Actions

Work Header

corpus callosum

Chapter Text

;;

 

An indeterminate period of time in the near future
In an undisclosed location

 

A monster was a monster was a monster.

 

Except, of course, for when it refused to be one.

 

;;

 

August 10, 2013
Somewhere in Austria

 

The world came to a screeching halt on a Saturday, because Kaiju didn't care about plans to catch up on tv shows and wanted to make sure to piss Laura Hollis off properly. Kaiju did not half-ass the apocalypse. Still, this was her world and she would have been pissed had they decided to destroy the world on a Monday morning, too.

 

There was something to be said about the abundance of chocolate and a distinct lack of monsters who actually looked like monsters, but she did not think about it on that particular Saturday. It was quite a normal one too, as Saturdays went. Weather forecast reported cloudy with the chance of light rain in the evening. The weather forecast hadn't mentioned anything about her world ending that afternoon.

 

Her day had been unremarkable thus far. Laura glanced down at the shopping list in her hand, listing food and others – half of this was not supposed to be on a shopping list for groceries, she was sure – in her own handwriting, with additions in her father's handwriting, in blue ink, black ink, pencil, and what looked suspiciously like a green crayon. Bread, milk, spaghetti, marshmallows (the pink ones), blueberry jam for her father. Chocolate wasn't on her list, but she grabbed two chocolate bars and shoved them in her shopping basket anyway.

 

The convenience store's music stopped. She thought nothing of it, until the store clerk increased the volume of the small television that was hung up in a corner of the store. The newscaster's voice was panicked and she vaguely noted how unprofessional he sounded, but still looked at the screen to see what all the fuss was about. That was the first time she saw a Kaiju. She did not know to refer to it as a Kaiju then. It was larger than any of the buildings that it was either stepping on or kicking down with its humongous feet.

 

They reminded her of those cartoons she used to watch as a child, where the monster of the week was bigger than the grey buildings littering the bottom of the screen, and she tried to remember if she had seen news of a Powerpuff Girls live action movie recently. She hadn't, but she still thought of it as an interactive trailer for a movie that she might have been interested in downloading in her immediate future. It made the trailer out to be a sort of news report on the movie's monster. A strip of red underneath the scene read 'BREAKING NEWS!'

 

If not a trailer, then a clever advertising campaign. Laura turned back to the aisle and picked up a packet of raisins. Her dad was fond of raisins.

 

It wasn't until the clerk confused her items with the items of the person behind her (apologizing profusely and then ringing her up again) that she noticed that something was seriously wrong, and the guy wasn't just an avid fan of monster movies.

 

The rest of the customers had gathered around the television, products forgotten in trolleys and baskets alike. The clerk himself had an eye on the screen at all times and Laura noticed that he looked slightly agitated, as if he had better things to do than charge her for the items. Everyone was looking at the beast with the same expression of fear.

 

That was when she noticed that what was transmitting, in shaky camera work, was the same monster from before. The movie monster. That wasn't normal, she thought. They would have switched to something else by now. That was when it clicked for her. The nape of her neck bristled. This was no trailer; the monster on the screen was real and the people fleeing the buildings were not extras in a movie, but real, live people.

 

Laura's phone rang – the default tone, because her flip phone could barely handle having over ten messages in her inbox, let alone a custom ringtone. She turned to the rest of the customers with an apologetic smile plastered to her face. Most of them were barely taking any notice of her, but the ones who did glance back at her turned to look back at the screen once she flipped the phone open.

 

Her father was on the other end.

 

"Laura, where are you? Are you alright? Are you safe?" was the first thing he said. Laura didn't know how often he would ask her that in relation to a Kaiju attack from that point onwards, yet.

 

He told her that he was watching the news, and that the monster was on the other side of the continent, but he wanted to check on her just in case. Then he said to forget all about shopping and come back home.

 

Laura didn't bother to mention that she had already paid, because her eyes had already sought out the television again and she was only half-listening to him. She reassured him that she was fine, that he had nothing to worry about, and that she was going to go straight home and not talk to any strangers on the way. He told her to be careful. Three times. That was excessive, even for him.

 

On the way home, she stopped in front of a window display covered in plasma screens. She watched the various news reports with different angles of the monster on the different channels. It hadn't quite sunk in yet. She wasn't sure it ever would.

 

;;

 

Her father was waiting for her on the steps of their house, his knee juggling impatiently.

 

He ran up to her and hugged her as soon as she rounded the corner to their street. The smell of the peppermint sweets that he so liked to chew on and coffee that helped him get through the day prevailed over all other fragrances. When he pulled back, Laura could see that he had worried himself sick.

 

Laura's father did not care about how others perceived him. She had always had a hard time of believing that because day after day he had his hair cropped short in a neat style, kept his clothes well-ironed, and looked rather put together most of the time.

 

As a child, she had asked him why he had had the same hairstyle since she was born, since she changed it so often, because he supported her need for experimentation with her hair. He had replied that it was out of habit. Laura understood now that it was all that remained from his army days.

 

But on that day Laura found him with his short hair mussed, sticking out in every which direction from running his fingers through it so often. He was wearing a flannel shirt that was untucked and skewed because he had missed a button. His pants looked like what Laura heavily suspected were his pajama pants. In fact, she knew they were his pajama pants because he didn't own any other pants that had tiny pandas on them.

 

"Kiddo," he said, cupping her cheeks. She smiled up at him as he patted her cheeks and then her shoulders, as if to ascertain that she was really there. He smiled back at her, a little sad smile. "You were gone a while, and there was the thing on the telly, and- I was worried."

 

"Uh, dad?"

 

"Yeah? What is it, sweetheart?" He sounded like he was about to start crying, like he thought that he would never get to hear her calling him 'dad' ever again in his life.

 

"You were the one who asked me to go grocery shopping this morning. Less than an hour ago."

 

"I'm just glad you're safe," he said, and hugged her again.

 

When he pulled back, he helped her carry the groceries inside the house. Laura pulled off her scarf as soon as she was inside. He put the bags on top of the kitchen counter and then dragged her to the living room.

 

His laptop, a gigantic old thing that was literally being held together by duct tape, hooked up to the power supply because the battery didn't last more than five minutes, was open on top of the coffee table. The television opposite the sofa was turned on to the channel that she had seen on one of the plasma screens on the way home.

 

Her father told her how he had been online gathering footage, sourced from all around the cities that the monster had destroyed. There was way too much to sift through, but the gist of it was: no one knew where it had come from, and nothing they were throwing at it was so much as leaving a dent on the thing. Some people thought it was the end of the world, others thought it was an elaborate hoax. Her father didn't know what to think.

 

They flipped the channel every couple of minutes to see if anyone had anything more to report other than an estimated death count. Every channel broadcasted different angles of the monster destroying their world.

 

Laura still thought of it as a monster then, but much later, before it was given a proper name, she would think of it as a beast, because monsters were imaginary and Kaiju weren't.

 

She put the groceries away half an hour later and climbed the stairs up to her room to bring her laptop down to the living room too. Her own was in better shape than her father's, because he had blown all his savings buying her a decent laptop instead of buying both of them mediocre ones.

 

Laura's father ate nothing that day. He didn't prepare dinner either, which wasn't really surprising given that there was a beast roaming around the world and there wasn't any end to it in sight. He couldn't take his eyes off the screen long enough to cook something that would turn out edible.

 

She ate three bowls of cereal and whipped up a blueberry jam sandwich for him, but he barely touched it, citing that he felt sick when she tried to convince him to eat it. She finally give up and left it on the coffee table. He smiled briefly, and looked back at the television screen.

 

After ten hours of flipping channels and checking for updates online, she went to bed. It took three hours for her body to relent and allow her to fall asleep.

 

;;

 

Laura woke up in the middle of the night with a bad feeling in the pit of her stomach which turned out to be a craving for a chocolate bar. She didn't look into the living room as she walked into the kitchen.

 

When she walked past the living room with a half-opened chocolate bar in her grip, she saw her father on the sofa, still awake, and looking more agitated than he did before she went to bed. He was still wearing the same flannel shirt and pajama bottoms, except this time, he had a bathrobe over them.

 

"Still haven't taken it down?"

 

He was startled at her voice, and looked up, only to find her yawning in the middle of the hallway.

 

"Not yet, kiddo."

 

He smiled at her, a smile that didn't reach his eyes, and her priorities shifted from her current hunger to the well-being of her father. She walked into the living room and patted his shoulder gently.

 

"Not yet," he repeated, as if trying to convince himself of something. Maybe that they could take it down. That they eventually would.

 

"I'm gonna go back to sleep. Don't stay up too late, otherwise you don't get to complain whenever I stay up all night watching movies."

 

That seemed to cheer him up. "I get veto rights on account of being your dad," he said, and chuckled softly. She yawned again. He looked at her sternly. "Night, Laura."

 

"Goodnight, dad."

 

;;

 

The next day, she climbed down the stairs with her laptop under her arm, and found him asleep on the sofa, still wearing the bathrobe. Her father had bags underneath his eyes and the beginnings of a salt-and-pepper beard on his chin.

 

She put the laptop next to his slowly, and went to the kitchen to make breakfast. According to the mug next to his laptop and the four in the sink, he had five cups of coffee during the night. How he had fallen asleep, she didn't know. Laura made cereal without making any noise, and then walked back to the living room with two bowls of cereal in her hands. She found him awake again, checking for updates on his laptop.

 

"That for me?" he asked her, when he saw the second bowl. She nodded, handed it to him. They sat in silence for a while, watched the news reports. They were still streaming live footage of the monster.

 

At noon, when the thing started heading towards cities that had not yet been evacuated, her father ducked upstairs. Laura heard banging coming from the attic, and then spotted him hauling two giant suitcases to his bedroom. He ran out of his room and searched frantically for a photograph on the mantle, something from the cupboard, and toothbrush and toothpaste from the bathroom, and then ran back to his room.

 

When he finally emerged almost an hour later, he was pulling two ready-packed suitcases, one that kept bumping against the back of his foot, and another that was hers. It was the one that she had planned on using on a holiday that never happened because she had fallen ill with chickenpox. She had hoped to be able to use it when she left for university.

 

'If I leave for university,' she thought, somewhat bitterly.

 

"Dad?"

 

"If it comes over here-" He frowned, covered his mouth with his hand, then mumbled, "I can't protect you."

 

"Dad, it's-"

 

"Laura, listen to me," he said. Laura could tell that he was terrified. "I know it hasn't come to this side yet, thank god, but- We need to be prepared if they tell us to evacuate. I packed the essentials, but I didn't know what else you'd want. You should probably check, I think I forgot some books. I got all your favourites, though."

 

She didn't mention that if the Kaiju crossed over to their country, no one would be able to protect him, either. Laura didn't say that if the Kaiju managed to go over to their side of the world, they probably wouldn't have anywhere left to go.

 

Laura tried not to focus on how much her life had changed in just a few hours. She got a craving for pasta primavera after seeing an advertisement in between switching channels for different news reports.

 

She figured that cooking it would take long enough that she could count it as a break from the Kaiju, so she mentioned that she was hungry a few minutes later. Her father cooked pasta that night, and only managed to mess up a handful of times, one of which was when he put the pasta in the pot without boiling the water first.

 

They spent the next few days with their eyes glued to the television, watched the first Kaiju destroy three whole cities while the military that her father had once been a part of shot every weapon known to man at the beast. They barely managed to scratch its surface. Laura thought their weapons must have looked like toys to the Kaiju.

 

;;

 

2017
Silas University, Austria

 

Her mother had finally found it in her heart to give Carmilla her assigned course list.

 

She would have been almost grateful to have an excuse to leave the room, had it not been the Dean's fault for letting incompetent morons handle roommate assignments in the first place, because they had hooked her up with the worst possible roommates in the entire university.

 

Carmilla went to her classes to avoid spending any time whatsoever in her room with them, because they just would not shut the hell up.

 

The first one pestered her about her hygiene, the second one requested that she stop eating their food, and the third one stuck labels to everything. The second one might have been the first one's girlfriend and didn't actually live with them, she wasn't entirely sure and didn't care enough to find out. All three of them were obnoxious and annoying. Within hours of moving in, she had thought of at least five different ways that she could hide their bodies if she ever snapped and accidentally murdered them. This was a distinct possibility, she thought.

 

She was met with a dilemma when she found out that the tall one was in her Philosophy class. And that she shared one of her Tuesday classes – she couldn't remember which one – with the roommate who was the proud and obnoxious owner of a collection of miniature dogs that littered every surface of the dorm room.

 

Carmilla dragged herself out of bed for the sole purpose of getting as far away as possible from her sleeping roommate's form. The other ones were unsurprisingly absent. She pulled on a random shirt that she found at the foot of her bed, plucked her CD player out of her backpack and shoved it in her jacket. On the way to class, she popped the earbuds in and turned it on. The Ramones started blaring.

 

She did not remember which class she was supposed to be in on Wednesday mornings. After she made sure that the classroom was not occupied by either of her roommates, Carmilla slipped into the back of a class that she was probably not taking.

 

During the professor's role call, she spotted a green stain at the hem of her shirt, and thought that maybe she should have changed into something cleaner, if only because she didn't know what the green was. It could have been a piece of her roommate's gross cooking project from the night before, she wouldn't put it past any of them to stain her clothes on purpose.

 

After the class, which turned out to be so boring that she kept her CD player on during the entire thing, she roamed around the campus and counted ten people crying in the hallways, as it was every time she went out anywhere recently.

 

A few weeks earlier, Carmilla had found herself in a room with a girl who started crying while she was kissing her because her extended family had been killed in a recent attack. Carmilla didn't ask why she was thinking of that at that precise moment, and awkwardly left the girl after handing her tissue to clean herself up with. Comforting humans was not in her repertoire.

 

She looked down at her green stain and supposed, maybe the fact that she hadn't washed her clothes in a couple of weeks didn't matter to anyone else. It sure didn't matter to her but the mysterious origin of the stain was bugging her, so she decided to change her shirt.

 

Carmilla went to her dorm and walked straight back outside when she smelled one – or both, she still wasn't sure – of her roommates in the room. She could learn how to deal with unidentified stains if it meant avoiding them.

 

She was too tired to think of anything better to do, so she decided to slip into another class. If anything, she would be able to fall right back to sleep during this one. She didn't notice that she had walked into a Math class until the professor walked in, all tweed jacket flapping as if to match his toupee. Carmilla instantly recognised him as one of her mother's friends.

 

She was trying to think of ways she could excuse herself without being noticed by him – because he would most definitely recognise her, and once he did that, he would want to suck up to one of her mother's children and she did not want to get caught in an explanation of his current project involving way too many numbers than she cared for – when Will texted her.

 

Mother wants 2 tlk 2 u.

 

William typed like a ten year old child only when he wanted to annoy her. So, every single text she ever got from her brother was either grammatically annoying or concluded with a selection of emoji. He did plenty of things just to annoy her. Exist, for one.

 

She shoved her phone back into her pocket because if that was going to be her excuse to leave the room, then she would rather stay in Douchey McTweedPants' class. Carmilla tugged a book out of her backpack and started reading. She got to the second page before her phone vibrated again. Another text from Will. This time, just the one word.

 

Now.

 

The professor was more than eager to let her walk out of his class when she muttered something about being late for a brunch with her mother. She was most definitely not being called over to engage in any kind of meal, but she guessed, correctly, that Tweedface would be more receptive to a lie than the truth.

 

Truth being, of course, her mother probably wanted to speak to her because she had been cutting the classes she was supposed to be taking. Or something else entirely. She never could predict her mother. The Dean, true to form, didn't mention the classes. Instead, she placed a sheet of paper on the desk, and slid it over to Carmilla, who took it.

 

"The Pan-Pacific Defence Corps are looking for new recruits," her mother said, calmly. Her voice sounded like a noose around Carmilla's neck, and given what she was asking – demanding – of her, Carmilla didn't really think it was such a leap.

 

"The anti-Kaiju military?" Carmilla asked. Her brow furrowed as she stared down at the enlistment form.

 

Her mother ignored her question. "I've already talked to your brother about it. Both of you will enlist, and become Jaeger pilots." Carmilla looked up at her, more confused than ever. "Problem, dear?"

 

"Uh, no," said Carmilla, hurriedly. The Dean's eyes narrowed. Carmilla looked at the form again. Her hand was trembling, slightly. "It's just, Will? We can hardly agree on which pizza place to order from, let alone which robot limb to move. I very much doubt we'd be compatible, that's all."

 

The Dean placed the tips of her hands on top of a pile of paperwork. It looked like someone had actually worked on it, which meant that it wasn't Silas-related, because her mother's way of dealing with Silas-related paperwork was to use it as a replacement for firewood or something else that reduced all of it to ashes.

 

"I would have much rather preferred Matska over him but, your sister," she said, in the tone of voice that suggested that her mother was none too pleased with Mattie, "has been most disagreeable on this. She seems to think that it is beneath her." Carmilla looked up at her, a violent smile hiding in plain sight. "You don't share her views on the subject, do you, Mircalla?"

 

Her own name – her old, first name – felt foreign in her mother's mouth. Carmilla didn't know why it would ever, because that was all that her mother called her by when they were alone. She almost corrected her this time, because life (fine, death) was short and Kaiju could go through their campus at any time and neither of them would survive that. Still, Carmilla decided not to risk it. There was no guarantee that a Kaiju would come through the campus.

 

And, truth be told, yes, she did share her sister's beliefs. Playing hero with giant robots – she didn't necessarily think herself beneath the role, just that it wasn't suited to her. But, as always, she had to appease her mother.

 

Besides, she wouldn't have dared speak to her mother that way. Matska, through centuries of practice, had garnered the ability to say 'no' to the Dean. Carmilla hadn't. She doubted she ever would. If her mother wanted her to get inside a Jaeger and fight Kaiju, then that was what Carmilla was going to do.

 

"No. No, I don't."

 

"Good. You and your brother ought to be drift compatible," she spat the phrase out like a curse, "enough to appease the PPDC. If not, you can always find a partner in one of the other recruits."

 

Carmilla was about to question the variables that were necessary for that to be a possibility, but her mother stopped her with a casual wave of her hand.

 

"I've taken the liberty of letting the rest of the form be handled by someone who knows what the PPDC want to hear, because I know you, Mircalla, and your tendency to give up on important documents such as this one within two or three pages-"

 

Carmilla looked down at the pile of forms on the Dean's desk. It looked like someone had written out Atlas Shrugged and left it in the Dean's office. No wonder her mother had decided to give it to someone else.

 

"But I would like it if you did the honours and filled in the basics. Name, blood type, all those fine little details."

 

The Dean knew what name was on her official documents. She most definitely knew her blood type, because she never forgot details that had to do with the day of Carmilla's death. She amended that last word to birth in her head. Her mother never missed a chance to remind her who had sired her, who had made her.

 

"I take it you don't need any help rising through the ranks. Be sure to become a Ranger within six months, assigned a Jaeger within twelve. Am I understood?"

 

"Yes, mother," said Carmilla, dutifully.

 

Her mother waved her hand in a dismissive manner. Carmilla held the form in her hand even tighter than before. She didn't ask what she was supposed to do when her very human co-pilot looked inside her mind – even she knew how Jaegers worked, these days – and saw her memories of biting into someone's jugular.

 

There was no way in hell that she was going to drift with Will. And there was no doubt in her mind that her mother would have told her to learn how to repress it and act normal, as if she didn't already have to pretend to be human on a daily basis. As if she didn't hide what she was every single day.

 

Carmilla knew that her brother had not asked that question. He had instead followed their mother's orders obediently. She chuckled bitterly at the thought of William already being the perfect soldier in their mother's army, and how well he would fit in the PPDC.

 

If she were to be honest with herself, her mother had nothing to do with it. Sure, she was the one who handed her the sheet of paper from the form that would eventually lead to her being accepted to the Jaeger Academy, but Carmilla was the one who wrote her name on it. In neat cursive in the middle of the night after her roommates had gone to bed and their breathing had calmed. She had a choice, was what she told herself. To maintain the illusion that her mother didn't have her completely under her thumb still.

 

Carmilla reasoned it out like so: she enlisted because she was bored, she had nothing better to do, and she was tired of seeing people die for no good reason.

 

The humans on campus who were mourning their dead had increased tenfold since the Kaiju started popping out of the ocean. It had started getting awkward. They were bursting into tears during classes, excusing themselves to go cry in the hallways as if the rest of the class couldn't hear them.

 

She couldn't stand it. It disrupted the entire room, jolted her out of her music or whichever book she had been reading at the time. It made her sudden alertness all the more unfortunate because the rest of them, specifically those who had plopped down next to her, thought they could look at her and nod sympathetically, as if she cared about what any of them were going through.

 

The only thing she cared about was not being bothered while she was trying to focus on other things. And, somehow, as if they did it to annoy her specifically, they always started during the best parts; the crescendo during her music, the climax of her books.

 

Carmilla could read through a war – had in more than one instance – but there was something unsettling about watching a person break down in such a way.

 

But, still. Carmilla never spoke up during their excited scribbling or their class debates. She didn't interrupt when they were at an important part of their lecture. The least they could do was cry silently or better yet, cry in their bedrooms alone where no one could hear them and she wouldn't have to endure the secondhand humiliation that came from watching someone wipe snot on their sleeves, but no, they couldn't even extend her the same courtesy.

 

Mostly, she enlisted because she was sure that the military wouldn't be worse than her mother, or her roommates.

 

That, and the PPDC definitely would not be able to find someone she would be drift compatible with, on account of her being first, incredibly disagreeable according to both her mother and little brother, and second, a vampire.

 

She was sure that humans wouldn't be able to handle a vampire's mind, anyway. There wasn't any difference, other than the quantity of memories of older vampires and how they vastly outnumbered any human's. And the memories where she drank blood. So, there might have been a few differences.

 

Unfortunately, her mother had been serious about sending Will with her. Carmilla thought that perhaps she felt better about forcing her to join the military if her brother was there to watch her back at all times.

 

Will, ever the suck-up, tagged along eagerly. He promised their mother to keep an eye on his dear sister to make sure that she didn't get into any trouble at the academy.

 

;;

 

On the day that they left, Will showed up outside Silas wearing an honest-to-god parka, hauling along a gigantic suitcase that looked like it was about to burst open at any minute. Carmilla looked down at her own luggage. She had shoved a few clothes into her backpack and packed everything else in a duffel bag, with room to spare. It was like Will had packed everything he'd collected in his life into a bag and was dragging it along with him in that suitcase.

 

Carmilla didn't know which was funnier: the suitcase, the parka that was about five times bigger than he was, or the knitted hat on top of his head that had a bobble and ear flaps, so she did the only thing she could have done in that situation. She laughed in his face.

 

He obviously did not see the humorous situation for what it was – which was pretty damn hilarious, given that they were still in Austria and he was going to have to take the parka off or waddle to the Jaeger Academy in it – because he stood there moping until she calmed down enough to hear him coming up with excuses.

 

"It's cold this time of year," he huffed. It was cold. But it wasn't that cold. Not for two vampires who would barely feel the frost. Especially since she had – they both had, if Will's rose-tinted cheeks and slight smear of blood on his bottom lip were to be trusted – prepared for the trip by drinking blood.

 

"It's Kodiak Island, not the Soviet Union. You're a tad overdressed."

 

He tugged on one of his beanie's earflaps protectively. "You'll be jealous when you're knee-deep in snow and freezing your butt off."

 

"I don't need synthetic fabrics to keep me warm."

 

"Right, of course. I forgot. You go for the Cruella de Vil look with all your leather." He motioned towards her leather jacket. She was sure that would be enough for whatever hurricane Will thought would hit them once they got to the academy. "No way the snow's gonna get you with enough leather jackets."

 

"I meant- Never mind," she dismissed. "What's the plan? Are we supposed to swim there? Hotwire a car, the usual?" Their mother had simply requested that they sign up and attend but had not given them any indication as to how they should have done that.

 

Will pulled a set of passports out of his pockets. "Mother's already thought of all that. She has everything planned, Carmilla. The whole trip." She very much doubted that. "Which you would have known if you had even given a crap about this job. We've been planning for weeks."

 

"Sounds.. fun."

 

"It wouldn't hurt you to be a little appreciative, you know." He shook his head, cracked open the first passport, then handed her the second one.

 

"This'll hold, right?" she asked, holding up the red booklet. Carmilla couldn't remember whether they had ever tested this forger's skills at an airport or not. A lot of things had changed post-Kaiju; airport security was not one of those things. It had become even more strict, in the aftermath.

 

William rolled his eyes at her. He pulled out a set of car keys calmly and clicked a button. A vehicle started blaring its alarm. His face went from calm and collected to absolutely panicked in three milliseconds. It was way too early to deal with her brother's antics. He stumbled to turn it off again, then turned a puppydog smile on her when the silence smothered them again.

 

Carmilla pinched the bridge of her nose and hoped that that wasn't his own, because there was only so much she could handle and Will showing off his brand new car was not one of them. If his lack of control over the thing's remote control was any indication, he had probably picked this one up recently.

 

They both walked over to the general area of the alarm, Carmilla's duffel tight in her grip and Will's suitcase rolling behind him. The vehicle was a tiny minivan – definitely not Will's, then, thank god – shiny and brand new, probably belonging to one of the teachers at Silas, because Will's taste in cars was directly correlated to how fast it could go, so mostly hot rod red muscle cars, but Will didn't offer an explanation and she didn't ask for one.

 

They hauled their luggage in the backseat in record time, and Will finally took off that godawful parka. He kept the beanie, though. He slid in the passenger seat holding a pile of paperwork that looked like plane tickets. Someone had obviously planned ahead, but she wasn't sure that it was Will himself despite what he had said, because he was attempting to separate them into two groups – his own and Carmilla's.

 

She pulled the car out of its parking spot. The car ride to the first airport took two hours and fifty six minutes. The entire trip to the Jaeger Academy took over thirty hours. During what Carmilla had dubbed as her own personal hell, three things annoyed her.

 

The first was Will and his travel habits, which were somehow more irritating than his regular habits. They hadn't gone on a road trip together in what felt like decades, and in between those years, someone had invented radios and stuck them to every single car in existence, so obviously Will tinkered with the radio dials as a way to pass the time after he had sorted out the tickets.

 

That didn't bother Carmilla, per se. What did bother her is how often it happened. By the fifth station he switched to, Carmilla noticed that he did not have the ability to listen to a song in full, and had a compulsion to change the station mid-song.

 

Fifteen minutes in, they agreed to listen to a CD that she had packed in her duffel, because Carmilla threatened to kick a hole into the dashboard if he did not stop.

 

The worst part about travelling with Will was how even in first class, with so much space between them, he could still find a way to annoy her. Whether it was to promise to wake him up when they landed, or to ask if she had a good book for him only to promptly throw it back at her when he figured out that it was about, direct quote, boring philosophy crap.

 

As if that weren't enough, he was even worse when he wasn't awake. He pulled his woollen cap over his eyes and pointedly gave her his back. That led to him shifting on the seat until he could find a good position. That, she could deal with. What she couldn't deal with was the thin intake of breath and the air that rolled out from out of his nostrils in thick snores.

 

She nearly asked a stewardess to get her a glass of water just so that she could pour it on him, but decided against it because she could deal with his snoring for half an hour. But since she wasn't fond of the idea of having Will's snoring be the only thing that entertained her while on a plane, she grabbed her CD player and shoved her earbuds in just to block out the sound.

 

It lasted three hours, and after a particularly bad snore between one song ending and another beginning, she kicked his shin, hard. He woke up with a jolt, then settled down when he figured out that she had only woken him up because he was snoring, not because they had gotten to their destination.

 

Carmilla went through all the books in her hand luggage before she settled on reading a particular tome she hadn't read in at least two semesters. She hadn't even known it was still in her possession. Her books somehow always got lost. She didn't really care about most of them, except some were her favourites. This particular one was not a favourite. She needed new reading material stat.

 

The second thing to annoy her was that she didn't bother packing more books than she had. Truthfully, she could have borrowed a book or two from the library, but the morning librarians hated her for not returning books until they were overdue by months and given the Jaeger program lasted more than a few months, she hadn't bothered. Plus she didn't want to risk going to the library at night.

 

The third was that she hadn't ditched Will and gone to Paris, as Carmilla thought she would have done five seconds into the first pop song back in Styria.

 

;;

 

2015
Hollis House, Austria

 

What became known as K-day put a rather large dent in her plans of going off to university. Shattered were all her dreams of going to some moderately priced university and doing ridiculous things that were still well within the realms of the law – because even in her dreams she had to be slightly realistic.

 

Still, Laura had once made a list inside of a notebook.

 

A list of things that she wanted to do at university, compilation started at the age of eleven. She still had it, tucked away under her pillow for when she was half-asleep and thought of something else to add to it, even though none of them looked like they were going to happen any time soon.

 

She had been looking forward to '42. Buying more hot chocolate and sweets than actual food'.

 

'101. Eating pizza every single day' was also a particular favourite of hers. Her father didn't restrict her eating, but even he rolled his eyes at pizza for the third time in a week because even her "Pizza is a vegetable, dad, haven't you heard?" excuse was wearing thin. Both of them knew that pizza didn't count as a vegetable, no matter how many vaguely correct sources she cited.

 

Laura was even mourning the loss of the all-nighters she would have had. The amount of work that she would inevitably have stayed awake for, chowing down as much sugar as her body could take just to keep her eyes open was featured in her dreams more often than it would have been had the apocalypse not have happened. Pulling an all-nighter with her roommate who would have been really cool and probably into the same television shows as Laura was sounded wonderful to her.

 

In an ideal world, there were no Kaiju. In her ideal world, she would have gotten herself into a meet-cute scenario like getting her laundry mixed up with a cute girl's at a university she could afford.

 

This would have then led to an amateur investigation into who the clothes belonged to, which would in turn have led to her meeting the aforementioned cute girl. They would have hit it off instantly, because Laura wouldn't have felt insecure or awkward talking to her. Then they would proceed to finding out that they shared a few classes, and then become best friends, and eventually maybe girlfriends.

 

This, especially, felt like a far-off dream to Laura because of course, this wasn't an ideal world and she had bigger things to deal with than accidentally getting her laundry mixed up with someone else's. Even if the girl was really cute in her mind's eye.

 

So unless the university was as fortified as a military base, she wasn't going to leave her house for uni any time soon. And Laura checked – there was only one school that would be a good fit, but it was way beyond their current budget.

 

Her only real chance at being unsupervised by her father, or the people who knew her and knew of how protective her father was of her, was as distant as her memories from when she was able to go outside without protective headgear and a baseball bat.

 

As a consequence of every single Kaiju that had popped out of the ocean since K-day, her father barely let out of his sight. When he finally relented and let her go shopping for groceries by herself, he wouldn't let her go without five cans of bear spray attached to her backpack and one in her hand. She scoffed every single time he handed her another one right before she went out, and he glared at her until she took it. Laura didn't bother mentioning that the Kaiju would not be afraid of bear spray.

 

Really, she didn't have to ask her father if he had any thoughts of letting her go off to boarding school. He suggested home-schooling after they finally took the first Kaiju down. She didn't have the heart to disagree. And that was that.

 

She didn't blame him for being overprotective. She was all he had, and he had spent his life doing two things: keeping her safe and making her happy. And, while she was vaguely safe in that same way that everyone in the midst of an apocalypse thought they were safe – which was to say, she wasn't ever safe, not really – she wasn't happy. She hadn't been happy since the day the first Kaiju appeared. Mostly, however, she was bored.

 

;;

 

2017
Jaeger Academy, Kodiak Island

 

The Kwoon Combat room was the first thing that she saw when she walked into the Jaeger Academy. The place was the size of a baseball field, split into cubes of grey mats pressed together to form a space for two people to spar. These sections were separated from one another by red tiles. Multiple cadets were sparring in pairs on a select few of the mats. Some of them stopped sparring. The hair at the nape of her neck bristled as they watched her group walk in. She was the fresh meat this time.

 

Their guide told them that they were to train in the Kwoon as often as possible. So far, Carmilla knew three things about their guide. One, she was a short Asian girl who was named Natalie – no surname because the Jaeger Academy wasn't like that, she said.

 

Second, she spoke English in a British accent, which grabbed Carmilla's attention given how more than half of the recruits were American. Natalie casually dropped tidbits about her life into the conversation, such as the fact that she had only recently graduated and that they were her second ever group that she got to introduce to the Jaeger Academy.

 

And third, she was their superior officer, and they were not going to refer to her as anything but, and just because she was being friendly with them, that didn't mean that she wasn't their superior and that they shouldn't treat her with respect. She had almost broken a recruit's wrist for daring to imply that she was only there to serve them coffee and biscuits. Carmilla decided that she liked her early on.

 

Her fondness for the woman increased when she figured out that Natalie purposefully dragged them through the Kwoon before she led them to the barracks to intimidate them, just like her own SO had done the first time she'd come to the Jaeger Academy.

 

Will decided that she was not worth his time as soon as he spotted a pretty cadet in a tight t-shirt, so she was left to fend for herself in a roomful of people who thought that she was weak just because she was 160 centimetres tall and had half as much muscle as they did.

 

'So, same as Silas,' Carmilla thought. At least she didn't have to drag around a large suitcase like Will did. The Jaeger Academy needed a better way to introduce the recruits to their home for the next twenty four weeks, because this felt like she had already started training, but then again, maybe that's exactly why they were hauling their luggage around the academy.

 

Natalie led them through the Kwoon, onto the Kaiju Science station, affectionately nicknamed the K-Science station, to match the Jaeger Tech division which was referred to as the J-Tech division.

 

The K-Science station was inhabited by scientists running around in a very panicked manner, sometimes holding potentially explosive substances, and other times holding Kaiju organs. Carmilla watched as they dug themselves elbow-deep in Kaiju entrails and then trailed after the rest of the group. Everything that Natalie said after she pointed towards the Medical bay dulled out.

 

Carmilla looked around. She was glad that Will had left her then, because he would have been wondering why she was checking out the state of the Medical bay's current blood supply and not checking out the recruits instead, who might as well have had a barcode stamped on their foreheads because they were Will's current blood supply. She liked having a backup supply, just in case.

 

Plus, she was sure that her mother wouldn't have been able to get rid of any awkward situations at the Jaeger Academy like she did at Silas, so she was definitely going to have to stop eating normally.

 

Natalie then took them to the J-Tech division, where Jaegers were constructed and deconstructed to the technicians' hearts' content. Carmilla could barely tell the mechanical parts apart – she had read a few books on structural engineering and Jaegers did not seem to follow the technology she knew about – but the technicians seemed to comprehend the ins and outs of every single bolt.

 

She was slightly taken aback when a burst of smoke blasted out of a piece of metal the size of her dorm room at Silas. There was no sound of the blast, which was when she noticed that the J-Tech division was soundproof. She couldn't hear the technicians crowded around the blast yelling at each other, either.

 

A single technician walked out of the Jaeger piece, her hair pulled back to reveal grease on her face and neck. Even her jumpsuit was covered in stains. She waved a spanner around and yelled at the rest of the technicians, who had stopped to stare at her. Carmilla watched as the other technicians, recruits she thought, a batch that didn't look a day older than her own were, shook their heads in unison as the older technician – their teacher – pointed the spanner at them.

 

Another officer walked up to them and started yapping on about Jaeger tech. Carmilla was interested in the subject, not quite in the officer and how he explained it, so she got bored of him quickly and decided to look elsewhere.

 

A large door at the back of the J-Tech division that read 'JAEGER BAY ENTRY' caught her eye. It opened for a couple of minutes and she spotted even more technicians, this time fussing over blueprints of what she assumed must have been Jaeger designs.

 

Natalie dragged them along to the Kwoon again before Carmilla could get a good look at the Jaegers themselves. No one in the Kwoon took any notice of them this time.

 

They were led into the barracks, still hauling their luggage behind them. She could hear the other recruits complaining under their breath. They would not last long.

 

The Jaeger Academy's barracks reminded her of the dorms at Silas, with people running around half-dressed, shoving toast and toothbrushes in their mouths, sometimes in that order.

 

Carmilla had assumed that the military would be less lax regarding regulation, but she guessed that they couldn't be picky when people weren't exactly lining up to get eaten by Kaiju. Unless they had some sort of a hero complex or an overbearing mother.

 

The recruits paused to salute Natalie. Carmilla assumed that these were the previous group Natalie had guided around. She heard Will's burst of laughter as a person's pants fell down and his red and white striped boxers were revealed to the entire hallway. She didn't think he had anything to laugh about – he was yet again wearing his precious parka. He looked like a mouse in a bear costume.

 

Carmilla went off to her assigned room as soon as Natalie called her name.

 

It was a small room, painted in a sickening yellow-ish colour, probably to make sure that she spent as much time out of it as possible. There was an empty storage cabinet and a mini refrigerator that wasn't hooked up yet. The bunk beds looked like they had seen better days, and the bedside table was rickety. A lampshade was stood on top of it, and it wobbled as she moved past. She made a mental note to find something to put underneath it at some point during this disaster.

 

A metal door was opposite the beds, leading to an en suite bathroom with a vaguely dodgy looking shower and a tiny sink. Everything in the room was small, even the mattresses were thin, but it was relatively comfortable in how silent it was. Not much, but she guessed that she would have to make do.

 

Carmilla threw her backpack on the bottom bunk and shoved her duffel in the wardrobe, ignoring the clothes already inside of it – no doubt something of a PPDC-issued uniform that she was expected to wear, given the brand new smell and the navy blue they came in.

 

She had seen plenty of recruits wearing them; plain tank tops in the Kwoon, sweaters with the PPDC logo printed on them for when it got really cold, which was apparently often in the barracks, and cargo pants that looked like they would be better suited to mechanics. Her wardrobe had decided to shift from black to navy without her permission, apparently.

 

She'd wear the tank top, she decided, but there was no way in hell she was going give up her leather jacket for the lumpy sweater. Since Natalie had told them that today was her day to unpack and relax before the real training took over, she settled on the bottom bunk with a book.

 

Carmilla was rudely interrupted when Will opened the door and walked into her room, hoisting his heavy suitcase inside by its handle. His parka was so big that he could barely move around without dropping something with every turn. Thankfully, she hadn't unpacked anything but a book yet so he only dropped the lampshade.

 

"Looks like we're roomies, sis." He was smirking, like he had been privy to some sort of inside joke that had passed over her head. She glared at him, and then understood that she had traded in annoying roommates for one who was even worse than all of the annoying roommates Silas could spit out combined.

 

"Bottom bunk's mine." Before he could protest, she smirked up at him. "I'm the eldest, brother." She spat out the last word. Will shut up immediately, pulled off his beanie and threw it up onto the top bunk. After ten minutes of watching him unpack polo shirt after polo shirt, she left the room and found herself wandering the halls of the Jaeger Academy, as she had so often wandered around Silas.

 

Eventually, she found herself in front of the door that led to the Jaeger bay.

 

Carmilla didn't walk in, because she had been lucky enough that the technicians hadn't noticed her slink into J-Tech, but it seemed that she would need an access code to actually get into the Jaeger bay.

 

She ended up in a hallway that housed the Jaeger combat simulators, which were rooms that played host to the replica Conn Pods – the Jaeger's cockpit, essentially. There were ten of them, five on her right, the rest on her left. People were already looming around certain doors, waiting for the people who were doing the simulations to walk out.

 

She remembered hearing about the simulators at Silas. All of them had two stations, which could be set to enable either a single cadet or a set to partake in the simulation. The doors to the simulator pods themselves were made out of steel, and there was a glowing light on top of every door indicating which ones were being used. It reminded her vaguely of the scare floor from Monsters Inc.

 

At the time, all of them were red but the second one to her right, which meant that there was no way in hell for her to get into one. And since there was no one waiting by the second door, she assumed that it was out of order.

 

A simulator's light turned green, and she started walking towards it. A superior officer she didn't know asked her what she was doing. She stepped back and apologized, because her mother would have been upset with her if she had gotten reprimanded for something so small so early on in her military career. She could play nice. For now.

 

Instead, Carmilla went to the cafeteria, which was huge and loud. There were people throwing a football from one side to the other. She almost sat down and waited for a superior officer to annihilate them, but decided that she had better things to do.

 

When she went back to her room, Will wasn't there, but his suitcase still was. His parka took half the space in the wardrobe.

 

;;

 

2015
Hollis House

 

Admittedly, people had been acting strangely within the previous years. They had been doing all sorts of things to "keep the Kaiju away". As far as Laura was concerned, nothing could keep the Kaiju away.

 

Watching people try was fun, though.

 

Laura's neighbours, a pair old enough to be her great-grandparents, were seen doing yoga in matching neon orange leotards while singing songs from what Laura thought might have been the Lion King, on their front lawn earlier that morning.

 

That was not as strange as most things that Laura had seen people do, but she hadn't left the house in weeks and she didn't have anything better to do.

 

A guy across the road bought a boat. It was sat outside, half inside his garage and half outside, fully equipped. It was a car accident waiting to happen. The boat came complete with life jackets for the entire family. Including his cat and two dogs.

 

At present, Laura was staring at the cat from her living room and trying to discern whether forcing a cat to wear a life jacket was indeed cruel, or a way to protect it from whatever rainstorm the guy thought was going to happen. It's not as if the Kaiju wouldn't eat the little guy if they thought that he was a fashionable feline.

 

The cat didn't seem too happy with its predicament, so Laura decided to casually borrow the cat long enough for her to rip off the hideous orange life vest at some point the next day.

 

Laura didn't have much to do.

 

She and her father barely left the house anymore. He worked from home, as he always had, sat at his desk all morning and worked on something for the local paper that sometimes published his articles. She studied in her bedroom or the living room, depending on how long she had been sitting in the same position for.

 

Her father usually started cooking dinner at noon, because it took him an hour to even set out the things he would need. Laura sometimes helped him by reading recipes outloud, and subtly stealing ingredients.

 

That morning, he left home before eight o'clock.

 

So Laura skipped school for a day and did what she did best. She watched people. After a few hours, her father walked into the house and held up two cans of paint and announced that they were going to repaint the entire house.

 

Midway through this, just as they were about to finish the living room, she absently mentioned that she had always wanted to paint over the baby blue in her room into a prettier green. He left and brought two cans of paint into her room an hour later.

 

Laura was just glad that not a single Kaiju had come close enough to their house that he felt the need to move to Antarctica again.

 

They painted over half the house, buying paint as they needed it, and stopped for a while during a Kaiju attack to watch the news feeds. By the time the fifteenth Kaiju came out of the ocean, she had painted over mint, roxbury caramel, yellow, and baby blue.

 

At least her neighbour's cat looked happier without its life vest.

 

;;

 

2017
Jaeger Academy

 

Carmilla quickly found out that the Jaeger Academy liked partnerships because it operated on the basis that the cadets would eventually get in a Jaeger with someone else, which was true, but irritating nonetheless.

 

During training, she was assigned to be Will's partner often. It wasn't enough for them that she had to live with him.

 

The first time they were ever taken to the Jaeger bay, Carmilla was with Will. She was only half-awake, because it was six AM and they would still have been sleeping by then if they were still at Silas. Will wasn't faring much better, standing next to her with his shirt inside out. His mouth smelled like dead people. He had forgotten to brush his teeth.

 

Carmilla was violently reminded that she was not at Silas when she walked into the Jaeger bay, which played host to both the Jaegers that the technicians were working on at the time, and the ones that were used on the test range. The ones that were to be used in the case that she found someone that she was drift compatible with, essentially. How exciting, she thought bitterly.

 

The first thing Carmilla noticed about the Jaegers themselves was that they were huge. They were larger than life itself. Definitely bigger than her mother's pet monster, but they gave off the same terrifyingly powerful vibe that it did.

 

She glanced up at one but could barely see them properly from the ground.

 

That night, she managed to sneak into the Jaeger bay, because the technicians had been on a mass all-nighter and hadn't noticed her climbing into a Jaeger's Conn Pod. She ran her fingers over the pilot's clamps, and thought about how many people were going to stand where she was standing.

 

The technicians found her a few hours later, curled up on the floor, asleep. They woke her up slowly and told her to leave in a kind manner, as if they had found cadets without co-pilots up in the Conn Pods before.

 

They probably had.

 

From what she had seen at the academy so far, there were many aspiring pilots who wanted to take revenge on the Kaiju for what they had done to them – taken away their loved ones, mainly. She had no such goals, but the thought of having someone that she could trust enough to step inside of her head was.. alluring, to say the least.

 

;;

 

The next day, Natalie pulled her aside. Carmilla thought that she was going to tell her off for going into the Jaeger without permission. Instead, Natalie told her that she was ordered to spar with Will at a certain time, because siblings had a higher chance of being drift compatible with each other than with other people.

 

Carmilla thought that her mother was personally messing with her from more than nine hundred kilometres away. Her mother had always managed to find a way to make her afterlife even worse than Carmilla ever thought possible, as was proven by Carmilla herself at that very moment, standing in the middle of the Kwoon instead of a lecture hall.

 

It was easy to think that her mother had something to do with the new development. Until she remembered that Will was listed as her brother on both of their fake birth certificates, because it had been his turn to pick up the new identities the last time. Carmilla swore that the next fake life she got, she was going to make sure she got listed as an only child.

 

She supposed that it would look suspicious if they didn't at least play along with their plans because most other siblings would try drifting together even if they hated each other, so she listened to Natalie.

 

"The higher ups," Natalie was saying, edging closer to Carmilla as if they were friends and not merely acquaintances. Carmilla smiled and nodded, played her role as best she could. "They're tired of the divorce scandals. Those two last month? They don't ever want to see each other ever again, I doubt they'll drift together any time soon."

 

That was when Carmilla understood why the PPDC were so interested in siblings. They couldn't very well force siblings to join up because they couldn't restrict their recruits to only those who had a sibling, but they wouldn't leave an opportunity like this just lying around.

 

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Will arguing with another officer, yelling about how he didn't want to drift with her, because being siblings did not mean that they were going to work well in the drift together. She felt the same as he did, but at least Natalie wasn't getting an earful out of her because she wasn't an overgrown child.

 

She muttered the last part of her thought process and Natalie stilled.

 

"Pardon?"

 

"Hm?" She turned back to look at Natalie.

 

"You just said-"

 

"When did you say the session's planned for?"

 

Natalie narrowed her eyes but decided not to comment any further. "Tomorrow. Eight AM sharp. Be there, Karnstein. With your brother."

 

;;

 

Their superiors decided that they were physically compatible after watching them fight for ten minutes.

 

Which she had expected. It was not hard to anticipate her opponent's movements, especially when she was the one he had been trying them on for the better half of the century. It wasn't that hard for Will, either. It created some sort of synergy that the officials were looking for.

 

They didn't talk about it when they went back to their room. Carmilla heard someone in the barracks mention that the only reason they were to be tested in an actual Jaeger on the first go was because they were the academy's darlings.

 

Carmilla had almost forgotten that some people hated them – herself more than Will – because they were fit as a fiddle and hadn't lost a match since they'd stepped foot in the Kwoon. She slipped her earbuds in, turned the volume up to the highest possible reading, and ignored everyone for the rest of the afternoon.

 

;;

 

The day after that, they were woken up and shoved into a changing room before either of them had even showered. Both of them thought the Jaeger Academy was desperate if they were actually being considered for humanity's last hope.

 

The changing room was empty other than a couple of lockers with the clothes in them. It took ages, because it was their first time putting on any kind of gear related to Jaegers, and neither of them was particularly enamoured with the idea of being in each other's heads.

 

The circuitry suit was grey and skin-tight. Carmilla almost asked if it came in black. She could already see Will bite his tongue to keep from telling a joke that would most certainly anger her.

 

She ran her hands over it and noted that its texture was rough, but on the inside it was soft, almost comfortable. It was covered all over with circuitry markings that she was sure the technicians had designed specifically to make it look cool, not for any sort of functionality. She made a note to dig into Jaeger technology during the weekend. Maybe find a technician-in-training whose books she could.. borrow.

 

Carmilla watched as Will fell over trying to pull his circuitry suit on, then laughed at him when he tripped and had to hold onto one of the lockers. He huffed and continued tugging on the suit. She had managed to pull hers on quicker, because she didn't have fifty kilos of muscle in her way. Carmilla flexed her fingers to get used to the suit wrapped around her entire body.

 

Will tugged at the collar. "I know I'm buffer than average, but are these things supposed to be this tight?"

 

"No need to worry," Carmilla muttered, still looking at her fingers. "I'm sure that's just your massive ego trying to find its way out of your suit through your biceps."

 

He looked at her like he was trying to come up with a rebuttal, but then the door opened and a brunette walked in, effectively cutting off his train of thought.

 

Carmilla wasn't sure, but she might have been the same brunette they had seen in J-Tech that day of the blast. And now that she wasn't so far away, she could see the two tiny letters – 'SJ' were her initials, maybe – embroidered into her navy jumpsuit.

 

It said a lot that the Jaeger Academy was willing to let someone like her oversee their first drift. At least she didn't look injured from the event but then again, Carmilla thought, she had started waving her spanner around immediately after the blast, so she could only hope that 'SJ' knew what she was doing.

 

"Someone needs to braid your hair," she said, to Carmilla. She said it in an unidentifiable accent – Canadian, maybe, those always confused her – which Carmilla hadn't been ready for at such an early hour. She was barely registering Will's familiar voice, let alone anyone else's. She had gotten used to most everyone at the academy speaking English with an American accent, though, so this one surprised her.

 

SJ narrowed her eyes at Carmilla, who was still staring at her blankly. "Right. Rookies. This isn't a damn beauty pageant, I'm serious. It'll interfere with the suit otherwise." Will snickered softly next to her, and the woman continued, "Don't look so cheery, pretty boy. You're lucky we don't shave yours. Totally unnecessary advancements in the tech if you ask me, but no one's asked me, so."

 

Carmilla elbowed Will as soon as SJ walked out of the changing room. She managed to make a loose braid on the way to the drivesuit room. SJ looked at her and rolled her eyes but said nothing. Carmilla was just glad that her pathetic attempt at braiding her hair had been enough for the woman because she wasn't up for having people tugging at her scalp that morning.

 

They both stood still while the technicians bolted on the battle armour as the brunette glared at a tablet screen, and sipped a cup of coffee that they were obviously not privy to, despite having been woken up at who-the-hell-even-knew o'clock.

 

The armour was white, unlike the circuitry suit, except worn and scratched, and the paint had peeled away to reveal silver underneath in some places. The entire thing was heavy, but the part that actually felt heavy for both of them was the thick metallic spine that clipped into her back as soon as the technicians placed it on. It felt like it was tugging at Carmilla's entire body, and she didn't need to glance at Will to know that he felt the same.

 

After, they were taken to the platform and given helmets – again, matching ones. Will pulled his on to avoid having to look at her. Carmilla noted that it was harder to walk into a Jaeger this time around, because she was wearing twice her weight in armour, and walking anywhere was uncomfortable.

 

The technicians drilled them into the Jaeger, as if they were afraid that they would run away if they weren't literally tied down. She didn't think how inconvenient it would have been if they had run away while inside of the Jaeger, literally stealing billions of euros in technology, because they would have lost not only two pilots, but a training Jaeger as well.

 

The only problem with that thought process was that they were not drift compatible inside of a Jaeger. Their synchronization was way off, which meant that the drift couldn't be built.

 

What that meant was that the Jaeger didn't move. Not even a little.

 

Their superior officers, the ones who had been banking on the siblings being drift compatible, were even more confused than they usually looked. The technicians hastily explained the numerous reasons why Will and Carmilla were not drift compatible.

 

After a few minutes of that, Carmilla muttered, "Did we really have to endure waking up at five in the morning for this?"

 

"Yeah," Will agreed, nodding his head eagerly in the direction of the control station. It set her teeth on edge.

 

Their superior officers gave up on them being co-pilots rather quickly after that, which worked just fine for the both of them.

 

;;

 

2019
Hollis House

 

Chocolate had been the first thing to go with the cutbacks thanks to the Kaiju. They were left with chocolate bars that tasted more like nuts than anything and hot chocolate that tasted suspiciously like melted cardboard. Most people hadn't even noticed the difference – especially the hot chocolate – but Laura knew.

 

So instead of the hot chocolate she would have settled into bed with a few years – seven, to be exact – earlier, she settled for a cup of coffee.

 

Laura sipped it, hissed when it burned her tongue, then placed it on her bedside table and turned back to her laptop. Her browser promptly pulled up Crisis Map, a website that alerted its users to Kaiju as soon they came out of the Breach.

 

The Breach. That was what they were calling the space that the Kaiju came out of nowadays. As if there was a rip in the fabric of the world. Which, technically, there was. According to a thousand sources, including Crisis Map.

 

Created by someone named J.P. Armitage, who claimed to work for the PPDC, Crisis Map listed Kaiju trajectory, and thus which cities on the shoreline should be evacuated immediately. It had been in her bookmarks ever since she found it, and her homepage since she confirmed that it was indeed genuine after the first Kaiju it warned her about.

 

On that fateful day, Crisis Map had a tiny red alert in the top right corner of the screen.

 

Laura clicked it, hoping it wasn't anything worse than what the site usually displayed. Kaiju alerts were usually listed in big, bold lettering, so she wasn't alarmed. Armitage had probably made some minor adjustments to the site and wanted their userbase to know.

 

It turned out to be a link to the Jaeger Academy website – specifically to the page that offered an enlistment form.

 

Laura had considered the Jaeger Academy once. During its inception mainly, but she had been way too young back then – a couple of years younger than the enlistment form demanded from its recruits. And the enlistment form had been an enlistment book, really, because they had asked for everything from blood type to an incredibly detailed family tree, including every single great aunt and uncle that she had never even met.

 

That hadn't really stopped her from enlisting. She could have waited. What really stopped her was the fact that she didn't really want to leave her father for something so experimental. Jaegers were still falling apart in the middle of Kaiju battles back then. Without any help from the Kaiju themselves.

 

She knew it was a suicide mission back then. But nowadays, they were safe. Well, as safe as they could be while strapped inside of a giant robot.

 

If she were being honest with herself, it was fear that had stopped her from applying the minute she turned twenty one. Fear of never finding someone she was drift compatible with. There were plenty of other options even if she never found a co-pilot – a technician or scientist, for example – but she didn't want to be told that no one would be able to keep up with her, or worse, that she couldn't keep up with anyone herself.

 

It was quite a hurdle to overcome.

 

And she still hadn't past it, but as Laura looked through the form and noted the lack of detail required to actually enlist to become a Ranger nowadays, compared to just a few years earlier, she kind of maybe wanted to-

 

She closed the tab.

 

After a few seconds of debating whether it was a good idea or not, she opened the tab again.

 

This time, she browsed it with a clearer eye, then opened up the PPDC's website and a few other less reputable sources that had details on the PPDC that they did not have on their official site.

 

She scoured the internet for every single detail about the Jaeger Academy, and she found the following information: to become a Ranger, she would need to first be accepted. Second, move to the Jaeger Academy in Kodiak Island and pass three stages of training. Easy enough.

 

Each of these stages took eight weeks to complete, and the PPDC let the recruits take a minor break in between finishing one and starting the next, allowing them to stay on campus for the duration of it.

 

The first stage was Officer training.

 

Combat discipline, fighting tactics, basic engineering and basic Kaiju science. The training included a heavy dose of kickboxing, Mixed Martial Arts, and Krav Maga, the latter of which she decided would not be much of a problem for her on account of her father having signed her up for lessons every year since she was eight years old.

 

Passing the first stage would have been enough if she had wanted to become a Jaeger technician or a Kaiju scientist, and since she wanted to know what it took to become a Jaeger pilot, she kept reading.

 

The second stage was Pons training. This was where she would be taught how to control a simulated Jaeger, while simultaneously drifting with either a simulated co-pilot, or another recruit, but only if they were drift compatible.

 

The key notes listed underneath one blog (that was written by someone who had been rejected by the PPDC after failing the second stage, and then refusing to be anything but a Jaeger pilot) was balance. Laura didn't think it sounded that hard, but when she pulled up statistics and found out that this was the stage in which the majority of the recruits were cut, she figured that it was similar to one of those things that seemed easy in theory, but harder in real life.

 

If a recruit managed to make the second cut, the third stage was Jaeger training, and this was where Laura started clicking in between the enlistment form and the training manifesto more often.

 

Jaeger training entailed training inside of an actual Jaeger (albeit a test Jaeger that seemed to run on much more simplified code, it was made of nuts and bolts all the same) on a test range, not a simulator. However, this was only applicable to recruits who had managed to find a co-pilot, because the third stage was only accessible to pairs.

 

At least the Jaeger Academy would give her a few weeks to find a co-pilot if she hadn't found a partner during the first two stages, which seemed nice of them. It still felt like a time limit, though.

 

Laura looked up even more statistics, this time on how many recruits managed to find someone they were drift compatible with while in the Jaeger Academy. The numbers unsettled her, so she moved onto other things. Like how they tested drift compatibility. All her sources disagreed on that. The PPDC's protocol for potential co-pilots seemed shaky, at best.

 

Earlier records showed that they put two people in a test Jaeger, with no regard as to what might have happened if untrained pilots had control over a machine with power of that magnitude. The most recent documentation stated that the recruits were hooked up to the Jaeger division's simulator – completely different from the other simulators – and had their compatibility tested through that.

 

The closest thing to an explanation that she found was that there was some sort of incident where untrained recruits got injured. It seemed pretty obvious to Laura, and she briefly considered that maybe the Jaeger Academy had no idea what they were doing.

 

Laura dismissed the thought as quickly as it had come, because the Jaeger Academy was a relatively new institution built out of necessity rather than out of a burgeoning need for the world to experience the greatness of giant robots, so there were bound to be a few setbacks.

 

"Speaking of setbacks," she said to herself, and pulled up Google Maps, which failed her almost instantly.

 

Sorry, we could not calculate directions from "Styria, Austria" to "Kodiak Island".

 

"Thanks, Google," she muttered.

 

Few minutes later, she had found out that the Jaeger Academy was a couple thousand kilometres away from her house. Two flights – or three, which was more layovers than she was willing to deal with, which was the cheapest option – and there was no way she was going to be able to go to the academy without digging into her savings. Maybe selling a few first editions.

 

She was looking through eBay to check how much her Jane Austen collection could go for online when her father popped his head into her room. "I'm going down to the grocer's, do you need anything?"

 

"Uh," she said, glancing down at her screen, which had the enlistment form open in another tab. Her father looked at her curiously, and coughed. "Chocolate bar?"

 

"You wish," he said, grinning. "I'll be back in half an hour at the most. Don't open for anyone who-"

 

"Isn't you, I know. I'll be right here." Laura looked at his retreating back as he left and went down the stairs. "As per usual."

 

"Don't get into any trouble while I'm out," she heard him yell, a few seconds later.

 

Laura rolled her eyes, but as she looked back to her laptop, she could tell that her father might have had reason to worry. Three stages of training seemed almost too easy to get through. As if the PPDC was daring her to enlist.

 

She tried to distract herself with unrelated websites – which meant Tumblr, where she would have to deal with an onslaught of Kaiju sympathizers. In one of the posts, she found a familiar name that she hadn't thought of in years. Not since K-day, at least.

 

It was a university, a boarding school that she had considered once upon a time. Back then, she'd only had the few years left before she could start applying. But then the apocalypse happened, and that put a stopper in every single plan that didn't involve learning survival techniques in case of crisis. Or, more accurately, in case of Kaiju.

 

The university had been converted to a Jaeger Academy prep school, of a sort.

 

It was offering stages one and two separate from the academy – in much more detail too, because their program took twenty four months as opposed to the Jaeger Academy's twenty four weeks. Laura didn't think the academy's time was short in the least, but it was way shorter than the university's. And that was only for the first two stages.

 

She didn't have to think about why the third stage wasn't being offered because if the university had enough influence, they would be able to replicate the simulators needed for stage two by acquiring the software as well as enough funding to build a simulator, but the test Jaegers were harder to get ahold of.

 

There was a rumour, however, that one of the actual, proper Jaegers was going to be flown in from an undisclosed location soon, kept by the university for an as of yet undecided amount of time, then sent off to a Shatterdome in Anchorage. That seemed.. sketchy, at best.

 

The school website had a forum, which she went through, only to find something about how the alleged Jaeger was not going to be used for the recruits' training. Laura didn't know the validity of that, given that the very next forum post was about a dragon that was, apparently, missing from the library. That had to be a code of some kind, but she had other things to deal with.

 

Like how it wasn't worth wasting literal years of her life on only two stages and then transferring to the academy for the third and last stage, because a transfer would most definitely be mandatory for a Jaeger pilot. If she'd wanted to be an officer, she would have considered it because the university would have looked more prestigious on a resumé for the Shatterdome.

 

But two years was a long time to become a pilot when compared to twenty four weeks. It seemed illogical to waste even more time than she already had, especially since Kaiju were coming in at a much faster rate now. Laura principally didn't think it was logical because all the Jaeger pilots she'd heard of had completed their term at the Jaeger Academy.

 

On a whim, she checked when the school had started offering up their two stage program. Less than a year and a half prior. So the first couple of recruits that would have taken stages one and two at this prep school would most probably be in her class if she enrolled.

 

She consided the chances of that; of being in the same group as a bunch of super cadets who had been training for two years more than she had. She didn't know whether to be excited at the prospect of having people who had been training for so long to spar with or tense at the thought that she would be kicked out of the academy for not being as good as they would most certainly be.

 

Laura made sure that her father wasn't walking down the driveway before she walked into his office and printed out the enlistment form. It stayed under her mattress for exactly three minutes and seven seconds before she decided to fill it in.

 

The coffee was cold by the time she reached out for it again.

 

;;

 

2017
Jaeger Academy

 

Carmilla went to the Kwoon almost daily. There was a pool going on how long it would take her to find a co-pilot. Some said that it would take years, while others smirked, glared at her through half-lidded eyes, and smugly said that she would never find a co-pilot because she was too strong. Carmilla disagreed with them, because they thought that technique didn't matter, which was why they would never see the inside of a Jaeger.

 

What they meant to say was that she was too headstrong to find a pilot.

 

Carmilla did not disagree with that.

 

It became a rite of passage for the new recruits to fight Carmilla within a week. No one was in there quite as often as she was, and everyone else got tired after a few fights. That said more about their stamina than it did about hers.

 

She finished up in the Kwoon at around seven PM, and went straight to the Medical bay. If she was lucky, she could slip in and out without being noticed.

 

Honestly, she thought, as she walked into the cafeteria to keep up the pretence that she was human, she was just there for the free housing and the juice boxes. That, and she got to take her anger out on conceited humans who thought that she would lower her guard enough for them to strike her more than once, so it was a win-win situation, really.

 

;;

 

"I've found my co-pilot," Will said. He'd brought a boy to their room.

 

Carmilla chuckled, because that was the same thing that he said about a girl that she hadn't seen since. They hadn't even started Pons training yet, and Will had already brought fifteen people to their room and introduced them to her.

 

"Really?" she said, in a bored voice. Carmilla looked up at the guy. He had 'W. KIRSCH' written on his PPDC-issued jacket. "How nice."

 

"Hey." He held out his arm in her direction. "I'm Wilson Kirsch, but everyone just calls me Kirsch."

 

Carmilla looked him over, he was obviously trying to make a great first impression on her, and she was Will's sister, after all. Kirsch was taller than both her and Will, but her brother still seemed bigger somehow, and Carmilla noted that the boy didn't have bite marks on his neck.

 

'Yet,' she thought, bitterly. Her brother had a habit of marking his new friends. She was surprised that he had managed to control himself with this one.

 

"Pleasure," she muttered, and went back to her book.

 

"She's a bit anti-social," Will said. Kirsch smiled in a good-natured manner, and she hoped that he would get rid of this one faster than any of the others.

 

;;

 

Walking into her room without knocking was not a mistake on her part. Trusting Will not to sleep with Kirsch on her bed might have been. She found Kirsch asleep curled up in Will's arms, looking less self-conscious than he did on the day that they met. He looked at peace, mostly.

 

After that, Carmilla took to finding elsewhere to sleep, usually in other girls' rooms.

 

She talked to them about Plato long enough to impress them, because talking to anyone about something she actually liked was too scary a prospect, and kissed them slow enough for them to fall in love with her, if only for a moment.

 

Carmilla fell asleep watching them and listening to their pulse. It was a small comfort, listening to their heartbeats. Pressing her palm to her own chest and feeling her heart thump pathetically against her ribcage didn't feel as good.

 

When she rifled through their things in the early mornings, she did it slowly because she didn't want to wake them up and shatter the illusion just yet. There would be time for that later. A few of them had ten books, stashed in the bottom of the wardrobe, a few of them had a few piled on top of their desks. Some of them had no books at all. She pocketed a few of their books and most of their contraband.

 

She read all of the books she stole.

 

Including the vampire pulp, which she wrapped in brown paper so that Will couldn't tell what they were. She'd had enough of his teasing to last her at least five centuries, and books in the academy were a commodity during a war.

 

Carmilla wanted to remember what vampire lore was like when vampires were the monsters hiding inside closets and underneath people's beds. At present, most monster stories were either Kaiju or related to the Breach and the other possible monsters could come out of it.

 

Sometimes she slept in people's rooms when they weren't there. When she ran out of people who didn't get annoyed at her for that, she wandered around the Jaeger Academy and slipped into the Jaeger bay again.

 

There was something about the Jaegers themselves that she found comforting. They had a duality about them that she was fascinated with.

 

Named after the German word for hunter, which seemed to be pretty self-explanatory in and of itself, they were the heroes of the story, but she'd learned throughout her life that things weren't always what they seemed to be on the surface.

 

Identity was all about perspective.

 

Her own, for instance. She looked human enough given that that was how she had started out, but she'd once been considered a hunter herself – by those she hunted. A monster by those she hadn't had the heart to kill, because once their guardians found out what she was, well. She became their prey. Truly, it depended on who was asked.

 

Not for Kaiju, though. She had a hard time believing anyone would ever consider Kaiju heroes in any sense of the word. No, they were monsters through and through. Jaegers, however. Now, they could be both. They were firmly in-between. Some sort of other she hadn't considered before.

 

She supposed it was the same for Jaegers. They were built to be hunters, heroes, to protect the human race from Kaiju. They did not properly exist without their pilots, and yet whichever pilots the Jaeger was assigned could have easily been replaced.

 

Either way, they were to serve as protectors of the human race by being the destroyers of Kaiju. In that sense, they were monsters. The Kaiju's definition of monsters, anyway. They were the heroes in their own story, but they were most definitely the villains in the Kaiju's. Carmilla wondered whether that logic could be applied to vampires too, before she dismissed it because of course not.

 

She slipped into a Conn Pod, but instead of settling against the back of the Pilot One control as she had the first time, she climbed out onto the Jaeger's head. This Jaeger's Conn Pod was detached from its body at the time, but it was big and high enough that she could pretend that she was on top of an entire Jaeger.

 

The Jaeger Academy was silent from above. She could barely hear the welding that was happening a few metres down from her.

 

The technicians who found her there day after day looked at her like they pitied her. The brunette – SJ – was the one who was called to wake her up most of the time. Probably because she was their superior officer. She looked at Carmilla like she thought that Carmilla longed to have a co-pilot.

 

The only thing Carmilla longed for was a separate bedroom, without any annoying roommates. That and, fine, maybe someone who wouldn't mind destroying Kaiju with her. The simulators were well and good, but they were nothing compared to how she felt wearing the drivesuit and stepping into a Jaeger. Carmilla was tired of being told she was incompatible with everyone at the academy.

 

She was annoyed at being told that she should quit the program because she would never find someone who would match her. Mostly because if she even had the option she would have quit ages ago, but also because she didn't want to quit. She liked the training better than the lectures.

 

Carmilla was even more annoyed that her brother, the most disagreeable of them all, had found a co-pilot in Wilson Kirsch. That proved that vampires and humans could most definitely be drift compatible and that it wasn't her species that was keeping her from finding a co-pilot but her personality, and her innate fear of letting someone in.

 

The new recruits that Natalie was walking in through the Kwoon looked incredibly promising, though. She went through the women and their belongings, one at a time, and the technicians didn't see her in the Jaeger bay for a while.

 

;;

 

2019
Hollis House

 

The way it happened was this: Laura was sick of being told that she couldn't protect herself. She was fed up of being told that she was weak and that that meant that she needed to be protected. So she wrote her name on the enlistment form and sent it in. They couldn't possibly tell her that she needed to be protected if she was at the head of a hundred metre Jaeger.

 

Her father wasn't expecting it when she told him that she had enlisted into the Jaeger Academy and was waiting for their reply – and hopefully, enclosed acceptance letter that would get her a 20% discount on plane tickets – any day. It was over dinner. He spit out his soup.

 

Laura hurried to explain that she was planning on becoming a Jaeger technician, not a Jaeger pilot. She also mentioned that she could finish home-schooling herself after she graduated, but he didn't seem to care about that at all.

 

"A J-Tech officer," she said, when he pushed her for more information.

 

She didn't explain how there were three stages to becoming a Ranger, because she only needed to explain how she was going to become a Jaeger Technician. Laura explained Officer training to him, and put an emphasis on Krav Maga, because she knew that he thought her pretty capable at it.

 

After a lot of insistence on her part, he approved of her plan because technicians eventually got to live in the Shatterdome, which was the safest place to live in at the time, because they had live-in bodyguards. Jaeger technicians didn't pilot a Jaeger, fight Kaiju, or deal with potentially infected Kaiju entrails.

 

Laura reeled him in hook, line, and sinker, and kept the grin off her face the entire night.

 

;;

Chapter Text

;;

 

2017
Jaeger Academy

 

It was a whirlwind romance, really.

 

Carmilla met her in the Kwoon a week after she finished Pons training. She had a couple of weeks to either find a co-pilot, or be forced to pick between Kaiju science and Jaeger tech, and she wasn't looking forward to any of her options. A small voice in the back of her head reminded her that she still didn't have any options – she was to become a Ranger, as her mother had requested.

 

Which was why Elle had been such a breath of fresh air.

 

Blonde, tall enough that Carmilla had to tilt her head back to meet her eyes – blue eyes that made her feel like she could drown in them – with a smile that showed just the right amount of teeth, she knew that Elle was going to swallow her whole before the girl dragged her eyes down to Carmilla's doc martens and back up again – evaluating her to make sure she met her standards. Carmilla didn't know whether she met them or not, but she felt like everything in her life had been leading up to that moment where her eyes met the blonde's, which seemed inconsiderate of fate, because halfway through a war, really?

 

They spoke – Elle talked to her, and Carmilla nodded and made sounds that indicated her agreement to whatever it was Elle was talking about whenever there was a pause, because she was too enamoured to do something other than that in reply to anything Elle said – after they sparred, of course. She invited Carmilla back to her room. Carmilla did as she was bade. She would later recall that the entire conversation had been in English, not German.

 

The girl either had the least influential roommate ever, or she didn't have one at all. Carmilla didn't question it; she supposed there must have been someone in the entire academy who got to witness the pleasures of odd numbers firsthand, so it wasn't all that surprising. She didn't bother asking how she'd managed to get a single room because Elle shoved her against the door and leaned down to press her lips against Carmilla's, sucking on her bottom lip.

 

Elle kissed her like she was trying to leave an impression, like she was trying to claim Carmilla as her own. The blonde dug her nails into Carmilla's back, pulled back long enough to say, "Sleep here tonight." Carmilla nodded, eager to have the girl's lips on her again. Elle didn't want anything from her other than this. She did not mention the drift at all.

 

;;

 

It was only when Elle woke up early the next morning, during Carmilla's foray through the bottom of her wardrobe looking, as always, for new reading material, that Carmilla noticed that she was going to be different from all the others in another way. Elle wasn't the only one who had woken up during Carmilla's careful perusal of her room. But she was the first one who patted the bed and said, "Come back to bed, would you?"

 

So Carmilla did.

 

Every day.

 

It was on such a day that the blonde glanced at Carmilla, who was sat on her bed, reading a book in a language that Elle didn't understand, much less care for. "Why do you love wearing that thing so much?"

 

Carmilla looked down at the PPDC sweater she was wearing. Elle had given it to her after a sparring session in the Kwoon, and Carmilla hadn't given it back to her yet, too fond of wearing anything that reminded her of Elle herself.

 

"It smells like you," Carmilla admitted.

 

"Are you trying to say that I smell?"

 

"Mm. Of vanilla." Carmilla narrowed her eyes, leaned closer to the blonde and inhaled, trying to discern what else she smelled of. She finally settled on, "And grapefruit." Elle's eyebrows furrowed, as if trying to discern what that meant, if there was an underlying meaning to it, and how she should reply to it. She eventually settled on speaking her mind.

 

"You are so weird."

 

Before Carmilla could protest, Elle pulled her by the collar of the sweater, slamming their mouths together. Carmilla heard a rip at the collar, but she was too preoccupied by the kiss to care.

 

When she finally pulled away, Elle groaned against her, patting her sweater down as if she hadn't almost ripped it off of her. "Keep it. It looks good on you, Milla." Elle had also taken to calling her by a shortened version of her name, which didn't much bother Carmilla, especially not when she moaned it into her mouth.

 

That night, Carmilla went to sleep before Elle did. Nothing between them changed much. Elle mocked her for reading everything under the sun, and Carmilla looked at her like she hung the moon.

 

Or, at least, that's what Will had said once. Carmilla had scoffed at him, and was about to tell him to mind his own business when Elle, with her impeccable timing, interrupted their conversation. The blonde greeted Will politely, introduced herself as Carmilla's friend, to which Will raised a single eyebrow, and then dragged her to the cafeteria.

 

Carmilla ate just enough to dispel any rumours circulating about her eating habits, so she piled food onto her plate and shoved it down her throat, because there was no point in faking it, either. The only reason she went down to the cafeteria to eat most of the time was because she got to watch Elle eat. The blonde cut up her meat into tiny blocks, organized her vegetables by texture, and never ate anything orange.

 

It was the little things that made Carmilla notice that she was in love with Elle, and that the blonde could do whatever she wanted to her, could claim her and take her, destroy her without a second thought, and Carmilla would thank her. Which was exactly what Elle did. Carmilla didn't thank her.

 

;;

 

February 27, 2020
Somewhere in Austria

 

Laura's father agreed to take the day off and drive her to the airport himself, if only because public transportation had failed him for his entire life and she had way too much luggage to haul around on buses and trains by herself. She was starting to think that letting him do that was a mistake on her part.

 

"You have to call me," he said, gripping the steering wheel tighter. His knuckles were whiter than his face. Laura was worried that he would pass out soon. "At least once, in the morning. I just know that I won't be fine unless I know you're still okay. And you have to eat your sandwiches. Did we pack your sandwiches? Maybe we should stop for sandwiches."

 

"Dad," she said, hoping that he wouldn't turn the car around and lock both her and her luggage up in her room again. "The sandwiches are in my hand luggage. I'm going to have to eat them before I board the plane. I'm lucky if they'll let me keep half the stuff you gave me. I don't think this is quite like boarding school."

 

"This was a bad idea," he muttered, and ran his fingers through his hair.

 

It had grown longer than she'd ever seen it before, long enough for it to start curling at the nape of his neck. He hadn't combed it through that morning. She looked at the crumbs left in his stubble. Laura had never seen him go without shaving for more than a week. He had stopped shaving the day after she told him about enlisting. He hadn't cared this little about his appearance since K-day. A tiny smidge of regret started welling at the pit of her stomach.

 

"Maybe we should turn back," he said. It was not that big of a smidge, though.

 

"We can't turn back now. We're already been driving for an hour."

 

"But they won't-" he started, and looked at her for just a second before he turned his focus back to the road. "You're just another regular Joe- or Jane, off the street. They won't treat you right."

 

"I can take care of myself," she said. This was a conversation they'd had countless times, and she was sick of it. If anything, she wouldn't get to have this conversation over the phone because she'd be too busy updating him on her progress. "Plus, I'll get to live in the Shatterdome. Eventually."

 

"They don't know how special you are to me," he said, his voice barely above a whisper.

 

"I'll be fine, honest," she said. Laura felt the guilt well up inside of her because once he found out that she was lying to him by omission, well, he was going to be heartbroken. "I'll call you, or- I'll write you. I'm not sure if they'll let me keep my phone. Their rules are surprisingly.. strict."

 

"Write me everyday then." He sniffed, as if trying to keep from crying. It wouldn't have been the first time she'd seen her father cry – he had an affinity for Disney movies that usually turned him into a sobbing mess, and he always cried on her first days of school.

 

They had never been separated for this long – twenty four weeks was a long time, and that was only if she didn't count the weeks in between stages two and three, in which she'd most likely be busy looking for a co-pilot. She hadn't thought much about what would happen after the third stage, but she knew that she wouldn't get to see him any time soon.

 

"I promise I'll write you." Laura swore that as soon as she walked into the airport, or at least during one of the many layovers, she was going to buy stationery that she would use to write letters for her father with, and send him updates at least once per week. Once per month, she amended, when she remembered the training schedule and how awful she was at writing letters.

 

;;

 

There was not much Laura liked about travelling alone. Her shoulders were sore from hauling around her backpack, her muscles screamed whenever she walked, and economy was a literal hell.

 

Her seat was barely big enough to fit a toddler and she didn't even get the window seat for the first two flights. Which meant that the only respite from the hell she had accidentally talked herself into was Pride and Prejudice. It was falling apart at the seams – she had read it way too many times to keep track of. She kept it in the front pocket of her jacket and it somehow ended up being her silent companion during the trip.

 

That, and her phone, which she kept switched off during flights, because Flight Mode hadn't been invented yet back when it had been made. She wondered how often she would be allowed to check in with her father. The Jaeger Academy wouldn't give her a chance to, most likely. They'd train her up and ship her off to the Shatterdome, along with her co-pilot, and then they'd get to fight Kaiju and-

 

She needed to rein that in, that childlike enthusiasm she had whenever she thought of what she was doing as an adventure. This was a serious endeavour and she was not a main character in a young adult novel, she was an adult and there was a war going on, but her skin was buzzing with excitement, every nerve ending exploding at the thought of saving the world.

 

This, turbulence, the terribly overpriced food, airport security; they were nothing compared to the very real turn she'd taken recently.

 

The thing was, she could have easily been drift compatible with her father. He had been military once, he would have fit in with the rest of the recruits no doubt hand-picked from countless army bases. But she hadn't wanted to spend her life alongside her father, letting him guide her through every problem and every nook and cranny where she might have had doubts.

 

Laura wanted to see the stuff she was made of, wanted to know who she really was behind the security blanket he provided. There had been no better excuse for her to be allowed to make her own mistakes, to truly, genuinely get to live a life worth recounting someday, and if that meant signing up for the PPDC and attempting to save the world, then so be it. Plenty of stories had taken root in some sort of military academy.

 

This would be hers. Her origin story. She hoped it was a good one, pulled her book out from the front pocket of her jacket, and started reading again.

 

;;

 

2017
Jaeger Academy

 

When they started Jaeger training together, everything felt normal.

 

Elle braided her hair that first morning, after Carmilla made another pathetic attempt at doing it in less than a minute. She tugged harder than Carmilla thought necessary, but she chalked it up to nerves, and Natalie didn't bother telling her to fix her hair, so she assumed that it was fine.

 

They were led to a changing room. Elle barely waited for the door to close before she took her clothes off and put on the circuitry suit. It occurred to Carmilla later, that she should have been suspicious when Elle didn't slam her up against the lockers and leave a trail of bruises on her skin while they were supposed to be changing. It seemed like something Elle would have done had everything been normal between them.

 

Instead, Elle was the perfect display of obedience. She barely looked at Carmilla, who took her shirt off achingly slowly, hoping to catch her attention. Elle never turned to look at her. Not even once. She walked out of the changing room, and again, without looking at Carmilla, led them both into the drivesuit room.

 

Their first time in a Jaeger went awry, to say the least. They both earned themselves a spot in the Medical bay for the next couple of months, which meant that Carmilla woke up the first night and pulled the drip out of her arm. The guard they'd left with her had been easy to avoid since he was already half asleep.

 

She limped back to her room, avoiding the rest of the recruits who were still awake, and didn't go to Elle's room, even though that was where most of her clothes were. She'd never kept books in Elle's room because Elle told her not to leave them there; Elle didn't mind the clothes because she sometimes wore them too. So Carmilla went to her own room.

 

Carmilla found Will and Kirsch asleep in the bottom bunk. She didn't even bother waking either of them up, even though she knew that it would be easier to pack all her things with their help, given that she was doing everything one-handed. She also knew that her mother had given her orders and Will would never help her disobey their sire. He would have attempted to stop her, so she packed quickly.

 

All her books went into the duffel, what few clothes she had left in her backpack. Her hand hovered over her phone. Someone must have taken it from the changing room and brought it back. She had left it in there, along with her clothes, including the-

 

That was when she noticed it, folded up on top of the chair. It had a tear right below the neckline, from all the times that Elle had pulled too hard at her, too focused on getting Carmilla closer to her.

 

Carmilla knew that it was a bad idea. But she had already left Elle back in the infirmary, and the sweater was hers, damn it. Elle had even stitched Carmilla's name into the back of the collar. She reached out for it with her left hand because she was holding onto her duffel with her right, which turned out to be a mistake.

 

She hissed as her skin yelled out in pain against the sling that she had been put into, so she pulled it off and let it fall to the floor. Carmilla grabbed the sweater with her right hand this time. She could have worn her leather jacket instead, but she just didn't want to. Carmilla had stuffed her jacket between the straps of her backpack and she couldn't care less about it at that moment.

 

Pulling it on, she pressed her teeth together to ignore the pain that shot through her left shoulder. She pretended it was to make sure that Will didn't wake up and not because it felt like someone had replaced all the blood in her body with acid and it had concentrated on her shoulder. She didn't bother taking her phone with her. Carmilla didn't know where she was going yet, but she knew that whoever had her number? She didn't want to talk to them.

 

Carmilla walked out of the Jaeger Academy with that sweater hanging from off of her thin frame and a pair of aviators perched on her nose. The snow wet the hem of her pants within a few seconds of walking through it. Winter had never felt as cold as it did digging into her skin on that day.

 

'The Incident' was what she referred to it as, then. She started calling it that a few days after it happened, and only noticed a few months later. She felt the scabs attempting to heal over and over, and was extremely annoyed at her vampiric constitution for days. This would, no doubt, eventually leave too many scars to count, but her biology was preventing that from happening, trying to heal something that refused to be forgotten.

 

It was a whirlwind romance, really.

 

In the sense that it ended almost as quickly as it had started.

 

;;

 

March 01, 2020
Jaeger Academy

 

The Jaeger Academy was quite unlike what she had expected.

 

For one, it was about as organized as a dingy motel whose good service was restricted to giving her the right key to her room, because she had to haul around her backpack, and her duffel, and her suitcase all around the Kwoon and the Medical bay before they finally took her to her room, along with the rest of her group. Laura muttered that someone was going to need to go to the Medical bay if the guy behind her didn't notice that he was walking into her suitcase, slamming it against her ankles every single time they stopped.

 

Their superior officer, Natalie, quirked her lips at that. She had smiled as soon as she saw Laura's luggage – because she hadn't had a recruit who came with anything bigger than a cabin bag in weeks, apparently – and placed her duffel on top of the suitcase while putting the loops through the handle, as she talked to the group at large.

 

She spoke in English, and explained in carefully constructed German when someone muttered why they weren't getting to their assigned bunks in German, unaware that their guide also spoke the language. Natalie automatically explained everything in both languages after that, so Laura heard that there would be no dilly-dallying twice.

 

They were expected to go to either the Kwoon or the simulators during their free time. Laura had been planning on doing so even without Natalie's instruction but surprisingly, there were still a couple of groans that came up from the group. As if they expected that becoming a Jaeger pilot would be easy. Laura rolled her eyes.

 

;;

 

Laura didn't have a roommate for the first two weeks of living at the academy. It was quite boring, going from her room, to the cafeteria, to the Kwoon, on repeat, all by herself. The rest of the recruits had paired off with their roommates, small cliques already forming amongst them.

 

She could tell that they thought someone like her was unsuited for the Jaeger pilot role, mostly because they were all taller than her and stronger than her and had bigger biceps or whatever. The only person who didn't look at her like she thought she was wasting her time was Natalie, who sometimes did things like ask her to help demonstrate how to properly do a technique when she saw Laura all alone on the side of the room.

 

It was quite nice, how Natalie seemed to see what was going on and never once confronted her about it, or told her to try harder to make friends – she already was trying, but none of them wanted to be her friend – but subtly made it easier on her. So, Laura spent most of her time in the Kwoon training, until Natalie walked into her room, holding a phone in front of her, and looking at it as if it had personally affronted her.

 

"I was updating my brother," said Natalie, in English, tapping at her phone's screen, which now emitted a high pitched shriek, "on my new recruits, and made the mistake of mentioning that I have one all the way from Austria, because now he wants to ask you something – namely, if you've ever heard of 'The Sound of Music'?"

 

"I have listened to music before," said Laura, carefully considering her words, "but that sounds like a code to some secret organization, so I'm going to have to go with no, I have never heard of the sound of music."

 

Natalie narrowed her eyes at her.

 

"I told you," the phone said, also in English. "You owe me."

 

Natalie held a single finger up to Laura, turned her attention back to the phone, which she'd now put off speaker. "I will get you two comics if you promise not to enlist next quarter." A pause. "No, no- No, you can't enlist the one after that one, either, you little rascal. Put dad on the line. No, put- Oh, god."

 

"You deserved that one," said Laura. Natalie turned to look at her, a look of awe on her face. "Getting him to promise not to enlist next quarter? So many loopholes. Just saying. I would've said the exact same thing in reply." Her superior officer shook her head, went back to her phone.

 

After a second, Natalie seemed to notice that she was still standing in Laura's room, so she walked back out.

 

"It's a movie," said Natalie, when she walked back in a few minutes later, this time without her phone. She said it in German, for Laura's benefit. "Are you doing anything tonight? No, wait, you've got late practice today. Tomorrow night, then. This is me asking off duty, not as your superior officer. You are allowed to say 'no'."

 

And there it was again, Natalie refusing to let her feel like she was alone while the hallways echoed with yelps and yells coming from the other recruits, building friendships through playfights and whatever else big buff army men did when they thought no one could listen to them. There was something about being included in someone's plans, being the central reason for those plans forming, that made Laura feel like she wasn't lonely at all. But, she had responsibilities, and she couldn't put them off any longer, no matter how tempting it was, having the company of someone who seemed to consider her a friend. An equal.

 

"I was planning on writing a letter to my father, actually," she said.

 

"Want to go to the post office after? I have to send my brother's Kaiju comics back home now. Not your fault, by the way, I would've gotten them for him anyway, but he likes to do stuff like that so that he can say he earned them fair and square. He's sneaky like that."

 

"Yeah, I'd like that," said Laura.

 

"I love an impromptu girls' night," said Natalie, cheerfully.

 

;;

 

2017
Somewhere in Canada

 

Matska found her. She always did, in the aftermath. It had become a way for Carmilla to measure the extent of her injuries. If Mattie found it necessary to check up on her, it was likely worse than she had assumed. She knew that Mattie would come find her, this time.

 

Her leather jacket, previously nearly weightless, had weighed her shoulders down, digging into her skin and, more importantly, her wounds – still not yet healed – made the burden unbearable. She shrugged it off at once, slamming her back into the mattress and toeing her shoes off as she stared at the ceiling. They landed with an unsatisfying thump.

 

Her sweater – Elle's sweater – had bunched up around her neck when she'd landed on the bed, the blonde's scent stronger than it had been since she'd put the damn thing on. She hastily pulled it off, wincing when the material clung to her scabs but not caring, wanting nothing more than to burn it or at the very least get the thing away from her, along with the memory of the girl who had given it to her. Along with everything else the girl had given her.

 

She threw it haphazardly across the room, and stared at the pathetic lump of blue for two minutes before she gave up and forced herself to pick it up again. It was cold, she argued with herself. It was cold and the sweater was keeping her warm, and she pressed the wool to her face and inhaled, letting herself forget the fire coarsing through her veins at the smell of grapefruit, and a hint of vanilla. Elle.

 

Carmilla had fed off of people whose blood had not tasted as intoxicating as Elle's scent. Shaking herself out of it, she pulled the sweater back on and shoved the emotions down, pushed them deep into the dark recesses of her mind. No good would come from thinking about Elle. Not after what had happened.

 

She sat at the edge of the bed, and when hunger came, as it so often did, she swore that she would not give in to it. She waited patiently for it to abate. Carmilla grabbed ahold of the mattress, kept it in her fists until it had. When the sun had set and her veins weren't yelling at her to go hunt anymore, she let it go.

 

When Mattie arrived, she still hadn't left the apartment. She'd tried; some mornings, she'd gotten prepared, walked towards the door, holding her hand out, and placed her fingers on the cold metal of the doorknob. Carmilla was instantly jerked back to the inside of the Jaeger. She pulled her hand back, and her injuries – the ones she was neglecting – burned, to remind her the touch of a circuit.

 

It could have been a week, a month after The Incident, Carmilla hadn't kept track of time. She'd tried, at first, counted sunsets between bouts of insomnia that left her sleepless for days, but when she allowed her mind to rest, she slept for a few short hours that reset her internal clock. By the time Mattie walked in, she couldn't have guessed the month.

 

The click of heels, followed by harried footsteps. Keys, a ring of keys, flipped over and over in an anxious and flustered attempt at finding the right one as fast as possible. Her sister had turned her charms towards her landlord, then. She barely remembered the man, having been in a haze when she'd shoved enough cash at him to ignore her for the next six months, at the very least. She had made an educated guess with regards to rent.

 

A tiny exclamation of victory came from outside. A key, the right one, she presumed, sliding into the hole. The door being pushed open as soon as it was unlocked with a quick word of thanks. Carmilla was on the bed, staring at a mark on the wall she might have made with her shoes, at some point.

 

"Oh, sweetheart," said Mattie, the second she laid eyes on her. It was nothing more than a whisper, and had she been human, Carmilla wouldn't have heard it. Matska dropped something heavy – a bag, perhaps? Carmilla didn't turn to look. Her sister stepped towards her, with a step slower than before.

 

She barely had time to look at her, Mattie was next to her instantly. Carmilla heard soft murmurs, the smell of her sister's perfume smothering as Mattie leaned down, placing her hand over Carmilla's shoulder in an attempt to comfort her. Her barest touch set Carmilla's skin on fire, and she flinched Matska's hand off. Mattie held her hand poised over her shoulder, fingers curled into a loose fist.

 

"You haven't healed yet," her sister said, aware of what she'd done. Mattie sighed, and the mattress made a sound, and dipped as her sister leaned closer to her. Carmilla avoided her gaze, looking down at the space between them, the sheets old and threadbare. Carmilla felt the bed shift. Matska placed her index finger under Carmilla's chin, forced her to meet her eyes. "Let's get you cleaned up, shall we?"

 

Mattie did not do her the common decency of pretending she could walk to the bathroom by herself. Both of them were well aware that she did not have the energy. Instead, Mattie held all of her weight, and rather easily too, given how willing Carmilla was to let her shoulder the burden of living for her. She didn't let go of her until Carmilla felt like she could stand up by herself, and even then, her sister's arms did not rest. She stood there, as if waiting for Carmilla's knees to give out from under her.

 

Carmilla took no notice, and stripped, forgetting all about the fresh marks and how her sister would react to them. She already knew of their existence, either way. The tendons in Mattie's arm shifted briefly, as if carefully trying to keep herself from touching her skin, to make note of how bad they were. Her sister had seen her in worse conditions, Carmilla was sure, and she herself had suffered through worse than a few wounds, but her sister's hands still hovered, as if asking for permission. Wondering if it would help or make her wounds worse.

 

"I'm fine," Carmilla lied. Her sister's eyes shot to hers, and Carmilla felt the need to look away. She had never been able to lie to Mattie. She turned, attempted to step into the bath. When she wobbled, Mattie's hands righted her, her fingers digging into burned skin. Her sister let go of her only after she'd sat down in the bathtub. The water was ice cold, of course, but she didn't much care.

 

Her sister did not ask what had done this to her, who had rendered her to such a state; she already knew. Which meant that she'd come here to ask for permission, and instead found what Elle had left behind.

 

"You can't touch her," said Carmilla, her voice barely audible. "She's off limits."

 

Matska had just finished untangling her hair, using as much hair product as she could find in the apartment, and when that proved useless, the travel-sized bottles she kept in her purse at all times.

 

She was sat on the floor next to the bathtub; an undignified position for someone like her, but Carmilla recognized it for what it was. Her sister was purposely making herself smaller, lowering herself to Carmilla's eye level, peeling off her own mask, and showing Carmilla her own vulnerability. It served its purpose, of course, when Carmilla noticed that she did feel safe, and more like herself. The part of herself that she didn't find abhorrent, anyway.

 

"She almost-" Matska started, her voice shaking with anger. Her voice never shook with anger. Matska's fingers, which had previously been pulling hair from off of a hairbrush, were now wrapped around the handle tightly. Carmilla knew that the only thing that was keeping it from turning to dust was her sister's need to appear in control at all times.

 

"I know what she did. And I am telling you that you are not to lay a finger on her." It was the most she'd spoken in a while, and it showed. "Promise me, Mattie."

 

"Fine," said Matska, her hold on the brush loosening. Carmilla breathed in, her lungs burning from disuse. "I'll hold off. For now."

 

"Thank you." Mattie's gaze softened then, and she placed the hairbrush next to her, still intact. Her sister breathed in, pressed her palms flat on the floor, and shifted her position, rolling her shoulders and looking at Carmilla through wary eyes.

 

Carmilla stared at Mattie's hands, her index finger tapping against the tiles. Her own fingers, skin sickly-pale, tips wrinkly from the water, and nails jagged from where she'd chewed them off. She considered asking her sister for nail clippers.

 

"You have always been far too kind for your own good, darling. They don't deserve it."

 

She wanted so badly to say, "They don't deserve the alternative, either," but she knew that it wasn't necessary for her sister to hear that. Not yet, at least. Maybe in a couple of centuries, she'd be brave enough. Right now, all she wanted was to crawl in bed and sleep the decade off like a bad cold.

 

Mattie shrugged delicately, but said nothing further. She stood up, pulled a towel off the rack, and held it up. Carmilla stood, on still-shaky legs, allowed Mattie to wrap it around her, tugging it over her bare shoulders.

 

"What are you in the mood for tonight?" Carmilla winced, briefly. She did not allow Mattie to see it, instead plastered a fake smile to her face.

 

"Lemon meringue pie," said Carmilla, smiling wide and holding onto her sister as she climbed out of the bath. On the bright side, she didn't smell like she'd clambered out of the sewers anymore. Still felt like it, though. What Mattie was really suggesting wasn't entirely unappealing, especially considering how weak she felt.

 

"You know perfectly well that's not what I meant." Carmilla shuffled her feet, looking down at the bathroom carpet. It looked like it had seen better days. To be fair, so had she. "We can always order in if you're not feeling up for it." Carmilla didn't budge. "You're not trying that godawful starvation diet again, are you?"

 

Carmilla stood, glaring at her toes, because facing Matska would have been too telling right then. She didn't have it in her to crack herself open again, not even to her sister.

 

"I will never understand," said Matska, pushing Carmilla's still-wet hair away from her cheek, "why it is that you keep trying to refuse your very nature. Trying to force yourself into being something you're not. And for what?" Her sister tucked her index finger underneath her chin, just as she had earlier. "For them? For her?"

 

"Mattie, please," she said, flinching out of her sister's embrace. She stumbled, and her sister held her arms out, ready to steady her, should she need it. Carmilla didn't. She found her footing easily enough. Mattie sighed softly, and cupped her cheek, letting her shoulders droop for an instant, one so small that Carmilla thought she might have imagined it, before she pulled them back and looked down at her.

 

"I'll call the service. Have them send over a pretty one. An eager one. We might need more than one, come to think of it. It'll take a while for them to get here, of course, but I'm sure they'll be here within the hour, for the right price."

 

Carmilla shook her head. "No. I don't want- I can't," she said, settling on looking down at her toes again when words failed her.

 

"Not even a consenting human? Oh, mother is going to love this," her sister said, with not an ounce of amusement in her voice. Rather, sounding like she knew just how their mother would punish Carmilla if evidence of this ever stumbled across her desk. Carmilla looked up at her, panicked. "I'm not going to be the one to tell her, darling, but she will find out. You ought to know that by now. You've never been good at hiding things from her."

 

"You have."

 

"I have a better poker face." Mattie's hand slid down to her shoulder, an inch away from injured skin. "And I'm sure there's a pathetically-guarded hospital nearby. If all else fails, I find that donation centers can be quite generous."

