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It's the turn of the century; the end of an era, and the start of a new one—technologies advancing rapidly; the very fabric of society bending and stretching and morphing before the very eyes.

Though technically summer still, a bite of cold lingers in the air; a weakness to the sunlight foretelling of the coming of a harsh winter.

Still, the common people are enjoying the warmth of the sun—and looking forward to the new year, and its festivities.

In a remote corner of Bavaria, on the Gottlieb estate, the cause of excitement is for quite a separate reason entirely. For while the year's profits have been good—the Gottliebs run a decently prosperous trading business, and have for as long as any of them could remember—the true reason that the members of the family are in an unusually good mood is because the Madam Gottlieb is due very, very soon—at any moment, as a matter of fact.

Mister Gottlieb fancies himself another son; his concern, primarily, is for an heir to inherit his business; for while he already has two children, the eldest, Dietrich, had expressed great distaste in the family business, preferring instead to pursue a career in the medical field, much to Gottlieb's dismay, and the second, Karla—

Well.

Mister Gottlieb is, foremost, a man of tradition, and not one to be easily budged.

Madam Gottlieb, the daughter of a professor in the city, wishes, at the moment, for merely a piece to eat. She's not had much to eat, and she feels rather peckish—this pregnancy has been particularly tricky.

She tugs crossly at the unreasonably tight corset—loosed a bit, for fear of harming the child, but still tight enough the restrict as her lungs expanded—and rises to fetch food.

The sound of feet scuttling across the floor; followed by the shout of, "Verdammt!" gives her pause,

"Karla!" Madam Gottlieb scolds, lips pursed; tight; a scowl threatening to appear. A few moments later, the girl—for Madam Gottlieb can think of her daughter as nothing else, given how prone she is to such unladylike behaviours—scampers into the kitchen, dogging the steps of the old grey cat. "You know how I feet about such language."

"Oh, as if you've never let such language past your own lips, Mutti," Karla shoots back; flippant; crouches down to scoop up the poor cat, who gives a plaintive mewl of protest; wriggling in vain. She scrubs behind his ears, for a moment, putting on display long red marks on her arm; sets him back down. "Shall I fetch the bread and butter for you?"

Madam Gottlieb is silent for a moment, before she says, grudgingly, "Yes, please." She watches as the younger makes her way over to the pantry; quick and graceful; like, if she were prone to metaphor, a gazelle; and retrieves the wanted items, as well as a plate, and sets them on the table.

Madam Gottlieb lowers herself into a chair; slowly; picks up a butterknife and a slice of bread.

A second later, the contractions start, and the knife falls to the ground, sending the afternoon light bouncing off onto the walls, for a short moment mesmerising the cat.


The child born that day is not, to the vehement dismay of the Gottlieb patriarch, a little boy. Instead, it is a small girl—no more than four pounds, at most, her tiny hands clenched into fists, the wisps of hair she has flattened to her head.

"And her name?" asks the midwife; quails, a moment later, under the glare of Mister Gottlieb. She turns, then, to the mother. "Madam Gottlieb?"

Madam Gottlieb doesn't reply. Her skin has an unusually pale colouring, and she does not speak. "Madam Gottlieb?" the midwife prompts, an edge of worry to her tone. "Madam Gottlieb!"

But she makes no reply.

The midwife presses two fingers to her neck; withdraws them, trembling slightly, a hand over her mouth, a moment later. "She's..." she pauses. "She's passed on," she says, and a silence falls over the room.

The wee lass, placed in the crib, lets out nary a whimper; near-forgotten for the rest of the day; then, and only then, does the Gottlieb patriarch, with a cold glance, deign to cast an eye at her, and proclaim she is no child of his; his wife had delivered, before her death, a son— he is sure of it. This child is no relation of his—and thus, she has no name to call her own.

"Cursed," he murmurs, with a glower in her direction when, a week later, Karla happens to wander into the room he is in with the babe in her arms. "She took the life of your poor mother—"

"Enough, Lars," Karla says; sharp; the words tinged with grief at her mother's death. She holds the child tightly; protective, nearly. "That is no way to be speaking around a child."

Mister Gottlieb trails off into a mutter, but he resumes just as loudly as soon as she's out of his line of sight.

Needless to say, the girl does not have a happy childhood.

Mister Gottlieb becomes, after the death of his first wife, a surly man; prone to fits of rage and punishment. His temper is not made any more even-keeled by the fact that the girl takes after her sister; both in manner and in dress. Worsening his already foul views of her is an unfortunate accident when she's only just turned eight.

The girl—adventurous to a fault—is, in her youth, quite enamoured of the trees on the estate; taking a great deal of pleasure in scaling them—and, in the process, terrifying her governesses and tutors with the fear that she will suffer a great accident.

Tragically, that very thing happens; the merry sound of laughter, then, a misplaced foot; a hand slipping, just so, not quite purchased correctly; and then, a shout; a cry of pain; the twist of bone and blood, blood, blood.


Gottlieb sits at her desk; the picture of calm compose; the papers before her; the wood of her cane against the wood of the desk just so that the grain of one seems, almost, to bleed into the other. The décor of her office is muted; shades of grey and brown, the only colour that of her chalk on her personal boards.

It is efficient.

Gottlieb is a great believer of efficiency—both in herself and the things she uses.

Her papers are arranged with the same meticulousness that allows for the grain of her cane and desk to line up; everything has its place; nothing was out of place—ever; and it was easy to tell. The only thing that does not fit the image of a prim and proper professor of mathematics is the messy scrawl of her equations.

Other than that, the room is perfect; the picture of efficient organisation.

Well—it would have been perfect, were it not for the corpse of a man laying on the floor in front of her desk; though, in all fairness, such a sight was uncommon in her office; so uncommon, in fact, that this was the first time Gottlieb had ever seen a dead body—in her office or otherwise—at such close proximity.

The man had been shot, quite recently, by the looks of it—elsewhere, obviously, since her office lacks the tell-tale splatterings of blood indicative of a shot fired to the head—and someone had dragged it into her office while she was out.

She folds her hands beneath her chin and waits for the police to arrive—she had sent for them the moment she had stepped into her office.

Still, though, it is—odd, to say the least; who killed a man and then disposed of his body not, say, in the Thames, but in the—locked, at that—office of a mathematics professor? Surely, the culprit would have wanted to get rid of the body discreetly—and taking the time to pick a lock while one has a dead body with them is hardly the epitome of subtlety.

There is a knock on her door; sharp; lacking the hesitance so often present in her students. "Come in," she calls; rises to her feet, drawing her cane from its place.

A policeman enters; step sure. "Mister Gottlieb," he greets; she thinks, perhaps, they have met before—a social function, maybe; she cannot seem to remember.

"Professor," she corrects; a hint of irritation bleeding into her tone; then, "I found him like this on entering. Someone must have picked the lock on my office door—I keep it locked unless I am within."

"Hmm," murmurs the officer; strides over to the dead man; kneeling, so as to better to examine him; asks, gaze still fixed on the body, "You don't recognise him at all?

"No, obviously not," she snaps, "otherwise, I would have said so. This man is a stranger to me, officer—the only thing I know about him is that he is beginning to make my office smell foul." The pitch of her words rises; last few carrying the heaviness of her native Bavarian inflection in her irritation.

The officer starts; gives a small cough. "Right, yes," he says, "I'll get him out of here promptly."

"Danke," Gottlieb replies, and gives the body a glower.

It is then that something odd catches her eye. "Officer," she says; makes her way to his side, nudging the dead man's arm with the tip of her cane, "there seems to be something of interest on his arm." Something—she's not sure what, exactly—blue shows on the man's arm, covered, mostly, by the sleeve of his shirt.

The officer hesitates for a moment, before withdrawing from his pocket a handkerchief, which he uses as a barrier between himself and the dead man's skin; pushes back the sleeve to reveal a set of odd blue markings on the skin.

"Well, I'll be damned," he says, after a moment, "professor, your office was visited by none other than the Chelsea Blue."

The name adds a weight to the air; the utterance of the press' name of the killer, still at large, sends a shiver down Gottlieb's spine, but she refuses to let her discomfort show.

"It seems a bit too...clean," she comments, "weren't the others in far worse condition?"

That, she knows, is a gross understatement. The only reason that the victims have been traced back to the same killer is because, while the body usually was too savaged to identify, the killer always leaves a single area unblemished: that where there are a collection of blue tattoos—bright, savage blue, in the shape of what looked like a skull—but not one of a human or any animal anyone can parse; no, rather, it seems to be the skull of some great beast that does not exist.

The body in her office resembles more that of a man executed than a man murdered.

The officer nods. "Yes. The fact that this man was obviously killed by someone else and also has the same tattoo as the Chelsea Blue's victims could be a coincidence, but," he shoots her a look.

"It's unlikely," she finishes; she can calculate how likely it is, and the number is far, far too small to be anywhere within the realm of reasonable possibility.

He nods again. "I'm going to have to call in a team," he warns, "it might be in your best interests to make sure you take anything particularly fragile home with you, just in case—"

She wishes to argue; bites her tongue, instead; while usually, she would protest the intrusion, there is simply no way to avoid it, now. "Alright," she says; grudgingly. "I suppose the rest of my work can be completed at home or left to be finished at a later time. Is there anything else, or...?"

"No, no," replies the officer, "you can go home now, sir." And he tips his cap slightly before exiting to call for the team.

Once he has left, Gottlieb sweeps a careful eye around the room; in the end, the only things she deems necessary to take with her are an ornate globe; etched with the celestial bodies; a book of her notes; and the vase she keeps on her desk. Of those three items, only the vase has sentimental value; it is a gift from her dear sister Karla.

She arranges these carefully in her bag; snaps, with a click, the clamps shut, and picks it up, leaning into her cane for support a bit more than usual at the added weight. On the way down the hall, she passes by the night-watchman. "Vance," she greets with a nod, and the man gives her an easy grin.

"Doctor Gottlieb," he returns, "you heading out?" The question, she knows, is meant as a jab to her workaholic tendencies; rarely is there a day where she leaves before the sun has long since set.

"Yes," she replies; gives a thin-lipped, weary smile, "I'm afraid there's been a matter of utmost importance to which I must attend." Technically, it is not a lie; she has a set of houseplants that need to be watered. "Good evening to you."

"Good evening, sir," the watchman says; amicable, and she continues on her way.

The campus, bathed in the light of the setting sun, is, if one is of a certain mind, what could almost be called beautiful. Gottlieb, however, takes hardly any notice; she has other matters on her mind: who, exactly, is the dead man? And why, of all places, had the Chelsea Blue chosen her office to hide the body? Surely, it would have been more logical to dump the body than to take the risk of apprehension when breaking into her office...

Deep in thought, she almost doesn't notice that she has reached the end of the walkway; has to leap backwards to avoid a carriage passing by too close to the sidewalk at top speed. For a moment, she pants, the breath gone from her lungs, before she draws herself back up, glowering at the passerbys.

The rest of the walk to her flat is, thankfully, uneventful; there are few pedestrians on the street, and so no one attempts to greet the dour-faced mathematician, or, worse, engage in meaningless small-talk; much to her relief.

The landlady has already retired to her rooms when Gottlieb finally gets back to the house; she sets her bag down; retrieves her keys from the inner pocket of her coat, unlocking the door, the deadbolt sliding back with a familiar screee that speaks of rusting metal. She gives a wince—that thing is a bloody menace.

She returns the keys to her pocket; opens the door, before picking up her back and entering into the landing, pushing the door shut behind her with her shoulder. For a moment; then; she paused; taking a few breaths—it had been a more strenuous activity to return home, what with the added weight in her bag, and she felt quite tired.

The stairway looms ahead of her; polished wood handrail gleaming slightly by the light of the lamps in the alcoves on the wall.

She glances up its steps and into the muddy darkness where she knows the landing is with a sort of resigned exhaustion; there is no other option but to scale them, no matter how daunting an endeavour; and besides, once she has gotten to her quarters, she can prepare herself a heated bottle and take a dose of morphine for the ache in her leg—or, perhaps, a bit more than a dose; certainly, she feels, she deserves it.

"Gott," she groans; after only the third step; grips the rail tightly, clenching her teeth. Her leg gives a stab of pain, and she lets out a hiss, grip white-knuckled where she clenches the head of her cane. The fourth step, and then the fifth, she takes as fast as she dares; still has to stop—the pain is making her vision blacken.

Oh, she'd forgotten this—it's been a long time—months, she thinks—since the pain has been this bad. It must be the onset of winter; she is sure of it; the cold, wet air has always made the ache worsen.

