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[Guilty Gear] Strides of Cobalt

Title: Strides of Cobalt
Fandom: Guilty Gear
Characters: Justice/Aria, That Man, Frederick
Rating: PG-13
Notes: Technically a part of Imperfect Various Things but who's keeping track. Title pretentiously taken from the e.e. cummings poem "My Mind Is."




She’s twenty-eight the first time it happens.

At work, because where else would she be, styrofoam coffee cup in one hand, pen scribbling busily in the other, and occasionally, when she can spare the pinkie, punching numbers into the blocky calculator she hates, but not enough not to use it.

Hot pink, because of course, with big buttons and the slogan “Lipstick Science” looping across the lid in glittery font, because, again, of course. A gag gift to welcome her to the team and keep with a tradition the boys apparently invented back in freshman year, a challenge to give each other the most loathsome birthday presents imaginable.

It’s the reason Fred can be seen now and then wandering around the lab in a t-shirt that’s been in an accident with a truckload of bleach, though the words “I <3 Vanilla Ice” are still perfectly legible on the front. The retaliation will sometimes complement an Armani with its eye-searing glory, a silk tie badly emblazoned with the picture of a half-naked actor and the matching pin to clear up any doubt whether the wearer is Team Jacob.

If Aria really wanted to, she could just use her phone to do the math, but that would mean backing down from the unspoken challenge: Whoever gets rid of theirs first loses. Besides, after so long, she’s kind of gotten used to it. The big buttons are easy to hit without looking.

At twenty-eight, she’s automated most of her life, the end of a process that started when she was four or five and began to realize in full the horrible inefficiency of the adults around her, who had no idea what to do with the bipedal brain thrust into their care. The mind can be trained to perform most of the minutiae of living with minimal conscious thought — business talks, DNA sequencing, calling her mom. Once the mind has memorized the drill, so much headspace gets freed up for all the important things.

And that’s why, that afternoon, that first time, it actually takes her a few moments to make the connection between the lack of styrofoam feel against her lips and the milky brown puddle spreading across her desk.

“Shit!”

Even years later, when she has figured out what’s going on, has the knowledge — the absolute knowledge — to recognize the signal for what it was, it will still seem like an accident. Even years later, when she can feel it approaching to wrest body and thought from her, when her diplomas on the wall seem like bitter mockery, she still can’t help but think that there’s no way she could have guessed, just from that, what it would develop into. There were too many explanations, each a million times more likely, more expected, more desirable stand-ins for the truth — she was tired, she was overworked, she was sitting in a chair that could, as per lab standard, qualify as an antique torture device.

In the present, she’s too busy lunging for the paper towels to mop up the mess before it can soak her notes to properly realize that the coffee hasn’t stopped splashing, and after that, there’s her scalded skin to consider, and the relief of the icy water to account for the continued trembling of her hand.




Rewind six years. Put her at her first international conference on genetics as an independent researcher. Give her a misspelled name tag, a light gray pantsuit appropriate for someone twice her age because it deters suggestive comments about her legs, and hair about two feet longer gathered in a loose braid, certain even before breakfast is over that this was a mistake. She should have worn it pulled back in a nordic bun, grandma-style, to make herself look more severe. It might have saved her approximately half the catcalls.

It’s nothing new, of course. Just a new verse to an old tune, one that’s been with her ever since she passed over music and literature and psychology to jump headlong into epigenetics, and perhaps even before that. The fate of a nerd girl, though it’s so much worse coming from people whose books she read and whose work she admired. The last, most grating indignity of the day was her panel host introducing her as “Miss Callaghan,” and ever since then, her mind has been a bubbling sea of rage, just waiting for one more stupid comment to finally spill over.

“Excuse me?”

Of course. Aria refuses to square her shoulders or quicken her step, but she doesn’t stop, either, no sense in making them think they’ve got an opening. People are rising from their seats all around her, shuffling backwards and forwards in preparation for the next talks, and that gives her a bit of an advantage. She’s good at dodging. If she can just get out of the conference suite, make it back to her hotel room, wash off the anger and her growing migraine with a nice, hot shower—

“Excuse me? Doctor Callaghan?”

Well. This is new. She doesn’t think she’s been addressed as “doctor” in the entire time she’s been here, and loath as she is to admit it, it does get her to slow down and turn around.

The guy is surprisingly young, smartly dressed in a way that spells less scientist and more hip upstart businessman, though the bleach-pale hair is liable to get him kicked out of any office that isn’t his own. He can’t be much older than her.

