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Anthology

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0. Trespasser

Newton isn't present when it happens, not in person, but he's blinking at his iPhone, seated at the bar in The Friendly Toast, when the BBC World News Twitter feed goes batshit. His mobile vibrates against the liquor-slicked counter every five seconds, black screen flaring to life with confused, urgent news bites that both freeze and electrify his rational mind. He'd disregarded the one about initial reports of a seven-point-one earthquake in San Francisco—nothing new there, plate tectonics plain and simple—but then all of the rest to follow in quick succession are also about San Francisco, immediate ongoing destruction of, by a vicious and unidentifiable sea-dwelling leviathan. He wonders if it's a prank.

By the tenth or eleventh update, he's scrolling on auto-pilot and too stunned to even think about finishing his drink, much less touch his cheese fries. He mutters an apology to the server (Cute dude, he thinks, but I don't have time for this), leaves twenty-five dollars on the counter, and stalks out as fast as his Doc Martens can carry him. He ought to go back to campus, because he's already got half a dozen panicked text messages from the few other junior faculty members with whom he's even a faint resemblance of close, but what he really wants to do is tell MIT to fuck off, go straight home, fire up his laptop, and figure out what in God's name (not that he believes, not that he ever could) is going on.

Newton spends a tense, jittery bus ride to Harvard Square with his headphones on, emailing himself every relevant link he can find. What little footage has hit YouTube is patchy and erratic, and the few photographs he can find on major news outlets look too impressive to be true. If it's a prank, it's been so cleverly executed on so grand a scale that he's going to have to tell his students to pack up their hacks and go the hell home. They'll never beat the likes of this, never even come close.

He gets off the bus and bears a sharp left to head to his apartment, but he smacks straight into a pretty Harvard undergrad with tears streaming down her cheeks as she sobs into her phone in a language that only resolves itself into Japanese when Newton, in a fit of frustration, rips off his headphones and can't even bring himself to hiss, Hey! Watch where you're going! One look at this girl's overflowing dark eyes is all it takes: the situation's gone to shit, it's no prank, this is happening.

He stumbles away, mutters another apology, and backtracks blindly till he's standing at the intersection of the criss-crossing walkways in Winthrop Square, perfectly poised between Grendel's Den and Peet's. He looks around at the people on park benches and at the students clogging the sidewalk and sees this for what it is: 9/11 Redux, a London 2005 flashback, the Marathon Bombings 2.0, real fucking deal.

Instead of going home, Newton puts his headphones back on with shaking hands, spins on his heel, keeps tapping feverishly through screens on his phone, and doesn't stop till he's down the stairs and in the Den and asking the bartender to bring him a whole bottle of whiskey. That doesn't fly, but he gets two shots to start him off.

When he leaves four hours later, he's drunk and pretty sure this will get his ass fired (he's got thirty-two texts, some pertaining to a lecture he had been meant to give forty-five minutes ago, and he hasn't answered a single one). Not only that, but he knows most of the story now, knows it as much from the hysterical sobbing and frantic conversations around him as from what's now all over the web, and he knows what this fucker looks like. It's got a mean streak as wide as it is tall, and he wants to cut it up and analyze it so badly he can't even find reasons or words for why.

Newton sleeps for a total of three hours that night, ignores another fifteen text messages, and, when he wakes up with the worst hangover of his life, staggers into his clothes and out his front door until he's struggling to open the front entrance to the Garage Mall and somebody has to hold the door for him. He almost trips on the escalator, boots unlaced, and marches right up to the girl at the front counter in Chameleon and slaps down a marker-riddled napkin in front of her.

"This," he says, tapping it, and he can see her recoil a little from his breath, which probably still reeks of booze. "Here," he added, reaching around to tap the space between his shoulder blades. "With whoever you've got free at this hour. I don't care."

The girl recovers and peers at Newton's drawing. "What the—is that—?"

"Fuck yes," Newton says. "So I don't forget. So I do something."

The first thing he does when he gets to his office, smarting from the needle and high on endorphins, is email the crazy mathematician in Cambridge, the other Cambridge a non-creature-infested ocean away, with whom he'd been corresponding for a while and whom his colleagues have begun to call Newt's Internet Boyfriend.

Hermann, Newton types, tell me you've crawled out from under your rock for long enough to realize your disdain for monster movies is now scientifically invalid.

Please don't call me that, Gottlieb writes back. I'm already working on it.

 

1. Otachi

"You have to admit this one's fitting," Newton insists, dropping a few more of Hermann's books in an archival storage box. "I was there," he goes on, collapsing a desk lamp on top of the volumes, "literally, in the flesh, and the bastard got so close I was almost not there a few seconds later. She—she, like—scanned me with her tongue. She was looking for me. I wanted to see a living kaiju, and she came."

Hermann sets Newton's colorful drawing back down on the bare desk and fixes Newton with the hardest, most baleful stare he's earned since the drift, the first one, with Suckerbrain (why should the guys at the top have all the kaiju-naming fun?)

"Be that as it may," he sighs, "I'm very glad your acid-mangled remains did not leave with her. Regarding your designation system for which of these abominations you choose to memorialize on your person, and, ah, where, I should like to point out that you're running short on space."

"How would you know, Hermann?" Newton shoots back, and he just barely manages to prevent an addendum: You've never seen me naked.

Hermann taps the floor with his cane, leaning harder against the vacated desk even as Newton works on clearing Hermann's. "Your dress sense being as regrettable as it is, you often flash enough collarbone and midsection to make it clear that your arms aren't the only real estate occupied."

Real estate, thinks Newton, vaguely turned on by the notion of non-drift-induced scrutiny from Hermann, until his brain makes a hop, skip, and a jump over to Monty Python and the Holy Grail's huge tracts of land joke, at which point he's just giggling.

"I fail to see the humor in this," Hermann snaps, his tone bringing Newton back down, forcing him to focus. "It'll only cost you your last month's salary, what with the city in shambles and tattoo establishments being at a premium. Where will you put it?"

Somewhere you can't see it unless you strip me, Newton thinks, but what he says instead is, "Over my left hip, let it bleed down onto my thigh."

Now Hermann's the one who looks like his brain might short-circuit, and, from the sound of things, Monty Python isn't coming to his rescue.

Newton thinks of how, at an ill-concealed shoulder nudge from Tendo, Hermann had offered that sly little grin and edged closer, closer, closer as the War Clock struck nil. "Wanna watch?" he asks, trying to sound casual. "Come with me."

Hermann turns and hobbles to the blackboard, less precise than usual.

"Maybe next time," he says, taking an eraser to his precious equations.

 

2. Leatherback

"They feel kind of like a matched set, you know?" Newton tells Tendo as they move through the refectory line; the lunch offerings today look grim, considering they've reduced supply deliveries in the lead-up to closing down eighty percent of mainline operations. Newton slides along with both his tray and Hermann's, and continues, "I was thinking of putting him just below Otachi. Not the brightest crayon in the box."

"Brains before beauty, is that it?" Tendo remarks, studying his tin mess plate as it's handed back to him. The stuff in it is supposed to be sam bo fan, but it's not actually fooling anyone, so Newton puts his plate and Hermann's up on the ledge and asks Ling, the server, to put spaghetti in both. "You have to admit, though, he fucked Cherno Alpha and Crimson Typhoon—hell, he hardly even lifted a talon. That takes some smarts, adapting so goddamn quickly to what you're up against."

Newton takes back the plates and glances over his shoulder to the long table that's already occupied by Mako, Raleigh, Herc, and miscellaneous clean-up crew. At the end of it, Hermann sits impatiently rapping his cane as he catches Newton's bloodshot eye with his own. His lips quirk, mostly good-humored, but he taps his wrist impatiently.

"About that," says Tendo, now that they're clear of the line, preventing Newton from marching straight back to the table like the most cock-whipped lovesick puppy in the history of ever. "Are you guys . . . making any progress down there in the lab?"

"Yeah, dude. Getting there. I think?" says Newton, cringing a bit at Hermann's increasing expression of displeasure from across the considerable distance. "Maybe? Kind of? We had a, a . . . a moment yesterday. Not a we-drifted-together kind of moment, not exactly, but a . . . Christ, I can't talk about this right now, he's a holy terror when he's hungry." He starts for the table, and, sighing, Tendo trails after him.

"What's so vitally important that you felt the need to stand there yammering like a nitwit, I'd like to know?" Hermann asks, grabbing his plate out of Newton's hand as Newton and Tendo settle across from him. "Some matter of international security?"

"No, as a matter of fact," Tendo cuts in before Newton can speak. "We were discussing the placement of Newt's fine new piece of ink. Have you seen the drawing? He could have a future in this if it turns out science has no further use for either of you."

"Yes," says Hermann, quietly, intent upon winding spaghetti around his fork.

"Yes what?" Newton asks. "I didn't show you the drawing. It's folded up in my—"

"Yes," Hermann repeats sharply. "Now, for God's sake, shut it, and let's eat."

"Jeee—sus," remarks Tendo, with a shake of his head, and digs into his lunch.

 

3. Scunner

"That's all of the detail I remember," says Mako, her voice tinged with regret. "The visibility down there was poor. You might want to ask Raleigh."

"Nah, I know he's busy today," says Newton, sketching in quick, confident strokes born of all those years spent reading comic books and graphic novels. "You've given me more than I need. I've dissected enough of these suckers to fill in the details."

Mako leans over him and, in a rare moment of shattered reserve, places both hands on his shoulders. "I really should go now. I can see that I'm breaking your concentration. But I was wondering if things were any better—"

Newton lets out a short, manic laugh, and pauses from his sketching to run the pencil absently through his bed-head and pat Mako's delicate fingers. "Oh, you know. Not really. He's gone all stiff-upper-lip again, and I swear to you, he must keep his spare cane up his ass, because—"

"I'm very sorry," says Mako, squeezing his hand. "Genji still likes you. A lot," she adds, but he can tell her heart isn't really in it. "We don't know how much longer we'll be here, or who will go and who will stay. Maybe you should ask him . . . "

Newton remembers San Francisco, remembers Boston and the attractive server (But I don't have time for this). He lets go of Mako's hand and sets his pencil back to the paper, finishing the preliminary sketch in a dozen angry strokes. The thought of leaving Hong Kong—this bright, bewildering, beautiful city—fills him with dread. He's been here long enough that it feels like home, rusty bunker or not.

Fucking kaiju, fucking Hermann Gottlieb, what is his fucking life?

"Hey," he says, too brightly, swiveling around in his chair to face her. His quarters are a mess, and she seems incongruous standing in the midst of it all: haunting features and elegant posture and, yeah, even though he's not that way inclined, it's clear that Raleigh's one lucky son of a bitch. "Give me a couple of hours to ink and color this, maybe grab a shower, and then you can come with me to get this bad boy situated in his final resting place, and then we'll grab some real food. Deal?"

Mako's grave, dark eyes light up; fleetingly, he remembers the tearful undergrad.

"I would like that very much," she says, and, with a nod, leaves him to his work.

 

4. Raiju

"I fail to understand how your own impressionistic doodling is sufficient to satisfy you in these last few instances," Hermann grouses, lowering his book to peer sidelong at what Newton is doing. "You're usually a stickler for firsthand evidence, for your own observations. That is to say, Newton, what if you've got them wrong?"

"Science can't solve everything, okay, Hermann?" Newton snaps, just about at the end of his tether. "There. I said it. Curiously liberating; you should try it sometime. Unless you can think of a way to—to—math these last few drawings to perfection, I'm working with what I've got. And what I've got is the word of people I trust, plus a damn fine imagination. Can you offer me either of those things?"

Hermann sits back, momentarily shocked into silence, and, after a few seconds of uncomfortably running his tongue over the backs of his teeth (it's biology, musculature, motion: a tic so easy to discern that it isn't funny), lets out a breath that isn't quite a sigh. He's caught off-guard, which is where Newton wants him. "The former, I should hope," he finally replies. "That above all else."

Newton feels like he's been kicked in the chest, but he continues to draw.

"So, are you gonna come with me this time?" he asks, letting his desperation rise, caught in the memory of Mako squeezing his hand while Scunner bled to life just above his left knee. He has so much healing ink on that side now, hipbone to kneecap, that he has to be careful how hard he presses down on his drafting board. He would have preferred their desks for this task, but Hermann had picked up his book and tapped his way over to the two chairs they'd situated on either side of a battered side table with an unreliably wired lamp. It chooses that moment to flicker.

Are you getting any of this, Newton wonders, how much I want you to be there?

"Alas," says Hermann, heavily, "I have promised our dear Tendo a day of my time."

"Fine," Newton mutters, breaking off the point of his pencil right in Raiju's eye.

 

5. Slattern

"Above all, she was gigantic," Raleigh says. "Looked kind of like a hammerhead; Mako will agree with me on that, but don't you dare go making any shark jokes about her name unless you'd like a death-glare. She had cold, cold blue eyes. That made it pretty easy to see her coming when she'd swing back around for another pass."

Newton nods, sketching intently. "Can you remind me how she finally died?"

"We fired the nuclear turbine straight into her vitals," Raleigh replies, and when Newton looks up to see how he's faring, he notices that Raleigh's eyes are motionless, unblinking, fixed on Newton's desk. He's drifting, but with whom is anyone's guess.

Newton picks up one of the two bottles of Blue Girl that have been sitting open and untouched in front of them for about half an hour. He clinks it against Raleigh's bottle to remind him it's there, and then takes a long swig. It beats Budweiser, anyhow.

Raleigh inclines his head in thankful acknowledgement, picks up his bottle, and takes a hesitant sip. Jaeger pilots—the disciplined ones, at least—didn't tend to drink much. Well, buddy, Newton thinks, now you're making up for lost opportunities. Cheers.

"I don't mean to intrude," says Raleigh, abruptly, "but Mako says you've been having a hard time. Is there anything I can do to help? I feel guilty even just asking, but we're so indebted to the risks you took. I can't even begin—"

"Man, don't talk like that," Newton sighs. "You don't owe me anything, and, in any case, Hermann took one of those risks right along with me. And it's not like you can stop him being the massive freaking—" he fished for a suitably British insult, which would sound suitably lame coming out of his German-by-birth-American-by-choice mouth "—twat he always has been and always will be. That's a universal constant."

"He took that risk for you," Raleigh corrects him. "You should've seen how terrified he was when he found you. I mean, you were conscious for that, but you were also hysterical and kind of dazed and probably didn't have your whole brain back yet."

Either he's drifted so much that he's now psychic, or he had a heart-to-heart with Hermann and he's not telling me, Newton thinks.

"You can start by telling Mako that what's discussed in my quarters, stays in my quarters," he says. "That goes for you, too, Rock Star."

 

6. Drifter

"All right, you cantankerous old tea-swilling bitch," Newton spits, marching brashly up to Hermann's desk, but the truth of the matter is that he's scared shitless. "You're coming with me this time even if I have to tie you to one of those dollies from down in Shipping and cart your recalcitrant ass myself." He slaps the flawless, finished drawing down on top of Hermann's latest recreational calculations.

Hermann stares at it for at least half a minute, as if none of Newton's carefully prepared tirade has even managed to breach his thick skull, and just as it looks as if one of his still, poised hands might move from the edge of the desk to trace lines burned so deeply into both of their cerebral cortices that they'll never ever forget, he glances up at Newton with that inscrutable, infuriating half-grin of doom.

"Need I remind you," he says evenly, rising, "that I'm only a year your senior? Heaven knows the whole world believes otherwise, though, as well they should. One can hardly blame them, nor have the heart to shatter said delusion."

Newton folds his arms across his chest, determined not to back down. "Maybe you just remember your past lives better than I do," he counters. "Who were you—Rudyard Kipling, J. R. R. Tolkien? Is that why you hate poetry so much? The suspicion of all those elaborate fabrications dripping from your pen? It might explain why you're, oh, how did you put it when you copied my tag-line? German by birth, English by choice?"

For a moment, Newton thinks Hermann might backhand him, but what happens instead is that one of Hermann's steady, deliberate hands does, indeed, move to trace the shape of the kaiju on the paper. The arcing, twisting, stylized entirety, right down to the name that Newton has written boldly in the lower corner of the piece.

"Drifter," Hermann says, the word half-breathed as if he'd only just noticed it; otherwise, he'd be retaliating for the reincarnation bullshit. "I see."

"It didn't seem fair that her mom got a name and she didn't, you know?" admits Newton, his furious resolve ebbing down to nothing. "She didn't really get the chance to have any fun here, not that anyone wanted her to; if any part of her was still aware enough to know she'd been a drift-conduit, then I suppose . . . " He clears his throat. "Well, she did get to eat Hannibal Chau. Maybe that's all the fun a newborn kaiju needs. Anyway, you . . . you don't have to come with me, not if you don't want to. I've been pretty selfish about all of this, the more I think about it. It's just that we share everything else, and as much as you roll your eyes over my ink, I don't think you hate it; you ask me to draw stuff for you when you need a diagram that's too complicated for you to draw yourself, which is fine, not everybody can, some say it's even harder than writing, and—"

"Dear Newton, you utter imbecile," Hermann grits out. "I was waiting."

For at least three seconds, Newton can't process what Hermann has said.

"Waiting for what—like, I don't know, one of the drawings to be based off my actual firsthand observations? This one's based off yours, too, actually; I got some great additional visual data during the drift that could only have been yours."

"Waiting for what's mine, too," Hermann says, smiling. "I'll get my coat."

He returns bundled up in the stupid, predictable parka, and he hands Newton's inexpertly cleaned and repaired leather jacket off to him in a gesture that's neither careless, nor condescending. He holds out the opposite arm while Newton struggles into it, so thoroughly disoriented that he wonders if it's the drift-residue flaring up again as badly as he'd seen it in Raleigh.

Hermann adjusts the coat, fondly straightening Newton's lapels, and kisses him.

Collapse, utter fucking meltdown. Newton sputters against Hermann's mouth, which admittedly seems to know very, very much what it's doing, and it takes him a second to realize that the best response isn't trying to shout at Hermann; rather, it's flinging both arms around Hermann's neck and holding on for dear life, because he's so fucking grounded with his feet and his cane planted that his arm around Newton's waist is, in fact, the only stable thing in their swiftly self-dismantling universe.

Worse yet, Newton knows he's making horrible, needy, desperate noises, and he doesn't even care. Hermann finishes with an unexpected catch of teeth at Newton's lower lip, and, rather than letting Newton fall over, he spins him with shocking, wiry strength so that he's trapped between Hermann's desk at the front of his thighs and Hermann at his back. He's got one arm still wrapped around Newton's waist.

"I fear you're quite wrong in your assessment of the situation," Hermann murmurs against Newton's ear, and all he can do is nod and be thankful they at least haven't zipped their coats, because Hermann's hand is now sliding from where it's splayed against Newton's belly and down to the fastenings of his jeans. "You see, I'm the one who's been selfish, holding out like a stubborn child because I hadn't got my way, hadn't felt included in any of these stories you so insistently engrave upon your flesh." It's on those words his breath hitches, his thumb stilling over the brass button he finds beneath the fold of Newton's fly. "I've second-guessed, speculated, wanted for so long, but I haven't been brave enough to give. Or even to ask. You permit the touch of a stranger so easily, Newton, a stranger with gloves and needles and no reverence for what a precious anthology your skin has become. Will you permit mine?"

"If you don't do something about this right now," Newton says, "I'll pass out."

"We mustn't have that," Hermann murmurs, and his tone is composed of strands so complex that Newton's sure he's never heard it before: apology, embarrassment, regret, love. "Especially not after last time," continues Hermann, and, pressing something between a gasp and a kiss against the prickly, overheated side of Newton's neck, undoes the brass button with one flick of his thumb and works in the rest of his sure, steady fingers to force Newton's taut zipper down.

"Oh God," Newton says. "I'm going to miss my appointment and lose my deposit and I swear Lu Zhen is the only one left who can do shading."

"I'll pay your bloody deposit," replies Hermann, voice turning rough as his hand slips inside Newton's boxer briefs and gently draws out his cock.

Newton feels his knees attempt to give out on him, and, Christ, he doesn't even know how they're still standing. He can feel the strain in Hermann's body pressed up against his back, can tell how much effort it must be taking, but he knows that in a pinch Hermann has more long-haul endurance than two Jaeger pilots put together. "Don't," he says, voice pitching to the brink of high, thin hysteria. "Don't stop."

Hermann kisses Newton's neck again—yeah, definitely a kiss, complete with some of that manic fervor at which he'd hinted—and says in a low, conspiratorial tone that Newton knows all too well, "Tell me what you want, Newton. Tell me everything."

The rhythm of Hermann's strokes is perfect; the brush of his thumb just there, God, does he use math to figure that out, too? Or is it the drift?

Newton takes a ragged gasp and says, "I want to stay here. In Hong Kong. With you. I want them to tell us we're the skeleton crew, I don't know; leave us here to monitor the Breach and all that boring shit. I want a lab that's not in this rusty, glorified tin can, and I want a proper flat or a condominium or something that has heating and air conditioning and proper hot water and a huge ridiculous bed where you can boss me around all you like, okay?" He can feel his control slipping away; Hermann isn't quiet, no, Hermann's breath is forced and harsh and he keeps lavishing those ridiculous kisses against Newton's neck and his ear and sometimes he whispers Yes, good and Oh, Newton and I'll have a word with the Marshall straightaway, just see if I won't

Newton comes in Hermann's palm, silent and shaking so hard that they finally fall.

"Shit," he moans, "oh, shit, if you've broken a bone you're going to hate me again, and then I'll never get to return the favo—mmmf."

It's nice like this, with Hermann clearly unharmed and crawling on top of him for another one of those skilled, possessive kisses. Newton fumbles between them and undoes Hermann's trousers with considerably less ease, because what the hell is going on with all those layers, anyway, and then there's the parka, but that's okay, because it's covering them and the desk is also blocking and the lab door is shut, so whatever.

Newton decides he's got time for this now: a row of zeroes, all the time in the world.

Chapter Text

The hell of it is, they actually do make it to Newton's tattoo appointment.

Fifteen minutes late, sure, but it's not like Lu has that many other clients urgently wanting to add new ink right now, and, come on, how could Newton have known that Hermann would fall apart right there on the lab floor even faster than he had?

He's still buzzing with it as they walk arm in arm through the raw, rainy late-morning cold, clad in hastily thrown-together clean clothes and their (mercifully) unsullied coats. They're quiet as they clip along at Hermann's swift pace, uncharacteristically so, but Newton can't stop looking at Hermann. It makes him flush hot, without fail, every single time, because Hermann returns the look with sly, unabashed glee.

Lovestruck is a great look on you, Doctor Gottlieb, Newton thinks, tucking Hermann's arm closer against his chest. You wear it better than I do.

Wei Sun Studio is at the far end of Fong Road: not in the Bone Slums proper, but certainly adjacent. Hermann doesn't visibly react to their surroundings until they've reached the storefront and Newton is chivalrously holding the door open for him, its tinny bell with worn jade ornaments a-jangle. He eyes the crumbling, but clean interior with fish-eyed suspicion, and Newton spends the entirety of the two seconds it takes him to squirm out of his coat hoping that Lu will wait until that expression leaves Hermann's face to emerge from the back room. No such luck, though.

"Newt!" she exclaims, holding her bare, solidly inked arms wide. "I thought you forget about me! And oh, oooh, look at this. He is just like you say." Her eyes flick over Hermann while Newton hangs their coats. "He needs a better haircut."

"Yeah, Lu, thanks," says Newton, putting himself between Lu and assured disaster; Hermann looks like he's about to open his disapproving mouth, and Newton's, like, six-hundred percent sure he shouldn't let that happen. "Sorry we're late."

"Just like you say?" echoes Hermann, leaning in close to Newton's ear.

"He means well, very well," says Lu, smiling, and she really is incredibly striking (she reminds Newton of the actress who played Jen in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the age she is now, only eyebrow-pierced and inked from the nape of her neck to her ankles). Newton can already sense that Hermann's irritation is fading, giving way to a kind of resigned fascination. "You grow it in a little, maybe get some texture."

"Well, he won't have as much use for the old military-reg standard in the days to come, that's for sure," Newton says, pulling the Drifter design out of his back pocket. "Here's what I've got," he continues, handing the paper over to Lu. "I was thinking maybe scale it up like you did with Otachi. I want it to cover from here—" he indicates the lower curve of his right hip bone, and he can feel Hermann's eyes gravitate to his hand like a magnet "—down to maybe mid-thigh. I'm torn. What do you think?"

"I think more elaborate than your usual design," says Lu, slowly, moving her eyes over the drawing with deadly precision (Like a scanner, Newton thinks; fuck, her brain is awesome). "I think maybe five hours, take it all the way down to your knee."

"Five hours?" Hermann sputters. "But you allow for loo breaks, surely!"

"He better go now," replies Lu, jokingly. "Too much bubble tea last time."

Newton ignores Lu's quip and turns to Hermann, beginning to unfasten his jeans even as Lu moves over to her workstation, snaps on a pair of snug polyurethane gloves, and starts rummaging through vials of ink. "That reminds me, the place next door has amazing lychee milk boba." He leaves his fly undone and tugs his wallet out of his other pocket, the one that hadn't been holding Drifter. "Go get us some? Please?"

"Newton, your priorities at a time like this leave something to be desired," Hermann says, casting him a dubious glance. "Nonetheless, I do owe you one, as your deposit is secure. For God's sake, put that away. I intend to spoil you rotten."

While Newton shoves his wallet back in his pocket, Hermann shoots wary glances at Lu and at Newton's open trousers in succession. He leans in and kisses the corner of Newt's mouth—chaste, but possessive—before he fetches his coat and stalks out.

Newt's jogged out of a daze, blushing, by Lu's sharp punch to his shoulder.

"You always say, no, you don't get it! He's not my boyfriend!" she jibes, and then punches his shoulder again. "Newt, I tell you what. You keep him."

"I'll try," says Newton, grinning stupidly as she leads him over to lie down.

Ten minutes later, as Hermann returns with one oversize cup of bubble tea ("We'll share it," he cautions Newton, "or you'll have none at all, do you understand?"), Lu's already well into boldly free-handing Drifter's outline. Newton must be losing his color fast—hey, needle over bone hurts—because Hermann keeps scooting his chair closer, and he's sucking the drink down faster than Newton can even ask for a second, a third, a fourth sip. All the while, Hermann strokes the back of Newton's hand and watches Lu work with what can only be described as grim fascination.

"You told me they start with transfers," he hisses. "So they don't bollocks it up!"

"Honey," says Lu, winking, before Newton can chide him, "I bollocks nothing."

It takes five hours, two more cups of bubble tea (mango followed by matcha), and nine loo breaks between the three of them (six of those Hermann's) before the job's complete. Newton's skin is on fire, but once Lu swabs away the blood and excess ink, the finished result is totally worth the look of stupefied wonder on Hermann's face.

"I would never have called her beautiful," he admits softly, bringing Newton's hand briefly up to his lips while Lu is intent upon smearing salve over her handiwork and covering it carefully in gauze, "but I daresay you've proved me wrong."

"Don't tell me you didn't think it from time to time," Newton replies, wincing a little as Lu's fingers press tape over the edges. "All of those endless calculations. Think about it. You described kaiju in God's own handwriting. You know she was beautiful; don't give me that."

"Newton," says Hermann, calmly, only it's the tone that means he's actually far less calm than he'd like you to believe, "later. We have an audience."

"All done!" says Lu, brightly, and pats Newton's thigh. "Hermann's proud of you."

"When don't we?" asks Newton, and turns to Lu. "That was intense, dude. Seriously. I might have two more for you, but they're not even drawn—"

As Hermann and Lu help him swing his legs to sit up—and get his boxers and jeans, baggier than usual, back in order—he feels the blackness rise, knows he's passing out. They hadn't eaten breakfast, and then there'd been unbelievable kissing and surprise!hand-jobs and . . .

He's upright in a chair when he comes to, his trousers back on, his bandaging and ink already beginning to itch. Hermann's in the chair next to him, one arm curled around Newton's shoulders while he leans heavily on Hermann's, and he's chatting with Lu in a surprisingly relaxed manner.

"So, you see, I did tell him," Hermann concludes. "It was a dreadful idea, and it nearly got us both killed." He points to his left eye, and then to Newton's. "I suppose they're spoils of war," he adds pensively, tracing part of Yamarashi across the exposed underside of Newton's left forearm. "I didn't always approve, but at least now I can understand."

Newton shivers at the touch, fully awake, and Lu reaches over to tap his wrist.

"Your taxi will be here in five minutes," she says. "Remember what I tell you?"

"Ugh, yes," says Newton, and lets his head fall back against Hermann's shoulder.

They get back to the Shatterdome shortly after five in the evening ("Seventeen-hundred hours," Hermann mutters; "We've been gone the whole bloody day"). They're both starving, and Newton feels like he might pass out again. He doesn't say it, but he doesn't need to, because Hermann can tell; he's holding Newton up as much as Newton's holding him up. He suggests dinner as a point of priority, and Newton can only nod in hazy agreement. They shed their coats in the lab, let them fall carelessly to the floor as Hermann kisses Newton under the harsh electric light, one hand set reverently against Newton's right hip. It feels like drifting. No, better.

"We'd best get to the refectory," Hermann says gravely, "before I ravish you again."

"Dude, that'd be fine by me," Newton says, head swimming with pain and endorphins and a sudden spike of lust, but Hermann's already leading him out of the room. They're greeted by an astonishing amount of shouting when they get there.

"Where in God's fucking name," barks Marshall Hansen, "have you two fucking been? There have been memos and texts floating all over this place since lunchtime with regard to the meeting that's supposed to have started ten minutes ago."

"Oops?" Newton ventures, clinging to Hermann's arm. "Sorry. I left my phone—"

Hermann lets go of Newton just long enough to salute, but it's desultory, even sarcastic.

"Apologies, sir," he says, patting Newton's back. "This one felt the burning need to add yet another monster to his menagerie, and so—"

"Hurry up, get your bloody food," sighs Herc, "and go sit down with the others. I'll join you there in a few minutes. We have a lot to discuss."

"Oh God," mutters Newton, letting Hermann drag him into the dwindling queue. "That sounds ominous. Like, really ominous. You didn't even get to have a word with him. What if they're shipping us all to freaking Alaska or Siberia or something? I bet Raleigh would really like that. Oh, God, Hermann. I think I'm gonna puke."

"Breathe, Newton," Hermann instructs him, pulling out a handkerchief, and they shuffle forward in line. "Breathe now, do you hear me? You are not ill; you are hungry. You've had nothing but coffee, milk, sugar, and tapioca goo all day."

"Neither have you," Newton points out petulantly, but he snatches the handkerchief and clings to it in a soppy, incredulous daze, because it's his own: it's the one he'd yanked out and offered to Hermann after they'd drifted, and here Hermann's gone and washed it and pressed it somehow and Newton doesn't even know when

"What the hell's wrong with him?" Tendo asks, strolling over to see them.

"I believe the technical term would be body modification overload," replies Hermann, and it's then that Newton realizes Tendo was talking to Hermann all along, "but I'm no expert in these matters. Newton, this is an actual human being. Say hello."

"I need to go sit down," he mutters into the handkerchief, feeling lightheaded, and extracts himself from Hermann's grasp so that he can wobble his way over to the table where Mako, Raleigh, and Herc are already engaged in heated conversation.

Mako rises to help him sit down, ever perceptive, and proceeds to ask him how it had gone. At the same amount of area as the previous two put together, except done all in one go, sure, it's hit him harder. The sooner Hermann and Tendo get there with something edible, the better. The handkerchief is helping, but for entirely illogical reasons. It smells like old-fashioned starch and warm, familiar skin.

Hermann and Tendo return with heaping plates of Singapore-style noodles, one of which gets thunked down in front of Newton with Tendo's accompanying order: "Eat, you crazy bastard." Hermann settles beside Newton and digs ravenously into his own, for once heedless of propriety. Half a dozen frenzied mouthfuls in, Newton thinks he's starting to feel human. Whatever the news from Herc is, he's sure he can take it as long as Hermann's got one steady, reassuring hand on his knee.

Tendo resumes his seat and his noodles, directly across from Newton, and winks.

"Let's get this show on the road, then," says Herc, "but first, as your commanding officer, allow me to be the first—" Tendo rolls his eyes "—to offer my sincere congratulations to our K-Science division on their most important breakthrough yet."

Tendo's already applauding along with Herc, and it takes Mako several rapidly blinking seconds before she muffles a quiet shriek behind both of her hands and joins in. Just when Newton is sure the joke has gone right over Raleigh's head, he's complicit, too, reaching diagonally to shake hands with Hermann, who wastes no time in lifting his hand from Newton's knee so that he can slide his arm around Newton's waist.

Dammit. Newton stabs a prawn, but he's grinning. No quiet honeymoon for us.

*

"A world press tour," says Newton, disbelieving, and he's clinging to Hermann's arm again as they make their way down the cavernous corridor. "And here I thought the news would be all scary and shit. Dude, I told you we'd be rock stars. I told you! First stop, Barcelona. That's fucking hot, and I'm gonna tell you why. There's this hole-in-the-wall mom and pop paella place on a back alley, you'll think it's totally gross, but then grandma comes out of the back in a hairnet and sets this massive pan of steamy saffron seafood goodness in front of you, and, hey, even if I haven't managed to coax enough rioja down your throat by that point, you won't have the heart to protest."

"Newton," says Hermann, exasperated, "you seem to have glossed over the part where the Marshall told us they've recovered partial remains from both Crimson Typhoon and Cherno Alpha, and we've got to attend a memorial service bright and early tomorrow morning. For God's sake, man. Show our fallen comrades some respect."

"Damn right I'm gonna show them some respect," Newton agrees. The plan is Hermann's bunk, not his, because Newton's quarters are currently, as Hermann would put it, a tip. "Tomorrow after the service, I intend to drink so much vodka I can't see straight. And, um. Also some of whatever the triplets liked. I didn't drink with them much. What did they like? Probably just Coke." He knows Hermann had been friendly with the Russians.

"Save us," Hermann appeals to no one in particular, "from this brash and unrestrained idiocy. Here we are, home sweet home, so—what the devil?"

They've reached Hermann's portal-step to find that some smart-ass, surname Choi, has scattered makeshift confetti (it looks like chips of colored Jaeger lacquer from the Shatterdome floor) and left a bottle of cheap, yet serviceable champagne.

"Ask and ye shall receive, buddy," says Newton, letting go of Hermann to dash ahead and pick up the bottle. He waves it in Hermann's face as he comes up the metal stairs one at a time with keys in hand. "Do you have any decent glassware, Hermann? No? Failing that, I'm sure some cracked, dorky old PPDC promo mugs would do."

"Open that regrettable stuff," Hermann tells him, jamming his key in the lock, "and I swear I will not proceed as planned once we're inside."

"How—" Newton swallows to ground his voice "—had you planned to proceed, exactly? That's an impressively vague statement, even for you."

Hermann hauls the door shut behind them, makes sure the bolt has caught, and marches the few steps between them to yank the champagne out of Newton's grasp. "Since you're inconvenienced," he says, all prim consideration as he sets the bottle aside on his infuriatingly tidy desk, "I thought that perhaps—" at this, he steps closer, uses his free arm to pull Newton close "—a thorough sucking-off might be in order."

Newton feels himself sway a little, but Hermann keeps him standing. "Have I, like, died and gone to heaven or something?" he asks. "Because, you know, I don't even believe in that shit, I mean, unless what happens when you drift with your favorite person ever in the whole entire universe is heaven, except for the kaiju, because—"

"Newton, for the hundredth time, please," says Hermann, leaning with that half-lidded intent that Newton recognizes as desire, "shut your mouth."

That's one instruction Newton finds he can't follow, because, well, Hermann's tongue is suddenly in it. And how he gets from standing there shaking while Hermann kisses the breath out of him to sitting here, still shaking, naked, on the edge of Hermann's neatly made bed, with an equally naked Hermann getting down awkwardly on his knees, is really anybody's guess. All he can think next is how much that must hurt

"Hush," Hermann says, right hand braced on Newton's unbandaged thigh so that it's planted squarely at the intersection of Otachi and Leatherback, reaching up to stroke his left thumb across Newton's lips just as they part. "I'm all right. Shhh." And then he's bending to kiss the head of Newton's cock, nuzzle it, tongue soft wet circles there and against the swirling waves on Newton's belly until Newton gives a loud, desperate whimper.

"Christ, Hermann," Newton moans, "do I honestly get you that hot and bothered?"

Hermann pulls off him with an ungraceful slurp; if it wasn't him, Newton would laugh.

"You make me want to—to own every last kaiju on your improbably endearing body."

"How do I know it's not just some massive theoretical-math boner?" asks Newton, almost instantly regretting what he's said, because now Hermann is stroking him with that intent, adoring expression from earlier. "Maybe you look at them and all you see is equations."

"Newton, you preposterous fool," says Hermann, letting go in order to touch Newton's cheek. "I love you. Now, what I'd really, really like you to do is stop talking, or at least tell me what I can do to get you to stop talking and start gasping instead."

"Oh," says Newton, dizzily, and pitching forward slightly works to his advantage, because Hermann levers himself up a little for an expectant kiss. "God, where do I start? I can tell you're really awesome at blow jobs and all, don't get me wrong, but I'm kinda . . . scrambled right now, it's difficult to describe, like I just really want you up here so I can taste you and so my skin can find out what your skin feels like, and—"

And Hermann is all lean, wiry muscle as he climbs up with Newton's assistance, all tenderness and praise as he stretches them both out on the coverlet; it turns out his skin runs hot as Gipsy Danger's nuclear core, and he fits against Newton perfectly.

"Tell me what you want," he murmurs. "All I've ever done is shout about what I want."

"Hold me," Newton blurts, and it's the neediest, most pathetic request for cuddly vanilla comfort-sex in the entirety of hominid history, but he doesn't even fucking care. Left to it long enough, they kiss just like they fight. And it's awkward, too, with Hermann trying to keep his weight centered, off of Newton's presently touchy right side, and with Newton trying not to crush Hermann's bad hip when at last it's too overwhelming and he just wants Hermann closer, closer, closer as his orgasm builds.

When Newton comes this time, he isn't quiet (legs wrapped tightly around Hermann's hips, the battle against their pain decisively lost), and, to Newton's mushy, post-coital surprise, neither is Hermann (fingers tangled so fiercely with Newton's up above their heads, against the pillow, that they'll both have hand and arm cramps to boot).

"We have serious issues, dude," Newton tells him eventually, once his breath returns. "We could've done something about this ages ago."

"I, for one, am not inclined to be so hard on us, Newton," replies Hermann, groaning a bit as he extricates his fingers, only to comb them fondly through Newton's disheveled hair. "We were busy saving the bloody world. There wasn't time."

There is now, Newton thinks, and lets Hermann kiss him until the position in which they're plastered together is no longer viable for either of them. He reaches down to fish the handkerchief out of his clothes on the floor and uses it to clean them up.

"You'll keep it, won't you?" Hermann sniffs, throwing back the covers while Newton tosses the handkerchief Hermann's hamper. "Sentimental."

"I'd rather you kept it," Newton mutters, using Hermann's wide-armed invitation as an excuse to burrow in snugly against him. "Ungrateful bastard."

Chapter Text

Departure

Newton learns an unpleasant lesson, which is: Hermann wakes up at fuck o'clock in the morning even on days when his first commitment isn't until ten forty-five. He might have slept right through this, gone on snoozing blissfully unaware, except that Hermann persistently shifts and sighs into Newton's hair and keeps kissing his cheek, his neck, his temple, his shoulder—anything and everything he can reach. Under other circumstances, Newton would be all over that, but right now, it's the most annoying set of circumstances he can possibly imagine.

"Would you cut that shit out?" he hisses, not conscious enough to moderate the amount of venom in his voice. "I'm really really really fucking tired."

Hermann's breath falters—too high, too shallow—and it's kind of heartbreaking. "I'll just go shower, shall I?" he replies coldly, and tries to get up, but it's not like that was going to work, because Newton's got an arm and a leg thrown across him.

Newton groans into the space between the pillow and the curve of Hermann's neck. "Christ, I'm sorry," he mumbles, awake enough to feel guilt and panic and, yeah, even actively want all of that extravagant attention. "I'm not a morning person."

"Preaching to the choir," Hermann reminds him dryly, relaxing back into the tangle they'd become overnight, and Newton seriously doesn't know how Hermann's not in a world of pain right now. Maybe he is. The skin of Newton's right hip and thigh are on fire, and he can tell part of the bandage has come untaped. He experiences a stab of panic, wonders if he's ruined the bedclothes with bleed-off from the ink.

"I hate to break it to you," says Newton, cautiously, "but I think Drifter got some Kaiju Blue on your sheets. And probably some other colors, too."

"Lie back," Hermann sighs, disentangling himself from Newton's sprawl, and throws back the covers. His left hand is already hovering gingerly along the edge of Newton's bandage. "Let me have a look, Newton. I'm not going to bite."

Maybe I'd like that? thinks Newton, but Hermann sounds like he means business right now, all stuffy British fuss laid over genuine concern. He wonders what his chances are of having his half-hard cock paid any attention while Hermann's in the neighborhood, but after having dealt out that way harsh half-asleep rejection, he thinks not. He winces as Hermann peels back the gauze, and his eyes fly open when he realizes that Hermann winces every time he does and that their breathing's in sync.

"Are you allowed to wash?" asks Hermann. He yanks the remainder of the patchwork bandage away with a whimper, and Newton's secretly proud he's done a better job of swallowing the sound than Hermann has. "There's blood and ink running together everywhere, and it looks like something you've left in the lab cooler for too long."

"Swelling?" Newton asks, struggling to sit up, but Hermann has a hand on his chest and won't let him. "Pus? Allergic reaction? Look, you've gotta give me some idea of what's going on. If it's all just smeary blood and ink, that's perfectly normal. And yeah, I can wash it. I should probably switch to cellophane after we shower, but it'll be a bitch to keep in place even with tape from the first-aid kit." His heart stutters a little on we, wondering if Hermann will object to the notion.

Hermann sighs, drops the mess of gauze and tape on the floor, and lies back down next to Newton. He's propped up on one elbow, fixing him with the kind of expression that suggests he might actually tell Newton how stupid he thinks getting jabbed repeatedly with a high-speed needle for five hours at a go really is. But he doesn't. He just frowns and scrutinizes Newton's face some more and then, mercifully, reaches up to thread his fingers through Newton's hair.

"I felt your apprehension," he says quietly. "Your giddiness. Pain, too, and even some of what I've heard you call the rush." He trails his hand down from Newton's forehead to his cheek, his chest, his belly. Teases at the head of Newton's cock, cupping his full length with maddening tenderness as they kiss. "You derailed me rather cleverly last night," he breathes against Newton's mouth. "Shall I continue?"

God, I'm an asshole, thinks Newton, despairingly, and scarcely manages to gasp yes as Hermann slides down the length of his body, settles between his spread thighs despite the blood-and-ink smearing his upper left arm's in for, and takes Newton greedily in his mouth. I snap at him; he blows me. Is that how it'll be? he wonders, unable to hold back a groan as Hermann gets creative with his teeth. We'll have the world's best make-up sex, and Jesus, Hermann, that thing you're doing—

He'd wanted Hermann to bite, or at least to try; ergo, they're ghost-drifting.

"Fuck fuck fuck," he groans, coming hard against Hermann's cheek and in his palm just as he lets Newton slip free of his mouth to lick at the crease of his thigh. "Shit. Why can't I last even five goddamn minutes? Fuck. Sorry."

"My conclusion," says Hermann, using one corner of the sheet to clean off his hand and his cheek, and as languidly dazed as Newton's feeling now, such casual linens-abuse comes as a shock, "is that a neural handshake as strong as ours isn't conducive to, er." He swallows, and it's then that Newton realizes he's been touching himself all this time, too, and the amplified sensation has been . . .

"Wow," says Newton, reaching for Hermann. "Not conducive to stamina because you're on sensory freaking overload banging your drift partner."

"Your word-choice leaves something to be desired," says Hermann, and just for that, Newton flips him over and shows him what it feels like.

They're almost five minutes late for the memorial ceremony, and Hermann has developed a staring problem because he's apparently never seen Newton in a proper suit. The affair is somber and lovely, with spiritually appealing non-denominational readings and ashes scattered to the waves.

Afterward, they do end up drinking in the refectory with Tendo, Mako, and Raleigh.

Hermann takes a couple of shots; Newton suspects it's because he's still all loved-up after what they'd been doing a couple of hours before. Raleigh goes to talk to somebody else, and Mako ends up sobbing on Newton's shoulder because she's been in and out of tears ever since the service.

Hermann points out in a tipsy whisper that the six of them have forty-eight hours to pack up and get their shit together before they fly to Spain.

Newton rubs Mako's back, stares at Hermann over her shoulder, and thinks, We're so going to leave packing till the very last minute, aren't we?

Barcelona

Newton can't remember where they are: he's too full of paella to walk without wobbling, and too drunk on red wine and licor de damasco to care. Turns out that place he loves (and Hermann had loved it, too, after grumping his way through the appetizers) still serves a complimentary shot or three as dessert. Hermann's cane clacks unevenly off the cobblestones, but he's not so much using it as trailing it along, because Newton is holding him up, and they stop every few yards or so to test the stone walls' stability. He hasn't had the chance to corner Hermann the way Hermann had been cornering him, so there's a distinct thrill involved. They're good-naturedly catcalled by the occasional passers-by; at this hour, everyone else is just as drunk and just as awkwardly full of food. Hermann's restraint is non-existent when it comes to public displays of affection, and Newton's so charmed by it that he's more than willing to forget his own reserve.

They'd landed forty-eight hours ago, had been given a generous amount time in their embarrassingly posh hotel to rest, wash up, and . . . adjust to the time difference They've bothered to come out for food, at least. Nobody's seen hide or hair of Mako and Raleigh, although Tendo had reassured Newton that you can hear plenty if you stand just outside their door. Hermann had cut him off with a glare before he could get to the subject of their door, and that's probably for the best.

"Fuckin' press conference," Newton mutters into Hermann's mouth. "Don't wanna go."

"Come now," Hermann says, and there is suddenly a lot of ass-grabbing. "You'll get to show off how smart you are, and people will ask questions about your garish taste in body art." His hands slide down to the backs of Newton's thighs, squeezing. "You've got some space left here," he observes with an odd sort of light in his eyes.

"For more paella? Dude, no," Newton groans. "It's all going to straight my hips now."

"I meant for more kaiju," slurs Hermann, almost mischievously. "Haven't you?"

Newton considers this, but he takes his time, because snogging Hermann takes priority. Hermann uses the word cheerfully enough, and it seems to suit them. Its Britishness also annoys the ever-living shit out of Tendo Choi, which is hilarious.

"You may be right," he says finally, nuzzling Hermann's ear. "I could put Onibaba on one side and Knifehead on the other. I never got them; I don't know why. Now that we're closer to Mako and Raleigh, though, it sort of makes sense. D'you think?"

"I think," Hermann replies, "that you'll have a hard time sitting for days."

He's unfairly skilled at double entendre, so Newton kisses him harder.

London

"I never thought I'd hear myself say this, but Paris will be a relief," Newton grumbles. "Your stupid country doesn't like me, Hermann. I think I ramble too much for those BBC dudes with microphones and pretentious hairstyles even lamer than Tendo's."

He pulls off another crust of stale bread and aims it at the water. It falls short, landing in the grass, where it's swarmed by more than a dozen ducks anyway. London may hate him, but he likes this park bench because they're the only two people on it.

"There there," croons Hermann, sarcastic and fond. "We'll have dinner in Kentish Town, and then we'll go to Oxford Street and look at all the lights."

"Can't believe the holidays are almost here. I don't know what to get anyone."

"You'll do no such thing for me," insists Hermann. "You've done quite enough in having successfully not died at least three times."

Newton rests his head on Hermann's shoulder. "Such a bitch, dude. I'm buying you the most extravagant Hanukkah gift in the history of ever."

"Newton, my love," Hermann sighs, making Newton shiver, "we're saving for that flat with hot water and a bed you'd like, remember?"

"Mmmhmmm," Newton hums, slipping his arm through Hermann's. "Yep."

He's still going to buy something nice, though, just to piss Hermann off.

Boston

"Are you trying to tell me," Newton says, disbelieving, as he holds his phone up toward the ceiling, "that this place is still located in the middle of a motherfucking wireless-connection sucking black hole? What the fuck!"

"The décor is also, um," says Raleigh, and then pauses. "Yeah. Just um."

"I dunno," Tendo muses, taking another sip of his cocktail, which is called The Wrong Man (the entire drinks menu is Hitchcock-film themed) and has always amused Newton to no end. "I dig it. Kitschy with a kick of class."

"The only thing that's classy about it," grouses Herc, "is the impressively stocked bar. Hey, are we gonna order any food?"

"Get the cheese fries or the beans and rice," suggests Newton, absently. He's too busy scanning the cocktail menu and trying to keep Hermann from tipping backward off his diner stool. There are plenty of chairs with normal backs, and even a sofa in the lounge alcove just across the way, but Hermann had insisted on sitting at the bar. Just as well; the badly dressed mannequin over there has always been kind of creepy.

"I want something sweet," Mako says, reaching for Tendo's glass. "Is that sweet?"

"Fruity as shit," he agrees, grinning, and lets her have a taste. Or two, or three.

"This was, as you say, your regular?" Hermann asks in a low voice. "Whatever for?"

"The bartender who used to work here," Newton admits. "And the food is good."

"You came here to pine after something for which you'd decided you had no time?"

"And to eat," he points out, only halfheartedly defending himself. "And get drunk."

"I think there's something you're not telling me," replies Hermann, and, without regard for who's watching, kisses Newton full on the mouth.

"I was sitting here when it happened," Newton pants when Hermann finally eases off in the middle of worrying at Newton's lower lip, and Herc, God help him, is goggling. "Two thousand and thirteen. I went from here to Grendel's Den, had a shit-ton more to drink, drew Trespasser on a fucking napkin, then went home and emailed you."

"What the hell is wrong with him?" Tendo demands of nobody in particular. Newton can't be bothered to respond, because Hermann is kissing him again like he's going to get so, so, so laid tonight, and that's more than can be said for Mister Choi.

Chapter Text

San Francisco

Before they leave Boston, two things happen: Newton lets one of the veteran staff at Chameleon have the honor of enshrining Knifehead on the back of his left thigh, and he fucks Hermann for the first time. He's feverish and shaking with every thrust and too close to coming when the ghost-drift flares between them, Hermann's fist tightening convulsively around the tight grip Newton has on Hermann's cock.

The few times they'd done this—Hong Kong the night before they left, their last night in Barcelona, their second night in London—Hermann had taken the lead, and Newton is all kinds of okay with that. Right now, he's overwhelmed and the back of his left thigh is burning and he's convinced Hermann must be in pain in spite of the fact he's not lying on his bad side and Newton's doing his best to support Hermann's leg when he's not jerking him off, but right now that's difficult because he's close and Hermann's close and their joint guest-lecture at MIT had stressed him out.

"My poor darling," Hermann murmurs, panting hard into the pillow, and eases his grip to stroke the back of Newton's hand. He turns his head, straining, and only just manages to catch the corner of Newton's mouth in a kiss. "Such a long day. You've outdone yourself, you know. They'll beg you to come back, and what will we do then?"

Praise so improbable from Hermann's mouth is the sun and moon and fucking stars; seconds later, he's sobbing against Hermann's neck and they're both coming so hard the neural handshake feels like it might short-circuit and he's seeing them.

Newton doesn't answer until Hermann disentangles himself, gets up and fetches his cane from against the nightstand, and comes back from the bathroom several minutes later, all cleaned up, with a warm washcloth in hand. He sponges at Newton's belly and softening erection till the worst of it's gone, and then tells him to turn over so he can check under the bandage. If they have trouble keeping their hands off each other in the immediate wake of Newton getting new ink (and Newton definitely thinks they do), they don't feel the need to discuss it. Hermann tells him to stay put, goes and rinses out the washcloth, and comes back with a fresh one to dab at the run-off.

"We'll tell them to fuck off, unless they're willing to pay me more than HKU is willing to pay you to co-chair the Department of Mathematics when we get back," says Newton, rolling onto his back once Hermann has finished spreading a fresh layer of salve over the raw skin he's just swabbed clean. Hermann sets his cane back against the nightstand and climbs onto the mattress beside Newton, tugging up the covers.

"I thought you didn't want to leave Hong Kong," Hermann says, absently brushing his thumb over the recently healed abrasion on Newton's forehead. It's as if he keeps a running tally of Newton's injuries for the express purpose of uselessly fussing.

"What if they make an offer we can't refuse? I don't want to screw our future."

"Need I remind you that Hong Kong University is ready to pay very, very well for my expertise?" Hermann reminds him, rolling half on top of Newton so that he can kiss the fading scab and work his way down to Newton's cheek. Hermann had gotten the contract offer from HKU via email while they were in London; Newton suspects that Herc throwing his weight around had something to do with it, but he can't be sure.

"Yeah, but I'm not as good at playing nursemaid as you are," Newton blurts, and Hermann stops just shy of kissing him on the mouth. "It's like Mary Poppins put you through boot camp, Hermann. Fuck. I'm not even half as good at taking care of you as you are at taking care of me, so I figure the only way I can really reciprocate is make sure that an appropriately obscene amount of money keeps coming in—"

"What part of I intend to spoil you rotten didn't you understand?" replies Hermann, sourly, but Newton knows that at this point the grumpiness is entirely for show. "I'll be making obscene amounts of money and making sure you don't set the flat on fire; what else could you possibly want out of life, you ludicrous creature?"

Eventually exhausted, they oversleep by half an hour the next morning; the whole entourage is late getting to the airport, and they almost miss their nonstop flight to SFO. The journey is long and ill-equipped (all of the in-flight films are either ones that suck or ones that Newton has seen before), and both he and Hermann are experiencing a lot of discomfort. Two hours in, Hermann takes one of his painkillers (of which he makes remarkably infrequent use) and slips one under Newton's napkin.

They kick up the arm dividing their seats and conk out in a cramped tangle; on landing, Newton learns that there are photographs because Raleigh and Tendo are juvenile fuck-twats who deserve to die a slow, agonizing death (Hermann's drug-addled wording). Tendo makes up for it by suggesting, once they've checked into their hotel and decompressed, that they all catch a cab to the Haight and hit the Toronado.

Herc and Raleigh take him up on the offer, but Mako isn't keen.

"Stay here," Newton suggests, glancing at Hermann, who, he's relieved to find, nods in agreement. "We'll head down to the restaurant, order every dessert on the menu, eat till we're sick, and then find something to watch on HBO. What do you think?"

"I think let's do it," says Mako, mischievously, and sticks her tongue out at Raleigh.

Sydney

Australian press conferences are laid-back and fun, but Newton still isn't as at home in front of the camera as Hermann seems to be (all of those years with the BBC sticking a camera up his nose every time he'd done something brilliant or won a prestigious fellowship, perhaps). The best part is seeing Herc reunited with friends and family; Newton hadn't known the big guy had that many wibbly tears held in reserve.

He says he'd have taken them surfing, but the local beaches are still kind of fucked up and nobody had brought swimsuits anyway. Tendo looks relieved he won't have to relinquish hair gel and suspenders; Mako says the water gives her nightmares.

"We could've bought some," Newton argues, taking a mistrustful sip of his beer. It's not as good as what they've been drinking in Europe and on the East and West Coasts of the US, so it won't be hard to avoid getting drunk. "I don't surf, but I love to swim."

"Between the lingering risk of Kaiju Blue and the open wounds on your leg, I rather think not," says Hermann, and that puts an end to the matter. "Besides, the hotel room's got a hot tub," he adds, lowering his voice; Newton can't help but warm to it.

"I feel like this trip has been one endless pub crawl," he sighs. "That's all. Some fresh air would have been nice." They're in a circular booth with lots of room, so he sprawls back against Hermann. "I hope nobody recognizes us. I'm sick of giving autographs."

Hermann's just buzzed enough on inferior white sangria to think that having a snog while everyone else is chatting or dancing is a great idea, and Newton is just buzzed enough on Foster's to go along with it. He ends up with his chin tipped up and his head back against Hermann's chest; it's ridiculously hot, and someone's wolf-whistling, but after Paris and Boston, he has no shame left.

Hermann stops abruptly and looks up, his arms around Newton suddenly protective.

"Is there something I can do for you?" he asks coolly, and Newton struggles into a sitting position, momentarily dazed by a rush of blood to his head, only to realize they're being stared down by the Australian approximation of a disgruntled redneck.

"You can stop doing that, for one thing," he says; it's a Kiwi accent that tumbles out.

"We've already stopped," Newton tells him. "Which is a tragic waste of my time."

Hermann elbows Newton hard, but the redneck's already opening his mouth again.

"It isn't right, you lot being on television," the redneck challenges. "Disgusting."

"What's disgusting?" asks Newton, leaning forward a little. "Saving the world?"

"No, as a matter of fucking fact," sneers the redneck, unexpectedly taking hold of Newton's unbuttoned shirt sleeves and yanking them back to expose Yamarashi on one side and Kaiceph on the other. "Kaiju-loving queers, that's what."

The thing that happens next happens so fucking fast that Newton doesn't have time to react. The redneck lets go of him, drawing one fisted hand up level with his cheek—presumably with intent to launch it at some unspecified part of Newton's anatomy—and Hermann's cane slams into his teeth just before Mako, ever vigilant, efficiently knocks him to the floor and calls Raleigh in for back-up. Herc has turned to stare at them from his vantage point at the bar and looks like he's going to either chew them out or just plain start crying.

"You are an unmitigated moron," Hermann says shakily to Newton while the redneck's friends wrestle him out of the former Jaeger pilots' stern custody and swiftly hustle him out of the establishment, but he says it in the same tone he'd used to say I love you.

Newton thinks maybe he might be the one who's about to cry.

"And you're a rock star," he tells Hermann, and they start kissing all over again.

Tokyo

In around a decade, Tokyo, like San Francisco, has been rebuilt, but it's still not quite the same city Newton remembers. He'd been there when two thousand and eleven had clocked over to two thousand and twelve and absolutely nothing had happened Apocalypse-wise. He remembers blinding lights and a dingy sake bar and awful karaoke where he'd somehow managed to be the only in-tune singer present (and he can't even sing).

He tells Hermann about this while the limousine carts them all to the first press conference of their last stop, and he rolls his eyes while Mako, grinning at him, says they're all going to have to do that before they leave. Tendo looks positively stoked.

"Let's keep it together, folks," says Herc, staring distractedly out the window.

"Get it out of your system now, lovebirds," says Tendo; whether he's talking to Mako and Raleigh or to Newton and Hermann is anybody's guess.

The affair is at a level of ceremony that makes Newton's skin itch, but Hermann is eloquent and dignified enough for all of them. Raleigh is the real surprise; like Mako, he doesn't require an interpreter, and he's such a hit with the gathered crowd that Newton thinks he and Mako ought to just stay. Maybe they've thought of that already.

Hermann holds his hand intermittently beneath the table, and nobody's the wiser.

Later on, there are, as threatened, both sake and karaoke to contend with. Hermann flat-out refuses to sing, so Newton bows ungracefully out of the loud, joyous disaster that is Tendo, Herc, Mako, and Raleigh muddling their way through an ABBA medley. The two of them sit on the sofa, swill nigorizake, and watch the train wreck.

"I hate to break it to you, dude," Newton tells Hermann, one arm flung casually, yet possessively across Hermann's shoulders, "but we're totally the stuffy old gay uncles who buy the kids sweets and let them watch decade-old Game of Thrones reruns after bedtime and pretend we don't think it's the cutest shit on God's green earth when they make fools of themselves with microphones."

"The sheer horror of it," Hermann retorts. "Heaven forbid we should turn forty."

"You first, Geliebter," replies Newton, sweetly, and tips over sideways with his head in Hermann's lap.

Hermann sighs, both hands finding their way into Newton's hair almost instantly.

"You are completely insufferable," he says, which of course means I simply cannot imagine life without you. Ghost-drifting is heaven, Newton decides: a built-in Hermann Translator, even better than a Babel fish, and then his brain makes the jump—

"I'm gonna show you Lost In Translation when we get back," Newton says, nuzzling the front of Hermann's trousers (not brazenly: just enough to tease). "You'll shout at me for like three hours and claim you didn't understand it. It'll be great."

"Hush, my dear," Hermann murmurs, stroking his hair. "The children are singing."

Homecoming

They don't manage to leave Tokyo without Newton completing his Onibaba design and having it needled into the back of his right thigh, which means that he and Hermann don't sleep, like, at all for their last two nights in the city. Tendo calls it indecent.

The flight from TYO to HKG takes four and a half hours. Newton is sore, restless, and still kind of horny from basically forty-eight hours of not having to leave their cozy boutique hotel room (and, for that matter, not having to put on any clothes).

Hermann asks if he wants another pain pill, claiming it's for his own bloody peace of mind.

Newton snaps in his best pseudo-Cockney that it's a jolly good job they're not great candidates for the Mile High Club. Hermann pinches the back of his right thigh and suggests that he never attempt that accent again. Eyes watering, Newton agrees.

They return to a Shatterdome that's empty and silent. For seventy-two hours, the six of them go their separate ways, only in three distinct parties, none of them exactly alone. Newton knows that Tendo and Herc aren't fucking, and he supposes that they stick together now because, for the time being, neither one of them has anyone else.

Newton and Hermann sleep for fifteen hours straight. Newton wakes up first, and he's pretty sure that means the world is coming to an end. He kisses Hermann's forehead and his cheeks and his shoulders and his belly, because, hey, payback is a bitch.

"You are terrible," Hermann hisses, pulling the pillow over his head as Newton gets busy nuzzling his hard-on, "and I am very, very tired."

"Whatever," Newton mumbles, taking the head of Hermann's cock delicately between his teeth before closing his lips around it and letting it teasingly slip free. "You're gonna wake up screaming my name whether you like it or not."

Hermann doesn't wake up screaming, but Newton's name is foremost on his lips, and he rolls Newton over for some good old-fashioned rubbing off afterward. Newton loves this most, Hermann's body covering his: shielding him, hiding him, safe. And he does scream, screams loudly enough to have awakened the person occupying the nearest quarters to Hermann's, if only they'd still been there to hear it.

He wonders about Genji. He wonders about Ling. He hopes they'll be happy.

Once they're up and showered and presentable (but with nowhere to be, nobody to impress), he proves as good as his word and makes Hermann watch Lost In Translation. For a movie that's twenty-two years old, it's stood up pretty well to the test of time. He remembers being thirteen and seeing it in the theater with his uncle and his father, remembers wanting desperately to know what the fuck Bob whispers to Charlotte at the end.

Some years later, he'd read an article, a major magazine's interview with Scarlett Johansson where she confesses that Bill Murray totally just dicked around and whispered something ridiculous or outright filthy on every single take of that scene.

At heart, Newton is a romantic. He knows that Hermann, deep down, is one, too.

Which is why, while the credits roll and Hermann pretends like he wasn't just totally fucking enthralled for a hundred and one minutes straight, Newton presses his lips to Hermann's ear and whispers, but without actually opening his mouth, because he's been wanting to try this ever since he realized mutually enjoyed stimuli, sexual or otherwise, are the best trigger of all for ghost-drifting, You had me at hello.

It's stupid, sure, a reference to yet another film that Hermann's never seen, but it's the truest thing Newton can think to say in that as-yet unshattered moment. Hermann turns to face him, and they're forehead to forehead, nowhere to hide.

"So sentimental," he murmurs, but his heart's there in lieu of his biting sarcasm.

"You fucking bet I am," says Newton, and so much for the shouting. He's in love.

Chapter Text

Getting out of bed is hard, but putting on clothes is harder. Newton suspects this wouldn't be the case if Hermann wasn't stretched out on his stomach, chin propped on his forearms, hungrily watching Newton button up his jeans (discarded on the floor after watching Lost In Translation the afternoon before) like they haven't just spent thirty minutes waking each other up with lazy kisses and quiet, intense drift-gasms (he has no other word for the phenomenon, and his best approximation has stuck).

"Dude, stop that," Newton says, fetching his shirt. "Do you want coffee or not?"

"I'd prefer a cup of tea, but, as you've reminded me, supplies are looking grim."

"It's not my fault you changed your mind about buying a dozen boxes of Twinings while we were in London, Hermann," Newton points out, only buttoning his shirt up halfway before dragging his boots out from under Hermann's desk and jamming his feet into them. He grabs Hermann's keys and crosses back over to the bed, bending to plant a kiss between Hermann's shoulder blades. "You were all cute, cranky, and concerned about taking up too much luggage space. Okay, I'm off. Be back soon."

"Finish dressing first, you heathen," Hermann snaps, but he shivers at the contact, and that makes Newton's morning. "Tie your bloody shoes."

"I am dressed," he says, dashing for the door. "Good enough for jazz, anyway," he adds, and flees, because the last thing he needs is Hermann chasing after him in nothing but slippers and a dressing gown. At least modesty will forbid it.

It's nine-thirty (Newton can't bring himself to think in twenty-four hour time), and the refectory is bustling. Mako and Raleigh are nowhere in evidence, so he makes a mental note not to take the return detour that would shoot him straight past their quarters (doesn't matter whose room they're in, not situated directly across from one another; Newton has sharp ears, and he'd hear anything above a certain level, no matter how muted). He hurries through the line, grabbing two cups of coffee and a stack of pancakes that he hopes Hermann will assent to share.

He swings by the end of the table where Tendo and Herc are eating to say good morning; Herc looks him up and down like he'd better not catch him in such a state of dishabille ever again. Tendo gives him a told-you-so look and slides a folded-up newspaper under Newton's arm.

"You should have a look at the op-eds," he says.

When Newton gets back, Hermann's in the shower and the sheets are still a mess, so he sets the tray and the newspaper on Hermann's desk and decides it won't kill him to make the bed. That doesn't take very long, so he kicks out of his boots, picks up the newspaper, and takes a seat at the desk. "Food's getting cold!" he shouts in the direction of the lavatory, and Hermann roars something unintelligible back at him.

Newton shrugs, opens Tendo's copy of The Guardian, and starts to read.

He hits the part he's pretty sure Tendo wanted them to see just as Hermann strides back into the room damp, comically towel-draped, and leaning heavily on his cane as he bends forward to rub at his hair. "You couldn't have waited another fifteen minutes to make the run?" he asks pointedly. "I do hope you evaded the Marshall's scrutiny."

Newton can't find a response to that because he's been stuck repeatedly reading the same sentence. He's used to press and publicity; a successful academic career and subsequently becoming a world-renowned expert on alien monsters are kind of conducive to media coverage. The part to which he's not accustomed is said coverage taking the form of social commentary rather than straightforward reporting.

"Hey, Hermann, look at this," he says, holding the newspaper out so that Hermann can read without having to stop drying his hair. "We've apparently developed a reputation for being, I quote, openly and unapologetically arse-over-teacup in love."

"I'd like to hear what The Daily Mail has to say about it," says Hermann, dryly, and wanders over to his closet, seemingly unconcerned. "What's the broader context of the piece? One should have thought our condition was obvious, so I hardly see the point."

"I believe the tone is meant to be inspirational," Newton replies, scanning the rest, and when he gets to the part about how clearly devoted to each other Mako and Raleigh are (with deep and soulful reserve), he doesn't feel quite so singled out anymore. "The writer mentions everybody's favorite Jaeger pilots in prose just as purple as she used to describe us, and then she goes on about Tendo's cheerful, steady demeanor having clearly been everybody's rock through these difficult times and how stoic Herc is in his grief and blah de fucking blah, wow. This lady's single-handedly seen to it that we'll be dodging paparazzi for the rest of our lives."

Hermann pauses, already more than half dressed, and begins to button his shirt. "Oh, Newton. Did you honestly think that wasn't going to be the rest of our lives anyway?" he asks. "Bless your unwashed cotton socks. Bring the tray over here, would you?"

They eat on the bed, because there isn't a second desk chair, and it's easier to sit with their backs up against the metal head-board and the tray across their laps. Even though they almost spill both cups of coffee and Hermann complains about how much syrup Newton had decided to put on the pancakes, it's still every bit as welcome as hotel room-service breakfasts in bed. Newton tosses the newspaper on the floor.

Worried isn't the precise word for how he's feeling about this, not exactly.

It's just that the ambient thought-static between them has gone too quiet.

*

They've boxed up almost everything in the laboratory except for the kaiju specimens, which Newton suspects will be donated to various universities and museums. He wouldn't have it any other way, of course, but he can't help but feel a twinge of sadness when he presses one palm to the glass cylinder containing Suckerbrain (motionless now, those dangling nerves and tendrils, with no semblance of life). It's priceless, of course, and his grim pet-name for the organ is probably a disgrace to Mutavore's (To Sydney's, he corrects himself) memory.

