It's a really bad joke.
Or that's what Vanessa tells herself when she storms out of the mess hall with unshed tears burning her eyes. She wishes she could turn around wipe those smirks right off their faces, and any other time she might have, but today is not that day. It's the three-year anniversary of Trespasser's attack, and all she wants to do is keep her shit together before drinking herself into oblivion later that night. The tenth of August always breaks her heart and brings out the worst in her.
Vanessa has nothing against morale boosters, but this? This isn't doing anything for her and is the last thing she needs. Yeah, she modeled after college on and off because her rent was astronomical, hospital invoices and student loan bills came pouring in, and her car decided to die a slow, undignified death. She hasn't given much thought to the outtakes sitting on some bored photographer's hard drive because she has more important things to worry about. Leave it to some asshole techie to find them on the internet and wallpaper the mess hall out of boredom and spite.
She's sick of people telling her she doesn't belong here, because nothing could be further from the truth. This is humanity's fight for survival; there is no other place for her. Vanessa wants to be here more than anything, but in the heart of that desire is the fear her best will be deemed unworthy. Some people seem to think her pain is somehow less than theirs because she starred in a music video or let someone take pictures of her for their portfolio or some indie clothing catalog. First and foremost she is an audio engineer—has never stopped being one.
Vanessa knows lots of people that work in her former industry don't have degrees, and to be truthful that's not what her degree is even in (ugh, musical performance, Jesus). But she's been obsessed with recording since she was eight, when her harried parents gave her a microphone and tape recorder for Christmas after Gunter replied to their emails. She's helped her mentor install variations of it in his massive studio in Los Angeles and over a dozen smaller ones up and down the East Coast. She knows how important it is, and doesn't trust it in the hands of anyone that's here for a ration card.
The test scores still folded in her shirt pocket practically burn through the cotton. She's the best in her audio tech class at the academy and living proof that background isn't everything, along with Tendo Choi (who's beating her at everything else and a former ferryman with no experience whatsoever). And if Gunter Geiszler were here, he'd tell her haters to the left (in that hilarious, perfect accent that lent irony to every American colloquialism he uttered) and for her to ignore their bullshit.
Vanessa resists the urge to cry. Gunter Geiszler will never be here or anywhere else for her ever again. No more midnight Skype sessions involving ukuleles or banjos (and on one memorable occasion, castanets), no more arguments regarding his shameless enthusiasm for dropping the bass, no more Xzibit memes spamming her phone every ten minutes for hours at a time. Her friend-slash-mentor is gone, along with her brother and parents and the city of San Francisco. Vanessa knows it's stupid but wonders for the thousandth time how much different her life would be if her mum and dad hadn't left London and moved to Philadelphia when she was seven—if they'd still be happy and laughing and alive—
There's a shuffling noise behind her that Vanessa recognizes and her heart just plunges into her stomach. The one day Doctor Gottlieb decides to leave his basement lair for dinner and of course he has to see dozens of pictures of her modeling bathing suits and lingerie. Vanessa's neither proud nor ashamed—it's only a job, and one that she didn't dislike—but she is hoping he isn't going to think less of her. She can't bear the thought, because she wants so badly for him to be different than everyone else. It's foolish to want to impress someone she barely knows, but she's always sought approval from impossible sources, the hardest judge being herself.
"Doctor Gottlieb, good evening," she ventures bravely. Vanessa uses the title because while he hasn't expressly insisted on it (or even mentioned having a preference) he hasn't told her to call him Hermann.
"Hello, Miss Matthews."
Vanessa can't help it, she winces at the formality. Besides a gym teacher in eighth grade, only Marshal Pentecost calls her that, but he's Marshal fucking Pentecost. She must look terrible because Hermann is regarding her with something akin to hesitation. He is always polite yet distant. He occasionally makes her feel mentally feeble and often unsophisticated by comparison, but never on purpose. Sympathy is not a good look on him.
It's like ripping off a band-aid, Vanessa resolves, and without preamble decides to open with: "So, you picked a great night to start eating in the mess hall, huh?"