“…Yes?”

“Sorry, I don’t mean to keep you if you’re in a hurry, but…” His stance is a study in polite restraint, the kind one could expect from a parking valet, but there’s a keen interest in his eyes betraying his outward demeanor. “My partner and I found your talk absolutely fascinating. You see, we’re working on a process to utilize Higher Domain Energy to fix errors in genetic encoding, but neither of us are epigeneticists. Your theory on reprogramming prions might hold the solution to a problem that’s had us stumped for ages, so we were wondering if you’d have a few minutes for a Q&A?”

Just barely, Aria keeps herself from asking what kind of Q&A he’s got in mind, obnoxiously defensive tone and all. If this is a pick-up line, it sure is a strange one; most of the guys who try to hit on her don’t bother complimenting her research, or even remembering what it’s all about. And Higher Domain Energy… she’s been keeping tabs on the experiments under way in the big laboratories, doing her best to study what’s already out there, but as an independent, she’s just got enough money for a pitifully small lab space, while the good toys go to the big boys.

With an inviting gesture, he indicates the cluster of coffee tables and settees that takes up the center of the lobby. Funny, she doesn’t even remember leaving the conference suite.

“I’m afraid my work’s just that so far, though. Theory.” Somehow, she manages to make it sound like polite tarrying instead of a complaint, still sore about getting berated in front of a room full of listeners like a silly little girl, but something in the way he smiles tells her that he’s reading between the lines, anyway.

“Anyone who’d criticize it on that account fails to see that sound theories produce solid results. And just between you and me, but that was all panicked posturing. Dinosaurs who see HDE research looming and know it’s their meteor. Granted, Professor Barton is a special kind of—“

“Cockmonkey,” says the empty settee to their right.

Aria can’t quite help the staring, though her companion seems not the least bit surprised by the rude furniture.

“There you are. I was wondering where you’d wandered off to. I thought you wanted your curiosity satisfied asap.”

With a bit of rustling, the couch produces an occupant, a tall fellow in ratty jeans and t-shirt who’d look more at home at a hackerspace meet-up than a serious conference. There’s a pair of bright red headphones dangling around his neck, the massive type used by audiophiles, and he’s crunching away on a stick that might have belonged to a lollipop some hours ago. Slowly, he tilts his head across the backrest to glance at her and give an acknowledging nod.

“Just checking my notes.”

“You have notes?”

Smirking, Phones holds up a yellow conference notepad, a near-illegible scrawl slanting diagonally across the page. In places, the text is broken up by sketches of molecules, but more often, by drawings depicting various panel speakers in Looney Tunes-style accidents. Maybe Aria shouldn’t be smiling at the sight of Professor Barton getting the anvil chorus treatment, but at this point, it’s nice to know that not everyone worships the ground he walks on, even if the person in question looks like an escaped grunge rocker.

Suits shakes his head fondly. “And this would be why other moms don’t let you play with their kids.”

“Yeah, well, other moms suck.”

“Your mo—“

It’s weird to have to clear her throat to remind somebody of her presence, when she’s usually so grateful to go unnoticed. And as welcome as that is, she doesn’t exactly feel like playing audience to a comedy odd-couple routine, either.

“Erm, well, it’s been nice meeting you, but I’ve got a schedule to keep. So perhaps we can postpone—“

“Influence of HDE on stop codons,” Phones says without looking, leafing through his messy notes.

“…Pardon?” At one point, she’s really got to toss the whole ingrained female politeness thing out the window, but for the moment, she’s too baffled that somebody was still with her when she got to the stop codons.

“Influence of HDE on stop codons,” Phones repeats, his search halting on an unexpectedly neat replica of her translational frameshift graph. “How do you plan on controlling the polypeptide chain growth if HDE is working as a continuous trigger?”

“Well, Mr…” After a moment’s pause, she locates his name tag close to his shoulder, hanging upside down for easy backwards reading. “Doctor… Babbage?”

She frowns, glancing at Suits, who’s been following the exchange with a sort of put-upon amusement. “Doctor… Brunel?”

“Not quite.” Suits’ smile widens as he spins his badge around. “Technically, we’re barred from attendance because last year, Fred here—“ He gestures towards Phones, “—had to up and call Professor Barton a… what was it again?”

Phones crosses one leg over his knee, eyes flashing with a vindictive glee. “Cockmonkey.”

Sighing, Suits pinches the bridge of his nose. “That.”

