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Paradigm Shift

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Franken was using Soul Perception as he swept his gaze across the classroom, checking in on how his students seemed to be feeling about their independent study assignments, when someone knocked on the classroom door and walked in without waiting for an answer. It was Marie, a frown on her face and his forgotten lunch in her hands, and glancing over at her he got one of the biggest shocks of his life.

There, nestled down beneath her stomach, was a tiny little soul.

He fell out of his chair.

For the first time in his life, he was grateful that he did this on a regular basis. A handful of students in the front few rows glanced up and smirked or rolled their eyes as he scrambled to his feet, probably assuming that he’d leaned his chair back too far, or hit a caster against the desk when he moved to greet Marie. For her part, she sighed heavily, put his food down on the desk, and reached to help him up.

“Hey,” she said, quietly enough that the students probably couldn’t hear. She was still frowning, though not unkindly. “I go to all the trouble of making you lunch every day – the least you could do is remember to take it with you.” Once he was up and his chair was righted, he sat back down, nodding wordlessly. Still processing. He reached up and tightened his screw, almost absently. “You have to eat, Stein.”

She always called him by his last name in front of students.

“Of course,” he muttered. “Sorry.”

Marie rolled her eye, but she was smiling now. “I’ll see you later,” she told him, then offered the students a cheerful wave before she left.

Franken had never found the silence of an independent study period so deafening.

 

He spent the entire day chewing on this new information. The implications were overwhelming, both in their number and in their magnitude. Marie was pregnant. With his child – of that there was no doubt. That made her a mother, and him… a father. Never in his life had he considered such a possibility, and it left him reeling. What did that mean for him? What did fatherhood actually entail? Was he even remotely cut out for that role?

Marie was pregnant. And he may well have found out before she did.

Although, come to think of it, he couldn’t know that for sure. Maybe she was well aware but not ready to tell him yet. Her period would usually be due in a few days, but then – just because he knew her cycle didn’t mean he monitored it closely. She could’ve missed the last one and he wouldn’t necessarily have any reason to know. How long had she been pregnant? When had he last used his Soul Perception on her? When, in the development of a human fetus, did a soul appear? (He wasn’t aware of any studies on that, though perhaps he just hadn’t been reading the right journals for that kind of information. Obstetrics had never been an area of particular interest in his studies. He’d have to look into it, he supposed.) It wasn’t like he could look back and pinpoint when conception had taken place – it could’ve been as recently as yesterday, he acknowledged without embarrassment. Or, given that she wasn’t showing yet, almost any time in the last three months.

(“Stein seem super distracted to you?” he was vaguely aware of Soul Evans commenting that afternoon.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Maka look up at him thoughtfully. She shrugged. “He gets like this,” she said. “When he’s really involved in an experiment, or something.”

“Must be one hell of an experiment,” muttered Black*Star.)

So, Marie might know, but she might not. That meant he had to consider whether he had a responsibility to tell her. That was a lot in itself. Was it really his news to break? If he did, would he be stealing her thunder, pun not intended? After all, he had no trouble imagining her reacting with frustration that he’d ruined her chance to deliver the news to him. Or to even find out normally for herself. If he did tell her, what would be the best way to do it? If he didn’t, how should he react when she told him? He was almost certain she’d be furious if his response was ‘yes, I know.’ Should he start dropping hints? Saying things that might inspire her to check, whatever those things might be? Or that would make sure she felt comfortable telling him?

“Hey, Franken,” she said that afternoon, poking her head into his office. “Are you coming home?”

“I’ve got a lot of marking to catch up on,” he answered her, though the papers spread across his desk were as yet untouched. He looked up and surprised himself with his own ability to offer her an entirely normal smile. “I’m going to stay late and just get it out of the way. Don’t worry; Sid offered to bring me back some dinner.”

“Oh, okay!” Her smile was so warm. She stepped into his office long enough to come around the desk and give him a quick kiss, a gesture he once never believed he could get accustomed to. Now it was… somehow pleasant, even if he still didn’t fully understand why. “I’ll see you later, then. Happy marking.”

“Thank you.”

Watching her leave again, he smiled wryly. It wasn’t like he didn’t recognise the irony of the situation.

