What Comes Next

If she was going to stay in Nevada, she'd need to get a lighter wardrobe. The heat was nearly unbearable now that the summer was bearing down on the blackened and blistered remains of the school and Death City. Just watching all the construction crews laboring under a panting sun made her hot.

And speaking of construction crews, she bit her lip as she rolled to a stop in front of yet another detour sign.

'I have enough trouble getting places without all the roads being messed up. So much for a quick run to the grocery store,' Marie thought irritably to herself as she debated between right and left. With a huff of annoyance, she steered to the right, her rental car bouncing her around as she hit various potholes left behind from Death's battle with Ashura. One particularly deep pothole made her fear that her tire had just blown out, and she hissed out a rather unladylike curse as her head bonked against the driver side window.

She slammed on her brakes and took a moment to try to calm down. After she had collected herself as best she could, she unfastened her seatbelt and slid out of the hot leather seat.

"I hope you've got a spare tire, Marie," a familiar voice said cheerfully. The death scythe turned to see Joe Buttataki climbing down from a cement truck that had rumbled up from a nearby side street. While she was not on unfriendly terms with her ex-boyfriend, she had worked very hard to avoid him while they were both staying in Death City. With all the chaos of the battle and her duties to Stein, it had been fairly easy to do. Now, however, she saw him all the time around the academy halls and around town overseeing all sorts of jobs.

"You're in charge of all this reconstruction, aren't you Joe?" Marie asked, sounding like her usual sweet self, but there was a flicker of warning in her golden eyes.

"Yeah," Joe said, smiling at her in his big, carefree way as he came closer to inspect the damage to her vehicle.

"Then you're the one I can blame for posting a detour sign on a road that's clearly not fit for driving?" Marie asked, still sounding pleasant despite her words. Joe chuckled, obviously not intimidated by Marie's irritation.

"There are a few random signs hanging around that we haven't taken down yet, but nobody should even be in this part of town to see them—the whole area is blockaded off for repairs. Did you get lost again?" Joe asked good naturedly. Marie frowned. She was hot and annoyed—she'd left the house to shop, not out of necessity, but because Stein was driving her crazy. Now she had damaged her rental car and had run into her ex-boyfriend.

"I might have driven over some traffic cones at one point, but I was certain that the grocery store was this way," Marie said.

"No harm done. It's not like we'd poured the wet cement yet. I can get this tire changed for you in no time and I'll draw you a map," Joe offered. Marie felt some of her irritation drain away in the face of his cheerfulness. The booming technology development advisor made short work of fixing her tire with a manly, rugged ease that made Marie a little warm for an entirely different reason. Joe was the man she'd imagined herself marrying not so long ago. They made such a perfect couple—everyone said so—and yet Joe had dumped her. His reasons were vague, but he admitted finally that it was a reluctance to get into anything too serious. He liked her, but he wasn't ready for marriage and children.

She'd been heartbroken for weeks, and likely still would have been if Death hadn't called her and assigned her to Stein. Now, she didn't know how she felt about Joe, or even where she stood with him.

"So…are you still living with Dr. Stein?" Joe asked casually. When she didn't immediately answer, he tightened up a bolt on her spare and added, "I figured you would head home as soon as possible once all the fighting was done."

"I've asked to be reassigned. I like teaching and…"

"And living with Stein?" Joe finished, his smile fading somewhat as he stood, dusting off his shorts. Marie frowned. At her thunderous expression, Joe's hard gaze softened somewhat. "I'm just worried about you, Marie. That's all. I don't want you to delude yourself into thinking Stein can give you what you want. You're just escaping from reality here," Joe assessed brutally, though his tone was not unkind.

Marie felt the pressure of building tears and moved to get back in her car. Joe caught her gently by the arm.

"Go back home, Marie. Don't set yourself up for disappointment like this," Joe advised.

"You no longer have any say in what I do, Joe. Let me go," she finally said, managing to sound more angry than heartbroken, and she was grateful for that small dignity. With a heavy sigh, Joe released her arm.

"Don't be like this, Marie. I thought we were going to be friends still," Joe said. Marie opened her car door and slid inside, biting her lip harshly.

"It's still too soon. I need more time," she said hollowly. Joe frowned a bit sadly, finally dropping his mask of cheerfulness.

"Marie…I want to talk about this. Can't we go get some coffee together?"

"And talk about what, Joe? I fell in love with you and you left me. There's not much to talk about."

"If you want to stay here to teach, that's fine, but you shouldn't stay with a guy like Stein, Marie. I'm telling you—no good is going to come from it. If you had any sense, you'd get your own place. Try being brave enough to be alone for awhile. It'll do you wonders," Joe said as a parting shot.