He turns to her, extending his hand for her to shake. “My apologies, Doctor Callaghan. Here I was planning on inviting you to discuss the finer points of missense mutation over a cup of coffee, and Fred chases you off with his troglodyte vocabulary. I’d like to say he’s not usually like this, but the truth is, he’s like this all the time, and worse, and I hope you do end up agreeing with his HDE trigger hypothesis because I’m told the last guy who didn’t still hasn’t stopped crying.”

“The last guy was a heckler and he deserved it,” Phones snorts, though he’s glancing back again, measuring her. Waiting to see if she’ll listen to her instincts telling her that these two clowns are nothing but trouble, and the only thing that invitation to coffee is going to contribute to is her migraine and her dictionary of swear words.

Instead, Aria finds that she’s shaking her head, reaching out to grasp Suits’ proffered hand with a firm clasp of her own. “I wouldn’t worry about that. After all, Barton truly is a cockmonkey.”




Lunchtime is her best time. The hour when the assistants and technicians abandon work for a tray of microwave lasagna, overcooked veggies and a pudding cup that is forty percent plastic, leaving her alone with the calming rhythm of the gene sequencers and their endless streams of G-T-A-Cs.

She’s grateful for that blessed hour of solitude. It does wonders for her mood when she can start doing her own work instead of double-checking everyone else’s, because Lord knows a simple conversion error just cost the South Korean team six grueling years of work. Once that came out, their lead researcher went home, ordered a pizza, and then quietly drowned himself in the bathtub.

At least, that was the story last time she heard.

It’s been more than a week since she was anywhere near a news outlet. Almost two weeks since she last went home, and even longer since she spent any amount of time in her own tub. All in all, a bath doesn’t seem like such a bad way to go out. She hopes the poor guy had the sense to do it in style, with a couple of scented candles and some ylang-ylang body oil and a record of Ella Fitzgerald crooning “Summertime” in the background. Then again, he ordered a pizza, so probably not.

Reaching up, Aria brushes at any errant bangs that might obscure her gaze through the electron microscope. It’s been happening more often lately, the hair suddenly blurring her field of vision when she’s working, even though she had it cut short again not too long ago. It’s gotten to the point where she’s started keeping hair clips in her desk to cope with it, the sparkly plastic ones that could fill up a whole shoebox back in middle school, but not quite bad enough that she’s ready to reach for the hair net. That used to be Fred’s territory.

Used to be. She’s still not comfortable with that one.

Under the bright light of the microscope, the sample looks unremarkable, a cluster of stem cells swimming in distilled water. Oct-4 and Nanog factors normal if the print-out is to be believed, and yet, forty-eight hours into the procedure, something hits the berserk button and half the mice start devouring each other. A fifty percent murder prognosis for the clinical field test.

“Ninety-three percent, if you’re with the Brits.”

Maybe she was more engrossed in the task than she thought to miss the footsteps on the tile floor, or maybe he was being extra quiet on purpose so he could smirk at her startled backwards glance and hold up a paper bag that thankfully, thankfully looks nothing like the cafeteria brand.

“Tell me that’s fried tofu in there and I might consider not macing you,” Aria says, turning back towards the instruments.

There’s a chuckle in his voice. “Well, it’s certainly fried.”

Rustling, before the aroma of a quarter pounder with extra bacon and cheese collides with the sweet acetone lab smell for a truly hideous sensory experience.

“Forget the mace. The mace is too good for you,” she murmurs, squinting to get past a bout of momentary blurriness.

More crinkling as he sets the burger down in the middle of her carefully organized work table. “I want you to tell me the last time you ate.”

Her first response is “this morning,” before she remembers that “this morning” consisted of reheated coffee, as did dinner the night before, and she’s pretty sure she’s skipped a couple of lunches over the course of the past week in order to have her quiet hour. As if to drive the point home, her stomach lets out an embarrassingly loud growl.

Clucking his tongue, he reaches for the power switch, plunging her work into darkness. “This won’t do. At least I could count on Fred to start gnawing on the project reports when he forgot about food. In some ways, you’re a hell of a hard person to take care of, Ada.”

Ada. Ada Lovelace.

Shaking her head, Aria reaches for the wrapped calorie bomb in order to give herself something to do. Now that she’s been pulled from her rhythm, she really is hungry, and the mild stab of guilt is enough to get her chewing on the first bite. He never worries, and he rarely fusses except to be an insufferable know-it-all, but if he’s going for that old nickname, it means he’s coming close.

Her smile is anything but suave, with the burger hardly leaving her face, but she finds it hard to care. “So what’s that about the Brits?”

