the game, was the fact that she loved him. Foolishly, and completely, and still.
For awhile she hadn’t known whether it was still, or again. For awhile she hadn’t known whether it mattered. But in the end, she’d concluded that it must be still, because it felt like it had never gone away. Like she had never gone away. Like all those years between their ill-advised teenage dalliance and their strange, strained reunion barely existed. In their youth, she had admired many things about him – his intelligence, his sharp skills of observation, his unceasing will to learn. His skill with a weapon, especially when that weapon was her. His confidence, his honesty, his ambition. And, frankly, his ability to undress her with his eyes, the look so intense it sent shivers down the core of her and made her squeeze her thighs together.
It turned out that in spite of a decade out of touch, and past heartbreaks, and all her better judgement, she loved all the same things about him now – and then some. Qualities he’d developed since, as he matured, or that she appreciated more now than she could as a teenager.
For some time, after she’d returned, there was a certain distance between them. She almost had the sense that he was keeping himself a few steps back, though she could never quite pin down why. Was it respect, given the knowledge that he’d hurt her before? Hesitation to be close to someone, especially after his fraught relationship with Medusa? Simply the avoidance of a distraction? Or was she completely misunderstanding?
But the distance had finally closed, rapidly, while they were on the run together, hunting down Justin Law. She wasn’t sure she even really knew how. Everything had been so confusing, after Joe’s death. She’d barely reopened that old wound, begun to make space in her heart for Joe again, when he died. And then, when all the evidence pointed to Stein – for a moment, when he looked at her, she could’ve sworn he was worried. Like he was scared she’d believe it.
And for some reason, she didn’t. She couldn’t convince herself, for anything, that he was responsible for Joe’s death. She wanted Joe avenged, but Stein wasn’t the culprit. She was certain. So together they had disappeared, in search of the true murderer.
And it was lonely on the road, that way. She couldn’t reach out to anyone back in Death City, because they were fugitives. She was lonely and she was grieving and she tried to hide it, because Stein had never had time for her tears, only this time when he found her crying he did something he’d never done before: he comforted her. Not perfectly – clearly he’d been unsure how. But he’d tried, earnestly, and somehow the barrier between them had come toppling down. They never talked, but their bodies did.
By the time they made it home again, she knew she was in love with him, Mira’s warning echoing in her head. He has no love in him. But it was too late for Marie, by then.
There had only ever been one bed in the Patchwork Lab, and it had been mostly hers since she moved in, as he slept at his desk more often than anywhere else. After Joe, after Justin, it became easier for her to persuade him to use the bed instead.
And as long as she could sleep next to him, and as long as they were together this way, and as long as they were partners, she could make her peace with never once discussing it. She could love him and pretend she was loved in return, and it was fine.
Only now, it wasn’t fine, at all. No matter what he thought or what he said, things would change, and she would have to give up this ridiculous daydream she was harbouring. She would have to give up this man she’d loved for far too much of her life, knowing that he couldn’t love her back. And then she’d have to face this new challenge even more alone than she’d been before.
So Marie sat in her best friend’s apartment, panicking, because there were a hundred ways she wished she could approach this and infinite ways for it to end in misery.
Azusa arrived home right on time, like clockwork, groceries in hand because she knew Marie wouldn’t have thought to eat all day long. Her shoes went to the tidy rack next to the door, her keys to the hook, and she turned left and headed straight for the little kitchen. Dishes clinking as she went straight to work on dinner, she said, “Stein is worried about you.”
“What?” Marie asked, jarred out of her anxious daze.
“He’s worried,” Azusa repeated, leaning out of the kitchen just long enough to catch Marie’s eye and make sure she’d heard.
“Stein doesn’t worry,” Marie answered, though she didn’t really believe that, and it was apparent on her voice.
Azusa didn’t even dignify that comment with a skeptically-raised brow, though Marie could picture it anyway. “He’s irritable. It’s been getting worse every day, but you should’ve seen him this afternoon. He shouted at Maka. Maka.”
Marie swallowed. That was unusual. Though Stein had never been especially patient when it came to people, he was almost saintly with Maka. He only got harsh with her if he felt that that was the kind of push she needed. Sometimes Marie wondered if Stein secretly wished he could make the girl his protégé - his admiration for her intelligence and willpower was significant, especially in a man so difficult to impress, and he made no secret that he thought Maka had tremendous potential.
“I don't know what to do,” she said quietly, after a long pause.
“Yes, you do,” Azusa countered from the other room. She didn't so much as glance over her shoulder. Though she'd given Marie the exact same advice, with the same certainty, every day, for ten days running now, this time it seemed to slice through and hit her hard.
Unfortunately, she did know what to do. It wasn't going to be easy, but she knew, and it was past time to stop putting it off.
“Azusa... I need to use the phone,” Marie said, slowly, her voice already sad.
“Dinner's in twenty,” Azusa answered.
Marie nodded mutely, picking up the phone and heading into Azusa's bedroom for a moment of privacy.