As Marie drove off recklessly down the cratered road, crying more openly now, she wondered if she felt better or worse now that the confrontation she'd been dreading for weeks had finally happened. On one hand, she was nearly overpowered by relief—Joe wasn't truly so callous as he'd acted. He cared about her deeply still, and he'd definitely noticed her attachment to Stein. He almost seemed jealous, and that made her feel just a little bit better.

On the other hand, the distractions of battle were gone now, and with it their tenuous ceasefire. Would they fuss and squabble with each other until they couldn't stand one another? Would Joe realize he was being silly to fear commitment, or would he remain convinced that she was too needy? She felt like she was drowning in uncertainties; she was as lost in her personal life as she was in Death City.

She saw a line of bright orange cones and breathed sharply in relief. At least she would soon be out of the construction zone. The cones made muffled thumping noises as she drove over them and onto a smoother, less hazardous road. It was another shopping district, one she had never been to before, but it would serve her purposes. She parked against the curb and entered a small clothing shop, hopeful to find something less oppressive than her heavy black dresses—specifically designed to withstand electric frying on a regular basis, though too heavy and hot for daily wear. While she'd likely keep the severe garments for when she was teaching, she definitely needed some clothing that offered relief from the heat for when she was not working.

The shopping trip was just what she needed. Though her pay wasn't impressive as a teacher, she was saving a lot by living with Stein for free. Joe's advice that she find her own place butted unwelcome back into her thoughts, but she pushed his words away just as forcefully as she pushed apart the clothing on the racks.

There was nothing wrong with her personality. She didn't need to change herself to please Joe or Stein or anyone else.

The clothing shop was not a very modern one. Though the dresses were light for summer, most were accented by lace and looked vaguely Victorian in style. Despite the fact that she'd just told herself she had no reason to change for then men in her life, she couldn't help but wonder if Stein would think such dresses were pretty. They were not obnoxiously bright (he'd clearly been annoyed by her choice when it came to the couch, after all) and she thought he might appreciate the attention to fine details—complicated patterns and lacing that echoed Stein's fondness for stitching.

She bought several of them, as well as an elegant, wide velvet ribbon to replace her eye patch. She'd never dressed in such a way when she was with Joe. For him, she'd worn short skirts and tops with plunging necklines.

'Maybe Joe's right…maybe I do try too hard to please whoever I'm with.'

Marie bought the dresses anyway, and returned to Stein's home nearly five hours after she'd left, without the milk she'd originally gone for, with her arms full of satin and lace instead. Stein didn't seem to notice that she had left at all.

The next morning, Marie felt a little better. Stein's guest room (or as he referred to it, "the recovery ward") was sterile and entirely free from clutter, but now that she had lived in it for nearly two months, it was beginning to reflect her character. Potted sunflowers stretched their fuzzy brown and yellow faces up towards the sunlight drifting in through the lone window, and she'd bought red, poka-dot sheets and a bright yellow blanket for the bed. Stein had taken one look at the new linens and rolled his eyes in a defeated sort of way before sulking off down the gray hallway, slouching in annoyance and puffing hard on his cigarette.

The dresses, which she had not bothered to hang yet, definitely clashed with her sheets and her flowers, though they were well suited to the house itself. After showering in cool water to chase away the heat of the morning, she slipped into the very prettiest dress and decided to stop caring entirely about whether Stein liked it or not, or if it truly reflected her personality, because it was light and flowing around her knees, and instead of heavy sleeves, it had only fluttering lace. She laced it up behind her with a little difficulty, and admired the ivory color in the mirror. Her new ribbon tied over her eye and knotted into a looping bow in the waves of her blonde hair completed her make over.

She no longer felt like a death scythe, or like the woman who had once loved Joe. She felt different somehow—ready for something new.

Passing by the laboratory/living room on her way to the kitchen, she glanced almost excitedly towards the computer, but Stein was not there. The final battle and his bout of madness had taken a heavy toll on him. He was likely still resting. He tended to stay up very late and sleep till noon—at least that was his pattern on nights he actually slept.

Marie set about making breakfast (Stein's favorites) as well as a hot cup of coffee for herself. The crackling of bacon and the smell of pancakes stirred Stein from his rest. He shuffled into the kitchen looking sleepy-eyed and still dressed in his stitch-swirled, gray pajamas. He blinked at her in surprise for a few moments, taking in the sight of Marie's old-fashioned sundress, her bare feet with painted toes, and her warm, easy smile. She waved at him with a fairly new spatula in a kitchen that had begun to reflect Marie as well—fridge magnets, bright cushions on the two kitchen chairs, and a vase of flowers on the small table.

"Good morning, sleepy head," she greeted. Not much of a morning person, Stein merely grunted by way of greeting as he sat down. Almost immediately, a steaming cup of coffee was placed in front of him (in his favorite Erlenmyer flask). For a second, as Marie leaned over to place the coffee down, Stein wondered if she was going to kiss his cheek. She had moved as if she were going to, but caught herself at the last second and pulled away instead.

Stein swallowed uncomfortably and hunched a little over his coffee.

"Your clothes are different," he said. It was neither compliment nor criticism—mere observation. She smiled as if it were a compliment.

"I did a bit of shopping yesterday after our little disagreement. You didn't notice I left?" she asked. He hadn't, and he wasn't aware they'd had a disagreement. He was almost afraid to ask, because truthfully, 90% of the time he tuned out Marie's bubbly chatter.

"Ah…what were we disagreeing about again?" he asked, scratching idly at his cheek, rough with morning stubble. Marie stiffened, and he could make an educated guess that her expression was one of annoyance. When she spoke, however, her voice was determinedly cheerful.

"Somehow my couches ended up with rather large gashes in them, and somebody saw fit to sew them back up," Marie flipped a pancake with more force than was necessary. Stein's mild curiosity vanished quickly.

'Ah, she's on about that obnoxious furniture again—providing stitching practice was the only good thing to come from those purple monstrosities,' he mused. Deciding it was safe to retreat into his own thoughts once more, he returned to puzzling over the test results he'd completed last night, and what it might mean for his research into the black blood.

"I rather liked them without the stitching, and I see no reason in tearing a perfectly good couch just for the fun of mending it—and they same can be said for my poor Teddy, which did absolutely nothing to you and didn't deserve a stuffing lobotomy," Marie scolded lightly as she expertly transferred food to plate.

'I wonder…no…maybe it's the fault of using mice. I might need a bigger test subject. If I could get a pig somewhere, that might work…' Stein continued to ponder. A plate was placed in front of him, snapping him out of his reverie.

The perfectly round pancake was smiling at him with a bacon grin. Its eyes were two, shiny blueberries, and it had a screw going through it drawn from syrup, as well as some rather impressively detailed, syrupy stitches under one plump blueberry eye.

Stein was accustomed to Marie managing to make every dish she cooked ridiculous in some form or fashion, but this was on a whole new level.

"You made me into a pancake," he commented. She smiled brightly, clearly pleased with herself.

"Cute, huh?"

Stein thought of himself as a disturbing man at times, but even he wouldn't call eating his own face for breakfast "cute." He settled on a simple and slightly awkward thank-you. He wondered how long she would be staying.

She sat at the table beside him, a glossy magazine opened beside her coffee cup. A quick glance confirmed his suspicions—a bridal magazine.

"Oooh…that's a pretty one, don't you think?" she asked, as she briefly lifted the magazine so he could see the sparkling ring in the advertisement.

Stein smeared some of the scarring, impaled his blueberry eye, and stuffed his mouth with face-pancake to avoid having to respond. She seemed happy with his enthusiastic eating and he escaped having to answer. She turned another page and changed the subject rather abruptly.

"Does it bother you that Medusa heard all our conversations these past few weeks?" she asked. Stein contemplated her question while he chewed, a little thrown by it.

"It's always unsettling to be spied on," he finally replied, as he downed his bite with a sip of perfectly brewed coffee.

"Yes, but it's more than that, isn't it? The two of you…she was your ex sort-of, wasn't she?" Marie asked. Stein shrugged after a long moment.

"It was purely physical," he settled on saying. This was the first time Marie had ever broached the topic of Medusa and his past with her. Stein wondered why he had given her such personal information about himself, but he figured it wasn't exactly private after what they had been through together.

"Is something on your mind?" he asked, fairly certain he'd regret doing so. Marie bit her plump bottom lip—she seemed to do that when she was feeling nervous—and stared hard at the pages of the magazine.

"She said…she said I annoyed you."

"Sometimes," Stein replied honestly. He took another bite of pancake.

"Oh," she said with a sharp intake of air. Her golden eye flashed up at him and emotionally stunted as he may have been, even Stein could tell when he'd hurt Marie's feelings.

"It's not you specifically—I just don't care much for other people in general," he said.

"Oh," Marie replied again, her eyes returning to the magazine.

"Oh?" Stein parroted back, though his tone was questioning. Marie delicately shrugged her shoulders.

"I just wouldn't want to be annoying, that's all."

"Don't worry about it. You won't be staying here much longer," Stein replied dismissively. He earned himself another hurt expression. Stein decided he was not doing very well with the whole talking thing this morning.

"I'm not saying you have to leave—I just assumed you would," he clarified. This time, it was not as easy to sooth away Marie's worried look.

"Do you want me to go?" she asked.

Stein stared at his half-eaten face as he pondered his answer. His house was different now, with furniture always popping up in places where there had been nothing but sterile vacancy before. It was tiring, too, keeping up with Marie's endless babble when he'd been so accustomed to silence. However, Marie also washed his lab coat and cooked his favorite foods, and she kept the place clean. She sung pretty songs as she did her work nearby, and she'd occasionally fill his dark house with laughter if a student's essay amused her. She trusted him in a curious way that no one else dared, and she had come for him, when he'd been lost to madness.

Sometimes, in a very scientific sort of way, he wondered what it would feel like to kiss her.

"No, I don't want you to go. I thought you wanted to find a husband, though," he finally said, gesturing towards the magazine. Marie smiled at its pictures of romance fondly and then gently closed it. Her grin was teasing, though Stein was only just getting to know her well enough to tell.

"Why don't you just marry me?" she suggested. "Bride of Franken Stein—it has a nice ring to it," she said with mock seriousness.

Stein flashed the tiniest of smiles.

"That sounds like the title of a horror movie," he replied. Marie's grin widened and she sipped her own coffee from a cheery mug.

"Being married to me wouldn't be as scary as all that. Big, brave guy like Joe—terrified by two little words. It's almost funny."

"I thought we were discussing our marriage?" Stein clarified, a little confused by her reference to another man. Her joking spirit was gone. Now she stared into her coffee forlornly.

"Ah, forgive me. I guess my thoughts are a little scattered these days. I ran into Joe yesterday—did you know we used to date? And it wasn't just physical. I loved him."

This was news to Stein. They'd spent so much time lately dealing with his ex that it didn't occur to him that Marie had one of her own in town. It made sense though. Marie and Joe were from the same branch, and they certainly looked compatible with one another. Stein could picture the two of them as a happy little family quite easily, and if he could conjure such an image, no doubt Marie had already planned out their entire futures together.

"Why did he call it off?" Stein asked. Marie pouted.

"Why do you automatically assume he dumped me?" she asked. Stein simply gave her a look. She huffed in annoyance, but ceded the point. "Fine. I'm clingy. Whatever."

In a rare moment of tenderness (perhaps he was just curious to feel her skin), Stein reached across the table and loosely took her hand in his larger one. She glanced at their intertwined fingers in surprise and then blinked a few times in startled confusion.

"If you weren't clingy, I'd still be giggling like a little school girl trapped in a filthy cave with an evil snake woman."

"This is true," she replied with a shaky grin, some of her happiness restored by the simplest of words from him. It was a strange power he seemed to hold over her, and Stein wasn't entirely sure how to wield such a weapon—if it was even a weapon at all. He gave her fingers a brief squeeze and then released her hand.

"I…I have feelings for you, you know. I have since I was a girl," she admitted, a pretty blush darkening her cheeks. Stein didn't meet her eyes, but nodded over his plate.

"I know."

"Franken, do you…" Marie began, but trailed off into muteness.

"I don't think I could love you, but I could marry you, if that would make you happy." Stein said simply. Marie was staring at him hard now, and he met her eyes a little hesitantly.

"I don't know if that's good enough," she finally said. "But…it's better than what I have. Are you proposing to me?" she asked.

"It's no difference to me, Marie," he replied.

Marie bit her lip and stared into her coffee once more.

"For now…could we just pretend?" she asked meekly, the hurt of Joe's betrayal making her voice weak. Dr. Stein observed her hunched shoulders under the fancy needlework of the lace. He saw her soft hair in gentle blonde waves, and the surprising vulnerability from a woman who transformed into a massive hammer.

"I suppose if you don't mind all the experiments I perform on you, I can tolerate your playing house with me."

"How far will our game go?" she asked, and now she was coy, glancing up at him with the lashes on her good eye fluttering. Franken considered her, and thought in a detached sort of way about his own desire to use her as more than a weapon.

He settled on taking her hand once more and placing a gentle kiss between her scarred knuckles.

"If you are not afraid of further scarring, we can play however you like," Dr. Stein offered. He returned her hand to the table, and resumed eating the last of his face-pancakes. Across the table, Marie flashed a tiny, almost secretive smile, and buried her blushing face in her coffee mug.

She may have been a little lost in Death City, but she felt like she was in good hands all the same.

A/N: Just a one-shot gathering dust on my computer. I thought I'd finish it up and post, seeing as I'm quite fond of Stein and Marie. My first Soul Eater fanfic, and probably my only.