Mutavore is another one he still hasn't got—and no Reckoner in honor of Hong Kong, either—so maybe if he places one on each shin, stretches them from knee to ankle and wraps the edges of the designs around to cover his calves—

"Then you'd well and truly be out of places to put them," Hermann interrupts unexpectedly, shuffling up to stand beside him. "And before you suggest the most obvious remainder—" at this, Hermann lifts his cane and delivers a very light, teasing thwap to Newton's backside "—I'd like you to think good and hard about whether you fancy my commentary upon that subject as often as I care to give it."

"You know the blanks will look funny once the last two are in place," Newton tells him, too peevishly to disguise the prickly mood he's in. "I should at least get that filled in with more waves—you know, as connecting detail work—and then you can make jokes about how my ass encompasses an entire ocean. Everybody wins."

"Newton, something's bothering you," Hermann sighs, leaning closer. "What is it?"

Newton considers his words carefully, but it's a moot point, because Hermann is getting better and better at just about point-blank reading his fucking mind. They'd learned so much about each other in the drift, so much they'd already known, but with a layer of such fine-tuned definition laid over and beyond it, that Newton's scared silly.

"Are we going to talk about any of the stuff we saw in there?" he blurts. "Not the kaiju stuff. The other stuff, like the two lovers you had before me and the three not-even-really-relationships-because-I-had-no-time-for-that-shit failures I had before you; like the way you just know who the hell you are and what the fuck you want out of life, thank you very much, and like the way I couldn't even be sure you approved of a lot of shit about me even though I could tell you cared so much when you found me bleeding on the floor that you couldn't bear to admit—"

"Newton, stop," says Hermann, firmly, and spins Newton around to face him with such force that Newton has to lash out with one hand to steady them against the cylinder. "Yes, we can talk about all of those things if you want to—all of those things and more, Newton, for crying out loud. Look at me. As for the rest of it—disagreements, rivalry, drawing a line down the middle of the room—that's behind us now."

"Do you really think so?" Newton asks, taking hold of Hermann's shoulders, because now they're ghost-drifting again and he's never felt anything so manic radiating off of Hermann before, or is that just his own agitation tumbling right back at him in an endless, intricate feedback loop? "Like, how can you be sure that all the stress of being famous isn't going to ruin this for you? Seriously, dude, I used to think that being a rock star was what I wanted more than anything else in the world, but now I just want you and that flat we keep talking about and my research and some graduate students to work with who don't totally suck and, oh, have I mentioned you?"

"Incessantly," sighs Hermann, and kisses him. "Let's finish tidying, shall we?"

*

Newton finds Tendo alone in LOCCENT, sitting in his usual seat at the switchboard with a cooling mug of coffee in front of him. He steps up behind Tendo and sets the newspaper beside him, staring out over the eerie, empty expanse below. Sobering, not to see Gipsy Danger out there.

"What did you mean by this, exactly?" he asks, tapping the paper. "Cautionary tale?"

Tendo sighs, shakes his head; Newton can read regret in the slant of his shoulders.

"I wanted you to know," he says. "Herc gave a copy to Mako and Raleigh, too. We're marked now, every single one of us, and I think we've got to be conscious of that. I don't think we're doing anything wrong, but I don't want any of us to take that risk in the days to come. What y'all have got is too weighty, too precious. Do you copy?"

"Yeah, dude," Newton replies, pulling up a chair. "I fucking copy. I thought I wanted it all, the cameras, the interviews, the autographs, but you know what? It gets old fast. And I'm tired. Hermann's the one built for this, not me. I'm gonna keep my mouth shut next time there's a camera in our faces and let him do the talking."

Tendo gives him a half-smile and sips his coffee, restless fingers tapping the console.

"With your open-mouth-insert-foot track record, Doctor Geiszler, that's probably wise."

"Is this about Paris?" asks Newton, uneasily. "Or Boston, or Sydney? Is Herc pissed?"

"Hell no, he's happy for you," Tendo says. "But he's one protective motherfucker, won't even take the time to properly grieve, and he's still got to look out for what's left of the PPDC as much as he's got to look after you four crazy kids and your honeymoons splashed across every front page from here to Kingdom Come. So are we clear?"

Newton catches himself mid-salute, before he's even aware he's made the gesture, and Goddamn it, Hermann, just how long have you been waiting for the opportune moment to slip that in, anyhow? He shivers at the sensation of unvoiced laughter.

"We're clear, absolutely, crystal," he says, clenching his fists in annoyance. "Sir. You can tell the Marshall that's from both of us."

"Hallelujah," says Tendo. "Your sass is bad enough on its own, never mind Hermann going all Blackadder on my ass. Why so shocked? I watch BBC America, damn straight." Newton rises, giving Tendo a clap on the shoulder, and leaves with a grin on his face.

"I never did thank you," he calls over his shoulder, and Tendo swivels in his chair.

"For what? Do you grasp the sheer redundancy at this point? You're already welcome."

"For the champagne," Newton replies. "For the nudging, even though we didn't need it."

On his way back to Hermann's bunk (Our room, he catches himself echoing in overlap, and he knows that it's Hermann again and that this is only going to get stronger and stranger as time goes on), all he can think about now is that they haven't opened the champagne yet, and, after the day he's had, they goddamn well should. He lets that cut through the static and feels the ghost of Hermann's laughter again, gets the overwhelming sense that Hermann is ten steps ahead of him. He'll never catch up.

Newton is the opposite of surprised when he returns to find that Hermann has uncorked the bottle and poured them each a streaky old wine-glass full of the stuff. No, strike that: the glasses are a surprise, what when he'd thought Hermann had none.

"One feels a celebration might be in order," says Hermann, patting a spot next to him on the mattress and handing Newton a glass of champagne from the sparsely decorated ledge above the headboard. "After our discussion, I decided it was high time I responded to that bloody email. They'd like me to start as soon as possible, and I've made it perfectly clear that I expect the School of Biological Sciences to hustle on the grant-application front for sufficient funding to hire you."

"I knew they didn't have any openings, and it's not like they can just create one at a time like this," Newton agrees, raising his glass to tap against Hermann's. "As much of a commodity as we are right now, I know that could take a while. Maybe Lu can talk Wei into letting me apprentice at the Studio until funding comes through. It's just—I'm gonna get so fucking bored if I have nothing to do all day while you're being a hotshot department co-chair. Why the co- part, anyway?"

"Because Professor Mittal is three months shy of taking maternity leave, and they'd like me to have some overlap to get a feel for the place before I take over in her stead. She'll return, of course, but her hours will be considerably reduced, so two heads are, as they say, better than one. Don't think this was anything other than a fortunate confluence of circumstances, Newton. They desperately want both of us, but only one of the relevant departments can currently afford to create an opening."

"Maybe they'll let me volunteer a little bit. Get a jump on corrupting the grad students."

"I had no idea that your passion for teaching rivaled your passion for cutting up kaiju."

"The courses I taught at MIT were always overbooked," Newton admits. "You should have seen the wait-lists; they were a mile long. I shouldn't tell you about the bribe-attempts those undergrads used to make, but never mind. You already know."

"And I also know," says Hermann, setting aside his empty glass, "that you never took a single one of them up on their offers, no matter how enticing. That takes discipline, Newton. I never believed that you lacked it. Restraint, certainly, but not discipline."

"Yeah, dude," Newton replies, drinking his own glass dry before reaching across to set it beside Hermann's, "because, okay, do you know how much of that discipline it took not to flirt with you over email any more blatantly than I already was? Know what my colleagues used to call you?"

"Have you told any of them that your Internet Boyfriend is now, in fact, the genuine article?" Hermann counters with a wicked glint in his eye, and that's how Newton knows that, no matter how strange the intricacies of their relationship may become, everything is going to be all right.

He's so relieved he could kiss Hermann, so he does.

"How long had we been corresponding at that point?" asks Newton, somewhat breathless because Hermann's tugging him over so that he has no choice but to crawl into Hermann's lap, which has the very intended consequence of Newton toppling Hermann backward on the mattress and both of them cracking the hell up. "You're gonna have to remind me, because right now I'm kind of distracted by the complete dick who's trying to get me drunk and take advantage of me in a vulnerable state."

"Six months," Hermann sighs. "Long enough for me to have realized I'd grown fond and not have a sodding clue what to do about it."

"Oh, you had a sodding clue, all right. Is that why you kicked up such a God-awful tantrum when we first met at that conference? I swear, I thought you were never going to speak to me again for poking so many holes in your paper during the Q&A."

"You—" Hermann sputters, breaking the kiss, but doesn't push Newton away "—you did not poke holes in my argument. You pointed out potential weak spots in a thesis that was, at the time, purely theoretical, and you did it rather belligerently, I might add."

Newton kisses Hermann's cheek and starts in on Hermann's shirt buttons once he's finished with his own.

"Fair enough," he concedes. "I could have asked you out for coffee before turning up at your session unannounced, but you have to understand, dude, I had a fucking crush, and I also genuinely disagreed with you; that's a really bad combination. If I'd asked you out for coffee first, I might've made a pass at you, and who does that on a first date? I mean, unless they're completely desperate, which I totally was, but, look, not for just anyone. That might've been true around the time we started writing, but you . . . Jesus Christ, Hermann. You ruined me for anything but you and kaiju, because, plot twist, you were obsessed with the fuckers, too."

Newton knows then that there's nothing else to say, at least not about that point in their lives: it had been a case of right person, wrong time.

Hermann is rolling him over and swearing and struggling to get Newton's jeans undone, so much less artful than Newton's come to expect, so he wrests Hermann's hand away and does the job himself. He's got the hang of Hermann's trousers now, two buttons and a zip on the outside, and then another button on the inside that's sewn in partway along the waistband at the stupidest angle known to all of haberdashery.

His thought-phrasing must be right on point, because suddenly Hermann's wheezing against Newton's mouth, laughing so hard Newton thinks he might choke, and it's so, so much better than having just the imprint of it echoing through his head.

There's too much urgency between them now to worry about what Hermann had initially been planning—champagne, lights down, maybe just a candle or a desk lamp left glowing while he fucks slowly into Newton, taking his time; Newton's belly burns with the mental image, a flare of wanting too frantic, too much. They manage to kick free of both pairs of trousers just in time for a new set of memories to swing around through the drift's revolving doors. He doesn't know which of them is broadcasting which.

"I didn't think that's what was going to happen," Newton babbles helplessly, thrusting into Hermann's fist. "I didn't plan it, I really didn't, I just wanted you to be there when she was working on me so I could squeeze your hand and make you go get me drinks I knew you'd end up hogging anyway and maybe just finally make you fucking see—"

And the memories line up like the actual events themselves did not: Hermann can feel Newton's sheer relieved astonishment as he's coming there in the lab, pinned between Hermann and Hermann's spotless desk, and Newton can feel the weight of their universe collapse as Hermann, looming over him in that stupid cozy parka, lets go.

"Of course you didn't plan it," murmurs Hermann, and it must be minutes and minutes and minutes later because they're lying in a boneless, sticky tangle and their hearts are hammering, one rhythm, not two, not two. "We arrived eventually, Newton, not a moment before or after we ought to have. What further proof do you need?"

"For a guy claims to get off on cold, hard logic," replies Newton, exhausted, worming his hands under Hermann's loose, damp shirt so he can poke between Hermann's ribs, "you seem down with the whole poetry and promises thing. Even politics, dude. You haven't even started the new gig yet, and you're already pulling strings on my behalf."

Hermann sputters for a moment, but his fury dissolves into breathless laughter, and that's the strangest, most wonderful thing of all.

Chapter Text

6. Sigil

December first arrives before Newton knows it, which means the weather turns colder and wetter than ever. Hermann has been on the job at HKU for nearly two weeks now, and he gripes incessantly about the to-and-from taxi commute even though, between that and the parka, he stays dry.

Now, a typical morning goes like this: Hermann's alarm clock goes off; Newton rolls away and tries to burrow into the mattress; Hermann tugs him back and sometimes manages to engage him in more than a kiss; Newton wraps himself around Hermann in the vain hope that maybe he won't leave after all; Hermann finally gets up, showers, dresses, comes back to kiss Newton one more time, and then leaves. If Monday, then repeat procedure through until Friday. Sex has been relegated to some mornings and most weekends, because Hermann tends to come home either a) tired, b) with a ton of paperwork, or c) both.

Newton manages to feel guilty about this, because his days have been spent doing pretty much whatever the hell he wants: recreational reading, idle research, bothering Tendo, and training sessions with Lu. The previous week, over three consecutive days when Wei Sun had been forced to close due to street repairs, he'd given her a chunk of the press tour money and got the remainder of his planned improvements—Mutavore, Reckoner, and an ocean to boot—squared away once and for all.

Newton's still sore even though he's healing fast, and, over stacks of undergraduate problem sets, Hermann berates him for his lack of moderation. Last Saturday morning had been memorable, though, and he's genuinely sorry to have finally run out of space.

They're closer to finding an actual place to live, which is a relief, because switching back and forth between two Shatterdome dormitories is, in truth, a horrible arrangement. They've got two rental prospects (they're too small, and Hermann scoffs Honestly, Newton, this isn't America every time he brings it up), plus one property they'd buy in a heartbeat if the down payment wasn't so steep.

Today, Newton sleeps for another two hours after Hermann leaves for work, has a late breakfast of bagels and coffee with Tendo and Herc in LOCCENT (they're the skeleton crew, he realizes; the clock may be done for, but the monitoring screen hasn't gone dark), and learns the somewhat astonishing news that Raleigh and Mako will be the first to leave. Mako has a job offer in Tokyo, and Raleigh's pretty sure he can get by on press appearances alone until he can find something.

"Who's snapped her up?" Newton asks around a mouthful of pastry.

"Some prestigious fight school," says Tendo, arms folded across his chest as he tips back in his chair. "Her form's fucking stellar no matter what style she uses, and she's been in love with training as long as I've known her."

"I saw her in the combat room once," Newton replies, "and, of course, there was the bar in Sydney," he adds, carefully avoiding Herc's eyes. "I heard she wiped the floor with Raleigh on his first day here. Hermann really made me wish I'd seen that."

"She wiped more than just the floor," Herc agrees. "The girl is good."

"When do they leave?" asks Newton, experiencing a distinct pang of loss.

"They ship out on the twentieth," Herc tells him. "Say your goodbyes now."

Dammit, thinks Newton, glumly. I don't have gifts for them yet, either.

He's back from the Studio and sketching idly at Hermann's desk when Hermann clatters in with his hood still up and his briefcase dripping wet. Newton drops his pen and rushes over to take it away from him; on divesting Hermann of the parka, it's clear that Hermann's expression is far more sour than it has any right to be, because, hey, the guy is used to getting rained on.

"Seems we're losing our best and brightest," says Hermann, sounding exhausted.

"I don't know what to get them before they leave," says Newton, and decides that a kiss can wait until Hermann's settled in his chair with a cup of tea in front of him. "That's hardly the most pressing matter at hand," says Hermann, his expression softening, and leans in to kiss Newton first. "Fetch today's papers, won't you, and come sit with me while I work. We've got to decide where the last of your Little Shop of Horrors stock is going. There are a number of compelling petitions."

They sit on the bed and bicker about who deserves the dead bit of Mutavore's brain the most; the Hong Kong Museum of History is a strong candidate, Hermann thinks, but Newton would selfishly rather see it end up in one of the labs at HKU. There are enough skin samples, organs, and bone fragments to divvy up between all parties. Half an hour later, Hermann is asleep, and Newton's doing his grading for him.

The next day, having awakened early enough to pack Hermann muttering off to work, Newton heads to Wei Sun a couple of hours earlier than usual. He can see through the window that Lu's already busy working on someone; he jangles through the door and notices it's a straightforward shoulder blade job, what with the dude shirtless and facing the back wall, but something about the unnaturally bleached hair and intermittent scarring makes Newton stop short as the door slams shut behind him.

"Hey, Newt!" Lu calls, stopping the gun briefly, beckoning. "This guy says he knows you. Why you never tell me about anybody but your boyfriend?"

"Boyfriend?" echoes Hannibal Chau, voice laden with mock seriousness as he spins around on Lu's stool. "You never mentioned anything about that. Son of a bitch." Newton has to work his jaw several times before he can force out any sound.

"How are you even alive?" is what he says, against his better judgement.

Hannibal smiles, inscrutably dour, and taps his temple just above his sunglasses.

"Quick thinking, Doctor Geiszler. I keep a cool head. In case you were wondering about blood acidity levels in prematurely birthed juveniles, it isn't strong enough to kill a grown man who knows his way around the chest cavity with a balisong."

"Strong enough to leave those through two layers of clothing," says Newton, pulse returning to normal. "Must've hurt."

"Ooh," interrupts Lu, with interest. "You must be that guy Hermann says got—"

"Holy jeez," Hannibal cuts in before Newton can signal Lu to keep her mouth shut. "You and that English prick Pentecost kept shut up in the lab, huh? There's no accounting for taste, I always say; to each his own." He licks his lips, and Newton feels his skin start to crawl. "So, I hear operations have wound down, and that Aussie blowhard's in charge. We've been through a lot together, you and me," he continues, almost companionably, and Newton isn't sure whether he's right to let down his guard a second time or not. "Got anything . . . interesting you need clearin' out of there?"

Newton's brain ticks through the lower-end kaiju remnants and does the math.

Whatever else he may be, he's not an idiot; most of it, Herc won't even miss. The proceeds won't be enough to buy the flat outright, but it'll easily bump them into down-payment territory. As for a mortgage, Hermann's salary can handle that.

"Sure," Newton says carefully, and Hannibal's grin widens. "For a price."

"You're not so bad," Hannibal tells him. "What do you say we take a field trip to your office once I'm done, maybe get a bite to eat afterward?"

That evening, Hermann comes home to find Newton in the lab with a borrowed tattoo gun and some black ink. He's practicing intricate outline work on a piece of kaiju underbelly skin that has, save for the formaldehyde saturation, almost completely dried out. Hermann starts shouting at him almost immediately (it's a health hazard, not to mention highly unsanitary, blah blah blah), but he falls silent when Newton turns off the gun and yanks two improbable wads of cash out of his back pockets.

"Newton," says Hermann, with quiet disbelief, "what in God's name have you done?"

"Ditched the lesser inventory and got us a place to live, motherfucker," he replies.

Once Hermann's done screaming and Newton has fudged enough paperwork to hide the discrepancy, they call the estate agent, put in their offer, and proceed to have the kind of night that Hannibal Chau has only ever seen in his wildest fucking dreams.

 

5. Tribute

The conundrum of what to get Raleigh solves itself unexpectedly when he turns up one afternoon at Wei Sun looking awkward and lost.

Newton looks up from the colorful fill-job he's been watching Lu execute on a teenage girl's impressive right-arm sleeve; it's a rendering of Crimson Typhoon, as it happens, so Raleigh choosing that moment to walk in has an eerie significance.

"Hey," Newton says, rising from his seat. "What brings you to this part of town?"

"I heard you've been hanging out down here while Hermann's at work," says Raleigh, awkwardness giving way to his usual open affability. "And I, um—thought maybe you could help me out with something, unless your teacher doesn't think you're ready."

"Nothing too complicated," Lu warns, not looking up from her work. "His outlining's very good, though."

"Fine by me," says Raleigh, and hands Newton a piece of paper. "What do you think that will cost?"

"Nothing, dude," Newton replies, grinning at him. "Call it a Christmas and parting gift from me and Hermann. I'll pay Lu for the ink."

"You better," says Lu, teasingly. "But why don't you bring handsome Jaeger pilots more often?"

"Probably because there aren't that many of us left," Raleigh tells her while Newton does prep.

"I bring handsome nerds," Newton replies, pushing Raleigh down on a stool. "Isn't that enough?"

The design is small, blackwork only, and well within Newton's capabilities after five weeks of hanging around and two weeks of actual practicing on anything he can find (or on any of Lu's clients who prove willing). Raleigh has never done this before, which is mildly surprising, because Jaeger pilots are infamous for commemorating their achievements. Newton has seen the tendrils that peek out from beneath Herc's right t-shirt sleeve and wonders what's hiding there; he makes a mental note to ask him.

"Did Mako draw this?" Newton asks as he places the transfer, patting Raleigh's upper arm dry. "That good?"

"Maybe just a little lower," Raleigh tells him, so Newton spritzes the transfer, wipes it away, and slaps it about an inch down this time. "Yeah, she did. You're the one with a good eye. How did you know?"

"It looks like her style," Newton says. "She's shown me some of her work. Tell her she shouldn't be shy about it," he adds, patting Gipsy Danger's winged-star emblazonment dry for the second and last time. "Okay, are we ready?"

"Yeah, we are," says Raleigh, and there's a sadness in his voice that betrays Yancy's presence in his thoughts. "As ready as we'll ever be."

Will you haunt me when you're dead, Hermann? Newton wonders as he guides the gun with a steady hand. Or will I haunt you if it's the other way around, come to that? Lu wraps up her session with the girl, gets her bandaged, and then comes to watch.

"Stay focused," she says, setting a hand on Newton's shoulder. "Newlywed artists are dangerous," she explains to Raleigh. "Head in the clouds."

"No worries," replies Raleigh, with laughter in his voice. "So are newlywed clients, I imagine. I bet they make stupid decisions all the time."

"Not stupid," Lu says, tightly squeezing Raleigh's hand. "Not yours, never."

 

4. Litany

Mako comes to Newton the next afternoon while he's practicing alone in the lab again.

She's wearing a look of fierce determination, and for a second he thinks she's going to chew him out because something's gone horribly wrong with Raleigh's new ink, like an allergic reaction or an infection or she's noticed it's crooked or

"Raleigh says you don't know what to get me for Christmas," she says, eyes lowered.

"I'm open to suggestions," Newton replies; he knows this game. "Makes my job easier."

Mako takes a piece of paper out of her pocket and unfolds it on the surgical steel tray in front of him, heedless of the fact he's been needling tight spirals and maze patterns into a scrap of what used to be Scissure's tail.

"I would like these in the same place you put Raleigh's," she says, running her index finger down the three tight, parallel vertical lines of kanji script. Her calligraphy is as elegant as her drawings.

Mori Sumako. Mori Masao. And, finally, her best approximation of Stacker Pentecost.

"So I never stop fighting," she says, her eyes brimming over. "So I never forget."

At that, Newton remembers his own words: So I don't forget. So I do something.

"We'd better not do this here," he says. "Hermann will strangle me with my own tie."

He buys Mako lunch at the same dodgy-looking canteen where Hannibal had taken him the week before; fleetingly, he wishes he'd asked Tendo to join them, because the sam bo fan is amazing. They head to Wei Sun afterward, where Lu agrees to oversee Newton's work on Mako.

"I step in if he screws up," she says, and Mako looks apprehensive for a second before she realizes Lu is joking. "I don't bite, honest."

"I trust him with my life," says Mako, simply, and Newton is touched beyond words.

An hour and a half later (it should never have taken so long, but he can't mess this up, won't let himself), Mako is admiring her ink-and-blood streaked upper arm in Lu's hand-mirror, and Lu looks so proud of Newton's delicate handiwork that she could burst.

"Good boy, Newt," says Lu, beaming. "You brought me another pretty Jaeger pilot!"

Newton thinks that the approval of these two kick-ass ladies is all he'll ever need.

 

3. Prayer

Hermann spends the first twenty minutes of the sending-off party for Mako and Raleigh inspecting Newton's handiwork on the Jaeger pilots' arms, during which time Newton can only pace nervously next to the table of refreshments and not really hear the reassurances Tendo is offering.

"Your budding client list is a mile long," he cajoles. "Hell, I'd book you tomorrow, but Herc says he has dibs. My man, you must be doing something right if you've gone and impressed the Marshall."

"I'm not impressing everybody," Newton replies. "Hermann's convinced I'll infect them."

Hermann chooses that moment to clap Raleigh on the back, fold Mako in a heartfelt embrace, and then come over to join Newton and Tendo for some food. He's giving Newton his sternest look, but the slightly awed tone to his thought-static tells Newton he's not in for a right royal bollocking after all. He relaxes, and Tendo winks.

"You're shaping up to be a natural at this," Hermann says. "Just like everything else."

Just for that, later, after the party's broken up and tearful goodbyes have been said all around, Newton drags Hermann back to his bunk (not as messy now that he's had spare time to clean) and gives Hermann what he hopes is the blow-job of his life.

"My love, why don't you get some rest," Hermann says to him, drowsily, and Newton is too wiped out to respond, because Hermann is as unfairly talented with those long fingers of his as Newton seems to be with a tattoo gun. "You're servicing the Marshall tomorrow."

Newton reaches to give Hermann's backside a halfhearted smack, and then tugs Hermann's arm around his waist. He could die like this, he thinks, happy and warm. "Now that your mind's in the gutter, I'll never get it out. But it's all for science, right?"

"Newton, go to sleep," murmurs Hermann, yawning against the back of Newton's neck.

Herc doesn't want to leave the Shatterdome, so he turns up late the next morning at Newton's bunk. He's brought Max with him, which Newton supposes is fine; he's never seen the dog get mean when Herc's being patched up by a medic, and Max has always seemed to appreciate Newton's offers of in-passing ear scritches. "Mako's work?" Newton guesses, flattening the paper bearing Striker Eureka's arms.

"I requested a little parting gift of my own," Herc admits, seating himself in Newton's desk chair. "Couldn't resist. It's high time I stopped dawdling and did the other arm, anyway," he says, lifting his right shirt sleeve. It's CHUCK written in swirling, stylized script, and his son's birth-date is inked smaller beneath the name. Newton considers asking if Herc would like him to add the other date, but doesn't.

"Yeah," he agrees breathlessly, startled as Herc claps him into a stiff, trembling hug. "It's time."

"Thanks, mate," Herc says as Newton returns the shoulder-clap. "Thanks for everything."

 

2. Trophy

"How's life as the Amazing Tattooed Housewife treating you?" asks Tendo, unhooking his suspenders as Newton prepares the needle. Newton can tell it's nervous banter, so he smiles; it's not like he's offended anyway.

"Actually, it's pretty damn sweet," he replies, trying to keep his eyes on Tendo's face as Tendo loosens his bow-tie and unbuttons his shirt. Once upon a time, during their Jaeger Academy days (they'd both been Class of '16, Section B: July - December Session) he'd had a slight crush; he'd nursed it up through both of them being assigned to Hong Kong, at which point he'd heard Tendo was happily married and planning to adopt, so he'd set his sights back where they belonged. "I can sleep as late as I want, Lu doesn't care what time I show up, and Hermann keeps buying me shit." He'll admit only to himself that the flowers had been his favorite, and that he's got one of the gerberas pressed in his lab notebook.

"Hey, don't be a stranger," Tendo says, tossing his shirt aside. "You can look all you want." And he's nice to look at, that's just the thing; for all that they incessantly rag on each other, they've been drinking buddies and confidants for years.

"So we're adding Hong Kong," says Newton, running his gloved finger down the register of dates and locations on Tendo's upper left arm: a record of every Shatterdome in which he's been stationed since two thousand and seventeen.

"Yep," Tendo confirms. "Location and start-date, but no end-date, brother. That's ongoing."

Newton loads some ink in the gun, tests the needle. "When's Alison bringing the baby out here?"

"They're coming to visit next week, and I hope they'll join me here permanently after New Year's."

Newton grins to himself as he gets to work, and Tendo asks him what's funny.

He's heard Tendo's son is adorable, and Hermann claims he can't stand kids.

 

1. Algorithm

"No," says Newton, automatically, unable to disguise his shock. "No fucking way."

"I've decided, Newton. I'm a grown man, and you're bloody good at what you do."

"Do you know how much laser tattoo removal hurts? Like, it's worse than actually getting tattooed. It's worse than your leg on a bad day. It's me tossing kaiju guts on your side of the lab."

Hermann huffs, leaning on his cane, and straightens, chin lifted, until he's pulling rank. "You will put this portion of my calculations—" he uses his cane to smack the equation-covered piece of paper on his desk "—wherever I damned well tell you to put it, Newton. Are we understood?"

Newton stares at it, biting his lip. "Yeah, and I'm gonna tell you where you can put it."

It's the model, the brilliant fucking rock-star piece of work he used to accurately predict the increasing frequency of kaiju attacks, and Newton is dizzy just looking at it. What if he gets distracted and gets one of the symbols wrong?

"You know the math, my dear," says Hermann, stroking Newton's cheek. "I know you do."

"You will so, so never forgive me if I fuck this up," Newton sighs against Hermann's mouth.

"Then that's why you'll get it right," says Hermann, and kisses him. "You have no other choice."

They stay in Hermann's bunk for the occasion, because, as much as Lu would probably like to see him do this job above all others, Newton is feeling selfish (and he suspects Hermann wouldn't enjoy stripping down for her even though they get along just fine). Newton has to push his thoughts firmly away from anything sexy, because Hermann lying there with both trousers and underthings decisively off is distracting.

"Well, the latest anthropological research backs up what they started to suspect a couple of decades ago," Newton says, making falsely lighthearted conversation as he prods the expanse of Hermann's bad hip the whole way down to mid-thigh. "Ötzi's tattoos were probably intended as shamanic therapy for what ailed him. Um, you know. The Iceman."

"I'm under no such delusions," Hermann snaps impatiently. "Just get on with it."

"You're not in any pain today?" Newton asks. "I want to make sure we're clear on that."

"No more than usual," Hermann says. "When I say it's fine, won't you just believe me?"

"I don't have any more transfers here," Newton tells him, firing up the gun. "I'm free-handing these numbers of yours, so if you have any qualms about that, dude, speak now or forever hold your peace."

"You know precisely where I stand, Newton. My faith in you needs no further testing."

And that's all Newton needs, that and the memory of Mako's wonder and Lu's approval.

 

0. Proof

Needless to say, the result looks amazing. So amazing that Newton hasn't had the heart to cover it with gauze just yet, although he'd been quick to drop the gun on the floor, salve the whole thing over, and crawl up to kiss Hermann until the color had returned to his sheet-white cheeks. And jerk him off while he'd been at it, because, hey, it's Christmas Eve. There's a fine line between naughty and nice.

Hermann insists upon returning the favor whether he's in any shape to do so or not.

"Oh God, why are you so good to me? Seriously," Newton moans, marveling at Hermann's ability to suck him off from any number of positions that don't inconvenience either one of them. "Anyone else would call this unwarranted."

"Because I've spent a great deal of time being awful to you," says Hermann, ruefully, pulling off to nuzzle and nip at the inside of Newton's colorful right thigh, "and I'd prefer to make amends."

"Yeah, but—me too. Being awful to you, I mean. Fuck, ah, do that, that. Why—"

"Do shut up before you hurt yourself," sighs Hermann, and swallows Newton's length.

Afterward, Newton cleans them up with an excessive amount of disinfectant, and he gets the antibacterial ointment everywhere. He brings Hermann one of his painkillers in spite of the token protest, and then proceeds to properly bandage the work he's done. They are marked, he realizes, remembering what Tendo had said to him that morning in LOCCENT, only it's ten times more literal now (and a million times as cool).

"You'd better not show this to the paparazzi," Newton tells Herman, who's already looking drowsy. "It's bad enough they know about mine."

"Don't be ridiculous," Hermann murmurs, reaching for him. "Lie down with me a while."

Newton spoons behind him and strokes Hermann's arm, his chest, his gauze-covered hip, until he hears Hermann's breathing even out and feels his weight go slack. It's almost midnight, but Newton isn't tired yet. He's buzzing on the adrenaline that Hermann's painkiller has otherwise canceled out, and, in this kind of mood, he'd usually nip back down to the lab and do some dissection.

Carefully, he gets up and muddles into his t-shirt and boxers. He hasn't done the tattoo gun any damage, although he's gotten some black ink on the floor, so he'll have to clean that up in the morning. He shoves his bare feet into his boots, not bothering to lace them up, and cradles the gun and leftover ink to his chest as he soundlessly leaves the room. If Herc is roaming the halls at this hour, he's kind of screwed.

The lab is quiet, too quiet without Hermann's chalk-scratching and derisive commentary, but as Newton takes a seat at his empty desk and lays out his supplies and studies the only openings in and around Drifter's serpentine sprawl that he's got to work with, he realizes that Hermann is there: his sleep is tranquil and dreamless, a steady accompaniment to what Newton knows he must do.

Newton's brought home more colors than just black for this task: blue, burnt umber, red. In the only spaces left, he inks his glasses, Hermann's cane, and Mako's shoe—all of them strong; all of them tiny, intricate, and strange.

Chapter Text

February 2015

Kodiak Island is miserable in winter. Let the others laugh all they like, but Hermann is smugly grateful to his own insight for the coat he's brought. It had been a gift from his father, sent in the post with only a clipped, grudging note by way of explanation. Hermann glares at the gawkers from beneath his sagging hood, grateful, too, for the partial loss of vision. The less he sees of their mockery, the better.

Five weeks into the program, Hermann finds himself entrenched in a routine that's neither fish, nor fowl, and the other recruits seem to hate him for that, too. He's being put through some aspects of Officer Training, for whatever good it may do him (rumor has it Pentecost is grooming him to head the Research Division; that, Hermann can't say he'd mind in the least). The rest of the time, he's more instructor than instructed, shuttling from J-Tech support to supervising Drift Sync Testing to frowning through glass security windows at Pons Training.

There's rarely a dull moment, and he makes enemies of almost everyone.

The almost creeps in one afternoon while he's alone in the laboratory with nothing but a dry-erase board and some problematic early stage Mark-2 code for company. He doesn't look up when the door opens soundlessly, because, when that happens, it's Pentecost popping by to watch.

Understandably, he's startled when it's the tall, muscular Russian girl who strides up next to him with her arms folded across her chest. They exchange terse, sidelong glances until Hermann feels too keenly on show before her scrutiny.

"What are you doing here?" he snaps. "If you're looking for the refectory, it's left at the end of—"

"You've got mail," she says in heavily accented English, unfolding her arms to reveal a crinkled envelope, and there's something in her air of wry challenge that instantly melts any animosity he might have felt toward her. "Aleksis found it with ours. That durak in the mail room is having issues telling German names from Russian, no?"

Hermann glances at the return address on the envelope and quickly snatches it from Sasha's strong fingers (Kaidanovsky, he recalls suddenly; married, the pair of them former prison guards from Vladivostok). The last thing he needs is for word to get around that he's found a pen-pal of some three years in the up-and-coming Doctor Geiszler, although he doubts Sasha is one to talk. This is more than he's heard out of her mouth and her husband's combined.

"I suppose he is," Hermann finally responds, regaining his composure, "and thank you."

"From guy in Boston," says Sasha, her hard grin softening. "That MIT wonder boy."

Damn and blast, Hermann thinks, and turns back to the board. "Yes, the same."

"Is okay," Sasha insists. "I watch news, but I don't talk. Whatever research the two of you are discussing, the secret is safe with me."

"The letter doesn't appear to have been opened," says Hermann, cautiously, folding the sealed letter in three before tucking it into his waistcoat pocket. "Unless I'm wrong about that. Anything you'd care to confess?"

"Aleksis thinks that kind of thing is funny, sure," replies Sasha, "but, lucky for you, I do not." She shifts her stance sideways to peer at what he's scribbling now that he's uncapped his marker, her smile twisting into grim confusion. "Also lucky for you is, I have no idea what this means."

"You understand enough of the mechanics made possible by this code to have the finest simulator scores I've ever seen," Hermann admits, affording her another glance. "You and your husband, I mean."

"That's third letter this week," Sasha points out irrelevantly. "I see the others in your box when I get ours. This is second time durak gives us your mail; the first time, I put in your box myself, didn't say anything. Aleksis says cocky pretty-boy recruits don't even get that many from girlfriends." Her grin returns, wider this time, and she elbows Hermann, but not enough to jar him off-balance. "Maybe is not research, eh? Maybe you're having hot secret romance." Hermann feels his cheeks burn, but the wonder of it is, he can't even be arsed to get angry.

"Wouldn't you like to know," he says instead, returning her grin, and gets back to work.

"I like you, Doctor Gottlieb," says Sasha. "So does Aleksis. Let's have dinner, yes? Make a, how do you say it, unpopular table." She starts to leave, but hesitates halfway between Hermann and the door.

"I should like that, I think," Hermann says, turning to face her. "When did you have in mind?"

"Tonight," Sasha replies, satisfied, leaving in earnest this time. "Nineteen-hundred hours."

Thanks to military-grade rations coupled with rationing, dinner is nothing to crow about.

"Unpopular Table is now a thing," says Aleksis, his voice gruff and soft. If Sasha is a glacier, then he's a mountain beside her. Still, there's almost a gentleness in his manner when compared with his wife's firm, forthright approach. "Good evening, Doctor. How is your mail? Very interesting?"

"Nothing to write home about," he lies, eyes lowering as he stabs some chicken with his fork. "Thank you for preserving its . . . structural integrity."

The truth of the matter is, lacking frequent opportunities for outside internet access, switching to paper correspondence during his time at the Academy had been Hermann's idea. He hadn't been displeased by Newton's enthusiastic response; three letters arriving within the first week, so exactingly timed, had on each occasion of delivery made Hermann's heart stutter in his chest. A problem, perhaps, but one he's not ready to think about, not with ones far more pressing and deadly at hand.

"He is a man of great talents," says Sasha, with her mouth full. "And many secrets."

"I assure you that if there were anything worth knowing, you'd have known it by now," Hermann insists, gesturing dismissively with his fork. "If it will put you at ease, my love life in Cambridge was nothing spectacular. Ordinary, you might say."

"Then find one who is not," replies Aleksis, and winks at Sasha. "You should drift more."

"No, I should drink more," Hermann corrects him. "I don't doubt you can help with that."

Sasha chooses that moment to turn to her husband and say something in Russian; they both laugh.

"Would you care to share with the class?" asks Hermann, mildly annoyed. "Unless, of course—"

"She says she thought you must be worth knowing," Aleksis clarifies, "because of sensible coat."

Hermann makes a mental note to send his father a thank-you card, as well as to pose for a Polaroid with his newfound comrades in order to prove a point to Doctor Geiszler: parkas, say the it-crowd, are in.

Newton's response two weeks later is full of caps-lock SHUT UPs and GET THE HELL OUT OF HEREs and THOSE HOTTIE RUSSIAN BAD-ASSES, FUCKING REALLY? He's been keeping up with the BBC's profiling coverage of new PPDC recruits; otherwise, he'd have never heard of them.

Hermann shows the letter to the Kaidanovskys, and although he feels the need to apologize for Newton's language, he can see that he doesn't need to. Sasha scrutinizes the photograph that Newton has enclosed; by her reckoning, he's making an outdated hand-gesture (index finger and thumb extended against forehead) suggesting Hermann is a loser. But Newton's smiling, and Hermann can see fondness there instead of mockery. Is that what he'd see if they ever decided to—

"Not bad," she says, although Hermann can hear perplexity in her voice. "If you like that kind."

"You cannot determine drift-compatibility from photo," says Aleksis. "The jury is out."

"I haven't a clue what I'd do without your advice," says Hermann, and they all laugh this time.

 

October 2025

Hong Kong is dreary in autumn. In his fifth year of being stationed there, Hermann is now on his second parka in a decade; the mockery here is less overt, for which he's grateful, unless you count Newton's tuppence-worth, which he gives constantly. Hermann retaliates by pointing out how bloody useless a leather jacket seems in light of the wind and rain.

By now, they bicker mostly for show and because it's comfortable. Hermann can't help but speculate if anyone else in the Shatterdome knows that they're well past genuine hatred and into companionable enmity, but it's best not to.

Down that path, madness lies, he thinks, dashing off another equation, a flurry of chalk-dust, in counterpoint to Newton's intermittent, obnoxious commentary on whatever he's cutting up.

"Just, God, would it kill them to get this shit fixed in preservative thirty minutes sooner—"

Behind him, distantly familiar footsteps enter the lab, and Newton's monologue falls silent.

"Now that's interesting," says Sasha Kaidanovsky. "He is much noisier than the photograph."

The only thing more pleasing than Newton's gobsmacked silence is the slight jaw-drop he can't seem to rein in as he watches Hermann shelve the chalk, fetch his cane, and stride straight over into the Jaeger pilot's wide-stretched arms.

"My dear girl, how very good to see you," Hermann says warmly against her cheek, and means it.

"Guess we're going to die in this rusty rat-trap, eh," Sasha says, letting go of Hermann so that she can wander over to study Newton's regrettable activities. "Have you figured out how they work yet? Maybe a better way to kill them?"

At that, Hermann sees Newton flinch, but this time catching Newton's eye with a subtle inclination of his head is enough to prevent an outburst. "Yes and no," says Newton, neatly rearranging the organ slices he'd just finished making back into a whole liver-fragment. "I wouldn't touch that if I were you," he tells Sasha. "Not without gloves."

"Then I will come back with Aleksis next time, and you will give us gloves," she says, and Hermann finds that more wordless damage-control is needed. Newton responds well to subtle, non-verbal reassurances when he's not shouting about them; Hermann's merely grateful Newton's having a reasonable day rather than a childish one. "Not gonna lie," Newton says, staring down at his gloved, blue-streaked hands. "I was a huge fan of yours back in the day, yours and your husband's both. Did Hermann—"

"For the last time," Hermann bristles, his cheeks heating, "it's Doctor—"

"—show you the letter and the photo I sent, what, ten years ago now? Unbelievable."

"And now you are not so much a fan?" asks Sasha, the corners of her mouth quirking up.

Newton peels off his gloves and discards them, defeated. "It's complicated. Don't ask."

Sasha raises her eyebrows at him, and then turns to Hermann. "We should have dinner."

"Ah, yes," Hermann says. "Eager to revive the Unpopular Table? What about Newton?"

"See!" Newton bursts out. "It's a freaking double standard! He can call me—"

"I say he can come along," replies Sasha, winking at Hermann. "Unpopular enough."

Newton is sullen throughout most of dinner, yet another appalling behavior for which Hermann neglects to apologize on his behalf. Aleksis, in an unexpected turn of solidarity, joins Newton in his near-silence. Hermann is almost relieved to have the opportunity to catch up with Sasha unhindered, although he's wary about her suggestion that they all go have a drink in the quarters to which she and Aleksis have been newly assigned. At the mention of alcohol, Newton brightens.

"C'mon, Hermann," he needles, his voice rife with challenge. "What can go wrong?"

"I'll drink you under the table," says Hermann, accepting the sarcastic offer of Newton's arm as they rise with their trays, "and I swear to you, Newton, I will not carry you back to your room afterward."

Behind them, Aleksis says something in Russian to Sasha, but it's too quiet for him to parse.

As a rule, they don't get drunk often, and Hermann is the opposite of shocked to learn that Newton's propensity for passing out after a mere half-dozen shots is not in the least diminished. They're sitting on the floor with their legs stretched out and their backs propped against the edge of the Kaidanovskys' mattress, and Newton's head, lacking anywhere else to go, has lolled onto Hermann's shoulder.

Across from them, Sasha and Aleksis sit with their backs braced against the wall, smirking over their shot-glasses at Hermann with a look that's equal parts affectionate and predatory. He wonders how badly he'll regret this come morning, what with Newton's next shipment of samples arriving, if Pentecost gets his way, alongside the most elusive Jaeger pilot since the ones with whom he's drinking.

"Rumor has it the Marshall's off on a fool's errand," he slurs carelessly. "Becket."

"Don't change the subject," says Sasha, diction crisp; her eyes fall on Newton's face.

Hermann sighs heavily, none too pleased that Newton has, unbeknownst to him, managed to nose his way further into Hermann's jumper and throw one colorful arm across Hermann's lap. "Jury still out?" asks Aleksis, his breath fragile and suspended. "After years working with him?"

Hermann considers the tickle of gel-stiffened hair beneath his chin, the precious warmth pressed against him, and, where his old friends can't see, sets a tentative hand against the small of Newton's back. He shrugs and offers them what he can: his best half-smile, something like a promise.

"He's not ordinary," Hermann admits, letting his hand settle on Newton's hip. "I'll give him that."

Chapter Text

Newton's memory of winter holidays past is that they'd been festive when he was young, but that they'd grown progressively more non-committal as he'd gotten older. During those early years in Berlin (he and his father had gone to join his uncle in New York when he was six, after his mother had left), there had been candles and cookies and singing; his family had been as devoutly Jewish as Hermann's family seem (that's to say, not at all), but between his mother's traditions and his father's traditions, like any only child, he'd been thoroughly spoiled where gifts were concerned.

He's awake first again, but only just barely; he knows that Hermann is out for the count because of the painkiller he'd taken last night after being inked. Newton prods the three sore spots on his right thigh; they're small enough that he'd been able to cover each one with a clear burn-bandage patch and leave it at that. Hermann stirs in his sleep, curling in tighter on himself, so Newton kisses his shoulder, sets one hand briefly against the bandage on his hip to make sure it's still in place, and gets up.

It won't be like those Christmas mornings in a cozy Long Island neighborhood diner with his father and his uncle, but Newton is at least determined to make sure that Hermann wakes up to raisin toast and hot chocolate in bed. Herc had given the cooking staff Christmas Day off, so the best Newton can do is steal a tray, the requisite half-loaf of sweet bread, and two Swiss Miss packets from the refectory.

Sneaking these items back to Hermann's room is easy, although coaxing the ancient toaster and persnickety electric kettle to do their jobs without making an unholy racket is impossible. Hermann yawns and groggily props himself up while Newton is attempting to persuade the hot chocolate to become other than two mugs full of lumpy, powdery disaster. He sighs and glances over his shoulder at Hermann.

"Good morning, sunshine," he says, giving up, and thunks both mugs onto the tray next to a mostly-not-burnt plate of toast. "This was supposed to suck a lot less. I couldn't find any butter. I think Tendo hoards it for his bagels, the greedy bastard."

Hermann stretches again, drowsy and (judging by his expression) in at least a moderate amount of pain. But, instead of scolding Newton for his daring raid on the rations, he folds back the covers and pats the spot next to him on the mattress.

Newton's there with the precariously balanced tray as quickly as he can manage.

"If anyone had told me precisely what it was that I'd have to look forward to," says Hermann, "I would have seduced you much sooner."

"You had to wait and say that while we have a lap full of shit that could burn us if it got inconveniently up-ended, didn't you?" Newton sighs, but he takes the other mug in both hands and lets Hermann pull him in against his side. Morning sex is nice, but morning cuddling is nicer. They kiss, nearly spill their drinks, and break apart laughing because Newton's stomach chooses that moment to give an undignified growl.

"Poor darling," Hermann says, and it makes Newton's chest ache just like every other time he's heard Hermann say it (three times in two months now, fragile and strange). "Eat something before you nod off and spill that all over. How late were you up?"

"Late enough," he says evasively, reaching for a piece of toast, but Hermann's presence in his mind has already latched onto the residual sting, and Hermann's hand slides from Newton's hip down to the nearest burn-bandage he can reach.

"You'll show me the damages once we've eaten, won't you?" Hermann sighs, resigned.

"Yeah," says Newton around a mouthful of toast, "and we'd better check yours, too."

They spend the rest of the morning lazy, naked, and combing through the property contract, because Hermann refuses to sign any document through which he hasn't gone with an especially fine-bladed scalpel. Newton drapes himself across Hermann's middle and picks crumbs out of the bedclothes, letting Hermann use him as a desk.

Once Hermann has left his initials next to Newton's on every page, Newton tosses both copies of the agreement on the floor, rolls onto his back, and pulls Hermann over himself like a blanket. They move against each other gingerly, too lost in slow, indulgent kisses to rush. Hermann comes with a wince that's as much discomfort as pleasure, at which Newton feels like the worst boyfriend in the universe and tries to put a stop to the action then and there. Hermann pins him, works him with clever fingers until they're both shaking with the intensity of Newton's orgasm.

"Why the hell would you do that," he gasps against Hermann's neck. "You stupid—"

"Because I have a prescription," Hermann snaps, "and nothing to do but lie here and get you off as many bloody times as I like. That's why."

"Aw," sighs Newton, contritely, and squeezes him. "At least let me go fetch the bottle for you."

After cleaning them up, coaxing Hermann to take his pill, and getting Hermann's ink re-bandaged, Newton sprawls next to him and drifts into blissful dozing before a knock sounds at the door. He's fully awake inside thirty seconds, but it doesn't make a dent in Hermann's soft, steady snoring, so he gets up as unobtrusively as he can, wraps himself in Hermann's hideous plaid dressing gown, and peers out into the hall.

"That answers my question," says Tendo, and averts his eyes from the sliver of space just over Newton's shoulder. "Merry Christmas. I'll leave this out here. That kosher?" Newton hadn't even noticed that he's bearing a box, but now that he's noticed, he nods and watches Tendo set it down.

"Thanks," he says. "We, um. We . . . "

"Hey, no worries," says Tendo, with a tilted half-smile. "I should've texted."

"We'll owe you . . . uh. Whatever that is. Of equal value. Something. Nice."

"Nah," replies Tendo, knowingly, and gives him a cryptic wink before leaving.

Newton notices the fake mistletoe tacked to the door-frame after he bends to collect the box, which rattles and clinks like glass lab supplies. He wonders if this is Tendo's way of telling him he's missed his chance, and, even then, only strictly in good fun.

They open the box once Hermann is awake and, inside, find a set of six vintage Blue Danube split-handle onion teacups with matching saucers. Hermann is vaguely affronted at the premature housewarming gift, but Newton knows it's only because they're perfect and he's been deprived the chance to pick them out himself. He pretends to be even more affronted by the fitted charcoal waistcoat from a Jermyn Street tailor that Newton's been sitting on since London, but he doesn't protest beyond an actual harrumph when Newton insists he's obliged to wear it to work at least once a week or his hard-earned press tour money will have gone to waste.

"Do you know," Hermann murmurs, pressing the back of Newton's hand to his lips, "I hadn't managed to sneak away and find you anything?"

"Oh, whatever," says Newton, and burrows against Hermann's chest. "No need."

"There's need enough," Hermann insists, and chivalrously kisses Newton's ring.

*

They submit the paperwork on December twenty-seventh, once the city has recovered from its collective holiday hangover, and their down payment clears Hermann's bank account on the twenty-ninth. Newton observes that he's never known bureaucracy to move this quickly, somewhat uneasy, and Hermann wryly points out that real estate in cities like Hong Kong hasn't exactly been at a premium in the past decade. Cast in that light, Newton supposes, no wonder the agent had been eager to clinch the sale.

He works a shift at Wei Sun on the thirtieth while Hermann marks exams, which gives him the chance to gripe to Lu about the fact that, although they can collect the keys on January second, they haven't managed to hire movers. On his break, he makes a series of frustrating calls to the few moving companies and van operations he can find, only to be quoted prices that would give even Hermann an aneurysm. He thinks the woman Lu's working on (sharp-featured, buzz-cut) who keeps stealing glances at him while he argues down the line looks familiar, but he's too distracted to worry about it. Later, while he gripes to Hermann over take-away procured from what's fast become his favorite dodgy canteen, a number starts ringing through on his mobile phone that's marked simply as BLOCKED. He gives Hermann a quizzical look and takes the call.

"Doctor Geiszler," says a familiar voice on the other end of the line, "you've got to stop frequenting our favorite restaurant alone. People will talk."

"Hey, I've missed you, too, sweetie," he snaps, cranking the sarcasm up to eleven so Hermann won't mistake this for anything other than what it is. "I thought I made it pretty clear I don't have anything else. The brain went to HKU, and the skull fragments are being prepped for display at the MoH. I'm helping them. You can peruse my awesome handiwork as part of the exhibit starting January seventeenth."

"This ain't a hustle, smart-ass," says Hannibal. "It's more of a . . . social call, because I figure, between almost getting you eaten and persuading you to put your ethics on the line for cash, maybe, just maybe, I owe you one. And I don't mean a fresh brain, either, although I'm sure you'd like that. Here's the quick of it: a little bird told me you and lover-boy can't find anybody to haul your crap from Point A to Point B, and it just so happens my crew is pretty damn good at hauling crap. You might even say they're experts. This is a one-time offer with no strings attached. Take it or leave it."

"I refuse to believe you'd do this out of misplaced guilt," says Newton, "but that doesn't mean I'm turning you down. In fact, I couldn't turn you down even if I wanted to, because we're desperate, and, yeah, you do kind of owe me. I just want to know the actual reason you'd be so helpful."

"Let's call our mutual friend Miz Zhen persuasive and leave it at that."

Oh, gross, Newton thinks. There's no accounting for her taste, either.

"Great. Be here at nine o'clock sharp on January second," he says instead.

Hermann backs down and finishes his dinner in silence, so Newton follows suit, thinking the snit can't possibly last. What he doesn't realize is how wrong he's read the situation: Hermann refuses help with clearing the food cartons away, snippily observes how much packing they've both got to do, and bodily shoves Newton out the door to go deal with his own shit without so much as a by-your-leave. He tries to force his way back in, but Hermann has locked the door. There's nothing he can really do except stomp back to his own room and do as Hermann has suggested.

Over an arm-load of collapsed cardboard boxes pilfered from the lab, half of which he dumps off on Hermann's doorstep loudly enough for Hermann to hear, Newton can guess with reasonable accuracy that this is their first real fight in a very long time. The thought doesn't sit well with him, but the truth is that they do need to pack, and they both know their individual quarters better than they know each other's even after weeks upon weeks of crashing in one or the other for days at a time.

Newton holds out until midnight, by which point he's almost finished throwing junk in boxes, and sets out to give Hermann's door a try. It's still locked; he can hear Hermann running water. The thought of sleeping alone makes Newton's stomach flip, but he goes back to his room, gets ready for bed, and turns out the light. Before climbing between the sheets, he makes sure his door is open.

Sleep doesn't come easily, not till after he's tossed and turned for two hours fretting over the niggling, irrational suspicion that his life is over, and, no sooner than it has, his door clicks open. Hermann crosses the room without pretense and slips into bed.

Newton clings to him, returning every feverish kiss for all he's worth, and figures that demanding a verbal apology would be superfluous. Hermann asks little more of him other than that he be present, and, after the night he's had, Newton is glad to comply.

When they're quiet again, exhausted, Hermann strokes Newton's hair and murmurs, "What makes you so absolutely certain we can trust him?"

"Because Lu will pull a Lisbeth Salander on him if he fucks with us," Newton replies, snuggling into the crook of Hermann's neck like the hopeless, clingy derp-face that he is. Hermann's not going to get the reference, but it doesn't matter; that's one more set of films he's destined to see soon.

"So they're, ah . . . an item, are they?" Hermann ventures, rubbing Newton's back.

"Hermann, nobody says that anymore," Newton sighs, but he's too tired to argue.

"We're an item. People must still say it, because even you know what it means."

Newton's only response, as relieved as he feels, is to grin stupidly into the dark.

They sleep late again the next day, but, seeing as it's New Year's Eve, Tendo doesn't intend to let them remain in seclusion. By noontime, he's sent Newton no fewer than a dozen text messages detailing the party he and Herc are throwing; he insists that anyone remaining on the premises is required to make an appearance. Hermann looks increasingly put-upon as Newton reads the ever more threatening missives aloud.

"I know you're having all kinds of crazy awesome nerd sex down there," he recites, too amused to be horrified, because Hermann is appalled enough for both of them, "but get your ink-smeared butt out of bed and come get smashed with me."

"We'll put in an appearance, but we are not staying all night," Hermann cautions.

"Dude, I know," says Newton, "because as soon as we've had enough to drink, I'm dragging you back here to watch the Millennium Trilogy."

*

Moving day isn't the complete disaster Newton expects it to be, but it's close.

Hermann orders Hannibal's cronies around like they're a bunch of particularly dim-witted research assistants, and Newton knows he wouldn't be getting away with it if not for Hannibal standing right there watching with his arms folded sternly across his chest. Loading up the stuff from their dormitories had been easy, and now they're onto the truly phenomenal collection of boxes that have been accruing dust in the lab since before the press tour. When you subtract what's PPDC property from what's theirs, what's left over is still discouragingly substantial. Hermann would torch around half of it in a heartbeat, but Newton isn't a fan of throwing things out.

"We'll need the sofa and chairs till we can manage to buy new furniture," he insists; Hermann groans and waves at two of Hannibal's team, indicating that they should haul those pieces out with the rest. "I hope we have the air mattress. If we don't, I'm not sure what we're sleeping on."

"We do. It's already gone out in one of the boxes," sighs Hermann, resigned.

"What did you guys do, live down here?" asks Hannibal, staring at the vaulted ceiling. "I know Pentecost was balls-to-the-wall, but even you didn't get out much, did you?" he asks, glancing pointedly askance at Newton from beneath his shades.

"Mmm, nope," Newton agrees, grinning as Hermann tears into another flunky. "For five years, this was our own little corner of paradise."

"Romantic," mutters Hannibal, and strolls over to offer Hermann some back-up.

Tendo has at least proved as good as his word and kept Herc distracted for the day. Newton doesn't spot either of them until, after seeing to it that all of their worldly possessions are safely stowed and locked in the new property, Hannibal and his crew drop them back off at the Shatterdome and vanish without a trace. Tendo strolls into the empty lab and whistles, clapping Newton and Hermann on the shoulders.

"Remind me to call this guy when Alison gets here and it's our turn to house-hunt," he says, mostly joking. "I didn't think uprooting you guys would be possible." Hermann is starting to sag a bit, so Newton catches his elbow and holds him up.

"When's she arriving, huh?" he asks. "When do we get to meet her and this kid of yours? We missed them when they came to see you."

"Soon, I promise," says Tendo. "She's flying in with Daniel and all of our stuff early next month."

They spend the first week unpacking only what they need, because Hermann has overworked himself in almost every sense of the word. Term doesn't start up again until Monday the nineteenth (Newton's birthday, to their shared annoyance), but he's still got exams and problem sets to mark. Keeping him confined to the air mattress for a full three days until the bedroom set arrives is the most arduous task Newton's ever been faced with, and seeing to it that he doesn't strain himself during the employment of certain incentives is even trickier still. It's easier to keep him lying down (or in the very least propped up) when the queen-size bed and posh linens finally land. He sprawls like it's second nature.

When Hermann is working, asleep, or generally not demanding Newton's attention, Newton wanders barefoot from room to room and shifts boxes to where he thinks their contents might go. Eight days along, he's already colonized the kitchen with Tendo's teacups and their motley collection of bowls, plates, mugs, and silverware. Hermann's streaky wine glasses are ugly as fuck; Newton tells him as much and gets a withering glance from behind Hermann's reading glasses for his trouble. "I suppose you'll be wanting Baccarat," Hermann retorts. "For your black-tie soirées."

"Screw you," Newton snaps. "Riedel at a minimum so my wine doesn't taste like ass."

Still, the increased level of sniping doesn't prevent him from curling up against Hermann's side every evening after they've had dinner. Newton hasn't had a kitchen at his disposal in ages, and it's a relief to discover that, with prompting from the internet, he remembers the limited repertoire of noodle dishes and curries he'd taught himself to cook during his time at MIT. Hermann objects strongly to the fact that Newton is a self-confessed spice wimp; he says he won't touch any attempt at vindaloo until Newton's agreed to use a respectable amount of cayenne.

Bookshelves are a problem. They don't have any, and they need at least three or four floor-to-ceiling ones in order to accommodate their joint book collection (and that's not counting the ones that Hermann has hauled to work for use in his office). Ten days along, Hermann is up and about with his usual ferocity, so Newton pokes him until he agrees that waist-high stacks of books hanging around in the study aren't okay.

Tendo borrows a PPDC truck and helps them procure shelving, although he bails well before the assembly stage even though they've plied him with beer and cupcakes. Slowly but surely, in the week they have left, furniture that's not bio-hazardous is gradually delivered, and Newton learns an important lesson in letting go. He makes Hermann watch some more film trilogies—Back to the Future, Toy Story, The Godfather—and makes proper vindaloo, God, the shit he'll do for love.

"I've just remembered I hate you so much that I'm shocked you've convinced me to share a bed with you," Newton coughs, hanging over the sink while Hermann, alarmed, hovers with a glass of milk and clings to the back of Newton's shirt. "You're gonna be eating the leftovers yourself."

The night before Hermann returns to work, they fuck for hours, and Hermann doesn't once look at the clock. Newton is so wrung-out that he sleeps through Hermann's morning departure, although he wakes to find his lab notebook on the nightstand. It's open to where Hermann has discovered the pressed gerbera, and he's penned Time to start acting your age, my love beneath it.

At Wei Sun, Lu teases him about turning thirty-six and settling down, and Newton teases her for flat-out settling. Hannibal drops by and buys them both bubble tea for no other reason than, will wonders never cease, he seems bored. Maybe Lu is just what he'd needed.

A couple of weeks later, Hermann informs him that HKU would like them to deliver the joint lecture they'd given at MIT and a few other universities during the press tour. He thinks it's after the delivery of said lecture that some of Hermann's students start putting two and two together, because before long he's booked solid on Saturdays and Sundays; Hermann comes home livid because his students spend their spare time before and after class comparing their Geiszler Originals.

"They argue over who tips you the most generously," says Hermann, over dinner. "Tell me, which of them does? Can you remember names?"

"Only the repeat customers, but I'm getting better," Newton admits, trying to focus on how well his attempt at pad thai has turned out. "There's this girl with a thing for old-school Jaeger code; I think she's called—"

"Ming Yan is, as they say, the department bicycle," Hermann sniffs. "So no wonder."

Newton sets down his chopsticks and folds his arms across his chest. "Not cool, dude."

"Apologies," Hermann sighs, turning slightly pink. "That was unwarranted; what she does with her spare time is no concern of mine. However, I don't think you properly grasp the situation's gravity. These young people look up to you now; they're even circulating a petition that will be delivered to the School of Biological Sciences—"

"Tell whoever started it that their next ink is on me," says Newton, and Hermann's color deepens. It takes forty-five minutes of cajoling and one of the nice bottles of Spanish red they'd bought the week before to get him loose-limbed and pleasant.

"You're a terrible influence," Hermann tells him later, sliding one foot down Newton's calf. "Whatever shall I do when the university hires you?"

"Counterbalance, Geliebter," Newton tells him, grinning madly into the pillow.

*

On February second, in an insignificant Pennsylvania town more than halfway around the globe, a groundhog doesn't see its shadow for the first time since the year in which Newton had gotten drunk in two separate Cambridge, Massachusetts establishments as he'd watched the destruction of San Francisco from a distance. This hits world-news radar harder than usual, because now it's two thousand and twenty-six, thirteen years on, and Phil's two most recent absence-of-shadow prognostications have been chosen as bookends.

Newton finds this hilarious, so he texts Hermann at work to say as much. And I find it puerile, Hermann texts back. Please don't trouble me with the minutiae of CNN US Edition tabloid-ticker errata. I have a lecture to give in twenty minutes.

Hell no, Newton writes back. I pulled this straight off the BBC Twitter feed.

Irrelevantly, Hermann responds: What's your schedule today, my darling?

Putting in a few hours with Lu before I head to the airport with Tendo to meet Alison and the cutie-pie (don't tell me those photos didn't warm the lone, withered cockle of your heart), Newton types back. Why do you ask?

I'd like to know what time you'll be getting home. Dinner plans, etc.

"Since when do you make dinner?" Newton asks the empty room, shaking his head. "Something's not right here."

I probably won't get home till about six, he replies.

Very well, Hermann writes. I'll coordinate take-away delivery and await your return.

"Fishy as kaiju guts," Newton mutters; he finishes dressing and rushes out the door.

Lu is occupied with a client as Newton yanks off his headphones and pushes through the front door, and Hannibal is also there, sprawled in one of the chairs along the wall, shooting the breeze with both of them. His smile broadens when Newton walks over to the pegs to hang up his coat and messenger bag. "Doctor Geiszler," he says. "You hear the news yet this morning?"

"Yeah," Newton replies. "And a woodchuck shall lead them, amen."

"I think it's funny," Lu chimes in. "Punxsutawney." Her pronunciation isn't as bad as it could have been. "What kind of word is that?"

"Bastardization of a Native term meaning either poison vine or town of the mosquitoes or something like that," Newton says, wriggling his fingers into a pair of gloves. "Go ask Wikipedia. Do I have any appointments, or am I on walk-in detail?"

"Yeah, you have an appointment," says Hannibal, and stands up. "Me."

"Okay," Newton manages. "What'll it be? Gipsy Danger on your ass?"

That earns him a snort and a clap on the shoulder that almost knocks him flat.

"How about let's start with you free-handing the outline of Reckoner's bones and all those who now dwell in her," says Hannibal, untucking his shirt with perfunctory grace. "I was thinking down here," he says, indicating the small of his back.

"You could do worse for a tramp stamp," Newton says. "Let's get to work."

Three hours later, Hannibal has waxed surprisingly free with his life story, and he's so pleased with the intricate blackwork scene Newton's left him with that he decides there's not going to add any color. Newton has to ditch his gloves in a hurry, sanitize his hands, grab his stuff, and hightail it to meet Tendo, but Lu won't let him out the door without a kiss on the cheek and Hannibal stuffs what feels like a lot of cash in Newton's back pocket while Lu has him distracted. "I feel violated," Newton announces as he swings into the front seat of the PPDC Jeep that Tendo's borrowed. "I just spent a hundred and eighty minutes way too close to Hannibal Chau's backside. On the bright side, I'm rich."

"Subject to the requirements of the service, my man," says Tendo. "Buckle up."

They kill time strolling through the airport shops with mochas from Starbucks. Tendo buys Alison a pair of delicate diamond stud earrings at Tiffany & Company, apparently something she's always wanted. While Tendo chats with the sales rep who's ringing him up, Newton catches himself staring a little too wistfully at a display featuring plain, yet elegant platinum wedding bands. Some of them have diamonds scattered at intervals, and he can't help but think of Otachi's luminous, winking constellation.

How long, he wonders, until we name some distant, cold blue stars

His breath catches just as Hermann's also catches somewhere far across the city, and he wonders how much sentimentality he's given away, how much he's revealed of what he'd assumed at the time would be his last thoughts in this world.

Tendo grabs Newton's hand and hauls him away, apologizing to the sales rep.

"What was that all about?" he asks as they settle in uncomfortable waiting-area chairs. "You spaced out big-time and stood there shivering."

"I was thinking about kaiju and weddings," Newton says before he can stop himself.

"Jesus, Newt," says Tendo, leaning over, and pecks him on the cheek: a gesture of blessing. "Just pop the goddamn question already. It's not like he's gonna say no." Newton rubs the warm spot Tendo leaves in his wake, blushing profusely.

"The problem is, we both know it's a foregone conclusion, so why bother?"

"The same reason Alison and I bothered. The same reason Mako and Raleigh will."

"Man, I'm looking forward to that announcement," Newton admits, grinning.

"Wipe that rouge off your cheeks ASAP," Tendo drawls. "Here comes my wife."

The dark-skinned woman from Tendo's photograph comes to life as she approaches them, waving, with a travel bag slung over one shoulder and a bewildered toddler clinging to her neck. She has faint freckles and vivid storm-grey eyes that crinkle a bit at the corners when she smiles. Daniel fists one tiny hand nervously in his mother's short, curly black hair, and he immediately starts to wail when he gets handed over to Newton so that his parents can kiss right there in the middle of the terminal.

"Hey, get used to it," Newton tells the boy, bouncing him a little, and Daniel hiccups breathlessly before falling silent. He regards the scene with serious brown eyes, and then turns his head back to blink at Newton. He'd been born somewhere in China, although Newton can't remember the town or even the region. What he does know is that Tendo and Alison are lucky to have him, so he tells Daniel as much in a whisper.

"I think we've found ourselves a babysitter," says Tendo, finally bringing Alison over for a proper introduction. "This is is Doctor Newton Geiszler, formerly K-Science Division. His partner, Doctor Hermann Gottlieb, couldn't be with us today."

"You'll meet him soon," Newton says, shaking her hand, "and you might hate him."

"No worries," says Alison, winking, and takes back the baby. "I've been briefed."

By the time Tendo and Alison drop him off at home, it's six-thirty and he can feel Hermann's anxiety from the foot of the front steps. He waves as they drive away, and then jams his key in the lock as fast as he can, because, really, the last thing he needs is Tendo getting the bright idea to swing back around and see if Hermann's going to come to the door. That's one meeting Newton would rather save for another time.

Hermann is waiting on the sofa with a glass of wine in hand, eyes fixed pensively on the take-away bags he hasn't even bothered to unpackage on the coffee table. Newton trips out of his boots, dropping everything—coat, headphones, and all—unceremoniously on the floor. It's not like Hermann to drink alone. "Sorry," he says breathlessly, launching himself onto the sofa next to Hermann, and it's only when Hermann winces and struggles to steady his wine glass that he realizes that might have been a bad idea. "Gah, sorry, sorry. I know, I suck. I hope the food's not cold. That smells really good, Hermann, where did you—"

Hermann sets down his wine, presses his thumb to the corner of Newton's lips.

"It's from that place you like," he says. "Don't worry; it's far from cold."