"It was meant to be a welcome diversion from the science lab," Hermann admits shyly. He's so precious sometimes it gives her butterflies, which is horribly cliché but there's no other way to say it that quite nails it. A happy kind of nervousness lances along her ribs.
"Specimen jars, gruesome dissections, and Newt Geiszler mainlining caffeine and freebasing ammonia fumes…I'll never understand how I beat that competition. You really know what to say to a girl, Doc."
Vanessa has experimented before: Doc is an acceptable nickname, as long as she says it kindly. She would never mock the institution or what it means to Hermann, not when a D.M.A. is still her most secret, dearest dream when she goes to sleep and doesn't awaken to nightmares of K-Day.
Hermann turns a little pink. "Doctor Geiszler does seem to be acquainted with some rather odd forms of recreation."
"At least you'll never be bored," Vanessa guarantees, though Hermann hardly seems to find this reassuring. "And I'm glad he wasn't there today. He would have flipped shit and I'd be holding his busted hands in the infirmary right now."
"He doesn't strike me as a knight in shining armor." Hermann's voice is wry.
Shaking her head, Vanessa can only will him to understand what she says next. "He's not the type. But he does really know what it's like when everyone's rooting against you. He's an underdog. But Newt's parents have always loved him, boldly and unconditionally. He can't fathom the concept of giving up; he doesn't even know exists. Whenever the world stops believing in him, he'll change its mind. He craves impossible odds."
Vanessa could fill an entire bookshelf with volumes documenting Newton Geiszler's insane love for anime, monster movies, loud music, and unhealthy food. He could not be more unlike Hermann Gottlieb, but he also couldn't be more similar. Knowing this doesn't make Newton more manageable or Hermann more tolerant; however, differences always drive people apart before commonalities bring them together.
Before it can get more awkward (and they both have a huge capacity for awkward, so Vanessa's not taking any chances), she motions for him to sit beside her. As he settles, she notes that while he's not terribly close, he could have elected to sit farther away; she's acutely aware of how much warmer one side of her feels now that there's a person there.
Perhaps his inability to skillfully extricate himself from her company is the only reason he's still here—it's a distinct possibility. The silence stretches on, but at least they don't have to watch each other squirm. Vanessa is not shy, not at all, but she's always so scared of running Hermann off. He's someone whose respect she desperately wants, and whatever she thinks of saying sounds pathetic and insignificant. Every word she can drag out of him is worth the effort; he is worth the effort, and she wishes he would realize that.
Clearing his throat, Hermann toys with the top of his cane briefly. "I managed to discover the culprit of that little debacle. You could file a complaint tomorrow. It was a gross misuse of PPDC materials." His voice softens. "And it was a mean-spirited prank, inappropriate. You deserve better."
This makes Vanessa stupidly happy and she's glad he's not looking at her because the grin on her face is a little disturbing. She nudges his foot with hers—his good one—and tries not to crack under the immense joy his tiny smile gives her.
"That's one of the sweetest things anyone's said to me," she admits. She'll take an honest observation about her value as a human being over a compliment on her looks any day. Vanessa admires the pride that flashes across Hermann's face at this information.
"Perhaps my initial impression of you was incorrect, but I am rather surprised you fled the scene."
"Me too," Vanessa groans. "I would have loved to kick his ass, but it just didn't seem right tonight. I didn't have the stomach for it. We're at war; we shouldn't be at each other's throats. I don't want to get sacked for putting my fist through some dude's eye, even if he fucking deserves it for wasting a ton of time and resources to pull it off. If the attacks are teaching us anything it should be that we need to work together, not make people feel shitty for something they shouldn't feel shitty about."
"You liked it then, modeling?"
Vanessa smiles fondly. "It was fun for awhile. I'm not going to delude myself: I was hired because I had a certain edgy "look" they were going for, not because I'd win a beauty pageant. I got to travel around New York a bit during the first summer and even to California the next—I'd never really left Pennsylvania before that, unless you count when I lived in England or the occasional trip to the beach with my family. I had hoped modeling would open some doors for me, but nothing I was really interested in came along. There was a…reputation to overcome so I went back to what I loved."