She took a few deep breaths to psych herself up before dialing the number for Stein's lab. There was less than half a ring before it was answered. “Marie?”
Her voice caught in her throat. His tone betrayed nothing, apathetic as ever – but the way he answered, and so quickly, spoke worlds. Normally he almost never answered the phone in the lab, and even when he did it was after letting it ring awhile, with a heavily-sighed “Hello,” as if to make sure that the caller knew they were already boring him. But no, he’d jumped to the phone, and instantly gasped her name, like he’d been hoping she’d call.
“I-I…” She swallowed hard, willing her throat to cooperate. “…Franken.”
“Marie!” Compared to anyone else he would’ve sounded unenthused, but she heard it for what it was, and felt tears spring to her eyes. “Where have you been? Are you all right?”
“I-I’m fine,” she managed, closing her eyes in an attempt to focus. She couldn’t afford to lose track of what she had to do. “I’m sorry, I just– needed some time.”
Stein seemed to hesitate. “Are you coming home?”
Home. He rarely referred to the lab as his own home, let alone hers. “Um – I need to talk to you.”
“No, not on the phone,” she said, softly. “I – I want to see you in person.”
“Okay,” he answered slowly. “What did you have in mind?”
She glanced over her shoulder, towards the closed door. “Azusa and I are eating dinner in fifteen minutes,” she told him. “Can I come to the lab after that?”
“Of course you can. You live here,” he told her.
“I-I know,” she agreed, shaking her head at herself. “Um, I need you to promise me something, though.”
“What is it?”
“Don’t look at my soul,” she told him, all in one rush of breath. “Don’t– don’t use Soul Perception at all. You have to promise.”
“I…” It was rare to hear Stein falter. “I just read you better, when I can see your soul.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You will. It’s really important to me, Franken,” she insisted. “I need you to promise me.”
Another pause. “Okay. I promise.”
“Thank you.” Marie balled one fist at her side. “I’ll see you in– in an hour or so.”
Marie fidgeted restlessly outside the lab, wondering if she really had the fortitude to go through with this. What if she just – just ran away? What if she went back to her little home in Australia and stopped answering anyone’s calls? She could take off and pretend none of this had ever happened, pretend she wasn’t hopelessly in love with a man as broken as Franken Stein, pretend there was still hope for a happy ending.
Only she couldn’t. Not if his child was keeping her company.
She had always wanted to be a mother. Had always wanted a family, even if her peers tended to poke fun at her for it. But it was just something she felt like she was meant for. She loved her job, loved the work she’d found under Shinigami’s tutelage. And she also loved people, and she wanted so desperately to have people to call her own. It was just a shame that the person she wanted most didn’t feel the same way, and that no matter how fiercely she loved this child – and oh, she would, she already did – she would never be able to forget the man who’d given it to her.
She couldn’t stand here outside the door all night, said a voice in her head. One that sounded suspiciously like Azusa. The same voice that had scolded her the first night she’d found comfort in Franken’s skin, and told her over and over that everything since was unsustainable. It was the most tenuous balance, and could have broken under something much smaller than this.
“Fine,” she breathed, wiping her sleeve across her eyes and then letting herself in.
There was the crash of Stein’s clutter falling to the floor in the next room as she shut the door. “Marie?” he asked, his voice growing closer. “Is that you?”
“It’s me,” she answered, swallowing the shake in her own voice. He stumbled through the doorway, tripping over a book on the floor, and came to a stuttering halt a few feet away from her. All limbs, she thought, not for the first time – arms and legs like broomsticks, gangly and awkward when he was caught unawares. He seemed… nervous, maybe. He held himself back, as if suspecting that she was mad at him, but his eyes were locked on her face. The bags beneath them were dark and puffy, and she wondered if he’d slept at all in the last few days.
“Marie,” he said again, then hesitated. It was strange to see him like this. “I – are you okay?”
She knew her eyes were wet. “Can we sit down?”
“Of course.” He waved her into the next room, sweeping scientific journals and student papers off her furniture and onto the floor. The room was a mess. She glanced around, and from the pile of dishes on his desk, she guessed he’d probably spent most of his time there for the last week and change.
“Marie, what’s going on?” he asked, sitting down to face her. “I’ve never seen you act this way before.”
She let her gaze wander the room, because she had trouble concentrating when she met his eye. There was so much she wanted to see in his face, and if she looked, she’d be distracted from what she had to say. “I’m…” She took a deep breath, then let it all the way back out, slowly. “Franken, there’s something I need you to know.”
“Okay,” he answered, quietly.
“I love you,” she said finally, pushing the words out as if they’d been a heavy weight on her chest, requiring a burst of force to move.
“You love a lot of people,” Stein answered.
She gave him a hard look, then, wondering if he was being deliberately obtuse. “That’s not what I mean,” she snapped, her nerves briefly eclipsed by irritation. “I love you, Franken. I’m in love with you. Like I was when we were kids. Only– more. I know it’s foolish of me, but it’s just the truth. I love you.”