 

"AB Negative?" Carmilla smiled up at her with near-hopeful eyes, genuine, this time. Matska narrowed her own, but her lips were carved into a smile too, the biggest one she'd given Carmilla since walking into the apartment.

 

"Don't push your luck, kitty," said Matska, tapping the tip of Carmilla's nose with her index finger. "You never know what might push back."

 

;;

 

March 14, 2020
Jaeger Academy

 

A blonde girl with a wide smile and pearly white teeth walked into her room and announced herself as her assigned roommate – she looked down at a piece of paper to make sure that she wasn't mistaken, because the Jaeger Academy was a labyrinth and apparently no one had offered to lead her to her room.

 

Laura would find out later that she had rejected Natalie's help, to "pave her own way" through the academy which, to be fair, Laura understood, except she'd waited until after she was led to her room to do that. To be completely honest, Laura could sympathize with a lot of what the girl did.

 

Her roommate turned out to be quite unlike Laura had expected. But then again, Betty Spielsdorf had a way of surprising people. For one, she spoke both German and English fluently, switching between the two of them if one didn't suit her needs – Laura felt very much at home with her new roommate immediately.

 

She had quit Princeton two semesters in, and joined the Jaeger Academy on a whim. Her parents – who Betty described as the third richest people in the country but she would break both of Laura's arms if she ever told anyone – had gone along with her idea, until Betty got an acceptance letter from the PPDC. When Laura asked her why she would ever pick the Jaeger Academy over an Ivy League school, Betty answered as best she could.

 

"My father," she said, smiling bitterly. "He thinks that the Kaiju are 'wiping out the vermin', because they've only hit what he thinks are the.. unimportant parts of the world. The outskirts. The people who can't protect themselves from Kaiju."

 

Laura had heard of people who thought that their money was their security from the war, and thought it all ridiculous because since when did Kaiju take credit cards? Sure, they could attempt to build a wall or a bunker that could survive World War K, but why would they ever want to live in a world where half the population had been killed by Kaiju?

 

"My mother isn't any better. She looks down on anyone who doesn't own a single article of clothing from Versace. It's really hard to explain to her why some people don't own a pair of pants that's worth more than their house, so."

 

"You signed up to spite them," Laura murmured, quietly impressed by Betty's nerve.

 

"That was a part of it, yes."

 

They had been best friends ever since. And even after they sparred and turned out to be not even slightly physically compatible, and thus most definitely not drift compatible, Betty was still civil with Laura. Laura had read that a lot of the people in the Jaeger Academy would only be nice to her as long as they thought that they could be her co-pilot, but that turned out to not be the case with Betty. She even let Laura keep the bottom bunk, which Laura thought was quite nice of her.

 

;;

 

2020
Somewhere in Canada

 

A few years after The Incident, Will showed up.

 

"Mother wants you to stop moping about," he said, as soon as she opened the door. He narrowed his eyes at her blue PPDC sweater, but did not say anything about it. He did, however, look her up and down. "The hell happened to you?" She could have said the same thing. His hair looked shaggy, like he was in desperate need of a haircut.

 

"You mean, besides you showing up here? Nothing much."

 

"You look starved." He narrowed his eyes. "Have you been eating?"

 

Carmilla had been eating. She had found a donor center with lax security in Toronto and gotten herself hired part-time as a lab assistant, then blamed all the thefts on another intern. She hadn't had as much blood as she needed, which was probably why Will thought that. She simply couldn't afford to let her sketchy place of work figure out that she was their perpetrator, even if they only noticed that someone was stealing blood packs almost a year and a half in.

 

Except, he sounded genuinely concerned. Carmilla wondered how long it had been since she had eaten properly if he was looking at her like that.

 

"The human. Mother's having me keep tabs on her. Doesn't look as frightening as you think she is, but she does take five sugars in her coffee, which is probably a cardinal sin." He shrugged. "I'm not really caught up on my reading."

 

"Why are you here?" Carmilla hadn't thought of Elle in a few days, so of course it had to be Will who'd bring her up and set her shoulder on fire again. It still hurt whenever she thought of the blonde.

 

He stood up straight, coughed. "Mother wants you to stop-"

 

"I heard you the first time. And what mother wants, you provide, right?" His expression didn't change. She knew just as well as he did that what their mother wanted, he would always give her. There was no sense in pretending otherwise. She sighed. "Shouldn't you be out there keeping the world safe from Kaiju? How is Kirsch, by the way?"

 

"He's fine, thanks for asking," Will said.

 

He rolled his eyes and walked into her apartment. She watched his shoulders stiffen as he noticed her duffel bag open at the foot of her single bed. The rest of the apartment was barely decorated, but she was sure that his source had told him how long she'd been staying at the apartment. Almost two years. He couldn't be sure if she'd been planning on leaving or if she had just been living out of the duffel for the duration of her time there, and honestly, she didn't care.

 

"What does she want?" Carmilla asked, and closed the door.

 

"She would like it if you graduated," he said, in a voice that indicated that their mother had downright ordered her to go back to the Jaeger Academy. He held his palms together, like he didn't want to touch anything in the apartment. She didn't blame him.

 

"I don't have a co-pilot anymore." Carmilla absently scratched her shoulder. Will glanced at her hand then, and his gaze was such a curious one that she forced it down into her pocket. She didn't need him asking questions that he had no right to ask.

 

"Carmilla," he warned, his voice sounding more and more like their mother's. It scared her to think that her little brother's only influence was their mother. Then again, he'd spent more time apart from her – admittedly, under less dire circumstances – and he still hadn't turned as cruel as their mother. The clock was always ticking, though. "If you say 'no' to me, she'll come down here herself, and you know how she gets when she's mad, sourpuss."

 

She considered not doing it. She considered running away again and finding a better hiding place, but there was no point. Her mother would only find her again in two years, maybe less. She knew Carmilla like the back of her hand, after all.

 

"Fine," she said.

 

Carmilla had signed her own death certificate centuries earlier, she had dotted the i's and crossed the t's years before. It still seemed like she had signed over another part of herself to her sire. Whatever Elle hadn't taken, her mother would use to mold her into whatever it was she wanted her to be this time. At least her mother had only ever left her mark on her once.

 

"Fine?"

 

Will, of course, had to make her say it. "I'll go back. Graduate from the academy, or whatever. Isn't there some sort of time limit it takes to find a co-pilot? I'm sure I've exceeded mine."

 

"Oh, you don't have to worry about that. Mother's got it under control. Take all the time you need."

 

This time around, the route was considerably shorter and definitely more enjoyable. It was because Will was not in the car with her; he had to get back to the Shatterdome and couldn't afford to take a road trip with his older sister. She didn't think it was such a shame.

 

;;

 

May, 2020
Jaeger Academy

 

Laura got through Officer training with minimal injuries, except for a sprained wrist that she did not tell her father about. She didn't tell her father most things in her letters, and the guilt finally won her over after a particularly bad attack – the Kaiju had ripped off the Jaeger's Conn Pod in an attempt to discourage them from shooting at it, and killed both pilots before a tag team of two Jaegers managed to strike it down.

 

She sat down to write a very long letter, and quit two sentences in. Her roommate handed Laura her phone, and when that refused to turn on due to insuffient battery power – Laura hadn't charged it since she'd seen no need to do so – Betty gave her her own phone, a thin smartphone that Laura recognised as one that was being advertised as capable of surviving a Kaiju attack. Amusing, she thought, how people bought that same phone without wondering how they would survive a Kaiju attack long enough to actually call someone from it.

 

Laura shook her head, told Betty that she would be gone for a while, and walked out to a payphone.

 

The total number of times she tried to dial her home phone number and hung up was three. She finally got the nerve to tell him when she remembered why she had decided to tell him in the first place – thanks to a couple of cadets walking by, who were talking about the honoured pilots – never dead, simply honoured for their commitment to the cause.

 

She managed to convince him to stop panicking long enough to explain to him that she hadn't found someone that she was drift compatible with. She did not say 'yet'. Everyone knew that a Ranger could not pilot a Jaeger unless they had a co-pilot. Her chances of finding someone were astronomically small – she had calculated it herself. The result was point zero, zero, fourteen percent.

 

Her father still felt uneasy and was massively disappointed in her for not telling him, but he stopped looking up ways to get her dishonourably discharged after she told him that even Rangers without co-pilots got treated better than J-Tech officers. It wasn't a lie, because from what she had seen they actually did, and that made him significantly happier about the whole ordeal.

 

Laura did not mention that to become a Ranger and move into the Shatterdome, she would need a co-pilot, because until then she was stuck in the Jaeger Academy barracks for a total of four weeks before she was forced to become either a Jaeger technician or a Kaiju scientist or get kicked out of the program, but it wasn't like she was still lying to him about what she was doing at the academy anymore. She thought of it as withholding the truth from him for a little bit longer than necessary.

 

It was too late for her to drop out anyway, was how she reasoned it with herself. The PPDC took a special interest in those who managed to pass Officer training with marks like hers. Now that she had started Pons training and was showing a significant improvement in only a few weeks, the PPDC definitely had an eye on her. Less than five percent of the recruits managed to get through the second stage.

 

She needed to make sure that they kept their eyes on her for a little bit longer. And Laura was sure that once she found the right co-pilot, she might have stood a chance at finally doing something that mattered.

 

The real pilots, the ones with a co-pilot and a Jaeger to match, came to their alma mater, sometimes. To inspire them, was what Natalie had said, angrily in German. As if the Kaiju weren't enough inspiration, she'd said. Those pilots looked down at Laura over the bridge of their noses, as if to say, "Really? Her? You're going to put her in a Jaeger?"

 

Laura made sure that they were still watching her, all 157 centimetres of her, and dropped the other recruits, her co-pilot candidates, harder than necessary once she figured out that they were no match for her. She liked proving people wrong.

 

;;

 

Carmilla took her time settling into her room. It was the same one she had been given years prior. She was glad that she didn't have to share it with anyone. She was not up for having Will as a roommate again.

 

'Darling William,' she thought, in a high pitched voice that sounded nothing at all like her mother, but decided would do for the time being, 'graduated from the Jaeger Academy, and has a room at the Shatterdome. Because he is a Jaeger pilot, which is what you should aspire to be, Mircalla.'

 

Carmilla did not have a clue as to why her mother was so eager for her children to be Jaeger pilots, but she wasn't really up for asking her.

 

There were certain things she did not ask her mother, for various reasons. The most obvious of which was her mother wouldn't tell her; she would spin a web of lies so intricate it would make politicians envious, and in the end it would be a non-answer. Her mother was good at that. Another reason was because her mother would tell her. Except, she'd make sure that Carmilla went through hell before she actually told her. Some answers weren't worth being dragged through hell for.

 

Another was that her mother thought that Carmilla should have already figured out the answer for herself. For example, Carmilla had never asked her mother why she sometimes wore a PPDC uniform, but she knew that more than half the recruits in the hallways used to go to Silas from their Silas-themed clothing. So she assumed that Silas had turned into some sort of Jaeger Academy prep school.

 

Then there were things she didn't ask because she knew her mother would not like it if she did. Carmilla wasn't sure that she wanted to know the answers to those questions anyway.

 

She did not go back to training immediately.

 

;;

 

June, 2020
Jaeger Academy

 

As Betty was explaining her latest dropkill, which had added a single solitary point to her simulator score, Laura wondered how her roommate hadn't gone into Kaiju science. The way Betty talked about Kaiju was akin to the way that someone might talk about a character from a role-playing game, with stats and techniques used by each Kaiju.

 

Betty would be more suited to study how to kill the Kaiju with biological weapons, but her roommate enjoyed killing Kaiju by using brute force – or rather, simulations of Kaiju, because neither of them had even gotten close to a Jaeger yet, on account of still being in Pons training.

 

Her roommate had mentioned that becoming a Kaiju Scientist had been her goal at first, but the first time she stepped into a simulator, she knew exactly what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. It was as if a switch had been flicked somewhere. And Laura was all for kicking people's preconceived notions of others to the ground, so she listened to Betty recount her latest dropkill, which had indeed been very impressive. Laura knew that because she had been there after Betty walked out of the simulator, and her roommate had recounted the tale immediately.

 

Both of them were distracted when someone started yelling and a piece of toast hit Laura's shoulder. The cafeteria erupted into chaos. It got overcrowded and fights tended to break out every so often. The most recent one had been less than a week earlier, when a recruit had accidentally hit someone's lunch tray with a football. Officers eventually came and stopped the fights but until then, it was free rein.

 

The first time Laura saw her, Danny Lawrence was pushing apart two bulky recruits, holding their collars and looking sternly from one to the other. It was hard not to notice a tall, gorgeous redhead in a sea of buzzcuts. Danny had ketchup stains on her sweater but her presence still demanded respect. From what little she could hear, they had started a fight over boiled corn. The redhead forced them to apologize to each other and everyone else in the room for interrupting their meal and sent them on their merry way like children.

 

After the riot, Laura stared at her for five minutes straight, nodding at Betty in between every pause to indicate that she was still listening, which she most definitely was not. It seemed that Danny noticed that someone was staring at her because she looked up at Laura and after a beat, smiled at her. It was a warm genuine smile that Laura had not seen on anyone, save for Betty, since moving out into the middle of nowhere to train how to control giant robots. Laura felt her face go red. She turned to look at her lunch hoping to hide her blush with her hair.

 

"Danny Lawrence," Betty said, when Laura had been silent for a while. Laura looked up at her, but thankfully, the blonde wasn't looking at her. She was looking at Danny. "Trains five hours per day in the Kwoon and another five in the simulators."

 

She wondered how she hadn't noticed her during the first eight weeks she'd been in the barracks-

 

"She's with the new batch. The ones who got sent straight to stage three because they transferred from some Jaeger prep school last week. I swear, they're about to open another base, we just haven't heard the news yet. And I'm not sure, but I think the blonde – Elsie or whatever – might be her best candidate for co-pilot."

 

"Fighting style?" Laura murmured, out of habit. It had become a game of Betty's, to study every recruit and list their strengths and weaknesses. Laura had been picking up on it too.

 

"Right handed but often favours her left. Probably training herself in case of a left-handed co-pilot." Laura glanced at Danny, and was surprised when she saw that the redhead was still staring at her. "She makes up for it with upper body strength, though. God, she looks great even in that terrible sweater."

 

"I'm surprised you don't know her marital status," muttered Laura. Betty finally tore her eyes away from Danny, and looked back at her roommate.

 

"Oh, trust me, babe," Betty said, raising her eyebrows. "Woman like that? I know it."

 

"That's a shocker," Laura said, in a voice that indicated that it wasn't at all. She looked back at Danny, who had turned away from them and was laughing at something that Elsie was telling her. Laura turned to her roommate and pointed at her with her fork. "How is it that you know literally everything there is to know about every potential eligible bachelorette at the Jaeger Academy?"

 

Betty shrugged, but smiled at her. "Firstly, not all of them. Just the ones I wouldn't kick out of bed for eating crackers, if you catch my drift. And second, it's still none of your business. Eat your greens, Hollis."

 

"Killjoy," Laura muttered.

 

They settled into a comfortable silence. She could already tell what Betty was about to say before she actually said it, which was ridiculous, because they were not compatible in any sense of the word, yet Betty could tell what was on Laura's mind just by looking at her. Laura assumed that she was just that easy to read.

 

"You want to spar with her, don't you?" Of course she did. Her expression gave her away. Betty's shoulders slumped in response – she had wanted to spar with her. "Not like you don't already have a reputation when it comes to the type of person you like to spar with."

 

"Betty," Laura warned.

 

Betty rolled her eyes. "I mean that in a nice compliment-type way. She's got the whole good girl thing going on, but she's as sneaky as you are in the Kwoon. So, strictly speaking, you two would be a great match. She could actually take you on."

 

"I hope you're right, Spielsdorf."

 

"I'm always right." Laura narrowed her eyes. "Almost always."

 

;;

 

Carmilla had turned on her mini fridge hours earlier in anticipation. She slinked out of her room, then out of the barracks, and acted casual when a couple of recruits who had obviously been training late looked her over, their eyes lingering on the backpack slung over her shoulder.

 

When she reached the side door marked "MEDICAL – AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY", she pulled out a leather pouch from inside of the bag. Carmilla had kept it there for years. She barely thought of it unless she needed it. The leather was soft and smooth, worn out with use. The instruments themselves looked new compared to how long she'd had them, because she had taken care of them well. It was a lockpicking set that she had carried with her for a few decades, brought back from a place long forgotten.

 

She knelt down to be at eye level with the lock. Carmilla had done this a hundred times. She plucked them from the pouch slowly, carefully. Tension wrench, placed. Rake, set. She could have easily broken down the door, crushed the lock to dust with nothing but her bare hands, but she didn't want to garner anyone's attention. Or alert the Medical bay employees that they had a security breach.

 

The door clicked open. Satisfaction rolled over, until she heard a lone heartbeat and panic set in. She shook it off and let herself relax. The lack of blood in the past couple of days had her on edge. She placed the lockpicks in her pouch and tucked them into her backpack, where they would remain until she needed them again.

 

The Medical bay had some redesigns in the previous years.

 

It took her a while to find the fridges that housed the blood, packed together like sardines in the back room. She opened the third fridge and picked up a blood pack at random. Type A. Not her favourite, but she tucked it into her backpack anyway. She needed variety every now and then.

 

It was quiet, still.

 

Carmilla had never before needed to think of how to keep the blood fresh before, because it had always come straight from the source. During the weeks she'd stayed with Will, she'd let the blood cool down before she drank it. In Toronto, a fridge had come with the apartment, but here, she needed that mini fridge.

 

She had not felt the need to mention her almost dilemma – because not all the recruits had fridges in their rooms, and she didn't know that she'd be back in her old room – to her brother, because he would have asked her why she would ever need to keep her blood cold. Carmilla did not feel like explaining to him that she preferred it cold now. Or that she hadn't had warm blood in a couple of years.

 

Carmilla did not want to explain to her brother, and also her mother by proxy, that she only drank her blood cool nowadays because having it warm reminded her too much of what it tasted like to have someone's skin in between her teeth and she didn't trust herself not to be a-

 

She didn't trust herself not to be what Elle had accused her of being.

 

Carmilla decided to walk around the area for the next week, find out the security schedule, but until then, she arranged the blood packs so that they won't notice that they were missing five of them in the morning. At the very least, she hoped they wouldn't notice for a while.

 

;;

 

After lounging about for weeks, there was a Kaiju attack. Carmilla knew that her mother would send Will again. She hadn't anticipated that he would bring Kirsch with him, though. They were given a room all to themselves, and yet it seemed like they had moved into hers instead. They tried to bother her out of her room, offered to spar with her to raise her interest in the Kwoon again. She stared at them and wondered why they didn't have better things to do.

 

'Oh, right,' she thought bitterly, 'because Kaiju took a break after every attack so they're free for a couple of weeks. Great.' She decided that she had to find something to do on base, because they were seriously starting to annoy her and she had at least another two weeks with them around.

 

To make sure that she didn't spend the day in her room reading, Will locked himself and Kirsch inside of it. She could have easily gone to their room and stayed there for the duration of the day, but she very much did not want to smell the stench of whatever Kirsch used as aftershave, so she dismissed that thought almost immediately. Since she had technically been declared fit for duty, she went to the Kwoon, which was exactly what Will had wanted in the first place. She decided to take that out on the first recruit who decided to go easy on her.

 

;;

 

Danny came up to her after dinner. Betty was still in the cafeteria, so at least she wasn't going to witness the absolute mess Laura would no doubt make of herself in front of Danny.

 

Then she looked around the empty hallway, and noticed that she was alone with Danny, who was arguably one of the best recruits that the Jaeger Academy had to offer in years – she'd seen her spar with other people now, and became incredibly nervous. It wasn't a stretch to say that she had harvested a bit of a crush on the girl after watching her train for a few days.

 

"Hey," Danny said.

 

"Do you mean me?"

 

'Right,' Laura thought, when Danny's eyebrows furrowed in response. 'She doesn't understand German, so speak in English. This is good. You'll have to think of what to say before you actually say it. Probably. Not really. Oh, god.'

 

"I don't-" Danny started.

 

"Um, hello," she replied. When Laura noticed that she was smiling her dorky nervous smile, she winced and tried again. "Did you want me to get you something?" Laura could have recited the alphabet backwards and it still wouldn't have been as awkward as she had made the conversation herself in just a brief second.

 

"What? No. I don't need you to- Uh, I saw you looking at me during training, and in the caf the other day. I wanted to introduce myself," Danny said, and thrust her hand out at Laura. "I'm Danny."

 

"I know. I mean, uh." After a moment's hesitation, Laura took Danny's hand. "My name is Laura Hollis."

 

"Pleasure to meet you, Laura." Danny pulled her arm back and Laura could practically feel her blush creeping up her cheeks. And thus began Laura's short-lived crush on one Danny Lawrence.

 

;;

 

A few days later, Danny showed up to her room unannounced. On the one hand, Laura had been busy attempting to write a letter to her father, but on the other, Danny had brought a bar of chocolate with her. Laura almost screamed right then and there. Laura could only remember that chocolate tasted like her hopes and dreams. She hadn't eaten it in literal years which made Danny an instant lifesaver.

 

She felt less like screaming when she found out that it was vegan chocolate and tasted like cardboard. It was supposedly healthier, and also harder to find than regular chocolate – impossible – but chocolate was chocolate and beggars couldn't be choosers.

 

Thankfully, Betty was just finishing up her class and after that she was going to be working off her frustrations at not finding a co-pilot in the simulators, so they were alone in the room and there was virtually no chance at being interrupted. They sat on the bottom bunk because Danny wore a tank top with a tiny hole that was at eye level with Laura when they were standing, so Laura smoothly suggested they sit on the bed.

 

She had always been aware of how much taller than her Danny was, but everyone was taller than her, so she had kind of gotten used to it. But it suddenly hit her when she noticed the hole in Danny's top, because it was right above the curve of Danny's chest, along the edge of her bra.

 

"I meant to mention, I really admire your fighting skills. And your piloting skills, I think. You're a good- I mean, you would be a great-" Laura stumbled on her words, suddenly self-conscious of Danny's eyes on her, and the taller girl took pity on her.

 

"Jaeger pilot?" She smiled a lopsided smile. Laura swore internally and nodded, then popped a square of chocolate into her mouth. It was like chewing paper. "You don't have a co-pilot either, right?"

 

"No," Laura said, her smile faltering. "Not yet."

 

"Hey, chin up. I'm sure there's someone out there for you. Or like, in here, I guess." Laura spotted a few recruits walking by outside her door, and she pressed her back to the wall.

 

"Hopefully," Laura said, and bit into her chocolate square instead of letting it melt in her mouth. She briefly imagined what it would taste like if it were real chocolate. Clouds melting in her mouth, probably. Laura wondered if she could ever open up the top of a Jaeger and actually taste clouds, someday. Then she remembered that that would probably kill her.

 

Danny was looking at her way too intently to be anything but casual, so Laura decided to change the topic.

 

"Must be nice, having Elsie. You two seem like you've known each other for years."

 

"We were at uni together, so. She's been with me through this whole thing." Danny shrugged and smiled at her. Laura crossed her arms over her chest.

 

"You guys have been together since university?"

 

Danny nodded.

 

"We were both lucky, I guess. The rest of the recruits didn't make it," Danny said. She put a piece of chocolate into her mouth. Laura looked up at her and said the first thing that came to her mind.

 

"Drifting with anyone is hard enough, but drifting with someone you're with? That could potentially be incredible, but if you're not on the same page with regards to your relationship-" Danny frowned. As soon as Laura said the word 'relationship', she almost choked on her chocolate, and hit her chest a few times. "Are you- Are you alright?"

 

"Elsie's not my girlfriend," Danny said, her voice rough. "Or my co-pilot. We're not drift compatible. And we are not dating."

 

"Oh," Laura said, blinking at Danny. She felt a blush creep up her neck. Laura suddenly wanted the ground to swallow her whole. "I'm sorry, I thought that- You train together. And you're not related, so I just assumed based on, um, statistics- I've totally embarrassed myself, haven't I?"

 

"No, it's fine, really," Danny said. "It's quite nice to be mistaken for a couple every once in a while. We sure act like it often enough."

 

"So, you're not-"

 

"Not dating Elsie, no." Danny chuckled silently. "That would be.. weird. But I will tell her that you think we are. Dating, I mean." Danny pushed the chocolate bar back to Laura, who had forgotten all about it.

 

Laura was focusing on other things, namely public humiliation and if it counted as that when the public were technically outside of her room.

 

"No," Laura said, laughing nervously. "Please don't. That would be so embarrassing."

 

"She'll play nice," Danny teased. Then she frowned. "In public. She'll tease you relentlessly in private, though. You're right, I should definitely not tell her."

 

"Danny Lawrence, you are the worst," Laura said, slapping Danny's arm playfully.

 

"I'm sure," Danny smiled at her, again.

 

A voice came through the speakers then.

 

«Candidate try-outs commence at sixteen hundred hours. Cadets who have successfully completed Stage Two are to report to the Kwoon in half an hour.»

 

"I'm going to find my non-girlfriend," said Danny. Laura rolled her eyes. "You coming?"

 

"Yeah, just give me a couple of minutes to write a l- I have to go over this," Laura said, and grabbed a book from off of her bedside table at random. She was holding it upside down. Danny laughed and shook her head. That was more or less, more embarrassing than writing a letter to her relatives, so she said, "I have to write a letter for my dad, so you go on without me. I'll probably come down in five minutes, anyway."

 

"See you in the Kwoon, Hollis. Good luck with your letter-writing slash upside down reading." Danny walked out of her room. Laura made sure to close the door, then fell face first on top of her bed and groaned. She still had to write a letter to her father. Before she went down to the Kwoon, she tucked the rest of the chocolate bar in her fridge, right behind the peanut butter that Betty hated.

 

;;

 

Carmilla's superiors (not her mother, never her mother) told her that she had to go to the simulators at least three times a week because she hadn't trained in years and she was out of shape.

 

She did, the first time.

 

When they asked again, she rolled her eyes and told them that she would go when someone beat her high score, but until then, she was going to spend her days in her room, and on occasion, the Kwoon. Carmilla knew that there was not a person in the academy who could possibly beat her score.

 

She had jacked into the system and coded it to increase her score by two points whenever someone with either of her initials increased their count, and the superior officers still hadn't noticed – they would have alerted her to that fact quicker than Will could take orders – so she assumed that they still hadn't fixed it and her cover wasn't blown yet whenever they asked.

 

After a while, they noticed that she still hadn't been going. So the second time, Carmilla was ordered to go to the simulators, because she wasn't "taking the Jaeger program seriously", so she did, again. In between rereading Nietzsche and picking at her food in the cafeteria. She held onto a book that she planned on reading during the simulation. No one would be able to figure it out if her score kept increasing.

 

She was glad to see that the simulators had not changed much.

 

The recruits could still decide whether they wanted a single-person simulation or a partnered one, which worked well for her since she didn't have a co-pilot anymore. Having the option was why she used to enjoy going down to the Combat Simulator, before The Incident happened. She didn't need a co-pilot.

 

Will slid next to her as soon as he saw her. Kirsch came up from behind him and nuzzled his chin into the crook of her brother's shoulder, wrapping his arms around his waist. The Jaeger Academy was as big as fifteen football fields pressed together, and yet she kept running into people that she did not want to see at every turn.

 

She would have been surprised at Kirsch's presence, had she not smelled his cologne. She wondered how she didn't hear him, and thought that maybe it was the sounds of the Jaegers or the Kaiju distracting her. That was when she remembered that the rooms were soundproof, so the chattering was definitely only coming from the rest of the recruits, who were waiting for their turn in the simulators.

 

Her brother nudged her shoulder and pointed at the scoreboard that was hung in between the rooms. It looked exactly like the Departures board at every single airport she had been to, except that instead of destinations, the board listed the names of ten recruits. Right next to their names, it listed their drops and kills, and the last time they were in a simulator.

 

It hadn't been there two years earlier. She had only glanced up at it briefly before she'd cracked into the system, when she had last set foot on the simulator floor, so her brother would most likely think that she was studying it. That was not why she couldn't take her eyes off of it.

 

Carmilla recognised a few names on the list. She started from below, and was about to turn to Will to ask him how he was only fifth on the board when he had killed actual Kaiju, because surely real live Kaiju would count for more than just a simulated Kaiju, when she noticed her own name on it.

 

Her name was not, as she had expected, the first one on the list. That was not exactly impossible, given enough time and dedication to the simulators, but highly improbable.

 

Especially when she figured in that the technicians had probably added in her dropkills from when she was last at the Jaeger Academy as soon as she had been enrolled again – had she even dropped out properly? She didn't know. That didn't surprise her at all because her mother had always wanted her children to appear to be the best, even if they weren't.

 

What did surprise her was that someone had actually beat her high score. D. Lawrence. Carmilla imagined some wide-eyed idealist who had been training for months, probably years. Lawrence had racked up a higher simulation score than Carmilla ever had. It was a fake score to a simulation, generated for an appearance that she could not care less about keeping up, but it still pissed her off.

 

As if on cue, Lawrence's score upped by one, and the fourth door's light turned green. A tall redhead stumbled out of the room, and the people around the door whooped and cheered, as if they were in a bar and she had just ordered free drinks for the entire place. Carmilla disliked her on principle, but decided that she hated her when she noticed what she was wearing.

 

The girl was not necessarily a bad pilot, but her taste in pretty much everything had to be put in question when she was training on a military base, and had the nerve to wear a pink and blue sweatshirt advertising her old sorority's Adonis Festival and Hunt. Even Carmilla herself was wearing a PPDC-issued sweater. It was worn out from years of use, but it still counted.

 

Carmilla watched as Lawrence hugged a blonde girl not much taller than the redhead herself was. This one was also wearing a Summer Society sweater. She didn't wait for Will's explanation – "Those two came over from Silas," he started saying, as if she cared where they had come from – she stepped into a simulator as soon as one was vacated.

 

The simulator pods themselves didn't bother her as much as she thought they would. She knew exactly what the inside of a Jaeger felt like when it moved now, so she could tell the difference between that and the simulators. They were built a couple of inches off the ground to be able to mimic the drops and the push and pull of the Jaeger, but it was nothing compared to being inside of a real Jaeger.

 

She did not doctor her score. She could have, but she didn't. Instead, Carmilla broke into the system again, ripping out a control panel slightly harder than she should have, and removed her old fix. She wanted to beat D. Lawrence at her own game.

 

She chose the Right Hemisphere every single time. Her vampiric constitution had healed the left side of her body well enough, but being hooked up to a Jaeger, looking to her right and seeing no one smiling back at her seemed wrong. Elle had always been on her right.

 

Carmilla went to the simulators at eight AM and left almost twelve hours later everyday until her score was three times as high as D. Lawrence's, whose name she learned was Danny Lawrence.

 

She had never liked the Summer Society and she wasn't about to start now.

 

;;

 

The first time they sparred, Laura beat her.

 

Five points to four.

 

Laura breathed heavily as she straddled Danny's torso in the middle of the Kwoon. Her body felt warm underneath hers.

 

"You give?" Laura asked, looking down at her.

 

"I give," Danny said, an impressed smirk playing across her lips.

 

Laura stood up and watched Danny push herself off of the floor. They moved away from their spot, handed their staffs to the candidates who had been waiting for them to vacate the space.

 

"Geez, Hollis," said Danny, rubbing at her neck – she was going to need an ice pack for that, "you really weren't kidding about the Krav Maga, or- well, anything, were you?"

 

"I wouldn't say anything, exactly. More like the part about me being able to take you on," Laura said, playfully. Her voice took a more serious tone, "Five to four isn't bad, is it?"

 

"I don't think so," Danny murmured. "We did good, for our first time."

 

"Is it enough for-" For the drift. They had both thought about it. It was one of the only reasons people made friends at the Jaeger Academy anymore. Laura still wanted to be friends with Danny even if they were not drift compatible. She thought that Danny might still want to be her friend, too.

 

"It might be," Danny said, glancing down at her.

 

Laura had never felt so elated before. Ever since finishing stage two of training, she had been eagerly awaiting to start the third stage, but she could not do that unless she had a co-pilot. So, she was in need of a co-pilot and Danny fit the bill to a T.

 

;;

 

Carmilla was exhausted. She was avoiding talking to Will about Jaeger training – and by extension, finding a co-pilot because that one time he told her she could take her time had only been said to convince her to come back – by alternating between hanging out in a simulator in the morning and the Kwoon after hours. Which was what he wanted anyway, but she enjoyed beating up the smug recruits.

 

She was fighting at least ten people every single time she went down there, and yet none of them were even close to having the compatibility she had with Elle. Carmilla hated to think about their time in the Kwoon because that reminded her of Elle's smug smirk, but the blonde used to anticipate Carmilla five steps ahead. She knew what Carmilla was going to do before Carmilla herself did. Elle knew her body better than she knew herself, and then she just.. didn't. Carmilla tried not to think about that, either.

 

She didn't mind that not a single recruit would ever come close to that level ever again, because none of them mattered. None of them would ever want her to be their actual co-pilot, anyway. Carmilla knew that they used her for training because she was the strongest person in the Jaeger Academy at any given time. Including when Will was there. She was a stepping stone for them. A way for them to make themselves stronger.

 

And none of them would ever matter, she thought.

 

;;

 

The thing about Danny, and this, Laura knew was important, was that she didn't like it when Laura sparred with anyone other than her. No, that wasn't at all accurate – what Danny didn't like was when Laura selected larger, stronger opponents to fight, as she had with her. But, and this was what got to Laura, not everyone was as fair as Danny was with her, Danny told her. So she, meaning Laura, had to pick her sparring partners carefully, because they might hurt her.

 

That turned Laura off of the concept of Danny as a potential girlfriend in a hot second, and from that moment on, she thought of her as nothing more than a potential co-pilot candidate, a friend, and a sparring partner.

 

Well, sort of. Laura kind of kept using moves the Jaeger Academy didn't know about, the ones her father had taught her. She just needed to get those out of her system and then she could be able to match Danny perfectly.

 

That was what she was thinking of as Betty walked in. "Are you going out with that cute redhead who looks like a lost puppy?"

 

Laura was sat on the bed, holding her copy of Pride and Prejudice tight, in an attempt to re-read it for the third time since she'd moved into the Jaeger Academy and the fifth since she'd left her home. She rolled her eyes, and went back to her book, choosing not to reply to Betty's ridiculous question.

 

"What's her name again? Danny something- Oh, I remember now. Danny Hollis. Such a lovely name, wouldn't you agree?"

 

"No," Laura answered gruffly. She huffed and pulled the book closer to her face. Betty smirked. "I wouldn't. We're just friends. And she does not look like a lost puppy."

 

"She looks like a lost puppy when she's looking at you," Betty said, in a sing-song voice, dragging out the 'you' in an attempt to irritate her. Laura hated that it was working.

 

"She does not," Laura groaned, and almost threw her book at Betty.

 

"Hey guys," Danny said, from the doorway.

 

Her heart rate escalated, because if Danny had been standing there long enough, she would have to explain her roommate's ridiculous antics, and Laura was not up for that at the moment. She thanked every single god that she and Betty were speaking in German, because that way Danny had probably missed Betty saying 'Danny Hollis' which sounded the same in every single language.

 

"Hey, Danny," said her roommate, switching back to English to greet the redhead. "Curious thing, we were just talking about-" Laura coughed and glared at the blonde, who stopped talking. Betty raised and eyebrow and tried to keep her smirk back. She failed. "Something. Completely unrelated to you, of course."

 

"Okay," Danny said, slowly.

 

"Nothing important, really," Laura said, closing her book. "What's going on?"

 

"Candidate try-outs are in an hour, thought I'd give you a heads up." Candidate trials happened every single week at the same time, and Danny knew that Laura knew that. Laura knew that the woman was only telling her as a formality, because they both knew that they were each other's best candidate. She thought it was a nice gesture, still.

 

"Thanks, Danny. I'll see you there?"

 

"Actually, I have this thing with Elsie. We're going to update our superior on our respective progress. It's not important, but I might come down after if it doesn't take too long."

 

"Sure," said Laura. As soon as Danny left, Laura turned to look at her roommate, who was hugging herself and making what Laura could only describe as the most embarrassing faces that she had ever seen the woman do. "Why are you so embarrassing?" she asked, switching back to German easily.

 

"She's a puppy. I told you. Totally adorable and so very into you." Laura rolled her eyes. "I'm kinda jealous, she's very cute."

 

"Why don't you date her, then?" Laura said, grinning cheekily at her. Betty sighed dramatically.

 

"I think she's got her eye on someone else, babe. Although, if she were to ask me out, I wouldn't say no."

 

Laura shut her book. "I am going to be praying that they find someone who's physically compatible with you tonight, Spielsdorf. Maybe you'll move into their room and stop talking to me about things that don't concern you."

 

"Please," Betty said, raising a single eyebrow. "You'd miss me too much."

 

"That doesn't mean I don't wish it would happen," Laura said, her voice lilting.

 

"Are you two even drift compatible? Have you checked yet?"

 

They hadn't checked. They had submitted the request forms, but those took ages to actually get through. Laura had exactly three weeks left to find a co-pilot candidate before she was going to have to give up on her dream of being a Jaeger pilot and forced to pick between J-Tech or K-Science.

 

Laura had mentioned that they had submitted the form to Betty at one point, but Danny had been sitting next to her in just a tank top when she had explained it, so Betty hadn't been paying attention to anything Laura said. Her roommate's crush was obvious to everyone but Danny herself, it seemed.

 

So, technically, Betty knew that they had submitted the request deep down in the recesses of her mind, but she somehow forgot whenever the subject came up, only to remember a few seconds later. It was as if she was remembering something else – Danny's arms, for instance – from that conversation. Laura hadn't asked.

 

Laura threw her pillow at Betty then, but she aimed at a spot behind her head, because she actually did like her roommate quite a bit and she didn't want to hurt her.

 

;;

Chapter Text

;;

 

June 28, 2020
Jaeger Academy

 

The rookies were fresh faced, eager to get suited up and strapped into a Jaeger. Hardly as entertaining as the last group. Granted, Carmilla was out of shape because she'd practically spent the previous month or so on the simulator floor upping her simulator score through hard work, but that was no reason for them to make it so easy on her.

 

She had already beaten five of them, and she hadn't even worked up a sweat. Slammed them straight into the mat – harder and faster than they had been to judge her by her appearance.

 

Carmilla had the end of her staff an inch from their necks after three strikes, and that was only because she was holding herself back; making sure not to break anyone's bones this time, because the last time she broke a collarbone, she was heavily reprimanded. Her mother had sent a message through Will - threatened to take her out of the program permanently, and get her teaching at Silas, for fear of risking exposure.

 

She preferred the Jaeger Academy to Silas University, so the part about teaching snot-nosed brats English Literature wasn't really necessary to convince her. Her mother, of course, had only said that to prove a point. Teaching meant she wouldn't be able to miss classes, at least not as much as she had been last time she was at the university. As a result, she was being somewhat gentle. Or as gentle as she could be, anyway, she thought, watching the last candidate she'd beaten.

 

This one, a pretty blonde (a couple of shades darker than Elle's) who was much taller than Carmilla but had none of the confidence that the other recruits boasted, got up off the floor wincing, forcing a smile through her teeth. Carmilla thought she was going to punch her as soon as she stepped closer to her, but instead, the woman thrust her hand at her, as if she wanted to shake her hand.

 

"Good fight," the blonde had said. Carmilla stood there for a few seconds with her arm outstretched, and wondered if maybe the blonde had sustained injuries other than the bruises during their fight. A concussion, perhaps?

 

;;

 

Laura's eyes drifted towards her as soon as they walked in. It was hard not to focus on her. She stuck out like a sore thumb, especially in the sea of uniformity that the Jaeger Academy paraded about in the Kwoon. And unlike the majority of the recruits, she was gorgeous in the exact same way that a bad idea looked attractive, and Laura had never listened to anyone's words of warning regarding bad ideas.

 

Pale skin, near-black hair carelessly styled in a messy bun, giving Laura a sharp view of the angles of her jaw, the line of her neck. She wasn't that much taller than Laura herself was, but she held herself with an air of superiority. Her eyes seemed to gloss over everything she looked at. That, coupled with a luxurious way of moving drew Laura to her like a moth to a flame.

 

She only noticed how apt that description was when she got closer, and saw the look of pure indifference on the girl's face. That was the moment that Laura decided that she wanted – needed to know, as if her life depended on it – what made the other girl tick. What would turn the girl's indifference into something else, something that would set her heart alight with possibilities, something that would excite her down to the marrow of her bones.

 

Truth be told, she wasn't that hard to notice. There were already less people in the Kwoon than there normally were, so the main players were always going to be the focus. That, and she was wearing a long-sleeved black shirt. No one wore long sleeves in the Kwoon. It got too hot to wear anything but tank tops, especially on the floor. It was only upon further examination that Laura noticed that it did not have the PPDC logo anywhere on it.

 

Laura herself wore a tank top and a PPDC sweater, because Betty had pestered her about always walking into the Kwoon in a tank top, cargo pants, and her PPDC-sanctioned shoes.

 

"It makes you seem like you're looking for a fight," Betty had said, huffing at her. "Which, of course you are, but these are candidate trials. You want your first impression to be semi-normal, don't you?"

 

Laura eventually relented.

 

Betty, ever so helpful, pointed the girl out a few seconds after she slammed a guy to the floor. The girl's lips curved into a smug smirk and Laura Hollis felt something at the pit of her stomach, a sort of hunger that she hadn't felt in years.

 

The guy – Laura was hardly paying any attention to him, but his obnoxious self was disrupting her view of the really cute candidate, so she was acutely aware of his presence, even though she didn't want to be. He breathed in for a few seconds before pushing himself off the ground and walking off the floor, which effectively ended the sparring session.

 

Laura assumed that he must have handed his staff to someone else, because the minute the floor was empty, the girl flipped her staff in her hands, as if bored with the entire thing, and leisurely rolled her shoulders back, as if the previous fight had been in any way taxing. She only settled into a lazy position once someone else – another man, looking just as eager as Laura felt just from looking at the girl. This woman was.. unlike the rest of the candidates. She was on a whole other level.

 

"I can't," said Betty, slowly, "get a handle on her fighting style. Can you?" Laura shook her head. She couldn't figure out how to explain the thoughts in her head right then – most of which had nothing to do with the girl's style, and everything to do with her. The way that she moved was sleek, but precise, like an animal going in for the kill. "It seems like she's doing this because she has nothing better to do. But.. who would actually do that?"

 

She ignored Betty's question. "Do you think she'd spar with me?" Laura asked, her eyes still on the girl.

 

This was how they worked. Betty found a recruit that Laura would be least likely to be physically compatible with, and placed a bet in the, 'No, Laura, that recruit definitely won't spar with you' pile – there were a lot of these bets, so they had become a pile – and Laura did what she did best. She proved Betty wrong.

 

Laura had won each and every single one of those bets because she had a way with words, or at least, she could get anyone to do anything she wanted – which meant that she could get anyone to spar with her if she were given enough time to convince them that she wasn't a waste of their time. Sometimes, they didn't relent, so she ended up doing what she did best, which was tricking them into sparring with her. Worked just as well, if not better.

 

The 'Is the recruit physically compatible with Laura?' pile of bets was one that Betty always won though, because Laura saw everyone as a potential co-pilot candidate whereas the blonde had figured out early on that no one else – save for Danny – saw Laura Hollis as a viable co-pilot candidate.

 

The bets evened themselves out so technically real money had never come into the equation. Which was good because the only thing Laura had to her name at the time was a flip phone and a twenty euro note thanks to her father's last letter, so she very much appreciated not having her roommate winning bets frequently.

 

The first time Betty hadn't minded when she lost a bet was when Danny Lawrence had been involved, because her guess that they would be physically compatible had paid off. Also, she now had an excuse to spend more time with the redhead, so it was a win-win for both of them.

 

Betty rolled her eyes. Laura had definitely gotten a slight reputation with her roommate – along with most of the other recruits, and this was part of the reason why. Laura had trained herself to find the strongest recruit and line up to fight them early.

 

"Hey, now. I saw her first. You were too busy mooning over Danny to notice her," Betty said, pointing at the girl in the middle of the Kwoon. At that moment, the girl was holding her staff to the second guy's neck. Laura turned back to Betty, who continued, "Get your own candidate to tide you over while tall, ginger, and gorgeous is away."

 

Unlike Laura, Betty was selective of who she sparred with. She only stepped into the Kwoon with people she thought were worthy of her time. Which was why she had sparred with Laura back in their first week. Laura was the only one who had actually heard of Krav Maga at the time, let alone practiced it.

 

That, and she was her roommate. There was a semi-unofficial rule that the PPDC always checked to see if roommates were physically compatible. Roommates and family members. Since Laura was an only child and her father hadn't enlisted, Betty was her first choice. She would later come to learn that every single member of Betty's family would rather donate billions to the Coastal Wall program than actually enlist, which left both of them with no options other than the rest of the recruits.

 

"First of all, I was not mooning over Danny. And secondly, I'm planning on it," Laura said, and looked around the Kwoon once more, only to have her attention wander back to the girl. She could barely keep her eyes off her, so she did the only thing she could think of.

 

Laura studied her. Watched her drop another recruit in almost the same way she had dropped the first one. After that, Laura began to make note of certain patterns. The girl waited. She let the other person wait, too. Watched them get impatient. Waited until they struck her first. Countered their hit with an incredibly weak counter-attack, a fake one, that barely scraped the surface of her prowess. Which made the other recruit think that they had the upper hand.

 

She had been playing around with them instead of putting them down as soon as she could. And she could put them down, Laura thought, as she watched the girl floor yet another man who was twice her size.

 

The girl completely annihilated them. Humiliated them. Let them assume that they would be able to be better than their predecessors, to succeed where they had not, and actually beat her, the girl who did not look like she belonged in the Kwoon or in any place where she was to be considered to anyone who looked like they trained fifty hours per week.

 

Laura had done it herself a thousand times over. But this girl took a sort of satisfaction in doing it. Showing them that they were the ones who were not meant to be in the Kwoon, not her.

 

Laura thought it was downright cruel. However, she had to admit that it was slightly impressive. She understood why no one had caught onto her act yet. The recruits who were still watching her intently, waiting for their chance to spar with her, they had no clue. Neither did Betty, who seemed to be watching her as intently as Laura herself was.

 

No wonder Betty couldn't get a handle on her, though. Betty would have never have guessed that her first thought – that the girl was just doing this because she had nothing better to do – was spot on, but Laura knew that listless smile the girl was displaying. She'd seen it on herself a few times, during the first year of the war.

 

This girl was a weapon hiding behind a pretty smile, wrapped inside of adamant insubordination. No one wore long sleeves in the Kwoon. No one wore civilian clothing in the Kwoon. She looked like she could actually keep up with Laura. She didn't seem tired after fighting four people, which was when the others usually started getting lazy.

 

Most of the recruits spent their free time in the simulators, because they were even more obsessed with getting to see the inside of a Jaeger than she was, so their endurance wasn't as good as her own. Laura's thought process was: she would have her time in a Jaeger when she found a co-pilot. And to do that, she would need to refine her skills, which was why she spent most of her free days in the Kwoon.

 

The girl didn't look like she had bothered refining her skills at all. She lacked the control over her body that Krav Maga had taught Laura. All she had was her physical strength, which she had apparently used as a crutch throughout all of her training, because her technique was atrocious. Laura presumed that the girl hadn't bothered learning proper technique because she knew that she could make up for it with her strength.

 

What she lacked in control over herself, she made up for in control over the sparring session. As soon as the other person stepped onto the floor, the girl took control of the situation, without them ever having had the slightest idea that they had lost before they struck the first blow.

 

The sheer arrogance that she displayed – thinking that she was in control of the session, instead of participating in it in an equal capacity, both bothered and compelled Laura to figure out just why such a singular entity would ever bother enlisting in the first place. The PPDC did not take kindly to that level of apathy towards the idea of partnership.

 

A candidate should have been viewed as someone who would be able to hold their own during their fight with a Kaiju. Someone who would be able to keep up with them, and especially someone that they would be able to trust in the field, in a Jaeger. Except, any and all of this girl's potential candidates were her opponents.

 

Betty elbowed her gently, jarring her out of her thoughts.

 

"Watch and learn, Hollis," Betty said, as she pulled her boots off.

 

"Good luck," Laura said.

 

Betty was a decent fighter – solid, good posture, and a reasonable ratio of clean strikes to smooth dodging. She had adapted to their training, used her parents' judgement as motivation to better herself. She didn't have to overstate her physical prowess because she could back it up if she needed to. She was a lot of things – tactless at times, annoying at her worst, but in the Kwoon, she was fair.

 

As soon as the fight started, Laura breathed out. She had expected this. The girl in the middle of the mat, steadily gaining points over Betty, at the time a hefty two-zero, was nothing if not a con artist.

 

So, Laura prepared. She pulled her sweater off and placed it on the floor much to, what she was sure would be, Betty's dismay. There, on the red marking that ran by the mats, Laura found a leather jacket with a Bikini Kill patch on the lapel, along with a couple of other unrecognisable badges (which did not adhere to standard regulation), a hastily folded blue sweater (torn at the neck and in desperate need of replacement), and a pair of black doc martens (which were most definitely not sanctioned, unlike the standard boots she and Betty wore along with the rest of the recruits).

 

Except, a sweater that worn and old could only belong to a longtime recruit, or someone who used to know one. Those people didn't usually sign up for the PPDC, though, so Laura assumed it was the girl's. Which would have explained how nobody had bothered her about the long-sleeved shirt, the shoes, and the leather jacket.

 

Were there any rules that this girl did not break upon simply stumbling upon them? Laura wanted to find out. She hadn't noticed it before then, but she'd been staring down at the clothes. Along the inside of the sweater's collar, in tiny careful stitching – the same as her father used to stitch into her own clothes when she was younger – was what Laura presumed to be the girl's name.

 

'C. Karnstein'.

 

She hadn't wanted to ask the rest of the Kwoon for her name because chances were that since Betty hadn't mentioned it, she hadn't known it. That reduced the chances of anyone else knowing it to practically zero. Plus, she didn't want to seem like she wasn't paying attention to who her candidates were because she was most definitely paying attention.

 

The way C. Karnstein reacted to Betty's post-sparring handshake reminded her of how she had felt back when she had found herself all alone in the Jaeger Academy, before she had learned how to trust people. Before Betty, before Danny. How to trust that they didn't think that she needed to be protected, like her father did. Like everyone else did. Laura had gotten used to having people she trusted in the past few months. Karnstein looked like she had been alone for far too long.

 

Betty got off the floor and immediately placed her staff into Laura's hand.

 

"Assessment, Spielsdorf?"

 

"I'm gonna have bruises for the next couple of weeks, but other than that? Peachy," Betty said, through gritted teeth. She winced, clutched at her side, and put her hand on Laura's shoulder for support. "Needless to say, we're not physically compatible. Damn it."

 

Betty had expressed her growing hatred for Kaiju science and how it seemed that she was going to have to become a K-scientist anyway, which didn't much please her. The girl's need to step into a Jaeger and beat Kaiju to death matched her own, which was the most inconvenient thing, especially since they weren't physically compatible. Still, she had Danny.

 

"That bad, huh?"

 

"She plays dirty, Laura. You know where the wild things are? In that girl. And god knows you like the violent ones, so you might actually enjoy sparring with this one."

 

"That's.. not entirely true, but nice of you to say, either way," Laura said, hoping that the excitement in her voice wasn't too obvious to Betty. "Any other words of advice before I enter the belly of the beast?"

 

"Not really. She's all yours. Go get her, tiger."

 

"Next!" Natalie yelled, signalling that the session had ended and it was someone else's turn.

 

Betty patted Laura's back and pushed towards the floor, shaking her head fondly while doing so. Laura didn't look back at her but if she had, she would've seen a smile plastered to Betty's lips.

 

Laura calmed her breathing, gripped the staff tighter in an attempt to ease herself. It wouldn't do to let Karnstein know how eager she was to spar with her. The girl would most likely go easy on her for that alone. That was the last thing Laura wanted.

 

"We don't have all day, people."

 

She stepped onto the floor.

 

;;

 

"Next!"

 

Their hungry eyes on her made Carmilla feel like she was in the middle of the ring at a circus. A performance was what they wanted, wasn't it? She smirked. The recruits – both the new and the ones who had fought her – shuffled backwards slightly, as if scared. They had yet to survive her, let alone a Kaiju. She sighed, and bitterly thought of the earth's inevitable demise. There was no way a group of cowards like this would ever be able to hold their own against something as monstrous as a Kaiju.

 

"We don't have all day, people," said Natalie. The girl tended to oversee her fights because the other recruits eventually tired themselves out, but Carmilla usually kept going, exhausting her opponents.

 

The moment she came into her line of sight, Carmilla stopped breathing. It wasn't a conscious decision on her part, merely a result. The entire concept of language hadn't evolved enough for Carmilla to express what she felt like at that moment. She doubted it ever would.

 

The girl looked as if Carmilla had made her up, all dressed up and ready for a fight with fire in her eyes and a stance that reminded Carmilla that a fight was exactly what the other girl was expecting. And even though the other recruit was gorgeous in a way that grew a specific kind of hunger inside of Carmilla, she was sure that her new opponent wouldn't have much fight in her – they never did.

 

But what caught Carmilla's eye was the recruit's smile, the dangerous curve of her mouth that Carmilla had only ever seen in a mirror. And watching this girl, who looked like she was just about ready to eat her alive, made Carmilla feel as if she had been wearing it wrong all these years. She smelled human, but for a brief moment Carmilla thought that she had stumbled upon another one of her kind.

 

The girl looked at her curiously, her eyes narrowed slightly. Carmilla smirked. Breathed in, and played her part. She hadn't noticed at the time, but her mind had paused too, all her thoughts had melted into white noise. She only noticed when they began screaming at her again to quickly study the girl before she had to fight her.

 

The most she got out of the fleeting study was that the girl who had stepped in front of her couldn't have been much older than she was when she got turned. Right-handed, good posture. Other than that, Carmilla knew nothing. She hungrily took note of her too-tight tank top, her brown hair pulled back in a loose braid, and her arms, pulsing underneath the shirt – her grip on the staff was too tight.

 

That, she could use.

 

'You're nervous. That's good.'

 

;;

 

Karnstein looked at her as if she was undressing her with her eyes. Laura suspected that she could melt underneath that gaze, especially with that smirk that showed just the barest hint of teeth. The moment she met her, she knew that C. Karnstein could disarm her with only the lightest touch, the smallest attempt.

 

She dragged her eyes away from Karnstein's mouth, and instead focused on the girl's breathing. The sounds their feet made as they circled around each other, waiting for the other to pounce first. Laura knew this game very well. Flipping the staff in her hands to get used to its weight and texture, she noticed two things.

 

The first was that she was going to have to play Karnstein's game. Because that is most definitely what it was to her – Laura could see it now; playful smirk, raised eyebrow, and a relaxed head tilt. Karnstein was playing a role. If Laura was right in thinking that it was the same part that she'd been playing for the entire day, then Laura wouldn't be the only exception to her rule and Karnstein was going to wait for her to make the first move.

 

Either way, Laura decided that she might as well not give Karnstein the benefit of the doubt and strike first.

 

The second thing was that Laura didn't know what language Karnstein spoke – she had been assuming English with most everyone because they were on a base in Kodiak Island, but if Betty – and the internet – had taught her anything, then it was to never assume that people would understand her mother tongue.

 

Laura never really cared about what language her partner spoke until after they sparred, but a feeling in her gut told her that she needed to understand Karnstein on a different level than just a physical one to be able to test their physical compatibility.

 

Before Natalie had even signalled the beginning of the session properly, Laura made the first move.

 

Karnstein blocked it quickly, almost lazily. That, Laura had expected. The girl wasn't without her talents. Her grip on her staff was easy. It was like the staff wasn't a weapon to be used as an extension of the self, but something of a hindrance. As if she had gotten used to sparring with just her body as the weapon.

 

What she wasn't expecting was for the other girl to let out a noise from the back of her throat, as if she were trying not to laugh. Laura wasn't expecting what Karnstein said next, either.

 

"One, zero, sweetheart."

 

English, then. Karnstein's lilting voice slipped into her ear the same way a siren's call would slip into a pirate's, making the bottom of the ocean a very tempting fate. Laura felt like she was down there already, and the siren was merely toying with her.

 

The moment she understood the meaning of what Karnstein said was the moment she became abruptly aware of her surroundings in the transient world. It was akin to a mermaid's home, encrusted with the skeletons of hundreds of other pirates, skulls crushing underneath her boots, and the water started feeling suffocating instead of comforting.

 

Laura was too angry to maintain her focus, especially seeing as how the venom in Karnstein's voice coupled with that smirk of hers were doing a hell of a job distracting her. Karnstein looked like she was having as much of a blast in the male-populated Jaeger Academy as Laura was. She was not the only woman on the floor who hadn't stripped down to her tank top because some of them didn't, and yet.

 

Sweetheart.

 

Karnstein said it with a lack of vitriol that Laura had gotten accustomed to, though. She used it as if they were friends who were playfully sparring, not recruits training to prevent an apocalypse, to win a war. She said it the way one might have used a term of endearment.

 

The other girl looked composed, as if she was waiting for Laura to do something. Anything.

 

Laura obeyed, stepping towards her quicker than it took for Karnstein to blink or move backwards. Her feet barely made a sound against the mats. Their staffs clanked loudly together as Laura walked straight into her personal space. Karnstein still hadn't moved away. It would take more than this to scare her.

 

The air around them was thick with anticipation. The rest of the recruits were watching them, watching her. She didn't care about anyone other than the girl in front of her.

 

Karnstein smelled of sweat, which was normal, iron and rust, which wasn't, and old books, which was merely odd. What Laura should have done was this: she should have recoiled against the smell, hated everything about it, the way she should have hated everything about Karnstein the second she'd called her sweetheart, but Laura couldn't help herself – the smell of old books reminded her of home, of the corners of libraries, of familiarity. Laura guessed that her smell was why she felt so at ease, so calm, standing less than a step away from Karnstein.

 

There were few things that angered Laura more than terms of endearments used in such a manner. The girl was no different than anyone else in the Kwoon, save for Betty and perhaps Natalie. She had looked at Laura and seen what everyone else saw: target practice. Laura had never seen anything – anyone – quite as impressive as the girl standing before her with regards to how well she could spar.

 

But if she thought Laura was just like the rest of the others – that she hadn't caught onto her act, then she would treat her like the rest of them and use half-hearted attempts. That was the opposite of what Laura wanted.

 

For her part, Karnstein stood perfectly still, her back rigid, eagerly waiting. Laura wondered how often the girl reacted to things that happened to her, let them happen so that she wouldn't have to decide what she would do until it was too late. Taking the initiative did not seem to be in her book. Laura wasn't sure if Karnstein was even breathing. Karnstein's chest had barely moved since Laura started walking towards her.

 

When Laura spoke, her voice was raw with anger.

 

"You seem to be under the impression that no one could ever reach your level." Karnstein smiled slowly, a smirk hidden in the corner of her lips. Laura was sure that neither of them were actually breathing then.

 

"I know you can't," Karnstein said, her voice barely audible. Still, that voice was going to be Laura's downfall. "You won't win this fight."

 

Laura leaned back slightly, studied the girl. Karnstein was even more gorgeous up close if that were possible, but proof of how beautiful the girl was wasn't what Laura was looking for. Karnstein had not shown an interest in anyone or anything in the entire time that Laura had been watching her. Karnstein looked interested now.

 

"This isn't a fight; it's a dialogue." Her voice was louder this time, and she was sure that the Kwoon had either vacated or everyone else had simply stopped fighting because she could not hear anything other than her heart banging loudly inside her chest.

 

"Cute," Karnstein said, her voice monotone.

 

Laura didn't want that. She needed Karnstein to stay interested in her, to spar with her long enough for Laura to figure out if they were physically compatible or not. More importantly, she wanted Karnstein to spar with her properly, using the full extent of her abilities, instead of the half-assed attempts that she had beaten the others with. She leaned sideways to talk directly into Karnstein's ear, lowered her voice to a near whisper to make sure that no one else heard the words she spoke.

 

"I am not intimidated by you, Karnstein. And I am definitely not afraid of you."

 

Karnstein breathed in then. Laura smirked. Her bluff had paid off. She could feel the girl's breathing against her cheek like a warm caress so she promptly stood back. It took a few seconds for Karnstein to respond, which Laura was especially proud of. Karnstein did not seem to be the kind of person who waited before she bit back a harsh reply, she was not easily rendered speechless.

 

"Really, now?" said Karnstein. Laura wavered slightly at the tone she had said those two words. Karnstein had a way of talking that sent shivers down her spine.

 

Laura needed to make sure that Karnstein didn't talk much during their sparring session, otherwise she would definitely get distracted and they would not get anywhere because it would be her who wouldn't be giving it her all, not Karnstein.

 

"Do your worst," said Laura, again, barely audible. When she pulled back and saw Karnstein's eyes, Laura knew that she had heard her because her eyes had a spark in them that hadn't been there before.

 

;;

 

Carmilla had wondered what she would find inside the girl's mouth. She hadn't been amiss when she'd expected that she would find fangs. The girl was practically a vampire in everything but name. She had already devoured Carmilla's attention, demanded it as if Carmilla owed it to her.

 

'This one's cocky. Fun.'

 

The girl attacked first, as most of them did. But they usually attacked first because they got bored of waiting for Carmilla to attack them. This one attacked as soon as she stepped onto the floor. Barely waited for the officer to signal the start of the fight.

 

Carmilla had countered it, her staff mere inches from the girl's face. It unnerved Carmilla. The girl hadn't attempted to defend herself even after she noticed the staff's position. It seemed to her as if she trusted Carmilla not to push it further into her space, as if she had figured out that Carmilla could control the staff that well.

 

She didn't move away when Carmilla blocked her hit, like anyone with a self-preservation instinct would have. Instead, she moved closer to Carmilla as if to challenge her. And then she did.

 

And oh, what a challenge that had been. Carmilla had not met anyone who told her how very not afraid of her they were before this girl. This one was a lamb in wolf's clothing and for an instant, Carmilla forgot why she was not afraid of sheep.

 

The second her opponent stepped backwards, it clicked. The girl was not any animal that Carmilla had ever encountered before. She was an entirely new type of animal. The type that could, and would bite back.

 

Which was when the girl smirked up at her like she knew something that Carmilla so obviously didn't. What Carmilla did know was that she was going to enjoy sparring with her more than she had enjoyed sparring with anyone in the previous two decades.

 

Her words were still ringing in her ears, taunting her.

 

;;

 

Laura easily blocked her next strike, and thought that maybe she'd made a mistake by provoking her. She had hoped that it would spur Karnstein into sparring with her properly, to treat her like an actual co-pilot candidate instead of just another rookie there for practice. Then she looked at Karnstein's hands and saw that she was practically gripping the staff so tight her knuckles were white.

 

'I'm not the only one who's enjoying this,' she thought. Karnstein had a flirtatious smile playing across her lips. Laura felt a rush of gratification at having been the one to put it there. She had impressed her, captured and kept her attention for longer than any of the others.

 

"One, one. Do keep up," said Laura.

 

The next hit, a jab at Karnstein's ribs, had been a test. She was trying to catch Karnstein off guard, which was when she noticed that Karnstein was vigilant, and only looked inattentive, as if she were still putting on her act. Karnstein caught the hit with her own staff, brushed it off as it if were nothing.

 

"Two, one," said Karnstein. Laura wondered if she would keep saying her scores because if she did, she was going to be in so much trouble. Karnstein pouted mockingly. "You don't look so hot, cutie. Sure you don't wanna forfeit?"

 

The notion of forfeiting hadn't occurred to her, and she knew that Karnstein was playing with her too, because she had already stepped back into her fighting stance. Arms tight, way closer to her body than necessary, center of gravity low. The girl was too tense, but so far, Laura could see that she had gotten used to sparring this way.

 

Laura would have laughed, even chuckled, at how easy it was for her to understand Karnstein in such a short amount of time. How she could comprehend her meaning from the way her voice changed when she was teasing Laura. It was as if they were speaking each other's language through their bodies while pretending to be something entirely different with the words they actually spoke.

 

Within a few minutes, Laura had figured out what she was actually saying to her, figured out the girl's language. She thought better of actually laughing because she didn't want to give their superiors a bad impression. Laughing in the Kwoon was usually a result of smugness, pre-sparring jitters, or a lack of respect for those who hadn't yet trained as much as she had. It was rude.

 

"Save your breath," Laura said, instead. Karnstein arched an eyebrow. "You're going to need it."

 

;;

 

Her opponent was proving to be quite fun. The girl's muscles were hard, tense, and there was a lightness to her step that Carmilla had not seen in the Kwoon before. They didn't teach recruits to be light on their feet, because the Jaegers themselves weren't light so it was useless to teach them something that they would need to eventually unlearn.

 

There was a certain finesse to the girl's moves, however. Carmilla herself had learned how to fight out of necessity, out of boredom whenever Will ran his mouth and they decided to fight their issues out, not out of some gym that trained humans as young as this one. Carmilla studied her stance, how rigid and solid she looked compared to how loose she actually was. She guessed that the girl had gone through years of Mixed Martial Arts training, even before the Jaeger Academy drilled it into her.

 

'Probably a military kid trying to prove her worth,' she thought.

 

While she studied her, however, the girl noticed that her mind was elsewhere. She smacked the staff right out of Carmilla's hands, the sound of it against the mat a distraction in and of itself. She very nearly forced Carmilla to stand up straight as she held her own staff a hair's breadth away from Carmilla's chest. The girl had piqued her interest early on, but this was on another level entirely.

 

"Looks like you've been holding out on me," said Carmilla, after the sounds had quieted down. Her chest was heaving, touching the tip of the girl's staff without meaning to. Carmilla hadn't even noticed that her pulse had quickened, because she hadn't needed to breathe much with the other recruits. They never gave her a reason to.

 

Carmilla stepped forward, pressing the girl's staff to her chest harder, daring her to make another move so close to the one before it. The girl relented and stepped back.

 

"Two, two," she said.

 

Carmilla wondered if maybe she had given her a reason to be scared of her now. She bowed down and – still looking at her opponent because she wanted to unnerve the girl some more, not just in case she made any other sudden movements – picked up her staff from the floor.

 

;;

 

Laura's breathing was erratic, her skin buzzing with excitement and her heart bursting with tension. There was a single thought running through her mind at that point in time.

 

'I've finally found you,' she thought. Karnstein matched her. She could anticipate her every move before she thought to do it. Except for when Laura caught her clocking out of the session for some reason.

 

Danny usually glanced down at the staff before she smirked down at her to let her know that she had figured out her play. But Karnstein didn't need to reason out where she was going to strike next because Karnstein already knew that she could counter it no matter where it came from, like it was a game that only existed for the both of them. A game that only the both of them knew how to play.

 

The other recruits had been a hassle to even bother sparring with. They were so boring that Laura had started taking them down as fast as possible to save time.

 

Danny had been different. Danny had felt warm and comfortable underneath her, like a liquid – adapting to her moves and countering with her own. But this one – 'C. Karnstein', she reminded herself – felt like a substance that Laura had never felt before. One that she had never touched before. Laura imagined walking into a burning building would feel much the same way.

 

;;

 

Carmilla faked a hit to her opponent's leg. The girl faltered, confused because she had defended against a hit that hadn't come, and Carmilla pressed her staff into the girl's calf muscles, which seemed to be enough to bring the girl's senses smashing back to earth.

 

"Three, two," Carmilla said, a fraction of a second before the girl pushed her staff away.

 

'Don't get distracted, sweetheart. Focus,' she thought, hoped that the girl would heed her instructions and give her something, anything to look forward to today. She hadn't been this excited about a recruit in a while.

 

She had barely taken a breath. The recruit was heading for her right leg, and before Carmilla knew what the girl had done, she was holding it between her arm and the staff and Carmilla was falling into a descent that was altogether unfamiliar to her.

 

The sound that left Carmilla was not at all proper, a cross between the air getting pulled out of her lungs and a growl in response to that.

 

The mat had felt soft under her feet as she moved to and fro. It didn't feel soft as she had slammed down into it, and under the weight of her entire body, it may as well have been concrete. Carmilla's back slammed into the mat in a heartbeat, favouring her right side as she felt herself slipping, and she heard a crunch. Pain shot through her side. She struggled underneath the girl's grip and she thrust her hips into the recruit's.

 

"Three, three," she said, her hold on Carmilla never relenting. Carmilla could feel her warmth through her clothes, and finally looked up at her.

 

A sheen of sweat covered her heaving chest, and her hair was stuck to her forehead. She looked downright heavenly. The girl's pulse was off the charts but Carmilla could barely hear it over her own heartbeat pulsing loud in her ears.

 

Carmilla was too stunned to say anything back. She hadn't been dropped flat on her back by a human in a while. In the Kwoon, only a select few had ever bruised her, let alone crack her ribs. And yet somehow, this recruit, who was most definitely human, had managed to do so. She had managed to do that to her within a few minutes of meeting her.

 

The recruit released her hold on her. Carmilla lifted herself off of the mat with a push of her hand, still staring at her. Carmilla looked at the cadet, who was intently watching her, and subtly thrust her elbow into her side, slowly. Her ribs screamed back at her.

 

'Ribs. Two, maybe three. Couple of weeks to heal. Also, ow.'

 

Natalie, who had been watching from the sidelines same as everyone else, came up to them both. They didn't take their eyes off of each other.

 

"Okay, you've made your point, guys. That was a good show," she said, her voice bouncing off the walls.

 

Natalie's chest heaved, as if she had gotten worked up just watching them. Carmilla didn't need to tear her eyes away from the girl's to hear that the rest of the Kwoon's heart rates had picked up, as well.

 

"I'll take it up to the higher ups in the morning, see if they can set you two up with a Drift Sync test sometime this week-"

 

"No!" Carmilla heard herself say. Her voice was panicked now, and she was looking directly at Natalie.

 

"Or you can do that yourselves," Natalie said, unperturbed by Carmilla's reaction. "Just get off the floor. You're distracting the rest of the recruits and we've still got a couple of hours left."

 

;;

 

The way she knew that Karnstein felt it, that selfsame feeling that was setting Laura's skin on fire when they were sparring, was because she basically ran out of the Kwoon hastily pulling on her sweater and then her leather jacket. Among all of the recruits, Laura had been the one to make her sweat, which meant that she had been the only one Karnstein had to put some effort into sparring with.

 

Laura, too distracted to find Betty or check if Danny had come, shoved her staff back into its rack, which promptly collapsed, sending the rest of them to the floor. She gathered them quickly, stuffed them into another recruit's hands, and said, "I owe you one. Thanks!"

 

She ran out of the room still tugging on her sweater. She had managed to put it on backwards during her first attempt. Laura easily caught up to her, because she would recognise that leather jacket and the girl's slumped posture anywhere, now.

 

"Hey, wait up!"

 

Karnstein turned around, groaned when she spotted Laura, and kept walking, albeit at a slightly faster pace this time. That was not really what Laura had expected. When she finally reached Karnstein.

 

"What's with the cold shoulder?" Laura said, and grabbed a fistful of leather jacket and tugged her arm back. Karnstein winced, her palm at her side. "Hey, are you okay?"

 

The girl held her side even harder than before.

 

"You want something?" she growled at Laura. Her jaw was set hard. Laura bit down on her teeth, glanced at Karnstein's side again before she continued.

 

"I didn't know I was being that rough, I'm so sorry. I thought I heard a crack earlier, drat. We should go to the Medical bay."

 

"I feel just fine," said Karnstein, and hit her ribs with the palm of her hand to emphasize her point. Karnstein flinched like pain had shot through her side, but put on a smile anyway. Laura looked back at her hand, still on her sides, and studied her posture.

 

"I thought that I had hurt you," Laura said. Karnstein shook her head, grinning that smile of hers. "Never mind. Doesn't matter, I guess. I think we're physically compatible."

 

"Really? I hadn't noticed. You could barely keep up with me in there."

 

Laura didn't know whether to laugh or disagree, so instead, she ignored the joke and said, "What I'm saying is, we might be drift compatible, too."

 

"Great," Karnstein said, her monotone voice giving nothing away. Karnstein smiled at Laura again, an insincere smile – Laura could tell. "Now leave me alone."

 

Laura noticed that it was different from the voice she had used in the Kwoon, when she was taunting her. This voice sounded bored. Karnstein turned away from her, and Laura stared at the back of her head.

 

Laura furrowed her brows, because she had been sure that she wasn't the only one who enjoyed their sparring session. And yet Karnstein seemed to want nothing to do with her. Laura raised her voice the next time she spoke, and the other people in the hallway looked at her with slightly alarmed faces.

 

"I wasn't just imagining that, was I?" Karnstein didn't turn back to look at her. She didn't need to. "I mean, theoretically, I could have projected my own thoughts onto you, but I don't think that's the case here. My name's Laura Hollis, what's yours?"

 

Karnstein looked back at her then, her mouth pressed into a tight line.

 

"Do you ever shut up, Lara Croft?" she asked, and turned back to the barracks.

 

Laura watched her silently.

 

;;

 

Carmilla walked up to her room, hoping to get rid of Laura Hollis by slamming the door in her face, and then settling down with a book for the rest of the evening. Until Laura, who was apparently still following her – she didn't have time to think of why she hadn't noticed the human following her, because she was too busy trying to avoid this entire scenario – said, "Um, that's my room."

 

And it was.

 

The room was much cleaner than hers. Not a single article of clothing in sight. The wardrobe was closed, unlike hers, which had books practically pouring out of it. There was a yellow pillow on the bottom bunk, which was definitely not Carmilla's. The bed was made with standard military sheets and boring blue blankets.

 

Her blankets were leftovers from Toronto. Thick woollen ones that she was surprised hadn't been stolen yet. The Jaeger Academy had a slight larceny problem. Carmilla would have been angry if she weren't the source of most of the complaints that Human Resources received on a weekly basis.

 

She had heard of people who were able to drift without a Jaeger. Before they ever got inside one. Carmilla thought that she had experienced it with Elle, for a time. That sense of familiarity with someone that didn't require them to talk or to communicate with one another.

 

What was more common were Jaeger pilots who didn't bother to talk to one another for days after a drift, because they already knew what the other would say.

 

Carmilla blinked, tapped her fingers against her thigh anxiously. She could feel the hair on the back of her neck stand on edge as Laura stared at her. She was waiting for Carmilla to make a move, this time, unlike in the Kwoon, where Laura had taken the first step. Carmilla ignored the itch in her left shoulder and relaxed, eased her shoulders, then turned to leave the room, only to be faced with Laura.

 

"That's my room," Laura repeated.

 

"Perceptive," Carmilla muttered. The girl was blocking her exit. Carmilla had many questions, such as 'Why didn't she lock the door to her room in the first place?' and 'How did I walk this far into the room without noticing?' and 'Why does she smell so good?'

 

"You just walked into my room," Laura said, a smirk playing at her lips. "And I think you thought it was your room because we are drift compatible. I didn't know that actually happened in real life. I mean, I've heard about it, of course, but. Wow."

 

"Shame you can't prove it, buttercup," Carmilla purred. Laura cringed at the pet name. She stepped forward and this time the girl backed away from her, allowing Carmilla to walk out of the room.

 

She head back to her own room which was just down the hall from Laura's, at the far end. She paid attention to the soft footsteps that indicated that Laura was following her and almost groaned, but didn't want to give Laura the satisfaction of knowing that she had seriously gotten under her skin in such a short amount of time.

 

When she reached her room and stepped in, thanking whoever had left the door open – 'Will, probably,' she thought bitterly, since he didn't seem to care about her property getting stolen – because she was sure that she would have broken down the door to try to get away from Laura.

 

Laura hesitated near the doorway. Carmilla could practically hear her, trying to come up with something better to say than what actually came out of her mouth.

 

"You don't have a roommate," she said, finally.

 

"What?"

 

"Bed's not made and you could argue laundry day, but there's no pillows, either. Thus, no roommate."

 

She didn't have a roommate because the Jaeger Academy had been merciful and hadn't sent her one. Being the daughter of a powerful entity had its perks sometimes. Laura, however, noticed way too many things – like she had been in the Kwoon, when she wasn't spacing out.

 

"Look, can we talk about this?" Laura asked.

 

Carmilla should have stepped aside. Let the girl into her room.

 

They would have talked about drift compatibility, and if their schedules aligned, planned to meet each other. If they didn't, they would have changed their schedules so that they did. Spar some more in the Kwoon, perhaps. Eventually, they would have scheduled a Drift Sync test, and after that they would have started stage three together. That was how these things were supposed to happen.

 

Inevitably, Carmilla would have let the girl into her life. But she didn't. She knew that she could not go through that again, and she wasn't sure if she even had the courage to trust someone again anymore. Carmilla had made that mistake once before, and she was not going to let someone else do that to her ever again. She would not allow herself to be so vulnerable in the face of something that could destroy her.

 

So instead, Carmilla said, "No."

 

This time, she did get to slam the door in Laura's face.

 

Carmilla heard Laura sigh from the other side. Laura had so obviously been enamoured by the idea of having her as a co-pilot that she had been disappointed when Carmilla had rejected her. Carmilla sat down on top of the bed, and when she noticed how hard it was to breathe like that thanks to her newly cracked ribs, she fell sideways, pressing her face into the pillow.

 

She listened as Laura stepped back from the door and trudged back to her room. She turned to face the bottom of the top bunk, placed her palm over her ribs, and felt the sharp pain as she inhaled.

 

;;

 

Laura had two weeks left. Exactly fourteen days to find a co-pilot, someone she was drift compatible with, or at the very least, a co-pilot candidate who would be willing to check their drift compatibility. Danny was her obvious main choice.

 

She thought that Karnstein would have taken to avoiding her like the plague, but instead Karnstein never once shied away from the cafeteria. Laura knew that the staff had an all-day serving policy for Jaeger pilots, and if Karnstein had managed to wear that tattered sweater in front of Natalie, Laura knew that she could have forced the staffers to give her food at any time during the day. Karnstein didn't need to go down to the cafeteria at the same time as Laura, yet she did.

 

Karnstein hadn't been going to the Kwoon, though. Or, if she had, she was doing it when Laura wasn't there. Needless to say, Laura had spent most of her time looking for Karnstein in the academy, and the latter either pretended not to notice the girl's eager eyes on the back of her neck or didn't mind that Laura basically couldn't take her eyes off of her whenever she spotted her.

 

She hadn't done so with the intention of approaching Karnstein, or force her to talk to her. No, Laura turned away if Karnstein so much as glanced in her direction because she didn't want to be caught looking. As she did in the Kwoon, she merely wanted to know what made the girl tick.

 

But now that she knew that Karnstein had no interest in actually being her co-pilot, she had left her alone and decided to focus on Danny being her only co-pilot candidate. Which, given, wasn't working very well because she was more interested in Karnstein as a person than a co-pilot. Which was inconvenient mostly because Karnstein seemed to hate her based on nothing more than a terrible first impression.

 

It started the day after the Kwoon.

 

Laura had spotted her, caught her red-handed, so to speak. Karnstein had taken a cereal bar straight from someone's satchel, flipped it over as if to check if it was the kind she liked because apparently she had time to inspect her stolen goods, and tucked it in the inside of her leather jacket after deciding that she wanted it.

 

She hadn't noticed that she had been staring at Karnstein the entire time, and was surprised when Karnstein suddenly looked up at her, her eyes boring holes through hers before smiling a wry smile. It felt as though Laura had been complicit in the theft, and Karnstein had been the one to encourage her.

 

Laura didn't know what the girl did next, because she spent the next ten minutes looking away, at anything but Karnstein, and when she finally turned back to look at her, she was gone.

 

After that, it became a game she played by herself – to find Karnstein, and see what else she would do. To watch her, study her, and see how long she could do so before the girl noticed and promptly disappeared.

 

;;

 

Carmilla had acquired the ability to distinguish Laura's pulse from everyone else's because it sounded different now that she was acutely aware of it, like a melody, a perhaps. She had also learned that Laura's heartbeat sped up whenever she spotted Carmilla.

 

Which happened often, recently, but on a more memorable occasion: when she had been planning on getting dinner for herself. Dinner, of course, included theft from the Medical bay, which Laura would probably not want to be complicit in, because there was a difference between stealing unattended candy bars and blood packs.

 

Carmilla had meant to go down as soon as possible, but her brother had interfered with her plans by being annoying and suggesting that she go to the Kwoon, since she'd been avoiding it recently. She slid out of her room, way after the cadets' dinner, with her backpack slung across her shoulder, and noticed Laura casually milling around in front of the Kwoon, presumably waiting for someone.

 

She didn't know why she did it. There was just something about the girl that she hadn't been able to get out of her system. Carmilla walked by her, too close for it to be unintentional. She listened to Laura's heartbeat rise steadily before she turned back, shot a look at her over her shoulder. Laura stared back at her and Carmilla turned back towards her destination, confident that she'd done her duty to confound the girl with suggestive smirks.

 

It seemed that Laura seemed to have taken it as a sort of invitation for her to follow her, because that was exactly what she did. Except, she didn't catch up to Carmilla and walk alongside her like other people would have. She treated it as a game, like Carmilla had only given her permission to follow her but not interact with her. It was Carmilla's own damn fault, really.

 

Laura actually tried to hide from her too, when Carmilla turned around to make sure that she hadn't zeroed in on her pulse and that Laura had indeed been getting closer to her. She was having a hard time believing that she wasn't imagining her pulse rising steadily as she zoomed through swarms of people in an attempt to both dodge Laura and keep track of where she was going.

 

She kept up with Carmilla while still not letting her find out that she was following her. When she turned back, she found that Laura wasn't in the spot that she had been a few seconds earlier, but someone with an erratic heartbeat that sounded suspiciously like Laura's was standing behind a wall.

 

Carmilla had acquired a tail, and a very obvious one at that, based on the way two other cadets were staring at the other side of the wall as if someone were pressing a finger to her lips in an attempt to silence them. This would not do, considering she had to be discreet in the Medical bay and Laura was anything but. She could barely be discreet with Laura following her. Plus, she didn't want the girl to know what she was up to.

 

So Carmilla took a detour, walked around the J-Tech division for a few minutes, tried to figure out a way to throw Laura off her scent without making it seem too suspicious. An idea crossed her mind when she saw a group of technicians gathered around a blueprint, all of them lost in thought, trying to figure out some sort of problem.

 

'Bingo,' she thought.

 

The first set of blueprints she found were absolute rubbish – the Jaeger could never actually be built that way, and if it were assembled, it would've dropped within fifteen seconds, simply because the spine wasn't strong enough to hold it up.

 

It seemed the J-technicians had been given an assignment to improve the Jaeger designs. She grabbed a pencil from off of another abandoned table, and smiled. She had found what she was looking for. Carmilla set to work fixing other people's mistakes.

 

;;

 

Fifteen minutes later, she lost Laura to the masses of technicians who were piling up to see the clever fix she had made to one lucky technician's designs, patting the confused technician on the back as she left. He was still trying to figure out if he had made the changes to his design himself while sleep deprived or if someone had sabotaged his work.

 

She had gotten bored once, distracted herself by learning what made Jaegers tick. There were plenty of books on Jaeger tech lying around, and all she had to do was slip into the system with another recruit's access codes to look up the stuff that they hadn't published yet.

 

It passed the time, and the Jaegers themselves fascinated her, still, even without the duality that they presented. Monsters parading about dressed up as heroes, pretending to be the good guys. 'How pathetic,' she thought.

 

It didn't matter that they were built of alloys instead of muscle and bone; she was made out of flesh and blood and whatever it was that made her body heal faster than it had back when she was human, but she was still a monster.

 

A monster was a monster was a monster.

 

No matter how pretty it looked.

 

And, oh, were they pretty. Both vampires and Jaegers were made in the image of their creators' fears – not all vampires feared humans as she did, but they should have. Most of her peers underestimated humans, but she knew that she could never let down her guard around them for fear of what they would do to her given the chance.

 

As for Jaegers, they were clearly built in their opponents' image, their size was enough of an indicator of that, but they didn't look anything like Kaiju. Except, unlike vampires, Jaegers were made specifically to counter their monsters. They had a purpose.

 

Vampires could never compete with that; they were made from the absence of a life once had, the stopper in death like strings from which they were strung up from, hung like marionettes from their sire's fingertips. She hadn't been made with any other intention than that of being kept, of being her mother's pet. She had no higher purpose. She was made to be a monster, and nothing more.

 

Carmilla hoped that Laura was still being distracted by the technicians freaking out about a breakthrough in Jaeger tech, and if she wasn't, she hoped that Laura had gone back to the Kwoon. Carmilla was about to head back to her room when she heard the sound of engines whirring.

 

She turned on her heel, and walked straight back to the Jaeger bay. Laura definitely wouldn't have been there, still. She wasn't.

 

Carmilla walked in behind a technician who was too sleepy to notice that someone was following him and swore to find out the access codes because waiting fifteen minutes for a sleep-deprived nerd was so uncool.

 

The Jaeger bay was almost empty – apart from the technicians still yelling, in shrill voices, about her breakthrough. Only a few hundred people, all in all. Most of them were too busy to care about her. It was brightly lit up, which made her feel like it was the middle of the day, still.

 

The technicians, who were hopped up on coffee because they hadn't slept for three days straight, thankfully didn't notice that she had walked into a Conn Pod. Carmilla didn't register on their radar, and for once she was incredibly grateful for that.

 

;;

 

Carmilla had accidentally memorised Laura's schedule just so that she wouldn't be surprised when she ran into her. She didn't know why she kept going places when she knew Laura would probably be there, though.

 

Especially when she was followed around by Danny, and a blonde who Carmilla thought was Laura's roommate, because she was in her room often enough. Carmilla had taken to referring to Danny as Clifford, and wearing her earphones even when she was not listening to anything just to make sure that she had an excuse if Laura approached her again.

 

Laura didn't.

 

;;

 

Laura hadn't told anyone about Karnstein. Betty had tried to get her to talk about 'The Hot Girl In The Kwoon' once but Laura had blushed and deflected, citing the first thing that came to her mind at the time, which was an unofficial date with the cafeteria people.

 

She had not dared broach the subject with her father, who sounded more resigned with every letter he sent. He had started sending care packages full of socks and scarves he'd knit himself, too. She hadn't even written about Danny in any of her letters, other than a passing mention of a friend who had brought her chocolate once.

 

And Karnstein.

 

She had started actively avoiding her ever since the girl had looked at her outside the Kwoon. Laura had been waiting for Danny, because they had not altered their training regimen since they'd started training together and Karnstein hadn't been interested in training with her anyway.

 

Karnstein had shot her a look from over her shoulder that had Laura forget her own name and following her like she was a teenager who was desperate for the head cheerleader – or the really hot punk chick, in this instance – to slam her up against the wall and have her way with her right then and there. She didn't even know why she did it. Laura had made sure to keep her distance after Karnstein had expressed her disinterest at being her co-pilot, but that look had done something to her.

 

She had forgotten what she had been doing merely minutes before, and gone back to the barracks. Betty had looked her up and down and asked, "Done with training for the day?" Laura had bolted out of her room and run back to the Kwoon and apologized to Danny for being late.

 

Her non-existent relationship with Karnstein could most accurately be described as the single-handedly most infuriating thing she had ever been a part of. She didn't even know her first name. Just that single initial. Still, there was something about her that had Laura on edge after that.

 

Laura did not have any idea how to begin to describe Karnstein. So she didn't.

 

;;

 

July 12, 2020
Jaeger Academy

 

Laura was in the cafeteria with Betty when Natalie came up to her and said, "Hollis, follow me." She was only slightly worried, because Natalie only called her by her surname in that tone of voice if she was on official business. Laura looked at Betty, who told her that she would take care of her food with a grin on her face.

 

'Of course you will,' Laura thought, and followed Natalie to the back of the cafeteria.

 

Laura made a list of every single thing that she had done in the previous month that might have required an audience with the higher ups. She was going to come clean about the chocolate and the peanut butter, because it was technically contraband, but she was sure that a couple of people in the barracks had things worse than food.

 

If push ever came to shove, Laura would roll on the technicians who kept building tiny robots out of Jaeger parts and making them fight each other during their spare time. Laura was sure that they were not allowed to do that.

 

Laura stopped thinking this was entirely her fault when Natalie stopped next to Karnstein, who had her earphones in, and said, "Get up, Karnstein."

 

She didn't even bother to look up at Laura, and instead groaned and threw what was left of her food – all of it – in the garbage. She did not take her earphones out.

 

Laura didn't say anything as Natalie led them through the barracks and the Kwoon. Once they walked past the K-Science station, Laura started to get nervous. She didn't go to the Marshals' quarters unless she had to send a letter to her dad and had to walk by them to get to the on-site post office. Something about them had always unnerved her. And if she was going there with Karnstein, well, it couldn't have been good.

 

Natalie led them to one of the offices. It was a Marshal's office, according to the golden plaque on the side of the door that read 'MARSHAL L. MORGAN'.

 

Laura had never heard of a Marshal Morgan before. Karnstein's eyes widened for a fraction of a second before she turned to Laura and then back to Natalie, who knocked on the door. The superior officer was beckoned inside within a few seconds.

 

They waited outside. Laura chanced a look at Karnstein, who had pulled the earbuds out and shoved them in her jacket's pockets along with her CD player. Laura noted that Karnstein was still wearing the tattered sweater underneath the leather jacket.

 

Karnstein looked even more terrified than Laura felt. Laura was sure that she was digging her nails hard enough into her palms to draw blood. Karnstein didn't look like she had noticed that she had curled her hands into fists. Laura wanted to ease some of her anxiety, despite being terrified herself.

 

"Hey, look," Laura said, attempting to ease the girl. Laura didn't like her exactly, not after Karnstein had outright told her to go away and then ignored her for an entire week, but she didn't want to see her like this, either. Laura wasn't the kind of person who could stand to look at people suffering, even if those people hadn't been the nicest to her. "I know that you don't like me for some reason, which – fine, I can deal with that. I'm not too fond of you, either."

 

;;

 

Carmilla turned to look at her. Laura was motioning with her hands to explain further, but Carmilla didn't understand anything at all.

 

"And if this – whatever it is – is somehow my fault, I'll own up to it." Laura continued. "I'll tell the Marshal that it was my fault. We barely know each other. You shouldn't have to get in trouble for something I did."

 

She was about to tell her to shut up when Laura turned to her and looked at her with a bunched up face that Carmilla thought was meant to be threatening. Carmilla's ribs still hummed in response to her raising her arms, so she supposed that Laura did not need a good face to threaten someone because she could make good on it either way.

 

"But," Laura said, her tone changing. "If this is because of something that you did, you better come out and say it, because I'm not going in there empty-handed."

 

;;

 

Laura couldn't make out the expression on Karnstein's face, but she thought that it was a cross between fear, annoyance, and something else she could not quite place.

 

"Will you please," said Karnstein, and Laura's expression softened. Karnstein looked like she was actually going to throw up after she said the word. She almost felt sorry for her. Almost. "Shut. Up."

 

Karnstein went back to staring at the floor, and Laura glared at her silently. She turned back to stare at the wall in front of them. The whirring of the Jaegers from J-Tech was almost a comforting presence in the face of complete and utter humiliation and rejection.

 

"Wouldn't kill you to be nice, for a change," Laura muttered. Before Karnstein could reply, Natalie walked out and cocked her head to the door. Both of them breathed in slowly.

 

"She wants to talk to you."

 

Laura stepped closer to the door.

 

Natalie rolled her eyes and said, "Both of you."

 

Laura turned back to see that Karnstein was still staring at the floor, as if willing it to swallow her whole. Laura understood that sentiment well. She had felt it both times she had had a conversation with Karnstein, which was what prompted her to do what she did next.

 

'If I'm getting chewed out, then so are you, damn it,' Laura thought, and softly nudged her with her elbow. Karnstein pulled her shoulders back, her posture instantly becoming more rigid than it had been a few seconds prior.

 

Out of all the people who had a relationship with authority that often toed the line between respect, fear, and downright indifference, Laura would never have pegged Karnstein as one of them. Especially not in her leather jacket over her tattered sweater, neither of which were standard regulation. Karnstein would be lucky if the Marshal didn't give her a formal warning.

 

;;

 

Laura stepped into the room, with Karnstein walking closely behind her. They stopped when they noticed the Marshal. A matching shiver ran down both their spines as soon as her eyes connected with Laura's, who finally understood why Karnstein had been so nervous.

 

She looked nothing like any Marshal Laura had ever met before. For one thing, this one was younger. She didn't look like she had reached her forties yet, so, still in her late thirties. She had black hair, neatly tied back, immaculate skin, and the darkest eyes that Laura had ever seen. She wasn't sure what colour they were, but if she had three guesses, she would have picked 'black', 'black', and 'very dark brown'.

 

The Marshal was leaning against the edge of her desk, her posture relaxed; ankles crossed, hands loosely holding the edge. She had a feeling about her that Laura was terrified of. The Marshal refused to break her gaze, but Laura could see her mouth moving, as if saying something.

 

Karnstein closed the door at the Marshal's instruction, and Laura realised that the office was soundproof. She couldn't hear the noise from the J-Tech division anymore.

 

The Marshal sized Laura up, and raised a perfectly shaped eyebrow. Karnstein coughed. Laura noticed that she had been staring and finally looked away. The Marshal's standard blue uniform helped her to remember her place, so she stood up straighter.

 

She motioned at the both of them to sit down, and they did. Karnstein slumped into a chair on Laura's right almost immediately after she touched it. Laura's back barely touched the back of the chair, and she kept her hands on her thighs.

 

"You are to be co-pilots," was the first thing the Marshal said to them. She spoke in English. Laura would have guessed where she was from if she hadn't had the most unidentifiable accent; she couldn't even take a guess at where the woman had grown up. Her voice was akin to honey dripping into her auditory senses, getting everything muddled up, but that didn't matter much over how she sounded.

 

The Marshal's voice was authoritative. It sounded like a barely-cloaked command, a suggestive order that hinted that that was what Laura ought to do whether she liked it or not. Because the Marshal had said to do it. It was not hard to imagine how the woman came to be in power with presence like that.

 

"What?"

 

Laura hadn't even noticed that she had said it.

 

Karnstein hated her, wanted absolutely nothing to do with her, and now they were being forced to be co-pilots? 'No, this is not happening,' Laura thought. It couldn't be happening. Co-pilots couldn't be forced this way. It would unsettle both of them, and their drift would be rife with imperfections and inadequacy. They would never let either of them in a Jaeger ever again.

 

This could not be happening because this was not how she was supposed to find her co-pilot. This was not how her story went.

 

Karnstein, who was looking more and more agitated by the second – Laura could tell, something in her had been alerting her to Karnstein's agitation, like a switch had been flicked somewhere and now she couldn't imagine not knowing how the girl felt whenever she was around her – straightened up in her chair, and meekly glanced at Laura. When she tore her eyes away from the other girl, she looked back at the Marshal.

 

What she did not say was, "I would much rather prefer to be Danny's co-pilot, ma'am."

 

Instead, she said, "I'm sorry, ma'am, but I have a- a potential co-pilot. We've been training together for weeks, and I'm more familiar with her than I am with-" Laura stilled, and noticed that she still didn't know her first name. "Karnstein."

 

"You have a.." the Marshal said. Karnstein crossed her arms in front of her chest and looked to her left. Laura knew her jaw was set into a tight line, which gave away the fact that she was grinding her teeth together to keep from interrupting the Marshal, so she relaxed. The Marshal smirked and continued, "'Potential' co-pilot?"

 

"Yes, ma'am," Laura said, in a crisp clear voice.

 

The Marshal breathed in slowly, and Laura felt as if she had sucked all the air out of the room with that single action. Laura decided then that this woman was not a woman to be crossed. Whoever dared to do so would most likely be dealt with accordingly. Laura did not want to do that.

 

"William, of course," said Marshal Morgan, in an affectionate tone. She held her hand out, palm flat, in Laura's general direction. Karnstein looked back at the Marshal. "He told me that this girl was a promising endeavour, actually worth coming down here for."

 

Karnstein looked bored, not bored like she had when she was sparring with other people in the Kwoon, but when she had faked boredom in front of Laura. As if she were keeping her face clear of any emotion other than that one. It was all a performance. Her knee jiggled slightly, and Laura wanted to stop her. The Marshal glanced down at it just for a second and Karnstein's knee stopped.

 

;;

 

Carmilla had wanted to keep Laura away from this, away from her, which was why she hadn't left the Jaeger Academy right after their sparring session. That would have raised a lot of questions. Will could have found out who she had sparred with so easily, all he would have to do was put on a smile and ask one of the officers.