"I've had the weirdest day," Newton sighs. "Are you gonna kiss me, or do you want me to tell you about it? Or did you register enough of it that . . . "

Leaning forward, Hermann does kiss him, but his eyes are open and Newton's are open and the whole gesture takes a surreal back-seat to the fact that Hermann's also taken Newton's left hand in both of his own and is removing the habitual skull ring from Newton's pinkie. He switches it deftly to Newton's right hand as he sits back, breathing with slight difficulty, and takes something out of his waistcoat pocket.

"Oh my God," Newton blurts. "You actually wore it to work. I bet the kids—"

"What I said about your not having died several times by now being gift enough was true, quite true," says Hermann, vehemently, and closes his fist around what he's taken from his pocket. "The tragic part being, however, that I had no idea which of those times was the worst for you, or why."

"It's because you weren't there. It was always because you weren't there."

Hermann nods, eyes lowered, and delicately splays Newton's left hand against his thigh before sliding the diamond-studded platinum band onto Newton's ring finger. "I am there now," he says, voice tinged with regret, "inasmuch as your memory has become mine. You need not answer me this instant, Newton, or ever. I should like the reminder to be apology enough if you will have it. If you will have me."

"Oh my fucking God," Newton says, but he's grinning his face off and his eyes are getting kind of blurry and why won't his mouth work properly? "You totally stole that move out of Tendo's playbook, don't pretend you didn't. You snooped on what we were doing and then high-tailed it straight to one of the sister stores on Queensway or on Matheson Street, didn't you? Dude, you are one smooth operator."

"Your sentimentality in this case is to do with your mother, is it not?"

"My dad always said she could've had Cartier, but no, she insisted—"

Hermann laughs. "Wear it to your dinner parties, then, if nothing else?"

"I want my goddamn crystal, too, if that's how it's going to be," Newton babbles, and, okay, all jokes aside, this is probably the most romantic fucking thing that's ever happened to him, even more romantic than five incredible years in an underfunded lab with the brightest, most infuriating man he's ever had the privilege of knowing. "I want that in the contract, dude. Signed and sealed."

"If this doesn't count as spoiling you, then I rather fear I'm at a loss—"

"Yes," Newton says, cutting him off; Hermann bristles with delightful indignation.

"One of us has got to take this seriously," he sniffs. "I fear I've already failed."

Newton presses him back against the sofa cushions, teary and grinning like a loon.

"Well," he says, gladly letting Hermann fold them together, "that makes two of us."

Chapter Text

Hermann's penchant for the paperwork of setting up house doesn't extend to the nicety of informing colleagues and family. Newton discovers this one Saturday morning in early February when Herc Hansen strides through Wei Sun's front door with a bundle of envelopes rubber-banded to a box under one arm and Max trotting along on his leash.

Newton isn't working on someone, but he still freezes when the dog comes over to snuffle the toe of his boot and look up with eager, liquid eyes as he licks Newton's denim-covered shin. He can feel Lu's gaze on him, and Wei, in the shop for once, glances over from his seat at the till.

"Guys, is there some policy on this?" asks Newton, hesitantly. "Help me out here."

Wei shrugs and goes back to counting cash. "Well-behaved dog," he says. "Okay."

"Sit, Max," Herc tells the dog, and then smiles at Lu. "Or go see the pretty lady."

"I guess we let Hannibal in here all the time," Newton says. "Animals are fine."

"Hey, not nice," Lu replies, but she's already taking off her gloves and dropping down so that Max can sniff her hands and lick her face. "Awww."

"I hope you're keeping well, Lu," says Herc, and then, proffering the box and the envelopes, turns back to Newton. "You might want to tell Hermann to change his address with, I don't know, everyone. Just a thought. The top one looks desperate."

Newton sets the entire stack down on a nearby stool and tugs the top envelope out from under the grubby elastic. It's addressed to Hermann, c/o PPDC K-SCIENCE HK SHATTERDOME, and the name above the Berlin return address is K. GOTTLIEB-GARNER. He's about to make a wise-crack about the Gottlieb clan possessing magnetic attraction to other G-surnames when he notices that the letter has been returned to sender no fewer than three times, and that it's been opened. Newton runs a finger along the ragged incision, gaping at Herc. If there's one thing you most definitely do not do, it is open Hermann Gottlieb's mail. "Hermann is gonna murder you in your sleep, dude. He will kill you with math."

"Regulations," says Herc. "It's obviously important. We're obliged to find out if it's something serious like a death in the family."

"The only death I'm worried about is yours," replies Newt, reluctantly shaking out the folded pieces of A4. He scans the letter—dated early November, Jesus, just after the closing of the Breach—and finds handwriting considerably messier than what's in evidence on the envelope (as if Karla had made a deliberate effort at external legibility). It's what he'd expect, all gushing congratulations and references to a telephone conversation in the early hours of that victorious morning to which Newton had not been privy. The original letter is two pages long, and two pages have been subsequently added, each addendum less legible than its predecessor.

"He hasn't been answering his family's calls," says Herc, pensively. "Any idea why?"

"You did more than just scan this for key phrases like so and so died and the funeral will be held on blah? Man, you're lucky this wasn't auf Deutsch, although you're kind of not-so-glücklich at the same time, because Hermann will kill you a second time for knowing what's in here. I mean, yeah, it's as simple as an exasperated sister who misses her dickhead rock-star of a little brother who's gone and gotten famous and isn't giving his siblings the time of day. Where was I going with this? Oh, yeah. I have no clue why he wouldn't be returning Karla's calls, or even his brothers' calls, but I can tell you he doesn't like talking to his father very much. Because of reasons. And lots of those are a matter of public record."

"Hermann on bad terms with family?" Lu cuts in, rubbing Max's belly. "Very sad."

Newton sighs, pulls out his phone, punches in Karla's mobile number as given in one of the desperate postscripts, re-folds the letter, and puts it back in the envelope. "Well, at least you won't have to die alone. Hermann's gonna kill me now, too."

This is Doctor Newton Geiszler in Hong Kong, he types in the text-field. I'm Hermann's partner, but you probably know that. I wanted to tell you that somebody from the Shatterdome finally passed along your letter instead of letting Hermann return it. Your brother is alive and well, and I should know, because I regularly feed his grumpy ass.

"This wasn't just a delivery run," Herc admits. "I wanted to ask if you had time—"

Newton's phone chimes, so he looks down. Ah, you're the lab partner, she's sent back. Thanks for your consideration, Dr. Geiszler, at least one of you has common sense. "What was that?" Newton replies, glancing up at Herc. "I've got time. Ask away."

All the while, he's typing (and abysmally, too, using peripheral vision), Yeah, but also his partner-partner, and I wouldn't want you to get the florid version from the papers. "I think it's time I got this one finished," says Herc, raising his right shirt sleeve.

That infuriating little shit, Karla texts back. He never once thought to tell me?

This is simultaneously a deeply sobering moment (because Herc is asking him to add Chuck's death-date to his tattoo, fuck) and the best moment of Newton's life (because he's privy to Hermann's sister completely and unreservedly slagging him off).

"Yeah, I can do that," he tells Herc, struggling against the grin that's attempting a coup on his face. "Have a seat. Um. Let me get gloves and stuff."

On his way over to the workstation, he ducks his head, purses his lips, and responds, I don't mean to patronize you or anything, because I can tell you're light years ahead of Hermann in the people-skills department, but you might be living just a little bit under a rock. Do you read the The Guardian, Le Monde, The Boston Globe, or The Sydney Morning Herald? Or, failing that, do you watch television?

I thought Bastien was taking the piss, and so did Dieter, Karla texts back after what Newton can only assume are several moments of stunned silence on her end of the line. Very much not, Newton types back, making an extravagant show of snapping on his gloves when Lu's glare boring into the back of his neck gives way to her loud throat-clearing. We've been documented six ways to Sunday and peer-reviewed to boot.

Der Scheißer, Karla replies. Sorry. It's wonderful that my brother's found someone he can love more than numbers. How serious is it?

Newton sighs and impatiently loads up the gun until Lu's scrutiny fades, and then sets it back down, yanks off his left glove, takes a picture of his ring finger, and texts it back by way of answer along with Sorry, I'd explain, but I've got to go or my unofficial boss is going to sic my former commanding officer's super cute bulldog on me.

Hermann is going to do more than just kill him for this, but Newton is suddenly so irritated that he'd be tempted to punch Hermann if he saw him. Newton has kept his father, his uncle, and even his mother up to speed on what's been happening since they saved the goddamn planet. Via email, granted, because he's never been much for phone conversations that aren't carried out in the form of text-messaging.

He silences his phone, shoves it in his back pocket, and takes the gun over to Herc.

"I assume you've made contact with the sister? Bet she's feeling a touch cranky."

"Accurate assessment is accurate," says Newton, and his pocket buzzes insistently.

Max gives a kind of defeated, long-suffering sigh and trots over to where Lu's now sitting in a chair watching the exchange. The dog snuffles at her ankles, licks one of them, and lies down on top of her feet. She reaches down to scratch behind his ears.

"Don't you put me behind schedule," she warns, but Newton isn't sure whether she's talking to him or to the dog.

Wei, on the other hand, isn't paying much attention; counting the till takes priority.

"Just finish up the conversation already," says Herc. "I'll pay extra if I have to."

With an undisguised sigh of relief, Newton strips off his right glove, yanks out the phone, and scrolls clumsily down to Karla's most recent message. I am going to knock his stupid overblown head off for hiding this, it says.

As much as I'd love to continue this bilingual exchange in which we repeatedly compare Hermann to excrement, here's what we're going to do, Newton replies. You're going to call your charming bro two minutes from now; here's his office number. His fingers shake as he taps out the digits. He doesn't have caller ID at work, so he can't ignore you. I mean, he could hang up, but I'll make sure he doesn't.

Sounds like a plan, Dr. Geiszler, Karla texts back. Willkommen in unserer Familie.

He shoots back a quick Danke schön, and then dials Hermann's mobile number.

"What is it?" Hermann answers tersely after a single ring. "Haven't I told you—"

"I don't have much time to explain," Newton interrupts, "because I've got Herc here with a job for me and Lu is annoyed, but it goes like this. Your office line is going to ring in about a minute and a half, and you are going to take the fucking call."

"Newton?" asks Hermann, a satisfying edge of panic rising in his voice. "What—"

"Ciao, gotta ink this," says Newton, hesitating over the thought-forms for I had to and I'm sorry and OhGodpleasedon'tbemadatmeplease so that Hermann will latch onto any impression but the one Newton can't afford to have him see coming.

"Are we all set here?" Herc asks, rolling up his sleeve. "No harm, no foul?"

"No harm," Newton says, putting on fresh gloves, "but all kinds of foul."

"Newt will sleep in the doghouse with Max tonight," offers Lu, smugly.

Just to spite them both, Newton pulls out his phone and fires off one last text message, this one to Hermann: Why did you never tell me your sister and I agree on almost every level regarding what a massive, adorkable twat you are?

Verpiss dich, Hermann replies while Herc's ink is underway. Ihr beiden.

Two hours later, Herc is understandably subdued, but pleased with the addition and overall retouching Newton has done for him. Newton hadn't paused to answer Hermann's text, and he hadn't received any follow-ups, either, so he can only assume that Hermann has finished his conversation with Karla and gone to give his lecture in such a nasty mood that Newton will hear nothing until later when he barges through the door, offers token disparagement over whatever Newton has made for dinner, and then proceeds to nonetheless devour the food in front of him.

Lu sends Newton home early with Hermann's stack of mail and Herc's mystery box, because apparently he looks pale and anxious, and Lu doesn't wear guilt well. She kisses Newton's cheek on his way out the door and tells him everything will be fine.

Newton doesn't really believe this, because, upon getting home, he spends almost thirty minutes pacing from room to room before deciding he can't summon sufficient focus to cook and might actually set something ablaze. By the time he reaches the bedroom, he can feel the ghost of a stress headache coming on; whether it's his own or Hermann's, he can't determine, so he guiltily sneaks one of the painkillers, kicks off his boots, and sprawls tiredly on top of the duvet.

Waking up to Hermann shaking him gently, yet frantically by the shoulders is far preferable to waking up to Hermann shouting at him, so he focuses on Hermann's pinched, concerned expression with what hazy presence of mind he can manage and says, "I'm sorry Herc opened your letter and sorry I read it and sorry as fuck I texted your sister. Dinner's my treat because I've been such a dick, so what do you want?"

"If it's take-away, the usual will suffice," Hermann says, and the relief in his tone is so welcome that Newton kind of just wants to curl up inside Hermann's chest and never come out, but, okay, that's not anatomically possible and damn this shit is strong, no wonder Hermann avoids taking them and they both fell asleep on the planes. "Briefly stated, I do not appreciate the Marshall's interference in this matter," continues Hermann, sternly, "but yours, at least, I can begin to comprehend. You've done me a favor. Karla is an inveterate worrier, but at least she's now at ease."

"Pot, kettle, black?" Newton ventures. "You should look in a mirror next time I do something colossally inadvisable and scare the crap out of you."

Hermann smacks Newton's cheek, but it's more of a pat than a slap, and, anyway, the kiss he leans and presses to Newton's forehead negates the gesture. "For the time being, I've talked her down from immediately flying out here to ensure that I haven't strangled you for your hand in this," he sighs, at last reclining beside Newton, not even having bothered to remove his shoes, "but rest assured that the photograph you sent has given her aspirations to visit for a different reason altogether."

Newton squeezes his eyes shut and groans. "I just wanted to get her off my back, because I had actual work to do in spite of also wanting her to know you hadn't fallen into the Breach, and also, I was kind of annoyed because I thought for a bit that you were ignoring your family because you'd kind-of-sort-of-maybe been hiding me."

"If I'd been hiding you, I would have been far more upset about the media coverage," says Hermann, dryly. "No, I'd been hiding nothing but myself."

"Then we gotta deal with this, dude, because I don't want some huge sprawling affair any more than you do. I just want us to have the bare minimum of witnesses and be official. Drifting with your cantankerous ass and having a fresh kaiju corpse for a backdrop is about all the Mallrats-style JAWS kitsch I can take, you know?"

Hermann blinks at him, mystified. "Does this mean another one of your bloody-minded film sessions? I haven't the faintest idea what you just said."

"Oh, dude," says Newton, with feeling, and kisses him. "We're so watching the Askewniverse backlog, or at least as much of it as we can get through tonight. Maybe call up Lee Keung Kee and order some egg waffles? Pretty please? I'm starving."

They only make it through Chasing Amy, but that's all right. It's Friday evening, and the world, as on so many other notable occasions, has failed to end. "Of all the dire cinematic ventures in which I've humored you," Hermann whispers, stroking Newton's hair, "this quite possibly comes top."

"Wait till you see Dogma," Newton murmurs in Hermann's ear, and then drifts to sleep.

*

In the morning, there is slow, leisurely make-up sex that has everything to recommend it. Newton's earlier theory with regard to blow jobs as Hermann's preferred method of apology has been soundly amended to anything in the heat of a given moment that will get Newton off. He hadn't thought Hermann switching languages while he's half-asleep and not quite hard would prove such a turn-on.

"Rest, Newton," Hermann murmurs, tugging the covers back up to Newton's chin after they've lain tangled and sharing a pulse for a while, and then gets out of bed. "Bleib, bitte," Newton manages, not quite thinking in English again yet.

"Breakfast won't sort itself," Hermann replies doubtfully, voice muffled by whatever errant article of clothing he's slipping into. "Go back to sleep."

Newton does, nobody to argue when he's this warm and sated, but it can't be that much later when he's jarred awake by cursing and the sharp smell of burnt toast from just a few doors down the hall. He fishes on the floor for his ratty MIT sweat-pants and wanders blearily out of the bedroom, arms folded across his chest. "So, about me not setting this place on fire," he says, hovering. "That gadget has three clearly labeled settings, and you used the wrong one."

Hermann plucks the toast onto a plate and says testily, "I ate your attempt at this sort of thing on Christmas, so you're jolly well going to eat mine."

Unable to argue with that (because he's silently laughing at Hermann's turn of phrase, like, so hard he's fighting off actual tears), Newton wanders over to the table and sits down. There are already place-mats, silverware, a set of teacups, and two glasses of mango juice arranged for the occasion (neither one of them cares much for citrus). He pokes one of the two eggs already on his plate, finding it done to perfection.

"Bring that over here," he says impatiently. "I'm hungry enough to eat anything."

"Perish the thought," says Hermann, wryly, fetching his cane, and comes over. "If you hadn't been so exhausted, I certainly would have suggested as much." Newton makes a patronizing face at him, but his cheeks heat up anyway.

"We don't really speak German that often when it's just us, do we?" he asks, buttering all four pieces of toast before shuffling two over to Hermann's plate. "I know you've spent most of your time in the UK and I've spent most of my time in the US, but, seriously, think about how useful that might've been around the Shatterdome. Prying ears everywhere."

"Regulations," Hermann reminded him. "English as lingua franca out of necessity."

"So, what's your sister's deal?" Newton asks. "I hadn't realized she was married."

"As you know, my father took a post at King's College in London when Dieterich was seven," says Hermann, rising again to fetch the teapot. "Karla was five at that time, and I was almost three. Bastien was born there two years later. We visited my father's family in Garmisch-Partenkirchen and my mother's relations in Potsdam regularly, of course, but we we'd been overwhelmingly domesticated by the time I was old enough to attend university. I ended up at TU largely due to my father's insistence, although I was happy to accept those back-to-back postdoctoral appointments and the subsequent assistant professorship at Cambridge on finishing. My point is that my siblings and I spent most of our time comfortably identifying as English in nearly every sense of the word. Karla met Charles Garner whilst completing her BA in Painting at Camberwell College of Arts, although they eventually relocated to Berlin because her work was well received there."

Newton nods slowly; he's never gotten this level of detail on Hermann's siblings before, and he's gripped by curiosity. "Do they have children?"

"Wisely, no," says Hermann, and grimaces around a bite of toast. "They're artists."

"What about the oldest and the youngest, then? What do they do these days?"

"Dieterich married Anan after dating her for three years while they were students at Bristol. They're accountants now, happily and boringly settled in South Kensington, which means they're at my father's beck and call. They have two children, Dominik and Lily. Twelve and seven by now, I should think. I haven't seen them since Lily's birth. They spend summers in Addis Ababa with Anan's parents."

"What about Bastien?" Newton asks, overwhelmed at the sudden knowledge of a niece and a nephew. "He's the youngest?"

"Bastien is self-centered, perpetually single, and currently residing across the city from Karla in Berlin," Hermann sniffs. "As intelligent as the boy is, I should have thought he'd follow in my footsteps, but he took up photography and that was the end of the matter. Karla dotes on him."

"As fiercely as you dote on her?" Newton replies, attempting to hide his smile.

"Karla is two years my senior," says Hermann, stiffly, and develops a sudden interest in his tea. "It is not possible to dote on one's older sibling."

Newton swallows some mango juice and shoves his smile down deeper. "I know you don't mention her much, and I'm sorry for asking, but—your mom died just before we started writing, didn't she? I remember finding the obituary online."

"Newton, were you googling me?" asks Hermann, narrowing his eyes.

"Just as often as you were using AltaVista or whatever suck-ass, out-of-date engine to run searches on me," Newton counters, "because we were flinging info back and forth that neither one of us would have ever voluntarily shared with the other."

"Yes," Hermann sighs. "My mother died in January of two thousand and thirteen."

Newton stares down at his egg, which he's cut in far too many pieces. "I should have said something at the time, at least offered condolences—"

"I assure you that I've never, not at any point in the proceedings, held a grudge against you for not having done so," says Hermann, with resolve.

"This is getting way too heavy," Newton decides, dipping a corner of his toast in egg-yolk. "We're gonna pick up with those movies ASAP."

"If the rest of them are anything like Chasing Amy, then I can't fathom why you think that course of action will lighten the mood."

"They get funnier from here on out, trust me," Newton replies. "You'll hate them."

As Newton had expected, the first of the back three films amuses Hermann to at least a moderate degree (he does an admirable job of not laughing aloud, but those crooked, unabashed smiles Newton can see out of the corner of his eye aren't fooling anyone). The remaining two, as gratuitously laden with in-jokes as they are, more or less try his patience. By the time they finish, it's just after two in the afternoon, and Hermann is displeased to find that he hasn't washed up and remains clad in pajamas.

While Hermann is in the shower, Newton dozes until his phone unexpectedly starts buzzing and nearly knocks it off the nightstand in an attempt to answer. "Huh?" he says, and quickly flips it around when he realizes he's got the mouthpiece-end up to his ear. "Um, oops. Sorry about that. Hello?"

"Herc tells me you've spoken with a Gottlieb who's not Hermann," says Tendo, and, somewhere in the background, Newton can make out Alison's voice and occasional baby-chatter from Daniel. "You mean to tell me they actually exist? Spill."

"Texted with one, anyway," says Newton, idly bunching the sheets. "Karla exists, unless that was somebody else responding to my texts. She's bitchy, dude. I think they must all be like that, but the great thing about her is that she uses her powers largely for talking smack about Hermann."

"I hope you saved that exchange, brother," Tendo says. "I kind of want to read it."

"It's on my phone," says Newton, shrugging. "I'll email the transcript if you want."

"According to PPDC records I accessed illegally, Karla and the younger brother are in Berlin, and the older brother lives in London."

"According to what Hermann told me over breakfast, that's true," Newton agrees. He sits up and intently regards the bathroom door.

"Anyway, I didn't really call about that," says Tendo. "I called because Alison is keen to talk to you some more, and also to meet Hermann."

"You should come over here for dinner," Newton says just as Hermann emerges from the bathroom, which earns him a mistrustful squint and a hastily-mouthed What? "I've recently discovered I remember how to cook some awesome stuff, so—"

"Newton, the study's still a tip; we absolutely cannot entertain—"

"It's Tendo and Alison, jeez, would you get your knickers out of a twist?" Newton says to Hermann, not even bothering to cover the mouthpiece. "We'll just have to finish unpacking. You've been dying for an excuse anyway. Where's my Baccarat, huh?"

"Did I miss something?" asks Tendo, but he's more amused than confused.

"Mmm, yeah. Hermann promised me crystal," says Newton, solely for the pleasure of watching Hermann's face, already blotchy from the shower steam, turn several shades redder. "For my dinner parties. He also got me this totally bitchin' ring."

"Newton!" Hermann hisses, advancing on the bed. "I thought we agreed—"

". . . I missed something," replies Tendo, after a comically lengthy pause.

"Um, about that," says Newton, "more later. How's next week for you guys?"

Hermann sits on the edge of the mattress and covers his mouth, muttering.

"How about we talk things over and get back to you? We'll need a sitter."

"You could bring him," Newton says; Hermann smacks his shin, and it hurts.

"Nah, not the first time we visit," Tendo replies. "Maybe I'll ask Herc."

"Dogs and children are not the same manner of affair," says Hermann, and Newton realizes he'd better adjust the volume settings on his phone.

"Shut up, Hermann. You have to remember the guy did successfully raise a kid on his own." Newton pauses and takes an apologetic breath. "That's fine," he tells Tendo. "Call me back with any aversions, preferences, dietary restrictions, or all of the above. The last thing I need is for somebody to break out in a rash on my watch, I mean somebody who's not Hermann having an allergic reaction to my lack of manners."

"Will do. Give my best to the Grinch. Over and out," says Tendo, and hangs up.

Hermann rises and goes about dressing himself, and, yeah, Newton's learned to recognize this new variety of Temporary Silent Treatment when he sees it, so he hits the shower and figures Hermann will have guilted himself out of it by the time he's finished. Newton emerges from the bathroom half an hour later to find the bedroom empty, so he wanders naked into the living room to find Hermann sorting through his prodigious pile of mail on the sofa. He peers at Newton from behind his reading glasses, eyes sweeping appreciatively from collarbone to ankle.

Newton walks over to sit down beside him. You'll never get tired of looking at me, he thinks, not with all these stories to relive.

"That box on the floor is addressed to both of us," says Hermann. "My guess is that it's the Marshall's attempt at a housewarming gift."

When Hermann says addressed, he means that Herc has scrawled Drs. Geiszler & Gottlieb in black marker across the interlocking flaps. Newton pulls the box into his lap, twitching at the harsh rasp of cardboard against his bare skin, and pulls the flaps open. There's a folded note on top of the crumpled newspaper that says Stacker would've wanted you to have this, and, underneath the newspaper, a fancy French press that's in impressive condition for being secondhand.

"Tasteful, at least," Hermann comments, and returns to reading. "Useful."

"Gotta find beans worthy of this thing," Newton sighs. "The game is on."

He takes the contraption into the kitchen and tests it out on what they've got, which is just bog-standard illy he'd pinched from refectory storage before they'd left the Shatterdome. It makes two respectable mugs of coffee, both of which he carries into the living room with particular care because, hey, doing this without clothes on isn't the best idea he's ever had. They sit sipping in silence until Hermann's had enough of the slog through his post, at which point he sweeps the envelopes out of his lap.

"That's the spirit," Newton says. "Telling work to fuck off once in a while is—"

"I didn't ask your opinion on the matter," says Hermann, waspishly, and takes Newton's mug away from him before he can finish what's left. "You're a distraction, Newton, and a hopeless nuisance to boot. For God's sake, come here."

The sofa is big enough to accommodate both of them lying down, at least, but only just. It's no hardship to get Hermann situated on his back—pristine shirt untucked, trousers undone—and scoot down to crouch between his thighs, nuzzle the flushed head of his cock that's already slipped free of his unbuttoned shorts. "You," Hermann says, shakily stroking Newton's stubble, "you ridiculous tease."

"Nah, not really," replies Newton, and takes him in while Hermann sighs and threads his unsteady fingers through the tangle of Newton's hair.

*

They arrange dinner for Saturday of the following week. With no restrictions to worry about, Newton is confident he can knock their socks off; when Hermann hears that Herc will, in fact, be minding Daniel for the evening, he mutters for an hour about the dangers of dogs being let to run loose around young children. "Have you even properly met Max?" Newton asks, eyeballs-deep in about twenty different recipe tabs. "The most strenuous activity in which he engages is slobbering."

"If there's anything dogs and infants have in common," says Hermann, contrarily, "it's that they'll both put anything in their mouths at the slightest provocation. Sadly, I do not trust Max to know the difference between a child's toy and a rawhide bone."

"Why don't you watch Daniel next time while I take Mom and Dad out for a night out on the town? It'll be great. You can be all OCD about what to feed him, read him, and let him play with, and maybe even start discussing his options for college."

"More than ever, I'm in utter despair of your sense of humor," Hermann says, but no actual rebuttal to the previous statement is forthcoming. If that isn't fantastic ammo for future feather-ruffling, then Newton doesn't know what is.

Newton's never been a fan of the multiple-course affairs beyond salad-main-dessert-coffee, so that's what he aims for. He spends the week bouncing ideas off of Hermann while he marks papers, although the most that ever seems to get him is varying shades of mhm or ngh, so in the end he uses Lu and Hannibal as unlikely sounding boards. He settles on goma wakame and a clone recipe for the ginger chicken udon he used to order at Wagamama back in the day; as for dessert, he's just going to cheat and pick up mochi with green tea ice cream in the middle, because a) he's on a real nostalgia kick, and b) Tendo loves Japanese food as much as he loves his wife.

When Hermann finally gets nosy on Thursday night and asks what culinary feats of derring-do they're in for, Newton tells him he's just got to wait and be surprised on account of having been sod-all help. He's not actually offended, but it's worth pretending for Hermann's enthusiastic cajoling and the ensuing consummation. Hermann has only ridden Newton once before on account of the strain required, but the pay-off is essentially the same and more than worth it for them both: Newton a writhing mess and Hermann drunk on watching until at last his eyes snap shut.

"What am I gonna tell them if you wake up too sore to leave the house tomorrow, and I have to call in sick for you?" Newton demands some time later, hazy-headed with his nose buried in the hollow of Hermann's throat, because, Jesus, Hermann gets off on being in control as much as he gets off on Newton, and it is the hottest thing ever. "Oh, yeah, sorry, I let your department co-chair fuck me into the goddamn box-spring against my better judgment. It won't happen again, I promise."

"It will continue to happen until such time as I am unable to make it happen any longer," Hermann insists, shifting until he's flat on his back and Newton's sprawled on top of him. "I may regret it come Sunday, but tomorrow, I will be fine."

"Just, God, let me take point on that next time, okay?" asks Newt, plaintively.

"I wouldn't mind that in the least, darling," says Hermann, his voice fond and fierce and possessive in that way he's got, and what the fuck, all Newton can think about now is wanting the paperwork signed, sealed, and done with so that he can flash around a legally binding document stating that Hermann belongs to him.

"We'll have to wait fifteen days after giving notice at the Registrar of Marriages before we can get the actual certificate issued," Newton complains. "So sue me, I looked it up while I was trawling for gastronomic inspiration. That is entirely uncool."

"Ah, yes, posting the banns," says Hermann. "Drop by and give notice tomorrow if you're concerned—or do we both need to be present?"

"Hell no," says Newton. "All you need to do is leave your passport, ID card, and a few hundred bucks with me before you leave for work."

Hermann snorts. "Surely you've squirreled away enough tips by now to cover half."

"Whatever," Newton sighs. "I'd pay twice that out of pocket just to get this sorted."

"Then you cover the cost of bureaucracy, and I'll cover the cost of the rest," says Hermann, drowsily, and strokes the back of Newton's hand.

Newton is tempted to ask Hermann what he means by that, but their neural handshake is strong enough, a low bright hum, for him to glean an echo that it might involve a trip back to Queensway for purposes of picking up an additional order placed at the same time as the initial ring had been bought. And if that isn't enough to make his pulse spike, damn. He's both sleepy and soppy enough to decide that, yeah, between the two of them, he wears the extra piece of engagement bling with a suitable sort of blushing-bride je ne sais quoi.

The next day, while Newton is fidgeting in a city-hall waiting room with his messenger bag way too full of government-issued forms of ID and worn-out Hong Kong dollars, Hermann texts to say that the students have actually filed their petition with the administration as threatened, to the tune of over five-hundred signatures. Newton gawps, as there aren't even that many students in Hermann's department.

It's Friday night, but Hermann's hip is acting up, so they celebrate with take-away, mediocre micro-brew, and a roster of streaming documentaries entirely of Hermann's choosing. Newton spends most of the time with his face buried in the soft, worn Redbones t-shirt that Hermann has permanently kidnapped from Newton's bottom drawer for purposes of lounging in. He's already got a mental list a mile long of places he's got to take Hermann out to eat next time they're in Boston, and, given the death-chili jerk sauce there, whoa, Redbones has definitely made the list.

The next morning, he gets up well before Hermann's bedtime painkiller has worn off to go and pick up the last handful of items he needs for dinner; as Hermann lacks a lab book containing a reciprocal pressed flower, the most sentimental thing he can think to leave on the nightstand for Hermann to find is the crinkled Drifter stretch. He uses Hermann's reading glasses and clunky mobile phone to pin it flat.

While Newton is busy with prep that afternoon, Hermann manages to make a nuisance of himself by watching hawk-like from his seat at the kitchen table and suggesting far too often that perhaps Newton ought to be chopping such-and-such somewhat finer or following his recipes more precisely measurement-wise. The argument is well and truly over when Newton sticks a spoonful of finished seaweed salad in Hermann's mouth and sets the whole dish aside in the fridge to chill.

Newton is occupied at the stove, pushing the udon around with a wooden spoon and willing the strips of chicken to cook faster, when the door buzzer rings. He feels like a shitty host for not being there alongside Hermann to see them in, but it's kind of a relief to leave the giving of a grand tour to the one person who couldn't be better suited to that sort of stuffy, understated brag. He can hear their voices as they move from room to room, chatter and polite laughter punctuated by Tendo's occasional impressed whistle. Hermann has saved the kitchen for last.

"Sweet digs, my man," Tendo tells him, stepping up to inhale the dish's progress over Newton's shoulder. "Now, what's this about a ring?"

Newton sighs and, still stirring with his right hand, holds his left out for inspection.

"Holy smoke, that's classy," says Alison, leaning in to prod at Newton's hand with curiosity as easy and familiar as her husband's, and then turns to Hermann with one index finger trained on her left earlobe. "Can't go wrong with Tiffany, can you?"

"If you're my dad you can," Newton says under his breath, and only Tendo seems to hear; it gets him a squeeze about the shoulders.

"Let's let the chef do his thing," he suggests, and lures both Alison and Hermann out of the kitchen with the promise of whiskey. Five minutes later, slightly pink-cheeked, Hermann taps his way in with a shot-glass of the stuff for Newton, kisses the burn from Newton's lips after he's downed it, and says their guests are installed in the dining room, so what can he do to help get this show on the road?

"Go sit the hell down, Hermann," Newton insists, and hustles him out.

Alison must know a thing or two about the basics of pairing wine to food, because, to complement Tendo's whiskey, she's trucked along two bottles of Mosel Riesling bearing an impossible, welcome vintage date of two thousand and seven. Newton brings everything to the table at once, no one to stand on ceremony, and it's not long before all plates and glasses (Riedel, fetched that morning, a stop-gap until Hermann realizes the expectation of crystal isn't a joke anymore) are full to overflowing.

"Hell yeah, it's great to relax, I'll say that much," Alison says in response to Hermann's polite inquiry as to whether the stress of the move is winding down. "What's more tricky is finding time to ourselves. Between the baby and the Marshall—"

"We're occupied," Tendo cuts in tersely, and Newton can't help but think that a night out alone is probably just what they need.

"You can leave Daniel with me next time, I mean if you need to get out and Herc's had enough," he volunteers, and Hermann almost drops his glass. "Hermann has lots of work to do, so I'd welcome the distraction while he's locked up in the study."

"You will absolutely not volunteer your services to watch that child on your own," says Hermann, dabbing his mouth with a napkin. "Two pairs of eyes are better than one," he continues, turning to Alison, "what with how they are at that age, getting into everything under hell and creation."

"This is Herc's second or third time keeping an eye on him, believe it or not," Tendo volunteers with no small amount of amusement. "Says Dan's an absolute angel compared to what Chuck put him through."

"I'm sure any kid would be an angel compared to what Chuck put him through," mutters Alison, but she crosses herself and appeals to the ceiling for forgiveness even so. "The change might be good for him, though," she says to Tendo. "We want him to get used to as many new faces as possible, so he understands who he can trust."

Watching Hermann's expression get softer by the second at the increased likelihood of this happening makes Newton wonder. Under the table, he pulls out his phone, scrolls to the end of the latest exchange he's had with Karla (she'd been all in favor of his menu choices), and types, Question out of left field, humor me—when Bastien was in his larval stage, did you and your brothers coddle the brat within an inch of his life?

Sure we did, Dieter and I, whenever we could pry him out of Hermann's clutches for even five minutes, Karla replies while Hermann, Tendo, and Alison grow increasingly wrapped up in a discussion on childhood linguistic development. He was such a precocious child, had so much promise. I think Hermann believed he could see to it that Bastien would follow in his or in our father's footsteps. He acts like Bastien is a disappointment these days, but don't let that fool you.

What? Newton types back, staring wide-eyed at his phone. Explain?

The only reason I favored repeat-sending that letter over flying out there in a panic is because Hermann has been answering Bastien's weekly emails for all this time (even though he's shite when it comes to answering his phone). Letting me stew and worry is fine, but he'd find leaving Bastien in the dark simply intolerable.

That explains so much, Newton texts back, and then tucks his phone decisively in his pocket. "Sorry to interrupt," he says, "but this offer is so totally on the table. Just give us a few days' warning before setting up your hot date-night, okay?" Which is more or less how, four nights later, Tendo arrives just before five o'clock with Daniel braced on one hip and an oversize diaper bag slung over his opposite shoulder.

"He was gonna have to get used to you guys sooner or later," he says, handing the boy over to Newton even though there's already a bit of apprehensive fussing in the works. "I'm just glad it's sooner rather than later. Herc's good with him, but after an hour or so, he starts screaming, and Herc can't get him to stop. About the only thing that does is plonking him down beside Max in the doggie bed, and let me tell you what, don't you say a goddamn thing about that to Al. She'd have a fit."

"Or to Hermann, either," Newton says in a low voice just as he can hear Hermann's clack-clacking progress up the hall. "He'd have a fit."

"There shall be no having of fits," says Hermann, arriving slightly out of breath, and reaches to take the diaper bag out of Tendo's grasp. "Not on our watch," he says with mock sternness, turning to offer Daniel two of his fingers, which the boy, for a moment, takes and clings to in lieu of further giving in to tears. "How's that?"

"Looks like I've been rendered obsolete," jokes Tendo, and steps forward to kiss Daniel. "Behave for Uncle Newt, or he's gonna kick your butt."

"No," says Daniel, and stubbornly chews on his lower lip. "Kick your butt."

Newton exchanges a dubious glance with Tendo; Hermann can't keep from smiling.

"He's at the parrot-everything stage," says Tendo, getting back in the Jeep. "Early talker, hence the conversation at dinner. See you later."

As Tendo drives off, Daniel shoves his fist in his mouth and starts to whimper again, so Newton makes quick work of fumbling out his phone and snapping a shot of the three of them framed there in the doorway before the real waterworks set in. Hermann grumbles, but he doesn't ruin the moment by making a face. Once they're inside and Hermann has more than gladly taken charge of keeping Daniel occupied with his toys on the sofa, Newton ducks into the study and sends the photograph to Karla. Re: those questions I asked you about Bastien the other night, he types. Not our spawn, obviously, but you get the picture.

Teufel auch! Would it be unethical of me to forward this? she replies. Y / N?

Nein, Newton texts back. You can always blame my poor grasp of the concept. Hermann will 1000% accept that explanation.

Sehr gut, sounds like a plan, Karla agrees. Sending in 3, 2, 1 . . . !

*

After lingering till one in the morning with Hermann and Daniel on the sofa (Tendo and Alison had been apologetic about collecting him so late), Newton had been hoping to sleep in, but he's dragged awake by the front of his t-shirt twenty minutes after Hermann's alarm goes off.

"What," Hermann hisses, getting right in Newton's face with more vitriol than he's seen in months, "in God's name have you been telling Karla?"

"I—gah, Hermann, seriously, ease up—I haven't been telling her anything!"

"According to this message," says Hermann, dragging him out of bed and over to the desktop console, "you must in the very least have sent some manner of, I don't know, provocative photograph. There's an attachment. Shall I open it?"

Newton doesn't need to see anything more than the email address at the top of the screen—lgottlieb@kcl.ac.uk—to know that he's royally fucked. He scans the message anyway, which, to be fair, is a perfectly civil father-to-son missive (stiff and formal: he'd expect nothing less) saying, in brief, that it's a relief to see Hermann back in contact with Karla, and would he happen to have room in his clearly quite busy social calendar (see attachment) for a visit from his father that weekend?

"He's . . . what," says Newton, blinking. "He's flying in on Thursday because he's arranged Saturday lunch with an old colleague at HKU and wants to see us on Friday? Just—does he realize it's Wednesday morning where we are?"

"I cannot, will not justify using a personal day on this. We'll humor him with dinner on Friday at the very least, but, mark my words, Newton, this would never have happened if you hadn't—"

"Maybe not this soon, no," sighs Newton, "but I'm sure it would've happened."

Hermann sags against the chair-back, grasping Newton's shoulders for support.

"Under no circumstances is he to discover the time-frame of our intentions. I will not have the whole damned lot of them traipsing out here a week and a half from now in order to witness an affair that will take all of ten bloody minutes."

"Dude, are you kidding? You couldn't pay me to mention it."

"They know about what's on your finger, which comes with the expectation of delay and planning attached. I intend to keep it that way."

"They'll find out," Newton insists. "They'll want to throw some kind of retroactive shin-dig with gifts and speeches and all that crap, am I right?"

"Gifts, yes, but the speeches, I'd doubt," says Hermann. "And—your relations?"

"I wouldn't put it past my mother bug me when she catches wind of it," Newton admits, clinging to Hermann's forearms, "but she can be reasoned with to schedule her visit like a normal human being. Dad and my uncle, well, they don't travel much these days. I'm guessing we'll have to haul our asses to New York sometime in the next couple of years, but that won't be all bad, because Boston's right there."

"I would have liked to remain a bit longer in London for similar reasons," says Hermann, carefully, "but you seemed averse to the notion."

"I get it," Newton sighs. "We've got to set aside like two months in the not-too-distant and do both cities proper. At the moment, I just want to focus on getting through the weekend without you or your old man making an attempt on my life. Are we cool?"

Hermann goes silent, hardly a whisper of breath save for the catch in his throat. "I understand you don't do these things on purpose," he says, pressing one of those fierce, fretful kisses to the side of Newton's neck, "but why must you try me so?"

"Because that's what we're about," Newton replies, "and I wouldn't trade it."

"Nor would I," Hermann agrees, resting his chin on the top of Newton's head. "But I should hope that's not all we're about, not at this stage."

As the tension drains out of them, Newton tilts his head to kiss Hermann's hand.

"You're gonna be late if you don't get dressed, and if you don't get dressed, I swear I'll do my best to prevent you from leaving. Just watch me."

"There's nothing I'd like better," Hermann murmurs, "but, alas, I must go."

Newton sighs and lets go of him, indicating the undealt-with message onscreen.

"Do you want me to answer? I've had a lot of practice at imitating Hermann-speak. Are we doing this, then? Meeting up with him somewhere?"

"I can't see any way around it. Perhaps say that Doctor Geiszler would be pleased to meet him somewhere on Friday afternoon and subsequently escort him to the HKU campus at such time as my final lecture is finished. Dinner plans negotiable."

Hermann somehow manages to get dressed, bring Newton some fruit and French-pressed coffee from the kitchen, and still get out the door with about one minute to spare. Newton spends about an hour and a half agonizing over what amounts to a two-paragraph response. He blind-copies Hermann's work email before hitting SEND so that there's no possibility of later accusations regarding what's been said.

Newton arrives at the Studio around eleven o'clock to find Wei and Lu coping with an unusually busy schedule, so he greets them both and gets ready. There's one walk-in waiting, and both of the other artists are already hard at work on lengthy appointments.

"Hey, I can take you," Newton says, beckoning to the young woman, and, when she lifts her head, he recognizes Hermann's cleverest student.

"I was hoping you'd say that, Doctor Geiszler," says Ming Yan, and comes over. "Think you can take another bite out of these code-sleeves?"

"As long as you've brought the code in question, yep," Newton says, firing up the gun. He's the go-to guy for intricate blackwork at Wei Sun these days, and he thinks that if part of the Faustian bargain he's made in exchange for the life he has with Hermann is that he'll never find academic (or, indeed, scientific) employment ever again, he'd somehow be okay with that. "How's school?" He knows for a fact that she's in Hermann's seminar that meets in—well, an hour from now. "Don't you have class?"

Ming winks at him, already shedding her outer layer to reveal a strappy tank top and, by extension, the arcane, mesmerizing blur of her arms from shoulder to elbow. "I won't tell if you won't tell." She spreads the paper in her lap for Newton's reference.

"Your grades are none of my business, but," Newton cautions, "you don't want to mess with Hermann if he thinks you're falling behind."

"He must be tough to live with," she says, watching with keen-eyed hunger as the needle hits her skin. "How can you stand it?"

"I'm hard to live with, too," says Newton, focusing, "so we balance each other."

"Incredible, though," Ming sighs. "Five years in the Shatterdome. What was it like?"

Newton considers what he'd told Hannibal on moving day and then regards this ambitious, reckless girl who can't be more than seventeen and feels a stab of remorse. He's obliged to be stern and professorial with her, sure, in spite of the fact that he's her preferred tattoo artist, but part of him wants nothing more than to hug her and tell her to never stop being the wild, unstoppable force that she is in this moment. "The best-of-times-worst-of-times line wouldn't suit," Newton admits, "and I don't think what was going on under that dome was the same as what Dickens meant."

"Do you guys read much, then? Doctor Gottlieb doesn't seem like the reading type to me."

"This isn't a lit class," says Newton, grinning in spite of himself, "and you're trying to distract me. I charge extra for interdisciplinary subject matter, just so you know." Ming is an exhausting client, but she does tip well. He'll tell Hermann what she did with her morning, of course, but beg him in the same breath not to judge her too harshly. He takes a steady string of walk-ins until five o'clock, by which point Wei has gone home and Lu is idle enough to indulge Hannibal in small-talk when he drops by.

The amazing thing is, they must keep most of the hardcore flirting and all the rest of it private, because Newton has never been as traumatized by the two of them sharing space and interacting as he has been by letting his imagination run with what he knows, which is that they are, in fact, sleeping together or having a relationship or whatever it is lonely hearts like Lu and Hannibal do when they find each other.

"Nice ring," Hannibal remarks as Newton peels off his gloves. "Counting down the days, huh? How's Doctor Strangelove holding up?"

"What I want to know is how everybody I didn't want to know about this knows," Newton says to his coat, and he turns around to find Lu standing beside Hannibal now and looking guilty. "Yeah, we have an appointment with the Registrar next week. Are you volunteering to witness?"

Hannibal shrugs. "I figured you might already have that covered, what with the Marshall and your official PPDC Elvis impersonator."

"Sure, come if you want," says Newton, feeling just belligerent enough to rise to the challenge. "You can come, too," he tells Lu, with a reassuring wink. "If you don't mind sharing space with the aforementioned shady characters, that is."

"Tell Herc to bring Max," says Lu, with mock sternness. "For best man, you think?"

"We'll see, Doc," says Hannibal, tilting his sunglasses down. "No promises. Good luck."

One a scale of silent treatment to cane-jammed-through-my-eye-socket, Newton texts to Karla as he leaves the Studio, how mad do you think Hermann will be that I just invited a gangster and his tattoo-artist moll to the Registrar's office next week?

And, as soon as he realizes what he's so recklessly done, he follows that up with SCHEIßE FUCK DAMMIT PLEASE DON'T TELL YOUR FAMILY PLEASE WE JUST WANT TO DO THIS IN PEACE AND THEN YOU CAN ALL CONGRATULATE US LATER.

For a pair of renowned academics whose love life is nearly as well documented as your achievements, you're inordinately obsessed with privacy, Karla texts back. Yes, Newton replies while he's waiting for the bus. Yes, we totally are, so please give me your word that you're not going to lead the whole Gottlieb clan down here on one of those primary-school outing ropes complete with colored knots. Please.

It's hard to give, texts Karla, and he imagines regret in her voice, but all right.

That evening, Hermann asks over dinner if Ming has frittered away yet another day of her time paying Newton to convert theoretical mathematics into mere graffiti. Newton contemplates lying on her behalf, saying he hasn't seen her in a while, but she'll flash her arms in class the next day and everyone, even Hermann, will know where she's been. The best response he can come up with is to hand over the tip she gave him and tell Hermann to go buy some more rioja.

The better part of Thursday passes in a weird blur of knowing that Lars Gottlieb's outbound plane from Heathrow will land at HKG around nine o'clock in the evening. Hermann remarks that it's a miracle he hasn't demanded that they meet him at the airport and accompany him straight to his hotel for drinks and something to eat. At least he's the type to get a hotel room, Newton points out, rather than demand to stay with family. Hermann finishes his work faster than usual; they spend the evening wrapped around each other on the sofa with kettle corn and Firefly reruns.

"For all the exciting shit we've done, we're pretty boring," Newton remarks drowsily, far too content with Hermann's head tucked against his shoulder to suggest anything more enthralling than this. "Not that I don't think investing time in your pop-culture education isn't worth it, though, because we're reaping the benefits already."

"Consider it making up for the excess we're bound to have tomorrow," remarks Hermann, blackly. "Our guest will keep us both on our toes, make no mistake. He takes particular pleasure in watching others scramble to keep up."

Newton kisses him instead of mouthing off, because that's not one of the hard-wired character flaws Hermann has inherited from his father, and Newton couldn't be more grateful. Simple appreciation devolves into up-ending the kettle corn and snogging; they nearly don't make it to the bedroom. They don't get a full night's sleep, either.

As a consequence, the only thing that Newton can think when Lars Gottlieb fixes him with hard, appraising hazel eyes and vigorously shakes his hand is, Do you have any idea what your wicked brilliant son spent half the night doing to me? And if that turn of phrase isn't a call-back to his MIT days laced with Boston slang and also indicative of how much like a grad student he's feeling right now, then he doesn't know what is.

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Doctor Geiszler," says Lars. There's an unexpected Brian-Blessed joviality to his tone, not to mention a physical resemblance; at sixty-eight, there's no hint of a stoop in him, and he's taller than Hermann. "I've heard much about you over the years from Hermann, some of it flattering and some of it not. I assure you that I take anything my son says with a grain of salt. He's given to exaggeration."

Wow, Newton thinks, I'm not sure whether I ought to agree with that or not. What he says instead is, "I've heard a lot about you, too, and, I, uh, greatly admire your work." Swell, his cynical internal monologue continues. Now he's gonna peg you for a liar.

Whether Lars has better manners with acquaintances and friends-of-family than Hermann had let on or it's just plain dumb luck, the two of them spend four and a half hours in each other's company without any incident that Newton would call especially catastrophic. Lars seems to enjoy hearing about Newton's unusual educational trajectory and his not inconsiderable list of achievements; curiously, he doesn't ask about Newton's tenure in the Hong Kong Shatterdome with Hermann, so Newton carefully doesn't bring it up.

Hermann emerges from his office at five o'clock looking frazzled, and Newton wants nothing more than to lean and kiss him like Hermann had once done to him in front of Lu. Somehow, though, he doesn't think that would be appropriate in their present company, so he stands aside and watches Lars fold his son in a stiff, yet caring embrace. Hermann extricates himself with difficulty and, unexpectedly, reaches for Newton's hand. Newton goes with it, folding Hermann's arm over his own, because, hello, that waistcoat. And the inappropriate thoughts keep coming.

"What a keeper," says Lars, with no trace of irony or malice, although Hermann's scowl deepens. "Karla approves, a ringing endorsement in and of itself, but I can tell you from several hours' personal examination that this gentleman's levity is just what the doctor ordered. Hermann, would it kill you to smile? This is a happy occasion."

This gentleman, Newton thinks loudly, boggling, and Hermann is so taken aback that his scowl dials down a few notches to Newton's favorite dismayed bitchface. Did your dad just refer to me as something other than a ne'er-do-well, for serious?

What he gets back from Hermann is flustered static, but Hermann has enough presence of mind to respond to Lars with sarcastic acknowledgment: "Ecstatic, yes, so I'll persevere in the endeavor of not frowning. How are Dieterich and the children?"

He mouths off like a sulky twelve year-old, Newton thinks as the three of them make their way down the hall toward the nearest exit and Lars cheerfully proceeds to give an account of what Dominik and Lily have been up to. Five years ago, I'd have paid admission to stand back and watch the carnage. Now, all I want is to prevent Cordial!Dad from morphing into Headfuck!Dad, and I'm not even sure I can do that.

The visit would have wrapped up neatly if the thread of conversation during dinner at Otto e Mezzo Bombana had stuck to Hermann asking pointed questions about various colleagues and Lars giving lengthy, too-detailed answers, but Newton knows better than to believe it might have lasted if he'd only been nuanced enough to keep them on topic. As dessert arrives (Newton can tell that neither he, nor Hermann has the stomach for this extravagant insistence, especially not after three previous courses), Lars raises the subject they've been dreading.

"I surmise it's a relief to be moving on with a fresh chapter, isn't it? Ugly business, your beloved Jaeger Program getting the axe. Still, when push came to shove, I'm grateful it wasn't for naught. All's well that ends well, isn't that so?"

Newton's first instinct is to catch Hermann's hand under the table and trap it in a white-knuckled grasp before he can use it to do something like drive his fork-tines right through the table cloth (which has actually happened once in Newton's sight and had been a glory to behold until such time as it became a point of embarrassment for Hermann, that he had given in to such furious impulse), but it's too late to restrain him. They're fortunate that he only manages to yank the tablecloth about a foot toward himself and upset a single glass of water while he's at it.

"It never should have got the axe, as you so blithely put it, in the first place," he spits, and at high enough volume that the occupants of several surrounding tables notice. "You of all people ought to have known what folly lurked in a decision so flagrantly reckless! If Pentecost hadn't managed to secure those final eight months—"

"Hermann, do calm down," says Lars, mildly, and sips his port. "You'll make a scene."

Newton can't let this happen; he's sure he's already failed Hermann several times over for not keeping conversation focused enough on their surprise!relationship, which, wonder of wonders, had proved an entirely safe topic. He rips the tablecloth free of Hermann's left hand, which is the only one he can reach, and holds fast to Hermann's agitated fingers.

"With respect, Doctor Gottlieb," he says, raising his voice to just below the level of Hermann's, and, huh, it doesn't feel weird using that honorific to address this particular pompous ass, "we've got strong feelings on the matter, and can you really blame us?" That stuns Lars into silence and draws a gasp from Hermann, so he lowers his voice to a more reasonable level and keeps going, because offense on the part of a Gottlieb is all the cause he ever needed to jog right on and do something properly Hansen-style stupid. "I mean, come on, didn't your local PPDC flunkies brief you on what it took for us to win this thing? I had to hack a Pons set-up and drift with a kaiju brain in order to retrieve the first piece of the puzzle, and then Pentecost told me I had to do it again in order to retrieve the rest. And I'm telling you what, I probably would have died if Hermann hadn't stepped in and done it right along with me the second time, so what I'm trying to say is that your son risked his goddamn life for the sake of, let's count, me and nine billion other idiots. Is this making any sense?"

And the worst part, the absolute fucking kicker, is that instead of rising to it or attempting an even semi-intelligent response, all Lars does is sit back and laugh as if he's just been privy to an especially hare-brained thesis proposal.

"No one disputes the fact that you did what you could in difficult circumstances, and that is commendable. With regard to Hermann taking such a risk as stepping outside his field of expertise, you'll simply have to rein him in next time, won't you?"

Before Hermann can blow the truly impressive gasket he's been holding in place with what shreds are left of his tact for the past five minutes, Newton does the only thing he can do: stands up and tugs Hermann along with him.

"I'm sorry, but you've got it the wrong way around. What I did back there was so profoundly against protocol that Hermann couldn't even find words for it, but, instead of belaboring the issue—okay, I mean, he did shout at me a lot, and I deserved it—he went and figured out what needed to be done to make it safe. He didn't step outside his field of expertise; he used his expertise to unfuck the situation, pardon my French. I think we'd better get out of here before we get kicked out of here, so—"

"Quite," Hermann offers by way of agreement, snags the cane with one deft twitch of his hand, and slings Newton's arm over his own with as much possessive propriety as he can manage. "Thank you for a most entertaining evening, and, should you come back to your senses or wish to apologize to Doctor Geiszler or both, please don't hesitate to give us a ring. Good night, Father. Enjoy your stay."

They're out the door and standing dazed on the sidewalk before Newton can even react. Hermann turns to him and tilts his head, breathing fast, the corners of his eyes crinkling in concern. "Newton, please say something," he prompts. "Are you all right?"

"Yeah, um, more than," Newton manages, so distracted by Hermann's expression that he sort of just wants to kiss him for being made of sheer and undiluted awesome, so he flags down the nearest taxi and then proceeds to do just that.

Chapter Text

November 2009

Newton hadn't thought twice about being nineteen and still a virgin, about having never even been kissed, when he'd met Katia Shamim at a Harvard-MIT-Wellesley mixer back in September. She'd mentioned being a rising senior in Harvard's Department of Linguistics fewer than sixty seconds after they'd met; between the quick wit and her half-Russian, half-Saudi handsomeness, Newton had found himself more than half smitten before the night was over. She'd scrawled her phone number on the back of a flyer, handed it to him, and winked on her way out.

He'd dithered over his experiments for a week (third doctorate on the line, serious business) before working up the nerve to call Katia. By then, she'd sobered up enough to run his name through Google and spent the first five minutes of their conversation airing her consternation over his identity. I can't believe you didn't say anything about the fact that you're well on the way to being considered junior faculty, she'd said.

Sorry, Newton had said, blushing ten shades of red and glad she couldn't see it. I don't consider that kind of thing a valid pick-up line, you know? I might have unfairly influenced your decision to give me your number, and where would we be then?

I think we'd still be having this conversation, Katia had replied, her voice warm and forgiving, and Newton had felt something like hope bloom in his chest. I'm going to take you out for dinner tomorrow night. Where'll it be now, boy genius?

They'd met at Central and gone to Mary Chung; by the end of the night, Newton had been sure the staff were fed up with how loudly and how long they'd made each other laugh. She hadn't made him feel guilty for being brilliant; maybe that's because she was brilliant, too. Either way, she'd been the one to pay the tab and drag Newton to Phoenix Landing afterward for one too many drinks. Thank goodness for fake ID.

She'd also been the one to bundle Newton into a cab and whisk her back to her pitifully cramped dorm room. He'd been too drunk and far, far too nervous to live up to her expectations; she'd forgiven him, or at least he'd thought so at the time, and they'd slept curled around each other in their underwear and subsequently muddled through an awful, yet hilarious hangover together the next morning.

They'd kept seeing each other, because, if that kind of beginning doesn't break you, how can you not? Much to Newton's relief, kissing had come easy, but the rest had taken three mortifying weeks of getting over the fact that someone was actually interested in him. Blow jobs had proved a revelation, and he'd found he didn't mind returning the favor. Katia hadn't turned out to be a cuddler, which was disappointing.

He'd thought it was just nerves at first, but he continues to have trouble getting it up for anything that's not hands and mouths, and the first time they had managed to get him past the breach, Katia had been frustrated and he had been devastated and, yeah, things had gotten better with time (they both tend to get off, at least usually). He wouldn't say he's dissatisfied.

This is what Newton tells himself on grey, slush-rimed days like today when he'd rather just stay late in the lab, holed up with Ken, one of the current crop of doctoral students in bio-engineering, whose sharp, charming smile grows exponentially sharper when Newton risks their necks for the sake of blaring Mary Prankster loud enough that the next floor down can hear. Mercyfuck has become something of an anthem.

He's got gloves on when Katia's number starts ringing through and his phone starts to vibrate on the work-top; the choice between getting acid on the CD player's volume knob and getting it on his handset is distressing enough to send him into a momentary panic. Across the room, Ken smiles helpfully and mimes peeling off his gloves, so Newton swears, drops his test tube in the sink, shucks the gloves off, and answers without adjusting the volume on Student Loan. "Hey!" he ventures, too loudly.

"What is that God-awful noise?" Katia demands. "Newt, for fuck's sake, would you—"

Newton grimaces and dials down the racket. "There," he says. "Sorry about that."

"Better, thanks," she sighs, and he can picture her running one exasperated hand through her wild chin-length hair. "So, are you going to come back here for dinner, or should I ask Samantha from across the hall to be my date again tonight?"

Newton winces, his eyes tracking over the shattered fragments of the test tube he's left in the sink. At this rate, he'll have to start all over again, and he's got a deadline. "Nah, Kats," he admits, frowning at the mess. "Me and Ken are on a roll tonight."

"Ken?" Katia echoes, and he imagines that her frown is even deeper than his own. "Ken Hayashi? The nerdy one you keep bringing to Quiz Night?"

"Um, yes," Newton says, his eyes flicking up to Ken, who's stopped what he's doing to watch in unabashed amusement. He's nerdy, sure, but so is Newton, and, between the two of them, Newton's fairly sure that Ken is the only one who deserves the qualifier of adorable. He's also pretty damn certain he shouldn't say that out loud, so he doesn't.

"Babe," says Katia, and Newton knows the quiet, angry gentleness into which she slips when push comes to shove, "we've got to talk."

"We're talking now," replies Newton, and he hopes to hell he doesn't sound sarcastic, but Ken is watching and his insides are wound up in knots and he knows this is the kind of phone-call you don't want to get just when you thought you'd begun to sort your shit out. "What's wrong? Did I leave my clothes in the bathroom again?"

"I wish you had," Katia says. "We haven't had dinner together in about two weeks."

Newton closes his eyes, clenches and unclenches his hands. "Look, I—I'm getting close, okay? Give me a few days, and I swear I won't have to stay so late; it's—it's, look, I have to replicate this as many times as possible, you wouldn't understand—"

It's too late then; he's said the words, and the damage is done.

"Actually," says Katia, softly, "I understand all too well. Your work means the world to you, and that's part of the problem, sure. You don't have time for actual human beings, at least not most actual human beings. You've got some unresolved issues; I'm not solving them for you, that much is obvious. Do you get what I'm saying?"

The face Ken's making now is pained, as if he's suffering from contact embarrassment, but there's something far more complex tangled up in it, too, a wash of undisguised relief and even an unvoiced question. Newton looks away from him, wide-eyed, and studies his dye-stained fingertips with something akin to dismay.

"Wow," he says, flexing his fingers. "I. I, um. I'm a complete bag of dicks, and you need to stop dating me, like, yesterday, and also kick me the key to this goddamn closet, because it's so fucking dark in here I hadn't even realized it's locked from the inside." He covers his mouth, because Ken's scrutiny has intensified and this is simultaneously going somewhere terrifying and heartbreaking and exhilarating.

"We're done," replies Katia, surprisingly even-voiced. "You know that, right?"

"Yeah," says Newton, swallowing, and nods once as he glances at Ken. "I do."

 

August 2010

Hermann is twenty-one and nearly finished with his postgraduate studies, the youngest student in a decade at Technische Universität to finish both his undergraduate and postgraduate requirements in under five years. He'd met Gábor Halász just over a year ago, at a start-of-term social where Gábor had been introduced as a new doctoral candidate, and, at the time, Hermann is almost ashamed to admit he would have described it as love at first sight. From childhood language-sampler lessons with his mother, Hermann had gleaned a comprehensive enough smattering of basic Hungarian to catch the pale-haired, blue-eyed Szentendre native's attention.

They'd gone out for drinks after the social in spite of already having consumed several glasses of wine each, and they'd discovered common ground beyond their research interests in theoretical mathematics and engineering. Gábor was the middle child in a family of five; he'd shown early aptitude in maths and sciences, and his parents had done their best to ensure that he'd had access to educational opportunities befitting his ambition. Hermann hadn't been able to help noticing how Gábor had flushed with excitement as he spoke, his capable hands animated as he'd described his two younger sisters' perpetual antics and his two older brothers' perpetual torments.

They hadn't kissed that night, but they'd lingered far too long on Hermann's doorstep, and it had been only then that Gábor had drunkenly asked the reason why Hermann uses a cane. Hermann had been too intoxicated to deflect or (as he might otherwise have done) snap that it didn't matter; he'd slurred out that he'd been diagnosed at the age of thirteen with DDH, right side instead of left—quite rare in unilateral cases, there you are. He'd wanted to kiss Gábor, but he'd said good night instead.

They'd kissed five days later and gone to bed a week beyond that; being each other's firsts had its advantages, although Gábor had inadvertently sunk his first barb in Hermann's chest late one night when he'd drowsily, bitterly remarked that his family would never approve. Hermann had wondered if his own family's easy acceptance of who he'd been for as long as he could remember had served to rub salt in the wound.

They'd fast fallen into a pattern of affectionate, yet scathing intellectual one-upsmanship; they debate as passionately as they kiss, argue as fiercely as they fuck. Gábor had been quick to tease Hermann about his disarming tenderness behind closed doors, this apparent side to him that the rest of the world rarely gets to see. Hermann had been quick to silence him using whatever methods necessary.

Hermann had found it easy to ignore the first time, six months into their relationship, that Gábor had shouted Keep up, old man! over his shoulder. But it happens again a month later, and then again all too fast on the heels of the second instance; it had never been the same words twice, no, and for all that Hermann is fast in spite of what his doctors have told him for years will perforce slow him down, Gábor is faster.

And it had been then that he'd realized Gábor has never once held the door for him, never once offered to help in the few instances when Hermann so clearly needed it, never once offered to take him by the arm. Still, Hermann had considered himself lucky to have found a worthy adversary.

This is what he continues to tell himself on days like today when the halls are crawling with curious first-year students and the door of his habitual study-room clatters open every five minutes (only to clatter shut again with a hastily muttered apologies from the foolish young perpetrator or perpetrators in question). He doesn't think twice about turning from his chalkboard and snapping at the interloper the fourth time it happens.

"Does this look like your supervisor's office? Can you not read the signage?"

"Steady on, Hermann," says Gábor, favoring English today in spite of the fact that Hermann had shouted in German. "Go easy on the poor kids. Orientation's a bitch."

"I see you've forgot how to knock," replies Hermann, stiffly, relieved to be speaking his favored tongue. "We were never so obtrusive on first arrival, and you know this."

"Kids these days," Gábor retorts, harrumphing in imitation of Hermann's subsequent wordless mutter, and the jibe abruptly grates on Hermann's nerves worse than the accidental scrape of his own nails against the chalkboard. "For shame."

"You must have a good reason for being here," Hermann sighs, relinquishing his chalk and retrieving his cane. "I've already told you I can't possibly make it to supper, so please send your parents my apologies. I'm working to a strict deadline."

He leans in for a kiss, sorry to have left Gábor's bed so early that morning, but Gábor evades it. He's left staring at the floor while Gábor side-steps him with cold, uncharacteristic hesitation, and, for the first time in his life, he does feel like an old man: too blind and trusting to have seen the writing on the bloody wall.

"Shall I ask how we've come to this, or shall I simply ask to hear the ending?"

Even as Hermann's eyes flick up to interrogate him, Gábor's eyes drift to the floor.

"I'm transferring to Budapest," he explains. "My sisters would like me closer to home. It's nothing personal, you understand; it's just that you've got your work, haven't you, your single-minded ambition. I'm not cut out for academia, not the way you are."

"Perhaps I slow you down," says Hermann, scathingly. "What difference does it make?"

"Not much of one," Gábor admits, clapping him on the shoulder. "My bags are packed."

Hermann doesn't say goodbye, emphatically does not look back as Gábor leaves. Find yourself in the sum of your mistakes, his father had once told him; in spite of his furious tears and the terror in his heart, Hermann cannot disagree in this instance.

 

December 2011 / January 2012

Ken doesn't get cuddly when he's drunk, which is a goddamn motherfucking shame.

Newton's been with him, like, with him with him, since about a month and a half after Katia dumped his sorry ass. And he'd totally deserved that, he is nobody to argue with her right not to stick around when he'd been too stupid to realize that, if not one-hundred percent gay, he's at least so overwhelmingly attracted to men in comparison to women that he must be, what, at least a Kinsey five? Furthermore, does anyone even use that scale as a reliable sexual-orientation metric anymore?

Who the hell cares: they're in Tokyo with Kenna and Jasvinder; it's New Year's Eve.

Newton has consumed at least two bottles of sake by this point, and the others can't be all that far behind. They're in a karaoke joint that's similar enough to the one in Lost In Translation to make his film-nerd self flail in unabashed glee, although the alcohol has probably got more to do with that than anything else. Ken can sort of sing, but Kenna and Jasvinder are so bad they hurt his ears; he blames his mother for at least educating him to the point where he knows what's on-key and what's not.

"Don't just sit there making faces!" Kenna implores him, dancing away from the mess in front of the television screen to flop down in Newton's lap with one arm slung around his neck. "Come on, you've got to help us. Your mom's an opera singer, right?"

"Yeah," Newton agrees, unslinging her arm from its resting place. "But that doesn't mean I'm an expert in the fine art of not butchering DeVotchKa. You guys keep it up."

Ken has wandered over, microphone in hand, to consider the exchange with tipsy gravitas. He hauls Kenna up and out of Newton's lap, and then sends her off to rejoin Jasvinder in their truly awful rendition of How It Ends. He drops down beside Newton, exhausted and smelling faintly of Jasvinder's cologne; it's tempting to curl sideways into his lap, so Newton tries, but Ken prevents him with a careful shove.

"Hey, what gives?" Newton asks, settling for leaning against Ken's shoulder instead. "You're gonna have to carry me back to the hotel, dude, especially if all this Apocalypse shit really does get real. I literally don't remember which way is up." What he'd like more than anything is for the two of them to leave, leave right now, maybe pick up some bottled water on the way back to their room, because, after the fucking and sleeping are over, he's pretty sure they'll be paying the price come morning.

Ken regards Newton with the same strain of uncertainty he's sensed in Ken's kisses of late, and it's safe to say, even as inebriated as he is, that Newton doesn't like it one bit. "She hangs all over you," he says. "Every chance she gets. Haven't you noticed?"

"Sure," Newton agrees, throwing an arm across Ken's waist. "Kind of hard not to. So?"

"So, she's cute," says Ken, offhandedly, except there's something more to his tone than that and it makes Newton's blood, buzzing and thrumming as it is, run cold.

"Jasvinder'll punch you if he hears you say that," Newton informs him. "For real."

Ken shifts Newton's arm off his belly. "You get weird when you're drunk."

"And you get honest," Newton says, righting himself with difficulty. "What's up?"

"Can we take a frank look at this situation? You're on PhD number what? Four?"

"Five," Newton corrects him, and fishes around on the floor for the tokkuri.