His face went blank for a moment, like he couldn’t even really compute what she was saying. Absurdly, she wished for just a half a second that she could reach across the space between them and tighten that screw through his head, just to speed this up. Then, very softly, he asked, “What?”
“You heard me,” she said, feeling the hot tears rise to her eyes again. She wiped her face angrily.
“I…” There was a long pause. “I don’t tend to think of myself as possible to love. Let alone twice.”
“I think it’s only once, really,” she said, looking down again. “I don’t think I ever stopped loving you, in all that time. I just let myself forget about it. I buried it.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Marie saw movement, and when she stole a glance up at him, he’d removed his glasses and was rubbing his face with both hands. Did he even have the right to be stressed about this? She was the one baring her heart to him.
“I know. I know.” She turned her gaze to the ceiling, trying not to cry even more. “Believe me, everyone keeps telling me, as if I never figured it out for myself. You can’t love me back. It’s just not how you’re wired.”
That hung in the air for a few seconds. “Back when we were students,” he finally said, breaking the thick silence in the air. “You know I cared about you, don’t you? I always did. But it paled next to anything you felt. I broke up with you because I could never love you back half as much as you deserved, let alone as much as you loved me. I couldn’t… access that part of myself. Some days I struggled even to feel what little care I knew I possessed.”
“I get it,” Marie whispered, wiping her eyes again.
“No, I’m not sure if you do,” he told her. “Because in these last few years, I’ve changed in ways I never could have predicted. That capacity to care was so closed off when I was young, but recently it’s begun to open up. I care about my students, about my colleagues. But you, Marie… What I feel for you is stronger than anything I’ve ever felt in my life. By orders of magnitude.” Finally she looked back at him, startled, and found him watching her intently. “It still seems so small in comparison to the warmth you radiate every day, towards everyone around you. But for me, it’s overwhelming.”
The revelation hit Marie like a truck, made all the worse by the knowledge that she hadn’t even told him what she’d come to tell him yet. The news was sure to be a shock to him at best, and it was agony hearing him say this when minutes from now she’d deliver the real bomb. Even if he did love her, this would be too much to ask.
“I’ll never be like you, Marie. I can’t open my heart for everyone I meet. I can barely open it at all. But over the last year, I’ve discovered that there’s room there for one person.”
And that was it. The tears she’d been so valiantly holding back flooded over onto her cheeks, and she put her face in her hands, now weeping openly. She couldn’t help it. Her shoulders shook and she wondered, vaguely, whether her heart would even survive this.
And then, Stein’s voice, closer now – like he was kneeling on the floor in front of her. “Marie? Why are you crying?” He sounded concerned, almost flustered even. His hand landed uncertainly on her shoulder, then moved to cup the side of her face, trapping her hair against her cheek.
“Is there room for two?” she asked him, voice thick. His hand paused.
Marie managed to look up at him, and his expression was one of genuine confusion. It was rare on him. “Franken, I’m pregnant,” she whispered.
There was another one of those long pauses as he took that in. “You can’t know that,” he said finally, his voice quiet. “Your period isn’t even due for a couple more days.” Because of course he knew her cycle; of course he did.
“Use your Soul Perception,” she told him.
He looked up into her eyes, as if hesitant to oblige after she’d made him promise on the phone, but she held his gaze. She watched his jaw tighten slightly with a moment’s concentration, and then there was a beat before he glanced down towards her stomach and his eyes flew wide. His hand dropped from her face as he sat back on his heels, and then it clamped over his own mouth. A few endless seconds of stunned silence later, he finally looked back up into her eyes.
“Marie,” he said softly. “You deserve someone whose goals match your own. That’s part of why I never told you how I felt in the first place. You’ve always wanted a family, and you deserve that. I could never see myself in that role.”
There it was. She’d known it had to come. It was, truly, the only way this could end. But it hurt like nothing she’d ever felt before. She squeezed her eyes shut against a fresh wave of tears, so tired of looking into the eyes of this man she so adored. His hand found her face again, and she wanted to flinch away from it, to tear off the bandaid, but instead she leaned into him. She would always be soft for him.
“But now I’m looking at this tiny little soul inside your body, and suddenly, I… I want nothing more than to protect it.”
Marie’s eyes snapped open. Franken was watching her with a tenderness she hadn’t known he possessed, and when their eyes met he smiled, just a little bit, the pad of his thumb tracing a line along her cheekbone.
“Franken,” she breathed, afraid to even hope. “I really need you to mean that. I need you to be certain.”
“I’m certain,” he said. “I couldn’t have known it yesterday, but it seems like there’s room for two, after all.”
It happened again: Marie started crying. His free hand found the dip in her side, just above her hip, but before he could pull himself up towards her she slid to the floor, crashing into him. He wobbled, but regained his balance, folding her into himself, and she gripped the lapels of his lab coat like she never intended to let go.
Because she didn’t.