 

She had wanted to make sure that there was no way that her mother could link Laura to her, and she definitely did not want her mother to know that they were physically compatible, and more than likely, drift compatible.

 

Carmilla thought up five different ways that she could break her brother's legs, and then remembered that she couldn't actually do that because he was a Jaeger pilot, and one of the only things keeping the Kaiju at bay. She rolled her eyes at the thought of Will being branded a hero, and Laura shifted in her seat. The Marshal looked between the both of them, and then focused on Carmilla.

 

"I should have had confidence in your negligence to inform me of any such prospect, Carmilla." Laura's head snapped up at the name.

 

Beside her, Carmilla was positively seething. Her own name grated at her ears, because her mother would make a point to use it within earshot of someone who hadn't known it. Until right then, at least. As if her name some sort of prize to be earned after she behaved. Carmilla felt tears beginning to form, so she blinked and looked away from the Marshal.

 

"And just who," the Marshal said, and turned to Laura. "Is this potential co-pilot of yours, dear? Do tell." Carmilla noted a hint of amusement in the Marshal's voice. She moved in her chair and focused on Laura again.

 

"Lawrence, ma'am. Danny Lawrence."

 

'Of all the people in this godforsaken place, of course it would be her,' Carmilla thought.

 

She had seen Laura in the Kwoon, sparring with the other girl. Carmilla didn't look at Danny's face light up whenever Laura talked to her, because that would have required her to take her eyes off of her Summer Society sweatshirt. From the way Danny's heartbeat increased whenever she so much as noticed Laura, she could tell that the tall one was harbouring a crush.

 

Carmilla slouched further into her chair, her hands loosely curled into fists. The Marshal glanced at her, and after Carmilla noticed that her superior was waiting for an answer from her, specifically, she coughed gently.

 

"The redhead," she mumbled.

 

"I trust you've noticed that quite a handful of the Jaeger Academy's recruits have that particular genetic trait."

 

Carmilla glanced at the desk for a second. She was aware of Laura's eyes on her, but she looked up at the Marshal and said, "The tall annoying one. Spends half her time in the simulators, the rest in the Kwoon."

 

"Ah," the Marshal said.

 

"One of yours, I take it," Carmilla said, smirking slightly. "Ma'am."

 

She had figured it out on the first day. The Summer Society didn't hand out sweatshirts with their logo to just anyone. A person had to be a member to acquire one, and they did not take very kindly to non-members who wore them. Elitists, like all the other sororities on campus at Silas.

 

"Yes, thank you, darling," the Marshal said, undeterred from Carmilla's earlier statement. She turned back to Laura. "I'm assuming that you have the time to spare from your busy schedule, and since you haven't checked your compatibility in any official capacity in these past couple of weeks, why don't you and Danielle get ready for a Drift Sync test?"

 

"Ma'am?" Laura said, looking more confused than Carmilla felt.

 

"If I am to put you in a Jaeger with my daughter, I assure you that I am going to make sure that you want to be there, and not anywhere else."

 

Laura gulped.

 

"Your- Your daughter?"

 

The Marshal glared at Carmilla.

 

"Whatever am I going to do with you? You haven't even told the poor girl yet, Carmilla. As if she wouldn't have found out in the drift."

 

"Well," Carmilla said, standing up straighter in her chair. "Now you've ruined the surprise."

 

"Hardly," the Marshal said.

 

"Wait, you're her-" Carmilla rolled her eyes, and tried to hold back a smirk. Laura looked at the Marshal. "And she's your-" The Marshal smiled and nodded. "You two are-"

 

"Mother and daughter, yes. Keep up, dear," the Marshal said. She turned back to Carmilla and raised an eyebrow. The Marshal finally pushed herself off of the desk and moved to sit at the chair behind it. Laura was still staring between the both of them. "Quite slow on the uptake, isn't she?"

 

She glanced at Carmilla, who was looking at Laura with a certain kind of fondness that she had never seen her daughter exhibit before. Because Carmilla hadn't let her. She tore her eyes away from Laura, schooled her features.

 

"Are you sure she's the right candidate?" the Marshal said, keeping her eyes on Carmilla, who turned to her as soon as she asked the question. There was a sharpness in her gaze now that the Marshal had seen in her daughter's eyes before. "She looks like she could hardly keep up with William, let alone you, Carmilla."

 

"Wow," Laura said.

 

She kept glancing between them as if she could hardly believe it, still. Carmilla could understand her confusion. There was hardly any resemblance, except for the colour of their hair and their pale skin. The Marshal's face looked warm, soft, trustworthy in the way that Carmilla had come to think of as not trustworthy at all, whereas Carmilla herself was all harsh angles, like she was cut from glass.

 

"Are we done here?" Carmilla said, painfully aware of Laura's eyes on her. The Marshal waved her hand at Carmilla dismissively.

 

"I'd like to have a little.. chat with your potential co-pilot."

 

"Whatever," Carmilla said, and stood up.

 

The Marshal cleared her throat lightly. Carmilla liked to think that after more than three centuries, she knew her mother well, and had assumed that the fact that she wanted to talk to Laura alone was implied. Apparently, that hadn't been entirely correct. Carmilla sat down again, placed her hands on either sides of the chair, and waited.

 

"Try not to leave the premises," the Marshal said. Carmilla stared pointedly at her. "The last time you left the Academy, I had your brother follow you, and you know how he gets."

 

Laura looked back at Carmilla, who was almost on the edge of her seat, back ramrod straight. Carmilla's left shoulder twitched, as if she was trying to keep from standing up.

 

"Don't look so dire," the Marshal told Laura. "I had to send her brother to-" The Marshal looked at Carmilla, who was still staring at her. "Now, where did you go? Toronto, wasn't it? I'd hate to send William there again, he breaks out in hives whenever he even mentions that charming little apartment you were living in."

 

;;

 

Laura looked at Carmilla, and then looked back at the Marshal. "No, she isn't leaving. She wouldn't do that," she almost said. Instead, she kept her mouth closed, and thought, 'I don't know what she would do.'

 

"No doubt that's where you were heading, isn't it, darling? You do have your patterns," the Marshal politely spat out the last word, and a chill ran down Laura's spine as she looked between mother and daughter. Carmilla stood up and walked to the door.

 

The Marshal coughed.

 

"Permission to be dismissed, ma'am?"

 

Laura heard the tears caught in Carmilla's throat, and decided that she disliked the Marshal very much at that very moment. She didn't feel anything for Carmilla other than a vague sense of contempt, but no one deserved to be humiliated like that. To have her past dangled in front of her like this, as if it were a bargaining chip, a tool the Marshal used against her daughter to make her do whatever she wanted.

 

"Permission granted."

 

;;

 

"Laura Hollis," the Marshal said, after Carmilla closed the door to her office.

 

"Ma'am," Laura said, and sat up straighter. She had no idea what Marshal Morgan was going to say to her, what she would do, but she didn't want to give her reason to believe that Laura would ever cower before her.

 

"I hope you'll forgive my daughter for her brash nature. She is quite.." The Marshal smiled politely, a tight smile that scared Laura, just a bit. She took her time, and Laura had settled on the word 'unprecedented' by the time the Marshal licked her lips and said, "particular."

 

"She is that," Laura agreed.

 

"And," the Marshal continued, in that voice of hers that suggested that Laura ought to listen to her first and comment later, "on the off-chance that you two are actually compatible- But, of course. You might think that my interest in you is faintly unorthodox, but she's a rather difficult girl to find a match for. She's only ever had one other before."

 

Laura said nothing. The Marshal kept her eyes trained on her. She didn't look at her the way her daughter looked at her. Definitely not the way Carmilla had looked at her in the Kwoon that first time and especially not the way she looked at her after Laura suggested they try training together.

 

"I would like you to take a look at this," Marshal Morgan said, and that was when Laura noticed that she had pulled out a file from inside of her desk drawer. "It's rather necessary if you're to- Well, it's rather necessary."

 

The Marshal pushed the file to the edge of her desk. Laura picked it up with both hands and looked down at it. It was thick as a brick, had edges that were slightly tattered, and a name on the file written in neat, block letters.

 

She glanced up at the Marshal, who clasped her hands together, awaiting her reaction. She had a look about her that said that this wasn't her first time doing this. It wasn't the Marshal's first time sabotaging someone like this.

 

Laura noticed that the Marshal was waiting for her to crack the file open. Her grip on the spine tightened. She could see a partial photograph peeking out from the top of it. Laura thought that even if she hadn't read the name on the front cover, she would still have recognised that messy mop of black hair.

 

'KARNSTEIN, CARMILLA M.' was a name that she was familiar with now.

 

Laura took a deep breath.

 

"Ma'am," she started, hoping that the Marshal wouldn't kick her out for insubordination. "I am not aware of the protocol regarding the transfer of personnel files."

 

The Marshal stared at her, said nothing. Laura could almost feel the unrelenting silence pierce her skin. Marshal Morgan was stationary, her chest only rising slowly whenever she moved, rather than when she breathed. It was like she wasn't breathing at all.

 

"What I mean to say is, I'm not sure that I have the clearance level."

 

"This is off the books," the Marshal said, smiling. Her entire demeanour had changed. Laura felt a sick sense of dread curl up at the pit of her stomach. "Strictly speaking, that copy of her personnel dossier is for my eyes only. But I would rather like it if you-"

 

Laura had heard this a million times. She smiled an insincere smile, and shook her head slowly.

 

This simply wasn't her style. She didn't like having things handed to her. Figuratively and literally. She wanted to make her own way in life, and that did not include using other people as a stepping stone.

 

She could have asked her father to talk to some of his contacts from the army. That would easily have gotten her special treatment in the Jaeger Academy. But she hadn't. And she had an inkling that Carmilla Karnstein hadn't used her mother's position in the PPDC as a stepping stone either. She could respect that.

 

And she was most certainly not going to use Carmilla Karnstein as a stepping stone herself. The girl seemed to have enough on her plate with a mother who seemed to think that her daughter was an extension of herself instead of her own person. She had enough on her plate without having her privacy violated by someone she hated.

 

Laura had no reason to disregard her personal boundaries.

 

She liked to think that she wouldn't have disregarded them even if the situation was different. Even if, for example, it was absolutely necessary for her to disregard Carmilla's boundaries because people were getting hurt and their safety was more important than Carmilla's feelings, or the only way for her to help them was to violate Carmilla's interpersonal boundaries, but she knew better.

 

But that would have been justified, she thought to herself. Whereas this wasn't justified at all. This was the Marshal playing games, with her and her daughter as the pawns.

 

No one was in danger of getting hurt unless she violated the girl's privacy. She had no reason to, either. There were Jaeger pilots protecting the world from Kaiju, they didn't need her and Karnstein out there right now. Even if Carmilla didn't already hate her, and even if the Marshal had given her Danny's file instead, she wouldn't have looked through it.

 

If there was one last thing that Laura decided that what she was about to do was a good idea, it was that she had grown up. There were a lot of things that she had learned at the Jaeger Academy. One of them was that she had to trust her co-pilot as they had to trust her. This was not the way to earn anyone's trust.

 

Laura stood up and handed the file back to the Marshal.

 

"I'm sorry, ma'am. I mean no disrespect to you, but I can't take this." The Marshal looked down at Laura's outstretched arm, and then back at her face.

 

"Excuse me?" The Marshal's voice sounded like Laura had affronted her, and for all Laura cared, she could have. Betrayal of this magnitude was not on her rapport, and she meant to keep it that way.

 

"I can't read this without Karnstein's consent."

 

"Oh, darling," the Marshal said, her voice laced with something almost akin to delight, as if she were savouring the moment. "I'm sure you're aware that a file like this one contains everything about the subject it's on. The first twenty or so years are irrelevant, and frankly quite boring, but it's a fun read once you get to 2017."

 

"I will not read this without her consent," Laura repeated.

 

"You are aware that my daughter is never going to give you permission to read that."

 

Laura said nothing. She had said all that she needed to say. The Marshal's knuckles brushed the length of her jaw, thoughtfully. Laura felt the older woman's sharp gaze prickle at her skin again, as if she were under evaluation. Laura's back straightened, her spine tight and hard. She pushed the file further into the Marshal's space.

 

"And neither will I, if you walk out of that door without that dossier."

 

"I'll never read it then, ma'am."

 

Marshal Morgan watched Laura with a curious look. Laura recognised that same look on Carmilla's face, on the day they sparred. Laura had somehow managed to surprise the Marshal, too.

 

"This is a one-time offer, cadet."

 

Laura did not back down, she stared at her silently and waited.

 

She knew that she had a slight problem that involved having absolutely no filter, of saying exactly what she was thinking at any given time without considering the consequences of her actions. She could mostly work around it in her personal life, but in military terms, that meant insubordination, which would most likely end in her dishonourable discharge. Laura gulped, watched as the Marshal's eyes trailed down her neck.

 

She figured that Marshal Morgan was about to calmly tell her to go back to her room, pack her bags, and have her escorted out of the Jaeger Academy. Laura almost regretted not taking the damned file and then giving it to Carmilla as soon as she saw her. She still wouldn't have opened it, she thought.

 

If she got discharged, though, there would be a silver lining to it. Her father would not have to send her care packages anymore, and she wouldn't have to send him letters which were variations of the following: 'Hi Dad! I'm fine! Thanks for teaching me self-defence tactics as a kid, because they're coming in real handy now! I still haven't found a co-pilot though, so you have nothing to worry about! Nothing at all! Betty says 'Hello!' and also that she hopes you'll succeed in your attempt at cooking lemon meringue this month! I love you and miss you! Bye! PS. Say 'Hi' to Atlas for me!'

 

The next words out of the Marshal's mouth surprised her. She hadn't even noticed that she had stopped breathing in that brief exchange.

 

"Suit yourself," Marshal Morgan said, and plucked the file out of Laura's hands with two fingers as if it were made out of liquid and she was afraid to get whatever was inside of it on her clothes. She had a firm grip on it though, and dropped it on her desk with barely a thump.

 

Laura breathed in slowly.

 

"Since you and Danielle have been waiting for a test for a while, I'll schedule you two for a Drift Sync test. Tomorrow, at eight. Unless you have something better to do, of course," the Marshal's voice almost dared her to say that she did indeed have plans.

 

"No, ma'am. Thank you."

 

"You're dismissed."

 

;;

 

Laura stumbled out of the office breathing heavily. Her heartbeat was erratic, she could hear it pulsing through her head. She could barely stand on her own two legs. She placed her palms on her thighs and bent forward slightly, trying to breathe in. Someone to her right startled her.

 

"What did she say?"

 

Laura held her hand up in a defensive gesture. She looked up at Karnstein, leaning against a wall. The girl looked casual, but Laura could tell that she was still on edge because she wasn't wearing her earphones yet. Laura hadn't seen her without them for an entire week.

 

She breathed in for a second, her shoulders considerably less tense now that she was out of the Marshal's office.

 

"Nothing," Laura lied, and then stopped talking. The look on Karnstein's face told her that she knew that she was lying. Laura turned around and started walking to her room. She was surprised to hear a light shuffle against the floor, the sound that Karnstein's boots made.

 

"What?"

 

"The Marshal," said Karnstein, stepping in front of Laura, who stepped aside, but Karnstein moved in front of her with barely a moment's hesitance. They were playing yet another game. Laura frowned, and Karnstein continued, "What did you two talk about?"

 

Laura did not know what she had done to annoy Carmilla Karnstein, but she did not care. Especially now that she knew that the girl was only interested in her whenever she needed something from her, or whenever she wanted to tease her. She had gotten used to being ignored by her, or when she wanted to play her stupid head games, and this new-found interest in her was bothering her. It annoyed her that Karnstein only seemed to talk to her whenever she wanted, and ignored Laura at every other moment.

 

"What do you care?"

 

"You, ma chérie," Karnstein said, her voice going dangerously low, "might not care about your numerous potential candidates, but I do."

 

Laura was taken aback. Karnstein had made it no mystery what she thought about her, and Laura had stayed out of her way for that precise reason. She had Danny, anyway. Danny would be compatible enough with her for her not to need the ridiculously good synchronicity she had with Karnstein.

 

They still had it – when Karnstein moved in front of her to block her path, she'd moved away at just the right time to make it feel like Laura was moving in front of a mirror instead of an actual person, but she didn't need Karnstein.

 

"I care about my- Actually, I resent that accusation. I do not have numerous co-pilot candidates, just you and Danny. You know nothing about me. How dare you?"

 

Karnstein rolled her eyes.

 

"Are you going to get in a Jaeger with your co-pilot candidate, or what?"

 

"We're scheduled for a Drift Sync test tomorrow. At eight AM," Laura stated. Karnstein stared at her with a blank expression.

 

"What," Karnstein said.

 

Laura's eyes widened.

 

"Not us," she said, hurriedly. She gestured awkwardly at herself and Karnstein, her hands flailing around. Karnstein looked between them. Laura thought that she had seen her look at her like that before, but then Karnstein's face softened. Laura didn't have time to think of whether it was an act or not, but she knew that she hadn't seen it before if it was. "Danny and I. Me and Danny. Not me and you."

 

Karnstein's face flashed into an almost snarl, but just as quickly relaxed. She tugged her earbuds out of her jacket pocket. "Great. See you around."

 

Laura wondered how she could have felt so perfectly at ease with the girl when they were sparring, but feel as if she was walking on eggshells when they were simply talking.

 

;;

 

Carmilla turned around and walked away, careful to keep her stride to a normal human-like pace despite her feet telling her otherwise.

 

She was furious. She should have known that he was only there as their mother's spy. He was barely good at anything else, these days. Carmilla didn't care if her brother was a national treasure and that his limbs were insured for a million euro each, she was going to strangle him and then throw him off a damn cliff if only for the pleasure of seeing his dumb face sinking to the bottom of the ocean. Or, a less dramatic reaction than that, one that hopefully still included him getting injured.

 

Carmilla found him alone in her room. He was on her bed with his boots on her blankets, reading one of her novels. She knew it was one of hers because Will's reading material was limited to shounen manga, obscure comic books from the eighties and not much else, and he hadn't brought any of that with him. It was wrapped in brown paper, so she knew instantly that he was reading crappy vampire pulp. Great. He lived to annoy her in every possible way.

 

"So this is what you've been reading in your spare time," he said, when he noticed her. Carmilla, not up for a discussion about her weird addiction to vampire pulp, grabbed the book right out of his hands. He shrugged, seemingly indifferent to her anger. "Not really what I'm into, but hey. Different strokes."

 

"Why did you tell mother about her?"

 

She knew that he would understand. Laura was the only one who had truly struck a chord in her in years so, even without a name, he knew who she was talking about. Carmilla clutched the book as if it were her last remaining anchor to the world. She didn't need to ask him how he had found out. Carmilla had not been subtle, exactly. Even Kirsch would have noticed eventually.

 

"You're so hostile, honestly. I was just trying to-"

 

Carmilla threw the book against the wall, the sudden motion sent pain straight to her ribs. She didn't flinch. Will had stopped talking. They stared at each other, long after the book had fallen to the floor, its pages pathetically slumped against the ground. There was very little that could have made her disrespect paperbacks in such a manner.

 

"Why the hell did you tell her?"

 

"About your little friend? Why do you think? You've been wasting time cooped up in here for weeks, Carmilla. I'm practically babysitting you. And frankly, I want to go back on active duty before the war ends." Before she could reply, he muttered, "I'm useless to mother like this, you know that."

 

"Implying that you're not always useless," Carmilla spat back angrily, but her anger had diffused at the sudden understanding of why he had told their mother about Laura.

 

She stared at him until he broke eye contact. He had always been a coward, taking the easy way out when it looked like the hard way would so much as hurt him, but then again so had she. They were both their mother's children. Carmilla briefly wondered if that was why their mother had picked them; because she knew they were both cowards who would always comply, but then thought of how easy it was for her mother to make most anyone comply.

 

He sighed. There was no doubt in her mind that he really thought his actions would lead to his desired outcome: him leaving the academy as he had done two years before, him being usable to the Marshal.

 

Carmilla didn't much care about his sense of duty, but she knew that there was no other way to get him to stop interfering if he was going to be in her face day in, day out. His attempts would get even more invasive from here on out.

 

"I agreed to come back to the academy, not to be your social studies experiment. Tell mother that I would prefer it if you left with her, on the next flight out." Will practically bounced off her bed in his excitement.

 

"Really?" His voice had raised a notch.

 

"Get out of my room, brother. And don't forget to take your pet with you."

 

"Kirsch is going to be delighted," William said, then stepped out of her room.

 

Carmilla didn't bother to close the door after him, slumped face first onto her bed and groaned for an embarrassingly long time for someone of her age. She should have thrown him in the ocean, she thought, but there was way too much energy in actually doing that and truly, all she wanted was to get him the hell out of the country.

 

;;

 

Laura absently walked to the barracks, hoping to get some sleep to brush the entire interaction off, or at least that she could stare at the bottom of Betty's bunk silently for a couple of hours. She remembered that she had to tell Danny about the Drift Sync test halfway to her room, so she walked past the barracks and straight into the cafeteria.

 

Danny was sitting next to Elsie, and as soon as she noticed her, she beamed up at her. Laura felt guilt settle at the bottom of her stomach for a reason that she wouldn't admit until much, much later.

 

"Hey, Danny. We need to talk."

 

"Sure, what's up?"

 

Laura tilted her head upwards, indicating towards the stairwell. Danny put her fork down and shoved her plate to Elsie, who had been ignoring them up until that moment. Laura smiled down at her, and Elsie seemed too eager to dig into Danny's food to take any notice of her.

 

She led the way out of the cafeteria and stopped once they were at a stairwell. She was aware that she was looking at Danny with a sense of unease, because it reflected on Danny, who looked absolutely terrified at seeing her this worried.

 

Laura should have started with something other than what she actually did end up saying when she finally gathered up the courage to actually say it, but really, she didn't know how else to start, so she started at the beginning with, "I might have found another co-pilot candidate."

 

"Oh," Danny said. Her shoulders tensed up, the hem of her sweatshirt caught in between her fingers in an anxious tic that Danny had never displayed in front of her before, and Laura felt guilt well up inside of her. She shouldn't have started the conversation that way.

 

"I still want to try drifting with you," she said.

 

"Laura," Danny said, looking down at her. Laura didn't want her to interrupt when Laura was still trying to explain something that she hadn't actually thought about in her mind other than those brief seconds before she batted the thoughts away.

 

"I think we would be great pilots. Together. We could be great co-pilots."

 

"Laura, it's fine. Really. This was bound to happen." Danny's voice was calm and steady, but her hands had still not eased their hold on the hem of her sweatshirt.

 

"Marshal Morgan's scheduled a Drift Sync test for us. Tomorrow at eight AM. Do you think you can make it? Should I have it moved to another day, or-"

 

"No, I'll be there. I'll definitely be there." Danny's hold on her sweatshirt slackened and she finally relinquished her grip. She crossed her arms in front of her chest, and Laura glanced at her nails, digging into her arms.

 

"Right. Thanks. That's- I sparred with her a week ago and I didn't think anything would come of it because she was- well, she was quite rude, actually. I like you better."

 

"I.. like you too, Laura." Danny's knuckles were turning white from the grip. Laura was beginning to think that she would leave marks. Or rip the sweatshirt. It looked well-tended to, but not very likely to survive Danny digging her nails into it as she was doing just then.

 

"Good. Okay. Great. Thanks," Laura said. She didn't know whether to take that as a compliment to her sparring skills or not, so she stared at Danny until she noticed one important thing. "I'm actually quite hungry. I'm going to- Betty's probably still in the caf, so I'm going to go see if she's eaten all my food or just the good stuff."

 

"Yeah," Danny said, her voice hollow.

 

Laura nodded, hurried back to the cafeteria. Danny stood rooted to her spot for a few more seconds before she went back in herself.

 

;;

Chapter Text

;;

 

July 13, 2020
Jaeger Academy

 

The J-Tech division was like being dropped in the middle of a football ground in the middle of a game: noisy and host to several people yelling loudly from one side of the lab to the other. There was someone welding something behind her, and elsewhere, someone was throwing bolts at what looked like a dartboard shaped like a Kaiju. It was magnetic, too. Laura was impressed, but she was nervous and felt like she was about to throw up so she didn't dare voice it.

 

Danny kept glancing over at her, patting her shoulder, and smiling at her in a way that was making her even more nervous. Laura wanted to get it over with so that she could go back to her room and sleep for a week. Her anxiety from the day before hadn't settled, and she was not sure that it was going to at any point in her near future if no one decided to test their synchronicity.

 

A brunette in a white lab coat came up to them. "Hi. My name is Sarah Jane and I will be testing your drift compatibility. I haven't had my coffee today, so I'm sorry in advance if I accidentally electrocute you. Or worse. Shall we?"

 

That was when Laura's anxiety levels sky-rocketed. Sarah Jane indicated towards two leather seats, apparently set aside for occasions such as these. Laura and Danny sat down slowly. A shiver ran through Laura's spine, and she subtly looked at Danny, whose hopeful-yet-nervous smile had dropped. She was intently focusing on sitting, as if the technicians would yell at her for doing so incorrectly. They both turned to Sarah Jane, who was now talking to yet another technician. The lab was practically crawling with them.

 

A few moments later, Natalie, of all people, walked into the lab, which eased both of them significantly. Laura hoped that she would stay throughout the entire thing, because having a familiar face - nay, having someone she was sure wouldn't enjoy using her as a test subject - would do wonders. Sarah Jane seemed almost scary in comparison. Natalie held out a cup of coffee to the technician, whose grumpy face practically lit up at the sudden appearance of their superior officer.

 

"You're a peach, thank you," said Sarah Jane, eyes wide. Natalie smirked. Sarah Jane gulped down half her piping-hot coffee. Laura wasn't sure that the blush on her cheeks was entirely due to the drink.

 

"So, you two," Natalie said, turning to face Laura and Danny. She looked back at Sarah Jane. "Don't suppose you've actually hooked them up yet, have you?"

 

Sarah Jane's smile turned sour.

 

"This takes time, okay," she whined, and looked almost guilty at the admission. Laura turned to Danny, who had also noticed how the woman had reacted to Natalie.

 

"Right. Of course not. God forbid I assume that you're actually doing your job instead of milling about. Their test was supposed to have been at eight AM. It's almost half past and you still haven't-"

 

"You're in here often enough, you hook her up," Sarah Jane said, motioning towards Danny. Natalie rolled her eyes, and if Laura hadn't been paying attention, she might have missed the smile that spread across the taller girl's face as Natalie picked up a headset. "I'll do shortstack over here."

 

Sarah Jane pulled out a bundle of wires hooked up to a laptop and stepped closer to Laura, her eyes almost predatory at the thought of having a willing test subject.

 

"You haven't even checked their files, have you?" Sarah Jane ignored that. Their superior officer shook her head and said, "Come on then, Red. Take your sweater off."

 

Danny smiled nervously. "My, um, what?"

 

"We need accurate readings," Sarah Jane explained, as Natalie pushed Danny back on the chair slightly rougher than necessary. Danny relented easily, gulping as she did so. "You need to take your sweater off and no, you can't just roll up the sleeves a little because there's way too many things to hook you up to and that sweater is too thick. So, strip."

 

Laura tugged at her own sweater before Danny had even registered what they were saying, watched as Sarah Jane silently thanked her for not giving her some reason as to why she wouldn't be able to take her clothes off. The technician put the Pons on her head, fixed straps to her arm. Laura looked at Danny, who was biting her lip and hunched down trying to let Natalie put the interface on her head.

 

Mostly, Sarah Jane ordered her to keep still and not move around as much.

 

;;

 

Carmilla told herself that she didn't actually care about what happened to Laura, but a few minutes before eight fifteen AM, she stalked into the Jaeger bay for no reason other than to watch the girl's Drift Sync test. The silence unnerved her, and she noted that there weren't as many people as there usually were in the Jaeger bay. The majority of the technicians weren't around. Other than a few tinkering with the test Jaegers, the place was empty. She overheard two other recruits talking about the technicians testing recruits in J-Tech which, of course.

 

She found Laura immediately - sat on a chair twice her size. The girl looked nervous and cold; Carmilla wondered how she hadn't passed out yet. Maybe she had. Then she spotted Groot next to the short annoying one, and decided that it had been a bad idea to come down today. She stayed rooted to her spot, though.

 

The K-scientists were arguing with the few J-Tech geeks who actually cared about the fact that the entire academy had gathered in their lab, contaminating all of their Kaiju samples. Carmilla didn't think that learning how the Kaiju's digestive systems worked was critical in learning how to stop them from destroying the world, but she held her tongue.

 

The rest of the academy, the ones who didn't care about samples and had few weeks left on their sentence – the one that said they would have to pick between K-Science and J-Tech if they didn't find a co-pilot, was on edge, waiting to find out if Laura and Danny were compatible or not. They had not found any drift compatible recruits in a while.

 

Carmilla watched the technicians through the glass that separated K-Science from J-Tech, sticking wires and strapping sensors to both of them. Half the Jaeger Academy, including the technicians who would usually be in the Jaeger bay by that time, was standing anxiously in the station alongside her, watching them eagerly. Then Danny smiled at Laura, who smiled back, and Carmilla felt an itch to walk to the barracks and straight into her bed again. They were the most obnoxious couple she had seen all year. Maybe decade.

 

She tugged at her jacket, tightened it around herself, and kept her eyes on Laura. The girl looked so very nervous, still. Carmilla didn't understand why that was, because she seemed ready to step into a Jaeger with her the day that they met. Then Carmilla remembered that Laura seemed like she wanted to be compatible with Danny if only so she wouldn't have to be around Carmilla for another minute. Of course.

 

Laura smiled at the J-technicians, her smile way too bright for too-early AM, and Carmilla hoped to whatever deity she didn't believe in that they were compatible because otherwise her mother would force her to go through the farce, too. Carmilla hated drivesuits, because they were itchy and heavy and the last time she wore one, things didn't end well for her. But she would hate the wires and the straps holding her down to the chair even more.

 

She didn't much like being held down nowadays. Sitting still for hours while the J-Tech geeks stuck wires to her sounded like a nightmare, and she was not up for it. Especially if the charade ended the same way it had when she had stepped into a Jaeger with Will, or with them telling her something that she had known for two years: that she would not be compatible with anyone else, ever again.

 

;;

 

Laura already knew that she was probably compatible with Danny – had known for a while – but there were tests they had to do to make sure. Protocol.

 

If she were being honest with herself, she was the one who needed to make sure, because for a moment she had forgotten that Danny was the one that she should have wanted as a co-pilot. The redhead was the one that Laura had been thinking about to her left inside of a Jaeger for weeks. The only time she hadn't thought of that was when she was with Karnstein. And, fine, every waking moment since that one sparring session.

 

Karnstein was slightly different from Danny because the shorter one of the two had managed to keep up with Laura. Laura herself hadn't noticed it until after she'd sparred with the other woman, but the redhead was just a beat off. Karnstein had felt Laura, connected with her through some kind of level that she hadn't achieved with Danny; yet, anyway.

 

Sparring with the redhead felt good; but with Karnstein, it felt right. Laura had finally found her match in her. The other woman wasn't afraid to hurt her because she knew that Laura could and would give back just as hard, just as fast; it felt like a back and forth interaction in which the girl complemented Laura's actions through her own.

 

Laura was too deep in thought, which was why she didn't hear Sarah Jane the first time.

 

"You're incompatible," the technician repeated. Which didn't work, of course, because if there was anyone that Laura was sure she was drift compatible with, it was Danny. Maybe not to the extent that she was compatible with Karnstein, but still.

 

She had doubted it before the test, slightly, because she still believed that she would be at least a little bit drift compatible with Danny despite having far better synchronicity with Karnstein. But after, she was adamant that she retain her previous beliefs, even though she knew now with absolute certainty that they were wrong. Maybe that was why she wanted to keep them.

 

Laura felt like she had betrayed Danny by feeling even the slightest hesitation about their lack of drift compatibility. They might have been drift compatible if she hadn't met Karnstein. If she hadn't sparred with Karnstein, and felt what a real drift felt like, then maybe, just maybe, Danny would have had a chance.

 

"But, we thought that-" Danny started. She stumbled on her words, and tried to start again, "We're definitely- Look, can you try again? Can we redo the test?"

 

Laura was barely paying attention to the conversation anymore. Really, she should've seen this coming. Why would she be drift compatible with Danny Lawrence, Jaeger Academy darling and most definitely the first one on the shortlist to the Shatterdome? She probably had a better chance at getting a Kaiju to team up with her to participate in Eurovision, for Pete's sake.

 

"Oh, god. Rookies," Sarah Jane said, with a voice that could only belong to someone who had to deal with rookies all day, every day, shaking her head and scratching the back of her neck. She turned to Natalie. "How did these two even get a Drift Sync test? Don't you guys usually catch this sort of stuff in the Kwoon? Did the fightmaster just give up?"

 

"Marshal Morgan sanctioned the test," Natalie muttered.

 

"Ah. Of course. Right, well," Sarah Jane said, turning back to Danny. "Look, we could do this over and over again but, the truth of the matter is: you two aren't drift compatible. You weren't drift compatible when you walked into my lab and you sure as hell aren't going to be drift compatible when you walk out of it."

 

"I don't understand," said Danny.

 

"Listen, Lawrence," started Natalie, pressing a hand to Sarah Jane's shoulder to stop her from blowing a gasket. "You're familiar with the concept of a neural bridge, right?"

 

Danny nodded. "The first stage of the drift. Pilots connect with one another through the bridge, then with the Jaeger."

 

"Right," said Sarah Jane.

 

She raised her hands, palms down, in front of her chest. Both Laura and Danny watched as she pressed the tips of her fingers together, forming a flat bridge along the length of her arms.

 

"This is what happens during a Drift Sync test. Pilots form a bridge. A psychic link. But the thing is, with you two, the bridge wouldn't hold. It would cave instantly." Her right hand formed a fist, and pressed into her left. The makeshift bridge crumbled. "Thus, this isn't happening."

 

"Maybe if we try again, this time it'll hold," said Danny, her anxious tone betraying her. Natalie looked at Sarah Jane, who pressed a palm to her forehead.

 

"No," she said, shaking her head. "You still don't get it. It's not the kind of thing you can work on. It's just intrinsic to your relationship. Basically, this was a bust and I need more coffee."

 

'That's the understatement of the century,' Laura thought.

 

;;

 

Before K-day, Carmilla spent ages looking up at the stars. They never looked back. And when pollution made sure that she would never see them again, or at least until mankind developed life outside their solar system, she looked elsewhere. She looked at people.

 

Hours in art galleries, museums, and train stations taught her how to recognise the tell-tale signs of impatience, annoyance, and frustration more than years of interacting with people ever had. They had imprinted in her mind the minuscule reactions that indicate the beginnings of anger or disappointment. And spending days on top of Jaegers, looking down at technicians arguing with one another had taught her how to recognise increasingly frustrated voices when she could not hear them.

 

She couldn't hear Danny's voice through the safety glass, but she could definitely watch her talking to one of the technicians in what looked suspiciously like the opposite of her indoor voice. Laura clutched at her knees, and Danny kept looking back at her, her face tainted with panic.

 

Carmilla heard the people standing too close to her, their shoulders pressed up against hers because there was literally no room left. They thought that Laura was about to cry. She raised an eyebrow and looked back at Laura; the girl looked like she was about to strangle someone, not cry. She doubted anything could make Laura Hollis cry. In frustration or otherwise, the girl seemed to be the kind of person who would never yield, but rather fight through.

 

Tu ne cede malis sed contra audentior ito.

 

As soon as Laura glanced down at her hands and then turned to the crowd gathered outside the lab, her eyes searching, Carmilla bailed. It was what she always did. When things got too hard, she left. It wasn't like she had ever had parents who taught her how to stay and deal with her problems. She barely remembered the ones she'd had when she was human, and the Marshal was more likely to hide her problems for her. That, or be their cause. So she had grown to deal with them by running away from them as quickly as possible.

 

If the girl wasn't drift compatible with Danny, she would no doubt try and drag Carmilla into one of those chairs, plug her into a bunch of computers and- Carmilla couldn't let that happen.

 

;;

 

Danny sat next to her, talking to Sarah Jane in a stern voice. Laura glanced over to the hallway, and spotted Betty. Her roommate was the only person (save for Karnstein) she wanted to see right then, so she called out to her, motioned that she could come into the lab - the majority of the technicians wouldn't mind, she hoped. Betty walked over, almost shoved over a technician who was yelling after her about protocol. Well, okay, one of them minded. The rest didn't, though, and stumbled out of Betty's way.

 

"You two aren't drift comp-" Betty started, and stopped as soon as Laura shook her head.

 

"I need you to find Carmilla Karnstein," Laura told her. Betty frowned. "She's about this much taller than I am, black hair, kind of broody looking."

 

"The hot girl from the Kwoon?" Betty said, her hand reaching up, as if to grasp at her side. Laura had seen the bruises the girl had left on Betty. Karnstein had left a few on her, too.

 

"Yes. She might be listening to some death metal or whatever on her CD player. Probably wearing a leather jacket with studs on it. Or a tattered sweater. It's got a rip underneath the collar. Here," Laura said, pointing at her own clothes. Sarah Jane rolled her eyes when one of the machines Laura was connected to got tugged forwards because of it.

 

"Hollis, how do you know so much about this girl?" Laura almost groaned, but stopped herself. She noticed that Danny had stopped talking to the technician, and was now intently focused on her and Betty.

 

"Well, casual observance for one thing, but- Focus," Laura said, making sure to ignore the existence of any words that implied that she had been watching Karnstein for the past week or so. "I need you to find her and tell her to come here as soon as possible. Tell her it's an emergency."

 

"Is she who you've been mooning over? I thought-"

 

"Her room is five, maybe six doors down from ours, at the end of the hall. I am going to try and stall the technicians for as long as I can," she added, in a low tone.

 

"You're a woman on a mission. I like it. We'll talk about all of this-" Betty waved her arms around, vaguely in Danny's direction. "Later."

 

"Yes, sure. Now go."

 

"Don't worry, Hollis," said Betty, smirking and stepping away from them, carefully avoiding any and all J-Tech personnel. "I'll find your brooding co-pilot," Betty called out to her, running out of the lab like her life depended on it. Laura ignored Danny flinching next to her as her roommate said the last word.

 

"She's not my co-pilot yet," she muttered. Then, "Be careful."

 

"Don't run in the lab, please, cadet!" Laura winced at a technician's shrill voice as he yelled.

 

The recruits in the K-Science station scattered almost as quickly as they had gathered earlier that morning. Now that they knew that Danny and Laura weren't drift compatible, they weren't as entertaining anymore. They didn't wait for Karnstein.

 

;;

 

Carmilla went straight to the Jaeger bay.

 

She didn't stop to pick up a book or her CD player. She ran to the top of one of the Jaeger's Conn Pods, sat inside, with her back to Pilot One, and listened as people slowly started filling into the bay again.

 

She didn't run out of the Jaeger Academy because she needed to think. Her mother would most likely order Will to follow her again, but she could lose him in a month or two. The truth of the matter was this: she didn't want to leave. She liked the Jaeger Academy. She didn't want to have to leave yet.

 

It took the technicians a while to notice that she was up there.

 

;;

 

Laura convinced Sarah Jane to keep her attached to the machines for another ten minutes by telling her that her roommate was out getting for another potential co-pilot, which was true, mostly. She neglected to mention that she had to find her first, but it was a matter of semantics. She was already hooked up to them so Sarah Jane reluctantly agreed that they might as well wait for Betty to bring the other person.

 

A crash came from the back of the lab and pulled her out of her thoughts. Laura turned around and saw a gigantic piece of tech that looked like it was made out of scrap parts. The technician who had dropped it stood in front of it with both his arms waving about, and yelling, "Nothing to see here!"

 

Laura looked back at Danny, ready to make a joke about mad scientists and death rays, but she didn't have the heart to after she saw the girl's pale face, so she sat back and waited; tried to think of the positives, like how Sarah Jane hadn't electrocuted them after all. Danny's agitated knee-jiggling would have given her a headache had she herself not been tapping her fingers to her knees for the better part of half an hour.

 

;;

 

Carmilla was glad when the nerds found her, because she was bored and she hadn't taken her CD player with her, since she had forgotten it earlier that morning in her haste to get to the Drift Sync test before she was even properly awake. She was left to listen to the technicians talking about the latest gossip, which was Hollis and Lawrence and how they weren't drift compatible.

 

"Finally," she muttered, when one of them started yelling at her for compromising the integrity of the Jaeger's Conn Pod, whatever the hell that meant - the thing had so much unnecessary wiring tucked into the sides, like loose change and fast food wrappers tucked into the sides of a sofa, she had to wonder what they meant by 'integrity'. "Took you long enough. You know, you guys ought to invest in some security measures. You never know who might come in here."

 

He fumed. Carmilla smiled at him and slipped out of the pod. He was yelling something about how they already had security measures, and possibly about how he was going to drop out of the program. She waved back at him, smiling sarcastically as he rambled on about how he should have gone to culinary school instead of the PPDC.

 

;;

 

Betty came back, told her that she had searched the entire academy, and Karnstein was nowhere to be found. Laura tried to convince Natalie to give her five more minutes, but Sarah Jane held up her hands and said, "You've already wasted enough of my time, and I don't know if you've noticed, but there's a war going on. I'm busy, shortstack."

 

"Fine," she said.

 

There was no way in hell they were going to let her and Karnstein be tested before her two weeks were up. Less than two weeks, now. Laura had to find a co-pilot candidate – Danny most definitely did not count anymore – before the end of the thirteen days she had left or else choose between Kaiju entrails or Jaeger parts. Which, fun, if she didn't want so badly to get in a Jaeger and stop the Kaiju from destroying the world and all.

 

She let Sarah Jane pull the wires off and unstrap her until she was able to stand up without tugging everything behind her. Danny stood up with her, helped Laura out of a tangle of wires and smiled endearingly when Laura thanked her, SJ having taken her wires off only a few minutes after they had found out that they weren't drift compatible.

 

"Laura, I-" Danny started.

 

"I'm sorry," said Laura, apologetic. She could not have this conversation right now. "We'll talk about this later, but I have to- go.. somewhere."

 

Danny smiled a lopsided smile.

 

"Sure."

 

Natalie handed Laura her sweater, not bothering to say anything about the situation. She had snuck out of the room shortly after Betty, and come back with just about as many results as her roommate had. Laura thanked her and shrugged the sweater on a little harsher than necessary, heading towards the lab's exit.

 

As soon as they walked away from the J-Tech division, she felt the absence of the sounds that she had gotten accustomed to; the tinkering and welding, mainly. She didn't miss the yelling, however, but there was one overwhelming thought that she could not, and did not want to, suppress.

 

"Where in the hell is she?" she muttered.

 

"I searched everywhere," said Betty. She was covered in a thin sheen of sweat – Laura assumed that she must have had to go over the academy with a fine-toothed comb, and resented that she hadn't had the forethought to have Karnstein there just in case from the beginning, arrogantly assuming that she'd be drift compatible with the best pilot in the academy.

 

"She has been annoyingly accessible all week," said Laura.

 

She did not mention how she only knew where Karnstein was most of the time because she was the first person Laura looked for when she stepped into a room. Her eyes simply gravitated towards that leather jacket of hers, or her black hair, which she refused to braid like the rest of the recruits with long hair and stood out like a sore thumb.

 

"And now that I actually need her to be here, she's purposely avoiding me. Do you know how hard it's going to be to get another Drift Sync test? We'll be lucky if we can get in by next year."

 

"What are the chances of you two not killing each other before you ever set foot in a Jaeger?"

 

"Quite low," Laura said, through gritted teeth. Betty frowned, tugged Laura's hair out of her sweater. Laura hadn't even noticed. She had a one-track mind and all she was focused on right then was Karnstein. Betty wrapped her arm around Laura's shoulders and squeezed in a reassuring manner. "Why? Do you want to be my alibi, Spielsdorf?"

 

"I don't think one can have an alibi for the kind of murder you're planning."

 

"I'll take that as a compliment," Laura said, preening.

 

;;

 

Laura found her. In her bedroom, the one she knew was hers because Karnstein had slammed the door in her face on the first day they met. Betty hadn't checked it before she ran back to the J-Tech division, and Laura thought it wouldn't hurt to try looking for the girl herself.

 

She forced herself to calm down, knocked on the door once, heard a shuffling that indicated that someone was inside, and, more importantly, that they were not planning on letting her in anytime soon, and then knocked for a full two minutes before Karnstein finally relented and opened the door.

 

"What do you want?" she said, her voice had an undercurrent of anger in it that Laura hadn't heard before. Laura could not afford to think of how lovely her voice was, still, so she blinked twice and focused on other things, like how she had a pair of aviators dangling from her collar, and Laura stared at them briefly before her eyes trailed upwards and found Karnstein's.

 

"Charming, as ever. Aren't you going to ask me how the test went?" Karnstein stared at her with a bored expression plastered to her face. Laura breathed in slowly, and hoped that she would have the power to keep from throttling the girl. "It didn't. Danny's not going to be my co-pilot on account of us not being drift compatible. Incompatible. We're incompatible."

 

"And you think I care because.." Karnstein raised an eyebrow. Laura rolled her eyes, which was when she noticed a duffel bag on Karnstein's bed. Her anger from just a few seconds earlier diminished.

 

"You're leaving," Laura stated simply. She didn't ask because the Marshal had mentioned Karnstein's tendencies, for lack of a better term, and she was capable of putting two and two together. She was also capable of panicking. "You're leaving because we have to check out drift compatibility."

 

"Nothing gets past you, buttercup." Laura slipped under her arm and walked into her room. Carmilla stared at the space where Laura had been standing a few seconds earlier and said, in a bored yet slightly annoyed voice, "Please, make yourself at home."

 

;;

 

Laura had a knack for getting herself in the places that Carmilla didn't want her in. As she heard the girl opening the zipper of her duffel bag, she knew that Laura had gotten herself into yet another one of those places. Carmilla turned around to look at the girl who was now shamelessly going through her things.

 

"Do you mind?"

 

"You can't leave," Laura said, as she pulled out a couple of books, and started piling them on the bed. Carmilla tugged the duffel bag out of Laura's grasp.

 

"Watch me."

 

Carmilla furiously shoved the books back in. The zipper didn't close. They had been packed almost perfectly. Before Laura. Carmilla had taken some that weren't technically hers, and her duffel bag was only large enough for a small number, along with her clothes, and a few other things. And Laura had ruined it.

 

"No, I mean," Laura held her hands out in front of her. "You can't leave. The Marshal-"

 

Carmilla cut her off then. "My mother is too busy tending to my brother and the rest of the Shatterdome. She is not going to drop everything at a moment's notice to follow me to the end of the world, and she sure as hell isn't sending Will after me again, either."

 

Laura inched closer to her. "The Marshal's busy, but I'm not." Carmilla looked at her. The girl had a dangerous smile playing across her lips, one that was almost daring Carmilla to leave. She had no doubt that Laura would actually follow her.

 

"You wouldn't."

 

"At this point, I don't know what I'd do."

 

The girl held onto the single book that Carmilla hadn't taken from her yet. Carmilla glanced down at Laura's hand, her thumb rubbing across the cover. It would undoubtedly feel old and worn to her touch, because Carmilla had read it a hundred, a thousand times. She did so love good, hopeful endings. Laura glanced down at the title – Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters – and looked back at Carmilla, whose expression still hadn't changed.

 

"Look," Laura started. "We have to check if we're drift compatible- I've just spent two hours strapped to a chair, waiting for you to- I waited for you."

 

"I thought I wasn't invited to your little soirée." Carmilla turned to Laura with a tight smile. "In fact, I distinctly remember you saying that it was between you and your girlfriend. May I?" Carmilla indicated to the novel in Laura's hands, which she reluctantly handed over.

 

"She's not my girlfriend."

 

Carmilla laughed softly. "Does she know that?"

 

She shoved the book into the duffel bag, and tried zipping it closed again. It didn't close. Laura was a hurricane and she was determined to destroy everything that she touched. Carmilla scoffed. She pulled the books out again and put them back into the duffel in a more orderly manner.

 

"Yes, she does. Don't change the subject."

 

"It doesn't matter," Carmilla said, and tugged at the zipper again. No use.

 

It took her ages to pack every single book she had into the bag, and Laura had gone and ruined that. Laura had ruined a lot of things in the small amount of time that Carmilla had known her, including Carmilla's chances of staying without a co-pilot for the duration of her stay at the academy – because her mother would no doubt pull her out of the program and place her somewhere useful to her once she figured out that no one was ever going to be compatible with her daughter again.

 

"Yes, it does," Laura said, huffing. Carmilla hoped she wouldn't take long trying to convince her to stay. "This is what I've been training for, and there is no way in hell I am going to let you-"

 

Carmilla's hands stilled over the zipper. "You're not going to let me do what, exactly, sweetheart? Ruin your chances at being live Kaiju bait? Don't worry, I'm sure you'll find someone else to be your co-pilot."

 

;;

 

"No, I won't," Laura said, and pulled the duffel out of Karnstein's hands. She hadn't mentioned it to the Marshal, because that woman scared her more than anyone else on base, but she was a difficult girl to find a match for, too. And she only had thirteen days left. "Do you know what the chances are? Of finding someone you're actually drift compatible with?"

 

"I couldn't care less," said Karnstein, folding her arms over her chest. "But I have an inkling that you're going to tell me anyway."

 

Laura closed her eyes. Her grip on Karnstein's duffel bag tightened.

 

"Point zero, zero, fourteen percent."

 

That number had been seared into her mind ever since she had calculated it, taunting her, telling her that she would never find a co-pilot because the chances were basically nil.

 

"Gee, cutie," Karnstein murmured, obviously uninterested. "Did you figure that one out yourself, or did you have to ask one of the tech nerds to help you?"

 

Laura ignored her.

 

"It goes down by half if you're not related," she said. She pulled out the books from the duffel bag and arranged them neatly. Karnstein's hold tightened. "The halved percentage is cut down even more because most people who would be drift compatible with you don't bother enlisting. Who the hell would sign up to fight Kaiju in giant robots, right?"

 

"I fail to see how this has anything to do with me."

 

"We have a connection. You can't deny it. And I am not going to miss out on my chance at getting to see the inside of a Jaeger because my co-pilot ran away."

 

"I am not your co-pilot. And you aren't my co-pilot. I do not have a co-pilot, and I'm not looking to get one, either."

 

Laura finished putting all the books back into the duffel bag, and pulled the zip closed. Karnstein clenched her teeth, Laura guessed because the duffel bag didn't look nearly as ruptured as it had when she had packed it, and that bothered her, like most other things about Laura seemed to bother her.

 

"I am not missing out on killing Kaiju, on helping people, because someone who might have been my co-pilot was too scared. Newsflash, Karnstein: we're all scared. Terrified, really."

 

Carmilla considered that. "If you want to see the inside of a Jaeger, I'm sure the geeks down at J-Tech would be glad to show you around. I hear they're quite hospitable. As for the Kaiju, you should find the simulations more than adequate."

 

Laura placed the duffel bag at the foot of Karnstein's bed and sighed.

 

;;

 

"This has nothing to do with seeing the inside of a Jaeger. I enlisted a while ago. And I didn't think I would find someone that I'm drift compatible with. I felt it. With you. I know you did too. I have less than two weeks left to find a co-pilot. This might be my last chance."

 

"Are you implying that I'm your last chance? Because, if you are: I'd hate to disappoint you, cupcake, but I'm not anyone's last chance."

 

"I'm not implying anything. I am stating that you are not going to leave. At least not until we check if we're drift compatible in an official capacity."

 

Carmilla considered that. The chances of being drift compatible with someone so stubborn raised the hair on the back of her neck. Having the girl's voice in her mind would be like listening to someone run nails across a blackboard endlessly. But, there was still a chance they weren't drift compatible.

 

"And what if we aren't? What then?"

 

"Then you can go to Antarctica or wherever. But, until we check," Laura said, and sat on the edge of Carmilla's bed. Carmilla looked at her curiously. "I am not letting you out of my sight."

 

"You have got to be kidding me."

 

Laura shook her head.

 

"You're going to take a Drift Sync test with me. Tomorrow." Laura looked at her as if daring her to disagree, then furrowed her brows, and said, "Or, whenever the technicians are available and not angry at me for wasting their time. They're not as hospitable as you'd think."

 

Carmilla glared at her.

 

"Really, they're quite rude-"

 

"Fine," Carmilla said. Hopefully they would tell her that they weren't drift compatible five minutes into it, so that she could go down to the Kwoon afterwards. She had spent way too much time in the simulators recently. "I won't leave until we get hooked to a chair and poked and prodded by the nerds. Any other requests?"

 

"You promise that you won't leave the academy?"

 

"Yes," Carmilla hissed, annoyed that Laura needed further proof that she would stay. "Now get the hell out of my room." Laura stood up, her movements slow. She seemed to be thinking of something to say, something that would stick with Carmilla, perhaps.

 

"I'll be very disappointed if I find out that you've left," she said, finally, as if this was enough to keep Carmilla grounded.

 

'What for?' Carmilla thought.

 

"Whatever," she said, instead. Laura left, closed the door behind her slowly. Carmilla groaned and sat on the edge of her bed, staring at the neatly-packed duffel bag, waiting. She breathed in slowly. A knock at the door interrupted her.

 

"What now?" she muttered, opening the door. Laura stood in front of her again. She averted her gaze, as if she felt guilty for invading her sanctuary twice in one day.

 

"Dinner's in an hour," the girl said, smiling awkwardly. Carmilla glared at her. Laura didn't seem to have any problems telling her off for being rude or downright ordering her to stay at the academy, but this seemed to be on another level for her. For some reason.

 

'Oh,' Carmilla thought. 'She can't expect me to- No. She wouldn't.'

 

"Um, my friends and I, well- it's just me and, uh, my roommate Betty, but we sit in the corner, right next to the vending machines? You can't miss us, really. If you want to, I mean. See you then."

 

That sounded an awful lot like Laura expected them to become friends while they waited for the paperwork for their Drift Sync test to go through. Her friendship was not something Carmilla was willing to provide. Laura would not want to keep being friends once they were tested and found incompatible, too.

 

Laura nodded awkwardly and walked away, satisfied that she had convinced Carmilla to both stay and go to the cafeteria with her.

 

Carmilla closed the door behind her, opened up her duffel bag, pulled out the first book she saw, which just so happened to be Fingersmith. She shoved the duffel bag underneath her bed with more force than necessary, and walked out of the room.

 

She headed straight for the top of one of the Jaegers that had been in the academy far longer than she had. And when she fell asleep, cradled in the curve of the top of the Jaeger's head, the book was still in her hands, the first chapter looking up at her in anticipation.

 

;;

 

Laura poked at her food, looked up hopefully at the sound of footsteps approaching the cafeteria, and sighed when a group consisting primarily of Kaiju scientists walked in. She couldn't spot Karnstein with them. She couldn't even imagine Karnstein ever associating herself with them, either. Laura couldn't imagine Karnstein associating herself with anyone, really.

 

She hadn't seen Karnstein since their talk earlier, and she had hoped that the girl would sit with her during dinner. She gave up on that idea after the first couple of minutes. When half an hour passed and Karnstein still wasn't in the cafeteria, Laura decided that she would have liked it if they had eaten in the same room together, at least. But apparently, Karnstein preferred skipping dinner over having it with her, which hurt. A little.

 

"Hey," Betty poked at her side slowly, with the end of her spoon. She looked worried. Laura knew why. She would have usually shoved so much food in her mouth by then, but today, she hadn't even taken a bite. "You still upset about Danny?"

 

She should have expected that.

 

"No," Laura said, and poked at her food again. Betty nudged her with her shoulder, and when Laura glanced up at her, looked at her sternly. After a beat, Laura responded, "I shouldn't have gotten my hopes up. I know."

 

"Try not to beat yourself up over it," her roommate said. Laura sighed and went back to shoving mashed potatoes to the left side of her plate, away from the meat. "You're upset about something else."

 

"It's just," Laura sighed. She finally gave up and shoved her plate in front of Betty, who took it and piled half of Laura's cold food on top of her own, very empty plate. Laura took a deep breath. "Karnstein." Betty narrowed her eyes. "She was going to run away," she finally said.

 

"You found her?" Betty bit into a piece of meat, and Laura's eyes trailed down to her plate. Betty had left her the mashed potatoes. She placed the plate in front of her again, now totally devoid of any kind of meat, and Laura felt her eyes on her skin.

 

"Yeah," Laura said, and poked at the food on her plate again. She still didn't feel like eating. "I found her packing. I convinced her not to go, but still."

 

"Do you think that you're actually, properly drift compatible?"

 

"We might be. I mean, there's a chance."

 

"Laura, sweetheart, I watched you two. We all did." Laura crossed her arms over her chest. "It was very different from anyone I've ever watched you spar with."

 

"It felt different," Laura said.

 

"And she was going to risk a dishonourable discharge." Everyone knew that running away from the Jaeger Academy meant an instant dishonourable discharge, which was why no one ever ran away. No one except for Carmilla, apparently.

 

"The Marshal assigned us to be co-pilots, or- She was going to, anyway. Before I mentioned Danny."

 

"Holy crap," said Betty, mouth agape.

 

"She must have known that I would want to check if we were- Yeah. Yes, she was."

 

"Babe," Betty said carefully, around a spoonful of vegetables, "you know the Marshal's going to tell you to get in a Jaeger with that girl."

 

"I know." Laura sighed, putting her arms on the table and resting her head on top of them. She turned her head and looked at Betty, who smiled at her sadly. "I know."

 

"She doesn't strike me as the type of person who signed up for the PPDC because she wants to save the world."

 

Laura looked away from her roommate. "No, she definitely isn't," she muttered. Betty tugged at Laura's jacket and pulled her into a one-armed hug. Laura leaned into her, trying to forget about the countdown edging closer to her as they sat, and the girl who could put a stop to it.

 

;;

 

After dinner, Betty left for the simulators. Laura headed to her room. She turned around when she heard Danny call her name, and spotted the taller girl jogging toward her. Laura sighed, and smiled sadly. She was going to have to deal with Danny sooner or later, so she might as well have it be, well, right now.

 

As soon as Danny was close enough to reach, Laura stepped forward and wrapped her arms around the redhead's middle. She instantly felt comfortable as she inhaled the smell of her fabric softener – because Danny trusted the Jaeger Academy's fabric softener about as much as she trusted a Kaiju to do her laundry for her, so she always smelled nicer than anyone else Laura knew simply because she used a different product than everyone else.

 

When Danny finally wrapped her own arms around her, seemingly frozen in shock because Laura had never been one to initiate hugs, Laura thought about rust and sweat, and how Danny smelled of neither of those things. She smothered those thoughts down and forced fabric softener to be enough, for now.

 

"Whoa. Hey there," said Danny, hugging her tightly. "Are you okay? I know today was stressful, but I didn't know it had this much of an effect on you."

 

Stressful. Laura felt like she'd just taken on the task of teaching a Kaiju origami. "Does it have to change? I still want to be your friend," she murmured into Danny's grey sweatshirt. Laura absently noticed that she had never seen the girl in the article of clothing before. She hadn't worn it for their test. She figured that Danny must have changed since their not-really-since-it-didn't-happen Drift Sync test. Laura hadn't.

 

"Of course." Her calm voice soothed Laura more than the affirmation of their friendship's stability, and Laura tried not to think about the implications of that as the redhead ran her hand over Laura's hair. "Of course we're still friends."

 

"I'm sorry we're not drift compatible."

 

"That isn't your fault," Danny said, finally pushing Laura away.

 

Laura looked up at her, all decked in navy and greys. Her usual pink and bright blue was nowhere to be seen, making her appear even duller. Even her hair seemed to have flattened from its usual bounce. Laura suddenly remembered that she had been Danny's sole candidate, too, and now that both their careers in Jaeger piloting had practically gone to hell, Danny seemed to have resigned herself to.. whatever this was. Laura's chest ached to look at her.

 

"You know it isn't. It's not anybody's fault."

 

"I just thought-" Laura said. She shrugged pathetically, sighed. "That we would be. We're perfect, right? We're supposed to be drift compatible. Why aren't we-" Danny leaned forward and embraced her again.

 

"I don't know," she murmured. Laura melted against her, hoping that the tension would ease out of her body as it had the first time. They stood there for another minute with people walking by them to get to the barracks. Laura heard a few of them mumble about her and Danny, their lack of compatibility.

 

"Take me somewhere. I don't feel like spending another minute cooped up in here."

 

"I know just the place," said Danny, grabbing Laura's hand.

 

;;

 

The Jaeger Academy had its own branch that served as a post office to keep the recruits focused on training. Most of them had families who sent them letters and parcels, and it wouldn't do to have them going out to the nearest post office – which was almost half an hour away, which meant an hour wasted on something that wasn't related to bettering their techniques.

 

It was convenient, but sometimes Laura really resented that there was a size limit on the parcels. She loved her father and his increasingly creative letters and sometimes gift baskets that had to be unpacked slowly because he packed everything meticulously, like playing tetris with fantasy novels and woollen socks.

 

Some recruits stared at her and her packages, she loved that he cared enough to remind her that she still had a home to go back to, that she was more than a half of two; two set to become one – the academy had drilled that into her from the second she'd walked in. Laura would have gotten in a physical alteration with anyone who so much as hinted at making fun of her for it; thankfully, no one had, because they all had families who sent them letters and parcels too, albeit less elaborately wrapped than her father's.

 

But she regretted how careless she had been while packing, because she should have taken the damn jacket.

 

Her father, brilliant as he was, had suggested that she ought to take his bomber jacket with her to the academy. She had reduced the amount of books to add a pair of shoes and then checked the regulations on the PPDC website – Chucks were only allowed during the first week, before the recruit was given official PPDC boots, which looked just like regular boots only with the logo stamped into the side. She pulled out the three pairs of shoes and shoved more books in her suitcase.

 

Laura had looked up, seen him holding out that jacket that was so precious to him, and said 'no'. She could not have, in good conscience, taken the jacket with her. It was a giant one, fit her father awkwardly still, but not as awkward as it had when he had first been given it a couple of decades earlier. It could have gotten her through the Arctic no problem, but she didn't know how it would be received at the academy, given that it would have dwarfed her which made her look even more ridiculous in the lineup of buff army kids.

 

There were times when Laura did not regret not obeying her father, because doing so was not always the best course of action and both of them knew it. For example, a couple of years earlier, when she had wanted to learn how to drive and he'd said 'no way in hell'.

 

The way Laura learnt how to drive was this: almost crashing her father's car into a telephone pole. Well, really, she wouldn't have resorted to such extreme measures if he had only listened to her trying to explain that if anything ever rendered him incapable of driving, she'd be the only member of their family who would be able to drive, but not know how to. Which would be useless in an emergency.

 

So, after the disastrous display of how she would drive to a hospital, he had relented and taught her how to drive both manual and automatic, just in case.

 

This was not one of those times, she was sad to find out.

 

This being wearing a thin jacket as she walked through the streets of Kodiak Island. She was beginning to think that maybe, just maybe, she should have listened to her father. He was old and clever and had way more life experience than she did. Which was why, sometimes, he let her make her own mistakes.

 

She had rejected his jacket and selected a more practical one – a canvas jacket with an Utena rose seal as a sort of shoulder sleeve insignia. There had been something on the website to suggest that they weren't allowed their own jackets, but she supposed that she could get away with wearing it for the first week, too.

 

And, for good measure, she'd wrapped her favourite scarf – a maroon and gold one – around her neck three times to reassure him that she wouldn't really need a jacket that could probably double as kevlar.

 

While at the academy, Laura found the canvas one markedly better for a number of reasons. For one thing, hardly anyone wore jackets – most of them official ones; hers and Betty's hadn't come in yet – in the academy save for when the temperature went below zero, which had only happened once her entire duration there. Admittedly, the place had better heating than her childhood home and she never really needed it because she spent most of her time in the Kwoon working up a sweat, so she'd barely noticed it, but Kodiak Island was cold and her father might have been a little right.

 

So Laura was beginning to think that she shouldn't have done that. She hadn't thought it was cold enough to warrant that level of protection yet, but both the country and the weather were proving her wrong one step at a time. Still, she hadn't regretted trading that beast of a jacket. Or, more accurately, she hadn't regretted it before that exact moment.

 

;;

 

Their destination happened to be a coffee shop a few buildings away from the Jaeger Academy.

 

Innsmouth Coffeehouse was a cosy little coffee shop that didn't occupy much space at first glance – it had a couple of tables with four hastily-thrown chairs each outside on its porch. Nobody was out there. Laura didn't blame them. The tip of her nose felt like it was frozen solid.

 

The inside, however, was different. It looked like the war hadn't happened to the place. It wasn't what Laura would think of as packed, but it had a few groups of people here and there, filling most corners up with their energetic voices and their laughter. Innsmouth was far enough that there were still people wearing clothes branded with the familiar and – at present, tantalizing – PPDC logo, but not close enough that recruits were the only customers there.

 

It had black and white photographs on the walls, which had been stripped down to the brick. The tables were black, sleek and way too shiny for a place that had this many lights overhead; Laura was feeling slightly light-headed just walking into the coffee shop. She blinked briefly, watched as a waitress hauled glasses off of empty tables awaiting new customers.

 

Laura decided she liked it as soon as she stepped in, mostly because no one had stopped to look at them or pay them any notice, so she tugged at her jacket to pull it off. Danny grabbed the collar and pulled it back on. Laura was about to ask what she thought she was doing when she noticed that everyone else in the shop was still wearing their jackets, too. Even the barista was wearing a scarf wrapped around his neck.

 

The place had no heating.

 

Of course. Laura remembered that most shops didn't have heating these days. It was way too expensive for them, and the truth was: even a successful establishment, like this one seemed to be, couldn't afford heating. The cutbacks had hit them in more than just fuel and cocoa beans. She doubted the coffee here tasted anything like what coffee was supposed to taste like. Laura still forgot, sometimes.

 

"Thanks," she murmured.

 

She spotted a bookcase stashed in a corner, and itched to go check it out. Laura hadn't seen anywhere close to that amount of books gathered together since she had unpacked Karnstein's duffel. A collection of books always reminded her of home, and she felt an intense need to go through them one by one.

 

"No problem." Laura followed Danny to a table in the corner. "I froze halfway to death before I realised they had no heating in here. I'd rather not let you make the same mistake. So, I think I'll have a cup of tea. You?"

 

She didn't need to check what was available. Her choices were the equivalent of dishwater that had somehow been passing for hot chocolate, or bland, tasteless coffee. She didn't feel like spending the rest of the day energized, so Laura told her that she'd have the hot chocolate, excused herself and walked over to the bookcase.

 

She was pleasantly surprised – although not really, given that they were in Kodiak Island and the only reason she seemed to forget that every so often was because the Jaeger Academy felt like an international co-op most of the time – to find that some of the books were in German. Laura plucked one of them off the shelf and flipped through it. While she waited for Laura, Danny ordered their drinks, and folded a paper napkin into a tiny airplane.

 

She walked back to the table holding a pile of books. Danny attempted to look over them, then around them, until Laura finally split the pile in two and settled down across from the redhead. She watched Laura arrange them into even smaller piles on her side of the table around the hot chocolate and Danny's green tea.

 

The familiarity the books provided her at that very moment was necessary because everything she had been banking on for the previous couple of weeks had been torn out from under her, like a magician who ripped off the tablecloth without moving any of the cutlery. Everything looked the same, but it wasn't even close. Her dreams of finding a co-pilot had been taken away, stolen from right under her nose.

 

She was engrossed in one of the paperbacks that she'd been glossing over in front of the bookcase when Danny finally started a conversation. Laura wasn't in the mood to speak, hadn't been since she found out that she wasn't compatible with Danny and she was technically back to the drawing board, and the books were a pleasant distraction, but it wasn't like she could just outright ignore Danny.

 

"It's not your fault," said Danny. Her voice sounded rough with disuse.

 

"What isn't?" she asked, glancing up at her.

 

"The fact that we're not drift compatible. It's not your fault."

 

"Oh."

 

Laura put the book down, closed the pages around her fingers to make sure that she wouldn't lose her place. The cover had been ripped off and the only thing Danny would be able to read was a white page with German text, so Laura wasn't feeling too nervous about going over what was suspiciously starting to read like erotica in front of her friend.

 

"It's just.. It would've been easier to be yours. Your co-pilot," said Laura. She noticed the way Danny flinched at the word yours. She wished so badly for Danny to have understood that in the way that she meant it, because while the girl hadn't made any advances towards her, unless one counted the Kwoon, which Laura didn't, Danny had made it quite obvious that she had some sort of fascination with Laura herself.

 

But then again, Laura had a fascination with Danny because she wanted to be her co-pilot, so she eventually chalked it down to Danny wanting to be her friend really badly, even after finding out they weren't drift compatible.

 

"Why did you think that I wouldn't want to be your friend anymore?"

 

"Most people, save for Betty," said Laura dejectedly, as she picked at the corner of one of the books. "After they found out that we weren't compatible, or when they found someone else they would have preferred to be drift compatible with, they didn't bother to- Most of my other co-pilot candidates didn't. I'm not used to people sticking around."

 

"I thought we were-" Danny frowned, looked down at her makeshift airplane. "Don't get me wrong. I love being your friend, I do. You're really cool and fun to be around, and you're the only other person who's actually read Blume, but I- Well, this wasn't exactly how I pictured telling you this."

 

Throughout that, Danny had unfolded the airplane and then folded it again, this time leaving it a little floppier than her first attempt at a plane had been.

 

"Telling me what?" She stared at the plane before looking up at Laura. Danny didn't look nervous often, and seeing her like that twice in one day unnerved Laura.

 

"For a while now," Danny covered her face with her hands, and pulled them away again, watching Laura eagerly. She looked like a nervous trombone player either before or after their performance, Laura couldn't tell which image was more apt. "I've wanted to be something other than your friend."

 

Danny clasped her hands in front of her to keep from looking anxious. This did not look like it was going the way she had planned. Laura doubted anything should have been planned on the day they found out that they weren't drift compatible, but here she was, ignoring her hot chocolate (easily) and trying to figure out what Danny was trying to say.

 

"Yeah, I know," Laura said, after a second. They had talked about being co-pilots before, more than half their conversations had included the topic, so why was Danny so nervous? "I wanted to be your co-pilot too. That's what I was saying."

 

Danny's eyes shut briefly. "No, that's not what I meant," she said. Danny leaned forward as if she were going to grab Laura's hand, but eventually snatched the airplane up again. "I wanted to be something other than your friend. Or your co-pilot."

 

Laura.. didn't really understand. She glanced down at Danny's hands. She was almost ripping apart the airplane with the force she was putting on it.

 

"Danny," she said.

 

"I like you," said Danny. She breathed out like she had just unburdened herself from whatever it was that had her looking sick.

 

Laura knew there were different types of 'like'. The word was incredibly versatile. The first type of 'like' was the kind that her teachers never actually said out loud but was in the subtext during parent-teacher meetings when they said that they enjoyed having her in their class, which meant that she was their favourite student.

 

The second type meant that the person enjoyed spending time with her and wanted to continue to do so, or one that meant literally the opposite but for all intents and purposes the person was willing to keep up the charade of pretending to like her.

 

Third type meant that that the person like liked her and wanted to watch silly romantic comedies with her while sharing popcorn.

 

And the fourth and last type meant 'like' as in all of the above, so really, Laura was confused as hell.

 

She hoped Danny was going for the first half of the second one because- well, the second half of the second would be too sad given that they had spent a lot of time training together and since the first and third ones were basically impossible because they weren't in an educational setting and Laura was most definitely not Danny's type, especially when standing next to, like, Betty or whoever was probably a hundred percent Danny's type.

 

"I.. like you too, Danny," she stated. The redhead's whole face lit up. She leaned closer to Laura over the table. "I thought you knew that. I mean, we've been hanging out for ages now, and I like anyone who brings me chocolate, even if it tastes nothing like actual chocolate. It's the thought that counts, really."

 

Danny's smile faltered.

 

Laura plucked up her mug of hot chocolate slash dishwater and took a sip. Atrocious, but it would have to do. She made the mistake of looking down at the plane. Danny had almost ripped it in half.

 

"That's not what I meant, I-" Danny's hold on the torn pieces of the plane slackened. She sat back against the back of her chair. "I have a crush on you, Laura."

 

"That's hilarious," said Laura.

 

"Hilarious?"

 

"Did Betty put you up to this?"

 

"Betty? What? No, I have feelings for you. Laura, I love-" She stopped, and Laura understood then. She wasn't joking. At all. Which meant that Danny's 'like' was the third one. Laura choked on her hot chocolate. There was no possible way that Danny was serious. Danny was not the kind of person who would ever develop feelings for someone like her.

 

Laura did not think that she was the kind of person that other people had crushes on. She was the kind of person who had crushes on cute girls and wished that they would look at her. Unless she was doing something that made her look like a total dork, which was somehow, always happening when they looked.

 

This? Being taken out to a coffee shop and told that she was the object of someone's affections? This did not happen to Laura Hollis. She had Buffy the Vampire Slayer bedsheets and technically still lived with her father because she still couldn't find it in her to tell him that she wanted to move out. Especially because the want to move out died out every single time a Kaiju popped out.

 

Laura's idea of a good time was Castle reruns in her pajamas from four PM to four AM. She was not the kind of girl that someone like Danny would ever want to take out on a proper date with like, candles or moonlit dinners. She couldn't be.

 

She was short and would need prescription glasses in less than five years – was kind of surprised how she didn't need them yet, really – and the only reason she had started showing abdominal muscles was because she trained twice as much as anyone else on base, and Danny was- Danny was Danny. She was tall and gorgeous and way out of Laura's pitiful league.

 

So there was no way in hell that Danny actually had a crush on her. Laura thought that maybe Danny was under the impression that Laura was someone completely different to who she really was, someone worth having a crush on, because other than that? There was no explanation for Danny having a crush on her.

 

God damn it, it had to be Danny in the coffee shop with her. It couldn't have been someone Laura actually wanted to tell her that she liked her. It was the one girl in the Academy that Laura had singled out as not her type because she kept telling Laura to spar with someone her size, instead of trusting that Laura could take down someone twice that, which she could because her technique was better than most people's.

 

"Oh," Laura said, when she finally managed to stop coughing.

 

"Oh? Is that a good 'oh'? Or a bad one?"

 

"Danny, I- I'm so sorry." She could see Danny's grip on the plane tighten. "If there's anything I can do to-"

 

"I just thought," Danny said, cutting her off. Laura briefly wondered if the only reason Danny still wanted to be her friend was because she thought she had a chance at sleeping with her, then dismissed it altogether. Danny was overprotective and cared little for Laura's ability to take care of herself but she wasn't cruel. "It's fine. I'll be fine in a minute."

 

"Are you sure?"

 

"Yeah, just.. give me a minute."

 

There were certain things that one should not say to someone else, especially after being told that they were the object of the latter's affections.

 

Laura didn't have much experience in being the person someone was actually, properly crushing on – all her previous relationships had started with her having feelings for the other girl first. And technically, Laura had developed a small crush on Danny the minute she had met her, so this still counted.

 

One of those things was the only thing that Laura could think to say.

 

"It wasn't that serious of a crush, was it?"

 

Danny stilled.

 

"What do you mean?"

 

"Um, you know," said Laura, smiling nervously. "Sometimes you get a casual crush on someone. Like when you see a pretty girl on a bus or whatever. It's not serious, it's just.. casual."

 

That was when Danny ripped the plane right down the middle. By the time she was done, there was a pile of torn tissue on the table. Laura edged the books away from Danny.

 

"Yes," she said, looking as though it pained her to say it. "It was exactly like that. I didn't expect anything to come of it."

 

"Great." Laura wished so badly that this entire conversation hadn't happened. Maybe if she wished hard enough, she would be able to block it from her mind completely. "That would've been.. awkward, if it wasn't."

 

"Yeah. Awkward. Is that, um, is that book any good?" Danny asked, looking eager to change the topic now that she knew for certain that Laura didn't feel the same. "I thought they had nothing but German autobiographies on that shelf. I can't speak the language, but even if I did."

 

"I think I might ask to borrow it, actually," she said, looking down at the front page.

 

;;

 

The J-technicians woke her up, and she knew they were mad from even before they started throwing spanners at her, vaguely aiming at her head. Carmilla barely got out of the Conn Pod before they started ranting about, "Rangers who don't know their place," while throwing other tools. Carmilla wasn't a Ranger yet, but she didn't bother to correct them.

 

Instead, she walked back to the barracks and spotted a light at the end of the hall. She only registered that it was coming from her own room when she got close enough and saw that the door had been left open.

 

Her first thought was Will, but she assumed that he had left with their mother earlier that morning. Any other thoughts of him left as she caught the sound of something that her brother most definitely did not have. Carmilla heard the soft beat of a heart coming from within her room, listened intently to the sound of the person's pulse, and sighed. She would have recognised the sound of the girl's heartbeat anywhere.

 

Laura, because who else would be in her room at this time of night, was asleep on her bed. Her face was pressed into Carmilla's pillow, and she vowed to take it down to the laundry room as soon as Laura left because it was bound to smell like citrus and whatever else the girl used to wash her hair with – peach, maybe, and that was just not fair.

 

She was still wearing something that looked eerily similar to Will's terrible fluffy parka in a flatter, thinner jacket form and underneath that, her regulation clothes. Including her shoes. Over Carmilla's blankets. She made a mental note to take her sheets with her down to the laundry room too, because there was not a way in hell that she was going to be able to fall asleep with the girl's scent all over her bed.

 

As she looked down at Laura, she tried to recall some sort of meeting that she had unknowingly agreed to and obviously not shown up for. Finally narrowing the list of every possible reason as to why Laura Hollis was in her room, on top of her bed, Carmilla was down to: Laura wanted to make sure that she hadn't left the academy after she hadn't shown up for dinner. Which she hadn't agreed to. Merely acknowledged.

 

Carmilla crouched down next to her, placed her hands on the edge of the bed. Laura looked so peaceful, it was almost a pity to wake her up. But, she was on Carmilla's bed and that just would not do. Carmilla stared at Laura's messy bedhead, the curve of her nose, her parted lips, and decided that, screw it. Laura very well couldn't sleep on her damn bed because where else would Carmilla sleep? The top bunk was not an option; neither was the floor. Carmilla shook the mattress slowly.

 

"Hey, wake up," she said, her voice soft. Laura groaned, and just as Carmilla thought she was about to wake up, pushed Carmilla's face away with her hand. Carmilla stood up, away from Laura and her wandering hand. "Why are you in my bed?" she asked, in a louder, angrier tone of voice.

 

Laura woke up then, starry-eyed and disoriented. She looked up at Carmilla before pressing her eyelids shut again and rubbing the sleep from her eyes. She huffed as she watched Laura take her sweet time waking up, like a modern day fairytale. Carmilla tugged her own jacket off and threw it over the desk, sitting on the edge of it. Laura sat up, rolling her neck and yawning, messily covering her mouth with her forearm.

 

The girl took a darn long time to wake up, and Carmilla was having a crisis because there was just so much she was expected to take and Laura Hollis's sleepy grumbling was not in any way, shape or form fair. She looked nothing like the fighter she'd met in the Kwoon, or the curious near-voyeur Carmilla had gotten accustomed to having watch her, or the really angry Laura who demanded that she stayed in the program on the off chance that they actually were drift compatible. Which they weren't.

 

"I waited for you," Laura mumbled finally, as if that explained everything – including why she was in Carmilla's room in the first place. "And then I fell asleep. You didn't come to dinner."

 

"No, I didn't," confirmed Carmilla.

 

"Why not?"

 

Carmilla glared at her.

 

"Right," Laura said. Her voice was rough, sleep-worn. Carmilla absently wondered if she sounded like that after every nap. "You're obviously not going to tell me that. I keep forgetting you kinda hate me. I brought you dinner. Or, uh, dessert? I guess."

 

After a beat, Carmilla spoke. "Why?"

 

"You didn't come to dinner," Laura replied, as if that was enough explanation. The girl's hair was dishevelled, her face had indents from sleeping on Carmilla's pillow, and her eyes were narrowed, as if evaluating her slowly. "Don't overthink it. Your food cabinets are empty. All you have in your fridge is soy milk. And I think it's expired."

 

Carmilla took a cursory glance around her room, noticed that the aviators she had left on top of her desk were now on the bedside table, and stated the obvious.

 

"You were snooping."

 

"No, I was waiting for you, and I got bored, so I looked around. And I just happened to notice a few things. Like your complete lack of food."

 

Laura shifted on the bed and produced a chocolate bar from a pocket. She held it up to Carmilla, who glanced down at it and then looked back at Laura. The girl was looking at Carmilla with eager eyes, and she didn't look as tired as she had a few seconds earlier.

 

"What is this?" Carmilla asked.

 

Laura groaned. "Seriously? I know we haven't seen luxuries like these in a while now, but this is a chocolate bar, Karnstein."

 

Carmilla crossed her arms over her chest. "And you're, what? Giving it to me?"

 

"You have to keep your strength up." Carmilla raised an eyebrow. Laura pulled the chocolate bar away. "You don't eat properly. At all. You're even worse than I am, and sometimes I eat peanut butter for breakfast. I don't know how you're still alive at this point."

 

Carmilla didn't know either. And alive was not how she would have described herself. Merely passing through life, or death, she supposed. Of course, she said none of this.

 

"Are you some sort of expert on my dietary habits now?" Carmilla said.

 

"I'm not an expert," Laura said, looking like she regretted saying anything at all now. "I just- I saw what you ate in the cafeteria this past week. You barely touched your food."

 

Well, of course she hadn't. The food was atrocious and she only went down to make sure that her superior officers didn't think she had escaped. That, and she liked watching people sometimes. She didn't actually eat the food there.

 

Carmilla didn't need to resort to eating the badly-prepared meals because Med bay kept a decent blood supply – which she most definitely needed to check out for the third time that week, if all Laura had found was the soy milk that may or may not have been Kirsch's. She had been drinking more blood than usual to heal her cracked ribs. Moving was still a pain, but at least it didn't burn every time she breathed in.

 

"How is that any of your business?"

 

Laura looked at her like Carmilla had missed the point entirely, which she figured, she had. The girl was offering her food, actually decent food, not terrible cafeteria food given that the chocolate bar didn't have the PPDC logo on it, and she supposed that she could stand to be more open to the prospect of whatever this was.

 

"Look, you're right, it's not any of my business, but- I want to be your friend," she said finally.

 

Carmilla narrowed her eyes.

 

"It's not a trick or anything, I just-" Laura said, frowning. She scratched at the back of her neck absently. "I'd like to know who I'm getting into a Jaeger with. Or, if we end up getting into one together. I'd like to get to know you regardless, actually."

 

"So, this is a bribe," Carmilla said, looking at the chocolate.

 

"No. This is an invitation." Carmilla scoffed. Laura picked up the chocolate bar again, held it out toward Carmilla. Her arm trembled slightly as she said, "of friendship. If you want it."

 

"That's commonly known as a bribe," Carmilla said, nodding softly.

 

Laura sighed. "Do you want this thing or not? Because I can eat it all by myself, I really can. I don't have to share it with you if you don't want it. I just thought it would be nice to share it with a frie- someone I kind of want to get to know."

 

The girl was five minutes from blowing a fuse and she had been.. unexpectedly nice to Carmilla. For some reason.

 

"So," Carmilla said, playfully. "Chocolate is going to help me keep my strength up."

 

"It was this or half a jar of peanut butter, and at least this is semi-healthy," Laura said, holding out the chocolate bar again.

 

Carmilla smirked. Their banter made her feel the same way she had felt in the Kwoon, before Natalie had stopped them. As if Laura could take her down and crack her ribs all over again. She was growing rather fond of the girl's persistent nature, despite her best efforts not to.

 

"It's vegan. This place down by- Actually, I'm not really sure where it is, but you'd get there if you passed by a blue penguin sign, a sign with an arrow in it for some reason - like, a real arrow, not one that's part of the design or something, someone actually shot an arrow as in bow and arrow into the sign - and at least one pedestrian crossing and an abandoned bowling alley."

 

"I'll keep it in mind."

 

"Yeah, you do that, because I won't remember it anymore in about five minutes. Do you want it or not?"

 

"Am I going to have to owe you any other favours for it, darling?"

 

Carmilla had meant it as a joke, but Laura's hurt expression to her question meant that she didn't understand her sense of humour yet. She ignored that she had tacked on the 'yet' to that sentence in her head, because she was not going to know the girl for that long.

 

"I don't want any favours from you. I just want-" Laura looked down at her hand, pressed her thumb against the chocolate wrapper. Her voice had gone softer during the exchange, smaller somehow, as if she was afraid of taking too much space within the confines of Carmilla's room. "The pleasure of your company. That's all."

 

That took Carmilla by surprise. The girl had invited her to join her for dinner that night and when Carmilla hadn't shown up, she had gone to her bedroom, found it empty, and waited for her. As if that wasn't enough, she was offering to share her chocolate bar with Carmilla. It looked to her like Laura genuinely wanted to get to know her. As if she really did want the pleasure of her company. She hadn't spent any time with someone who genuinely wanted to spend time with her in a long time. A very long time.

 

More importantly, she hadn't spent much time with someone that she genuinely liked rather than simply tolerated. The thought of liking Laura, finding the girl's demeanour charming instead of incredibly awkward and annoying, came as a shock to her. She got over it rather quickly.

 

"What makes you think my company could ever be pleasurable?"

 

Laura groaned. "You're making it very hard for me to forget that you're a bit of a jerk, you know."

 

"That was my plan all along," said Carmilla, smirking down at her. Laura rolled her eyes, but the other girl could see that she was trying to hide a smile behind her fake annoyance. When Laura held the chocolate bar up again, Carmilla took it. The girl patted the bed as if to indicate that Carmilla should sit down next to her, which she did. She sat on the opposite side of the bed, and Laura moved to sit closer to her.

 

"Your plan's got a fatal flaw," said Laura, yawning. Carmilla hoped she wouldn't fall asleep again. She didn't think that she had the heart to wake her up twice in one day.

 

"Does it, now?"

 

Laura nodded.

 

"You failed to consider chocolate," Laura stated. Carmilla's brows furrowed. "You were ready to pounce on the chocolate bar." She supposed she had been leaning closer to Laura ever since the chocolate bar had been added to the mix. Still, pouncing.

 

"I don't pounce."

 

"Sure you don't," Laura said. Here, opposite Carmilla on top of her blanket, with her jacket dwarfing her and making her look like a person in a fluffy burrito, she saw how utterly exhausted the girl was. The failed Drift Sync test had slammed her enthusiasm levels and that did not sit right with Carmilla at all. "And we're sharing that."

 

Carmilla snickered, glanced down at the chocolate bar, wrapped in foil and paper. It felt slightly soft, like the warmth from Laura's body had melted it while she was asleep. By the time Laura plucked it out of her hand, broke it in half, and handed one part of it back to her, she didn't notice the difference in hardness anymore.

 

;;

 

There was something about watching Carmilla Karnstein splitting chocolate into cubes and popping them in her mouth then chewing really slowly that made Laura fumble through a response to, "Why does it smell like cheap coffee in here, anyway?"

 

"That's probably me," she said. Karnstein raised an eyebrow. "I got the chocolate bar from a coffee shop. I probably reek of the stuff, I'm sorry. Do you want me to- uh, should I leave?" Laura took her prolonged silence as a 'yes', made to stand up, but was interrupted by the other girl. It seemed that Laura's movement had jarred Karnstein out of her thoughts.

 

"No, you're fine," said Karnstein, smiling softly. "Strong sense of smell makes it kind of hard to ignore."

 

"Oh, okay."

 

Laura did not do well in situations like these. These were the awkward voids that she had to fill with anything that would prevent the other person from noticing how nervous she was to be talking to them. Karnstein did not seem to mind the silence – or Laura's attempt at conversation; "Do you like coffee?" had been met with a curious glance and nothing else.

 

After a while, Laura stopped trying. She popped another piece of chocolate into her mouth and eased her nerves by focusing on that instead of Karnstein's nails tapping against the heel of her doc martens. It felt comfortable, somehow, to be mutually focused on the chocolate bar.

 

"How about your taste buds?" she asked, a few minutes later. Karnstein's eyes widened slowly. "Your sense of smell- I was asking how your sense of, um, taste is. This tastes bad, doesn't it? I thought it'd be better because it's strawberry-flavoured but it tastes like-"

 

"Cardboard," finished Karnstein.

 

Laura grinned. "Exactly, yes."

 

"I'd ask for a refund if I were you," said Karnstein, shrugging. The action was almost graceful, but she shifted midway, leaning on her side. "Though they might give it to you in monopoly money, seeing as how they conned you into thinking that this-" she pointed to the chocolate bar sitting between them, "is even remotely edible."

 

That made Laura laugh. Karnstein didn't laugh with her, but watched her curiously instead.

 

"I still can't get a handle on you," said Laura, shaking her head.

 

"A handle on me?" Karnstein asked, perplexed. She watched her, never once taking her eyes off of Laura to focus on Laura's hands, which seemed to have a mind of their own.

 

"I can't understand you, I think. You're very hard to figure out. Whenever we talk, it's kind of like throwing a boomerang and hoping it won't hit you in the face when it comes back." Karnstein stared at her, her expression unreadable. Laura amended, "If it comes back."

 

"Hope I haven't left any lasting damage," Karnstein murmured, finally.

 

"Unless you count my wounded ego, no."

 

Karnstein raised an eyebrow.

 

"Okay, I thought the chocolate bar would be a nice gesture, but this tastes even worse than the other one and- You can stop eating it if you want. I won't blame you." Karnstein's teeth caught the last cube she'd put in her mouth. Laura dragged her eyes up to the other girl's.

 

"I've had worse," she said.

 

Laura, who was learning to decipher Karnstein a little at a time, guessed that her words meant a hesitant thank you.

 

;;

 

July 14, 2020
Jaeger Academy

 

Laura took her shoes off and tiptoed into her room at three AM. The door creaked slightly. She winced and glanced up at Betty who, thankfully, was still asleep. She sighed softly, placed her boots on the ground.

 

"Have you been with Danny this whole time?"

 

Laura groaned. "Have I ever mentioned how much I hate it when you wait up for me?" she said, standing up properly, instead of the crouch she had subconsciously positioned herself into and flicked the lights on.

 

"Yes, rather often, actually." Betty looked up at her from the top bunk, her eyebrows raised. Laura ignored her, and took her jacket off, and then her pants, and placed them both over a chair. "Wait a minute. I spot mussed hair and.." Laura pulled off her sweater, and shrugged on a tank top. "Is that a love bite on your neck, Laura Hollis? Is she a good kisser? She looks like she would be a good kisser."

 

Laura ignored her.

 

"Well?" Betty asked.

 

"I'm not even going to give you the benefit of watching me fumble while trying to come up with a terribly clichéd excuse – curling iron, met up with a vampire on my way here, the usual – because we both know there is no love bite, Betty Spielsdorf. Danny and I got back hours ago."

 

She hadn't spent that long with Carmilla, but she knew that if Betty thought that she had spent all that time with Danny, she would have assumed things. Laura didn't want her assuming things.

 

"Sure. You just walked in at-" Betty checked her watch. "Laura, it's three AM. How do you explain walking in at three AM?"

 

Okay, so maybe she had spent more time than necessary talking to Carmilla Karnstein. The girl had a way of making her forget that time was even a concept, let alone that they were both ruled by it. They hadn't even talked about anything other than chocolate, and eventually a list of things that would taste better than the chocolate bar they were sharing. A cardboard box dipped in wax being among them.

 

"For your information, even though it is literally none of your business, that is not the nature of my relationship with Danny Lawrence."

 

Betty raised an eyebrow. Laura knew that she shouldn't have mentioned Danny at all. Betty seemed to think that they were going to become an item, as if it were something that was written in stone.

 

"We went to a coffee shop," Laura admitted. She pulled on her pajama pants and walked into their bathroom. She walked right back out with a toothbrush in her mouth. After taking one look at Betty, who was eagerly awaiting an explanation, she pulled the toothbrush out of her mouth, not bothering to wipe the paste off her bottom lip. "I had hot chocolate, she had green tea, and I almost bought a book. Happy?"

 

"That sounds an awful lot like a date to me, babe."

 

"I'm going to ignore you said that," Laura said, and shoved the toothbrush in her mouth again. It wasn't a date because she didn't think of Danny that way and neither party had acknowledged that it was a date before they went out, simple as that.

 

"Right," Betty said.

 

Laura rolled her eyes and went back into the bathroom. She came back out a few minutes later, turned the lights back off, and slipped under the covers of her bed. She pressed her face into Betty's yellow pillow that she had stolen early on in their friendship – Betty had never asked for it back, so Laura pretty much considered it hers now – and said, "Good night, Spielsdorf."

 

Ten minutes later, Laura was still awake, staring at the underside of Betty's bed. She was feeling restless. The day had been an emotional roller coaster and the minute she touched her head to the pillow hadn't gone as she'd thought it would, which meant that she didn't fall asleep instantly. Instead, she twisted and rolled over so often that she had wrapped herself in her bedding.

 

"She likes me," Laura said, in the smallest voice she could muster. She hoped that Betty was asleep, then heard her shift on the bed. Clearly, she had no such luck, she thought, as Betty groaned. Laura winced, and instantly regretted saying that out loud.

 

"That's what I've been telling you for the past month." Laura hadn't even known Danny for a month – Betty was exaggerating, if only slightly.

 

"No, I mean she told me that she likes me. Earlier today."

 

"What?" Betty's mess of blonde hair dangled down from the top bunk.

 

"I was with Karnstein," Laura said, attempting to change the topic. She hoped that Betty wouldn't start teasing her about Karnstein now but if she did, at least she wouldn't be teasing her about Danny.

 

Laura could hardly see her face, but she heard Betty fumble with her phone before switching the brightness on maximum and bathing Laura in the light, flashing the screen in her face. She held her hand up against it, saw a white rectangle behind her eyelids whenever she blinked, and Betty turned it down, towards the floor.

 

"What did you say?"

 

"'I was with Karnstein'?" Laura tried again.

 

"No, not that. What did you tell Danny after she told you?"

 

"Um," Laura said. Betty was staring at her with what she could only think of as a very intent stare, and she couldn't focus at all. "I don't remember exactly."

 

"You don't remember. Wait." Betty turned the phone on her again. "Why on earth were you with Karnstein?"

 

"I'm going to sleep," Laura said, and turned so that her back faced the girl and her bright demon phone screen. Betty groaned, but pulled her phone and the rest of her up and rolled back onto her own bed.

 

After a few minutes, in which she could have heard Betty's mind going faster than a racehorse as she turned her phone back off and placed it under her pillow again, Betty breathed out.

 

"Do you like her?"

 

Of course Betty would pick up on her spending way too much time with Karnstein that night. Laura bit the inside of her cheek before she replied.

 

"No," she said.

 

"Laura, have you seen her?"

 

Oh god, this was exactly what Laura didn't need. Laura had indeed seen Karnstein, had become quite familiar with the girl and her jet-black hair, tattered sweater, old leather jacket, god damn unsanctioned doc martens. She had most definitely seen Karnstein. But she was tired of Betty assuming that she was dating literally every single woman she met on base.

 

First Danny, now Karnstein. She needed to nip it in the bud before Karnstein became who Laura got teased about for the next god only knew how long.

 

"Okay. First of all, I don't like anyone. Hanging out with a girl does not mean I like like her. And frankly, I resent the accusation that I am crushing on every hot girl I come in contact with."

 

"So you admit that she's hot."

 

"No." After a beat, she admitted, "Yes?"

 

"Laura," said Betty, an ounce of impatience in her tone of voice.

 

"Okay, maybe," said Laura, and pressed her eyes together, willed herself to fall asleep for the next eight hours. Or eight years. Either would have been fine with her. Betty, as per usual, interfered with her plans.

 

"Maybe? Even if she weren't drop dead gorgeous, her personality would make up for it in spades."

 

'Her.. personality?' It suddenly dawned on Laura that Betty hadn't been talking about Karnstein. Which left a single, solitary question in Laura's mind.

 

"Betty, who are you talking about?"

 

"Danny, obviously."

 

'Oh.'

 

A pause, in which Laura willed her bed to swallow her whole and then spit out a note that said, 'Due to an extreme fear of public humiliation and regret at having been caught admitting that Carmilla Karnstein is in fact, aesthetically pleasing, Laura Hollis is and forever shall be unavailable to comment on the matter that was being discussed at the time of her unfortunate – yet not altogether unexpected – disappearance'.