"Right, five," Ken sighs. "Listen, is this just a thing with you, collecting them because you can, or have you even thought about, I don't know, stopping and settling down?"

Newton blinks at him, drinking straight from the elegant decanter. "Well, not really. I have lots of interests within my field, and since I can work pretty damn fast, why should I stop? I am settled, aren't I? Boston's the place to be. I can just keep teaching at MIT when I finally decide I've crammed enough letters after my name; tenure's bound to come along sooner or later, and Biological Engineering seems to like you just fine, so I have no reason to believe they won't keep you, too—"

"I want more than tenure and a partner, Newt," says Ken, frustrated. "I want kids."

"Ah," Newton sighs, lowering his eyes so that Ken won't see the earth's just crumbled beneath him, and wearily pats Ken's knee. "I'm afraid I can't give you those."

"No more than I can give them to you," Ken says, "but we'd have options. The question is really whether you want them or not, and I'm sorry, I really am, but I do."

"I'm sorry," says Newton, closing his eyes before flood can follow, "but I'm not sure."

"You're a great guy," Ken says quietly, taking Newton by the shoulders, hugging him tight. "That was a jack-ass move, my pointing out Kenna's attempts to flirt with you. I know you're not into her, and I know Jasvinder would sooner drop out of the program than let her go. I hope she realizes that. I mean, Christ on a bike. Look at them."

And that's just the thing, he's hit the proverbial nail on the head: whatever their disagreements and indiscretions, Kenna and Jasvinder are the very picture of perfect-for-each-other, crazy-stupid in love. They'll settle down, buy a Beacon Hill condo, and have the cutest fucking offspring the departmental holiday party has ever seen.

"Are we gonna be cool after this?" Newton asks, wiping his eyes. "I just, ugh. Are we?"

Ken grins and gives him a squeeze. "Of course. Here's to doctorate number six, right?"

Newton's nodding mechanically, unable to think of anything except for his mother's well-intended, unfortunate attempt at consolation via email in the wake of Katia's departure: Don't stay with anyone who can't love you for what you are.

Not who you are, he reminds himself, heart hardening against the chill. What.

 

April 2013

It's one of those days when Hermann finds it necessary to recite a litany of facts just to make sense of the sheer surrealism of what's happened: he is back at home in England, he has successfully begun his second postdoctoral stint at Cambridge, he will turn twenty-four on the ninth of June, and his mother has been dead for four months.

He'd been fortunate in that Theo had accompanied him home for the funeral, but London had still seemed empty and forbidding. Bastien had been disconsolate, of course, and that had been the worst part: clinging to his youngest brother's hand until they'd both formed vicious, finger-shaped bruises. Karla had done her best not to hover; when at last she'd broken down, Dieterich had taken her back to his flat where Anan, newly with child, had made coffee and spoken to her in soothing tones (and, when she'd had no other choice, administered one of the sedatives Karla had been prescribed during the last stage of their mother's cancer and put her soundly to bed).

Hermann remembers sitting awake after hours with his father, Theo, and Dieterich, pushed past the point of exhaustion, but nonetheless vigilant in defense of Karla and Bastien (both wisely left in Anan's care). Lars, in his grief, had tilted cruel and ridiculous; he'd claimed a low opinion of his only daughter and of his youngest son, at least in that moment, what with their unseemly weakness.

Hermann also remembers rising with intent to strike his father when these repetitions had grown too dire; Theo, ever the dispassionate and consummate diplomat, had restrained him. They'd retired to bed after that and had made love in fierce, furious silence. Hermann remembers lying awake for hours, bitter in the absence of verbal comfort.

It's one of those days when Maria Gottlieb's ghost will permit neither work, nor rest. He cannot forgive himself for how frequent such days have been in the months since her passing. His email exchanges with a new-found colleague have offered relief; Doctor Geiszler's name had sounded familiar, a passing specter in trans-Atlantic news, so he hadn't hesitated to send an introduction and collaboration proposal back in February.

When Theo gets home, Hermann is deep into reading Newton's latest response, which is, as ever, packed with preposterous enthusiasm and disarming insight. And, to top it all off, there's his closing paragraph full of concern: You seem a bit off your game right now, Doctor Gottlieb, if it's not presumptuous of me to say so. Is everything all right?

He hadn't mentioned his mother's death, of course. It has no bearing on the matter at hand, is of no import to the paper they're writing, except for the fact that this not-quite-stranger an ocean away can sense grief radiating off him in waves.

"Is it your MIT wunderkind again?" asks Theo, hanging his jacket. "What's he on about this time—the improbability of your latest bang-on model?"

Hermann hears what Theo is saying, even intends to answer, but his thoughts have Geiszler's last paragraph stuck on repeat. That's what's improbable. Part of him wants to disregard the rest of the message and say, No—things are the very opposite of all right. The two siblings dearest to my heart are hurting worse than I am, and there's nothing I can do to comfort them. Worse yet, my partner is so bloody-minded in maintaining his stiff upper lip that I haven't felt human contact in either the slightest or most intimate of his gestures. No, things are not all right, and your voice on this screen is the warmest pocket in this void that has become my existence.

"Well, good evening to you, too," says Theo, tartly, and makes as if to leave, but Hermann rises and crosses the room to him then, desperately catching his sleeve.

"There's nothing left for me to give you," Hermann says plainly. "My dear, I've done wrong to let you stay as long as I have. My life is a shambles, and you should not be the one to tend it."

When Theo's shoulders sag in abject relief, Hermann isn't sure whether he ought to be reassured or affronted. "Don't say I didn't give it my best, though," he replies with calm hesitation. "Give you my best, Hermann. I did try."

"And for that, I cannot fault you," Hermann sighs, wearily running his free hand down his cheek, startled to find traces of dampness there. "I shan't expect you to leave immediately, of course. Take all the time you need."

"I wish you'd get help," says Theo, and bends to kiss Hermann—seemingly regretful, his lips dry—for the last time. "Or at least urge them to get help. You can't carry their sorrow forever."

"No," replies Hermann, making his way back to the desk and to the strange comfort of his colleague's email, "but I will carry it for as long as I can."

As Theo takes his jacket back down and departs for points unknown, Hermann sets fingers to keyboard, grounds himself, and begins to type: Dearest Newton, all is not well, but somehow you've cheered me. And though he deletes those very words mere seconds later and replaces them with Doctor Geiszler, you're a thorn in my side, albeit a useful one, he feels better for having admitted some sliver of truth.

 

March 2015

Newton has to remind himself every once in a while that, by most people's standards, he's a raging success: he's got six doctorates (so, yeah, Ken had proved prophetic), an MIT associate professorship that most scholars in his field would kill for, and he's also at the budding forefront of research on kaiju biology. The latter means a lot of weekend jaunts during term-time and month-long summer research trips to the places in which the precious few catalogued samples are being stored; he hasn't applied to the Jaeger Academy, not yet, but currently Hermann's letters from the midst of training are a huge argument in favor of taking that step. He has to remind himself that he isn't a failure because, well, he'd decided to try his hand at dating again roughly a year ago and . . . no, it just hasn't been happening. Or, rather, something is at present trying to happen, but he just isn't having it, and he can't (or won't) for the life of him figure out why.

Newton has been on four dates with Zach in the past six weeks. There is nothing wrong with Zach: he's got stunning good looks (being Greek will generally do that), he's intelligent (a composer studying at Berklee: Newton's mother, father, and uncle had wholeheartedly approved), and he's been the very model of sincere, engaged interest in Newton's academic pursuits (he doesn't seem to mind Newton's fascination with kaiju—or, for that matter, his swiftly expanding collection of upper-body tattoos).

His hesitation comes in where telling Hermann is concerned, and, by all rights, he shouldn't be hesitating, because he tells Hermann about pretty much everything else—right down to the progress on his tattoos, upon which Hermann comments by turns with disdain or with lurid fascination. In the letter right after the exchange of Polaroids involving those hot Russian Jaeger-pilots-in-training, Hermann may or may not have coined the term kaiju groupie, and Newton may or may not have squeaked a bit when he read that because it's the cutest shit ever.

Newton has to remind himself that he's a success on days like today, not least because he's failing his new-boyfriend hopeful so fucking hard it isn't funny. He's standing in front of his departmental mail slot with a fresh, unopened letter from Hermann in his hand, and the whole situation, previously a scattered, inscrutable jigsaw, is crashing down on his head even harder than a proverbial ton of bricks.

He tucks the letter into his inner coat pocket and takes out his phone, at which point he proceeds to stare at Zach's most recent text and chew on the inside of his cheek like the panicking mess that he is. Hey, gorgeous, it says. Redbones tonight, 7:00 PM, what do you think?

Newton's first thought is that, if he decides to go, he isn't eating the jerk sauce; his second thought, of course, is that he'd much rather be at home in his Harvard Square apartment, well out of the frigid weather, with Hermann's ridiculous ten-page (it feels that long) letter for company.

This is why, without hesitation, in a relentless run-on battery, he texts back: Listen, dude, I don't want you to take this the wrong way or anything, but—well, but. I've been having a great time with you, I don't want you to think I haven't; your music is awesome and you are awesome and, look, I know we've sucked face like once or twice, which is fine, but, actually, no, scratch that, it's not really fine. I'm not in any shape to cope with a serious relationship right now, and I don't want to lead you on. I led somebody on once—actually two somebodies, I think—without even realizing that's what I'd been doing. It wasn't fun. For anybody. This is as good a time as any to say I'm giving serious thought to leaving this sweet ivory-tower career for the PPDC (hell yeah, those propaganda posters), and that will mean my ass goes wherever they tell it to go. I don't wanna be your soldier headed for war. I want you to find some nice boy with that basso profundo you need for your score. I want my mom to have a part in your magnum opus someday. I want to be proud and remember you just like this, that weird awesome hot-as-fuck guy I once met, when I sit in the audience and listen. Hitting SEND is one of the hardest things he's done in a while, but needs must.

Newton doesn't have long to wait for Zach's response; it comes while he's tapping his foot over a tardy Red Line train. It says, I know about your boy in the war, Newt; I was waiting to see if you'd tell me. You've got to stop leaving those letters open on your desk. One was all I needed to see. Hey, hey, it's okay: we both fucked this one up. I came on too strong, and you've misplaced your backbone. Que sera, baby. It would've been fun. P.S., your mom is the shit; given half a chance, I'd cast her. If we all live through this, maybe it'll be as you say. Fondly, Z.

Newton boards the train in a daze; he gets off again two stops later and emerges from underground into gales of swirling white. His leather jacket isn't built for this, not even close, so the first thing he's going to say in his response to Hermann's letter is that he's never going to laugh at Hermann for his daft-looking parka ever again.

He's damp to the bone by the time he kicks off his boots and makes a cup of tea that's three-quarters whiskey and lemon. His fingers are still stiff with cold, which makes getting Hermann's letter open a freaking hilarious endeavor. He gets there in the end, and, sure enough, wow, it's twelve pages of Gottlieb gold. There are three more Polaroids, two of which appear to have been taken while Hermann had been scribbling at a dry-erase board unaware of the person wielding the camera (Sasha or Alexis: the world will never know). The third is a close-up of Hermann's face; he's smiling that rare, lop-sided smile of his, and—

And there is a phone number scrawled along the bottom of the photograph in Hermann's erratic handwriting, followed by the parenthetical (IN CASE). In case the world ends? Newton wonders, and it's then that he realizes he hasn't been breathing for several seconds and oh my God his hands are shaking. In case I never make it through the Academy and in case we never make it to that stupid conference two years from now, which, by the way, I will not let you back out of, dude, not on your life? In case of break-ups and snow and all other manner of inclement weather?

Newton drops the letter and photographs on his coffee table, dashes back to where he's hung his sopping coat, and fishes his phone out of the pocket. He strides back over to the table and reads the number off the photograph, memorizing a few more contours of Hermann's regrettably adorable face while he's at it (and, this time, he says it out loud, says it like he never had the nerve to say it to Ken, not even after they were together—"Fuck, why are you so adorable?") His phone rings once, twice, three times. Four. He should know better—

"Yes?" sighs a tired, posh-sounding British voice on the other end of the line. "Bastien, do you have any idea what time it is out here in the arse-end of beyond? We're still on duty. And, for the love of God, can you not keep track of your new mobile long enough to use it?"

"Yeah, actually," says Newton, grinning wide enough to split his face. "If I recall, you're four hours behind Boston, Doctor Gottlieb; ergo, it's two forty-two in the afternoon on Kodiak Island, and that must really suck. Do you get in trouble if they catch you on the phone?"

"Who is this?" asks Hermann, his tone suddenly mistrustful, and it makes Newton's heart clench a little just to hear it. "This must be some kind of joke. I shall be having a word with the United States Postal Service regarding the whereabouts—"

"Hermann, it's me," Newton says, trying to stay calm. "This is what I sound like."

"How many times," Hermann says, twitchily, "have I asked you not to call me by my first name, Newton?"

Oh, shit. Hermann calling him by his first name is even cuter than calling him kaiju groupie on paper. Maybe his next goal ought to be getting Hermann to call him that on the phone. Right. He has now got his number-one priority sorted.

"That's my name, don't wear it out. Hey, I'll meet you halfway: why don't we agree that the first-name basis is fine for private conversations. Deal?"

Hermann sighs, eternally put-upon, and it's exactly like Newton has always imagined.

"Very well," he says, maybe around the edge of a smile, and, for now, it's enough.

Chapter Text

The betta splendens is an accident, or at least that's what Newton is telling himself as he rushes to flag down a passing taxi without giving the brown paper parcel he's got cradled to his chest any undue sloshing. He hates that he's got the little guy wrapped up in the confusing, swift-moving dark; he absolutely detests

It's true he might be projecting; jerky motion's easier to take from underwater.

"You're lucky I have no practical way of drifting with you, dude," he tells the parcel; then, yanking the cab door open one-handed, he thanks the driver in his steadily improving Cantonese (no small thanks to Lu) and tells her where to go.

Man with a mission or not, Newton should have known better than to cut through the market on a day he's been tipped well; last time he'd done that, he'd come home with a set of four kaiju-themed beach towels (Trespasser, Knifehead, Onibaba, and hometown girl Reckoner: totally classic). Hermann had shouted for a while and then informed him, in no uncertain terms, that said linens were strictly forbidden from being used in public for actual sunbathing or similar, over his dead body. Newton is proud of himself for not having pointed out that Hermann has taken to regularly using the menaces of Anchorage and Tokyo on his damp, gorgeous person whilst insisting Newton can bloody well use the other two.

So, right: there's no way in hell he'd been planning on leaving that expat-Scot florist's stall without insisting that the lone Siamese fighting fish in its tiny, cramped plastic container would be coming home with him. He'd kept an aquarium steadily through childhood and into his early teens; he knows the onset of fin rot as well as he knows every other disease it's possible for freshwater tropical fish to contract, and he'd always taken it hard (in spite of his uncle's ribbing) in the few cases he hadn't proved clever enough or preventative enough to save one from succumbing to fungus, ick, dropsy, or whatever. He'd stopped to buy flowers for Hermann, because, hey, long past time to return the favor, but then he'd spotted the poor thing next to the till with a garish neon LAST ONE!! - $5 Post-It stuck to the top and damn if it hadn't just swum up to peer at him with somber, inquisitive eyes instead of flaring its gills.

"Aw, man," he'd said to it. "No way. Smart instead of violent. You okay, huh?"

The fish had promptly twisted its body and swiveled its eyes a second time, focusing on him from a different angle. It had yawned, then, and blown a single bubble. Newton had bitten his lip and pressed the tip of his right index finger against the side of the plastic container, flexing it slowly. That was always the real test with bettas; usually, they'd either flare or shy from contact or warily back away.

"Bit dopey, that one," the Scot had said, scratching his beard. "No fire in him."

The fish had swum closer, and it had followed Newton's finger when he'd moved it carefully along the surface of the water and then up, down, sideways in succession.

"If I find out you sell them to people who fight them for sport," Newton had said, letting his eyes flick up to the guy's face, "I'll get my roses somewhere else."

"Not my business, is it, what they do with 'em once they buy? Kids these days."

Newton had begun to nod rapidly, one-hundred percent convinced he was dealing with a douchebag, and removed the sign from the roughly punctured lid of the betta's container. "What kind of food have you been giving him? I'll take that, too."

The Scot had reached under the counter and brought out a small yellow canister. There were far worse brands than Aqueon; at least this stuff didn't have dye in it, and he didn't have to glance at the ingredients to remember the pellets were composed of grain meals, plus ground-up ocean denizens like salmon, herring, squid, krill, et cetera. You had to get over the morbidity of feeding your fish bits of other fish.

"While you put that and him into a bag," Newton had said, removing his wallet, "I'm gonna see how much small change I actually have in here. Great, it's four bucks or nothing. And if you turn that down, I'm gonna leave here with him anyway, because you clearly don't derive any enjoyment from having him around. Mmmkay?"

Four dollar-coins lighter and no roses later, he'd been on his way out of there with precious cargo, which brings him to now, sitting in the back seat of a taxi realizing he hasn't got a ten-gallon tank or gravel or interesting structures for a betta to hide in or anything. So he stumbles his way through trying to explain to the driver that there's been a change of plans. She's not taking him home; she's stopping off at the nearest PARKnSHOP or Wellcome, whichever comes first. PARKnSHOP it is.

Newton thanks happenstance that it's one of those rare Saturdays when Hermann's had to keep office hours until five, because it's four in the afternoon by the time he gets home with three plastic bags full of a tank, various aquarium paraphernalia, and (by now) one agitated, raggedy peacock-blue doubletail. He starts ticking through observations now that he's got the specimen in better light: male, yep; juvenile, yep, maybe two or three months old; dorsal fin clamped too close to the body (stress), tail and ventral fins showing the first brown-tinged signs of decay—

"Hey, hey," Newton tells the fish, setting its container gently on the counter, "we're okay," although the fish isn't really buying it, because he's actually flaring intermittently at—well, not so much at Newton as at the world in general. "I'd be mad, too, so don't sweat it. I'll get this scrubbed out and set you up some sweet new digs, as Uncle Tendo would say, although I'd better warn you about this stuff I'm gonna have to keep putting in the water for a week or two till you're better; it stings . . . "

The really cool thing is, after a while, the fish stops freaking out every time he moves or turns on the tap or sets down something on the counter that causes it to vibrate. It settles for actually hanging out on the side of the container nearest to Newton and the in-progress tank setup, swiveling its eyes with vague interest toward his movements.

"I've had fighters before, don't get me wrong," Newton tells the fish, testing the water temperature one last time and, wow, good thing he has some PPDC standard-issue pH test strips lying around. "But you're one awesome dude. What's your name?"

He picks up the container, because the tank's pretty much ready now, and he'd rather drain off some of the filthy old water before making the transition-dump as painless as he can. No floating thing for this boy, nope. He's matched the temperature to what's in the container to the best of his ability; as for the pH, gah, he's not going to think about the imbalance and hope the little guy's system knows it's going from dire to optimal. He studies the fish up close before draining off the old water in brief spurts; there's something about its wide-eyed, innocent, faintly absurd demeanor that reminds him of Hugh Laurie in, oh, that show, what's it called? Aha.

"You look more like a Bertram Wooster than a Reginald Jeeves to me," Newton remarks, and transfers the container over to the tank in one smooth movement. "I mean, okay, you might be more of a Jeeves where brains are concerned—" for this, he slips into his perpetually awful imitation of Hermann's posh diction "—but I'm sorry, you do look like a Bertie." He watches the fish wriggle free of its tipped container and gasp wildly before swimming toward the gravel-covered bottom of the tank, where it hunkers down, overwhelmed. "What do you think of that?"

"That you've gone bloody barking obnoxiously mad, Newton. If it could think."

Newton whirls around, so startled he knocks into the tank with his elbow and sends Bertie skittering to hide inside the fake-rock cave . . . thing that had been one of the least offensive functional-yet-decorative environment pieces available.

"I didn't hear you come in," he says stupidly. "And, hey, he can too think. After a fashion. Just as much as kaiju can think, anyway. Maybe more."

"Could think," Hermann corrects him, advancing on the tank with a dour, pinched expression that's not quite fury and not quite perplexity. "Let us thank any power listening that you haven't named it after one of them."

"Hermann, even I have enough sense to know that naming pets after kaiju is bad form. I'm sure plenty of people have done that, but I'm just not feelin' it. You must've watched Jeeves & Wooster on the BBC back when we were kids, too, right? Take one look at that face and tell me he doesn't look the part."

Hermann peers at Bertie, who's now emerged from his hiding place just enough to tilt suspicious goggle-eyes up at Hermann's suspicious goggle-eyes and holy shit the whole effect is suddenly so ludicrous that Newton's doubled over dying, using the edge of the work-top for support, gasping desperately for air. "He's got you nailed," Newton wheezes, dropping to the floor. "Whew!"

Much to Newton's surprise, Hermann abandons studying the betta and drops with the aid of his cane into an awkward crouch beside him. "I shan't feed it for you," he warns, his voice all forced venom, "and we are not, I repeat, we are not putting that tank in the bedroom." Hermann sighs heavily when the only reaction his words draw from Newton are ineffectually stifled huffs of laughter; he's trying rather hard not to give in to that wry, squashed smile he sports when he really can't be arsed to pretend his annoyance is anger. He leans forward and takes hold of Newton's shoulder, starting to lever them both back up to their feet. "Now, listen, I've had a frightfully long day, and I've just come home to find you setting up one of your God-forsaken experiments instead of making supper. Shall we go out, or shall we starve?"

"How about I make some white-cheddar Annie's, throw in some broccoli, and we pretend that's healthy?" asks Newton, and sags against Hermann. "I'm tired too, dude. Rescuing fish from the clutches of your northerly countrymen is taxing business. And by way of explaining myself on that front, do you have any idea what today is?"

"The day after our disastrous run-in with my father," says Hermann, acerbically, "and his last in this city for quite some time, if chance is merciful."

Newton sighs, rubbing his neck. "I meant more along the lines of calendar date."

"It's February the fourteenth, which means that yesterday was Friday the thirteenth and, therefore, according to sundry superstitious parties, a curiously appropriate occasion on which to have entertained such a calamitous person as—" Hermann stops short, his brain catching up with his mouth. "Oh. Newton, really."

"I kind of meant to get you some flowers, but then I saw Bertie and my errand turned into a rescue mission. Sorry, dude. I suck. Will mac and cheese make up for it?" When Hermann kisses like this—slow and soft, without teeth—it means agreement.

And if Bertie, from his new vantage point on the coffee table, has any opinions on college food and fuzzy bathrobes on the sofa while mostly-ignored episodes featuring his namesake play in the background—well, he keeps them to himself.

*

The last thing you expect after a cozy, late night in spent watching light British comedy and cooing over your new ridiculously inquisitive house-pet is to wake up gasping, drenched in sweat, with no idea why you could've sworn you'd been fleeing for your life down the wreckage of a dark, muddy alley just moments before—

You also don't expect to realize your partner's awakened at the same moment, or at least a heartbeat behind you, though there's strange comfort in the fact that clutching at the sheets, duvet, anything within reach swiftly becomes clinging to each other.

"I never knew," Hermann gasps, each word mouthed against Newton's shoulder a ragged caress, "it was such a near thing; Newton, she was starving and in pain and furious and it could have been you instead of that odious lunatic—"

"Oh, oh God, that's just great," Newton manages, threading his fingers desperately through Hermann's hair. "We're five days away from making this official, six if you count today, because, ha, it's five in the morning, and you're starting to have my nightmares. What a ringing fucking endorsement for matrimony."

Hermann presses an exasperated kiss against the side of Newton's neck, his breath and his heartbeat beginning to slow. "They're not all this, er, exciting. As it were."

Newton stills his fingers, pressing against Hermann's scalp. "Do you mean to tell me this has been going on for a while now and I've only just figured it out because this is the first time we've both woken up terrified? Were you even going to tell me?"

"I needed to be sure," says Hermann, his tone quiet and almost apologetic. "I wondered if they were just especially vivid re-creations of what I'd seen in the drift anyway, things you'd told me about—but I'm rather certain that's not the case." He props himself up and squints at Newton, his eyes adjusting to the darkness, and one precise hand comes up to cradle Newton's wrist. "Your night-terrors are quiet, Newton, by and large. You dream more of the distant past than of the recent past; you dream of the ones who jilted you, walked out on you, left without a trace. They weren't me, and it will never be me; I beg you—"

"It was you once," replies Newton. "But at least you kept writing after the fact."

When Hermann realizes what he's talking about, he covers his mouth and turns his head. "Newton, we've been through this. The timing was wrong, the setting—"

"We haven't been through it enough," Newton points out. "We've talked about every other sordid love affair and fuck-up between the two of us, but we never talk about the first time we fucked up together. You can't tell me I'm wrong. Saying that rivalries and lines down the middle of the room are behind us now like three or four months ago and then dropping the subject entirely doesn't count as dealing with our shit."

Hermann rubs his eyes, disentangles Newton's fingers from his hair, and kisses Newton's palms one after the other. "I do hate to remind you, but it's nearly zero five-thirty by this point, and we are tired. Please, Newton. Some other time."

Newton rolls them to one side and burrows against Hermann's chest, regretting more than ever that his painkiller-induced fantasy of hiding in there isn't viable. "Fine, but we're going to deal with it. One of these days, that'll be my nightmare: the Marriott Courtyard in Stockholm, June of good old twenty-seventeen."

"Please, please don't," Hermann implores, and so much for getting back to sleep.

They make love because speech hurts, dig into each another with fretful hands and forgiving lips. They're gasping, smothered in the covers and in darkness, and it's not like the other times they've ghost-drifted like this, no, the split second of lag-time between one orgasm and the next collapses; it's all sweat and heaving, sheets drenched now, and both of Newton's legs are hooked over Hermann's elbows and it's so breathtaking it nearly hurts to be inside each other's heads when . . .

They must have fallen asleep shortly thereafter, because the next thing Newton knows, the room is bright, and he's awake. Hermann is trying valiantly to flake the dried evidence of their early morning off both their bellies without waking him.

"Lost cause," Newton mumbles. "We'll have to strip the bed and wash everything."

Hermann sighs and kisses him. "Go and shower, darling. I'll take care of it."

"Nope, I have a better idea. Shower with me, and we'll do the bed later."

Afterward, Newton spends half an hour wrapped in Hermann's dressing gown and sifting through his neglected email while Hermann prepares the one breakfast food they know he can't mess up: porridge. There's a lot of useless spam from various MIT mailing-lists from which he's been far too lazy to unsubscribe; there's an insipid forward from Karla; there's even a belated Happy-New-Year missive from Kenna and Jasvinder that has a photo of their adorable five year-old twin girls attached.

And there is also a message from m.schwartz.mezzo@gmail.com that doesn't appear to be following on from any previous threads of conversation that Newton and his mother had been having. The attachment is a sound file, so he clicks on that first.

Hello, Doctor Geiszler, she writes, and, Jesus, the honorific isn't that funny now, because he's never felt less like a six-times-over doctor in his life. My agent thought it was high time I poked my head out of this lazy, retired life of coaching ingenues and at least recorded an album of art songs and lieder, because I suppose that's what one does when one is too old for the stage. Have a listen and tell me if it's awful, please? There's no honesty like yours. It takes Newton a few moments to place what he's hearing, but even with age, with loss of range and gaining of depth, his mother's voice is clear and haunting. Something about the words, about the harpsichord's unearthly softness, prevents him from reading on—

Bist du bei mir, geh ich mit Freuden
zum Sterben und zu meiner Ruh.
Ach, wie vergnügt wär so mein Ende,
es drückten deine schönen Hände
mir die getreuen Augen zu!

Hermann's also come to stand in the doorway, tea-towel in hand, his expression most likely as gobsmacked as it is because he's so rarely heard Newton voluntarily listen to classical music. Either that or because, Newton realizes suddenly, for all that he's known about this woman's profession for over a decade, he's never heard her sing.

"Cheerful," he mutters, but it's too late to hide the fact he's been moved. "From the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach, I believe?"

"Yep, but the attribution to Bach is spurious," Newton replies, shutting down the media player as his mother's aria comes to a close. "It's actually Stölzel—Diomedes, oder die triumphierende Unschuld—or at least stuffy opera scholars think so. The rest of the score has been lost."

Hermann comes to stand behind Newton's chair, rests his chin against the top of Newton's head even as his hand drifts up to brush Newton's left temple, the memory of a scar. There's weight in the gesture: Oh, how pleasant my end would be, if your fair hands would close my faithful eyes!

"Please come eat with me," he murmurs. "Let's worry about your mother's threats of a visit later; perhaps we ought to suggest going to her. I wonder how Vienna's keeping."

"New house rule," Newton sighs, rising so that Hermann can usher him out of the room. "No Bach or Bach-related addenda before breakfast."

*

"Thanks for taking him on such notice," says Tendo, handing the diaper bag and Daniel over to Newton with a look that's equal parts apology and relief. "Al's pissed we didn't get to go out on Saturday. You know how it goes."

"Yeah, I do," Newton agrees, grinning at Daniel, who's smiling in recognition and patting Newton's stubble with inquisitive hands. "I remembered, but then failed to bring home roses and cook something nice for dinner like I'd been planning because I bought a sick betta instead. But that's okay, because Hermann flat-out forgot."

"You brought home a goddamn fish on Valentine's Day, and Hermann didn't kick you out?" asks Tendo, disbelieving. "I'm not sure whether that's heartwarming or creepy."

"Creepy," Daniel says, sticking one fist partway in his mouth. "See fish?"

"That's right, Dan-my-man," Tendo tells the boy. "Uncle Newt's gonna take you to see that fish while I take your mom out for a day on the town. How's that sound?"

"Yes," says Daniel, and turns to bury his face against Newt's neck. "Bye."

"Godspeed," says Tendo, and salutes. "I'd better go while the getting's good."

Daniel spends the first ten minutes tearing from room to room on his chubby legs, shrieking with glee while Newton follows in hot pursuit, but he pauses in almost every doorway, abruptly quiet, and looks up at Newton with expectant eyes.

"It's Monday morning," Newton explains, swinging the boy back up in his arms. "That means Hermann's at work. It's just you and me."

"Fish," Daniel reminds him, patting Newton's shoulder expectantly. "Where?"

It takes a while to get across the notion that banging on the tank won't get you anywhere with Bertie except flared-at or hidden-from. Daniel eventually gets it and takes to standing stock-still with his forehead pressed against the front and his delicate fingers clutching at the side walls.

"About time, you brat," Newton tells Bertie when the fish finally pokes its head out of the cave. "Come see Dan, huh? He just wants to say hi." He pulls Daniel back from the tank, wiggles his index finger against the side, and the fish darts out instantly to follow Newton's movements.

Daniel gasps and covers his mouth with both hands, glancing up at Newton in awe.

"See his fins?" Newton explains, pointing, and Daniel giggles with the fish keeps twisting to follow Newton's fingertip. "They're starting to heal already. This jerk down at the market had him in a teensy cup full of bacteria-ridden water. Yuck."

"Uck," Daniel agrees, pushing Newton's finger aside, replacing it with his own.

"You're a star," Newton tells Bertie after he's put up with some poking and prodding, and then carries Daniel off to the kitchen to feed him.

When Tendo and Alison come to collect Daniel just after four in the afternoon, the boy is out like a light on the bed while Newton is busy responding to his mother's email. While Alison takes her time waking him up and asking him how his day was, Newton takes Tendo into the living room to meet Bertie. The encounter doesn't go well. "That's a lot of flaring," Tendo says grimly. "Little fella's looking for a fight."

"It's your bow-tie," Newton tells him, shrugging. "They tend to dislike bright red."

"How's he react to Hermann? I bet the inter-species pissing matches are epic."

"Hermann hasn't tried to interact with him, but he's quick to hide if it's not my footsteps approaching. He comes back out after a while, though."

"Newt, I hate to break it to you, but he's a goddamn fish, and you've only had him for three days. That's giving the critter way too much credit."

"Dude, okay," Newton snaps, "did you spend like ten years keeping and breeding these suckers? Oh, wait, no: that was me. Until you're ready to settle in for some serious, quality observation time, don't start with that shit. Yeah, some of them are smarter than others, and, yeah, not all of them have personalities as distinct as this one here. But I am not lying. He can already tell which vibrations through the water when somebody enters this room aren't me. It's pretty cool."

"Hey, honey, listen to him," says Alison, hovering in the doorway with both the diaper bag and Daniel packed up ready to go. "I had a couple of those betta-fish back when I was a kid. They know the person who feeds them, and that's usually the person who cares about keeping them entertained. They're smart enough that they can get depressed if you don't give them stuff to look at and explore."

"Thank you," Newton sighs. "Anyway, Bertie says your husband has awful taste."

Once they're gone, Newton settles down to some journal-reading to kill time until five, but the latest research is God-awful boring and his heart's not in it. He ends up in the kitchen doing advance prep on Thai sweet-and-sour bean curd (particular favorite of Hermann's), and he's in the process of getting the table set when Hermann walks in.

"This is for you," he says without preamble, proffering an A4-size envelope with HKU's crisp insignia in one corner. "I should prefer that you open it immediately, thereby sparing yourself the agony in which I've been waiting all bloody day."

Newton sets down his handfuls of silverware and rips open the packet, under no illusions whatsoever about what he's going to find inside. The cover letter states that the School of Biological Sciences has secured an endowment (the donor of which emphatically wishes to remain anonymous, and doesn't that just make Newton shiver with suspicion) for the express purpose of hiring new faculty. He keeps reading aloud until he hits the part about the fact that he's invited to come in for a chat on Wednesday to discuss such matters as contract, salary, and start-date.

"That's only two days from now. Do they assume I have nothing better to do?"

"Judging by my students' bodily adornments, I daresay the answer to that is yes."

Shaking his head, Newton sticks the letter and departmental welcome-flyers back inside the envelope and sets it on the table. "Don't flip out on me for saying this, but I'm having, no joke, actual second thoughts about this returning-to-academia thing."

Hermann sits down heavily in his usual chair and says, "I'm not sure I understand."

"I haven't published anything in a year, but you kept plugging away right up until, what, a month or so before we closed the Breach? That is insane, dude, insane and brilliant; I'm willing to say that now, so don't ever doubt I love you. I tried reading some articles today and got so bored that I, um, I kind of fell asleep. Maybe just a little bit. Do you think they'd let me devote time and lab-space to research on betta splendens intelligence? Because, let me tell you, when I'm not giving retrospective lectures on kaiju biology, that's the extent of my interests at present. That and seeing to it the people of this fine city don't walk out of Wei Sun with ink that blows."

Hermann's covering his eyes and gritting his teeth, which isn't a great sign.

"I thought we'd discussed this," he says, pained. "I thought you wanted—"

"Grad students who don't suck and cushy tenure, sure, I know I said that a few months back," Newton replies, pulling his chair up as close to Hermann's as he can get it. "It's just that—how do I explain this? I like my life here. I like my life here with you and Lu and Tendo and everybody else. I'm bringing in money, I'm keeping myself occupied, I'm keeping the goddamn house in order, can you imagine? I've been busting my ass in ground-breaking research since the age of fifteen. It took a bunch of fucking monsters and this weird patch of calm in the wake of a near-apocalypse to make me realize I need a goddamn break. I know that word isn't even in your vocabulary, so don't try to argue the point. I'm tired, Hermann. I didn't know how badly I needed to just chill out and be your live-in for a while. C'mon, say something. This is getting embarrassing. I'm not going to turn them down on-sight; I want to hear what they're offering. I miss teaching a lot of the time, I really do. Maybe if they'd be willing to leave out the usual publish-or-perish bullshit—"

Hermann kisses Newton hard, apparently to shut him up. It's kind of a dick move at a time like this, what with Newton trying to make sense of all this crap by talking it out, but it's better than Hermann shouting at him and scaring Bertie from several rooms away while he's at it, so Newton decides it's a minor victory. "Promise me you'll hear them out," Hermann murmurs. "For heaven's sake, let's eat."

Later, Newton can at least affirm he'd been right about the make-up sex, although he wonders if fucking after ink-sessions and arguments is the healthiest way to cope with the black hole they're orbiting—this poor, yet ominous facsimile of Sagittarius A* lurking at the heart of his dreams.

*

The next morning, Newton pretends to sleep through Hermann's departure; it takes all of his willpower not to turn and reach for Hermann when he kisses Newton's shoulder and adjusts the duvet over him. He lies there for a while and stares at the ceiling, ungracefully facing up to the fact that, dammit, he's having Hermann's dreams, too. He knows far more about Hermann's exes than he'd ever gotten from the drift. He knows how badly Lars had behaved when his wife had died, and he even knows about the Kaidanovskys teasing Hermann about Newton's letters while they'd been at the Academy. In short, he knows some stuff that he might've been happier not knowing.

Hannibal is hanging out with Lu at the Studio when Newton arrives around ten-thirty, which doesn't do much to improve his mood. He ignores them both, dumps his stuff next to his workstation, and pops on his headphones since nobody's waiting. He has a shipment of ink bottles to unbox and sort, a drawer of sterile needle packets to organize, and assholes by the names of Gábor and Theo to uselessly seethe over.

The stupid part is, they have discussed this. Several times, even. Hermann knows about Katia and Ken, and he knows about Zach even though he was hardly even a thing. They'd both slept with two people before getting to each other, fair enough; the thing is, though, that there's a certain level of detail you don't get from conversation because you're trying to protect each other from the worst of it, prevent each other from seeing past those closed doors. And now there's this, stupid fucking ghost-drift dream sharing where doors don't mean jack because doors don't exist.

As he tosses down an errant needle packet a little harder than necessary, somebody comes up behind him and yanks off his headphones. If it's Hannibal, he's seriously tempted to lash out with a shove, but, fortunately, he turns and Lu is standing there frowning at him with Newton's headphones dangling from her right hand. "Wanna talk about it, honey?" she asks, handing the headphones back to him.

"Not with your boyfriend here," Newton admits. "Not at all period, actually."

"C'mon, Doc," Hannibal prompts, rising from his seat against the wall. "Friday's the big day, so we can't have any of that. What's eatin' ya?"

They're both being sincere, at least insofar as Newton can discern, so he decides that telling a half-truth is better than telling an undiluted lie. He sucks in his breath. "I'm going in for an interview at the university tomorrow, and I'm not sure how I feel about that. I mean, it's less of an interview than a foregone conclusion; they just want to talk to me so we can hash out the terms of my contract, stuff like that."

Lu seems saddened by this announcement, but she schools her expression and throws her arms around Newton in an exuberant hug. While Newton's busy patting her back and muttering thanks, Hannibal removes his shades and gives Newton a stern look.

"Correct me if I'm wrong," he says carefully, "but isn't that what you wanted?"

"I think so," says Newton, hastily. "I thought so. The trouble is that I've had a lot of time to get used to making my own schedule and not having to worry about the department head breathing down my neck or worrying about how, um, out-there my research is. Not that this would be a problem now, I'm sure, not after—yeah. Maybe I'm just nervous. I'm gonna hear them out, I swear. I promised Hermann."

Lu finally steps away from him, and Hannibal sets his shades aside on the workstation, rubbing his forehead in frustration that's only a notch or two down from Hermann's the previous night at dinner. What has Newton done to deserve this?

"Nerves are normal," Lu insists. "I know you'll do fine, Newt. You've got it."

"Something tells me that's not the real issue here," says Hannibal, and gets all up in Newton's personal space just like the first time they met. Instead of whipping out the balisong, he lifts one index finger and touches the corner of Newton's left eye, prodding his temple short and sharp. "You didn't just drift with the baby," he says in a low voice. "Gottlieb got in there like a goddamn fool and did it with you. Don't look so shocked; I read the papers, and you're forgetting I've seen him recently. The bad shit's starting to roll around in there, isn't it? The stuff Jaeger Pilots are too polite to talk about in the press," he adds, poking Newton's temple a second time.

"I'm not gonna tell you every single thing I've seen, dude. I flat-out refuse."

"I'm not asking you to tell me; why the hell would I expect that? Jesus, no. I don't need to know, and I don't want to know. But you've gotta quit letting it get to you, kid, or you're gonna be in a world of pain two days from now. Take it from me."

"So you're my marriage counselor now? Did you get hitched to Reckoner when you tried to drift with her? Wow, buddy. I bet that was rough. Talk about a short honeymoo—"

Lu moves just fast enough to get between Newton and Hannibal, but not so fast that Hannibal doesn't have the chance to snag Newton's tie and yank him forward, yikes, his chest up against Lu's shoulder. Newton is gasping, sure he's about to panic, and if Wei were to walk in right now, oh my God he and Lu would be so fucking fired.

Hannibal lets go of Newton's tie when Lu starts screaming at him in Cantonese; it's too rapid and upset for Newton to get more than every few words, and he loses the thread of it completely when Hannibal shouts back: awkwardly accented, but apparently fluent. Newton sags shakily against the work-top and watches them go at it for a couple of minutes until Hannibal reaches past Newton's arm to whisk up his glasses and put them back where they belong. Lu is glaring at him, arms folded across her chest, and he's staring at the floor like he's just been shown who's boss. It's kind of amazing, but Newton tries his best not to let on that he's enjoying this.

Lu turns to him angrily and says, "It's too slow today. You better go home."

"You better listen to what I said," Hannibal says gruffly as Newton packs up his stuff, and Newton gets the weird feeling that he cares.

Hermann comes home that evening to find Newton on the sofa with a stack of journals as tall as he is wide on the cushion next to him; he crosses the room to touch Newton's wrist, lean down to catch his eye, and ask from which establishment Newton would prefer him to order take-away. Newton says he wants some kind, any kind of curry with prawns in it, because a heavy dose of omega-3s would do him good right now. Hermann eyes Bertie with a question in his glance; when all Bertie does is return the stare and wiggle expectantly (Newton hasn't yet administered his evening feeding), he shrugs and pulls out his phone. Pathia for Newton; vindaloo for him.

They retire early, full and drowsy; Hermann has been the picture of straightforward kindness, no dour remarks even in jest, and Newton isn't going to question the utility of having suffered distress that's easy to broadcast. Hermann holds him and murmurs into the dark, airs nonsense about students and colleagues, until Newton falls asleep.

Dreamless, they rise together when Hermann's alarm sounds; they have tea and toast for breakfast, linger too long in the shower, miss the bus, and end up having to call a taxi. Hermann leaves Newton sitting in the chair outside Professor Xiu's door in the Bio-Sci building with a slow, soothing kiss. You'll be fine, he whispers, and is gone.

The kicker is, Hermann and Lu are both right. Professor Xiu is a kindly, if no-nonsense fifty-something woman with stylish glasses and sleek, greying chin-length hair. She bubbles unexpectedly over Newton's accomplishments and asks him quite frankly what he needs from this appointment. Newton asks for a full teaching load and no pressure to publish; he will publish again, of course, as he and Hermann have a ton of stuff to write up, but he doesn't have the bandwidth for anything beyond that right now.

Professor Xiu nods sympathetically, which he hadn't been expecting, either, and it suddenly occurs to him that Hermann has probably been going around telling people what a delicate flower Newton is right now, only not in those words, playing the part of the worried-sick partner when he's really just the exasperated-sick partner. Well played, Geliebter, he thinks, in case Hermann's getting this wavelength.

Professor Xiu says it makes no sense to have him start until the next new-staff induction session in mid-March, so, yay, that's settled. Newton's got maybe three more weeks of freedom before sleeping in becomes a thing of the past. Not-so-yay. Newton texts Hermann, Karla, and his mother with the news before boarding the bus that will take him home. He puts his headphones on, eager to drown out his surroundings with some Hirasawa. He ought to tell Lu, but that's best done in person; likewise, his father and his uncle really don't do the texting thing, so he'll call them.

Herzlichen Glückwunsch, mein Schatz, his mother replies. He flinches, because that's pure saccharine, and he's not five years old. Thanks, Mom, he writes back. OMG, look at my hotshot brother-in-law! Karla says, and it's the first time Newton's seen her use an abbreviation, so it makes him laugh. Newton replies with a single emendation—You mean rock star ;)—and she comes back with Was auch immer.

Hermann's response doesn't arrive until Newton's back at home with his feet up on the coffee table while he plows through some more reading. He wiggles his toes every once in a while to keep Bertie entertained, and it kind of breaks his heart in the best way possible, how quickly the little guy has imprinted on him. Don't say yes on my account, Hermann writes. I won't have you miserable.

Are you kidding? Newton replies. I'm looking forward to bugging you between lectures and seminars, so guess who's gonna be miserable?

*

"So I understand celebration's in order?" says Herc, clapping Newton on the shoulder as he wheels a chair up to sit between him and Tendo at the console. He sets down a six-pack of Blue Girl and a six-pack of, whoa, how is that possible? Newton hasn't seen Magic Hat #9 since the send-off his MIT colleagues had given him when he'd left for the Jaeger Academy in two thousand and sixteen. "Back to a life of academic crime, mate?"

Max trots over from where a couple of the junior techs have been idly playing fetch with him to put his paws up on Newton's knees, panting amicably. Newton scratches behind his ears and gives his stubby body a thorough rubbing down.

"Possibly more literal than you'd think, sir," Tendo teases, popping the caps off two bottles of Magic Hat and handing one of them to Newt. "Newt here tells me the grant donor's anonymous, so that could mean damn near anything."

You can think it, Newton broods, but, for God's sake, don't say it.

"Technically, it's an endowment," he says instead, clinking his bottle against Tendo's before taking a sip. "That's more for long-term maintenance than most grants. It'll pay my salary and probably even someone else's in perpetuity."

"Aw, whatever," Tendo sighs, slinging an arm across Newton's shoulders. "Does this mean you're gonna have to run your tattoo racket from home? Hermann won't be too happy about that."

"I don't think Lu would turn you out if you needed the space," says Herc, hauling Max up into his lap. He cracks a cap off one of the bottles of Blue Girl and lets Max lick it before it clatters from his fingers to the floor. "Have you thought about still doing weekends?"

"Saturdays and Sundays will be days off for me and Hermann both," says Newton, doubtfully. "Even then, Hermann keeps office hours at least one Saturday per month. I'm not keen on the idea of spending that much of our only spare time together at the Studio. Maybe Lu will let me work the Saturdays that Hermann's got office hours, but, seriously, what if I have to keep Saturday office hours once in a while?"

"Better not let it interfere with babysitting, either," Tendo tells him with a wink. "Al's so thrilled to have you guys around I can't even begin to say."

"I hate to break it to you, but I think Herc's gonna have to pick up the slack."

"Dan loves Max," says Herc, soberly, "and I love the little blighter like my own."

"Looks like everybody's set, then," Tendo says, and Newton can tell from the way he's squinting that this conversation's actually getting to him. "All I've gotta do is make sure this screen stays quiet till the last of the money runs out."

Newton casts him a sidelong glance. "Any word on that? How long?"

"You didn't hear this from me," says Herc, lowering his voice, "but they're all over apologies and scrambling like mad to keep the dregs of us stuck in here happy. A year or two at least. Don't let Choi fool you; our bank accounts aren't too shabby."

"So you can afford to pay somebody or somebodies in order to get away for an hour or so tomorrow, right? If you guys don't show up, the only other person who I know's going to be there for sure is Lu. She might be bringing—ah, her plus-one, but we'd risk being short a witness or two."

Tendo chokes on his beer, and Herc shoos Max out of his lap in order to reach over and thump him on the back. It's then that Newton realizes Herc has actually had more exposure to Hannibal than Tendo has, which is a really bizarre thought.

"Two o'clock sharp, yup!" Tendo coughs. "We'll be there with bells on, brother."

"You won't be short on witnesses," Herc insists. "We'll personally see to that."

"Just, look, no corny gifts or anything, okay? You've already been kind enough."

"How are those teacups holding up to Hermann's heavy-handed saucer slamming?"

"Do you know, I've dropped each one of them several times and none of them have shattered? Hermann's the least of their worries."

"Don't make 'em like they used to," Tendo insists. "Nineteen-fifties manufacture."

"Hermann took the French press to work," Newton tells Herc, who's been pretending like he's not bursting to ask how Stacker's bequest is faring, "so I don't get to use it anymore. But that's okay, because he drinks more coffee than I do. I think he has a couple of students who work for Starbucks and bring him their weekly mark-outs."

"Ones who actually like him?" Tendo asks, only half joking. "What are the odds?"

Newton hangs around drinking with Tendo and Herc until well past five; he supposes it's a testament to just how happy the Powers That Be want to keep the last of the Shatterdome crew that they can even do such a thing on duty. Tendo's too buzzed to drive, so Newton waits out in the rain with a borrowed umbrella until his taxi comes. Sry, he texts Hermann. My cad. I mean bad. Leaving shatter dome, home soon.

Newton, if you're drunk, so help me, Hermann texts back, I will not kiss you.

Then get drunk so we'll both be drunk because you have no problem doing it then, Newton texts back, and gets in the taxi.

Dialing his father and uncle en route might not have been the brightest idea he'd ever gotten, but he conveys the HKU job news to both of them (one listening on the upstairs phone and one listening on the basement phone, sharing the old-school land line) without sounding like he's so far gone it's shameful. They both ask after Hermann and seem kind of disappointed that he can't come to the phone; it's a mind-boggling form of entertainment, but they like making him switch back and forth between German and his British accent. And, God knows why, Hermann tolerates it.

Newton only has a pair of ten-dollar notes in his wallet, so he shoves them at the driver, tells him to keep the change, and wobbles out of the taxi up to his doorstep. The rush he's got going isn't so bad he's going to have a hangover, but everything's fuzzy at the edges, too fluid, and it's a wonder he gets his key to turn in the lock on his first try. He kicks out of his unlaced boots and drops his coat, keys, and umbrella on the floor; he's caught a chill now, shivering, and just wants tea and Hermann on the sofa as soon as possible.

He stops dead in the hall when he hears Hermann's voice, crisp and distinct: "Rude!"

Newton's first thought is that there's no way in hell Hermann is talking to him, because he would have marched straight up to the front door in order to get in Newton's face. So, his next muddled thought is that he's watching television and talking to one of the characters, but that's not right, either, because Hermann only watches television when Newton forces him. Ergo, the only option left—

"Oh, no way," Newton whispers, and tiptoes as cautiously as his compromised balance will permit. Hermann's still talking, and, for a one-sided conversation, it's detailed. "Well, it is rude, isn't it? I've popped along to say hello, what when your daddy's off doing his best impression of a delinquent, and the best you can offer is a display of aggression? Cheap, Bertie. Very cheap. If I didn't know any better—"

"If I didn't know any better," says Newton, "I'd say you're talking to my fish with the same level of seriousness you reserve for Daniel."

Hermann straightens indignantly, eyes darting between the tank and Newton's face. Bertie stops mid-flare and twists to observe Newton's unsteady approach, at which point he does the cute wiggle-dance that translates to feed me feed me.

"Dude, I don't know," Newton tells Bertie, fetching his food out of the coffee-table drawer. "I think Hermann should feed you. That way, you'll know there's no call for being standoffish. Hey, hey, stop that. Rude. We don't flare at family, got it? Sweet," Newton says, handing the canister to Hermann. "You're busted, so you might as well."

Hermann sighs and flips up the top of the tank. He pinches in far too many pellets, but Bertie interprets this as having won the lottery, gulps down the cluster directly above him, and then proceeds to chase down the others being blown about by the current.

"That wasn't bad," Newton says, swaying a little. "He's kind of all right, isn't he?"

Hermann screws the canister shut, slams it on the table, and pulls Newton in by the wrists. It's then that Newton notices the whiskey bottle and tumbler on the floor. "You idiot," he sighs, tugging Newton against him. "Of course he is. For a fish."

*

Newton plucks fretfully at his hair, which is setting all wrong; he'd have used the dryer, but Hermann's been too long in the shower and doesn't like shit being plugged in and used while he's at it. So Newton had just run some wet-and-dry wax through and hoped for the best, but, just his luck, nope. It's a lost cause, and his suit looks terrible; after the memorial service, he can't help but think it's a funerals and conferences affair.

"What in God's name are you wearing?" Hermann demands, wandering in with the Knifehead towel draped across his shoulders. He uses one corner to mop at his still-dripping hair, which has grown in to the point where Newton's been able to keep on him about maintaining a properly stylish outdated haircut. Hermann's sort of rocking his recently acquired 1920s-inspired thing, although Newton has to fuss with it every so often.

"Um, a suit," Newton replies, tugging unhappily at his lapels. "Isn't that what you wear when you've got to be all adult and official and shit?"

"I understand that this is meant to be as low-key an affair as possible; as such, I shall dress no differently than normal, and neither should you."

"Oh, man," Newton says, shedding his jacket faster than Hermann can tug it off, "I knew there was a reason I thought this was an excellent idea."

It's only eleven o'clock, and they have a few hours to burn. Newton gets undressed, and Hermann doesn't bother to dress; twelve-thirty as a point of no return for stumbling back out of bed is an ultimatum to which they can both easily agree, although anything that would necessitate another round of showering is off limits. Newton can't remember the last time he just wanted Hermann to touch him this badly, and keeping Hermann's hands out of Newton's hair while he's sucking him is an arduous task.

One o'clock hits and they're mostly clothed, so Hermann orders a taxi while Newton swears at the cuffs of his jeans and tries to get his boot-laces to cooperate. He's not nervous about anything except the tiny tissue-wrapped packet in Hermann's waistcoat pocket, so he finds every excuse to reach under Hermann's jacket and pat that spot during the ride. Hermann finally hisses at him to lay the hell off, they won't get lost.

Tendo and Alison are already waiting in the lobby, dressed up to the absolute nines. For a moment, Newton thinks Hermann's expression means he's second-guessing his wardrobe pronouncement, but Tendo catches sight of the PPDC badges clipped to their belt-loops and plucks his own out of his pocket with pride. Alison gives in to Daniel's badgering and lets him down so that he can toddle straight into Newton's arms.

"Hey," Newton says, hitching him up on one hip and pointing to Hermann. "Do you remember this guy? He wasn't home last time you came around."

Daniel nods, although when Hermann reaches for him, he proves shy, so Newton just holds onto him and follows Hermann over to Tendo's side.

"Where's Herc?" he asks, grabbing Hermann's wrist so he can check his watch. "Running behind? Don't tell me you guys kept drinking after I left."

"He should be here any minute," says Tendo, evasively. "Are you guys feeling all right?"

"Very well, thank you," Hermann answers for both of them, and Newton's more than slightly grateful, because Daniel's fussing with his tie and he's feeling the first stabs of panic because Lu isn't there. "Good times had by all, no harm done."

Just then, the doors open behind them and there's a confusion of voices, more voices than there should be, which makes Hermann freeze and Newton swing around so fast that Daniel hiccups a startled shriek of glee.

"Oh my goodness," Lu exclaims, cutting through what's a veritable small crowd so that she can rush up to Newton and brush Daniel's cheek. "What a cutie!" She and Tendo exchange pleasantries in Cantonese (it takes Newton a moment to remember that they have met once or twice before); meanwhile, Alison takes Daniel back because there are four more strangers present, and Newton can't calm him.

"I found these rascals down at the airport," Herc explains, although there's no reason for him to introduce Raleigh and Mako, because everyone knows them, and they've got Hermann in a hug between them that's so tight he looks like he might well suffocate. "I couldn't just leave them."

There's a young man standing behind Herc whose gaze, up until that point, had been fixed on a distracted Hermann. When Newton meets his eyes, they're hazel; he's seen eyes like those, knows them, but they were never so hesitant, never so kind.

"You're Doctor Geiszler, aren't you?" he asks in German. "Karla's told me everything."

"Yes," Newton replies, revelation dawning; it's all he can do to keep from yanking Hermann over by the elbow that instant. "But you can call me Newt. Most of my friends do. Newton's also fine. That's what your brother calls me; I don't mind."

Hermann hears them speaking German, which had been, Newton is sure, the younger Gottlieb's intention. He lets go of Mako so fast that Newton thinks she might topple over, so he's quick to take over Ranger-hugging duty even as Hermann whirls to fold Bastien in his arms with that rare, shocking depth of affection that Gábor had once mocked and that Newton will never, ever take for granted as long as they both live.

"Herc said Hermann would be happy to see him," says Mako, voice soft and pleased. "I'd be happy to see my brother, too," says Raleigh, and Newton's surprised to hear no bitterness in the words as they shake hands in greeting. "How have you been?"

Newton glances over his shoulder at Lu, who's got Daniel in her arms and keeps glancing out the glass panes in the doors, because, damn, there's a shady-looking car out there with the window rolled down and one of Hannibal's arms dangling out. Hermann and Bastien are speaking English to each other now, and he can't help but notice that Bastien's every bit the perfect Eton schoolboy, but without the antiquated vocabulary.

"Fine," says Newton, overwhelmed, using the handshake to pull Raleigh into a hug. "Just fine."

The ceremony, if you can even call it that, is anticlimactic except for Lu sniffling loudly into Newton's handkerchief, which Hermann has let her borrow for the occasion, and Newton dropping the plain platinum band that matches the one Hermann's just slid onto his finger to sit flush against the diamond-studded one already there. You had one job, he tells himself, red-faced, and chases after the bouncing glint of white metal.

Fortunately, Hermann's laughing almost as hard as Tendo, and they're both laughing when at last they kiss; the cheers and applause are deafening.

Getting everybody shipped off to the house for an impromptu reception is easy (having two PPDC vehicles to hand, commandeered expressly for the purpose), but Lu insists that Newton and Hermann hang back and ride with her. Once the others have gone, she leads them outside to Hannibal's car and gives his knuckle a sharp flick. He leans out the window and studies them, the line of his mouth grave.

"You've got yourself a real troublemaker there," he says, looking straight at Hermann. "I'd keep a closer eye on him if I were you."

Hermann clears his throat and folds Newton's arm tighter over his own; where Newton had been expecting hatred, there's a smile that he can identify as conspiratorial. "Were I you," he says, "I'd look into pursuing further philanthropic ventures."

"This is weird," Newton says, appealing to Lu for support. "This is really weird, right?"

"It's okay," she says, and gives Hannibal a stern look. "Did you bring it?" she asks, and then turns back to Newton. "From both of us," she explains.

Hannibal sighs, thrusting something fabric-wrapped in Newton's direction. "You have no idea what a pain in the ass that was to get back."

Newton pulls his arm free of Hermann's and uses both hands to unravel the dark blue cambric; the forearm-length spike is burnt, dusty charcoal-blue, polished to a high shine, and covered in some of the most intricate scrimshaw that he's ever seen.

"Someone paid a fortune for the baby's milk teeth," Hannibal sighs. "Luckily, that schmuck owed me a favor, so I got one back. Lu did the rest."

"It's all of them," Lu explains, starting at the conical incisor's widest point. "All of the ones you're wearing, the ones you fought. They tell stories, your stories, and look, the Jaegers are here, too. Gipsy Danger, Cherno Alpha, Striker Eureka, Crimson Typhoon—"

"I can't deal with this right now," Newton says, re-wrapping the relic, and as Hermann takes it off his hands and tucks it inside his jacket, it's no huge leap to find himself hanging on Lu's shoulder and shaking with what he really, really hopes aren't tears.

"Need a lift home, fellas?" he hears Hannibal say to Hermann, who gratefully accepts.

"Yeah," he agrees, grinning helplessly, and lets Lu help him into the back of the car.

Chapter Text

2016

Newton's flight arrangements from Boston to Anchorage include a layover in Minneapolis. This wouldn't suck nearly so much if it would, say, permit him enough time to cram in lunch with Kenna and Jasvinder, who had relocated to Minnesota after finishing their graduate work at MIT.

He spends the measly forty-five minutes waiting at his gate for boarding to be announced; once the steward scans his e-ticket, he jams in his earbuds, walks down the jetway, and finds his seat in economy class because, let's face it, he's just left secure academic employment for a twenty-four week training program that might not even get him in the PPDC's good graces enough to give him a shot at working with a) all the kaiju samples he can shake a stick at, and b) Hermann Gottlieb in the flesh.

There's the January conference in Stockholm into which they've both been booked as presenters since March of last year, of course, but his cheeks heat and his palms get slightly damp if he thinks too hard about that. So he mostly doesn't.

Newton buckles his seatbelt, ignores the captain's announcement in preparation for take-off, and pries his phone out of his back pocket. Really on my way now, he types, and also really glad I'm not doing the January through June session like you did.

You'll hit winter out the opposite end, is all, Hermann texts back. If I'm not mistaken, Section B runs July through December. I hope you've taken the precaution of a coat capable of shielding you from subarctic temperatures.

You Section A snots are just jealous that we get Kodiak Island at its sunny finest, Newton replies, smirking. They seem to be telling me I should turn off my phone or put it in airplane mode. What do you think?

I never do, Hermann writes back just as the plane lifts off and the bottom falls out of Newton's stomach. Just don't let them catch you.

Meh, that'll be irrelevant as soon as we hit cruising altitude, Newton tells him. I'm gonna be bored stiff unless you talk me through this, man. You didn't respond to any of the messages I sent you on the BOS to MSP leg of the trip.

That's because I was in a meeting, Newton. Assuming you emerge from the Academy in one piece and subsequently find yourself installed within a PPDC laboratory, I think you'll find that occurrences of such are quite common.

Newton tries valiantly to ignore his nausea, and shutting the window helps a little bit. He's never been great when it comes to flying, but from childhood to adulthood he's seen improvement. If there's significant lag-time between replies, he types, it's because I'm puking my guts out.

Charming, Hermann responds, and it's all Newton can do not to imagine it spoken in that voice he'd heard all too briefly over the phone exactly sixteen months ago. He'd attempted to call Hermann a number of times since, to the tune of once or twice a month, but it had always gone to voicemail and resulted in him leaving rambling messages that Hermann, to his credit, always answers with either thoughtful emails or why-did-you-feel-the-need-to-tell-me-that texts. No photographs, please. It's a lovely day here in Los Angeles, and I should hate to see it ruined.

Sure, spoil my fun, Newton replies, and gets out his Dramamine just in case.

After two hours of idly chatting with Hermann, he manages to fall asleep for several more hours. When he wakes, the plane is in its final descent, and he's got nine messages, which have a distinct air of concern about them. Landing, he replies, rubbing his eyes. Sorry, conked out.

As I was saying, there will be someone waiting at the airport to collect you and any other new arrivals, Hermann informs him. You will be driven to Seward and, from there, ferried to the Island. Let us hope you don't suffer seasickness as well.

Newton knows he's one of the stragglers, as the keenest new recruits had flown in the day before, July first, at least according to their blogs and Twitter feeds. It's pretty easy to stalk down the rest of your Jaeger Academy class on the internet with a list of names that's not supposed to be in your possession. Newton's latest estimate is that it's going to be him and maybe four or five others taking advantage of the two-day arrival window.

As it turns out, it's him and only one other guy, and that guy dresses like he's stepped right off The Chap's cover—or maybe off the front page of its less reputable wannabe cousin-publication that doesn't have a problem with sketchy tattoos and Elvis hair. The look's part bad-boy, part debonair, and Newton kind of loves it. "Name's Choi," says the guy, keen to break the awkward silence that's fallen as they follow their handler outside to the car that's waiting, "Tendo Choi, up from San Fran. Sweet ink on your right arm there, brother—is that Kaiceph?"

"Yeah," says Newton, surprised; he feels himself blush. "You have a good eye. Still waiting on a candidate for my other arm. I like your, um, your ink, too, I mean," he stumbles, vaguely indicating the spot on his own neck that mirrors whatever's written on Choi's (he can't read it from this angle, and he's already too flustered to keep staring). "I'm Newton Geiszler," he says, and then regrets it, because there it is, that spark of oh-shit-he's-that-guy recognition in Choi's eyes. "You can call me Newt."

"You left MIT to haul out here with a bunch of jocks and posers?" asks Choi, and slides into the back seat of the Jeep beside him. "I'm flattered, but I'm not sure the rest of 'em will be. I've heard stories about what happened when Doctor Gottlieb went through. Good thing LA Division loves him."

I've heard those stories, too, Newton thinks, and doesn't say a word to Choi for the rest of the ride. If you're gonna be one of those assholes short-sheeting my bed and raiding the lab and tipping over my coffee, count me out.

That evening, after Induction and a grand tour of the premises, he's given the key to his dormitory and shown where the mail slots are. Hermann's name is long gone; for all Newton knows, the label tacked beneath his own, GEISZLER, covers adhesive residue from what was once Hermann's. He shouldn't be this shocked to find there's already a letter waiting for him.

Dear Newton, the missive begins; it sends a shiver down Newton's spine, as neither one of them has ever opened correspondence with the D-word before. Welcome to the most grueling six months of your life. Fortunately, you are not alone.

He reads the letter three times before lights-out, and his roommate, Genji Shizuka, who had simply seemed thrilled that Newton didn't want to lay claim to the top bunk, peers at him curiously on his way up the ladder.

"Got a girlfriend at home?" asks Genji, with unquantifiable wistfulness in his tone.

"Nah," says Newton. "Just this cranky Brit in California who's kind of my friend."

Hermann isn't lying: the first eight-week trimester kicks his butt. He isn't used to getting up that early, he hasn't been required to blunder through such rigorous physical activity since his short-lived sojourn in junior high, and Marshall Pentecost's weekly hops over from Anchorage to glare them all into shape are humiliating. Hermann's letters, emails, and rare texts (for fear of getting Newton in trouble with his commanding officers; he's been busted several times for having his phone on his person during training hours as it is) are the only things getting him through it.

Genji is shy, kind, and a model roommate. He spends lots of time hanging around with Choi because they're both training to be J-Techs, so Newton gradually gets to know Tendo and safely concludes by the start of the second trimester that he's an all-around decent guy (even if his hair is sort of weird) and a really fine piece of ass. What complicates matters is that Genji seems to think Newton is a really fine piece of ass, a fact of which Newton might have remained ignorant if Tendo hadn't told him over beers one Saturday night in the sorry local excuse for a bar. Bewildered, he texts Hermann with this revelation and gets only Newton, are you drunk? in response.

Newton returns to find his lab-space trashed and swears he'll never speak to Tendo again. This resolution only lasts two weeks, because that's how long it takes Genji, Tendo, Whisper, and Miranda to track down the jerk-off future Jaeger pilots responsible for the damage and royally fuck with their simulator scores, because, wow, they can totally do that. From then on, people leave him alone because they know that the future J-Tech cabal has his back, and, hey, who in their right mind wants to admit to Pentecost they can't even kill fake kaiju?

Hermann's letters to Newton grow longer, more frequent, and startlingly fond. Newton is sure they've got the fine art of flirting-through-insults down pat, although he remains doubtful as to whether Hermann even knows he's flirting. Prior to the text he'd sent Hermann about Genji, they've never mentioned significant others to each other. Newton isn't even sure Hermann dates anything except for complex equations.

At the start of the third trimester, Pentecost takes a personal interest in Newton's research, which is excellent and terrifying and just the kind of opportunity Newton has been waiting for. He throws caution to the wind and files a request for samples more significant than just vials of near-useless, degraded K-Blue and pathetically preserved epithelial scrapings. He's promised Pentecost the sun, moon, and stars, and the Marshall must believe him, because, sure enough, he gets a well-preserved section of lung from Karloff and some of Onibaba's intestinal tract.

Hermann is twenty shades of horrified and jealous, and it's nothing short of priceless. If you do yourself any lasting damage, so help me, he writes, I shan't write to Pentecost in your defense. Rather, I shall question his judgment in having given you toys you're not of an age to play with.

I love you, too, Newton texts back later that night, exhausted and overwhelmed by the need to hit Hermann with all the sarcasm he can muster.

Hermann doesn't respond, and Genji doesn't say much, because it just so happens he'd walked past Newton's desk as he'd been hitting SEND. He feels kind of bad for not clarifying, but the Academy's no place to get involved with someone (not even Tendo, and, anyway, Newton had walked in on him and Miranda in the communal showers a few weeks back, which had been super awkward). If everyone thinks he's got a long-distance relationship, so much the better. Sleep tight, he texts twenty minutes later, still to no effect, and turns out the lights. He dreams of Hermann's voice and the Polaroids he keeps tucked in the back of his lab book and wakes up shaking, sticky, and confused.

With only six weeks left, the obvious solution is more hours spent in the lab and fewer hours spent writing to Hermann. He figures out how the fuckers breathe underwater and that they have actual digestive function. Pentecost is so impressed that he keeps the samples coming, and Newton starts writing up his findings. It's nothing to the weekend trips and sparse access he'd been putting up with for the two years previous; it's actual progress, and he knows beyond the shadow of a doubt that he's made himself indispensable. He'll secure a Shatterdome placement somewhere.

The night before Commencement, overcome with guilt at how plaintive Hermann's letters have grown (and furious with himself at having become so withdrawn), he dials Hermann's number while Genji is out drinking with Tendo and the rest of the J-Tech crew. After the fifth ring, Newton expects it to go straight to voicemail, so he takes a deep breath and gets ready to launch into a monologue on the subject of how fucking freezing it's been and how awesome his day's findings are when

"Newton, it's past midnight," Hermann hisses, and even though it's only the second time he's heard Hermann's voice, Newton is so happy he thinks he might burst. "Where are you? Has something happened?"