Hermann says it without prejudice. He has never questioned Vanessa's motives or her fitness to be here, one of the only ones not to. Perhaps he has respect for her passion. She likes to think so.
"Yes, music," Vanessa answers with a nod. "It's really special, when someone comes in to make a recording. They give everything they've got to achieve that perfect sound they've been chasing for months, even years. Studio time costs a fortune. I'd have musicians come in and it was pure magic—no other way of saying it. But sometimes they would burn through thousands of dollars of airtime because they would fight or just fuck up really badly. Sometimes all their hard work would just blow up in their face; it was tragic. But life is like that too. You prepare for things and think you're ready but it turns out nothing you could have done would have changed anything."
Hermann looks at her like he's seeing her for the first time. In her current state she is nothing like that woman photo shopped almost beyond recognition, the model with lightened skin and enhanced cleavage and perfect hair (Vanessa can't exactly go to a salon with any regularity and her at-home relaxer kits are giving her mixed results). She's wrapped up in a heavy coat but it provides no shield from his scrutiny.
But Hermann's not looking at her like that. He's seeing the girl who spent long hours trying to rid herself of a south London accent so kids would stop chasing her and yelling nonsense about teatime and Queen Elizabeth. He's seeing the teenager that announced to her parents that yes, she is going to pursue a degree in musical performance because it's what she wants to do with her life and Gunter won't be available for an apprenticeship until he gets back from Berlin in two years anyway. He's seeing the woman unfortunate enough to get chickenpox as an adult stagger out of her hospital room after seeing her ridiculous bill and take that stupid modeling gig because there's no way healthcare should cost more than obtaining a bachelor's degree at a private college.
These are things she's never told him, but they're events that have crafted the person standing before him now. She's too many things to articulate, except when the uncertainty of her life paralyzes her—then the only word for her is afraid. This is literally the last place in the world for her. Failure here will end her and that knowledge ensures the fear never stops. She is weak with it because while she knows she's good at what she does, she is ultimately expendable and replaceable. All it takes is someone better coming along and she'll be sent packing, she's sure of it. Her family left this earth as a statistic, and she doesn't want to leave the Academy the same way.
What Hermann finally asks is simple, his voice flat but not unkind. "You don't think we'll win this war, do you?"
Vanessa wishes she could say for sure, wishes the answer is 'yes, we will win.' His dark eyes are almost plaintive, so she digs a little deeper than her cynicism for this anniversary would normally allow.
"Baseball isn't big in Germany, but I think you'll get the gist. My brother always said it's better to go down swinging. But he was on the Phillies, so maybe he didn't have much of a choice."
Vanessa remembers the place where she grew up, the city of brotherly love with its fickle yet vast heart, so different than cool and balanced London, a place she can barely recall. She leans forward and wraps her arms around her legs. She stares up at him from where her cheek rests against her knee. She prays he won't flee when she asks her next question.
"Kodiak Island is one of the most dangerous places to be. Was it hard, leaving your home to come here?"
Looking thoughtful, Hermann straightens up a bit, unconsciously putting more distance between them.
"It was easier than I ever imagined. My family is…we are not as close as yours appeared to be."
And he's basing this on a few offhand comments she's issued over the past month they've been acquainted. He doesn't look sad about the state of his own personal life, per se, just serious. He's schooled his expression into something resembling apathy, but it doesn't fool her for a second. He's so guarded and closed and private but it's killing him. Vanessa can't imagine living like that, until she remembers that now she has no choice, that she and loneliness are close friends.
"I was in San Francisco with my parents for one of my brother's away games when Trespasser attacked. I thought that was it for me, I really did. And I could have accepted my death if I knew my mum and dad were going to make it out. But they were crushed by tons of glass and steel and concrete, and just the knowledge that we were all going to die was made bearable because I thought we would all die together. Except it didn't happen that way, I barely had a scratch. Honest to God, I was physically unharmed and I hated myself for it. I made it out and learned my brother had died too, from inhaling kaiju blue vapor while helping people evacuate on the other side of the city."