He draws a breath, leaning back against the table. “Guy from the British team brought a gun to work and started shooting up the place. Fax just came in. Twenty-five dead, including him.”

“My god.” Frowning, she takes another bite. “You think he got hired by some of those pro-naturalists or something?”

Last she found the time to do more than glance at the headlines, it sounded like half the globe had joined one kind of protest movement or another. There’s a good reason for the high security at the lab complex, or the fact that she’s no longer got her number listed in a phone directory, or that she doesn’t like to have her picture taken at press events.

In a lot of ways, HDE genetics has become the bogeyman of the twenty-first century. The rhetoric’s already firmly in place, with every paper calling it “magic,” and from there it’s only a step to Satanism and witchcraft and all the demons of the Necronomicon.

There’s every church in the world thinking they’re trying to oust God from heaven, there’s the pro-disabilities groups convinced they’re trying to ring in a new age of eugenics, there’s the pop science guys who take their X-men comics a bit too seriously, and several hundred talk radio hosts convinced they’ll be ringing in the end of the supreme white race, or destroying the nuclear family by rendering men obsolete, or playing right into the hands of their secret Chinese overlords.

It’s getting hard to keep track of the lunacy, all things considered.

He shakes his head, evidently following her train of thought.

“Hard to say, but they think maybe he just cracked. My contact says they found amphetamines in his locker, enough to turn someone into an insomniac for the rest of their life.”

“Goodness.” Dabbing her lips with the napkin, Aria crumples the wrapper. “I guess I should be happy we’ve got one less thing to worry about, but between that and what happened with the Koreans…”

Evolution at work, her old college biology professor would have said. Natural selection of those who can withstand the pressure and the responsibility, and extinction of those who can’t. It would have been easier to agree with him if she could have been certain of which category Fred had belonged in.

The hand on her shoulder pulls her from her thoughts, back to the present. “That’s why I’m here, though. To make sure that doesn’t happen to us. And to make sure you don’t go biting any interns’ heads off next.”

“I haven’t been that bad, have I?” Aria asks, despite knowing that it’s true. She has been out of it lately, snapping at the technicians, entertaining morose visions like filling her lungs with soapy water while Ella Fitzgerald hums her way through the refrain.

He quirks an eyebrow, but behind the good-natured jab is the silent threat that he will go and change all the access codes if he has to, so she won’t have a choice but to go take a nap in the break room.

Frustrated, Aria runs a hand through her hair, fingers getting stuck near the stupid butterfly clips. “Alright, fine. I can take a hint. Do me a favor and check out the Oct-4 for me, something’s definitely not right there. I’ll see you in two?”

“Six.”

“Two-and-a-half.”

“Eight.”

“Goddammit, why not just revoke my adult card while you’re at it?!”

“Aria, what—“

Dimly, she can hear her chair clattering to the ground, shoved there by a surge of white-hot fury. She’s only got a brief glimpse of clarity, watching herself from outside her body, her fists clenched, her hair a mess, her voice shrill like the prototypical Hysterical Woman ™.

Then, it all tilts away, the tile rising up to meet her, and it’s funny how she knows she won’t remember the crack, or the pain, or his voice — shocked, he’s never shocked — going, “Ada? Ada?! Shit, Ada!”, but instead what’ll stick with her is the sight of her arm on the floor beside her writhing like a snake, and the sound of her own flesh going thud-thud-thud all the way to the hospital.




“I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news for you,” the nurse says, over the phone.

Aria is back in her lab when the call comes in. On her work phone, because why bother using the cell number she specifically told them to call when they can use the landline to record her medical history for posterity. She’ll have to go down to security later, ask them to erase it. They had to start recording all the calls years ago, after one of the lab assistants was found on the phone with a rival research institute, ready to sell their discoveries to the tune of ten million. It’s also the reason none of the assistants are allowed cell phones.

“Ms. Callaghan?”

“…Yes. Speaking.”

The hospital discharged her pretty much immediately after some blood tests and an x-ray showed low blood sugar but no skull fractures, and a harried-looking intern came in to berate her how excessive dieting was a surefire way to ruin her health, she really should know better than to push herself towards some ludicrous beauty ideal. He didn’t want to hear how she’s not on a diet, never was, or how diets aren’t really known for causing minute-long full-body tremors. Lecture over, he rushed out again, leaving her with nothing but a prescription for vitamin supplements and the dead certainty that there is something wrong with her.

