Title: Toils and Troubles
Rating: PG
Characters: Death the Kid, Shinigami

Summary:Kid considers failure to be unacceptable. A companion piece to Episode 14 / Chapter 012, the "Ultimate Written Exam". Dedicated to Raserei Hojo, happy (early) birthday!

"The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." ~F. Scott Fitzgerald

Shinigami bounced in place thoughtfully, looking at Kid. The boy was standing with his hands clasped behind his back, looking smaller than his short stature usually projected. The death god was both surprised and relieved that Kid was standing quietly, rather than groveling on the floor and lamenting his flaws that didn't pertain to anything. He'd almost think it was progress, a little bit of restraint leashed onto the obsessions that ruled his son's life, except for the reason why he was standing before the Reaper now.

"Sid came to see me earlier," Shinigami began. Though he tried to keep his tone as lighthearted as always, an invisible weight was already beginning to gather between Kid's shoulder blades, though his back remained straight to any physical observance. "About the exam this morning."

Kid's eyes were on a point midway across the platform, indeterminate, safe. Shinigami waited a moment longer to see if any verbal reply was forthcoming before continuing, "Is there something you want to talk about, Kid?"

Another pound; golden gaze held steady at nothing. "I had some trouble with the exam," the teen said lowly. "Sid was only doing his duty as the class proctor."

Shinigami pressed his blocky hands together. "Hmm- hmm~" he mused. "I told Stein to make it a challenge this year!"

Of course, he knew what the problem was... but if he could draw Kid into stating it aloud, maybe it would have more of an impact. First steps of recovery and all that. When Sid had came in to see him, it was with sheet in hand, the unposted scores on the bulletin board for the students to see. Sid had been nonspecific, whether out of personal respect for the god or simply good manners — that was the kind of man he'd been — when he'd mentioned that some students (no names) had gotten a failing grade (zeros, to be exact) and that prior to the posting of the results (for everyone to see) would Lord Death (as the headmaster) like those grades to simply be left off the chart.

"Nope!" Shinigami had answered, flashing a gigantic thumbs up. "Post them all up!"

Sid might've given him an odd look as he was leaving the Death Room, but it was hard to tell anymore, and the results were made known shortly thereafter: Death the Kid - Score: 0 - Grade: Failed.

Kid had come to see him, unprompted. Shinigami would've chosen to speak to him at home, candidly, but for as skilled as the boy was for taking on the burden of imagined shame, Kid was doubly so when there was something he had actually failed at.

"What sort of trouble, Kid? Even if Stein wrote it tricky, you know all of it."

The barest quiver, a swallow, but otherwise no outward reaction to Shinigami's unwavering questions. "I ran out of time. My name was... there was just less time than I thought there'd be..."

You spent part of that time passed out on the floor, Shinigami wanted to say. Sid had mentioned it, of course. The Reaper didn't disagree with the undead teacher's choice of leaving him unconscious on the floor. Kid was not to be treated differently than the other students, he maintained. (Part of him realized how hypocritical that was, given that he assigned Kid missions far beyond the scope of one-star meisters.) It was as important for the other students as it was for Kid's own development, so Shinigami tried to keep his tone free from accusation. "Kid..."

"Yes, Father?"

"The exam was an hour long."

If the clouds drifting across the painted sky had any sound, it would have been audible in the absolute silence that gripped the room following that pronouncement. "Yes Father," Kid finally repeated, the invisible weight all but crushing the words out of him in a whisper.

Shinigami felt a pang of guilt and wished parenting was easier. As Shibusen's headmaster, he was no stranger to seeking the balance between encouragement and discipline to guide his students to better grades. Yet seeing Kid's shameful expression, he wanted nothing more than to hug his son and assure him it was just a number, it didn't matter, that Shinigami had no doubts as to Kid's capable skill. "Don't worry! There's always next year," he said encouragingly.

The boy's face fell and he excused himself from the Death Room, leaving Shinigami wondering where he'd erred.

Kid almost bumped into Maka coming out of the doorway at the far end of the guillotine corridor, where the blond had been pulling open the tall double doors that led into the Death Room. "Excuse me," he said automatically, then paused when he realized who it was. "Ah, Maka. Did you need something?"

The scythe technician shook her head quickly, pigtails flipping back and forth. "Lord Death asked me to come and see him after classes ended," she said. "He didn't say what it was about, though. I don't want to be late..."

Kid could sense the nervousness radiating from her soul and gave her a small smile. "You shouldn't worry. I'm sure he just plans to congratulate you on your exam score."

The reassurance worked and Maka brightened considerably. "You think so? Thank goodness! I was really worried..." she began, but stopped herself when she remembered that Kid had gotten a failing grade - not only failing, but an actual zero. Was that what he'd been coming back from, just now? She couldn't imagine having to explain that and tried cautiously, "Kid, was your dad... mad because of your test score?"

He looked at her blankly, like he couldn't put those concepts together. "No," he said finally, eyes hooded. "Father... wasn't angry."

She couldn't read his expression. Feeling unsettled, feeling as though she'd toed some invisible line, she gave a half wave of thanks and slipped inside the double doors.

Stein jabbed the last key with a satisfied hum and the computer drive whirred, saving his results. Lacing his fingers behind his head, he leaned back with a satisfied puff on the last inch of his cigarette, savoring the nicotine. Without turning around he said, "It's bad manners to invite yourself in."

Kid stepped out of the shadowed doorway. "Professor Stein," he said punctiliously, as the back splash of light from the monitor made his eyes luminous in the dark. Ever since he'd enrolled at Shibusen, he'd begun amending the title when speaking with the scientist. Stein wondered if that change had been commissioned by his father, or if it was simply something the young shinigami chose to do of his own accord.