If he were a more confident man, or a little less formal, Vanessa thinks Hermann would reach his arm around her comfortingly. But he isn't, and she feels the cold on her back sink all the way through to her lap. It makes her feel empty despite the warmth against her right side.
"Hermann, you do know that just because a family isn't close doesn't mean it's any easier to leave them half a world away. I'm only here because I have nowhere else to go. I'm sure you're here because the Gottliebs are just some of the people you hope to save."
"It's true, I don't know I'd do without them," Hermann confesses after a moment. His voice is so soft Vanessa has to lean back so his breath brushes her ear. She shivers as warmth travels through her. "I've spent my life endeavoring to impress my father or indulge my mother, make her happy. Everyone in my family has at least one doctorate, but that's one thing I pursued gladly, for my own benefit."
Vanessa cradles her head in her hands, can feel her hair brush her fingers fitfully. Of course they're all doctors and professors, and of course they would make Hermann feel unworthy if he wasn't one too. But the joke is on them, truly it is. His code made the Mark Is possible. His equations are helping to predict when and where the kaiju will attack. His work is important, necessary, and serves a grand purpose. He's literally saving the world.
…Which makes Vanessa feel terrible, because writing music is pretty much the most selfish, self-indulgent thing she can think of. She's ashamed that after a sixteen hour day she lies awake in her bunk and instead of wanting to get back up and help the cause she only wants to play the piano or strum a guitar or just sing until she passes out. She's so sure that the only thing keeping Hermann up at night is numbers, and she's not wrong. Those idiots in the mess hall can't come nearly as close to doubting her as much as she already does herself, especially when faced with someone who's already done so much for the Jaeger Program. Vanessa's never been as confident as she's projected, but having her family really helped her in that regard, and now…
"Vanessa, are you alright?"
Through the veil of her hair she can see his concerned gaze. And shit, she knows she's a goner in that moment. Prickly, irascible Doctor Hermann Gottlieb feels sorry for her, and it's heartwarming and it makes her sick all at once. He is different from everyone she's ever met, and he has no idea how special he is. There is something proud and vicious in her that wants to be the person that shows him and a part so disgusted by her egotism over it.
"It's nothing I won't get over."
Vanessa can't even look convincing when she says it. A man from a prominent family who's traveled the world and helped change it will never be interested in her. If she is smart, she will stomp out the embers of this infatuation and let it fade out gracefully.
Hermann fixes her with a not-quite-believing gaze but still looks worried, genuinely so.
They say that when you know, you know, and boy, does Vanessa ever. Hermann accompanies her back to the mess hall and the tapping of his cane is something rhythmic to which she can go about steadying her skyrocketing heartbeat. Thankfully the room is completely deserted now. Her food is long gone—anything left behind is fair game, apparently—but her bag is still sitting by a corner table. She rifles through it to make sure nothing's missing, especially in the special pocket she's sewn in along the side, and when she's finished inspecting her belongings, a neat stack of pictures are thrust into her hands.
"As an underdog myself, I can appreciate how the experience can change you for the better."
A pep talk from Hermann is surprisingly not terrible. Vanessa waves a poster around playfully. "Are you sure you don't want to keep one?"
It's pretty tame, just a glamorous headshot where she's rocking a fantastic smoky eye and sexy red lipstick. She's feeling spectacularly unpretty now, having not worn anything else but lipbalm and sunscreen since she arrived in Alaska. Hermann studies the offered picture for a moment before looking back at her and wow, there are those damned butterflies again.
"Some things are better appreciated in person."
Oh, she wants to hug him for that, or kiss him. Vanessa can tell he's not the type of person who likes to be touched, so she would never force affection on him like that, but there's nothing she can say that comes to mind that could convey her gratitude.