People often associated Franken with destruction. With death. There was certainly precedent for that, even long before he’d come to train as a weapon technician here at DWMA. But the fact was, the root of his fascination had never been death. He’d always been driven to take things apart, yes, but that was so that he could put them back together again afterward. Figure out how they worked. His obsession, really, was with creation. With life.

Life had always come so easily to Marie, to her healing hands. She fixed people and made them work again. (She’d fixed him, and made him work again.) Mechanically, he understood that, but emotionally it felt like they were worlds apart. He knew how to stitch people up and make sure they didn’t die, but he couldn’t heal like she could. Even Marie’s self was full of life: she glowed with it, echoed with it, positively resonated with it. Everything about her was so completely alive, and really, that was the crux of his attraction to her. It always had been. He was drawn to that life, to the effortless aliveness of her.

And now she was creating new life more literally than ever before. Though he felt a twinge of something, deep inside himself, when he remembered that he’d contributed to that life. Certainly, her body would do all the real work – she would do the real making. But he’d helped to conceive it.

He stayed late in his office, not trusting himself to go home and talk to her until he knew what to say. By the time he got back to the Patchwork Lab it was late, and she was asleep. He slid into bed behind her, pulling her back tight against his chest, and heard her hum contentedly. He felt warm.

 

He couldn’t avoid talking to Marie. They lived together, they worked together – and avoiding Marie, really, was about as effective as avoiding daybreak. You could try, but the sun would emerge to shine on you before long. So instead he learned to look at her like nothing was different, impressed with his own acting ability. A previously untapped skill, perhaps.

As much as he would’ve liked to come to a conclusion quickly, he simply couldn’t. It would have taken time even if he wasn’t busy helping Shinigami wage war against witches and demons and madness itself. Alas, the forces of evil had no interest in slowing down just so that Franken Stein could come to terms with his impending fatherhood.

Ultimately there were a lot of things he had to reassess. Things he normally didn’t spend much time thinking about, whether out of disinterest or flat-out aversion. Things including, significantly, feelings.

Though he hadn’t really taken the time to consider it very much, he was aware that he possessed a great deal more care and compassion than he ever had when he was young. For a long time, he’d struggled to connect with the part of himself that felt anything about other people. Years spent with the emotional whirlwind that was Spirit Albarn had begun to put him in touch with his feelings, but even then, it was a slow process. At the time that Franken and Marie had first dated, in their teens, he could manage to feel things about (or even for) her, some of the time. But even on his best days those feelings paled in comparison to the raw emotional output of Marie Mjolnir. Or Spirit. Or almost anyone Franken knew. In the end, he’d broken up with her because he couldn’t match her. In spite of everything else, he knew that she deserved someone who could love her properly, and that was never going to be him.

Only now… it might be.

He was no expert on feelings, or what they were like for other people. But he knew that he cared for Marie, a great deal more than he ever would have believed he could. More than he’d cared for… anyone, really. Honestly, maybe he did love her now, after all these years. He’d grown; he’d changed. What he felt for her now – was that love? Was it the same kind of love he knew she felt for him, too, even if she never said it?

And if he’d never envisioned himself as a committed romantic partner one day, he’d certainly never envisioned himself as a father. But… the more he thought about it, the more certain he was that he wanted her to have this child. Already he felt very protective of it. Connected to it. Was this love, too? This desire to shield, to cultivate, to simply witness?

In reflection, he realised, he was fond and protective of his students as well. He cared about their safety, their education, even their happiness. He thought of the handful he’d developed individual relationships with, and how much he really did care for their wellbeing. Was this a sign of something, or part of the process? Did he care about his students because he was growing, or was he growing because of his students and the care they inspired in him?

And then, after a strategy meeting with Shinigami and Azusa, a terrible thought that hit him harder than any of the others had: the way he would feel if the child was lost. If Marie was lost. The visceral response he felt to the mere hypothetical was unsettlingly revealing. He had to stop in the hallway, lean one shoulder against the wall, breathe a little more deliberately. Turn the screw to clear his head. He felt nauseous.

That evening, they had a little time to themselves. Marie emerged from the kitchen with a bottle of wine and a mischievous smile, the kind that inspired that feeling of warmth again, in the bottom of his stomach. She sat down next to him, and gently, he took the bottle away from her, setting it down out of her reach.

“Aw,” she whined, giving him an exaggerated pout. “Why not?”