Finally, she makes it to the landing; almost collapses to the ground with a strangled cry, catching herself with the aid of her walking-cane only at the last moment. "Schieße," she grunts; heaves herself up and stumbles to her door, leaning against it as she fumbles for the keys to her own rooms; almost dropping them, and, hand shaking, slots the key into the lock.

"Open, damn it," she groans, jiggling the handle, which stubbornly refuses to comply. She gives the key a glare; presses the handle down as hard as she can, putting all her weight behind it—

And then the door falls open; sends her sprawling to the ground.

For a moment, she lays there; the room around her swimming with pain; she barely registers anything else—it feels as if someone has gone at her leg with a hot iron, so blinding is the sensation.

And then, slowly, it ebbs; just a little; but enough that, groggily, she manages to retrieve her cane from where it has fallen; crawl to the plush chair, where she collapses, limply; back hitting the soft cushion. Finally, the weight lifted from her leg, the pain subsides a bit more.

She waits until her hands have stopped shaking to reach for the needle and the morphine; she knows from experience that, unless her hands are steady, injecting it will be both unpleasant and a difficult task.

The pain of the needle breaking the skin barely registers; deftly, she presses down on the flat top of the syringe; watches as the metal pushes the liquid out through the needle; the cold of morphine slipping into her blood a moment later.

She pulls the needle out; sets it on the table; leans back with a sigh, letting her eyes slip shut; slowly, the pain leeches away, leaving only the feeling of hollow numbness.


The next day, she returns to the classroom, rather than her office; it is off-limits, still, though no longer swarmed by officers. She realises with irritation that that means she will have to take lunch either in the staff-room or in her classroom; neither of which are particularly appetizing options.

The Wei-Tang triplets—all of whom teach language courses—will be upon her in a trice; the young Professor Bachman is a particularly unpleasant man at the best of times, and Gottlieb's leg has taken quite a bit more strain than she is used to, already, the day before.

Or...

Though she cringes at the mere thought of stepping foot into the dirty alleys and mud-covered cobblestone streets, there are a number of decent street-food vendors in the area; and, frankly, the idea of eating what she had managed to throw together, even if her office had been available, is not terribly appealing.

The day seems to drag on slower than usual; she feels as if everything has been trapped in viscous, slow-moving resin; her only respite the fact that she teaches advanced classes; at least her students do not make the habit of asking questions that are not relevant to the subject material.

Finally, the last student bids her, "Good day, sir," and files out of the room, leaving her alone with the chalkboards.

She lets out a relieved breath; mentally, she feels quite as if someone had drained her of all her energy; leaving behind merely a shell.

She frowns at the thought; it must be the effects of hunger.

The street vendors offer her a wide variety of food, and at a reasonable expense; she opts for something with a decent resemblance to pasta, and a sandwich, and, at the last moment, indulges and buys a sweet pastry; absconds, then, to a bench in a nearby park; hidden behind some trees; an area unlikely for someone to stumble upon accidentally, and thus, affording both privacy and quiet.

As she eats, Gottlieb observes the sway of the grass in the breeze; faintly, she thinks she hears the cry of a songbird; a duck waddles by, about halfway through her meal, on its way to the small pond. It seems almost as if no other humans exist, in that moment—just Gottlieb, the plants, the bench, and the animals.

It is...oddly calming.

Less calming is the reaction elicited when she checks her pocket-watch; if she does not hasten back, she will be late for her next class—and she loathes not being punctual, or, better yet, early.

"Damn," she hisses; rising as quickly as she dares; disturbing, in the process, the bird that had so picturesquely alighted on the arm of the bench, who rises, as well, with a flap of its wings and a disgusted squawk of indignation.

She shoots it a dirty glare, and hurries back.

In the end, she is not, to her great, if unvoiced, relief, late; and, in a stroke of luck, her office has finally been deemed to be acceptable for her to use again by the policemen. While there are a number of muddy boot-marks—enough to make her eye twitch—there is no true, non-aesthetic, damage. She breathes a sigh of relief and sets her bag on her desk, easing into her chair, and surveys the room.

There is, for a moment, a sense of anticipation—as if the sword of Damocles hangs over her.

And then, there is a knock on the door.

Chapter Text

PREVIOUSLY:

There is, for a moment, a sense of anticipation—as if the sword of Damocles hangs over her.

And then, there is a knock on the door.


A shiver courses down Gottlieb's spine.

Rid yourself of fear, she says harshly to herself, there is no need for it; you are simply overthinking things. She grits her teeth; calls, "Come in!"

The door-handle creaks as it turned—she realises, then, that she had never noticed this before—and slowly, slowly, it opens.

For a second, she can't make out the figure standing in the doorway—the hallway is darker than her office; the person standing in the doorway is shrouded in shadow, for the light of the lamp only stretches so far; it lends an air of tension to the moment.

Then, a tall man steps in.

He wears what Gottlieb is sure is a uniform of some sort; though she cannot place what sort. It is blue, and, all told, fairly nondescript. Over it, he wears a thick coat—the weather is taking a sharp turn into the cold with the approach of winter—, and in his hand, he carries a briefcase of dark leather; he wears black gloves, as well—as dark as the black leather of his briefcase.

She clears her throat; an attempt to reassure herself. "Yes?" she asks, and, after a moment, rises to stand.

"Mister Gottlieb?" the man asks; his voice, she notes, is uncommonly deep.

"Doctor Gottlieb," she corrects; is it truly that hard to remember? she wonders briefly; and then, "yes, that's me. And who, pray tell, are you?"

The man offers her a smile that does not quite reach his eyes. "I am Marshal Pentecost," he says, "and I'm here to offer you a place working with a prestigious agency."

There, he stops; eyes fixed on her, as if waiting for her next move; Gottlieb has the distinct impression that she is, at the moment, merely a piece in a game of chess, and the man standing in her study is a master chess-player.

The thought makes her waver for a moment; then she asks, sharply, "A prestigious agency?"

"I'm afraid I cannot disclose more," he replies, "for safety reasons, you understand. However, suffice it to say that you will be serving your people."

"I am no Britton. sir," she says; guardedly, "the crown does not hold my allegiance."

His smile turns thin; it seems he expected that answer, but it does not please him. "I speak not of the crown, Doctor. You are a citizen of the Earth—and your people are your fellow man. The threat which my agency seeks to counter, and, ultimately, eliminate, is far greater than the mere man-made concepts such as country, border, kingdom, or nation."

"Ah," Gottlieb says, softly, and then, again—for she can think of no further answer—"ah."

"Quite," the Marshal says, flatly.

Gottlieb shakes her head, and speaks; disbelief edging her tone. "Sir, why ask me to join? Surely, there are others who would be more useful—Detective Holmes, perhaps, or any other number of persons. Why ask a mathematician?"

The look the Marshal gives her is one that belays a years-long weariness. "Doctor," he says, and his voice is grave, "we need all the help we can get, I am afraid; and you are known, in certain fields, as one of the foremost experts in certain phenomena."

"Theoretical mathematics and its applications to predictive models, yes," she acknowledges, "but I don't see how that would be more useful than, say, a member of the Queen's secret service?"

The other sighs. "I'm afraid it's not that easy, Doctor Gottlieb," he says, "you see, the threat is not one that can be dealt with merely by physical intervention. What we are dealing with..." he pauses, and drew a breath, "Doctor, it could very well be the sort of thing no one has ever dreamt of before."

The proclamation seems to chill the very air around her. "Oh," says Gottlieb, softly.

"Are you willing to help us, Doctor?" the marshal asks.

"I..." she hesitates. "Yes," she says, finally, "but I will have to put my affairs here in order before I do so."

"Of course," he nods; withdraws, from his pocket, a slip of paper, and hands it to her. "When you are ready, come to this address and ask for Marshal Stacker Pentecost. And Doctor—" he pauses. "Make haste. The fate of the known world may very well rest in our hands."

And then, he turns; exits, closing the door softly behind him; leaving Gottlieb standing, by herself, more shaken than she is willing to admit.


It takes her a week to get her affairs in order.

The excuse she gives the university was that she is taking a sabbatical for an unknown amount of time—it was the best excuse she could think up; to be frank, as she hardly could have told the dean the true reason she will be leaving, for who knew how long, was in order to join an agency she does not even know the name of, with the intention of...what, preserving the human race?

It is her personal effects, surprisingly, which take the largest amount of time; she had not fully realised the number of items she had accumulated over the years.

Some are quite baffling; there is a long wooden utensil, engraved the vines, that looks like an overlarge cross between a spoon and a fork, for which she can't think of any possible reason to exist; nor can she fathom its use, or why in God's name she owns one.

Others, like a box of letters, bring waves of emotion crashing over the usually reserved professor; she has to wipe away tears that threatened to spill over onto her cheeks when she reads one of them.

It is a particularly sentimental letter from a correspondence with a pen-mate of hers; they've since fallen out of touch, but Gottlieb still thinks fondly of the other on occasion; he is a doctor as well, though, like herself, not one of medicine; rather, he is a naturalist. She traces her fingers over the sloppy penmanship; pauses, for a moment, on the signature; a messily written upper-case G.

Then, she folds the parchment back up, and tucks it in the bundle with the others; places it to the side.

In the end, she manages to consolidate everything into two large bags; more than she would have preferred, but she can afford to hire a carriage to take her to the address.

The day finally comes; she barely manages to force down a light breakfast—a piece of bread and a cup of tea—and then takes her bags, carefully, down the steps, and thanks the carriage driver, who is gracious enough to load her bags into the carriage for her.

And then, they are off; the sound of horses' hooves on cobblestone, the jostling of the carriage; she leans back against the seat with a sigh, watching the bleak buildings meander by out of the window.

And then—far sooner than she expects—the carriage comes to a halt.

She glances at the building—there is only one—and frowns. It looks...rather unkempt.

No—it appears quite derelict.

"You sure this is the place?" the carriage-driver asks, sceptically, as he gets her bags down.

She glances at the slip of paper in her hand; then at the building. "Quite," she replies, "er, if you don't mind bringing one of my bags in for me...?"

"That'll be—"

She digs through her pockets; pulls out a few stray coins, counting out a number; hands them to him. "That should be a decent enough sum to cover the extra charge," she says, and picked up one of the bags, venturing forth; watching her step with a careful eye.

Inside proves to be more promising; the dirty doors creak open to reveal a small lobby, its floor clean, polished enough that Gottlieb can nearly see her own reflection in it. There might once have been a second storey, but it has been removed at some point to make room for the soaring, arched ceiling.

A woman sits behind a desk; a typewriter in front of her; intermittently, she checks something in one of the files stacked by its side; before returning her gaze to the keys. The tap of her typewriter seems to be the only sound in the building.

The carriage-driver sets her bag down by her side; tips his hat to the woman, whom Gottlieb supposes is the receptionist. "G'day, ma'am," he says, and turns to leave, his footsteps fading after only a few seconds.

Gottlieb clears her throat in an attempt to catch the woman's attention. "I was told to ask for Stacker Pentecost?" she says, with a touch of hesitance.

For a moment, there is utter silence; the woman stops tapping away on her typewriter, and raises her head to give Gottlieb a scrutinising look; then her expression smooths. "We've been expecting you," she says, an odd lack of inflection to her words. Then she turns and calls, "Jeska! Come help Doctor Gottlieb with his bags."

"How did you know who I am?" Gottlieb asks, with a frown; allows the boy, who seems to have come from nowhere, to take her bags.

The woman gives her a thin smile; her eyes seem to reflect nothing at all. "We know many things," she says, and rises. "Follow me, Doctor. My name is Tiffany. I will take you to where you need to go."

Gottlieb hesitates for a moment; was it truly wise to follow after someone she has only just met?

Tiffany's shoes tap evenly against the ground, and the boy, Jeska, walks by her side; one of Gottlieb's bags in each hand. Well, then.

She hastens to catch up to the other two. "Where, exactly, are we going?" she asks, politely, as they go through a door, and begin to descend a flight of steps; path lit only by the flickering light of candles in slit-like indentations in the wall.

Neither of them reply.

The descent seems both to take an age and a second; it is over as soon as it has begun, it feels, but the shadows and darkness that enshrine them on the flight of stairs give one the sense that it was to last an eternity.

Finally, they come to the bottom of the stairs.

The sight that lays there, in front of them, for a moment, induces in Gottlieb a sense of sea-sickness; it is a dark, narrow boat, and it bobs slightly in the soft rise and fall of the inky-black waters it rests on, bathed by thin streams of light from some sort of marvel of architecture which allowed light in from, Gottlieb can only assume, the ground far above them.

"We're not going to—to get into that, are we?" she asks, voice shaking slightly.

In response, Jeska strides forward; sets the bags into the boat. "Come," he says, speaking for the first time, "it is safe, I promise."

She gives the boat a dubious look; turns to Tiffany. "Is there no alternative—?"

"This is the only way," Tiffany says, firmly, "good day, Doctor, I have work I must return to. Jeska will escort you the rest of the way."

That said, she makes her way back towards the stairway, and begins to ascend.

Gottlieb gives Jeska a helpless look; receives, in return, only a placid look. She gives a resigned sigh. "Alright," she says, "alright, alright, I'm coming."

Trepidation makes her anxious; she does her best not to look at the water, instead gripping both her cane and the side of the boat tightly as she clambers in. For a moment, the boat rocks frighteningly, nearly sending her toppling out, only saved, in the nick of time, by the surprisingly quick reflexes of her companion.

"Sit," he advises, once the boat has steadied, and she does just that, lowering herself to the bottom of the boat; leans against the comfortingly solid weight of her bags.

A moment later, Jeska looses the rope mooring the boat, and they begin the journey with a shuddering jolt of the boat that makes Gottlieb gag; and then, a moment later, scramble for purchase on the side of the boat, where she promptly empties the contents of her stomach over the side.


After what feels like a decade, but which her pocket watch, once she draws it, hands shaking slightly, informs her had not been more than about twenty minutes, the narrow underground river widens, and Jeska steers the boat to the left, where, after a few moments, a dock-like structure comes into view.

Gottlieb, limp-limbed, barely manages to drag herself out of the boat and onto the dock when they moor; she sways, for a moment, face waxy and pale, gripping her cane tightly, before she manages to take a step forward without feeling like the world is rocking beneath her feet.

"Breathe," Jeska advises; lifts her bags out of the boat, and sets them on the dock; before climbing out himself. "Long, slow breaths. You will be alright."

She does so; once she's caught her bearings, she grumbles, "You lot are mad. Mad as hatters. Who forces a person to endure that—that ordeal?"

Her words elicit a laugh from her companion. "It is not so bad," he assures, "you will get used to it." She pales even further at that, and he laughs again. "Come. I will take you to your rooms," he says, and takes the lead.

After a moment, she follows.

Along the way, though, some of her distaste and annoyance burns off, like early morning dew in the light of the rising sun; she marvels at the architecture of the place—whoever had designed it clearly had known what they were doing; the passage they are walking in is well-lit by lamps high up on the walls, and it is wide enough for multiple people to walk through at once, shoulder-to-shoulder.

Set into the wall, at intervals, are doors; some are open, and through them, Gottlieb glimpses other passageways, and people walking through them.

Somehow, the structure had been designed so that, in the ceiling, there were thin slits—like the ones in the ceiling of the tunnel through which underground river they had just come from flowed—and they allow fresh air to get in, and stale air to escape.

Jeska stops, and Gottlieb almost runs into him. "This is your room," he says, gesturing to the door in front of which they have come to a stop. Then, catching sight of her expression, he gives a wry smile. "It is quite awesome, yes," he agrees, as if knowing exactly what she was thinking. "I will put your bags into your room, and then I will take you to the Marshal."

"...alright," Gottlieb murmurs, unable to summon anything else to say, and moves slightly, as if in a trance, to let the boy past.

He opens the door, revealing for the few moments it took to set the bags inside, a plain, simplistic, white-washed room; a bed, with white linens, and a dresser against the wall. Then, they were off again.

When they reach what Jeska informs her is the Marshal's office, he bids goodbye, and returns in the direction they had come from, leaving her to stand in front of the door, alone, attempting to decide if all of this has been a terrible, foolish decision, and whether it would be better if she simply turned around and go back to the safety of her job at the university.

In the end, she moves forward; knocks, sharply, on the door; three times.

"Come in."

She recognises, instantly, the Marshal's voice; the door opens easily, without the shriek of rusted hinges, and she enters his office.

The Marshal stands, with his back to her, hands clasped behind his back, gazing at a map. After a moment, he turns around. "Ah, Doctor Gottlieb," he greets, "I've been expecting you."

"And what would you have done had I not decided to come?" she asks waspishly, irritated, quite thoroughly, by the habit of these people to assume they know what she will do.

He gazes at her, expression unchanging. "I had it from good authority that you would not take that course of action," he says, evenly, and then, changing the subject, says, "now that you have decided to join us, I can explain what, exactly, my agency is attempting to do."

"Oh, no, by all means, simply feel free to keep me in the dark," she replies. The Marshal's lip twitches, and he continues.

"As you know, there have been a number of murder victims attributed to the entity known as the 'Chelsea Killer'."

"Yes," she nods, "though the deaths do not seem to follow any particular time-cycle, and they are spread out all over the country."

"Mm," the Marshal says. "You see, what the public is not aware of is that the so-called 'Chelsea Killer' is not merely an individual, but rather, a group of individuals all over the country—all over the world, in fact."

"That—that's ludicrous," Gottlieb scoffs, "how could that possibly be?"

The Marshal smiles the same thin smile he had given her when he had visited her office. "They are, we believe, part of a larger organisation," he says, "as a matter of fact, we are certain of that—the agents who form the 'Chelsea Killer' are merely part of a larger group. We do not know what their intent is, but we do know, to some degree, who they are."

Gottlieb quirks a brow; intrigued.

The man begins, slowly, to pace the room. "These persons," he says, "these persons are part of, as I said, a larger group. This group is known as the 'Cult of the Kaiju'—well, that is the name their founder gave them, before all of the members were supposedly killed in a mysterious fire. As far as the authorities are concerned, they no longer exist. However, we know that is not true; the fire was merely a diversion, intended to lull those who opposed them, into a sense of safety.

"You see, Doctor, the aim of the kaiju was, and, we are quite certain, still is, to bring about an end to the world by summoning a group of beings known as the 'Precursors'. We do not know how they intend to do this, but we know that that is their intent."

"That—that is ridiculous!" Gottlieb cries, "sir—beings'? That is poppycock—you speak as if you believe that—that these cultists will truly be able to—what, magically summon up demons?" She laughs, sharply, and shakes her head.

The Marshal does not laugh.

She pauses. "You're—you're serious?" she asks, disbelief washing into her tone.

"I'm afraid so, Doctor," he says, grimly, the papers behind him fluttering as if in an invisible wind, "magic, as you call it, is very, very real, and could very well be what causes Armageddon."

A shiver goes down her spine; despite the fact that her mind still struggles to comprehend the words the Marshal has spoken, she knows, with a dreadful certainty, that what he says is very, very much the truth.

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She pauses. "You're—you're serious?" she asks, disbelief washing into her tone.

"I'm afraid so, Doctor," he says, grimly, the papers behind him fluttering as if in an invisible wind, "magic, as you call it, is very, very real, and could very well be what causes Armageddon."

A shiver goes down her spine; despite the fact that her mind still struggles to comprehend the words the Marshal has spoken, she knows, with a dreadful certainty, that what he says is very, very much the truth.


"You'll be sharing a laboratory," the Marshal says, after pausing to let his grim proclamation settle in her mind.

Gottlieb blinks. "Sir, you haven't told me yet what work I'm meant to be doing," she points out, "I still don't understand how my knowledge can be applied to—to—" she gestures broadly, not sure how to put it into words.

The Marshal gives a wan smile, obviously understanding what she means. "I need you to analyse data," he says, "I believe...I believe there may be a pattern to the attacks; one that, if we can find it, will allow us to predict where and when the next attack will occur."

"That's..." she pauses, thinking on it. "Yes," she says, after a moment, "yes, I think—well, as long as I have access to the times and places of each of the previous deaths, as accurate as you are able to provide...I believe that would be possible."

"Good," the man says, "I shall take you to your laboratory. Equipment has been provided, but should you be lacking anything, please make myself, or Mister Choi, aware."

Gottlieb nods. "Good," the Marshal says, "now, follow me."

As they exit the room, he says, "As I mentioned, you'll be sharing your laboratory. I hope you don't mind—it's simply that there is only one room suitable to the requirements of your work, and it is the same room that is currently the laboratory of the naturalist who conducting experiments to attempt to understand why, exactly, the kaiju mark all of their victims with the same tattoo."

Gottlieb raises a brow. "Is that really...necessary?" she asks; sceptical.

"To fight an enemy, you must first understand them," the Marshal replies; and that, it seems, is the end of that.

They walk in silence until they stop in front of a set of doors, much larger than the others. With a suddenness that she hadn't expected, Gottlieb is rocked with a wave of nervousness. "Who, exactly, is the naturalist?" she asks, quietly, as the Marshal unlocks the doors with a large key.

He turns to her, for a moment. "Doctor Newton Geiszler," he replies; pushes the doors open, leaving her, for a moment, gaping like a fish.

"Newton Geiszler?" Gottlieb hisses; then, clutching her cane tightly, makes after the Marshal.

It takes a few moments for her to take stock of the room; one half is pristine; lined with chalkboard ceiling-high; the other is, to put it lightly, not.

There are various pieces of human anatomy on tables, and saws, knives, and vials abound. At the largest table, back to her and the Marshal, stands a man. He is dressed in a dark pair of breeches and a light, loose shirt, sleeves rolled up—her heart skips a beat as she catches sight of the tattoos on the man's arms; the very same as on the body of the Chelsea Blue victims—, and he mutters to himself as he hacks at...a dead body.

Gottlieb tamps down the urge to retch.

"Doctor Geiszler," the Marshal calls, "this is your labmate, Doctor Gottlieb."

Geiszler turns around—

"Is this a joke?" Gottlieb sputters.

The Marshal turns to her, questioningly. "Is there an issue, Doctor Gottlieb?"

"She's a woman!" Gottlieb exclaims, "surely, Marshal, you cannot be serious—?"

"Oh, fuck you," Geiszler snaps, speaking for the first time, and pulls her hand out of the chest cavity to wave her arms around, flinging, in the process, blood and small pieces of...Gottlieb doesn't want to think about that. "Look, dude, I'm a woman, get the fuck over it or leave, alright?"

"I'm not—" Gottlieb gives up, choosing instead to glare. "I shall adjust," she says, stiffly.

"Good," Geiszler sniffs; with a glare, returns to stabbing, now more aggressively, at the cadaver. The Marshal gives a nod, and exits, leaving Gottlieb standing awkwardly, the tension in the air thick enough to be cut with a knife.

After a beat, Gottlieb walks to the desk on her side of the laboratory, and sits, trying not to be crushed by the weight of her inadvertent misstep.

Some time later, someone enters, a folder in hand—the data she had requested, she is told—and sets it on her desk. She flips through the papers, eyes flicking over the lines of neatly type-written information.

Eventually, she rises, and, papers in hand and chalk in hand, ascends the ladder, and begins to write on the board, the chalk making a soft skritch, skritch, skritch.

The numbers flow from the paper to her mind, and then, with deft precision, are written out in white against the dark of the board. Slowly, Gottlieb begins to see a pattern form; a pattern of blood, death, and a blue tattoo.

Finally, she steps back, hand aching. Geiszler has already left; likely, Gottlieb thinks, for bed, given the late hour. She has tidied, to some degree, her own work area; the tables wiped down, and the tools she had been using cleaned and put back into their place. The only thing standing in the way of it seeming like a normal workspace was the body that still lay on the largest table, now covered in a sheet.

Gottlieb wonders, idly, as she descends the ladder and grabs her cane from where she had hooked it, whether Geiszler has any other eccentricities, her apparent fascination with dead bodies aside.

She laughs softly and shakes her head. What had she been thinking? Of course Geiszler does.

Not that she cares.

She does not care about Geiszler. She is not even fond of the other woman. At best, they are, and always will be, colleagues.


Gottlieb lays in bed for hours, unable to sleep, staring at the ceiling. She has already unpacked her items, assigning each of them a location. The last item she had pulled from her bags was the box of letters.

Of the letters that had been in it, only a portion remains; Geiszler's.

She hadn't put them away, like she should have, instead, she had tossed the bundle haphazardly to the end of her bed, where it now lay by her feet, like some sort of massive heat-sink visible from outer-space.

Projected onto the insides of her eyelids, she can see, now, vividly, Geiszler's words; written in messy hand, the endearments—my friend, good fellow, my good doctor—seem to haunt her, refusing to let her mind rest.

"Damn you!" she cries, softly, sitting up, "damn you—damn you!"

Tears come, finally, spilling down her cheeks; earlier, she had pressed her emotions flat and paper-thin, shoved them to the back of her mind and let apathy fill in their place, concentrating solely on her work, but now—

Her misstep—hah, misstep is hardly the correct term for her heinous mistake; her unthinking words uttered in surprise—has, she is sure, ruined any chance of the cordiality—the closeness—they had had continuing.

Geiszler, understandably, now thinks that Gottlieb thinks merely of her as a joke; that she thinks of Geiszler as lesser, or less equipped, or incompetent, merely for her sex.

For the first time, perhaps, in her life, Gottlieb regrets taking on the guise of a man; yes, it may have been what had allowed her to pursue her career, but it has also lead to this: the ruin of what may have been her only friendship.

She lets her face fall into her hands, attempting to stifle the involuntary sobs that begin to wrack her frame; helpless to stop them.

Finally, they abate, leaving her feeling hollow.

With a rough hand, she wipes away the remaining tears, and frames, for herself, how the rest of her time working in proximity to Geiszler will go: she will be courteous, if slightly cut off, for Geiszler's own benefit; obviously, the other will not wish to attempt to rekindle their...acquaintanceship. She will respect the naturalist's boundaries and wishes, and purge herself of any conflicting thoughts or emotions.

They will be colleagues. That is their relationship now, and, she has to accept, for as long as they are in proximity to each other.

Movements methodical, she leans forward to pick up the bundle of letters and rises, tucking them in the back of the bottom drawer of the dresser, beneath a few neatly folded shirts.

(Gently.)


The second day yields another set of papers with more estimated times and dates and places for victims.

Gottlieb nearly pauses a few times, shocked; there are deaths as far as Australia, China, the Americas—nearly every continent, save for the Antarctic. It is...chilling, truly, to know the true extent of it.

She copies the information onto her board, and, when it is all done, stands back.

There is enough, she thinks, for the start of a predictive model—

A piece of viscera goes sailing over her head and hits the board with a wet splat before sliding down, slowly, leaving in its wake a trail of smeared chalk and human bodily fluids. Gottlieb stands stalk-still for a moment, before she whirls on her heel, nearly shaking with rage.

"Geiszler!" she shouts, nostrils flaring from the force of her temper, "you—you—"

Geiszler, one hand covered in a thick protective glove, chin-length hair pulled back to keep it out of the way, gives her an innocent glance. "Who, me?" she demurs, and then, "oh, dear, look at the mess on your boards..."

Gottlieb's lip twitches, and she snarls, "I cannot believe the insolence—!"

"Ah, ah, ah," Geiszler says, infuriatingly calm, and raises a finger. "Don't shout, please, you wouldn't want to jeopardise my work, would you, Herr Doctor?"

"You are jeopardising my work!" Gottlieb hisses through grit teeth, "and I doubt that your—your playing around with human remains is, in any way nearly as helpful to the effort as my work is!"

"Mm," Geiszler hums, no longer even looking in her direction, "that's nice, Gottlieb."

Gottlieb fumes. "I will—!"

"What, report me?" Geiszler drawls, gaze fixed on the scalpel in her hand. "Dearest Doctor Gottlieb, what ever shall I do?" The mocking tone of her voice summons a hazy screen over Gottlieb's vision, and she clenches the head of her cane in a white-knuckled grip.

"For your information," she says, shortly, "yes. I've been attempting to be civil towards you, but you seem to be doing your very best to undermine it."

Geiszler pauses her ministrations, and scoffs. "Civil?" she scorns, "oh, spare me lies, Gottlieb." She spits Gottlieb's name like it is a particularly vile bit of a biscuit she has just eaten.

That makes Gottlieb draw back, and she says, choked, "...lies? Do you think that little of me, Geiszler?"

The look Geiszler gives her is cold as ice. "Yes," she says, simply, and turns back to her task.

Gottlieb doesn't speak.

After a few moments, she draws a shaking breath, and steps back. Then she fetches a bucket.

The numbers have to be checked over after she scrubs the board of blood and human fluids, and her hands shake as she rewrites those that have been washed away. When she is done, her fingers are numb.

Her chest seems to ache, and she swears she can hear her heart rattle against her ribcage. She rubs it harshly, willing it to cease, and steps back from her work. Her stomach clenches uncomfortably, and she suddenly realises how long it had been since she has eaten.

She opens her mouth, about to call out to Geiszler and ask her directions to the mess hall—

And stops.

No; better to try and find it on her own.

She leaves Geiszler happily humming some inane tune as she peers at some blood samples under the lens of her microscope.

Inevitably, of course, she gets lost; the halls, though spacious, are labyrinthine; it seems to her that each one resembled the others exactly.

When she bumps into Mister Choi—he introduces himself with a cheery smile—, she questions him both for directions to the mess hall—"Oh, easy, go back the way you came and take two left turns and then a right at the red doorway"—and the seemingly identical hallways.

"Magic," he says, deadpan, and she huffs.

"That seems to be the answer everyone is giving me for things around here," she grumbles.

He laughs at her; but not unkindly. "There's some warding built into the structure," he explains, "keeps us from being detected, but it has a nasty side-effect of confusing the hell out of newcomers."

"Oh, joy," Gottlieb says, imbuing the words, spoken on exhale, with every ounce of sarcasm she can muster, and then, almost nearly as an afterthought, "thank you for the directions."

He nods amicably. "'Course," he says, "and word of the wise, friend—do not eat the potatoes." Then, he strolls off in the opposite direction, leaving Gottlieb standing behind, confused, and a little bit apprehensive.

Once she finds the mess hall—near empty, given the late hour—she does as Choi had instructed, and gave the potatoes wide berth.

The meal is nothing one would extoll the virtues of, but it does what it is meant to; it is warm and filling, if a tad on the bland side, though that is easily solved with a dash of salt. As she eats, she ponders the work she has done—and the work she would have to do, in the coming days, months, or, even, if it came to that—though she fervently hopes it doesn'tyears,

There is a general set of patterns—she can practically taste the certainty on her tongue—but she doesn't have, yet, the information to tell what, exactly, it is—and that is the issue. She fears that, by the time she manages to build a predictive model, it will be too late.

She still doesn't quite understand it—why, exactly, is this 'Cult of the Kaiju' attempting to bring about Armageddon? And...what, exactly, does 'magic' entail? How did it function? Surely, there is a logical, scientific explanation for it...

Gottlieb trails off into thought, food forgotten.


It is four months before she actually experiences the so-called 'magic' first-hand.

It is a pair of pilots—well, they are technically part of the J.A.E.G.E.R. division, but they ware called 'pilots' by the inhabitants of Shatterdome Britain—who are 'drifting' for the first time. Pilots are, Choi explains to her, a bit like scouts; they are the on-site members of the organisation, and they secure information, such as time of death, and, if possible, the bodies themselves, and deliver them to the Shatterdome they are stationed at.

The information, then, is sent via telegram to other Shatterdomes, and, eventually, autopsy reports on the bodies are sent as well.

Pilots, however, often have to fare rough conditions—at times, even, life-or-death ones, which require combat skills. For that, they went through the arduous process of finding a 'drift-compatible' partner, who they would then initiate the 'drift' with; the 'drift', Gottlieb is told, in hushed tones, is a sharing of energies, of a sort; it allows for pilots to be not two separate entities, but two parts of one.

"That sounds...inadvisable," Gottlieb comments, "and impossible."

Choi smiles at her. "Come down to the training room tomorrow at noon," he offers, "the drifting ritual is a public affair; see it for yourself, and see what you think then."

Geiszler, apparently, has seen the ritual before; she spends the entire morning the day of chattering away to herself about it in terms Gottlieb can't understand about it; in the end, Gottlieb, in a fit of annoyance, throws a stick of chalk at her head, which, rather than quietening her, merely provokes her to speak more loudly.

"Shut the hell up!" Gottlieb shouts, in the end, the tip of the stick of chalk in her hand snapping off as she drags it too sharply across the board, putting too much weight on it.

Geiszler ignores her, rooting around under the ribcage of her latest victim, and says, conversationally, to the corpse, "You know, they say that drifting requires trust," and then paused, patting its arm with her spare hand. "Don't worry, Robert, I trust you."

"Robert?" Gottlieb scoffs, "that's a dead body!"

"Yes, what of it?" Geiszler snaps. "I happen to enjoy Robert's company, unlike certain uptight mathematicians who shall remain anonymous."

Gottlieb grinds her teeth. "I'm leaving," she announces tersely, to the laboratory in general, and does so.

The drifting ritual is nothing like she expects.

The pilots are about her age; in their thirties, perhaps, one of them a tall, blonde woman, hair cropped close to her scalp, her features sharp, the other, a softer-faced man, his dark hair gathered loosely at the base of his neck with a tie.

Gottlieb does not gape, this time, though she is still quite unused to, and surprised by, the number of female members of the organisation—none of whom feel any need to disguise their sex.

Gottlieb...is not sure how she feels about that matter; on the one hand, she feels, to a degree, shame at her ruse; on the other, it is, quite frankly, genuinely more comfortable to have those around her assume she is of the opposite sex, and she has grown accustomed to it.

The ritual, it turns out, involves a fair amount of blood—the two pilots, their faces and arms covered in markings Gottlieb cannot decipher, sit in the middle of a circle of rune-like marks carved into the stone floor, and join their left hands. Then, with their right, they each make a short but deep incision on the other's left hand with an ornately-decorated dagger, and let the blood flow together, over their clasped hands, and drip onto the ground between them.

For a moment, nothing happens.

And then, the ground lights up, shooting a ring of white-blue light up around the two pilots, obscuring them for a few moments.

When it abates, they rise, motions in perfect synchrony.

The gathered crowd breaks into applause.

"It's actually far more simple than that," Choi tells her, afterwards, over tea. "Truly, all it requires is the consent of those drifting and the exchange of blood drawn by the other's hand—it's the intent that matters. Really, it's about the trust—trusting the person, or people, you are partnering with, enough to let them take a blade to your skin."

"Mmm," Gottlieb says, paling slightly at the thought, and takes a drag of her tea. "I'm rather glad I shall never have to go through that," she confesses.

Choi laughs. "Me too, brother, me too," he agrees. "I love Alisson, but honestly, I'm not very keen on the thought of someone taking a knife and cutting me, you know?"

"Quite," Gottlieb returns, and takes another drag of tea, the heat of it leaving a burning sensation in her throat as she swallows.


It is a further eight months before she and Geiszler manage to have their first truly civil conversation.

"What day is it?" Gottlieb groans, mostly to herself, pressing the heel of her hand against her eye, and blinks blearily at the boards. There have been a further fourteen kills by the kaiju, and she hasn't slept in...

Surprisingly, Geiszler answers. "Tuesday," she replies, without looking up from her work, and Gottlieb thinks, for a moment, she has hallucinated it, before she continues, "and you have not slept more than an hour in three days."

"Mm," Gottlieb murmurs, and tightens her slackening grip on the ladder. She glances at the board and finds that she has drawn, rather than a set of mathematical expressions, a downturning wobbly line.

She frowns at it.

"Sleep," Geiszler advises, at some point having walked over to stand at the foot of the ladder. "You're no use to anyone if you can't even lift a piece of chalk."

"I can work just fine," Gottlieb protests, and fairly ruins the veracity of her statement when the piece of chalk slips from her slack grip, clattering to the ground.

Geiszler raises a brow. "I'll fetch you a cup of coffee," she offers, "and then you need to sleep."

It is worded as an order, but—perhaps because of her sleep-addled state—Gottlieb thinks, perhaps, she detects something else beneath it—something she isn't sure the nature of.

In the end, though grudgingly, she nods. "Alright," she sighs, "perhaps...perhaps you may have a point. For once," she adds.

Geiszler's lip twitches with the hint of what might be a smile. "Sure thing, dude," she says.

"...I am not a 'dude' as you say," Gottlieb says, after a moment, unsure of why she had said that, and then nearly falls off of the ladder when she realises she has accidentally, in her sleep-deprived state, confided one of her greatest secrets to a woman who likely hates her.

Thankfully, Geiszler misinterprets it. "You're right," she says, with a laugh, "you don't care nearly enough about how you look."

Gottlieb gives a grimace, or at least attempts to; the resulting expression must be one that is fairly comical, because Geiszler burst into peals of laughter.

"Shut up," Gottlieb grumbles, and eases down off of the ladder, ears and cheeks burning.


The next day, the atmosphere in the laboratory seems more...relaxed. Geiszler still does petty things to annoy her, yes, and more than once, she has to wipe bits of human off of her blackboards, but it seems almost as if it is done in an air of comradery rather than genuine spite.

She makes a note of it, then catalogues it in her mind and ignores it.

There is, also, a cup of tea on her desk when she sits down. It is cold, and has, obviously, by the mark on the wood when she picks it up, been sitting there for some time.

She scowls.

"You didn't use a coaster," she shouts at Geiszler, "now my desk is permanently marred."

"Oh, boo-fucking-hoo," Geiszler shoots back. "Drink your disgusting leaf-water and stop whining about it."

Gottlieb's scowl widens.

Geiszler, she realises, is maddeningly endearing, in a way that makes one both hate her and want to kiss her senseless.

That thought makes her freeze, the cup raised halfway to her lips.

Chapter Text

PREVIOUSLY:

Gottlieb's scowl widens.

Geiszler, she realises, is maddeningly endearing, in a way that makes one both hate her and want to kiss her senseless.

That thought makes her freeze, the cup raised halfway to her lips.


The months proceed, as they are wont to do; Geiszler, to quote her infuriating lab-mate, 'crunches numbers'; Geiszler mucks around with her cadavers; they both shout at each other; sometimes, Geiszler steals her chalk and hides it, and in retaliation, Gottlieb puts paste in her coffee.

It is a comfortable rivalry.

Two years later, they receive word that half of the Shatterdomes have been abandoned; no one knows why.

Gottlieb spends the entire day nearly a nervous wreck; if she doesn't get the information she needs, then she cannot continue to refine her predictive model; and if she cannot do that...

"Oh, quit worrying," Geiszler snaps, and tosses a bit of viscera at her boards, On the surface—to any other person—it looks like Geiszler is mocking her fears. Gottlieb knows better, though; can hear the worry in the naturalist's tone, the tremor of her hand as she dirties the mathematician's boards; all but a façade; she, too, fears what now seems inevitable.

Gottlieb sleeps less; wears more and more layers of clothing in an attempt to combat the chill that seems to have settled into her bones.

Geiszler drinks three cups of coffee in the morning rather than two, and the bags under her eyes grow.

It's late at night when she finally cracks; she hasn't gotten new data in weeks, and she's filled up whole notebooks trying to force the numbers she has to give her an answer that doesn't break multiple fundamental laws of mathematics.

Geiszler, on her own side of the laboratory, has fallen asleep, face-first, on one of the tables, hair in a disarray.

And then, the klaxon sounds.

Gottlieb jolts; drops her chalk; Geiszler shoots up, glancing around, a feral, wild look in her eyes, before she recognises her surroundings. "Someone's died in London," Gottlieb says—murmurs, in truth, more a breath than a proper word.

Then, again, she says, more loudly, a hint of hysteria in her voice, "Someone has died—someone has died in London!" She laughs, high and brittle, shoulders shaking; there are tears coursing down her face, now, and she can no longer tell if she's laughing or sobbing.

"Gottlieb?" Geiszler asks; alarmed; and then, when she doesn't reply, crosses the room and shakes her. "Gottlieb! Speak to me, dude—Gottlieb!"

Her back hits the boards, and she nearly crumples to the ground; gasping, soundlessly; unable to answer.

Geiszler drops to the ground; crouches before her. "Gottlieb!" she says, again, verging on hysteria herself. Then something changes; a steely in her eyes, and she seizes the mathematician's shoulders. "Breathe!" she commands, "breathe, you bastard, fucking breathe!"

Gottlieb only curls in on herself, the room swimming around her—

There's a loud crack! and Gottlieb freezes; stunned; a moment later, a bright, sharp pain blooms on her cheek.

Geiszler, she realises, belatedly, had slapped her.

She can't speak, not yet; but she's breathing—somehow, somehow, Geiszler had known exactly what to do to shock her out of her downward spiral. One of her hands is still on Gottlieb's shoulder, and the worry and panic in her expression slackens into relief. "You're alright," she murmurs, then, again, as if to make it true, "you're alright."

Gottlieb gives a shaky nod. "F—fine," she manages.

The other sighs. "Good," she says, softly.

They sit there; or, more accurately, Geiszler sits; Gottlieb has slid down so she is nearly laying on the ground, her head tilted at an awkward angle, the only portion of her still supported by the wall.

"What the hell was that?" Geiszler demands, once they're both breathing evenly again.

"...nothing," Gottlieb tries to brush it off, "just—stress, we're all stressed—"

"Bullshit," Geiszler hisses, angrily. "That was—fuck, Gottlieb, what the fuck?"

She's not going to be able to pretend it's nothing, she realises; Geiszler, ever-inquisitive, will push against any barriers like a battering ram; and she is no immovable object to Geiszler's unstoppable force.

"I..." she hesitates. "It feels like I am responsible for the death," she admits, quietly; it feels like merely saying the words is showing a weakness of some sort.

Geiszler blinks at her. "What."

Gottlieb tenses; bristles, then, shrugs Geiszler's hand off of her shoulder. "If you think it's—ridiculous and stupid, you can very well leave," she hisses; defensive.

The other raises her hands. "Hey, hey, no," she says, "that's not—look, Gottlieb, that's not what I mean. Calm down a moment. I'm just...confused, is all."

Oh, Gottlieb thinks, and pinks slightly with embarrassment. "I may have overreacted slightly," she admits. "I...my apologies. It's just...something I'm sensitive about." She draws in a breath, about to speak, and then pauses.

Geiszler nods encouragingly. "Go on."

"It's...well, I feel like, had I worked harder—if my predictive model were more advanced—then it wouldn't've happened," she sighed. "I feel like...it's my fault, because I didn't manage to prevent it."

"Oh," Geiszler says, softly, and her face has an indecipherable expression. "Oh. That's—"

"Ridiculous," Gottlieb cuts in, bitterly, "I know."

"That's not what I was going to say," Geiszler snaps. "I was going to say that's awful, I'm sorry."

Gottlieb gapes at her. "What?" she asks, "sorry? Whatever for? It's not your fault."

"It's an expression," Geiszler huffs; exasperated. "I mean as in that's...understandable, I guess. To feel like that, I mean. Even when it's not true."

"But—"

"No," Geiszler says, and locks gazes with her. "Gottlieb, you may be an ass, but trust me, whoever it is that died? They didn't die because of you. You're running yourself into the ground—but you lack important information, information you simply do not have, and that's why you've not managed to refine your predictive model. It has nothing to do with you, do you understand?"

Gottlieb swallows. "Yes," she says, after a moment; then, "you're an arse as well."

Geiszler laughs.

It's the first time she's heard her laugh genuinely, Gottlieb realises, and the sight is nearly breath-taking. Her entire face lights up, almost; the corners of her eyes crinkling, and her tongue pokes out slightly between her teeth.

"What're you staring at?" Geiszler asks, breaking her out of her reverie. "Do I have something on my face?" She pulls a piece of hair away from her mouth, leaving behind a smudge of...Gottlieb hopes that is ink.

"No," she says, heart beating in her throat. "Nothing besides your idiotic grin."

Geiszler scowls, but it's without bite.


"So, Geiszler..." Choi says, a few weeks later, sitting down by her side in the mess hall.

"Oh, bother," Gottlieb sighs, "what's she done now?" Last time, she'd scared one of the poor trainee pilots half to death when one of the hands she'd been experimenting on had begun to twitch when the boy was in the room.

Choi laughed. "Nothing," he said, "yet." He waggled his brows.

"What—? Oh—!" Gottlieb blushed furiously. "No—you're wholly mistaken, Mister Choi—no, there's—no!" She sputtered for a moment, unable to speak. "No—we are not—intimate," she said, lowering her voice at the last word, and cast a furtive look around the room.

"But you wish you were," Choi grins at her.

"No!" Gottlieb exclaims, louder than she'd intended; and then, more quietly, "no. I do not—my interests are not—we are work colleagues, Mister Choi, nothing more. And I have no desire to—to—" she fumbles, for a moment.

"Sleep with?" Choi suggests.

"Court!" Gottlieb shouts, her cheeks burning, now; Choi's grin widens.

"Sure," he nods, "whatever helps you sleep at night, Gottlieb."

"What helps me sleep at night is not having nosy bastards like you spread rumours about my private life," Gottlieb mutters, and stabbed sulkily at the mincemeat pie.

"You should go for it," Choi says, blithely ignoring her. "She's just as interested as you are."

"I am not interested," Gottlieb hisses. "Not in anyone, and most certainly not in my lab-mate. I would thank you to cease, immediately, your—your wildly inappropriate speculation."

"It's not speculation if you do actually want to sleep with her," Choi points out.

"I do not want to be intimate with Newton Geiszler," Gottlieb insists; that, she realises, a moment later, was a mistake; the blush has spread down her neck, and she can feel it creeping over her shoulders.

Choi's eyes narrow. "Looks like we have ourselves a liar," he purrs, "and caught red-necked, too..."

"Shut up," Gottlieb moans, "just shut up. I hate you. I loathe you. I wish you to be hit by a carriage."

The other smirks at her smugly, and takes a bite out of his bread.

Gottlieb hates the people she works with.


Geiszler is...doing something inadvisable.

Gottlieb isn't sure just what, yet, but she can sense it; it raises the hairs on the back of her neck, and she cannot focus on her attempts to make progress with refining her predictive model. She drags the chalk down sharply; scowls; wipes away a—fourth? Fifth? She can't remember—attempt at what she was certain, only a few hours before, would yield a breakthrough.

There's a crash, and Geiszler gives a shout of surprise, followed quickly by, "Ow. Ow, ow, ow, fuck, ow."

"Geiszler..." Gottlieb sighs, and turns to see what has happened now.

There is—

"Is that moving?" Gottlieb shrieks. "Geiszler, are you building Frankenstein's monster—"

"Chill!" Geiszler shouts back, and pushes the jar full of greenish-yellow fluid to the side. The heart within gives a single, shuddering beat, and goes still, sinking slightly towards the bottom of the jar.

Gottlieb shudders, herself. "Your—experiments are horrifying," she manages, "I think I'm going to be sick."

"Not on my side, please," Geiszler calls, and sweeps the jar with the heart in it, as well as a few others, into her arms, striding over to another table.

Gottlieb is pointedly not sick.

She casts a dubious look at the puddle of...something that is just barely on Geiszler's side of the lab, and steps around it, making her way over to the other's side.

There are a few other jars on the table; Geiszler is doing something with a set of instruments, and every so often, she stops to jot down something in horrifically illegible handwriting in her notebook.

"What," Gottlieb says flatly, "exactly, are you doing?"

Geiszler jolts, slamming the notebook shut; guilt flickering across her face, like a child caught with their hand in a candy-jar. "Nothing!" she says—shouts, nearly.

"You're a terrible liar," Gottlieb points out. "And I can read your writing upside-down. Why, exactly, are you attempting to replicate the process of drifting?"

Geiszler scowls at her, floundering; in the end, she snaps, "It's rude to read other peoples' writing, Gottlieb."

"It's rude to attempt to recreate potentially dangerous rituals and lie to your lab-mate about them," Gottlieb shoots back. The other looks conflicted for a moment.

Check—

"Fine," she says, finally.

mate.

Gottlieb does not smile.

"I'm going to drift with a kaiju in order to learn what, exactly, they're planning," Geiszler says; in a rush; glares, as if daring her to argue.

Gottlieb does; of course; she's never been one to back down from a challenge. She laughs, sharply. "That's insanity," she scoffs, "how in God's name are you going to find a kaiju, nevermind drift with one?"

Geiszler grins and picks up a jar from beneath the table. It's larger than the others—by a fair amount—, the thick glass distorting the thing within; it takes a moment before Gottlieb makes out what it is: a brain.

"I've got the brain of a kaiju," Geiszler says, proudly.

"Are you insane?" Gottlieb shouts, slamming her hand down on the table with a loud bang. "If—if!—you manage to do it, you will die, Geiszler, do you understand!?"

"Well we'll all die if I don't at least try!" Geiszler shouts back, lips pulled back to bare teeth. "If I'm going to die I might as well die trying!"

Gottlieb trembles; can't form words, with how angry she is. Finally, deadly quiet, she says, "I'm reporting you to the Marshal as a threat to the inhabitants of Shatterdome Britain."

Geiszler gapes at her. "What—? You—you wouldn't dare—"

"Bloody well watch me!" Gottlieb yells, and storms out of the laboratory.


She tells the Marshal; her voice trembles, slightly, as she speaks.

They put Geiszler on probation; then, when she violates her terms, they confine her to the medical wing for two months, away from her work.

Gottlieb tries to visit her—once.

That results in a metal tray thrown at her head; Geiszler screams herself hoarse telling her to leave; if looks could kill, Gottlieb would be six feet under long ago.

She leaves, quietly, the book she had brought to give to the naturalist placed, later, on the nightstand next to her bed; Geiszler had snatched it from where she had set it by her bedside and hurled it at the wall with a snarl.

When she returns to the laboratory, the comfortable thing they had is gone; no longer does Gottlieb walk in in the morning to find a cup of long-since cooled tea on her desk, and a cheeky remark thrown her way; now, she's met with cold silence and careful, calculated moments of ignoring from the other.

She tries not to feel hollow; it was for Geiszler's own good, she tries to reassure herself. She could have killed herself; that is the last thing they need.

That is the last thing Gottlieb needs.

She pretends not to feel the glares Geiszler gives her when she thinks she isn't looking; ignores the bitter bite in her words when she does speak.

It's for the greater good, she reminds herself. It's for the greater good.

She sleeps fitfully, tossing and turning; and in the mornings, there is no cheerful needling; only silence and bitterness and the cold, intangible comfort of numbers.

Numbers, she reminds herself, numbers are the only things you can trust. Numbers are as close as we get to the handwriting of God.

Still, the ache persists.

The days wear on.

The information slows to a trickle.

More Shatterdomes close without explanation.

More people die.

(As she lays in bed at night, Gottlieb thinks she can hear their screams, just before death, replaying in her mind.)

Finally, she has a breakthrough.

The predictive model is not perfect; she can only predict within a certain measure of accuracy; but at least—

At least she can predict.

Now, all that waits to be seen is if she is right.


"Now, remember," she tells the pilots—the Kaidanovskys—, "this one is—"

"Chelsea," Sasha cuts in, calmly. "Do not worry, little Doctor. We have not forgotten."

Gottlieb breathes deeply. "Sorry," she says, "sorry, just—nerves, you understand. Ah—" She pushes her recently-acquired reading spectacles up the bridge of her nose and peers at her notebook. "It should be within this two-block area here," she says, pointing to the map spread out on her board.

"We will do our job, do not worry," Aleksis says. "As my husband says, little Doctor. Do not worry."

"Yes, yes, of course." She resists the urge to wring her hands. Oh, bother, bother, her anxiety is through the roof—

Sasha claps large hand onto her shoulder. "Goodbye, little Doctor," he says, "we will see you again soon."

"I hope so," Gottlieb murmurs, "I hope so."

And then, all she can do is wait.

Geiszler, no longer satisfied with her tasks, wanders over and pages through some of her notes. "These are ridiculous," she scoffs, "utter bullshit. You're going to get them killed."

"Quiet," Gottlieb snaps, "I didn't ask you."

"Well maybe you should have," Geiszler sneers.

Gottlieb grits her teeth; calm, she reminds herself. "Please set my notes down," she says, patiently, "those are very important—"

"Oops," Geiszler says, holding up a ripped page. "How clumsy of me."

"For once in your life, can you not be a nuisance?!" The words burst out of her, brow furrowed with rage. "Those—those notes are important, Geiszler, the very lives of every human on this planet hinges on our work—"

"Numbers have never saved anyone," Geiszler scoffs. "The only thing that reliably yields results is experimentation."

"What good is experimentation if you're dead!?" Gottlieb shouts; she knows full-well they're no longer speaking of the pilots' fates. "Did you ever stop to think of that?"

"You sit there with your numbers, all high and mighty, but you're not the one who lives or dies with the consequences," Geiszler shoots back. "You love playing God—so long as it's only other people who are the pawns."

"You don't know what you're talking about," Gottlieb says, softly.

"Yeah, I fucking do."

"Get out. Get out." The last word is nearly hissed; she imbues it with every ounce of anger and venom she can manage, and Geiszler staggers back a step; shock written plainly on her face; good, Gottlieb thinks, viciously.

She opens her mouth to argue, and Gottlieb's blood sings at the prospect of drawing blood with words—

And says nothing.

There's silence.

Geiszler steps back; steps away. A few moments later, the doors slam shut behind her.

Gottlieb stands stock-still for a moment; still tensed for a fight.

And then the tension drains out of her; leaves her leaning, heavily, against the wall; wondering what the hell she's just done.

The bite's still there; the roar of blood pounding in her ears, and yet...

And yet, she can't help but think she may have gone too far; this time. Because...because, despite it all, Gottlieb cares; for whatever it is they have by way of relationship; for Geiszler, herself.

And she wants to tear that out of herself; but every attempt she's made, so far, has merely thrown into sharp relief how impossible such a task is.

At the end of the day, she can scream her voice hoarse at the naturalist; can rage against her with the most passionate of arguments; and still, when all is said and done, when she lays to sleep at night, the darkness pressing in around her, she cares for Geiszler no matter how much she wishes otherwise.

Chapter Text

PREVIOUSLY:

And yet, she can't help but think she may have gone too far; this time. Because...because, despite it all, Gottlieb cares; for whatever it is they have by way of relationship; for Geiszler, herself.

And she wants to tear that out of herself; but every attempt she's made, so far, has merely thrown into sharp relief how impossible such a task is.

At the end of the day, she can scream her voice hoarse at the naturalist; can rage against her with the most passionate of arguments; and still, when all is said and done, when she lays to sleep at night, the darkness pressing in around her, she cares for Geiszler no matter how much she wishes otherwise.


"I can't believe it's been almost four years," Choi says, staring off into the distance.

They're taking a tea-break; there's a pilot team out, now; Gottlieb's predictive model has been proven decently accurate, now; enough that they have a rough idea of where and when the next attacks will be; Geiszler is out in the city, procuring items necessary for her experiments—she leaves the Shatterdome for the surface far more often than Gottlieb does; the mathematician can't stand the boat-ride necessitated.

Gottlieb starts; surprised. "Has it?" she asks, and thinks for a moment. "Why—you're right. It nearly has." There's only a few days until she's officially been here for four years.

The revelation follows her throughout the day; during her work, she pauses when she catches sight of Geiszler out of the corner of her eye; they've worked in close quarters for nearly half a decade, and still, she hardly knows anything about the other that was not divulged in their correspondence.

As they're reaching the end of the day, Geiszler comes to ask her about something. "Gottlieb," she nods, "can I have the estimate on the next attack?"

Gottlieb checks her work. "Two weeks, give or take," she replies, "why?"

The other shrugs. "Nothing, I was just wondering, since I was going to go out to dinner sometime," she says, offhandedly, "you know, just a change of scenery...it gets so dull down here sometimes, you know?"

"Yes," Gottlieb sighs; the sentiment is one she shares. "I quite agree. I, myself, would like to go out more often, but..." she gives a wan smile. "I cannot endure the boat-ride, you understand. I get horribly seasick."

Geiszler hums. "That sucks," she says, sympathetically.

"Are you taking anyone with you?" Gottlieb enquires politely, only half paying attention to what she's doing. "A friend, perhaps? Or just going by yourself?" The marks on her fingers suddenly seem very intriguing, and she drops her gaze to that.

The naturalist is silent for a moment, before she says, "Actually, I was..." she hesitates, trailing off; one hand absent-mindedly going to trace the tattoos encircling her wrist—a nervous tic of hers.

Gottlieb shuffles her papers.

"I was wondering—well," she pauses, "I found this place a while back that makes a good strudel, and you mentioned liking it a while ago, so I figured I'd extend the invitation to you, if you wanted to. But, uh, now that I think about it, it's probably not worth the trouble of getting up there, so nevermind—"

"No!" Gottlieb exclaims, and then, more calmly, "I mean, no. No, it's no trouble. I would...rather enjoy that, actually. Thank you for asking, Geiszler. I...appreciate it."

"Yeah," Geiszler says, an odd pitch in her speech. "Yeah. Uh. So...tomorrow, maybe?"

"Er, yes, I—that sounds good," Gottlieb says, bites the inside of her cheek. She can't seem to meet Geiszler's gaze; instead, she fixes it on her hands, fiddling with the papers, and then says, "Well, I—"

"Work, yeah," Geiszler says, with a nod, and returns to her own side of the laboratory, leaving Gottlieb with her papers, feeling a bit like she's standing in a minor earthquake.


The boat-ride is easier this time around; she's expecting the rocking and the eerie black of the waters; still, though, she has to close her eyes and breath deeply a few times when the urge to retch rises.

Geiszler is in her element; she rows enthusiastically, chattering at Gottlieb; she must have some sort of experience with boats, because she seems to know exactly what to do, using the oars as extensions of herself, almost, directing them exactly where she wants to go.

"I didn't know you knew how to boat," Gottlieb mutters, eyes closed to slits, leaning against the side of the boat and watching the other row.

Geiszler gives an embarrassed laugh. "Yeah, uh," she says, "I went fishing a lot with my uncle Illia as a kid. We used to take this little rowboat out onto the lake, you know, take it out to his fishing spot. I didn't really care for the fishing part of it—it's too boring for me—but the rowing always helped me think."

"Oh," Gottlieb says; not having expected the other to answer so earnestly. She feels like she's just been entrusted with something far too large for her to comprehend.

"I kind of miss it, you know," the naturalist continues. "The...calm, I guess. You could go for miles and miles and never meet another soul. Here, there's a thousand people rushing about—places to go, things to do..." she trails off.

Gottlieb says nothing for a moment, pondering that. "Why did you come here?" she asks, finally. "It sounds like you were far happier there, so...why come here?"

Geiszler shrugs. "I was bored," she said, "bored, and...tired of the prejudice of those around me. Britain has its flaws, yes, but in many ways, it's far more fair than the States. And..." she hesitates. Gottlieb waits for her to continue, but she doesn't speak, and the rest of the journey is made in silence, punctuated only by the lap of the water against the side of the boat and the occasional drip from the ceiling of the tunnel.

When they emerge from the building and into the streets, Gottlieb has to squint as her eyes adjust to the brightness; while the Shatterdome does let light in from above, it's in limited amounts, and it's been a while since she's been out and about; her eyes are accustomed to the softer, yellow lighting in the Shatterdome than they are to the sharp, bright light of the sun on a clear day.

"Come on," Geiszler urges, impatient. "The hour's not getting any earlier, Gottlieb, let's go."

"Alright, alright," she grumbles, eyes finally growing accustomed enough to the brightness that she can actually see where she's going; still, she nearly trips when she misjudges and places her cane in a crack rather than on cobblestone.

Geiszler dives to catch her, letting her lean against her. "You alright?" she asks, as Gottlieb catches her breath.

"Fine," she manages after a moment. "No harm done, just a little—winded, is all."

Geiszler nods. "Alright," she says, but when they start walking again, she sets the pace slower, careful to steer clear of any areas that might cause trouble for Gottlieb.

When they get to the place, Geiszler herds her to the back. "I'll be right back," she promises, "you just hang tight right there and I'll go grab our strudel."

"Geiszler, what—no, I can pay for myself—" she protests, but it's too late; Geiszler's already disappeared back into the sea of people, leaving Gottlieb by herself at the table for two.

She returns a few minutes later; there's a plate in her hand, and two large slices of apple strudel along with a scoop of ice cream. "That's for me," she clarifies, at Gottlieb's disdainful look. "Here—this one's for you." She turns the plate so that the slice without ice cream on it is on Gottlieb's side.

Gottlieb looks at it dubiously. "Come on, try it," Geiszler urges. "It's really good, I promise."

After a moment of hesitation, Gottlieb picks it up and takes a bite.

"Good?" Geiszler asks.

It takes a moment for her to chew and swallow, but when she has, she says, grudgingly, "It's...not horrific, I suppose."

Geiszler grins at her. "I knew you'd like it."

"I'll pay you back," Gottlieb promises, and the other shakes her head.

"Nah, dude, my treat," she says, "it's been four years and you haven't tried to kill me in a fit of rage yet."

Gottlieb blinks at her.

Oh.

The sensation from earlier is back; a strange weight beneath her sternum; a warmth spreading beneath her skin. She feels vaguely sick.

"I swear, Geiszler, if you've poisoned me..." she warns, and takes another bite of the strudel.


Seven months later, Pentecost finds a surviving pilot from one of the abandoned Shatterdomes working in construction on a tiny, far-flung island.

"Raleigh Beckett," Choi tells her, excitedly. "He survived the death of his drift partner—his brother, Yancey, was killed by the kaiju they were after. He took the bastard down single-handedly."

Gottlieb doesn't look up from her papers. "So?" she asks, tiredly.

"Well, wouldn't it be useful to have a pilot who's actually interacted with the kaiju themselves rather than just fighting them off but not killing them?" Choi asks. "Anyway, Pentecost wants you to run your data again—he thinks we might be getting close to something."

"Alright," Gottlieb sighs, "it'll take me a while, though."

"Yeah, yeah," Choi nods, and leaves her be.

Geiszler enters a moment later, and makes her way to her side. "Beckett, did he say?" she asks, "Raleigh Becket?"

"Yes," Gottlieb responds, "and Yancey—"

"Gottlieb!" she cries, "do you understand what this means? This means that I'll finally be able to speak with someone who's actually killed a kaiju—not just fought one, but killed one. Seen them up close!"

Gottlieb frowns. "Do not pester Mister Beckett about that incident," she says, sternly, and then, pointing to her arms, "and for the love of all things holy, please cover up those tattoos." The last thing she wants is for Geiszler to inadvertently send the man spiralling into traumatic memories.

Geiszler scowls at her. "Quit nagging," she snaps, crossly, "I do possess a sense of tact, contrary to your beliefs, Gottlieb."

The mathematician gives her a flat look and returns to her equations.

When she finishes, her face is pale and drawn; her hand shakes as she readjusts her spectacles, and she swallows.

The last death—no, not one death, three deaths, all at the same time—will be in January of the coming year.

She rises to retrieve the Marshal.


Gottlieb lays it all out on her chalkboard; the Marshal has brought Beckett along, and Geiszler had, predictably, not remembered to be tactful.

She taps the board with the tip of her cane. "At first," she says, "the kills were at the frequency of only once every two years; dispersed enough to be assumed a coincidence. But then, the time between them decreased. Now, there are kills every month; in only two months, the frequency will drop to a week, and then one every two days. Then..." she pauses, grimly.

Pentecost finishes for her. "Then any hope we have of capturing and interrogating a member of the kaiju to attempt to learn how to stop it is nearly impossible."

"Exactly," Gottlieb nods. "My predictive model is now refined enough that I can give you nearly exactly the time, date, and location of the next attack. Then it's up to your pilots, Marshal, to do the rest and capture the would-be killer."

"Right," the Marshal dips his head. "Doctors; good day."

"You didn't even let me talk," Geiszler says, sullenly, as soon as the doors close behind them.

Gottlieb rounds on her. "You displayed your tattoos to a man who has traumatic memories related to them!" she snaps, "so forgive me if I didn't let you speak your mind after that."

Geiszler scowls at her. "Something's going to go wrong," she says, "mark my words, Gottlieb; your numbers -may be the handwriting of God, but you're reading them wrong; it's not going to work."

"Oh, and what do you propose as an alternative?" Gottlieb snaps. "Forgive me if I don't put much faith in your suggestions since you tried to embark on an experiment that could have cost your life!"

"It would have worked!" Geiszler fires back, "I modified the ritual, Gottlieb—it's not like I didn't research it extensively; I knew what I was doing."

"You could have killed yourself!" Gottlieb hisses; how does she not understand?

"Or I would have learned valuable information that lead to us stopping the kaiju!" Geiszler shouts.

Gottlieb grits her teeth; this conversation is going nowhere. She sets her chalk down and makes for the door, leaving Geiszler behind.


It's a mistake; she should have known it was, should have guessed Geiszler would try again, but—

She doesn't; doesn't expect that leaving Geiszler alone in the lab would lead to this; to Geiszler's form, prone on the ground, markings on her arms and face matching those on the brain, its jar fallen to the ground, shattered.

For a moment, Gottlieb stands, frozen, in the doorway.

And then, like a tidal wave, rage and fear, fear, fear crash over her, all-consuming; she races to the other's side, drops to the ground, clutching her shoulders. "Geiszler?" she shouts, panicked, shaking the naturalist, "Geiszler!? Geiszler!"

The other gives no sign of life.

"GEISZLER!" Gottlieb roars, and shakes her again, near hysterics, "breathe, damn it, breathe!" Then, in desperation, she slaps the naturalist's cheek.

Finally, her eyes flicker open, and she gasps, shaking, and clings to Gottlieb like a lifeline; fingers, covered in grime, gripping her arms tightly; nails digging into her skin through the layers of clothing. "G—Gottlieb," she chokes out.

"Breathe," Gottlieb sobs, "oh, God, you're—you're alive!" Without thinking, she pulls the other into a tight embrace.

"...le'go," Geiszler murmurs, after a moment. "Can't...breathe."

"Oh," Gottlieb says, and releases her, a faint blush of embarrassment creeping onto her cheeks. Then, "I can't believe you did something so feckless and stupid! You could have been killed!"

"But I wasn't," Geiszler points out. "And now—oh, shit," she breathes, eyes widening. "Gottlieb—your plan—it's not going to work—"

Gottlieb freezes. "What?" she demands, "what do you mean, 'not going to work'?"

"The—the—" Geiszler stops, eyes darting around the room, and licks her lips. "The kaiju," she says, sotto voce, "they're—the last kill, it's not—Gottlieb, it's not going to follow your prediction—" she stops, unable to continue.

Gottlieb gets up and rinses one of the cups on her desk out at Geiszler's sink and fills it with water. "Here," she says, stiffly, "drink."

"Thanks," Geiszler murmurs, once she's taken a few, tentative sips, hands shaking. "Gottlieb, you—you have to get the Marshal—"

"Not yet," Gottlieb cuts in. "First—" she drags in a juddering breath. "First, I need to get you off of the ground."

They manage it—barely.

Geiszler's hands are still shaking, her leg jumping up and down, when Gottlieb returns with the Marshal.

"Geiszler," the Marshal says, without blinking at her dishevelled appearance.

"They're going to break the pattern," Geiszler says, without prelude, "the last—the last three kills won't be on-site, they'll—the victims will be a—abducted, and then killed in a—" she pauses, eyes flickering, as if trying to pin the words down. "A ritual," she continues, finally.

"That's ridiculous," Gottlieb scoffs, "my model—"

"Ridiculous? Ridiculous?" Geiszler shouts, "well how about you drift with the brain of a dead kaiju—!"

"Shut up!" the Marshal roars, suddenly; they both fall quiet, shocked. "Gottlieb—be quiet," he snaps, "Geiszler—go on."

"W—well," Geiszler says, finally, "they're going to be killed in a ritual at the kaiju's base of operations."

"Do you know where that is?" Pentecost questions.

Geiszler swallows. "No, I didn't—it was more like getting snapshots, like when—when you blink too fast, and it all looks like photos? It's...it's like that," she says, "and I—I didn't get much, because the brain's too old—it was already deteriorated too far for me to know...and the only way to learn would be is if you had another kaiju brain, which you don't..."

Pentecost's expression turns grim.

Geiszler catches his expression. "...do you?"


"His name is Hannibal Chau," Pentecost says, a blurry photograph in hand. "He's an...old acquaintance of mine; runs with the black market trade—he's a crook and a thief, but he guarantees quality; if he says that the brain he's selling you is from a member of the Cult of the Kaiju, then it is."

"Wait," Gottlieb says, "sir, you're going to send Geiszler to retrieve the brain—alone? She can barely put one foot in front of the other—!"

"I'll do it," Geiszler cuts in, determination written plainly on her face.

Pentecost nods. "Good," he says, "in the meantime, I will organise the pilots—as soon as you've drifted, Geiszler, I need to know where the base of operations is—we haven't much time."

"Of course," Geiszler says, rising; sways, for a moment, before she grits her teeth and stands ram-rod straight.

"Word of the wise," Pentecost adds, as he's leaving, "do not trust him."

As soon as the door closes behind him, Gottlieb rounds on her. "You can't be serious?!" she hisses, "Geiszler, you almost died last time—the strain the second time will kill you—!"

Geiszler waves her concerns away. "I survived the first time, and I will the second, as well," she says, resolutely, and walks, slowly, to the door. Gottlieb watches her leave, biting her lip—what if it doesn't work? What if Geiszler does die this time?

The thought wraps around her heart, clenching it in a vice-like grip; the weight of it near-unbearable.

The door closes behind Geiszler, leaving Gottlieb alone in the laboratory with nought but her boards, the shattered pieces of the glass jar still on the floor, and the sinking sense of dread in her gut.

Chapter Text

PREVIOUSLY:

Geiszler waves her concerns away. "I survived the first time, and I will the second, as well," she says, resolutely, and walks, slowly, to the door. Gottlieb watches her leave, biting her lip—what if it doesn't work? What if Geiszler does die this time?

The thought wraps around her heart, clenching it in a vice-like grip; the weight of it near-unbearable.

The door closes behind Geiszler, leaving Gottlieb alone in the laboratory with naught but her boards, the shattered pieces of the glass jar still on the floor, and the sinking sense of dread in her gut.


Geiszler survives.

Somehow.

Gottlieb doesn't let on the hours she's spent pacing, mind too agitated to concentrate on anything else but the naturalist's wellbeing; papers torn to shreds in an attempt to force herself to focus; to pay attention; all in vain.

Geiszler is mud-spattered; her coat is ripped, and there are bloodstains on it. She wears a haunted look, and her eyes are steely with determination; she marches into the lab and places a box on the desk; a second later, Gottlieb notices the red that's seeped through from the inside, staining the cardboard red—

Bloody red; a wholly accurate assessment, it turns out, as, a moment later, Geiszler pulls a crudely severed head from the box.

"Did you kill him?" Gottlieb asks, eying the head, still dripping blood, now, as Geiszler holds it up, with a hint of disdain.

"Nope," Geiszler says, aiming for cheerful and falling squarely into vaguely nauseous. "Chau killed him, like...three seconds before a piece of wall fell and killed Chau."

Gottlieb hums. "That's...lucky," she comments.

Geiszler laughs; high-pitched and slightly hysterical. "You don't know the half of it," she mutters, and sets the head down with a sigh. "I told him," she says, no longer speaking to Gottlieb; not really. "I told him that's not how luck charms work..."

She trails off, glancing back to the head. "I should probably get to work," she says, "the set-up's going to take some time—those markings are tricky as hell to apply to yourself..."

"I'll go with you," Gottlieb blurts out, without thinking.

The other freezes. "You—what?" she questions, voice strained, and Gottlieb continues, before she can stop herself.

"Like the pilots do," she says, "your mind is fragile already; you've drifted once before with a dead brain—but I haven't; I can help split the load." You won't survive otherwise, she doesn't say; pushes the thought aside, waits on Geiszler to reply.

"You'd—you'd do that for me? Or—with me," Geiszler amends.

"Well," Gottlieb says, aiming for humour, "with the end of the world as the alternative...do I really have a choice?"

It works; brings the barest hint of a smile to Geiszler's face. "Alright," she says, "alright. Alright! Gottlieb—"

Gottlieb interrupts her. "We're about to get more intimate than most people ever will in their lifetimes," she says, lets the words spill forth rapidly so she doesn't stumble over them as she overthinks. "I think you can call me Hermann."

"Hermann." Geiszler grins, and offers her hand. "Say it with me, my good fellow—we're going to own this bad boy!"

Hermann grips her hand tightly; breathes, almost like a prayer, grinning widely, "By Jove, we're going to own this—thing—for sure!"


The drift is trust; Geiszler—Newt, Newton—holding the blade to her skin; hand steady; Hermann lets it slip under her skin, bite deep; barely even hisses at the pain; her gaze remains locked with Newton's. The blood from her wound mixes with that from the other's, and then, finally, with that of the severed head's.

The drift is certainty; absolutes; truth, lie; up, down; nothing is hidden in the drift.

Nothing is separate.

They are one.

The minds of hundreds—thousands—of kaiju burst forth, crystal-clear; memories, thoughts, desires; they remain undistracted; they have one mission, and one alone: find out the location the ceremony will be taking place.

They home onto it like bloodhounds; the scent thick and heady; Newton-and-Hermann, twined; two becomes one becomes many becomes a single—

They burst out of the drift.

Newton's hand in hers is clenched tight; bruisingly so; the blood has dried on their skin, and Hermann's hand itches. She clears her throat; tries to remember how to speak; gags, instead, runs over to the sink and retches.

Newton follows after her; offers, silently, what Hermann is fairly sure is a stolen handkerchief, but truly, she doesn't care at this point. "We have to warn them—" she chokes on the end of her sentence, the words dying in her throat.

The other speaks for her. "It's not going to work," she says.

Hermann nods.

She can see the questions in the other's eyes—Newton's endless curiosity—but the naturalist, for once, remains silent; there is too much at stake, now, to ask—later, perhaps, if this works; if they survive. Right now, the drift hums at the back of their minds, and the memory of what they've found out is at the forefront.

They move as one; Newton leaning against her, arm over her shoulders; Hermann clutching, in one hand, her cane; the other, the naturalist's coat. Whatever tension there's been between them for the past years has melted away—Hermann trusts the other, and she knows that it's mutual.

She catches sight of the tattoos on Newton's arm and is hit, suddenly, with a flash of recognition. "Precursor," she murmurs, mind filling with images of tall, insect-like beings, beady eyes boring into hers.

"Precursors," Newton corrects, and then gives a slightly hysterical laugh, and Hermann can feel the other's fear in her bones. "Fuck. Hermann, we're—"

"Fae," Hermann says, grimly. "I know."

The other laughs, again; edged with lunacy and hopelessness. "When did this become our lives?" she breathes.

When you started experimenting on dead bodies? she doesn't say. "The cult we're attempting to stop from bringing about Armageddon might have something to do with it," she says, drily.

The other's lips pull slightly into a smile. "I'd forgotten how funny you can be," she says, "it used to come out in your letters."

"I'd forgotten, too," Hermann admits.

They lapse into silence, focused only on reaching the LOCCENT.


"Doctors?" Choi asks, alarmed, as soon as he catches sight of them. "Is that blood—?"

"No time to explain," Newton cuts in, speaking quickly. "Get us the Marshal—quick, before Hermann collapses."

"I'm fine," Hermann snaps, and sways, even though she's gripping her cane tightly and Newton is supporting her. The naturalist gives her a flat look.

Choi's already gone; racing off to get the Marshal. Hermann closes her eyes for a moment, trying to stave off the blackness spotting her vision. "I'm sorry," she says, at Newton, once she's steadied herself enough that she can speak.

Newton gives her a startled look. "What for?" she asks.

"Our...our first meeting," Hermann says, "I...my words were thoughtless, and I know they hurt you, despite that not being my intent. I was—surprised, but I still owe you an apology."

Newton doesn't say anything for a moment, and then, softly, she says, "You had thought I was a man, hadn't you?"

"Yes, well," Hermann shrugs. "Prior to our face-to-face meeting, the only method of communication we had was written, and you signed your first letter as Doctor Newton Geiszler. Yes, I presumed wrongly, but one must admit, there are not that many female doctors in the world—of any field of study."

"I know," Newton says, and there's a touch of smugness when she adds, "I'm the first female naturalist in the States."

"Congratulations," Hermann says, and means it. "I applaud you, truly—that you managed to do so without disguising your sex...well, that is more than can be said for myself."

"Well, I am a genius," Newton replies. "And I...I forgive you, Hermann. I mean, it hurt like hell to think you saw me as less, and it still hurts that our friendship was irreparably damaged for a while after that, but I...I understand. And I forgive you."

Hermann breathes a sigh of relief; tension she hadn't even realised draining from her. "Thank you. I don't deserve it, likely, but—"

"Doctors?"

It's the Marshal. Hermann snaps to attention.

"Sir," she says, with a nod. "We know the location of the base of operations—"

"619 Breach Road," Newton cuts in, "you need to get there—now. They've already abducted the next three victims, and you don't have much time."

The Marshal nods grimly. "Mister Choi," he says, turning to the other man, "get me Chuck Hansen."

"Sir, your mind—" Choi protests; they all know the strain of drifting again will kill the Marshal—his drift partner is already dead from the ritual they used at first; far cruder and more damaging to pilots than the drift ritual they use now.

"This is my call, Mister Choi," the Marshal snaps. "Get me Chuck Hansen, and tell pilots Beckett and Mori that they need to get down to LOCCENT and initiate drift."

"Understood, sir," Choi says, lips pursed thin, and takes off.

The Marshal gives them a nod. "Goodbye, Doctors," he says, "thank you for your efforts."

"Godspeed," Hermann says, heart heavy. Newton, at her side, doesn't say anything, but she gives the Marshal a salute.

Then, he's gone.


It works.

Somehow.

When Beckett and Mori get back, they're covered in soot and ash; their clothes and hair singed. "The Marshal is...the Marshal is dead," Mori says, voice heavy; her eyes are glimmering slightly with tears.

"The kaiju are, too," Beckett adds, "the Marshal and Hansen held them off for long enough that we could free the victims, and then we set fire to the building."

Hermann locks eyes with Newton; simultaneously, they probe the drift. "They're gone," Newton confirms.

There's a moment of silence; then, joyously, Choi calls, "It's done! It's done—it's finally done!"

LOCCENT breaks into cheers.

Newton disappears from her side, then, into the crowd; leaves Hermann feeling cold from the loss with the naturalist no longer pressed against her. She'd thought—

Well, nevermind what she'd thought; Newton's gone to go celebrate—join in the partying and festivities that have erupted around them. Hermann can't blame her; she's hardly the most pleasant person in the room, not by a long shot. Perhaps, when it's over—

There's a tap on her shoulder, and she turns around, ready to face one of the many people—

"I found wine," Newton says, showing off a bottle. "Kosher—took me a bit, it's why I was gone so long."

"Oh," Hermann says, and blinks at her. "You remembered."

Newton scoffs. "Of course I did, dude," she says, and there's something gentle about her voice, "I've only reread your letters a few thousand times."

Hermann blushes. "I'm surprised you kept them," she says, quietly, "they were hardly well-worded." She doesn't dwell on the way the knowledge leaves her feeling warm—that Newton, too, valued their connection.

"Bullshit," Newton says, adamantly, and then, "hey, it's getting kind of loud in here, and you look like you need to sit down, too. Do you want to...?" She gestures down the hallway, then offers her arm.

"Yes, please," Hermann says, relieved, and they set off towards the laboratory.

When they get there, Newton pulls her chair over to Hermann's side, by her own; the two chairs fitting awkwardly behind a desk made only for one, and it's a challenge to sit down in them, but they manage it, anyway, somehow.

Newton hunts around for cups for the wine; manages to find two clean mugs in a cupboard, shoved behind a jar with a pair of ears floating in a yellow-green solution. "Not mine," she says, "they were here when I started working in the laboratory."

She pours them both half a cup; Hermann feels a tad ridiculous drinking wine from the thick-rimmed mug, but needs must, and it is an occasion for celebration. She swallows and sets the mug down on the desk; sighs, and closes her eyes. "I can't believe we've managed it, really," she confesses. "Five years...it feels like it's a dream—like I shall wake up in a moment and find that—"

"That people are still dying?" Newton finishes for her; Hermann nods. "I know what you mean," she says. "It's—surreal, almost."

"Exactly," Hermann agrees. Then, because she's been meaning to ask for ages, but she's never felt they were close enough for it, "If...if I can ask...why, exactly, did you get the Precursors' mark tattooed on so many times?"

Newton closes her eyes for a minute with a hum. "I wanted to honour the victims, I suppose," she says, eventually, "no one...no one knew who most of them were, so whoever their families where couldn't honour them. I...the worst thing that can happen to you is to be forgotten.

"The, ah, the Egyptians—they believed that if you were forgotten, your soul, um, it would...stop existing. And that thought's always stuck with me. And then, somewhere along the line, I realised no one would remember the victims. So I...I thought, in my own little way, I'd...I'd remember them."

Hermann swallows; the naturalist's words, so honest, carry a heaviness to them; a weight—an importance. "That's very honourable of you," she says, quietly.

They lapse into silence for a bit longer, and then, Newton says, "I never would have guessed." She tips her head to Hermann.

Hermann gives a wan smile. "I know," she says, "I made sure of that. I've been disguising my sex since I was...oh, eleven? Twelve? I'm very good at it—and no one is looking for a woman disguised as a man. They don't expect to see that, so they don't see it."

Newton shrugs. "Beats me how you lived with it, though," she says, "I mean—there must have been men you were attracted to...and of course, you couldn't act on that, and even if they had been interested in you as well, it would be because they didn't realise you were the fairer sex, and if they had found out, it would have jeopardised your career."

"Fairer sex," Hermann scoffs, "that is such—a ridiculous term, honestly. One look at any of the women in society would tell you we are only the 'fairer sex' because we've been forced into that by law and by society. And even then, there are still those of us who cannot be constrained..." she trails off. "Well, regardless. No, that was never an issue for me—I've not often had interest in a partner, and..." she hesitates. She's never said this aloud—not to a single soul.

"My attraction does not lay with the opposite sex," she admits.

"Oh," Newt says, and sets her own mug down. "Oh."

"Quite," Hermann agrees.

"That's..." Newton hums; she's taking it remarkably well, Hermann thinks—could be the exhaustion, or the fact that they'd drifted only a short time prior.

Newton's next words surprise her. "Good," she says. "I mean—me, too. Well—both, I mean. Men and women."

"Oh." This time, it's Hermann's turn to fall silent.

There's a sort of a warmth that's growing between them; it blossoms like a sunflower in the light where Newt's knee is pressed against her own; where Hermann's tucked against the naturalist. It's...nothing like she's ever felt before.

"Not to be too forward," Newton starts, and Hermann laughs.

"Oh, you? Forward? Never."

Newt ignores her interruption. "But now that you've...said what you've said, suddenly a lot seems far clearer," she says, and Hermann's breath stutters in her throat. Of course—they did just drift; Newton will know, now—that's the side-effect of sharing your mind with someone.

The other catches her look. "Not—no, no, I'm not—" she stops, looking at her hands, and Hermann waits for her to collect herself. "It's not like that," Newton says, finally. "Unrequited, I mean. I rather thought you a decently handsome man, Hermann, even though you were a bit of an ass at first, and now I'm certain you're a very handsome woman."

"Oh," Hermann breathes, and drops her gaze to her lap, a blush rising hotly on her cheeks. "I—thank you. You're...very good-looking as well, Geiszler. Newton," she corrects herself, earning a beaming smile from the naturalist.

Tentatively, she reaches out; hand hovering, for a moment, over Newton's own.

The other turns her hand over, palm up, and twines their fingers together.


It's almost six months to get everything at the Shatterdome squared away. Hermann and Newton fall into an easy coexistence—that is not to say they do not quarrel, but it's more banter now, truly; a way to stimulate their minds.

The question, after that, is 'what is next?'. Hermann no longer has a place at the university—it has, after all, been five years since they saw hide or hair of her—, and certainly cannot afford to rent the flat she'd lived in when she was working at the university again.

"Come to America," Newton proposes. "I'm sure that universities there will be more than willing to hire you, and we can afford a small flat together."

"And what of you?" Hermann asks, "it hardly seems fair that I continue my work when you likely will be laughed out of town if you even suggest they hire you, no matter how qualified you are in your many fields."

"Well..." Newt pauses, and gives her a sly look. "I'm sure they wouldn't be half as opposed if I had explicit written and verbal permission from my esteemed professor husband..."

"Your...? Oh—!" Hermann catches on; blushes scarlet at that. Newton laughs at her, softly. "Well—I—" she has half a mind to complain that Newton shouldn't need that—that she should be able to secure the position on her own merit alone, but the other, more reasonable part, realises what Newt's doing; that is the only way it could work—no matter how infuriating that fact is.

She's also gone and disguised a proposal in it, the trickster. "You're horribly romantic," she sniffs, trying to regain her composure. "Really, Newton, darling, you could have just asked..."

"Yes, but then I wouldn't get to see you blush so beautifully," the other teases. "So, what do you say?"

Hermann sighs. "Oh, alright," she says, and then, more enthusiastically, "yes, yes, of course, Newton."

The naturalist grins widely at her; a moment later, she sends Hermann tumbling, with a laugh, against the pillows. "Yes," she cries, "oh, Hermann..." she trails off, the smile still on her face, and Hermann gives her a matching one.

Somehow, they've done it—two misfits though they may be, they've really, truly done it; they've found trust—in themselves, and each other.

The thought leaves Hermann feeling warm, like she's sitting in front of a pleasantly crackling fire.

A little more than a week later, they're in the cabin of a boat—large, enough so that Hermann isn't in danger of retching at every movement the boat makes when hit by a swell of the waves. Newton is tucked into her side in the bed, the two of them fitting, just barely; her arm is splayed across Hermann's chest, her hand, fingers locked with Hermann's own, rising slightly as the mathematician breathes.

The faint light that filters in catches, for a moment, on the simple, matching bands on their fingers.