"I guess I'll bin it with the rest, then," Vanessa says flippantly. "I wish they still recycled paper, but I guess people have different priorities nowadays. I can't believe he wasted all this stuff. If only he would have picked any other day…"
She trails off. Hermann's been bullied before; Vanessa knows this without him telling her, knows it's probably why he followed her out of the mess hall in the first place, because it was too much for him to bear. She's seen him with Newt—knows that there are parts of him that are spiteful and savage when cut into—but she's never earned that enmity and vows she never will.
"You know, my brother always looked for the best in people, and he only did it at first because I told him to. I guess I should live up to the example I set for him, forgive and forget and all that."
Hermann looks unimpressed. "I'm still filing a complaint. They took my food while I was gone."
And Vanessa rummages through her bag until she produces a granola bar. It is the same brand she offered him the first night they met. She purchased a lot of food before the rationing began, and it occurs to her that there are no more boxes of granola bars in her stash, that this is the very last one she has.
"I've got a chocolate one left. It says they're organic, but companies always lie about that stuff."
"Chocolate is no longer readily available, so you must have purchased these some time ago."
"But," Vanessa's blue-lacquered fingernail points to the tiny date printed on the side, "They are still okay. Doctor Gottlieb, are you implying I would offer you spoiled food?"
Hermann accepts her gift. "I don't care for sweets, but chocolate is an exception."
"Candy and chocolate are two entirely different things. I know what they put in that granola bar is a poor excuse for it, but it's probably the only chocolate on the island. Chocolate is its own category of awesome, by the way, I can totally dig that you're a fan."
It's a very Newt thing to say but he doesn't seem to notice. "It's not your last one, is it?"
She'd give him the whole box to see his eyes light up like they did when he heard the word chocolate. She considers lying but knows she's terrible at it. "Yeah, but consider it a thank you."
Hermann squints at her, the granola bar poised midair by his head like a throwing star. "A thank you for what, exactly?"
"For not being like everybody else; it's overrated. And for listening to me ramble for the past twenty minutes."
Hermann protests that. "I can't take this. I really did very little, not enough to earn, as you put it, 'the only chocolate on the island.'"
"If listening requires so little of you, you're not doing it right," Vanessa says pointedly, making eye contact with him. She shifts her bag to one hand and snatches the granola bar from him before he can throw it at her and run away. Careful not to touch the piece she gives him with her fingers, she tears it in half before he can say another word. "Here, this is for listening just this side of enough."
"Thank you." Such a large part of him mustn't want to refuse, if it's that easy. As she eats her half she's aware of him staring at her oddly and feels heat creeping up her face. The caramel hue of her skin is too dark for it to properly show and she's immensely grateful. She finishes her snack quickly and can't help how she drags her tongue across the sticky pads of her fingers—it's going to be her last taste of chocolate for what could possibly be years.
"Uh, do I have something on my face?" Vanessa asks eventually, because she so would.
"No, my apologies," Hermann practically stammers, and Vanessa can't tell what he's thinking, only that she can see in his eyes that every emotional and mental barrier is being rebuilt, stronger and taller than before.
Vanessa's heart sinks. In a moment he mutters an excuse and a brief farewell before hobbling away. The fingers of her empty hand flex around nothing, one that two minutes earlier held something more precious than whole grains and chocolate wrapped in plastic.
A tiny sigh escapes her. Another August 10th, another day spent wallowing in doubt, mourning, and regret. She consoles herself sardonically that at least this year came with the added bonus of embarrassment and awkwardness. A bottle of truly heinous rum awaits her alone in her room, as her bunkmate is the only female K-Science biologist and is probably prying Newton off the walls or ceiling at that very moment. Vanessa glances towards elevator to the K-Science lab and wonders what Hermann will find when he gets back to the lab.
Scrolling through her battered iPod she settles on the one she's named after her brother, Nate. She's not the biggest fan of the music he loved (pretty much any nineties alternative, punk, or rock band) but it reminds her that some things remain long after a person is gone (and it's morbidly comforting, so she'll take it). The first song that pops up is "Wayne Gretzky" and Vanessa laughs even as she cries. She wipes away the tears streaming down her cheeks and doesn't see Hermann's eyes silently tracking her steps down the hall.