He came up with an excuse more easily, and more smoothly, than he expected to. “Because I want you to remember every detail,” he answered, grinning flirtatiously and leaning over her. She gave a surprised, delighted little giggle as he pressed her down into the couch cushions, lips already on her neck.

Later he planted kisses on her bare stomach, momentarily lost in thought, until he noticed her watching him with an almost-curious gaze. Not keen on being asked what he was up to, he quickly found a way to distract her.

 

Pregnant, he thought to himself again, watching her across the DWMA lawn. He was eating lunch with Spirit – or at least, nominally he was; Spirit was lamenting over his most recent rejection from Maka, and Franken had long ago given up on trying to tell the man she’d respect him a little more if he’d just get his shit together, good god. So he was tuning Spirit out, instead watching Marie on the far side of the quad, where she was laughing at a story that an animated pair of students was telling her.

Should he marry her?

He didn’t know where the thought even came from. Maybe at some level everything about Spirit’s relationship with his daughter made Franken think about how spectacularly his best friend had fucked up his marriage to a woman who’d always been a little too good for him, anyway. Maybe that association had just sidled up a little too close to everything else on Franken’s mind, and now he was asking himself – as unbelievable as it seemed – whether he should propose to the woman who shared his bed. Who was carrying his child.

It wasn’t out of any kind of old-fashioned values, or anything. Franken had no use for those conventions. But he knew that marriage was what Marie had always wanted. He had no particular feelings about the subject, himself – as far as he was concerned, there was no need to mark a romantic commitment with so much ceremony and outdated tradition. And the evidence of how disastrous the failure of a marriage could be sat blubbering in front of him even as he considered the matter.

But… it would make Marie so happy, to get married. And he had to admit, that had a value of its own. He enjoyed making her happy, he’d come to realise. All of this – a child, marriage, home and family – meant the world to Marie. That might be worth the risk, the discomfort. But then, on the other hand, should her pregnancy even be a factor in that decision? Would it cheapen things, for her, if he asked her to marry him when she was pregnant? Would she worry that that was the only reason? Maybe it would be better to wait, after all. Or at very least to think on it further.

“Are you even listening to me?” Spirit wailed. Wiping his nose on his sleeve, he turned and looked over his shoulder, following Franken’s line of sight. “Are you… staring at Marie? That’s… that’s not like you at all.” He knew they were involved, but he’d also known Franken since they were teens, and this behaviour seemed to puzzle him.

“I’m wondering if I should propose to her,” Franken answered, lost deep in thought. Then, abruptly, he came to his senses. It was too late.

Spirit’s mood turned around faster than the human eye could even perceive. “You’re what?” he cried, both overjoyed and in absolute shock.

Franken reacted instinctively, reaching up to clap a hand over the other man’s mouth. “Nothing!” he said, though it wasn’t a redirect – he knew better than that. Spirit could never be so easily discouraged from something like this. Franken’s answer was more of a threat. “Don’t you say a damn word!”

Spirit began to tear up again, though this time from joy. Franken groaned and passed a hand over his eyes.

“You keep your trap shut or I’ll finish the work I started all those years ago,” he growled, casting a meaningful glance down at Spirit’s chest. They both knew a big, ugly scar ran along the skin beneath his ribs.

“I won’t breathe a word!” Spirit promised, prying Franken’s hand off his face. “But you have got to tell me everything!

“Absolutely not,” Franken answered, getting to his feet and turning sharply away.

 

“Franken?” Marie’s voice drifted through the lab as she returned home, letting the door fall shut behind her.

“In here,” he answered, only half-looking up from his computer. “How was your meeting with Azusa and Sid?”

“It was fine. Informative,” she answered, coming into the room. “I wanted to ask you about something, though.”

“Oh?”

“I saw Spirit earlier this afternoon,” she started, her hand falling on the backrest of his chair. He stopped what he was doing, concerned, but didn’t turn to face her yet. “He was being… weird.”

“That’s Spirit for you,” Franken answered drily.

She laughed. “Yeah, I know. But he kept making these weird faces at me… big smiles and stuff, like he knew a juicy secret. When I finally asked him about it, all he said was, ‘Don’t let Stein fool you! He’s a big romantic at heart!’”

Franken hesitated, unsure what to say to that. Mentally, he made a note to hit Spirit the next time he saw him. So much for not breathing a word. (Spirit would undoubtedly contend that he hadn’t breathed a word, but Franken found he wasn’t particularly concerned with the technicalities of keeping a secret, just that moment.)

“What was all that about, then?” she asked, when he didn’t respond. “Is it just Spirit being bizarre, or…?”

He tried to consider his options. Yeah, probably, he could tell her, but then she’d be left wondering if that was really it, and Spirit would still be making faces the next time he crossed her path. Deciding abruptly on his best course of action, he swung his chair around and blurted, “Marie, I love you.”

She went very still.

“I’m… I’m sorry,” she said after a second, blinking. “What was that?”

“I said I love you,” he repeated, not as loudly this time. He hadn’t meant it to be so forceful.

“Oh.” Marie felt behind her for something to sit on, eventually perching against the back of the sofa she’d stuffed into his main room. “I… wow.”

Franken felt oddly self-conscious. “I’m sorry. That was sudden.”

“No, no,” she insisted, her good eye focussing again and returning to his. There was a lot happening on her face, and he didn’t think he knew what all of it was. “I mean– I mean, yeah, it’s sudden, but it’s not… unwelcome.”

“Ah.” He glanced away for half a second. Cleared his throat.

“Franken.”

He met her gaze.

“I love you, too.” She was smiling, now. Then she laughed slightly – at herself, it seemed – and ran a hand back through her hair. “I just, uh… I wasn’t sure if you loved me. Wasn’t… really sure if you could. So I just thought it was easier not to bring it up.”

He swallowed. “I’m sorry,” he told her, to his own surprise. “But… now you know.”

She nodded, still processing. “Did you… did you tell Spirit that you loved me?” she asked after a moment, looking confused.

He almost laughed. “Not in as many words.”

Marie nodded some more. Her expression had changed yet again; now her gaze wandered the room while she bit down on a big smile. He’d have been lying if he said he didn’t like seeing her like that. “What made you say it, all of a sudden?” she asked, looking at the ceiling.

Oh.

He hesitated. “Marie, there’s… something else we should probably talk about.” There was no point in hiding it, now. It was going to come out one way or another.

Her gaze snapped back to him, suddenly alert, as if she was expecting bad news. “What is it?”

“You… have to promise not to be upset with me,” he started carefully. He was well aware that from her perspective that only made it sound more like he was about to deliver bad news, so he didn’t let himself stop or beat around the bush. “I don’t want this to be a bad thing.”

“Okay,” she answered, very slowly.

He took a deep breath. “I don’t know if you know yet,” he said, looking her in the eye. “But you’re pregnant.”

The silence that followed was almost as thunderous as the one that had followed his own discovery of this information.

“What?” she asked after a moment, a look of incredulity emerging on her face. “How could you possibly know that?”

“There’s a soul,” he answered, nodding towards her midriff. “A little one. Right there.”

Marie’s hands went to her stomach. She was still looking in his direction, but he had a feeling she was seeing something far past him, for a moment.

“You’re sure?”

“Marie, would I tell you something like this if I weren’t certain?

She looked at him, then down at herself for a long moment, then up at him again. He hadn’t often seen her dumbstruck.

“I want you to know,” he told her. “I’ve thought a lot about this, by now. I… I really do love you, Marie. And I know how important this is to you. Knowing what I do, it’s become important to me, too. I’m here for you, and for all of this. For both of you. I…” He swallowed, glancing down. “I want to be part of this.”

“Oh, Franken.”

He looked up again, and her face was so tender. There was that warmth inside of him again. He was beginning to recognise it for what it was.

Marie started to chew her lip. “What are you thinking?” he asked, his mouth suddenly dry.

She pushed off the back of the sofa. “I was trying to decide,” she told him, back to a smile now, as she climbed into his lap, her knees on either side of him. “Which was more urgent: going out for a pregnancy test right now, or kissing you stupid.”

“A pregnancy test?” he asked. He couldn’t help himself. “You don’t believe me?”

“I do, but it’ll be different when I have the positive test in my hands for myself,” she told him, settling on his legs. Her arms came up over his shoulders, and he wrapped his around her waist, holding her close. “But if you hadn’t guessed, I decided that could wait a few minutes.”

Franken smiled, squeezing her sides as she melted against him.

He was going to be a father, and it was going to be just fine, because Marie was going to be a mother.