The private neurologist seemed competent and friendly, confident that the symptoms Aria described were a form of adult epilepsy, she was only going to do an MRI and some genetic testing to make sure to prescribe the right kind of anticonvulsants. Highly treatable, she called it. You won’t even notice you have it once you’re on meds.

No wonder she’s having her nurse call.

“We just got the test results back and it turns out, um, well, you’re showing a pretty abnormal concentration of microglia, and, um, there’s a chance your striatum has been affected.” The nurse pauses. “Um. The… the microglia are part of the brain’s immune system, and the striatum—“

“I know what it is. Just tell me,” Aria manages to snap, while the rest of her is floundering around, wishing she could have been prepared, wishing the neurologist weren’t such a coward, wishing she weren’t such a hypocrite for wanting to get coddled with pretty reassurances when she always wanted to get the facts straight and without sugar-coating.

The striatum. The most important input station for the basal ganglia system. The part of the human brain responsible for voluntary motor control, eye movement, and emotional functions. All the unimportant stuff.

There’s bile in her throat. She’s finding it hard to breathe. The nurse is talking again.

“Um, well. There’s… there’s a good chance it might be HD. We’d like to get you back in here as soon as possible. Um. March 17, nine o’clock?”

“That’s fine.”

Perhaps she wasn’t only sounding like a robot to herself, because the nurse hesitates. “Okay, that’s… that’s great. Ms. Callaghan? Are you all right? I could… I could give you the number of our in-house counselor if you’d like to talk to someone—“

Aria hangs up.

Her stomach churns.

HD. Huntington’s disease. A degenerative genetic disorder that affects the central nervous system.

Part of her wants to grab a biopsy needle, put herself under the microscope and run her own tests to make sure the nurse didn’t just switch the result sheets. The other part is convinced it can’t be. She’s only thirty. There’s no cases of hereditary disease in her family. She’s only thirty. Her grandparents lived to the ripe old age of eighty-nine, clear and lucid all the way.

She’s only thirty.

She’s only thirty, and it’s just a chance. A good chance, maybe, but still no diagnosis. The neurologist is incompetent. The nurse ought to be schooled in patient relations. The appointment is on Monday. She’s got a whole weekend ahead of her, and a crushing project schedule to catch up with.

Pushing the call from her thoughts, she returns to the computer and pulls up the latest Oct-4 analysis. This is where her mind should be. Everything else can wait.




Rewind again. Make it the hour after the project report has been sent off for review, fill up the break room with an air of dead-eyed exhaustion and substitute conversation with the noise of the TV droning in the background, enhancing the silence with early 90s relationship drama. Nobody is really paying attention.

Fred is commandeering the couch, doing his best to fit himself on its fashionably narrow seat, one arm flung over his eyes. To mostly everyone, he’d look like he’s sleeping, but there’s a pinched quality to his features, proof that he’s laboring under the aftereffects of crunch-time, dead-tired but unable to calm his mind enough to rest.

Aria has kicked off her shoes and converted two chairs into a makeshift leg rest, nibbling on a KitKat bar while massaging her feet, which are sore from standing motionless in front of the instruments for hours on end. Just waiting for the caffeine crash to set in.

It’s the downside to actually having sponsors to impress.

She’s been up for close to forty-eight hours, whipping up graphs, going over the results for a second, third, fourth time, squeezing every bit of information out of what they have and ballooning it into something more than a little inaccurate, but sellable. The scientist in her despises bending her results to corporate boardroom expectations, while the pragmatist recognizes the advantages, and the part of her that maybe, maybe is a bit of a lipstick scientist after all relishes the idea of a little bit of glamour, polished hardwood desks and modern art reprints in her own private office. Not bad, considering how they started out.

She can’t remember the exact point they stopped being three starving college graduates sharing a single microscope, only that it was a thing that happened. They’ve got a whole lab complex now, a staff of ten core workers and another six that are still on probation.

Next week, maybe, she’ll put them through their own version of the Turing Test, where they introduce the newbies to Frederick and see whether any are still capable of exhibiting intelligent behavior afterwards. It’s one of the few times when leaving Fred’s basic antisocial streak unchecked is beneficial to the project, and a source of entertainment besides.

The other ninety percent of the time, they have to make sure he doesn’t get around to setting his career on fire just to watch the pretty flames. The part aside where his habit is also in danger of putting them back in the joke of a lab they started out with, it’s actually kind of endearing, a reminder that, at the end of the day, the three of them really are just a bunch of socially maladjusted geeks working to smash about a dozen scientific principles to pieces.