 

The bed did not cooperate.

 

"Why? Who are you talking about?"

 

"Uh."

 

"Laura?"

 

Laura could, at that very moment, name every single Kaiju that had ever trudged out of the Breach. She could have named off the cities, too, in the order they had been destroyed in, and the dates it happened. But she couldn't muster up a response that would please Betty Spielsdorf. Laura thought that was incredibly inconvenient.

 

"Good night, Spielsdorf."

 

"You were with Karnstein," said Betty, and of course she would have remembered that little detail just then, as if Laura didn't have enough on her plate. She'd figured it out. Betty sounded extremely pleased with herself at having caught Laura in a bind.

 

"She's nice, sort of. When she's not beating people up," said Laura, hoping that Betty would drop the subject as quickly as she had accidentally started it. Or at least that she would let her sleep and then annoy her about this the next morning, when she was pumped full of coffee; alert and awake and ready to come up with more plausible excuses on the spot.

 

"Nice? So I take it you don't like Danny?"

 

"Not this again. No, Betty, I do not have a crush Danny Lawrence. I've told you this a hundred times, I am not into her like that. I'm going to go to sleep now."

 

"Good night, Laura."

 

Betty didn't say anything after that. Laura listened to her breathing even out. She closed her eyes, but did not fall asleep as easily.

 

;;

 

Laura didn't know when she started actively looking for Carmilla in the cafeteria, but by the time she had finished scanning the place, she was sure that Carmilla was not there. She would have felt her broody presence. Or seen her. Betty pulled her out of her thoughts by poking her in the arm, hard.

 

"You haven't interrupted me in fifteen minutes. Who are you looking for?"

 

"Karnstein," she responded absently. "She's not here."

 

Betty looked at Laura, who was still looking through the crowd slowly, expecting to see Carmilla Karnstein walk in through the doors in any second, and muttered, "This is adorable."

 

"What?" Laura glanced at her.

 

"I said, this food?" Betty smirked and held her fork up. "Deplorable." Laura looked at the mush on Betty's fork. She couldn't recognise what it was. All she knew was that it was definitely green-ish in colour.

 

"Yeah, I guess."

 

She stuck her fork into the mashed potatoes. Betty didn't talk for the rest of breakfast. Laura barely noticed, because she spent the rest of it watching the door.

 

;;

 

Carmilla found herself staring at the books on her desk, trying to select one to read. She had tried to sleep throughout the entire day, to no avail. She had unfortunately fixed her sleeping habits to be practically identical to that of the humans on base. Except for the technicians, who didn't count because they ran primarily on caffeine and adrenaline.

 

The book Carmilla was eyeing was thick and heavy and she had read it before, but she plucked it off the desk anyway, and settled in her bed to read it once more. She got through five chapters. As she was about to start the sixth, Laura walked in. Carmilla could have sworn that the door had been locked.

 

"You missed breakfast. And lunch."

 

"Lovely of you to notice," said Carmilla. The girl opened her food cabinet. Carmilla didn't look up from her book. She flipped a page nonchalantly and said, in the most monotone voice she could manage, "Make yourself at home. As you always do."

 

"I haven't seen you eat anything in like, three days."

 

Carmilla looked up at her then. The girl stared back at her with a look in her eye that Carmilla was getting accustomed to. It scared her that she was getting used to anything, and there was a certain danger that came with getting used to anything about Laura, and Carmilla knew it.

 

"Plus, I've only seen you in the cafeteria a handful of times, and you hardly ever touch your food. I mean, the cafeteria food isn't really that great and I thought for a second that there was a chance you're getting your food delivered, but you literally have nothing in here. What do you eat?"

 

Carmilla thought of the leftover blood in the milk carton – a different one than Kirsch had left, thank god – and the newly acquired blood packs stashed in her backpack under her bed, and smirked. Thankfully, Laura had already turned back to her food cabinet.

 

"That's just none of your business, now, is it?"

 

Her book wasn't as interesting as Laura herself was, but she held it up anyway, so that she could pretend to be reading it if Laura looked back at her. She didn't. Laura was too focused on the contents of her food cabinet and- her fridge. She had actually opened her fridge again.

 

There was something to be said about someone who took the whole serving when offered a single bite. Now that they had spent a night together eating terrible chocolate, Laura seemed to think that they were actually friends. Carmilla would have minded more if her brother had been there to see her attempt to pretend like she didn't enjoy having Laura around.

 

Laura pulled out the half empty milk carton, and held it up as if to smell it. Carmilla glanced over at her. She pulled her head out of the fridge, only to snarl at the contents of the carton.

 

"This is definitely off," the girl muttered. She put it on top of the fridge, no doubt to make sure that Carmilla threw it away later. Carmilla made a mental note to acquire a coloured water bottle to keep her blood in, instead.

 

"Put that back."

 

Laura reluctantly did so and frowned at the lack of actual food she had found.

 

"It's almost time for dinner," she said. Carmilla went back to her book, and read the same sentence twice before she gave up on actually reading the damn thing while Laura was still in the room, looking at her with a disapproving glare. "Do you want to come down with me?"

 

"Are you perpetually hungry?"

 

"Are you perpetually despondent?" mocked Laura.

 

There was a pause.

 

"No," Carmilla said, deciding to answer her previous question. "I'd rather not come down to dinner with you."

 

Laura's shoulders slumped, and Carmilla wondered if it would be worth it to just follow her to the cafeteria and swallow the terrible food, just to make Laura stop looking at her like she kicked her puppy.

 

"Okay. See you.. later, then. I guess."

 

Carmilla tried to pretend that it wasn't disappointment she was feeling. She tried to think of it as some weird sort of empathy, instead of a nagging feeling in her chest that she should have gone down to the cafeteria with her.

 

;;

 

Carmilla's eyelids drooped. She opened them again. A spot on the wall opposite her bed caught her eye and she focused on it until she fell asleep. She had barely gotten a few seconds of sleep before she was awake and alert again. A familiar heartbeat, one she'd gotten accustomed to, stood outside of her door.

 

Laura's pulse was always a wee bit faster than anyone else's, like she was running on a constant high. She heard the girl breathe in, and knock, the force of her knock pushing the door open.

 

She could have sworn that she had locked the door before she went to sleep, but it seemed like Laura could not keep out of places she wasn't wanted. That, or her lock was faulty. Carmilla didn't necessarily not want her in her room, she was simply having a hard time explaining to herself why she did, and her ability to think coherently went straight out the window whenever Laura was near her with rosy cheeks and a racing pulse.

 

Laura lowered herself to Carmilla's face, half buried in her pillow. "Hey, are you asleep?"

 

"Yes," she muttered, grumpily.

 

"Oh, good. You're still up. I brought you dinner."

 

"Obviously not awake," Carmilla murmured, cracking one eyelid open.

 

She saw a blue-green blur move away from the bed. Laura placed multiple plastic bags – how on earth did she even get those through the door – on the desk, and the rest on the floor. Laura pulled her jacket off, hung it on top of the chair. Had she been outside? She leaned against the edge of the table, crossed her arms and watched Carmilla.

 

Carmilla pulled up her blankets, hiding most of her face.

 

"You seriously need to eat something," said Laura. A groan erupted from underneath the lump of blankets on Carmilla's bed. "You haven't come out of your room in an entire day and I'm pretty sure you haven't eaten anything either. So, get up."

 

"Why must you insist on bothering me so often?" came the reply. There was a pause after that. Carmilla looked up from underneath her blankets.

 

Laura was stood against the desk awkwardly. She'd crossed her arms over her chest and was worrying her bottom lip something fierce. Like this, Carmilla could just about imagine her as a student, anxious and worried about finals. No Kaiju, no war, nothing other than the incessant fear of failing a class or five, doused in the smell of instant noodles for dinner and five cups of coffee for breakfast. She wondered if Laura had even reached that, or if the war had interfered, as wars so often did.

 

"I'm not really bothering you, am I?" Laura asked, finally, dragging her gaze away from the floor and seeking out Carmilla's eyes. There it was. The insecurity that Laura only showed when Carmilla was harshest with her. There was something in the girl's voice that tugged at her heartstrings and she just couldn't help herself.

 

"So, in lieu of your previous co-pilot candidate not working out – there is something to be said for those technicians being able to do their jobs, after all – I see that I've drawn the short straw and I'm your pet project now. Honestly, sweetheart, you could chalk it down to creative differences, but I'm assuming courting her with cardboard chocolate had something to do with it."

 

Laura laughed, and her serious mood dissipated. "You caught onto my grand scheme. I'm trying to bribe you into being my co-pilot by bringing you food. Question: would that actually work? Because I'm not above trying that for real if you're easily susceptible to like, strawberry ice cream or something."

 

Carmilla considered that.

 

"I know what this looks like," Laura interrupted, kindly, "but it really has nothing to do with you being a candidate. It's just, you don't seem like you have too many friends around here, and I know how lonely it can get without having anyone there to-"

 

"This is pity, then."

 

Laura groaned and looked away from her.

 

"Oh god, I keep forgetting that talking to you is literally infuriating when you're like this." She turned to her numerous plastic bags and started going through them. After a minute, she pulled out a container. "Have you never had anyone want to be your friend before? Or hell, even someone who cared about your well-being enough to make sure you didn't, oh, I don't know, starve to death?"

 

Carmilla shoved her face into her pillow, turned to the wall next to the bed.

 

"Seriously, Karnstein. Genuine question over here. I mean, I can sort of see it, because you're kind of hard to like, but has no one ever bothered to see through your bullshit before? You act like this is the first time anyone's met you."

 

She turned to look at Laura. "Pardon?"

 

"Your entire-" Laura stopped. Carmilla watched the girl's arm waving around in the general direction of her bed. "Your whole bad girl persona. It's a front and it's not convincing me in the slightest, you know."

 

"Giving free psycho-analysis to potential co-pilots now, are you?"

 

"Yeah, you'll even get a free toaster oven afterwards."

 

Carmilla snorted, turned towards the wall again. She heard Laura pull something else out of one of her bags, then walk next to her bed and crouch down. The girl bit into whatever it was – 'An apple,' Carmilla thought, 'so she's brought fruit too,' – chewed on it for a while, then swallowed.

 

Laura looked down at her blankets, pinched them between her fingers and twisted the material around. Carmilla felt the tug as the blankets rode up as Laura pulled at it more in her frustration.

 

"Get up, sleepyhead," Laura said gently, and bit into her apple again.

 

The noise grated on Carmilla's nerves, so close to her ears, but she sat up anyway, shoved her sheets off of herself. She had fallen asleep with her regulation pants on. It didn't look like it surprised Laura at all. Carmilla guessed that she had probably taken to sleeping with her shoes next to her bed instead of in the wardrobe, so that she could just shove her feet in them as soon as she woke up, just like the other obsessive recruits.

 

"You're annoying."

 

"Sure," Laura said, shrugged and stood up.

 

She walked over to the desk and Carmilla watched her pull out even more containers out of it, placing them on top of the desk and arranging them neatly. Carmilla could tell that they were filled to the brim with food before Laura opened any of them. There was steam rising from one of them, so it had been recently heated. She could smell chicken broth coming from that one.

 

Carmilla wiped at her eyes, groaned slightly as she stood up. She trudged out of her bed and went to stand next to Laura, who had opened all of the containers in an effort to interest Carmilla into eating something.

 

There was more variety in what Laura had brought her than Carmilla had ever seen in the cafeteria. Half the food was in plastic containers, the rest was pre-packed in PPDC packaging. She had definitely gone out of her way to buy Carmilla a selection of food.

 

"I take it the cafeteria workers were very helpful after a couple of threats of bodily harm," Carmilla said, and Laura let out a burst of laughter.

 

"Not exactly. My father sends care packages every other month, and they're mostly filled with fluffy socks, but sometimes there's books in there. I worked out a deal, they're on loan to the cafeteria workers. Sort of. A permanent loan. I'm sure my father sent me some of them to barter with, actually. He knows my taste in books and he knows it's not Nicholas Sparks novels."

 

Laura pulled out a box of cookies from her bag, and smirked.

 

"These, though? This, I had to properly bribe someone for. Took four pairs of socks. The good kind. And an autograph for a nephew. Kind of faked a signature, too. They're double chocolate chip." Carmilla couldn't help the smile that crept on her face at that. The girl's affinity for any kind of chocolate was something she was growing almost fond of. "And I know our rapport with chocolate is kind of terrible, but I have it on good authority that these actually taste like chocolate chip cookies."

 

She looked back at the food in an attempt to stop staring at the girl who seemed so pleased with herself that Carmilla could practically feel it radiating off of her.

 

After a long stretch of time, in which Carmilla poked and prodded at things until she had actually found something she wanted more than just a taste of - curry rice that had more curry than rice in it - she picked a plastic container up. Before she turned back to her bed, Laura hummed silently and procured a fork and a spoon from one of her pant pockets, offered them to Carmilla.

 

Carmilla looked down at the container and its contents, then took the fork. Laura picked one of the containers up, seemingly at random, and followed her to her bed. Carmilla shook her head at the thought of Laura wanting not only to eat with her, but to sit with her while she did it. Laura smiled at her in that way of hers, like she was genuinely happy to be spending time with her. It was so foreign to Carmilla.

 

When Laura pulled out a single chocolate chip cookie, and unlike the chocolate bar, this one was most definitely not healthy in any way, shape, or form, Carmilla smiled softly. Laura looked kind of like she had forgotten how to breathe for a few seconds. Carmilla mapped out the lopsided smile the girl replied with, memorised the angles and the sound of Laura's breathless laughter for another time.

 

;;

Chapter Text

;;

 

July 17, 2020
Jaeger Academy

 

"Oh, god. No. Not you."

 

"Nice to see you too," said Laura, smiling softly, being careful not to make any sudden movements in case the technician was in a bad mood. She considered that, remembered that Sarah Jane was perpetually in a bad mood, and continued. "I mean, I know we only recently met, but I thought we had a nice rapport, what with you waiting for my roommate to find Karnstein, and well, we found her. A couple of days late, but you know, still counts. You could-"

 

"No," the technician said, again. This time, she faced Laura.

 

Sarah Jane looked a lot less pleasant than when she had warned Laura that she might electrocute her, which Laura took as a bad sign because she looked so happy back then, casually sort of but not really threatening her with bodily harm. She did not let it discourage her. Beside her, Karnstein was shaking, trying to hold in laughter, presumably. To anyone else, she would have looked almost indifferent, but Laura had seen her hold that smile back before – chiefly when the girl was trying so very hard to act bored (and failing) when Laura was in her presence. There was the hint of a smirk playing along the curve of her co-pilot candidate's lips.

 

"Don't tell me she's your potential co-pilot. Are you kidding me? No. Seriously? No way. That woman is a magnet for everything bad. Have you thought this through? The last time she was in a Jaeger- I'm not doing it. There is no way I am hooking her up to my system. There is literally no way."

 

;;

 

Carmilla, now more awake than she had been an hour earlier, was on the fence about the test.

 

She wanted to get it over and done with as soon as possible, so that she could go back to her daily routine of beating people up in the Kwoon and not caring about anything or anyone, and forget all about Laura Hollis and her persistent nature and her bouncy hair, and how she smiled at her even when she knew Carmilla could see her, as if she was proud that Carmilla hadn't run away yet.

 

A tiny part of her wanted it to go through the proper channels, to delay what she thought was inevitable. She smothered that thought with a good dose of denial every single time she had it. Smothered it down with thoughts of their incompatibility; which was manifesting itself in ways that Carmilla hadn't thought of – such as how Laura seemed to like being awake in the mornings, whereas Carmilla just wanted to go back to sleep until three PM. Maybe four PM. Deep down, she knew that it had no bearing on their drift compatibility per se but adamantly ignored that little detail. For some reason she hadn't figured out yet.

 

As for Laura, Carmilla assumed that the girl was sure that she wouldn't leave the academy, but didn't know how long she had before Carmilla decided to leave. Also, she was in no mood to lose another co-pilot candidate, so she'd grabbed onto Carmilla like a life raft.

 

"Why not?" Laura asked.

 

"Looks like your great idea didn't pan out," Carmilla muttered, scratching at her shoulder again. The girl didn't even bother replying with a scathing remark, and Carmilla's eyes gravitated towards her. She looked a lot less smug than she did that morning. Huh.

 

Laura's great idea had been to forego standard procedure, and politely ask Sarah Jane to test their drift compatibility without the official channels that they were supposed to go through to get a Drift Sync test. The same ones that the Marshal had hastened the process of a few days earlier, and since her mother had gone back to the Shatterdome, well. It left them with limited options.

 

There was no telling when the Marshal would come to the academy again, Laura had explained, earlier that morning. And somehow, the girl had figured out that Carmilla wasn't the type to use her position as the Marshal's daughter to fasten up the process herself. She was absolutely certain, in fact, that Carmilla wasn't the type.

 

Carmilla had narrowed her eyes and Laura had rolled hers and explained: Carmilla hadn't announced her mother's status to anyone, at least not in Laura's presence, then amended it to, "or in anyone else's presence, really, because Betty would have known it back when we first met."

 

Before Carmilla could even question who Betty was – it was four AM, her brain hadn't kick-started yet, so she hadn't connected the dots – Laura had continued talking about how even if Carmilla had gotten in trouble for the leather jacket, or the shoes or, well, everything, according to Laura, Carmilla wouldn't have mentioned her mother at all. Which was entirely true. And yet, oddly infuriating. She had no idea how the girl had managed to read her so well. Laura wouldn't have wanted her to use her position like that, anyway, she'd continued.

 

Then Laura went on to say that she had less than two weeks left, only eleven days – of what, Carmilla wasn't sure.

 

The clock was ticking, said Laura, so she had knocked on Carmilla's door in the early morning. Carmilla, still hazy from sleep, had pulled on the first sweater she touched and let her into the room, expecting Laura to hand her another bribe in the form of contraband.

 

She was still dead to the world and rubbing the sleep from her eyes, but in a single moment, Laura jerked her awake by suggesting they visit the J-Tech lab. At four AM. That was when Carmilla noticed how hopeful Laura looked; almost as if it would break her heart if Carmilla told her to go back to bed and slammed the door in her face again. Still, it was four in the morning, so she tried convincing the girl to go back to sleep another way: by telling her what she thought she most wanted to hear.

 

"If you're really that hung up about it, I could drop my mother's name next time I'm in the administration block-" Laura stopped her in her tracks, shaking her head.

 

"No, that wouldn't be fair."

 

Carmilla narrowed her eyes. "To whom? The paper pushers?"

 

"To everyone."

 

Carmilla pressed the bridge of her nose with her thumb and index finger, trying to ignore the lights at the far end of the hall which were way too bright for this time of night. "You just woke me up at four AM. You think this is fair?"

 

"If we get into the lab, that's on us," said Laura, carefully. "But if you mention your mother, we're in that lab because of her. I would be in that lab because she let me be."

 

Carmilla groaned. "What difference does it make?"

 

"It makes all the difference, Karnstein," the girl replied, as if it was the simplest thing in the world for her to understand. It might have been; there was a sheer viciousness in Laura's eyes and Carmilla felt something slither down her lower back.

 

Laura hadn't learnt that in the Kwoon, or anywhere else, really. That authoritative presence was something inherent to her nature, not something that could be faked, not to this degree. Carmilla stood up straighter out of reflex, which only ever happened to her when she was faced with a worthwhile opponent, but the girl opposite her.. she was more than just worthwhile.

 

And Laura kept staring at her with those piercing eyes, and that just wasn't fair on her sensibilities at four in the morning, so Carmilla relented. "Fine. When are we going?"

 

"Right now. Less security."

 

A genuine smile tugged at Carmilla's lips at that. She shook her head, tugged her doc martens on and followed Laura, went along with the girl's plans for now; until she figured out that Carmilla was not what she wanted and threw her back to the dogs. Carmilla would deal with that bridge when they came to it, but for now, she was content to go along with Laura's games.

 

;;

 

There was a beat – no, two.

 

"That's not right," muttered Carmilla, a few minutes in. Laura shivered. "I thought you said there was less security this time of night." Laura breathed in, as if to correct her, and Carmilla said, "Morning, whatever."

 

"I come by here everyday before going down to the Kwoon, there's never anyone patrolling this area so early-" Carmilla didn't wait for the rest of her explanation, simply grabbed her arm, and pulled her towards the closest door. She jiggled the handle. Locked.

 

Panic was starting to gather at the pit of her stomach, and she didn't even know why because her mother would get her out of any situation she found herself in, except, of course, the simple reason that was: she didn't want her mother to find out that Laura was with her. She did not want her mother to know that Laura had managed to convince her to sneak into the labs at four AM. Carmilla didn't want the Marshal to know that she was already going along with her plans. That would not bode well for either of them.

 

Carmilla was selfish; she didn't want her mother to use Laura against her. Her mother kept information such as this, kept people who were important to Carmilla the same way normal people kept bottles of wine. She let it fester into something valuable with time, to be taken out and displayed to anyone willing to listen.

 

She knew that her mother would keep Laura Hollis for a rainy day – casually mention young Laura and her darling co-pilot, whoever they may be and how they had kept the border safe from Kaiju (because Carmilla was sure the girl wouldn't give up even with two incompatible candidates in her belt – Groot and, after the Drift Sync test, herself; she would find someone very soon). And all while Carmilla wasted her time in the Kwoon, in a roomful of hopefuls.

 

"What's wrong?"

 

"Everything," Carmilla muttered, absently.

 

She moved onto another door. This one opened. She pushed Laura in first, practically shoved her into the room, followed her quickly, pressing a hand to the door and turning back to look at Laura. The door clicked shut just as they rounded the corner. The owners of the two heartbeats she had heard a few seconds earlier.

 

The room itself was a storage closet, with unused desks strewn about in an incomprehensible fashion, but it would do for now. All she cared about was that she not get caught wandering around at four in the morning with Laura, and that her mother never find out about this. Carmilla was sure that she could keep the technicians from ever reporting their unsuccessful drift, and she'd be capable of convincing Laura to give up on them being compatible with actual, physical evidence from the technicians.

 

Behind her, Laura's heart was pulsing loudly in her chest. Right. No human would have heard them. Laura hadn't noticed them yet.

 

"What are-"

 

Carmilla grit her teeth together, and pressed her palm against Laura's mouth, effectively silencing her. Laura didn't appreciate that, jerked out of her hold quite easily, and was undoubtedly about to ask Carmilla what the hell she thought she was doing when two pairs of footsteps sounded outside of the room, quite loud in the deafening silence that had cultivated in the room.

 

Patrol.

 

Thankfully, Laura heard that, and decided not to say anything else. Carmilla glared at her silently, because less security, really? Laura, for her part, seemed frustrated as she gestured with her hands.

 

She didn't want to alert anyone to their being here. Carmilla couldn't tell who she was frustrated with the most: Carmilla, for not saying outright that that there were people patrolling or herself, for almost getting them caught by missing this during her careless recon.

 

Carmilla stood still, counting heartbeats – only Laura's, her own had stopped as soon as she'd heard the others; she needed to force it into working again, she'd be hooked up to mechanics that would be monitoring her pulse soon. The people were probably on a different floor, by her casual count. Carmilla opened the door, purposefully making a show of letting Laura walk out first. The girl rolled her eyes and crossed her arms across her chest, but walked out anyway.

 

"You didn't do your research properly," was the first thing Carmilla said after that, only half-paying attention because the the rest of her attention was making sure that there was no one around to see them. Laura's heartbeat wasn't thumping as hard as it had been earlier, but it hadn't quite settled down yet.

 

"Obviously," Laura spat back. Her voice was not as loud as it had been a few minutes earlier, either.

 

"They have extra security on Friday mornings, you see," said Carmilla, leading the way.

 

"Most of us don't spend our Friday mornings in the Kwoon," replied Laura. She sounded almost ashamed to admit it, despite the fact that Carmilla knew that most people took their mornings off entirely. Laura was obviously not one of those people.

 

Carmilla let out a small breathless laugh. "I have a hard time believing the validity of that statement."

 

"I don't start at four AM, okay?"

 

"Whatever you say."

 

;;

 

Needless to say, Laura's idea wouldn't work out as well as she thought it would if Sarah Jane outright refused to do the test.

 

"Looks like your great idea didn't pan out, sweetheart."

 

"Shut up, she'll do it," Laura said.

 

"Uh, no I won't," Sarah Jane disagreed. The technician looked between the two of them, confused. "And why on earth would you ever want her to be your co-pilot? Do you have a death wish I don't know about?" That was when Laura turned to her looking dangerously close to blowing a fuse.

 

"How did you manage to annoy every single person on this base?"

 

"Talent," Carmilla stated, tossing a lazy shrug her way.

 

"Think of it this way," said Laura, turning back to Sarah Jane and smiling in an eerily terrifying manner, almost too polite for it to be a genuine smile. "If we are drift compatible, you won't be seeing either of us in here any time soon."

 

Carmilla stared at her silently, quietly impressed with the girl's reasoning, turning to face Sarah Jane, who was eyeing Carmilla out of the corner of her eye, as if afraid to meet her gaze directly. This one had clearly heard about The Incident, but she wasn't really in the mood to explain why that wasn't her fault.

 

Sarah Jane groaned, blindly reached out to grab at the lab coat of one of the technicians who was walking by, and told him, "Go find Natalie. If she's asleep, wake her the hell up, and if she fires you, remember that she doesn't have the authority to do so. Tell her that she needs to come down here, and tell her it's urgent enough to warrant coffee."

 

;;

 

Natalie was not woken up to help Sarah Jane test their drift compatibility, as Laura had assumed. She walked into the lab and Sarah Jane said, "I can't test them. I have a class in an hour. Tell them to go back to the barracks, they'll listen to you. This one especially."

 

"Two hours," Natalie corrected, offhandedly.

 

Sarah Jane looked up at the ceiling and counted. "Two hours," she confirmed. Laura could hear her adamant little, "You're right, but I'm not going to acknowledge that further than that because I don't want to give off the impression that I can't do basic arithmetic," in those two words alone.

 

"What's the problem again?" asked Natalie, yawning and running her fingers through her hair in irritation. She looked nothing like the superior officer Laura had grown accustomed to, in her baggy 'Jaeger in the streets; Kaiju in the sheets' shirt and striped pajama pants. She hadn't been this dressed down when she had spent time with her outside of training, either. "They're here now. You should test their compatibility."

 

Sarah Jane narrowed her eyes, suspicious.

 

"Look, they're physically compatible, so there’s already a chance they’re drift compatible-" Karnstein made some sort of gutteral sound from next to Laura, as if personally offended at that assumption, "-and even if, by some miracle, they turn out not to be, just don't report it."

 

"'Don't report it'?" echoed Sarah Jane.

 

Natalie nodded. "Worst that could happen is they're not drift compatible and you've wasted your morning playing with your tech, or, here's a thought: they are compatible. In which case, they'll get verbal warnings that will eventually get swept under the rug because no one likes Jaeger pilots with records, and you get a pat on the back for taking the initiative – they'll probably promote you; chief technician sounds fancy."

 

"Very fancy," agreed Laura, nudging an elbow into Karnstein's ribs. The girl turned to look at her, annoyance etched on her face. "Opinions on the lovely Sarah Jane here being promoted to chief technician?" Karnstein rolled her eyes and turned to stare down the others, shrugging softly in a vaguely lazy show of agreement.

 

Sarah Jane looked unconvinced. Natalie continued, "It's not like the higher ups can actively ignore the only drift compatible cadets in like, what, two months, can they?"

 

"So," Sarah Jane said, leaning in closer to their superior officer, "what you're saying is, it's a calculated risk?"

 

"No," said Natalie, her voice level, "what I'm saying is stop waking me up in the middle of the night for this kind of stuff. I do not want to be woken up unless there's fire or blood, or both."

 

"But-"

 

"Now, I'm going back to bed and you're not going to wake me up again for at least three more hours," said Natalie, stepping away. Sarah Jane pouted. That seemed to have some effect on their superior officer, who stopped and tried again. "You can do this without me, just- hook her up slowly," she said, nudging her chin at Karnstein, who was watching the both of them as intently as Laura herself was, "and don't prolong it, because she'll kick your arse and I'll probably pat her on the back for it."

 

"Aren't you supposed to be all responsible in front of them?"

 

"Not at four thirty AM, I'm not," said Natalie.

 

"Okay. Fine. I'll do it if you stay." Natalie narrowed her eyes. "I am not about to get a write-up on using PPDC equipment for my own personal use unless you're here to back me up. You stay here, you can be my proof that these two are physically compatible. So, I'll only do it if you stay."

 

Natalie let out a long-suffering sigh, but said nothing else, and motioned at Karnstein to follow her to the spot Laura and Danny had been in a few days earlier.

 

;;

 

Thankfully, Natalie was the one who got the pleasure of wiring her temperamental co-pilot candidate into the system, because she was sure that Karnstein would have threatened to leave the lab and not come back by now if Sarah Jane had been the one to wire her in.

 

Sarah Jane was a lot less agreeable without a Marshal's signature giving her permission to test them. Laura pulled off her clothes as soon as the technician requested she do so.

 

Laura had prepared this time - she was wearing a tank top underneath, instead of the long-sleeved undershirt she'd worn during her first Drift Sync test. That had kept riding down, so she had vowed, even before she and Danny had been deemed incompatible, to wear a short-sleeved shirt the next time. Obviously, thinking about a next time should have clued her into the fact that she was wasting her time. Sarah Jane was still finding ways to complain about it though, because apparently nothing could please her.

 

Karnstein had rolled up her sleeves – just barely – and Natalie hadn't done anything but sighed and worked around that, telling the girl to attach wires to her forearms herself.

 

Meanwhile, Laura was sure that Sarah Jane was a minute away from asking her to take the tank top off for better readings. If it actually came to that, she was glad that she'd thought to wear a sports bra. Thankfully, Sarah Jane didn't ask her to do so. Instead, the technician asked her to sit still. Which was damn near impossible when she had nothing to entertain herself with.

 

"I can hear you thinking from over here," said Karnstein, voice tired. Laura sometimes forgot that not everyone bounced out of bed with the energy of a billion suns, like she so often did.

 

"If only that were literal," she replied.

 

"Dream on, sweetheart," said Karnstein, smirk evident in her tone. "I'm out of here as soon as this is over."

 

Sarah Jane laughed. "You better, because when my students arrive, they won't let you leave. And I really don't need them finding new test subjects to play with." Karnstein rolled her eyes. "These are actual technicians, Karnstein, they came here to learn how to build Jaegers, not pilot them. Co-pilots are whisked off to a Shatterdome faster than you can say Jack Robinson."

 

After that, the only sound in the lab may as well have been Sarah Jane's ranting, with Natalie sometimes interjecting to confirm or deny whatever she said, because that was all that Laura heard. That, and Karnstein's occasional sighing.

 

;;

 

«Neural handshake initiated. Pilot-to-pilot connection engaged.»

 

;;

 

Reading Jaeger pilots' interviews was proving to have been an absolute waste of her time. They all told different stories of how they perceived the drift; a handful thought it was the only place they could really truly connect with another person, the rest thought it was an unnecessary breach of their boundaries which, Laura thought, of course it was.

 

A breach of boundaries, not unnecessary. She knew exactly how necessary the drift was. Laura knew that the only thing that was keeping the Kaiju at bay were Jaeger pilots and their connections to one another. The Jaegers had been the initial idea, the bare bones of the entire project, but the drift and what the pilots had inside of it? That was the metaphorical heart and soul of any Jaeger.

 

But, even though she had spent a lot of time pondering about what her co-pilot would find when they went digging through her thoughts, dusting off memories she hadn't even known that she still had, Laura hadn't spent any time thinking about what she would find inside her co-pilot's mind.

 

And, oh, what a good thing that turned out to be, keeping herself from thinking about it, because nothing on earth, no thought she could have ever had, could compare to how wonderful it felt sinking into the depths of Carmilla Karnstein's mind.

 

The darkness, and it seemed like that was all there was, embraced her as if it had been waiting for her, anticipating her arrival and adapting itself for her. She wasn't sure what it was at first, but as it wrapped itself around her, smooth as silk against her, made sure it had a good hold on her before it shifted and pulled her in.

 

She was plunged backwards, her spine curving against the dark. All the anxiety seeped out of her, or rather, was pulled out of her and used to weigh her down. She felt light as a feather at first. Before it slammed her down into oblivion.

 

After that, the momentum was what got to her. There was nothing. Nothing other than gravity pulling her down by her tension. She fell fell fell and nothing more.

 

When she saw it, she felt as though it was the ground. It was coming at her faster than anything that she had seen – a patch of white, so small that she couldn't picture herself going through it. It grew as she got closer and by the time she fell deeper and deeper she realised that it wasn't the earth at all, but the sky. It was as if someone had opened a window to the earth, and she was heading straight for it.

 

Laura was going to fall into the sky, and for some reason, that didn't phase her. She was safe; there was no reason for her to think that she wouldn't be. This is Carmilla's mind, she thought. This is Carmilla.

 

The closer she got to the clouds, the more she noticed. Like how the patch wasn't growing any bigger, but instead seemed to be growing smaller instead, as if she were drifting away from it. She stilled at first, thought that maybe it was Carmilla having second thoughts again, thought it best to wait for her to give Laura permission.

 

The way it happened was this: she collapsed into the world.

 

She plunged into it just as her trajectory had predicted she would, but it wasn't gravity or anxiety that was pulling her down. No, that would have required this world to work the same as her world, for physics to be a concept that was vaguely followed instead of downright ignored.

 

It was Carmilla.

 

Carmilla, who had been the one pulling the tension out of her in the first place, causing her to fall backwards, had pulled her into the clouds, letting her sink into them and feel their bone-chilling sharpness against her skin. They weren't white either, she thought, but grey, and she was very suddenly regretting ever thinking that she wanted to taste them because they were nothing like she had imagined.

 

Laura held her knees to her chest as she passed through them, but did not close her eyes, instead watching as the light grey and the dark grey, which was almost black, meshed together to form another colour altogether. It was a rather dark blue, which was why when she fell out of the clouds and into the sky below, she didn't notice at first.

 

And once again, the world inside of Karnstein's head proved to be so adamant in refusing the basic concepts of physics. Still falling down into the depths, but not quite as hard as before. Laura softly sank deeper into it, falling at a speed that made her feel like she wasn't quite flying, but floating downwards at an unprecedented speed that she had no control over, as if she were being held by the wind itself. Like she had all the time in the world for this.

 

There was an ocean underneath her. It was like she had been vaguely aware of it but hadn't had the time to remember it, to familiarise herself with the situation she had found herself in. The ocean was illuminated by the moon, which was another distant thing that Laura hadn't had the time to think of, yet.

 

Waves lapped up at her feet, eagerly awaiting her return to the ocean, and she thought, I've never been.

 

She didn't know whether it was the Atlantic or the Pacific, or whichever ocean she had studied through in geography, and she figured that maybe it was neither. Maybe Carmilla had made this one up. The only thing she did know for certain was that she was falling into it at a moderately comfortable speed and she didn't particularly mind.

 

If one had asked her to describe how it felt to be in the drift, she wouldn't have been able to. Not at first. After the initial onslaught of memories washed over her, more like a weird selection of snapshots than actual scenes, she found it to be a calming, comfortable pressure in her head that seemed to erase all sense of doubt and anxiety from her mind.

 

Dropping down into an endless horizon, heading towards an ocean that went on for miles and miles felt comfortable. For some reason, she knew that if she ever hit the surface, it would all be over. She would wake up from this. So she vowed not to break the surface, and to hover just above the water.

 

;;

 

"Guys, focus. Don't let it drag you under."

 

;;

 

She saw nothing at first. The worst thing about it was how similar it felt to the last time she had drifted, back when she had Elle's sharp voice sinking its claws in her mind as the Jaeger sank its sharp-

 

It felt nothing like that. This one engulfed her, wrapped itself around her body like it was afraid of losing her, smothered her in a way she had only ever felt while underwater. She turned and felt her hair, immobile, dragging away from her face slowly, as if she was underwater, which was when she noticed that that's where she was; deep beneath the ocean. She couldn't see it, but the heavy press against her ribs confirmed it.

 

Breathing in made her lungs scream out in agony, so she didn't. The bottom of the ocean was apt because she could spend the rest of the drift down there and ignore any disturbances happening above.

 

That plan went to hell when she saw a light coming down at her. The harsh glow illuminated everything around her, but she didn't stop to look because as soon as it got closer to her, she raised her arm to cover her face and felt something grasp her hand, then pull her out from the depths of the sea.

 

This wasn't her first time. Carmilla knew the score, knew that the drift wasn't all memories and telephathy. She knew that the drift structured itself differently for different people, knew that sometimes, it decided that people needed a physical manifestation of their connection before they were allowed to drift properly. And that it would only last a few seconds in the real world – an eternity in the drift – and how it would escape both of them as soon as they slipped out of it.

 

How they would only remember bits and pieces of this first drift, like the fringes of a dream trying hard to be remembered, only to be snatched from the clutches of its owner as soon as their eyes snapped open. She knew that all that would be left of this world would be the taste of salt at the back of her throat. That was what the water, the drift, would allow her to have.

 

More importantly, she knew that the drift needed something, anything, from the other side, the other pilot, to help to strengthen the connection. She wasn't sure yet if the light was herself or not but by god, let it be said that it was relentless in its attempts to drag her out of the depths of the ocean.

 

It was feral, this light. Carmilla didn't look at it. Not until it eased up, turned into a soft pink glow instead of the condensed sun it had been before. She could bear to look at it now, however briefly. Carmilla wasn't surprised to see that it had taken the form of a hand, this light source, her own hand, she realised after a moment.

 

The most odd, fascinating thing was that she felt safe; this light was familiar to her, which was when she noticed, sadly, a fact that she had spent so long avoiding. The light, the pull, was a rationalization of her hopes, which were dragging her up to the surface as if she didn't have any other choice. Carmilla didn't want to think of the implications of that – of subconsciously wanting to be out from under the water, and letting herself be released from the pressure depth, of thinking that there was no other choice other than to heal.

 

She thought, distantly, that the feeling of being pulled from the bottom of Tartarus itself with only a pale pink light (disguised as a hand wrapped around her wrist) for leverage, didn't feel so bad – even when the ocean was doing its very best to hold her down, to keep her in its depths with its weight on her shoulders.

 

The ocean was pressing up against her the closer she got to the surface, its deep dark crevices hard against her mind, a trace of Elle left inside of it all. She pushed those down before she could see them, before she could see the shame carved on the inside of her skull; the same shame that was carved into her skin.

 

She did not expect the warmth that seeped into her mind at the mere thought of Laura. Nor did she expect the light to flicker and come back with a harsh intensity, or for it to grasp onto her tighter when she remembered who she was sharing the drift with, either.

 

Carmilla gasped for air, which was when she figured out that it wasn't oxygen that she was being deprived of, but the peace and quiet that came with being the solitary being inside of her mind. But that didn't seem quite right, either, because she hadn't seen Laura anywhere. As if on cue, the surface of the ocean displayed a silhouette against the backdrop of a bright sun. Much brighter than the light, which seemed to have dimmed in the shadow of something much stronger than all of her hopes.

 

There you are, she thought. Some people dragged themselves into her peripheral vision lazily, like sunrise, but that had never been the case with this girl. Laura was something much more effective than a daily ritual the sun seemed to enjoy indulging in. It is only right that you are the Sun at all hours of the day, Laura Hollis.

 

Carmilla, finally. I thought you got lost. The first thing she noticed was that the girl wasn't calling her by her family name anymore. The second, that she had hardly expected Laura's voice to be mellifluous inside her mind but, by god, that's exactly what it was.

 

Laura's hair glowed around her, brown turned golden in the blinding light, and wearing a drivesuit unlike any Carmilla had ever seen before; it was black. It wrapped around her tightly, dipping into curves and the spinal clamp seemed to be the lightest thing in the world to her. The girl looked comfortable, moving like it was no more than a second skin.

 

The weight of it wasn't pulling her down, either; no, Laura was hovering just above the surface, and, presumably, waiting for her. Carmilla wondered if the reason she felt so heavy was because she was wearing a drivesuit too. She got an answer when Laura held out her hand, her fingertips brushing against the water.

 

Come on, then. I watched the sunrise by myself, but we can watch the sunset together.

 

Carmilla didn't know when the bright light had left, to be replaced with Laura's eager palm seeking out a firm grip on her hand but, as Laura pulled her out of the ocean as if its weight on her shoulders were nothing to her, she found that she didn't quite mind. The bright light of the sun seemed easier to withstand now that Laura was there.

 

It was as if Laura had enhanced the brightness from the bright light that had dragged her up to the surface, made it strong enough to light up a whole world.

 

There was no point in denying their drift compatibility any longer. Carmilla knew it long before she hit the surface, but somehow, gulping down air as if she had spent entire centuries down there by herself solidified it. Truth be told, she didn't want to deny it.

 

That was terrifying to Carmilla. Letting herself indulge in Laura, and everything that came with her, to have her simply because she wanted to, was terrifying for the simple reason that, well, there was only one thing that could happen to something, to someone, she wanted that much. They would be taken from her.

 

;;

 

They stood together, looking up at the sun as it sank downwards slowly. This sun didn't hurt when they looked at it. It wasn't as bright as the one they were accustomed to. Laura could feel the water brush the underside of her feet, even through the drivesuit.

 

We're not going to be here that long, sweetheart.

 

Laura tilted her head sideways, turned to look at Carmilla. She was, quite simply, stunning. She might have never looked at the sun ever again, if Carmilla were by her side. Her profile was stained with sunlight, the angles of her face etched in the light. Laura could have missed the sunset, and she wouldn't have noticed. Carmilla wore it well enough for her to warrant Laura's attention.

 

How come?

 

She didn't look at Laura. She watched the sun sink lower, waiting before replying.

 

It's temporary, this world. It's not meant to be anything but. The in-between. Think of it as an orientation, of sorts. It's the software figuring out who we are; checking to see if we're, well, compatible. I've only ever read about it in theory, though.

 

You've read about it. Of course you have.

 

I've read articles, here and there. There's never been any viable proof. Apart from Jaeger pilots trying to recall it after a first drift, and, I'm sure you know how overwhelming a first drift can be. Not everyone can remember its existence after an influx of their co-pilot's memories.

 

Is there anything you haven't read by now?

 

Ha, ha; you're hilarious. I just find it fascinating, how our minds create a virtual world to simulate a neural bridge.

 

Wait. This is the bridge?

 

Mhm.

 

Laura frowned.

 

I thought it would be more bridge-like.

 

Carmilla laughed, and the sound of it made Laura's skin tingle. She drank in the lines formed by the sun against Carmilla's face, shrouding half of it in a pretty silhouette.

 

As long as it serves its purpose, does it really matter what it looks like?

 

I guess not?

 

Neither of us will remember most of it in a few minutes. We'll just have bits and pieces, memories of drowning.

 

That's hardly fair. It's beautiful.

 

Carmilla shrugged.

 

It's just the way it works.

 

;;

 

Carmilla was standing on the edge of the pavement. There was a girl right next to her. She was watching her friends- no, her classmates, who were yelling goodbye at one another. So, she was waiting for someone to pick her up from school.

 

See you at four o'clock, one of them said. The girl looked like she was considering asking her parents to let her go, too. She was resigned to the fact that her parents wouldn't let her, because anything could happen and it's dangerous, Laura, and.

 

This wasn't her memory.

 

One of the girls from her – no, not hers, Laura's class, Laura's school, one of those girls wrapped her arms around her big sister's waist and pressed her head to her back as they pedalled home. Laura looked at them, lowered her gaze to the ground. Carmilla felt that the girl was disappointed, already, at such a young age.

 

Dad, can you teach me how to ride a bicycle? she practiced, but forgot to ask him as soon as he pulled over.

 

He reached down, pulling her backpack off her shoulders, and asked her, How was school, darling? Did you learn anything new?

 

;;

 

The first thing Laura heard was the loud rush of accents. Thick, English accents. She had never been to England before, but she thought that this place, wherever it was, was what it would have looked like, if she had.

 

It reminded her vaguely of Carmilla, but the memory felt old, much older than Carmilla, and Laura was not quite sure that she was actually in Carmilla's memories at all.

 

There was a woman in a beautiful navy dress, holding an umbrella – no, a parasol, victorian style – and it was too foggy to be able to see anything, which, again, England. Laura saw nothing other than the colour of the dress, and the sharpness of the woman's jaw.

 

She felt relaxed, but the woman was quick. The scene disappeared behind her, in thick black smoke that Laura was sure had nothing to do with the fog, so Laura struggled to keep up with her. By the time she was almost a couple of steps away from her, the woman was already turning, walking into a house.

 

She tripped on the steps as she climbed up, nothing like the woman, who had all the grace of royalty. Laura looked up at a man in a suit and tie, and listened to a slight throb in her head, a relaxed kind of beat, ragged and well-worn. Laura guessed that there was some sort of event happening inside, one with a weird selection of music that sounded more like a pulse than anything else-

 

Welcome, Ms. Karnstein, he said.

 

;;

 

Laura was older this time, sixteen maybe. Carmilla noticed the sticking plasters on her knees, and the book she was reading was – she couldn't see the cover, she couldn't glance at the words on the page either, because Laura kept flipping pages over, like she was studying it, but she could feel that Laura was content.

 

Dinner's almost ready, kiddo, someone – no, her father, his voice felt too familiar to have belonged to anyone but – said, voice trailing from downstairs. Her bedroom was on the second floor, then. Laura jumped out of the bed, left the book with about fifteen bookmarks hastily tucked inside of its pages.

 

Laura jumped down the stairs, two at a time. Carmilla slowed her pace, went through all the photographs on the walls. The majority were of Laura and her father, but some of them had just Laura, as a toddler and then at graduation ceremonies; others were either close-ups of her father's chin or face that was most likely Laura's attempt at photography that he had actually framed and put on display.

 

Did people actually do that, Carmilla thought. Display failure so prominently in their households? Her mother never cared for any of the paintings she'd done for her; kept them in storage, along with other valuables. Carmilla had been proud, at the time, that her skill with a brush had warranted space in storage, not the trash. She looked at a photograph of Laura's dad, with half his face cut out of the picture, wide grin the only thing visible from his face. He looked so ridiculously happy.

 

This part of the memory was melting down into darkness, suddenly, and she remembered that Laura had gone into the kitchen, so Carmilla hurried, followed the voices. She managed to find them eventually, Laura with a fake-annoyed grin set in place and her father ruffling her hair. Carmilla felt a warmth in her chest that she had never felt before.

 

I was going to help, Dad, the girl said. I really was.

 

Set the table, Laura. And no creative table settings, either. Forks and knives, plates, the usual.

 

No books at the table; I know, I know. She held up a single finger, which had him raising an eyebrow in question. But there will be book talk. Lots of it. He laughed in response, shook his head as she plucked forks and knives from out of the cupboard.

 

;;

 

"Numbers are stabilizing."

 

;;

 

This memory was definitely not Carmilla Karnstein's. She was sure it wasn't. It couldn't possibly have been Carmilla's, because she was at a masquerade ball. An honest-to-god masquerade ball.

 

Laura didn't know if people still organized these kinds of events, but if they did, this one had most definitely happened before the Kaiju. The people here looked happy; none of the usual tense atmosphere that could be found anywhere post K-day. And even if they did host them still in the twenty first century or before, wouldn't Carmilla have been too young to attend any of them? None of this made any sense to her.

 

That stopped being of any importance as soon as she spotted her. Laura couldn't see her face, there was a black mask covering half of it, but she was sure it was her. Black hair, curled and swept away from her face, nearly-bare shoulders, and a blood red dress that wrapped around her waist like a corset. Laura stared at that tight waist for another few seconds before she decided that yes, Carmilla was most certainly wearing an actual corset underneath the dress.

 

Carmilla held another girl's hand – her companion wore her own mask, this one green, and there was a blur of the colours fading together as Carmilla pressed forward, pulled the girl from out the loud crowd and into a dimly-lit room. The memory was receding into darkness behind her. Laura had no choice; she followed them.

 

When they were alone, Carmilla's demeanour turned tentatively hesitant; teeth biting her bottom lip and hands flittering about. Nothing like the unfaltering and resolute way she had pulled the girl into the room in the first place. It was quiet still, and the only thing Laura heard was the sound of a pulse loud in her ear; this, she knew, was not Carmilla's.

 

The other woman pressed her against a desk – it might have been a regular table, Laura wasn't sure, but it didn't matter really, because Laura had imagined this scenario a hundred, a thousand times herself. She knew where this was heading. So all that mattered was that the girl smelled incredible, and-

 

;;

 

Laura's head slammed against the back of the chair as she was plunged into the drift, the influx of memories and what tasted like being slammed down into the depths of a bottomless sea completely overwhelming her. The drift felt like being pulled under.

 

Karnstein, for her part, jerked forward. The force enough for her entire body to lift out of the chair and drag one of the heavy pieces of machinery with her. She breathed out, let herself relax and drop down onto the chair once more.

 

'Don't think of her, don't think about-'

 

Laura was too preoccupied by what Karnstein was saying- thinking to notice, but what she noticed was that Karnstein was most definitely thinking in German. It took her a while to notice that Karnstein wasn't talking to her, but to herself.

 

'Hey, are you okay?' Laura thought back.

 

;;

 

She remembered more of the orientation than she thought she would have. She guessed that previous exposure to the drift must have had something to do with it. Laura's voice sounded like warmth in Carmilla's mind, like acceptance. She didn't need the girl to get ideas from that. Laura, she could just tell, was entirely focused on her, watching Carmilla's chest rise and fall.

 

'Peachy.'

 

'The thing you want to hide – don't think about it. You're not going to be able to keep it from me if you think about how much you want to keep it from me. You have to distract yourself with something else.'

 

Carmilla stared at her like she had grown two heads.

 

Laura's stream of consciousness was erratic. She thought with a sense of urgency, it wasn't quite the same as how she talked, but Carmilla saw similarities. She was less restricted in her mind, thought everything all at once. Carmilla saw her thoughts branch out into multiple possibilities; saw her picking at the pros and cons of each thing she could say before choosing which ones to to actually say.

 

The way Laura thought was exhausting, like a hyperactive child on a sugar high. The only reason Carmilla knew how to keep up with Laura's thought process, was because Carmilla herself used to think in quite the same manner and had learned how to be indifferent over the years.

 

'I've read up on this stuff,' thought Laura. She thought in German; of course. 'A lot, actually. You don't seem to be the kind of person who likes this, having someone in your head. You need a distraction. Um, music helps. I think. I can ask SJ or Natalie to put something on if you'd like-'

 

Laura obviously hadn't expected Carmilla to listen to her. She hadn't expected the beginning chords of 'Highway To Hell' to seep into her mind, either.

 

'Cute, Karnstein. Very cute.'

 

;;

 

Carmilla didn't answer her, instead focused on the music. Laura stared attentively as the girl – her future co-pilot, she thought, excitedly – breathed in heavily, and gathered her thoughts. Laura seemed excited to find that they were indeed drift compatible.

 

"Nope," Carmilla replied. Out loud. "Definitively not drift compatible."

 

Laura thought that it was nice of Carmilla to reply to her in English for the benefit of the others in the room, because while she knew that Natalie understood German, she didn't know if Sarah Jane- Wait.

 

"What?"

 

"Unfortunate for your friendly neighbourhood nerds, I'm sure, but alas."

 

Laura noticed that Carmilla's voice in her head didn't sound quite like Karnstein's voice inside the lab, which sounded raspier, almost like she purred out every word she said. Or growled out, as if she were putting on an act.

 

'I don't purr,' thought Karnstein, smiling a feline grin at her. Laura was almost out of her chair in her scrambled state, because the girl was literally proving that they were drift compatible while adamantly refusing to admit it.

 

"We're drift compatible."

 

"Are we?"

 

"I can hear your thoughts, Karnstein."

 

Carmilla smirked, narrowed her eyes.

 

"What am I thinking about right now?"

 

Laura didn't stop to focus on Carmilla's thoughts. "You're not thinking about anything, you're just going through things that you could say that would annoy me even more than what you just said."

 

'Actually,' Carmilla's voice sounded like honey in her mind, 'that's exactly what I was thinking. Good going, buttercup.'

 

"Are you kidding me," Laura said, still staring at Karnstein.

 

Laura couldn't figure out the girl's deal, and if her current attitude was anything to go by, she never would, which wasn't exactly what Laura had hoped for whenever she thought of having a co-pilot. She'd wanted something more than rejection, but – as per usual – that was all there was. Even with proof, Carmilla was still denying their drift compatibility. To annoy her, of course, but still.

 

They might as well have been inside a Jaeger, hooked up to its system and moving around in it, because Carmilla would have denied it anyway. Laura's smile faltered at that thought. Carmilla's self-satisfied smirk dropped as soon as she noticed, but the girl had turned away from her.

 

The thing that bothered her the most was that Carmilla looked bored. She didn't know why, exactly, but she couldn't stand having Carmilla be bored. It had started out as a way to keep the girl interested in her long enough to use the full extent of her abilities, but now it was simply that she disliked thinking that she wasn't enough. It reminded her too much of the other candidates, the ones Carmilla had sparred with in the Kwoon.

 

Laura knew she was different; she had the proof, both in her head and right in front of her – Sarah Jane was on her laptop grinning like the cat that ate the canary, which would have worried Laura had Natalie not been there. Both of them were looking at proof of what she knew more than a week ago: that she and Carmilla were drift compatible.

 

And, as if that weren't enough, she could still hear Carmilla vaguely thinking to herself. It took her a second to focus on it, but when she did, she recognised it instantly.

 

Music, she knew, was going to become a habit of Carmilla's while they were in the drift. This time though, it wasn't AC/DC. Laura hadn't pinned her as the type to calm herself down with anything other than alternative punk rock bands from the late seventies, but Carmilla had taken to surprising her these past couple of days.

 

Classical was the one type of music she wouldn't have guessed that Carmilla liked, and yet that's what the other girl was calming herself with.

 

"Is that Bach?"

 

It stopped instantly. Laura had intruded, and she turned to look at the opposite end of the lab again, making sure to keep her eyes off of Karnstein. She didn't need to make her even more uncomfortable.

 

This went on for about a minute before she tried again, this time trying to focus on what she had seen when they first entered the drift: the woman in the navy dress, England.

 

"I saw something of yours a few minutes ago. It looked off, somehow, like a movie set in the nineteenth century-"

 

'Don't say that,' thought Carmilla, automatically. At her panicked voice, Laura turned towards her, and saw her studying Sarah Jane and Natalie, who were still hunched over the tech, intently checking numbers. Laura saw a tiny Jaeger on the screen. That was the Jaeger simulation, right.

 

"Something," Laura said, hoping that her voice didn't waver. "Not sure what I saw, but it wasn't mine. Must've been yours, Karnstein."

 

'It's fine,' Laura thought, still looking at Sarah Jane. 'I won't mention it in front of them.'

 

Karnstein didn't reply, stood still as a statue and ignored her. Despite that, Laura could feel the other girl's interest in their connection spike, despite her adamant disinterest in the entire affair. She could feel Karnstein's anxiety too, so she decided to stop thinking about how guarded she was, focused on other things: a list of the top ten favourite movies.

 

Thankfully, Natalie interrupted.

 

"Stand up, shortstack." Carmilla coughed to disguise a chuckle at the nickname, which was when Natalie turned to her and said, "You too, Karnstein. Careful with the wires, don't pull anything off."

 

Laura eagerly stood up. Karnstein did the same, albeit at a more glacial pace. Natalie glanced down at the laptop that Sarah Jane was still hunched over, watched as the tiny Jaeger simulation stood up too.

 

;;

 

The girl's heartbeat increased, and Carmilla counted numbers in her head, to make sure that Laura didn't realise that her thoughts had slipped into inappropriate territory. Specifically, the rate that her heart was pumping blood through her veins.

 

Her drifting partner had no self-control; couldn't keep herself from thinking of anything. She thought of her father, of their house, then she thought of Carmilla – they were back to Karnstein now, apparently – next to her. To her left, as Laura had been prone to being in the past few days. She felt warm at the thought.

 

"Sit down," Sarah Jane said.

 

They both sat down.

 

So did the Jaeger.

 

;;

 

After almost twenty minutes of compliance with Sarah Jane and Natalie, both of them telling them what to do – mostly to move in standard formation – they were both drained. Drifting for such a short period of time was harder than either of them had expected it to be. Especially when all they were doing was moving their arms and legs in sync.

 

Laura was buzzing with energy, but all they seemed interested in was how well they synched up. She already knew how well they synched up. That's why she had forced Sarah Jane to do the test in the first place.

 

'Why don't they ask us to do the hokey pokey while they're at it?'

 

She heard Karnstein suppress her thoughts, which had included something along the lines of, 'Don't give them any ideas. They probably have nothing better to do.'

 

"Disengaging pilot-to-pilot connection."

 

That was the moment Laura noticed that Karnstein's warmth was not at all physical. Her thoughts had been comforting, not her physical presence. Well, that was new.

 

Laura felt as if she had stepped off a building, except for the fact that she never stopped falling, like Alice in the rabbit hole. The connection that she had with Karnstein didn't break, but it had faded. The few inches between them felt like an entire country, a whole continent, and after a few breaths, Laura noticed that it would not have been wrong to think of it as the space between planets.

 

Karnstein stared back at her with a hard look in her eyes, brows furrowed and breathing entirely too deep for it to be considered normal. A shiver ran down Laura's spine; she turned back to Sarah Jane, Natalie, and the laptop.

 

Sarah Jane had dragged the thing closer to show them the tiny Jaeger midway through the test, even though Natalie had commented on the effectiveness on the test itself if they knew the results. Sarah Jane had rolled her eyes, but pushed the laptop away and hid it until after they'd finished. The Jaeger simulation was still on the laptop, behind a red bar that stated 'CONNECTION TERMINATED'.

 

"You unstrap grouchy over there." Karnstein had not been the most pleasant of test subjects. Laura had made a note that her soon to be co-pilot did not deal well with being strapped to a chair with a bunch of wires stuck to her person for long periods of time.

 

Natalie rolled her eyes, stepped in front of Karnstein, and pulled off a sensor from her forehead, leaving a round, red mark on her head. Laura would have laughed, had Sarah Jane not pulled a sensor from her neck at that same time.

 

"Ow," she yelped. They felt like they had been stuck to her skin with superglue. "Is this really it? Could we do it again?"

 

Sarah Jane pulled a sensor from off of Laura's forehead, and scoffed. "No need. You two are drift compatible. The next time you do this will be in a proper Jaeger. Or a simulator. Uh, you'll have to ask Nat about that."

 

"You've both finished Pons training, right?" Natalie asked, hoping to distract Karnstein long enough to make her stop glaring daggers at Sarah Jane.

 

They both nodded.

 

"Yeah," Sarah Jane said, staring at them as if she were slightly terrified of the prospect of the both of them in a fully operational Jaeger. "You two will have a trial run in an actual Jaeger – test Jaeger, but still a Jaeger – and then you can go on to the third stage of training. Enjoy playing with Jaegers; try not to kill us all while you're at it."

 

"SJ," said Natalie. "Behave."

 

Sarah Jane coughed, the tips of her ears turning red. "Apart from that, there might be some residual effects of the drift, so you'll need to stay in physical contact for a few hours after drifting. Yes, every time."

 

Laura frowned.

 

"What kinds of residual effects?"

 

"Oh," said Sarah Jane, shrugging, obviously indifferent to anything the pilots experienced that wasn't directly related to the technology. "You know. A sort of separation anxiety. I've heard of chest pains too, but that's only happened like, once."

 

"Don't take any notice of her," Natalie said, rolling her eyes. "You'll be just fine. But do spend at least an hour or two together post-drift. It'll help. It should not get any worse than a simple craving, but some pilots have it worse than others."

 

"Thanks," Laura said, unsure of whether to ask for more details on the post-drift at such an early stage. She smiled awkwardly at the both of them, and chanced a look back at Karnstein. "You sure you didn't see anything of mine?"

 

Laura felt, rather than saw Karnstein shut her eyes and breathe in.

 

"Positive, sweet cheeks. I think we've established that."

 

'So we're still doing this,' Laura thought bitterly, glaring at her. She turned to Sarah Jane, and asked to do the test once more.

 

"No way," Sarah Jane said, frowning. "I have better things to do than entertain you two."

 

"When did you two meet?" Natalie asked, probably in the hopes of distracting Karnstein long enough to make her stop glaring daggers at Sarah Jane.

 

"Nineteen- no, twenty days ago," Laura replied, cheerfully. Karnstein looked at her like she hadn't even noticed it had been such a short amount of time since that first day in the Kwoon, scratched at her side absently.

 

"Did you know each other before sparring?" asked Natalie, who was still pulling off Karnstein's sensors quickly, in an attempt to keep Carmilla from doing it herself.

 

"Nope," Laura said.

 

"I've only ever seen results like this between couples or siblings. And this one time, twins," Sarah Jane said, counting off points on her fingers. She furrowed her brow, looked at them both. "You're not related, are you? You don't look related."

 

Laura shook her head. Sarah Jane turned to Carmilla, who rolled her eyes and didn't even bother replying, instead turned to Natalie, who was finding that it was harder to remove the wires now that they had criss-crossed on top of each other.

 

"Hm," Sarah Jane said, frowning gently. "That'll work well with the public."

 

"Darling," said Natalie, finally having given up on untangling Karnstein from the mess of straps and wires alone. "I'm going to need your help over here."

 

"Give me a minute," Sarah Jane said, still stripping wires from off of Laura.

 

"This is undignified," muttered Karnstein, pulling at the wires herself. Natalie put her hand over Karnstein's, stopping her. "I'd rather not spend more time than necessary in here."

 

"You don't have to be rude," said Laura, patiently watching Sarah Jane unstick sensors from her arms. "They were nice enough to do an unsanctioned test. Honestly, Karnstein."

 

"You're insufferable," said Karnstein.

 

"I'm insufferable? And you're what? Charming?"

 

"Hardly," said Karnstein, smirking at her. Sarah Jane had stopped pulling off sensors from Laura, and was staring between the two of them, watching their easy back and forth interaction with fascination. "But I'm not nearly as insufferable or as obstinate as you are, which is-"

 

"Quite an accomplishment, I'm sure."

 

"I was going to say 'quite an achievement', actually," said Carmilla, picking at her sleeve. Natalie pulled her hand back and crossed her arms over her chest.

 

"Sure you were," Laura said, looking back at her.

 

"Maybe," the other girl muttered, "if you stopped trying to finish my sentences."

 

"Maybe if you stopped finishing mine," Laura said, glaring at her.

 

Natalie looked at Sarah Jane.

 

"Which proves that we're not drift compatible," said Karnstein, facing Natalie, and keeping her gaze off of Laura. Laura rolled her eyes again, and waited for Carmilla to deflect, again. "Which would have been useful hours ago, in the absence of these nitwits actually being capable of doing their jobs."

 

"Why are you so rude?"

 

"Why are you under the impression that you're so polite?"

 

Sarah Jane and Natalie had been following their exchange back and forth since the start; a few of the other technicians, including the one who had gone to find Natalie, had been watching them as well.

 

"Are you guys sure you didn't know each other from like, childhood?"

 

"Yes," both Carmilla and Laura said at the same time, glaring at her with equally irritated expressions. Karnstein's jaw was set in a hard line. Laura huffed.

 

"Okay, then."

 

The official report concluded that 'L. Hollis and C. Karnstein are drift compatible'. The nature of the drift was listed as 'unstable due to the reluctance to engage (mostly on Karnstein's part)'.

 

;;

 

They were silent on the walk back to the barracks. They didn't agree to walk back together, but they were both too tired to think of doing anything but. Karnstein didn't bother to tell her not to walk so close to her, didn't care enough to leave her alone. Drifting with someone took its toll. Laura planned on sleeping the rest of the day off.

 

She muttered something about how they needed to work on their stamina for next time, and Karnstein stepped a few inches away from her. Laura hadn't noticed how close they were, bumping into each other's shoulders, until that moment.

 

Laura tried especially hard not to reach out and hold Karnstein's hand. She had heard of co-pilots who needed to be in physical contact with one another after a drift, to come down from the high that the drift provided. She had read online articles that mentioned the rush of sharing a space with another person in such a way that it made it possible for them to control a Jaeger, but Laura hadn't expected it to be quite as strong.

 

They broke apart to go to their respective rooms, which Laura figured out was a terrible idea five seconds after she closed the door to her vacant room. Betty had left her a note saying that she'd gone to the simulators. Laura sat on her bed for a while and made a short list of reasons why she shouldn't have wanted to go to Karnstein's room.

 

The first two reasons were 'I shouldn't go because she sort of hates me' and 'I shouldn't go because I don't actually like her'. After the third point on the list ('I should go, because the first two reasons are lies') she gave up, and decided to just go to Karnstein's room.

 

The pull to get closer to the other girl was stronger than her futile resistance. Being in Karnstein's room would've been better than being in her own room at that moment, because at least she would have been physically closer to Karnstein. Even if the girl would probably pull her arm straight out of its socket if Laura attempted to hold her hand.

 

Laura found the door to Karnstein's room open.

 

It looked messier than it usually was but what worried Laura was that Karnstein's duffel bag was open on her bed again. Karnstein was frantically trying to pack her books, clothes, and CDs into it.

 

"Whoa, why are we packing again?"

 

Karnstein's head snapped up; she hadn't been paying attention to anyone walking past her door, but she relaxed when she saw that it was Laura who had interrupted her. As if she were expecting it to be someone else.

 

"I thought we already had this conversation," Laura said, in German, now that there was nobody there and she knew for sure that Karnstein spoke the language.

 

"We aren't packing," Karnstein replied, her eyes going back to the books on her bed. "I held up my end of the deal, and now I am leaving."

 

"No. But you said-" Laura stepped into the room.

 

"You were the one who said that I only had to stick around until we took the test." Karnstein glared at her for a second, and then spit out, "You neglected to mention what happened afterwards. Your incompetence does not hold my interest for long, sweetheart."

 

"Okay," Laura said, in a frustrated manner. She motioned at her in an attempt to explain herself without using her words, but Karnstein went back to packing. "While I admit that our initial agreement was.. flawed, you still can't leave. We have an actual shot at-"

 

"At what? Saving the world? Being heroes?" Karnstein said, spitting out the last word.

 

Laura frowned and tried to recall ever referring to Jaeger pilots as heroes in front of Karnstein. She hadn't, because she didn't consider them as such, not anymore. Karnstein choked back a breath, stopped packing. When she finally looked up at Laura, she continued.

 

"It doesn't work that way. We're not getting anywhere near a proper Jaeger tomorrow. There's training, and I am not keen on having you in my head seven days a week, alright?"

 

Laura dropped her gaze from Karnstein's eyes. Her grip on the duffel bag had tightened. When she looked up at her again, Carmilla was still staring at her, a cold look in her eyes that Laura hadn't seen on her before. She stepped closer to her, despite every rational part of her mind screaming at her to step away from Karnstein, to let her run away.

 

"Look, I know you're scared, but-"

 

"You don't know what it's like to-" Karnstein's hold slackened; she looked down at her hands. After a beat, she faced Laura.

 

She did not know why she did it, but she felt the need to comfort Karnstein. The thing was, Laura had never known how to comfort someone who was this close to her without touching them, so she reached out for the girl's hand. Karnstein's eyes flickered towards her palm, and she stepped backwards. She pulled her hand back, clenching it into a fist, to remind herself that Karnstein did not want to be comforted.

 

"This isn't personal," Karnstein said, looking as though it pained her to admit it.

 

"The hell it's not," said Laura, voice cracking. Karnstein ignored her, and went back to shoving her stuff into the duffel bag. Laura heard the unfortunate sound of a CD case cracking.

 

"You are the most infuriating person I have ever had the displeasure of meeting, but it's not about that."

 

"Carmilla."

 

The way she said her name sounded like she was begging her to stay in a language that only included the one word, said in different ways. Somehow, Laura knew that she was one of a handful of people who knew how to speak this language.

 

Carmilla's hands stilled.

 

"I can't have someone in my head again." She tugged at the zipper, looking ready to abandon anything that wasn't already packed. She would get copies from somewhere else, Laura knew. "The last time someone was in my head, they didn't like what they found."

 

"I don't care about what I'll find," she replied.

 

"I don't want to be in my own head most of the time," said Karnstein, hoisting the duffel bag onto her shoulder. "I'm doing you a favour, trust me." Laura stepped in front of her. The girl's grip on the strap of the duffel tightened. Half of her clothes were still on the bed. So were her books.

 

"I don't need you to do me any favours. I don't need you to protect me from whatever it is you're trying to keep me from. I can handle it."

 

"No, you can't."

 

"Yes, I can."

 

"May I-" Carmilla stepped to the side. Laura moved in front of her. She breathed out slowly, her shoulders lowering. Laura put her hands on the strap of the duffel bag, her fingers brushing against Carmilla's clothes.

 

Laura tried to tug the duffel off of Carmilla's shoulders, but the girl stubbornly held onto it. After the second tug, she relented. She dragged it to the bed, onto the side that wasn't occupied by the now-abandoned books. Carmilla watched as she pulled out her things carefully, flipping a broken CD case and tutting her disapproval.

 

;;

 

Laura put all the books to one side, and then started folding the clothes. They stood there, for a while, with Carmilla not talking, and Laura putting her belongings back into the duffel bag properly, before either of them said anything.

 

"I can handle you," said Laura.

 

Carmilla stared at her, the sentence hitting the back of her throat like a shot. She vaguely noted that the girl's heartbeat had increased in pace.

 

"I can handle what's in your head," Laura continued. "I did today. It was a little weird, and confusing. Unlike anything I imagined it would be but that wasn't because you were weird, it was because I had never done it before."

 

Laura looked up at her, all starry-eyed and with her heart on her god damn sleeve, and Carmilla clenched her jaw shut tight.

 

"Look, the point is: I can handle it. It was wonderful, Carmilla, being inside your head."

 

Her name rolled off Laura's tongue like it was safe inside of her mouth. Carmilla was utterly terrified of the thought that her name, such an integral part of her, would ever be safe in anyone's mouth.

 

"You were the one who ignored me," said Laura, thumbing a CD case – this one, in prime condition.

 

"My issue lies with the things you didn't see," Carmilla said, her throat suddenly dry. Laura didn't say anything, then. "This is unlike anything you've ever imagined."

 

"I have an over-active imagination; you'd be surprised at what I've imagined."

 

"This isn't about you." Laura had gone back to packing her belongings. Laura treated her clothes as if they were precious; it made Carmilla nervous.

 

"No, it isn't. It's about us, or- The possibility of us being co-pilots. But all you seem intent on doing is, I don't know, running away."

 

She had managed to put all of her things into the duffel. A few of the books were adamantly resisting being placed inside, duffel already tightly-packed, so Laura pulled them back out, along with a few of the clothes, in an attempt to rearrange them again. Why did this girl care so much about problems that weren't her own, Carmilla wondered.

 

"You enlisted for a reason. Whatever it was, you can't just give up now."

 

Carmilla looked at the girl who was packing her things so neat, while also trying to convince her that she had a reason to stay. Laura frowned and zipped up the bag. It closed. Laura patted it slowly, as if she were touching a ticking bomb.

 

"You're trying to manipulate me into staying, and it's not going to work. The reason I enlisted-" Carmilla let out a soft breath of laughter. "You don't want to be inside my head."

 

"Please don't do that," she said. She looked down, kicked at a scuff mark on the floor.

 

"Do what?"

 

"Don't," Laura said slowly, looking up at Carmilla, "tell me what I want, like you know. What I want is to get inside of a Jaeger, and get to the Kaiju before they get to us. You are keeping me from doing just that."

 

"This won't work out," Carmilla muttered.

 

"You haven't even tried."

 

"Last time I tried, I got-"

 

Laura strained her ears to hear the next couple of words out of her mouth. They never came. Laura had undoubtedly heard of Jaeger pilots who lost their co-pilots. She had possibly even given thought to the idea that she might someday lose her own co-pilot, or that they might lose her. She had probably never considered that she might have been drift compatible with someone who had already lost their co-pilot.

 

"It won't end well," Carmilla said, instead.

 

"Your mother gave me your personnel file."

 

Carmilla stared up at her, and a swelling in her chest not altogether unfamiliar to her started making its way through her throat. She had often considered it to be the absence of life, because she assumed that her mother, her sire, had to replace it with something else to bring her back from the dead.

 

She thought that she had never felt it around Laura because the other girl was so full of life that it was impossible to feel so ashamed of breathing around her. She didn't think that the monster crawling around her chest, the one pressed tight against her sternum, howling and scratching and demanding to be let out, would ever awaken around her.

 

"Carmilla M. Karnstein. Born May 26th, 1996," Laura said, recited it as if she had gone over it hundreds of times. The absence grew bigger, and for the first time, Carmilla thought of it as the absence of hope itself, because she had tasted life, had swallowed it whole, and this? Felt nothing like its absence.

 

Carmilla pressed her eyes shut.

 

"The office."

 

"After we met her," Laura confirmed, sitting down next to the now-packed bag. "While you were waiting outside. She had it in her desk drawer and she offered it to me. I didn't tell you because it didn't matter at the time."

 

"What did you think?" Carmilla asked, her voice hard, throat raw with anger. It sent a shiver through Laura's spine. She stepped closer to her, smiling a bitter smile that should have made Laura's insides churn in the worst possible way. "Was it as good as you thought it would be?"

 

Laura looked at her like she thought her voice sounded broken, hollow. She shook her head, and Carmilla wanted to run, run, run faster than she ever had before. She scratched at her itching shoulder. At herself, for being the monster that Elle had believed her to be. At her mother for her incessant interfering in her life, and at Will for various reasons. At Laura for–

 

"I didn't read it."

 

Carmilla's smile dropped, her gaze turning confused, then curious. Laura looked at her with an intensity in her eyes that made Carmilla want to trust her.

 

"That part was listed on the cover of the file. I didn't open it, Carmilla."

 

She hadn't read her file.

 

Laura seemed to enjoy getting her way – getting a sanctioned Drift Sync test with Danny from her mother, making Carmilla agree to anything before noon, getting an unsanctioned Drift Sync test from Sarah Jane. It was clear to Carmilla that this, being given her file, should have been everything that Laura wanted.

 

Getting to read up on her, learn her strengths and weaknesses, learn how to control her, how to manipulate her, like everyone else in her life. And, since Laura wanted something from her – to stay at the Jaeger Academy and be her co-pilot – she should have taken the file.

 

It confused her, the fact that Laura hadn't taken the file, until she remembered how Laura kept unpacking her duffel, then putting everything in its place again, and asking her not to leave; how she had told her to focus on things other than Elle in the drift. Shouldn't she have let her focus on Elle? She would have figure out what her deal was, as Laura had so aptly put it.

 

It was clear that she wanted Carmilla to stay, so why hadn't she taken any advantage she could get over her? The girl made no sense.

 

"I don't care about your personnel file. You're stubborn and annoying, and you've probably pissed off a lot of people. Myself included." Carmilla scoffed. Laura stood up, stepped in front of her. "I want to get to know you. I do. But not like that."

 

"Now that you've found out that we're drift compatible, of course you want to. That's how this works, isn't it."

 

"No. That's not why I-" Laura breathed out, roughly. "You favour your right side. When you fight." She closed her eyes slightly, and smiled, as if remembering their sparring session. "But anyone who's sparred with you would know that. What they wouldn't know is the fact that you're a sucker for anything even remotely chocolate-y, and also that you're an avid punk rock fan who loves Bach in G Major."

 

Carmilla wasn't impressed. Laura had learnt that during the drift.

 

"You pretend to listen to your CD player when you don't want anyone to talk to you, which is most of the time, and-" Laura put her hands up. "Why do you even own a CD player? In the past week alone, I've seen you casually fixing Jaeger blueprints. Twice. When you think no one's looking, obviously, because god forbid anyone find out that you're practically a genius."

 

"Wait, twice?" She had only noticed Laura following her the first time – or, what she assumed had been the first time. "Have you been stalking me?"

 

Laura ignored her, kept rambling. "It's probably a retro thing, because you definitely know your way around modern tech, so an iPod wouldn't be too hard for you to handle. You could probably build one, given enough time and parts, but you carry that bulky thing around anyway, which is one of the most frustrating things about you because I can't figure it out."

 

"How cute," Carmilla muttered.

 

"I can't, for the life of me, figure you out. Your collection of books – Carmilla, I counted books in at least fifteen different languages, and you're, what? Two years older than I am? I know like, two languages. One and a half, really."

 

"Get to the point," Carmilla said, her voice harsher than she intended it to be.

 

"You're a damn enigma, and I was planning on annoying you into being my friend even if it turned out that we weren't drift compatible. But we are. But that doesn't matter, because you are also the single most fascinating person on this base and I am so eager to find out what makes you tick, Carmilla Karnstein. That's why I want to get to know you."

 

A warmth spread through Carmilla's bones, in the void behind her ribcage. It took her a second to notice that it was her heart, pumping blood. It was beating erratically, harder than it had in years. Carmilla breathed in, because it seemed almost necessary now. She didn't even remember when she had stopped breathing.

 

"You can leave if you want, but seriously, it's the apocalypse. It's not going to end well no matter where you hide. Do you really want to spend what's left of your life running away? Hiding? At least this way, you can say that you tried fighting back."

 

"You're infuriating," Carmilla said, a bite in her voice that she hadn't used with Laura since their sparring session. Laura looked like she was glad that it was still there. "And impossible to reason with."

 

"So are you," Laura said, sternly.

 

Carmilla groaned.

 

"I want you to stay. I would like it if you stayed."

 

She sighed. "It's not a retro thing, my CD player. Media players are too light nowadays. I think that there should be a certain weight to music."

 

Laura's mouth struggled not to burst into a smile. "Of course. That's kind of- This is the musical equivalent of digital books versus physical copies, isn't it? I like books better than e-readers, so. I can kind of relate to that."

 

Carmilla didn't actually want to leave. She liked the Jaeger Academy. But she didn't have a co-pilot that morning, and now she did. She hadn't found anyone who could match her, before Laura. She hadn't found someone who could match her and still be trusted. A tiny part of her wanted Laura to be that person. That part of her wanted to stay.

 

She relented.

 

"Fine," said Carmilla.

 

"Fine?"

 

"I'll stay."

 

"You will?"

 

Laura sounded too hopeful. Carmilla didn't need to get her hopes up, promise her a co-pilot and end up leaving midway through training anyway.

 

"I'm only staying because I don't want to get blamed for you getting a dishonourable discharge if you actually end up following me to Canada, which – at this rate – might actually be a plausible scenario."

 

Laura smiled, and Carmilla wondered if the light in her room had always been as bright as it was in that precise moment or if Laura was the reason for that. She stepped away from her, as if her happiness was contagious. 'It might be,' Carmilla thought, and bit down on a smile.

 

"You should've read the file, buttercup. You would have enjoyed certain aspects of it."

 

"That wasn't vague at all," Laura replied, a playful tone in her voice that she had never used with Carmilla before.

 

"I'll attempt to be less ambiguous about the details regarding my oh-so-tragic backstory next time," Carmilla muttered, stepping closer to the duffel bag and away from Laura.

 

She unzipped the bag, and pulled a couple of books out. She was just about to shove them in the wardrobe again, when Laura stepped next to her and grabbed a handful. The girl walked over to the desk and placed them on top of it; Carmilla watched her rearrange them, first horizontally, then vertically.

 

"Bring the rest over here, would you?" Laura said, without glancing in her direction. "You might actually have space for your clothes if you put the books somewhere other than your wardrobe."

 

Carmilla rolled her eyes and stacked books on top of one another, placing them on the desk, where Laura arranged them by author, and then by publisher. After a minute, the girl muttered that they still didn't look right, so then they organized them by genre, and by size and colour after that.

 

Neither of them were willing to admit that they wanted to spend time with each other, and that they were making up excuses to stay close to one another post-drift. Carmilla said nothing when Laura's hands accidentally brushed past her own, but felt the tiny electric-like charge that sent tingles over her skin.

 

When Laura unpacked Carmilla's clothes, she placed a few of them in a cabinet, and the rest in her wardrobe. Carmilla's room was lacking in clothes hangers.

 

"I'll have to bring some over tomorrow, maybe," muttered Laura. Carmilla didn't suggest that she go to her room right then, because Laura would have had to leave. She wasn't terribly fond of the idea.

 

Laura did not imply that she had better things to do that night, and when she finally left for dinner, Carmilla noticed that she had calmed down from the high of the drift. She did not admit that she did not want to be apart from her.

 

;;

 

July 20, 2020
Jaeger Academy

 

The Jaeger they were assigned for their singular trial run pre-stage three was worn and old. It was a Mark 3 test type that looked like it had been through hell, and then some. Carmilla tucked her CD player into her leather jacket, slipped her earphones on, and did not listen to anything Sarah Jane told them.

 

It was barely seven AM and she was not in the mood to hear the specifics of what she had gotten herself into so early in the morning. Instead, she stared up at the Jaeger, in all its glory. Its barely-there green paint hid the sheet metal underneath, and there was rust just beneath its knees. A number on its chest, painted in white, read '02'. It was the second Jaeger in line, and Laura looked at it like she thought that it was the most beautiful Jaeger she had ever seen. Carmilla, of course, hated it on sight.

 

"Come along," Natalie told them.

 

She followed Laura to a room to the side of the Jaeger, aptly marked 'Changing Room 02'. This was when Carmilla stopped dead in her tracks. Laura's hand twitched, almost as if she wanted to reach out for Carmilla's hand, just like she had back in her bedroom post-drift, but eventually pulled her arm back, balled her fingers into a fist and then released it slowly.

 

"We haven't got all day, cadets. Get in there and put the suits on. I guessed your sizes."

 

Of course, Carmilla thought. Changing rooms. She wasn't insecure about her body, hadn't been for centuries, but there were things that she didn't want Laura to know about yet, and those things had left their marks on her. Literally. Not to mention that the last time she had been in a changing room like this one, it had been with-

 

She stepped in anyway. A bulb flickered overhead. There was a desk in the middle, a couple of empty lockers to the side. This was manageable. On top of the desk were two black circuitry suits, with a pair of gloves on top of each. Scratch that, this was not going to happen.

 

Laura picked a pair of the gloves up, turned them around in her hands, studying them intensely, then placed them on the table. Carmilla watched her as she hesitantly picked up a circuitry suit, and grinned like a Cheshire cat.

 

"Excited?" she asked, looking at Carmilla.

 

Carmilla raised an eyebrow. Laura put the suit back on the table and nodded nervously, to herself, then pulled off her sweater. She shoved it into one of the lockers, which she'd just designated hers for the rest of training, if their trial run went well.

 

Laura tripped as she tried to slip out of her pants without taking her shoes off first, but after that hiccup, she was out of the rest of her clothes, save for a tank top and the rest of her underwear, in a heartbeat. Carmilla barely had any time to look at Laura's bare legs, thick with muscle – no doubt from hours of training – because the girl was already tugging up the circuitry suit.

 

She hadn't noticed Carmilla looking at her, while distinctly not changing into her own suit, frozen in the middle of the room. Laura had pulled her own suit up over her hips, with her tank top riding up her waist to reveal a strip of abdomen that Carmilla hungrily kept her eyes on. She had beauty spots, right next to her navel. Carmilla was not going to survive this for- however long training lasted.

 

When the girl finally noticed that Carmilla was stuck, fists balled into her jacket pocket and music forgotten in her ear, she stepped closer to her, and Carmilla didn't realise just how small the changing room was until Laura tugged her earbud out, music spilling out into the tight space.

 

"Don't let me keep you from whatever it is you're doing, Karnstein." Carmilla noted how her breath seemed to hitch at her surname, like it felt unnatural for her to call her that now that they had seen the inside of each other's heads.

 

She flinched away from her, her shoulder hitting the back of the wall. Laura dropped the earbud, stepped backwards.

 

"We're about to drift together. Again," Laura murmured. She crossed her arms in front of her chest and studied her silently. "And you're afraid of showing me your- What? Your frilly underwear?" Carmilla was about to reply when Laura rolled her eyes and calmly said, "Okay. I'll hurry up and you can change after I leave. Is that okay?"

 

Carmilla nodded, stood with her back against the wall, turned her CD player off. She waited until Laura pulled the circuitry suit up all the way. After that, Laura hastily folded her clothes and shoved them into her locker. The girl raised her arm to the back of her neck, touching her hair briefly, before she thought better of it. She grabbed the gloves instead, pulled them on, and secured the straps around her wrists.

 

"I'll distract them," Laura said, stepping in front of her. "Tell them you were shy or something." She opened the door, stepped out, closed it shut behind her. Carmilla could hear Natalie, her voice going from happy (at seeing that the circuitry suit fit so well) to confused (trying to discern whether Carmilla herself was going to walk out any time soon).

 

"She'll be out in a few minutes," Laura lied. Carmilla could tell now, when she was lying. Her voice was at a completely different pitch. "She just helped me with my suit. I'm new at this. Hey, does anyone know how to braid hair because I haven't the foggiest- Thank you. You're a lifesaver."

 

Carmilla breathed in, slowly.

 

Once again, Laura had given her space where Carmilla thought she wouldn't have, knew that realistically, she shouldn't have, just like when she had distracted her in the drift. It seemed that the only thing Laura didn't give her a choice in was whether she wanted to eat terrible cafeteria food or not.

 

The girl had kept her distance other than that, despite wanting to be her friend so badly. Shame, Carmilla thought, they couldn't have piloted a Jaeger without Laura literally reading her mind, going through every thought, even though she had proven to be somewhat receptive to the idea of privacy while in her head, which was a concept that was practically unheard of among Jaeger pilots.

 

She pulled her jacket off, shoved it inside the other locker – the one Laura wasn't using, the one that was hers now, she supposed – and watched it slide pathetically downwards. There was a severe lack of clothes hangers in the Jaeger Academy. She stood there, staring at the inside of the locker, trying to convince herself to turn and look at the circuitry suit.

 

When she finally managed, a few minutes later – Natalie was threatening to knock on the door, but Laura had somehow managed to stop her, - the circuitry suit was still on top, with the gloves placed on it. Laura hadn't touched her suit. She had left it just as the technicians had.

 

Carmilla reached out for the gloves, ran her thumb over the metallic plates. There had been no gloves the years prior. She considered it an improvement. The suit itself was light, especially when compared to its predecessor. It was more flexible too, the material bending in her hand easier than the older version.

 

She pulled it on, in less time than it took Laura, trying not to remember what it smelled like when burnt. Carmilla was about to walk out the door when she remembered her hair, still loose. She braided it, made sure that it didn't feel weird enough to warrant redoing, tied the ends with an elastic hairband she hadn't noticed had been left on the table.

 

Carmilla still hadn't pulled the gloves on when she walked out to find Laura sitting on the ground, cross legged, her back leaning against the wall. The girl looked up at her, stopped at her hands, still grasping the gloves tightly.

 

"You clean up nice, Karnstein," she said. This time, her surname easily rolled off of Laura's tongue. As it if had been meant to be there.

 

Laura held out her hand; Carmilla stared at it for a couple of seconds, briefly unsure of what she was asking. Laura exhaled, was about to take her hand back when Carmilla gripped it and pulled her up.

 

"So do you," she said.

 

Neither of them took their eyes off of the other for a moment slightly longer than necessary.

 

"Are you two quite done? Can we get the armour on now?"

 

They let go of each other's hands. Carmilla pulled the gloves on and tried to ignore the burning feeling that Laura had left on the inside of her palm. They didn't talk while Natalie led the both of them to the drivesuit room to be fitted with the battle armour.

 

;;

 

The armour was black. It was still the heaviest thing that Carmilla had ever worn, especially the spine, but it had been made to be lighter, this time around, just like the circuitry suit.

 

Laura wouldn't stop asking the technicians what they were doing. Carmilla was fascinated by how curious she was – how interested she was in every single piece of armour that the technicians were drilling into her suit. Carmilla stood still, tried not to focus on the last time she had been in a Jaeger. Of course, that ended up being the worst idea ever because that was the only thing she could think of. Especially since the circuitry suit was pressing, digging into her shoulder, as if hoping to recreate the event.

 

"The thing you want to hide – don't think about it. You're not going to be able to keep it from me if you think about how much you want to keep it from me. You have to distract yourself with something else."

 

Music had helped before, it would be able to help again; except, she found that she couldn't quite focus on the music, so she listened to Laura instead. Listened to her heartbeat, and how excited she was. Somehow, hearing the reassuring thump of Laura's heart calmed her down.

 

;;

 

"Wow."

 

Carmilla had been in a Jaeger before. Laura hadn't.

 

Keeping a watchful eye on her, she had expected Laura to be less.. careful. As if she were walking into a glass house which, Carmilla thought bitterly, with the amount of secrets the drift would be keeping for them from now on, she might as well have been. Thankfully, she didn't have to dwell much longer on that, as Laura looked back at her.

 

"Wow," Laura repeated.

 

They didn't need to drill them into the Jaeger this time. The technicians closed the door behind them and waited for them to settle into their spots.

 

The only problem was, they hadn't talked about this. Her legs felt like lead, but she knew that wasn't the reason she felt it hard to move right then. Laura had yet to select a control panel. She waited for her to step up to the one on the right; the dominant pilot, the right hemisphere.

 

Elle had been the dominant pilot in their stint in a Jaeger. There had been no question about it. She had simply walked over to the control panel and waited until Carmilla walked over to the other one. Carmilla expected that Laura would also want to occupy the dominant pilot's role. Surely, Laura would want that one, given how determined she was to get into the damn Jaeger in the first place.

 

Except, Laura made no further move, instead stood in the middle of the Conn Pod as if she were waiting for Carmilla to move first. When she figured out that Carmilla wasn't going to be the one to pick out their layout, she did something completely unexpected.

 

"Pick whichever one you want," said Laura, shrugging, as if it didn't matter to her. She hadn't made any attempt to walk over to neither of the control panels. "I don't mind, either way."

 

Carmilla decided to test certain limits.

 

Her own, at first; her left arm still hadn't healed properly since Elle, which had definitely been her fault; she hadn't let it heal properly. She doubted a few runs in a Jaeger would damage it permanently – few things could properly damage a vampire – but she wasn't up for the pain that came along with using her already hurt arm.

 

Then, she decided to test Laura's limits. Carmilla knew she had been testing them ever since they met, but she stepped deeper into the Conn Pod anyway, and placed her hand on the panel that declared Pilot One; the hemisphere that Laura would want to control, without a doubt, she thought.

 

There was no way in hell that Laura would let her be the dominant pilot, everything about the girl screamed right hemisphere. The way she had provoked her in the Kwoon, how she never backed down and had been able to match her, to face her head on ever since she had met Carmilla. She wasn't sure how Laura would react to it, but Carmilla hoped she was lenient, because she wasn't sure her arm could take the left side for very long.

 

"I'll take this side," said Carmilla, her eyes calmly watching Laura's every reaction like a hawk watching its prey.

 

"Okay," said Laura, voice normal. She had instinctively moved towards the left hemisphere as soon as Carmilla had made a move towards the right hemisphere. She stepped towards it faster then, as if Carmilla had given her permission to do so by picking the right hemisphere, stepped onto the clamps and strapped herself in.

 

She was seemingly undeterred by Carmilla's watchful eye. When Laura finally looked at her, she motioned at her to do the same. Carmilla did.

 

"You're fine with it? Not being the dominant pilot?" Laura barked out a laugh, as if she couldn't believe that Carmilla would think that she would be hung up over something as insignificant as being the dominant pilot in a Jaeger.

 

"Why wouldn't I be?"

 

Carmilla could think of a million reasons, but they all came down to one simple answer to her question: because you shouldn't trust me. She was lucky they hadn't been connected yet. She didn't want to have to explain to Laura why she shouldn't have trusted her.

 

Laura put her helmet on. Carmilla did the same without waiting for Laura's gesture this time.

 

"Ready, Karnstein?" Her voice was excited, still. Not an ounce of regret at letting Carmilla pick. She really hadn't cared about which hemisphere she would be controlling.

 

Carmilla nodded, stared at the front of the Conn Pod. Laura glanced at her through the helmet visor for one last time, before she turned to look to the front too. A control panel in the center of the Conn Pod was indicating that the system was 'LOADING'.

 

The edges were dimly lit in a pale blue until the front of the Jaeger closed around them, and the loading screen disappeared, shrouding them in darkness for a second. Fire burned the back of her eyelids, before she realised that no, there was no fire, and that was the system, which had roared to life in a gorgeous golden colour that had no right being so bright.

 

The Conn Pod lit up, and where metal had once looked dull and uninteresting, it was now showered in blue and gold, glimmering screens hovering in front of them in pale blues in front of both of them.

 

Carmilla's fingers moved of their own accord, turned the Jaeger on as if on autopilot, typing onto screens that seemed to have nothing backing them up. She looked like she was typing through thin air, but knew it to be the Jaeger's control system.

 

The Jaeger Academy had taught her something, after all, she thought.

 

;;

 

«Neural handshake initiated. Pilot-to-pilot connection engaged.»

 

;;

 

This time, the memories faded into one another much quicker, like watching someone flip a picturebook, except the frames were all different and some of them lasted longer, leaving a taste in her mouth that she couldn't decipher. The metal became their flesh and blood; Jaeger 02 their sanctuary, and their cage. Laura felt Carmilla's influence as sharply as she could hear her voice in her mind, telling her to focus.

 

She had thought of herself and Carmilla as the heart and soul of the Jaeger during their first drift. Laura decided then and there that she had been wrong. They were to act as its bloodstream; their thoughts, instincts circulating through its synapse system like the blood in her veins, their very beings sinking into the Jaeger.

 

It was nothing like drifting inside of a lab connected through a simulator running on a laptop.

 

Drifting inside of a J-Tech lab hooked up to a laptop that was running a drift was akin to brushing her hand against Carmilla's while they organized books, the sparks lighting up her nerve endings, leaving a trail of burnt skin in its wake.

 

Connecting to a Jaeger in the drift was pretty much the equivalent of having their bodies flush against one another, of having Carmilla underneath her, smiling up at her with that smug smile of hers, daring her to do better, just as she had in the Kwoon, and just as she had then, Laura rose up to the challenge, slamming her back against the mattress, licking a stripe from her navel to her neck, holding her down and leaving marks all over her, making a claim.

 

And the building was on fire, probably.

 

So, yeah, connecting through a Jaeger was like ripping a plaster off without giving any warning. She wasn't really focusing on anything but the heat that seemed to radiate from off of Carmilla, who was so close to her that she could almost taste her.

 

When LOCCENT connected with them, asked them if they were alright in there, hearing Carmilla's raspy reply in the affirmative felt like her co-pilot was nipping at her neck with her teeth, moving agonizingly slowly, never breaking the skin, leaving a trail of bite marks that barely bruised.

 

Her voice in the drift was having the same effect that it had in the Kwoon, and Laura instantly began reciting lyrics, then poetry to make sure Carmilla didn't notice what she was thinking of. That would have been embarrassing, to say the least. A simple thought had turned into something she hadn't anticipated, and she didn't need Carmilla to blow a gasket, or worse: to tease her about it.

 

She had most certainly noticed that Carmilla was beautiful, strikingly gorgeous really, but also one hundred percent unattainable, especially for someone like herself, so she'd tried to bury it deep in the recesses of her head. That wouldn't work as well when Carmilla was supposed to be making a playground out of her mind.

 

But Laura was realistic, so she hadn't thought of Carmilla as anything other than a potential friend, a co-pilot candidate, and then her actual co-pilot when they were confirmed drift compatible.

 

Still, having that image in her head had shaken her and she needed to get herself together quickly, so dull poetry seemed to be the best way to distract herself. Since Carmilla was doing her best to re-enact Queen's 'Bohemian Rhapsody', it was safe to assume that she was in desperate need of distracting, too.

 

;;

 

LOCCENT Mission Control had percentages, statistics, numbers, but they didn't have the image of Laura's first time riding a bicycle. They didn't feel the scrape against their knees as she fell within a few metres of her starting point. Carmilla was the one who had that.

 

Being inside of a Jaeger was more familiar to Carmilla, but it was terrifying in the same way everything new was terrifying. Pilot One, at least, felt like the safer option, because she felt the urge to look to her right side less. Laura, to her left, as always, looked at her during the neural handshake initiation. Carmilla had focused on a spot on the inside of the Conn Pod.

 

'This is so cool.' Laura looked at her with a smile on her face that should have unnerved her, and yet, she felt nothing but a sense of familiarity and stability.

 

'Calm down, darling,' Carmilla thought, before she could stop herself.

 

'Why do you call me that? Sweetheart, darling, Lara Croft, cupcake, buttercup, cutie-'

 

'It's easier than saying your name.'