"Nah," Newton says. "Everyone else is out drinking—I mean, tomorrow's the big day and all. We're out of here. Those of us who passed muster, anyway. I had some stuff to write up while it was fresh, you know how it goes, so I opted for a quiet night."

"Thereby depriving me of mine," Hermann sighs. "But I read your latest publication with interest, and therefore wouldn't mind hearing a preview of what's to come."

Newton spends an hour explaining the implications of what he'd found in the process of dissecting a segment of Reckoner's optic nerve, or at least trying to; he can hear Hermann's pencil scratching frantically across paper on the other end of the line, and the hushed staccato is punctuated only by Hermann's frequent, tetchy interruptions. By the end of it, there's a joint publication in the making. It will be their second.

"We'd better be careful," Newton jokes, too tired to think about what's coming out of his mouth. "People might think we're in—"

"Today is December twentieth," Hermann cuts in, and if he's tired, damn, he's not letting it show. "Stockholm is less than a month from now. I fear we'd never get a last-minute joint presentation past them."

"That's okay," Newton sighs, flopping back on his scratchy pillow. "I'm sure your paper on the first full day is gonna kick ass, and then I'm presenting on the second day, and you're presenting again on the third and final—"

"Regarding the terms of our meeting, I'd like to ask a favor," says Hermann, and there's something simultaneously sharp and hesitant in his tone that makes Newton pay attention. "My first panel is, to the best of my knowledge, of little interest to you. If it's all the same, I'd prefer you gave it a miss. We can rendezvous for dinner afterward; pleasure before business is how these things are normally done, isn't it?"

Dinner with Hermann Gottlieb, freaking finally. Newton's clarity floats back out the window, and he says, "Sure. Yes. Great. Whatever you want, dude. Terms accepted."

"I'll come to your presentation. And the content of my second paper isn't something you'll want to miss. Our earliest email exchanges were crucial to its inception."

"You're citing shit I said in correspondence? How romantic," Newton teases.

"Newton, you are tired, tiresome, and high on toxic fumes. Go to bed."

"Yeah, whatever," Newton mumbles, but there might be something to what Hermann is saying, because his eyelids are heavy and his pillow seems much more comfortable now. He doesn't bother to hang up. In the morning, when he wakes, he discovers that, according to the call log, Hermann must have stayed on the line for a good fifteen or twenty minutes after he had drifted off.

This is what he thinks about as he crosses the stage, what he clings to as Pentecost declares him a K-Science Officer and shakes his hand.

 

2017

Stockholm in the middle of January is far, far worse than Kodiak Island in late December. The entire city glistens with a crisp, clear, frozen-to-the-fucking-bone surreal beauty; Newton can't breathe for the sky washed white and dazzling blue any more than he can for the frigid air as it hits his lungs. He's bundled in his dad's old hooded black Quartz Nature coat that had got him through Alaska just fine, and he's even wearing gloves and a scarf. Screw this tourism shit; he's so cold he could cry.

Newton leaves the harbor-front in a hurry, entirely convinced that springing for a cab back to Rålambshovsleden is justified. The Courtyard Stockholm Kungsholmen is a nice venue; he'd gotten in late from the airport the night before and promptly passed out in his oversize bed after checking in. There are already sessions in full swing, and Hermann's paper, the one he's promised he won't attend, doesn't start until four o'clock.

They've agreed to meet in the lobby at six and head to dinner from there.

The problem is, though, that Newton's now combed the session abstract and realizes that the presenters are taking on a subject that's out-there even by his standards: theoretical mathematics modeling as applied to determining the location of the Breach. Hermann has never mentioned this, nowhere in any of their exchanges, and his belief that Newton would want no part of listening to an hour and a half of said topic couldn't be farther off the mark. He's dubious, but he's fascinated.

Huddled in a scorching hot bath, Newton flexes his stiff fingers and toes and decides that there'd be no harm in hunkering down at the back and slipping out of there before the Q&A to go wait in the lobby. Sure, Hermann knows what he looks like, but it's a big room and the audience will be packed and he thinks that maybe, if he takes off his glasses and keeps a low enough profile, he can get away with it. Newton doesn't know if Hermann has arrived yet, because he sure hasn't seen him congregating with any of the other eminent attending personages in the lobby. He'd better be checked in by now, though, given his presentation's in less than an hour.

Newton is so distracted that he almost trips getting out of the tub; he sits for a while with only the bath-mat between his butt and the tile, wrapped in one of the hotel's huge, fluffy white towels. He's thinking about what to wear the same way he'd thought about what to wear the first time he'd gone out with Zach, only he's imagining Hermann's expression when they set eyes on each other for the first time. He flushes, skin prickling with it, and he closes his eyes tight against the realization that Hermann is anything but the lesser of two evils when pitted against his other crush. As much as a shot at Tendo Choi would have been nice, the thought of Hermann Gottlieb wining, dining, and bedding him ends in Newton stroking himself through a swift, painful orgasm that leaves him curled sideways in his towels for another ten minutes.

Either he's reading Hermann right—as a coy, calculating flirt who knows damn well what he's doing and only pretends cluelessness until such time as it suits him—or it's been so long since he's gotten laid that anyone who shows him a shred of kindness (and is not one of his own two hands) looks like a fantastic option at this point.

While he's getting dressed, Newton has to rule out that theory, because Genji had never shown him anything but kindness, had even been interested in sleeping with him, and Newton hadn't in the least been tempted to act. Swell, he thinks, knotting his tie with far more care than he'd normally muster. Choi is your that'll-never-happen fantasy fuck with no emotional strings attached, and Gottlieb is shaping up nicely as your be-all, end-all completely unattainable keeper. You are so freaking screwed.

At least all of that rigorous jogging and whatnot the Academy put him through up till the end of last month means his tight black cords will look really damn good, assuming there's anyone looking who's inclined to think such a thing.

He swallows hard, clips his badge to one belt-loop, and heads downstairs.

There are six minutes left until the session starts, and it's being held in one of the hotel's largest function rooms. There's about six feet between the makeshift stage platform, which is already occupied by a podium, four chairs, and presenters seated in three of those; Newton's pulse skyrockets when he realizes Hermann is one of them.

At least fifty of the hundred or so chairs are full, so he tucks himself into the end chair at the back left-hand corner of the room and hopes to hell Hermann won't look up from the papers he's flipping through quietly in his lap and let his gaze scan back that far, and, oh my God, are those reading glasses? There's dressing dorky to the point that you come off as a frump, and there's dressing dorky to the point that it's so hopelessly ridiculous, so entirely who you are, that it's just flat-out hot.

At this point, Newton taking off his glasses isn't just an element of disguise: it's a survival tactic. And it lasts all of two seconds, because the moderator has arrived and is at the podium calling the session to order and Newton needs to see Hermann's face. With shaking hands, he puts his glasses back on and braces himself for the first two papers.

Newton doesn't register a single word of either of them—well, that's a lie, he catches the gist—because he's too busy watching Hermann, who is too busy watching the other presenters. His range of displeased expressions borders on the virtuosic; by the time the second presenter has finished, Newton is pretty sure he's seen everything from the one that says you are a moron and later I will tell you why at very precise and painful length to the one that fairly screams you are fortunate there is nothing in the immediate vicinity for me to launch at your vacant and unsuspecting head.

Before he knows it, the rest of the audience is applauding the second presenter, and Hermann is fetching his cane from where it's been resting against the back of his chair. He removes his reading glasses, rises, and leaves the mess of papers from his lap behind on the seat of his chair. He doesn't head for the podium; instead, he fires up the holo-projector beside it, which, yeah, up till that point had kind of been throwing Newton for a loop because it's still clunky new tech and hardly anyone uses them outside a laboratory setting, but apparently Hermann Gottlieb does.

For twenty-five minutes, Newton can't muster the willpower to fetch his jaw from the floor, because Hermann stands there braced against the projector table with the thing glowing and vivid and alive as his fingers jab and sweep and collapse and create in unison with the words coming out of his mouth, and as mesmerized as Newton is he doesn't agree with a single fucking thing he's hearing. He's sure the math must be sound, and the visual modeling is stunningly cool to look at, but unless you can shift that all of that rock-star calculation from theory into practice

Everyone else is applauding, and Hermann, done talking, is looking straight at him.

Newton manages a weak little wave that he converts into several polite claps just as the moderator hands Hermann back his cane, which he'd propped against the podium, and indicates he should take his seat for the question and answer portion. Hermann takes a few moments to reconfigure his papers, but as soon as he's done that he trains his irritated glare right back on Newton.

The first few questions aren't for him, so Newton has the pleasure of watching Hermann scrutinize him across all that distance and seemingly find it in his heart to soften the grim line of his mouth just a little. The twist of his lips is almost a smile, and it's a relief and it's gorgeous and that's when Newton knows everything is going to be okay, so he raises his hand.

The moderator calls on him, has the last audience member to ask a question pass him the mobile microphone, and proceeds to watch in a fascinated kind of horror as Newton explains, as politely as he can, why he finds Hermann's approach narrow-minded, overly ambitious, and entirely unproductive. He and Hermann end up shouting at each other until the moderator shuts them down, thanks everyone in the audience for attending, and puts the microphones out of commission as quickly as she possibly can.

Newton fights his way against the tide of departing bodies, doesn't stop till he's at the foot of the platform stairs and Hermann is halfway down them—wearing an expression that had appeared nowhere in the previous spread. I will bloody kill you, it says.

"Your delivery is fantastic, man," Newton says, hoping to diffuse whatever bomb it is he's unwittingly set off, because, Jesus Christ, surely Hermann knows by now that this is just how he rolls. "You rock that thing like it's an extension of your soul or something. I just can't seem to get the hang—"

"Clearly not," Hermann snaps, clattering down the last few steps, "because this is precisely the sort of thing I feared might happen if we started from grounds on which we harbor some fundamental disagreements. I've never been more displeased to learn that I was, in fact, right."

With that, he breezes past Newton like this isn't the moment for which they've both been waiting for two fucking years. It's all Newton can do to recover from his shock sufficient to dash after Hermann, gain on him just as he's clearing the double doors into the hall, and catch him by the shoulder so that he has no choice but to falter and spin, grasp Newton by the wrist. Like this, he has Kaiceph by the neck; his palm is damp and his touch burns and Newton cannot stand the devastation in Hermann's eyes.

"We're still on for dinner, right?" asks Newton, hopefully, and Hermann releases him with a sound of disgust. He rubs his wrist and straightens his bracelets. "Look, nothing's changed. I still respect the hell out of you. Since when did a major disagreement mean that—" he narrowly avoids saying friendship "—that what we've got going here is off the table? You know how I am. I didn't mean anything by it."

Hermann blinks at him then, slowly, as if he's seeing Newton, really seeing him, for the first time: seeing past the letters and the emails and the texts and the two late-night phone conversations and regretting every single moment he's wasted. Hermann's expressions are so cutting, so unguarded, so frightfully easy for Newton to read that now he's the one reeling until his back's against the wall and Hermann's actually got the head of his cane shoved right against Newton's chest.

"Alas, it seems to me that you did, in spite of your best efforts to convince me otherwise," says Hermann, with quiet, scathing rage, "and no, Newton, we are not."

Newton holds it together long enough to get back up to his room and order room service, at which point he grits his teeth against the threat of tears and makes himself eat, bite after agonizing bite. He reminds himself he's got to present tomorrow, but if he just can't stand to stay after that with the knowledge Hermann is still kicking about, then he can leave.

The only thing that prevents Newton from losing it—like, actually losing it—is the knowledge that, in spite of their agreement, Hermann had used Newton's first name right there in public space like it had been second nature.

He drinks the mini-bar dry before he can manage to feel much worse than he already does and calls it an early night. He doesn't dream, not that he can recall on waking, but that's probably because his head is pounding and oh fucking shit he's got less than forty-five minutes to make himself presentable and show up for his panel. Which he does, by the skin of his teeth.

He's the first one up, so he locks his elbows and braces himself against the podium as he begins to speak, voice too grating even in his own hypersensitive ears and Hermann is hunched in a chair he's pulled right into the back corner of the room. Which is all the prompting Newton needs, really, to straighten his back and ignore the freight train doing its level best to grind his thoughts to dust and nail this thing.

Hermann doesn't stay for the question and answer session. He doesn't even stay for the remaining two papers; he rises as everyone else is applauding Newton, some of them even whistling, and stiffly leaves the room.

Newton is spoiled for dinner invitations. Inasmuch as several of them are tempting, he feels abruptly sick and shaky and, fuck, his hangover has just remembered it exists. There's a bathroom near enough to the elevator that it's his best bet for temporary relief; he's not the only one in there, and he knows that locking himself in a stall and losing what little he'd eaten the day before isn't a ringing back-up endorsement for the performance he's just given. He wipes his mouth, removes his glasses, splashes cold water on his face, and stumbles to the elevator.

A couple of aspirin and a few more hours' sleep chase off the headache, although the softness of grey dusk creeping in through his window is enough to tell him that it's too late to call back any of his dinner prospects. He takes his chances on a solitary bowl of soup with some warm bread in the hotel restaurant and then, recklessly, catches a cab back to the exact spot on the harbor-front he'd left the day before and walks from there into the heart of Gamla stan. In spite of the horrifying chill, in spite of his breath freezing before his very eyes, these winding cobbled streets and haunting spires remind him that he's alive and he's here and that Hermann can't stop him from turning up to his second paper tomorrow.

Newton fitfully sleeps off the winter clinging to his skin; he tosses and turns, spins off the remainder of his unfortunate excess.

He wakes up at noon, and Hermann's paper is at two. He catches lunch with someone from last night, but he's bored to tears.

Hermann is last again, the fourth out of four presenters this time, and Newton can't help but wonder if the moderators do that on purpose so the others don't have to follow his act. The content of this presentation is familiar territory, stuff they've talked about over email, and because Hermann isn't reading out his footnotes, there's obviously no way to tell if Hermann's cited him in earnest. Newton would've asked for a copy of the paper afterward, sure, and he might have even gotten it under other circumstances. As Hermann is wrapping up—all smug, brilliant business—Newton starts to feel sick again and gets up to leave before the applause is underway.

Newton is so not touching alcohol again for a couple of months at least. By the time he makes it back to his room, he feels drained, run ragged, and longs to sleep without the vague, uneasy memory of dreams just beyond his reach. He makes the mistake of checking his email while he's plugging in his phone to charge; there are exactly two messages waiting for him.

One is an official PPDC missive from Marshall Pentecost congratulating Newton on his assignment and somewhat imminent deployment to the Lima Shatterdome. He'll have less than a week to return to Boston, pack up his shit, and ship out.

The other is from Hermann, lacking both a subject line beyond Re: and content beyond Hermann's signature; there's a document attached that doesn't appear to be a virus, so Newton opens it. It's the paper he's just seen Hermann present, and, sure enough, he's in the citations.

Newton opens a blank text message, selects Hermann's number from his contacts list, and starts to type in spite of the combination of nervous excitement and dumb-struck sorrow that has his stomach roiling afresh: They're sending me to Peru. I'd been hoping for LA, but no such luck. J/K. Thanks for the file, dude, and for putting my jack-assery into perspective. You're right, though. I do stand by what I said. Disagreements and screaming matches aside, promise me we can still write?

We are both K-Science Officers now, Hermann writes back over two hours later when Newton has all but drifted to sleep while watching Lost In Translation on the hotel's pay-per-view service, and therefore colleagues in a professional context. Of course we shall still write—come what may.

Newton picks up the remote control and pauses the film. Bob is whispering in Charlotte's ear in the middle of a crowded Tokyo street, his expression unreadable. Charlotte's face is hidden against his shoulder as she clings to him fiercer than life.

Chapter Text

Newton wakes sweat-drenched, disoriented, and entirely convinced that the clock on the bedside table is lying to him. Two minutes past eleven post meridiem on Friday, the twentieth of February, two thousand and twenty-six. He screws his eyes shut and repeats these facts to himself until his pulse has ratcheted down a few notches and he realizes that Hermann is, against all odds, sleeping peacefully beside him.

So, small mercies: the clock isn't lying, because he has rings on his finger.

He would've liked to have claimed that the unplanned reception had gone on well into the night and that everyone had hung around drinking hard liquor and playing Cards Against Humanity until four o'clock in the morning, but, yeah, not really.

Hannibal and Lu had vanished right after dropping Newton and Hermann off, so they hadn't even been in the picture. Daniel had gotten fussy after forty-five minutes, and not even in a low-key or cute kind of way, so Tendo and Alison had been the first to bow out (but not before presenting Newton with a brand-new French press; Hermann had realized this meant he'd been caught monopolizing the other one at work and had gone a bit pink). Herc, Mako, and Raleigh had lingered for an hour and a half; they'd been game enough for drinking, but so much that making it back to the Shatterdome at a reasonable hour to catch up with everyone else would've been impossible.

Bastien had stayed longest; five o'clock had come and gone, they'd ordered take-away, and Newton had permitted himself to be put through another two hours beyond that of Hermann, already stiff from so many hours on his feet, making tea and fussing and watching Bastien flip through his latest portfolio of photographs on his phone. They hadn't got him in a taxi to his hotel until eight o'clock, and Newton had found himself relieved that Hermann hadn't proposed to put him up on the sofa.

"Nonsense," Hermann had said, waving as the car had pulled away. "He's exhausting."

"Yeah," Newton had agreed, shutting the door behind them. "Can't argue with that."

They'd turned in shortly after that with the intention to pick up where they'd left off earlier, they really had, but they'd both been so tired that unhurried kissing had degenerated into lazy cuddling which had then degenerated into being dead to the world.

Which brings Newton to now, yanked wide awake by a nightmare that's his memory of something that should never have happened, with his heart hammering and his mouth dry and he's got to get out of bed right this instant or he'll definitely start to panic.

He turns off the bedside lamp, which they'd left on due to falling asleep, and struggles to locate his t-shirt in the near-blackness. He finds it at the foot of the bed, puts it on, and fetches a glass of water from the kitchen. He stands in front of the sink for a while, sipping and gasping by turns, and he remembers forcing himself to do this after Hermann had bodily dragged him into a chair and told him to stay put, Newton, for God's sake while he'd gone to get the Marshall—

Wrong angle, seeing himself from outside himself; ergo, not his memory. At this moment, Hermann is either dreaming or has awakened to the sensory trigger of Newton swallowing water. Shivering, Newton puts the half-empty glass down in the sink and makes his way to the living room.

"You've gotta keep me company," he says softly to Bertie, switching on the lamp next to the sofa, and sits down. "I know this shit's behind us, dude, but reliving it all thanks to this post-drift weirdness is a pretty good indication we haven't dealt with it," he says, reaching for Drifter's tooth, which has been sitting partially unwrapped next to the tank ever since their guests had tired of looking at it.

Bertie darts up to the level at which Newton is holding it, agitated, and tries to follow the object when Newton sits back and unwraps it the rest of the way. He twists and dances sort of like when he wants to be fed, and Newton remembers something.

"Oh, right," he says, holding the tooth out closer to the tank. "I almost forgot. You guys are super territorial and get it into your nifty little pea-brains that stuff you think is cool and shiny just outside your tank belongs to you. Well, dude, I hate to break it to you, but you're gonna have to share. This is mine, too."

And it's then that Newton notices Hermann lingering in the doorway, Hermann wrapped in his awful plaid dressing gown with his hair a bed-tousled mess and his brown eyes haunted, clinging resolutely to the door-frame, without his cane.

(Waiting for what's mine, too, says the ghost of Hermann's voice. I'll get my coat.)

"No no no," says Newton, frantic, rising to start toward him, "like hell you won't, you'll come here," but Hermann has already launched himself on a straight, unwavering trajectory toward Newton and it's breathtaking to see him walk with such pained determination until he's got Newton around the waist and he's settling them both on the sofa with the tooth held between them and a twice-as-agitated Bertie looking on because sharing with one other person is bad enough, let alone with two.

"I wasn't about to get my coat," says Hermann, softly, and lets Newton curl in against his shoulder. "Rather, I wondered where you'd gone. I shouldn't have pretended—"

"You suck at pretending to be asleep," Newton tells him, struggling to keep his voice pitched low, to keep it under fucking control. "You look the part, sure, but you haven't figured out how to prevent your brain from giving you away. You were there."

"I was," Hermann agrees in a whisper. "I was with you in Anchorage and at the Academy and, for all my sins, in the one place that I—" he swallows, takes the relic out of Newton's hand, and sets it down in front of the tank "—in the one place that I ought to have held you, Newton, instead of pushing you away."

(Hold me, pleads the ghost of his own, and the black-hole facsimile collapses.)

"Oh, jeez, so we're gonna do this now?" Newton asks, sliding one leg across Hermann's thighs so he can easily shift from curled against him to straddling his lap. "I spent a lot of time thinking I was an asshole to you, dude, and that I totally deserved what I got. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt like, like—wait, no, it's not just you. He's a bag of dicks, too; you're both incurable, egotistical fuckheads with the overwhelming need to be right every second of every goddamn day, and he thought he could actually head off the inevitable by telling you not to come to a conference session at which you had every right to be present because it's tangential yet crucial to your field of study. We were an interdisciplinary clusterfuck, Hermann, and, okay—okay, don't hate me for saying this—completely fucking in love with each other from the second you left for Alaska without me. I should've applied when you did; I shouldn't have been such a coward, because if we'd just been in it together from day one, seen each other as fellow students instead of intellectual rivals, or mentor and mentored, or whatever the hell kind of stupid—"

They're forehead to forehead now, wide-eyed, and Newton has Hermann by the shoulders and would be shaking him if not for Hermann's hands framing his face as if it's a hundred times more precious than Lu's scrimshaw, if not for Hermann's thumbs tracking through traces of dried tears on Newton's cheeks as if those tales invisible are a thousand times more precious than the blood-and-ink scars they both wear.

"I thought I was protecting myself, Newton," Hermann rasps. "Protecting us both."

"Yeah, but from what?" Newton demands, and as fretful and scared and upset as he is, it's far too easy to work his hands under Hermann's dressing gown and find warm, bare flesh. "From finding out we disagree on both approach and methodology at least three quarters of the time? From shouting matches we both enjoy so much that it turns out we need them like breathing? From putting theory into practice?"

There it is again, the drift rising and flaring and swallowing them whole as Newton kisses Hermann's infuriating mouth and Hermann plucks at Newton's shirt and shoves at Newton's shorts until there's nothing keeping them apart—neither monsters, nor math—and Newton has to admit that it is hard to tell which from which. He splays one greedy palm over the calculations on Hermann's hip and feels Hermann's hand cover Trespasser between his damp shoulder blades in kind.

"The world was ending, Newton. Furthermore, our worlds were ending. Can't you see that? Your life and mine, messes both. We dashed them to pieces in Stockholm, built them anew from the very moment we were both assigned to Hong Kong. Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds. We couldn't have hoped—"

"Right person, wrong time, I know," Newton gasps against the side of Hermann's neck, planting kiss after bite after starving kiss until Hermann is writhing beneath him, "but that doesn't mean I'm not fucking pissed off because in some other version of time we could've had this for at least eight years leading up to—"

"Stop, please stop," Hermann pleads. "No, not that, no, you idiot, keep doing—I mean thinking like that, for heaven's sake. We'll go mad. I can't, I won't let us—"

They're enough to make Newton tremble and fall motionless, those words; we'll go mad, I won't let us. Yes, yes he'll be damned if he'll let them go mad or fall apart of whatever it is that Hermann fears most; they won't let it happen, not ever again, and that is more than enough. Hermann's hand tightens over Drifter on his thigh.

"Drawer," says Newton, mindlessly, slinging one arm tight around Hermann's neck and leaning back perilously to fumble at the brass handle on the coffee table with his other hand. "Now. Where'd you put it? Hey, got it open, there—augh, no, wait," he mutters, dismayed at the canister of fish food in his hand.

There is an entirely too-comical moment of Hermann's unfocused eyes shifting from the Aqueon to an expectant Bertie back to Newton's face. "We are not doing this here," he says tartly, and Newton starts to laugh.

"Bertie's virgin eyes, huh? It's not like the freaking fish knows exactly what he's seeing, Hermann. Come on. We need to reinforce closeness here, right? He needs to start thinking of you as on his side, so as long as he sees me all over you and sees that as a positive thing, I'm pretty sure the point's as good as made."

Hermann just gapes at him. "I," he hisses, attempting to shove Newton off to one side even as Newton drops the fish food on the floor and goes back to his precarious rummaging, "absolutely refuse to—to use sex as an instructional primer as to the quality of my character for your bloody aquatic pet!"

Newton finds the travel-size bottle of lubricant that Hermann had, in a fit of admirable practicality, brought home and stashed there the day after the kettle-corn-and-Firefly incident, because, hey, it would've been nice not to've had to move to the bedroom in the middle of a really fantastic fuck (but it had stayed pretty fantastic anyway, had been rendered even more so by the unfortunate-yet-awesome encounter with Lars the day after). He knows he's won, because Hermann's head falls against the back of the sofa and he melts under the first twist of Newton's slick fingers around his cock.

"Here, meet you halfway," Newton gasps, yanking Hermann's dressing gown the rest of the way out from under him, given it had mostly puddled on the floor thanks to their squirming, and starts to drape it one-handed about his shoulders even as Hermann, not-quite-with-it as he is, reads Newton's intention and contributes his own hands to the effort. "At least an attempt at modesty for—fuck, Hermann, for—oh God, oh God," he whimpers as Hermann strokes in one careful finger, two, works him open, "what changed your mind about—about, ah—this?"

"It's your wedding night for only twenty-five more minutes," explains Hermann, breathlessly, his eyes darting from the wall clock back to Newton's face even as his fingers slip free, even as his hands come to settle on Newton's hips and guide him into alignment, "and I—and I won't, oh Newton—won't ruin it for you."

So, yeah: they're only going to last five minutes like this, because for as slowly as Hermann pushes into him, it doesn't stay slow for long. Newton is delirious, but he's also desperately focused and trying to do most of the work; Hermann is moaning against the side of Newton's neck with each thrust and his fingers dig harder and harder into the spaces between Newton's floating ribs, the dips and hollows of his spine, and the dressing gown's slipping lower and lower until he's gone. Till they're both gone, both shuddering so hard the connection seems to snap.

It's sheer wonder, this settling: filter and fracture of memory like snowfall now instead of glass, snowfall on the frozen harbor that they did not see together, but now:

"I thought of you, too," murmurs Hermann after a while, cradling Newton's head against his shoulder. "I would be lying if I claimed my bed hadn't seemed empty."

"Take me back, then," Newton replies, ignoring the mess and the sweat and the sympathetic cramp in his right hip. "Take me back, and let's do it right."

"I doubt the university would take kindly to my absconding with you no sooner than you'd started on their payroll," says Hermann, ruefully. "It may have to wait."

"Dude, I don't start till, like, March eighteenth or something," Newton insists, toying with Hermann's hair. "You are taking me on a fucking honeymoon, okay?"

"Stockholm in February," replies Hermann, wryly amused. "Are you quite certain?"

"Yep," Newton says. "And Vienna. We're totally stopping in Vienna to see my mom."

"I suppose if I stayed Bastien's return long enough and gave several days' notice at work, we could . . . " Newton can picture the furrow forming in Hermann's brow. "Karla would be happy to see us, of course. I owe her a visit by way of apology."

"London?" asks Newton, quietly, smoothing down Hermann's wrecked hair.

"Perhaps," Hermann replies, drawing Newton's right wrist up for a kiss.

Chapter Text

Newton, why is there what appears to be
a pile of greeting cards on my office floor?
___________________________________________________

Because it's Monday morning, our announcement
was published two weeks ago in the paper for
edification of the public, and your co-workers
therefore had plenty of evidence at their disposal
for purposes of deducing why you asked Friday off?

Also, some photographer shot us getting into
Hannibal's car, although the caption doesn't say
whose wheels they are because, um, that journalist
isn't as stupid as his reporting makes him look.
___________________________________________________

A disturbing number of these contain Wellcome
gift-cards. What will we do with all of them?
___________________________________________________

Get Bertie a bigger tank, for starters. I promised
him that sweet hidey-hole cave thing in the shape
of Trespasser's skull. I know you'll say it's tacky,
but maybe it'll get him to give up on needing the tooth
to sit where he can see it, you know? I kind of don't
want that sitting out where Dan can grab it.
___________________________________________________

Agreed re: your ill-gotten loot, but there's no need
for another tank. He's already in a two-gallon, and you
of all people should be aware that giving a betta
too much territory to patrol will stress it out.
___________________________________________________

Have you been reading up on Bertie's people in
down-time between lectures? OMFG, touching <3
___________________________________________________

If you insist upon joining Karla in the irresponsible use
of abbreviations, digits, and punctuation, kindly do not
get your hopes up regarding the stop I'd been planning
to make on my way home. Skull-shaped, did you say?
___________________________________________________

Your brother got on his flight this morning. He said
we had better go to Stockholm first and, I quote,
get this lovey-dovey nonsense out of our systems.

Lovey-dovey nonsense, Hermann. Nobody says that.

So I guess I should ask you if you asked about the possibility
of taking the next couple weeks off. This is me making big eyes
at you and lounging pathetically on the sofa in a pile of blankets.

[IMAGE 1]

[IMAGE 2]

[IMAGE 3]

Okay, so I lied. Two of those are Bertie making big eyes
at my phone, because how can you say no to that face?
___________________________________________________

Given a choice, I'd rather say yes to yours, and so: yes,
I have leave, but the earliest we can depart is Thursday.

Kindly refrain from emotional manipulation via the innocent
creature dependent upon us for sustenance. It's unbecoming.
___________________________________________________

Can you take a picture of your face right now? I totally want
to see if you're making the one I think you're making.

(The one that says YOU ARE A WASTE OF CARBON ATOMS.)
___________________________________________________

[IMAGE 1]
___________________________________________________

. . . nope. That's GUESS WHO'S NOT GETTING ANY TONIGHT?

A recent, cruel addition to your massive repertoire, might I add.
___________________________________________________

Flattery on such an extravagant scale, though much appreciated,
will get you nowhere. Speaking of which, have you considered
who will feed Bertie while we're gone? Two weeks is a good while.
___________________________________________________

[IMAGE 1]

(Did I get the inflection right? My mouth can't do that thing.)
___________________________________________________

Newton, please start making relevant inquiries. I have a class
to teach and, I predict, an exhausting number of questions
to fend off on the subject of how we spent our weekend.
___________________________________________________

[IMAGE 1]

See, Bertie? It'll be okay. Daddy loves you, honest.
___________________________________________________

Newton, please get your hand out of the tank. You'll
damage his slime coat or accidentally scratch him or
introduce some virulent pathogen, and then he'll die
and I will be in the unenviable position of tolerating
your resulting epic sulk until we find you a new fish.
___________________________________________________

Bertie is NOT replaceable, dude. And I wash my hands
before cleaning the tank or giving him a cuddle like
this, so STFU. I bet Karla never taught you that one.
___________________________________________________

You're correct, she did not—but Google was forthcoming.

Please find someone with whom you'd trust a house key
and Bertie's safe-keeping. I'll need to book our flights
within the next twenty-four hours, or we'll pay extravagantly
for waiting till the night before. I really must be going.
___________________________________________________

[IMAGE 1]

How about Stockholm—Berlin—Vienna—London?

(Pleasure before business, Hermann. Please?)
___________________________________________________

My love, I will do my utmost.

(FFS, do put some clothes on.)
___________________________________________________

You'll never hear me admit this again, but: impressed.

[IMAGE 1]
___________________________________________________

Oh but you are absolutely

the most maddening thing

I have ever

<3

 

 

 

*

Hey, my man! Good morning and stuff. How are Al and Dan?
___________________________________________________

Not too bad. Out at the aquarium while I'm stuck here. You?
___________________________________________________

Wait, you mean Grand Aquarium @ Ocean Park? Without me?

You should have told Al that I give totally bitchin' tours
of that place for free. I mean, I haven't before, but you
know that I'd give a better tour than the interpreters.
___________________________________________________

Newt, I think damn near anybody would give a better
tour than bored high-school and college students trying
to make a buck while they're otherwise getting frowned
at in the classroom by hard-asses like Hermann.

Speaking of which, why didn't you just have him take
you down there on Saturday or Sunday? Mini honeymoon,
and I'm sure he would have bought you plush sharks
and shit if you asked him nicely. Octopus socks, etc.
___________________________________________________

Nice thought, bro, but we were way too tired :-p
___________________________________________________

Sure sure, crazy awesome nerd sex. Don't rub it in.
___________________________________________________

. . . actually no, it was traumatized-because-of-drift-fallout
sex, but six of one, half a dozen of the other. Still awesome.
___________________________________________________

TMI, motherfucker. Weren't you about to ask for a favor?
___________________________________________________

Goddamn. Yeah. That was SO not at all subtle, was it.
___________________________________________________

No worries. Al and I owe you one, or maybe even ten by now.

What's it gonna be? Fuckin' up sim scores like the olden days?
___________________________________________________

I need you to babysit my super adorable fish while Hermann
and I go on a very very last minute honeymoon trip that will
also include possibly traumatic stop-offs to see my mom in
Vienna, two Gottliebs in Berlin, and even more in London.

I mean, I'd just give you a key to the house and you'd have
to come in once a day to feed him. Normally I do it twice
a day, but you can do it once a day in a larger portion.
___________________________________________________

You do realize that's pretty damn impractical given our
present location, right? Drive Jeep to your place, feed fish,
drive back here, repeat every day for fourteen days straight?
___________________________________________________

Damn your irrefutable logic. Dude, SOMEBODY's gotta feed
him or I'm gonna come home to a corpse instead of cuteness.
___________________________________________________

If you give that many fucks, bring the tank down here.

I bet the junior techs will love that little SOB. For real.
___________________________________________________

I don't trust the water quality down there as far as I can
throw a glass of it. You'd have to change the water at least
once, and even with the treatment drops I've got, hell no.
___________________________________________________

Newt, you're a bona fide nightmare of a fish mommy and I hope
to God you never get it into your head to buy more of them.
___________________________________________________

Ugh, you are the worst. Literally the worst. With bells on.
___________________________________________________

Have you been taking slang lessons from your hubby? Ouch.
___________________________________________________

Oh, so—bona fide? ARE YOU LITERALLY SERIOUS RIGHT NOW?
___________________________________________________

I am staring at a boring-ass freaking holo-screen with
fuck-all on it. Shit does not get more serious than this.
___________________________________________________

I'd rather there was fuck-all than fuck-loads. For real.
___________________________________________________

Shut the hell up. You miss Category IIIs most, don't lie.
___________________________________________________

You're a massive dick, buddy, and don't you forget it.

(Category III = glory days; Category IV = fuck we're
gonna die but hey wow what a way to go am I right?)
___________________________________________________

I seriously hope that's your idea of sarcasm, but it's
hard to tell in text messages and this is you after all.
___________________________________________________

Ugh, comma omission. GTFO my screen before I edit your ass.
___________________________________________________

Says the guy who did dodgy stream of consciousness math
just a few messages up from here. Hypocritical much?
___________________________________________________

For whimsical effect, you Philistine. Fuck right off.
___________________________________________________

I'd love to be your Hermann-substitute, I really would,
but I have to pretend I'm working. Ask Herc and Max?
___________________________________________________

I don't think Herc can haul ass down here once a day.

[IMAGE 1]

This is my disgruntled face. And this is Bertie's:

[IMAGE 2]
___________________________________________________

Jesus. I'll be here praying for you. Count on it ;)

 

*

Hey, um, hello. Newt here. Have you got a minute?
___________________________________________________

qtwePF SF S Nslgmf s
___________________________________________________

. . . uh. Text equivalent of butt-dialing, much?
___________________________________________________

goddamn it max! thinks this thing's a toy

slobber all over my keys, disgusting mate

what can i do for you doctor geiszler?
___________________________________________________

Tendo said I could ask if you might be able to kind of
sort of maaaybe watch my fish while Hermann and I go
on a last-minute impromptu honeymoon. No pressure.
___________________________________________________

you mean like go out to your place and feed it

or you bring the tank down here or some such?
___________________________________________________

I was thinking more along the lines of you coming here
to feed him, yes. I don't trust the water down there,
and you'd have to do at least one water change.
___________________________________________________

dogs are bad enough, and in truth they're easy

i don't know the first goddamn thing about fish

chuck didn't even have a tank when he was

look, how's married life treating you lot?
___________________________________________________

Hey, don't worry about it. Forget I asked. It's cool.

Married life is good; I mean, we're finding

I'm sorry. This is awkward and stupid.
___________________________________________________

you listen here, don't apologize for a goddamn thing

marriage is a crook job, at least what i remember
___________________________________________________

Sorry sorry sorry. Crook job? Please translate?
___________________________________________________

it means marriage is bloody hard work, but you'll manage

why not see if you can leave the little guy at the shop?
___________________________________________________

Nah, the constant noise would freak him the hell out

although

Thanks a million, Herc. I think I've got an idea.
___________________________________________________

don't mention it

kisses from max

 

*

Verdammt, du Miststück, geh doch endlich ran!

Seriously, aren't you on your lunch hour by now?
___________________________________________________

Was in the staff kitchenette, left phone on my desk.

Newton, what's wrong? Shall I call you back, or—?
___________________________________________________

Nobody at the dome can watch Bertie, but that's okay;
I've got a Plan B. I just. I think Herc tried to give
us marriage advice in this stoic-and-manly-dad kind of
way, and there I was trying to ask him for a favor.
___________________________________________________

Did you, in fact, give him the impression that said favor
was the urgent requirement of relationship advice? You lack
clarity when something's got you in a tizzy. I should know.
___________________________________________________

Fuck off, whatever. I'm trying to find us a damn fish-sitter so
we can travel without worrying about him dying on us, thanks,
and it's all backfiring. You've probably booked already.
___________________________________________________

This is a far cry from your endeavor to tempt me home with
pornography; I think I prefer photos to abuse. As it happens,
I've got a browser window open to your preferred itinerary.
___________________________________________________

Please please, I love you. Please. I'll solve this. I have a plan.
___________________________________________________

Hush now, we're sorted. Two round-trip fares.

I'll ask one of the students to watch him for you.
___________________________________________________

No, just wait. It's cool. Give me a few more hours.
___________________________________________________

Make some tea and calm down, darling. Remember to eat.
___________________________________________________

If you had enough time left I'd come to campus and lock
us in your office and make you miss the rest of the day.

 

*

I should like to know who's meeting Bastien at the airport
when he finally touches down. Will it be you or Charles?
___________________________________________________

Do you have any concept of what time it is here, Hermann?
___________________________________________________

About eight in the morning, I think, given it's 15:00 here.
___________________________________________________

Right. We were sleeping peacefully till your message dropped.
___________________________________________________

I'm sorry, but some of us have actual day-jobs with schedules.
___________________________________________________

That's not why you're talking to me right now. Use your words.
___________________________________________________

The fact of the matter is, we're coming to see you. I understand
that this is appallingly short notice, but Newton has only a few
weeks left until he starts. We decided a holiday was in order.
___________________________________________________

I always thought you'd marry before me. Oh, how wrong I was.

(He's just wonderful, Hermann. Hurt him worse than you have,
never mind that it's water under the bridge, and I'll gut you.)
___________________________________________________

How reassuring to know you're his knight in paint-flecked armor.
___________________________________________________

I bet he dishes it like he takes it. You're lucky he's not gone.
___________________________________________________

Karla, please. We'll arrive in Berlin a week from tomorrow.
___________________________________________________

We're not your first stop, I'm guessing? Bit of a detour?
___________________________________________________

Stockholm from Thursday until we reach you. Newton insists.
___________________________________________________

God in heaven, but it's a relief to see you happy at last.
___________________________________________________

You didn't answer my question: which of you will collect him?
___________________________________________________

He'll be thirty-two in November. He's a big boy, Hermann.
___________________________________________________

He'll have been in transit for over twenty hours straight!
___________________________________________________

Relax, Spätzchen :-* We'll both be there to pinch his cheeks.
___________________________________________________

Dear girl, your manners are still dreadful. My love to Charles.

 

*

So okay, I just forwarded you an e-confirmation of some travel
plans Hermann and I just hashed out. Will you be not-insanely-
busy for even a day or two in the Vienna leg of our trip?

Mom?
___________________________________________________

Ich komme gleich

Oh, sweetheart, that's marvelous. I can clear the deck;
it's only private lessons and a few rehearsals for which
the assistant coach can take over anyway. How are you?
___________________________________________________

[IMAGE 1]

Very much not a single scientist anymore, as you can see.
___________________________________________________

You always were going to be difficult about that. I'm so
sorry I wasn't there; I'd have flown in if you'd told me.
___________________________________________________

Keeping it low-key was kind of the point. Sorry. It was
over-attended anyway. Mostly PPDC folks and local color.
___________________________________________________

It's so nice to know you have friends out there. I do
wish the two of you had thought to settle back in Europe;
I'd see more of you. Time's young yet, I guess. Someday?
___________________________________________________

If better offers come along somewhere else, sure, maybe?

We've got friends here, though. People who feel kind of
like family. We might all scatter eventually, but I

I really hope we won't. I like it here. I can't explain
___________________________________________________

The city in which you fall in love is the city in which
your heart will try to stay, always. J'y suis, j'y reste.
___________________________________________________

. . . for me, that's a lot of cities. Long story. But
I think you're right, this city most of all. Yeah.
___________________________________________________

Boston was good for you, but I hated coming to visit in
winter. What's this stop in Stockholm first? Does Hermann
have family there? Berlin and London at least make sense.
___________________________________________________

Yeah, well, I fell pretty hard there. What can you do.
___________________________________________________

Sometime, son of mine, you'll have to tell me about it.

 

*

Please please don't think this is weird, but I just talked
to my mom, and now talking to you is kind of like talking
to my other mom, the one who's done a lot of the things
my actual mom should have done when it comes to giving
me practical advice and calling me on my shit and stuff.

I really hope you aren't in the middle of a huge job.
___________________________________________________

newt my sweetie give me two minutes here

ok poor baby - what's happening huh????
___________________________________________________

Hermann and I are going away on this last-minute
honeymoon jaunt which is reckless and irresponsible
because I have nobody to watch Bertie and I've asked
like three other people and they've all said no and
I don't want him to die while we're gone. Lu, please

but I don't want him to be kept in the shop or anything

and if Hannibal gets anywhere near the tank, so help me
___________________________________________________

so terrible, i haven't even met this fishie grandson of mine

you bring him to my house and show me what to do, ok?
___________________________________________________

Oh Jesus, Lu, you are the best. SERIOUSLY THE BEST.
___________________________________________________

be good boys and bring me back nice things from your trip
___________________________________________________

I will bring you any fucking thing you ask for, believe it.
___________________________________________________

tch tch sweetie you talk to your old mother that way????
___________________________________________________

My old mother tattoos worse things into people's backsides
if they pay her enough for the privilege. Seriously <3 <3
___________________________________________________

you tell hermann bertie will be ok. mommy has to work now ;)

 

*

Lu's gonna watch Bertie for us.

All's well that ends well, right?
___________________________________________________

You mean you're going to leave him at the shop?

Over my dead body you will. That's no place for a creature
who startles at the slightest provocation and hates strangers.
___________________________________________________

Screen-capping this for posterity, holy mother of God.

You have the biggest must-protect-infants-and-animals
complex I have ever seen, dude. It's fucking beautiful.
___________________________________________________

Don't be ridiculous; it's you I'm worried about. That fish
is the closest thing you'll ever have to a child, let's be
honest, and I would prefer to see you derive gratification
from it living a full five to ten years instead of finding
its life cut tragically short by too many sources of stress
and poor management of its environment. End of story.
___________________________________________________

I won't tell anyone what a softie you are. Scout's honor.
___________________________________________________

Surely my cover's already blown. I went and married you.
___________________________________________________

So you want to protect me from everything that could possibly
hurt me, your former grouch of a self included? Let's hope he
never gets his hands on a time machine, man. That'd be tragic.
___________________________________________________

I understand you're attempting to joke about this, but I'm
quite serious with regard to worrying about you. Your panic
attacks are not something with which I enjoy being faced on
a regular basis, and, thank goodness, they've been sparse.
___________________________________________________

Yeah, I was kind of panicking a little earlier. Sorry?
___________________________________________________

I'll be home in an hour. Would have been sooner, but.
___________________________________________________

Bertie is gonna love you, for real. But not like I do.

[IMAGE 1]
___________________________________________________

Newton, please. I don't want to bring this marking home.
___________________________________________________

I'd finish it for you later if I had to. Please leave now?
___________________________________________________

Have some sense of decorum, would you? Wait till Thursday.
___________________________________________________

Hell no, Geliebter. This party starts whenever I say it does.
___________________________________________________

I shall finish these papers and then, only then, depart for
points superstore-inclined and pick up some dinner and then
___________________________________________________

And then? C'mon, Hermann, I'm hanging by a thread here.
___________________________________________________

You'll be hanging by far less than that, I quite assure you.

Chapter Text

1. Trespasser

It takes all of Hermann's resolve not to respond to Newton's final text (Who the fuck licensed you to rock dirty-talk that went out of fashion in 1902?), but he manages to leave campus, flag down a taxi, and get himself to the nearest Wellcome just as the proverbial itch in his fingers hits critical mass. I'm nearing Pet Supplies, he offers, aimlessly wandering aisles until he comes across the right one. If you don't stop carrying on, I'll leave empty-handed. Bertie shall have to make do with faux granite.

Ugh, dickhead, Newton petulantly writes back. You wouldn't dare.

At this stage, it's quite true that the last thing Hermann wants is to return home and find Newton disinclined to take advantage of the fact that he's left the last of his marking in the office. Distracted by the memory of those photographs (safely deleted), his vision blurs such that he doesn't register the Trespasser tank ornament for several seconds. Three of them are sitting on the shelf at eye-level, so Hermann grabs the nearest one and hopes to God Newton won't ask him if he inspected the remaining stock to make sure he got the one without manufacturing flaws. Irritated, Hermann sets it back down and inspects the other two before settling on the first.

Just to spite him, there's a five-gallon tank on mark-down that's got a filter with far better specs than the one in Bertie's current tank, so he heaves one off the bottom shelf by its box-handle and somehow maneuvers it to the front of the store with the Trespasser skull balanced on top. The purchase kills not one, but two of the gift-cards, and he takes oddly perverse pleasure in imagining what his colleagues would say with regard to his unorthodox partner-spoiling methods. Husband-spoiling methods. Yes.

Hermann snaps a photograph of both tank and ornament while the young man at the till rings them up and texts it to Newton by way of response. He's scarcely held his card up to the scanner when Newton chimes: Now you're just making me look bad.

The young man helps Hermann get his purchase outside; the taxi is, thankfully, where Hermann had told the driver to wait. Order some take-away, darling; my hands are full, he sends back, and, acquisitions safely stowed on the seat next to him, gives the driver their address. Traffic turns a ten-minute drive into a twenty-minute one; by the time he's on their doorstep, there's a light, freezing rain coming down, and his hands are too occupied to throw up his hood. He hits the doorbell with his shoulder, reminding himself that this isn't the lab, he needn't shout.

Of course, Newton's already yanking the door open by the time Hermann realizes it had been Newton reminding him it isn't the lab, nuanced and clever of late with his thought-intrusions, and it's all either of them can do not to make a scene because Newton's been nothing but a prick-tease all bloody day. Hermann settles for a peck on the cheek instead, lets Newton take the tank-box and plastic bag with the skull in it off his hands, follows him eagerly inside.

Newton looks entirely too pleased to find himself slammed up against the opposite wall with one of Hermann's hands already down the back of his shorts, but they don't get terribly far because the doorbell rings; Hermann swears, withdraws his hand, kisses Newton hard, and then turns around to answer. The delivery girl, whom he recognizes, looks somewhat stupefied.

"Doctor G!" says Ming, proffering the heavy brown paper bag. "I mean—Doctor Gottlieb, wow, I honestly didn't know you lived—oh! Doctor Geiszler, hello. I guess that could get confusing, right?" The girl is looking Newton up and down like she's never seen a man in his underthings and a t-shirt before and wait a moment

"I wasn't aware you'd taken part-time employment," says Hermann, crisply, and yanks the parcel away. Newton is quick to take it off his hands, affording the girl not much more than a perfunctory wave before he turns on his heel for the kitchen. Hermann narrows his eyes and removes his wallet from his back pocket while Ming stares at her feet. "These late nights might explain your marks on the most recent problem set, however. I'd look to it, Miss Yan, if I were you."

"Let me get your change," she mutters, cheeks gone pink, and Hermann feels instantly sorry as she rummages in her belt-pack.

"No, please," he sighs. "Don't be ridiculous; I insist that you keep it. Many thanks."

Ming pauses, tilts her head, and breaks into a chagrined half-smile. "Would it count for or against my term grade if I reassured you I have no nefarious designs upon your kaiju-fanboy cutie? What even is that shirt he's wearing? I just. God."

"The preferred term in this house is groupie," Hermann snaps before he can catch himself. "Good night. May your rounds be profitable," he adds, closing the door.

"Oh, yeah!" Newton shouts from the kitchen, busy tearing apart take-away containers. "Because heaven forbid one of your students should think that you're cool!"

Later, once they've eaten their egg waffles and Newton's shown him exactly how much nail-biting fuss getting one tiny fish settled into a new tank set-up really is, Hermann strips Newton and lays him down, rolls him face-first into the pillows with one hand curled around Newton's cock and his mouth pressed reverently to the ghost needled between Newton's shoulder blades for these many restless years gone.

 

2. Otachi

The alarm clock is not kind, is never kind, not when the soothing, innocuous chime of it means Hermann must leave this warm tangle of blankets and the even warmer tangle of Newton's sleep-heavy limbs. It's taken time to settle on a sound that doesn't jar them awake too harshly on mornings when the vise-grip of dreaming is cruel.

Newton jerks and tenses, whimpering, and Hermann can feel that he's damp from shoulder to calf with a fine, uncomfortable sheen of sweat. Standard procedure calls for kicking down the covers, which Hermann does in spite of the twinge in his hip and how violently Newton shivers when the cool air of the room hits his skin. He strokes back Newton's hopeless hair, kisses his forehead and both corners of his mouth.

"Shhh," Hermann murmurs, stroking the rasp of his cheek. "I found you. We lived."

"Hah, thanks," Newton wheezes, hiding his face in the curve of Hermann's neck, "but I'm pretty sure that doesn't change the fact that I almost didn't. To the tune of, like, three times, as you're so fond of reminding me. Was this one your fault or mine?"

At this point, there is no difference, Hermann wants to say, soft and forgiving, so he lets the drift convey it instead. Newton carries guilt sufficient for every last drowned and burning soul: this, Hermann knows. The weight of eleventh-hour escalation does not lie on you alone; stop pretending that I didn't help you drive that final and fatal spike, skull-plate and coffin-lid having become one and the same.

He shuts his eyes against the memory of Sasha's final salute: their private joke.

"What's this about you distrusting poetry?" asks Newton, shakily, and kisses Hermann's shoulder. "I just don't buy it. I didn't believe it back when you first said it, and now I never will. I can see why the humanities are a thing with Karla and Bastien. You guys have a knack. Your mom wrote, didn't she?"

As attempts to needle Hermann go, it's not Newton's most admirable effort by far. A year ago, Hermann might have taken a swing at him for it, but his cane wouldn't have been backed by nearly enough force to leave a bruise, let alone break any bones. Now, all Hermann can do is wonder at the fact that this thought repels him and that kissing Newton into submission is the best answer in any bind.

"She was a journalist, correct," Hermann sighs when they part for breath, rolling Newton onto his back. There isn't enough light—just sparse, pale remnants of gloaming through the curtains—but Newton's eyes still catch what slivers they can and glint a blue-green-grey confusion in the dim room. "Aspirations of publishing verse rarely end well. They didn't for her."

Newton lifts his head just enough to press a kiss to Hermann's chin; there should be apologies now, wistful wards against further hurt, but Newton shifts under him and, palms to Hermann's hips, spreads his legs just enough to settle Hermann in the cradle of his thighs. They're both hard, of course, eager for this even in the shadow of trauma (Träume, dreams: sure proof of semantics-wrought cruelty).

Hermann bites kisses from Newton's ear to his throat to his collarbone, breathless, and doesn't stop until he's reached Newton's left hipbone and a stylized representation of the menace herself is staring him in the face. One-handed, he traces the spread of forbidding wings, turns his head a fraction, and puts his open mouth to better use.

He'll count each gasp, each plea, each shout past Newton's lips that's not a sound of terror one small victory. He licks, kisses, sucks: digs his cut-to-the-quick nails in fiercer than the talons of any living horror. Newton's wail, stifled in the crooks of his own elbows, is warning enough; Hermann swallows around him, doesn't falter this time. Removes his hand, wipes his mouth against Otachi in the shape of a kiss.

Newton uncrosses his arms: a fending-off gesture realized too late. Both of his hands drift down to settle in Hermann's hair, his breathing harsh in the unfamiliar quiet. "Get up here," he says, "before I wax poetic telling you how awesome that was."

Hermann crawls up the length of Newton's body and settles with a satisfied shiver.

He likes to think that he could teach Karla a thing or two about slaying dragons.

 

3. Leatherback, Scunner

Hermann makes it to work, but only just; he's five minutes late for his nine-fifteen lecture, and Ming is sat in the front row looking entirely too chipper of a rain-drenched Tuesday morning. He can tell they haven't quite hit the point where they'd been considering walking out, although there's a ripple at the back, something reminiscent of a snicker, that's enough to bring out the worst in him, no holds barred. An hour and twenty minutes later, Ming is the only one who doesn't shuffle out of the room terrified. She doesn't even rise; instead, she thoughtfully regards him.

"You really are only just human," she says at length, a point grossly overstated, but there's something like an attempt at comfort in her voice, something that says Look, it's all right, your secret's safe with me. "You have a tidy flat in a nice part of the city and a husband any idiot can see you love madly, and then there's the part where you guys clawed your way through a bunch of scary shit using nothing but your brains and some improvised equipment and saved all the rest of us in the process."

"Miss Yan," says Hermann, "whatever your point, I suggest you reach it quickly."

Ming nods, as if in agreement, and finally gets up from her seat. She takes two steps forward, just close enough to touch Hermann, but her extended hand is full of what Hermann recognizes as his change from the night before. Her smile is sincere, not in the least sarcastic, and she bounces her hand a little for emphasis.

"There's a reason I tip Doctor Geiszler so well," she says, "and the thought of you tipping me is silly. Yeah, so I had to get the delivery job because I've been reckless and blown most of my spare cash on ink." She indicates her exposed forearms with her chin. "You guys saved my city, you and everyone else down in that dome. Saved my life. But if one stupid, brilliant guy hadn't done one stupid, brilliant thing, I wouldn't be standing here. And if you hadn't stood by him, neither would he."

"For God's sake," Hermann hisses. "Keep it. At least let me repay in some measure what you've done for him in return. He was at a loose end, and I do think—" He pauses. "It's for your sake, the sake of others like you, that he's coming back."

Shaking her head, Ming pockets the money and cautiously touches Hermann's arm.

"Then I'll repay you by doing better," she says with determination, and walks out.

Hermann is tempted at several points to leave work early and to let one of the departmental tutors cope with his afternoon seminar, but pride forbids such an action in the face of noblesse. If his afternoon students think less of him for coming across as subdued, they certainly don't show it; perhaps word of his snappishness from that morning had got around. The thought that they might be treading on eggshells irks him, but, in this kind of mood, he'll take what he can bloody well get.

He's got a tension headache in the works by the time he gets home, an irritation born of a thousand considerations. They depart on Thursday morning, which means not only packing enough for a two-week trip, but also seeing to it that Newton remembers he had better ferry the fish to Lu's residence before tomorrow is out.

He opens his mouth to say as much as he lets himself in, but the words die in his throat at the smell of something divine clearly coming from the kitchen. He kicks out of his shoes and makes his way down the hall; Newton meets him in the doorway with a glass of red wine and a slow kiss.

"That headache's coming on nasty, dude," he says, settling Hermann in his usual chair, "so if wine and food don't help, we'll get you a painkiller and—no, shush—you are just not going to work tomorrow if it's not gone in the morning, because we have a fuck-ton of long flights; also, it's bad enough the honeymoon's started and you've already had to spend two days with all those brats bugging you."

"One of those brats, as you call them," says Hermann, unsteadily sipping his wine, and, no surprise, it's Chianti to go with the made-from-scratch bolognese and whatever's in the store-bought ravioli simmering beside it, "may just be the answer to Chaucer's Franklin's riddle, had we but been players in it."

Newton gawps at him for a second, and then reaches for his glass of wine. "Someday, you're gonna tell me how deep this poetry-and-promises rabbit hole goes," he says, taking a long swallow. "It's been about a million years since I read the Canterbury Tales out of sheer boredom one summer when I was eleven or twelve, so you'll have to forgive me if I don't immediately know what the hell that means."

"Miss Yan is a good egg, is what it means," says Hermann, and pulls Newton into his lap in spite of the peril to both their glasses of wine. "A very good egg indeed." His hand creeps to Newton's left thigh, and then lower (just above his knee).

"They're quiet now," Newton tells him, presses cheek to temple. "Let it rest."

"Perhaps it's the wine talking," Hermann muses. "Medievalists are a notoriously debauched lot. I've heard rumors about their mother-ship conference."

"Bwah, Kalamazoo," Newton snorts. "Now there's a basket of crazy. One of Katia's suite-mates had stories. Your bibliography dancing badly, she called it."

Hermann spreads his fingers, palm flat, covering as much of the two kaiju as he can.

"Do you think we would've been grad-school sweethearts?" Newton blurts unexpectedly, his nose buried in Hermann's hair. "If we'd gone to the same place, I mean, or if one of us had done a study-abroad semester."

"Once we'd got our grand spat out of the way," replies Hermann, "I daresay I'd have taken you home one night after post-interdepartmental-seminar drinks and never let you go. I don't know which is more daunting, the thought of sharing a dormitory room with your clutter at MIT or what passes for same at TU." One of the pots belches and bubbles over; fortunately, it's the ravioli, only hot water.

"Shit," Newton sighs, twisting out of Hermann's lap. "Back to work. You drink up."

Hermann sips his Badia a Passignano as he watches Newton work.

True, he thinks, Dame Fortune could have been kinder. But would we have been who we've become?

 

4. Raiju, Slattern

They fall asleep on the sofa watching some more Firefly (they're almost through it, Newton reassures Hermann), half-drunk on wine and full of mozzarella-basil ravioli. Hermann wakes in discomfort just past midnight, so he rouses Newton with gentle impatience and bundles them both off to bed. When the alarm sounds at six, Hermann feels thoroughly rested and his headache is nowhere in evidence.

"Please stay home," sighs Newton, barely conscious. "What's one more day?"

"I'm meant to be administering an exam this morning, that's what," Hermann informs him, rearranging the covers so that Newton is snug in his habitual cocoon. "Go back to sleep, my love. I'll see you when I get home this evening."

"Was auch immer," Newton mumbles, drifting off, and Hermann makes a mental note to castigate Karla for her continued atrocious influence.

The exam proves uneventful, although one student doesn't show, which means Hermann will have a panicked email waiting for him when he returns to his office for lunch. Ming catches him at his office door to hand in some corrections; once he's seated at his desk and able to flip through, he finds a sealed greeting card addressed to DR. GOTTLIEB & DR. GEISZLER. It's a generic, innocuously designed white and gold card with elegant wedding bells on the front and CONGRATULATIONS! printed inside. Beneath Ming's bold hanzi signature, she's drawn a horde of unmistakable creatures in blue marker that have no business being as endearing as they are.

Hermann heats his lunch (leftover ravioli) in the kitchenette, returns to his office, and consumes it without incident. He's just about to have a look at the remaining few problem sets when a knock—curt, familiar, endlessly repetitive—sounds at his door. He rushes to answer so quickly it's undignified, and Newton stumbles into his arms.

"Hi," Newton says, pushing the door shut behind them. "I, um. I can explain. I took the tank over to Lu's place—by the way, Bertie does not think bus rides are fun—and since I was in the neighborhood, I thought I'd come keep you company till you have to go lecture at three. Is that okay?"

It's such a moronic question that, rather than dignify Newton with a verbal response, Hermann finds backing him up against the desk and kissing him far more appropriate. "Oh man," Newton moans when Hermann finally lets him breathe. "And here I thought you'd be difficult to convince." He hops up onto the desk, legs dangling, and reaches for Ming's card as soon as he spots it. "Will you look at that? She clearly digs the obscure ones. Hidoi, Taranais, Clawhook, Verocitor. Sweet."

In a fit of pique, Hermann snatches the card out of Newton's hand and slaps it back down on the desk. "What part of I have decided that seducing you inside my securely locked office is a marvelous idea didn't you understand?"

"Dude, no, you do not get to take the credit," Newton complains, hooking one leg around the backs of Hermann's thighs to tug him closer. "I came here for the express purpose of seducing you." He takes Hermann's cane out of his hand and props it against the wall, wrapping both legs around Hermann so that he can remain standing without too much strain. "I know we don't have that much time, so . . . "

"An hour and ten minutes is more than sufficient to allow for—for picking up the pieces," Hermann gasps. Newton has already got Hermann's waistcoat unbuttoned and his shirt untucked; Hermann works a hand in between them to unfasten Newton's jeans, stroking the soft hair at Newton's nape as they kiss. They're still giddy with this, with the no-holds-barred knowledge that they can have each other without fear of rejection, and Hermann fiercely hopes that they'll never take it for granted.

"You're hiding a checklist somewhere, aren't you?" Newton pants, all too willing to let Hermann tug his shockingly sensible jumper (and the lamentable t-shirt concealed beneath it) up over his head. "Shatterdome lab, check. Hotel rooms in seven different cities to date, check, not to mention totally shameless makeouts in bars and side-streets in about half of those. My old quarters, your old quarters, bedroom in the new place. Triple check. Kitchen, study, shower, living room—"

"Right here, thank you very much, check," mutters Hermann, impatient. He hauls Newton up in order to shove down his trousers, which results in both of them losing their balance and toppling down on the rug. As ever, Newton has managed to break Hermann's fall; Hermann sprawls over him, rubs the base of Newton's skull where it had thumped hard against the floor, and catches his mouth in a bruising kiss.

"Don't tease," Newton whimpers, hips canting up, and Hermann feels the contact as keenly as the close, ever-present hum of the drift. "Oh God don't tease, I'm—"

Hermann summons enough presence of mind to crawl off him just long enough to rid him of shoes, trousers, and briefs; Newton tries to sit up so that he can return the favor, but Hermann kisses him back down till he's limbs-askew shivering, and then takes care of the job himself. Side by side, they curl seamlessly into one another.

"Quiet now," Hermann whispers against Newton's cheek, taking them both in hand to deliver a series of swift, demanding strokes; at the telltale hitch of Newton's breath, at the spike of his own pulse, Hermann lets go, hitches Newton's right leg up tighter, and presses their bellies flush. "Shhh. Newton, I want you to—yes that's—oh."

Beneath Hermann's splayed hand, over the jut of Newton's hipbone and the softness of his side, sprawl a pair of monsters that Ming forgot.

 

5. Drifter

There's no reason that this should wake him: dreams are by their nature peculiar phenomena, but none so peculiar as one's sleeping mind rifling through pages upon pages upon pages of text, both handwritten and typed, filed carefully away in accordion binders and in web-mail folders meticulously organized by year and sub-organized by topic. For all that these letters obscure, they keep no secrets.

What the drift had done was render these not-so-much-secrets flesh.

Hermann rubs his eyes one-handed, glancing over Newton's shoulder at the alarm clock. Even though their bags are packed, they'll still have to be up in only a few hours' time in order to wash, dress, eat, and catch their taxi to the airport.

These facts seem inconsequential when pitted against his current realization: although he'd known on coming out of the drift that Newton had loved him, wanted him for so long and with such devastating intensity, it had still taken him nearly a fortnight to come to his senses and act in the face of Newton's repeated hint-dropping attempts.

(So, are you gonna come with me this time? Are you getting any of this—)

"Guess you were," says Newton, and slits one eye at Hermann in the semidarkness.

Hermann presses his lips to Newton's neck. "How much you wanted me to be there."

"We're a case-study in stupid regardless of what angle you come at this," Newton says, hand settling at the small of Hermann's back. "It helps me to remember what you said that once—the world was ending, we were both distracted, et cetera. You also told me I'd go mad if I thought about every lost chance, but it hadn't occurred to me that maybe you've been having trouble following your own advice."

"Your musing as to whether we might have tied the knot as postgraduates certainly didn't help," Hermann says before he can prevent the words from coming out of his mouth. "Newton, please, I forbid you to retroactively loathe yourself for having given in to sheer curiosity. It is what we do best: science as applied to Pandora's box."

"Can't help it," replies Newton, too softly. "Asking or hating myself, I mean."

Hermann closes his eyes and kisses the spot against which he's been speaking. "Then stop straightaway. There's something Ming said, too, yesterday—something I didn't tell you about, something also worth remembering. She said—first of all, you ought to know that this child hero-worships both of us nearly to the point of detriment—she said that if you hadn't done one stupid, brilliant thing, she wouldn't have been standing there, and that if I hadn't stood by you, you would never have . . . "

"Done the stupid thing," Newton prompts. "Just say it: drifted with a goddamn kaiju. Two of them, even. All of them."

" . . . and if she hadn't been there, the baby, one wildly improbable variable—I never would have drifted with you."

He's quiet, too quiet, his breathing harsh in the pre-dawn stillness and void.

"I've never believed in deity or in predestination, Hermann, but. The closest we get to divine handwriting, you said. If I hadn't done one stupid, brilliant thing, Ming said. And then, oh, and then, a guy who shouldn't even be breathing and my tattooed fairy godmother hand me one of her teeth done up like a fucking talisman on my wedding day. I can allow for coincidence, but what I really want is to believe in miracles."

"Perhaps now you understand why there's a grudging amount of room in this head of mine for the verse and whatnot that got crammed in while I was young and impressionable," says Hermann, dryly, but his tone is forced because Newton is trembling, and no, no, he will not let them descend into maudlin chaos. "Miracle and coincidence are nothing more than two angles from which to view the case-study," he forges on, stroking Newton's hair. "One carries trappings of belief and divine significance; the other permits no room for the extraordinary, no room for wonder. And," he adds, lowering his voice, "I should prefer to take pride and wonder in what I know full well is, in fact, extraordinary. I also said once that my faith in you needs no further testing, and I hope to God that the same applies to yours in me."

Newton laughs, then, a choked and helpless sound that makes Hermann worry for the briefest of moments, but he ought not to have done, because it's not long until Newton is shaking with hilarity and sheer relief. Hermann can't help but join in.

"Like you even have to ask," Newton says at length. "Like I even have to tell you."

"All things being equal," Hermann insists, "verbal confirmation is quite welcome."

"Then I am going to confirm the hell out of this," Newton replies, grinning. "Yes."

Chapter Text

Departure

Hermann jolts awake when a message chimes on Newton's mobile phone, dimly aware that he's been pillowed against Newton's shoulder for the better part of several hours. They'd kicked up the arm-rest between them, grateful of the space afforded by first class; he'd been too tired to argue with Newton's insistence that he sleep. Newton tucks Hermann's head under his chin, nuzzling, and frowns at his phone.

Hermann sighs and slits one eye. "You really ought to silence that blasted device."

The text on Newton's screen says: Awww, cute little fella. Looks like his daddy.

In response, Newton is already typing, Ha fucking ha. Guess you could argue for similarities in coloration. Look, this is Lu's number, but I know this isn't Lu. Why the hell are you using her phone? No minions hanging about for you to terrorize?

"Good God," Hermann sighs, too grudgingly interested to doze. "Is that . . . ?"

"Yup," says Newton. "He does this every once in a while. Just to be a bitch."

Hermann slides his right arm across Newton's belly and curls it around his waist.

"Would a photo deter him? Take one of your bloody selfies and have done with it."

Before Newton can tap into his camera application, Hannibal texts back with No, no, no. You goddamn moron. I meant his other daddy. Besides, aren't you his mom?

"I say," Hermann remarks, trying not to stiffen, "grammar credit where it's due."

"Yeah, but have you seen Lu's texts?" Newton remarks. "Ouch." He types back to Hannibal, Oh. Right. Gotcha. Yeah, I'd noticed the resemblance. First day I got him.

Hermann smacks Newton lightly on the hip. "Photograph," he says, commandeering the phone as soon as Newton has hit SEND. "Now." The result of his uncoordinated snapshot is slightly blurred; Newton had managed to press his lips to Hermann's forehead for the briefest of moments, eyes closed, and the result is Hermann looking smugly possessive whilst Newton looks blissfully content. Hermann sends the photograph to Lu's number before handing the phone back to Newton.