The smart suit entering her field of vision is just proof that some of them can simply hide it better than others. There’s a triumphant grin on his face, amazing considering her own lips think a small quirk almost too much effort right now.

“Aria, could I ask you to sacrifice some of the screen time of Matthew Perry’s abs to CNN?”

“Matthew Perry’s abs have greater news value than anything on there.”

A chuckle. “Not today, I promise you that. Hey, Fred! Time to wake up and witness the end to legislative stupidity.”

Fred groans something that sounds like, “Not bloody likely,” but sits up anyway, making terrible neck-cracking noises that get drowned out by a sound bite of a mob when Aria changes the channel.

“The recent string of public demonstrations follows hot on the heels of several union strikes concerned with the future of the energy and IT sectors. Discontent over increasing replacement of traditional energy resources by HDE and the ongoing lay-offs is palpable in other branches, as well. A spokesperson for Royal Dutch Shell called the switch from fossil fuels to HDE ‘premature’ and ‘rash,’ cautioning against the use of an energy source whose properties are not yet fully understood—”

She hits the mute button. “So? That’s been the tone for the last couple of years. I don’t see how—“

“Patience, m’dear, patience,” he says in a faux British accent, taking the remote from her grasp.

“—Congress has officially approved research into medical applications of HDE, particularly into gene therapy and in vivo gene transfer. Furthermore, Congress revealed a controversial plan to divert medical research funds to the HDE sector, making the US the first country worldwide to endorse such a bold move.”

Maybe, if she had the energy left, she’d be off the chair and cheering. They’ve been operating in a legal gray zone for years, companies and private research institutes plunging headlong into the field of HDE genetics while politicians are dragging their feet, forever terrified of doing anything that might advance society at the cost of a couple of votes.

“Whoopdee-fucking-finally,” Fred comments, flashing a half-asleep version of the horns.

A sigh from her right. “You guys suck, I’ll have you know. Here I am, laboring day and night to secure funding for your gadgets and make sure nothing you do winds up on a list of federal offenses, and what do I get?”

Smirking, Fred reclines again. “Hey, if you want a smooch, you gotta shave first.”

He laughs. “I’ll be holding you to that. As long as you pop a breath mint or two.”

“Fuck you.”

“You’re too much man for me, Fred.”

Rolling her eyes, Aria turns her attention back to the TV. There’s little doubt in her mind that part of the lukewarm reception has nothing to do with exhaustion and more with the fact that they went over this ages ago, what they’d do if lobbyists or the religious right managed to push a government ban on their research. None of them had any intentions of letting it stop them. The world is a big place, after all.

“—thousands of protesters have assembled in front of the White House in order to voice their opposition to the bill. Among the concerns for health hazards, environmental pollution and budget cuts for other research sectors are those who feel HDE hides a far more insidious risk: the erasure of human individuality and their own personal identity.”

On the screen, the shot cuts away from the news reporter with the collagen lips to pan over the banner-waving crowd, stopping at a protest sign that reads, “Please don’t kill me” in childishly messy lettering. The woman holding it is chanting paroles with the rest of the crowd, but the camera decides to linger on the wheelchair in front of her.

With just a brief glance, Aria can’t tell what exactly is wrong with the child. The little girl is sitting motionlessly, her body locked in eternal rigor, cheek resting limply against the side of her chair. Her hair has been done up in pigtails. From her vacant gaze, it’s clear that she has no idea what is happening around her.

Shaking her head, Aria switches back to the early 90s relationship drama, lets her head roll on top of the backrest.

If she were a mother, perhaps she’d be able to imagine, to some small degree, what might be motivating that woman to take to the streets for such a cause. What it is that might drive someone to object to the search for a cure for a daughter who will never walk, never speak, never lead a self-determined life.

As it is, she’s only a daughter, one who’s spent years surrounded by people telling her what is and isn’t in her capacity to do. If someone were to deny her even the capacity to think… well, what point would there be anymore?




Beep.

“Aria, darling, it’s mom. How have you been?”

Beep.

“Aria, darling, it’s mom. It’s been two days. You never miss a call. Is there something wrong?”

Beep.

“Aria, darling, it’s mom. What’s going on? Nobody seems to be able to get a hold of you these days. Are you still coming down for Thanksgiving?”

Beep.

“Aria, darling, I realize you’re a busy girl, but do you think you could spare a thought for your mother once in a while?”

Beep.

“Aria, this is getting ridiculous. I know you can hear this.”

Beep.