"Something I can help you with, little reaper?"

"I wanted to speak with you about today's exam," Kid said. "You wrote it and marked it, so it stands to reason you'd have extra copies. I'd like to take it again."

Stein leaned back even farther, apparently defying gravity in his chair, and let the cigarette hang loosely from the corner of his mouth. "There aren't any retests on this exam, so your first score stands. That's Shibusen policy, so take it up with-"

"You misunderstand, Professor," Kid interrupted coolly. "I'm well aware of Father's rules. Moreso, I imagine, than you're used to being." He either didn't see or ignored Stein's raised eyebrow. "I don't want another chance to score the exam. I just want to finish writing it properly."

Now that was interesting, the scientist thought. Arrogance? No, not exactly. If he knows he can't change his score, it's a waste of his time to rewrite it. He won't get anything out of the effort. The two regarded each other across the dimness of the laboratory, a silent battle of wills. Finally the older one reached into his desk and withdrew a packet of papers, holding them out. The aberrance in Kid's behaviour had him intrigued now.

"Thank you Professor," Kid accepted them and turned to leave.

"Where do you think you're going?" The young shinigami stopped at the silky question and the scientist continued, "None of the other students got to take it home and write it at their leisure. If you want to retake the test, you'll do it here under the same time limit."

Kid stared at him, perhaps trying to discern if he was joking; with Stein, it was often difficult to tell. When the man didn't waver, Kid took a seat at the metal table, took up a nearby pen, and began to write. For three quarters of an hour, only the sound of the nib scratching across the sheet could be heard and the occasional clatter of keys as Stein updated his report. Forty-five minutes later, Kid laid the pen down, stood, and delivered it to Stein's desk.

Once again, the silence was broken only by the sound of ink to paper, as Stein's red pen roved over each question and answer. Finally he laid it aside, withdrew a fresh cigarette from the pack on the desk. Only after he'd lit it and leaned back in his chair did he finally speak. "Do you want to know your score?" he questioned, blowing a stream of smoke towards the high ceiling.

Kid released a breath he hadn't realized he was holding, but shook his head. "I already know." He inclined his head as though in apology for disturbing the man before heading for the door.

"What do you want me to do with this?" Stein called after him, and Kid stopped.

"Nothing," he replied without turning around. "As you said, it's inadmissible. Have a good evening, Professor Stein."

"Hmm hmm~" Shinigami mused, tilting the entire upper half of his body to the left as he regarded the screw-headed meister who'd come to see him in the dead of night; Shinigami could appreciate those inclined to night hours. "So you let him take it again?"

Stein shrugged. "He showed up at my lab and asked to. I heard what happened in the class. It sounded like quite the spectacle."

It usually is, the god thought, though aloud he only said, "And~?"

"A perfect score." The gear teeth clicked together as the man cranked the screw, looking at the Reaper lazily. It was such a practiced facade that it fooled a great many people; Stein liked to be underestimated. "As expected. It's not like he doesn't know the material."

"Of course, of course."

Stein's screw locked into place and he reached for the cigarette package in his lab coat's breast pocket. "I'm not going to let him get away with that next time," he commented. "Even though he said not to do anything with it, I'm not going to enable him. You shouldn't enable him."

The Reaper turned just slightly, his equivalent of a sidelong glance, and his voice lost some of its whimsical lilt when he answered, "That's your choice as a Shibusen teacher, Stein. But I think the parental advice is unnecessary, hmm? I'm sure that I'm the one who knows what's best for Kid."

Later, after Stein had excused himself and gone back to his laboratory, Shinigami slipped through one of his mirrors to the quiet hallways of Gallows Manor. Making his rounds first to the girls' rooms (pulling a blanket down over Patty's exposed feet, and nudging the pillow back under Liz's head) he then made his way towards Kid's room, silently watching his son sleeping. Kid seemed tiny in the middle of the wide bed (it would be in the exact center, Shinigami suspected, should he measure it) and the moonlight coming in the parted curtains illuminated the half rings of his Sanzu Lines.

He thought about leaving, but the distraught look Kid had given him right before leaving the Death Room earlier gave him pause. Kid's face was unlined, a quick brush of his soul against his son's revealed that Kid's sleep was anxious and though he'd kept the touch light, the teen immediately began to stir. "Nghn... Father?"

Shinigami settled himself onto the edge of the bed, though his form barely depressed the blankets. "I didn't mean to wake you."

Kid sat up in the bed, his fingers skittering over the covers to straighten and fold away the imperfections caused by the movement until he was satisfied everything was smooth and neat again, then turned his face upwards. "Is everything all right? Did you need something?"

"Everything's fine," the elder god reassured, reflecting he's always so eager to please in equal parts fondness and disquiet at the thought. "I was just thinking about earlier today..."

A flash progression of emotion cross Kid's face: worried, nervous, cautious. Shinigami thought for sure that he'd bring up the self-imposed retest and its perfect score but to his surprise, Kid stayed silent on the subject, apparently ready to take any admonishment on his original score. Oh Kid...

"I just wanted to say I'm proud of you," he said gently. "Because I was thinking that, just maybe, you'd gotten the wrong idea that I'd be less proud because of one number versus another on paper. And I wanted to make sure you knew that wasn't true." He put a thoughtful finger to the side of his mask. "Just in case."

Kid's mouth parted slightly, but then he ducked his head, embarrassed but soul pulsing with contentment. "Thank you, Father. I hadn't forgotten but... I'm still glad you told me." He patiently suffered his parent's playful ruffle of his hair, moved quickly to comb the strands back into place, and then wiggled back beneath the blankets to be tucked in. "Goodnight."

"Goodnight, Kid. Sleep well."