"Man, I gotta see this," says Newton, grinning hard. "Wonder what he'll say."

Give me a break, Hannibal replies. Ain't got much eyesight left. But anyway, that's not a bad idea given where you crazy kids are headed. Keep him warm, Gottlieb, or my girl will skin you alive. You've got an idea by now how precise she is with a knife.

"Sufficiently disturbing, thank you," says Hermann, dryly. "But touching, in a way."

"Ugh, no," Newton replies, flipping back over to the camera and holding it out at arm's length in front of them. "He so does not to get call Lu that and not have me take serious umbrage. C'mon, help me out here, chin up," he prompts, lowering his mouth to Hermann's, and Hermann is almost ashamed of how eager he is to oblige.

They choose the least blurry of the shots, stifling undignified snorts and giggles against each other's mouths, and send it before either of them regrets the decision. Hermann has never let himself be photographed whilst kissing someone before; he flips between the photos and studies the planes of their faces in slight awe. He sees what Newton means when he thinks, with giddiness equal to Hermann's, We fit.

I'm giving you till the count of three, Hannibal writes back, to cease and desist.

Hermann maneuvers Newton's hand so that the angle is more intimate when he wraps one hand around the back of Newton's neck and kisses him again, lingering this time, dragging away with a catch of teeth at Newton's lower lip. The sequence resulting from his frantic thumb-taps against the screen is shaky at best, but there's one photo in the midst of it that's captured what Hermann had been after, and so he sends it without a second thought before turning off Newton's phone.

"Dude, do you even realize what you just did?" says Newton, pink-cheeked and grinning even wider than before. "And, furthermore, that you enjoyed it?"

"Isn't this how one is meant to behave on one's honeymoon?" Hermann scoffs.

"I hate to say this," Newton mutters, "but I think we broke the nice stewardess."

Hermann waves to the woman taking orders, who'd tried to tactfully bypass them.

"Gin and tonic here, please," he says, and she flushes even deeper than Newton as she scribbles in her notepad. "White wine for this one, sweet to dry." She turns away just in time to miss Newton grabbing Hermann by the front of the shirt and kissing him some more, which is just as well. He knows they've caught the attention of the passengers seated across the aisle, too, whose reactions Hermann is doing his level best to ignore. Easier for him than for Newton, given his back's to them, but he can hear whispering and even stifled laughter.

"Enough for now, I should think," he says, pulling back, and straightens his collar.

Newton winces and lets his head drop to Hermann's shoulder. "How bad is it? Can you tell what they're saying? How many more hours till the layover in Helsinki?"

"Six and a half," Hermann reminds him. "I suggest either drinking, sleeping, or both." He lowers his voice and whispers in Newton's ear, "They recognize us, I'm very sorry to say, but on the bright side it means they won't dare say anything to our faces."

"Jesus Christ," Newton groans, rubbing his forehead. "You weren't kidding."

"Kidding about what?" Hermann asks, perplexed. "I'm rarely given to jests."

"Okay, number one," says Newton, sotto voce, ticking it off on his index finger, "that is a goddamn lie; number two, I'm referring to your astute observation of some months back that this is going to be the rest of our lives anyway and why did I not realize that; number three, oh my God I love you for knowing just what I like, but I really doubt they have Riesling. I'll be lucky if she brings some decent Pinot Gris."

To Hermann's disappointment, the gin is Bombay Sapphire, and to Newton's told-you-so petulance, the wine is Chardonnay. But they drink up, order seconds, and, between two loo-runs (one each), manage to sleep intermittently until landing.

As they stumble down the jetway, someone lightly touches Hermann's elbow.

"I wanted to thank you," says the young man, softly; he's half the couple who'd been sitting across the aisle, and his expression is earnest, not mocking in the least. "I mean, we wanted to thank you. We just thought it would have been rude to . . . "

"Shush," says his partner, leaning around his shoulder to smile apologetically. "Thank you for everything you've done, is what he's trying to say," she continues, "and also for reminding everybody it's fine to cut loose. For crying out loud, we won."

Newton is hanging onto Hermann's arm, exhausted and fiercely returning her smile.

"You're welcome," says Hermann, shaking the man's hand. "Yes, by Jove, we did."

 

Stockhlolm

By the time they touch down at Arlanda, it's eleven o'clock on Friday morning. Newton sleeps on Hermann's shoulder for the entirety of the thirty-minute cab ride into Stockholm while Hermann watches the snow-dusted landscape pass.

It's freezing, well below it, so Hermann is grateful of his parka. He finds Newton bundled in the puffy black winter coat that Hermann remembers from photographs of his academy days (and, yes, from the conference) nothing short of precious. Hermann pays the driver on arrival at their destination and shakes Newton. "We've arrived," he murmurs. "I need you ambulatory long enough for us to check in."

"Where are we?" Newton asks, pushing his glasses up far enough to rub his eyes.

It's only then that Hermann realizes he hasn't told Newton where they're staying, and he'd quite emphatically declined the notion of making their reservation at the Courtyard Kungsholmen. Newton deserves better in absolutely every respect.

"The Grand Hôtel," replies Hermann, letting Newton help him out of the cab.

"You mean the huge one on Södra Blasieholmshamnen that costs like four hundred bucks a night, and that's the cheap rooms?" Newton asks, staring at the entrance, still holding onto Hermann's arm. "Hermann, this is posh even for you. How much—"

"I would like you to shut it," says Hermann, waving the bellhop over to remove their luggage from the back of the taxi, "and let me get us somewhere we can fall over and sleep without risking stiff necks. Do you think you can you manage that?"

"Yeah," says Newton, dazedly blinking at the elegant lobby as they enter.

Newton manages not to choke when the concierge confirms what they're paying for four nights and hands both key-cards over to him; Hermann can't help but feel vindicated as he fishes out his wallet. He'll not have Newton sitting around on tile floors draped in towels aching for something beyond his reach. Rather, he'll have him wrapped in cotton sheets finer than what they've got at home—warm, well rested, and shivering only if the pleasure's too much to bear. And as responsive as Newton is . . .

Hermann thanks the concierge, bites his lip, and whisks Newton toward the lift.

Their room is wall-to-wall white and dove grey, lit by chandeliers and floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows affording a harbor view opposite the blue-damask headboarded bed. Hermann settles on the edge of the mattress, kicks out of his shoes, and sinks back against the gratuitous pile of rose and cream pillows with relief. Newton, finding this all a bit too much to absorb, drifts to a halt in front of the windows; Hermann watches, undressing slowly, as Newton lets his coat drop to the floor.

"I can even stare at the sea without freezing my ass off," he remarks cryptically.

"Come over here," Hermann implores, yawning, "so I can see to it that you don't."

Newton sheds his clothes in an untidy pile next to his coat, stumbles over and crawls onto the bed with even less grace than Hermann has come to expect of him in a sleep-deprived state. There are too many pillows, more than they can possibly use, so three quarters of them end up strewn on the floor in their quest to wrestle down the covers.

Hermann wriggles until he finds a position that's comfortable, pulls Newton as close as he can, and feels exhaustion swallow them both before they've even had the chance to settle. When next he opens his eyes, it's early evening, and Newton is breathing evenly into the space between Hermann's neck and the duvet: drowsy, but wakeful.

Newton props himself up on one elbow and regards Hermann with hungry, half-lidded eyes, but there's something shy and unreadable in his expression that gives Hermann the impression he's looking at some version of him far younger and less cynical than the Newton he'd taken, at last, to his bed. He touches Hermann's face—fingertips light, hesitant—and leans closer, his glasses having been left on the nightstand.

"Fancy meeting you here," whispers Hermann, his throat constricting, overcome.

"I would've said fuck the papers," admits Newton. "If only I'd just met you for dinner like we'd planned; God, I wanted you to invite me upstairs—"

Hermann kisses him, rolls him over, can't stand it. He knows these things, knows full well what Newton would have done, knows it as well as Newton knows what he would have done, and still he opens his mouth and the words spill over—

"I can't change it, Newton, can't change that I didn't hold you when I should have done, didn't lock the door for days on end and then ask you to follow me home. Your orders from Pentecost would have come that last night of the conference regardless; they would have taken you from me until Hong Kong even so."

"Lima really, really sucked," Newton pants between kisses, frantic, squirming so that Hermann can settle against him, find an easy rhythm. "I mean, yeah, the access to kaiju parts was unprecedented, fuck, Hermann, fuck—it's just, your letters kept me—"

"As yours kept me," Hermann murmurs, mindless with needing this, with Newton a hair's breadth from shuddering exquisitely to pieces and damn every last memory he has of either one of them suffering the emptiness that had been lacking each other. Hermann kisses Newton again, groaning with it. He works a hand in between them, and Newton seizes under him, comes almost as soon as he's been touched.

"Mmm, lemme get that," Newton sighs, not quite coherent after long seconds of Hermann stroking him gingerly through the aftershocks, and rakes unsteady fingers across the mess on his belly before finally, mercifully taking Hermann's cock in his hand. Whether it's this early, unprecedented articulacy in the wake of climax or some other factor—slickness coating his fingertips, warm pad of his thumb circling taut and perfect just beneath the head—Hermann's the one lost and sobbing, too far gone.

He drifts a while, eyes shut tight, gasping over the sensitive spot just beneath Newton's left earlobe. Newton is massaging the small of Hermann's back, his hips, his thighs with sticky uncoordinated fingers, and Hermann can't help but muse with a touch of hazy, sated hilarity that Newton's propensity for reckless handling of biological material extends even so far as the bedroom.

Newton freezes, mutters something that sounds like hey, and pinches Hermann's sides repeatedly enough to tickle. Hermann winces and tries to jerk away from him, what with an inordinately expansive bed at his disposal, but Newton uses both legs to trap him, and Hermann's struggling devolves swiftly into writhing, helpless laughter.

"Housekeeping's gonna hate us," says Newton, winding down his assault. He turns his head and smacks a kiss against Hermann's cheek, and it's all Hermann can do not to squeeze the breath out of him. He does it anyway, propriety be damned, and nuzzles his way from Newton's neck up to his mouth. "Okay, um, mmm. Yep. Weird-cuddly-squishy is awesome, totally cool, I'm on-board, but I've also got this problem where I'm starving and there are like four fucking gourmet restaurants inside this hotel."

"One of them serves breakfast and lunch only, one of them is casual dining, one of them is formal dining, and one of them is a bar," says Hermann. "I'd like for us to have a proper evening meal, Newton. Formal if you can stand it."

"No, no way, not our first night in," Newton wheedles, kissing Hermann's neck. "Protocol states we throw on as few items of clothing as we can get away with, go have food, then come back here and get naked again stat. You enthusiastically snogged me on a freaking airplane, dude, so you've got no room to complain. Put on some goddamn jeans and a button-down shirt, forget about your socks, and let's go."

"Shower first," Hermann counters, combing through Newton's hair. "I insist."

 

Berlin

Hermann has seen to it that Newton is not only well rested by the time they arrive in Berlin on the third of March, but also well fed and unquestionably on the endorphin high of his life (no easy feat, not when your partner has spent a hundred hours or more across dozens of sessions under the needle). It's worth celebrating.

The welcoming committee at baggage claim in Tegel International consists of Bastien in sunglasses, a wool pea coat, and a cable-knit muffler that Hermann recognizes as Karla's handiwork. He hugs Newton first, rocking back on his heels so as to lift him.

Newton squeaks, scrabbling at Bastien's shoulders for balance. "Dude, no need to rub it in," he says, sticking to English. "You're one tall motherfucker just like your dad. How's it hanging? From Hong Kong to here is a brutal commute, and you've only been home a week. Have you gotten over your jet-lag? "

"Just barely," Bastien laughs, pushing his sunglasses up into his hair as he lets go of Newton. "Brother dear, do me a favor and don't look so dour," he says teasingly, accepting Hermann's one-armed embrace with equal enthusiasm. "I'm on orders to drop you off at Karla's; she figured out where you were staying and canceled your reservation. Charles rushed to finish renovations on their guest-room, so you're set."

"I suppose his idea of do-it-yourself involves lining the walls with those lamentable oddities he calls lithographs," mutters Hermann, plucking at the lapels of Bastien's coat and wrinkling his nose at the sunglasses. "Your latest affectation, I presume?"

"Shut up, Hermann," Newton chides, hauling their second suitcase off the conveyor belt. "Unless you can rock that look half as well as he does, leave it the hell alone."

"So you took my advice," says Bastien, and winks at Newton. "Back to bickering."

As they exit to the car park, Hermann makes a mental note to dress as casually as possible for the duration of at least this particular sojourn, if only to keep Newton humble. It's late, coming on ten o'clock in the evening, which means no one can possibly blame him for making a relative show of cuddling up to Newton in the back seat of Bastien's car while Bastien claims driver's prerogative and flips through radio stations on the twenty-minute journey to Karla's cozy semi-detached house in Schöneberg.

"See you in the morning," says Bastien, getting back into his car after helping Newton to extract their suitcases from the boot. "Karla's insisted on family breakfast in the sunroom. Dieter-and-Father free, of course, you'll be pleased to know."

"You won't stay?" asks Hermann, taking hold of the door handle. "Help us settle in?"

"I've got to meet someone, I'm afraid," he says, rolling up the window. "Running late!"

"He burns the candle at both ends, huh?" Newton asks, wrangling both suitcases as Bastien drives off. Hermann snags one away from him and starts toward the porch.

"Perhaps," he mutters, reaching the porch before Newton, and rings the doorbell. "Whether that's the case, or it's one end or the other, not a one of us quite knows."

"Secretive just like you," says Newton, waving at Karla through the diamond-shaped central window in the door as she pulls it open. "Where does he live—Kreuzberg?"

"Friedrichshain," Hermann sighs, and he's faced with an armful of exuberant sibling for the second time in an hour. "Karla, dear girl, for God's sake. It's cold."

"Charles is already sleeping," she whispers loudly, taking the suitcase away from Hermann, and leads them inside. "He put in a long day at the studio, poor lamb. Bastien's probably mentioned that breakfast is at ten. Shoes off," she prompts, waiting while they comply, and indicates the coat-hooks on the wall. "Guest-room's back this way, just past the loo. Charles did it up himself."

Karla hugs them both on the threshold, lingering over Newton, and then leaves.

Newton studies the walls while Hermann fishes nightclothes and toiletries for both of them out of the suitcases. A swift glance around the room had provided Hermann with more than a small amount of pleasant surprise; the paintings on the walls are all Karla's, these interspersed at intervals with family photographs. Newton lingers over one of them, so Hermann reluctantly joins him, one arm laden with t-shirts and pajama-bottoms. Even now, the sight of his mother's face is painful.

"You and Karla look like her," says Newton, reaching to take the clothes out of Hermann's grasp. "I never realized. Now I know where you both get those intense eyes and gorgeous cheekbones. Karla's got a bit of your dad in the forehead and chin, though. Dieterich, now, that's just creepy. At this point, he might as well be your dad twenty years ago, am I right?" He squints at the photo. "Huh, but he's got blue eyes. Must've been recessives hiding in there somewhere."

"Mercifully, Bastien inherited Mother's temperament," says Hermann, and fetches their toothbrushes off the bed. "I fear you'll find that's not the case with Dieterich."

Newton catches Hermann around the waist and kisses his cheek. "If anybody tries canceling our hotel reservation in London, we'll make a new one. I'm not staying with your old man, no way, and you said Dieterich and Anan haven't got the room."

"Please tell your mother that we shall be happy to take her up on her offer," says Hermann, nudging Newton in the direction of the hall. "Even Karla's actions, in truth, aren't unwelcome. After Stockholm, our bank accounts could do with a rest."

"I'm gonna miss that big bed," Newton admits once they're both brushed, changed, and under the covers. "I have to say, though, those bathrobes are nice souvenirs." Hermann kisses him, runs his thumbs gently over the corners of Newton's eyes.

"I shall take you back as often as I can afford it, darling, just see if I won't."

In the morning, Karla rouses them with a rap on the door. Hermann had been awake for some time, lounging with a still sleeping Newton's bed-tousled head tucked against his shoulder. There's no need for propriety, so they pad to the sunroom barefoot with the Grand Hôtel robes thrown on over their pajamas. Karla comes in with the tea tray as soon as they've settled in a pair of wicker chairs; she's lovely with her hair down and dark circles under her eyes, Hermann thinks, ignoring the pang in his chest.

Charles comes in yawning, robed and slippered, as gangling and ginger and awkward as Hermann remembers him. They'd come to Hong Kong briefly in two thousand and twenty-one, but Newton had been visiting his father and uncle in America at the time.

"No need to stand," he reassures them, taking the wicker chair next to Newton's. "You must be the Doctor Geiszler my wife's forever nattering on about. It's an honor to meet you," he says, offering Newton his hand. "Hermann," he adds, his smile radiant.

"You can call me Newt," says Newton, accepting the awkward handshake with an exasperated sidelong glance at Hermann. "Or Newton, or whatever. There's this—this sort-of-friend of ours, he—well, he spends most of his time calling me Doc."

They're well into plates of beans over toasted soda-bread with Karla's excellent bacon, eggs, sausage, and fried tomatoes on the side when Bastien swaggers in fifteen minutes late, albeit fully and stylishly dressed, with another young man in tow.

"Is there room for one more?" he asks, sweeping off his sunglasses, and hits Karla with doe-eyed penitence. "This is Tamer, and he's ever so keen to meet—" Before Hermann can open his mouth to chide Bastien, Karla beats him to it.

"Where are your manners?" she demands, but rises to pull over two more chairs from against the wall before graciously shaking Tamer's hand. "Mister Çakir, my husband and I are great admirers of your work. We attended your recent exhibition . . . "

"Guess this might answer your question," Newton whispers, "about which end—"

"I trust you'll be so kind as to keep him entertained," Hermann mutters, feigning sudden, intense interest in his tea, "seeing as it's us he's ever so keen to meet."

"Aw, c'mon," Newton coaxes, nudging Hermann's elbow. "Give him a chance. It's not every day you're offered that kind of admiration, and by a rock-star photographer, no less. I bet you'll be thrilled to have him steal your baby brother away. Let somebody else be exhausted taking care Bastien's high-maintenance ass for once."

"I suppose," says Hermann, with a resigned smile, and shakes Tamer's hand.

 

Vienna

Monica Schwartz stands precisely as tall as her son and is one of the most commanding presences Hermann has ever encountered. She's everywhere at once, short-haired and quick-eyed, and within ten minutes of her collecting them from baggage claim, the source of both Newton's restless energy and his infuriating, quirk-riddled handsomeness could not have been more readily apparent.

"You were in Berlin for five days?" she asks Newton in German as she drives, and not one of them has spoken a word of English since she'd snuck up behind them in the terminal and tapped Newton on the shoulder. "I hope you gave it my best. My fondest years there were those I spent watching you grow. And how was Stockholm?"

"Four and a half days, yes, but near enough," Hermann volunteers when he can see that Newton's expression is jammed on the fond, exasperated version of his is-this-person-actually-serious-right-now face. "Stockholm remains entirely charming. Newton sent a postcard from the Nobelmuseet; did you receive it?"

"I did," says Monica, pleased, "and I imagine your faces will be next to grace—"

"Mom, nobody cares about getting prizes for major intellectual achievements back online just yet," Newton points out. "Or anything else, for that matter. We're still trying to figure out what to do now that the world's got its future back."

"You've figured out what to do," replies Monica, adjusting one of her diamond-stud earrings. "Getting married and starting to teach again, that's a great start."

"Her point, I believe, is that we're likely amongst those first in line for the accolade," says Hermann, watching Monica's eyes light up in the rear-view mirror.

Newton shakes his head, staring out the window. "I respectfully decline. They'll give it to everyone who lost their lives in the War if they know what's good for them." As Hermann kisses the back of Newton's hand, he watches Monica's eyes turn soft.

Monica keeps a quaint, tidy flat not far from Kärntnerstraße and the State Opera House. The entrance is up several flights of stairs, a state of affairs for which Hermann's hip will not be thanking her later, but the residence itself occupies an entire level of the building. They shut themselves in the guest room after supper while Monica retires to practice. Her room is just far enough removed that the plaintive strains of Mozart and Haydn register as quiet, ethereal background static while Newton struggles to stifle his cries in a pillow. His fingers tangle in Hermann's hair.

"Shhh," Hermann whispers, stroking the backs of Newton's thighs before bending to give him another considering lick. "It's all right. No one's listening. Certainly not your—"

"More sucking, less talking," Newton gasps. "That's the last thing I want to . . . "

Hermann does as he's told; he nips and nuzzles until Newton abandons the pillow in frustration and all too quietly begs. He comes several minutes later—moaning, incoherent—and Hermann crawls back up the length of his body to seek the warmth of Newton's belly, his hand, the crease of his thigh. They sleep clinging, tangled.

Some hours later, near midnight, Hermann wakes to the sensation of something vibrating nearby and to the soft glow of Newton's phone as he lounges next to him, chin in hand, impatiently tapping the screen. Newton sighs and offers the phone; Hermann squints at it. The text message reads just look at his collection - he will want to take it home, greedy little dragon!!!! and, below that, there's a photograph of Bertie's tank surrounded by a baffling array of objects: Lu's key-chain, a bright purple stapler, a pair of kitchen shears, an Eiffel Tower snow-globe, and a folding knife.

That is all kinds of not okay, Newton types, keeping the phone at an angle so Hermann can easily see the screen. Did you give him that, or did Hannibal?

Lu responds with i did, and then, as if hesitant to say so, hannibal is sleeping.

"Tell her that I will not, under any circumstances, permit such a garish assortment of random objects to populate my coffee table," says Hermann, rolling to face the wall.

"Neither will I, dude," Newton agrees, and tosses his phone on the floor. "Tired."

"Come here," Hermann murmurs, gathering Newton close in the duvet.

The next day, while Monica coaches her cast in an all-day rehearsal, they sleep late, haunt a nearby pastry shop for a spot of decadent breakfast, and stroll in and out of shops until Newton finds gifts for Tendo, Allison, and Lu. Hermann points out that Herc might appreciate something, although they're at a loss as to what.

"We can put him off till London," Newton suggests, kicking out of his boots once they've returned to the flat. He directs Hermann to the nearest chair, coaxes him to sit, and bends down to untie his shoes for him, swatting Hermann's hands away when he tries to take over the task. "I bet he's jonesing for proper biscuits or something. I mean, we could pick up some nice beer, but we'd risk getting smacked on our way back through customs. Shipping is kind of a joke; it'd take too long."

"Something more substantial than that is called for, one feels," remarks Hermann, thoughtfully, and tilts his head at Newton when he sets his hands back on Hermann's ankles even after removing his shoes and socks. "For all he's done in the face of so much hardship. Newton, what on earth are you—"

"She's not home for another two hours," says Newton, letting his hands slide up to Hermann's thighs as he leans forward for a kiss, "and I owe you one from last night."

"For crying out loud, you do not owe me," Hermann sputters, but Newton's mouth covering his and Newton's fingers unfastening his trousers form far too compelling an argument. "But if there's nothing I can do to persuade you otherwise . . . "

They're decent by the time Monica arrives, although it's a near thing; she finds them curled up on the sofa while the entirety of her latest recording plays on the sound system. Newton flicks through screens on his tablet, catching up on whatever news they've missed, while Hermann dozes to what is admittedly an extremely fine rendition of Schubert's Die Erlkönig. Monica's expression is tentative, apprehensive.

"My compliments to the artist," says Newton, setting his tablet on the coffee table, and fetches the mug of peppermint tea he's been idly sipping. "Fantastic stuff."

Hermann opens his eyes wider than a slit and sits up. "I should like a signed copy, if it's been released in any tangible format," he says. "Compact disc, perhaps?"

"I'll see to it you don't leave without one," says Monica, setting her handbag aside, fairly radiating relief. "Have you thought about where you'd like to go for dinner?"

"Steirereck sounds worth it for the extensive wine cellar alone," says Newton, "but Glacis Beisl is more Hermann's speed. Do you prefer one over the other?"

"We'll do one tonight and one tomorrow," says Monica, taking a seat in her armchair.

Hermann closes his eyes, content, letting music and the lilt of conversation lull him.

 

London

Dieterich, Anan, and the children meet them at Heathrow on the twelfth, which is far more of a greeting than Hermann had been expecting. Lily, who by all rights should remember Hermann the least, launches herself at them with a smile luminous enough to chase any remaining doubt from Hermann's mind. Newton bends to intercept her so that she doesn't knock them over in a clatter of luggage; she's small for seven, but strong, and Newton swings her up in his arms like she weighs nothing.

"Is it true you've got pictures on you?" she asks, breathless. "All those monsters?"

"Entirely, dear girl," Hermann tells her, reaching up to brush her cheek. "You were a baby when I last saw you, although I suppose we've chatted now and again when your father's called, haven't we?" Hermann returns Anan's embrace warmly and then extends a hand to Dominik, who remains perfectly still at his father's side. "Like father, like son, is it?" Hermann remarks, nodding to Dieterich, whose stiff handshake is more than enough deterrent from tempting an equally stiff embrace.

"Dom's shy," says Lily, wrapping her arms around Newton's neck. "But not me."

"It's your first trip back since all the fuss, am I correct?" Dieterich asks.

"We stopped here on the press tour, but not enough time for a visit," says Newton, seeing to it he's got a hold on Lily with one arm and reaching back to take hold of his suitcase with the other. "They whisked us from place to place pretty fast."

"We watched you on telly," says Anan, smiling kindly, and it's a steadfast reminder of why Hermann has always been fond of her. "Lily's just star-struck, and I think you'll have had enough of her questions before your visit's through."

"I've got questions," says Dominik, unexpectedly. "About the Jaegers."

"Then between Uncle Hermann and Grandfather, you'll be in good company at supper tonight," says Dieterich. "Let's get these two dropped off at their hotel, shall we?"

The Millennium Bailey's is elegant, serviceable, and conveniently close to both Gottlieb residences. If Newton has any misgivings about Hermann's father hosting dinner, he tactfully keeps them to himself. Hermann holds him while he sleeps, regretful that they've only got a few hours until they're due in Stanhope Mews. Hermann's father had sold the family house and bought a smaller two-bedroom residence not long after his mother's death. Hermann longs to rest, but finds himself too tightly wound.

They order a taxi for six o'clock; walking would have been well within the realm of possibility, but Newton insists that the day's travel has been more than enough for both of them. Hermann rings the doorbell while Newton fidgets nervously over the bottle of champagne in his arms, errant thought-echoes clearly telegraphing the memory of Tendo's gift so many months ago. Lily answers, tugging them inside.

"Dom's got a model Jaeger," she says, pointing to her brother, who kneels intently at the coffee table with a fine-tipped bottle of glue in one hand and some miniscule part grasped between thumb and index finger. "Uncle Hermann, Daddy says you're ace at those. He's in the kitchen helping Mum with food. At school, nobody else's dads cook."

"What are they making?" Hermann hears Newton ask her while he makes his way to the sofa so he can sit down and study the boy's progress. Dominik glances up at him.

"Uncle Hermann told Mum on the computer that you love food like my Nan and other Grandpa make when we go visit," Lily explains, leading Newton by the hand into the kitchen, "so she and Daddy decided bozena shiro would be really good."

"Doesn't he want to help us with this?" asks Dominik, staring after them, crestfallen.

"Newton's something of a hobbyist when it comes to cookery," says Hermann, accepting the pair of tiny pieces that Dominik is holding out in his palm. "You'll have more than enough chance while we're eating to ask him whatever you'd like."

"Grandfather's in the study," says Dominik, handing Hermann the glue. "He's done nothing for a week but tell everyone you were coming. I wish he'd come out."

"He's had a busy time, I should think, wrapping up work in preparation for our arrival," ventures Hermann, carefully. "I can hear his voice back the hall; he's probably on the phone. He'll be with us in no time at all, mark my words."

"He works too much," Dominik insists. "Doesn't help me with these anymore."

"Perhaps I ought to have a word with him," says Hermann, setting down the two pieces he's glued together with care. "Dom, I won't be a moment. Have a look at the diagram and see what's next, won't you? There's a sharp lad," he adds, rising.

The trip to his father's study feels longer than it ought, but he's determined. The door isn't locked, and his father is no longer on the phone. He's staring at a holo-screen, the contents of which vanish with the wave of his hand no sooner than Hermann has shut the door behind him.

"Good evening, Father," Hermann greets him, making his way over to the desk. Lacking a second chair, the best he can do is clear some space on the edge for sitting. "You've been well since last we spoke, I trust?"

"I wasn't certain as to whether we were, in fact, still speaking," Lars admits, swiveling his chair so that they're facing each other, "so I'm quite relieved to learn that we are."

"There's no call for what you did that night, no call for the things you said," says Hermann, doing his level best to maintain a reasonable tone, "and you know it."

Lars nods at Hermann's left hand where it's resting on the edge of the desk, pointing to the plain platinum band. "So you're a married man now, I'm given to understand?"

"Yes, well," says Hermann. "You'd never have forgiven me if I hadn't made him honest."

"Your mother would have been proud," replies Lars, averting his eyes. "She would have loved Doctor Geiszler like one of her own, so I'm determined to do the same. He's a lovely boy, Hermann, but he's rash. I'll not see you hurt on a whim—"

"We've hurt each other quite enough for one lifetime," Hermann says, "so you needn't worry. In fact, I daresay I've taken a page out of your book and done most of it myself. We lost her, Father; we lost her far too soon. There's no changing what's past—only making reparations, only moving forward. Won't you let the rest of us have some peace? Perhaps try to find your own in that?"

It's his father suddenly on his feet and crushing the breath out of him that Hermann would never have foreseen, his father clinging to him with all of his daunting strength and imploring, more sobbed than spoken, "Forgive me." Which is how Newton finds them several minutes later when he creeps into the study wearing a guilty expression.

"The food's ready, dude," he says, clearing his throat. "Mistress Lily is adamant."

Hermann thumps his father on the back, and then brushes at the corner of his eye.

"Then we'll be along straightaway," he says, and Newton looks like he wants nothing more than to throw his arms around Hermann and shield him from whatever had been transpiring. "Don't just stand there, Newton. Go on and help her set the table."

"Table's already set, FYI," he informs them, his smile hesitant, and ducks back out.

"You're the most like her," says Lars, proudly, taking Hermann's arm. "Never forget it."

"Not a day that I breathe," Hermann sighs. "Come on. Your grandson is cross with you."

Chapter Text

February 20, 2017

Dear Dr. Gottlieb,

So, I guess I'm the one who caves first. I've decided I'm okay with that.

The initial draft of this letter was pretty much an itemized list of Which of Us Did What Shit Wrong in Stockholm and How We Could Have Avoided the Clusterfuck, sans snappy title, but I realized after printing that it was mean, stupid, and entirely unproductive. Thank goodness for good old-fashioned document shredders, right?

For what it's worth, this is my best attempt at an olive branch. See that salutation? I'm hitting the reset button. I don't give a damn which of us did what anymore; I just want us to be friends again. Or whatever it is that we were. Are. Could be? Look: I'm sorry. What I did was dumb even by my standards, so that should tell you something; euphoria got in the way. Endorphins, meet opioid receptors. Das Ende.

I'd wanted to write sooner, but getting my life packed up and shipped to Lima took a week longer than Pentecost had technically allocated for the move. He wasn't happy about that; now I'm here, whatever, he can deal. I could have written a week ago once I finished settling in, but being in charge of a lab and three minions underlings means ten- or twelve-hour work days. I was cleaning out my webmail folders last night and found the very first email one of us ever sent the other. Do you remember who wrote first? Maybe I won't tell you. Anyway, that wasn't the part that was important. It was the date. I thought, huh—February 20, 2013. Felt like someone walked over my grave. I'm typing this four years later to the day.

If we're laying ground rules here, which I think would be smart, let's agree not to talk business in hard-copy correspondence. Let's reserve that for emailing Collab Draft #2 back and forth, okay? We got the ball rolling on that while I was at the Academy last year, and I don't want it to become unfinished business. Ball's in my court, so that should be easy: all you have to do is wait till I send it back to you with some additions. And I'm suddenly aware I'm breaking my own rule by talking business.

Where I am, it's seventy-five degrees Fahrenheit and sunny; looks like you poor bastards in LA are having torrential rain. I hear your Shatterdome is nearing completion and on track for opening late this year. This place is brand-spanking-new, just opened in August last year (you probably knew that was coming, like, months and months in advance, because you always seem to have access to the good drugs—as information goes). I've never had a lab this clean, but I bet you dollars to donuts that it's not going to stay that way. Díaz drops more specimens on the floor than I do, which is a genuine accomplishment. I foresee our own version of the Darwin Awards come the holiday office party. Do PPDC regs permit Officers and Rangers to boogie down in December? I never thought to ask.

I'm going to leave this here for now. Heaven knows I miss your twelve-page blather-fests and silly Polaroids, but, never mind, I'm the one who started that crap in the first place. I have a wicked sunburn, and I'm sure you'd like nothing more than to mock that shit into next week. No photos for you. Can you be pissed at someone and also miss them? Am I allowed to say that?

My best from the back of beyond,
Dr. Newt(on) Geiszler

 

 

 

 

*

15 March 2017

Dear Dr. Geiszler,

How kind of you to spare me your daguerreotype theatrics. Quite frankly, you're allowed to say whatever you bloody well like so long as I'm afforded the same courtesy. Your remarking upon the weather in our respective locations is cheap, if predictable, so I shan't stoop to the blow. Those storms have since passed.

Your terms are, dare I say it, reasonable. I had begun to believe our most recent joint research dead in the water, but I shall leave that unpleasant business to whichever leviathan next falls. If we're in the business of asking useless rhetorical questions, would it be crass of me to admit that I hope you're in agony for having read my self-indulgent attempt at facetiousness? Carry on with your dissection; nothing to see.

Further to your childish, if touchingly sentimental ruminations upon our correspondence: of course I remember who wrote first. That I should need to state a fact of which we are both quite well aware is ludicrousness itself. Simply put, I refuse. I will note, however, that by the date of this letter four years ago, we had exchanged no fewer than a hundred and twelve missives. It made my head ache just to expand the threads. I cannot help but wonder how either one of us could possibly have found the other so enthralling as to throw over perfectly salient research in favor of egging each other on in wild speculation. I suppose this question answers itself.

It is my sincere hope that this Díaz individual, whoever they are, is prepared for the sheer, demanding idiocy that is sharing space with you for even five minutes, let alone ten- and twelve-hour work days. Then again, given their propensity for failing to juggle hazardous material, the case may be that the two of you will get on swimmingly. For my part, the junior staff here are tiresome, if competent, although the vagaries of working on erasable surfaces in real-time have become readily apparent. Officer Ts'osie has on more than one occasion caught Officer Rivera attempting to alter some of my lower-lying calculations for, as they say, shits and giggles. I'm convinced that filing complaints is the single most useless action one can undertake in this godforsaken, shambles-bound organization, but needs must.

Allow me to propose an addendum to our no-business-discussion rule: the day to day trials of PPDC service do not, under any circumstances, count. Research and collaboration, quite fair enough, but I would prefer to have a sympathetic eye for purposes of venting my frustrations with these often misguided youths. While I take little comfort in your alma-mater-sanctioned high opinion of petty pranks, you'll discover soon enough that we are largely dealing with numb-skulls who ought to have been put through a second training battery at the Academy.

It is my understanding that holiday festivities vary from outpost to outpost, so take that as you will. We here in Los Angeles do appreciate the value of a modest evening reception, to say nothing of the rumors regarding what happens at the after-party. Our proximity to celebrities and the celebrity-obsessed has on more than one occasion proven mildly disastrous. The paparazzi, whose ancestral breeding-grounds we inhabit, storm the Marshall at every opportunity when he pays us a visit.

I leave you with reassurance that I look forward to your ghastly paper edits.

With my sincerest, utmost tolerance,
Dr. Hermann Gottlieb

 

 

*

April 24, 2017

Dear Dr. Gottlieb,

I probably owe you an apology for getting so chatty via email these past few weeks, but it's all I can do to prevent you from taking offense to every single goddamn piece of crit I give you on this article. I'm not out to prove anything except that you need to tone down your definitive statements; you do not know any of this shit for sure any more than I do. It's a theory. I don't know what it will take to convince you that I can hardly get my hands on samples fast enough (or fresh enough) to prove this fucking point. I know you feel like you're pulling ninety percent of the weight, but I swear to God, if you were to set foot in this lab and take an honest look at the degradation and freezer damage I'm dealing with on a daily basis

This is me stopping mid-sentence because I'm breaking my own rule. Sorry.

How about those new Jaegers! I've got to be honest with you, if I were the J-Tech crews in Australia and Canada, I would program Specter and Brutus to bow and grovel uncontrollably before the sheer, unmitigated awesomeness that is Crimson Typhoon. Where'd China find those kick-ass Wei triplets? Furthermore, how on earth did you manage to tweak the code to allow for such a thing? Or was it courtesy of that current crop of CMU P-Tech dorks in Anchorage? If so, they'd have done Lightcap proud. Let's be honest, though: you had to work with them in order to pull this off, or they had to work with you. Either way. I'll let you pick the wording you like best.

In other PPDC rumor-mill news, which totally chaps Pentecost's ass, I've heard they're going to finish construction on the Sydney dome ahead of schedule. I had a text from an academy buddy of mine who swears they'll be opening no later than May 31st—"cross [his] heart and hope to die, brother." This is great news for Australia, if only because the Tokyo dome is 1000% done putting up with crazy-as-fuck Rangers from the Outback. Shhh. You didn't hear that from me.

I might be just a little tipsy right now. I know a guy who knows a girl who can get decent beer; or, rather, Díaz knows a guy who knows a girl who can get decent beer, which means I know a girl who knows a guy who knows a girl who can get decent beer. Look, I'm still bothering to make this letter all proper for you even though I'm halfway to plastered. I had to re-type that four times.

Hey, there are even rumors that your own under-construction dome down there in LA is going to open before the summer is out—well ahead of schedule. I bet it'll be awesome for you to get out of that drab government lockdown facility and into complete and total chaos. I am so so so looking forward to hearing you bitch and moan about cocky Rangers pulling the same kind of shit that your junior staff pull.

Quid pro quo time: you have got to promise me some classified info from your end, because I gave you everything I've got. And, as I said before, you always seem to know crap to which you're not supposed to have access. I still can't believe you managed to get me that list of my incoming Academy cohort before the press even released our names to the public. Do you have a source, or are you just a super-secret hacker? Oh my God, I knew it. You're totally a super-secret hacker.

Anyway, I hate to cut the fun short, but I'm starting to feel sick. Like, genuinely I'm-gonna-hurl kind of sick. I might have lied when I told you I'm tipsy and then claimed I'm halfway to drunk. Neither of those things is true. I'm completely shit-faced, but I'm too proud to let this letter look like I didn't bother to put in the effort. See? I'm so drunk I'm even telling you that.

Smart-ass Choi sends his regards from Alaska,

and I send mine from the bathroom floor,

Dr. Newt Geiszler

who misses you calling him newton and also wants you to call him a kaiju groupie somewhere other than in writing for serious can you call me?

 

 

*

I know you don't answer my texts these days,
or, if you do, it's like eight days later and by
then the message is irrelevant, but seriously
it is now tomorrow afternoon and that letter has
already been taken out with the mail bag because
Díaz found the print-off on my desk and decided
to put it in an envelope and seal it for me while
I was still curled up in a hung-over ball of ick.

Oh, God, don't read that freaking letter. Don't.

 

 

*

All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall
be well, Doctor Geiszler. I am answering your text
within two hours of receipt, and I am advising you
to either take some aspirin and go back to bed, or,
failing that, drink as much water as you can and don't
be too hard on the poor girl. She meant to be helpful.

I shall await your letter with anticipation.

 

 

*

19 May 2017

Dear Dr. Geiszler,

By now, this missive will seem irrelevant, because, much to my chagrin, chattiness on email, as you put it, has proved a necessary evil. While both of us found it the better part of valor not to speak of your last hard-copy missive since that brief, ill-fated text message exchange, I should like to send this in response to it via regular post.

What information I can offer you is undoubtedly information which, if the Marshall were to discover you in possession thereof, would result in either disciplinary action or outright dismissal. However, I feel somewhat obliged to take pity, as your dependency on Officer Choi for what you believe to be prime cuts of gossip is agonisingly pathetic.

The United States will launch a new Mark-3, Gipsy Danger, in July; Mexico will also launch a new Mark-3, Matador Fury, in September. This is information for which Choi would kill in the event that he does not already have it, but you are in no wise to give it to him, understood? If I catch wind of this information having got loose by means of lips not my own, your arse will be worse than just chapped (because, you see, I've got printed proof of your tiddly indiscretion, and LA sees the Marshall far more often than Lima). Construction on our dome continues apace. I can neither confirm, nor deny that an official opening date of 11 July 2017 is probable. Run the numbers once you've sobered up.

I have so very much enjoyed reading your foray into creative nonfiction. One might make an argument for your earliest academic publications also standing as prime examples of the genre, but we mustn't be too hard on ourselves. After all, you were only seventeen, and I don't wonder that Freshman Composition (so vulgar, your New World course terminology) might have done you a world of stylistic good. Credit where credit is due, I must say: your editorial prowess did not diminish until you'd signed your name, and there do not appear to be any suspicious stains.

Kindly do not write to me in such a state ever again. Text if you must, but spare my archives the inanity of your liquor-addled literary ventures.

In exasperation and in grudging amusement,
Dr. Hermann Gottlieb

 

 

*

Dick move, Dr. Gottlieb,
re: threatening blackmail.

FYI. I'm just saying.

 

 

*

Doctor Geiszler, do shut up
before you hurt yourself.

Your secret's safe with me.

 

 

*

...your archive? Wait

You save my letters?

 

 

*

July 11, 2017

Dear Dr. Gottlieb,

I'd like to point out how weird it is that our letters are now lagging grossly behind our email exchanges, but I guess maybe that's charming in an odd kind of way. We're carrying on two different streams of dialogue, three if you count the almost non-existent texts, and multi-tasking is still the done thing with jet-setting academics like us. Are we even proper academics anymore? Dude, that article is done. D O N E, done. If we can't agree on where we're going to send it, I suggest you just feed it to Gipsy Danger's core reactor as fuel because HOLY SHIT HOW AWESOME IS THAT FOR A PIECE OF NUCLEAR ENGINEERING? I hope you have to read that like ten times before you'll even admit I paid you a compliment. Assuming you had anything to do with getting her up and running.

How about those pilots? The Becket boys went through in '16 like me, but they were Section A. Choi says they're not half bad for a couple of military brats whose family moved all over and you'd never know it to look at them unless you get somebody who speaks French or Japanese talking to them, in which case, look out, they're super-secret polyglots (just like you're a super-secret hacker). I bet they speak really awful German. Let's make a pact: if one of us gets shipped to Anchorage, it's our sacred duty to find out, okay? I'm fascinated by this idea of meatheads who are smarter than they look, not going to lie; I'd have taken those two over at least three quarters of the pilot-hopefuls in my own cohort. Ugh. Or the ones in yours, man. I've heard stories.

So, today is the day your dome opens. Congratulations and stuff. I'm sitting here watching Pentecost give a boring-ass speech that sounds like it's straight out of a bad action flick, and, here's the plot twist, I can see you sitting in one of the chairs on the stage behind him. If I sound punchy right now, it's because I probably am. I haven't seen your stupid face since January, and I'm pleased to report that it's just as stupid as I remember it being in Sweden. You look disgruntled or pissed off or too hot or something, or maybe all three. Who's got a sunburn now, sucker?

Please, please just send the goddamn paper somewhere once you get down off that stage. Or once you get this letter. I'm not picky. I'd just like to see us publish, because I know—and I am not making this up, so I hope to God you're marking the occasion—we've done some fucking rock-star work. I hate you, I miss you, and I want this thing to thrive. That's all. There have been no attacks anywhere since Reckoner. Hong Kong, a year ago. My samples are in the saddest shape you ever saw. I'm not saying I'm actively hoping for another attack, but what I'm saying is that with these new Jaegers rolling out left, right, and center, it might not be a bad thing to hope.

I need to crack this soon, and I've absolutely got to get out of fucking Peru.

Too busy watching your pissy expression to properly close,
Dr. Newton Geiszler

(meant what I said about what I want you to call me, on both counts)

 

 

*

[VOICEMAIL: 1 MESSAGE]

I would happily call you a kaiju groupie, Doctor Geiszler, except I note that your most recent rash of letters suggests nothing so much as a sudden and enthusiastic switch over to Team Jaeger. Whatever will your adoring minions say?

[CLICK]

 

 

*

[VOICEMAIL: 3 MESSAGES]

You do know that made you sound kind of like a Twi-hard, right?

[CLICK]

Never mind, Doctor Gottlieb. You don't know what a Twi-hard is.

[CLICK]

...you called me a kaiju groupie, so I must've done something right.

[CLICK]

 

 

*

[VOICEMAIL: 1 MESSAGE]

You don't sound terribly well in that last one. Shaky, one might say. Were I you, I'd get a good night's rest and touch base with the Marshall via email in the morning. He's awfully cheery at present, so perhaps you stand a chance at getting out of him what you need. You didn't hear that from me. Also: in my day, vampires did not sparkle.

[CLICK]

 

 

*

[VOICEMAIL: 1 MESSAGE]

I hate to break it to you, but the kids who grew up reading those books the most eagerly were born right around when we were. In short, the vampire legacy of our day is fucking sparkles. I know what you mean, though. I'd take McKinley or Rice or Stoker over that shit in a heartbeat. I always did like I Am Legend, too, but not the film.

[CLICK]

 

 

 

 

*

[VOICEMAIL: 1 MESSAGE]

Strangely enough, if in the case of McKinley you're referring to a novel called Sunshine, I'm familiar with it because it was a particular favorite of my sister's. An unusual take, I will grant. For the love of God, N—now, listen here. Just go to sleep.

[CLICK]

 

 

*

August 13, 2017

Dear Dr. Gottlieb,

This fresh shipment of kaiju calamari is the gift that keeps on giving.

A month on, we're still collecting new data; Díaz and Sellinger are so excited they can scarcely keep their pants on. When it comes to each other, I mean. I'm pretty sure I didn't sign up for this just to watch a pair of twenty year-olds fall disgustingly in love over being mere research assistants to world-class, cutting-edge research. It's kind of sweet, but for the most part it's seriously gross. And probably unsanitary.

News, let's see: Choi says those Becket boys are the shit. The older one has broken every heart in Anchorage, boo hoo. Sorry, I didn't intend to spend the entirety of this letter griping about secondhand romance, but, ugh, it's worse than smoke of the same variety. Don't you just get sick to fucking death of all these bright young things running around with their whole lives ahead of them and somebody special to share it with? Or multiple somebodies? I don't know how threesomes and moresomes do it, man, but power to them. One other person is exhausting enough.

My theory is that this is my Valentine's Day rant turning up late to the party.

I'm not with anybody, in case you were wondering. Nope, not me. What a joke. Not for like two and a half years, Jesus, and even my most recent attempt went absolutely nowhere (unless you count one or two live gigs at Middle East and one dinner at Redbones). You don't really know Boston, do you? It's funny I should find myself missing a place that's hot as hell in the summer, I mean so humid it's intolerable, and so goddamn cold in February that it gives Stockholm a run for its money.

I can't remember why I said I hated you, or why I called your face stupid.

Signing off before this panic attack gets worse,
Dr. Newton Geiszler

 

 

*

23 September 2017

Dear Dr. Geiszler,

You will, I trust, forgive me for having been incommunicado this month-and-change gone. To put it bluntly, your most recent letter disturbed me, a state of affairs to which I admit only with the greatest of difficulty. Item one: I had not previously been aware that you suffer from panic attacks, and I am sorry to hear it. Item two: there are a number of notions contained within your mad ramblings which are patently ridiculous, and I intend to disabuse you of every last one of them.

Regarding your twenty year-old research assistants: what did you bloody well think would happen? They're young, hot-blooded, and the world as they know it seems for all intents and purposes to be drawing to a close. They're going to greedily squirrel away every last scrap of intimacy they can get. If by some miracle we all live through this, and provided they both survive, of course, they'll be left clinging to each other in the aftermath and will be that much happier for it.

(I do not disagree with your assessment that, from our perspective, it's utterly disgusting. There is vital, fate-altering work to be done, and if I could get Officers Ts'osie and Rivera to cease and desist from what I'm certain you would vulgarly term 'fuck-fests' in our off-hours, we would have pinpointed the precise location of the Breach far sooner. I never did thank you for being such a good sport when we made the announcement this spring. You have my gratitude.)

You are twenty-seven years old. Anyone else would look at the statement you made regarding these 'bright young things' and laugh their arse off, because, in their estimation, you'd likely seem no less young and no less bright. Now, for being just this side of thirty, it's true that you and I have both done and been through an awful lot. That's putting it mildly. Most of these kids, to borrow your turn of phrase, don't quite know what's hit them. They will soon enough, and it will be ugly. They will need us.

This last issue is a matter of some delicacy, but I see no way around it beyond asking you point-blank if your panic attack was doing the talking. Both of these are things you should easily remember. You know what happened as well as I do: our best endeavor was, simply put, not up to snuff. To use a tired metaphor, we did not prove drift-compatible (a nightmarish image indeed, the two of us yoked to a neural bridge).

What comfort I offer you is out of respect—for that, I admit, you've earned back.

With sincerest insistence that you should report to Medical,
Dr. Hermann Gottlieb

 

 

*

[VOICEMAIL: 14 MESSAGES]

I got your letter on the thirtieth, but I'm so mad at you right now that I can't even believe I'm leaving this message. This is, what, October tenth? Whatever. I dialed your number with half a mind to leave you a piece of it, but now my chest is tight and my palms are sweating and all I can think about is what you said that time I said I must've done something right because you called me a kaiju groupie.

[CLICK]

This is very, very hard to admit, Doctor Gottlieb, but. Do you remember how you told me I didn't sound that great? Shaky? Is that what you said? Anyway, it wasn't a panic attack that time. Not even close. Do the fucking math.

[CLICK]

So, right. It's been exactly seven days since I left those two messages. I take it this means you know exactly what I'm talking about; in which case, I expect now that I'll probably never hear from you again. Usually this means the freedom to say everything you've always meant to say, but that's just not how this is going to go. Not for us. I can try pretty hard for a pretty long time, which is what I've been doing, but I'm just so goddamn tired. You're more effort than anybody else, than any other anybodies combined. Ugh. Do me a favor and use your brilliant asshole brain to solve every problem your horn-dog junior staff can't. Fuck 'em. At least one of us is stubborn enough to stiff-upper-lip it and get shit done. I thought for a minute there you were trying to tell me something under all of that stoic pseudo-reassurance, you know? Christ, what an idiot I've been; what an idiot I've been to fall, anyone can—

[CLICK]

Oh my God, oh holy shit. Are you seeing this? Are you there? Pick the fuck up.

[CLICK]

Choi just called to say he heard from a guy in your LOCCENT that it's a Category III at least and that it should make landfall in like two hours and fuck he doesn't know if they can fly Gipsy and Brutus out fast enough. Or maybe Yukon and Brutus.

[CLICK]

Correction: Pentecost says they can get Gipsy and Brutus out fast enough. Breathe.

[CLICK]

Codename Yamarashi? What the hell is that? Both possible meanings suck the big one!

[CLICK]

Just got off the phone with Choi again. He's still talking to your guy, whichever of your guys that is, that it's—it's, like, freaking huge. We're talking almost-Category-IV huge.

[CLICK]

Glued to the news coverage, no sign of the Jaegers. Forty-five minutes to landfall.

[CLICK]

Oh Jesus, there goes Long Beach. Cruise ship down. I wish—I wish I knew if you were watching this, or if you're safe somewhere, or. Fuck my life, this is the worst. Just look at the size of him, I mean, scale on a TV screen and bad camera work, but—

[CLICK]

Queenway Bridge, gone. Terminal Island's next—

[CLICK]

And we have Jaegers. Good. We have—wait, fuck! Hold the camera still, you dipshit, I can't tell—oh, Jesus Christ. Look at that tail. Sweet. And am I hallucinating this or does he have two eyes on one side? No, wait, fuck. Symmetry. Four—?

[CLICK]

This is not going well. This is not going to end well. For us. Pick up the phone.

[CLICK]

For the last time, where are you? Look, I know we didn't—it's just—Hermann.

[CLICK]

 

 

 

 

*

It's quite fortunate they sent Gipsy
instead of Yukon. A job well done.

 

*

...don't even talk to me right now.

Also, I think I might be in love.

Did you see those bizarre colors on
his lower jaw and tail and forearms?

 

 

*

I just listened to more than a dozen
panicked voicemails from you, and all
you can ask is if I took time to notice

Oh, for the love of—Newton?

 

 

*

Oh my God

Yeah?

 

 

*

First, breathe.

Next, give me
a moment to

 

 

*

[RINGTONE: WE ARE THE CHAMPIONS]

Chapter Text

They've been lucky this time, Hermann can't help but think. However interminable thirteen straight hours in the air may seem, a non-stop flight is better than two layovers in which Newton completely fails to find chairs in airport waiting areas comfortable and whinges incessantly about it. They'd taken off from Heathrow at eleven twenty-five in the morning, would be landing in Hong Kong at seven o'clock in the morning local time on the sixteenth, and are, for the moment, only five hours into their journey and somewhere thirty-five thousand feet over Russia.

Newton drifts in and out of wakefulness on Hermann's shoulder and has been doing so for some time; it makes using the secondhand tablet Hermann's father had given him before they left a somewhat uncomfortable endeavor. Hermann's webmail archives are in desperate need of tending, so he forges on, glad of functional connectivity at such a great height. Newton snuffles against his shoulder and insinuates one arm under Hermann's and across his lap. Hermann sighs and shifts the tablet's position.

"What day's it gonna be when we get back?" Newton mumbles, breathing a warm, damp patch into Hermann's shirt. "I've lost all track of when the fuck we are."

"Monday, the sixteenth of March," Hermann sighs, deleting an entire streak of message-threads several years out of date. "You start on Wednesday, I'm sure I need not remind you. Professor Xiu will expect punctuality. I hope your syllabus is in order."

"Shut up, of course it is," sighs Newton, nearer to falling asleep than he'd been even a moment ago. "Anniversary's in four days," he adds absently.

Hermann scrolls, frowning at the finger-smudge he leaves on the screen. "What?"

"One month," Newton murmurs; turbulence causes him to jerk, curl in tighter.

Hermann sighs, sets the tablet down flat in his lap, and briefly shifts Newton against the back of his own seat so as to put his left arm around him and pull him back in. He navigates the tablet screen one-handed, grimacing, while Newton sighs and noses into the crook of Hermann's neck, tucks his arm back around Hermann's waist.

"Ah," replies Hermann, softly, the pixels beneath his fingertip gliding smoothly to a stop on correspondence more than a decade old (Sorcery, he thinks, as if summoned). "Yes," he agrees, the word almost a kiss against Newton's forehead. "So it is."

Newton half-mouths a kiss against Hermann's neck, asleep before he can even commit to the gesture, and Hermann struggles to expand the message thread with several taps of his unsteady fingers. Headers, subject lines, conjectures, attachments: they unfold at last, revealed neatly like a spread deck of cards.

Without a second thought, Hermann sets his mouth in a grim line half-pressed to Newton's forehead and starts reading backward through time from the hundred-and-twelfth missive. He can't think of them as anything less than irreplaceable, these postcards from Akheron's farthest shore. We were so young, he tells himself, so young and caught up in the chaos and falling arse over teacup and we didn't know

Hermann glances at his watch; it's forty-five minutes on, he's breathing shallowly, and Newton's fingers have begun to twitch against his hip in staccato agitation (a warning sign he recognizes from the middle of too many restless nights). Against his better judgment, he reads on, splaying his fingers protectively against Newton's thigh.

This is before it all went to hell, he insists reassuringly, turning his head so that more of his mouth touches Newton's hair, skimming the screen askance. Eleven months before meltdown; twelve months before we began reparations

His first email to Newton—the very first message either of them had ever sent, as it happens—is dated the twentieth of February two-thousand and thirteen and their one-month wedding anniversary is in four days' time; flip March twentieth back to February twentieth, two-thousand and twenty-six

Numbers do not lie. If they aren't the handwriting of God, they're damned close.

Exactly fifty-six minutes from when Hermann had begun to read, Newton seizes in his sleep, gasping, and his forehead beneath Hermann's lips is slick with cold sweat. Hermann whisks the browser window out of existence and fumbles the tablet one-handed into the seat-pocket in front of him. He feels lightheaded, airsick, and knows that what Newton is feeling must be exponentially worse.

"Breathe," Hermann tells him, twisting his body, and wraps both arms tightly around Newton even as he snaps awake—nodding, clinging—and muffles something akin to a whimper against Hermann's shoulder. "You were dreaming," he continues, determined. "It was another blasted nightmare, Newton, and it was my fault."

"I kind of got that," says Newton, shakily, both hands curled into fists at Hermann's nape. "I don't usually dream in walls of text. Now, can you hit that magic button and get the stewardess to bring us some water before somebody needs a barf-bag?"

Hermann claws at his arm-rest until he finds the button, unwilling to let go of Newton for the sake of such a minor action, feeling their shared pulse begin to slow as he patiently rubs Newton's back. No one is watching them, at least, because the plane lights have been down for over an hour and the two students across the aisle both have on their sleep-masks and are bundled in their cheap felt blankets.

"Doctor Gottlieb?" asks the stewardess, startling them with a hand on Hermann's shoulder that's close enough to brush Newton's elbow. "Is everything all right?" Hermann sighs. She's been fussing over them ever since she'd scanned their tickets.

"We'll have two bottles of water, please," he says, not bothering to let go of Newton any more than Newton has bothered to let go of him. "Thank you ever so much."

"Yes, of course," she says, "right away," and is gone as quickly as she'd come.

Hermann coaxes Newton's glasses off his face so that the frames are no longer at risk of warping as Newton takes deep, unsteady breaths against his shoulder with his eyes squeezed shut. He wishes they were home, wishes they were anywhere except on this jet-fueled, hurtling trajectory with too many hours left to go. Hermann reaches to tuck Newton's glasses into the seat-pocket next to his tablet, threading the fingers of his other hand gently through Newton's miraculously product-free hair.

"Way to capitalize on fame there, buddy," Newton manages, although there's a hint of laughter in his voice, and their heart-rate has nearly returned to normal. "A-plus," he adds, and then, lowering his voice to a whisper, "would totally reward with sexual favors if not about to be sick in an unreasonable location."

"You are not about to be sick," Hermann hisses, but he can't muster sufficient venom to mean it, because if Newton needs to be sick, then, by God, he should be and get it bloody well over with. "And there will be none of—of that," Hermann adds, and then whispers, hopefully insinuating enough to distract him, "at least not until we're home."

"What, still no Mile High Club?" Newton teases, wanly. "Here I'd gotten my hopes up."

Hermann gives what he can reach of Newton's backside a discreet, halfhearted slap.

"That's how I know you're not ill. You're considering public debauchery."

"I'm not a prude, I just. Kinda like privacy? Maybe? Most of the time?"

"Shhh," Hermann sighs; Newton reluctantly sits up. "Here's our water."

"If you need anything else," says the stewardess, once she's got their tray-tables down, bottles uncapped, and plastic cups filled, "I'm happy to help. It's the least—"

"Dear girl," says Hermann, gently, setting his hand on hers, "you've done enough."

 

*

They land in Hong Kong ten minutes early, but they don't manage to miss the early-morning customs queue filled with disoriented students, fussy children, and exhausted parents. After twenty minutes of hauling along at a snail's pace, both the ache in Hermann's hip and Newton's frustration increasing, Newton ducks under the rope barrier and takes their passports, marriage license, and other documentation over to the immigration officer standing next to the door through which they'd entered. He gets them fast-tracked, but Hermann adamantly refuses a wheelchair. At baggage claim, Newton hefts their suitcases onto a cart and leads the way out.

Hermann spends the taxi ride home wanting nothing so much as to sleep, have some tea, and then make love to Newton until he forgets the horrors through which Hermann has put him—preferably even in that order. Once they've left their luggage in the front hall and more or less kept each other propped up through a swift, bleary shower, sleep comes first and easiest. When Hermann wakes, it's early evening, and Newton, wrapped in one of Hermann's dressing gowns, is quietly unpacking.

Pleasantly drowsy, Hermann watches him dither over what to do with an armful of parcels containing the gifts they've brought back for friends. The list in Hermann's head amends and reorders itself. "Darling," he murmurs, and Newton looks up, startled. "Let it rest. We've got all day tomorrow." He throws back the covers, inviting.

Newton dumps their merchandise back in the nearest suitcase and sheds Hermann's dressing gown without hesitation; it's this second action that makes Hermann's cheeks heat and his skin prickle, never mind that he'd known Newton hadn't been wearing anything else, never mind that he is himself naked. It's the kind of thing most people would take for granted, Hermann supposes, tugging Newton down to lie beside him no sooner than he's climbed onto the bed. He'll never tire of looking, not with all . . .

"I would watch till death came to close my eyes, whether you had them or not."

Newton blinks at him, his expression almost comical due to extreme proximity, but it's clear that Hermann's reference back to Stölzel (or even some other lurking variable) has got him overwhelmed enough to blink back not-quite-tears. Hermann feels foolish, curses his own forthrightness, and kisses him, desperate to make amends.

"The hell of it is, they weren't ever meant to be for you," Newton says, situating Hermann on his good side before crawling over to rummage in the nightstand drawer. "They were reminders, permanent Post-It notes on a tough subject, literal jabs to keep myself moving. As long as those bastards weren't going to stop, then neither was I. And then it turned out you weren't going to stop, either, thank God—"

"Newton," Hermann sighs, reaching back to take hold of the hand in which Newton's got the bottle of lubricant and with which he's doing a terrible job of snapping it open, "hush. It's all right. You need not justify them. Not anymore, and not to me."

It's laughable, the aches and pains they've got between the two of them after an especially arduous twenty-four hours; the painkiller that Hermann had taken before they showered is beginning to wear off, and even though Newton hasn't said anything, there's stiffness in the set of his shoulders and in the way he cranes his neck to kiss Hermann as his fingers slip free and he thrusts in with a muffled, helpless moan.

Still, Newton is all restless, heated comfort pressed down the length of Hermann's body, his grasp closing slick and mercifully sudden around Hermann's cock. His movements are unhurried, and he sighs through each slow roll of his hips, pressing open-mouthed kisses against the side of Hermann's neck. He hisses apologies when he accidentally pulls out, and Hermann reaches down to catch the back of his thigh, tug him forward so he's trapped snug against the small of Hermann's back.

"Oh, fuck," Newton whimpers, canting his hips eagerly to the modification, finds it an angle that's less work for both of them, "you're so good—you're just so—fuck—"

Hermann gasps, thrusts into each twist of Newton's deft fingers even as he lets his hand shift from where it's been at the back of Newton's thigh to the front, to where his palm slides over the memory of blood and blue ink both vivid as a promise—

"God, I can't believe what I almost wrote that time when I was drunk—Hermann, I deleted stuff like—I want you to touch me like I'm something precious; I want to watch your eyes when I come because it'd be your hand on my dick, your hand doing this to me, and I just can't stand waiting for you to get your shit together—"

I know, Hermann wants to say, have known ever since I chose to follow you into that howling oblivion, poor Orpheus that I am, but his thoughts spin apart, scatter at the first hitch of Newton's breath and the stilling of his hips and the sudden spill of warmth against his back. So he follows again, as he always would have, as he always must.

They recover slowly, too slowly to do anything about the absolute wreck they've made of the sheets. Just as Hermann pats Newton's hip to indicate that he ought to take back the limbs he's got curled around him so that he can get up and find something with which to clean them, Newton kisses the back of Hermann's neck and gives him a breath-crushing squeeze, nuzzles as if he has no intention of moving.

"Stay put. I'll do it," he says. "And then I'll make tea and spaghetti, because I seriously think that's all we have in stock. The refrigerator is empty."

It's not the most complicated meal they've had since setting up house, or even a terribly well rounded one, but Newton manages to doctor the sauce with herbs and spices to the point it almost tastes homemade. While Hermann makes tea, Newton strips and remakes the bed. They sip Lady Grey and open their jointly accrued post until neither one of them can keep their eyes open a moment longer.

They have a leisurely lie-in the next morning, sated, and neither one of them remembers dreaming. Hermann makes the mistake of reminding Newton that they have yet to collect Bertie, which immediately determines where they'll be going as soon as the breakfast dishes have been cleared.

Hermann insists that they hire a taxi, maintaining it's more for their tired sakes than for the fish, but Newton doesn't stop smirking for the entirety of the ride. Lingering behind Newton, who's rushed ahead to check on the bloody fish, Lu cradles her gift-parcel and ushers Hermann inside with an embrace.

"He missed you," Lu teases, patting Hermann's arm. "We had to give him so many toys just to distract him. I did not believe Newt, but that fish looks at everything."

"We meaning you and one Mister Chau, presumably," sighs Hermann, and finds his assumption altogether too accurate when he and Lu walk into the flat's main room to find Newton waving each of the accrued objects before Bertie in its turn, gauging the intensity of reaction each warrants, while Hannibal looks on, sans preposterous sunglasses, from a nearby chair with his arms folded across his chest.

"I hate to break it to you, dude," Newton tells him, turning away from the tank with the balisong in hand, "but he likes this fine piece of cutlery best of all."

"Then you better tell the little shit he can't have it," Hannibal mutters. "Stat."

Lu looks on with amusement, busy winding the Viennese silk scarf into her hair.

"Put it down, Newton," Hermann sighs, stepping up next to him in front of the tank. "And as for you, Bertie, that shall be quite enough of coveting what's not yours."

It takes Hermann several seconds to realize he's the only person not laughing.

 

*

Newton looks terrible, too tired, with dark circles under his eyes and some faint redness radiating from the scar in his left, but he's showered and dressed and that has got to suffice for now. Hermann turns him away from the mirror, yanks up his collar, and picks out the careless, improper knot that Newton has just finished inflicting upon his tie. Which is, incidentally, black and covered in tiny white embroidered skulls.

"I shan't chide you," Hermann tells him, and manages to wrangle the insubstantial thing into some semblance of a Windsor. "I expect your head-of-department will have enough to say on the matter. I'll thank you, however, for having never worn it in my sight until now. I shudder to think what the Marshall would have said."

"Hey, wanna take a ride down to the dome and show Herc?" Newton snaps, pushing Hermann's hands away and turning back to the mirror. He turns down his collar and frowns at himself. "We'll both be late, though, and it might just be fun to report you to HR as comeuppance for all of those times you reported me—"

"Oh, come off it. We've got breakfast to eat and a bus to catch, God help us."

Hermann catches Newton around the waist, as much to steady himself as anything else, although Newton lets his irritation drop, takes hold of Hermann's forearms across his middle, and studies their reflection. "We didn't clean up too badly, did we?" he asks, brushing his thumb across the back of Hermann's hand. "Adjusting to civilian life and all that crap. Damn, we're gonna have to start watching what we eat. Admit it, we get lazy and do the grad-student thing way too often."

Hermann lets go of him and snags his cane from where he's left it against the sink.

"There's no time to start now," he says. "It's toast or your damnable frozen waffles."

They augment the waffles with coffee and the perfectly ripe mango that Lu had sent home with them the day before (she'd had some on hand thanks to her discovery that Bertie likes finely-chopped bits of fresh fruit). The bus ride is less tiresome with Newton at his side, Hermann finds, although some of the other regulars on his commute are now staring at them with undisguised curiosity. Newton has, against Hermann's protestations that he'll not be warm enough, worn his leather jacket.

Hermann walks Newton from the bus stop to the Kadoorie Biological Science Building, even though he knows full well where it is. They linger for a moment outside the nearest entrance, Newt with both hands wrapped around the strap of his messenger bag and Hermann reaching to straighten his tie. "I feel as if I'm seeing you off to school," Hermann mutters. "It won't do. Go on."

Newton leans in and kisses him even though there's someone walking past; it's brief, restrained, and achingly sweet. "Run Run Shaw's just perpendicular to here, yeah, with the Library Building and Hui Oi Chow in between? Isn't there a Starbucks or something? We should meet for lunch there, unless the dining hall is decent."

"There's nothing I would have liked better, but I've got to run tutorial sessions with students every spare moment I've got to make up for the time away," Hermann sighs. "I had my students sign up for slots before we left. I'm booked solid from now till six."

"I don't think I've got anything later than about four forty-five," Newton replies. "Should I wait for you somewhere at the end of the day, or just head home?"

"There's no reason you shouldn't go ahead," Hermann says, "and get dinner started."

Newton gives him a tilted half-smile. "Man, you've gotten used to that action."

"Idiot," Hermann sniffs, turning on his heel, but he's grinning. "I said, go on."