“Aria!”

Beep.

“Alright, that’s it. Whatever’s going on, that’s no excuse to have me worried sick! If I don’t hear from your own mouth that you’re not dead within the next fifteen minutes, I’m going to file a missing persons report.”

Beep.

Sigh.

Click.

“…I’m not.”

I’m just on borrowed time.




The inside of her apartment looks like a hotel suite. Neat angles, dark furniture, cream-colored curtains, plush carpeting. An impressive window front overlooking the Charles River. She moved in nearly ten years ago, back when the project kicked off and they could all add a zero or two to their salary, and most of her stuff is still in boxes. She was never home long enough to get around to it.

These days, she’s home more often, but there seems to be little sense in unpacking now.

HD. Huntington’s chorea.

What a joke.

Ignoring it only worked for so long; she’s had to free up her schedule for tests and treatments, the host of doctors who need to poke at her brain and make their prognoses. In the last couple of months, she’s acquired a dietician, a physiotherapist, and a psychiatrist. Add a stylist and she could be a star.

Tetrabenazine to manage the spasms. Mirtazapine for the mood swings. Sometimes the medication makes her faint and queasy. Her psychiatrist wants her to start learning a sign language, to manage the eventual speech problems.

It’s a word she’s grown to hate, management.

Making the long-term bearable. Resigning herself to the inevitable. Huntington’s has no cure rate, because there is no cure. The optimistic prognosis is twenty years. Twenty years to slowly lose her mind. She can take her pick of any number of ways to go out — heart failure, choking on a drink or a broken neck from a fall in the middle of the hallway. Suicide from a bout of depression she can’t control.

And all along the way, a slow descent into insanity. Impaired judgment. Impaired cognition. Impaired feelings, impaired self-sufficiency, impaired everything she is about and everything she’ll ever be.

Aria hasn’t told anyone. Not him, though they’re tighter than ever these days. Nobody else at work, either, because there’s nothing like knowing your boss is on her way to going insane to create an efficient work climate. Certainly not her family, because god knows the last thing Aria needs is her mother driving up here to fret and fuss all over her apartment like she’s already an invalid, or worse, see this as a chance to reconnect.

The most annoying thing is how everyone who does know keeps expecting her to despair. It’s natural, the therapist said, part of accepting the reality of the disease. It’s okay for her to feel depressed, or lost, or slighted. It’s not healthy for her to do what she’s doing now, throwing herself into her work like that, refusing to face her situation.

Absent-mindedly, Aria gropes for her phone between the stacks of print-outs on her coffee table, half of them notes she swiped from work because security technically forbids them from taking stuff home with them, the other half research into Huntington’s.

Memo to self: fire therapist.

Granted, perhaps she’s being a bit unfair. She can hardly tell the therapist about her work, that obsessively learning what is known about Huntington’s disease isn’t her chasing some kind of fool’s hope. She’s got the means, and the key. All she needs now is to find the right lock for it, the secret passcode device to let HDE work its magic and erase the goddamn disease from the human gene pool.

Acceptance isn’t in her vocabulary. Despair is the only path she refuses to take.




“Hey, Fred. What do you suppose would be the worst thing to happen to you?”

Across the lab, Frederick glances up from cataloguing a rack of phials, and slips off his headphones. For a moment, she thinks he’s going to say “going deaf,” like they don’t all know he’d try to implant the music directly into his brain before that happens, but he remains silent, brow furrowing in contemplation.

When a minute passes without him saying anything, Aria returns to her computer screen. The mind-numbing task of sorting numbers invites wandering thoughts, but she supposes that was a rather personal question to ask out of the blue.

“…This about that kid?”

Blinking, she pushes back from the console. It’s been weeks since that news report. She didn’t think either of the boys would notice. Hell, she almost didn’t realize it herself.

“I guess so. Pretty strange, but it got me thinking.” With a rueful laugh, she reaches for the comparison chart. “I don’t even know why. Do you ever think about it? Losing your mind, I mean.”

A smirk. “Every time the bastard drags me to a board meeting.”

“Fred…”

“Yeah, yeah. Fine. You ask me, that woman was nuts. Anyone who accepts the status quo and spends the rest of their life convincing themselves that all their problems and shortcomings are special and meant to be is nuts.” He shrugs, dragging a hand through his hair, but when he lifts his head again, there’s the faintest hint of a cynical smile tugging on the edges of his mouth.