 

She knew she shouldn't have let herself think it as soon as she did. Carmilla didn't say anything else, just let a sense of dread seep into her skin. Laura, for her part, didn't reply. The drift was silent, for the first time since they had started sharing it.

 

When Carmilla felt a warmth starting from the left side of her body, she assumed it was her injury acting up again. It travelled up her fingertips, past her shoulder, and dipped along her collarbone, straight into her chest. It took her a few moments to realise that it was Laura.

 

Her shoulders relaxed immediately; she noticed that she wasn't feeling as scared as she had walking into the Conn Pod. It felt stuck in her throat, her heart, and she didn't think it was going to go down in her near future.

 

"Focus, Karnstein," said Laura. Despite that, Carmilla kept glancing over at the girl, expecting to see the look on her face that was so familiar to her, having seen it in so many nightmares. The same look that Elle had given her a few seconds before The Incident occurred.

 

Laura didn't. For the rest of the trial run, Laura looked at her with nothing but trust in her eyes. Carmilla didn't stop expecting to see her face contort into a look of pure hatred, but her anxiety dissipated into a nagging feeling in the pit of her stomach instead.

 

Carmilla learned to distinguish between emotions, specifically who they belonged to, purely out of the sheer radiance that Laura's were typically shrouded in. Carmilla hadn't felt quite as happy as she felt when she was in a Jaeger with Laura.

 

Laura seemed to think of the whole ordeal as some sort of prequel to 'Saving The World 101'. Knowing that they were going to be helping people at some point in their now forever intertwined futures, Laura's pure unadulterated joy could not be contained, and it bled into Carmilla's mind easily.

 

For a split second, Carmilla thought of how she had thought of Jaegers all those months before, and how they were the monsters in the Kaiju's eyes, but the heroes in the humans', and that, perhaps, she could be both a hero and a monster.

 

She didn't dwell on it.

 

;;

 

A fabricated co-pilot that was designed to be her ideal partner could never have prepared Laura for someone she could actually share her stream of thoughts with.

 

It could never have prepared her for the memory that stuck with her then, either: a girl on top of Carmilla, not unlike the way she had pictured herself only a few minutes before. Laura stood next to the bed awkwardly, watched as the girl smiled down at her. The ends of her hair touched Carmilla's neck and bare shoulders, and Laura felt them on her own neck, her own shoulders. She felt Carmilla bite her tongue to keep from being too loud.

 

I love you, I love you, I love you, and her voice came out choked and hoarse, but she finally managed to say it back:

 

I love you, too.

 

;;

 

For Laura, Carmilla's thoughts were surprisingly easier to deal with than the girl herself. Laura had a much harder time getting through to her when she was putting up barriers. Carmilla was still doing so, but at least Laura could express that she didn't need to know anything about her past. All that Carmilla had to do was let her see the baseline of her thoughts, just the tip of the iceberg, enough for their synchronicity to allow them to operate a Jaeger, enough to take down Kaiju. That was all Laura wanted.

 

Drifting felt more intimate than anything she had ever experienced before. She knew that that would be the case, but she hadn't quite understood what drifting meant until then. Carmilla's thoughts touched her own, a feather light touch, a gentleness that she hadn't thought the girl capable of. It felt almost tentative, and Laura understood why as soon as she felt it.

 

Fear. Crippling fear that she had only ever felt whenever she was faced with losing something she loved. The kind of fear most people showed when Kaiju slithered out of the Breach. But Carmilla's fear was different. Laura couldn't pinpoint it for what it was. Carmilla kept glancing at her, as if she was nervous that Laura would want to dive deeper into her brain, delve inside of her thoughts, memories, feelings.

 

"Focus, Karnstein."

 

Carmilla looked at her then, and Laura saw something different in her eyes. She saw her fear, not just felt it. Carmilla was afraid of her. Of what Laura was capable of doing to her. Laura's thoughts jerked to a safe space; her father. Before she started lying to him about why she wanted to sign up for the PPDC.

 

Back when she was afraid and her father had been there to comfort her.

 

;;

 

She was standing in a room, a doctor's office, based on the man in a suit and tie, and white lab coat. She was terrified of doctors – and, Carmilla thought, no, no, I'm not, that's Laura, it's Laura who's terrified of- Oh.

 

Laura couldn't have been older than ten, her shoes didn't even reach the floor. This doctor seemed nice enough, because he wasn't talking to her father like she wasn't in the room.

 

She's had an allergic reaction to everything we've tested her for, he said, I doubt that she's going to be able to live a normal life from now on. I'm surprised that she's managed to live this long without it having any effect on her well-being, truth be told. It's fine, we can protect her now. There's ways to protect her.

 

That was when Laura looked up at her dad. He was rubbing his hand over his five o'clock shadow, and she had never seen him as scared as he looked right then. Her father glanced at her, smiled. Everything was going to be okay, she thought. Carmilla felt like everything was going to be okay, too.

 

;;

 

It felt comfortable then, for both of them.

 

;;

 

When they disengaged from the Jaeger, both of them faltered for a second; being apart so suddenly felt unnatural. The effects of the drift trickled slowly out of them, effortlessly dripping down their spinal columns. Neither of them said anything about the drift or how they were disconnected so abruptly.

 

Carmilla had always thought of the drift the same as being held underwater: stifling, inconvenient, and an unnecessary situation to put herself through. But when they were ejected from the drift, it was as though she had left a part of herself inside of Laura, and she was itching to find that piece and take it back from the girl. She had an inkling that, maybe, that was not how it worked, and that it was an exchange, of sorts. Laura had left a piece of herself in her, too.

 

Laura was breathing hard by the end of the training session. She absently stepped closer to Carmilla, who scratched at her shoulder, a dull ache settling into her bones as they walked off of the platform.

 

The changing room was less of a challenge this time around. Carmilla stayed outside while Laura changed, pulled off her gloves, and tried to focus on anything but the loud rustle of clothes inside the changing room.

 

Had today been a normal day, Carmilla would have fled already. She suspected that she did not have a fight-or-flight response, and if she did have one, the 'fight' response was never an adequate one. Obviously, today was not a normal day for her. There was something in the back of her mind, some sort of nagging feeling; a word on the tip of her tongue that refused to obey. She tried to dismiss it, but it decided to manifest itself into an afterthought.

 

It was as if every single bone in her body was on fire and there was only a specific way to put it out. Ignoring it and focusing on Laura seemed to help. The Jaeger bay was loud, and for the first time she couldn't hear that at all. There was a sort of silence, a loud one. Carmilla listened as the girl held the door handle a few seconds longer than she should have, and inhaled slowly.

 

Laura finally emerged, wearing the same clothes that she had on earlier that day. It felt like Carmilla could finally breathe again; air wasn't stifling anymore. Laura looked at her, leaning against the wall, still wearing the circuitry suit. Holding the door open, her hand pressed against the metal. She let out a shaky breath. Carmilla looked back and forth between her and the room.

 

"I need to-" Laura started. Carmilla heard her hand scrape against the door, felt the girl's chest rise up slowly as she stepped closer. She subconsciously leaned closer to her, as if dazed, but caught herself and walked into the changing room instead. "I'll wait for you," said Laura, as the door closed shut.

 

Carmilla stood next to the table that had Laura's circuitry suit on top, folded. She walked over to the locker; thumbed at her clothes, looked at her shoes. Her clothes were where she had left them, still. She peeled the circuitry suit off of her shoulder slowly, as if she expected her skin to come off with it. Again.

 

She pulled on her sweater, and tugged her hair out of the collar, pulled it out of the braid. She could hear Laura outside, pacing, and she felt as if it should have unnerved her, but she felt a sense of stability instead. That Laura would stay behind, that she would wait for her. The drift had been comforting, almost. She had never had it with Elle; The Incident had prevented such a back and forth flow.

 

There was something she was supposed to be doing – finding some sort of antidote for whatever ailment she'd succumbed to, trying to calm herself, anything that would have calmed the pulse that throbbed through her veins and made it so that she could hardly think-

 

The pacing stopped. Had Laura been pacing this entire time?

 

Carmilla's eyebrows furrowed, and she turned to look at the door. Laura's breathing had stopped for a second, like she had something to say and then decided against it. Carmilla stood still, for fear of making any noise that would disrupt the girl's thoughts, forgetting that Laura couldn't hear her.

 

"Please hurry," said Laura, from outside.

 

Her breath hitched. Carmilla pulled the rest of her clothes on hastily, and barely managed to pull on her jacket before she flung the door open. She hadn't even folded her circuitry suit up. She hadn't planned on it, but she would have liked the couple of seconds to decide that she wasn't going to.

 

Carmilla expected Laura to walk back to her room with her, as she was prone to doing; as they had done after their first drift. Instead, Laura pushed her back into the room, and promptly shut the door. Carmilla was about to protest, when she noticed that a tiny ball of fury had wedged herself between Carmilla and the exit. Laura pushed herself forward and looked at her defiantly.

 

There came a sense of calm with her in the room, with Laura's heartbeat banging against her eardrums, her pulse too quick for Carmilla to keep up.

 

Carmilla closed her eyes slowly, breathed in. The fire in her bones had been subdued.

 

"I-" started Laura.

 

Her eyes snapped open, and she realised that Laura was focused on something very intently. She was reaching out for Carmilla's hand. She still had the imprint the gloves had left. She forced herself to breathe as the girl's fingertips touched the back of her palm.

 

Her skin felt alive for the first time in three centuries, like Laura had woken up every single nerve ending inside of her hand. The girl stepped closer, and Carmilla stopped breathing entirely.

 

"Can I hold your hand?" Laura's voice was thick with doubt. Her eyes scanned Carmilla's face for sudden movements. That was when Carmilla noticed just how deep the girl's insecurity ran. She relented, pressed her hand into Laura's slowly. Laura took that to mean that yes, she could.

 

The taste of metal hit the back of Carmilla's throat instantaneously. For a second, she thought that she was back in the Jaeger. But no, the inside of her cheek was rough and she had bitten into it harder than necessary.

 

"Wow," Laura said, words so rough they sounded like they'd been gasped out. Carmilla resisted the urge to lean closer to her. The girl pulled up their joined palms and held them between their chests. She looked calmer than she had since they got disconnected from the Jaeger. "I think we need to talk about what happens post-drift."

 

Carmilla remembered to start breathing again, because she didn't want Laura to become suspicious about how long she could hold her breath. Laura had other thoughts on her mind, it seemed.

 

"Post-drift?" she repeated, her voice raspy. She was barely managing to hide behind her usual monotone voice.

 

"I've read about this, extensively." Laura pushed her fingers through Carmilla's, intertwined them and then pressed into her palm. Carmilla's chest filled with a warm pressure, as Laura continued. "It's the ghost dri-"

 

"The ghost drift," Carmilla said instantly, as if reciting from a book. "Consequence of the neural bridge, the link between the pilots remains partially active even after the connection is terminated from the hardware. Pilots are encouraged to spend as much time together as possible post-drift." She frowned, because she didn't remember where she had read that, where it had come from, and then Laura spoke.

 

"Was that- Did you know that before we drifted?"

 

"No," Carmilla admitted.

 

She had studied Jaeger technology; the physical aspects of it – the hardware and accompanying code, and to a certain extent, the networking running through the machine, not the connection between the pilots. The little she did know about the software had come from a drunken haze she'd found herself in one night, looking up 'first drifts' on Google, but even that had given her a lot of results about some bridge or another, which, now that she thought about it, did not sound as ridiculous as it had back then.

 

Laura seemed to have gone the alternate route – seemed to know more about the drift than Carmilla herself knew with what little experience she'd had.

 

"I don't think I'll ever get used to that," Laura said, grinning. She lowered their hands. Carmilla listened as her pulse quickened; her own mimicked the sound. "But, yes. The connection stays. I think we have to, um, stay close. For a while. Does that bother you?"

 

There was a 'yes' on the tip of her tongue that threatened to leave her lips, sitting and waiting for her to push it over the edge. In the harshest tone possible, to make sure that Laura knew that this – holding hands, playing nice – wasn't something she was willing to do after every drift. Except, that was not entirely true.

 

"No," she admitted. She panicked as soon as she said it, looked down at Laura, standing on the soles of her feet, almost floating away with how elated she was. "It doesn't bother me."

 

"That's good." Laura let out a breath Carmilla hadn't even noticed that she was holding, and gave her a tired smile. Carmilla returned it, albeit hesitantly.

 

Someone knocked on the door.

 

"Are you two ready in there?" Sarah Jane had apparently gotten bored of waiting for them to return their circuitry suits, and decided to take matters into her own hands. "Come on, guys, don't make me look bad."

 

Laura let out a nervous laugh, and tightened her hold on Carmilla's hand. She smirked to hide a smile.

 

"Can I come back to your room? Just until it wears off." Carmilla looked down at their hands, at how her own hand fit so well in Laura's, and said the only thing she had on her mind.

 

"Yes."

 

;;

 

"I'm not allergic to everything. I tested positive because I was allergic to the aluminium alloy the hypodermic needles were made of. My dad figured out I wasn't early on, but he stayed protective."

 

Carmilla's back hardened against the wall, her breath slowed down to almost nothing. It was the first thing Laura had said since she'd asked to go back to her room. Laura's grip on her tightened again, and she looked at their hands, still laced together.

 

"I almost latched onto the memory. It's.. harder in an actual Jaeger," said Laura.

 

"I didn't ask," Carmilla replied. Laura gave a half-hearted shrug and shuffled closer to her so that there was no more space between them. She tugged their hands onto her thigh, played with her fingers with the hand that wasn't holding it in place.

 

Carmilla looked down at them, and watched as Laura untangled their fingers. It stung, for a brief second, before she pressed her index finger to Carmilla's palm. If Carmilla hadn't looked down at her hand to make sure, she would've sworn that the girl was leaving scorch marks on her skin.

 

"I just wanted you to know," Laura muttered, her finger tracing the angles of Carmilla's hand, never breaking their connection.

 

Carmilla memorised every single curve that Laura wrote on her hand, felt the slight hesitation that the girl was filled with make way for the confidence that grew when she had traced every single part of it. When she started applying pressure to the meatier parts of her palm, she kept looking up at Carmilla, as if she wanted to make sure that she wasn't hurting her.

 

"It hasn't worn off yet," said Laura.

 

Carmilla looked at their hands, tried very hard to keep her face neutral, so that she would have plausible deniability when Laura accused her of feeling their connection, which was still as strong as when they were strapped into the Jaeger.

 

"May I sleep here tonight?"

 

It was around nine AM. Their trial run had only lasted a couple of hours. Still, being apart felt like a bad idea. Carmilla glanced up at Laura, who had stopped tracing shapes onto her palm, and was now staring at Carmilla with an intensity that would have had anyone else run for the hills. Carmilla smiled.

 

"Make sure you don't snore as loud this time, cupcake."

 

"Okay, that's unfair, because I don't snore."

 

;;

 

Laura went back to her room, tugging Carmilla along because she was sure that neither of them – despite Carmilla's reluctance – would be able to survive being apart for longer than a few minutes. She got her things, stashed them inside of her backpack and left a note for Betty explaining that the trial run went great and that she was going to sleep in Karnstein's room because the ghost drift was not a joke, while Carmilla was reclined on top of her bed.

 

"Does your roommate mind if we-" Laura looked at her co-pilot, who was holding up an iPod; specifically Betty's. Her roommate had been absent ever since Laura's first drift with Carmilla, spending her days in the Kwoon in a last-ditch attempt at finding a co-pilot herself, but Laura was sure that she wouldn't have wanted anyone touching her things.

 

"Put that back."

 

"You're no fun," said Carmilla, pouting.

 

Laura rolled her eyes. "If she finds you in here rifling through her stuff, you know she'll hurt you," she said, her voice lilting near the end of the sentence.

 

"She's welcome to try," Carmilla muttered, scrolling through Betty's songs. Laura tried to hide her smirk because as smug as Carmilla was, she was right. Betty was no match for her. Carmilla had proved that in the Kwoon.

 

She leaned against the doorway to the bathroom and brushed her teeth while Carmilla made faces at her roommate's apparently semi-decent musical taste. Laura made a mental note to introduce them formally, maybe through their mutual love of the Rolling Stones.

 

When she had finished, she plucked the thing from Carmilla's fingers and placed it back where she knew Betty usually kept it. Her grumpy companion stared at her until Laura finally held out her hand again. Their palms burned against one another, and their fingers entwined, just like they had been when Laura dragged her into the room.

 

They walked back to Carmilla's room in silence.

 

;;

 

Laura didn't ask her to go down to the cafeteria with her because she knew what the other girl would say.

 

Still, Carmilla went with because separating from her was still unfathomable to both of them. Neither Betty nor Danny were in the cafeteria. It was too late for it to be full of the dinner bustle that would no doubt be there later on in the day – neither of them had eaten breakfast because Laura had been too excited and Carmilla too unconcerned, they'd both skipped lunch, so they might have been slightly early for dinner.

 

Carmilla settled into a corner and poked at her food until Laura shoved her elbow into her side gently. "There's probably some chocolate chip cookies left in your room."

 

Her co-pilot turned her attention to her, dropping her fork onto her still-full plate. Carmilla ate like a baby rabbit when it came to food from the cafeteria. Meanwhile, Laura loaded her plate with double servings of everything because she did not want to snack on the food she'd taken to Carmilla. The girl still hadn't eaten through half of it, so Laura thought that it would be there a while.

 

"You ate them all," said Carmilla.

 

"Okay, first of all, you ate half of those cookies and I made sure to leave you a couple. Second, there's more stuff in the fridge besides the cookies. You don't have to eat this crap if you don't want to."

 

Carmilla glanced down at her nearly bare plate, and didn't touch it for the rest of the dinner.

 

;;

 

They spent the rest of the day in Carmilla's room. At one point, Laura abruptly remembered that she ought to change for the sleepover that Carmilla hadn't called off yet, and walked into the en suite bathroom with the backpack she'd taken from her room.

 

Her co-pilot didn't exactly laugh when Laura walked out of her bathroom wearing a tank top and her pajama pants, but she did drag her eyes over Laura for far longer than Laura herself thought necessary, only to go back to her book with a single raise of her eyebrows and a poorly-disguised cough. Laura could feel a blush creep up her neck at the attention.

 

"How's your book?" she asked, hoping that Carmilla had not noticed the obvious reddening of her skin, and if she had, that she thought was somehow related to her change in clothing and the room temperature, instead of Laura getting flustered any time Carmilla so much as looked at her like that.

 

Carmilla glanced up at her, looked back down at the book and grumbled out a response.

 

"Haven't decided if I like it yet," she said, flipping a page.

 

;;

 

It took Laura a little less than half an hour to select a book to read. She kept pulling them out of their place, reading the summary on the back – if any – then reading the first page or two standing up, and eventually deciding that she didn't want to read it. It was distracting; Carmilla hadn't read a single page since her co-pilot had started this practice, her eyes kept looking back and forth between Laura and whichever book she was about to read next, until Laura started heading towards the brown paper books.

 

"Here," said Carmilla, grabbing Fingersmith from off of her bedside table and handing it to her. Laura looked down at the cover briefly before taking it from her and settling down next to Carmilla to read it.

 

The girl fell asleep resting her head on her shoulder a little more than an hour later. It was the second time she had slept on Carmilla's bed, but only the first time that she'd done so with Carmilla herself still in the room with her.

 

When Carmilla started getting drowsy herself, she carefully disentangled herself from Laura, making sure to keep her from falling too hard on top of the bed. She paid special attention to Laura's neck, the entire time thinking to herself that humans were too fragile.

 

Carmilla only decided to sleep somewhere other than her bed because she wasn't in the mood to wake her up, she told herself. It definitely had nothing to do with the way Laura's hand reached out for her as Carmilla tried leaving her. She climbed up to the top bunk, and didn't sleep for a long time, instead focusing on Laura's breathing.

 

;;

 

She woke up to a note.

 

CK,
I stole your book. I'll bring it back, I promise.
LH

P.S. It's almost noon right now and you're still asleep. How on earth are you still asleep. What time did you go to bed last night? Honestly.

 

;;

Chapter Text

;;

 

July 27, 2020
Jaeger Academy

 

Trial runs were typically conducted at least a fortnight before stage three began, but a mere three days after theirs, Natalie came up to her and told her that she and Carmilla had been selected for Jaeger training. The mountains of paperwork they had to fill in flew by, accompanied by a smooth whooshing noise and an annoyed clerk. It was not surprising to her how fast the desk jockeys worked when it involved rookies who had a proper shot at becoming actual Jaeger pilots.

 

Her first day of stage three started like this: she woke up early, grabbed her shoes, and snuck out of her room. Waking Betty up meant that the blonde would end up coming with her to the cafeteria and eat a proper breakfast, but Laura had been waiting for this day since before she had enlisted, and she really wanted to get a move on, so she hurried off to the cafeteria, asked for piping-hot coffee and waited, tapping her nails against the counter and stopping when the cafeteria workers narrowed their eyes at her. Laura smiled apologetically, turned to face the rest of the caf.

 

The only people in there at that time were the staff, who seemed to be working at all times of the day, which made their irritability understandable, and technicians who were working their way through their fifteenth cup of coffee, all of whom were pulling all-nighters. She did not envy them, turned back to the counter, lingered over the display that had nothing but PPDC-sanctioned snacks (mixed nuts and cereal bars could hardly be considered snacks, she thought) and thanked them when they finally handed her two cups; one for herself, and one for her co-pilot.

 

She tried not to skip back to the barracks, but there was a proud kind of stride to her step. She found Carmilla's door unlocked, and the girl herself asleep, a blanket wound tightly around her. She slept stiff as a board; her pillow seemed to have moved overnight, and Carmilla now had an arm slung over it, her face pressed into the mattress.

 

Laura found herself smiling down at the girl, wondering how on earth she'd known that she would not have found her up and ready in a million years. Carmilla wouldn't have been caught dead awake at five thirty AM. She kneeled down, placing Carmilla's cup on the floor, and nudged her co-pilot's shoulder.

 

"Wakey wakey," said Laura, voice soft but stern. Carmilla was the opposite of Betty, it seemed. She didn't stir; didn't even grumble. Laura watched her, her chest rising and falling with every breath. She tried again, this time raising her voice; "Rise and shine, Sleeping Beauty."

 

Carmilla stilled suddenly, tendons in her arm moving carefully, as if she had noticed that someone was hovering close to her and she was still trying to figure out who.

 

Laura picked up the cup from the floor and stood up, went and sat at the edge of the desk, waiting for Carmilla to wake up. "We're due on the platform in half an hour." They still had time.

 

A groan. "You're kidding me," replied Carmilla, glancing up at her for a second before she resumed her previous position, eyelids shut.

 

She sipped at her latte, decided that she'd order something stronger the next day. After a minute, she decided to attempt waking Carmilla up again. "How long will it take you to get ready?"

 

Carmilla turned her back to her, pulled up the blankets even further.

 

Laura sighed. She had an inkling of a suspicion that this, having a co-pilot who wasn't as enthusiastic about being a Jaeger pilot as she was, was karma for forcing Carmilla to go along with her plan of dismissing standard protocol regarding Drift Sync tests, as if they were the terms and conditions of anything online ever. If so, fate had a funny sense of humour, because this - even with the unenthusiastic co-pilot, it still was exactly what Laura wanted.

 

"I brought you coffee. One sugar."

 

The girl groaned, but turned to face her, an expression on her face that was a mixture of 'Why did you think waking me up was a good idea?' and 'How the hell do you know my coffee order?'.

 

"I guessed," she said. Carmilla looked like she wanted so badly to suggest that Laura leave, just give up on her and Jaeger training. Laura decided to test how strong the ghost drift was, a week after. "I'm not leaving because it would be pointless to show up without you, so. Good morning, Carmilla."

 

Carmilla's groans were getting to be a lot less dramatic.

 

"What time is it?" she asked.

 

"Five thirty AM," replied Laura, cheerfully, sipping at her latte. Carmilla's eyebrows knit together, and she didn't even bother replying this time, merely pulled the blanket up over her head. "Karnstein."

 

"I'm not getting up until you leave the room," she muttered.

 

"Wh- Oh." Her gaze slid down the length of Carmilla's body, and then her eyes widened, and she remembered how Carmilla was, underneath her bad girl persona, too shy to change in front of her - even in the changing room. She stumbled on her next words; "I'll- Uh. I'll wait for you outside."

 

Laura walked out, stood to the side of the door and gulped down mouthfuls of the now-lukewarm liquid.

 

When Carmilla walked out, she was wearing her tattered sweater, the hole along the collar even bigger than Laura had grown accustomed to. Laura was glad to see that she was holding onto the coffee cup and that her CD player was nowhere in sight.

 

"Aren't we late or something?" Carmilla held the cup to her lips and Laura tore her eyes away, tried to focus on anything but.

 

"You are definitely not a morning person."

 

Carmilla smirked. "What gave me away?"

 

"Your sunny disposition," Laura replied, happily. Her co-pilot let out a chuckle, which she attempted to hide behind her coffee cup.

 

They walked to the Jaeger bay in a comfortable silence, with little space between them, almost as if they were making up for the eventual post-drift haze that would leave them ignoring personal boundaries completely.

 

Jaeger 02 was waiting for them when they arrived. Unfortunately for them, so was Sarah Jane, who had been assigned to be Jaeger 02's lead technician during the remainder of their training. Thankfully, this seemed to put her in a good enough mood; she didn't threaten to electrocute them, not even once.

 

;;

 

July 28, 2020
Jaeger Academy

 

On the second day of stage three, Laura knocked on her door, and if that wasn't weird enough, she brought her another cup of coffee - with three spoonfuls of sugar this time, because Laura had noticed that she liked her coffee even sweeter than the girl had anticipated - and doughnuts.

 

"You are aware that some people – namely, lawyers – would consider this grounds for a restraining order, right? I'm not making this up, there's laws and statutes or whatever about waking people up this early in the morning." Carmilla was the recipient of a very impressive eyeroll at that. "I won't run away if I'm not coddled, if that's what you're afraid of."

 

"I am not coddling you. I'm making sure you're still alive," Laura insisted. She narrowed her eyes, studied the girl. "And, fine, also making sure that you're going to show up to training. Even when I don't have ulterior motives, you manage to make it sound like I do. You should find out how to turn a profit with that soft paranoia of yours."

 

"I am not paranoid," said Carmilla.

 

Laura winced, tilted her head to the side. "You're a little paranoid. Also, consider me your wake-up call, because I am a hundred percent sure you don't own an alarm clock."

 

"An annoyingly over-eager wake up call. With rainbow-sprinkled doughnuts."

 

"Strictly speaking," said Laura, ignoring her first remark, "we're not supposed to have doughnuts, but the cafeteria staff are very helpful when they're too sleep deprived to know better. Did you know that they have a doughnut shift? One of them goes out to a bakery every single morning just to get doughnuts. How incredible is that?"

 

"This is going to become a habit of yours, then," she said in response, letting her into the room. She didn't mind much anymore. The girl had been in her head, having her in her room wasn't such that much of an inconvenience.

 

"Maybe," Laura replied, playfully. She leaned against the desk. "If you like. I could probably convince them to get us a couple of doughnuts if I go about it the right way. Now, my roommate, Betty? She hates eating sweet things in the morning. They make her sick. I've never had that problem. Have you?"

 

Carmilla shook her head in reply. She watched Laura explain, sipped at her coffee and pulled her shoes on. She had started wearing her PPDC uniform to bed so that she wouldn't need to waste more time in the morning changing twice. She didn't have the energy for that.

 

Laura was too energetic for – she didn't even know what time it was. Way too early, probably. Carmilla wouldn't know it to look at her though, because her co-pilot looked well-rested when Carmilla knew for a fact that she couldn't possibly have gotten more than five hours of sleep.

 

The first day of training didn't seem to have tired Laura out much.

 

"Your, uh," Laura said, slowly. Carmilla looked down at herself – sweater, pants, shoes. None of them seemed to have blood stains on them or anything of the sort. Good, she thought, looking up at Laura. "Your hair."

 

"What about it?"

 

"You don't know how to braid it, do you?"

 

Well, someone was bound to notice that eventually.

 

"Do you mind if I-" Laura said, putting her cup down on the edge of the desk and her hand on the back of the chair. "I mean, if you'd rather not, I won't."

 

"You want to braid my hair." There was an ache in her shoulder and a crick in her neck and her co-pilot wanted to tug at her hair just to make it presentable and the last time someone had touched her hair inside the academy had been right before the-

 

Carmilla already trusted Laura more than she had trusted Elle. Laura hadn't done what Elle had when they stepped in a Jaeger for the first time. Or the second. Instead, Laura had brought her rainbow-sprinkled doughnuts and asked to braid her hair.

 

"Is that alright?"

 

She considered it. Carmilla had nothing to fear from Laura; her co-pilot had proven that in the limited amount of time Carmilla had known her. Laura was the closest thing to safe that she had, even though she had unlearned the meaning of that word two years prior.

 

Carmilla nodded.

 

Laura beamed, made a show of pulling the chair out fully. Carmilla stood up; her shoes scraped the blankets, but she didn't even notice; it came second to Laura. Everything came second to Laura. She would take the sheets down to the laundry room that afternoon, or get someone else to do it for her.

 

She sat down, clenched her teeth together in an attempt to calm down. Her books, the ones still on the desk, did not look aesthetically pleasing to her in that moment; she had re-ordered them the night before, in the middle of the night with no light to accompany her, and she saw now that that had been a mistake. The reds pressed against those shades of yellow and the pale brown paper made for the least comfortable selection of colours. She reached forwards in an attempt to move at least one book - a hideous yellow that was smack dab in the middle of two red books, but Laura's voice stilled her.

 

"Hold on, still trying to find a hairband," the girl said. Carmilla did not turn to look, and tried to focus on something else, something that would not necessitate her moving. Out of habit, she listened to Laura's heartbeat.

 

It was different than before, just a smidge faster.

 

She didn't have to wait long for Laura to start after her "a-ha!" which indicated that an elastic hairband had been found, presumably in one of the multiple pockets lining her jacket. Her co-pilot touched her shoulders, pressing her palms down on them as if to steady herself. Laura then gathered up her hair, her fingertips brushing against Carmilla's neck.

 

Carmilla's eyes fluttered shut. The feeling of Laura's fingers touching her skin was one that she could not afford getting used to. She sucked in air through her teeth, decided to focus on things other than the burning feeling that Laura had left on her neck.

 

"I'm sorry, did I- did I hurt you? I don't have a lot of practice doing this on anyone other than myself, so-"

 

"No," Carmilla replied, voice shaky. She cleared her throat. "No, you didn't hurt me."

 

"Okay, good. Tell me if I'm being too rough, okay?" Laura tugged at her hair gently, as if she was afraid to inconvenience her by pulling too hard.

 

"Mhm," she hummed back in response. When Laura's nimble fingers brushed against her skin, Carmilla tried not to lean into her; failed, of course, because she had not been touched in so long, especially not like this, never like this.

 

The way Laura touched her post-drift was different than this, because that was a result of the drift, a necessary part of their training, because the connection that the hardware had strengthened hadn't cut out entirely.

 

But this, having Laura touch her without the added excuse that the drift provided, it felt like something that she wasn't supposed to be getting used to, but. Carmilla felt heat rise to her cheeks, her neck, and she didn't have any explanation for why all those places burned, save for Laura's touch. Laura had brushed past her chin, both her ears, and dragged her fingertips up the back of her neck to pull up the loose hair she'd found there, leaving a trail of goosebumps.

 

"There," Laura said, after what felt like hours, tying up the ends of her hair in a tiny hairband. The girl patted her shoulders again, and turned to face Carmilla. She patted down a few stray hairs, and mumbled, "Now you're perfect."

 

A blush crept up Laura's neck faster than the tips of Carmilla's ears went pink, and by the time her co-pilot had started to attempt to explain what she had meant, Carmilla didn't mind that she felt like she'd been burned, licked by fire through the girl's touch. Laura looked like she was contemplating what would deal her a quick, painless death: willing the ground to swallow her whole or running out of the room and straight out of the academy itself.

 

The ground didn't open and Laura didn't run, of course. Instead, the girl's fingers left Carmilla, and it felt like she'd been forced to withstand drowning again. Laura backed up against the desk, her hands attempting to find mooring on the edge, which led to her unburdening the desk of half her books; Carmilla watched as they dropped, like a pile of dominoes, to the floor.

 

"I am so sorry," Laura said, kneeling down to pick up the books. "I'll replace anything that's been damaged or- I didn't mean to say that you weren't perfect before. I meant- your hair. It was a mess yesterday after training - even before, actually, and this morning it looked- Um, uh."

 

Carmilla, still in a haze from having been touched by Laura with no real excuse for so long, knelt down and started picking books up herself, at which point she noticed that the reason Laura had stopped talking was that she had started reading. That wouldn't have worried her, had the book not been wrapped in brown paper.

 

"Is this-" Laura said.

 

"That's for research," said Carmilla, words hurried. If Laura figured out what she was, if she connected the dots, there was no way of telling how she would react to that, and Carmilla did not want to have to live with two people hating her literally more than anything else on the planet. No, not Laura, not yet-

 

When she spoke, Carmilla sounded like she had been caught doing something she shouldn't have been – which, if she were just lucky enough that morning, she could convince Laura that she was only nervous about her finding her affinity for vampire-related fiction, instead of nervous about her finding out about her species.

 

"Research," Laura repeated, narrowing her eyes and looking at her curiously, studying her, and Carmilla knew there was no way to backtrack, no way around it.

 

"Mhm," she said, for the second time that day. Her hair was starting to pull at her skin, but that might have been the added stress of having Laura be this close to finding out what she was.

 

"Never would've pegged you for a Dracula enthusiast, Karnstein." Carmilla frowned. That book was most definitely not Dracula, and her relationship with vampirism, her own included, was slightly more complicated than that, but she could hardly blame the girl when she didn't know. And she wouldn't find out, Carmilla assured herself.

 

"I'm not," she said, forming the books into a wobbly pile and lifting them on top of the desk. She could tell that Laura was not buying into her act. "I like the author. They're- um, very true to life." The girl raised an eyebrow. Carmilla briefly shut her eyes and hoped that it wasn't one of the more embarrassing authors she had just vouched for.

 

Laura turned her attention to the book again, and started reading, in crisp-clear English; "'She approaches me, limpid eyes trailing down my neck, my heart pulsating with that sweet elixir that she, my angel of death,' - who wrote this, - 'has claimed as her own, her teeth— her fangs, I remind myself, those chiselled canines that she will use to bite into my flesh, she hides them behind a smile as she steps closer, hips swaying to and fro.'"

 

"That's not a fair sampling-" Carmilla tried.

 

The girl held up her index finger to still her. "Skipping ahead- 'Floorboards creak, breaking the silence that has gathered between us. A finger, she trails down my front, hooks it into my gown, rips it off of me,' - girl does not care whether that gown's expensive or not, which is very rude of her if you ask me, - 'and I should tell her to wait, to allow me to take it off for her; but I do not speak, for I cannot, rendered wordless by my undead lover's charms.'"

 

"Fine, you've had your fun, now give me the book."

 

"This is fantastic. Did Meyer finally go broke and cough up a really crappy lesbian version of Twilight? 'She strikes as a snake would, with the sharpest of weapons at her disposal, digging her teeth into my naked bosom. I am immediately inundated; soothed under her tongue and the hardness of her bite. Engulfed with thoughts of her-'"

 

Carmilla inhaled, slowly.

 

"How dare you keep such a masterpiece from me, Karnstein? Honestly, listen to this; 'In her embrace I remain. Her mouth, moist with ichor,' - oh my god, - 'When she leaves, I glance down at the twin reminders of her, upon my still-beating heart.'"

 

Carmilla had not vouched for one of her favourite authors of the genre, or even one of the more tolerable ones. She hadn't managed to finish the book in Laura's hands. Still, the girl didn't have to emphasize how unbearable it was. Carmilla knew, but it felt like Laura was making fun of a part of her history, a part of her identity, however fake it was. She already felt ridiculous for keeping the damn books.

 

"I get it," she said, pulling the book from her co-pilot's hand. Laura relinquished it easily. "It's not to your liking. You don't have to mock it."

 

"I'm not. I'm not mocking it- or, I'm not mocking you," Laura insisted. Carmilla threw a glare her way, placed the book on top of the pile she had formed. Laura stood up, facing her fully. "It's just- It's not true to life."

 

The words spilled out of her mouth before she could stop to think of the implications; "How the hell would you know that?"

 

"Well, it's obvious, isn't it?"

 

Carmilla narrowed her eyes, drummed her nails against the hardback; their exchange was putting her on edge, being so close to something she wasn't yet ready for. It wasn't as if Laura wouldn't have confronted her about it if she had learned of Carmilla's little secret - no, Carmilla was sure that the girl would have transferred to literally anywhere else had she figured out what she was. Carmilla couldn't help but be nervous. Especially while being this close to getting in a Jaeger with her.

 

Laura dragged her out of her panicked state by saying, "Lesbian vampires wouldn't go for the chest."

 

Carmilla, who fit both of those identifiers and had, on plenty of occasions, done exactly what Laura had just claimed that she wouldn't, was contemplating baring her fangs.

 

"Excuse me?" she growled.

 

"I can't get the angle out of my mind's eye," Laura explained simply, shrugging for emphasis. An adorable smile formed on her face - Carmilla, much to her chagrin, had to force herself not to think of it that way, because while the girl was adorable at times, she had no idea what she was talking about and it was turning her mood sour. "It would be so awkward. The bite itself, I mean. Unless she's a very short vampire, but even then. To be honest, it's too much of a male fantasy."

 

"A male fant-" Carmilla paused, crossed her arms across her chest. Laura didn't need to know just how many women she had bitten before; she certainly did not need to know where she'd bitten them. She didn't. Even if it would render her theory completely wrong. She didn't need to know. But, Carmilla wouldn't let it go that easily. "Okay, fine. If you were a lesbian vamp-"

 

"Vampire," Laura cut in, smoothly. She leaned against the desk, her arms folded over her chest, mirroring Carmilla's position.

 

"Pardon?"

 

"If I were a vampire," Laura said, putting a hard emphasis on the word, waving her hand, indicating Carmilla should have already picked this up. "I'm already a lesbian. Nothing hypothetical about that."

 

Carmilla breathed in very, very slowly, tried to force herself to remember that this entire situation was all hypothetical to Laura, because she didn't know, which was good. And she wouldn't find out, either, she thought stubbornly. Laura apparently thought that she was reacting to something else entirely.

 

"Oh, come on, Carm, I don't make it a point to hide my sexuality. I'm pretty sure you've noticed by now," she said, casually. Laura side-eyed the door, tilted her head. "Admittedly, along with half the base."

 

"And how, exactly, would I have noticed that?"

 

"I just assumed you would've heard? Everyone else- Right, but then again you don't really seem the gossipy type," Laura said, nodding, having connected the dots. "Early on, I got tired of guys asking me out. As in, on a date, not to spar or anything else interesting. So, uh, I kind of climbed onto a cafeteria table and came out to everyone. Well, most everyone; the news travelled fast, though. I figured you would have heard but, please, continue your hypothetical scenario in which I'm a vampire."

 

She tried to shake the image of Laura Hollis standing on top of a table and effectively rejecting the entirety of the male population of the academy out of her head, and she managed to, after Laura nodded at her to continue. "Fine," she said, through gritted teeth. "If you were a vampire, where would you bite your victims?"

 

"Oh," Laura said, her tone suddenly turning serious. Her posture, previously at ease against the desk, stiffened. "No, that's a completely different question. We're not having the same conversation at all."

 

Carmilla was close to seething. Laura had just told her that the way that she bit into her victims was a male fantasy, so she was very close to losing what little patience she had left and telling Laura about every single incident where she had bitten into a woman's breast.

 

"Aren't we?"

 

"Nuh-uh. See, a 'victim' is someone I'd bite to maintain the power balance. What that scene described is entirely different. The vampire was biting her human lover to please her, and in that case, I'd go for the thigh, but veer away from the femoral artery; that would kill her within minutes."

 

Carmilla stilled. She hadn't thought about it that way, hadn't entertained the concept that anyone she bit into wasn't a victim; she was the predator, they were her prey. Those roles weren't exchanged quite so easily. She didn't say that, though, because what Laura said had.. surprised her.

 

"Oh," she said, raising an eyebrow curiously. The game had changed. "You've thought about this."

 

"Yeah, extensively." Laura shrugged, uncrossed her arms and placed them on the edge of the desk. "I used to get really bored studying anatomy alone, so I came up with these little games, sort of. To remember arteries and stuff, and you can't make fun of how dorky that sounds because you have at least one book depicting it. Badly."

 

"So, hypothetically, you'd want to be bitten in the thigh."

 

"God, no," said Laura, laughing nervously. Carmilla's stomach dropped. "I'd be terrified."

 

"No?" she repeated, confused again. Laura was about to reply when the sound of someone yelling outside Carmilla's room came through the door, and reality slammed into both of them like an oncoming train.

 

"We're late," said Laura.

 

"Are we?" She didn't think that there was anything more important than the conversation that they were having right then, having completely forgotten about training, about Jaegers, about the damn apocalypse itself.

 

Laura grabbed the box of doughnuts, shoved it into the fridge, pressed the untouched coffee cup into Carmilla's hand, and indicated towards the door. Carmilla obeyed without question. She wasn't sure if they had locked the door, or if they'd picked up all the books. Truthfully, she didn't much care. Laura continued once they were outside her room, after Carmilla started sipping her coffee - lukewarm, now.

 

"I said," Laura started, and Carmilla wondered if her latte was still in her room and if Laura had finished it off or not. "If I were a vampire, I would bite someone in their thigh, not that I would want to be bitten there. I don't have a death wish, Carmilla."

 

Carmilla stopped walking. Laura turned to face her.

 

"What now? We're late."

 

"You want to be a Jaeger pilot," Carmilla stated, except it sounded more like an accusation, one similar to, "How could you not have a death wish if you want to be a Jaeger pilot?"

 

"Yes," Laura agreed, and indicated towards their location, and their destination of the day, because that much should have been obvious, apparently. "But Kaiju have a low mortality rate compared to vampires, I mean. I've heard of people surviving Kaiju attacks. I'm not about to let a vampire suck me dry unless I'm sure they won't kill me. I'm semi-responsible."

 

"Anyone semi-responsible wouldn't let a vampire get anywhere near them," said Carmilla, automatic. They started walking again, Carmilla keeping up with Laura's brisk pace. She had to admit that she'd gotten sort of used to Laura's thought process now, so she guessed that Laura thought that they wouldn't get to fight a single Kaiju if Sarah Jane got her hands on them, thinking that the technician would kill them for being this late.

 

"That's why I said semi-responsible, Carmilla. On the other hand, though, I wouldn't mind being turned into a vampire."

 

Carmilla choked on her coffee. "What?"

 

"I'm adaptable," Laura said, shrugging, as if being turned into a monster was nothing to her; just another day that ended in a 'y'. "Plus, immortality would be pretty cool."

 

"'Pretty cool'?" Carmilla said, outright staring at Laura, who was now ticking off reasons on her fingers.

 

"I could eat all the chocolate in the world without worrying about health risks. Not that I do worry about health risks, but it would be nice to have a guarantee that I'm not going to drop dead anytime soon, sort of. I'd finally catch up on everything that I've been meaning to watch – movies, television shows, I'd probably run out of books to read, at some point."

 

"You wouldn't," said Carmilla, finally looking away from Laura. "Run out of books, I mean. There's enough harlequin books, for instance, to last you at least three lifetimes."

 

Laura laughed. "Well, you give me infinity, Carmilla, and the biggest library in the world, and I'll disprove that theory of yours in a century or two."

 

;;

 

"The blood would be annoying, I guess," said Laura. She was frowning now, as if she were displeased with herself at how she hadn't thought of it before.

 

She was also braiding her own hair. Carmilla hadn't asked her why she hadn't done it outside, given how late they already were. She also didn't ask her why she had pretended not to know how to braid her own hair the day of the trial run, because she already knew why. The girl had deliberately pretended like she hadn't been aware of it to distract the technicians from asking about Carmilla.

 

Today, though, it looked like Laura had been mulling over their conversation, and now that she had figured it out, she needed to disclose the information to her co-pilot as soon as possible.

 

Carmilla watched her curiously, didn't pretend to tinker with her CD player like the day before, since she hadn't brought it down with her. She had completely forgotten to wear her jacket, too. Laura had taken over, preoccupied her mind, disrupted her entire plan for the morning, which had mainly been indifference and derivatives of it.

 

"But, I could get used to it. I didn't like vegetables when I was younger and now I'm really fond of artichokes, for some reason."

 

"I think the situation is slightly different than your stubborn refusal to eat your greens as a child. You're saying you'd get used to drinking blood."

 

Laura shrugged. "It's a small price to pay for immortality."

 

"Mm," Carmilla agreed, looking down at the floor. She hadn't realised that she had been jiggling her knee since the girl had started this conversation. "What about-"

 

She considered not saying it, but Laura looked at her, her fingers still tangled in her hair, her look curious. Carmilla didn't feel scared; for all intents and purposes, she should have been terrified of getting in a Jaeger with this girl – she should have been afraid of getting in a Jaeger for the rest of her life, but something about Laura made her feel safe, so she said it.

 

"What about having people look at you different when- The person whose opinion you value the most in the world. What if they find out what you are and they hate you for it? Would that be a small price to pay too?"

 

"Only one thing left to do, in that case – no, wait, two. Two things," Laura said, her hands going back to braiding her hair. "Either I get them to understand that I'm not a danger to them - this is assuming I still have my soul, obviously."

 

"And when that doesn't work?" Carmilla asked, tentative.

 

Laura smirked, ran her fingers over her hair, making sure the braid would hold. "The second option, which is basically the first option, but with more puppies. Unless they're allergic, in which case: kittens."

 

"Awfully idealistic of you, sweetheart."

 

"Don't worry, Carm," she said, tying a hairband at the end of her braid. "If I ever meet a vampire in real life and they're willing to turn me, I'll turn you into a little fanged fiend too. Then you'll be stuck with me for all eternity."

 

"Sounds fun," Carmilla said, not quite managing to keep the amusement out of her tone. Laura picked the gloves up from off of the table, tugged one of them on.

 

"Would you want to be turned into a creature of the night? I mean, you're kind of nocturnal, so you're halfway there already."

 

"No," said Carmilla, voice cracking. Laura narrowed her eyes, tightened the straps on her glove. "No, I would not."

 

"Eternity doesn't sound the least bit appealing to you?" she asked, as she pulled the other glove on, tightened it as she'd done the first. Carmilla had never been asked; had been killed without her consent and brought back to life without any thought or concern as to her feelings on the matter. Her mother held the cards in that respect, not her. Thinking about her past did not change it, so she squared her shoulders, moved on. Simply put, she had never allowed herself the illusion of choice.

 

"Life is meant to come to an end," she said, voice unmoving, purposely avoiding her co-pilot's gaze, "otherwise you’re left waiting for the inevitable in an apathetic, melancholic state."

 

"The 'inevitable'?"

 

"Sweet, merciful death," said Carmilla, sadly. "That, or the eventual collapse of humanity, whichever comes first."

 

Laura rolled her eyes, crossing her arms in front of her chest. "Bah, humbug. It's not like you can't enjoy life just because there isn't a best-before date. Plus, I'll have you know, I am excellent at working without a deadline."

 

"Sure you are."

 

"I'll make a vampire of you yet, Carmilla Karnstein," the girl said, voice soft, the same way one might have told her that they would, eventually, manage to convince her that immortality would be enjoyable.

 

"Of that I have no doubt," she muttered in reply, obviously lying.

 

"Your turn," said her co-pilot, walking to the door. Laura turned, infectious smile already plastered to her face; "Try not to take as long today. Something tells me SJ is not going to be that pleased with us for being late."

 

;;

 

Thankfully, Sarah Jane didn't yell at them. When they finally slinked into the Conn Pod and settled into their positions, they could still see her body from the inside of the Jaeger, her bright white lab coat the only thing visible from Mission Control. That, and the glare she sent them over her coffee cup. Her voice came through crystal clear over the speakers, though, muttering something that sounded suspiciously like, "I hope they get eaten by a damn Kaiju for making me wake up at five AM."

 

'You think she really wants us to get eaten by a Kaiju?'

 

'Not too interested in having Kaiju sink their teeth into you, are you?'

 

'There is a book in your room right now that has so much purple prose in it, Dickens himself would laugh his head off. All I have to do is tell Sarah Jane exactly where to find it, and your badass punk reputation would be ruined. Ruined.'

 

'You would never.'

 

'Try me, Karnstein.'

 

;;

 

July 29, 2020
Jaeger Academy

 

The third day's doughnut had chocolate sprinkles on it.

 

It was definitely becoming a habit of hers, but she didn't really mind waking up fifteen minutes earlier, going to the cafeteria and chatting with the staff there. It was worth it, for one, to find them in the fridge post-drift because they tasted like literal heaven. When her co-pilot took the coffee cup from her and slipped the box of doughnuts in her fridge, Laura noticed that she was acting a bit odd. For Carmilla, anyway, which was a level of strange that anyone else would have assumed was Carmilla naturally.

 

Her co-pilot didn't ask her to braid her hair. She tugged at it long enough, in an obvious way. Laura knew what she wanted instantly, rolled her eyes and pushed her co-pilot down onto the desk chair, once again braiding it.

 

Tying her hair up had become a necessity in the Jaeger Academy, between training and eating while sleep deprived, Laura had started keeping extra hairbands on her at all times because she kept losing them faster than she could acquire new ones – Betty was most likely to blame for that. But, when she finished up Carmilla's braid and held it between her thumb and forefinger, she noticed that she hadn't prepared a hairband. So she stood there, patting down her jacket pockets trying to find one.

 

Laura was considering tying the end of the braid with a rubber band when she saw Carmilla's hands. Her co-pilot was playing with the same hairband that Laura had given her the day before, pulling on it and twisting it around her fingers. She had kept it.

 

"Give me that, would you?" Carmilla instantly tugged it off her wrist, wordlessly handed it to her, as if she had been waiting for Laura to ask her for it. Five minutes later, Laura said, "Hey, at least we're not late today."

 

"Mm," Carmilla agreed, still sipping at her coffee. She hadn't brought her CD player that day, either. Either she'd figured out that there was no point in attempting to ignore Laura in the mornings, or she'd decided to give up on trying to ignore her, which was nice.

 

;;

 

"What's up with your co-pilot?"

 

Laura frowned. "What do you mean?"

 

"I mean, where's she from? What's she like? Why did she transfer in the middle of the semester and go straight to Jaeger training? That kind of thing."

 

Laura hadn't actually figured out why Carmilla had been transferred at such an unconventional time in the semester, but she didn't much care, either. Whatever had brought Carmilla to the Jaeger Academy, she was there; Laura didn't really care about the 'Why?' or 'How?' because she had better things on her mind.

 

Such as trying to sleep. While Betty kept trying to talk to her. About Carmilla. Betty was stood in the middle of the room, preparing to get to bed, but Laura had learned that until the blonde fell asleep, Betty was going to talk to her. Which didn't work too well for Laura, because she was exhausted and she just needed some peace and quiet.

 

After their successful first drift in a Jaeger, Laura had spent her days cooped up in Carmilla's room until the effects of the drift wore off. Laura had almost finished the book she'd taken from her co-pilot's room, and the only time she ever read it was post-drift, nestled up to Carmilla. She hadn't asked to sleep over again, mostly because they were both getting used to the near-drugging effect and Laura wanted to make sure Carmilla had some time away from her.

 

So, the few times they didn't wander out of the barracks and end up sneaking into the cafeteria to buy snacks and leave immediately afterwards, she ate lunch with Carmilla in her room, going through Laura's dad's gift baskets – sans the embarrassing notecards that her father often surprised her with because she didn't need Carmilla to tease her about being her father's daughter, thank you very much – then separated for dinner, where she caught up with Betty and Danny and their equally tiresome efforts in finding co-pilots.

 

"I don't know," she said. Betty raised a single eyebrow in disbelief. Laura shifted on top of the bed, curled closer to the wall.

 

"Really, though."

 

"Really."

 

"Can't you just-" Betty tapped at the side of her head with her index finger, and clicked her tongue impatiently, as if she couldn't believe Laura was being so oblivious. "You know."

 

"No, I don't know. What are you saying?"

 

"I mean, you two drift."

 

"Frequently, yes; one might say we're drift compatible," said Laura, her own impatience rising, because did they really have to talk about the matter at eleven PM? The answer was obviously no, they did not.

 

"Can't you just, I don't know, ask her during the drift?"

 

A beat.

 

"You did not just ask me that."

 

Betty frowned. "What?"

 

"You don't think that's taking advantage of the situation? Some kind of breach of ethics? Morals?" Betty narrowed her eyes, frowning. Laura frowned, gave up on going to sleep before explaining this, and sat up, pushing away her blanket.

 

She ignored Betty's look. It was the same one she gave Laura whenever the latter asked what she thought was in the green mush they'd had for dinner. One that just said, 'Don't ask'. Betty was that interested in what a rookie like herself had to say about ethics with regards to drifting. Which was to say that she wasn't interested at all.

 

"When you drift with someone," Laura started, pausing for effect. "They trust you. They have to, otherwise the drift wouldn't work. Trust is part and parcel of drifting."

 

"Oh dear god," Betty muttered.

 

"They trust you with everything – not just the most important part of themselves – but with literally everything that they have; they're trusting you with everything that they are. The fundamentals of their very being, Betty."

 

Laura knew that her roommate hadn't ever thought of it as more than just sharing a space with somebody, because the blonde hadn't drifted with anyone other than simulations thus far. The simulations never had anything other than what had been programmed into them. Somehow, Betty had forgotten about the very basic element of humanity that came with drifting.

 

"You can't betray their trust like that. This girl, Betty, this woman, she's not- she's unlike anyone that I have ever met." Betty reached up to touch her side, almost out of reflex.

 

"I gathered."

 

"She doesn't trust much," Laura continued. "She doesn't trust anyone, as far as I can tell. But she's.. on the way to trusting me. Or, the beginning of that, maybe. And, yeah, maybe I'm selfish and I want her to trust me because she's the person I'm drift compatible with, but- I actually like her as a person and I don't want to betray her like that, or at all."

 

"It was just a suggestion, Hollis. Never mind."

 

"It was a bad one," Laura stated.

 

Betty had apparently gathered that, too.

 

;;

 

July 30, 2020
Jaeger Academy

 

Nine hours of training were hard enough with Laura being a first-hand witness to every semi-coherent thought she had that day. They were harder when she unintentionally set Laura off with her deadpan humour, and the girl laughed in that way of hers, throwing her head back and exposing her neck fully. Carmilla had to disguise her reactions to her laughter as annoyed coughs more than once.

 

Nine hours were worth it, however, because she had an excuse to be touched by Laura afterwards. An excuse for Laura to stick around in her room, joking about chocolate that was exactly like cardboard in everything but looks, and chicken soup that tasted surprisingly nothing like chicken soup. She thought of it as a curse disguised as a blessing disguised as a curse; Carmilla honestly didn't want to think about it any further than that.

 

Especially not with Laura touching her. It was always Laura who touched her – never the other way round. Carmilla didn't want to get used to something that could be taken away from her so easily; with a singular movement, her traitorous teeth would make sure of that.

 

She had even started making sure that she breathed normally around Laura, so as not to arouse any suspicion. Inhale, exhale, ad infinitum. Though her pulse was usually muted, dulled out through years of being on the edge of life, whenever she was with the girl it was as if her heart forgot all about that.

 

Still, Laura didn't know she was every bit as terrifying, as monstrous, as the Kaiju. Carmilla doubted she would ever outright tell her – risk Laura being scared of her? Risk the tentative friendship she had worked so hard to develop? To put it simply, she would have rather died properly than have Laura look at her the same way Elle had.

 

She would miss this. Having Laura slip her hand into Carmilla's as soon as she stepped out into the hallway, the press of the girl's palm against her own a soft reminder that Laura's pulse was authentic, unlike hers.

 

The drift always seemed to disconnect a minute before either of them was ready; at least, that was what Carmilla kept telling herself, because she didn't think it possible to get used to being ripped apart. That was what it felt like, being separated after drifting – being ripped away from Laura, the voice in Carmilla's head, the one that had made itself at home, rather quickly. They couldn't prepare to be separated like that.

 

At that very moment, she could barely focus on anything other than how warm Laura's hand was, or how the girl kept stroking the back of her palm with her thumb. Carmilla could feel her knees threatening to give out. If she had fainted, she would have blamed it on training, maybe threatened to sue the PPDC for overworking impressionable young women like herself to make her exhaustion look real.

 

She could have hardly been expected to focus on anything other than her co-pilot post-drift, and she could hardly be expected to focus on someone she didn't care for. Someone like Danny Lawrence, for instance.

 

Danny, who was on Laura's other side talking to her about something Carmilla couldn't care less about. She really wasn't paying attention to Danny. The only thing she noticed about the tall girl was that she was coming with them to Carmilla's room, which was unfortunate and unprecedented.

 

This was her time with Laura. These were the couple of hours she could spend with Laura without having to stay constantly vigilant about what she thought – only what she did, which she had gotten used to through centuries of pretending to be human, so that was hardly as important.

 

"We'll be out of your hair in no time," Laura had said, ten minutes earlier.

 

She'd said it in English, because she had slipped back into the language around Danny, and her voice sounded so foreign speaking it to Carmilla, who had only spoken to her in English for the first week they'd known each other, and they had only had a handful of conversations then, so English was weird to hear come out of Laura's mouth.

 

Either way, Carmilla doubted Laura's statement whether it was said in English or German. They weren't going to do that any time soon because Laura wouldn't leave her. Not yet, anyway. They both knew they couldn't be separate for another couple of hours.

 

Carmilla had gotten familiar enough with Laura that she didn't try lurching her hand out of hers and going back to her cold, empty room by herself. It wouldn't have felt like their soul had been ripped in half exactly, but the unsettling feeling that came with being separate for any amount of time so soon post-drift was persistent and not a favourite of either of theirs. They were not up for that today.

 

She glared at Laura in protest, silently willing the ghost drift to work as some sort of telepathic connection even when they weren't suited up and hooked into the system. This, of course, didn't work. But it managed to catch Laura's attention enough for her to press her thumb to the back of Carmilla's hand and caress it. It took Carmilla a few seconds to notice that Laura was writing letters.

 

It didn't take much longer for her to realise that Laura had written 'W A I T' into her hand. In English, still. The girl had reverted back to talking to her in a language that was foreign to both of them just because Danny 'hotshot' Lawrence was present. 'Hotshot who still doesn't have a co-pilot,' Carmilla thought, smugly.

 

It was childish and petty, for sure. But ever since she drifted with Laura, there were those underlying thoughts that ran through her head whenever she saw Danny recently. As if her co-pilot's feelings for the tall girl had transferred to her and she couldn't shake them off no matter how hard she tried. Most of those emotions included guilt and a tiny smidge of regret, but Carmilla could sense Laura's insecurities whenever even the subject of Danny came up. Laura was, for some reason, ashamed that she hadn't been good enough to be drift compatible with Danny.

 

It made Carmilla feel sick. She, unlike Laura, was an indifferent third party to their weird and irregular relationship, and the glimpse she'd seen of them sparring – training really, it had unnerved her. There was something about Danny that she couldn't put a finger on, something that would have explained why she felt simultaneously awestruck, nervous (Laura's emotions) and annoyed and angry (hers) whenever Danny approached her co-pilot.

 

Carmilla made a mental note to figure out how to block out Laura's emotions – her own thoughts were enough, she didn't need to feel the girl's emotions towards the people in her life too, for heaven's sake.

 

Still, she was helpless against Laura's touch and since 'W A I T' was a rather specific order, she decided to obey. Her shoulders slumped into resignation and she squeezed Laura's hand to confirm that she would, in fact, wait. Laura seemed pleased at that, smiled a bright smile at her and turned back to Danny.

 

'No time' had turned into quite a long time; Carmilla didn't like it because they had walked back to her room in that amount of time. At least Danny had the common decency to stand on the steps leading up to the room, instead of walking in after them. There were some things that she could not possibly be expected to be passive towards, and having Danny flirting with Laura in the middle of her own damn room was most definitely one of those things.

 

Carmilla finally gave up her indifferent act and interrupted them again.

 

"Not that I'm not enjoying this little ménage à trois, but I'm sure the Jaeger Academy is big enough for Xena here to find someone else to flirt with; someone less busy, perhaps." She spoke in English too, because if Laura was speaking the language, it meant that Danny didn't understand German and Carmilla wanted to make sure that Danny understood how unwelcome she was.

 

"No one is flirting-" Laura started, but Carmilla cut her off again. She wasn't interested in listening to their stunted conversation and she sure as hell wasn't interested in Laura lying about it to her face.

 

"Perhaps at a time during which I am not present, and thus unable to listen in on this wonderful conversation - regretfully unable, of course. I wouldn't want to imply that the mating rituals of overgrown redwoods are, in any way, uninteresting to me." She hardened her voice, made it harsher, made sure that jealousy didn't seep into it. Laura glanced at her then, her gaze curious.

 

Carmilla stilled. She'd hoped that it wouldn't be too obvious to either of them – she didn't care if Danny knew; the redhead was as irrelevant a variable as the rest of the people in the academy as far as Carmilla was concerned – but she still forgot sometimes, that Laura knew things about her that she hadn't told anyone in decades. Because Carmilla didn't have to tell her.

 

Her co-pilot was looking at her with such an intense stare, Carmilla was sure that she'd figured it out. Laura turned to her, giving Carmilla her full attention, and inadvertently giving Danny her back, raised their hands and narrowed her eyes as if reassuring Carmilla of something. That she was Carmilla's co-pilot, not Danny's, perhaps, Carmilla wasn't sure.

 

"Give us a second, would you? In fünf Minuten gehör' ich dir."

 

Carmilla's throat ran dry, but it wouldn't have mattered, because she couldn't think of anything to say in response. Laura had said the first half for Danny's benefit; the second for Carmilla's.

 

'In five minutes, I'm all yours.'

 

Danny coughed lightly, interrupting the moment – both of them had forgotten about the redhead, it seemed, she was still hovering on the steps because she still didn't know if she was welcome or not. Her interruption yet another reason why Carmilla wanted her gone.

 

"Maybe we should talk about this some other time," said the redhead, stepping backwards. Her smile was stilted, but not tired, like her own and Laura's. Danny still hadn't found someone that she would be required to attach herself to for hours, yet.

 

Carmilla didn't know whether to pity her for still having hope that she ever would, or envy her because she still had hope left. Laura kind of had to shove the idea of hope in Carmilla's mind for piloting a Jaeger with her to even register as a plausible scenario, and even then.

 

"No, this is important," said Laura, closing her eyes. She was still facing Carmilla. "We need to make a list of reasons why." She turned to Danny again, and the tall girl's smile went lopsided. "There's a logical explanation to it, we just haven't found it yet. Maybe we could get one of the techs to help us – Sarah Jane on a good day. She seems to be having a series of those lately."

 

Danny leaned against the doorframe. "I don't think Sarah Jane would like that very much. She likes protocol, and you know how impatient she got when you wanted an abrupt Drift Sync test with her after ours," said Danny, gesturing to Carmilla, who stopped looking at the back of Laura's head long enough to glare at her. "I don't think she's willing to help us understand the basic concept of drifting tech."

 

Until then, everything had been coming to her through a hazy Laura-vision, because she couldn't possibly be expected to focus on anything but her co-pilot post-drift. It came to her suddenly. Danny and her co-pilot, their conversation had somehow strayed into a dangerous path.

 

They were talking about why they hadn't been able to drift during their test. It had started out innocently enough; Danny had been walking past the Jaeger bay, asked Laura how training had gone for the day. Laura had replied in an almost humorous groan, only to change the subject to Danny's lack of potential co-pilot candidates. Which had somehow veered back onto why Laura hadn't been compatible with her.

 

Laura was no doubt about to suggest getting Sarah Jane to help them by bringing her coffee every morning for an entire week or something equally as ludicrous, when Carmilla decided to interrupt.

 

"The problem isn't with the technology," she said, hoping to put an end to this argument quickly. It had gone on for far too long already; all she wanted, all she had wanted since she had stepped out of the changing room and Laura had laced their fingers together, was to settle down on her bed with Laura's head on her shoulder. That, and to catch up on her reading.

 

"What do you mean?" Laura asked, turning to face her again, except this time she kept her feet firmly on the ground and didn't step in front of her, so Carmilla could still see Danny's furrowed brows behind her co-pilot's confused expression.

 

"The geeks," said Carmilla, easily. "They won't know why you're not drift compatible with Clifford here because the technology is perfect, sweetheart."

 

Laura frowned. "So, what you're saying is: it's us? We're the problem?"

 

"If the shoe fits," Carmilla muttered.

 

"So we are the problem."

 

Carmilla resisted the very intense urge to roll her eyes. Laura had somehow managed to delude herself that she and Danny could have ever had a chance in a Jaeger. Now that she'd spent more time with the girl, she knew that the redhead never really had a chance.

 

"Drift compatibility means being on the same wavelength with someone," Carmilla explained. Her co-pilot stared at her like she had grown another head. Danny looked at her like she usually did, with malice laced in every look. "You can't be drift compatible if you think they're better, somehow. Or if you think they're weaker. That's why most people aren't compatible." Carmilla shrugged. "Some sort of imbalance in the relationship."

 

"What's that supposed to mean?" asked Laura. Carmilla sighed at her co-pilot's blank stare and Danny's curious one.

 

"No, that doesn't make any sense," said Danny, pointing between herself and Laura. "We're perfectly matched."

 

"Clearly," Carmilla said, and did roll her eyes this time. Laura obviously still didn't understand her point. She was going to have to explain it properly. "You," Carmilla said, looking at Laura, "don't think you're worthy of being her co-pilot because you're insecure in your own abilities. And people like her-" Carmilla looked to Danny, still hovering in her doorway like an underpaid waiter nervously hovering around for a tip. "Well, there's a reason most Jaegers are piloted by two smug co-pilots, darling."

 

"Laura and I-" said Danny. "We trained. We sparred every single day for weeks."

 

"Oh, my mistake," said Carmilla, voice fake-pleasant. "Might I inquire as to how that worked out for you? Because, if I remember correctly, being physically compatible with another person is only the precursor to drift compatibility, not the entirety of the concept, but who am I to attempt to explain that to someone who doesn't even understand what drifting is about."

 

"Then what, pray tell, is it about?" asked Laura. Her co-pilot looked like she had had enough of her, and Carmilla hoped that she wouldn't leave. They hadn't parted ways so soon after a drift since the first time they had drifted, and that had been a simulation, not an actual Jaeger. She didn't think she could withstand not being around her.

 

"Don't you get it?" Carmilla spat. There was only two ways this would go: Laura was being deliberately obtuse about the whole thing, or she honestly hadn't figured it out yet. Both options would have broken Carmilla's heart, if she weren't already nursing a cold, dead heart between her lungs.

 

"I should go," said Danny.

 

Carmilla noticed, for the first time, that she had almost stepped out into the hallway. There was something about that movement, that slight lightness in her feet that bothered her. It was as if Danny was ready to run away the second she said anything that didn't sit well with her. All at once, she decided that she did not want Danny to get away with hurting her co-pilot that easily. Danny was the reason that Laura had been so disappointed after that first Drift Sync test.

 

"She was holding back during training," Carmilla said, slowly, enunciating every word to make sure that everyone heard her properly. "On some level, she still thinks that you need to be protected from-" she gestured around with her free hand, "all of this nonsense. And you, sweetheart, worship her like she's some sort of Jaeger pilot with half a dozen kills under her belt. Which would be hilarious if she didn't have a hero complex the size of a Category IV."

 

Carmilla regretted it almost immediately.

 

She shouldn't have been the one to tell Laura, but everyone else was so hell-bent on protecting this girl, this woman who seemed to think that she could take down the Kaiju with sheer willpower, she couldn't lie to her. Carmilla couldn't keep the reason why her co-pilot wasn't drift compatible with Danny away from her, not while Carmilla had figured it out. She hadn't focused on it any more than she did anything else relating to the redhead, but when she gave it some thought, it was clear as day.

 

Danny didn't think that Laura could hold her own in a fight against her – which was laughable to Carmilla, especially when she thought of their first sparring session, in which Laura had not only forced her to come at her with everything that she had (through verbally taunting her on the floor, which was an entirely separate matter that wasn't altogether unrelated), but had cracked her ribs, too. Anyone who didn't think that Laura could hold her own didn't know her co-pilot; nor did they respect her, nor did they consider her their equal, which, frankly, Carmilla agreed with. Danny could never have reached Laura's level.

 

Laura fought like she had something to lose; a few months earlier, Carmilla would have assumed that something like that, having something held that close to the chest would have made a person weaker, because Carmilla herself fought like she had nothing to lose. Carmilla thought that having nothing would be enough to let go of all the anchors holding her down, but Laura's anchors were there to keep her focused, to make sure that she won whatever fight she was involved in. 'Dialogue', not 'fight', Carmilla thought fondly.

 

The girl would be hurt at her co-pilot being the one to tell her about Danny holding back, Carmilla knew. But she wouldn't be as hurt as she would have been knowing that Danny had held back in the first place. That Danny thought Laura couldn't have taken her in a fight. And in the end, that was the primary difference between them, she supposed.

 

Danny would rather have lied to Laura, to shield her from the reality of the situation because she didn't think that Laura could handle the truth. Carmilla, however, knew how irritating it was when others – her mother, chiefly – decided to make any kind of choice for her and then lie about it. With someone like Laura, who fought so hard to be able to make her own decisions – whether they be good or bad ones – who hadn't wanted Carmilla's position as the Marshal's daughter to be the only reason she was taking another Drift Sync test. Carmilla knew that Danny's betrayal would hurt her more than her own involvement in shedding light on the situation would.

 

Which Laura proved by looking downright heartbroken. "Danny," she said, her voice strained. She hadn't turned back to Danny. Laura's eyes were still upon Carmilla, who didn't dare say anything else now. "Tell her she's wrong."

 

Carmilla could smell the blood rushing to Danny's cheeks, her pulse rate increasing with every passing second, but the redhead did not answer Laura. She didn't do much of anything; merely stood there, as if waiting for something to happen. Something other than Laura, who Carmilla thought was a pretty big event already.

 

The next time her co-pilot spoke, her voice was small, like it had curled in on itself. Carmilla didn't like this shamed version of Laura's voice; it sounded nothing like the Laura she had grown accustomed to, the one she had grown fond of.

 

"Tell her, Danny."

 

"I can't," said Danny.

 

"Why not?"

 

"She's not. She isn't wrong, exactly." Laura turned to look at Danny then, her shoulders shaking with rage; contained, for the time being. She could tell that Danny saw her co-pilot's anger too. It was pretty hard to miss, like an invisible tornado wreaking havoc around the room.

 

Carmilla honestly didn't know whether to hold Laura back for fear of ending up with a natural disaster right outside her bedroom door, or sit back and watch the show; she opted to play it by ear.

 

"I didn't want to hurt you," the redhead said. Her voice was betraying how nervous she was, but Carmilla honestly could not care less. There were far worse things than owning up to one's mistakes, and Danny had only done the bare minimum, if that.

 

She eventually turned her gaze to Laura; her posture was hard, back set in a rigid line and the hand holding her own the only thing deviating from the sharp angles that Laura had suddenly become.

 

Carmilla decided then and there that the words Gigantor had just spoken were the worst things she could have ever said to Laura. Carmilla closed her eyes, waited for the inevitable anger that her co-pilot would let go of now that Danny had given her something concrete, proof other than Carmilla's suspicions.

 

"You didn't want to hurt me," Laura repeated. Her voice cracked then, and Carmilla opened her eyes and waited for Danny to cower, run away, anything but stand there defiantly. How one could do that in front of Laura Hollis, Carmilla did not know.

 

The redhead's shoulders were hunched, but she was still taller than the both of them and yet Carmilla felt as if her co-pilot was towering over her. Laura stood at almost a foot shorter than her but since Danny had stepped out into the hallway, Laura stood at just two inches shorter. Somehow, this didn't make any difference to either of them.

 

"What did you think was going to happen when we stepped into a Jaeger?" When she spoke, her voice started out calm, but by the time she got to the end of the sentence, she had spat out the last word as if in protest.

 

Laura's grip on her hand tightened and Carmilla was sure that if she were still human, her hold would have hurt her, maybe even bruised or cracked a few bones; Laura was not new to that, she knew. Still, Carmilla didn't let go, because she could feel that Laura needed something to ground her; she needed something to justify her anger, now more than ever, and who better to do that than the living - well, sort of - proof that Laura was born to step into a Jaeger.

 

The thing was, Carmilla could have left; either shoved them both out of her room or made up some excuse and slipped out herself, left them to deal with this themselves, but. Carmilla was aware then that this wasn't her fight. It would never be. But Laura was her co-pilot, her friend, and she was damn well going to stand at Laura's side and see it through to the end, because she knew that Laura needed her support right now.

 

"That's different," said Danny.

 

"How so? Enlighten me, Danny, please. I'm dying to hear your excuses on why it's different to lie to me when we're in a Jaeger, compared to lying straight to my face."

 

"Laura-" Danny started.

 

"Don't you think I would have noticed in the drift? It's not a one-way street, Danny. We would have been co-pilots. Not 'Danny Lawrence, majestic Big Damn Hero, and, oh, here comes her irrelevant sidekick, Laura Hollis, tagging along for the ride just in case someone needs a catchy one-liner after a Kaiju kill'. That's not how Jaegers work."

 

Laura's hand tightened around Carmilla's own. She felt the blood rush to her co-pilot's heart. Meanwhile, Danny said nothing.

 

"She still thinks you need to be protected," was what Carmilla muttered then, just because she knew that Danny wasn't going to say it herself, and the implication that the redhead thought Laura couldn't protect herself was there, hanging on the edge of a thread that was about to snap any second now.

 

"That's evident," said Laura, voice low and dangerous, more to herself than either of them.

 

"I could have protected you," Danny started, shaking her head.

 

Laura shook her head. "Wait, what?"

 

"She wouldn't." Here, Danny turned away from Laura briefly, looked at her for a split second, and Carmilla understood exactly what she wasn't saying.

 

The redhead didn't resent herself for holding back as much as she seemed to resent Carmilla for being the one who was drift compatible with Laura, for what Danny might have thought of as not going easy on her, that first day in the Kwoon. For trusting Laura to be capable of taking care of herself, because as far as Danny was concerned, that was indifference; it might have been, at some point, but Carmilla was sure that it wasn't anymore.

 

"Laura, she won't-" Whatever she was going to say next was interrupted by the girl standing in front of Carmilla; her co-pilot had turned her voice into a razor-edged knife in the span of a few seconds. Laura was damn near vicious like this and it was rocking Carmilla to the core, seeing her this angry, this contained.

 

"Don't you dare finish that sentence if you value our friendship even a little."

 

Danny's gaze hesitated on Laura, then flicked towards Carmilla again. "What I'm trying to say is that if anything happened during a Kaiju interference, she would save herself first, and leave you."

 

Carmilla bared her teeth, struggling to keep her fangs hidden. The insinuation, the fact that Danny had the audacity to voice it at all, and to her face. It all made her angry, the likes of which she hadn't been in years.

 

"She doesn't care about you," continued Danny, and something in Carmilla snapped. She wasn't sure when she had stepped forward, but Laura was standing to her left now, not in front of her.

 

She hadn't yet decided just what she was going to do – how much she could risk to lose in just the span of a few seconds – but the redhead's accusation had awakened a raw anger inside of her and it was writhing around in the pit of her stomach, scratching at her insides and screaming to get out.

 

Laura, her co-pilot, her friend, with her oversized jacket hanging off her frame and the way she kept leaving things in Carmilla's room – nothing big or intentional; hairbands that she used on Carmilla's hair, empty boxes with doughnut glazing encrusted on the inside, the loud absence she left behind when she went back to her own room. Those kinds of things.

 

The insinuation that she would have left Laura, hung her out to dry as if she were expendable just like everyone else Carmilla had left behind, it was enough to make her fangs itch.

 

Laura was not like the others, not to Carmilla. For one thing, they shared a routine now. Carmilla had started leaving her door unlocked in the mornings, just so that Laura would come into her room and pretend to be surprised when she found her co-pilot asleep.

 

Carmilla assumed that she must have started placing the doughnuts in her fridge before she tried waking her up, because they weren't there when she awoke, but they were always there post-training. There was still food left, in the fridge and the cabinets – Laura had eaten all the fruit within days of noticing that her co-pilot wouldn't, but she had left everything else for Carmilla to eat.

 

Then Laura would nudge her, wake her up slowly and hand her a cup of coffee before Carmilla sat up and tried running her fingers through her hair only to have it snag on some knot or other – a remnant of the previous day's braid. Laura would then sigh and offer to do her hair for her, as if she still wanted to keep up the pretence of there being a chance that Carmilla would say 'no'.

 

She didn't know for sure, because she hadn't thought to check the time that early in the morning yet, but she suspected that Laura had been coming over earlier than she had that first day, just to have enough time to drag her fingers through her hair and leisurely take her time tugging on her hair as Carmilla pretended that she didn't know how to braid her own hair properly. She could have, given enough time and energy to care, fashioned it into something that would have astounded Laura; however, that would have also ensured that the girl would never again braid Carmilla's hair, so that display was never going to happen.

 

Carmilla had gotten accustomed to the way Laura moved away from her if she so much as flinched or edged away, as if afraid that it was Carmilla's way of telling her that she wasn't welcome anymore. How she hadn't delved deeper than the surface of her thoughts, the baseline.

 

She had gotten used to a system with the girl in just a few days; Carmilla did not settle into routine with another person. She never allowed herself to get accustomed to having someone there, and she had been trying not to assume that Laura would be there every single morning holding out a cup of coffee for her, but Laura had snuck up on her. It spoke volumes that Carmilla didn't mind that fact at all.

 

Just a few months earlier, she would have laughed at the thought of herself caring for Laura Hollis, someone relentlessly hopeful and deliriously happy at the thought of being awake before noon. Carmilla never would have guessed that someone accusing her of not caring about her co-pilot would have caused this kind of reaction, and yet here she was, ready to tear Danny's throat out.

 

Thankfully, Laura stopped her in her tracks.

 

"You don't think I'm cut out to be a Ranger, then?" Laura asked sternly. Carmilla felt her grip tighten, except this time, it felt different, more contained than before. "You think I need someone to save me? And, I'm sure you were doing it for my own good, of course." Carmilla tugged at her hand gently, grounding her. Laura glanced at her for a split-second, then turned back to the redhead, who was visibly shaking.

 

"Laura," said Danny.

 

"You don't think I've had enough people tell me that they're taking away my agency for my own protection?"

 

"Please, listen to me." She was begging Laura now. Carmilla liked this look on her. It seemed fitting after what she had done; lied to Laura for weeks and then pretended that she hadn't thought of her as weak. "This isn't what it looks like. I can explain."

 

"I hoped that you wouldn't turn out to be just like every other person on this base who thinks that I can't handle myself. I wanted you to prove me wrong, Danny. But as my co-pilot said, I used to see you in a different light. A much brighter light than necessary."

 

"No, Laura-"

 

"And since I'm not fit to protect myself from the big bad Danny Lawrence, I guess you should leave now." Laura smiled, all teeth with none of her usual spark, finalizing the conversation. She stepped closer to Carmilla, clenched her hand even harder than before. The redhead didn't respond. She didn't leave, either. "Get out."

 

Danny technically wasn't in the room, but Carmilla had an inkling that Laura meant for her to get out of her line of sight.

 

"Can I at least explain why I held back?"

 

"I don't care as to why you held back," said Laura, in a calm manner. "I could not possibly care any less. Get the hell out before I throw you out."

 

Carmilla could tell that her blood was boiling underneath her skin, but she exuded the perfect illusion of calm. Which seemed to do the trick on Danny, who left; the thump of her boots against the floor dulled out by Laura's heavy breathing.

 

As soon as Danny's footsteps were no longer able to be heard, Laura turned towards her and wrapped her arms around her neck, hiding her face in the crook of Carmilla's neck. Carmilla stood still for a moment, breathing in the smell of her, the sound of her angry, angry pulse searing itself into Carmilla's mind.

 

Carmilla raised her arms slowly, reached up to hold Laura for as long as it would take the girl to calm.

 

;;

 

They were both in Carmilla's room, still. Over the covers, because it wasn't cold enough in the Jaeger Academy to warrant the use of a blanket before nightfall.

 

The way they usually spent their time post-drift was this: with Carmilla's back against the wall and Laura's head resting on her shoulder, staring at the pages of the book on Carmilla's lap. They hadn't differed much from that formula since they started training. There was no need to, it worked fine for both of them – Laura could distract Carmilla by asking her to explain what had happened in the story before, making her explain the book if it was written in a language Laura wasn't fluent in. Carmilla hadn't minded her co-pilot's curiosity, Laura was not an unwelcome interruption; besides, she could probably have read hanging upside down from a Jaeger in the middle of a very busy Jaeger bay, if she tried hard enough.

 

Today was not the same as all the other days post-drift. Laura had not brought her book – Carmilla's book – with her that morning, she hadn't stopped at her room since Danny had distracted her, and she muttered that she simply did not want to start another, so she was stuck looking over Carmilla's shoulder. Laura gave up on that quickly, didn't even bother asking what the story was, when she saw that it was written in a language she couldn't even recognise. She had settled down against Carmilla after, and hadn't made a peep for almost an hour. Carmilla would have assumed that she'd fallen asleep, had it not been for her breathing pattern.

 

The confrontation with Danny had tired her co-pilot out. After a while, in which she pretending to make herself comfortable on Carmilla's shoulder, the girl huffed and poked Carmilla's thigh thoughtfully. She knew where her co-pilot's thoughts had wandered off to before she voiced them; the ghost drift had made certain things easier, but it was Laura's coy nature that alerted her to the fact that she was still thinking about what Danny had said.

 

"Can I- I mean, would it be okay if I-" Carmilla raised an eyebrow. Laura had switched to German, but it didn't seem to have much of an effect on her ability to phrase her question properly.

 

Her co-pilot's sudden speaking difficulties were unlike her, completely the opposite of how she was in the drift – the uninhibited and forthright manner with which Laura thought had started interfering with Carmilla's image of the way the girl spoke when they weren't in the mindmeld. But then again, most of what they had to focus on in a Jaeger was learning each other's mental shorthand and shortening their simultaneous reaction times.

 

The way Laura spoke now was small and unsure of herself. It didn't suit her; Laura was the physical embodiment of an oil refinery decked in flames and watching her be reduced to a sputtering flame at the wrong end of a spindly black matchstick was unsettling, to say the least. There was not much that could interact with someone like Laura without being burnt alive, swallowed whole by the sheer raw power of her, but the girl could be so gentle whenever she was with her; Carmilla forgot, sometimes, that her co-pilot didn't let just anyone see the cracks in her facade.

 

She had been relentless with Danny – yet, allowed Carmilla to be her support, let her hold her while she regained the ability to breathe without tears threatening to fall. Here, though, Laura looked as if she were second-guessing herself, unsure of whether her words would be taken in kind or if they would set Carmilla off and she would start packing yet again. Eventually, Laura decided to forego asking altogether.

 

Laura flushed a pretty pink, pulled at her co-pilot's arm enough for Carmilla to lift it up from where it had been resting on her legs. She dropped her head to Carmilla's leg, instantly burrowing against her thigh and humming contently. She sighed softly and waved her hand to indicate that Carmilla could go back to what she was doing – which Carmilla couldn't, really, because she now needed to hold up the book to read it over Laura's head.

 

Which was what she did.

 

Admittedly, she should have lowered her arm from where Laura had positioned it ealier, but the thought hadn't even occurred to her, because doing so would have required leaving it on Laura and she wasn't sure if her co-pilot was alright with her using her shoulder as an arm rest. Laura sighed and tugged Carmilla's still-hovering arm on top of her head, and shrugged it into a more comfortable position, willing Carmilla to relax.

 

Carmilla couldn't focus on her book, for reasons unwilling to make themselves known to her. Her hand was just above Laura's hair and the girl was leaning into it like she expected Carmilla to scratch at the back of her head in soothing patterns.

 

That was how she ended up slouched against the wall with her arm thrust upwards, holding a book up to the light in midair. There was always less light on the bottom bunk – not really much of a hindrance for her, but it made a significant difference when she had to read it at an awkward angle. She had been reading this book for almost two weeks, mostly as a bedtime story because reading about her own kind whenever she was around anyone else was odd. Her arm started to cramp up, but she stubbornly refused to set it down until she'd finished the chapter.

 

She supposed that she could have lowered the book on top of Laura's head, but that might have been considered rude. Carmilla couldn't use her other hand either because it was otherwise occupied by Laura who, after mumbling something about having an itch at the back of her head, had rather persistently kept demanding that Carmilla scratch at her scalp every so often with a gentle nudge to her leg.

 

The only reason Carmilla was still attempting to read was because she didn't want to have to focus on the fact that Laura was draped over her; she could feel hot breaths against the side of her thigh, like a comforting reminder that the girl was still breathing.

 

"You don't think that I need to be protected," Laura murmured, her voice the only thing that had broken the comfortable silence, at least since the fridge had beeped a few minutes before. Carmilla scoffed calmly, but didn't take her eyes off the book.

 

"Why would I?" she said, in reply to Laura's statement. It was obvious that it had taken her co-pilot this entire time to gather up the courage to come out with this, and she wasn't going to just ignore it, but it was.. such an odd statement.

 

"Why wouldn't you?" Her hand stilled in the girl's hair. Laura's voice took on a tone of bitterness. "Everyone else seems to think I'm an inexperienced shut-in who needs constant protection. Except for, like, Betty. But she assumed I was here for Kaiju science when we first met. I don't think I give off the Jaeger pilot vibe."

 

"You do not strike me," said Carmilla, emphasizing her words by scratching the back of Laura's neck with the barest touch of her nails, "as the type of person who wouldn't volunteer to be on the front line."

 

Laura leaned into her touch. "You're different than the others." There was a split second panic that set in. Carmilla stilled. "They looked at me like they thought I was some sort of joke, but you- I thought you did too, at first. But you never have, have you?" Carmilla finally tore her eyes off the book and looked down at her co-pilot's head.

 

"Putting aside your affinity for Krav Maga," said Carmilla, closing the book and dropping it on the side of the bed, effectively giving Laura her full attention, "and the fact that we've all gone through the same basic training, plus how you very nearly broke two of my ribs when we first met-" Laura let out a yelp, interrupting her.

 

"Very nearly broke-" she repeated, turning to look up at her. Carmilla met her co-pilot's piercing gaze.

 

"Mhm," she interrupted, turning away from her and focusing on the gentle hum of the refrigerator. Carmilla breathed out. Her ribs had healed, but sometimes when she thought of them, there was a shot of pain that felt more like sparks of electricity dancing across her abdomen. "You don't need protecting. At all."

 

"Oh."

 

Carmilla smiled at her co-pilot's soft exclamation, faced her once more. Laura was still looking up at her eagerly. The way she was doing so should have unsettled Carmilla. It should have. Laura looked at her like she had just tipped her world on its axis, as if she had figured out something about her supposedly human co-pilot.

 

The last time someone had looked at Carmilla like that, it hadn't ended well for either of them. But Laura, she looked at her like she had found something aside from the monster inside of her; something holy. It scared her. Laura's expression was too honest, the equivalent of ripping off a plaster far too early for the wound to have healed. Looking at Laura right then felt like gazing directly into the sun, and she had to look away.

 

She picked her book up again for the added excuse of having something to do, found the chapter – not the page, she was sure that she wouldn't remember the page for another hour or so – that she had closed it on, and focused her attention on anything but her co-pilot. After reading the same sentence a measly two times, she gave up.

 

"On the other hand," she said, her nonchalant voice bouncing off the walls, "people might need protecting from you. My side still hurts from our stint in the Kwoon."

 

Laura pulled away from her slowly and sat up, her face all shadows against the backdrop of the artificial light in the room. She looked like a dream.

 

"Did I really hurt you?"

 

"By the skin of your teeth," Carmilla said, in a playful tone. Laura's gaze turned to her waist, searching her clothes, as if willing herself to be able to see through them to assess the damage herself. "Hey, it was just a bruise, and- Fine, some cracked ribs." Laura's eyes turned scared. "They're already healed, don't worry about it."

 

"I'm sorry," Laura said, regret in her voice. "I didn't- I thought I'd hurt you but you said that I hadn't and- You went straight to your room so I thought you were fine and you didn't even bother to tell me that I had hurt you."

 

"And risk giving you a complex? I think not."

 

"I hurt you. If I ever do that to you again-" Carmilla raised an eyebrow, preparing an elaborate lie as to just why there was little chance of Laura ever catching her off her guard ever again, but the girl wouldn't relent, it seemed. "I'm serious," she insisted.

 

"It was a minor injury, sweetheart. Nothing to concern yourself about."

 

"Cracked ribs are not a minor injury. You said they still hurt."

 

"They don't." Still, Laura didn't seem convinced. "I suppose you'd want to check for yourself, but I assure you-" Carmilla had meant it as a joke, but Laura hadn't taken it as such. She leaned towards her, gently poking at Carmilla's side.

 

When Carmilla didn't edge away out of reflex as she usually did, Laura slid her hand down along the sweater to ascertain that Carmilla's injuries had truly healed, barely reaching the skin over her ribs through the amount of pressure she was putting on the material.

 

Still, Carmilla made no move, and she would have kept still had it not been for, well.

 

Carmilla wasn't ticklish. She wasn't. She could keep a straight face throughout any scrape that just so happened to make her want to laugh so hard she would end up crying. It didn't happen as often as one might think, though. Anyone who knew her wouldn't dare and anyone who didn't was too intimidated, too scared.

 

Laura, however. Laura was neither of those things. So, even if Carmilla could hold under the pressure and she could pretend that she wasn't ticklish, her co-pilot was always an exception.

 

As soon as Laura's hand reached just below her ribs, with the girl's fingertips grazing her side as if checking for injuries, Carmilla flinched and let out a bark of laughter. Carmilla could feel a blush rising to her cheeks, and she turned away from Laura in an attempt to hide her grin, pressing her mouth to her own shoulder to keep quiet.

 

"Are you-" Laura started. When she turned to her again, the girl was attempting to look at her seriously. It was a completely ineffective attempt, because there was an enamoured smile plastered to her face. "You're really fine, then?"

 

"Yes, I am."

 

"And you're ticklish," she said, as if she'd just unearthed treasure of some kind. She curled her fingers against Carmilla's side as if to prove her point and that was when Carmilla edged away from her, shuffling to the side. Laura finally lowered her hand, grasping at her own shin.

 

"No, I'm not," Carmilla said, her voice lilting.

 

"You kind of are, though," said Laura, playfully.

 

"And you're a menace to society, sweetheart." Laura laughed hard, a thick laugh that made Carmilla's insides feel like mush. She resolved to make sure she heard that sound again as soon as possible.

 

A spark of something that Carmilla couldn't decipher appeared in her co-pilot's eyes. Laura's warm palm cupped her cheek and Carmilla's breathing slowed to a fraction of what she usually kept it as to appear human. The book was sliding out of her grip, forgotten and slipping to the edge of the bed. Carmilla didn't think to reach out for it.

 

"And you'd best not forget it."

 

She hadn't noticed how close Laura had gotten until her breath tickled Carmilla's cheeks. The look in Laura's eyes changed completely, as if she had realised what she was doing and just how badly she didn't want to be doing it. The girl pulled her hand as if burned, marked by fire, shook her head and pushed herself from off of the bed, walked over to the fridge, presumably to check if there was something she could snack on.

 

Carmilla, for her part, was still trying to gather her senses. Laura pulled out the box of doughnuts that she'd brought over that morning and dropped onto the bed, far enough from Carmilla that she couldn't touch her with anything but the heel of her foot. At least her co-pilot had plopped the box in the middle, as a sort of bridge between them.

 

The ghost drift was wearing off, then.

 

;;

 

July 31, 2020
Jaeger Academy

 

Natalie was not, strictly speaking, supposed to be in the drivesuit room during their training, but she dropped in every once in a while. Mostly to keep Sarah Jane in line and to keep tabs on their progress.

 

Sometimes, she brought coffee for the technician, other times she didn't show up until noon, in which case, she still brought coffee for Sarah Jane, who winced as she drank it because, "Decaf is not coffee, and there's scientific evidence to back me up." Natalie rolled her eyes and told her to, "You could always give it back," to which Sarah Jane slumped against the desk chair and sipped at her cup. Needless to say, Natalie always found a reason to be there at the end of the day, mostly to remind them not to be late the next day.

 

"See you Monday, kids," was not something that Laura was expecting her to say when she and Carmilla stepped out of the Conn Pod and out into the world. Laura still hadn't gotten used to the way the weight of the armour felt when they disconnected from the Jaeger, and she wasn't sure if the armour itself was entirely at fault.

 

So, Laura could feel a little detached from the world after a drift with Carmilla as the only anchor keeping her grounded. But when she looked to Carmilla, the girl was staring at her with an equally as confused expression. She swayed, the weight of the armour too heavy after an entire day of training. The technicians around them were doing their very best to remove their drivesuits piece by piece, but every second felt like an eternity under the suit.

 

Carmilla shrugged off a technician who was trying to remove her shoulder pad off of her, and the poor girl wandered off to the side in an attempt to appear busy.

 

Laura was no fool, she knew that only a specific couple of technicians ever wanted to help Carmilla get out of her suit, whereas she was flocked within minutes of stepping out of the Jaeger. They had good reason for this; Carmilla would snap and threaten any technician who wasn't entirely gentle with her.

 

She could understand how weird that would seem to them; her co-pilot's aversion to being touched was something Laura herself was still getting used to. She had an inkling that Carmilla only allowed her to touch her because their post-drift experience would have been severely unpleasant without it.

 

The other Jaeger pilots that these technicians had worked with had been open – either with their fondness for each other (the ones who had known each other before drifting together, before the Jaeger Academy entirely), or with how awkward they seemed to be around one another (for the ones who hadn't), and even the weirdness that came with the ones who despised each other. They were open with their hatred, their recognition and respect for the other's abilities enough for their drift to be solid, unlike herself and Carmilla.

 

She didn't quite know what she and Carmilla were, out of those. Laura didn't think that Carmilla considered them friends, exactly. But it wasn't like they didn't have some relationship that didn't overlap with the definition of friendship, either. Their interactions the past couple of days had been muddled by the post-drift haze and the routine they had settled into. Perhaps, she supposed, they were caught in between, some kind of friendship that was only being held together by the drift and, when that was absent, the ghost drift.

 

Natalie, and to a certain extent Sarah Jane, were the only people in the Jaeger Academy who seemed to understand this. Even though Natalie was their SO and could have ordered Carmilla to play nice with the technicians, she didn't. She looked them over, frowning at Laura, then at Carmilla. Both of them were staring at her in awe at what she had said.

 

"Monday?" Laura asked.

 

"Next Monday," Natalie said slowly, as if Laura didn't even know what day it was which, to be fair, she totally didn't. Stage three was proving to be a challenge, unlike the other stages. Mostly to Sarah Jane's patience, if she were to be honest.

 

"What about tomorrow?"

 

"Hollis," Natalie said, slowly. "It's Friday. You two have the weekend off. Like the rest of us. You didn't think the PPDC would work you through the weekend, did you?"

 

Laura stared at her, as did Carmilla, equally as slack-jawed. She knew they both looked tired and worn out, if Carmilla's appearance was any indication as to how she looked herself.

 

The woman smiled, a soft smile that Laura knew she used to ease cadets' worries whenever they went to her with doubts and insecurities of never finding a co-pilot. Laura thought it best not to make any sudden movements, Carmilla looked downright feral at the thought of having days off.

 

"We have the weekend off," Carmilla repeated, voice soft, as if to confirm that they did in fact have the next two days off. Laura could practically hear the relief in her voice.

 

She wondered whether they had been working themselves too hard, or if they hadn't been spending enough time together post-drift. Natalie looked down at a screen and checked their numbers for the day. Laura hoped that she wasn't considering making a change to their schedule.

 

"Seems so," Laura confirmed, glancing at her co-pilot, who was still watching their SO. She thought that they must have looked funny to Natalie, what with the dark half-circles on the underside of their eyes – Carmilla's were practically permanent but Laura's had only developed recently thanks to a combination of sleep deprivation and a lack of proper sunlight – and their messy hair plastered to their foreheads with sweat. Natalie looked immaculate.

 

Laura made a mental note to sleep earlier, get more rest and maybe suggest that Carmilla do the same before the PPDC pulled them from the program after only a single week. Wouldn't help anyone to put exhausted cadets in Jaegers, they would say. They would do more damage than the Kaiju themselves.

 

Natalie looked back at them. "If you two need more time to breathe in between free days, we can fix up the schedule and-"

 

"No," she and Carmilla said, simultaneously. Obviously, they were not getting tired of the work. If anything, Laura wanted to spend more time in a Jaeger.

 

One of the technicians patted her on the shoulder, and she looked turned to face them, then looked down at herself. They had taken off all the armour. And they had free days. She turned to Carmilla, who was down to her circuitry suit as well.

 

In their haste to get down to the changing room, they almost ran out of there, with Laura tripping on a cable on her way out of the clamps. Carmilla's hand shot out and steadied her co-pilot before she could hit the floor. Laura pushed herself back into a standing position, and a cough came from behind them.

 

Natalie. They glanced at each other before turning back to face her. "Thank you, Natalie. We will make sure to rest up and stuff during the weekend," said Laura, grasping blindly at Carmilla, who didn't seem to mind. Their SO shook her head and waved them off, smiling softly.

 

;;

 

Carmilla's mind was already reeling, planning things that she could do. Or not do. She had 48 hours to herself, not including the few hours she had left of the current day, and the five hours she would have on Monday morning before Laura inevitably woke her up. Basically: she had two whole days to herself, to do whatever she wanted. She could have wasted them both and no one would be none the wiser.

 

She decided to spend the entire first day catching up on thoroughly deserved sleep, and the second day visiting the Medical bay she had not yet had the time to visit that week, what with Laura hovering over her shoulder. Her co-pilot, however, had other plans.

 

They passed by Laura's room, at which point Laura hesitated, saying not a single word, but staring at the door as if she expected Carmilla to read her mind. Fortunately, the ghost drift was at its peak, so Carmilla slowed down, stopped walking altogether when Laura tugged at her arm slowly.

 

"I need to get a book," said Laura, and winced. "I mean, I know your bedroom is kind of a library in everything but name, but I need a specific book; Fingersmith. I'm almost finished with it. Along with a couple of other things. Can you- I mean, would you?"

 

"Don't be long then, sweetheart." She tugged at their linked fingers. Laura immediately relinquished her grip. Carmilla gave her an empty smile and hoped that her co-pilot would not take her time. She felt sick at the thought of being apart; of waiting outside or, even worse, going back to her room to wait for the girl because that would be too far away and she could tell that Laura-

 

Well, Laura looked confused, however briefly. Carmilla herself was still trying to get used to needing someone on such an intimate level that wasn't born out of some primal need.

 

"Come with," said Laura, indicating towards her room, holding her hand out again. Carmilla understood that it meant, 'Not yet. I'm not ready to leave you just yet.'

 

She glanced at the closed door to Laura's room, undoubtedly spotless, as it had been the handful of times she'd seen the inside of it, and nodded. Carmilla allowed her co-pilot to lace her fingers through her own again, between trying to settle her nerves and reassuring herself that they weren't going to part. For now.

 

"Thanks," said Laura, squeezing her hand. "I'll only be a few minutes, promise."

 

Their twined fingers seemed to be relaxing Carmilla, she noticed, as she followed her co-pilot into the room. The curtains weren't drawn shut, like they had been every other time she'd been in the room – it hadn't been this early before. The sun had come down long before that first day in the Kwoon, and she did not much care for the room after drifting, so she wouldn't have noticed if Laura's room was painted bright purple, let alone if the curtains were drawn or not.

 

She noticed everything today. The unmade beds, the shoes lined up next to the door, the scrabble-type magnets on the fridge - spelling out, enjoy the little tings, probably because they hadn't yet found an extra 'h' - and the small pile of books on Laura's own desk, but the thing she could not keep her eyes on was Laura herself. The girl kept trying to clean up, (as if the room wasn't pristine compared to Carmilla's,) closing the door to the bathroom and picking up the shirt hanging off of the top bunk, throwing it back up and out of sight.

 

Her co-pilot was doused in the warm golden light, her hair looked a lighter shade of brown in it. Captivated, she stared at the back of Laura's head until the girl picked up a book from off of her bedside table and handed it to her.

 

"Hold onto this for me," she said, breaking their handhold again. This time though, it didn't feel as bad. Laura pulled off her jacket and went through her things, seemingly unaware that her co-pilot was stood in the middle of her room, watching her as if entranced.

 

It took her a second to figure out that Laura was packing some sort of overnight bag and another two to figure out that their visit to her room was going to take longer than a few minutes. The girl moved in such a clumsy way, nearly tripping with every step she took inside the tiny room in an attempt to avoid bumping into Carmilla. There was something about watching Laura in her element, dancing around her, that had Carmilla wishing they stopped to pick things up more often.

 

At one point, Laura smiled awkwardly and pointed behind her, then decided that actions spoke louder than words and pushed Carmilla towards the side of the bunk beds, shoving her down onto the bottom bunk. Before Carmilla could ask her what she thought she was doing, Laura dropped to the floor and pulled out a suitcase from under her bed. Laura's suitcase was full of books and contraband. No wonder she kept it hidden.

 

Carmilla only noticed it because of her vantage point on Laura's bed. Against the backdrop of the window, Laura looked so wonderfully similar to something Carmilla couldn't quite recall – where Laura had been the only thing in front of the sun and she had been brighter than any star that Carmilla had ever seen. A warmth filled her chest, some sort of bone-deep trust towards the other girl.

 

The drift, of course.

 

The way the light bounced off of Laura's hair reminded her of their first ever drift. Carmilla couldn't resist looking for a piece of loose paper, a notebook that she could tear a page out of. She could have asked Laura, but decided not to disturb the girl when she already looked so busy and the set of her jaw and her furrowed brows were the most gorgeous thing Carmilla had seen since, well, ever.

 

Carmilla glanced down at the book, still in her hand, and figured that since it was the only thing in the room that actually belonged to her, she would use that. She looked for a pencil instead. She found one tucked in between the pages of another book, on Laura's bedside table.

 

The amount of books both of them kept lying around was nothing short of amusing; they were compatible in more ways than one. Carmilla found herself vaguely thinking about what co-habitation with the girl would look like, if it would mean tomes in nooks and crannies in their house, their home, then shook her head, decided not to indulge in impossible, unlikely scenarios. Laura was her co-pilot, nothing more.

 

She flipped to the blank page just before the title page, and started doodling, sketching out the angles of Laura's expression. Carmilla could not have said how long it took her to draw the portrait but by the time she was finished, Laura still hadn't stopped going through her suitcase, occasionally dropping things into her duffel.

 

She started writing because she had nothing better to do. Writing poetry had never been her forte, in any language that she'd picked up along the way. Carmilla was more adept at reading, criticizing, or inspiring it; writing it only happened once in a blue moon when she couldn't stop herself. It was a tool to set her thoughts straight, and boy, did she need to go through her thoughts regarding one Laura Hollis.

 

For all the words Laura had wasted trying to make a puzzle out of Carmilla, she herself was a sort of enigma to the girl - Carmilla was a mystery solved once one had the final clue, but Laura made no sense no matter which angle one looked at her through.

 

The girl made no sense, for one thing. She had been relentless, so adamantly obsessed with doing anything to have Carmilla agree to being her co-pilot. But as soon as Carmilla had agreed, she had reverted into a careful and considerate person, who let Carmilla go through entire discographies during training to allow her space.

 

Any other pilot would have attempted to overstep by now. Especially one who wanted to succeed as much as Laura did. The girl had a need to pilot a Jaeger, some deep-rooted conviction to show everyone who had ever thought her weak just how strong she was.

 

Laura should have taken the personnel file, Carmilla knew. It would have given her an idea of how to handle her, how to manipulate her into doing exactly what she wanted, and yet Laura hadn't. Even without her mother there to encourage her, particularly with her mother there. Carmilla did not know many people who said 'no' to her mother and lived to tell about it.

 

By the time the post-drift exhaustion caught up with her, she had written three stanzas. She was almost ready to suggest staying in Laura's room instead of going back to her own, the walk seemed so long from the bottom bunk. Carmilla doubted that they could make it back to her room any time soon.

 

She had been focused on Laura's shuffling and the soft throb of her heartbeat, but when a second pulse intruded, she looked away from the poem (she had absently titled it 'Gravity' because working titles weren't her forte, either) and towards the door.

 

The person's heartbeat was a familiar one, even in its rattled, agitated state. Laura still hadn't noticed that there was someone behind the door, building up the courage to actually knock. It did not seem to be an option today, because the redhead kept climbing on the steps and then back off them. Danny was nervous, probably anxious about whether enough time had passed since yesterday's debacle.

 

As if that wasn't enough, a third heartbeat decided to show up. Carmilla had an easier time figuring out who this one belonged to. It was calm, tired, even, until the blonde girl rounded the corner and spotted Danny.

 

"Hey, Lawrence. What are you up to?"

 

The situation was this: Danny Lawrence, check. Betty Spielsdorf, check. They were both outside the door. Judging from the way Laura's head sprang up from out of the fridge – what on earth was she doing? Packing enough food in her duffel to feed an army? – her co-pilot had heard it too.

 

"Your room isn't on this floor, is it?"

 

Her co-pilot looked like she wanted to talk to them even less than Carmilla herself did, which wasn't really all that surprising given that she was still angry with Danny – Carmilla could tell, even without the drift – and they had just come from an entire day of training.

 

"No. Fourth floor, actually."

 

Laura pressed her eyes shut, as if willing them to leave. Carmilla suddenly felt a spark of guilt well up at the pit of her stomach for not wanting to speak to either of them, which confused her because she never wanted to speak to anyone on base and she sure as hell never felt guilty about it. Laura cracked an eyelid open, but they were most certainly still behind that door. Was it even locked? Had Laura locked it? Would they hear the lock if Carmilla casually-

 

"So you're here for Laura."

 

Her co-pilot dropped the banana she was holding. Carmilla eyed the doorframe for a second before looking back at Laura, who had slowly closed the fridge and was now looking at her suitcase and duffel, probably considering how to hide them. She ran her fingers through her hair, looked to Carmilla in a silent plea.

 

"That would be correct."

 

The frantic look in Laura's eyes said two things. The first was the fact that she was too tired to talk with people who weren't her co-pilot, whom she did not necessarily need to speak to, and the second was that she was too tired to converse with either Danny or her blonde roommate.

 

Carmilla breathed out and placed the heel of her palm flat against the door, hoping that Laura's roommate would give up on trying to get into the room if she thought the lock had broken. She would at least go alert HR and that would give both herself and Laura enough time to casually slip out of the room and into her own room. The staff would think that the blonde was playing some sort of prank on them, but Carmilla could live with that.

 

Her co-pilot stared at her hand and then back to Carmilla. She looked at her hand again, and once more at Carmilla. Laura pointed at the door and made frustrated hand gestures as if to say, "How on earth is that going to help?"

 

Carmilla didn't answer for two reasons.

 

The first because she didn't know how to sign, "This, sweetheart, is going to keep your roommate and annoying ex-girlfriend out. Contrary to what you might be thinking right now, yes, it will hold, because I have super strength, which I have neglected to mention because there are not a lot of ways to come out as your friendly neighbourhood vampire and I am not that eager to tell you about that anyway," using just the one hand.

 

The second was simple: because she didn't want to.

 

Laura motioned towards the bunk beds, as if hinting that they should move the entire thing in front of the door to block Betty and Danny out, as if they wouldn't hear the beds being moved. Carmilla smiled softly, shook her head at the thought of Laura being too tired to talk to her roommate and ex, but being willing to exert herself in making sure she avoid them. Laura raised an eyebrow, pointed at the bedside table instead. Carmilla shook her head again.

 

"You forgot that she's got more training than either of us combined, didn't you?"

 

Carmilla and Laura exchanged a look that said, "That's an understatement."

 

"I just figured that she'd be done by now. I already checked Karnstein's room, but no one answered, so-"

 

"You assumed they'd be here."

 

"Yeah, I did. They might be ignoring me, though."

 

"Come to think of it, my roommate did mention something about you being a jerk." Laura winced. "Well, technically she said you were a- Let's say that Laura has kind of used up her bad word quota for the year. So, what did you do to piss off our favourite little spitfire?"

 

She heard Danny shuffle her feet. "I, um, I don't know if she'd like it if I were the one to tell you, actually. But, rest assured, 'jerk' is well-deserved, as are all the other things she said about me. I wouldn't blame either of them if they were avoiding me."

 

Carmilla was busy thinking about the last time they had hidden and been silent, right before their first drift. She wondered how often they were going to hide inside unlocked rooms, and if it was going to become a thing of theirs. At least this time they weren't doing anything that might have gotten them in trouble, which, admittedly, wasn't entirely as fun.

 

"You came here to apologize."

 

"Something like that, yes."

 

"Well, good. But, if I know Laura – and trust me, I do, because there is a bond forged through hours of studying and training that you, Miss Only Just Transferred Here From Jaeger Prep, will only understand once you do laps with that girl at five in the morning – you need more than just an apology and those puppydog eyes of yours. You need to grovel. Beg her for forgiveness. And bring chocolate next time."

 

Carmilla snorted. Laura narrowed her eyes at her, but her mouth was set in a small smile.

 

"Thanks. I'll keep that in mind."

 

"The good stuff, mind you. You need to bring out the big guns, Lawrence. No more of this healthy crap, which you and I both know she hates."

 

Danny's laughter made its way through the door. "She does seem to have an aversion to healthy eating." Laura frowned, Carmilla shrugged softly, hiding her smile. "So, laps at five AM, huh?"

 

Betty groaned, as if she'd been suddenly jerked back into the memory of their former routine. "Have you ever seen the second Captain America movie? Where he just runs laps around Falcon for kicks?" Laura's roommate did not give Danny a chance to speak; "Laura is kind of like Steve Rogers post-serum, except, you know, a girl, and short and not blonde, but other than that: Steve. No, you think I'm kidding. I'm not. She has the stamina of a toddler hyped up on caffeine and Red Bull at five in the morning."

 

"So, kind of like the technicians down in J-Tech, then. I've seen them make cocktails out of coffee and three cans of energy drinks, it was.. an experience."

 

Betty's burst of laughter could probably be heard down by J-Tech. "Except none of them could take anyone in a fight and Laura could, well, you know how she is in the Kwoon. Hey, are you doing anything right now?"

 

"Uh, since I am apparently woefully unprepared for the wrath of Laura Hollis, especially without chocolate: not really, no. And I think she would've heard us out here, so it's safe to say that she's not in her room – I mean, your room."

 

"And you have nothing else on your plate for the next, oh, I don't know, half hour, hour?"

 

"Nope. Why?"

 

After a beat, Betty said, "Do you want to spar with me? I haven't had a decent fight in ages, and I was going to go nap because I literally have nothing better to do, but you seem like you could use a good fight." Carmilla watched her co-pilot roll her eyes and carefully mouth 'dialogue', as if Carmilla hadn't picked that habit up by now. "Plus, I think you would be fun to spar with, so."

 

"Yeah, I guess I could spare a couple of hours with you in the Kwoon."

 

"Don't sound too excited or anything," Betty teased. Laura covered her face with her palm, looked at Carmilla through her fingers.

 

"I know you're not that easy to offend, Spielsdorf."

 

"It was worth a shot. I could've made you feel guilty about it in the caf, made you get me a cereal bar or something. You know, after I annihilate you in the Kwoon."

 

"Oh, so that's how it is."

 

"Nice try, but you're not going to soften me up with cute movie references, Lawrence."

 

Their voices gradually became smaller, which meant that they were moving away from the room, thank god. They were too far away for Laura to listen in on, but unfortunately, Carmilla's heightened hearing made sure she heard them until they got to the end of the hall, at which point, tuning them out became easier.

 

Laura groaned. "Were they flirting?"

 

"I know way too much about Groot's love life as it is. The romantic endeavours of tall and taller do not interest me."

 

"Yeah, well, you're not Betty's roommate," said Laura, indicating towards the room. "You won't have to listen to her go on and on about how perfect and amazing Danny is. She already does that, and they're not even dating."

 

"Yet. They aren't dating yet," Carmilla said, in response, grinning. Global warming, was in fact, not the primary problem polar bears faced; the look Laura shot at her then could have melted icebergs whole in seconds. "Avoiding your friends, huh? I think you're spending way too much time cooped up in my room, darling. Is there something you're not telling me?"

 

Laura's eyes turned scared for a split-second, before she went back to her previously abandoned duffel and zipped it up. The suitcase was promptly kicked under the bed again.

 

"Look," Laura said, "just because I am not in the mood to talk to anyone but you and your smug face right now doesn't mean I'm a terrible person. I've had a long day – we've had a long day – and I don't know about you, but I am exhausted and you're easier to deal with than anyone else on base. Especially my friends. Friend and sort-of-friend. Don't ask me how I feel about Danny right now."

 

Carmilla pouted. "But what about the ever-so-tragic love story of Gigantor and Clifford? Shouldn't we be good sports and go cheer your friend and sort-of-friend on in the Kwoon? At least on the way to taking that-" Carmilla pointed towards the duffel, "to whoever it is you're planning on bribing today."

 

Laura rolled her eyes and pointed at the book in her hand. Right, of course. Her co-pilot had practically taken ownership of the thing since Carmilla handed it to her, so she would obviously want it back. That was why they had stopped at her room in the first place. That and the duffel, apparently.

 

The poem ended up being more than she had planned. It had too much of herself in it. The sketches were detailed; Laura would figure out that she was the subject if she so much as glanced at them, but using one's surroundings for inspiration was, well, standard. The poem, though, it was nondescript enough, so Carmilla shrugged and gave her the book. Laura would have to live with the fact that her co-pilot was a vandal who drew and occasionally even wrote on books.

 

"As much as I appreciate your eagerness to watch Danny and Betty beat each other up, we're not going anywhere near the Kwoon."

 

"You're not bribing any technicians, then. Hm, a scientist?"

 

"I'm not bribing anyone," said Laura, sounding somewhat offended. "I'm taking it to your room. Half of it is mine, but I'm leaving it there because it's more convenient to find it in your room after training, like the doughnuts? I end up coming back here starved and your food's running out, so."

 

"You're using my room as a storage facility," stated Carmilla. This did not surprise her.

 

"I am using your food cabinets as a storage facility, since all you seem to be using them for is gathering dust." Carmilla shrugged because, well, her co-pilot wasn't wrong. "And we have to get out of here before they get back so, up you get. I am not going to risk staying here for longer because you know that's just tempting fate."

 

"There's other ways in which fate can be tempted, sweetheart," said Carmilla, pushing herself up from off of the bed delicately, her hand cramped up from being pressed against the door for so long. She grabbed her co-pilot's jacket and handed it to her. Laura stared at her curiously. "You might need this."

 

"Nice of you to be so concerned about my well-being, Carm, but if it gets that cold, I'll just borrow something of yours. I'm sure you've got one clean article of clothing that isn't made out of leather." She looked down at the collar of her sweater. "Or falling apart."

 

"Wouldn't be so sure if I were you," said Carmilla.

 

"Eugh, fine. Bring my jacket with you."

 

;;

 

August 01, 2020
Jaeger Academy

 

"Not that I don't enjoy having you here, pet, but why am I the one who's being privy to your presence this morning? I was under the impression that you had actual friends that you would rather spend your free time with."

 

The simple answer was: Laura had finished Fingersmith and needed new reading material.

 

The impossible-to-explain answer that would have required flashcards and possibly a presentation (a really detailed one) was that she had accidentally opened the page that Carmilla had doodled on the previous day and, well, the truth was that she panicked.

 

There were a couple of sketches on the inside of her book – technically, Carmilla's, but the paperback was still on loan to her so it was hers in some respect – and if Laura didn't know any better, she would have thought that it was a study of, well. Her. The face looked remarkably similar to her own, but the mouth was curled in a grin that she had never seen on herself before. But apart from that, it was her. Or someone who bore a striking resemblance. And then there was the poem. God, the poem.

 

'Gravity'.

 

There was something inherently illicit about reading a scribbled out piece that had not been deigned hers to read. Carmilla must have known that she would see it – it would have been impossible not to, but her co-pilot had handed her the book so easily the day before, it was almost like she wanted Laura to read it; like she was expecting her to do so.

 

It was strangely intimate, reading Carmilla like this. She had grown used to the pretentious near-archaic German thoughts and Bach, Beethoven, the discography of every single punk band from the seventies in the drift, her teasing and asocial habits outside of it, but this was yet another side that the girl had allowed her to glimpse and truth be told, she didn't quite understand it.

 

There was a tone of resolute melancholy – as with anything written post-Kaiju; wars had that effect on people – but there was a hopeful perhaps that hinged on something, some sort of choice that the subject of the poem would be forced to make. It was strangely intimate and forbidden, but what Laura focused on was how scared the author was. She didn't think Carmilla had written it in on purpose, but every line was doused in fear, anxiously waiting for someone to strike a match and set it all ablaze.

 

Laura had an inkling that her co-pilot was going to ask for the book back someday soon, having written something so strikingly personal on the back of it, so she settled in bed and read the few pages she had left, then head straight to Carmilla's room.

 

Which was where she was now. Thumbing through Carmilla's books, looking through them because – as she had told Betty earlier that same morning – she needed new reading material. The simple answer. Betty never missed a chance to tell her that she was looking for any excuse to spend time in Carmilla's room (except Betty called her 'Karnstein' because she was terrified of her still, for some reason). Laura rolled her eyes and told her to shut up about it equally as often.

 

She barely waited for Carmilla to answer her knock on the door, preferring to just knock once to alert Carmilla of her presence and walk in. Her co-pilot hardly ever complained anymore, which was to say that she hadn't complained since Laura had started bringing doughnuts.

 

Except, they didn't have training today. They weren't scheduled to drift for another two days, but Laura hadn't wanted to simply not be around Carmilla just because they weren't going to be spending their day inside each other's heads.

 

"Finished the novel," she muttered, tracing the edges of books at random. Carmilla had rearranged the order of the books again. The girl glanced over her own book and straight at the one Laura's fingertip was perched on, ready to pull it out by the spine.

 

Carmilla narrowed her eyes at her. Laura would have said that it was a half-lie, so there was no reason for Carmilla to suspect that she had ulterior motives this time. God, how hard was it to convince this girl that she actually wanted to spend time with her outside of the program? Pretty damn hard, if anyone asked Laura.

 

"In desperate need of new reading material," said Laura, hoping to ease the tension in the room, pulling the book out and flipping it over to read the summary on the back; red cover, gold lettering, it looked eerily similar to her copy of Pride and Prejudice.

 

"Oh, yeah?" her co-pilot said, smirk at the ready. She had.. perked up at Laura's interest in the novel. "I take it you can read Russian then, zvezda?"

 

Crap.

 

"No. I can't." She didn't know what the word meant, but in Carmilla's mouth, twisting around that tongue of hers and purred out in such a seductive tone, that gave her an idea as to what it could mean, and god. Did Carmilla ever resist teasing her? Laura thought that no, she most certainly did not. She pushed the book back between two others.

 

Laura was aware of how she looked right then: visibly flustered, blushing, probably like she had back when she was a teenager, trying to initiate a conversation with the cute librarian who sometimes recommended books, and ending up looking like a total loser, which was the opposite of Carmilla right then; the girl was enjoying this far too much than she should have been. Laura preferred it over Carmilla giving her the cold shoulder, though, but that didn't mean that it didn't have an effect on her.

 

She turned back to the books, hoping to find something, anything to read. Preferably in German.

 

;;

 

Carmilla hadn't slept the night before. She worked herself up by planning the entire weekend in which she was going to do absolutely nothing, so much so that she couldn't sleep no matter how much time ticked by. Four hours into this, she decided to organize her books alphabetically by author's birthplace. As soon as she finished, she slipped back into her bed and fell asleep instantly.

 

"You've got a perfectly impressive quantity of books in languages that I do understand," said Laura. Her co-pilot hadn't asked why they were in a different order, merely looked through them and pulled on their spines only to slip them back in after reading a few lines. The tips of her ears had turned red at the pet name.

 

"Impressive, huh?" There was a fine line between properly seductive, the way a vampire her age should have been able to act in their sleep, and dorky, like a fifteen year old with a crush. Around Laura, the line turned into a jump rope. She prayed that her voice didn't give away her hopeful notions.

 

Laura glanced back at her with an earnest expression and nodded. Her fingers ran along the spine of a book; leather-bound, originally published in 1869. She had once thrown that same copy at Will's head. (He had, unfortunately, managed to dodge it.) Her co-pilot picked it up from out of the lineup on Carmilla's desk and stepped closer to her.

 

"No one else has as much as a single book." She sat at the edge of her bed, with the thing still in her hands. Carmilla's hands tightened their grip on the tome she was, at best, pretending to read. "I miss the smell."

 

Carmilla's neck tingled. She could feel the blood underneath the surface of her own skin, her heart pumping it out faster than she could handle it, and she wasn't sure if it was because Laura was so close to her again or because she didn't want Laura to notice that she had been stealing books. It was the former, but maybe, given enough time, she could fool herself into thinking that it was the latter. Denial had always been a strong suit of hers.

 

"Are you coming down to dinner tonight?" Laura asked, just before Carmilla could come up with an excuse as to why no one else had any books on base while she had a bonafide library in her room.

 

"Not hungry, sweetheart," she said, dragging her eyes away from Laura's and onto the pages that had started getting interesting before Laura had walked into the room. After that, nothing else seemed to capture her attention. With good reason.

 

Laura groaned. "But that's what you always say. That or, 'I've already eaten, gumdrop', or 'The cafeteria food is atrocious, sugarplum', or god knows what else you've managed to come up with in the short time I've known you."

 

"'Gumdrop'?"

 

"What do you eat? Because you and I both know that the only thing in my duffel resembling healthy-ish food is three minute noodles and besides that, you've been living off of coffee and doughnuts. And soup, that one time. I, for one, appreciate how fast you're able to get into your drivesuit. It makes up for the time we lose while you're protecting your dignity and all, but you have to come down to dinner at some point."

 

"I am not living off of coffee and doughnuts. Or three minute noodles." Laura stared at her until she replied properly. There was something about the way Laura managed to make her do what she wanted without lifting a finger that made Carmilla uneasy, sometimes. "But the cafeteria food is atrocious."

 

"Yes," Laura said, rolling her eyes as she did so. "Of course it is. Obviously, everyone knows that. But, sustenance or whatever. Cafeteria food is better than hard candy as dinner. Priorities, Carmilla."

 

"I get my sustenance from elsewhere," Carmilla murmured.

 

"And you're not sharing?"

 

"Nope."

 

"You might be the absolute worst co-pilot," said Laura, the smile on her face giving her real feelings away. She had apparently abandoned all thoughts of reading, and was staring at Carmilla intently.

 

"Trust me," Carmilla said, turning back to her tome. "You wouldn't want me to share, gumdrop."

 

Laura raised her eyebrows at both the statement and the pet name, but said nothing. She got to chapter two of her book, while Carmilla slowly forced her way to the end of the one she had been on when Laura walked in.

 

;;

 

August 02, 2020
Jaeger Academy

 

"What do you like most about being in my head?"

 

Carmilla's weekend was decidedly not going as planned. For one thing, she was not asleep and Laura was in her room again, looking at her over the book she'd picked the day before. The first one she could eventually circumvent by tiring herself out, the second one, not so much.

 

She had been getting used to the little firecracker who was, at present, staring at her with furrowed brows, seemingly showing up out of the blue and spending time with her, though, so it wasn't all that bad. Especially when she made mistakes like these, the ones that had her frowning at herself and rewording her sentence. Carmilla usually understood what she meant despite the awkward phrasing, because Laura's was a language riddled in pop-culture references and self-deprecating jokes and she had figured that out on day one of training, but she enjoyed watching the girl fumble through an explanation nonetheless.

 

Her co-pilot's pale neck turned red at Carmilla's expectant eyebrow, and she fumbled through a response, "I mean, what's your favourite thing about drifting with me? They always asked that in the interviews I read, and I was just wondering what was the best part about it, because I didn't really think about it before I had a co-pilot but now that I have you-"

 

"You have me?" She interrupted because Laura would have talked endlessly, trying to correct her little slip, and Carmilla quite liked being the one who made Laura blush. She had always had her vices, and Laura was quickly becoming the most dangerous of all of them.

 

"Yeah. I have a co-pilot now. AKA you." Carmilla sighed. No dice, then. "Since you're the only person I've ever actually drifted with, I just thought that I'd ask you what your favourite part of drifting with me was. I know it's a weird question, but-"

 

"The silence," Carmilla admitted. There was not much that could stop Laura talking quite as sharply as that. Tact, this situation had called for tact. There was no doubt in her mind that Laura's thoughts had gone straight to-

 

"Oh. I suppose I.. do talk too much. I get carried away, sometimes. I'm sorr-"

 

"In the drift," Carmilla clarified. Laura was avoiding her eyes, her gaze firmly on a point to the right of her head. "What I like most about drifting with you is the silence in the drift. If I wanted you to stop talking, I would have asked you to do so by now."

 

Laura took a minute before she replied, and when she did, her voice was unsure of itself. Carmilla was really starting to dislike that voice and all that it implied. "That wasn't your way of telling me to shut up?"

 

"You think so loud, sweetheart," she said, making her voice softer, kinder, "it's hard to hear my own thoughts in the drift. That's.. not always a bad thing. That silence is not present in my mind any other time. Only when you're there."

 

There were other things that were only ever there when Laura was; ridiculously hopeful notions about the war and how they would survive it. Thoughts of how the Kaiju would eventually stop coming, and how if they didn't, humanity – as a collective, which was impossible and idealistic in its own right – would find a way to make them stop. As if they could harness the kind of power it would take to destroy villains as purposefully methodical as Kaiju.

 

Despite knowing that, despite knowing intimately what her mother had sacrificed to get a taste of her own god's power, Carmilla still saw a future embedded within Laura's thoughts. There were only a handful of people on the planet who had not yet relinquished all hope, and Laura had the loudest presence of them all.

 

But her co-pilot did not need to know that. She did not need to know that her relentless attitude was downright infectious, seeping into Carmilla's bloodstream and making her want to live through it all, not just accept that she was going to do so thanks to her vampiric constitution. Carmilla was already giving her too much of herself by telling her about the silence. That was enough. For now.

 

Laura blinked back at her, nibbling on her bottom lip, turning it red, wet. Forget the damn apocalypse, Carmilla had to find out how she was going to survive Laura Hollis first.

 

"Any other inquiries?" she asked, pressing simply because she needed Laura to do something other than stare at her like that.

 

Laura had seen right through her from the start, from before they'd drifted, had seen through her 'bad girl persona', as she had so aptly put it, and pursued her friendship when she could have just as easily left well enough alone and been her co-pilot and nothing else. It was unsettling to see the girl watch her like a hawk, like she was keeping track of every move she made, because she knew Laura could read her better than most people she'd known for decades.

 

Laura shook her head. "No. Thank you. That was nice of you to say. And explain. It was nice of you to explain it too." Carmilla turned away from Laura's eyes, focused on keeping her small smile hidden behind her book. "I like the sound of your- um, the music. That's my favourite thing about drifting with you. The music. It's kind of like getting an education in punk rock and classical all at once."

 

"Sounds like a headache to me."

 

Laura laughed.

 

"It's wonderful, truly."

 

;;

 

August 03, 2020
Jaeger Academy

 

Laura had made the mistake of relaxing during the weekend. She hadn't done anything but a couple of laps around the Jaeger Academy while she was still half-asleep, but even that hadn't prepared her for the bone-deep exhaustion that came with drifting. Two days. It had taken her just two days to forget. She was so tired she was just about ready to slump onto her bed for a post-leaving-Carmilla nap and forego eating dinner altogether.

 

It seemed her lovely, angel of a roommate had other plans, because no sooner than Laura had walked through the door, the blonde had hooked an arm around Laura's and led her back out of their room, in the direction of the cafeteria. Laura supposed that eating cafeteria food now was better than waking up in the middle of the night and eating half a jar of peanut butter then going back to sleep, so she went along with it with not much fuss.

 

Betty, however, seemed to have more on her mind than just her friend's dietary habits, because as soon as they rounded a corner, she started talking, and did not really stop. Laura was so tired that she hadn't fully registered what her roommate was saying until she heard 'Karnstein'. That caught her attention enough to actually focus on Betty's words as more than just background noise.

 

"I have noticed that you and Karnstein have been spending a lot of time together lately."

 

Laura shrugged. "We're co-pilots. It's essential."

 

"Essential. Right. Like how it's essential for you to go out of your way every single morning to get her coffee and doughnuts?" Laura felt her face flush, hoped that Betty wouldn't push as hard as Laura knew she could; she was too tired to make sure she didn't say anything incriminating. "Outside of training though," the blonde pushed, as if trying to get Laura to admit to something that she herself wasn't sure of yet. "You spent way too much time with her this weekend, babe. I barely saw your beautiful smooshy face, and I'm your roommate."

 

She could have admitted that she simply liked spending time with Carmilla because she actually liked her as more than just a co-pilot, but Betty would never let her live it down.

 

"While I do appreciate you referring to my face as a beautiful one – albeit a smooshy one, but I will take that as a compliment – what are you getting at, Spielsdorf?"

 

"Nothing. I was just wondering where that leaves you and, um, you know, Danny." Laura did a double take. That was not where she thought the conversation had been going. She shook her head, trying to rid herself of the thoughts that had formulated in her mind.

 

"What."

 

"Danny," said Betty, dragging out the name as if Laura was having trouble remembering just who exactly the redhead was. Laura was having more trouble trying to figure out how Carmilla and Danny were connected in this conversation. "You know, kinda tall, gorgeous, dyed hair, freckles. Danny."

 

"Friends, I guess? I don't know," Laura said, after what felt like an eternity to Betty. They had finally gotten to the queue outside the cafeteria. It was going to be a long wait, apparently. "It's complicated."

 

"Complicated how?"

 

"We're friends," she said, carefully, "who are taking a bit of a break from actually being friends."

 

"Like a rough patch?" Betty picked up two dinner trays, handed one to Laura.

 

"Thanks. And, yeah," she said, slightly confused as to why she had to elaborate further. "Like a rough patch, sort of. What are you getting at?"

 

"She's nice," said Betty, staring at her roommate, as though trying to discern any signs of discomfort.

 

"Nice," Laura repeated, trying to keep herself from saying something that would set Betty off – like how she thought the redhead was anything but nice. She had left Austria behind, left her father behind, only to find Danny Lawrence: hero of unprotected daughters all around the world. The fact that her father would probably adore her made her hold onto her tray harder than necessary; she absently wondered if the PPDC would mind if she broke it in half.

 

"I know you kind of hate her right now for some reason - that neither of you are willing to clue me into but I will get to the bottom of eventually - but she's really sweet, and-"

 

If Laura had figured out anything during her tenure at the Jaeger Academy, it was that Betty could be relentlessly annoying when she wanted to be. Case in point: Laura's relationship with Danny had been of interest to Betty ever since she had met the redhead.

 

While Laura did not know how persistent her roommate would be with Danny, she did know that having the redhead be the one to tell Betty that she'd held back in the Kwoon made her insides lurch; trusting Danny did not come as easily to her as it had before she'd found out that the girl thought her weak. Simply put: she did not trust Danny not to twist words, to make it sound like she'd held back for Laura's own good, like she'd tried to say back in Carmilla's room, so.

 

"Danny and I," she clarified, wanting to get this over and done with as soon as possible, "are not on good terms because she deliberately held back during training."

 

Betty held out her arm in front of Laura.

 

"What do you mean, 'she held back'?"

 

It had been embarrassing enough learning that Danny thought she couldn't handle herself in the Kwoon with Carmilla there, even though her co-pilot seemed just as angry with Danny as Laura herself had been. That had been comforting; having her be the validation of her anger.

 

Laura's heart still fluttered at the memory of Carmilla telling her that she didn't need protecting, because that was a different kind of validation altogether. Having a co-pilot who thought that she could take care of herself made her skin warm, blood hot.

 

"You know when you accidentally find yourself playing a video game with your six year old cousin during the holidays?"

 

"I don't have a six year old cousin," said Betty.

 

"Let's just say you do, and let's say that you don't want to seem like a jerk and you don't want your aunt and uncle to be mad at you, so you let your cousin win the game because it'll make him happy to have beaten someone who can actually hold the controller."

 

"Not that I don't like your analogy, babe, but how does any of this relate to Danny?" Her roommate piled food onto her tray, and onto Laura's when it came to the mashed potatoes.

 

"I'm getting to that. You let your cousin win, but you're nervous about him catching onto you, so you learn how to make it look like you were actually trying to win? That's where it relates to Danny. She let me win on purpose."

 

"She let you win?"

 

Laura sighed. "I know you think she's nice and everything, but when I think of Danny right now, the only word that comes to mind is 'patronizing'. 'Condescending', if I think too hard about it, and I would prefer not to do that because I'm not over the fact that she thinks that I couldn't hold my ground against her- wait."

 

They were holding the line back. Laura could hear the guy behind them mutter a, "Come on, hurry it up," under his breath.

 

The tiny gears in Laura's mind clicked and whirred and she finally understood why this whole conversation had been started, and why she had been dragged to the cafeteria in the first place. Betty, who had been otherwise engaged with a pair of salad tongs, put them back in the salad.

 

"So that's why she made me pick a safeword," said Betty, at the exact same time that Laura said, "You have a serious crush on Danny Lawrence, don't you?"

 

The blonde gulped. Laura selected the baby carrots from the food line, placed some on her own tray as well as Betty's, because her roommate was trying very hard to avoid looking at her, or doing anything to move the line along.

 

"She made you pick a safeword?"

 

The person behind them was going to either threaten them to move it or pour his soup all over them, because this time, it was Laura who had stopped.

 

"You mean to tell me that in the span of what, a week since Carm and I started stage three – and don't look at me like that because you would have mentioned this way earlier, so I know it's only a recent development, Spielsdorf – you and Danny have become acquainted enough that it's necessary for you two to have a safeword?"

 

"We're not-" Betty tried.

 

Laura was having none of it. "This entire time, you've been grilling me about Karnstein because I spend time with her, when you two have been going at it like bunny rabbits?"

 

"Okay, calm down. We're not 'going at it like bunnies'; it's for when we're sparring," said Betty, her eyes glued to Laura. "But, wow, one-track mind, much? Is Karnstein getting you all worked up in that Jaeger of yours?"

 

Laura could tell that she was blushing by the heat gathering up along her neck, but she wouldn't let the blonde think she had won this round. She turned back to the food. "You and Danny have a safeword for when you're sparring. I am not going to be held accountable for thinking that you were messing around. Who uses safewords for sparring, Betty?"

 

"Plenty of people use the word 'stop', Hollis."

 

"And I suppose that wasn't good enough for Danny, was it? Is she asking you to recite the alphabet backwards?"

 

"She wants to make sure that she hears me over the rest of the recruits in the Kwoon yelling 'stop'. It was quite cool of her, actually."

 

"Ah, yes," said Laura, under her breath.

 

"She didn't say it, but she might've-" Laura looked up at her roommate. "Given what you told me, I think she's trying not to make the same mistake with.. other potential co-pilot candidates."

 

The blonde waited for her to answer, eyes wide and curious. "If this were anyone else, you would've offered to beat them up by now. Or, at the very least, threaten them. You seem.. oddly accepting of Danny's crap. You really do like her, don't you? Like, more than just a crush, you're.. enamoured."

 

They were reaching the end of the line. "Well, I mean – only if you're okay with it."

 

Wait, what.

 

"Why wouldn't I be?" said Laura, genuinely confused. "I mean, sure, I could never trust her as a co-pilot and she has to grow up some before I ever think about trusting her again as a friend, but she's still my sort-of-friend, and you're my friend-friend. Of course I'm okay with it."

 

"Weren't you two, you know." Betty shrugged, picked up an apple from of the pile. Out of habit, she shoved it in Laura's jacket pocket. One of them would eat it as dessert, or they would keep it in their room until either one of them got hungry. "For a while there, you guys looked like you were into each other as more than just co-pilots."

 

"We've talked about this before and my answer is still: no. God, no. That never happened, and is never going to happen. She's not really my type, Betty."

 

Her roommate laughed, loudly. "Do you even have a type?"

 

Laura's thoughts briefly flickered to black hair, pale skin, a wicked smirk that was eerily comforting despite being designed to be dangerous. She had left her co-pilot back in her room, half-asleep on her bed, lost in yet another book. "Of course I do."

 

"Well? What is it?"

 

"I have a very specific type. And it isn't any of your business, Spielsdorf, unless you're checking to see if my type is leggy blondes with crushes on redheads, in which case: no, Betty, you're not my type."

 

"You're no fun, you know that, right?" Laura glared at her, broke away from the line and sat down at the closest empty table she could find, hoping to leave as soon as she finished eating. "So you'd be okay with a hypothetical Danny and I?"

 

"If there's anyone who can get Danny Lawrence off her high horse, it's probably you." She shovelled mashed potatoes into her mouth, wished Betty would stop looking at her contemplatively while she ate. "But, yes, I'm more that okay with a hypothetical romantic relationship involving one Danny Lawrence and Betty Spielsdorf."

 

Betty's face lit up, like all her birthdays had come at once, which, Laura thought, they might have when the redhead walked into their lives. Laura was just glad that they were getting close to changing the topic.

 

"I mean, I'm not saying it's going to happen for sure, I'm just- I would like it if it did."

 

Laura rolled her eyes. "I expect you'll want me to be the Maid of Honour at the wedding?"

 

"Shut up, Hollis." She stole half of her roommate's salad. "Although, you would look incredibly cute as the flower girl."

 

"Spielsdorf, I will drop your phone into the Breach."

 

"The cutest little flower girl," Betty cooed, pointing at her with a spoon. "We could get you a little basket full of rose petals, and you could go down the aisle throwing them at the guests."

 

Betty dodged the piece of lettuce that Laura threw at her, but the vegetable hit the guy behind her, bouncing off the back of his head and plopping to the ground. A riot was started a few seconds after someone close to them yelled, "Food fight!"

 

They went back to the barracks with food stains on their clothes.

 

;;

 

August 07, 2020
Jaeger Academy

 

What neither Danny nor Betty expected was for them to be physically compatible, and, after submitting a Drift Sync test application which was hurried along because of Danny's name and association to the Jaeger prep, drift compatible too, which was the first thing that Betty told her when she walked into their room after training.

 

Laura yawned. Nine consecutive hours of drifting daily were definitely taking their toll on her; she tilted her head, heard her neck crack in response. Thankfully, she had the weekend to relax. She had not appreciated her last weekend as well as she should have.

 

"You're what?"

 

"Drift compatible. With Danny. I think we're going to start training with you guys next week." Betty helped her out of her jacket. Laura slumped on top of her bed and felt her shoe get tugged off. The blonde was truly, Laura thought, the best roommate ever.

 

The walk from the changing room to Carmilla's bedroom was like riding on a high that would not relent so easily, the resulting ghost drift connection settled down, but what Laura really hated was the walk from her co-pilot's room to her own. That was when the exhaustion caught up with her and it seemed like she had the weight of an entire world on her shoulders, dragging her down.

 

The weight of the world would never stop her from teasing Betty, though. "Carm and I have been at it for like, two whole weeks. You two losers," a grunt as Betty tugged at her other shoe, "better work hard to catch up."

 

"Ouch, Hollis. That hurt." Laura twisted to look up at her, the blonde's hand covering her heart in a mock-hurt gesture. She shook her head, fell back onto her bed, tried to pull the covers up from underneath her. Laura wriggled around until her roommate took pity on her and pulled them up herself. The girl smiled up at her, a tired closed-eyes smile that Betty returned.

 

"Wake me up in an hour." Laura pulled the blanket up to her chin, and slowly fell into what promised to be a very satisfying nap.

 

;;

Chapter Text

;;

 

September 12, 2020
Jaeger Academy

 

Laura's Saturday started with Betty waking her up and dragging her to the cafeteria for breakfast. She shrugged on the first thing she saw, and only after she had eaten her food did she realise that it was Carmilla's tattered sweater.

 

Right. She had accidentally stolen her co-pilot's sweater at one point. During the fiasco that had been the Jaeger Academy's heating suffering a loss in the form of a blown fuse, or something. From the way the technicians were talking about it, she'd thought that it wouldn't have gotten fixed until she graduated. Thankfully, the heating came back on that very same night.

 

But, before they'd fixed it, the barracks had gotten colder than the North Pole itself, pre-global warming. Laura, practically frozen solid, had not wanted to move farther than the edge of Carmilla's bed. Her co-pilot had offered her something to wear after Laura's teeth started clicking together with the force of her shivering. Carmilla, strangely enough, didn't seem bothered by the cold.

 

"I used to live in Canada, remember? This is nothing compared to that," she said, before Laura even asked her. Granted, she was staring at her, narrowing her eyes taking in the lack of layers - Carmilla was wearing a thin, albeit long-sleeved shirt and boyshorts at the time - so she could have guessed what Laura was about to ask her, but still. Her co-pilot had answers to questions she hadn't started to form in her head, and that was.. something she hadn't gotten used to, yet.

 

Laura apologized to the blonde, who was planning their day around a mouthful of mashed potatoes, because they hadn't been spending as much time together as they used to; both of their schedules had become hectic with training. She did miss spending time with her roommate, but right now, the only person she wanted to be with was her co-pilot. Carmilla had become her go-to whenever she wanted to spend time with someone without the pretence of having a reason to do so.

 

She walked to her co-pilot's room, hoping to find solace and, maybe, catch a few hours of sleep in the bottom bunk, which seemed to be more comfortable than her own bed as of late. Laura had expected to find Carmilla lounging about, going through some dead guy's entire bibliography, then groan in greeting and plop on her bed. Maybe get Carmilla to run her fingers through her hair as she'd done the day Laura had found out that her co-pilot was ticklish. It had gotten her sleepy last time.

 

Laura had not expected this; to catch a glimpse of her co-pilot in a towel and not much else, which was to say: literally nothing else. Or, technically more than just a glimpse because as soon as she opened the door, Laura froze, completely. Out of surprise, anxiety, she could not figure it out.

 

She couldn't figure out how to do much else besides blink and stare at Carmilla's bare back, wet hair clinging to her shoulders and a fluffy white towel wrapped around her waist. It was more than Laura could handle, more than she could deal with. Laura didn't know where to focus; she kept looking at the wide span of her co-pilot's back, eyes taking in a generous helping of her bare neck, her arms.

 

Carmilla wasn't covered in the muscle that Laura had assumed she would have upon first meeting her. The girl was strong, Laura had found that out firsthand, but one wouldn't know it looking at her; she was thin as a rake, no excess muscle that most Jaeger pilots put on after mere weeks of training.

 

Her spine rattled with Laura's presence, shoulders hunched up, and she turned to face Laura, eyes wide, feral. It was an odd sort of image to take in: Carmilla, a woman that Laura had grown accustomed to putting on her best armour - be it her ruthless personality, or her drivesuit, she always seemed.. protected, somehow. Untouchable.

 

Not that she was, in any way, allowing Laura to view her like this, despite how her posture had calmed, and how her eyes had softened. Laura did not miss the implication; her co-pilot had only relaxed when she'd noticed it was Laura who had barged in on her. Laura, on the other hand, had to bite through her tongue to regain her composure, the taste of blood not even a blip on her radar. She stood there trying to collect herself; unfortunately, it wasn't working.

 

The girl had sort of forgotten how to form sentences; words kept climbing out of her throat and settling in her mouth, her brain still far too preoccupied with Carmilla and how much of her she could see to even bother sending words out in the right order. Or in any order, really.

 

That was when Laura noticed that her co-pilot had a smaller towel that she had been drying her hair with in her hands. Towel. Hair, that was wet because- The towel. Carmilla had just come out of the shower. Laura was having a hard day, figuring out things that would have been obvious to her had she walked in on anyone else would have come easy to her. They did not come easy to her now. She would have mentioned that to her co-pilot, had she been able to verbalize anything at the time. Anything other than a series of 'umm's that seemed to be of no interest to Carmilla.

 

"Rather forward of you, isn't it," purred Carmilla, voice thick, heavy. "You going to stand out there all day, or should I change with the door wide open? I'm not too fond of public indecency. Didn't know you were so eager for a show, though. Brava, zvezda."

 

Laura didn't know what Carmilla meant by that, unless she was propositioning her. Given her state of undress that was not entirely out of the question. Except it totally was, because this was Carmilla she was thinking about making an advance on her, and the only reason she was only doing it was because Laura had walked in on her.

 

It was a way for Carmilla to pretend to be nonchalant about yet another thing. God, the girl wouldn't even allow herself to be visibly angry with Laura for barging in on her, refusing to give her her privacy, even after she'd insisted that she would have. So, no, of course she wasn't seriously propositioning her. It took Laura a second to reply, her tongue having gone numb in less than a few seconds that it took Carmilla to look back at her. She hadn't even registered the nickname yet.

 

"That's my cue to wait for you and your brazen sexual advances outside."

 

Carmilla smiled sweetly - too sweet for it to be genuine - and said, "'Wait'? To what do I owe this pleasure?"

 

Laura's eyes dragged down, across Carmilla's shoulders, her chest, to the towel clenched between Carmilla's fist - her co-pilot could fake indifference all she liked, Laura could tell how nervous she was. "I'll be outside, whenever you're ready."

 

She stepped out of the room and pulled the door shut behind her, the hinges protesting in the form of a whine. Laura stumbled onto the steps, and pressed her palms against her eyes. She was not as tired as she had been when she'd opened Carmilla's door. She wasn't sure what she was trying to do, but as soon as her hands pressed deeper into her eyelids, she could see it again.

 

Carmilla's back. The curve of her back, and how the tension had sprung out of her shoulders as soon as she had looked at Laura, who was still focused on her spine. Laura could still see it now, Carmilla's wiry frame, meticulously carved with scars.

 

Angry, red ones, forming thin, parallel lines covering the left side of Carmilla's back. The thickest ones etched vertically across her shoulder blades, and Laura couldn't see if they went down all the way or not because the towel had hidden much of it. Laura had no doubt that the entirety of the front was equally as scarred as the back, if not worse. And that theory of hers had proved itself correct as soon as Carmilla faced her.

 

Laura could see that the entire thing was going around her shoulder and that the worst of the scarring was at the front, just above Carmilla's heart. Those scars looked almost charred into her skin, they were most definitely the root cause of the entire incident.

 

It looked like someone had tried to rip out the Jaeger's heart while Carmilla was still inside of it. These scars, the ones Carmilla was covered with, were the kinds of scars one got from a circuitry suit when Jaegers malfunctioned. Her co-pilot must have been in one of the worst kinds of accidents, because from what Laura could tell from the evidence carved into her co-pilot's skin, it had been the worst kind of Jaeger malfunction. The kind that usually involved Kaiju, and the kind that did not allow their recipients to live long enough for them to form into scars. And Laura, well, Laura had dragged Carmilla back into the world of drifting, poked and prodded at whichever parts of herself that her co-pilot saw fit to show her.

 

Laura groaned, pressed her knees against her cheek, and chastised herself for not knocking. She chastised herself for doing a lot more than just foregoing knocking. God, why had she never learnt how not to be overbearing? Her co-pilot obviously had a complex about them – the changing room, wearing long sleeves in the Kwoon when they had first met, wearing long-sleeved shirts pretty much always, hell, she had even grown accustomed to wearing them to bed because of Laura's morning wake up calls.

 

The overwhelming guilt seeped in, made her bones heavy. Laura had no idea how long she waited outside of Carmilla's room before her co-pilot opened the door, her hair still wet, but not dripping anymore, so Laura could, presumably, deal. Carmilla had changed into an oversized sweatshirt - long-sleeved, thick and dark. It looked brand new.

 

Laura's eyes trailed over her collar, which hid the scars perfectly, and Carmilla's rolled-up sleeves, which didn't; the ones closest to her fingers weren't as angry as the ones closest to her heart. Laura didn't even think she'd seen her co-pilot's sleeves rolled up, ever - save for their Drift Sync test, during which she was too excited about being compatible to focus on Carmilla's skin. The scars around her wrists looked easy to miss, if one wasn't looking for them.

 

"What's the matter with you?" Carmilla asked, seeing Laura's surly face. "Are you coming in or are we going to have this conversation in the middle of the hallway? I'd much prefer the privacy of my own room, if you don't mind."

 

Laura stepped past her, walked into the room, and absently noted that her co-pilot's hair smelled sharply of apples. Her co-pilot pressed her back to the closed door as Laura turned to face her. "I'd never seen your scars before," said Laura.

 

"Souvenirs," Carmilla said, a trace of bitterness in her voice. She shifted, pressed her other shoulder into the door, as if the scars still burned and she wanted to ease the pain.

 

Those scars could not have been new, and yet, from the sight of them, she would never have guessed that they were older than a few weeks. A month, at best. Which was, of course, impossible, because Carmilla wouldn't have had the time to get herself into an incident that big; an incident that would leave those kinds of scars. At least, not without Laura noticing.

 

"Was that why you didn't want to be my co-pilot?"

 

A pause.

 

"I shouldn't have asked."

 

Laura looked down at the hem of her shirt - Carmilla's old sweater, the one with the ripped collar that still didn't show the scars. Her fingers itched to pull it off, hand it back to her co-pilot, to stop taking things from Carmilla; things that weren't freely given. There were so many things that made sense to her, now.

 

Sarah Jane's reluctance to test them because Carmilla was "a magnet for everything bad" and, Sarah Jane had said, that the last time Carmilla was in a Jaeger- Well, Sarah Jane hadn't elaborated on what had happened, but Laura would bet her bottom dollar that it was the event that had left her co-pilot marked.

 

Marshal Morgan, who had given Laura the file that she had rejected. She looked up, at her co-pilot's slumped shoulders, fingers scratching at her wrist, and thought that maybe she shouldn't have. Maybe Laura should have read the file, and kept to herself. Maybe she should have stopped being so damn persistent.

 

"Among other things, yes," Carmilla stated. "My injuries were- um, are extensive; I did not anticipate being capable of piloting a Jaeger ever again. Or, the left hemisphere, at least."

 

"That's why you favour your right side." Laura nodded to herself, because everything about her co-pilot was finally making sense. Or, well, almost everything. Laura had no idea why Carmilla was pretty much allergic to food that Laura hadn't given her herself. There was just- "You would have taken the left hemisphere. That first day of training. If I had wanted the right one. You would have been the second pilot, if.. If I had wanted you to be."

 

It wasn't a question, and Carmilla said nothing, which proved that it was merely a statement of facts.

 

"I'm sorry," said Laura, because she was, and it was long overdue. "If I had known it was that bad, I wouldn't have forced you to stay, and I wouldn't have forced you to be my co-pilot, and I wouldn't have forced you to-"

 

"You didn't force me stay, or- Look, I'm glad you were.. persistent, determined. You did not make me do any of those things." Laura finally looked her in the eye, saw that Carmilla looked unburdened, if nothing else; she had stopped rubbing at her wrists.

 

Carmilla stepped forwards, leaning down to face her. Laura did not dare meet her eye; kept her gaze on her co-pilot's hands, her wrists - pale, clean, licked by scar tissue. Carmilla tugged her sweater up to her elbow, white giving way to pink. Carmilla had given up on hiding the scars from her.

 

It hadn't been on her terms, though, and Laura would not know whether Carmilla was ever planning on showing her the scars if she hadn't walked in on her, but this, Carmilla's sleeves pulled up to show her the incricacies of the wounds, this was on Carmilla's terms.

 

Her co-pilot's hand reached out, brushing the back of her palm against Laura's, cold, far too cold because Carmilla had the worst blood pressure Laura had ever seen in another person before.

 

Laura could not remember Carmilla ever touching her without her prompting, nor did she remember Carmilla touching her without the presence of the ghost drift, through the absense of it. They hadn't drifted that day; there was no need for Carmilla to touch her. Laura couldn't think of a single reason she would want to touch her, and yet there she was, fingers marking Laura's skin in invisible fire, as surely as she herself had been marked.

 

This was a cease fire, of sorts. Funny, Laura thought, how if this same situation had happened weeks earlier, Carmilla would have thrown her out of her room, but now she was counting Laura's knuckles under her breath, tracing bone, raising goosebumps over Laura's skin.

 

Laura reached out, tentatively hooking her fingers around her co-pilot's.

 

Carmilla laced their fingers together with a look of concentration etched onto her face. Jaeger technology came easy to her, Laura knew; human interaction, not so much. Carmilla looked up at her with a question in her eyes. Laura, who had gotten used to the way her co-pilot spoke in the drift, and the way she spoke out of it too, who was starting to read her better than her favourite book, took it for what it was.

 

'Is this alright?'

 

Laura nodded, pressed their palms together.

 

'Yes, it is.'

 

;;

 

October 12, 2020
Jaeger Academy

 

Three weeks after they had finished stage three, Laura found herself staring at the underside of the top bunk in Carmilla's room, waiting.

 

In a perfect universe, this would have been her prom night.

 

She would have been at her date's house, patiently waiting for the girl to come out of the bathroom with the most gorgeous dress, because there was no way she was going to get the perfect 'walking down the staircase' scene without selling her soul at the crossroads, but this? This, she could picture happening to herself, easily.

 

They might have bought each other corsages – subtly finding out if their outfits were colour co-ordinated because Laura would have liked to look fantastic on the dance floor, thank you very much.

 

Laura indulged; allowed herself to picture her co-pilot as her date. Having Carmilla pop out an elbow for Laura to latch onto, to lead her to the beat-down car (because limousines were pretty but they were far too expensive and she did not want to have to share her date with anyone) that would take them to the ballroom, which was really a basketball court decorated with a theme in mind.

 

It didn't really matter, the theme. What mattered was Carmilla, holding her hand out and asking Laura to dance.

 

Technically, that wasn't far off from the truth. Laura was waiting for her sort-of date to come out in an appropriate outfit, and they were going to an event in matching clothing. She was sure there would be some sort of music, too. Probably something too serious to dance to, though, because this was not her perfect universe and she was not waiting for her date, but for her co-pilot. Who was going to walk out of her en suite bathroom in her uniform any second now, she reminded herself.

 

Carmilla, if Laura had dared tell her about what she was picturing – fantasizing about, really – instead of focusing on their upcoming graduation, would have laughed and said something about Laura's wishful thinking. Laura hadn't told her about her comparisons to dates and proms and grand events that needed ball gowns.

 

Laura had pulled out the uniform – blue tie, plain dress shirt, blue blazer with her name on the front, and practical dress shoes that Carmilla was not going to wear for any other event – and watched her co-pilot's shoulders get heavier, as if the burden was physically weighing her down.

 

A week earlier, Laura had first given her the uniform, mostly to make sure that it fit, Carmilla had done something completely unexpected. Which was to say that, even for Carmilla, who was the least predictable person Laura knew even with the addition of the ghost drift, it had been rather abrupt.

 

She had laid out all the clothes on Carmilla's desk, ignored how uninterested the girl seemed in their graduation, and tried to come up with a way to ask Carmilla to take her clothes off without her co-pilot turning it into a suggestive request that would have flustered Laura and rendered her incapable of thinking about anything else while Carmilla was in the other room, taking her clothes off.

 

Laura had planned for that. She had also planned for an oversized blazer, a dress shirt that might have needed a couple of replacement buttons after Carmilla, the wrong sized shoes or any number of things that could have gone wrong. There was no way that she could have planned for what her co-pilot had said. Carmilla joked about running away, and it had been a joke because – and this was what puzzled Laura the most – she had joked about Laura going with her.

 

"What do you think of Paris?" she'd asked. Laura, too confused to answer, had simply stared at her. "There's this family-owned pâtisserie that sells the most exquisite little-"

 

"Please, god, I have to make sure all of these fit you. What are you doing?" Laura asked, suspicious. Carmilla's head tilted slowly, her mouth forming into that sly grin of hers that Laura had taken to ignoring, as of late, for fear of doing something she wouldn't be able to take back.

 

"Trying to convince you to run away with me."

 

There was a pause, in which neither of them spoke and the fridge's pleasant humming seemed to be the loudest thing in the room. A blush crept out from under Laura's shirt, her neck felt too hot, her cheeks burned in response. Her co-pilot was preparing to take it back, she could tell, but.. Laura couldn't have that. She couldn't.

 

"Not with a pastry shop, you're not."

 

Carmilla's smile turned proper dastardly.

 

"Oh?" Carmilla's eyes never left hers, a sharp intensity to them that had Laura's spine rattle with the force of a storm cleverly disguised as a shiver. She turned to pick up Carmilla's docs out from the wardrobe, simply to stop looking at that god damn smile of hers.

 

"I know I don't really give off the most sophisticated of vibes, but, gosh, Carmilla. I might consider running away with you to Paris if you promise to wine and dine me properly. With actual food, not baked goods and sweets."

 

Laura unfolded the uniform in front of her, fixed the tie over the shirt and when it still looked wrong and crooked over the rest of the outfit, picked it up again, feeling the material between her thumb and forefinger. Carmilla hadn't said anything for a while. Laura wanted to glance over her shoulder, but she couldn't risk turning to the girl. Not yet.

 

She glanced down at the doc martens, haphazardly thrown on the floor. The shoes were probably the right size, at least. Laura heard movement coming from the bed.

 

"Rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine," said Carmilla, from behind her, significantly closer than she was mere seconds earlier.

 

"What about it?" Laura asked, aware that her co-pilot was a hair's breadth away from her now. Carmilla took the tie from her hands, and her eyes followed the thing, watched as Carmilla's fingers placed it around the shirt's collar.

 

"There's a restaurant there," she explained, slowly. "I don't remember the name, but you have to go through a hidden passage, of sorts, to get there."

 

"Like Diagon Alley."

 

Carmilla's smile was evident in her voice. "Quite, yes. They make the best food I've ever had the pleasure of having. We could go there, if you like." Laura turned to face her. Carmilla had inched closer to her, somehow, and she could see that Carmilla looked very nearly drugged, eyes hazy and mouth nearly pouting.

 

"Do you honestly want me to come to Paris with you?"

 

"Yes," said Carmilla, softly. Laura wanted nothing more than to run away with her co-pilot, to walk through hidden passages and eat the best food she'd ever tasted, without a single care in the world. She looked down at the tie again.

 

There was a war going on and she needed to stop indulging in these fantasies of hers. She hadn't allowed herself to think about romance and cute 'what if's in months, and then her casual crush had given her hope and there she was, thinking about running off to Paris.

 

This silly thing had gotten her hopes up, and the fact of the matter was: Carmilla could wine and dine her all she wished, but Laura knew that her co-pilot would never actually want to do so as more than just her friend.

 

Laura especially needed to stop fantasizing about that particular detail and focus at the problems at hand. Uniforms that fit. Graduation. Kaiju. Giant monsters seemed to be the least of her worries right now, however funny that seemed.

 

"If we survive the apocalypse," she said, turning to face Carmilla, "we'll go to your little hideaway and eat to your heart's content. But, until then, we've got a war to win and to do that, we need to graduate." Her co-pilot had gone back to her normal casual indifference.

 

"I'm not wearing these shoes," said Carmilla, poking at the sensible dress shoes with her finger. Her fake indifference, then. The one where she pretended that she didn't care what anyone else thought of her, unless they dared think her obedient.

 

"I can forgive the shoes. But at least shine your doc martens. Let's not give the nice PPDC people any more reason to dislike us on sight."

 

Her co-pilot had groaned as Laura made her try on the blazer to make sure it fit her – it did – and after Carmilla muttered something about burning it, told her not to. Carmilla had looked at her with furrowed brows, and Laura hadn't wanted to refuse her anything, but there was a system, however lax it might have been. There was a system and she had to wear a uniform for it.

 

Which was why Laura was waiting for Carmilla to put on the damn blazer, nearly an hour before they were supposed to be in a section of the Marshal's quarters that their graduation was to be held in. Because of the system, she'd told herself. And certainly not because she wanted to indulge in those fantasies of hers, the ones that involved uniforms and way too many intimate details for her to keep track of. Well, if there was even a remote chance of Laura dying in the next couple of months, then she wanted to live life to the fullest- or, the level below that. That seemed safer.

 

A sound, eerily similar to that of a yelp, followed by a swear, came from inside the bathroom. Laura was thankful they didn't have to wear matching corsages. Carmilla would most definitely burn a corsage. Laura wouldn't blame her.

 

Laura had put on her uniform in under two minutes; it had taken Carmilla the better part of a half hour, so far. Although, all those heavy pauses, during which Laura could hear neither fabric rustling nor soft complaining, told her that Carmilla had spent more than half that time convincing herself to put the clothes on in the first place.

 

"Are you alright in there? Do you need help?" The door to the bathroom clicked open. Laura turned to face her co-pilot, who looked a right mess. Carmilla's tie was crooked, her shirt wasn't tucked in, and her shoes had been left in the box on the sink. "Oh, Carm."

 

"I don't see why I have to go to this."

 

"It's just a formality, grumpy pants. Get over here."

 

Carmilla stepped forward, sulking. Laura grabbed the hem of her shirt and checked the buttons. They lined up, at least. She didn't want to have to force Carmilla to go back into the bathroom and fix the shirt. They were probably going to be late enough as it was, even with the extra time.

 

"Plus, It's our graduation, Carmilla. They sort of expect us to be present on account of being, you know, the graduates."

 

Her co-pilot barely raised an eyebrow at Laura tugging on her shirt and tucking it into the front of her pants – standard, military-issue, the most boring thing she'd seen Carmilla wearing yet, they did not suit her – but when Laura grabbed ahold of her tie, Carmilla batted her hand away.

 

"I still don't see the point of it."

 

"There is no point. We dress up pretty, get a rank upgrade, then get transferred to the Shatterdome and kill a ton of Kaiju." Laura shrugged. "Like I said, it's a formality. Where's your suit jacket?" Carmilla stared at her, a hint of a mischievous smile tucked in the corner of her mouth. "Carm."

 

"Suit jacket? I have no idea what you're talking about," Carmilla said, pulling on her tie and fixing it up herself, as if she hadn't just spent half an hour pretending to do so.

 

"You know exactly what I'm talking about. You tried it on. I brought it with the rest of the uniform. And the shoes. Which, fine, you can wear those," Laura pointed at the doc martens, "because they're basically the same colour and hopefully no one will notice because they'll be looking at your face, but your suit jacket is mandatory, Carmilla. Please don't tell me you've burnt it. Please, god."

 

"I lost it."

 

Laura pressed her eyelids shut. There was no way in hell her co-pilot had just said what Laura had heard. There was no way and yet, Carmilla hadn't said anything since, and Laura was starting to believe that what she said had been the truth.

 

"You lost it."

 

"Mhm."

 

"That blazer," said Laura carefully, making sure to keep her voice steady, "was specially designed for you. It's got your name and your rank on it."

 

"Aren't they going to upgrade our rank? Won't it be useless after today?"

 

"I can't get another one on such short notice."

 

"Oh, I won't need another one." Her co-pilot was enjoying this way too much. It made Laura wonder whether she had lost it on purpose.

 

"What are you going to wear instead of your-" Carmilla wandered over to the wardrobe, pulled out the leather jacket that had always been hung over the back of a chair, or carelessly flung over her desk. Carmilla had most definitely planned this. This very moment, just to mess with Laura. She had hung up her leather jacket for the satisfaction of pulling it out of the wardrobe with Laura watching. "No. Absolutely not."

 

"Live a little, sweetheart," she said, shrugging it on. Laura did want to live. Which was why she could not let Carmilla wear her leather jacket to their graduation. Would they even let them graduate? Probably not, but she didn't want to find out.

 

"Look, I know you don't really like following the rules and everything, but this is too big for someone important not to notice."

 

Carmilla shrugged. "So let them notice."

 

She seemed decided in her little rebellion plot. Laura sighed.

 

"You're not going to relent, are you?" Carmilla shook her head 'no'. "And you're not going to tell me where the blazer is so that I can force you to wear that instead of this monstrosity, of course."

 

"Now, where's the fun in that?"

 

Laura sighed. "And you've already decided that you want to embarrass your mother by wearing a leather jacket to your graduation, haven't you?" Carmilla smiled at her, a proud smile etched into her features. "Your tie is crooked, you rebel."

 

Her hand reached up to tug on Carmilla's tie, centering it. Carmilla watched her silently, ignoring her deft fingers, watching her scrunched up face instead. Laura had long since figured out that Carmilla was bad for her blood pressure.

 

Laura might have taken more time than necessary adjusting the little knot at the top of the blue strip, but her co-pilot didn't seem to mind. She patted the tie down, brushed imaginary lint off Carmilla's jacket, and smiled up at her.

 

"Now you're perfect." Carmilla raised an eyebrow. "Apart from the jacket, but I can learn to live with that, I suppose. Your pursuit of pissing off every single person who holds power over you is going to be my death, you know that, right?"

 

"Not every single person," replied Carmilla, softly.

 

Laura smirked. "Right. Just your mother, who, frankly, deserves it. Although it is kind of ironic how the reason you're doing this is also the reason you're not going to be penalized for it. Whatever am I going to do with you, Carmilla Karnstein?"

 

"I can think of a couple of things," said Carmilla. There was that gaze again, the one that made Laura's skin burn in the most pleasant of feelings. She shook herself out of it, regained her bearings.

 

"Yeah, well, make a list for after graduation."

 

;;

 

Laura didn't graduate with the highest scores in her class, since there were no scores, and the academy wasn't like that, but Natalie nudged her shoulder and congratulated her for being one half of the dream team, so Laura took that as the 'A+' she had promised herself she'd get on her first day at the Jaeger Academy.

 

Being a part of humanity's dream team meant that not a single person had remarked on Carmilla's leather jacket. Plenty of them stared at it, though, letting their eyes linger on the Bikini Kill patch.

 

Her co-pilot grinned back at them like a feral cat and Laura had to drag her away from one too many Marshals before the ceremony started, smiling and making up excuses about her co-pilot being tired and cranky and a little bit nervous because of the prestigious event.

 

Technically, Carmilla was all of those things, but no one needed to know that that was Carmilla's mood whenever she had to interact with people. Which Carmilla didn't really, all she had to do was sit next to Laura for the duration of the ceremony.

 

Turned out, being a Marshal's daughter didn't much matter when they had the best sync scores in nearing a decade. Laura had assumed that the academy would let Carmilla play the rebel because her mother wasn't to be trifled with, but the PPDC seemed fine with letting Carmilla do whatever she wanted if she proved herself to be worthy of her rank, if she proved herself a capable pilot.

 

Laura nearly laughed when Carmilla pulled out a book in the middle of the ceremony. The rebel nerd, more like, Laura thought fondly. There were few people who could truly out-nerd her, and her co-pilot was the first in line.

 

Carmilla sat next to her, sulking because the book – a thin paperback, this time – was apparently upsetting her. She could see the way the superior officers stared at her; Natalie was trying not to smile as fondly as she was. Laura just hoped that they would leave her co-pilot alone for a little while, and that they wouldn't ask her to close the book and pay attention.

 

What they would have wanted Carmilla to pay attention to, Laura didn't know. The speech being given by some invited Marshal – Carmilla's mother hadn't bothered to show up – simply went on and on, his voice becoming an unintelligible bumble after five minutes of the same jumble of words mixed together - 'responsibility', 'honour', and, of course, 'hope'. Laura's eyes wandered to the pages of Carmilla's book because surely anything would be more interesting than hearing about the importance of the Jaeger program for the tenth time in a row.

 

Unfortunately, she couldn't very well not pay attention, despite Carmilla beside her proving that no one would bother her. They were in the front row. Co-pilots stood in front of the rest of the graduating class – people who had chosen to become technicians and scientists, and those who had been forced to choose – next to one another, so Laura and Carmilla were seated next to Betty and Danny. She hadn't talked to Danny much during their training; she was still holding onto the last piece of resentment for the redhead that had made itself at home in her heart.

 

Laura did the math. Two sets of Jaeger pilots in five months meant two brand new Jaegers in the fleet in just as many months, which was not keeping in line with the amount of Jaegers destroyed in the past month, let alone the previous five. Everyone had noticed the ten training Jaegers, which would have turned out twenty Jaeger pilots back when the Jaeger program was appealing to more people, back when it wasn't a death sentence.

 

She looked to the side, at the sheer lack of volume of battle-ready pilots the Jaeger Academy had churned out in the past couple of months, and decided not to think about it because thinking about that would have forced her to think about the war at large, and she really didn't need to be thinking about how they weren't winning it.

 

So instead, Laura thought about something simpler. Like Danny, who had been jiggling her knee for the past five minutes. It was starting to get irritating. Her roommate – who might as well have been the person she shared a storage facility with, because they barely saw one another nowadays; Laura holed up in Carmilla's room, Betty in Danny's a floor over – offered to change seats with Danny so that Laura wouldn't have to sit next to the redhead. That made Laura shake her head and pat Betty on the arm.

 

Laura had underestimated how much she hadn't gotten over what Danny had said, how she wanted to protect Laura like she was a child. She grit her teeth and went through the entire ceremony with Danny on one side and her co-pilot on the other, because there was no way in hell she was going to admit that having Danny beside her made her blood boil.

 

Carmilla had been the only one in of her little group of friends who had noticed that Laura's calm demeanour was a front. She tried to distract Laura in any way she could – coughing, picking lint off her tie, at one point she even tried to pick lint off of Laura's blazer.

 

The rest of the academy hadn't noticed that she was doing it to gentle Laura, to ease her, since sitting next to Danny stressed her out. They probably thought Carmilla was doing it to be a nuisance. None of them were really paying attention to neither her nor Carmilla, though, instead preferring to anxiously wait for the ceremony to be over with so that they could spend their day with their relatives, the ones who could afford to attend.

 

Her father was not one of them, and even though she missed him, Laura was silently thankful. There was only so much she could do to make sure that he didn't find out about her having a co-pilot, and attending a ceremony where they had been referred to as a dream team would have been too much for her to handle.

 

After Carmilla walked away, tugging at her tie and muttering something about it feeling like a noose, Laura called her father. Using Betty's phone, because she hadn't even bothered to put hers on charge in ages. Laura was still sending him letters, in lieu of calling him almost daily like when she had moved into the academy. He would have caught her in a lie eventually, and she didn't want to take the risk. Rewriting letters was simpler.

 

"That's great, kiddo," he said, worry evident in his voice. Guilt she hadn't felt in weeks resurfaced. "Are they going to let you into a Jaeger soon? When do you start piloting the things?" Laura did the only thing she could do, the only thing she was capable of doing when it came to her father these days: she lied to him.

 

"They're not going to, dad. I haven't got a co-pilot, remember?"

 

Her father seemed happy about it, so she told him about how one of the other graduates, not a Ranger – she was a Ranger now, a proper Ranger – had almost not graduated because he had made a pass at one of the Marshals without knowing that the guy was a Marshal.

 

When she hung up half an hour later, Betty wrapped an arm around her shoulder.

 

"We did it. We survived the Academy."

 

"Yeah," Laura said, breathless laughter escaping her. "Now all we have to do is survive the apocalypse."

 

"Piece of cake," Betty said, nodding.

 

"I think my dad will kill me if I don't survive the apocalypse." Betty rolled her eyes. Laura smiled and tucked the phone back into Betty's blazer.

 

;;

 

They weren't due to ship out to the Shatterdome for a while, but she still slipped out of her room and into Carmilla's, taking it in like never before. She was going to miss the tiny yellow room. Who she had wanted to find inside of it though, was not present. Sometimes, Carmilla disappeared, and Laura hadn't yet figured out where she went during. She simply waited for her to come back, as her co-pilot always did.

 

The bottom bunk was covered in books. It seemed like Carmilla was in the process of packing them when she up and left. Laura had an inkling that her co-pilot wanted Laura to help her pack, and the only way she could think to ask her was to just leave things lying around until Laura did so. Laura decided that it would be best for everyone involved if she just packed everything herself, because her co-pilot's packing skills left a lot to be desired and she had nothing better to do while she waited.

 

By the time every single book on the bottom bunk was neatly placed in Carmilla's luggage, the girl still hadn't come back.

 

Laura briefly thought of Paris, snuffed out those thoughts in the blink of an eye because Carmilla had left everything behind, and she was of the opinion that they had become something that Carmilla wouldn't have left behind without an apology, a note, something, anything. Laura yawned, worry practically nonexistent; her co-pilot's bed seemed inviting enough, so she slipped under the covers and fell asleep.

 

A few hours later, she woke up to find Carmilla, halfway to sleep on the floor, and using her leather jacket as a makeshift pillow. That, Laura thought, would not do.

 

"Hey, graduate. Wake up." Carmilla didn't stir. Laura struggled with the blanket, poked her foot out of the covers, nudged her co-pilot's back with the tip of her toe. Carmilla groaned, muttered something vaguely resembling words, and Laura pulled her foot back in. "Come to bed."

 

"You're in my bed," Carmilla muttered.

 

"We can share, Carm. Come on." Laura could have very nearly heard the gears turning in Carmilla's head, trying to come up with reasons why sharing a bed would be a terrible idea. They had never slept in the same bed on purpose; whenever they had, they had been either too tired or too sore to move into other beds.

 

"The floor is comfortable, honest."

 

"Do you have some sort of moral objection to sleeping in the same bed as me?"

 

"No," said Carmilla.

 

"Then get your butt up here."

 

Carmilla stood and slipped under the covers.

 

Laura woke up half an hour later, freezing, because Carmilla had stolen the blanket. She stole it back. It took them the entire night, but they drowsily figured out that the less area of the mattress they covered, the more effective the blanket would prove to be.

 

When she finally woke up properly, her co-pilot was wrapped around her so tight, she thought that Carmilla had forgotten that she needed to breathe. Carmilla's hands were balled into fists in the back of Laura's shirt, stomachs touching with every breath Carmilla took, legs tangled together, but that was nothing, absolutely nothing compared to Carmilla's lips a hair's breadth away from her neck. Carmilla could probably taste her pulse, with how close her mouth was.

 

Laura did not want to wake her up. She did not want to deprive herself of this moment, of how close Carmilla was. Laura's heartbeat rang loud in her ears, and she willed it to calm down, so as not to wake Carmilla, to no avail.

 

As soon as her eyelids snapped open, her co-pilot pulled back from Laura so harshly that she ended up tugging the blanket out from under her, the sound of her body slamming to the floor piercing through the silence. Laura looked down at her to make sure she wasn't hurt, and found herself with a sight she never thought she'd be privy to.

 

Laura would have tried not to stare at her mouth, which had been so close to her neck a few seconds earlier, had she not been too focused on the way Carmilla seemed to have started blushing all over, pale skin a pretty red as she looked up at her, breathing heavily.

 

"Good morning," said Laura.

 

"Morning," murmured Carmilla. Her shirt was skewed sideways, revealing a very generous portion of her waist. Laura could see the very tips of her scarring, right above her hip.

 

"You always sleep like a koala or am I special?"

 

Carmilla's hair was parted awkwardly, and her messy bedhead was tilting to the right. She looked adorable and Laura did not know what to make of it.

 

"You're special."

 

Carmilla didn't give her a chance to react to that. She got up from off of the floor and trudged to her bathroom, closing the door on her blanket, before she pulled it in with her and slammed the bathroom door. Laura could have sworn they had shared the blanket during the night, before Carmilla had twisted violently out of bed and sought refuge in the other room.

 

;;

 

October 19, 2020
Jaeger Academy

 

The order came from high up.

 

They were to leave for the Shatterdome at nine AM. Laura barely had time to send a letter to her father about her brand new housing arrangement, and where he should send a reply to the letter itself. She did, however, go to Carmilla's room and help her pack everything that was left apart from the books.

 

Carmilla herself was asleep by ten PM, and woken up at six AM by an over-excited Laura, who had been fully packed a day after graduation and had been living out of her suitcase in hopes of them being sent to the Shatterdome as soon as possible.

 

They got the first flight to the Shatterdome – in a jumphawk, one of the many aircrafts that were under the control of the PPDC – along with the rest of the graduates.

 

Danny was the only person out of their group who still had someone to say goodbye to – Elsie, who had decided to stay at the Jaeger Academy as a tutor.

 

Natalie had said goodbye half an hour earlier, because she had another group of recruits to attend to as soon as they left, crying the whole time. She'd hugged Laura and wished her luck on her trip. Laura hoped she'd get to see her again someday, her and Sarah Jane, who had hugged them and handed Laura sweets as a parting gift, then took them back less than a minute later, admitting hunger. Other than those two, and the cafeteria workers, who had given her a box of doughnuts for the trip, the only friends Laura had made at the Jaeger Academy were on the jumphawk with her.

 

She only found out about the Kaiju attack about five minutes before they were meant to leave. It was so easy to ignore what was happening outside of the academy, where war seemed like an incentive to better herself instead of the reason she was there.

 

Laura, her roommate, and their respective co-pilots were strapped into the jumphawk, along with the rest of the technicians and scientists, and all their belongings. None of them talked about the Kaiju. Danny was seated opposite Laura this time, with Carmilla to her right, as had become their custom. Laura to Carmilla's left, and vice versa. Inside a Jaeger and out.

 

Carmilla unbuckled her seatbelt as soon as all of the jumphawk pilots left for the cockpit. Laura was about to start citing airplane brochures to convince Carmilla to put her seatbelt back on, but her co-pilot smirked and pulled a book out of the waistband of her pants, to which Laura cracked a smile and shook her head fondly, before Carmilla buckled herself in again.

 

The technicians who were seated next to Betty and Danny stared at them. Betty and Danny themselves watched them with curious eyes until Laura noticed their interest, promptly straightened up, and focused on a spot on her jacket for the duration of the flight.

 

;;

 

October 19, 2020
Anchorage Shatterdome

 

One of the Marshals, not Carmilla's mother, but another one named E. Cochrane, came up to them as soon as they reached Anchorage. She was a white woman, with a round, plump face, and hardened lines tight around her eyes, who spoke in a nondescript accent, much like Carmilla's mother. Unlike her mother, though, Marshal Cochrane was wearing a navy PPDC jumpsuit, just like the rest of the techies. The only reason they knew she was a Marshal was because the technicians addressed her as such.

 

"You are to rid the world of Kaiju, save the planet, yada yada, all while being cost-effective and easy to promote to the public so the higher-ups won't cut our budget yet again, so, have fun doing that. Also, pilots, for god's sake, do not leave the premises without a Marshal's explicit say-so."

 

She looked friendly enough, in that way that said that she had wimps for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and gave them their obligatory, 'Welcome to the Shatterdome!' speech as soon as they walked out of the jumphawk, and then left them with a scared-looking PPDC officer.

 

The officer, a Black man with a strong jaw and a fashion sense resembling something from her father's grandfather's closet, if his bowtie was any indication, was nervous about either having such a large group of graduates look up at him with wide eyes, or at the fact that a Kaiju had come out of the Breach very, very recently.

 

He had met them at the elevator and introduced himself, in a British accent that instantly reminded Laura of Natalie, as their 'guide for the next fifteen minutes', and nothing else. Laura wondered how many people were pushing the responsibility of showing them around, so close after a Kaiju attack, onto him. Marshal's orders would have probably been enough.

 

Carmilla seemed to be more interested in her book, which she hadn't put down since the jumphawk. Laura tugged on her co-pilot's jacket as they were led through the hallways, to make sure she wasn't left behind.

 

The Shatterdome, albeit structurally similar, was nothing like the Jaeger Academy. For one thing, the technology was way more advanced. Holographic screens similar to the ones in a Jaeger, seemed to have littered the hallways. There was one in every person's hands, those who weren't typing on one of those seemed to be too busy hauling around pieces of Jaegers bigger than their bodies.

 

And, of course, strips of blue going across the hallways, flickering away just a few centimetres below the ceilings. Either someone had worked very hard to make sure the Shatterdome looked high-tech enough to satisfy investors, or those were actually used for something.

 

Carmilla saw her glancing up at them out of the corner of her eye, and muttered, "Smile for the cameras, sweetheart." Laura eyed them one last time, kept her eyes on the officer. The place was guarded under lock and key. Or, rather, keypads and key codes. Every single door needed a code to get through, like being inside of a video game.

 

Another thing she noticed immediately was that there was a sense of panic in the Shatterdome that was not at all similar to the one in the Jaeger Academy. The academy's sense of anxiety had always stemmed from anticipation, from finding a co-pilot and going through stage three together. The Shatterdome's panic was to get the Jaegers back to a hundred percent as soon as possible because they wouldn't have the time once Kaiju attacked.

 

There had been posters up in the Jaeger Academy, unlike the ones plastered to the walls all over the world, the ones declaring 'JOIN THE FIGHT' in big, bold letters. The ones at the academy had been instructional, encouraging them to continue training, to train harder and more often.

 

The walls of the Shatterdome were painted in the colours of the war. The only words that she could see were on maps that were to help her navigate through the labyrinth she had found herself in.

 

Where the Jaeger Academy had been a classroom, preparing them for what would eventually be the real world, the Shatterdome was the wall of the waiting room of a job centre. The Shatterdome was the harsh reality of war. The Jaeger Academy was what people expected the war to look like, all proper, hard work; the Shatterdome was exactly what the war was: hideous, tiresome, and relentless.

 

Laura could already tell that there wouldn't be any rainbow-sprinkled doughnuts in the Shatterdome.

 

The heavy metal doors opened to the hangar bay, the Jaeger bay, she corrected herself, once she looked inside. It looked as though the place had been lifted straight from out of the ocean because the metal had started to rust in some places. Laura figured that they didn't have the time for the upkeep of the Shatterdome itself when it housed Jaegers.

 

Everyone worked around each other, moving out of the way of carts holding heavy machinery, holding doors open for one another. The last one must have been because of the keycards and the number pads. The doors seemed to take a while to open every time, and since there was someone walking in or out of the Shatterdome at any given point, she assumed there would be no point in closing it every time.

 

The Jaeger bay currently housed four Jaegers, all of which were more than twice the size of their test Jaeger back at the academy, and seemed to be in prime working condition except for one at the far end, which was missing an arm and most of its shoulder. And also, strangely enough, its head. The technicians who were fixing it up didn't bother to stop working to welcome them, but then again, none of the others did, either.

 

Laura doubted anyone would, because even the officer looked like he had better things to be doing than showing them around. He seemed like the only other person who didn't want to be there as much as Carmilla.

 

"Now, this one," he said, indicating towards a Jaeger in Bay 02, painted in standard military green Laura had become accustomed to seeing on Jaegers, "Mark 5, the pride and joy of the United States right now. Cerberus operating system, Monolith energy core. Speed and agility beats every other Jaeger's results. No pilots yet, but we're hoping it'll be a match for two of you." He threw a look back at them, before his eyes gravitated to Betty and Danny.

 

"Hoping?" Laura questioned, earning a glance back from the officer. "Aren't the Jaegers assigned pilots already?"

 

"Ah, rookies. You never fail to amuse me, even on the bad days," he said, smiling and shaking his head. Carmilla flipped a page of her book with a force that was harsher than Laura thought necessary. She was most certainly listening in on the conversation. "Of course not."

 

He didn't stop to let them get a good look at it, instead breezed by as if he had seen it a million times before, which, he might have, given how familiar he was with the entire complex. He hadn't stopped to look at a map once because he knew the place like the back of his hand, apparently.

 

Bay 03's Jaeger was painted green as well, Laura noted, as was the one in Bay 04. She made a mental list of the available Jaegers. The ones that were not assigned. She knew that the time would come when she and Carmilla would have to step into one of them and fight Kaiju, and she wanted to make sure it was the right one when they did.

 

"Constructed in Australia, Mark 4, quite spry if we put the right set of pilots- Oh, finally. Brutum's back home." He stopped midway through to look up. "Doesn't feel quite right not having that Jaeger on base, for some reason. Everyone gets antsy."

 

Laura noticed what he was staring at immediately. She knew this Jaeger's stats even better than any other Jaeger's.

 

Brutum Fulmen, United States, Mark 4. Piloted by William Luce and Wilson Kirsch. Deployed in 2018, it had eight documented Kaiju kills to date – nine, Laura thought, as she spotted blue blood dripping along the Jaeger's fingers. Their record was what she hoped her and Carmilla's would look like in less than two years.

 

She knew that everyone else was thinking the same as they watched the Jaeger fly over the entrance to the Shatterdome, and straight through the ceiling.

 

The officer muttered something about how he had to get back to work and then decided that they must've been tired, after all that flying, he said, with a grin as criminally charming as his bowtie.

 

"What about that one?" asked Laura, who hated that he had left off without introducing them to all the Jaegers in the area. She pointed towards the one in Bay 07.

 

The officer laughed, then turned back to her. "That one is not an option, I'm afraid. More of a practical joke, for now. Techs just finished installing the synapse system a few weeks ago, but until they test it, it's collecting dust like an antique in there."

 

Laura's shoulders raised as she took in a deep breath.

 

"And before you ask," he said, turning to look at Laura, "the techs put the time into restoring it when they're not maintaining Brutum, and given how much time Brutum spends in the field, you can guess how much attention they've been paying that Jaeger. Especially recently."

 

He led them straight through the doors underneath the war clock, which Laura had only read about online. It dictated the last Kaiju attack, reset after each kill. And at that, Carmilla did look up, and noted the time on it. Barely a few minutes. Laura slipped her hand into her co-pilot's. To make sure that she wouldn't get lost, Laura told herself.

 

;;

 

They had assigned bunks. Of course they did. Co-pilots were supposed to stay in the same room, to increase their synchronicity levels.

 

Laura wished they had confirmed it with her first. She was fine with spending every waking hour in Carmilla's room back at the Jaeger Academy, because she could still go back to her and Betty's room, but actually living with Carmilla was not something that she had given much thought to.

 

When Laura finally did think about it, a few minutes after the officer mentioned it, while he was trying to jam open the door by jiggling the key and shoving his skinny shoulder against the door repeatedly, Laura could only think of one thing. Carmilla, and how she would never go for it.

 

One glance at Carmilla confirmed it. She was holding onto her book for dear life. It was now closed shut, and in dire need of not being ripped apart. Laura took it from the girl, shoved it in her own jacket pocket, and waited until the rest of her graduating class (who were staying on Level 48) and Danny and Betty (Level 56, like herself and Carmilla) had settled in nicely.

 

When the officer flipped his set of keys and crossed the hallway to find their room, she followed him and voiced her concerns. "Excuse me, um. I think we need to talk about the rooming arrangements."

 

"And done!" he exclaimed, and shoved the door wide open. He pulled the key out of the lock and unhooked it from his ring. Carmilla stood there, with her backpack and her duffel, and watched him as he handed her the key, and then motioned with his hand that she was free to enter the room. The sooner, the better, his eyes seemed to say, as he pocketed the rest of the keys. "Talk to Human Resources about it, kid. I have better things to do."

 

The man started walking outside of the barracks, near-bordering on jogging out of there, but Laura easily caught up with him. He probably spent his entire life in front of a computer; Laura could have kept up with him in her sleep. He stopped, sighed.

 

"Of course, Human Resources," Laura said, stepping in front of him. She could see the open door that Carmilla had just gone through behind him. Laura had noticed how much quieter these barracks were, compared to the ones at the Jaeger Academy, and stepped towards the officer again. "But see, the thing is, you have all those keys, and-"

 

"Listen, peanut, you're not the first Ranger to hate her co-pilot, okay?"

 

"What? No, it's not that. I don't hate her-"

 

"You'll get separate rooms when the war's over." He reconsidered that. "Maybe. Probably not. They need to clean out the backlog. I asked them for a different room when I first moved here, three years ago, and they still haven't gotten back to me, so I'm afraid you're stuck bunking with your co-pilot, rookie."

 

"Right," Laura said, dejected. "But if I were to ask-"

 

He cut her off again. "Look, I can't help you and I should really get back to Mission Control. Just cause the Kaiju's dead, doesn't mean I'm not needed, okay?"

 

"Of course. It's just.. These barracks, are they going to be used by the other technicians as well, or are they a Jaeger pilot privilege? Who would I need to contact if I wanted to know if there was anyone else currently residing within the rooms? They look awfully vacant, you see."

 

"Oh," the officer remarked. Laura smiled wide, raised her eyebrows in the way she used to when she wanted to sway someone's decision. "Oh, I like you. What's your name, hold-" He looked down at the tablet in his hand. "Ranger Hollis comma Laura. Why does that sound familiar? Wait, you're the Marshal's daughter's co-pilo-"

 

"Well," Laura looked down at the badge on his chest, proudly boasting his name. "Nice to meet you, Mr. J.P. Armi- Wait. You're J.P. Armitage?"

 

"Been hearing rumours about me, have you?" He wiggled his eyebrows, looking almost excited at the prospect of being the subject of rumours.

 

"You made Crisis Map." Laura was excited to have finally met the person whose website she had made her homepage all those years ago.

 

"Yeah. I did that. That was me." He sighed. "I was drunk and bored, and all the other websites were naming the Kaiju without waiting for an official statement, so."

 

"Oh, wow. I didn't know you actually worked here. I always thought that something like that would be, I don't know, official?"

 

"It's a personal project. Sort of. They turn a blind eye to me releasing information as long as I get permission from a Marshal first." J.P. gestured with his hand. "Someday people will know me for doing cool things, I assure you."

 

"Crisis Map is pretty cool in my books, Armitage."

 

"Thanks, and, no." He narrowed his eyes and leaned forwards, as if he was going to tell her a secret. "To your previous question. These barracks are used by basically everyone." Her shoulders slumped. "But, these rooms aren't going to be assigned to anyone else in the near future, so I suggest you pick a room and if anyone comes knocking, tell them Human Resources fudged up."

 

"I can do that?"

 

"I mean," he said, scratching the back of his neck. "I would never suggest it. Especially not to a Jaeger pilot who might actually risk doing it. But, yeah, I guess you could. If you hated your co-pilot enough."

 

"I don't hate her," she insisted.

 

"I'm used to you pilots by now. There's only one reason why people would request different rooms. You can't stand being around her twenty-four seven. I get it. Trust me, I have to deal with her mother on a daily basis, and she's definitely no walk in the park, either."

 

"Carmilla is nothing like her mother. She's wonderful, trust me."

 

"Really." He didn't sound convinced.

 

"She just likes her privacy."

 

"You're in her head every other day, how much privacy do you think she's got left?"

 

Laura said nothing, because he was right. She didn't want to take away what was left of her co-pilot's privacy, and moving in with her would definitely make Carmilla feel like she had none left, despite the fact that she had practically stayed in Carmilla's room so often back at the Jaeger Academy that Betty thought they had already moved in together.

 

"Thanks for your help, Armitage."

 

"Sure thing. And, kid? If I were you, I'd get comfortable for the next couple of weeks. Those new Jaegers out there are going to feel like breaking in ballet shoes. If you're lucky."

 

"Why's that?"

 

J.P. narrowed his eyes. "You weren't kidding earlier, were you?" He seemed disappointed, but started explaining kindly, despite his previous hurry. "The thing they don't teach you at the academy is that Jaegers aren't just giant robots."

 

"They're not?" Laura repeated, wincing slightly. She felt, in that moment, like she had done an insufficient amount of research regarding Jaegers themselves.

 

"Nope, they're sophisticated creatures. The test Jaegers you've been playing with so far, they've got the basic idea, nuts and bolts, and all that jazz, with some serious coding thrown in for good measure. But, they're just a shell. You guys learned to fight with those because they're easier for beginners. Learning how to walk before you can run, so to speak. We can't let you run amok with the real Jaegers before we trust you not to break the real thing, you see."

 

She thought of all the training exercises that had been reported over the years. They most definitely would not have trusted anyone unqualified near the real Jaegers.

 

"But proper Jaegers, ones like Brutum Fulmen and the rest of the fleet out there, they've got an artificial sort of life in them, and they're somewhat particular about who they let jockey them."

 

"Because their coding is more intricate?" Laura asked. He nodded, and she carried on, "I looked it up. The test Jaegers still have the training wheels, so to speak." He considered that, tilting his head from one side to the other.

 

"The test Jaegers are the training wheels."

 

"I don't understand," she said.

 

"Real Jaegers run on the most stubborn code known to man. Your training Jaeger, how many people had trained in it before you and your girl back there got yourselves into the third stage? Probably around ten, twenty sets of pilots, right?" Laura hadn't asked. "We can't do that with real Jaegers. They recognise their pilots."

 

"Recognise how?"

 

"With Jaegers whose pilots have, uh, retired, we have to wipe the system at least ten times before we let new pilots get near them. Even then, it's not a perfect system. Doesn't respond properly. Why do you think the higher-ups commission new Jaegers?"

 

"Because there's an increase in Jaeger pilots," Laura supplied.

 

"Well," J.P. said, considering it. "That too. But mostly it's easier to build a new Jaeger. Giving new pilots an old Jaeger is a recipe for disaster because the Jaeger will be stubborn about it." He looked down at her face, which probably emulated how confused she felt. "Think of Jaegers as puppies."

 

"Puppies?"

 

"Yeah, or dogs," said J.P., pointing at his tablet. "Like in movies where the dog's owner dies all sudden-like and they have to take the dog to a new home, with the owner's siblings- no, wait, bad analogy. Like when the dog gets put in the pound and they get a brand new owner." He dragged his finger across the tablet, indicating the move, pointed at it again to indicate a new guardian. What did all this have to do with Jaegers?

 

"Armitage, I am not following the puppy analogy."

 

"They don't acknowledge their new owner as their new keeper. Same with Jaegers. They know who their pilots are and if they get new pilots, they refuse to move. It's quite the hassle, actually. What I wouldn't give for the Jaeger equivalent of Scooby snacks."

 

"But, there have been cases where old Jaegers have more than a single set of pilots – you mentioned it yourself, just now in the Jaeger bay." He frowned, caught off guard, his finger stilled and he dropped his tablet to his side again.

 

"The most success we've ever had with that," he said, carefully, "is when we introduce a single new pilot – one who's replacing a retired pilot – alongside a pilot that the Jaeger already knows. Like your dog getting accustomed to a new person in your life, instead of being adopted by two new people. Doesn't happen often, because you can imagine how many pilots are willing to drift with someone else after their first co-pilot retires."

 

"Yeah, I can." Laura glanced at Carmilla, who was not unpacking, but was instead toying with the handle of Laura's suitcase – was she waiting for her? She turned back to J.P. Armitage. "What does that have to do with the new Jaegers, though? Won't it be easy to use those since no one's piloted them before?"

 

"Yeah, but to get the kind of connection I'm talking about, the kind where your Jaeger responds to you and only you, you have to form a bond with that Jaeger first. Imagine a montage of playing frisbee, with a dog who hates you." She winced. "Exactly. That means more training for you and your lovely-and-not-evil co-pilot."

 

Laura was undeterred. "I've enjoyed training so far."

 

"You say that now, but once we fit you with a Jaeger and you two start fighting Kaiju?" She narrowed her eyes, because surely the breaking in of a Jaeger wouldn't be that hard, but the way he spoke about it made it seem like a war in and of itself. "You'll be in and out of a Jaeger in between naps. If you're lucky."

 

"What if we don't form a connection with the Jaeger we're assigned?"

 

"Why do you think we didn't just get two Jaegers and assign them to you before you got here, rookie? Because you're going to need the variety. But what will happen is: you'll feel like crap. You'll need to pick another Jaeger. Brutum's pilots went through three, four Jaegers before they got to Brutum? It's a long, hard process."

 

"Looking forward to it." He didn't seem to be listening to her though, thoughts of his apparent favourite Jaeger overwhelming him and the conversation, by proxy.

 

"Actually, from a technical standpoint, Brutum would definitely yield for you two – Jaegers recognise relatives through their pilots, somewhat, because of the shared memories from a different perspective-"

 

"'Relatives'?"

 

"Yeah, and close friends," he said, absently. "But good luck getting your hands on that Jaeger. Morgan would have a fit; Luce would burst a vein. Actually, I would love to see that happen." He shook his head, as if trying to free his mind of the image. "Long story short, you're going to be wrecked, kid. I'd find somewhere comfortable to sleep."

 

"Thanks." Laura was confused, still. If not more so now.

 

"See you next Breach." He raised his hand in farewell, and left.

 

Laura stood there trying to discern what 'next Breach' meant, and why she would be meeting up with J.P. Armitage, of all people, during it. It took her a few seconds to figure out that he meant that he would be seeing her next time a Kaiju came out of the Breach, which according to the War Clock hanging inside the Shatterdome for all to see, wouldn't be easy to forget.

 

She looked at Carmilla, who looked no less scared, but also slightly curious. She didn't ask Laura what she had talked to Armitage about. Betty and Danny had already dragged their luggage to their room. Laura was tentatively going to involve them in her plan.

 

Laura made to move towards her own luggage, and had one hand on a handle when Carmilla grabbed both of them for her, having shoved her own backpack and duffel into the room.

 

"I've got it, sweetheart." She walked back inside what Laura could not possibly think of as their room. The only problem Laura had was how to get inside the room beside Carmilla's. The sooner she moved in there, the less her chance of getting busted would be.

 

;;

 

Their room was pretty similar to their respective rooms back at the academy, except the PPDC had neglected to paint the interior this time. Rust carved down in lazy lines, just like they had in the hallways. It had a weird smell of dust and, oddly enough, fabric softener within it. A very distinct difference from the condition of their rooms at the academy.

 

Laura hardly noticed. She was too focused on a) how she was going to give Carmilla her privacy, and b) the holographic screen on the wall next to the bottom bunk. The academy hadn't bothered installing that. It was lined in green, declaring the PPDC logo on the front, and Laura couldn't help but put a finger through it as soon as she had sat down.

 

It flashed and there was a screen with notifications on it, like a sort of message board that listed all the most recent updates made to the Shatterdome's system. That was.. interesting, to say the least. She wondered if they sent little notifications when a Kaiju popped out of the Breach, too. It probably flashed red, she figured.

 

"Alright," Carmilla said, a few minutes later. Her voice penetrated the deepest part of Laura's mind, the one that was planning midnight heists for the keys to the rooms on either side of Carmilla's. "Which one do you want?"

 

"What?"

 

"Which room? You look like someone kicked your puppy and I for one, am not too fond of seeing you look all dejected-like. It doesn't suit you." Laura's mind stalled, and she watched Carmilla digging around in her backpack – no doubt for another book – and understood. In the stretched out silence of the empty hallway, she had heard Laura asking J.P. for a room change.

 

"You heard." It wasn't a question. Carmilla looked at her like she was an idiot, which Laura thought might as well have been the case, because of course she had heard. She was waiting outside the room for her when J.P. had left.

 

"Which room do you want?"

 

"It doesn't matter, I don't really care-"

 

Carmilla finally found what she had been looking for, which was a black pouch that Laura had only ever seen while packing her co-pilot's things. Carmilla walked out of the room, towards the closest locked bedroom, the one opposite hers, and right next door to Betty and Danny's room. Laura followed her, watched as she knelt down next to the lock, and plucked tiny instruments from out of the pouch.

 

"Never had a lookout before," Carmilla muttered, tugging the lockpick down gently. Laura watched her with interest, and found herself moving closer to get a better look. "Never really wanted one, though."

 

"What are you doing?" Laura whispered, almost scared to be caught despite her very elaborate and slightly exaggerated heist plan a few minutes earlier. It had included music from the Mission Impossible official soundtrack.

 

"What you were going to do," Carmilla replied. "Except faster." The lock clicked. Carmilla smiled, and pushed the door open. "You're welcome."

 

Laura stared at her co-pilot a few seconds longer, her jacket weighing heavy on her shoulders, before she remembered and pulled Carmilla's book out of her pocket, smiled at the title – Fingersmith – before handing it back to Carmilla.

 

"Thank you."

 

Carmilla took it, and nodded. She walked back to her room and brought over Laura's suitcase. Laura sat on the bottom bunk, and didn't bother closing the door. Carmilla didn't close hers either, but sat with her back opposite Laura's room.

 

;;

 

"Wanna go exploring?" Laura leaned against the door frame. Carmilla hadn't closed the door yet and it was almost noon and she had been staring at her co-pilot pretending to read for the better part of the morning.

 

Carmilla had flipped a page every ten minutes. She might have been many things, but a slow reader was not one of them. It was her co-pilot's way of letting people know that she wasn't actually reading anything, but that she still wanted to maintain the illusion for some reason. Or, that was her way of letting Laura know, anyway.

 

"What's there to explore?" Laura rolled her eyes and went to sit next to her on the bed. Carmilla made space for her, but kept talking. "Giant robots area, food hall, barracks. We've seen most of what there is to see already."

 

Laura hadn't even noticed that Carmilla had been wearing earphones. Her co-pilot was pulling them out now, to give Laura her full attention. She hadn't often seen her listening to music and reading. Carmilla must have really not wanted to be disturbed then. She didn't look like she minded being disturbed by Laura, though.

 

At this realisation, Laura decided to press further. She plucked the book held loosely between Carmilla's hands, and when her co-pilot glared at her, she turned to the book to avoid staring at her, memorised the page number, and slammed it shut.

 

"I was reading that."

 

"No, you weren't. You were just pretending to read it."

 

The girl pouted, and Laura briefly forgot why she had come over in the first place, because Carmilla's lower lip was jutting out and she could barely remember her own name, let alone the page she had just looked at. She hoped Carmilla remembered which page she had been on, because Laura sure as hell didn't.

 

"We need to go."

 

"Go where?"

 

"Anywhere. Everywhere. Come on," Laura said, getting up from the bottom bunk. Her co-pilot didn't move an inch. "We've got no training until they assign us a Jaeger, so we might as well find something to do around here. Come on."

 

Carmilla groaned, but let Laura pull her up from out of the bed anyway.

 

;;

 

They didn't break the handhold as they walked out of the room, with Carmilla softly closing the door behind them. Laura turned right at first, but then decided against that and went left. Carmilla didn't much mind being dragged out of her room in search of- whatever it was that Laura was looking for. She had grown used to it. Fond of it, even.

 

"Any idea as to where we're going, sweetheart?"

 

"Nope. Not a clue." Laura proved it when she turned towards a hallway and they found a dead end. Her co-pilot didn't mind, she just led them out and went left.

 

"So, we're just wandering about, then."

 

"Mhm."

 

"Fun," Carmilla said, in a tone that implied otherwise.

 

They passed by a map of the Shatterdome on the wall; Laura chose to ignore it. After more steps, into hallways and up stairs, then down again, and around bends that Carmilla was sure they had gone around the entire Shatterdome at least twice, Laura stopped. Stood in the middle of the hallway as if she were waiting for something.

 

"Can you hear that?"

 

"Hear what?"

 

Laura looked at her, said nothing. Carmilla did hear it. Silence. She hadn't noticed it before, because Laura's pulse was much more interesting to listen to than the other sounds that the Shatterdome produced – there was significantly less soundproofing than the Jaeger Academy – but now that she was actually listening, she could not hear anything.

 

No talking, no footsteps, no technicians welding things while singing along to nineties power ballads. Nothing but the pressure that came with silence, the apprehension that always came with things being too quiet.

 

"We're lost, aren't we?"

 

"That's the best part," murmured Laura. She was guiding them at a much slower pace now, as if afraid to break the silence or get caught someplace they weren't allowed to be.

 

"And when we can't find our way back to the barracks?"

 

"Second best part, Carmilla."

 

"Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore," she said, looking around. Laura narrowed her eyes at her, but other than that, ignored her reference.

 

"A-ha!" Laura dragged her into a space, a gap between two hallways. Carmilla was about to ask her what she thought she'd found – there were pipes lining the walls, made out of rust-stained metal, as with everything else in the place – when Laura held onto her hand to keep her back. She indicated towards the floor, and that was when Carmilla noticed that they weren't in any room.

 

They were in a Kwoon. Or, what the Shatterdome thought passed for a Kwoon, anyway.

 

This was so much smaller than the Kwoon at the Jaeger Academy, that she was sure four people wouldn't have been able to spar at the same time. But, it was silent, soft compared to the one at the academy. It was intimate in a way that Carmilla hadn't felt anywhere but in a Conn Pod recently, had only ever felt in the corners of used book stores before that.

 

It looked like it hadn't been used in ages, either. She had almost forgotten that they were two of less than a handful of Jaeger pilots in the Shatterdome, vastly outnumbered by technicians and scientists alike. Which was probably why it was vacant.

 

"Hm," Laura said, looking around the place. "I guess Brutum's pilots don't train as often as I thought they did. You up for a sparring session?" Carmilla raised an eyebrow.

 

"Are you?"

 

Laura smirked in response. Let go of her hand, walked away and peered into nooks and crannies of the area. Carmilla watched her search the place for what felt like hours, and when she noticed that she had been keeping track of the time by listening to Laura's pulse, asked what was on her mind.

 

"What are you looking for now?"

 

"Staffs," Laura said, coming to stand beside her again. She crossed her arms over her chest, and breathed out. "We can't spar without them."

 

"Don't think you can take me on without your toys, sweetheart?"

 

Laura didn't miss a beat. "Oh, you are so on, Karnstein. You're going down," she said, pointing at the ground.

 

"Promises, promises," drawled Carmilla, watching as Laura tied her hair back. Her co-pilot plopped down on the floor and tugged off her shoes, then her socks, and set them aside neatly. Then she stood up and walked backwards onto the mat, keeping her eyes on Carmilla the entire time.

 

Carmilla would have said that she looked vaguely threatening, before her co-pilot almost tripped on her own two feet, losing her balance for a brief moment. She let a soft laugh leave her, which had Laura stiffen and hold up her hands in a defensive stance.

 

The come-hither gesture Laura sent her way after that wasn't an offer. It was a dare, and Carmilla was nothing if not audacious when faced with the hint of the pointy canine teeth in Laura's mouth, as her co-pilot smiled a lopsided self-satisfied smile.

 

She took her sweet time untying her shoelaces. When she finally pulled them off, she dropped them, one at a time, right next to Laura's things. She shrugged her sweater off, noted the sharp intake of breath from her co-pilot that came after that, folded it neatly and placed it next to Laura's.

 

Laura groaned. "You're stalling." Carmilla shrugged and pulled her hair into a messy bun in the slowest possible manner.

 

"Just giving you time to prepare."

 

"Ha. As if."

 

The truth was, she was stalling. She was doing her very best to stall. To delay it as much as she could, so that Laura would have to stand there and watch her prepare. Riling her up. Carmilla was having way too much fun doing that, as of late. She couldn't help it. The implications of that hadn't sunk in yet.

 

;;

 

Laura had been right. Carmilla fought better without the staff. She didn't need it, never had, and Laura found that out as she breathed in large gulps of oxygen, on her back similar to the way she had Carmilla during their first sparring session.

 

Except her co-pilot hadn't used a staff, like Laura had. Carmilla had stalked towards her slowly, as if assessing her prey to make sure that she still had Laura's eyes on her. With her hands behind her back, Laura had assumed (wrongly), that Carmilla was going to make her wait just like she had their first time.

 

Her co-pilot didn't. Laura, letting her guard down because of Carmilla's relaxed, unthreatening posture, was lulled into a false sense of security. She was too focused on Carmilla's eyes, which usually told her what her co-pilot planned to do better than her words ever did – she would later figure out that this was what had led to her downfall – and hadn't seen it coming.

 

She saw the ceiling, and then Carmilla, looking down at her with a look of complacency.

 

From what she could tell, because it had happened far quicker than she could process, Carmilla had hooked her leg around Laura's, and before Laura could even think to push Carmilla off of her, her co-pilot had tugged at her leg and made Laura lose her balance, at which point she'd been slammed down onto the mat.

 

"I've been waiting to do that for a while now." She felt like Carmilla's voice had stopped the world. The silence that they had heard earlier was nothing compared to this, the energy between them was causing her to feel genuinely lightheaded. Or maybe that was the fall. "That was for the day we met."

 

Carmilla was on top of her, her hands on either side of her for support. All Laura could think about was how Carmilla's thighs were pressed around her waist. How her own knee was – thankfully – in between them, keeping her thoughts from sliding completely into R-rated territory. Laura gulped very slowly, willing her thoughts to switch to a PG-13 version of this.

 

It made her think of how much more intimate sparring with her co-pilot was, without the staffs. Laura didn't say that, though.

 

"Your form's getting better," she said instead, as if Carmilla had given her enough time to study her form. Carmilla had given her exactly one thing: an impetus to beat her at her own game.

 

"Must be your influence." Carmilla shrugged. She made no move to get up from on top of Laura, which was at best inconvenient, and at worst- Laura didn't want to think about that, because that included just how having Carmilla on top of her rocked her to her core.

 

"Must be," Laura said. Her breathing was calming down.

 

That was when she noticed that her co-pilot was staring down at her, blinking slowly. Laura wondered how her co-pilot would take to being flirted with the same way that she had been flirting with Laura, and noticed that Carmilla already looked overwhelmed. She thought of how physically exhausting the move Carmilla had just pulled would have felt to her, but she didn't let it discourage her. She leaned up on both elbows, getting closer to Carmilla, who still hadn't moved an inch.

 

"Or maybe," said Laura, keeping her eyes focused on her co-pilot because she needed to make sure that Carmilla didn't notice what was happening until it was too late for her to do anything about it, "you've always had good form. Have you been playing me all along, Carmilla?"

 

"Could be that," she replied, slowly. "Or maybe, I didn't need good form to spar with everyone else." She was close to Carmilla's face now, and her co-pilot was obviously flustered, but made no attempt to move, not even when Laura reached up with one hand and cupped the back of Carmilla's head.

 

"Flatterer," said Laura, altering her tone slightly to make sure that Carmilla mistook her meaning, even though she didn't even think she was faking anything anymore.

 

Carmilla bit her bottom lip hard enough to draw blood. Laura leaned forward still, steadied herself by pressing her hand down to her co-pilot's shoulder. She waited, briefly, because all she had to do was lick her lips in preparation. It drew Carmilla's focus away entirely, and when her co-pilot glanced down to her mouth, Laura knew she had her.

 

;;

 

She wasn't quite sure how they had gotten in this position, but she wasn't about to argue that she didn't want to be in it, either. She quite liked having Laura underneath her. But, as it so happened, she liked being underneath Laura way more.

 

Which was where she found herself at present. Laura had flustered her, deliberately provoked her, to make her fall into her trap. She had forced Carmilla to loosen up and then shoved her backwards, used the momentum to switch their positions.

 

Carmilla was too stunned to notice that she had been slammed down onto the mat once more. Stunned, because Laura looked like she had months ago, during their first drift. That day she helped her out of the ocean, with the sun creating a bright backdrop for her as if it had nowhere else to be, other than behind Laura's head. As if the halo of light was meant to be there. Carmilla had almost forgotten that temporary world, like a dream, it came back to her now as Laura looked down at her, self-satisfied grin in place.

 

"I win," Laura growled down at her. Carmilla arched an eyebrow, her co-pilot had been insistent that there were no winners in the Kwoon, especially during their first sparring session. It seemed like she had changed her tune.

 

"I thought this was a dialogue, zvezda." She shifted underneath Laura.

 

Laura shrugged. "You're rubbing off on me."

 

"Am I, now?"

 

"Mhm," Laura hummed, pushing herself from off of Carmilla. It took her a second to realise that Laura's weight on her was a comfortable, reassuring pressure. It took her even longer to realise that she missed it when it wasn't pressing down on her.

 

"That's interesting."

 

Laura laughed, held her hand out to help her up. "Let's go again. I prefer this whole no-staffs thing. Makes it much more engaging."

 

Carmilla didn't dare deny her, so she took her hand.

 

;;

 

They spent the better part of the afternoon in there, trading blows and vaguely provocative remarks, whichever came naturally at the time, and walked out of the Kwoon sore, exhausted, and sweating profusely. But Carmilla's self-satisfied smirk matched Laura's easy grin, so neither of them cared much about the bruises forming in places they hadn't even known they could get bruises.

 

Somehow, they didn't get lost again. They followed the sound of people talking until they came to the Shatterdome's cafeteria, and decided to have an early dinner before they went back to their rooms and showered.

 

That was one advantage to separate rooms, Laura thought. No waiting for showers.

 

As soon as Laura saw Betty wave her over to their table, Carmilla stiffened. She didn't particularly want to sit with Danny for dinner either, but Betty would be enough of a buffer for both of them. Especially if she got to pick where to sit.

 

And, well, Carmilla didn't make excuses. She didn't. So, when she resisted the temptation to make a joke about Betty and Danny being virtually impossible to miss in the almost-empty cafeteria, and instead said that she had to catch up on some reading, Laura relented. She let her go, because she had already pushed most of Carmilla's buttons that day and she didn't need to make her sit with her friends at dinnertime, too.

 

Betty held out on asking for about half an hour. Complained about Marshal Cochrane's inability to say 'no' to Brutum's pilots, who wanted the new pilots to take on some of their duties. Laura worked her thinly veiled indifference hard enough for Danny not to notice, but her old roommate saw right through her. So when Betty asked why she moved rooms, Laura shrugged.

 

"Felt like a good idea at the time."

 

;;

 

"Your fridge is broken," Laura declared, two hours later.

 

She had settled into 'her' room, which meant that she had showered, unpacked and walked over to Carmilla's room to find something to read, which was code for, "I know you will live out of your duffel if you don't let me unpack your clothes, so let me pretend to be looking for a good book while I unpack your things".

 

Once she'd unpacked her co-pilot's clothes, she decided to plug in the fridge, because Laura felt like she needed an excuse to be in that room now that she had moved out of it. Her co-pilot watched her place the plug back on top of the fridge, defeated.

 

"Did you break it, sweet thing?" Carmilla said, dragging out the last two words, making Laura's spine tingle in response. Which was when she registered the words and turned to face her, a stern but serious expression plastered to her face.

 

"I did not break your mini fridge," said Laura, adamantly.

 

"It's broken, isn't it?"

 

"That doesn't mean I'm the one who broke it," she said. Carmilla was staring at her with a smile playing across her lips, but for some reason, whether it was because her co-pilot had stopped doing anything else and was now completely focused on her, she knew that the fridge being broken was a problem for her, which, of course it was. The girl practically lived out of it.

 

"I don't know," drawled Carmilla.

 

She seemed to be enjoying this, whatever this was. Laura didn't know what they were doing anymore – their last session in the Kwoon had proved as much, but she was aware that she was not the only target of Carmilla's flirtations, because she'd seen her toy with the technicians too. Granted, her co-pilot seemed to enjoy flustering Laura more often than any of the techs, but that might have been because Laura spent more time with her.

 

"You are awfully adept at breaking things that don't belong to you." And there it was again, that lilt to her voice whenever she wanted to make Laura shiver with anticipation. Still, she was accusing her, however nice her voice sounded.

 

"What's that supposed to mean?"

 

"It means you should be careful with other people's stuff," she said, voice soft. Laura hadn't even noticed how close she had gotten, but suddenly Carmilla was pulling the mini fridge out, with ease, from its position in between the furniture and looking at the back of the thing. Laura figured that there was no way she was going to try to fix it, but she sometimes forgot that her co-pilot was adept at engineering.

 

"If you're that upset about it, you can use mine. It's the least I can do." Carmilla looked up at her, as if to say that her offer was not even going to be considered. "Fine then, you can just stay here tinkering with your broken mini fridge."

 

"I'll do that."

 

Laura went back to her room after that, watched as Carmilla left her room and came back with a pouch full of screwdrivers and a spanner. Not like she wanted to be involved in Carmilla's super interesting attempt at fixing the thing. Nope. She had better things to do, obviously.

 

Unfortunately, she did literally nothing other than watch Carmilla tinker.

 

;;

 

November 15, 2020
Anchorage Shatterdome

 

Will wandered into her room one morning, followed by Kirsch, who seemed to be hiding a sprained wrist. That didn't interest Carmilla quite as much as the bite marks on his neck. She knew that Will was watching her go over the multiple scars on his co-pilot's neck, but he didn't seem to care.

 

"So, I heard congratulations are in order," her brother started, hovering over her bed, his arm casually slung over the top bunk. His hair had gotten longer since the last time she'd seen him, and he had either taken to wearing it up in a ponytail, or he had changed his hairstyle up just for her.

 

That didn't interest her as much as what he was wearing, though: a navy jacket, lined with white, that had Brutum Fulmen's thunderbolt logo embroidered on the front in gold. Kirsch was wearing the exact same jacket, rolled up at the sleeve.

 

Carmilla didn't even bother to look up at either of them for more than a glance, and instead went back to her book. More specifically, she went back to pretending to read her book, because she hadn't read a single sentence since she had opened the damn thing.

 

Her co-pilot, from the other side of the hall, had been distracting her all day. She hadn't been doing anything in particular, other than coming to her room twice that morning. The first time to pick out a book from her backpack, and the second to unpack her books, because Carmilla firmly believed in living out of packed bags, seeing as how she had no idea how long they would be spending in the Shatterdome.

 

And listening to Will drone on about – whatever he was talking about that she wasn't interested in – she thought that she would have liked to take her leave from the Shatterdome any day now. Except there was that pesky situation with Laura, and how much she wanted to pilot a Jaeger, kill a Kaiju, that sort of thing. Also, the other situation, the one that was.. slightly more personal than that.

 

"Nice ponytail," she said, flipping a page.

 

Will grinned. "It tested well with focus groups."

 

"I'm enjoying our little get together, William, but unless you want a broken wrist to match your co-pilot's, I suggest you leave now."

 

"Oh, ease up, sourpuss," he said, shaking his head at Kirsch. "And his wrist's not broken, just sprained."

 

"Too much basketball," Kirsch confirmed, like he actually thought she cared about how he hurt his wrist. Carmilla sighed, and turned the page again. They weren't paying attention to how quick she could, apparently, read.

 

She had been trying to quit listening in on Laura's pulse, but she guessed that the girl must have been keeping an eye on her room, because as soon as Will and Kirsch left, she noticed that her heartrate had shot up in the interval. Laura was off her bed and in her doorframe in record time.

 

"Were those Brutum Fulmen's pilots?"

 

"Unfortunately," Carmilla muttered. She didn't wait for Laura to ask, because she knew the girl would, and she wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible. "The short one's my brother. Foster brother, of a sort."

 

"I didn't know you had a brother." Ah, yes.

 

"He's not actually family," said Carmilla.

 

Laura nodded, apparently familiar with the notion. "The tall one, um, Kirsch, right? He was holding his hand weird."

 

"Yes, he was," Carmilla agreed. She assumed that none of the other occupants of the Shatterdome had noticed, or if they had, no one was talking about it, because having an injured pilot was something that put everyone on edge. Especially if it had been a while since a Kaiju came crawling out of the Breach.

 

"There wasn't any wrist injury reported during their last Kaiju interference, though." Her voice was not nearly as hopeful as it would have been mere weeks earlier. Carmilla chalked it up to her being restless on base with nothing to do. They hadn't been assigned a Jaeger yet, and they were both still sore from sparring.

 

Carmilla sighed.

 

"The idiot sprained it playing basketball." Laura's face was an odd mixture of both horror and awe, and for the first time since leaving the Jaeger Academy, Carmilla laughed.

 

;;

Chapter Text

;;

 

November 17, 2020
Anchorage Shatterdome

 

It happened their first time out in the field.

 

The Shatterdome had an excess of Jaegers – ten lined up in the Jaeger bay last time Laura checked, which had been on their first day, when J.P. had given them a tour – but their supply of fighting-fit pilots was dwindling by the day. Brutum Fulmen was out of commission, off the record, because of Kirsch's sprained wrist, and as the only two pilots who were available and not rookies, this left the Shatterdome in a bit of a bind, especially because the Kaiju heading straight towards them didn't seem the type to wait around.

 

The Shatterdome's occupants, however, were collectively holding their breath, waiting on a Jaeger from the Shatterdome in Australia, which had an ETA of more than half an hour. By then, the Kaiju would have destroyed the coast, along with the people who still hadn't evacuated, and most likely wouldn't get the chance to. Laura made up her mind in less than fifteen seconds. Carmilla glanced at her co-pilot, and saw the fire pulsating behind her eyes and didn't have the heart to rebuff her directly.

 

"We don't have a Jaeger," she tried, knowing that Laura would have answers packed in her sleeves like a bullet in the barrel of a gun, ready to kill her weak arguments at any moment.

 

"That is a good point," said her co-pilot, with a smile, leading her out of the Jaeger bay, "but, have you noticed, Carmilla, that the one Jaeger that's always, always ready for battle- Brutum Fulmen? That Jaeger doesn't have any pilots."

 

Carmilla opened her mouth to say that, maybe, if things got bad enough before the other Jaeger arrived, Kirsch would either be forced to pilot the Jaeger, or he would do so out of some misplaced heroic notions, but even she knew that he wouldn't be able to control the Jaeger's hand properly. Controlling a Jaeger in peak physical health was hard enough, having a sprained wrist would've made it nearly impossible. It would impede his recovery time, possibly even triple it, and that was if he even survived the Kaiju in the first place.

 

"What about Gigantor and Clifford?"

 

"We're the dream team, remember?" Laura smirked, turned left, frowned, then turned right again, looking at the walls. "They'd be idiots not to put their most promising in a Jaeger right now."

 

"We're rookies; they wouldn't trust us with their worst Jaeger, let alone Brutum Fulmen, which is, arguably, their pride and joy."

 

"Hey, genius, did you ever study the correlation between Jaeger-pilot compatibility and familial relationships between the different sets of pilots?"

 

"What," said Carmilla.

 

"Brutum Fulmen wouldn't move an inch for Betty and Danny, because neither of them is related to one William Luce." Laura winced, dragged them deeper into the Shatterdome. "Or the other one, I suppose. The basketball enthusiast."

 

Carmilla vaguely remembered Laura conspiring with the under-enthusiastic officer with the eerily too straight bowtie, who had explained that little factoid to her co-pilot. They could have lived through this entire ordeal - well, hypothetically, given the Kaiju's current trajectory - none the wiser. But of course, Laura's new friend just had to mention the familial imprint pilots' memories left inside the hull.

 

"William and I do not have what one would refer to as the most typical of kinships," she said, hoping to deter Laura from getting her hopes up, even though William was one of the constant annoyances of her life thus far.

 

Laura, in response, looked at her with those doe eyes of hers and Carmilla knew that she had made up her mind the minute she had decided to stay at the academy, made it up twice over when she had stayed at the Shatterdome. She sighed. People were going to die, and she couldn't care less about them, because people died every day and she was no one's martyr, but she couldn't stand by and watch Laura blame herself for their deaths because she could have done something.

 

"You're going to get me killed someday, sweetheart. You are aware of that, are you not?"

 

"Okay, first of all: it's 'I'm going to get us both killed'," Laura amended, huffing, "and secondly: no, I'm not. I'm not going to get anyone killed. Except for the Kaiju. I hope." The girl seemed so sure of herself, it set Carmilla's nerves on fire. She tried not to look as happy as she felt as Laura led them through the Shatterdome.

 

;;

 

Carmilla followed her, as always, into Marshal Cochrane's office, and watched as Laura demanded to be put on the front line.

 

"Pardon me?"

 

"Ma'am, all due respect," Laura said, using an authoritative voice that she had only ever used in front of Carmilla when she was making fun of someone, pulling a face to go with it. She could tell that she wasn't quite as confident as she had been in the hallway; frankly, Laura looked terrified, but stood by her side nevertheless. "We have less than half an hour before that Kaiju reaches land. Brutum Fulmen is our only hope of coming out of this with the least amount of casualties."

 

Marshal Cochrane narrowed her eyes, considering Laura's words. "You and I both know that rookies such as yourselves don't get to go out in the field this early in their career."

 

"Let us," Laura punctuated the words with the tap of her finger against the desk; the Marshal's eyes drifted towards it briefly. "Pilot Brutum Fulmen."

 

The Marshal smiled, for a split second, before she made her expression calm again. "Tell me, Laura Hollis," she said, and Carmilla could tell that Laura was taken aback – she didn't think that the Marshal would have known her name, as if everyone on base hadn't learnt her name by now, drawn it in their notebooks surrounded by hearts and small Jaegers – but the Marshal continued. "Why should I let two complete novices be in charge of the protection of the miracle mile, and in one of our best Jaegers, no less?"

 

Her co-pilot's reply was unwavering. "Because any other pilots are either unavailable, injured, or dead," said Laura, still tapping her finger against the desk. "Because out of all the rookies you've got, we have the highest dropkill rate, and because your best Jaeger is useless without pilots. We both know it'll reject anyone else you select; unless, of course, Wilson Kirsch has a close relative, who also happens to be a Jaeger pilot, and who is within very, very close range of this Shatterdome."

 

Marshal Cochrane smiled at that, and it looked more like a warning than anything. Her co-pilot didn't back off, didn't look close to backing off, so Carmilla stood still, tried to assess the Marshal's reactions to see just how much trouble Laura had gotten them both into.

 

"And, unless you want to explain to the public that the reason Brutum Fulmen isn't out there right now is because Wilson Kirsch sprained his wrist playing basketball, ma'am, you will put Ranger Karnstein and I inside of that Jaeger."

 

"That seems to be the only option you've left me with," the Marshal said, a genuine smile playing across her lips. Softly, she added, "I admire that in a person."

 

"Ma'am?" Laura said, her voice not as eager as it had been when she had walked into the room demanding an audience with the Marshal.

 

"Thoughts, Karnstein?" Her name, Laura looked like she wasn't surprised the Marshal knew, which she would have found amusing had she not known that the only reason that Cochrane knew her name was because she was a Marshal's daughter.

 

Carmilla had stopped breathing as obviously - as pronounced as she had to, to fake being human - at the beginning of the exchange between her co-pilot and the Marshal. She had an inkling that she would have to start breathing again at some point, but that didn't seem to be happening any time soon. Laura turned to her, and Carmilla tensed up as soon as she felt the other girl's eyes on her skin, waiting.

 

"In lieu of my brother being otherwise occupied, someone has to take on the responsibility." Carmilla shrugged, shifting her weight. "I'm game, I suppose." A supernova would not have blinded her as easily as Laura's smile did just then.

 

Marshal Cochrane sighed. "Fine. Suit up. I'll settle this with Lilita," the Marshal said, narrowing her eyes at Carmilla. "You're lucky your mother owes me a favour."

 

"Thank you, ma'am," Laura replied.

 

;;

 

«Movement in the Breach. BRUTUM FULMEN, report to Bay 01. Level A-45. Kaiju, Codename: JANUS. Category III. Two thousand, seven hundred metric tonnes.»

 

;;

 

They were led into the changing room. Laura pulled off her clothes faster than she had ever before. Carmilla had only started to pull off her own - no need for her to hide her scars from Laura anymore - when the door was frantically opened and Danny, of all the god damn people in the Shatterdome, bound in, face flushed red and eyes wide, panicked.

 

"Kaiju's here early," Carmilla muttered, in German, under her breath. Danny didn't notice; her co-pilot, however, glared at her, and whined slightly in an attempt to let her know what she was thinking at the time, which was: 'Please don't start this with her right now.'

 

Danny's presence hadn't really made a difference to Laura; the girl kept tugging her circuitry suit on, supposedly because they were on the clock and the Kaiju was headed to the shore faster than a missile. Well, almost faster. Carmilla, however, had a problem with undressing in front of the redhead, despite knowing that Danny hadn't taken her eyes off of Laura since she'd burst in. She sighed, folded her arms across her chest, and made no move to take her clothes off further than she already had.

 

"Laura, are you kidding me?" the redhead spat, as if she were talking to a misbehaving child. Carmilla sighed, Danny continued; "Brutum Fulmen? There's a reason we haven't been assigned a Jaeger yet, and it's cause we're not ready for the big leagues yet."

 

"Speak for yourself, Chewie," said Carmilla, switching to English now, because she was intent on making this as uncomfortable for the redhead as it was for her, just because she could. Danny's spine turned rigid, and she glanced at Carmilla with a snarl threatening to escape her mouth. She turned back to Laura, kept talking.

 

"This is a suicide mission, you know that, right?" If Danny thought that coming into the changing room with the intention of trying to convince her co-pilot not to step in a Jaeger, when there was a chance of a Kaiju destroying the border, wasn't a suicide mission, then, boy, did Carmilla have some news for her.

 

Somehow, though, she could tell that Danny was aware of the risks of trying to talk Laura out of this, because the redhead had waited until they were out of earshot of anyone else; still risking Laura humiliating her in front of Carmilla a second time, but that was probably easier to deal with than being humiliated in front of someone who had never witnessed it before.

 

The tall, annoying one watched Laura, as if waiting for the girl to explain herself, like a child who had gotten caught with her hand in the cookie jar, which, Carmilla knew, wasn't going to happen. She listened, instead, to their heartbeats, a habit that she had picked up spending too much time around Laura, whose heartbeat always sounded faintly melodic. Even now, while thumping a hard, steady beat against her chest, it was calm, a storm unroared.

 

Which contrasted harshly against Danny's, which was erratic and vaguely reminiscent of a hammer in a blender, like she had sprinted across the Shatterdome, pursuing Laura as soon as she had heard that they were going out in Brutum Fulmen. The girl was incessant, if nothing else.

 

"Don't you start with me right now," said Laura, also slipping into English as easily as she was slipping into her suit.

 

"You are going to die out there," Danny hissed. Carmilla watched her co-pilot's back tighten up. She hadn't pulled all of her circuitry suit up yet; half of it was wrapped around her waist, but Danny didn't seem to care. Carmilla, on the other hand, was sure that she wasn't included in the 'you', considering Danny hadn't even bothered looking at her with anything more than malice since she'd stormed in.

 

The tall girl looked like she was just about ready to stuff Laura in a locker and lock her in it, because there seemed to be no other way to stop her from doing something that she was sure was going to kill her. Carmilla, on the other hand, would've liked to watch her try, but Laura's pulse was raising, and they were under a time limit.

 

"You never learn, do you?" Carmilla said, amused. It wasn't a question. Danny's eyes flickered towards Carmilla momentarily. Then Laura spoke.

 

"Yes, probably," she said, resigned. Both of them turned to face her. "But, if you recall, we signed up for this, and, I don't know about you, but I did not sign up for the glory or the recognition. If we don't do this, plenty of other people, people who didn't enlist, who are innocent in all of this, are going to die."

 

Danny seemed to have no retort for that, and Carmilla, for one, was enjoying watching Laura like this, and couldn't resist letting a smile spread across her face.

 

"And, yes, we - by which you meant Carmilla and I, I'm sure - we might die out there, but you know what? We will delay the deaths of hundreds, maybe thousands of other people. So, go on. Tell me to take my armour off. Because while you talk of Mission god damn Impossible or whatever, there are people out there who couldn't afford to leave their homes, who didn't want to leave, and it's our duty, and our responsibility, to protect them. That's what you signed up for when you signed the dotted line, Danny."

 

Carmilla could barely hear anyone else's heartbeat, her own was pulsing so heavy in her ears, she could barely focus on anything other than Laura, and how she seemed to have no patience left, this close to an event that she thought would lead to her death - ha, as if Carmilla would let death take Laura Hollis away from her.

 

"Now, if you don't mind, would you please leave? We don't have a lot of time to waste on petty, irrelevant small talk."

 

Danny, ever so graceful, huffed, and slammed the door on her way out. Carmilla didn't even bother to listen beyond the door to make sure she'd actually left. Laura's eyes were on her faster than she would've thought possible.

 

"You. Change," Laura ordered.

 

"Yes, ma'am," she said, without a hint of sarcasm, and did so in record time.

 

;;

 

The backup drivesuits didn't come in smaller, less bulky sizes, because technically Kirsch and Will were Brutum Fulmen's authorized pilots, and the drivesuits that came in the Jaeger's official colours, blue and gold, were all specifically designed for her brother and his co-pilot. They were suited up in standard black armour, instead. Carmilla preferred it that way, because she wouldn't be caught dead wearing her brother's colours. Or, properly dead, anyway.

 

"You rookies ready?" A voice filled the Conn Pod – an incredibly familiar voice, if Laura's instant recognition was anything to go by.

 

"Armitage! What are you doing in Mission Control?" Laura looked up at the screen, eagerly waiting for him to reply. 'Armitage' was a familiar name to her, too, but she couldn't quite place it.

 

"Well, you know, I thought I'd stop by for the friendly atmosphere, maybe have a cup of tea, you know." A giggle, then, "I'm the chief officer, Hollis. Thought you of all people would know that by now. Given your proclivities."

 

The man's identity could wait; "You already have a reputation," Carmilla muttered, somewhat charmed. "Unbelievable."

 

"It's not a reputation if it's just the one person," replied Laura, hastily.

 

"Still counts," said Carmilla, flicking a few of the Conn Pod's switches. She could see why her brother was fond of the Jaeger. It was incredibly easy to get enamoured with; smooth, streamlined controls that seemed to react to her easier than any other Jaeger she'd been in.

 

"Are you sure you two don't hate each other?" Armitage asked, and the gears clicked: he had been the one Laura had asked about their rooming situation. The one her co-pilot had defended Carmilla from when he had implied that the reason Laura wanted separate rooms was because Carmilla was her mother's daughter, through and through.

 

"Positive," they both replied, in sync.

 

"That bodes well, at least." He sounded almost disappointed.

 

Another familiar voice broke through the Conn Pod, and this time both of them recognised it instantly. "Do engage pilot-to-pilot protocol, Mr. Armitage, if it's not too much trouble."

 

"Uplink confirmed, ma'am," Armitage replied instantaneously. Carmilla heard his voice go from vaguely flirtatious to professional in an instant. "Marshal Morgan, on deck. Securing Conn Pod, getting ready to engage pilot-to-pilot protocol."

 

Of course, she would be the Marshal assigned to this Jaeger, and Cochrane had said that she would settle it with her mother. She did not mean to settle it because Carmilla's mother was Cochrane's superior, but because her mother would be the one to oversee the mission, just as she had with every other time Brutum had been in the field. That was.. unfortunate, to say the least.

 

The Conn Pod roared to life, the engine around them whirring as it booted up in hues of blue.

 

;;

 

«Pilot-to-Pilot Connection Protocol sequence.»

 

;;

 

"Brutum Fulmen, ready and aligned, ma'am."

 

"Prepare for neural handshake," the Marshal said, sounding bored.

 

Carmilla hoped that the Kaiju was a feral, angry one, because her mother's nonchalant attitude was putting her on edge, and she was in the mood to tear something to shreds, and if that something happened to be a five thousand, six hundred metric tonne monster, then so be it.

 

"Starting in fifteen seconds. Fourteen. Thirteen. Twelve. Eleven."

 

;;

 

«Neural handshake initiated. Pilot-to-pilot connection engaged.»

 

;;

 

Laura's nerves were finally catching up; they flooded through to Carmilla as soon as they started the drift. She turned to look at her co-pilot, and wished she hadn't. The girl looked even more terrified than Carmilla felt.

 

'Hey,' she thought, softening her voice. 'Calm down.'

 

'Can you blame me? We're about to stall a couple thousand tonnes of Kaiju. This is not something I can be calm about.' A beat, then, 'How are you so calm?'

 

'Experience in dealing with the monstrous,' Carmilla thought, simply.

 

'Right,' Laura answered, in a tone that implied that she didn't believe her fully. 'Right, that makes sense, sure. Your mother's kind of like, a bit less scary than a Kaiju, but sure. Experience, right. Of course.'

 

Carmilla would have elaborated, but she didn't really have the time to.

 

;;

 

"Neural handshake strong and holding."

 

"Right hemisphere, calibrating."

 

"Left hemisphere, calibrating."

 

"Your orders," the Marshal said, finally showing her emotions through a hint of amusement in her voice, "are to hold off Janus long enough for the other Jaeger to step in. Copy."

 

"Copy that," said Carmilla.

 

"Marshal, I mean no disrespect, but that Jaeger's going to take more than-"

 

"Mr. Armitage, you are cognizant," she said, her voice light and effortless, despite the implication, "of the amount of paperwork it would take me to replace my chief officer, are you not? "

 

"Yes, ma'am."

 

"Then I would advise against underestimating my willingness to do so, should the need arise. You wouldn't want to force my hand, now, would you?"

 

"Of course not, ma'am."

 

Laura could just about hear the chief officer shaking, his fear of the Marshal nearly palpable. She imagined her hovering behind him as he tinkered with the dials, like Cruella de Vil hovering over one of the dalmatians, pressing a ruler to its spots to see if they would fit her coat's aesthetic.

 

That particular image got broadcast into Carmilla's head as well, and her co-pilot chuckled. Laura relaxed, before the Marshal's icy cold voice came through the speakers.

 

"Are we interrupting something, Rangers?" She said it almost like she dared them to reply in the affirmative, and Christ, Laura hadn't understood what being in between a rock and a hard place meant until just then, because the Kaiju seemed like the better option, suddenly.

 

"No, ma'am," Carmilla replied, automatic. Laura felt fear run down her spine like a glass of ice water, and knew that it wasn't her who was feeling that terrified of the Marshal, that time. Laura didn't know what that would mean for them or the mission, but she knew that she didn't want to find out.

 

The Marshal continued, "Does the weight of the world's safety not hold your interest?" Laura glanced at Carmilla, whose face had gone pale. "Because I will rip the both of you out of that Jaeger if so."

 

"We're ready, ma'am," Laura answered, still looking at Carmilla. Her co-pilot eased up at her resolve.

 

Another voice came through the speakers; "And tell her not to wreck my Jaeger, would you?"

 

"William," the Marshal said, her voice never once cracking. What was left of Carmilla's fear was replaced with something that Laura couldn't quite decipher. Her co-pilot smirked; this, she could do, apparently.

 

"Is this your backwards version of wishing us luck, brother?" she inquired, innocently. Laura heard a crash, as if something had been broken on the other end of the line. "Don't worry," continued Carmilla, voice smug. They heard the man breathe in, as if he had been holding his breath. "I'll take care of your precious robot, make sure the big bad Kaiju doesn't hurt it too bad."

 

The next time he spoke, his words weren't directed at them. "Great. Fantastic. That means she's going to break it. She's going to cause irreparable damage to my Jaeger. That's it, I want a new one. I am not going to go back into that Jaeger- Kirsch and I are not going to go back into Brutum Fulmen knowing she's contaminated it with all her fake-deep, existentialist, philosophy crap-"

 

Carmilla sighed. "My kingdom for you to shut the hell up, William," she said, and then, a muttered, "Ah," and she flicked a switch from the control panel. The sound of her brother's complaining ceased. They had only been in the unfamiliar Jaeger, with unfamiliar controls, for a couple of minutes and Carmilla had already managed to lock out Mission Control.

 

Laura didn't know when exactly she would stop being impressed by how easily Carmilla handled technology when she wanted to – though she hadn't fixed her fridge yet, but that was slightly different – but today was not that day. And Laura? She had never been more grateful for her co-pilot's casual ease with technology, especially Jaeger tech, than at that very moment.

 

"Is he always like that?"

 

"Unfortunately, yes."

 

"Suddenly super grateful I'm an only child."

 

;;

 

They unmuted the connection when they got close enough to the Kaiju that LOCCENT would be a help in their stalling of said Kaiju, instead of a hindrance.

 

"Brutum Fulmen reaching target zone. Disengaging transport."

 

Eight jumphawks were used to pull Brutum Fulmen out of the Shatterdome and drag them closer to the Breach, and with it, the Kaiju. They were dropped into the ocean just a few miles away from where Janus was. The water was up to the Jaeger's waist by the time they saw it. They had little time left, before impact, but they tried studying it in the little time they had left.

 

On all fours, its huge arms easily holding its body up. Its chest was thick with muscle, skin bunched up around its shoulders, which gave them the impression that it was lacking a neck. Its tiny head was too small for its body, which it made up for by having a pair of them.

 

But, of course, Laura realised, J.P. had named the Kaiju 'Janus' for a reason; two heads, joined at the skull, each boasting a set of blue, bioluminescent mouths that seemed to spill teeth, both too small to keep up with the sheer amount.

 

Janus spotted them immediately, two pairs of beady eyes landing on the Jaeger, one face staring straight at them, the other fighting to get a look at its new target. A twin jolt of fear ran up their spines; there were probably people who would not have shuddered in front of a thing that big and terrifying, but Laura and Carmilla were not those people. They breathed in slow, matching breaths.

 

"Big and ugly here looks like he's looking for a date to a costume party," said Carmilla, voice flat. She did not fool Laura, however, because she could feel the girl's fear in her veins, pressing cold against bone.

 

Carmilla was, generally, terrified as a state of being; of her mother, of the concept of friendship, of Laura herself, or at least she had been, when Laura had first met her, with her bravado keeping everyone at bay and her sarcasm biting into anyone who was left. Laura had figured this out early on, and had let her co-pilot know that she was not a threat; nor did she let Carmilla think that she saw her fear, her anxieties, which seemed to have worked - nowadays, her co-pilot seemed to have calmed.

 

She did not seem calm now. Yet, she did not seem to want to let her fear overcome her, either, as if she wanted to live through this. The closest to this level of fear that Laura had ever seen Carmilla express was the split second before she told the girl that she had not read her personnel file. A sharp hush came through to Laura, as if her co-pilot was telling her to stop thinking without actually saying those words.

 

"Do not engage," the Marshal said, her voice level.

 

'He's kind of small compared to the other Kaiju, actually,' thought Laura, trying to ease her own nerves. Carmilla turned to look at her, as if to question her, but it was clear to her co-pilot that Laura was just as terrified as she was. 'Scary-looking. But small.'

 

The Kaiju couldn't possibly have heard her, it being outside, weathering the elements, and her voice being far too small for something of its size to register to begin with, but for a moment, she thought it did, because it broke into a run, straight at them as though she had offended its sensibilities.

 

Brutum Fulmen's feet were fixed firmly to the bottom of the ocean, but Laura's eyes still swiftly looked across the screen to check that their balance was steady. It had been, but that did not make an ounce of difference when the Kaiju pounced on them, its claws hitting the Jaeger's chest, shoving it backwards with the impact. They fell into the ocean, and everything went quiet; there was nothing but the weight of the sea spilling over them.

 

That did not last long. Its heads reached down, presumably to look over the Jaeger, study them just as they had studied it, except with a severe lack of personal boundaries, thought Laura, watching as both sets of its big, beady eyes hovered over the Conn Pod. It looked almost like it was going to yawn in their face, with how slow it was attacking, before Carmilla's thoughts shot straight into Laura's head.

 

'Bite. It's going to bite down-'

 

They pushed their arms - Brutum's arms - up, in an attempt to keep it from biting through the hull. The Jaeger's hands were the only things keeping the Kaiju's jaw, the one that belonged to the head that seemed to be the dominant of the two, open and unable to take a sizable chunk out of the Jaeger. The other head thrashed and tried to release its twin from Brutum's grip.

 

It roared, howled into their faces, the ocean obscuring the sound. A voice came through the speakers, static interfering, but the message was received nonetheless.

 

"Rangers, status update."

 

"Kind of hard at the moment, ma'am," Laura gritted out. Janus shook its heads and tried to bite through their hands, and Laura was finding it harder and harder to hold onto it. Her grip on the Jaeger's jaw was loosening by the second, and they had to think of something fast.

 

'Gain the upper hand,' Laura thought.

 

;;

 

It was one of the first things her father taught her back when she'd asked him to teach her how to fight, back when she was nearing seven years old – because fighting seemed like a useful thing to be able to do, so she had asked him.

 

He hadn't laughed her off. Instead, her father had taken her by the shoulder, and asked her, "Who do you want to fight, kiddo?"

 

"Monsters, dad, obviously." She had said it with such an irritated voice, as though her father was missing the point entirely. He chuckled, and nodded, because of course, his daughter wanted to fight the creatures hidden between the pages of her books.

 

"You've got me to fight your monsters for you," he had said, voice serious, way too serious, Laura thought, almost as if he was about to give her a speech on how to properly store candy, after he had found a stash of chocolate bars, along with a small collection of ants, in her bedroom that one time.

 

"But, dad," she whined. "They're my monsters."

 

He stilled, narrowed his eyes thoughtfully, and said, "That, they are. Okay, fine, I will teach you how to fight." She bounced with joy. "On one condition. You," he said, booping her nose, "my tiny warrior of the world, you have to promise me two things."

 

He stared sternly at her, with his no nonsense face, the kind he used for serious talks, until she relented. "What's the first thing?"

 

"Thing number one," he said, straightening up and making a show of it, putting on his theatrical voice - which Laura thought sounded funny, and holding up his index finger, "you will only ever fight your monsters when you're more scared of them than they are of you."

 

"Why would I ever fight a scaredy-cat," she asked, warily, watching as his smile turned into a grin. Clearly, something she had said had amused him. "Honestly, dad, it's like you think I'm going to go look for my monsters. What's thing number two?"

 

He smiled, shook his head, held up two fingers and, still in that ridiculous voice of his, told her, "Thing number two: you will not fight your monsters alone. Especially not when there's someone, like me, for instance, who is willing to help you."

 

It took her a split second to make up her mind. "Okay, I promise," she replied, hastily.

 

"Atta girl."

 

;;

 

'We need to gain the upper hand.'

 

'While I am also not fond of a watery grave, do you have any ideas as to how we could do that?'

 

Carmilla sounded more frustrated than anything. Laura knew that unless something happened, unless they did something, the Kaiju would rip them apart like they were made of gravel, of sand, of something else equally as likely to collapse at its touch. It would tear open the Conn Pod, pull them out of it, use them as appetizers for the entire world. At least until the other Jaeger showed up, which didn't look like it was going to happen any time soon.

 

Laura knew that there was a chance it wouldn't work; the Jaeger wouldn't be strong enough, or their grip wasn't tight enough on the Kaiju's jaws, but she knew that they had no option but to try the first sort of sensible thing that came to mind, because trying something that had a fifty percent failure rate (or, probably, bigger) was better than waiting for an inevitable death at the hands of this creature.

 

'Rip its mouth open,' she thought, her voice unlike her own, unlike the voice she had carried with her since birth, this one was raw and ragged, worn.

 

Her co-pilot did not think twice about Laura's order; she tightened her grip on the Kaiju's lower jaw and both of them pulled it apart, hard. They could see, hear the bone cracking underneath Brutum's hands, muscle trying very hard to keep itself together, to keep from being torn apart.

 

Laura could not help but think of broken bones, and how easy they were to break when she was younger, when she was much less careful. Carmilla, on the other hand, thought of the fragility of bones, not her own, but rather, human bones, and how she could, if she were so inclined, break a neck with the flick of a wrist. She thought of how, with just the right amount of pressure of her fingertips, she quite often toed the line between a caress and a peaceful death.

 

Their thoughts were focused, however, on the Kaiju, and its mouths, especially the one closest to them, the one spitting blue. It finally snapped apart, spilling blue blood into the ocean, leaving them swimming in it, the metal plates on its chest melting under the acidic blood.

 

It came apart in the Jaeger's hand, leaving them holding onto its jaw, at which point the Kaiju finally managed to shake out of their hold; the hand that was holding onto its face now proving to be quite useless.

 

"Holy crap-" they heard, over the speakers, but neither of them could tell whether it was Carmilla's brother or Kirsch who had supplied that bit of commentary.

 

They formed a fist, crushing the Kaiju's jaw in their grasp, with fingers that were bitten-through, and shooting off sparks in some places, but still mostly functional, and slammed it straight into Janus's- well, in what was left of its face. It made a sound akin to a yelp, its tongue hanging out of the rest of its mouth. The other head was stained with blue, from its brother's wound, and after a second, the Kaiju stumbled backwards, toppled onto its back. They used that to regain their ground, stand up properly, before it decided to retaliate.

 

'We just made our blue friend very very angry, sweetheart.'

 

They tossed what was left of the beast's bones away, and formed fists with their damaged hands. It roared, one of its mouths yelling out what sounded like a war cry and the other sputtering out acid pathetically, and pushed its way up again.

 

'What part of its behaviour makes you think it wants to be friends,' thought Laura, as it head for them, to which both of them crouched down, bent at the knees, and hit the Kaiju full on with the right shoulder of the Jaeger.

 

'Look, it likes us,' Carmilla thought, as Janus scratched at them, its gigantic claws hooking into the Jaeger's back and pulling, tearing it apart, but Brutum pushed back. The Kaiju withdrew, before repeating its previous actions, although sloppier than before.

 

This time, they grabbed its legs, wrapped the Jaeger's arms around them, heaved it up over their shoulder, and threw it backwards. Brutum fell along with it, but they stood up much faster than the Kaiju, who still seemed disoriented when it finally did stand up. It shook both its heads before it moved in again, and both co-pilots were beginning to despise its resilient nature.

 

Will's voice came through to them.

 

"Use the damn six shooter!"

 

A moment of understanding passed between the both of them. Carmilla pulled her arm back, as did Laura, and the Jaeger's chest opened up, revealing the missiles that Will had reminded them of.

 

«Chest Launcher, engaged.»

 

The first shot went through the Kaiju's head, just below the eye, blue blood spilling out of its face. Another two shots in the neck and it started falling backwards, two in each of its heads, and the last one just before it keeled over and they could see its skull through the contaminated water, already starting to collapse in on itself.

 

Laura's chest heaved, trying to assess if it the Kaiju was properly dead or if it was going to get up again, because she had kind of gotten used to it doing just that. Thankfully, this time, it didn't.

 

'That was..' thought Laura.

 

'Our first kill, yes,' Carmilla confirmed.

 

'Awesome.'

 

Her co-pilot took her eyes off the Kaiju and looked at her, her breath heavy.

 

'Thrill-seeker,' thought Carmilla, in an affectionate tone.

 

'Don't even pretend you didn't enjoy that.' Laura tried to focus on anything but her co-pilot's heavy breathing and how she was mimicking it. She was right, she could feel it in her mind; Carmilla had enjoyed it.

 

A few seconds of silence, before the Marshal spoke.

 

"Rangers, status report. Now."

 

"You can call off the other team, ma'am," said Carmilla, a smug smile plastered to her face. Laura was aware of how much paperwork the Marshal had just been saddled with, and how it was all their fault, but couldn't bring herself to care when she was still high off the fight. Besides, she quite liked being a nuisance to the Marshal this way. "It's taken care of."

 

"Kaiju's dead," Laura supplied.

 

"Deader than dead, by the looks of it," Kirsch confirmed through the mic, in an approving tone.

 

'How can you be deader than dead?' Laura thought. Carmilla couldn't hold back a grin at that, but hummed her agreement.

 

"'Taken care of'?" The Marshal.. If there was anything that Laura could have said to describe the Marshal's voice right then, she would have said that she didn't sound pleased, but really, her voice sounded angrier than the Kaiju's roar. "Do you have any idea how much damage you two have just cost Brutum – not to mention, how much you've cost the entire program with your silly, heroic antics-"

 

"All due respect, ma'am," Laura cut in, still looking at Carmilla. She probably sounded like nothing would give her greater joy than to tell the Marshal to get off her high horse right then and there, given Carmilla's pleased grin. "The current population of Alaska would disagree with you there."

 

Carmilla stared at her, wide-eyed and in awe. Laura felt her emotions sink into her mind, ones that Carmilla was barely trying to hide, of affection, and admiration, and the silly thought that she, of all people, was going to make Carmilla believe in this one day, in killing Kaiju and saving the world. Then, of course, more characteristic of her - thoughts of her mother, and how she was going to have a fit.

 

"Mr. Armitage, send the jumphawks to Brutum's current location," said the Marshal, and Laura nearly snickered. "And, if either one of you dares move an inch of that Jaeger, I will have you out of the PPDC faster than either of you can say the word 'Kaiju', am I understood?"

 

"Yes, ma'am," said Carmilla, unable to contain the amusement in her voice, and shut off the connection to mission control once more.

 

'We did good,' Laura thought, nodding slowly, not enough for it to register to the Jaeger, keeping the Jaeger still. 'For our first Kaiju interference, we did good. No civilian casualties. That's.. kind of very good.'

 

'Mother dearest, it seems, would disagree,' her co-pilot thought, bitterly.

 

"I mean it, Carmilla," Laura said, out loud; she did not care about mission control being able to listen in on them. "You did good. I couldn't have done it without you," she spoke truthfully, and added in an, 'I wouldn't have wanted to, either.'

 

'I presume you're aware that's how Jaegers work,' Carmilla thought, not bothering to disguise her amused tone.

 

"I'm trying to pay you a compliment, you stubborn thing. If you hadn't noticed that it was going to bite us, we would be toast right about now."

 

'You tried to pay me a compliment, then called me a 'stubborn thing'. Do you see why I'm having a hard time comprehending your meaning, sweetheart?'

 

"Fine, I'll be crystal clear, then," said Laura. There was an agitated tone to her voice, but it couldn't have been further from the truth, because she could tell, through the drift, that teasing her, pestering her like this, in the smallest of ways, made Carmilla feel giddy, happy. Still, she couldn't afford letting her co-pilot brush away her accomplishments, no matter how much more she enjoyed making Laura blush. "Your silly heroic antics saved a lot of lives today, and I would like to thank you for your services, on behalf of them all. How's that for a compliment?"

 

"Such a suck-up," her co-pilot replied, smiling into her voice. "What's next? A banquet in my honour? A festival? How about a parade? We could get a float, or a balloon."

 

"Yeah, yeah," said Laura, rolling her eyes, "you're my hero, yada yada. Whatever. Let's get out of here. I'm hungry." She paused, and seemed to notice a very important fact. "Christ, I'm starving, actually. I could go for a double cheeseburger right about now. No pickles. You?"

 

Laura's smile was genuine, brimming with an honest excitement that she couldn't help but share with her co-pilot, but she could feel that Carmilla wasn't going to return it.

 

Something had made Carmilla stop, as if frozen; Laura was only just now feeling the aftereffect of it. Laura wasn't sure her co-pilot was even breathing. The girl stared back at her, eyes wide, face blank. There was a bitter rawness running through the drift, and Laura felt as if she had been submerged in water, so close was she to being deprived of something she needed to survive, and not being able to suck air into her lungs was causing her to feel woozy. Carmilla's smile did not reach her eyes anymore, and when she stepped back, the Jaeger jerked backwards with the movement.

 

Laura felt her co-pilot step out of alignment for a fraction of a second, and then she felt Carmilla coming back to her, before they both fell deeper and deeper than either of them ever had.

 

;;

 

A memory that was most definitely not Laura's: Carmilla, wearing a white drivesuit over a grey circuitry suit, strapped into the left hemisphere. She looked so very different from that day Laura had noticed her in the Kwoon, from the first time they'd stepped into a Jaeger, from five minutes prior; it made Laura's heart sink. Carmilla had never looked at her like this, she noted, with her eyes wide and glassy, tears threatening to spill.

 

Laura could sense it, the distress she was in. It was inside the marrow of her bones, inside every vein, every single nerve ending was screaming, but she had no idea what could have been the root of such a visceral reaction. She briefly suspected Kaiju to be the cause of it, but Janus had not had half this reaction on her co-pilot.

 

Laura had the nagging sensation that this was what the Marshal had wanted her to know about, months earlier. She shouldn't have been there, she knew. Laura should not have been in this memory, but she couldn't pull herself out of it – she couldn't drag herself out of Carmilla's mind.

 

Her co-pilot, her darling co-pilot, whom she had gotten fond of quite without intending to, had not displayed this kind of anxiety in front of anyone else: not her mother, nor anyone else within the PPDC, including Laura herself; she did not allow people to see her scared in such a manner, it wasn't in her nature to appear vulnerable.

 

It did not take a genius to figure out why, of course; Carmilla had been hurt, irrevocably. This was the story of how, dripping into Laura's stream of thoughts, out from the cracks in her co-pilot's mind, the places Carmilla had tried so very hard to fill with scar tissue, with gold.

 

This memory was not her own, and it was not being given to her, and Laura's fingers clasped around it like a thief might have held onto a gemstone, even though she knew better than to think that she was welcome in this particular event in Carmilla's past. She could not help it, however, when she turned to face the other pilot; she had needed to make sure, to make sure that she would not see her own face staring back at her.

 

The woman was everything Laura was not; blonde and pretty, and looking at Carmilla like she could not possibly fathom anything worse than being in a Jaeger with her.

 

Her emotions were not her own, either; Carmilla's heart had splintered at the blonde's expression, at her words. It was Carmilla who was feeling the betrayal sharp in her chest like a knife plunged deep in between her ribs, and her lungs felt like they were made out of shattered glass, and she couldn't, wouldn't dare to breathe.

 

Laura had never seen someone look at another person with such vitriol before, the way the blonde was looking at Carmilla, and a chill shot down her spine because this was not what she wanted. This was not what Carmilla had wanted, she thought, as the blonde's arm lurched forward.

 

The Conn Pod lurched forwards, slightly, and Laura stumbled because she wasn't strapped into it. She wasn't supposed to be in there, an internal voice reminded her. She did not belong in this memory.

 

She was cruel, the blonde, but Laura couldn't find it in herself to hate her, because there was a part of her- a part of Carmilla, that was still in love with her, even with her hand pressed against her shoulder, dragging it down. A sharp pain vaguely registered in her chest, one that had nothing to do with heartbreak, but she hardly noticed it, because the blonde was looking at her like she hated her and Laura got the feeling that this wasn't supposed to happen like this because Carmilla hadn't moved.

 

Laura grabbed at her own shoulder. Jaegers don't work this way, she thought, and yet she could feel the burn, the metal burning against her skin – the circuitry suit.

 

Laura's mind was a labyrinth of her own thoughts, Carmilla's thoughts, and, of course, the blonde's, through her and Carmilla's drift. Laura could barely breathe.

 

It wasn't supposed to happen like this. We were supposed to get into a Jaeger and save the world, remember, like heroes, Carmilla thought. We were supposed to be heroes.

 

They were not Carmilla's words, either. They were the blonde's, she could tell, and they had spilled into her so easily.

 

The smell of burnt flesh sank into Laura's mind faster than anything else, than the searing pain that she was feeling in the shape of the marks that she had become accustomed to seeing, however briefly, on Carmilla every time she took off her clothes, right before Laura turned to face the other way, as propriety dictated.

 

Souvenirs, Carmilla had called them, as if they were something she had acquired through a minor incident, some kind of malfunction during training. As if they hadn't been a result of heartbreak, of a betrayal that had left a long-lasting effect.

 

Souvenirs of what, Laura hadn't known, back then.

 

There were tear tracks staining Carmilla's cheeks, and Laura wanted to pull her out of the Jaeger, out of the memory. Laura had never quite seen Carmilla cry; she had never seen anyone cry like this.

 

The circuitry suit was searing itself onto her flesh, Laura could tell, even without having noticed the blue lines flashing erratically in protest. It was overheating, the metallic strips melting and leaving wounds over Carmilla's shoulder, and Laura couldn't bear it. She could not bear to watch Carmilla suffer. Laura faced the blonde again, with her skewed expression, her hatred clearly written on her face.

 

Stop it, she said angrily, can't you see it's hurting her. Can't you see you're the one hurting her-

 

Laura wished she could have had some sort of effect on the events that had taken place, but the blonde was a remnant of a time long past, and there was nothing she could do to fix it. Laura could not have felt more helpless if she had tried, and she hated that she couldn't stop the blonde from hurting Carmilla, hated that she could feel what Carmilla was feeling, because she knew that her presence didn't change anything.

 

She moved close to Carmilla, pressing a hand against her despite knowing that nothing would change, no amount of comfort from Laura at that moment would change anything in the memory, but perhaps.

 

Carmilla was powerless, still, as she had been back when this had first happened, back when this, when the blonde had seared herself into Carmilla's mind and skin alike, an identity that her co-pilot hid underneath layers and layers of clothing.

 

The girl, usually so animated, so eager to tap her feet to some rhythm in her head, or to bounce her knee in agitation, her face, especially, had been a source of constant movement since the moment Laura had met her. That was not the case now; Carmilla was frozen in shock. Laura saw the sparks flying below her feet. The blonde was still dragging her hand over her shoulder.

 

The Jaeger had been ripped apart, shoulder had been replaced with a thick gash in the metal beast's body, but she didn't care about that, at least not as much as she cared about the fact that Carmilla was bleeding. Laura wouldn't have been able to notice if she hadn't seen the wetness, because the Jaeger was shutting down and it was dark and Carmilla hadn't made any move, still.

 

The blood darkened Carmilla's circuitry suit, seeped through it, slipped over the armour, and left red, red trails on such a bright white. It had melted against her shoulder, the circuitry suit, Laura could feel it, like a second skin, in a way that it wasn't when she had it on under all the other armour. She did not want to know how much of Carmilla's own skin came off with it.

 

Laura could smell fire, or the beginnings of one, from somewhere underneath her, but she didn't care to look at the wires stripped from the Jaeger, the smell of the metal welding together in the heat that was rising from its injury.

 

The crippling pain in her chest somehow overwhelmed the pain coming from her shoulder and Laura found it hard not to grasp onto Carmilla harder, because she felt the blood dripping through her fingers, but when she pulled her hands back they were unaffected.

 

Laura wanted to hold Carmilla, because she looked so confused and hurt and seeing her co-pilot like that felt wrong because Carmilla didn't allow herself to seem confused or hurt; Carmilla was indifferent, angry, and curious, alert when she was around her mother, and sometimes enjoyed teasing Laura far too much, but she was never hurt and confused and so very, very alone.

 

You are a monster, the blonde said, and it filled Carmilla like an echo would fill a hollow chamber along the curve of the ocean.

 

You are nothing but a well-trained monster, Carmilla Karnstein.

 

Laura felt her voice strike her heart - Carmilla's heart, she amended, in her mind - and shatter it. Carmilla's eyes had no life in them, as if the blonde had ripped out her soul and replaced it with hopelessness, replaced it with something dead.

 

And you will always be a monster.

 

Shut the hell up, Laura yelled, turning to her. You don't deserve to be in her memories, shut up, shut up, shut up.

 

The blonde, of course, didn't react, and Laura hated that more than anything, because she wanted to stop it, to fix it so that this had never happened to Carmilla, but she knew that there were rules when time and space were concerned, and she had to follow them, whether she wanted to or not. There was no reason to think that a Carmilla Karnstein who had not been through this would have met her, all those months ago, in the Jaeger Academy, but, oh god, what Laura would have given up to make sure that this never happened to Carmilla, her Carmilla, it scared her.

 

That was when Carmilla's presence in the drift caved in on itself, allowing the blonde's thoughts to meld with Laura's more thoroughly, and that allowed her to see that she had been mistaken in thinking that the blonde hated Carmilla, because hatred had been the reaction that the blonde had chosen to have in response to another emotion - a stronger one; fear, of Carmilla herself, a sense of love that had transformed into dread, into disgust, into hatred and everything in between.

 

She turned away from the blonde who was still screaming obscenities at Carmilla. The sharp pain in her chest was getting worse by the minute and – was that blood? That was definitely blood, but-

 

Laura had already noticed the blood, so that couldn't have been her realisation.

 

That was Carmilla realising that she was bleeding, and the smell of blood overwhelmed her. Laura didn't know what blood smelled like; she remembered the smell of antiseptic and plasters and her father pressing her face into his chest and rocking her back and forth as he promised her that it was going to be okay.

 

The Conn Pod's remaining shielding shattered, and for a second Laura – no, Carmilla thought there was a Kaiju attacking them, but– no, they were in the Jaeger Academy, still. Whatever was attacking them was inside the Jaeger Academy. Then she saw the hand that was attacking them. It was a Jaeger's hand – another Jaeger? Rogue pilots, maybe- And then she noticed that it was the hand of the Jaeger they were piloting.

 

Laura's heart beat harder, watching Carmilla catch up on what was happening to her. She hadn't realised it before, and Laura wanted to comfort her, to console her and tell her that she would be alright eventually, that she would be better. Not alright, really, maybe not ever fully okay, but the world wouldn't be crumbling down around her like this. That there would be moments where she would be able to breathe easier.

 

Then Carmilla noticed the blonde holding her hand up to her face, and she still hadn't moved but the Jaeger- The blonde was ripping open the Conn Pod, trying to get to her and the left side of her chest burned, and her heart felt like it was too heavy, too much of a burden to be carried inside such a small cage, and she–

 

Elle?

 

;;

 

Another memory: Carmilla was in a bed, and the blonde, the same woman who was in a Jaeger with her– No. This was another time. This was before, Laura noticed. Carmilla's arms bore no scars, not yet.

 

Carmilla was smiling at the blonde, Elle, and Laura felt like she was in love with her- which, after witnessing the blonde's attempt to murder Carmilla, she knew that she could not have had any feelings other than resentment towards Elle, so the butterflies in her stomach belonged to Carmilla, not her.

 

This wasn't her memory, still; not her feelings, either. Carmilla hadn't been this happy in years, decades, really. Elle traced Carmilla's cheek and kissed her and Carmilla was-

 

In love.

 

Carmilla pulled back, and Laura felt, rather than saw, her reaching forward again, leaning into Elle, and the blonde smiled and pressed her finger to Carmilla's lips. Elle said, We're going to be heroes, Milla.

 

Elle pressed her thumb to her lips, and Carmilla took her hand and kissed her knuckles. You're my hero, said Carmilla. You're my hero.

 

;;

 

She jerked out of the drift harder than ever before, the overwhelming blue of the Jaeger scaring her into thinking that she was still in Carmilla's memories, but no, she wasn't, and the reason she knew that was because Carmilla was glaring at her.

 

Carmilla, her co-pilot, her friend, who had not wanted to set foot in a Jaeger ever again, and for good reason, Laura knew, because she had seen what had happened the last time she'd stepped in a Jaeger, before Laura. The blonde - Elle, she thought, furious that the name belonged to such a person, but did not care about that, not right now.

 

"Carmilla, I didn't mean to do that, I swear. You fell into the drift, and I followed you, and I had no control over it, honest, I am so sorry-" Her co-pilot disengaged from the Jaeger, and Laura felt the need to hold her again, just as she had when she had witnessed her earn her scars. Carmilla pulled her helmet off, threw it to the floor. Laura was sure she heard it shatter.

 

"Don't," said Carmilla, voice much too angry to argue with.

 

Of all the people Laura had wanted to talk to right now, the people in mission control, the people who had seen their numbers fluctuating and would question them, they were the last people on the list, but J.P. Armitage's voice came through the speakers; "Is everything alri-"

 

"Requesting pickup from current location," Carmilla growled into the mic.

 

"Yeah, the Marshal already gave the order," J.P. said. His voice went serious, as if he had gotten the sense that something had gone terribly wrong. "The jumphawks are already on their way. Sit tight for now." He didn't speak again for the rest of the time they were in the Jaeger.

 

Laura slumped down to the floor, holding her left shoulder awkwardly because it still hurt, and she could barely feel anything through the drivesuit, but she needed the pressure. She pulled her hand back to make sure, and saw that there was no blood glistening on the glove, but it still felt like it hurt too much so she pressed it to her shoulder again, relieving her ache.

 

Carmilla stood facing the door of the Conn Pod, and didn't so much as look at her.

 

;;

 

One of the technicians popped a bottle of champagne as soon as they stepped out of the Jaeger.

 

Carmilla didn't even bother to glare at the group gathered around the Conn Pod's exit, simply shoved them aside and walked away, steps heavy. Laura hurriedly ran past their stunned, confused faces, and one of them sadly stopped blowing on his party horn, making the most pathetic sound ever.

 

"Thanks," Laura yelled, rather awkwardly, quickly trying to think of an excuse, "but, uh, we don't drink champagne! We appreciate the sentiment, though!"

 

Laura followed her co-pilot back to the drivesuit room, where the rest of the technicians were already slightly inebriated because, as one of them tipsily explained, they had started drinking the champagne before Janus went down. Laura didn't blame them, she would've been drinking too if she thought that she was going to die in a couple of hours.

 

They stumbled while removing her armour, and she had to wait a few seconds to follow Carmilla, because it was taking them longer than usual to remove her leg plates.

 

"Carmilla," she called out after her. Her co-pilot kept walking, never once looking back at her, didn't seem to have noticed her presence at all. Laura ran after her, followed her to the changing room. Laura closed the door slowly, and said her co-pilot's name again, slower, this time.

 

Her co-pilot put the palms of her hands down flat on the table. It still had their clothes on it, carelessly thrown on top. They were both wearing their circuitry suits, and Laura knew that they needed to change at some point; they needed to update the Marshal, send in some sort of status report, be reprimanded for deciding to kill a Kaiju instead of giving it directions to the nearest populated areas.

 

Laura wasn't sure if Carmilla knew what was happening or if she was on autopilot, going through the motions through the ease of familiarity, like they had both done on tiresome days at the Jaeger Academy, back when all the work had tired them out.

 

She watched her co-pilot's shoulders as they shook slowly, as if she were holding back sobs. Carmilla breathed in and out, and didn't bother to acknowledge Laura's presence.

 

"Will you please," said Laura, her increasing frustrations displayed as she motioned with her hands at Carmilla's back, despite the fact that her co-pilot couldn't see her, "talk to me? I can deal with your snappy comebacks, and your ridiculous flirting, but I can't deal with you just outright ignoring me like this."

 

Carmilla didn't respond, kept her eyes on the back of her hands. Laura tentatively moved towards her, placed her hand on her co-pilot's arm. Her co-pilot jerked away from her touch, and stepped away from her. Laura had never felt as monstrous as she did then, when the prospect of Carmilla being scared of her, being afraid of her dulled all her other thoughts, and, oh.

 

This was what Carmilla had felt when Elle had- Oh.

 

"For what it's worth," she tried, hoping so very much that Carmilla wouldn't think her too forward, too presumptuous, for referencing the memory so openly. "I don't think you're a monster."

 

"You're wrong," said Carmilla.

 

Laura tried again, stepping around her to be able to see her face, looking for any signs that she should leave, only to see Carmilla's eyes closed shut, as if she were trying to will the ground to swallow her whole. She wanted so badly to comfort her, but she didn't know how. Laura wanted to touch her, soothe her the way she had gotten accustomed to post-drift, but she could tell that it wouldn't be a good idea just now.

 

There was something about the silence she had gotten accustomed to having around Carmilla. The flipping of pages, the soft snicker whenever the girl found something amusing, her sarcastic commentary on just about anything. This silence was not comfortable; it made Laura's skin itch.

 

"I did not mean to delve that deep, Carmilla, and I'm not sure how I even got in there without your consent, and-"

 

"I'm not who you think I am," said Carmilla, her hands now balled into fists. Laura was not sure when that had happened, but then again she hadn't been looking at her hands, because she was too preoccupied with her face; her co-pilot looked hurt, almost as hurt as she had been in her memory.

 

"What, you're not the charming and personable co-pilot I was promised? What a shame," joked Laura. It fell flat. Carmilla didn't even crack a smile.

 

Instead, Carmilla grasped at her shoulder, and Laura remembered her own shoulder, which hadn't hurt since they walked out of the Jaeger, and found that the absense of pain was not as comfortable, as reassuring as the pain had been.

 

This was beginning to scare her, the fact that Carmilla hadn't even replied with a sarcastic retort to her terrible joke. Her co-pilot, the Carmilla she knew, would have rolled her eyes and drawled on about how she was only charming and personable with the right company, anything but this terrified child who stood in front of Laura now.

 

"I'm not what you think I am." Carmilla's words laced with something that Laura thought could've been doubt. Not at the words themselves, but doubt in her decision to talk to Laura about what the words implied. Her co-pilot was scared, Laura could tell, she was downright terrified; near-death experiences did not terrify Carmilla nearly as much as the prospect of rejection did.

 

"Is this the part where you tell me you're secretly a Kaiju sympathizer? Or, like, what do they call themselves, the BuenaKai? Because you could've fooled me with the whole killing-a-Kaiju thing."

 

A pause.

 

Laura was about to start changing, if only so that she could diffuse the tension, almost palpable, which she thought was weird, at best, because a few months earlier that would have been the thing that would have increased the tension in the room, and yet.

 

Carmilla's hands relaxed. In a voice so low that Laura had barely registered it, she spoke.

 

Laura, of course, assumed that she had misheard her, at first. It was only when Carmilla said it again that she knew she hadn't misheard anything. Her co-pilot had indeed said the word 'vampire', and what was more important, she had outright admitted to being a vampire. Carmilla finally looked up at her then, and her eyes were so full of hope that Laura could not understand.

 

Laura blinked; "Like, personality-wise?"

 

Carmilla's eyelids snapped shut, briefly, and she could tell that she was biting her tongue from the way her jaw was set. "I mean, species-wise, I'm a vampire," she said, again.

 

"Right, and I'm an Amazonian princess." Carmilla said nothing. Laura furrowed her brows, leaning closer to her. "You realise that sounds equally as ridiculous and improbable as you being part of a cult, right? Didn't know you had such a uniquely gothic horror-y sense of humour, though. You're usually a bit more imaginative than that. Sarcastic, even."

 

"I'm serious," said Carmilla, turning to face her properly, shifting her body weight on one of her fists, poised against the table.

 

"Get out," said Laura.

 

Carmilla frowned, stood still, closed her eyes, and for a moment, Laura didn't know what she would do. Then the girl started walking towards the door, which was the last thing Laura had expected her to do. She did not think before she reached out, grabbed Carmilla's arm and tugged her back, at which point Carmilla's frown deepened.

 

"I meant, 'get out' as in 'you're not serious', not as in 'get out of the room'. You can't be serious, Carmilla. That was a joke, and I reacted appropriately. Come on, what's this really about? You can talk to me."

 

"I'm not joking," Carmilla replied, her voice hollow.

 

"Okay," said Laura, slowly, pulling her hand away and rubbing at her temples. "Okay, sure. I was starting to think that Sarah Jane was kidding about prolonged exposure to the drift increasing the probability of health risks, but I thought it would happen in a matter of years; a decade, maybe, not after.. our first time in a proper Jaeger. Okay, so, you're a vampire. Right, sure. I believe you. Prove it. That should be simple enough, right?"

 

Carmilla stared at her. Laura crossed her arms across her chest.

 

"Look, Carm, if you want me to believe that you're a blood-sucking fiend from the great beyond, you're going to have to do better than just telling me that you are, because honestly, I'm not a complete idiot-"

 

Carmilla licked her lips, which was a whole other ballgame that Laura was not prepared to deal with then, because despite her co-pilot's reluctance to talk to her at the moment, she was still very much attracted to her. Which made it harder for her to look at anything other than her lips when Carmilla bared her teeth and ran her tongue along the edge of them.

 

Laura stopped talking because she was fascinated by the things Carmilla was doing with her mouth, almost enough to miss a very crucial fact. Two canines, slightly longer and pointier – as if they were for a purpose that required them to be sharper – than the other pair, had slipped out and settled snugly over Carmilla's teeth.

 

"Holy. Crap."

 

;;

 

Laura jerked back from her, a look of surprise plastered to her face. Carmilla mistook her shock for horror and, as always, assumed the worst.

 

'Of course she's scared,' Carmilla thought, thankful that the drift wasn't connecting them at that very second. That wouldn't have ended well. She didn't think that she could handle someone else being terrified of her the same way Elle had, hating her just as Elle had – as Elle still did, she reminded herself bitterly. She especially couldn't handle that person being Laura.

 

But she had risked it, because Laura had asked.

 

Laura, the girl who had turned down her mother in such a defiant manner. Laura, who, on the first day they met, had told her that she wasn't afraid of her. Laura, who fought so hard to make sure that Carmilla knew she wasn't like the others. That she could be trusted, because she was willing to wait until Carmilla was ready to share with her, instead of prying into her past.

 

Carmilla suddenly wished the girl had pried, maybe she wouldn't have had to tell her what she was. But that would have required Laura to be exactly like the others.

 

Things had a habit of changing, where she was concerned. Carmilla choked back her tears; she felt pathetic enough for even hoping that it would be different with Laura, just because the girl insisted on being the exception to every rule that Carmilla had ever carved for herself, to protect herself. Carmilla didn't need to cry in front of her, too.

 

So, she did what she did best: faked indifference, smirked, raised an eyebrow, and hoped above all else that Laura couldn't tell the difference.

 

"Admittedly, not the best reaction I've ever had."

 

'Not the worst, either,' she thought as soon as those words were out of her mouth, and felt as if her thoughts had betrayed her true meaning before she remembered that they weren't in the drift anymore, even though sometimes the girl knew what she was thinking even when they weren't connected to a Jaeger.

 

Laura stepped closer to her, the same step she had taken backwards when she had shown her teeth, pulling her gloves off as she did so. She only noticed because of the fabric rustling and the clink that the metallic plates made against one another. Carmilla couldn't take her eyes off of Laura, who in turn hadn't taken her eyes off of her teeth since she had popped them out.

 

She raised a bare hand up in Carmilla's line of sight, fingers already curled toward Carmilla's mouth. Laura breathed in before talking.

 

"May I?"

 

Carmilla hesitated; her heart felt like it was caught in her throat again, because this was the first time that someone had asked to touch her teeth, instead of begging for their lives, or the handful of times they had begged her to bite them. It was also the first time that she had shown them to someone that she wasn't planning on biting, but the point still stood.

 

She looked at Laura's hand, then nodded, once.

 

Her co-pilot put her fingertips over her face softly, barely grazing the surface before her palm followed suit. Carmilla breathed in, steadily, the burn of Laura's skin against her own a painful reminder of how much she had come to rely on her co-pilot's touch, and how much she had started to need the physical comfort, even without the absence of the drift.

 

Laura placed her thumb over her bottom lip, and tugged it down. Carmilla's eyelids fluttered shut. The girl traced her lips, her fingers stopping when they reached the skin just above her canines, and she pushed her lip upwards, slowly. Ever the curious sort, Laura had leaned down to see where exactly the teeth were coming from, the circuitry suit rustling, inadvertently causing Carmilla's head to pop backwards.

 

"This is the coolest thing," muttered Laura, almost absently, still studying her teeth. Carmilla opened her eyes, then. The girl looked enthralled, almost ecstatic at this new discovery.

 

Laura pressed the canines slowly, as if to make sure that they were really there, over the other set of teeth, and she wasn't hallucinating the entire thing. She traced the tip of one, with the edge of a fingertip, and Carmilla's eyes shut in an embarrassingly involuntary reaction.

 

Her co-pilot breathed in, a sharp intake of breath that reminded Carmilla that the girl actually needed air, and didn't breathe out of habit. That seemed to make Carmilla remember who she was- what she was; why it was that Laura was so fascinated with her teeth in the first place.

 

Carmilla moved her head away from Laura, who seemed to only move enough to give her space should Carmilla need it, but stayed close enough to tell her that she herself didn't actually need much space.

 

"You have no sense of personal boundaries," growled Carmilla, jerking her head upwards as she did so. She'd sucked in her teeth, and they'd disappeared from sight, but Laura kept her eyes focused on Carmilla's mouth, just as fascinated as she had been when her fangs had been on display.

 

Carmilla's thoughts were veering into dangerous territory again, and she couldn't afford thinking of her crush right now, couldn't afford thinking of Laura like that, ever again.

 

"You're actually a vampire." She tugged her fingers away from Carmilla's line of sight, and carelessly wiped them on the circuitry suit. "That's why you don't like the food in the cafeteria. I mean, you don't have to be a vampire to dislike that drivel, but. It makes sense. You drink blood, don't you?"

 

Laura seemed to have forgotten that she was a living, breathing, blood pack, just waiting to be nipped open and sucked dry. That, or she didn't seem to care that she was in the presence of someone who used blood as sustenance.

 

"You're.. not running," Carmilla stated, ignoring her previous question. "Why aren't you running?"

 

"Wait," said Laura, ignoring her lack of reply and instead deciding to focus on more important matters. "How old are you? Oh my god, are you like a thousand years old?"

 

She looked up at Carmilla, looked at her face anew. As if she had never seen it before, and studied every sharp angle, the curve in her lip, and when Laura's intense focus confused Carmilla, the crease between her eyebrows.

 

What frustrated Carmilla the most was how Laura's unexpected reaction and focus on trivial matters such as her age, demanded that she take the time to consider the possibility that the girl might not actually have been scared of her, which Carmilla thought was terrifying in its own right.

 

What kind of fragile, mortal being looked upon a monster and asked to touch its teeth? It was a dangerous road to go down, and yet Carmilla could already feel herself veering in that direction, tipping over the edge as if she had no choice; as if it were as simple as succumbing to gravity. That seemed to be easier to defy than Laura. She knew that she would succumb to Laura much, much faster.

 

The first words Laura ever said to her rang in her ears.

 

"I am not intimidated by you, Karnstein. And I am definitely not afraid of you. Do your worst."

 

They seemed to hold true, even months after she had said them. Even now, after Carmilla had shown the girl who she was, what she was. Carmilla looked away from her co-pilot's piercing gaze, eager to take some time to think about what had just transpired.

 

"Isn't that a rather personal question?" she muttered, instead, looking down at the metal plates on the back of her gloves. They looked brand new. She hadn't noticed that before now.

 

"It's a reasonable question. You could be as old as my grandmother. Or my great-grandmother. Or my-" Carmilla rolled her eyes, and looked up at her.

 

"I was born in 1680."

 

"Okay." Laura frowned. "You are definitely older than my great-grandmother." Carmilla shrugged softly. "Is that your birth year or is it the year you were.. uh, you know?" Her eyes narrowed. "Turned? Sired, reborn, whatever you call it. I'm not well-versed in vampire terminology, I'm sorry. Wow, I can't believe I just said that and it wasn't in a fictional context."

 

"I was turned in 1698."

 

Laura suddenly looked like she regretted going down that line of questioning.

 

"You were only eighteen years old."

 

A beat.

 

"I'm older than you, Carmilla. Physically, if nothing else."

 

"Aren't you afraid?"

 

"Afraid? Of what?" asked Laura. Carmilla raised an eyebrow. It should have been obvious what she was meant to be afraid of. "Of.. you? Why would I be?" Laura shrugged, a soft motion of the shoulders that made it seem as if Carmilla's fears were unfounded. Laura looked like she hadn't even considered being afraid of her.

 

"I'm a vampire." She pointed to her teeth, which now looked like any other pair of human teeth. Laura looked at them, then up to her eyes, before her gaze went back down to her lips.

 

"We've established that, yes," replied Laura, an easy smile gracing her face.

 

"You're not scared that I'm going to.." Carmilla nipped at the space in front of her playfully, to indicate what she meant. She left the sentence to hang in the air for a few moments, before she felt Laura pick it up after eagerly waiting for her to continue.

 

"Oh, right. Wait, you seriously think that I think you're going to bite me?" Laura asked, in an amused tone.

 

Carmilla pointed at herself, said, "Vampire. Duh."

 

"Personally, I've had enough of everyone trying to take a chunk out of me today, but, sure, wouldn't want to hurt your vampire sensibilities, I suppose. Um, please don't bite me," the girl said, in a monotone voice that could've rivalled Carmilla's own.

 

Carmilla couldn't help the smile that threatened to make its presence known, so she hid it. Badly.

 

"My diet isn't balanced at all," continued Laura, casually, "so I would probably taste terrible. But really, Carmilla, if you wanted to eat me, you would've done it ages ago. I'm sure there were times when you wanted to, I know I get on your nerves sometimes."

 

"I don't eat people anymore," Carmilla said, softly. The edge of her mouth curled upwards, and she elaborated, "Not like that, anyway."

 

"I figured," said Laura, oblivious to the joke, "I would've been your first target if you did, no doubt about it."

 

They both stared at one another, as if finally, they were seeing each another, as if they were seeing what people expected that they saw when they were in the drift together.

 

"You're a vampire. An honest-to-god vampire."

 

"Guilty as charged," muttered Carmilla.

 

Laura smiled then, a slow smile that turned almost predatory. It reminded Carmilla of the first time she had met the girl, how she had thought that she was a vampire for a brief second, before she noticed that no, she most definitely was not.

 

She leaned backwards a little, slowed her breathing to still herself, keeping away from Laura and that dangerous smile of hers. Carmilla didn't once think of how unnatural it was that she should be the one to feel the faintest ounce of fear in that room, right after she had told her co-pilot that she was a vampire.

 

It wasn't any kind of fear that she had felt before; not the same kind of fear that had shot through her when other humans, hunters, found out that she was a vampire, and wanted to cut her up piece by piece, put a stake through her heart and watch her die properly, and it wasn't the kind of fear she felt the first time she had bitten someone who had asked her to bite them, expecting it to be a trap. It wasn't the kind of fear she had felt when she died. It was not the kind of fear she had felt when Elle had found out.

 

No, this kind of fear was not actually Laura's fault. This was all Carmilla, being afraid of even the possibility of having someone, other than her unfortunate family, who wouldn't fear her; who would accept her for who she was, for what she was. Fear that the entire situation wasn't genuine, fear that it was and that it too could be stripped away from her at a moment's notice.

 

Carmilla had not anticipated this, and was now afraid of losing Laura in a completely different way than she was when she had uttered the words that she had been so afraid of saying, the ones that would change everything. They had changed everything, in ways that she hadn't thought possible.

 

Laura hadn't run away. She hadn't even been scared. Instead, Laura almost laughed in her face at the thought of Carmilla biting her, because if that was what Carmilla had required of her, she could have had plenty of opportunities to do so before. Without telling her what she was.

 

No, Laura had stayed, and that was what scared Carmilla. Her co-pilot wasn't scared of her; quite the opposite in fact, she seemed to be at ease with her vampirism, as if there was nothing more ridiculous to her than being afraid of Carmilla, even after the vampire had told her – and shown her, after Laura had refused to take her word for it – that she was a monster.

 

Laura seemed to think of it as a part of Carmilla herself, as if she was still the same person. Carmilla was not used to that, especially not after what had transpired with Elle.

 

"You're taking this remarkably well," she said, slowly.

 

Laura shrugged. "You're my first vampire. I'm intrigued."

 

"First vampire, first Kaiju kill," said Carmilla, playfully ticking off Laura's firsts of the day. "Today must be your lucky day, sweetheart."

 

Her co-pilot stilled. "Why would you say that?"

 

She looked almost upset, and, well, truth be told, Carmilla didn't know why she had said it.

 

After the initial shock that had been Laura not being afraid of her, which she still couldn't come to terms with, and doubted that she ever would, and after Laura being intrigued by her vampirism, she had lumped in all the monster interactions that Laura had that day, thinking them equal.

 

Carmilla knew that the girl's first Kaiju kill, something Laura had wanted for ages, would come second to vampires existing – which seemed to be a good thing judging by Laura's over-eager reaction – but maybe her species didn't interest her as much as Kaiju did. Carmilla thought that she wouldn't register on her co-pilot's radar as something worth meeting. Maybe, even in the world of monsters, she would always be second best.

 

She supposed Kaiju were rather impressive, given their size and their effect on the human world in such a short span of time. Vampires had always hidden from the spotlight, eager to keep humans from finding out about their existence. Kaiju seemed to embrace it. It didn't make any difference to her; a monster was a monster was a monster, but there might have been some sort of rating system that Laura implemented that didn't have finding out about vampires coming close to killing a Kaiju.

 

But, when Laura spoke next, she understood that she had been wrong; so very, very wrong about everything.

 

"You're nothing alike," the girl said. Carmilla, however, could think of at least one thing she had in common with Kaiju.

 

"We're both monsters."

 

Her co-pilot stared at her, as if seeing her in a new light, and Carmilla briefly wondered if maybe she had said the wrong thing. If maybe, admitting it herself had been the thing that would alert Laura to the fact that she was actually a monster.

 

"No, you're not. Not to me, you're not," Laura said, her voice clear. Carmilla watched her intently, her brows furrowing in an attempt to figure out what she was going to say. "Kaiju aren't thought of as monsters because they're big and they bleed blue. That's not why monsters are monsters. They're monsters because they are ripping the world apart."

 

"And I-"

 

Laura didn't let her. "You forget, you're my co-pilot. I've seen the inside of your head, as in, your thoughts, not like a neurosurgeon sees the inside of people's heads with brains and- that's not the point. Even if I hadn't seen the inside of your mind, damn it- I know you, Carmilla. I know what monsters are, and you're no monster."

 

Carmilla, despite her best efforts not to, let herself believe her, and smiled down at her, which in turn had Laura's pupils blowing out impossibly wide, even in such a well-lit room. She was sure that her co-pilot was blushing, too. She could hear her pulse screaming in her veins.

 

"I mean, you're annoying and all, so don't think you're exempt from me calling you out on anything just because you're a vampire. I'm not scared of you and your cute little fangs."

 

"Wouldn't have it any other way," said Carmilla, not missing the way Laura had called her fangs cute. Before she could comment, however, Laura started talking again.

 

"Speaking of, may I see them again?"

 

Carmilla smirked, and a soft breathless laugh left her. "No, zvezda moya. I'm afraid you're getting a bit too comfortable with my cute little fangs."

 

"Shut up," said Laura, blushing even more profusely than she was before. "I said it one time; it was a slip of the tongue and I am never saying it again."

 

"You didn't deny that they're cute that time."

 

"Oh my god, you're unbearable. Stop trying to act all endearing, we have to change."

 

"As you wish."

 

;;

 

Carmilla still felt out of sorts. Like her heart was going to jump out of her chest. She felt like she ought to have gone down to the Jaeger bay again, stolen a couple of bottles of their champagne in celebration. Laura hadn't let her out of her sight, yet. It wasn't as disconcerting as it should have felt, once she thought about how Laura had always stayed with her post-drift.

 

It was slightly worrisome when she remembered that Laura knew now, and, as if that wasn't the only thing she could think about either way, she was reminded of it once more when Laura asked, "Wait, so your vampiric constitution, it didn't heal your ribs ten minutes after I cracked them?"

 

"Doesn't quite work that way, buttercup."

 

"How does it work?"

 

"There's.. too many rules, and I think I'd like to spend the rest of my day doing anything other than explaining the intricate nature of my very being."

 

"Fine," said Laura, tugging Carmilla closer to her. She had never been happier about the ghost drift, having been given an excuse to scratch at Laura's scalp until the girl purred like a kitten, but that meant that she could tell Laura was disappointed. Anyone with eyes could tell that Laura was disappointed, but Carmilla actually felt it vibrate off of her.

 

She sighed. "I heal quicker than most people. It still takes time. I need-" She briefly glanced down at Laura, whose eyes were entirely focused on her again. "Blood. To heal. The sooner I drink the blood, the faster the wound heals. I can't leave it too long, otherwise it'll heal at a normal pace, or- Or, slower. Sometimes. It depends."

 

"Right," said Laura, and looked away from her. The arm wrapped around hers was suddenly an unwanted pressure, but Carmilla didn't move away, hoping that Laura would do so if she wanted.

 

"It's necessary." Her co-pilot glanced up at her. It was hurting Carmilla just to speak about this, about the blood pumping through her system. "For someone like me."

 

"What? Carmilla, no." Laura wasn't following her train of thought. "Yes, I know that it's necessary for a vampire to drink blood, obviously. I know basic vampire lore, Carmilla. That's why I'm asking."

 

"I don't go stalking my prey in the middle of the night, if that's what you're worried about. Blood packs satisfy hunger just as well." Laura nodded. "If this- If it bothers you, I can leave, or," Carmilla shrugged half-heartedly, but made no attempt to move until her co-pilot indicated that she wanted her gone. Laura didn't.

 

"It doesn't bother me. What does bother me is-" Laura stopped talking then. Carmilla watched her brows furrow with concentration before she relented and asked.

 

"What is it?"

 

"I'm trying to figure out if it would be easier to sneak into the Medical bay, or if I could bribe the staff into giving me blood packs every couple of days without having them think I'm going to break into their facilities if they say 'no'."

 

She stared down at Laura for a few seconds.

 

"They could increase security, Carmilla, alert the higher ups. That would make things significantly harder."

 

Carmilla couldn't hold it back anymore, and let out a bark of laughter. Laura looked perplexed by the thought that her genuine curiosity on the matter was amusing to Carmilla, but smiled, because apparently, Carmilla's laugh had that effect on her.

 

"What? What's so funny? I mean, I won't, if it bothers you."

 

"Darling. It doesn't bother me, no. But, god, aren't you a thrill-seeker."

 

"Shut up, you big doof. This is for your health, and like, vampire science, or whatever," said Laura, burying herself into her side again. Carmilla went back to running her fingers through her co-pilot's hair.

 

;;

 

"Can you turn into a bat?"

 

"Excuse me?"

 

A few hours into Laura's inquisition, she confirmed that the girl was most definitely unlike anyone else she had ever met. Evidence included, but was certainly not limited to: firstly, she hadn't run away as soon as she could; secondly, she didn't ask Carmilla to bite her, which.. hadn't happened to her as often as the running had, but had still happened on the odd occasion; thirdly, Laura asked questions.

 

Amendment: Laura asked a lot of questions. Thankfully, none of them were regarding Elle or The Incident. Carmilla would have suggested a career in data collection, or, given Laura's penchant for trouble and inquisitive nature, investigative journalism.

 

Because Laura wasn't asking her questions like, "How do you kill a vampire?" or, "Are you really immortal? What about decapitation? Could you survive that?" or, "Can you leave me alone for the rest of my life, however short it may be, and can you please not shorten it any further?" either. Laura was asking rather interesting questions.

 

She quickly learned that Laura wasn't asking anything she could have expected from any other interested party. Frankly, nothing could have prepared her for Laura's line of questioning, which included, but was not limited to: her diet, and why it seemed to be closer to Laura's than that of a stereotypical movie vampire, inquiries on various other beings, which Laura called 'mythological creatures' at first, before she blushed a deep red and apologized. And also, if vampires had their own dentists.

 

Carmilla answered as best she could: she ate whatever she wanted but blood was the only thing she needed to live; werewolves, dragons, unicorns, mermaids, and, unfortunately for literally everyone on the planet, pixies, all existed; and, yes. Vampires did have special vampire dentists, and they were even worse than normal dentists, because when they chastised them for not brushing their teeth more often in between meals, they usually did so in front of an audience.

 

Laura seemed almost excited at the dentist one, enough to continue on that subject. Carmilla hoped not, because the last time she had seen her dentist, she had been two centuries old, and she didn't want to recall that whole incident for Laura. Thankfully, Laura started talking about turning into a bat.

 

"Dracula can turn into a bat," she said.

 

"And a wolf," Carmilla noted absently, trying to remember when was the last time she had read the book. She vaguely recalled setting it on fire once, because Will wouldn't quit quoting the damn thing at her, but she couldn't recall if she had ever actually sat down and read it. Typical. She had read nearly everything even remotely related to vampires, and had missed the literal classic.

 

Laura perked up then, and Carmilla heard the girl's question before she even voiced it. She wasn't sure if that was the drift's influence, or if she had simply spent too much time with Laura.

 

"Can you turn into a wolf?"

 

"Dracula's fictional," she explained slowly, hoping she hadn't disappointed Laura.

 

"Yeah, well, a couple of hours ago I would've said the exact same thing about all vampires." She had a point, Carmilla had to give her that, but she didn't really want to voice it, either.

 

"Doesn't mean you would've been right," she huffed. Laura had obviously sensed a sore spot, so, in true Laura fashion, she decided to poke at it with a stick.

 

"Can you, though?"

 

A pause. "No."

 

"Oh." At that very moment, Carmilla felt somewhat inadequate for not being able to turn into a bat. She cursed Bram Stoker silently, for starting the inevitable rise in vampire mythos that would always be more impressive to humans than the truth, simply because of how malleable it was.

 

"There are others who can," she said, recalling her sister.

 

Mattie had only done it the once in front of Carmilla, and sometimes she thought that Matska hadn't intended for her to find out about her ability, but, even without her sister, she had heard of, a few centuries earlier, groups of vampires who had learned how to change their shape and did so more often than her sister did, but she wasn't sure if they were still around, or if they turned back.

 

"Turn into bats?"

 

"Into.. particular animals," she clarified, trying to remember what form her sister had taken, centuries ago. It was all for naught. She wasn't sure which animals, exactly, they were able to turn into. She had heard of a wolf, and a panther, once upon a time.

 

"Like bats?"

 

"What is your fixation with bats?"

 

Laura shrugged.

 

"Why can't you turn into a ba- a particular animal.. that isn't a bat?"

 

Carmilla didn't want to say that she had wasted her undead life doing chores for her mother in between reading every single philosophy or poetry book she could get her hands on, and even more recently, tinkering with Jaeger tech, so she lied.

 

"Didn't seem like it would ever come in handy." Carmilla regretted saying it the moment she said it, which, coincidentally was also the moment that Laura narrowed her eyes.

 

"Turning into an animal at will didn't seem like it would ever come in handy," Laura repeated. "Have you never seen Harry Potter? Sirius Black literally escaped his prison cell by turning into a dog. For a five hundred year old vampire, you're a terrible liar, Carmilla."

 

"And you're bad at math," said Carmilla, casually.

 

Laura rolled her eyes. "You're three hundred and forty years old. Three hundred and twenty two, if you don't count the first eighteen."

 

After a beat, Carmilla said, "I'm a fantastic liar."

 

"Apart from the whole vampire thing, no, you're really not," said Laura, smiling fondly at her, as if she had just heard a joke only she was privy to. Carmilla felt too transparent, even with literal centuries as proof to the contrary. The girl saw her too clearly, knew the intricate workings of her mind as well as her own; lying to her felt worse than lying to herself.

 

"I never bothered to learn how," she said, finally.

 

"You have to learn how to turn into a bat?" Carmilla nodded, less insecure than she was a few seconds before, knowing that the girl hadn't expected that she had to learn it. "Do you have to sit for an exam, too?"

 

"Of a sort."

 

"Wow." Laura was apparently saddened by the revelation that vampires weren't as exciting as vampire pulp had made them out to be, and instead seemed to be boring old coffin-dodgers with an aptitude for eternal youth.

 

"Wow," agreed Carmilla.

 

"At least, this way, I know you can't poof out of our Jaeger."

 

"'Poof', huh?" Laura pushed her hand out of Carmilla's side, and spread her fingers wide, in a motion that Carmilla guessed was supposed to imitate some sort of explosion.

 

"Yeah, you know, poof, and fly out in bat-form." Carmilla smiled, a small smile that didn't leave her face for hours afterwards.

 

;;

 

Laura walked back into her room late, after an evening of bothering Carmilla about vampire lore and which parts of it were true. She didn't turn the lights on, just took her shoes off, settled into the bottom bunk, without bothering to change into her pajamas.

 

Except, just as Laura had started to doze off, Betty stumbled in.

 

Laura was just about to ask her what she was doing in her room, when Danny appeared behind her, brandishing a key. Laura still hadn't gotten a copy of the room key, and she didn't want to ask Carmilla to break into her room every single time, so she left the door open most of the time.

 

"You forgot to lock the door again, didn't you?" A voice asked, and then, softer, "Is that Laura?"

 

That was when she figured out that she wasn't, in fact, in her room, and that she had accidentally stumbled into Danny and Betty's room by mistake. Kaiju hunting was hard work, she hadn't anticipated how tired she'd feel. Too tired to walk the extra ten steps to her door, apparently.

 

"She took our bed," Betty whined, her voice odd. "Danny, she took our bed." And that was when Laura realised whose bed she was sleeping in.

 

"She was probably too tired to realise that this is our room. It's fine, you can sleep on the top bunk, just for tonight."

 

"But what about you? Where are you gonna sleep?"

 

"I'll.. think of something, don't worry about me." Betty groaned. A soft sound, of fabric being patted, as if Danny had put her hands on her former roommate's shoulders in a reassuring manner. "Meanwhile, we need to get you ready for bed, babe."

 

"Babe, you called me 'babe'," said Betty, giggling. That was when Laura noticed that Betty was slightly intoxicated. She shushed Danny, who wasn't even making any noise, and whispered, "We can't wake her, Danny. Stop laughing at me, I'm serious. We can't wake her up. She's had a long day." Then, very seriously, "She killed a Kaiju, Danny. Do you know how hard killing a Kaiju is? This hard."

 

Laura kept her eyes shut, and hoped that she could fall asleep and pretend that this never happened, or at least that she could wake up the next day, and go back to her room, and then afterwards, pretend it never happened.

 

Her muscles ached, and the bed felt like it was made out of clouds in the sense that she felt like she might fall asleep at any second, so she thought of another plan: to wake up before either of them did the next day, so that she wouldn't have to awkwardly make small talk with the redhead the next morning.

 

"I'm not saying anything, Elizabeth," Danny whispered back, her smile evident in her voice. "Don't worry, she's passed out, I doubt she'll wake up anytime soon." Betty laughed, tugged at Danny's shirt, and- Laura was sure that she was kissing her. Laura clenched her eyes shut, as if that would've made the sounds bearable. It didn't.

 

Danny pulled back. "You are officially way too drunk to consent to anything, and don't you dare look at me with those eyes, babe. Let's get you to bed."

 

She spent five minutes taking off Betty's shoes, while the blonde mumbled something about how sweet she was for helping her; fifteen minutes forcing Betty to drink a glass of water.

 

"You're very pretty," her former roommate said, when Danny tried to get her to brush her teeth. "I mean it, you're so.. red, and pretty, and your hair is so shiny."

 

Laura couldn't decide between wanting the bed to swallow her whole, or chastising herself for barely being able to keep her giggling to herself. She hoped that she was being quiet enough for neither of them to hear her.

 

"Yes, Betty, I know. You told me that at least eight separate times on the way here. Trust me, I am well aware of the fact that you think my hair is shiny. And very red."

 

The redhead spent the next ten minutes brushing Betty's teeth, because the inebriated girl thought her toothbrush was a lollipop and kept trying to chew it. Apparently, the only thing she needed to clean her mouth was a breath mint – which Danny outright refused to let her have.

 

Another five minutes were spent getting Betty to climb up to her bunk, and then, a couple of minutes of Danny attempting to cover the blonde girl with a blanket. She climbed back down from the ladder, and when Betty groaned and asked her to hold her hand, she did so until the blonde fell asleep.

 

Before she could walk out of the room, Danny tripped over the shoes in front of the bed. Laura heard a yelp as the redhead slammed into the ground. Laura flinched. Her former roommate mumbled something incoherent in her sleep. Danny pushed herself up off the floor slowly, in an obvious attempt to make sure she didn't wake either of them up.

 

"Are you okay?" Laura asked, timidly.

 

"I'm fine, I think I landed on a-" The redhead pulled one of Laura's shoes out from under her. She leaned down into the bunk, slowly. "Hollis. You're awake?"

 

"No, I'm not," said Laura.

 

"Have you been awake this whole time?"

 

"This whole time? No," she said, dragging out the word. She yawned for the added effect, easily falling into the easy playful teasing they had adapted over the course of their friendship, exhaustion not letting her hold onto her semi-grudge on the redhead right now.

 

"You're lying, aren't you?"

 

"Who, me? Lie? Never. I've been asleep for the past, um, hours, really. I've been asleep for hours. I would never stay out this late, or go to bed so late, or pretend to be asleep while you tried to get Betty into bed. How could you even imply that, Danny Lawrence?"

 

"I just got back to my room, and I didn't fight a Kaiju today, so I don't think I'm in any position to judge what time you get back to yours." The redhead crouched down next to Laura. "Congrats on that, by the way. Good- good fight."

 

"Thanks."

 

"I'm sorry that I was such a- What I said, before. It was none of my business. I realised, a bit too late, that I might have been projecting. You're- You and Karnstein are good pilots."

 

"Apology accepted," said Laura, smiling up at her.

 

"Are you, um, are you and Karnstein alright, though? I heard that you two went out of sync and then the technicians said- Well, they said Karnstein disengaged?"

 

"Oh, uh. That was just-" Laura looked away from her for a second. "It was just random synapses, you know. I chased the rabbit and everything."

 

Danny paused. "Wait, that was you?"

 

"I got out of alignment. All that training doesn't actually prepare you for what's out there, apparently. Who knew?" The redhead looked confused for a second, before Laura shook her head and continued, "It was fine, really, we're both fine now."

 

"She seemed.. very angry when you got back. She's not angry at you, is she?"

 

"We're fine, Danny, honest. Also, you're doing that thing again."

 

Danny frowned, then nodded in understanding. "That thing where I try to get involved in things that are none of my business."

 

"On the nose, champ," said Laura. She pointed at the top bunk, hoping to change the subject. "What happened to her? Did she really have that little faith in my ability to drop a Kaiju?"

 

"On the contrary," said Danny, smiling fondly, "she was telling everyone that she was your roommate back at the academy. She's so proud of your first official Kaiju kill. She single-handedly got half the Shatterdome wasted after Janus fell."

 

"That's our Betty, alright."

 

"That girl believes in you like no other, Hollis."

 

"I believe in her," she admitted, shyly. Betty's soft snoring filled the pause in the conversation. "How much did she drink, anyway? Did someone let her near the vodka?"

 

"She had two, maybe three glasses of champagne? And a couple of shots. Girl's a lightweight."

 

"I knew she was lying about the jägerbombs," Laura said, in a serious tone. Danny stifled a burst of laughter, and Betty groaned.

 

"I should go," she said.

 

"I can leave, if you want, honest-" Laura made to get up the bed, but forgot about how sore she felt and how hard even sitting up was to her right then.

 

"Whoa, there, hero. Stay there," the redhead said, pushing Laura back by her shoulder. If exhaustion hadn't settled into her bone-deep, she would have rejected her touch but, as it were, Laura was too tired to do anything but lie back down. She immediately felt the bed engulf her, as if it was trying to remind her of why she shouldn't have tried to leave. "It's fine, I'll find somewhere else to sleep."

 

"You can sleep in my room, if you want. It's, uh, kinda vacant right now."

 

"No, thank you, but. That would be.."

 

'Weird,' Laura thought.

 

"Overstepping my bounds," Danny finished. "I'll just go down to the K-Science station. The scientists never sleep. They're probably still up studying Kaiju guts, so I'll sleep in one of their rooms. They don't crash anywhere other than their lab, anyway."

 

"If you're sure."

 

"Thank you, Laura, but yeah, I'm sure."

 

Danny stood up.

 

"Goodnight, Danny."

 

"Night, Laura."

 

Laura watched the redhead close the door slowly, listened to her sigh when it clicked into place. Today had been a pretty weird day, she thought, before falling asleep to thoughts of Kaiju, vampires, and, weirdly enough, bats.

 

;;

Chapter Text

;;

 

November 18, 2020
Anchorage Shatterdome

 

The Jaeger bay was a treasure trove of things she wanted, being guarded by busy, and more importantly, unsuspecting technicians, so, she borrowed a few of them, fully intending to give them back once she had finished with them, of course. Like the book she was currently holding between her fingers, silently abandoned because Laura was much more entertaining. She read the same sentence five times in succession and understood literally nothing.

 

Carmilla had been watching her co-pilot for the previous nine or so minutes. Pacing, back and forth, from one side of the room to the other, turning to look at Carmilla, pointing at her in a rather accusatory manner, then turning away from her, having said nothing, and going back to her pacing. It was worrisome, to say the least.

 

She did not know what Laura was doing in her room. Being in her room wasn't helping the girl gather up the courage to actually do whatever it was she so clearly wanted to do - a call, presumably. The girl was clutching a flip phone in her hand so hard that the thing had started squeaking at one point.

 

Carmilla was starting to get a little flustered. It had nothing to do with how Laura's teeth bit into her bottom lip, and how she could smell the blood rushing, pulsing under her skin, and how her lips had turned into a harsher shade of red, and how badly she wanted to get her to stop.

 

"You're going to wear a hole in the floor," she said, in a monotone voice that she hadn't used in a while. Carmilla had forgotten what indifference tasted like. Laura stopped pacing, looked at her.

 

"My dad."

 

"Is this the same father," she inquired, closing her book, "who sends you care packages every other month?" Laura nodded, stared down at the phone, looked up at Carmilla, sat down on the edge of her bed.

 

"He doesn't know that I have you." Carmilla raised an eyebrow, her mouth forming into a self-indulgent grin. Laura blushed, and elaborated further; "A co-pilot. He doesn't know that I have a co-pilot. He thinks I'm staying here on some sort of a trial basis."

 

"That explains so much."

 

Laura did not seem convinced. "Does it?"

 

"Sure it does," said Carmilla, slowly. "For example, how you manage to be so attentive, and yet miss the most crucial of details; such as the fact that your co-pilot is a vampire, despite the aforementioned co-pilot being rather lax in hiding evidence."

 

"How does me lying to my dad have anything to do with you hiding your vampirism from me?"

 

Carmilla shrugged. "He hasn't noticed, yet. You hadn't noticed, either."

 

"No, this is- That's different," Laura insisted. "I'm actively lying to him."

 

"And I was telling you the whole truth and nothing but?"

 

"Technically, you never lied to me." Carmilla furrowed her brows. "I never asked you if you were human. I just assumed that you were, on account of never having met anyone who looked human who turned out to be.. well. Not human."

 

Carmilla coughed. "Still, sweetheart. We share a drift."

 

"Look, whenever we were in the drift and you- I assumed you were making out with someone, and when I could see the- I thought you had some sort of biting fetish, okay?" Carmilla was about to open her mouth when Laura promptly said, very loudly, "Your memories of feeding off of people aren't exactly well-lit, Carmilla. Anyone could've mistaken the situation."

 

"Point taken."

 

"And, you never lied. I told my father that I was training to become a J-Tech officer, and then when I got to the academy, I thought I could lie to him throughout training; told him the only reason it was taking me so long for me to move to the Shatterdome was because someone filed the paperwork wrong."

 

Carmilla narrowed her eyes. "He actually believes the PPDC kept you at the academy for- what, sixteen weeks longer than necessary over a filing mishap."

 

"Even longer, actually. He trusts me," Laura said, shrugging. She looked down at the phone, flipped it open and turned it on. The theme tune rang out, and she looked at it as if it had done her some sort of misdeed by being functional. "Or, did. I don't know, anymore. There was a Kaiju attack. A bad one."

 

"You told him," Carmilla guessed, slowly. "That you wanted to be a Ranger."

 

Laura nodded. "And now, well, now I have to tell him about actually being out in the field."

 

"'Have to'?"

 

"Yesterday was a fluke, and we did well, and we're both alive – well, sort of – but we could have died. We could have actually died, or, died permanently, in your case, but-" Carmilla felt guilt gather at the pit of her core, like an acid eating through her inch by inch. "He's going to see my name listed as a Jaeger pilot eventually. Or on the news, or online. Or in an obituary."

 

"Breathe," said Carmilla, wrapping her fingers around Laura's arm slowly. Laura breathed in, looked down at Carmilla's sweater, with the sleeves rolled up to reveal the end of her circuitry scars.

 

Carmilla hadn't felt more comfortable just being around someone in years, and the way she kept tugging her sleeves up around Laura was becoming a habit of hers. Laura's eyes traced the beginnings of the scar on her forearm, as if she were noticing this for the first time. She looked back up at Carmilla.

 

"He's going to drive down here and kill me. Or take me back home. Or both, if I'm extremely unlucky." Carmilla shook her head, squeezed her co-pilot's arm in a comforting manner.

 

"He won't get far if he tries taking you from-" Carmilla hesitated, blinked a few times, coughed to clear her throat. "If he tries taking you from the Shatterdome. You're a consenting adult, he can't just kidnap you, or whatever." She watched Laura glance down at the phone in her hand again. She tried something else; "Besides, he doesn't have the clearance to be in here. That should hinder a law-abiding citizen somewhat."

 

Laura looked up at her, smiling worriedly. "You don't know my dad."

 

"I may not know your father, but I know you." Laura smiled at her, and god, she looked way too much like the sun like this, so close that Carmilla could count her eyelashes. She was going down a very dangerous road, and she needed to focus on something else. Like Laura's current problem. She coughed, and continued. "I know of your tenacious nature, and from what I know of your dad, that is something you might have inherited. He'll understand why you lied."

 

"This is not the time for-"

 

"Call him," she said simply, and slipped her palm into Laura's, the one that wasn't holding onto the flip phone so tight it could break, and laced their fingers together. Carmilla dragged her closer to her, and Laura looked up at her co-pilot, a charming smile gracing her lips. "I'm going to get back to my book now."

 

The book had been put down minutes ago, in favour of Laura. Hopefully, Laura understood what Carmilla meant anyway, because her co-pilot had a knack for understanding Carmilla in a way that no one ever had before, and knew that, "I'm going to get back to my book now," meant, "I will be here for you if you want me to be."

 

"Would you mind?"

 

Carmilla shook her head; Laura nodded and squeezed her palm, breathed in thick gulps of air that Carmilla doubted the girl could possibly use in such a short time, but then again, she had only recently relearned how to breathe.

 

"I can do this. I've killed Kaiju, I can definitely do this. I mean, it was just the single Kaiju – it did have two heads, though, so it kind of counts as two if we're reaching, which we are, sort of – but I can do this. He's not going to hate me forever, he'll just be mad at me for a really, really long time, or, maybe not that long, since there's an apocalypse on and, oh god, he's going to hate me forever, isn't he?"

 

"Breathe, zvyozdochka." Laura inhaled, exhaled. Carmilla smiled at her, an odd fond little smile that showed a hint of her teeth. Her co-pilot shook her head.

 

"What does that even mean?"

 

Carmilla didn't answer her question.

 

"Call your father."

 

"I can't do this."

 

"That's perfectly understandable."

 

"I have to do this."

 

Carmilla didn't answer that one. Laura looked down at the phone, scrolled down to her father's number, which Carmilla noticed was listed under 'HOME', and selected it. It took her a few seconds to actually hit the call button. It started ringing. Laura's hand crushed Carmilla's in anticipation. When her father's voice came in through the line, Laura couldn't hold back a grin.

 

"Hey, kiddo."

 

"Dad," she said, her grip on Carmilla's hand softer.

 

"How's the Shatterdome? Did they give you your own room or are you still bunking with Elizabeth? Are they being nice to my favourite daughter?" The man had a thick accent that instantly made Carmilla like him. That, and due to drifting with Laura so often, she felt a sort of familial bond to the man.

 

"Dad, I'm your only daughter."

 

"Which is exactly why you're my favourite." Carmilla stifled a laugh; Laura rolled her eyes. "Did you get my last care package?"

 

Carmilla watched as Laura's brow furrowed; her co-pilot seemed to have been suddenly reminded of how she hadn't even gone to the post office to check for letters or packages from her father, let alone send any letters. Laura averted her gaze, focused on a spot behind her head, and Carmilla was sure that she had vowed to do that as soon as she was able to.

 

"Um, no, I haven't been to the post office in a while, but I'll go there this week, I swear. Or next week. It's kind of, uh, busy around here."

 

"You should do that. I shoved a couple of chocolate bars in there as a gift for graduating, but I think they might be shaped funny by the time they get to you. I have photographic evidence that proves that they looked normal when I bought them, though."

 

Laura frowned. "Dad, how much did that cost?"

 

"You hush. Your old man can afford a couple of bars of chocolate. Honestly, you make it sound like we're starving. Which we aren't. Are they feeding you properly over there?"

 

"Yeah, they are," she said, absently. Laura's grip on her hand tightened again, and Carmilla breathed in, watched as Laura inhaled a shaky breath. "Uh, I actually need to tell you something."

 

"Uh oh. This sounds serious. I'm all ears, kiddo."

 

"Remember when I told you that I hadn't found a co-pilot yet?" she asked, nervously. Her father was silent. "The thing is, I kind of.. found one, and I wanted to tell you before we were actually fighting Kaiju, but it kind of just happened, I swear, I would've told you before we were going to fight-"

 

"Janus," he said. Just one word, but it was enough to make her blood run cold. Given Laura's quick glance at the floor, it had done the same to her. As to how he knew, Carmilla could only guess, because their names hadn't been released to the general public yet, but she knew that anyone who knew their Jaegers had noticed that Brutum Fulmen's fighting style had differed slightly from all its previous fights.

 

"Yeah, that was us." She looked up at Carmilla then, as if apologising for saying so. "They're keeping it out of the press. One of Brutum's pilots sprained his wrist, and you know how people would panic if they knew that he'd gone off and done something as irresponsible as sprain his wrist while he was supposed to be fit for duty."

 

"Laura, you're rambling."

 

"I'm nervous."

 

"Why did they put you in that Jaeger? Couldn't they have found someone else? Someone more experienced with this kind of thing? Or used another Jaeger? Christ, honey, you'd think these people would have more than just the one Jaeger protecting the miracle mile."

 

"I- Okay, you have to promise me you won't get mad." Carmilla raised an eyebrow.

 

"Why would I get mad?" Laura didn't reply. "Laura, why would you think I would get mad?"

 

"Promise," she demanded.

 

"Fine, I promise," he said, and huffed. "But I hope you know that this is an incredibly manipulative tactic and the fact that you're even daring to use it on me is making me nervous."

 

"You might get mad because I was the one who asked them to put us in Brutum Fulmen."

 

"You did what?"

 

"The only available Jaeger would've come in too late. It would have destroyed the coast by then. We're the only pilots who were compatible with the only battle-ready Jaeger at the time."

 

"Laura."

 

"I know, I know. It was incredibly reckless and I will probably never do it again ever in my life, but I just couldn't sit by and watch it happen. You know what that feels like. Even if it had killed me and Carmilla, we would've at least delayed it. It wouldn't have killed as many people."

 

A pause.

 

"Dad?"

 

"Is that her name?"

 

"What?"

 

"Your co-pilot. 'Carmilla'?"

 

"You're not mad?"

 

"Oh, I am furious, believe me. But I can't be mad at you for doing something that I wouldn't have done any differently myself."

 

Laura's shoulders, which had been tensed up until then, slumped. "You wouldn't have?"

 

"Before you were born," he started, and Carmilla felt a lecture coming on. She wondered how often this happened in the Hollis family. "I would have done exactly what you did yesterday. But now? Laura, I would have grabbed you and run as far away as possible."

 

"I'm sorry I lied to you."

 

"That, I will take. But you're not going to apologize for saving four million people, and I wouldn't want you to." Neither of them spoke for a handful of seconds. Carmilla felt like she was interfering in a very, very private phone call, even though it was occurring in her room, and her presence there was anchored by Laura's hand in her own. "So, the co-pilot. Carmilla. Is she there with you right now?"

 

"How'd you know?" Laura asked, looking up at Carmilla curiously.

 

"You're never going to get used to your old man knowing you better than anyone else, are you?" Laura didn't answer. "You wouldn't have called me if you didn't have someone there to ground you, and since Betty's not there – I would have heard Elizabeth Anne Spielsdorf in the background, Laura. Honestly. The girl's incapable of ignoring you while you're on the phone."

 

Carmilla's grin broadened at that. Laura's father picked up on a lot of things. She wondered how he hadn't picked up on Laura's weird schedule at the Jaeger Academy, though. Someone who knew his daughter this well should have.. suspected that she had been lying to him, at least.

 

"I'm assuming your silent partner in crime is your co-pilot."

 

"Right on all counts," Laura confirmed.

 

"May I talk to her?"

 

Carmilla's grin faltered.

 

"Do you want to talk to him?" Laura mouthed.

 

Carmilla winced.

 

"Laura?"

 

"Yeah, hi, still here, um, she's a bit busy at the moment."

 

Carmilla shook her head, and motioned for her co-pilot to give her the phone, because she didn't want Laura to lie to her father on her account, especially not after she'd just admitted that she had been lying to him for so long. Laura looked like she appreciated the gesture.

 

"No, wait. She's fine with talking. I'm handing the phone over to her. I love you. Don't hang up after." Laura broke their handhold as soon as the phone was in Carmilla's grasp, which Carmilla thought unfair, because she was in desperate need of comfort now that she was going to be talking to Laura's father. She held the thing against her ear, and hoped that the call had fallen through the awkward fumbling that Laura had handed the phone to her through.

 

"Hello?" said Laura's father.

 

No such luck.

 

"Say something," said Laura.

 

Carmilla shot her a look that said, 'This was not what I was expecting when I told you to call your father and you know it.' Laura rolled her eyes at her, and motioned towards the phone.

 

"Hey," said Carmilla.

 

"Are you my daughter's co-pilot?" he asked, tentatively. He spoke in German, presumably because he had heard Laura speaking to her in the language, so his careful wording was not due to his lack of familiarity with the language. He seemed.. nervous; as nervous as she was.

 

"Yes, I am," she replied.

 

"Pleasure to meet you, Carmilla. My name is Johann Hollis, and I am really, really bad at talking to strangers on the phone. Also, I don't know what my daughter's told you about me, but I am excellent at knowing when someone's cheating at board games. Just astounding, truly."

 

"You're the one who cheats at board games in the first place," said Laura, automatic.

 

"I only know your first name, I'm afraid," continued Mr. Hollis, undeterred from his daughter's accusation. "Unless you go by just the one name, like Prince, or Beyoncé."

 

"Karnstein, sir," she said. Laura's father sounded kinder than she was used to from parental figures; it unnerved her, slightly. This one seemed like he was just as nervous as she was, with the rambling. He reminded her of Laura, which, she supposed, was fair. "My name is Carmilla Karnstein."

 

"Tell me, Ms. Karnstein- Am I saying your name right? Is that how it's said? Carmilla Karnstein?" Carmilla was starting to feel like she was having a very stunted phone interview, which, she supposed she kind of was, except she wasn't feeling as nervous as before, merely amused.

 

"Yes, sir."

 

"If you were in a Mark 4, and a Category IV, weighing five thousand, seven hundred tonnes, was coming at you, what would you do?"

 

"Run, I guess?"

 

Laura made an anguished face and looked at her as if to say, "What on earth would possess you to actually say that?" Carmilla shrugged in response.

 

"Well." He sounded surprised. "There's an answer I didn't expect." Carmilla frowned, and Laura listened to her father, eagerly awaiting his explanation.

 

"A blatant disregard for standard procedure?" Carmilla supplied, finally, when the man still hadn't explained after a long few seconds.

 

"No," he said, the smile evident in his voice. "A humble Jaeger pilot." Carmilla looked at Laura, who shrugged. "You didn't run when the last Kaiju came at you, did you?" Carmilla hadn't. She should have, but she hadn't. Laura never would have forgiven her, and she never would have forgiven herself, for betraying Laura when she had finally needed her.

 

"No, I suppose I didn't."

 

"There you go, then." He sounded pleased with himself, having proven that Carmilla was more reckless than she thought she was. "Take care of my daughter, Ms. Karnstein."

 

Carmilla didn't miss a beat. "She doesn't need me to take care of her, sir. She can take care of herself well enough." Laura, frowning because she was still trying to figure out what the point of her father's question was, looked up at Carmilla, a small smile forming at the edge of her lips.

 

"I am well aware of Laura's ability to take care of herself." He paused, and Carmilla knew he was trying so very hard not to say 'but'. "Just watch her back for me, would you?"

 

"Sir, all due respect," she said, trying, once more, to explain her meaning. "The first time I met your daughter, she slammed me down on the ground like the fist of a very angry god."

 

Laura blinked at her, doe eyes staring her down. Carmilla should have really learned how to stop saying what was on her mind around Laura, especially if it made the girl smile at her like that. She did not need her father to know how enamoured she was with his daughter, though, so she continued.

 

"When I say that your daughter doesn't need me to take care of her, I mean that she literally doesn't need me to take care of her, because she will have the person who's daring to provoke her begging for mercy before I even notice that something's gone wrong."

 

"Well, um." He breathed in. Carmilla thought she heard him pull the phone away from his face for a second, but then he said, "That's quite the opinion of my daughter you have there, and well, I can't say I'm really surprised, based on Brutum's performance, and all the reports I've seen on co-pilots, but I am incredibly glad that you seem to hold her in such high regard."

 

"It's hard not to, sir."

 

"It was very nice talking with you, Carmilla Karnstein," said Laura's father, and Carmilla felt almost as if she was conversing with an old friend.

 

"Likewise," she said.

 

"Would you be so kind as to give the phone to my daughter?"

 

Carmilla wordlessly handed the phone to Laura, who was still staring at her, as if dazed.

 

"Hey, dad," she said, turning from Carmilla.

 

"Kiddo," he said, then paused. "I appreciate that you called to tell me, and I am glad that your co-pilot seems to have a good head on her shoulders." Carmilla smirked, and Laura caught it out of the corner of her eyes, and shook her head in mock ridicule. "But that doesn't mean that I don't expect a phone call the second there's anything coming out of the Breach and you're on the welcoming committee, you hear me?"

 

"I'll call you the minute I know what's happening, pinky promise," said Laura. Carmilla raised an eyebrow. Laura shoved her back on the bed, gently.

 

"I mean it, Laura, I don't want to worry that it's you who's out there waltzing with a damn Kaiju." Carmilla sat up again; Laura was too busy talking to her father to try pushing her down properly twice.

 

"Okay, first of all: we don't waltz with Kaiju."

 

"Laura."

 

"Second of all: I'll call you. Promise."

 

"Pinky promise?"

 

Laura's cheeks flushed. "Yes, dad, I pinky promise," she said, through gritted teeth, aware that Carmilla's eyes were on her.

 

He chuckled. "Ah, I have to go. Deadline in an hour."

 

Laura groaned, turned away from Carmilla, and started speaking angrily into the phone. "I know you can write however many words per minute, and why are you even waiting until - I'm not going to worry about your time management skills, or lack thereof. Why didn't you tell me when you picked up the phone? I would've called you back later, I swear."

 

"No, you wouldn't have, and I wouldn't have been able to focus anyway, knowing you wanted to talk and I turned you away. I'm glad you called me, though."

 

"Dad, I'm hanging up now," said Laura, sternly.

 

"I love you."

 

"I love you too. Go work on your article." She ended the call and turned back to look at Carmilla, who had a Cheshire cat grin on her face. Laura sighed, relented. "Say what you want to say."

 

"Pinky promise, huh?"

 

"Oh my god, shut up. But, on the list of topics I would like to talk about: I think you made an impression on my dad, which is.. nice. Knowing that he approves of my co-pilot picking skills."

 

Carmilla smiled. "Did I?"

 

"Don't play coy with me," said Laura, smirking. Carmilla picked her book up again, already flipping through the pages to find where she had been mere minutes before. "Why did you want to get on my dad's good side?"

 

"I wasn't aware that's what I was doing."

 

"I'm sure you weren't," muttered Laura, and settled down next to her to see which book Carmilla had been in the process of reading when she had interrupted.

 

;;

 

November 20, 2020
Anchorage Shatterdome

 

Sometime between Carmilla telling Laura that she was a vampire and dinner a few days later, Laura had done two things: stitched 'XVII/XI/MMXX' into her jacket right above her heart, which was obviously a reference to their first Kaiju kill – the date, in Roman numerals – and appeared on Carmilla's doorstep with a duffel bag and a yellow pillow.

 

"So, I figured that I know most of your deep dark secrets now, so, you know, there's only a couple of things that were keeping me from being your roommate, and I guess- Well, I know about the scars, and. The other thing." She spoke so quickly that Carmilla barely caught her meaning for a brief second. Then she looked down at the duffel bag, and figured that Laura might actually have wanted to live with her.

 

"No," said Carmilla.

 

"I don't? There's something other than the-" Laura paused. She looked around, and noted the two other Rangers at the end of the hallway, their eyes already on them. She looked back at Carmilla and awkwardly hissed, showing off her canine teeth in a way that Carmilla assumed was supposed to imitate her fangs.

 

"The thing? Or the other thing with your, um, mother?" Carmilla frowned until she noticed that she was talking about her mother being a Marshal. "Those things are going to be hard to top, Carm." She breathed out, pinched the bridge of her nose.

 

"Why do you want to move in with me?"

 

"We're co-pilots," she said, as if that explained everything. It explained a couple of things – like why Laura would want to become her co-pilot's roommate, if her co-pilot was literally anyone other than Carmilla. "I spend most of my time in here anyway, and I know about the major thing now, so I didn't think it would be a problem if I moved in."

 

"Yes, exactly- I'm a vampire," said Carmilla, slowly, intending for Laura to understand what she was trying to get across more clearly. She didn't bother changing the volume of her voice.

 

The Rangers were most definitely human, and didn't know that vampires existed judging by their regular heart rates. They wouldn't assume that she actually wasn't speaking in code, unlike Laura, who had made it so very obvious.

 

"I know," replied Laura, equally as slowly.

 

The girl had a smile playing across her lips, and Carmilla couldn't figure it out at all. It looked like a genuine smile, but Carmilla didn't think that Laura could possibly be serious about this, and yet. Carmilla looked down at Laura, in her too-big jacket, smiling eagerly at her, and at all the patches on her duffel bag, and thought about her own duffel bag, how barren it was of anything that would identify it as hers.

 

"You're human, and you're okay with rooming with.. a vampire?"

 

"Duh. Why wouldn't I be?" Laura's genuine look of confusion at the thought that she wouldn't be fine with the thought of living with her made Carmilla stumble on her words.

 

"Because, that would be- It's completely-" She stammered until finally, she just quit trying to explain to Laura why living with her would be a terrible idea when she was a walking, talking meal for someone like Carmilla.

 

"I've already told you, I'm fine with you being a Dracula enthusiast," she muttered, glancing down at the end of the hallway as she said the last words.

 

"Hardly," Carmilla muttered.

 

"Plus you've already met my dad, sort of, and that's further than most of my friends have gone, and most of my ex-girlfriends, actually." Carmilla raised an eyebrow. "So, we're already past the awkward stage. Unless there's something else that you want me to know, I want to move in with you. Also, Betty thinks that I already live here. Again."

 

"You're impossible," said Carmilla, and finally opened the door wide. She waited for Laura to drag her duffel bags into the room, but the girl frowned instead, as if being given what she wanted wasn't good enough without a challenge.

 

"Wait, you are okay with this, aren't you? I don't want to force you."

 

"Not particularly fond of the idea," she lied, her voice lilting near the end. "But it's not like I have a say in the matter, is it, gumdrop?"

 

Laura shrugged. "You like your privacy."

 

"As if you haven't been invading my privacy since the moment we met."

 

"Right, but I shouldn't have assumed that you would be okay with- I mean, I can just unpack, it wouldn't be much of a hassle, I really just did it to show how serious I am about moving in with you."

 

Carmilla raised an eyebrow.

 

"I mean, we're going to be assigned a Jaeger soon, it would be convenient, you know, for, um, better synchronicity levels." Laura was lying through her teeth and Carmilla knew it. Thankfully, Laura also knew that Carmilla knew. "I just thought that the, uh, the Dracula thing was why you didn't want to be my roommate. And the scars, but I could still tell there was something-"

 

Before Laura could say anything else, Carmilla grabbed the duffel bag from off of Laura's shoulder and placed it onto her own bed. Laura stared at her duffel, then at Carmilla's hand, then smiled. Her heavy duffel bag weighed nothing in Carmilla's grip, of course. Laura seemed almost charmed that the thing wouldn't be too heavy for a vampire, as if she had just now considered the day-to-day benefits of super strength.

 

The smile made Carmilla uncomfortable because of the sheer raw nature of it. She would never ever tire of the way her co-pilot smiled at her, she knew. Laura stepped into the room, and placed the pillow onto the bed. Carmilla pointed to the top bunk.

 

"You sleep on top. I'm not trading the bottom bunk."

 

"Ha. Like I'd want to sleep in your bed, Karnstein." Laura sat down on the bed, bouncing on it to test the mattress, as if she hadn't sat with Carmilla on the thing ever since the room had been assigned to them. Or, just after she moved out. Neither of them mentioned that Laura had already slept in Carmilla's bed. More than once.

 

Laura reached up to massage the crook of her neck, closed her eyes slightly and pressed harder into her skin, rubbing at the parts that ached. Carmilla watched with an intense fascination. It wasn't until Laura's eyelids snapped open and she looked up at her curiously that Carmilla noticed that she had released a strangled sound, an unintentional one at that.

 

"I've got another, um, a suitcase in my room. I'll go get it. And, um, Carm?"

 

"Mm?"

 

Laura was about to say something, Carmilla was sure, but then she shook her head, and she stood up and stepped so close to her that Carmilla was intoxicated by the scent, barely able to stand, because the girl's mouth smelled of caramel and sugar and it was so very close to hers that she could taste it on her own tongue.

 

She wanted so badly to get that taste in her mouth properly, and she lilted, slowly, when Laura pressed her lips to Carmilla's skin; a slight brush against her cheek. Carmilla could feel the blood rushing, pulsing to her cheek, as if trying to remember what having Laura's lips pressed to her cheek felt like, as if a kiss on the cheek was the most scandalous thing she had ever been a part of – as if she hadn't experienced the eighties firsthand, for god's sake – and her eyes blinked shut out of reflex alone, but Laura was already moving away.

 

"Thank you," she said, still close enough that Carmilla could feel her breath on her cheek, her voice like silk wrapping itself around her heart with every word.

 

Carmilla stayed rooted to her spot, listening to her erratic pulse as Laura stepped out of the room, and gathered up another bag, and walked back to her – their – room, suitcase wobbling behind her.

 

She didn't open her eyes until Laura walked in again, this time with another suitcase covered in patches, evidence of a life eagerly anticipating to be lived. Her co-pilot set it down on the ground before promptly asking Carmilla if she minded putting their dirty clothes in the same laundry pile, or if they should have separate piles.

 

Carmilla, who had only just recently started relearning how to focus on anything other than Laura's lips pressed to her skin, nodded her indifference, and settled on top of her bed, in between the yellow pillow and Laura's duffel bag, feeling awkwardly comfortable surrounded by Laura, Laura, Laura.

 

She watched her co-pilot unpack her belongings and put them in their place, fascinated by the way the girl seemed to know literally everything about her room and how she could make a space for herself inside of it; how she filled the empty spaces, the ones that seemed to have been waiting for her.

 

Later, when her room looked less like a sorry excuse for a hermit's living quarters, she would recall that her room had always looked more like their room; it had just been waiting for Laura to make it her own.

 

;;

 

November 25, 2020
Anchorage Shatterdome

 

Carmilla, apparently, liked that Laura had started leaving food in the cabinets. She didn't complain when she found Laura's toothbrush next to hers, in the mug with the broken handle.

 

Laura, for her part, had gotten used to having Carmilla as a roommate rather quickly. Other than having to sleep on the top bunk, and her morning showers becoming her midday showers whenever Carmilla woke up first, nothing much changed. Which wasn't to say that Laura got used to having to share her bathroom with Carmilla, who took half an hour to shower, fogged up the entire room, and then had the audacity to ignore Laura's complaints about the hair in the drain.

 

She didn't much mind, though. Truly, Laura didn't mind a lot of things when it came to Carmilla. How she sometimes left the room and came back with glazed eyes and a content smile on her too-red mouth; how she liked teasing Laura every so often, tipping her just so over the edge, as if to see which way she would go. Laura rather enjoyed it, actually; being given this amount of attention from Carmilla was, well, comfortable.

 

She'd started getting used to Carmilla doing things simply to fake-annoy her – leaving her hair in the drain, for one thing, and stealing her yellow pillow every night – so when Carmilla emptied all her clothes, even the clean ones, into the laundry basket and wore the same shirt for three days straight, Laura knew something was definitely up.

 

Eventually, she relented. She grabbed the basket, emptied it into a canvas bag, and went up to Carmilla, who was on her stomach lounging about on the bottom bunk, her arms pinned underneath Laura's pillow. She had been glancing at Laura every so often underneath lidded eyes that Laura assumed meant she was half-asleep.

 

"I'm going to the laundry room. Do you have anything else you haven't already shoved in here?" Carmilla, who looked like she had been waiting for that exact question, didn't say a word.

 

Instead, she stood up. Her back arched in a delicious curve and Laura stepped back to give her space. The fact that Carmilla had been the one to step into her space in the first place had been overlooked. What hadn't been overlooked was that Carmilla was tracing the hem of her shirt, playfully tugging on it, toying with it.

 

Laura, holding almost all their clothes, looked down at her hand, unable to take her eyes off of Carmilla's balled up fist pulling at her shirt inch by inch, and watched her co-pilot as she took it off tantalizingly slowly, as if she were putting on a show.

 

Her breathing slowed down to an impossible rate as she watched Carmilla stripping down just for her, and noticed that – as much as it had seemed like it – Carmilla hadn't put all of her clothes in the laundry basket. Apart from the shirt and boy shorts, she had left a specific item out of the pile with the intention of wearing it under her shirt. A black bra, which left so very little to the imagination that it rendered Laura speechless for a moment.

 

She was so close to her that she could see the goose bumps rising on Carmilla's forearm as she held out the shirt. Laura could barely focus on anything other than holding their combined laundry and trying so very hard to pry her eyes away from her co-pilot's body.

 

As with Carmilla's back, the front was covered in scars. Lines that seemed to have been printed against her skin when the circuitry suit had been burned against her. Carmilla had taken to changing with her in the room after Laura found out about the scars, but Laura hadn't gotten a good look at them because she didn't want to make her co-pilot feel uncomfortable. Carmilla hadn't been undressing for Laura's pleasure then. It seemed like she was now.

 

Laura couldn't help it, she stared. It was hard not to.

 

She studied the scars as if they were a map that led to El Dorado itself, sketched out every single line and sharp angle from the ones that slipped out of Carmilla's bra, all the way up to just above the boy shorts. Her abdomen was marked with smaller scars, the ones she knew were inside of any circuitry suit.

 

The ones over her chest, nearest her collarbone, were the harshest. Especially up close. She also noticed how pale Carmilla looked, even more so than usual. She wasn't sure if that's what made the scars look darker, a different kind of red than the ones Laura knew were on her back, or if that's what they always looked like.

 

She was sure that the scars weren't what Carmilla was showing her, though, knew them to be a result of something Carmilla wished not to discuss at length, and wondered just what the hell her co-pilot thought she was playing at.

 

After she took her eyes off of Carmilla's shameless display of her nearly-naked form and dragged her eyes back to her co-pilot's, Laura noticed that her expression was hungry, as if she were getting off on having Laura look at her like this. And, of course she was.

 

No doubt that Carmilla had caught onto how Laura sometimes looked at her for a little too long for it to be friendly, or had heard snippets of her less than platonic thoughts in the drift – the thoughts Laura had learned to suppress with literally anything else because she didn't need to give Carmilla another reason to tease her.

 

Maybe, though, maybe Carmilla had noticed her little crush and decided to show her just what she couldn't have. She didn't think that her co-pilot would have ever done something so unbelievably cruel, but her current predicament and Carmilla's self-satisfied smirk proved otherwise.

 

But it didn't sit right with her, still. Carmilla wouldn't have done that – been so overt, just for the sake of being cruel. So Laura guessed that she was simply being.. Carmilla. Showing her what rooming with her looked like. Which, Laura had to admit, looked very, very good.

 

She hadn't noticed then, but Carmilla had been inching closer to her, so close that she could practically feel the heat radiate from her co-pilot's body. Laura could barely breathe as it was, but she wasn't going to give her the satisfaction; she wasn't going to let Carmilla know just how badly she wanted her at that very minute. She had moved to the US to train at a highly exclusive military base, graduated top of her class, killed a Kaiju, and all with a show of decorum; she could play it safe in front of a half-naked Carmilla.

 

Betty had been her roommate for months. That girl walked around in a bra more often than not, and Laura hadn't batted an eyelash after the initial surprise. But, of course, she hadn't been attracted to Betty. So, she wouldn't have batted an eyelash either way.

 

That was most definitely not the case with her co-pilot, but she could pretend that Carmilla had no effect on her, the way Betty hadn't had an effect on her. Again, she didn't need Carmilla to tease her even more than she already did.

 

Laura grabbed the shirt roughly. Rougher than necessary, but Carmilla didn't seem bothered. "Next time you run out of clean clothes, do me a favour and wear something of mine."

 

Carmilla's reply was instantaneous; "Anything in particular?" She had obviously been waiting for Laura to say something. Laura wondered just how long she had been standing there, staring at her co-pilot while Carmilla basked in it. She replied without noticing that she had done so.

 

"What?"

 

"Anything of yours," Carmilla purred out, her voice like ice along Laura's back, "that you would like for me to wear?"

 

Laura could barely focus on standing anymore, let alone breathing; between that and forming coherent replies, or comprehending that Carmilla was asking her for – what? Fashion advice? Laura was having a hard day.

 

"Clothes, Carmilla. I would like it if you wore clothes." She didn't wait to see what Carmilla would do next to tantalize her, and walked out of the room as fast as she could, holding onto Carmilla's still-warm shirt.

 

Laura only noticed that she had walked out without shoes when she got to the laundry room and stared down at her feet, only to find that she had walked all the way down in just her striped socks.

 

;;

 

November 26, 2020
Anchorage Shatterdome

 

Unfortunately, looking inside of Carmilla's food cabinets (before she'd put her own stuff in there) had resulted in a fascinating discovery: Carmilla didn't have so much as a can of food in there. And she had yet to show up for dinner. So Laura emptied her backpack and went in search of snacks. Which led her to the K-Science labs, which was stocked with all the blood packs that her co-pilot could ever possibly need.

 

Laura heard a loud crash from behind her, and turned around holding up a tablet in defence of whatever had made the sound.

 

"Who the hell are you? Are you from Health and Safety? Because, if you are, this is totally sanctioned. All of it. All health, all safety, all the time."

 

A French K-scientist was.. not the worst thing she could have been dealing with at that moment. She frowned at the ginger for a brief moment before smiling nervously.

 

"Please tell me you're not actually from Health and Safety. Or Human Resources. Oh, god, you're not from Human Resources, are you?"

 

"No, um," said Laura, quickly, switching to English because her French was incredibly rusty, hoping that the stranger knew that. "Health and Safety, that's me. I mean, I'm a health inspector, not actually health and safety as in the concepts of, but. Um, I'll be taking this. Seeing as how it's a health code violation, because as a health inspector, I would know that."

 

Laura smiled, a nervous smile that gave her away instantly, and the scientist – S. LaFontaine according to the monogram on their lab coat, underneath which was stuck a badge declaring S. LaFontaine's pronouns to be 'They/Them', which Laura thought was quite informative of them – smiled. Laura knew right then that she was caught in the act.

 

"You're not actually from Health and Safety, are you?" they replied, in English. "Oh, thank god. A surprise inspection is the last thing I need in here."

 

"That sounds awfully anxiety-inducing," said Laura, carefully. "Why do I get the feeling that you're hiding something potentially dangerous in here?"

 

LaFontaine glanced at the tablet in Laura's hands. "That's the wrong question. What you should have asked me is 'Am I that obvious?' To which I would have replied with: well, you're holding your tablet upside down, and also- Actually, I'm pretty sure that's Perry's tablet."

 

They tilted their head to look at the thing, scratching the back of their head as they did so. Laura glanced at the tablet, and sure enough, it had 'PROPERTY OF L. PERRY' engraved on the back. Crap.

 

"I can explain that," she lied.

 

"And you're a terrible thief. Got caught twice in one day. Terrible liar, too, if that performance is all you've got."

 

Laura coughed nervously. "Couldn't we, I don't know, keep this between us? You don't like surprise inspections, I don't like being given formal warnings from my superiors. We're very similar, if you think about it."

 

LaFontaine ignored her, instead focused all their attention on the blood pack in Laura's other hand. "What are you planning on doing with that?"

 

"Uh." Laura gulped. "I need to run some tests. On this." She smiled, somewhat less convincingly than her previous attempt, if LaFontaine's confused face was anything to go by. The scientist winced, and Laura immediately stopped smiling.

 

"Are you Luce's new errand person? You're even worse than Kirsch, and that boy once tried to convince me he was taking blood for his pet dragon, and they don't even drink blood. They just eat people whole. Or barbecued. Whatever. I don't know what dragons are into."

 

"Look, this has nothing to do with dragons. It's for my fr- my project," she said, smiling again, hoping that LaFontaine didn't catch her slip.

 

"Okay, unless you're willing to get yourself sick with Kaiju Blue-"

 

"What?"

 

"I suggest that you borrow blood for your-" LaFontaine made quotation marks in the air, and continued, "project from the Med bay, which is over there."

 

The scientist pointed in the general direction of the Med bay, their eyes trained on the infected blood pack. They plucked the thing from Laura's hand, the Jaeger pilot surrendering it willingly after she heard the words 'Kaiju Blue'.

 

"They have a ton of blood packs to choose from, O negative, O positive, you know. All the Os in general. A, B, whatever. That blood won't be infected with Kaiju blood. Whereas this?" LaFontaine held the blood pack up and said, "Definitely, and deliberately infected."

 

"Why on earth do you have that just lying around in your lab?" Laura wiped her hands off on her jacket, even though the blood was still safely sealed in its pack.

 

"First of all," said LaFontaine, a fake smile plastered to their face, "it wasn't just lying around. It was in a cooling compartment that you obviously opened, because this is still cold. Second of all, this is, in fact, a laboratory, in which I study Kaiju. So, like, obviously there's going to be Kaiju stuff. And thirdly, don't question science, dude."

 

"Thanks," said Laura, and took a step back, stumbling on a gigantic pipe that was running across the room. She stepped over it, still walking backwards towards the direction of the Med bay. "You've been oddly helpful. Albeit slightly terrifying."

 

"Happy to be of service, just doing my job, and so on and so forth. May I have the tablet back, now? Perry really doesn't like misplacing her things, and I actually borrowed that to give her an excuse to come down here because she really doesn't like her boss that much at the moment, and if you could just-"

 

"Right, sorry," said Laura, and handed the tablet over, then hastened her way over to the Med bay.

 

;;

 

An hour later, Laura walked into their room and spotted Carmilla on the bottom bunk reading a novel she hadn't seen before. Someday, she thought, she would figure out where Carmilla kept getting all her books from.

 

"Oh, hey, you're here," she said, hoisting the backpack off her shoulder and placing it on the bed, next to Carmilla's feet. "I didn't think I'd find you here."

 

"This is my room too, if you recall. Actually, it was my room first."

 

"Technically, it was both of ours, and then it was yours, and now it's ours again." Laura closed the door, and locked it. Carmilla looked up at her over the book.

 

"Why did you lock the door?"

 

"I kind of did a thing," said Laura, as she unzipped the backpack, and pulled out a blood pack. Carmilla stayed silent, and Laura pulled out another one. And another, and another, until there was what seemed to be a collection of blood packs on top of her bed. She finally put down the book, because there was no use pretending that she was still reading it.

 

"I thought you were fine with living with me," she muttered, softly.

 

"I am," said Laura, sounding affronted.

 

"What's all this for? Making sure I don't eat you in your sleep, pretty girl?"

 

Pretty girl. Laura blushed a deep red, then thought of what Carmilla had said, what she had alluded to right before, and frowned. "No. God, why would you eat me in my sleep? If you're going to eat me that's going to be when I'm awake and-" she stopped, shook her head, tried to clear it of any thoughts of- well, that. "Okay, that's irrational."

 

She breathed in, and Carmilla listened to her, her pulse beating faster, at an almost alarming pace that she could barely keep up with. "I'm a vampire, how is that irrational? What if I get hungry, darling?"

 

"Yes, exactly," said Laura, suddenly glad that Carmilla was following her line of thinking. "I noticed that you don't have much in the way of blood in here. And you've been looking a little pale, more so than usual, which was when I figured out that you weren't eating properly."

 

"I'm a vampire," said Carmilla.

 

"You used to drink blood daily, but you've taken to going out every couple of days and getting like, a single blood pack. I know you can't take more because your fridge is broken and you like your blood cold, but my old room's fridge works just fine. So, I got you blood." Laura shrugged, as if this was the simplest thing in the world to her.

 

"Did you rob a blood bank?" Carmilla muttered, finally turning to look at the amount of blood packs Laura had emptied out of the backpack.

 

"Sort of."

 

"You are aware that most people's reaction to the whole 'I'm a vampire' thing would've been to run for the hills, right? Not move in with said vampire, and then bring their vampire roommate blood packs that they stole from-" She looked down at the packs and noticed the PPDC logo on them. "The Medical bay? Darling, what if you got caught?"

 

Laura smiled. "You underestimate how much of a good thief I am," she said, folding her arms in front of her chest.

 

"Evidently," Carmilla muttered, tracing the blood packs, poking them slightly, as if to make sure that they were real and she wasn't imagining the entire scenario due to hunger. At least, that's what Laura thought it was. She would have looked pale after a couple of days neglecting her well-being, for sure, which was why Laura had worried enough to resort to petty theft in the first place.

 

"Why did you take so many?"

 

"I didn't know which blood type was your favourite. Or if you even have a favourite. Do they all taste the same, or do they have a different taste?"

 

"Different," Carmilla muttered, still looking stunned by the amount of blood Laura had brought for her.

 

"You have got to tell me what every single blood type tastes like." Carmilla turned to face her then, a curious look on her face. Laura coughed and pressed her finger to a pack of O Positive. "Anyway. I got you a few of each."

 

"You're absurd," said Carmilla.

 

Laura frowned. "Do you want me to take them back? Should I not have- This is some breach of vampire ethics or something, isn't it? I should have asked-"

 

"No, I'm- I ran out of my own stash a few days ago. Might as well take advantage of your surprisingly impressive attempt at larceny." Carmilla mentally stumbled on her next words, Laura could tell by the slightly furrowed brows, but made sure to say them clearly, maybe because she wasn't sure just how to say them, but Laura deserved better than a casual dismissal. "Thank you."

 

"You're welcome," said Laura, smiling wide, glad that she had pleased Carmilla enough for her to thank her.

 

"And AB. Negative, preferably. My favourite type."

 

Laura laughed at the humble coincidence, and said, "I'll keep that in mind. Also, I think one of them saw me lurking in the Med bay."

 

"Oh?"

 

"I might be banned from going to the Med bay ever again. Unless I'm very close to death, apparently, which is hilarious because you're a vampire and I'm very close to you, so I mean I could go back there right now, except they wouldn't get why and probably throw bandages and popsicle sticks at me until I left."

 

The way Laura said it was like she had sucked in her last breath of air and decided that she would tell Carmilla about this event with her dying breath. She breathed out at the end, her shoulders slumping down in such a resigned gesture, and Carmilla laughed.

 

;;

 

«Neural handshake initiated. Pilot-to-pilot connection engaged.»

 

;;

 

She was in one of the rooms of the barracks; it was a yellow room, so back at the Jaeger Academy. There was the blonde girl again – Elle, the one from the Jaeger – and she had Carmilla's leather jacket in her hand. Carmilla was curled up next to her, and Elle was stitching something into the collar, and Laura felt a pang in her heart.

 

Then she held it up as if to show it to Carmilla.

 

'C. Karnstein' was written along the hem.

 

Laura felt a warmth because that was one of the nicest things anyone had ever done for her- for Carmilla. Not her. This wasn't her memory, Laura reminded herself.

 

;;

 

It would've been easier to be yours. Your co-pilot.

 

Her heart clenched, throat already raw at the thought of Laura being anyone else's co-pilot. Carmilla bit her tongue and watched as Danny smiled at Laura. Her co-pilot. Hers. Christ, she should not have been feeling this sort of possessiveness over Laura right now.

 

This is a memory, Carmilla, she reminded herself. Which one of them had chased the rabbit? God, did it matter? This memory had so obviously happened before her co-pilot found out about Danny holding back – they were barely speaking to each other as it was, Laura wouldn't have said that to the redhead after. Plus, Laura was wearing the exact same clothes she'd worn for her and Danny's drift Sync test. This happened on the day of.

 

Why did you think that I wouldn't want to be your friend anymore?

 

Most people, after they found out that we weren't drift compatible, or when they found someone else they would have preferred to be drift compatible with, they didn't bother to- Most of my other co-pilot candidates didn't. I'm not used to people sticking around.

 

Carmilla looked down at her feet, hoped to every deity that she did not believe in that they would make the ground swallow her whole right then and there because she did not want to be here. She felt smaller than she ever had because her first instinct had been to run, far far away.

 

She remembered how Laura had convinced her to stay – while packing her bags up, giving her the option to leave if she really wanted to, so of course she believed that Laura had some sort of inferiority complex when it came to people staying. God, it had been quite charming, actually, and it had worked on her, but.. there was no telling how many other people it had worked on, if any.

 

I thought we were- don't get me wrong. I love being your friend, I do. You're really cool and fun to be around, and you're the only other person who's actually read Blume, but I- this wasn't exactly how I pictured telling you this.

 

Telling me what?

 

For a while now, I've wanted to be something other than your friend. Carmilla felt her chest getting tighter and tighter.

 

Yeah, I know. I wanted to be your co-pilot too. That's what I was saying.

 

No, that's not what I meant. I wanted to be something other than your friend or your co-pilot.

 

Wait a minute, was she about to-

 

Danny?

 

I like you. Oh, god. Carmilla's heart felt like it was trying to crawl out of her mouth. It struck Carmilla then that she had never seen Danny scared before. Nervous, agitated, even borderline furious, but never downright scared. She looked scared then.

 

I like you too, Danny. I thought you knew that. I mean, we've been hanging out for ages now, and I like anyone who brings me chocolate, even if it tastes nothing like actual chocolate.

 

Danny looked at Laura the way she always had – like she would throw a lasso around the moon and pull it down for her, smiling the entire time. Carmilla hated that she had thought of that, of all things, and she felt sick to her stomach.

 

Laura, that's.. not what I meant. I- I have a crush on you. Carmilla thought that the word 'crush' seemed like an understatement. Danny was obviously in love with Laura and her co-pilot hadn't even noticed.

 

That's hilarious, said Laura.

 

Carmilla stilled. What the-

 

Hilarious?

 

Did Betty put you up to this?

 

Betty? What? No, I really do have feelings for you. Laura, I love-

 

Her co-pilot's emotions bombarded Carmilla then, a mixture of 'no, you don't', 'girls like you don't have crushes on girls like me', 'there's no way in hell this is happening to me right now', and 'you are not my type'.

 

This reaction of outright denial was not really what Carmilla had expected in the event of Danny confessing to her co-pilot, to say the least.

 

In fact, Carmilla had assumed that neither of them had come out with their feelings because, well, she was no one's fool. Carmilla knew how her co-pilot felt about the redhead (before she found out about her holding back, at least, because now her emotions regarding Danny were typically anger, rage, fury, and more emotions along those lines). This memory was from before that, though.

 

This should have been everything that Laura wanted at the time. Danny as a romantic possibility, a girlfriend, whatever else Laura wanted her to be; with Carmilla's sole role being left as Laura's co-pilot, since Danny hadn't worked out. But that had obviously not been Laura's plan.

 

Laura wasn't holding Danny's hand, or telling her that she also had feelings for her – Laura thought she was joking. She seemed to be hoping for all that was worth that Danny was joking. Was the possibility of Danny caring for her in a romantic capacity such an inconvenience to her that she wouldn't even do it the courtesy of taking it seriously?

 

But, damn it, that was Laura's current state of mind. The bone-deep rejection of the very concept of Danny telling her that she cared for her, filling up the inside of Carmilla's head with 'no, you don't' and 'girls like you don't have crushes on girls like me' which, whatever the hell that meant.

 

For all Carmilla knew, everyone Laura had met in the Jaeger Academy was in love with her – she had that effect on people. The Shatterdome's staff hadn't caught on properly yet, but she knew that there was a guy who regularly blushed and started stuttering when he saw Laura in the hallway, so they were only just learning how much of a darling her co-pilot was.

 

Carmilla wanted to yell at how incomprehensible this entire memory and its respective emotions were, and she could tell that she was doing far better than Danny, who looked like she was about to cry. Carmilla wouldn't blame her.

 

Except, she still couldn't understand what Laura had meant by 'girls like you don't have crushes on girls like me'. The others, she could pin to the big board of 'please don't tell me you love me' that Laura seemed to be holding up in front of Danny right now, but that one didn't fit.

 

Unless she believed that she was too good for Danny, which, obviously – but this was before she'd found out that Danny had held back in the Kwoon. This was back when Laura adored Danny, thought of her as an equal – a co-pilot candidate.

 

Before their argument, Laura was practically enamoured with the redhead. Danny Lawrence, the brave hero with a heart of gold or whatever, the one Laura wanted to pilot a Jaeger with in the first place. Danny had just told Laura that she cared for her, that she loved her, and Laura's reaction had been to laugh, because she hadn't wanted it to be true.

 

Laura still had an untainted view of Danny, her original one, the one through rose-tinted lenses. Whenever Laura looked at Danny before the argument, she saw Danny with her high scores and her perfect teeth and her perfect smile, the perfect PPDC recruit she wanted to be co-pilots with. Danny, who might as well help old people cross the street in her spare time, in between saving kittens from trees and babysitting toddlers free of charge.

 

Yet, Danny, hero of the god damn Earth, hadn't been enough for Laura. Carmilla was no Danny. Here she stood, with nothing to offer but her miserable torn self and – if she allowed herself to be honest – who would ever take that. Laura definitely wouldn't; especially not when there were better prospects.

 

If darling, dearest Danny, the perfect girl who had been willing to live out the rest of her life with Laura back then, no matter how short it was going to be thanks to the war, hadn't been enough for Laura, then what god damn chance did Carmilla have? She could never offer her a life the way Danny could.

 

Although, there had been that one time Laura had expressed an interest in becoming a vampire, but that had happened before she'd found out vampires were real. That was a topic she hadn't broached when she'd asked her all those questions. Carmilla made a mental note to ask Laura what her thoughts on turning into a monster were now that she knew of their existence.

 

Christ, she had told Laura about being a vampire, she'd stripped herself bare in front of Laura, let the girl poke and prod at whichever parts of her she wanted, needed to, which reminded her-

 

What had Laura thought of her downright coming onto her, taking her shirt off like that? In a way that Carmilla had only ever done to seduce someone. Only, they had jumped on top of her the second she had pulled her clothes off, and Laura hadn't so much as made a move on her.

 

Come to think of it, what if the reason Laura hadn't made a move was because Laura didn't think of her, Carmilla Karnstein, as a potential romantic endeavour, despite all the tells – blushing, increased heart rate, blown-out pupils?

 

What if Carmilla wasn't enough for Laura, either?

 

Which was when she noticed that Laura's doubt at Danny's words had started influencing her own thoughts and feelings, except- What if she had indeed gotten it all wrong and Laura thought of her only as her co-pilot, perhaps the friendly neighbourhood vampire, and nothing else? She certainly wasn't going to go to bed with her – figuratively speaking, given how they had taken to sleeping in the same bed often enough.

 

Carmilla had allowed herself to possibly consider letting herself simply admit that she was maybe, most definitely, kind of falling hard for Laura Hollis in a way that she had never let herself fall in love before; with reckless abandon.

 

Well, damn the earth. She'd made an idiot of herself, once more. She had let herself get used to having Laura so close, allowed herself to get attached, to think that there had been a chance, when really Carmilla had no chance, never had one, either, and had tricked herself into thinking that she did.

 

Except, no, that didn't make sense. That didn't fit with everything else she knew of Laura, the kind, patient girl with a curiosity streak like no other, but then again – neither did her rejecting Danny.

 

God, nothing in this memory made any sense. There was still a chance, wasn't there? Who the hell knew anymore, when she herself had assumed that Laura would have welcomed an admission of love from Danny, at least before Carmilla had outed Danny's betrayal.

 

No.

 

No, no, no.

 

She was getting sidetracked, spiralling out of control, getting in way over her head and letting Laura's doubt fog her brain. Her pulse, the blown-out pupils, those were chemical reactions. Laura wouldn't have been able to fake them. She wouldn't have.

 

Reset.

 

;;

 

November 30, 2020
Anchorage Shatterdome

 

"Hey, wait up!"

 

Laura hurriedly pulled on her jacket, too busy trying to keep up with Carmilla to notice that she was putting it on wrong. Her co-pilot had yanked her hand away from Laura's the minute Laura had tried to hold it. Laura had stood rooted to her spot, staring after her. When Laura had finally regained her bearings, Carmilla was already rushing away, as far away from her as it was possible for her to get, it seemed.

 

They had finally been assigned a Jaeger and Laura thought that J.P. had actually understated just how hard it would be; ballet shoes had nothing on the machine. It felt like it was trying to rip them apart, to get its metal into their very bones. The test Jaegers at the Jaeger Academy hadn't been quite as invasive.

 

"What happened?"

 

Carmilla fastened her pace, and Laura knew that if she kept going she wouldn't be able to catch up with her even if she were running.

 

"Carm."

 

"What?" Carmilla snapped, finally turning to face her. Laura didn't seek out her touch, but her whole body was pulsing with the need that came post-drift. The one that she hadn't ignored since their first drift.

 

"I thought we were over this." Carmilla grit her teeth, but Laura continued. "You haven't been this evasive since we met. What's wrong? Was it the thing with your ex? I'll pretend I never saw it, I promise."

 

"That's not what this is about," Carmilla said, finally, as if Laura should have known. She spoke through gritted teeth, as if it pained her. "During the dinner date you had with the annoying tall one, you told her-"

 

"That's what this is about? 'Dinner date'? What are you, twelve years old?"

 

Carmilla scoffed, crossed her arms over her chest and shifted her weight. She didn't answer Laura, instead stood there as if she were thinking of escape routes out of the Shatterdome.

 

Laura sighed. "It was a friendly brunch, or lunch, actually. It was months ago. I said some things that, in hindsight, I probably shouldn't have. I'm not going to apologize for it. You were broody and defensive and I thought you hated me. Danny seemed like she actually wanted to be my co-pilot at the time."

 

"I'm glad," Carmilla spat, tone vicious, "that worked out so well for you two."

 

"It went to hell, you were there. Would you please just talk to me?" Carmilla studied her, a softness in her gaze that hadn't been there before, then groaned.

 

"Look, I don't blame you for not having the best impression of me at the beginning of our acquaintance, given my.. reluctance to treat you with common decency, but that's not the part of the memory that's- That's not the part I care for."

 

"Then what, pray tell, part are you referring to? Because I really don't understand why you're so angry with me right now, and I don't think it's well-deserved, either. So, cough it up."

 

Carmilla turned away from her, looking intent on finding a way out of the Shatterdome and leaving for a few hours. Maybe days. Laura grabbed her arm, over her clothes, a loose grip that Carmilla didn't shake off. Both of them had forgotten how much they needed each other post-drift.

 

"I need time to think and you being here is making everything harder than it ought to be."

 

"What does that mean?"

 

"It means that I cannot have this conversation with you right now," said Carmilla, easily pulling her arm out of her co-pilot's grasp. Laura wondered if she were ever actually holding her in place, or if Carmilla only stood still because she wanted to.

 

Laura watched her leave, wanting to give her the space she needed. When she finally went back to their room, which her co-pilot hadn't been in since that morning, she sat on the edge of the bed and noticed that it was the first time Carmilla had left her alone after a drift.

 

;;

 

December 01, 2020
Anchorage Shatterdome

 

Laura woke up with her mouth tasting of mothballs, and a headache thumping on the inside of her skull. She was in Carmilla's bed, because it was the closest she could get to her co-pilot when she was nowhere to be found.

 

Carmilla had not yet come back. Laura had roamed the Shatterdome when being apart became unbearable, half an hour after Carmilla left her, only to find that she was definitely not in any of her usual haunts – their Kwoon, their assigned Jaeger, or the Med bay.

 

Instead of Carmilla, she was greeted by someone knocking at the door. Laura hastily got out of bed and grabbed the door handle, swinging the door open.

 

"Carm, where have you been-" she stiffened as she looked at the man standing before her, who was most certainly not her co-pilot, which she would have figured out had she actually stopped to think as to why Carmilla would ever knock on the door in the first place.

 

The man was barely older than Laura herself was, and she felt a chill run down her spine as he took in her dishevelled appearance.

 

"What fresh hell are you supposed to be?" she asked, grumpy. She narrowed her eyes, gave him a look that he would have backed away from if she weren't still wearing pajamas.

 

"I'm sorry for interrupting your, uh, nap, but you're late. My name is Kirsch, by the way." Right. One of Brutum Fulmen's pilots. She hadn't recognised him without his co-pilot by his side. Or his jacket.

 

"Um, back up." The boy stood still, waiting for her to wake up properly. "Late for what?"

 

"Practice, duh," he said, shrugging softly.

 

"Right. Of course."

 

She had fallen asleep by accident, had been intent on waiting up for Carmilla, who hadn't come back to the room. Laura hoped the Marshals and other Jaeger pilots wouldn't think badly of her if Carmilla kind of sort of most definitely left the Shatterdome because of her. She turned back to the room, noticed the books and the backpack were still where she'd left them the day before, and hoped that Carmilla hadn't left without picking her stuff up yet.

 

"My- Um, my co-pilot is-"

 

"She's waiting for you."

 

That had been the last thing Laura had expected to come out of the guy's mouth.

 

"She's- What?"

 

He nodded. "Already strapped in and everything." She rubbed the sleep out of her eyes, attempting to wake up properly. She didn't feel well-rested at all. "No offense, but are you sure you're fit to pilot a Jaeger today? You seem very out of it."

 

She glared at him for a second, looked down at his wrist, which had healed since the last time she had seen him. Laura thought it rude how his ability to do his job had never come into question when he had sprained his wrist, rendering him – and by extension, Brutum Fulmen, one of the most powerful Jaegers in the service – useless for weeks, and yet hers was being questioned because she had slept in.

 

«Ranger Laura Hollis, report to Bay 02.»

 

"Oh, crap." She held out a hand towards Kirsch and said, "I'm sorry, Kirsch. I have to go. I'm late."

 

"That's what I've been trying to tell you," he said, watching her tug on her boots over her bare feet. She hobbled on one that she hadn't put on properly before she practically ran out of her room, yelling at him to close the door behind her.

 

"It was nice meeting you!" he yelled, pathetically waving after her retreating form.

 

;;

 

"Where the hell have you been," she hissed at Carmilla, as soon as she stepped onto the platform of their assigned Jaeger. Laura was starting to resent this particular Jaeger, but if they were expected to fight Kaiju in the thing, they needed to get used to it first; learn to wear it like a glove. A glove lined with glass.

 

"You're late," was Carmilla's reply.

 

"I wouldn't have been if I hadn't stayed up all night waiting for you to come back now, would I? 'Time to think' usually implies a couple of hours max, Carmilla, not the entire day. The ghost drift was unbearable without you, but it's not like you care about that, do you? No, I'm sure you were just fine without m-"

 

"Ready, guys?" J.P. asked.

 

"Ready as I'll ever be," said Laura, grinding her teeth, and angrily pulling her helmet on.

 

"Engage the drop, Mr. Armitage."

 

"Engaging drop, ma'am." Laura looked at Carmilla, who was still trying her hardest to not acknowledge her existence, and almost missed J.P. saying, "Doing well so far, pilots."

 

"Release for drop," Carmilla muttered.

 

"I know you're mad at me for some ridiculous reason of yours, and I'm mad at you for not coming back home, but- Look, can we do this someplace else? You and I both know how necessary this is. We can't mess it up because of whatever you're mad at me for."

 

Carmilla exhaled.

 

"Fine," she said.

 

"Thank you."

 

"Three minutes to neural bridge calibration."

 

"Locked and ready," Laura confirmed.

 

;;

 

«Prepare for neural handshake. Initiating neural handshake in fifteen seconds. Fourteen. Thirteen. Twelve. Eleven. Ten. Nine. Eight. Calibrating. Neural handshake initiated. Pilot-to-pilot connection engaged.»

 

;;

 

"Oh, no. You are not walking away from me, and leaving me to deal with the post-drift by myself twice in a god damn row, Carmilla Karnstein."

 

Their Jaeger, nicknamed 'Hellbeast' by Carmilla, had been even harder on them the second time around, which wasn't all that surprising. Laura could feel her spine trying to crawl inwards, as if it wanted to hide from the thing. She didn't even see the point of getting suited up only to feel even less comfortable inside the Jaeger, and to have her pain thrown back in her face to mock her.

 

And, as if that wasn't enough, Carmilla had shut her out throughout the entire drift, so she didn't even have her in her mind, swearing in German or Russian or whichever language she just so happened to be thinking in at the time. Laura had honestly lost track of how many damn languages her co-pilot had learned over the span of three centuries.

 

It felt uncomfortable, having her so obviously there but invisible, pretending that she wasn't visible at all. She didn't like being ignored by her co-pilot, not one bit.

 

Carmilla turned around, frowning at her, and Laura forgot everything. She forgot how she had spent the entire post-drift by herself, and how she had only slept for a couple of hours at most, and how much she wanted to make Carmilla pay for making her experience the post-drift effects by herself. The only thing she cared about was Carmilla, and why they were so god damn off.

 

"Why are you upset with me? What did I do wrong? Just tell me what I did wrong, so I can just- Please, Carmilla."

 

At that, Carmilla's face softened, and she looked at the floor. Laura reached out to twine their fingers together, looking down at Carmilla's hand when she felt wetness coating Carmilla's palm.

 

"You're hurt."

 

There was a cut along the length of her palm, going down her ring finger, crooked, like she'd tried to hold something up and failed, resulting in it slicing her hand. There was dried blood along the sides of the cut like it was at least a couple of hours old, but it had opened again, undoubtedly due to all the training they had done earlier, inside their Jaeger, small droplets pooling on her fingertips.

 

Laura hadn't seen her change before they had started and, god, they had been working on the plasma cannons all day, so Carmilla had definitely over-exerted herself. Why couldn't she have told her and cancelled training for the day? Carmilla hadn't even bothered to put a bandage on it, which meant that she probably hadn't even treated it, either.

 

"Missed a step," said Carmilla, nonchalantly.

 

Laura grabbed her hand, ignoring how the blood changed its course and started pooling inside of Carmilla's palm. She went through her pockets, finding nothing but a used handkerchief. That wouldn't do. Carmilla, noticing what she was looking for, handed her a brand new paper napkin, with words printed on it. Laura didn't have time to read it, merely checked that it was clean and pressed it to Carmilla's palm.

 

"Keep it there."

 

Laura recalled the route they would need to take to get through the Med bay from the Jaeger bay, and set on a course to the place, all while holding Carmilla's hand, pressing the napkin into it.

 

"Did you even clean it when you first got it?" she asked, looking at Carmilla, who refused to answer her. Fine, if that was the way she was going to talk to her from this point onwards. "I know that you're angry, but you are going to come with me to Med bay and let someone take a look at this."

 

Carmilla gave her a small smile. "I thought you were banned from ever going there again."

 

"Without a cause," said Laura, purposely averting her gaze. A Med bay employee had recognised her the day before. She hoped they wouldn't today. "This, however," she said, holding up Carmilla's hand, "is just cause. They can't very well complain when I have reason to be there."

 

;;

 

Laura did not take her to the medical bay, because she knew that the doctors would be legally required to report Carmilla's injury to their superiors; instead, she took her to the K-Science station, where she left Carmilla in the care of a very agitated-looking LaFontaine, who was the only person she knew and vaguely trusted in the science part of the Shatterdome. "I'm busy, Laura," they had said, in an attempt to convince her otherwise. "I'm working on something that might save the world, and I can't take care of-"

 

"I promise you," Laura interjected, "she will not move an inch while I'm gone. Isn't that right, Carm?" Her co-pilot nodded, distractedly. LaFontaine flapped their arms around, but relented, muttering that they needed a break anyhow.

 

The Med bay was quite easy to get through, after she hid from a group of scientists and a nurse. One pack of AB negative later, and she was off, back to where Carmilla sat, chatting with LaFontaine in what seemed to be rather fluent French.

 

'Of course she speaks French fluently,' thought Laura. It was no wonder she had wanted to run away to Paris. At that, she dragged her thoughts away from running away with her co-pilot, and how Carmilla had asked her to do so. She especially needed to stop thinking about it while Carmilla was speaking French.

 

She pressed the blood pack hidden under her sweater and grinned, walking up to them. Carmilla switched back to English as soon as she heard Laura approaching.

 

"How's your hand?" Laura asked her, looking down at the now-bandaged hand.

 

"Almost considered amputating, but decided against it last minute. She'll live," replied LaFontaine, casually.

 

'Poor choice of words,' Laura thought.

 

"I didn't doubt that for a minute," she said, instead. She tugged on Carmilla's clothes, indicating that she needed to get up because it was time to go. "Fantastic medical scientist person you are. Brilliant. Thank you, truly, for taking care of her for me. She's a bit clumsy, you see."

 

"Not that clumsy," muttered Carmilla, in French. Laura gulped, and hoped that she would regain enough brain function necessary to come up with scenarios in which Carmilla would have to speak in that language, because it was making her knees wobbly.

 

"We'll leave you to your very important work, now." Laura nodded, waving an arm around the lab. "Thank you, again. And good luck with saving the world and all that. Great job, as always."

 

"Take care not to fall again," they said. Carmilla nodded; LaFontaine nodded back pleasantly, and headed straight back to the part of their offices that were hidden back in the K-Science station.

 

"You didn't have to do that," said Carmilla, switching back to their normal German when they'd gone out of earshot of the scientist.

 

"Shush. You're on a time limit right now, so we need to get back to our room as soon as possible." Carmilla sighed, turned left. Laura followed. Within minutes, they were back on the Level 56 barracks.

 

Laura pulled the blood pack out from under her clothes, pushed it into Carmilla's hands, and closed the door, making sure to lock it this time. When she turned back to the room, it was empty, and she got scared for a second, before noticing that her co-pilot had locked herself in their en suite bathroom and was, presumably, drinking the blood in private. Laura could hardly blame her; the girl's track record with opening up to people was sincerely terrible.

 

When she came out again, she was freshly showered, wearing a t-shirt and pajama pants that Laura was sure were in the laundry basket only hours prior. Her bandage seemed to have disappeared. Laura tugged on her hand. Carmilla opened her palm, allowing her to look at the cut, which now looked like it had been healed over. Red, still, but healed over.

 

"Vampiric constitution," muttered Laura, running the tip of her finger along the length of it, as if to make sure that it was really, truly healed. It was already beginning to scar.

 

"Quite handy," said Carmilla, slowly, as if thinking it through. She ran a hand through her wet hair, letting Laura study the other. "As is having someone keeping track of your blood supply."

 

"You have a couple of blood packs left in my old room, but none of them are your favourite type, and you're hurt, or rather, you were hurt, so."

 

Under her touch, Carmilla stilled.

 

"Stop doing that."

 

Laura's hand froze, her fingertip on Carmilla's still-healing skin. She had gotten comfortable with the girl again, allowed herself to fall into old patterns, forgetting that they were still halfway through.. whatever it was they were going through.

 

"Doing what?" asked Laura.

 

"Being so god damn easy to fall for," said Carmilla, furrowing her brows. There were a few things that could mean, but Laura doubted that Carmilla meant it in the way that she wanted her to. Before she could ask her to elaborate further, however, her co-pilot continued. "Why wasn't she enough?"

 

"What."

 

Carmilla breathed in. "I've been thinking about it since yesterday; she should have been perfect for you back then. But she wasn't, because you wouldn't have rejected her otherwise, but I still can't figure out why you would have rejected her in the first place."

 

"Okay, just to be sure we're on the same page, because I might have gotten my wires crossed or something: you're talking about Danny, right? Danny Lawrence? This is about that memory from yesterday, correct?"

 

Carmilla ignored Laura; instead, she looked up at the ceiling and kept talking at an incredibly alarming pace. She sounded like she had been obsessing over it, rethinking every minute detail until it no longer made sense in her head. And now, she'd come to Laura, to bounce ideas off of her, like she had grown accustomed to doing in the drift.

 

It still surprised her, sometimes, how someone like Carmilla, who wasn't accustomed to trusting people, seemed to think that she was one of the only people she could come to when all else failed. Laura herself had found quite the same thing in Carmilla.

 

"You know that she held back now," said Carmilla, still not looking at her. "So I would understand you rejecting her today, but there was no way you would have rejected her on the day of your pointless test. You were blissfully unaware that Danny had held back in the Kwoon at the time, so she was- Christ, I don't know, infallible to you."

 

"First of all," said Laura, pulling at Carmilla's hand, tracing the scar again, "Danny was, and is, far from 'infallible'. To me, or anyone else."

 

Carmilla smiled, softly. "Well, of course. You didn't think of her as a candidate after you two were declared incompatible. She had been crossed out as a viable co-pilot. But Danny was still perfect in a romantic capacity and yet, you deemed her unworthy of your affections."

 

"I didn't think of Danny in that way." It seemed so long ago that she did. "Look, before I found out she'd held back in the Kwoon, I'd seen evidence of her patronizing nature. She's not my type."

 

Carmilla stared at her. She didn't seem to understand, which, Laura didn't blame her. They hadn't talked about Danny much. And, Carmilla hadn't made much of an effort to be included in Laura's group, which really only consisted of Betty and, somewhat reluctantly, Danny, so of course she didn't know much about the redhead.

 

"She didn't like it," explained Laura, "when I sparred with stronger opponents. Thought me weak, even then. Which, come to think of it, was actually a very important thing to overlook, but I was too happy to consider the fact that something like that could be one of the reasons why we'd be incompatible."

 

"But you spent all of your time with her," said Carmilla, narrowing her eyes as if she didn't believe her, "You can't deny that you had a silly schoolgirl crush on her, and it was pretty obvious that you had the same effect on her."

 

"We spent a lot of time together because-" Laura sighed. "Danny had been training to be a Jaeger pilot for two years by the time I'd met her. Being drift compatible with someone like that, being equal to someone like her, would have been more than I could ever hope for."

 

"You liked her as a co-pilot, not as a girlfriend."

 

"Yes," she said, tugging Carmilla down onto the bottom bunk, still holding her hand. There was no way she was going to let go of her today. "But I still didn't think myself worthy of her at the time of our Drift Sync test. She'd been learning the same techniques, doing the same moves over and over, for years. I'd only learned how to do them a few months before."

 

"You kept switching techniques during sparring. I've noticed that you do that."

 

"I used moves I was more familiar with than the ones the academy taught me. Danny needed someone who wouldn't improvise things on the spot, like Betty, whose only fighting skills pre-academy included the 'SING' scene from-"

 

"'Miss Congeniality'," finished Carmilla. Sometimes, Laura forgot that she did that. Carmilla shrugged. "You've thought about that particular film in relation to your ex-roommate before. The reason you trained with Danny so often was because your styles weren't compatible – and if you had any hope of being drift compatible, your physical compatibility needed to be perfect – not because you were interested in her romantically."

 

Laura nodded. "Us being drift compatible would have proven everyone wrong, so I tried to stick to the script. If I worked hard enough to close the gap, our physical compatibility would overcome everything else. I held onto my belief that we could still work, somehow, so I distracted myself by putting her on a pedestal."

 

"Because," said Carmilla, edging closer to her nearly subconsciously, "if you were worthy of being her co-pilot, it would have proven that you belonged in the Jaeger program."

 

"Correct," she confirmed.

 

"And you'd just found out that you weren't drift compatible, so she was worthless to you as a co-pilot candidate."

 

"First of all: I am not in any position to determine anyone's worth but my own, and that's not really how I place value on other people – at least, not people I'm friends with."

 

Carmilla stumbled on her words; "But you were insistent on being her friend afterwards. She was of use to you elsewhere. I thought you'd only kept her around because she might have proven useful in some other aspect of-"

 

"She's a person, not a chess piece," said Laura, grasping her hand. "She's not a pawn for me to use for whatever purpose I see fit. Danny is my friend, even though saying so makes me want to punch a wall right now."

 

They stared at each other, seemingly coming to a standstill.

 

Laura spoke first. "Did you – and I can't believe I'm asking this, but, back when we first met, did you think that I would have stopped trying to become your friend if we hadn't turned out to be drift compatible?" Carmilla's eyes shifted, however briefly, away from Laura's gaze. "You did."

 

"You would have had no use for me, otherwise." Carmilla shrugged, smiling a half-hearted smile. "I'm somewhat accustomed to people having ulterior motives."

 

"I wanted to get to know you because you were - you still are - the most fascinating person I'd ever met in my life, not because I thought you would be a good co-pilot. Which you are, as well."

 

"'On base'," Carmilla corrected, at once. "You said I was the most fascinating person 'on base' back then."

 

"Yeah, well, I was thinking it and I didn't want to scare you away. You were more scattered, back then. You're different now, so it's weird to consider how we were, because I wouldn't- I don't know what I would have done a couple of months ago but, god, I wouldn't give you up for anything, Carmilla."

 

"Not even," said Carmilla, smirking, "to save the world?"

 

"There are some things that are more important than saving the world," she said, without hesitation. Laura blinked, aware of how she'd let something incredibly crucial slip. She didn't care – there were things that simply needed to be said, for fear of never getting the chance to say them ever again.

 

No time like the present, she thought. Or, during an apocalypse.

 

"You think that I'm more important than saving the world, sweetheart?"

 

Pet names. Okay, so they were getting back to normal. "You're my best friend," said Laura, enunciating her words, making sure they stuck. "If I gave you up to save the world, I'd be trading one worst case scenario for another. But, if I am forced to give someone up, your mother's pulled the short straw, I'm afraid. I'll point the powers that be in her direction faster than you can heal, which- you're very good at that."

 

Laura frowned, thought of how the cut on her hand hadn't healed the day before, presumably because Carmilla hadn't taken blood, like she'd just done. Faster than she could heal with blood, then.

 

"Too late," said Carmilla, looking down at their hands. "My mother has already sold her soul. Anything else worth trading, she pawned off centuries ago. There's nothing left."

 

"Shame." Laura paused, tugged Carmilla's hand up and laced their fingers together. "I had hoped she'd be a good bargaining chip, when it came to it. Do you know why I consider myself good enough for you, sparring-wise?"

 

"Because my technique is practically non-existent?" Carmilla asked, looking down at the bedsheets. Her hair had mostly dried now, but it had gotten matted in dry clumps.

 

"Well, that too, but," said Laura, tucking a finger under Carmilla's chin and forcing her to look up at her. Carmilla did so, with ease. Laura ran her fingers through her dark hair trying to disentangle it, and noticed how it was still wet to the touch. "It's because you weren't afraid to hurt me in the Kwoon. You didn't think I'd break if you poked me with a stick."

 

"Unlike Danny," said Carmilla, leaning into her hand. Her co-pilot had hardened herself, made it seem like she were made out iron in front of everyone else, but in Laura's hands, she turned into a liquid.

 

"Unlike Danny," she confirmed. Something that had been nagging at her came to the forefront of her mind then, an afterthought. "Do you remember when you accused me of bribing you with a chocolate bar?"

 

Carmilla laughed, the jagged sound of it getting under Laura's skin and reminding her of who they were, and who they weren't. Laura pulled her hand back, but didn't miss how Carmilla rocked forward in an attempt to follow her movements.

 

"Which, technically, you were," said Carmilla, smugly.

 

That, she couldn't deny. "I was so nervous. Because I thought you wouldn't-" She stopped, afraid of having ruined the careful mood that had cultivated since their talk had simmered down.

 

"Wouldn't what?" asked Carmilla, after the silence had ticked on and it seemed like Laura wasn't going to continue. Laura considered changing the subject, but after everything that had been spoken inside the four walls they found themselves currently in, she couldn't keep it inside anymore.

 

"I thought you wouldn't want me to be your friend," she admitted.

 

"It would have been my loss." The calm that swept through Laura then made the entire confrontation, all the ups and downs and twists and turns, worth it.

 

;;

 

"What's your type, then?" They were in the cafeteria, Carmilla having dragged her there because Laura hadn't eaten anything since that morning, other than a cereal bar (that might have been expired). Laura hadn't wanted to leave her in their room for dinner without her.

 

So, Carmilla, ever the subtle darling, had made up an excuse about being hungry and let Laura lead the way to the cafeteria. Thankfully, neither of her friends were in the cafeteria, which meant that Carmilla wouldn't make up another excuse to leave.

 

Laura glanced up at her, furrowing her brows in the process.

 

"Blood type?"

 

Carmilla shook her head. "Earlier today, you mentioned that patronizing women aren't your type," she said nonchalantly. She picked up a piece of meat off of Laura's plate, hoping to chew on it until she could find something that was actually edible.

 

"Oh. Um. Someone who makes me laugh, I guess. It doesn't really matter, though. I've, um, got my eye on someone at the moment." Carmilla sniffed at the meat, recoiled, and placed it back on Laura's plate carefully, wiping her fingers on her pants. "What are you doing?"

 

"You can't eat that," said Carmilla, gruffly. Anchorage Shatterdome's food wasn't much worse than the academy's, but it wasn't much better, either. "Get up, I'm taking you out to get a proper breakfast. Somewhere decent."

 

It stumbled out of Laura's mouth before she even had a chance to think about it, to think about how presumptuous it would sound, to think about how it would change their relationship if she was wrong.

 

"You're taking me out to eat? Gee, Karnstein, rather forward of you, isn't it?" She had no clue why she had phrased it in that manner, unintentionally mirroring the question Carmilla had asked her not that long ago, when Laura had accidentally walked in on her and found out about her scars.

 

Carmilla had tried to gain the upper hand then, trying to act unperturbed by the fact that she had been dripping wet, and standing in a towel and nothing else in front of her co-pilot. But then again, Laura mused, Carmilla would have acted that way if anyone had walked into the room, not just her.

 

"What if it were?"

 

Carmilla's reply was lacking in her usual apathetic voice, the one Laura assumed she used on a daily basis to hide behind. No, the way she said it was as if she had been given one last question to ask before death, she gasped it out, as if Laura's answer would be all she would ever know from then on. As if she were nervous of what Laura might say back. She looked nervous too, her eyes wide as if she needed to drink Laura in at that very moment.

 

Which meant that what she was asking her was a question that mattered. That was unlike anything she had ever asked of her before. This question, and its reply, mattered.

 

But a part of her, a part that she had been trying to stifle more often of late, because there had been other, pressing concerns than her crush and how pointless it was to crush on someone like Carmilla in the first place, burned at the heart of her, hoped that what her co-pilot was doing was asking her out on, what would unofficially constitute a date.

 

That part was sure that that was her co-pilot was doing. Carmilla was kind of, sort of, maybe, not really asking her out on a date. A genuine one this time, not a fake one for after the apocalypse. A breakfast date, but that still counted. And to that? Laura had only one answer.

 

"I suppose I'd accept," she said, as if