Newton's arrival on-scene haunts him for the remainder of the day. No sooner has his morning seminar ended than Ming is at the front of the room with her bag slung over her shoulder and an ominous piece of paper clutched in both hands. It looks suspiciously like some manner of form from the Registrar's Office. "They told me I only need to get permission from you to cross-register," she says, "seeing as you're not just my supervisor, but also head of the department. Cuts down on paperwork for everybody. I can't believe they let him cram a quarter-term course onto the list with such short notice. I thought for sure they were just going to have him fill in for the other Bio-Sci staff if they happened to have a day out, or maybe just do a bunch of tutoring. I guess he'll have a full load come autumn, right?"

"Doctor Geiszler will gladly sign off on this," Hermann tells her, slapping the form up against the blackboard, "but I wish you the best of luck in securing Professor Xiu's approval. Your grades here are improving, but they're still on shaky ground. Why should she let you dabble in a subject in which you've previously shown no interest?"

"Because it'll fill an elective requirement," Ming says brightly. "Is he nervous?"

"Unlikely, but the minute he finds out you're likely to be darkening his door," Hermann mutters, signing the form with a flourish before handing it back to her, "he'll muster some jitters soon enough. Good day to you, Miss Yan. Your tutorial is at four."

"See you then," she says, and, of all the nerve, leans in and hugs him. "I missed you, Doctor G. You have no idea. They let Juhyun fill in for you, and it was a disaster."

"Get out," Hermann hisses, "before your touching enthusiasm costs me my job."

He next few hours pass in a mind-numbing series of appointments with students who are far more interested in asking questions about what he did on his trip and how Newton feels about his first day on the job than they are in his feedback on their exam scores. By the time he locks his office door and settles down to a sandwich, he's got no fewer than five enthusiastic texts from Newton waiting for him.

This office is way too big, unless they don't
mind me setting up a secondary lab space.

Going to need a taxi tomorrow to haul
the books I'll need; wanna go splitsies?

Screw the secondary lab; I'll just get
a small sofa or something for in here.

I won't let you hide from me forever.

We are so going to arrange things next
term so that we've got like two hours for
lunch, and I'm going to make sure I have
you on said sofa at least twice a week.

Hermann rests his chin in his hand, scrolling back to the start to read the messages over again. He wonders at what point his standards have slipped so impossibly low that illicit workplace sex at least twice a week sounds like an utterly marvelous idea. Since said theoretical sex happens to be with his spouse, he supposes, and unwraps his sandwich with determination. His next tutorial is in thirty minutes.

Hermann gets through the next few hours of teaching and hand-holding by sheer force of will that's considerably bolstered by Newton's intermittent texts. Four o'clock finds him back in his office and impatiently tapping the surface of his desk; Ming is ten minutes late, and why he's told Newton this, he's not quite sure, because now Newton is attempting to wheedle his way into taking the twenty minutes remaining (It'll only take me five minutes to walk over). At a quarter past, Ming bursts through his door, breathless, waving the form in Hermann's face.

"I got Doctor Geiszler's signature and Professor Xiu's," she says elatedly, hurling herself down in the chair next to Hermann's desk. "I'm going to take this to the Registrar as soon as we're done. Hey, that tie he's wearing?" she adds, leaning forward. "So ten years ago. You tell him that if you ever have a reason to want him to get rid of it."

"Since this morning, I have had, as they say, all the reasons," Hermann sighs, shuffling papers until he locates her exam. "Miraculously, you did not fail. In fact, you ruined the curve. What can we do to ensure that this won't remain an isolated incident?"

Ming punches the air, completed cross-registration form still clenched in her hand.

Shortly after six, too tired to consider taking the bus, Hermann calls for a taxi. He arrives home to find the house dark but for the television's muted glow; he makes his way into the living room and finds Newton asleep on the sofa with a pile of HR paperwork unfinished in his lap. Hermann sighs and shifts it onto the coffee table, can't help but notice that Bertie is pacing agitated zig-zags from surface to gravel. He turns on the lamp and squints at the apparently attention-starved fish.

"You won't convince me he forgot to feed you," Hermann whispers, taking a seat beside Newton. "Forgot to feed us, yes, but certainly not you. Greedy thing." Newt yawns and shifts over to curl sideways into Hermann's lap. "Sorry," he mumbles.

"Never mind," Hermann sighs, picking the Windsor out of Newton's tie. "Let's order in."

 

*

On Friday evening, while they're in the midst of dinner and comparing notes on Ming's class participation (in Hermann's case, desultory at best; in Newton's, as eager as can be), Tendo calls to welcome them home. Newton's expression turns sharp and interested partway into the conversation, so Hermann sets down his chopsticks.

Newton covers the mouthpiece of his phone and says, "They want us to come to the aquarium tomorrow. They've already bought passes. We can give them their souvenirs, and I can give Dan a bitchin' tour of the place."

"You will be fortunate if you can prevent him from banging on the tanks," says Hermann, reaching for his glass. "Unless you think you've broken him of that."

"We're in," says Newton, uncovering the mouthpiece. "Make sure you bring the big-ass diaper bag, we brought shit back from our trip for both of you. No, dude. Not for Dan. He gets a Grand Aquarium tour, and that's just how it goes."

Once they've finished eating, Hermann finds a roundabout way of convincing Newton that it's as favorable a night as any to finish watching Firefly; he tactfully doesn't mention that Ming had, in a serendipitous turn of events, spent fifteen minutes of Hermann's lunch break lingering in the doorway of his office and going on about how she'd binge-watched both the series and the film that follows it over the holidays. If he'd been feeling suspicious, he might've accused Newton of putting her up to it, but, as it stands, he seems so pleased that Hermann actively wants to finish watching that Hermann finds himself in no way inclined to ruin the mood.

They fall asleep midway through Heart of Gold and eventually stagger to bed just past midnight. They wake up gasping at just past three, although it becomes clear as the drift-haze dissipates and their pulse-points return to normal that neither one of them remembers what they'd been dreaming, exactly, or why. With the exception of the plane, they've had a good run of it these past few weeks, and Hermann whispers as much, stroking Newton's unkempt hair reassuringly in the dark.

Come morning, they dally too long in the shower and end up having to skip breakfast. Convincing Tendo and Alison that a visit to the cafeteria is necessary before they begin proves no obstacle, as drawing up a plan of attack appeals to all parties. While Alison struggles to coax Daniel to finish eating a sliced-up apple, Hermann and Newton huddle over cups of coffee and pastries while Tendo reads attractions off the brochure.

"This coral tank sounds sweet," he drawls, "but I think it might bore Little Man here to death. We should go to the touch pool first. Al?"

"You think he's gonna care in what order we stick him in front of something brightly colored or something he can splash his hands in? At this hour, I'm just lucky he's not fussing his head off," she says, snapping the lid back on Daniel's apple slices. "He was up till one asking me where the fish are." She makes a face at Daniel, who smirks and covers his mouth with both hands. "Tell 'em who else you were asking about."

Daniel shakes his head vigorously, a vehement no, and just when Hermann thinks the boy is about to bury his face against his mother's shoulder, he uncovers his mouth, leans forward, and reaches as far as he can across the table with ten sticky fingers.

"Newt," he says clearly, almost getting a hold on the lid of Newton's coffee cup.

"God help us all," Hermann mutters, tearing another shred off his croissant. "Next thing we know, he'll be asking where on earth Lu's got off to."

Newton looks about the same way he'd looked the first time Bertie had plucked a pellet from between his thumb and index finger instead of waiting for it to hit the water. "Dude," he says, recovering himself, and reaches to shake one of Daniel's hands after another, "you and me, we're gonna have a blast. Just wait and see."

"Then be my guest," Alison says to Tendo, handing over the diaper bag. "You and Newt take him and get a head start. I'll stay here with Hermann while he finishes eating. I want some goddamn coffee, and somebody promised me presents."

Newton gulps the rest of his coffee and pecks Hermann on the cheek. "You mind?"

"For heaven's sake, no," Hermann reassures him, making an unconvincing show of dabbing at the damp spot Newton's left behind. "Run along. We'll catch up." Once Tendo, Newton, and the baby have gone, Hermann presents Alison with a signed copy of Monica's new album and then waits patiently until she returns from the queue with a cappuccino. She opens the CD case and peruses the liner notes with pleasure.

"So, opera-singer mom," says Alison, emptying sugar into her cup. "What's she like?"

"Endearing, if scattered," Hermann replies, picking apart the last of his croissant. "Not unlike her offspring in that respect. Terribly spoiled."

"Sounds like a cottage industry in that family, if you ask me," Alison remarks wryly.

"Newton isn't as bad as all that," Hermann says. "She hasn't got enough self-doubt to rein herself in when it might actually matter, so—"

"Do you really think Newt's got enough of that when push comes to shove?" Alison asks. "Tendo told me what happened, or at least as much as Newt's been willing to tell him. And as much as he's been able to glean from PPDC records. I just think—I'm sorry. There's this fine line of tension right beneath the surface with you guys, sometimes, and it makes me—not exactly worry, but it makes me wonder if you're all right."

"What we are coping with is no different from what nearly every Jaeger pilot team has coped with since this debacle began," replies Hermann, and then takes a long swig of his coffee, because the last thing he needs is another reminder that what he'd heard in Newton's pre-first-drift recording is, in fact, true. "And those were . . . extenuating circumstances. I cannot blame Newton for doing what he did. I ought to have been there with him the first time; it might have spared us all considerable trouble, as well as saved us some hours' time and prevented the loss of a number of lives."

"You can't blame yourself," says Alison, with resolve. "Think of the lives you did save."

Newton's above all, Hermann thinks, nodding, and only in the nick of time, only just.

They finish eating and find Tendo standing several paces back from the coral tank with his arms folded across his chest. He's intently watching Newton, who's got Daniel in his arms and is murmuring a low, constant monologue to the boy as he points. Hermann nudges Tendo's elbow and hands him the shopping bag Newton had left in his care; inside, Tendo finds a flat, elegant card-stock box from the same Jermyn Street tailor at which Newton had purchased Hermann's waistcoat. There's a royal blue bow-tie inside.

"Is this so I won't scare the family pet anymore?" he asks, smiling, and puts it back.

"It's so you'll have a spare next time Dan pukes all over your favorite," jokes Alison.

Now unencumbered, Hermann leaves them to their bickering and makes his way over to stand beside Newton. Daniel stops following the progress of Newton's finger as Newton falls silent, and both of them regard Hermann expectantly.

"You're late for class," Newton tells him. "I won't start over again for your sake."

"Nor should you have done," sighs Hermann, offering a delighted Daniel his hand. "That's why I took it upon myself for yours. It's merely unasked-for good fortune that you decided to accept. Don't think I don't realize that, Newton. Every day that I breathe."

Newton is turning away from the tank now so that he's facing Hermann, although Daniel has let go of Hermann's fingers in favor of twisting sideways to keep watching the tank. "Since when are we not talking about your tardiness to my awesome fish tour?" Newton asked, and Hermann hasn't seen that precise disarmed look on his face since the moment he realized he wouldn't be going into his second drift alone. "What's going on? Did Alison say something to get you worked up and sentimental? Dammit, Hermann. I am not gonna cry here," he insists, but it's slightly too late for the startled glimmer he's blinking back. "I absolutely refuse to do this until we're back at home—"

"Don't cry," Daniel says, turning to Newton with his fingers shoved in his mouth.

Alison creeps up, seemingly out of nowhere, and takes the boy off Newton's hands.

"No, damn it all, this is vitally important," Hermann insists, stepping closer, getting right into Newton's space just like he once might have done for purposes of telling him off. "I did drive you to it. You only acted rashly because you thought there was no hope left, because I had long since ceased to give you any. And you had held on for so very, very long. Longer than I should have deserved."

Newton has one hand over his mouth, glancing from side to side in genuine consternation; it's less that he's reacting badly to Hermann's apology, no, there's fire in his tear-limned eyes that can only mean Hermann has hit his mark. He grabs Hermann's wrist, brings Hermann's hand up to his chest, and switches to frantic German.

"How did we not deal with this particular demon when we were clearing the rest of our backlog, exactly?" he asks under his breath. "How is it that you keep finding new and fascinating ways to remind me I would never have put up with even a quarter as much nonsense from anyone else on the face of this fucking planet or any other?" Hermann's aware that maybe the few people standing closest to them are staring.

"Why did you persist?" asks Hermann, gently, spreading his palm flat over Newton's heartbeat; not that he needs the data, because it matches his own, and he hopes the language shift will shield them form prying ears. "God only knows I'm grateful that you did, but I cannot account—"

"Because I love every brilliant, pompous, adorable, infuriating thing about you, and I was never, ever going to run out of ways of telling you that," Newton says. "And I figured, either you were going to get it eventually or the world was going to end, whichever came first. Either way, I'd have been with you. It would have been enough. How's that for poetic bullshit?" he asks, attempting to recover even a shred of composure, but it isn't working, and his tear-wrecked smile is as ghastly as it is beautiful. "Aren't you going to kiss me now or something? Despite all of my reminders, we didn't celebrate yesterday, so I'm kind of pissed—"

Hermann kisses him, soft and fierce, and draws him close while he angles their bodies so they're both facing the tank. There was never a world more alien, never a realm more strange than the ocean's shadowed depths, but, after all they've been through, it feels like less of a mystery. "Tell me about them," Hermann says, handing Newton the handkerchief, which draws another sob-turned-laugh from Newton. "Tell me everything."

"Corals are pretty damn cool," Newton sniffs, grinning at him. "So I will."

Chapter Text

4 October 2025
Saturday, 1900h

Even as Hermann heads resolutely in the direction of what he hopes will be a quiet second pass at the calculations on which he'd been working until the Marshall and Hansen had paid them a visit, Newton's useless prattle doesn't end on rock star. His footsteps, at first dashing to catch up, trail after Hermann to the chalkboard. Hermann sets one hand on the ladder, steels himself, and turns to face whatever blather is bound to follow the ominously deep breath Newton has just taken. "I am desperate to be right," he says, curiously sincere. "As desperate as you are."

Hermann nods, sniffs, and tilts his chin toward the floor. "So is the Marshall," he sighs, pensively spinning his cane. "So are we all. That doesn't mean you have any right to single-minded pursuit of certain self-destruction. We're sparsely staffed as it is."

"Is that your way of saying you don't want me to leave you alone down here?" asks Newton, with mock incredulity. "Wow, dude. I am touched."

"Much though it pains me to say this," Hermann sighs, finding counterfeit lack-of-sentiment as easy in this moment as Newton seemingly finds counterfeit shock, "the two of us in this godforsaken dungeon are, in fact, this planet's last, best hope of finding answers—lest our world be entirely consumed by another." Newton pinches the bridge of his nose, squeezes his eyes shut, and then rubs his mouth. He's got his other hand cocked on his hip; his posture is terrible, just shy of defiant, and still Hermann can't bring himself to look away.

"I swear you don't listen to what comes out of your mouth sometimes," he mutters.

"No less often than some," Hermann sighs, pushing off of the ladder; he snatches some chalk and rubs at an errant smudge between equations. "Even if you were right, even if it were to work," he tells Newton, each word an insurmountable effort, "I shudder to think what pains you might—"

Newton's expression, which had begun to soften in dismay, hardens again, wary, at the unannounced entry of two strident sets of footsteps from behind. The Russians flank him, the tableau strangely comical, each one bearing an overladen tray.

"Gentlemen," says Sasha, with a grin, hefting her burden. "Unpopular Table has missed you." She nods at Newton. "Where is clean to set this?"

"Over there," Hermann says, pointing to his desk. "We've been rather busy."

"Too busy to come stare at Becket?" Aleksis asks, following her. "So funny."

"That brute's smarter than he looks," Newton warns, trailing over to the desk after the rest of them. "He speaks at least three languages I know of."

"Russian is not one of them," says Sasha, confidently, pulling out Hermann's chair for him. "He did not even turn his head when I mentioned his brother. Great pilot." She sits down on the edge of the desk, watches Newton scramble to pull up a chair, and hands them each a plate of spaghetti.

"We will have interesting last days," observes Aleksis, exchanging a firm nod with his wife.

"Cheerful," Hermann mutters, accepting a fork next. "Can we discuss something else?"

"We can discuss kwoon tomorrow morning, zero six-hundred hours," says Sasha, grinning wolfishly as she hands Newton one to match. "Becket's combat trials are being held then. Find out who is drift compatible. Will you come with us?"

Newton snorts, digging eagerly into his pasta. "That fucking early? Nah, but thanks."

Sasha and Aleksis both look to Hermann; he lowers his eyes, avoids Newton's glance.

"Perhaps," he says amicably, "I'll meet you there. Let us see what Becket can do."

 

5 October 2025
Sunday, 0900h

After a leisurely, satisfying breakfast with Sasha and Aleksis, Hermann excuses himself from the ongoing conversation with reluctance. However good Mako's choices had been, Mako herself had been better, and Hermann can't help but think that if the Marshall cannot see reason, then it will be to the mission's detriment. Newton's absence from their morning meal has made him uneasy; it isn't like him to skip pancakes and raisin toast the one morning they're on offer. By now, Newton will have been alone in the laboratory for several hours, and God only knows

Except Hermann is suddenly, horrifyingly certain that he does know, and starts to run.

What he's picturing is surreal; what he sees upon his arrival some aching, breathless minutes later is a nightmare. He hasn't gotten there fast enough; he will never have gotten there fast enough, not in any version of reality. The words escape him faster than he can take stock of the situation—recording device, makeshift Pons, sparking and humming mess of detritus that ought to have been chucked months ago—

"Newton!" he demands, dropping his cane, and catches hold of Newton's inert form, any part of him he can reach, as he falls to his knees. "Newton, what have you done?" His hand at Newton's chin finds a smear of blood; he has to strike Newton's headgear with the flat of his hand to spring it undone. He's out of it now, at least, free from any risk of electrocution or worse, and Hermann can't even bring himself to hesitate when he notices that Newton's eyelids are fluttering now and his breaths have gone from shallow to gasping. He takes Newton in his arms: holds him upright, holds him fast, holds him like he ought to have done so long ago. And if he is gone, thinks Hermann, unsteadily, if he is gone, then I will—

Newton's hands flying up to clutch at him just as tightly snap Hermann out of it.

"Hey, um," Newton manages, dry-mouthed and shaky, "too tight. Can't breathe."

Hermann loosens his hold only slightly, can't even be arsed to care that he's losing a shoe and the nerves of his lower body are screaming in protest. Newton is close, so very close, and if Hermann were to turn his head even a fraction, his lips might—

"I think," Newton whispers, scrabbling at Hermann's arms, "I think I'm gonna vomit."

Reflexively, Hermann lets go of him; even then, the loss of contact is almost intolerable. While Newton retches into the nearest bin, Hermann snags his cane, struggles to his feet, and goes to fetch a glass of water. He snaps orders and manhandles Newton as best he can, because he's still terrified and it's the only thing he can do—sit down in this chair, here's your handkerchief (tugging it free of Newton's pocket for him earns Hermann a disbelieving look), now bloody drink up.

"You're good at this," Newton says, swallowing, and tries to stand. "I mean, really—"

"Stay put, Newton, for God's sake," Hermann sighs, restraining him. "I'll go instead."

The journey to LOCCENT takes ten minutes on an average day; somehow, Hermann makes it in seven. He's breathless by the time he catches sight of the Marshall and Hansen, and he can't be bothered to check who else might be present.

"Marshall!" he manages, relieved as both men turn. "Marshall, I need to talk to you."

"Not now, Mister Gottlieb," says Pentecost, turning back to the screen and what's beyond it. "I'm sure you can appreciate how important this moment is to me." Oh? thinks Hermann; he'd be incensed if he wasn't afraid. I'll give you important!

"Newton created a neural bridge from garbage and drifted with the kaiju," he snaps.

And it's at this point, upon completely unreserved use of Newton's first name in formal company, that Hermann realizes he is in far, far hotter water with regard to his feelings for Newton than he has ever previously been. He's rushing well ahead of Pentecost the whole way back, desperate to make sure Newton is, in fact, right where he's left him; much to Hermann's relief, he is, although Pentecost is already looming too close, and Newton is pinching his handkerchief to his nose and shaking.

It's all Hermann can do not to rush to his side. "I found him prone and . . . he's sort of dazed," he explains, but Pentecost isn't listening; he's already speaking to Newton, low and soothing and direct. "I don't exactly know how to . . . "

I don't know how to do this, Hermann thinks, listening helplessly. How to be wrong.

 

Sunday, 1500h

Hermann has been alone in the laboratory for almost four hours. He is also dithering, and he hates himself for it. He's already inspected Newton's appalling, yet inspired piece of handiwork a dozen times; he's folded up the headgear (two, he'd for some inexplicable reason bothered with two headsets) and even dusted the grubby assemblage of pieces within an inch of their unconventional afterlife.

It's only once he comes across Newton's handheld recording device that he pauses for breath. He picks it up, weighs it in both hands with a curious sense of foreboding; he doesn't know how much more time he'll have alone, not with how furious Newton is going to be for Hermann having insisted—and got his way—over the Marshall personally escorting him down to Medical for a full battery of tests before he's turned loose in the Bone Slums looking for a man who has no moral compass to speak of.

Hermann rewinds the feed; whatever the recording contains, it's brief. He hits PLAY. Kaiju-Human Drift Experiment, Take One. The, ah, brain segment of the frontal lobe—um. Chances are, the segment is far too damaged to drift with. Unscientific aside, Hermann, if you're listening to this—well, I'm either alive, and I've proven that what I've just done works; in which case, ha, I won—or I'm dead, and I'd like you to know it's all your fault. It really is, you know—you drove me to this; in which case, ha, I also won. Sort of? I'm going in at three, two, one—

Newton's cry, half gasp and half groan, is followed by nearly two minutes of silence punctuated only by the sound of him collapsing to the floor, by the intermittent clatter produced by his body's convulsions. Hermann is about to press STOP—sickened, saddened, and convinced he's heard all that he needs to hear—when the racket of his own entry comes on the recording, followed by the sound of his own desperate, terrified voice: Newton! Newton, what have you done? In response, there's still more noise—the clap-trap Pons coming off, and then Newton—Hey, um, too tight. Can't breathe. Seconds later, the recording ends.

Hermann has scarcely rewound the feed and begun to pull his scattered thoughts together when Newton storms into the lab. He makes straight for Hermann's holo-screen, snatches the cryptic orange card that Pentecost had given him, and waves it in Hermann's face. When this produces no effect, he opens his mouth. "Four hours, Hermann!" he shouts, and then wheels around to his desk so that he can retrieve his damnable leather coat. "They found absolutely nothing wrong, I mean aside from the nose-bleed and the eye thing and—look, I could have been out of here four hours ago. That's a tragic waste of PPDC resources if ever I saw one." He shrugs into his coat and pockets the card. "Why are you just standing there? It's great news; I'm not gonna die. Seriously, Hermann, you're freaking me out here. What's wrong?"

Hermann closes his eyes, grits his teeth; he opens them again and strides up to Newton. There's little space between them, and fewer reasons—

"If we live through this," says Hermann, pressing the device into Newton's hand, watching as he shoves it in his pocket, "I want you to listen."

"So I can hear what an ass I was?" asks Newton, disgusted. "I think I'll pass."

"Newton, no," Hermann insists, leaning hard on his cane. "Promise me you will."

"Sure, Hermann," sighs Newton, defeated, heading for the door. "As if you care."

"I do," Hermann tells him, turning away. "As if you'd believe me. Now get out."

 

Sunday, 2300h

Too much time has passed since Otachi's disastrous landfall. All Hermann can think as he stands shivering beside Pentecost is that Newton's chances of having survived are, at this point, very slim. He hasn't answered any of Hermann's texts; he hadn't picked up when Hermann had tried calling. If chance is merciful, he's been sequestered away in Hannibal Chau's private bunker, but if he'd been kicked to the curb and forced to make do with the public shelter that, reportedly, Otachi had torn open—

As the assembled watch the sky in awe, cheering as Gipsy Danger deals her fatal blow, Hermann's mobile phone vibrates in the pocket of his parka. He fumbles it out—stiff-fingered, his heart in his throat—squinting against the rain at what it says.

Got out of there by the skin of my teeth, Newton writes. Heading back to Chau's. That ugly one-eyed motherfucking bitch owes me a kaiju brain. Is that an effective insult? "Marshall," says Hermann, finding it a struggle to suppress his elation. "Newton is alive, and he's heading back to Chau's headquarters. Request for orders, sir."

Pentecost just grunts, intent upon whatever he's seeing through his binoculars. When it turns out a few minutes later that Otachi's mangled corpse is in free-fall and Gipsy Danger is victorious, Hermann squeezes his eyes shut against the deafening cheer that rises from the crowd. His phone buzzes again. City planning's gonna have its work cut out for it, Newton texts. Anyway, I'm in.

"Marshall," Hermann repeats, raising his voice as much as he dares. "Newton is safe and has returned to Chau's headquarters. Request for—"

He doesn't get his answer immediately, not least because Gipsy is in free-fall, and it's nail-biting minutes upon minutes before this calamity, too, shows itself for one that will pass. Hermann's phone buzzes again at the furor's height, and, as much as Hermann cares for the safety of Rangers Mori and Becket, his eyes are drawn inexorably back to Newton's words on his phone display.

Dude, it's my lucky day. I'm heading out of here with Chau's salvage team, he writes. Turns out he didn't have a brain in storage, but, what do you know, a fresh one's just come on the market. Get your stuffy butt down here with a copter, stat. And, um, that awful thing I threw together this morning, if you haven't already torn it apart.

As it happens, I have not, Hermann texts back, his throat tight, just as Pentecost makes it known that Gipsy looks set to land in one piece. Thank you for responding, Newton. I had all but given up hope that you were still with us.

Seriously, Hermann? There'll be time for sentiment later. Get to the impact site.

For a third time, the roar is deafening; Rangers Mori and Becket have safely landed.

"Marshall," Hermann mutters under his breath, "with all due respect, I have asked—"

"Go to Doctor Geiszler," Pentecost commands at last, looking right at him. "Now!"

"Yes, sir!" Hermann affirms, the hiding of his elation be damned, and gladly flees.

Getting the team of security detail he's been allotted to wrangle Newton's contraption onto the helicopter in one piece is a chore, but they manage it. Hermann feels his stomach drop through the floor as he fastens his safety belt during lift-off; Newton has been ominously silent, and he wonders if as many perils lurk in and around a more or less intact kaiju corpse as do when the bugger remains ambulatory.

With the exception of two officers who disembark ahead of him in order to offer assistance, Hermann is first off the helicopter, his parka pockets heavy laden with his mobile and his handset for contacting LOCCENT. He doesn't have to search the area with broad sweeps of his eyes, doesn't have to shout till he's hoarse, doesn't even have to run from the foot of the stairs to meet Newton as his feet hit solid earth.

Newton is there to take his arm: anxious and injured, but elated, too. He's alive.

(And, all the while, as he chatters and leads on, Newton's hand is clasped in his.)

 

6 October 2025
Monday, 0400h

Twice they've embraced, twice in one exuberant, grief-stricken, sleepless, strung-out morning and Hermann is downright giddy. He's been on Newton's arm ever since; either that, or Newton's had an arm around his shoulders or his waist or on his wrist for purposes of tugging him to the next set of people who'd like to congratulate them.

At the moment, that happens to be none other than Rangers Mori and Becket, who have been stripped of their drivesuits and swaddled in the dove-grey PPDC equivalent of shock blankets. By all rights, the two of them ought to be in Medical, but Hermann knows full well that they've insisted on being brought to LOCCENT first.

"Dude, that was awesome," Newton is gushing to Raleigh, vigorously shaking the Jaeger pilot's hand even while he's got hold of Hermann with the other. "Like, so seriously awesome I can't even. Yeah. Sorry, that's the sleep-dep talking. Oh my God, Mako. Guess your new piece of restoration bling on Gipsy came in handy. That was just—"

Raleigh casts a wry glance at Newton and leans in to shake Hermann's hand.

"I have the feeling you're about ready for a pair of ear plugs," he says, grinning.

"On the contrary," Hermann replies, returning the handshake, "I shall never take the racket for granted again."

Raleigh raises both eyebrows, still grinning in spite of his exhaustion, and regards Newton again. "Listen, if you're . . . giving some thought to the future, there's never been a better time. Trust me. I'm done with regrets."

Hermann lowers his gaze, his cheeks heating, and then narrows his eyes at Raleigh.

"I don't know about that," he says, sighing. "One wouldn't want to jump the gun."

"I disagree," Raleigh says. "Provided he's down with that, I'd jump sooner than later. Tendo tells me you guys have been at this for over a decade?"

"I'm sure Officer Choi knows," Hermann sniffs, "to mind his own bloody business."

"Tendo cares a hell of a lot about Newt," says Raleigh. "Might be worth listening."

Hermann turns to look at Newton, but Mako has absconded with him. He sweeps the room and, relieved, spots the two of them near the console babbling at Officer Choi and Marshall Hansen. Tendo catches Hermann's eye, winks at him, and salutes. Newton perceives the exchange instantly, almost as if someone had tipped him off—

(ah, the drift, yes: there is that, and won't discovering its effects just be—)

Newton smiles at him, exhausted; it is the loveliest thing Hermann has ever seen.

Knowing what he knows now, having seen what he has seen, Hermann can admit to himself with raw, undone, desperate clarity that there's nothing he'd like better than to take Newton back to his room and—yes, finally—keep him safe, warm, and blissed out of his bloody mind for the foreseeable. But there are too many considerations, at least for the moment: they're filthy, they need medical attention, and there's so much debriefing paperwork to be done that even Hermann isn't looking forward—

Hermann's mobile phone vibrates in his back pocket, three ominously familiar pulses.

"Excuse me," he says to Raleigh, nodding. "I'm being summoned. Again, well done."

Hermann holds off on answering until he's separated from the entrance to LOCCENT by sufficient empty corridor to make him feel certain nobody's listening. He taps the screen and raises the phone to his ear, welcoming the call as much as he dreads it.

"Is it true?" says Karla, her voice tearful, fragile, and full of hope. "Bastien drove over as soon as reports took over the news. You know me; I still haven't got a television. We're watching it all on his laptop. Please tell me it's true. I want to believe—"

"Dear girl, insofar as we know," Hermann sighs reassuringly, "yes. We've done it."

"Oh, Hermann," she says; it's too late to keep her from crying. "Call Father. Soon."

"I don't doubt I'll hear from him in due course," Hermann says. "We're all on the brink of sleepwalking out here, I'll have you know."

"How silly of me," Karla murmurs, and there's relief in her voice. "Go to bed, Spätzchen."

"How many times have I asked you not to use that insipid—" Hermann sighs and collects himself, channels his annoyance into the fondest smile he can manage. "Get some rest, Karla. My best to Bastien and Charles."

"You're a dreadful git," she says, laughing through her abating tears. "I love you."

"And I you," replies Hermann, softly, but the connection has already fallen silent.

Hermann pockets his phone and shuffles back into LOCCENT, acutely aware as the adrenaline wears off that he's experiencing far more discomfort than he's experienced in months. The room is beginning to empty, what with most of the junior techs gone off to call family or engage in drunken shenanigans or whatever it is one does when knows one has had a hand in saving humanity. Mako and Raleigh have (he hopes) been whisked away to Medical, and Newton is nowhere in evidence. Tendo spots Hermann and wanders over, one hand in his pocket and the other holding a beer. His bow-tie hangs undone, and there are dark circles under his eyes.

"You better track down Newt's silly ass and drag him to Medical," he sighs, offering Hermann a sip from the bottle of Blue Girl; gratefully, Hermann accepts and hands it back to him. "Marshall's orders. He's got Mako and Raleigh down there already."

"I shall do my best," Hermann says. "Do you have any idea where he's got off to?"

"Yup," Tendo says, taking a long swig of beer. "Said he needed to piss. Thataway."

"Thank you," Hermann sighs, and leaves in spite of how much he'd like some more beer.

Newton is not, in fact, in the nearest loo. It takes Hermann twenty minutes of wandering, from empty laboratory to reveler-infested refectory to empty Jaeger bays, to locate Newton seated on the steps leading up to his own dormitory door with the recording device clutched in his right hand. He straightens his spine, lifts his head, and glances at Hermann. Just as he'd promised, he's listened to it; there's no other possible explanation for his red-rimmed eyes and the shaky set of his mouth. "You meant what you said," he states as Hermann takes a seat beside him.

"I've said a number of things today that I've meant," Hermann replies. "Which?"

Newton shakes his head, rewinds the feed, and plays it back for Hermann. The whole process takes less than five minutes, so there's no telling how many times he's managed to listen to it in the time that it's taken Hermann to locate him.

"You sound terrified," he says quietly. "And here I just blew you off before I went—"

"Newton, I did not convey my emotions with any measure of accuracy," Hermann sighs.

Newton's arm is around him again before he knows what's happening, and it's easy, startlingly easy, to turn his head so their cheeks are pressed together for a long, breathtaking moment until Newton turns his head, Hermann turns his, and their foreheads touch. Newton jerks slightly just as Hermann's pulse stutters. "Then you care," he says, almost in a whisper. "I mean, you—you seriously do."

"Yes, I do," Hermann agrees, and feels his world begin, gloriously, to crumble. "In so many words, and in so many more besides."

Newton grimaces and scratches Hermann's lip with his thumbnail. "You've got some dried . . . not blood anymore, but something."

Newton is nervous, exhausted, stalling, and still the intimacy of the gesture is not lost. Carefully, Hermann takes hold of Newton's hand and presses the back of it to his mouth: not a kiss, not yet, but a promise. There will be time to heal in the days to come, opportunities to banish hesitation, and Hermann can yet spare some patience.

"We have orders to report to Medical at our earliest convenience," he says, bringing their hands down to rest on Newton's knee. "I daresay we'll be kept overnight. Rumor has it the breakfast they serve is better, too. Shall we be off?"

Newton laughs: a rare and precious sound for all that Hermann would for so long have called it common. Not ordinary, no, Hermann thinks. Aleksis, my friend, whatever else he is, he's never been that. Dearest Sasha, I am sorry that you did not live to see—

"Yeah," says Newt, rising, and pulls Hermann up along with him. "Let's go."

Chapter Text

Hermann is rarely the first to wake gasping and disoriented, much less the one to wake in such a state and find himself alone. He rakes one hand through the covers on Newton's side of the bed, finding them cold; just as he struggles into a sitting position, willing his heartbeat to slow, Newton hurries through the bedroom door with their empty plastic laundry basket dangling from his hand. He drops it next to the dresser on his way to the bed, and, within seconds, he's got them back under the covers.

"For heaven's sake, you were doing chores on a Sunday morning," Hermann says, but he makes no move to prevent Newton from wrapping both arms around him and pulling him close. "That's nothing short of extraordinary. Don't let me stop you."

"Kind of impossible not to notice something's wrong," Newton mumbles, burying his face against Hermann's neck. "Switching clothes over from the washer to the dryer just isn't a reasonable trigger for raised heart-rate and an overwhelming sense of your self-loathing all mixed up with wanting to kiss my face off. What the hell happened?"

Hermann makes a point of kissing him right then, because—well, as Ming would say, reasons. Newton rolls him onto his back, easily settling between Hermann's thighs, and, for a moment, Hermann thinks he might get his way. In moments like this, physical intimacy has, more often than not, served them better than speech. "What I want to do is blow you," Newton confesses, grinding down against Hermann with the obvious proof of his interest, "but I'm tempted to tickle you until I get an answer."

Hermann scowls and answers Newton's thrust with one of his own. "You wouldn't."

"Or I just won't blow you until I get an answer," Newton continues. "Either way."

"It would seem the events of yesterday have taken their toll," Hermann sighs. "If your nightmare is Stockholm, Newton, then finding you on the laboratory floor is mine. Of course, there are other . . . surrounding events . . . which lessen the sting."

"Was my nightmare," Newton corrects him, shifting up a little to press their foreheads together, and the echo is so close, so fierce, so profound that Hermann trembles under him, clutching at Newton's shoulders all the tighter. "From now on, I'm gonna dream of the Grand Hôtel if I can help it. Hey, look, I don't think yesterday was a disaster; we finished looking at the coral, got our shit together, and you guys got the rest of your tour. I guess maybe coming home and plowing through the last few Firefly eps and Serenity and then sticking that load of clothes in to wash before bed might've been the straws that broke the camel's back," he adds with fond sarcasm.

"My foolishness gets the better of me," Hermann admits, shifting one hand from Newton's shoulder to rest against his cheek. "I ought not to have—" to have got jealous of your single-minded intent to lay to rest as many of the remaining monsters as possible in the wake of our release from Medical, to the point where I missed how desperately you were trying to include me in your narrative "—ought not to have delayed us by a fortnight when we'd already delayed each other for so many years."

Newton sighs and gives him a lingering kiss, working one hand down to push at Hermann's waistband. "You've got this thing you do, you know, where you say Oh, it's okay, we were saving the world or Oh, it's all right, we need some time to catch our breath and recover, but you never mean those things. They hang you up in every instance. Why can't you just admit that you regret every time you had the chance to make a move and didn't? I sure as hell regret not putting us out of our misery, but it was—it was like four in the morning and you had to go pointing out that we had orders. Do you see what I'm saying? Every step of the way, we made choices, and we justified them based on the best information available."

Hermann is too busy helping Newton shove down his pajamas to argue; he responds with a kiss of his own and thinks what he hopes conveys some wordless equivalent of You are mine and I am yours and this has always been so, at which Newton whimpers and finishes kicking out of his underwear and makes quick work of shedding his shirt. He shoves back the covers and kneels panting between Hermann's thighs, unbuttoning Hermann's top and spreading the fabric to expose his chest with reverent care.

"You're just going to lie there and take it," Newton informs him, shoving him back down when he attempts to sit up, and Hermann finds obeying this command much easier once Newton has got both clever, attentive hands on him. "You're going to accept the fact that there's nothing to change and that I'm finally okay with it," he adds, kneading Hermann's erection just so, until Hermann gasps and can't keep still, "and we're not dreaming this, Hermann, okay? This is what life looks like when you're not stuck in some hellish, all-consuming sci-fi nightmare that wandered in through a gaping hole in reality. Just, for fuck's sake, I want you to remember—"

Words fail them, words will always fail them when Newton's tired of trying to make his point and scoots down to take Hermann in his mouth instead. Hermann squeezes his eyes shut, forces himself to lie still through each gasping breath, each shudder, and cradles the back of Newton's head gently in both hands because it takes all of Newton's concentration not to gag when he insists on conducting the proceedings like this. Hermann swallows a moan and lets his toes bunch in the sheets, feels the last of his resolve slip away when Newton turns his head so that his hair's brushing the inside of Hermann's right thigh even as Newton's hand covers the equations on his hip—bracing, coaxing—and Hermann is done for.

"Anything," he gasps when his breath has returned, once Newton is sprawled back over him and kissing his neck and pushing against Hermann's belly with each slow, tight roll of his hips. "Name it," he whispers, pressing at the small of Newton's back.

"Your hands," Newton mumbles against Hermann's cheek, pressing a kiss there, and he's trembling, close, and Hermann knows nearly to the second how hard and soon he'll fall. "I love your hands—fuck, Hermann. Nobody's ever touched me like I'm—"

"Well, you are," Hermann tells him, rolling him over so that he can slide his hand from the base of Newton's spine forward to his hip and then—ah. Hermann strokes him through what's already started, kisses Newton's helpless cry right back into his mouth as he comes all over Hermann's fingers and both of their bellies. Precious, thinks Hermann, overcome, gathering him close and vulnerable in the aftermath. Just what you've longed for, just as you've deserved. To Hermann's surprise, Newton doesn't try to speak; instead, he radiates Oh God and You too and Please just hold me like this for a while, so Hermann does.

The buzzer on the dryer ruins their reverie, pulling them lost and hazy-eyed from a kiss that had quite made up Hermann's mind that he might manage another go if Newton has sufficiently recovered. He's quiet, though, and his previously clear and sated thoughts have grown restless at the prospect of needing to finish the laundry.

"Should take care of that," Newton sighs, nuzzling Hermann's collarbone. "If I leave the job till later, your shirts will come out wrinkled."

"I'll help you," says Hermann, against his better judgment. "Let me clean us up first." He squeezes Newton tightly, holds onto him a few moments longer by way of preemptive apology; they're slow to rise, but neither one of them complains.

The truth is, Newton is perfectly capable when it comes to chores, even diligent when he sets his mind to them. The trouble is, Hermann cannot always bring himself to stay out of the proceedings even if he knows full well that he should.

He'd hovered, his habitual annoyance gathering, while Newton had transferred the clothes from dryer to basket with such haste that he'd let a few socks and pairs of underwear drop on the floor in the process. Hermann had snatched them up in Newton's wake, itching to point out that if Newton would just slow down, then these things wouldn't happen. Right now, perched on the edge of the bed with a sea of warm laundry between them, it's all Hermann can do not to pluck up and re-fold every single item that Newton has already folded and tossed in the basket.

"It really gets to you, doesn't it," Newton observes, folding one of his own t-shirts, "that I grew up doing this a different way. I mean, did your dad force you to take A-levels in Home Ec, too? Or—no offense—is this a thing you get from your mom?"

"I'm particular," Hermann insists, giving in, and re-folds the last several articles of clothing that Newton had chucked in the basket. "There's nothing wrong with that." Newton refrains from sarcastic commentary and adds the t-shirt to Hermann's pile. "Do you want me to go get started on breakfast while you finish this? We're probably better off if there's something productive I can do right this instant that won't require your attention because it's otherwise occupied. Sound like a deal?"

Hermann leans over to kiss him: half in apology, half in agreement. "I'm famished."

"Gotcha," Newton says, rising. "I'll feed Bertie first, and then I'll make some eggs."

They spend breakfast having a heated, if oddly pleasant argument on the subject of clothes-folding methodology. Halfway through, Newton's phone chimes, so Hermann glares at him until he stops fidgeting through a valiant effort to ignore it and reads the text-message. He grimaces and looks up at Hermann, setting the phone back down.

"I know it's a long haul for a work night, but Tendo's asking if we'll come out to the dome for a visit on Tuesday evening. He says Herc is making everybody's lives miserable and dropping not-so-subtle hints that he wants his goddamn present."

"It's a fuss, certainly," Hermann agrees, "but, yes, why not? We do need to deliver it."

"I'll write back," Newton says, tapping his screen. "Sounds like the big guy misses us."

"Quite," says Hermann, with a pensive nod, and takes an unhurried sip of his tea.

*

The next morning arrives too soon—as, Hermann finds, Monday always does. Newton makes less of a fuss about early rising than he had the week before, although Hermann catches him nodding off for the briefest of moments while they're in the shower and wakes him with a judiciously placed pinch. They make it out the door early enough to catch the seven-twenty bus to campus and treat themselves to pastries at Starbucks; Newton looks guilty as he tears into his pain au chocolat, but Hermann's enjoying his cheese brioche so much that he can't be arsed to care.

This is how Professor Xiu finds them, striding up to their table with her customized latte (she'd asked for some heavy cream) in hand. "It's wonderful to see both of you," she says, smiling, and brings her gaze to rest on Newton. "How are we settling in?"

"Great," Newton says, perhaps overly eager to please, but it's too late for Hermann to warn him that this is how their colleague looks when she wants something. "The kids are fantastic, and I can't wait to see what Admissions will have for me by way of master's and doctoral candidates come autumn. Thanks for letting Miss Yan take my quarter-term, by the way. Cross-registrants always offer such a fresh perspective, keep the hardcore majors on their toes. I've always enjoyed having them."

"Her participation in my seminar has been somewhat less enthusiastic this past week," Hermann points out. "After promising she'd do better."

"But you said she kicked ass on that exam!" Newton interjects, and although he covers his mouth and glances sidelong at Professor Xiu with a half-winced Sorry, Hermann can't help but cringe. "She had the highest score in the class, right?"

"That's very much what I'd hoped to hear," says their colleague, her smile widening, and Hermann wonders whether she's just doing that pretending-to-ignore-the-gaffe thing at which she's incredibly skilled in order to let Newton save face, or whether she's actually pleased to hear the news no matter how it's delivered on both fronts. "Hermann assures me she's a promising student in every respect, if prone to lackadaisical slacking in order to garner attention."

"I think that's what we're seeing here," Newton admits, wiping his mouth on a napkin. "She's playing us against each other. I mean, you know, just a little. She knows we go home to each other at the end of the day and expects we'll be comparing notes."

"Then we mustn't let her carry the game too far," Hermann insists.

"I have no doubt you'll both do what's best for Ming," says Professor Xiu, dryly, "and if that fails, I believe she can look out for herself when push comes to shove. I must be going very soon, but I was wondering if I might ask a favor of you both."

Aha, Hermann thinks, swilling his coffee in resignation. The hammer falls.

"As you know, there's a symposium co-hosted by our respective departments on Saturday," says Professor Xiu. "It's been scheduled between us and City University for months, of course, and the programming has been set for just as long, but we've had one of our guest presenters back out at the last minute. I thought perhaps the two of you might be able to fill in? Your joint lecture in late January was superb, and the students gave the administration excellent feedback on the event."

"That's five days away," says Newton, frowning. "Unless you want us to do a condensed re-hash of the joint lecture for the benefit of people coming in from other schools, I'm afraid that doesn't leave us much time."

"What he means to say is, we're still a bit knackered for the trip," Hermann clarifies. "However, if not a condensed version of the joint lecture, we might at least cobble something together from our existing joint publications. Slightly out of date, perhaps, but useful in a retrospective context."

"I don't doubt you'll think of something, Doctor Gottlieb," says Professor Xiu, her beneficent smile broadening. "Thank you. Doctor Geiszler, I know you're still finding your feet, so I understand if you object—"

"Nah, we've got this," says Newton, and Hermann feels a surge of relief; he'd feared watching Newton make a further grave mistake not only in front of the woman who is not only his head-of-department, but also the driving force behind allocating certain mysterious funds toward hiring him as quickly as possible in response to the students' petition. "As long as he's down with it, I am."

"I'll be in contact over the next few days," replies Professor Xiu, beaming. "I cannot thank you enough. I'll need a title and and an abstract for the program, but that's about it," she adds, and waves on her way out. "See you later!"

"You don't look surprised," Newton sighs, "so this is something she does a lot?"

"Often enough," Hermann says. "The other heads-of-department tipped me off."

"We can do this," says Newton, optimistically. "We're rock stars, remember?"

"Newton, I've got to be going," Hermann sighs, rising, and leans over to kiss his forehead. "Take care of the rubbish on your way out, won't you?"

"Yeah," Newton sighs, removing the lid of his cup, swilling what's left of his mocha. "Don't worry about it. One o'clock at the cafeteria for lunch?"

"I wouldn't miss it, darling," Hermann replies, reluctantly letting go of Newton's hand.

Ming is already seated in the front row of the classroom when Hermann makes his way inside, so it's easy enough to pause next to her desk before approaching the chalkboard. She looks up at him expectantly, her textbook open and papers in order.

"I trust that you've had a restful weekend, Miss Yan," Hermann says. "If you haven't got anywhere to be, I'd like to see you in my office after class."

"Sure thing, Doctor G," Ming replies, folding her inked arms across her chest.

She spends the first half an hour silently taking notes, but by the time Hermann is ready to start asking questions, her hand is already in the air. He calls on her, curious, and she tosses out a point of methodology so provocative that they spend the rest of the class discussing it. At the end of class, she's out the door before Hermann has even gathered up his things, and she's waiting next to his office when he gets there.

"If you were mad at me before," Ming offers, "then you just can't be now. I could be getting this all wrong. Why did you want to see me?"

"Come inside," says Hermann, unlocking the door. "I just wanted to have a word."

"I'm sorry," Ming blurts no sooner than he's shut them in. "It's childish, but I just—I wanted to see what you'd do. You more than him. I wanted to prove I'm smart enough to take anything. For some reason, it's important to me that you know that."

"Dear girl," says Hermann, taking a seat at his desk before rummaging in the lowest right-hand drawer, "I never once doubted your intelligence. What you've given me cause to doubt is your drive. Your ambition. I wouldn't have you stay in this program if your heart's elsewhere, although, in my view, your leaving would constitute a most tragic loss." Hermann removes the plastic bag that's been carefully folded over on itself multiple times, glad of Newton's tendency toward over-packaging.

Ming stares at the floor for a few seconds, nodding, and then looks back up at him.

"What's that?" she asks, pointing to the parcel. "Are you showing me something?"

"No, I'm giving you something," he corrects, handing it over. "From both of us."

Speechless, Ming accepts the bundle and slowly unwinds the bag. She reaches inside and draws out the item, which is also tissue-wrapped. She steps up to the edge of his desk and sets the parcel down, pulling off the layers. When the heavy object at last rests in her palms, she's shaking, and she stares up at Hermann in disbelief. "Why?" she asks. "It's beautiful, and I'm not even sure I know what it is."

"It's an astrolabe," Hermann explains, taking the instrument out of her grasp. "A reproduction, of course. We found it at a shop in London. There was a desk model with an easel folding out from the back, but Newton thought you might appreciate the portable one more," says Hermann.

"That still doesn't answer my question," says Ming, slightly teary-eyed, taking back the instrument. "I mean, thank you; thank you both. But why?"

"Because you reminded me of someone in a story I read a long time ago," Hermann replies, "and said story was written even longer before that. And the man who wrote the story wasn't just a poet; his education was broad, and he had a great deal to say upon the use of the very thing you're holding. You might look up his treatise on the subject, although you might do well to seek a modern English translation."

"I know who Geoffrey Chaucer is," she says, running her fingers lovingly over the face of the astrolabe. "I had this survey English course when I was a first-year, and we read excerpts from The Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Criseyde. I still have the textbook at home. The Treatise is in there. He wrote it for his son. I never knew my dad, but I like to imagine he'd have wanted to teach me like that."

This time, Hermann accepts her embrace without hesitation, leaning to return it.

"I'll read those stories again to figure out who you think I am," she murmurs.

"They're reminders," Hermann tells her. "Reminders of what we hold most dear."

*

On Tuesday evening, they take a taxi straight to the Shatterdome. It's raining when they arrive, and Hermann feels by now that it's some manner of eternal joke from which they'll never escape so long as they persist in coming and going. Tendo is waiting for them at the entrance to the lift.

"Just so you're not caught unaware," Tendo tells them on the way down, "we've got a full house right now. Alison and Dan are here, Herc's got Max on hand, and all of the junior techs are in. Might seem loud after the peace and quiet you guys have had."

"Peace and quiet?" Hermann scoffs. "Are you forgetting to whom you're speaking?"

"Yeah, you know this one," says Newton, and sweeps back the parka's dripping hood. "Loud and proud, man! It's all for Queen and Country—"

"Dude, don't do that," Tendo insists, cringing. "It hurts my ears more than his."

"I never said I was good at impressions," Newton snaps. "Let's see you try."

"My ears will begin to hurt," Hermann sighs, "if you two don't shut it. Look here, we've almost arrived. For God's sake, Newton, take my coat."

LOCCENT is bustling, just as Tendo had promised, and Hermann wouldn't have it any other way. Once he's found a place for their coats, Newton finds them a couple of empty chairs to pull up next to where Herc is sitting alone. Hermann is grateful for the respite, if only to stash the bag he feels somewhat obvious carrying; no sooner has he stuck it under his seat than Max comes trotting over from where Newton has already crouched next to Daniel and his toys to find out what the boy is up to. Herc, seated in the chair next to Hermann, holds out his hand.

"Come on, Max," he says as the dog snuffles his hand, and then licks it. "You've missed 'em, too, big softie that you are. That's right."

"I trust he's been behaving himself around the youngster?" Hermann asks, bending to scratch under the dog's chin. "No squabbles over toys?"

"Max is a better babysitter than I am," Herc says, clapping Hermann on the shoulder as he sits back up, and both of them laugh when Max, panting happily, puts both paws up on Hermann's knees. "Down, boy. Off with you. Go over there and see Auntie Al and Uncle Tendo. They've got treats."

Following the trajectory of Herc's pointing, Max trots over to where Tendo and Alison are sharing a box of donuts with several of the junior techs. Tendo shoots Herc an annoyed look when he's suddenly got more than half a lap-ful of determined bulldog.

"It's good to see you, Marshall," Hermann says, and Newton briefly catches his eye from where he's seated on the floor with Daniel in his lap and several colorful building-blocks in his hands. Each time the boy points, Newton stacks another block on top of the haphazard foundation they already seem to have built. "Given the circumstances, I hope life's been treating you well. How is your brother since we saw him in Sydney?"

"Scott's doing all right," Herc says, unable to suppress a grin as the tower that Newton has constructed under Daniel's direction comes toppling down. "He'd like to come out here and see me when the weather's nicer. I told him to wait till April at least. Looks like Doctor Geiszler is adjusting well to civilian life. Bit of time in the real world's done him good, if you ask me. He needed Lu to boss him around for a while like nobody's business. Maybe she'll keep him in line."

"I'm certain that cookery, aquarium life, babysitting, and body art will keep him occupied for some time to come," Hermann sighs, "not to mention the full-time university appointment. He's always loved to teach."

"I'd say you've done him a world of good, too," Herc adds. "If that's not too forward. He always was a handful; Stacker used to tell me . . . " He trails off, pensive, but this is something that Hermann wants to hear, something he suspects that Herc needs to say, so he reaches to lay a hand on Herc's forearm and gives him an encouraging nod. "Used to tell me about Newton's absolutely outrageous demands back when he was still at the Academy. Nobody'd ever had the guts to ask for that kind of research capability before clearing training and receiving an assignment. He was always glad that he gave in, though. Look at where it got us."

"I'm no better," Hermann sighs. "I can deny him nothing, especially not now."

"Seems to me you haven't had to," Herc replies. "His demands are probably less extravagant now. I hope that tarted-up tooth'll keep him happy."

"I hope you'll be happy, sir, if that's not too forward," says Hermann, unflinching, looking Herc straight in the eye. "You've had it hardest of us all, I should guess. I'm under no illusions." The rest of us walked away with our loved ones alive, Hermann thinks. You, on the other hand, lost at least two thirds of your heart. "This is for you," he says, drawing the bag out from under his chair. "It's from both of us, but also partly from my nephew in London. I helped Dominik build it, and Newton was up late the night before we left painting on the finishing touches."

"I can't take this from a kid," says Herc, gravely, staring glassy-eyed at the perfect miniature replica of Striker Eureka that he held in his hands. "Here," he says, holding it out to Hermann. "You send it back to him, and you give him my thanks."

"Striker has always been Dom's favorite," Hermann says, pressing it back into Herc's hands. "He idolizes you and your son even now. He got his hands on the kit for the express purpose of building it so we could give it to you. He hadn't got far enough by the time we arrived, though, and he needed help. Look how precise his work is, and, if I may say so, Newton has done a smashing job of capturing Max—"

"Goddamn it," says Herc, on the edge of tears, and it's all Hermann can do to squeeze his arm, let him know it's all right, it's really all right. "You had to make this hard." Meanwhile, Newton has taken notice of what's happening, and he's quick to scoop up Daniel and wander over—hopefully to Herc's rescue. He points to the model of Striker Eureka and says to Daniel, "Hey, look, isn't that cool? Do you know what it is?"

Daniel nods eagerly, finger stuck in the corner of his mouth. "Jaeger," he says.

"Oh, you're a bright one," says Herc, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand, and holds it out for Daniel to inspect. "There's no doubt of that. How lucky your daddy is you'll never set foot in one of these. You tell him that. You tell him—"

Hermann takes over Marshall-comforting duty while Newton takes the model off his hands for Daniel to inspect more closely. Herc's great, heaving sobs are far, far overdue, and if the most useful thing that Hermann can do is let his former commanding officer weep on his shoulder, then he's certainly willing to oblige. Newton sits down on the floor with Daniel and the Jaeger; his eyes never once leave Hermann's. He says, "Alison tells me Mako and Raleigh are flying in on Friday."

"Tokyo to here is a four-hour flight," Hermann says. "Not insignificant, given they were only just here a month ago. What's the occasion?"

"They can't get away in late April for Mako's birthday, so they're coming now. For her gift, she told Raleigh she wanted to see all of us."

"Then we shan't argue," Hermann says, returning Daniel's shy smile, "shall we?"

*

They meet for lunch at one o'clock the next day, as has become their habit. Hermann is already seated at their usual rear-corner table under under one of the high, broad windows when Newton arrives with his tray. He's opted for a salad, which makes Hermann feel vaguely guilty for having chosen the noodle-dish special with a side of fried dumplings. He picks one up with his chopsticks and holds it out to Newton, who leans forward and takes a bite; he has to dab the dipping sauce off his chin.

"That'll give 'em something to stare at," he says once he's chewed and swallowed.

"I don't think there's anything to be done about the constant scrutiny," Hermann sighs. "I can't help but think they look disappointed because we haven't put on the kind of show that our reputation has, until now, all but guaranteed."

"I just might prefer keeping the arguments at home," Newton says wryly, digging into his salad. "Now I know we've got something special."

"Ming put up a fight in class this morning," Hermann tells him. "More of the same."

"I've got her this afternoon, so we'll see what happens," says Newton, shrugging. "I don't think she's confident enough with the subject matter to cause a stir just yet, but she asks questions that are as confident as they are cautious."

They discuss her progress at some length, and Hermann catches the faintest hint of a smile on Newton's lips when he mentions that she's hung the astrolabe off a carabiner on her messenger bag. The weight of curious passers'-by gazes does not go unnoticed; for every person who slows, there are another several who keep pace with each other, but whose hushed muttering to one another gives them away. Hermann finds it satisfying to indulge in the occasional pointed glare when someone lingers over Newton's animated side of the conversation for slightly too long.

Newton eventually pauses, smirking like he can't help himself, and spears a piece of chicken and a mandarin-orange slice from his salad. "You might not know this," he says, lowering his voice, "but your jealousy is just about the cutest thing ever."

Hermann knows he's blushing, so he trains his glare on Newton instead of on the next inquisitive party who walks past. "Newton, not here."

"Mmm, right, says the guy who kissed me out in the open on my first day."

"Says the reckless party who's planning on buying a sofa for the express purpose—"

"Uh, point taken," says Newton, faintly pink as he rubs the side of his neck, and Hermann can't help smirking at him. "Let's not get carried away."

"Move along," Hermann snaps at the pair of undergraduates who have stopped to stare at them, "or I shall be having a word with your supervisors."

Newton, oblivious as they run off, is frowning at something on the screen of his phone.

"Dad and Uncle Illia want to video-chat after dinner tonight. Think we can swing it?"

"As long as they can work out how to operate the program," Hermann snorts, "certainly. Telephone conversations with them are taxing."

"Hey, you're forgetting my uncle's a whiz at that stuff," Newton reminds him. "He might be retired now, but he still makes a living off the royalties."

"Why use Gunter as a professional alias? His given name's far more memorable."

"Because it is his given name," says Newton. "Well, his middle one. Illia Gunter Geiszler is a mouthful. And, anyway, Gunter sounds more bad-ass."

"What about your name?" Hermann asks, unable to contain his curiosity now that he can inquire with impunity. "Is there a story behind that?"

"Hah, kind of," says Newton, shoving his tray forward, apparently no longer hungry. "Newton is my dad's middle name, nothing fancy there; I guess my mom liked the sound of it better than Jacob, Junior and they left it at that."

"I've never seen a middle name for you on any official records," says Hermann, sneaking an orange slice, and Newton waves his hand.

"Yup," Newton confirms, taking a sip of his seltzer. "Don't have one. My dad's mom wanted it to be Heinrich, after her dearly departed husband, and both of my parents about had a fit. So, as a compromise, they just didn't bother. What's your parents' excuse for not giving one to you or to your siblings? Or is Karla yanking my chain?"

"My father finds middle-naming superfluous," Hermann replies. "As did his mother before him. Bianca Gottlieb was a formidable woman."

"Man, we had us some opinionated grandmas," Newton sighs. "Dan's got a middle name, though—after Tendo's grandfather. Alison's dad was named Daniel. Names and naming traditions are just weird."

"They suit us in the end, do they not?" Hermann asks, taking Newton's hand.

Once they've disposed of what remains on their trays and parted ways outside the building (with a kiss, yes: they've doubtless egged each other on to the point it no longer matters), Hermann returns to his office under markedly increased watch. They're hardly the only staff couple in this neck of the campus woods, what with Doctors Liow and Teng also a marked favorite amongst the student body, but he supposes they're the only famous staff couple, which apparently counts for a lot. When one of Hermann's late afternoon double-slot tutorial appointments cancels, he texts Newton with nothing more than this piece of information; there's a knock on his door inside ten minutes. They don't get tempt anything too elaborate, but rekindling the slow burn they'd lit at lunch is more than enough to leave them full.

I guess we could put the sofa in your office, Newton texts near the end of the day.

Don't be absurd, replies Hermann, warm all over. I've already got that secondhand settee in here.

Newton gets home first; when Hermann walks through the door, faintly irked at the fact Newton hadn't arranged to wait for him on campus, he's overwhelmed by the smell of something cooking. He finds Newton in the kitchen stirring a bean-curd dish with which he's not familiar, but there's hoisin sauce and lemongrass, and that's sufficient cause for him to pull Newton in by the hips and kiss the back of his neck. They eat quickly, mindful that Newton's family will be ringing through soon.

Jacob and Illia look less alike than they sound on the phone. Even in advancing age, Illia is handsome where Jacob is plain. It's clearer now than in the few photographs Hermann has seen that Newton only slightly resembles either one of them.

"Hi," Newton says, adjusting the angle on his tablet propped up in its folding case in front of Bertie's tank. "Sorry we've been incommunicado for a while," he adds, scooting in closer to Hermann on the sofa cushion. "Mom sends her regards."

"Hello, Newton," says Jacob, adjusting his glasses and brushing at his sparse salt-and-pepper brown hair. "Hermann, guten Abend. It's good to see your face outside of pictures. I understand that congratulations are officially in order."

"Sincerest apologies," Hermann offers while Newton stares at his feet with a murmured danke. "The fault of our absence on your side of the Atlantic lies with me; I wasn't able to get sufficient time off for us to extend travel by another week."

"My start-date interfered, too," Newton volunteers. "March eighteenth. No choice."

"I don't think there's any blame implied," says Illia, elbowing his brother. "We understand how busy you've been. Don't be so hard on yourselves—"

"Or on each other," Jacob cautions, and Hermann realizes that he's rather serious in spite of the grin he's wearing. "Marriage brings enough conflict in its own right, so maybe it's time to give up . . . whatever kind of fighting it is you two have got. I've heard about it. No more of that."

Newton's father and uncle both speak with an accent that's been worn down and polished by long years living away, but Hermann's ear is still inexorably drawn to that shred of familiarity (Britain has filed the edges off his father's accent in a different manner, but the same basic principle applies). Hermann smiles and nods even as Newton is clearly trying his hardest not to laugh; he takes hold of Newton's hand, strokes the underside of his wrist, and Newton schools his expression instantly.

"Nice try, but," he says, fixing his father with a dubious glance, "you do know that telling the two of us not to snipe at each other is like telling you guys not to argue over whose turn it is to pick the Netflix, right?"

"What could you possibly have left to snipe about?" asks Illia, and, unexpectedly, his tone tilts even more serious than his brother's. "You've saved each other's lives, saved the world to boot, and survived tying the knot. After that, everything's easy."

Hermann turns to look at Newton in the same instant Newton turns to him. There's a moment of recognition: namely, that these men who would doubtless prove drift-compatible if ever hooked up to a Pons nonetheless have no earthly idea how difficult, in some respects, the past few months have been thanks to that very activity. Hermann's lips quirk in another smile; meanwhile, Newton looks down at his feet again, a reflexive habit from childhood of which Hermann is keenly aware. "Nothing's ever easy," says Newton, with fierce resolve. "But Hermann is worth it."

"What about this son of mine?" Jacob asks Hermann, seriousness fading. "Is he?"

"For better or for worse," he replies. "When push came to shove, no force in this world or in any other could have convinced me otherwise."

The air clears quickly after that, what with Newton's head dropping to rest briefly against Hermann's shoulder while Jacob and Illia cheerfully tag-team him with questions about how work has been going for them both. Newton begins to interject frequently after a while, seemingly satisfied that this first face-to-face meeting, as it were, hasn't turned out to be a disaster. The four of them chat for another hour about inconsequential things; Newton is as lost on the subject of current American television shows as Hermann is, and, for that, Hermann is intensely grateful.

Once they've said their protracted goodbyes, Hermann leans forward, powers off the tablet, and pulls Newton into his lap so they can finish what they'd started earlier. Afterward, Hermann drifts in and out of dozing with Newton sprawled asleep on top of him until Newton's phone vibrates and lights up on the coffee table. Fascinated, Bertie to darts in the direction of the disturbance.

"Love," Hermann murmurs, "however hard he may try, your familiar spirit is not, in fact, able to answer text messages on your behalf."

Newton mutters, rubs his eyes, and reaches for the offending device—shaking his head despairingly at Bertie while he's at it. He squints at the screen, retrieves his glasses from the edge of the table, and reads the message once he's got them on.

"Lu wants me to take a job tomorrow at five," he tells Hermann, tossing his phone back on the table. "It'll take a couple of hours, but it'll pay well."

"Then you ought to accept it," Hermann replies, idly stroking Newton's back. "It wouldn't do for you to grow rusty so soon after having learned."

Newt kisses Hermann's chin. "Come to the Studio once you finish up on campus. Watch me work. Lu won't mind, and I doubt the client will, either. I've met him before. He let me watch Lu work on him while I was learning."

"I will," promises Hermann, sleepily, "but we'd best be off to bed."

*

Hermann has three twenty-minute make-up tutorials to hold between the end of his afternoon lecture at four o'clock and Newton's start-time of five o'clock at the Studio. He was never going to make it to Fong Road by five on the dot, that much is certain, so he soldiers on through the anxious befuddlement of three especially timid students.

When at last he herds out the third and final appointment, it's ten past five and he's dangerously close to being in a foul mood. He doesn't enjoy watching his students suffer, contrary to what some of them may believe, and it's just as he's turning back to the desk in order to snap shut his briefcase that someone slips into the office.

"Hi, Doctor G," says Ming's voice, from behind him. "Have you got a minute?"

"For you, dear girl," he says, wearily resuming his seat, "certainly. What is it?"

"It's mostly just . . . " she trails off and slumps down in the seat that's up against the wall to the right of his desk, as if this were any other tutorial. "I've had a really, really shit day, um, sorry for saying that, but I really have. Now that I've stopped worrying about looking cool and all that wank, I'm getting really into my work, I mean more than I ever have before, and it's awesome, but I've lost like two or three people I thought were friends, because now they think I'm sucking up to you in order to get big, scary academic street-cred points and that I'm sucking up to Doctor Geiszler because I want to get in his pants, which is completely untrue—"

Hermann sighs, covering her agitated hand with his own on the corner of the desk.

"If it weren't inappropriate, and if I had something to hand, I'd offer you a drink."

Ming laughs. "I like gin and tonic, for what it's worth. My friends say I like old-lady drinks, but, come on, what's wrong with gin? Or port?"

"There is nothing wrong with any of those things," Hermann says, feeling a pang of commiseration so keen he finds himself wondering why he doesn't keep any drinks around in case (IN CASE, he amends, remembering what he'd scrawled long ago)—

"Look, okay, maybe I'd be trying to get in somebody's pants if they were single, but that's not any of your business, and it's not any of Doctor Geiszler's, either," she says cantankerously, folding her arms across her chest. "But I feel better for having said that. Thank you for letting me. I don't feel like I'm lying anymore." Hermann blinks at her for several seconds and decides that it's simply best not to ask.

"You may say whatever you need to say provided I'm allowed to leave no later than twenty minutes from now," he says. "You mustn't let them get to you, of that much I'm quite sure. There will be a great deal of pain involved, and you will lose people before all is said and done. I cannot promise you it won't entail either of those things. All that I can promise you is that I will be here to listen."

Somewhere at the back of Hermann's mind, over needle-hum and idle chatter and distant music, Newton's sense of sudden, shocked pride is so intense that Hermann finds that he needs to close his eyes. It's no less than you would have done, he thinks.

"Are you okay?" asks Ming, concerned. "Doctor G? Doctor G, are you—"

"Yes, fine," Hermann mutters, opening his eyes. "I'm all right. And you—?"

Ming gives him a tilted smile, and he realizes for the first time that she does not smile often. She has the kind of smile in which Hermann can recognize all of the faults he'd normally pin on his own, but in a face like hers, its beauty is somehow unmistakable.

"You're a great listener," she says. "Has anyone ever told you that? You're ace."

"There are plenty who would disagree with you," Hermann says, "and Newton would be the first of them. For all my sins, he would even be right."