“It’s easy, sure. But the moment you stop and tell yourself you’re happy with stagnation, you die. We’ve been afraid of the unknown for thousands of years. I simply don’t think that’s ever a reason to stop.”




“You’re serious.”

From most people, the question would have been colored by shock or outrage, some frantic attempt to talk her out of it. Insistence that she’s gone crazy, that she can’t expect him to turn his lead scientist into a guinea pig, no matter the circumstances. No pity or denial, either, taking the news of her illness with a quiet gravity she wishes she could have had, in those first few months.

He’s never been quite like anyone else she knows, and it’s moments like this that Aria is grateful for it. Between her relentless drive and Frederick’s less than temperate nature, he’s always been their source of Zen, their balancing factor, forever calm and rational and cautious, weighing the options. Just like he’s doing now.

Even the question is perfunctory, tinged with concern, yes, but not really asking. She’s brought all the papers, her secret research over the past two years and a half, cleanly typed up and organized in a binder, a dissertation ready to be published. Nearly two hundred pages of scientific evidence, laying out her proposal in formulas and numbers, free from emotions or personal need. They both know she wouldn’t be here if she weren’t serious, and they also both know that she’s not asking his permission, because that’s not how either of them roll.

When she nods silently, he lowers his gaze, rubbing a hand across his brow. “That’s one hell of a proposal, Aria.”

“I know. But we’ve got to start the clinical trials at some point. I’ve done it. I’ve solved our Oct-4 problem, I’ve run the tests. My genes show I’m a suitable candidate.” She pauses, willing herself not to sound too excited, too desperate. No personal gain. This is her, donating her body to science before she loses the capacity to make the decision. “Please. This could be my only chance.”

“I know, Ada, I know. It’s just…” He draws a deep breath, and when he continues, there’s an odd hitch in his voice she’s never heard before. “It’s just, I’ve already lost Fred. I don’t want to lose you, too.”

Lost.

It’s not fair to put it like this. After so long, they still don’t know what exactly happened, what went wrong in those awful weeks when Frederick disappeared and then their primary lab complex went up in a cosmic fireball. Whether Fred snapped or got careless or went rogue, using himself as a test subject.

He’s had everyone fired who so much as suggested Fred might have been paid for it.

After this long, they probably never will find out, but if there’s one thing in this world that she knows with complete and absolute certainty, it’s that they didn’t lose Fred. They didn’t lose Fred, because losing is stagnation, and whatever plan or logic he was following, he was doing so to keep going.

Just like she is.

Just like she will.

Shaking her head, she reaches across the desk to lay a reassuring hand on his forearm.

Heart implosion, insanity, major organ failure, devolution. They’ve had mice that ended up as half-solidified rocks, or with their insides multiplying uncontrollably, or those that seemed perfectly fine until they rolled over and died from a complete breakdown of all neural pathways.

The same thing waiting for her, if she goes through with it. The same thing waiting for her if accepts the hand fate has dealt her, only spread out over the course of twenty years.

Despite the prospect, Aria finds that she is smiling, genuinely smiling with the conviction of a conversation from forever ago. “You won’t lose me. I promise you that.”

I simply don’t think that being afraid of the unknown… is ever a reason to stop.




-TBC-



A/N: Major thanks to Twig for being galactic levels of awesome. Meanwhile, headcanon time is go:

- This is basically my take on how somebody as smart and independent as Justice/Aria would end up getting turned into a Gear. As a scientist, who makes her living with being able to think, I don’t think she would have taken that step without good reason. And take it she did, at least initially — I’m not fond of the idea of her as an innocent victim — That Man eventually did betray her by turning her over to whoever is interested in creating monsters for warfare, but the initial choice to go get magicked-up was hers.

- Apologies for possible pronoun confusion. I can’t bring myself to give That Man a name after all these years of him being, well, “That Man.” Also, if it’s hard to recognize the guy who’d throw Sol/Fred under a Gear-shaped bus… that guy is still there, kicking back and sipping tea until the need to be a complete and utter bastard arises again.

- I’ve probably screwed up the timeline in about six different ways. Meh. Meeeh.

Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
infant_queen
Jun. 23rd, 2013 04:44 am (UTC)
I just love your headcanon. I am also glad you keep working on this verse. After the big hiatus, I was a little worried about it.

Kudos to you.
aphelion_orion
Jun. 23rd, 2013 05:16 am (UTC)
Aw, thank you for reading! And I'm sorry for making you worry. RL tends to find new and amazing ways to keep me from writing, but I certainly wouldn't just up and leave this fic. Thanks for your patience. :)
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )