Pre-series, Spirit and Stein.

Spirit knows he's supposed to find a teacher. He knows -- he's been told repeatedly -- to find a teacher when this kind of thing happens. Find Lord Death himself if you have to, but find a teacher.

He doesn't.

Instead, he goes to find Stein.

Out in the city, it's a beautiful spring day. Classes have finished up, leaving only the most dedicated bookworms haunting the school's halls. The pavement of Death City soaks up the sun and radiates it back generously. Spirit takes advantage of the glare off the windows to admire his own reflection going past: young, jaunty, red-haired and smart with his collar laced shut and clean. He's a fine example of a weapon. Death Scythe material for sure.

His meister's not hard to find. Stein is outside in one of the crossroad squares, past where the cafe tables are stacked up into a communal food court. A few other DMWA students float past; none of them do more than cast wary stares in Stein's direction, respectful and hateful at once. Stein doesn't bother to acknowledge them. His chair's shoved into a corner, against a railing that lets him have plenty of room to soak up the sun. His hair's getting shaggy, unkempt and limp, hanging around his face like a mass of dishwater rags. At this rate, Spirit will have to trust him with scissors again.

With a huff of exasperation, Spirit hooks a chair and drags it over besides Stein, flipping it around and straddling it backwards. Stein doesn't say anything in greeting -- he's busy folding and unfolding a paper napkin, looking almost innocent, if Spirit ignores the squint of his eyes, the too-careless tilt of his mouth. Or maybe Spirit just knows how to look for these things because he's familiar with his meister. Familiar with that vague creepiness that he always feels whenever he synchronizes with Stein; it's eerily comfortable to harmonize with his meister, like slipping into a warm bath that's almost exactly skin temperature.

Which is a little disturbing, considering the nature of his partner.

Honestly, that's one of the weirdest parts about this matchup. Stein is not normal, even by Death City standards; he's a lunatic, but he's not always obvious about it. Sometimes when Stein is calm and relaxed, he can be almost pleasant. Spirit knows he's paired to a meister that's two steps away from being a drooling lunatic, but Stein can be polite, can listen to Spirit's orders, and sometimes Spirit worries that he's the only thing holding his meister back.

Spirit would have thought that Stein would have been overbrimming with psychotic urges, and Stein is -- only not all the time. Sometime, the other boy is just quiet. That's when he's most dangerous. At least for Spirit, who isn't sure how to read him; he's not sure, because psychopaths are supposed to be crazy, right? Not quiet at random. Not thoughtful. And not, occasionally, helpful with the chores.

He rocks his chair back. "I found your project," he says, painstakingly careful.

Stein glances up. "Oh?"

Spirit clears his throat. "You... you know you can't do that."

Stein looks perplexed. Wads of napkin wind and tear around his fingers, breaking like flax across bony knuckles. "Teacher said that we could do whatever we wanted for our science project. He said we could use birds. He gave me," the boy adds dangerously, "permission for a bird."

"Yeah, well, he gave you permission for a bird, maybe, but -- not like that." Spirit fights down a shudder. What he had found in their dorm room had not been, he thinks, what the teacher wanted. Or even remotely had in mind. "Look, you just. You can't... do that. To an animal."

"Why not?"

"Because -- because it's an animal. Because, Stein," and Spirit's feeling more than a little bit helpless now, repeating nothing but an endless stream of because and Stein when all really he wants to do is crawl away somewhere else and never think of this again. "Because it was still alive."

"Was?" Stein's voice is musing, surprised. And, starting to get just a little bit displeased. "Was. Does this mean that it's not anymore?"

"I'm amazed it was alive at all," Spirit snaps. "After what you did to it." Visions of the carcass flash into his mind: wings spread, nailed precisely by tiny stitch after tiny stitch into the wood, feathers plucked and arrayed, almost artistic -- if it wasn't for the fact that half the thing had been missing. Twitching, alive, opened, spread and spattered like a painting gone wrong, a painting made of living tissue. "Stein, you can't use -- you can't use animals like that, you can't use living things like that! Of course I put it out of its misery! What were you planning to do with it? It was going to die!"

"Only if I was careless," Stein answers breezily. His voice warms, rising up into something dreamy and sweet. "Besides, Spirit. How can I learn how to put them back together if I can't figure out how to keep them alive when they're apart?"

"Don't even say that," Spirit snaps. Nausea rises in his gut, matched by images of two-headed monstrosities fused at the stomach, beasts fitted like patchwork pillowcases with Stein's careful, careful little needlework. "Look, okay, it's an animal this time. Well -- it -- it, even if we skip that fact that it's still wrong, what about next time? Are you going to do a bird next time, Stein -- Stein, you have to answer me," he argues, trying to get his meister's attention, fighting to get his meister to look at him, when all Stein wants to do is poke at the napkin. "What is it going to be next, Stein? Is it going to be bigger? Is it going to be a person?"

I already had to stop you once, he thinks. Stop you, from what might not have been an empty threat on one of our own classmates.

He thinks about telling Stein that he's supposed to find a teacher, that a teacher is going to come, that a teacher is going to stop all this, but he hopes he can reason with Stein on his own. He might not be the best when it comes to handling other people, but Spirit knows -- or he can guess -- that if he asks for a teacher now, if he calls down authority, all he'll do is earn Stein's contempt. It's hard enough trying to work with his meister. Trying to argue when Stein's being stubborn is like trying to claw at a cliff, or find purchase on solid ice. Especially when the ice might bite you half the time as you were trying to touch it.

Stein doesn't look pleased. "You're getting in the way of my research, Spirit."

"Research? This -- Stein, these are living things. You're going -- look -- you're going to get in trouble. I know you're going to get in trouble. And I don't understand why you're going to do this! I told you, you can't -- " Spirit starts again, fails again, sputters and runs dry on inspiration, unable to summon anything but a roiling sense of dread. Desperately, he resorts to the basics. "You have to follow the DWMA's rules. And they have to apply. Do you think you're not going to get in trouble?"

"Teacher said -- "

"I don't care what Teacher said!" Spirit interrupts. Horror and anger pave the way together; he rises up on his heels, grabbing Stein by the shoulder and giving the other boy a hard shake. Rage makes him giddy. "Teacher didn't want this! Teacher didn't plan for this! I can guarantee you that!"

He falls silent suddenly, not sure what to say, not sure how to keep things from becoming any worse. His hand releases Stein, dropping numbly back to his side. Spirit's never been very good at trying to reason through with people; he just says things sometimes, and half the time they just come out wrong. Why a weapon like him got paired with something as delicately apocalyptic as Stein, he doesn't know. Any other weapon could have been better. Any other weapon would have let him off the hook. Spirit could have been matched to somebody pretty, somebody cute. He could have had a life. With girls.

Instead, he has Stein, looking small and morose on a chair, easily mistaken for someone that might possess a shred of conscience. And while Spirit won't call his meister a freak of nature, it's close.

"My bird," Stein says, interrupting Spirit's brooding and self-pitying. He's quieter now. He's subdued. "My... my science project."

"Is this really what you're most upset about?" Spirit asks, wondering if the only way he got through was that. Nothing about morality, nothing about decency. Just a ruined experiment. "Stein, listen. You have to have limits. You -- okay, so it was a bird this time. You have to ask yourself what's going to happen next. What are you going to do next?"

"I don't know." The confession comes out in a sigh. Then the effort of trying to answer seriously is too much; Stein's voice breaks into a breathless chuckle. "Whatever's unlucky enough to be spare."

"And what is that going to be? What are you going to do?" Spirit persists. "To these things? What are you going to do to humans, Stein?"

The other boy is silent, looking at the remains of his napkin in his hands. Suddenly he leans back, shaking the shredded paper away; he looks up at the sky, his bangs uneven and falling into his face. He blinks at them, bewildered, as if he's surprised that they're in the way, that they're impeding his vision between himself and infinite blueness. Kind of like Spirit, who's as incidental as strands of hair, and equally troublesome.

"I don't know." The repetition is so soft that Spirit almost misses it. "I wanted to find out how it worked. How are you supposed to find out, really, how anything works without taking it apart first?"

In those words -- those practical, practical words -- Spirit hears more than just a dissection of a bird at stake. He's not sure how to answer. He's not sure what to say. He knows he's supposed to be his meister's weapon, he's supposed to do something, supposed to say something. He's supposed to know how to handle his partner.

He's just not sure he can.

It had been easier when he'd thought Stein had been putting on an act to scare people -- exaggerating an otherwise average sadistic streak to try and frighten others, or to garner attention, to earn punishment or respect or both. Spirit had gone into his partnership assuming that. He's been steadily realizing his mistake ever since.

"I'm expected to keep you under control," Spirit says heavily. "But do you even know what that word means, Stein?"

"Control?" Weariness fills the younger boy's voice. His eyes squint against the glare of the sun. The excitement has seeped out of him; now he looks like a waif in patchwork clothing, collapsing into himself. "Sometimes you remind me of a suture, senpai. Closing things up before I have a chance to properly look."

If Stein was a maniac all the time, it'd be easier for Spirit to manage him, just by dangling things in front of his meister like string for an overly excitable cat -- but Stein's smarter than that. He's whimsical, hard to tame. Spirit's had his share of victories, usually involving bookstores and zoo passes, but they're few and far between. Stein's a scholarship child; Spirit's grades are bland, but his combat potential is overwhelming in Stein's hands. Stein knows how to match him almost perfectly. If the situation were reversed, Spirit wouldn't even know where to start.

And that's why Spirit wants to have faith in his meister after all, he realizes. That's why he tries. Keeps trying. Stein has the ability to become calm, to control himself, to resonate with Spirit, and Spirit can't give up on the other boy so soon. Sure, his meister's crazy. Sure.

But that doesn't mean Stein's lost entirely yet.

Spirit tamps down his voice, makes it stern, fighting not to think about the way the bird's muscles had been pinned out over its bones. Its eye had been a black stone. When it had opened its beak, its tongue had been missing. "You need to stop somewhere, Stein. Do you understand?"

Stein's fingers come up. His head tilts. His left hand rubs methodically at his scalp, pressing hard, repeating circle after circle as if he could bore through straight to his brain. "Don't lecture me, senpai. I don't want to hear it -- "

"You need to stop."

Snaking out his hand, Spirit tugs Stein up by his sleeve. The younger boy feels limp; before Stein can tighten up in a flinch, Spirit lets him go. "Come on," he urges, waiting for Stein to regain his balance. "Let's get out of here and go somewhere fun. You wanted to stop by the main library, right?"

Gathering himself with a deep breath, Stein makes a short nod. "Yes."

Spirit relaxes, shoving his hands in his pockets. One more chance couldn't hurt, he tells himself. He'd clean up the bird when they got back to the dorms; Stein could try again with something else. They could both try again.