"What would make you say that?" Ming asks. "Past experience? Sorry. You have a reputation, or at least you had a reputation, for fighting a lot. In public. Did you know there's a lot of stuff on the internet about that fight you guys had in Stockholm during—wait, oh God. That's not a good face."

"One of these days, I'll be ready to tell you about that," Hermann says, "but that day has not yet come. You have five more minutes."

"I wanted to ask a favor," she murmurs, eyes lowered, "but I've blown my chances."

"I don't know about that," replies Hermann, softly. "Try me. You might be surprised."

"I know that you guys go out to the Shatterdome to see a handful of friends still stationed there," Ming says. "Doctor Geiszler mentioned on Tuesday that you guys were heading out there that evening. I just—I know I shouldn't romanticize it, but you guys were so lucky. That's a once-in-a-lifetime deal. I don't even care that it's pretty much empty; I dream about what it must have been like. Next time you go, take me with you? Maybe ask if you can? One look, Doctor G. That's all I want."

With that, she rises, steps over to hug him, and leaves before he can comment.

Hermann wrestles his phone out of his pocket and types, I'm on my way. Not a word.

He's on the bus when Newton's response arrives: Taking a break. Spoil my fun, huh?

I've only got four stops to go, Hermann replies. I'll be there before you know it.

When Hermann jangles through the door at Wei Sun ten minutes later, Newton has already resumed work on his client. He glances up briefly to smile at Hermann, but it's fleeting; his eyes dart back to his work seamlessly, as if they'd never left it. Before Hermann can decide which of the chairs lining the wall will afford him the best view, Lu comes over, takes his briefcase, and sets it safely behind the till. She comes back, tugs Hermann's coat off of him, and hangs it on the nearest hook.

"Come sit with us," she says, guiding him to the opposite side of the shop-floor space where there's a table and four chairs—one of which is occupied by Hannibal Chau, who offers an unexpectedly sheepish wave. "We have jasmine tea. You watch Newt later."

"Thank you," Hermann says, and doesn't protest as she nudges him into the chair closest to Hannibal and pours him a cup of tea. "How are you?"

"Same old, same old," says Hannibal, and Hermann feels compelled to point out that he'd intended the question for Lu. "Business is slowing down, but there's nothing for it. Means I can spend more quality time around here, that's for sure," he adds, and Lu beams at him. "How's married life treatin' ya? And how's the little monster?"

"He means Bertie, not Dan," says Lu, quickly, but her tone is tempered by a wink.

"Both little monsters are just fine," says Hermann, taking a sip of his tea. "The former is getting on just fine without all of the paraphernalia on which he imprinted whilst staying at yours; the latter has learned to say Jaeger and done his Uncle Herc proud."

"You forgot Max," Lu prompts, expectantly patting Hermann's arm. "What about him?"

"That dog's no monster, given what he lives with," Hannibal mutters. "Regular saint."

"Max is fine," Hermann sighs. "He's developed a taste for glazed donuts, no small thanks to Officer Choi. The J-Techs spoil him."

"You haven't answered my other question," Hannibal prompts, nudging Hermann.

"Don't bully," Lu warns, folding her arms across her chest. "No more tea for you."

"It's all right," says Hermann, dryly, swilling his cup. "I'm grateful for your concern, as is Newton, I'm sure. Married life entails rather a lot of laundry, early-morning bus rides to campus, and video-chats with a pair of eccentric expat Germans who live Stateside. I can't say as you'd enjoy it."

"Touché, Doctor Gottlieb," says Hannibal, raising his cup. "Here's to wedded bliss."

"Nuh-uh," says Lu, sticking out her tongue at him. "Not me. Way too soon, honey."

"Nonetheless," Hermann replies, raising his own cup high, "I'll gladly drink to that."

Seventy-four minutes, two more pots of tea, and four loo runs (two of which are Hermann's) later, Newton trails over with his gloves dangling from his fingertips. He looks annoyed and tired as he chucks them in the nearest bin; while Lu goes to settle up with the customer, Hermann catches Newton as he passes (presumably with intent to sit down in the nearest empty chair) and tugs him down in his lap.

"You didn't come watch," Newton complains, but lets himself be pulled. "You suck."

Hermann winds his arms around Newton's waist while Hannibal hands him some tea.

"Hey, Doc," he says to Newton, with mock graveness, "is this stooge treatin' you all right?"

"Mmm, yep," hums Newton, wrapping both hands around his cup while Hermann kisses between his shoulder blades. "Just fine."

*

Friday evening finds them in yet another taxi to the Shatterdome. This time, they've been promised not only the arrival of Mako and Raleigh, but also dinner courtesy of Tendo and Alison having been given permission to hijack the kitchen. Hermann takes over child-minding with Herc and Max in the refectory while Newton buggers off to assist with cooking. Daniel seems happy to see him, and he even reaches for Hermann no sooner than he's reached the table where Herc is sitting with him in his lap.

"Max, down," Herc commands, brushing off the dog so he can hand Daniel over. "I know you're happy to see Doctor Gottlieb, but Dan gets dibs."

"How are we?" Hermann asks, bouncing Daniel on his good leg till the boy grins.

Max whimpers and snuffles at Herc's boots before lying down on top of them.

"Good," Daniel says, catching hold of Hermann's slipover jumper. "Stop."

"Wise," Hermann says. "Too much of that on an empty stomach never goes well."

"Why?" Daniel asks him, and then glances at Herc as if to seek corroboration.

"Because you'll be sick," Herc tells him. "Bleaugh. That's gross, yeah?"

"Yeah," agrees Dan, nodding gravely, and turns back to Hermann. "Gross."

"No doubt you'll be carrying on half the conversation before long," Hermann sighs.

Just then, Herc's phone buzzes on the table. He answers it curtly—"Hansen here," he barks—and his expression goes from stern to delighted in a matter of seconds. "Right you are," he continues, dislodging Max from his resting place as he rises. "I'll be up in five." Herc turns to Hermann and clarifies, "That'll be the kids. Gotta go up and get 'em; you don't mind staying with Dan, do you?"

"You're forgetting that's something of which I've done a great deal already," Hermann reassures him. "Go on. Fetch them and bring them down."

The former Jaeger pilots look tired as they cross the refectory to where Hermann's sitting some minutes later, but the smiles they're wearing are two of the most welcome sights that Hermann has ever seen. Raleigh's crouched next to the dog before Hermann can even articulate a greeting, but Mako sits down beside him and throws an arm across Hermann's shoulders in an exuberant one-armed embrace.

"Just look at him," she says, letting Daniel take her hand. "He's getting so big, Hermann. What will come next?" she teases. "A baby for you?"

"I doubt it's on the cards," Hermann tells her. "Our hands are full enough, what with this one and the fish and miscellaneous other foundlings."

Raleigh stands up and offers his hand to Hermann. He won't mess it up, not this time; Raleigh seems pleased by his execution, so Hermann will take the resulting nod as a compliment. Let Newton put that in his metaphorical pipe and smoke it.

"It's good to see you," Raleigh says, taking a seat to Hermann's other side. "Where are Newt and this little guy's parents? Off painting the town?"

"They're working on dinner," Hermann replies, "which means it should be spectacular."

"Yuck!" shouts Daniel, convinced he's a riot, and buries his grin in Mako's shoulder.

"Off you go," says Hermann, letting her take the boy off his hands. "Now, be polite."

"You do really well with him," says Raleigh. "So does Newt. Is there any chance—?"

"No, as I was just telling your better half," Hermann replies. "We're happy as we are."

Raleigh shrugs. "That's okay," he says, watching Herc wrestle with Max. "Let everybody else do the work, give them back at the end of the day. I'm nobody to argue," he says, but Mako's already winking at him over the top of Daniel's head.

It's another fifteen minutes before the team in the kitchen realizes that the gang have all arrived. Newton comes out first with a casserole dish; he ditches it as quickly as he can at the end of the table before dashing to fold Mako and Daniel in a hug. Tendo and Alison trail out together, bearing more dishes between them. They're content to watch the commotion while they place these next to Newton's casserole dish, but Raleigh monopolizes their attention with long hugs as soon as he's able.

"What's this Newt tells me about you guys giving a paper tomorrow?" Alison asks, coming over. "Weren't you going to tell us? Can we get in?"

"I want to come, too," Mako interjects, letting Alison take Daniel off her hands.

"It's not ticketed as far as I know," Hermann replies, "and the presentation venue has reasonable seating. I ought to make a few inquiries."

"If you're talking about the symposium," says Newton, arriving to sit beside Hermann in the spot lately vacated by Raleigh, "be our guests. Professor Xiu was bugging me about getting butts in seats. She's not particular about where said butts come from."

"I'd love to go," Raleigh says. "So that's three butts, anyway. Tendo?"

"No offense, but somebody's gotta stay with Herc and Dan. You three go on ahead," Tendo replies, distributing serving spoons amongst the dishes. "This ain't nothin' fancy, y'all," he warns. "Plates and silverware are at the end of the table. Dig in."

Newton sets a hand on Hermann's shoulder to keep him where he is. He returns a few minutes later with two plates of what looks like paella or jambalaya or similar, plus some manner of green-bean casserole accompanied by mashed sweet potatoes, and then takes the seat just to Hermann's left so that he's next to Alison and the baby.

Mako, still seated to Hermann's right, scarcely has the chance to rise before Raleigh comes up behind her, sets a similarly overladen plate down in front of her, and kisses the top of her head. Before Mako can thank him, he's off to join Tendo at the end of the table and fix his own plate. Mako picks up her fork and turns to Hermann. "We trained them well, didn't we?" she asks, grinning mischievously.

"My dear girl, how I wish that were the case," replies Hermann, wryly. "At this stage, it's more to do with easy anticipation than anything else."

Mako nods, abruptly pensive. "They're hard sometimes," she says. "The dreams."

Hermann nods, experiencing a wash of relief at the reminder he and Newton are not alone in this. "Talking them out helps, of course," he sighs.

Inexplicably, Mako is smirking. Leaning in close, she whispers, "So does sex."

Before Hermann can react with any measure of propriety, the two of them are exchanging a look so completely empathetic that the only reasonable reaction is the giggle-fit in which they find themselves leaning hard into each other and gasping for breath. Newton and Raleigh both take notice, although Hermann is too busy wiping his eyes with Newton's handkerchief to determine if they're aware of what's transpired.

"Come now," sniffs Hermann, recovering some of his composure. "What's all this talk of having children? It seems to be weighing on both of you."

"We've been thinking about it," Mako confesses. "Too many have been orphaned by the attacks. I want to adopt. Maybe in a few years from now, as long as Raleigh and I are still . . . " She pauses. "It's strange to think of us ending. I don't foresee that, not after what we have done, but I remind myself sometimes that we're moving so fast."

"Do you think Newton and I rushed in?" Hermann asks, hoping for a candid answer.

"No," says Mako. "You chose each other a long time ago. Unmei. I believe that."

"That means fate," Raleigh adds. "Destiny, if you like. For my money, it's hard work."

Newton, who's now twigged to the conversation, rests his chin on Hermann's shoulder.

"Yeah, dude," he agrees. "You were six more doctorates, only with endless revisions and slim chances of passing even when those were done."

"Idiot," Hermann murmurs, turning to kiss Newton's temple. "Our food's getting cold."

They pass a splendid evening, although, by the time dinner is finished and dessert is brought out, Hermann's leg is feeling the strain of an especially long week. Even as his thoughts turn to the pain, which is by now difficult to ignore, Newton slides an arm around his waist; his hand molds to Hermann's hipbone, massaging gently. "Wanna get out of here?" he asks, offering Hermann his last bite of cheesecake.

"Yes, I do think so," Hermann replies, declining the confection in favor of a kiss.

On their way out, Hermann salutes the Marshall for old times' sake, taking a breath.

"I have a favor to ask, sir," he says. "Rather, a favor to ask on someone's behalf."

"Ah," says Newton, knowingly, but with a measure of relief. "She asked you, too?"

*

The only sensations to which Hermann wakes are residual painkiller-haziness and Newton's front pressed up snug all along his side (one arm draped across Hermann's middle, breath ghosting warmly against Hermann's ear). He's grateful of these things even before he opens his eyes, grateful to be both dreamless and discomfort-free of a Saturday morning. Hermann yawns, strokes Newton's hand where it rests against his hip, and gets a shivery, half-asleep snuggle from Newton for his trouble.

He lets his eyes drift open and considers the ceiling plaster—stark white, textured, serene—whilst marveling at how appallingly endearing Newton makes the whole unpleasant business of waking up seem. Hermann likes sleep, and, given this condition, does not lightly forego the extra thirty minutes or so that he might get away with on the average weekday morning. There are breakfasts and showers to consider; there is his sluggish, deserving partner to wake however he sees fit.

Hermann draws Newton's right hand from his hip up to his mouth and kisses the back of it, lingering: the memory is easy to summon, and, where once it might have been cruelly so, recollection is nothing but kind. Hermann holds the image fast, keeping his eyes wide open, replaying that hushed moment on Newton's dormitory stairs until Newton shivers again and curls into him, twisting his hand so that his thumb can reflexively brush at the spot just above Hermann's lip.

"That's a neat trick," Newton murmurs sleepily, "and I like what you did with it this time a lot better than what you did on the plane."

"A-plus?" ventures Hermann, intending gentle mockery, but instead sounding eager to please. "Would reward with sexual favors?"

Newton rolls on top of him and snorts against Hermann's neck. "You and Mako are the worst," he sighs, mouthing at the sensitive skin just beneath Hermann's right ear. "I know what you guys were dishing about. Opposite of funny, dude. It isn't like I can retaliate by just talking to Raleigh. Ugh. The sexploits of Gipsy Danger: do not want."

"No details shared, darling," Hermann sighs. "Merely acknowledgement that it helps."

"Antidote or not," says Newton, words muffled against the pillow, "I'd still want you."

"Mmm," Hermann agrees, rubbing Newton's back. "Demonstrate, perhaps?"

They're not due on campus until three, which is a relief; under normal circumstances, as head of one of the hosting departments, Hermann would have been obliged to say a few words at the opening session that morning (already an hour underway, he notes somewhat smugly). He'd negotiated them this much of a concession, at least: their usual leisurely Saturday morning in exchange for having agreed to present.

"Jerk," Newton mutters, settling closer against Hermann with a pleased sigh. "What'll it be? You weren't feeling that great last night, so—"

"Just you," Hermann whispers, hitching his left leg up against Newton's right hip, letting his calf rest comfortably across his buttocks. "Hold me."

Whatever else his faults may be, Newton does not need to be told twice. His kisses are fierce, and each touch possessive beyond reckoning; Hermann cannot remember a time previous when he'd found relinquishing control quite so simple, and perhaps, he thinks dazedly, that's for the best. Newton's hand is on them both now: gentle, yet demanding. Hermann pushes languidly into Newton's fist; beneath the harshness of shared breath and frantic pulse, beneath image and flesh, he finds solace.

"I would not change this," he whispers, his control slipping, "would not change us—"

"Then let it go," chokes Newton, and his grip falters. "Let us be just—oh, oh God."

As their surroundings come gradually back into focus, Hermann strokes Newton's hair, parts unsteady lips against his forehead. "You will always remind me," he murmurs. "You, Newton, in spite of the monsters you wear. Not because of them."

Newton takes a shaky breath, wraps his arms around Hermann, and squeezes.

"You do realize you're making all kinds of arguments for skiving off the conference, right? Every time you open your mouth, it gets worse. I want to lock myself in this room with you for like a month. We'd be in great shape by the time we came out."

Hermann swats Newton's backside halfheartedly. "We really ought to be going, if only so that our esteemed guests don't go astray."

"We told them not to show up till two-thirty," Newton protests, stretching contently. "We've got three hours until then. Let's take a shower."

"Yes, we'd better," murmurs Hermann, and kisses him. "I'm not through with you."

They don't have time for a leisurely brunch, not by far, but they leave the house washed, dressed, and put-together shortly after two o'clock. Admittedly, they're winging this; they'll cover years' worth of ground in under ninety minutes and hopefully still leave room for questions. They find Alison, Mako, and Raleigh waiting together in the Bio-Sci building's main lounge at twenty till three, and, while Hermann keeps them occupied, Newton makes a face at his phone-screen, vanishes for almost ten minutes, and comes back with Lu in tow. "Sorry," she says breathlessly, waving to the Shatterdome crew. "I got lost. Haven't come here in a very long time. I tried uni once. It wasn't for me."

"Well, they're wrapping up," Hermann observes as the lecture-room doors swing open and a number of chattering students filter out. "We can set up in the very least, get you lot sorted with decent seats—"

"Hey, Doctor G!" exclaims Ming, detaching herself from the cluster of students. She rushes straight for Hermann, but stops dead in her tracks when she spots Mako and Raleigh seated on the lounge sofa. She takes one look at them, gapes at Newton and Lu, and then shrinks swiftly against Hermann's side. "You didn't," she begins, and then closes her mouth and covers her eyes in consternation. "Puk gai, you didn't tell me—!"

"Apologies," Hermann sighs, taking Ming's arm more for purposes of holding her up than for support in his own right. "Miss Yan, permit me to introduce Rangers Mako Mori and Raleigh Becket. You will doubtless have heard quite a lot about them already."

"Pleasure's all mine," says Ming, faintly, stepping forward to accept Raleigh's handshake and Mako's embrace. "Seriously. You guys are just . . . "

"Ah, there you are!" cries Professor Xiu, coming up behind Newton. "I see you've—oh. See you've taken the task of rustling up an audience to heart."

"It's nice to meet you, too," says Raleigh, offering his hand just as he'd offered it to Ming. Mako exchanges glances with Hermann, clearly suffering from contact embarrassment, but she smiles while Professor Xiu greets them both.

Amused, Alison rises and comes over to stand on Hermann's other side.

"We may not be famous," she says to Ming, "but we're in good company."

"This is Alison," says Hermann, distractedly; it's all he can do to make sure that Newton isn't putting his foot in it over tech arrangements for their talk. Hermann hears the words holo-screen, which they haven't discussed, and he grits his teeth.

"Fuck my life," Ming hisses, covering her mouth. "You're married to Tendo Choi."

Herding everyone into the lecture-room is a chore, not least because Ming can't seem to come to grips with the fact that she's surrounded by a veritable rogues' gallery of the PPDC's finest. Hermann finally manages to fob Ming off on Alison without the girl swearing or otherwise making a spectacle of herself; he disentangles Newton from Lu's reassuring grasp and drags him up to the stage.

"That could have gone a lot worse," he says, fiddling with the microphones while Hermann takes a seat in one of the four chairs neatly lining the stage. "They're all sitting together in the back, at least. Looks like Al and Lu have gotten Ming to calm down, so there's nothing to worry—"

"I would appreciate it," Hermann snaps, "if you'd just focus on the task at hand."

Newton leaves the microphones as they are and takes the chair next to Hermann. "You're way too uptight," he mutters. "Should've kept you in the shower longer." Hermann sighs, exasperated, and watches as students and faculty alike start trailing into the room. Mako catches his eye and waves, flashing them both a wide, ridiculous grin, and Hermann finds that he can't help grinning back. Newton, shuffling through papers in his lap, notices too and fails to prevent himself from smiling.

In the grand scheme of things, the presentation isn't their finest work. It helps that they've been scheduled third in the line-up (after one Bio-Sci graduate student and a faculty member from City University), but it doesn't hold a candle to the lecture they'd given at MIT during the press tour and, subsequently, at HKU. They interrupt each other at least a dozen times, although there's no malice behind it on either side. Their segues are rough at best, but genuine, and a crowd that's packed itself into space that's standing-room-only bursts into applause once they've finished.

There's a sad hum when Professor Xiu announces not much time's left for questions.

Hermann doesn't recognize the student who asks, "But what if you just got lucky?"

It takes no more than a steady, considering glance shared between them to coordinate an answer that, from the look of things, is far more civil than the upstart in the audience had been seeking. There's some whispering at the back of the room, enough for Hermann to realize that it's because Mako and Raleigh have, beyond the shadow of a doubt, been identified by a goodly number of the assembled.

"Simply stated," concludes Hermann, returning Newton's nod, "we all did."

*

"Is this strange?" Hermann asks the next morning, watching from his seat at the kitchen table as Newton flips pieces of homemade anadama toast onto a plate next to the existing pile of over-easy eggs. "This feels rather strange."

Absently, Newton licks a bit of yolk off his thumb and brings the plate over to the table to join the mango juice, bacon, and miscellaneous sliced fruit. "Nah, not really," he says. "Herc said to bring them both to the dome this afternoon, and when he said that, I realized that both of them have literally been on our doorstep, but we've never invited them inside. I mean—it's pretty clear Lu had other places to be when she and Hannibal dropped us off after the wedding, and you couldn't exactly tell Ming to ditch the rest of her delivery rounds and come in for waffles. If she's the reason this feels weird to you, stop that right now. I had a couple of advisors at MIT who'd have me over for dinner and shit all the time. It might be less common in Berlin or in the UK, what do I know, but instructors inviting students over for food and mentoring is very much a done thing where I come from. And I don't know if it's a done thing here, but we're about to make it one." He picks up the carafe of mango juice and refills Hermann's glass. "Want me to get the tea started? They'll be here any second."

"I shall be interested to find out if your foray into baking has been successful," says Hermann. "You ought to have just tried it on me first."

Newton smirks and picks up a piece of toast, holding it up to Hermann's lips. "All right, lab rat," he says. "Good enough to feed the ladies?"

"For starters, we ought to be entertaining in the dining room," sighs Hermann, and takes a grudging bite. The crunch and texture are perfect, and the molasses (such an odd list of ingredients) lends just enough bite and sweetness to play off the salted butter beautifully. "I, this is. Yes, put the kettle on. I'll be ready to answer the door."

"I take it the verdict's in my favor," says Newton, leaning down to press a dry kiss against Hermann's lips before he's finished chewing. "Try the maple syrup on that." Before Hermann can swallow and kiss the smug look off his face, the doorbell rings.

"I won't be a moment," says Hermann. "Please inform your father that the inclusion of Vermont peculiarities in his care packages is most welcome."

"That and the Annie's, man," Newton agrees, "are totally non-negotiable."

Hermann gets an armful of Ming no sooner than he's opened the door; Lu waves, beaming at him. He ushers them inside with minimal fuss, although Ming starts rambling as soon as he's directed them to hang their coats on the hooks.

"You guys were just awesome yesterday!" she gushes, nearly stumbling as she yanks loose her laces and kicks out of her boots. "And I had no idea Mori and Becket were in town. That was the best surprise ever." She scans the entryway floor-tile and walls while Lu steps out of her shoes. "I've seen this bit before, back when I made the delivery. Classy. Are we going to get a grand tour? Can I meet this infamous fish?"

"Food first," Lu insists, winking at Hermann. "Somebody promised me breakfast."

The kitchen table is, thankfully, just big enough to seat four. While Hermann resumes his seat, Newton has a difficult time extracting himself from two embraces in quick succession. He points to the empty chairs, steering Ming toward the nearest.

"This stuff's getting cold," he says, carrying the teapot over from the counter while Lu takes the seat across from Hermann, leaving Newton the one across from Ming. "Eat, for crying out loud. None of this waiting-on-the-cook crap. Hermann's had like two glasses of juice and a piece of toast already. You'd better catch up to him."

"Very nice bread," Lu comments around a mouthful of toast. "That recipe you found?"

"Yeah," Newton confirms, making a yolk-smeared mess. "It's a New England thing."

"Will you take me to Boston sometime?" Ming asks. "Both of you, I mean. I want to go to grad school in America. Not that it wouldn't be cool to keep working with you guys here, but Newt's stories are—" She stops herself, wide-eyed, and takes an abashed gulp of her juice. "I mean, Doctor Geiszler's stories are making me curious."

Hermann shoots Newton the most annoyed glance he can manage, but it isn't terribly. In his years of teaching, which aren't so many as to make him feel ancient, he's never met a challenge quite as enthralling as this girl who puts her foot in it at every turn.

"When I say only my mom calls me doctor, I'm being serious," Newton tells her. "You'd better keep up appearances when we're on campus, but we're in my home right now. Call me whatever comes easiest. Hermann here is gonna call me an idiot or similar in three . . . two . . . one—"

"Doctor G will suffice, thank you," Hermann says to Ming. "In my case, at least. Heaven knows I can't persuade you to call me anything else. Now, can we please get on with this meal before the bacon's past its peak? Lu, please pass the plate."

"So cheerful," says Lu, fondly, but with no less sarcasm than Hermann would expect.

Ming's appetite proves prodigious, so there isn't much left by the time Newton starts clearing away empty plates and mugs. Much to Hermann's relief, he's determined to leave the dishes until later; he washes his hands and joins them in the living room, where Hermann is already watching Ming gawp at Bertie's antics while Lu removes one of her earrings and dangles it in front of the fish.

"She wasn't lying," Ming says to Hermann. "He really does like shiny stuff. What."

"If you ever have the space, get yourself one or two tanks and go to town," Newton suggests, bending down to run his finger along the glass. "Hey there, cutie. You like the ladies, don't you? I'm not gonna get you one, though, because we don't have the space for fry tanks. No way."

"He made a bubble nest while I had him," says Lu, putting her beaded earring back in.

"Misplaced affections, gracious," Hermann mutters; Newton gives him a teasing elbow in the side. "Quite true, Bertie. We shan't be running either a brothel or a nursery on your account. With that, shall we get a move on?" asks Hermann, glancing at the clock. "We haven't got much time—"

"Shhh!" Newton hisses, but it's too late: both women are giving them curious looks.

"But there's no rush," Ming insists. "You said we'd have a leisurely breakfast and then just chill. I'm fine with that; you don't have to take us out or anything." Lu, who's in the know, makes a zipper-motion along her lips while Ming isn't looking.

"Um," Newton says, exchanging defeated glances with Hermann. "About that. Maaaybe I was lying. Just a little bit. See, there's a car coming for us in about . . . mmm, half an hour? Thereabouts. We're taking a field-trip."

Hermann isn't prepared for Ming's ear-splitting shriek. Neither is Bertie, who darts and hides while Ming covers her mouth and tries to contain yet another cry of disbelief. "You didn't. We aren't. Are we? Because I thought—oh my God, I thought yesterday was the best you could do, or something. It would've been more than enough. I never thought I'd get to meet them, never in a million years. Are you telling me—"

"It's okay, honey," says Lu, taking Ming by the shoulders. "I'm excited, too."

"The Marshall saw no reason why civilians who have been thoroughly vetted by the Research Division ought not to be permitted on-site now that most of the crucial stuff's been decommissioned," Hermann explains while Newton does his best not to burst with sheer pride over having pulled off such a surprise. "We thought you might both like a tour. Once we've finished the tour here, of course. Knowing you, dear girl," he says, stepping away from Newton and taking Ming's arm, "the bookshelves might prove very much to your liking. Shall we continue?"

"I've died. This is heaven," Ming says, clinging to Hermann's elbow. "Hell yeah!"

"She's a lot like you," Hermann hears Lu say softly to Newton as they hang back.

Tendo ends up laying on the Jeep horn for about five minutes straight, not least because they can't persuade Ming away from the bookshelves without assenting to lend her several volumes. They finally stumble into their coats and out the door and pile into the vehicle, only to discover that Ming has another outburst she's been saving up especially for The Kick-Ass J-Tech Who Helped Save the Fucking World.

Tendo takes it in stride, but Hermann can't help but notice, studying Tendo's reflection in the rear-view mirror, that his cheeks are pink and that he keeps shooting bemused glances at the girl sitting beside him in the front seat. Lu, positioned between Hermann and Newt in the back seat, looks like she's having the time of her life. Herc is waiting for them at the dome's entrance. "You're early," he says.

"Blame these guys, not me," says Ming, grinning her face off. "Ah. Sir."

"Where the hell did you find this kid?" Tendo asks Newton under his breath as they all pile into the lift. "Alison said I'd better watch myself."

"Never you mind," sighs Hermann, shaking his head. "We'll be doing the watching."

Alison is waiting in LOCCENT with Daniel in tow, and Max trots right up to Lu as if it hasn't even been weeks since he's seen her. Ming walks up to the console, entranced, and sets her fingertips on the back of Tendo's chair. She turns her head to regard them over her shoulder, suddenly shy, and then lifts her chin to stare straight on into the cavernous, lately darkened space beyond.

"This is more than anyone deserves to see, and I don't mean to sound ungrateful," says Ming, quietly, her eyes fixed wonderingly on the spot where Gipsy Danger once stood. "If it's all the same, though, can you take me down to the lab?"

"With your permission, Marshall," says Hermann, "we shall gladly do just that."

"Go on," Herc says. "The rest of us'll stay behind till you're done down there."

"I'm going, too," Newton cuts in. "Besides, we might've forgotten some stuff."

"Shoo, then," Tendo says, plucking Daniel out of Alison's arms. "Hey, Lu, Little Man here's fascinated by your arms. That is some sweet ink you've got. Tell me about it?" While the moment's hushed atmosphere passes and the rest of them dissolve into various conversations, Newton takes the initiative and tugs Ming away from the console. "You heard the man. We're outta here," he says, grabbing her arm even as he's dragging Hermann by the hand. C'mon, before we pick up company."

Ming is silent as they wander the empty halls, always several paces ahead. She runs her hands along the riveted walls with unabashed reverence, casting her glance backward every once in a while to make sure that Hermann isn't having difficulty keeping pace. The only sounds are their footsteps and the occasional command from Newton: Turn here. No, not left. Right. Sorry. Next one's a left.

"This is it," Hermann tells her, finally slowing to a stop. "Just through there."

Ming smiles tremulously, nods, and vanishes inside. The lights flare to life.

"I'm oddly emotional about this," Newton says, grabbing Hermann's wrist. "You?"

Hermann suppresses a smile: hears Ming's footsteps inside, registers the echo and scrape of her fingernails across metal walls. The girl's soft, pleased exhalation shortly gives way to the scratch of chalk on a blackboard. So they'd left something behind after all.

"Do get a grip," he replies fondly, drawing Newton onward into the first place that they'd ever, together, called home.

Chapter Text

20 February 2015

If the Unpopular Table is, as Sasha had put it, now a thing, then, in the two weeks since its successful inception, Friday-night drinks on the Kaidanovskys' equally unpopular dormitory floor are also a thing. They are even more of a thing, in fact. So much so that Hermann is almost reeling, but that doesn't prevent him from holding out his glass for another shot.

"Newton's letter is distressing, so you need more?" jokes Aleksis, pink-cheeked, approximately seven shots down and showing the ragged edges of his limit. "Steady, Doctor. Is eight."

"I don't bloody care how many it is," Hermann insists, grimacing a little when some vodka splashes his fingers as he downs half of it. "And no," he says, rustling the envelope, pieces of paper, and photograph disarrayed in his lap. "It is not distressing. That is not the right word."

Sasha leans across her husband to snatch the Polaroid and squint at it, considering what remains of her own eighth shot before knocking it carelessly back. She studies the immortalized evidence of Newton's latest childish antics, and then gives Hermann a devilish wink.

"We have this gesture in Russia also," she confirms. "You are not only unpopular, but also a loser. But seeing he puts it like Scarlet Letter on his forehead, you are not alone in being one."

"Marvelous," Hermann mutters, pensively sipping the remainder of his shot. "Losers, all."

"Speak for yourself," says Aleksis, slumping down a bit further and hunching into Sasha with increasing drowsiness. Hermann squints at him in vague disbelief; it is oddly adorable to watch a man of such considerable size make himself as small as possible in order to be cuddled.

"I think we are shutting you off," sighs Sasha, working her arm around his waist with an audible uff and giving his thigh a reassuring squeeze. "He will get hangover with ten. Not beautiful."

"No, never pretty," Hermann agrees, and Aleksis makes a weak attempt at swatting Hermann's arm for having had the nerve to correct Sasha's English. "But I can think of other descriptors."

"Says the one who is never hung-over," Sasha replies. "What is your limit? I cannot find it."

"I match you shot for shot, dear girl," says Hermann, leaning back and shutting his eyes. "Let it be enough. Where did we leave off last time, eleven? I should like to think you learned your lesson after that headache, but there's no accounting for lack of restraint—"

"Very well, funny man," Sasha challenges, tossing the photograph back at him. Hermann sputters slightly as it bounces off his forehead and lands on his chest; meanwhile, Sasha takes the vodka bottle determinedly in hand and fills her glass. She snatches Hermann's and fills it, too.

"Nine," announces Aleksis, sleepily. "Losers must drink up, or else I will drink it for you."

"Go back to sleep," replies Hermann, reassuringly, and knocks his back before Sasha can blink.

"I am agreeing with Newton on this one," she mutters, squinting at one of the pages, and proceeds to take her shot in two pained swallows. "You are a complete fucking bastard."

"Give me the bottle," Hermann instructs, letting his mind narrow to one point of bright, clear focus in the increasingly warm haze of the room. Even now, he knows he can walk a straight line, although what he'll never admit is that the world around him reverts to slow motion. He plucks the Polaroid off his jumper, sets it to rights in his lap, and regards Newton's stupid grin.

Sasha wrests his glass out of his hand and pours out their tenth, handing it belligerently back.

"Na zdorovie, you unpopular loser bastard," she says. "Drink up. Your pen-pal can watch."

Hermann sucks down the shot, his eyes never once leaving the image of Newton's. He doesn't protest when Sasha makes a distressed sound, rejecting the touch of her own glass to her lips, and quickly thrusts it, too, into Hermann's hand before she rises in search of the nearest bin.

"Na zdorovie," Hermann agrees, raising her glass over the Polaroid. "To absent friends."

 

16 December 2016

"Okay, who bought this crap?" Newton demands, squinting fuzzily at the label on the back of the vodka. He'd taken the precaution of eating lunch earlier, so he's questioning the fairness of how, only two shots along, his head's already swimming. "Shanghai Strength, dude? Really?"

"One seventy-seven proof, brother," says Tendo, smirking, and takes it out of Newton's hand. He unscrews the cap and refills Newton's empty shot-glass before moving on to refill Whisper's, Miranda's, and Genji's in quick succession. "Pincer Distillery still knows its shit. We all go shot for shot, that was the deal. Don't tell me you're already having second thoughts."

Newton glares at him, grimaces, and knocks it back. They've been drinking together ever since Tendo and his Tech-dorks had redeemed themselves by proving they hadn't trashed the lab, which, fair enough, he ought to have known dorks like them wouldn't have done that in the first place. Newton squeezes his eyes shut and considers the edge of Tendo's bunk under his butt, the ugly freaking carpet under the soles of his boots, and the fact that the room is spinning.

"Hey," says Whisper, smooth coffee-black skin at the corners of their eyes crinkling, and sets a hand on Tendo's rosaried wrist. "Easy on him. He doesn't know how we roll, and that is hard."

Genji, sitting next to Newton on the edge of the mattress, scoots a bit closer, silently offering his shoulder for support. Newton feels kind of like a jerk for accepting, but he leans heavily into his roommate and wonders if the J-Techs seated on the floor had been hoping this would happen.

"You need to loosen up," Miranda tells him, picking a flake of dry skin off her freckled cheek. "Tendo says all you do is work, and, given how little I see of you, that's gotta be true."

"He talks to me," says Genji, sticking his tongue out at her. "And he writes those letters."

Newton doesn't find it funny that his phone goes off in his pocket right that instant, but he doesn't have sufficient self-control to prevent himself from fishing it out and squinting at the text on the screen. You ought to be back from dinner, Hermann writes. Tendo is snickering.

Genji watches, biting the inside of his cheek, as Newton texts back, Yeah I'm back from dinner but what about it? I have a social life you know. I have lots of a social life. Buckets full.

"I bet his spelling's precious right now," Whisper says wickedly to Genji. "Is it?"

Newton wants to smack everybody; Genji frowns. "It's fine, but punctuation suffers."

Newton, says Hermann's next message. Are you drinking with Trainee Choi again? Also, I believe that the detestable vintage macro phrase you seek is something like I HAS A BUCKET.

"Time for the next round, I think," Tendo announces, and commandeers all of their glasses. While he's busy doling out shot number four, Newton's eyes go wide as he reads Hermann's response, and the giggle-fit into which it pitches him is nothing short of humiliating.

"Oh, honey," Miranda says to Genji, accepting her glass from Tendo and knocking it back with glee. "Snag his phone and let me have a look at that hot nerd action, would you?"

Genji glances uncomfortably at Newton's phone, taking his glass out of Tendo's hand so quickly that a third of it spills over his wrist and down the leg of Newton's jeans. "Shit," he hisses, launching into a stream of indecipherable Japanese. "Shit, I'm sorry, let me get—"

"Jesus, don't even worry about it," Newton slurs, defiantly taking his shot, and finds typing on his phone screen trickier than before. "Alcol—ohol dries. You know. Dries fast," he explains dismissively, and says to Hermann, oh my god i didnt even know you knew that shit what even.

"Randy, don't you dare," says Whisper, tugging a tissue out of their utility vest and handing it over to Newton with a sidelong glare at Miranda. "That's cruel. Let the boy flirt in peace."

I'm beginning to worry for your general well-being, Hermann texts with an air of hesitation.

"Newt," Tendo is saying, distantly, but it registers with about the same amount of import as Newton's shot-glass hitting the floor and the dizzy whirl of the top bunk in Newton's field of vision as he tilts onto his back. He's clutching his phone to his chest, he's thinking—

"Sure, dude," he says, closing his eyes, curling onto his side at the pang of nausea that grips him sharp and sudden. "You'd take care of me if you were here, wouldn't you. Wouldn't you."

Newton feels Genji's hand come to rest gently on his shoulder, tugging and rolling him till he's cradled against Genji's chest and Whisper is shouting at Tendo about what a motherfucking reckless moron he is and Miranda is rapidly babbling something in Tendo's defense.

"Who would?" Genji whispers, shaking Newton urgently. "Come on, stay with me. Who?"

Just then, answering is a moot point; Newton's vomiting on Tendo's pillows, and it is gross.

"Hermann," he chokes anyway, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand, and Genji sighs.

 

4 October 2025

Hermann settles on the floor next to Newton, right where they'd been sat the evening before after dinner, and regards him with a dubious sidelong glance. "You don't look well," he says. "You shouldn't. Not after I spent half of this morning shoving paracetamol down your throat."

"Dude, relax," says Newton, catching Tendo's knowing wink from where he's seated next to Mako on the bottom bunk, and watches as Tendo bends over the six glasses lined up on the floor and fills each one to the brim with Sasha's best vodka. The proprietress herself is seated next to Tendo up against one bunk-post, and Aleksis is seated next to Mako up against the other.

"I find that nearly impossible at the prospect of witnessing, in person, an event of which I do retain some vague, horrified memory," Hermann confesses, accepting two shot-glasses from Tendo with a nod. He hands one of the two to Newton, giving him a hard look. "Pace yourself."

"How long do you think till Chuck punches Becket right in his pretty face?" Sasha asks nobody in particular, saluting Tendo with her glass before she knocks back the shot. "I give it hours."

"Minutes if you get 'em back in the same room before the kwoon tomorrow morning," Tendo sighs, putting glasses in Aleksis's and Mako's hands in quick succession. "Kick his ass, Mori."

"That is not the point," says Mako, respectfully, and then downs the shot. "But you bet I will."

Hermann watches Newton as he raises his glass to his lips and cautiously follows suit. He wants to relax, wants desperately to let down his guard of an evening and relax with these unlikely friends he's made in even unlikelier circumstances, but he'll have to remain vigilant.

"I do not understand Marshall's hesitation," says Aleksis, broodingly. "You are for the job."

Mako shrugs and hands her glass back to Tendo. "I'll just have to try to convince them."

"Convincing those fascists of anything is tough," Newton sighs, holding his glass out for a refill while Tendo is seeing to Mako's. Hermann glares at him, but he ignores it. "No offense meant or anything; your dad's a good guy and all. It's just, wow, good luck," he adds, and drinks.

"No offense taken," Mako says, and takes a dainty sip. "You might want to be more careful?"

"That's what I've been telling him since we got started," Hermann insists, mouthing bless you to Tendo for having leaned over to refill Hermann's shot glass without asking. "Good luck getting him to listen. I wasn't even present for his Academy exploits, and I could tell you stories."

Sasha smirks at Hermann, reaching over to clink her glass against his. "Perhaps not, but I was there for yours. Doctor Gottlieb can drink Unpopular Table under the table, that is no joke."

"Aw, Hermann," says Newton, grinning, and leans hard into Hermann's shoulder. "I didn't know you were a regular booze fiend back in the day. Why didn't you say anything? That's priceless."

"The way you're conducting yourself at this very instant is why," Hermann hisses, and then gives Tendo, who is refilling Newton's glass, a sharp glance of warning. "You are not helping."

"I'm just here to pour the shots, Gottlieb," says Tendo, downing the shot he'd just poured into Newton's glass; at Newton's indignant squawk, he refills it again and hands it over. "Cheers!"

Before Hermann can tell Newton to wait five minutes, he downs the vodka, wipes his mouth, and grins at Hermann a bit helplessly from behind his hand. It is endearing, and it should not be. "How are you not even drunk?" he asks Hermann incredulously. "That's unbelievable, man."

"Tolerance," Hermann sniffs, and takes another shot from Tendo. "Something on which you haven't got the faintest grasp, not in either sense of the word. Quite simply, Newton, you fail."

Mako and Aleksis look genuinely startled when Newton drops his shot-glass on the rug and starts giggling; Hermann, sadly, understands what's happening all too well, and he knows he's going red in the face. Of his unfortunate inherited traits, alcohol-flush is amongst the least desirable.

"Jesus, just let me tell you," Tendo says, and then whistles. "Some things never do change."

"I think it's cute," Mako says, stretching one leg out far enough to tap the toe of Newton's boot with the ball of her delicate, sock-covered foot. "Don't make yourself sick, Newt. Go easy. Newt?"

"Here it comes," Sasha says, watching with black amusement as Newton's giggles degenerate into choked, hiccuping sobs and he folds against Hermann's side in hysterics. "The ugly truth."

"I could've told you the ugly truth any time you wanted to hear it," Tendo says. "Newt's a motherfucking lightweight no matter which way you hash it. He barfed on my bed once."

Hermann feels a surge of protectiveness so overwhelming and instinctive that he's got an arm loosely, awkwardly around Newton's shoulders before he can consider the consequences. "Your goading, Officer Choi, has had a very great deal to do with it over the years," he says tartly.

Mako is busy pouring two more shots, one for herself and one for Aleksis, but she's listening.

Tendo shrugs and takes the bottle when Mako's finished, pouring himself another shot; he raises his glass in their midst and sighs. "To the end of the world as we know it," he says.

Hermann can feel Newton shaking against his neck; his laughter has subsided into quiet, labored breaths, and Hermann can tell he's fighting off nausea or worse. "Breathe, Newton. Please."

"I always knew you'd take care of me," Newton whispers in Hermann's ear. "Just like you said."

Sasha is regarding Hermann and Newton with strange, haunted light in her eyes. She salutes.

Oh, darling, Hermann wants to whisper, but he keeps his mouth firmly closed. I wish I could.

 

28 March 2026

"So, like," Newton is saying, gesturing expansively, and everything is tilting because they'd gone out for dinner after the Shatterdome jaunt and then taken Ming home and now Lu is sitting here in his goddamn living room and so is Hannibal fucking Chau, "she was completely in awe. There is absolutely nothing left down there, I don't have to tell you that, because your crew did a really great job, um, except for one piece of chalk. She used it to do her homework from memory on the chalk board. I've never seen Hermann stare like that. When she was done, she took a picture of it with her phone and emailed it to him. Asked him if that would count as handing in. Seriously, I love that girl. I. Love. That girl. To death."

Hannibal is nodding with a glaze-eyed expression that can only suggest he wishes he was somewhere else, and it must be a really, really sorry state of affairs if the most interesting other thing he can find to keep himself occupied is Bertie, who is having a grand old time because, hello, shiny colored liquor bottles all over the coffee table. It's fucking betta-fish Christmas.

"You better watch out, Doc," he says to Hermann, flicking his knife out of his pocket and, would you look at that, leaning over to wave the blade at Bertie. "Miz Yan's gonna run off with him."

"I rather think not," says Hermann, primly, and continues to sip what Newton knows is his sixth shot of the evening. He's not even all that pink in the cheeks yet, which is pretty disappointing; when that happens, Newton kind of just wants to kiss him till there's no option but bed, now.

"Why's that?" Hannibal challenges, and, shaking his head at the fish with a bemused snort, sets the balisong next to the glass so that Bertie can swim down and hover protectively over it.

"Because I know where her bread's really buttered, thank you," Hermann replies, and Newton can't decide whether he sounds smug or troubled. Oh, sure, Newton knows where her bread's buttered, too. It's buttered in exactly the same place as Newton's, thank you very much, and, unluckily for her, Newton does not share. Not even a little bit. He can't swallow a laugh.

"Boys, boys," Lu says, clucking her tongue, but it's halfhearted at best. "You be nice to her."

"Man," says Newton, grinning, and returns Lu's wink while she's handing him a freshly refilled shot-glass. "Where her bread's buttered, all right. Have you seen the wallpaper on her phone? You can't get a good picture of this one here for love or money," he says, elbowing Hermann in the ribs, "but that doesn't stop her from trying during lectures. Yeah, buttered. You do the math."

Hermann doesn't look terribly pleased about the rest of them having a laugh at his expense, but he keeps his composure admirably, to the point where Newton just knows he's got the mother of all snarky comebacks right on the tip of his tongue. And he takes another shot and makes them wait for it, the bitchy motherfucker. Newton is distressed at how turned on he is by all of this—or, rather, he's distressed at how turned on his brain is, and at how slow his body is to follow.

"Newt, sweetie," says Lu, sounding too concerned for comfort, and if that doesn't just derail Hermann mid mouth-opening, fuck. "Are you okay? You don't look well. No more, maybe."

Before tilting sideways against Hermann and, heaven help him, letting Hermann very nearly and unexpectedly pull him into Hermann's lap, Newton notices that Hannibal has gotten down out of his chair and is leaning with both elbows on the coffee table to watch while Bertie flares at him.

"You better tell Mommy and Daddy to cut that shit out," Hannibal's saying under his breath.

Newton buries his face against Hermann's shoulder, lets the feel of Hermann's hand rubbing the back of his neck stabilize him, bring him down from the cacophonous haze that's the inside of his head. "You're lucky I'm fucked," Newton breathes in his ear. "I'd be so hard for you right now."

Hermann's other hand, which is gripping Newton's upper right arm, clenches painfully tight.

"Newton, we have company present," he hisses. "For the love of God, keep your mouth shut."

"You boys have a good night," says Lu, cheerfully, and Newton hears her get up. The sharp intake of breath and guttural ow can only be the result of her heel connecting with some part of Hannibal that's within easy reach; Newton wishes he could be bothered to turn around and watch her practically drag him out of the room by his ear, but Hermann is kissing him senseless.

"Sure," Newton mumbles against Hermann's lips as the front door slams. "Company present."

"Lucky for you," Hermann replies, picking at Newton's tie, "I know how to get rid of them."

 

Chapter Text

Newton is in the midst of packing up his books and disconnecting his tablet from the projector when he becomes aware that Ming, in her habitual seat front and center, hasn't budged.  He scans the rest of the lecture-room, finding it empty; there's no appropriate response but to raise his eyebrows and give Ming benefit of the doubt.  She has a piece of paper clutched in her hands.

"Is there something you want me to go over again?" he asks.  "C'mon, let's go to my office."

Ming hesitantly shakes her head, shouldering her bag as she rises.  Under normal circumstances, she's forward and forthright; after class, at least, she'll ask questions until she's blue in the face. "I do have something to ask you," she admits, coming up to the desk, clutching the edges of the paper so tightly it begins to crinkle, "but I'm pretty sure you're not going to like it, so—"

"If people got sent to jail for asking stupid questions, I'd be serving several consecutive lifetime sentences," Newton reassures her, grinning, and snaps his tablet-case shut.  "Out with it, dude."

Ming cracks a half-smile and holds out the piece of paper.  "The real problem is that it's a question for Hermann, too.  I can't do what I've got in mind with just one of you.  And I just might have bet Parth Sethi fifty dollars that I could get both of you in my corner.  Don't hurt me?"

Newton flicks his eyes from the Drama Club fundraiser flyer up to Ming's scrunched expression before letting them drift back down again.  Even just on paper, the whole concept sounds like a complete train-wreck, and it is awesome.  Back in his MIT days, he'd have been all over this in a heartbeat.  There's no way he's going to be able to talk Hermann into participating, not even if he promises to fold the laundry Hermann's way for an entire month and throws in extra shower sex.

"I didn't know you were into acting," he finally says, which isn't a proper response, but it has the intended effect.  Ming's features soften a bit, and she relaxes.  "Shakespeare variety show, huh?"

"It's not acting I'm into," she replies, snatching back the flyer.  "It's directing.  I love it.  I've been putting on productions with them since spring of my first year.  I don't know, it just clicks."

"So what's the deal with the fundraiser part?" Newton prompts, jamming his tablet and the stack of books into his messenger bag.  "Do you need faculty sponsors, or do you need faculty to act?"

Ming nods dismally.  "You got it.  We're supposed to get faculty involved in the scene's we're directing if we can.  Along with students, I mean, team spirit and interdisciplinarity and all that, but I just—"  She pauses, breathless, and Newton gestures to indicate that she should keep going, she's going to be okay, really, and she nods, steeling herself.  "I want to direct a scene from Hamlet that only calls for two people.  I think you guys would be perfect, I really do.  As far as I know, I'd be the only student with an all-faculty cast, and I'd win money to boot."

"I hope you're not aiming for a two-person edit of the duel," says Newton, closing the flap on his bag and folding his arms.  "Hermann would manage to do me some actual damage; have you seen him swing that cane?  Remind me to tell you about what happened in Australia."

"I, um," Ming says, averting her eyes, "I read about that.  But I bet your version's more fun."

"I mean, I was really, really distracted up until about three seconds before it happened, but—" Newton stops short, taking a moment to re-evaluate what's coming out of his mouth as Ming's eyes fly back up to his face; her cheeks are slightly pink, because, of course, if she's heard about that then she knows she's about to get an inadvertent description of what it's like to suck face with Hermann.  "Uh.  Hah, about that.  I wouldn't be surprised if that jerk lost his top central and lateral incisors.  The four in the front," he adds helpfully, indicating his teeth.

"No, not the duel," says Ming, quietly.  "You need everybody onstage if you're going to do that."

Stumped, Newton rubs his chin.  "Hamlet and Polonius?  If you're eying the fishmonger thing—"

"I'm thinking about one of the scenes between Hamlet and Horatio," she clarifies.  "There are a few of those to choose from, and I—"  She swallows, steels herself, and straightens up with her notebook and the flyers clutched to her chest.  "I won't settle for anyone else.  Because."

"Of reasons, sure, yeah," Newton sighs.  "I can't promise you anything, got it?  Hermann is going to start shouting his head off halfway through me trying to make this proposal seem appealing to him, and then I'm going to be stuck standing there asking myself whether I want to smack him or fuck hi—ohhh, God.  Scheiße, dammit, okay.  You're gonna walk out of this room and pretend you did not just hear—"

Ming's got one hand clapped over her mouth, and she looks like she wants to applaud him.

"Relax, Doctor Geiszler," she says, doing an admirable job of getting her silent laughter under control.  "I'm not going to tell anyone.  I've done a great job of not telling anyone I saw you in your underwear that one time I delivered your food, so we're good.  Will you think about it?"

Newton gawps at her.  "About the time you saw me in boxers and that stupid PPDC Quidditch league shirt Tendo had made for us all one Christmas?  Hate to break it to you, but I'd rather not—"

"Hahah, no!" she exclaims, patting his elbow on her way out.  "God, you're flustered!  I meant about the scene.  You'll try to get Hermann onboard, won't you?  Flatter him.  Tell him how great you think he'd be with that sexy accent and—you ass.  Stop smirking at me!"

"I think," Newton says, strolling ahead to open the door and hold it for her, "we're even.  I just remembered it's April Fool's Day.  I'm willing to give you the chance to convert your gutsy, gaffe-riddled proposal into a not-too-shabby prank, and I'll think nothing of it.  Deal?"

"Sorry," she says, "but I'm serious.  You guys would be excellent, and also, think about how much members of the university community and the city at large would be willing to donate because it's those two guys who not only helped save the world but are, like, the most adorable power couple since . . . since, I don't know, you two are more popular gossip than the pilot couples ever were."

Newton hates to admit that she's right, but she is right.  And he's always been a sucker for a good cause, although he's wondering just how much of the fifty percent not being donated to charity will go to booze for the cast parties before it'll ever be spent on such stuff as costume repair and sets.  And, never mind the fate of the fifty-percent profit, there's the fifty dollars that Ming has carelessly decided to wager with that poser who sits in the back row with his earbuds in during class.

"Fine, we'll do it," he hears himself say before he can clamp his mouth shut.  "Give me a few days, but I'll bring Hermann around somehow.  Don't mention anything to him.  Leave this to me." Rather than respond, she claps and throws her arms around him before dashing off.

Once Ming's gone, he spends the entirety of his walk to the bus stop debating whether or not he should actually ask Hermann if he'd be willing to put out for a one-night-only performance, or if he should give it a miss like the huge coward he is sometimes and just tell Ming apologetically next time he sees her that Hermann has refused.  The trouble is, Newton likes the kid, likes her a lot, and maybe he's even beginning, as his drunken ramble of a few nights ago might suggest, to love her like the stupid, adorable kid sister he'll never have.  Which is frustrating as hell, because he's already gone and done the dumbest thing he could possibly have considered: given his word.

His phone starts ringing loudly while he's in transit, which gets him a lot of annoyed stares, so he fumbles the sound off as hastily as he can manage and answers in a near-whisper.  "Yeah?"

"Either you're feeling guilty, or you've had your ringer up too loud again," says Hermann, impatiently, on the other end of the line.  "We haven't got all night; I've just walked in the door, and there you are faffing about with God knows what.  Spare me the trouble, darling.  Which is it?"

"Aw, honey," Newton says, and makes a sarcastic kissy sound into the mouthpiece.  "Save us the trouble of a spat, huh, by just coming clean?  Nah.  I'm not gonna give you the pleasure, but I will ask if you'd like me to stop off for take-away from your favorite ramen joint on my way home.  You like that spicy barbecue char siu stuff better than anything I can make for us from scratch, let's face it."

"Newton," replies Hermann, sternly, after a moment's pause, "what on earth have you done?"

"So, this thing," Newton begins, cringing, and hits the nearest bell so he can hop off three stops early to swing by the restaurant in question.  "It's not nearly as bad as you think. It really isn't.  I can explain."

 

*

 

They have Ming over for dinner on Saturday evening.  Originally, Newton had suggested Friday and had then launched into an explanation to Hermann, over char siu ramen, why they should have Ming over for dinner.  Rather than subject him to a barrage of apoplectic shouting, Hermann had opted for staring at him for about ten seconds and had then proceeded, very calmly, to ignore Newton completely until he'd eaten his fill.  Newton had given up, somewhat dejected, and begun to clear the remnants away, but he hadn't got far; Hermann had set a hand on his wrist, had said Very well, of course we shall do it for her, and then had pulled Newton down against him.

They had required the subsequent forty-eight hours, the evenings of aforesaid in particular, for purposes of recovering from Hermann's idea of thorough reconciliation.  Neither one of them had taught exceptionally well on Thursday or on Friday, but such sacrifices are, Hermann reflects, perfectly acceptable in light of teaching Newton a lesson.  Even now, his hip aches with it.

"What scene shall we butcher for you, then?" he asks, placing his silverware neatly on top of his scraped-clean plate.  Newton has mastered Thai green curry of late, so Hermann isn't about to let the slightest bit go to waste.  "It's been years since I've even attempted am-drams."

Ming pushes what's left of her curry and rice around nervously on her plate.  "I thought maybe I'd let it be a surprise?"  She appeals to Newton hopefully.  "If we're all done, let's just go in the living room and get it over with.  I mean, there are like six weeks till the show, so this is nothing more than a test run.  I want you to have a minute with the scripts before I watch you read."

"Folder on the coffee table, right?" asks Newton, setting Hermann's plate on top of his before depositing his own silverware on Hermann's knife and fork with a clatter.  "How about you hold up your end of the bargain and clear the table while we go in and have a look?"

"Sure, um," says Ming, rising with her plate in hand, and scoops up the newly made stack from in front of Newton.  "Okay.  I can do that.  You guys just . . . "  She meets Hermann's eyes, unblinking, and hesitates before heading toward the open partition that leads from the dining room into the kitchen proper.  "Should I put the kettle on while I'm at it?  I know where you keep the teacups."

"That would be lovely, yes," Hermann tells her, and she relaxes visibly before continuing on her way.  "Tea's to the right in the same cupboard."

"I got a tour when I was here for breakfast with Lu, remember?" she calls, and Hermann can hear the sink running.  "You guys go on and have a look.  I can wash these, it's no trouble . . . "

"C'mon," Newton whispers, rising, and drags Hermann's chair back from the table with him still in it so that he's got more room.  "Let's go see what kind of clusterfuck I've gotten us into this time."

Hermann snags his cane from where it's been leaning against the wall, but it's Newton's offered hand that he uses for leverage and Newton's body into which he lets the momentum carry him.  Newton shivers when Hermann presses their mouths together, and Hermann supposes dimly that if Ming had half a mind to leave the sink and come fetch their glasses, she'd get quite an eyeful and perhaps even enjoy it a great deal.

"If this goes badly, you will be paying for it in whatever manner I see fit," Hermann murmurs, worrying at Newton's lip with his teeth.  "But that's no punishment at all, is it?  I've gone soft." Newton huffs, pulls away, and starts for the living room; Hermann has no choice but to follow.

"Right," says Newton, all business, and reaches for the blue cardstock folder once they're settled side by side on the sofa.  "I know she said Hamlet and Horatio, but if it's the nunnery scene, I'm gonna kick her butt," he mutters, removing the two slim, stapled packets, one of which he hands to Hermann.  They're only three pages each, identical, and from the look of the first lines . . .

"It starts with Laertes?" Hermann mutters to himself, scanning down the page.  "Surely, that can't be right, this is—"  And then his eyes track down the remainder of the page, and the second, and the third, and before he knows it he's flipped back into the beginning to scan the text again with foreboding.  Next to him, Newton is quiet: reading, it would appear, lost in concentration.

Ming comes in from the hall with three full mugs, each with a tea-bag tag dangling from it, knocking together in her perilously stretched hands.  Either she'll make it to the coffee table in the knick of time, or she'll drop them, scare Bertie to death, and stain the carpet with Ceylon.

Hermann looks up from his script in time to see Bertie jerk in agitation when all three mugs come down to form a sloshing porcelain bloc right next to his tank.  Ming winces, mortified, and drops down to press one hand to either side of the tank even as she rests her cheek against it.

"Oh, sweet baby," she croons.  "I'm sorry.  So sorry.  You can come out now.  You can."

Hermann finally turns his head to look at Newton, who hasn't stopped staring at his script.  There's something in the strain of his knit brows that makes Hermann think he hasn't even registered the fact that Ming's come in with tea and is now uselessly trying to soothe his fish, so Hermann sets a hand on his knee and strokes gently.  Newton looks up and blinks at him, and then looks at Ming.

"He's not gonna come out unless you leave him alone for a while," he says.  "So, about this."

"The line for Laertes is only there so I can read it as a cue," says Ming, sitting back on her heels, "although I was thinking maybe I could play him and just die right away so you guys can do the rest.  I was thinking Hermann should read Hamlet; he's got a great look for it. His voice—"

Hermann isn't listening.  Instead, he's imagining in minute, merciless detail what he's going to be thinking while Newton holds him and he's playing at bloody dying; the scene will hit a nerve that, for both of them, is still far too raw.  Newton will imagine—no, need not even imagine, not with what they share now and cannot begin to untangle—what Hermann had gone through in finding him unconscious and bloodied on the laboratory floor those scant six months ago.

"No," Hermann insists before the realization has cleared his thoughts, before Ming even finds the breath to continue.  "If it's all the same, I should like to give Horatio my best shot.  Is that all right, Newton?"

Newton looks up from the page, tight-lipped, and shrugs.  "Makes no difference to me," he replies, but there's a turbulent brightness in his glance suggesting that his thoughts are, indeed, unsettled.

"I don't want to make you get down on the floor if it'd be too much trouble," says Ming, getting to her feet so that she can sit down in one of the armchairs flanking the far ends of the coffee table; Hermann imagines Lu and Hannibal still occupying them and finds himself profusely grateful for their absence.  "But if you can, rough positioning would do instead of blocking for now."

Hermann is up, around the coffee table, past Ming, and situated on the floor in front of the credenza on which the television and various stacks of post and far too many books sit.  He gives Newton an expectant look, but at this level the fish-tank occupies his line of sight; it isn't until Newton rises and moves around the opposite side of the coffee table, hesitantly, that Hermann can see that the impending, telltale warning signs have not subsided.  He kneels down next to Hermann.

"I guess we'll just wing this," Newton says.  "How about Laertes gets busy kicking the bucket?"

Physical contact is already too immediate, too vital.  Newton's hand comes down on Hermann's shoulder, squeezing, even as Hermann reaches to steady Newton with a hand at the small of his back.  They have mere lines to prepare themselves, scripts in hand, and fall into motion.

"He is justly served," recites Ming, from memory, her eyes fixed on them.  "It is a poison temper'd by himself.  Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet: mine and my father's death come not upon thee," she adds in stately, grief-laden apology, "nor thine on me."

"Heaven make thee free of it! I follow thee," Newton gasps, and Hermann doesn't have enough time to assess which aspect of the situation is more jarring: the speed with which Newton collapses against him (twists his body in Hermann's arms so that he lands sprawled with Hermann's arms hooked under his own, the back of his head cradled against Hermann's heart), or the familiar tenuousness of his tone.  "I am dead, Horatio," he adds with a breathless, unforced laugh, and Hermann watches with increasing distress as the hand in which Newton clutches his script becomes less steady.  "Wretched queen, adieu!  You that look pale and tremble at this chance, that are but mutes or audience to this act, had I but time—as this fell sergeant, death, is strict in his arrest—"

At this, Newton jerks slightly in Hermann's arms, and the connection is so terrible, so immediate, that maintaining the level of distance necessary for acting was never going to be an option.  "O, I could tell you—but let it be," Newton continues, whispering now, and he tilts his head back far enough to regard Hermann upside-down.

Hermann draws a breath, and Newton's hand tightens on his wrist.  Kissing in Sydney, with you sprawled in my arms like this, he recalls unbidden, I was perfectly content to be doing just that until—

"Horatio, I am dead," says Newton, his tone soft and resigned; he's almost smiling, but there's something heartbroken hovering about the edges (the cheek of it, that he should risk his life so recklessly).  "Thou livest.  Report me and my cause aright to the unsatisfied."

"Never believe it," Hermann pleads, shaking him, unable to keep his eyes fixed properly on the script Newton's got in his hand.  He'd dropped his own when he'd caught Newton against his chest, and, in any case, he knows how these words are supposed to go and he will not let them.  "I am more an antique Roman than a Dane," he says with determination.  "Here's yet some liquor left"

For if you had gone, my love, thinks Hermann, helpless to prevent the abrupt dam-burst of his subconscious, had drawn your last breath in that moment as I'd held you, what else should I have done but sought the swiftest way to follow?

Newton's reaction is quick and desperate, violent.  He twists, free hand fisting in Hermann's collar, and all he manages to do is slip down even further while Hermann bends low over himragged, gasping, utterly ashamed he hadn't managed to halt his ghost-drift confession in time.

"As thou'rt a man, give me the cup: let go," Newton hisses, shaking Hermann by the shoulders, and there's nothing funny about realizing Newton hadn't looked away from his paper while they'd been waiting on Ming with the tea because he'd been memorizing his bloody lines.  "By heaven, I'll have't," he sighs, genuinely taxed; his grip loosens even as Hermann leans closer.  "O good Horatio, what a wounded name, things standing thus unknown, shall live behind me!  If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart," pleads Newton, eyes too wide and frightened and distraught because he truly hadn't known, "absent thee from felicity awhile, and, in this harsh world, draw thy breath in pain"

To tell my story?  Newton's stunned, grief-laden thought barrage radiates between them with incisive clarity.  Wait, what? You wouldn't have stayed behind?  You wouldn't have tried to save them?  You'd have died with me instead?

"Shhh, what warlike noise is this," Hermann murmurs, retrieving the last of what he can remember even though Newton should be the one to speak it; he works an arm beneath Newton's shoulders so that he can draw him up, press their foreheads together, and transform those disconsolate words into ones of comfort.  "I could no sooner have left you than I could have survived your loss," he admits.

They're both shaking now, but Newton is the one whose tears wet Hermann's cheek as Hermann presses his lips firmly to the corner of Newton's mouth and hold him tighter, tighter, tighter still. Ming makes a strange sound, but neither one of them looks at her as she picks up the slack of lines belonging to Osric, for whom she has forgotten to account.  "Young Fortinbras, with conquest come from Poland," she says quietly, "to the ambassadors of England gives this warlike volleyguys, stop.  This isn't okay."

"Hardly," Hermann agrees, gathering what shreds of his composure he can find, and ignores the flash of pain in his hip, so harsh and sudden that it burns, as he helps Newton into a sitting position.  "I need you to breathe if you're able, I need you to understand where you are, and I need you calm," he tells Newton as steadily as he can, feeling along the credenza behind them till he finds his cane.  "Newton, listen to me," he says, and hopes that getting to his feet while Newton's clinging to him will be sufficient incentive for Newton to follow.

"I'm gonna kill you for hiding that," says Newton, his voice wrecked, and helps Hermann steady himself once they're both standing.  "You must've shoved that so deep down, how the fuck—"

"I can find another scene," babbles Ming, desperately, gathering up the scripts scattered on the floor.  "I can find another scene, it's not an issue, oh my fucking God, Doctor G, I didn't know—"

"Please take your tea and mine back to the dining room," Hermann instructs her, but his eyes are still firmly fixed on Newton's.  "You may take a seat, any seat you wish, and wait for me there."

"Yes," says Ming, mindlessly, and scrambles to collect the mugs.  "Sure, no problem, I'll . . . "

"You're one scary fucker when you take charge," says Newton, wiping his nose with the back of his hand, blinking at the mucus left there—as if he can't process the fact that it's innocuous, bloodless, clear.  "You know that, right?  She's not gonna speak in class for a month."

"I want you to stop worrying about what she's going to do," Hermann tells him, maneuvering them out of the living room and into the hallway, "and to focus on what you're going to do instead."  He hauls Newton toward the bedroom in spite of the fact that every step brings him nearer to agony, and he doesn't stop until they're through the open door.  "Sit down, Newton.  I'll fetch your tea."

"Tell her I'm sorry I couldn't handle my shit when push came to shove," Newton mutters, flopping down on the mattress, and buries his face in their pillows.  "Not that I could've foreseen.  That."

"I never should have permitted us to proceed," Hermann murmurs, setting a hand between Newton's shoulder blades; the feel of warm, firm flesh beneath the thin fabric of his shirt is comforting, and Hermann bends to kiss the back of Newton's neck.  "Turn your head.  Breathe."

The odds that Newton will touch his tea, Hermann knows, are slim.  Still, he has no compunctions about forcing Ming to wait another five minutes while he returns to the living room, fetches the mug, and then walks it back to the bedroom.  He leaves it on the nightstand, at least satisfied that Newton's lying on his back now and blinking at the ceiling as color returns to his cheeks. By the time Hermann joins Ming at the table, shifting into the chair across from her with a hiss of pain, the girl has both hands wrapped around her mug and is numbly staring at it.

"You won't have seen him panic in the classroom," Hermann explains, "or so I gather. Performance nerves are not an issue where Newton is concerned, so I assure you that it wasn't because you put him on the spot to read Shakespeare, either.  He's fond of you, and he trusts you."

"With all due respect," says Ming, lifting her chin to look him in the eye, "I know it wasn't me."

Hermann sighs, staring into his mug, and then takes a sip.  "I seem to remember you made a valiant attempt at calling me out," he says with quiet apology.  "It wasn't that long ago; we were in my office. I declined to comment."

"The face you're making right now is only a little bit less not-good, in fact," Ming agrees.

"You wanted to know about a certain unfortunate reputation that never fails to precede us," continues Hermann, with difficulty, but he forces himself to hold her gaze.  "About the fighting.  You had read something on the internet, I believe."

"I read about the conference, Doctor G," she says bravely.  "I told you as much.  The one in Stockholm."

"Then that day," sighs Hermann, relieved, "the day for explaining that and more, has most certainly come."

Chapter Text

Newton opens his eyes to dawn through the curtains and the heavy, reassuring weight of Hermann pressed up against his back with one arm curled protectively around Newton's waist. He stretches, shaking his head against the pillow to clear it; not long after Hermann had left him on the bed the night before, he'd swallowed some medication with his tea. He hadn't taken any in months.

The memory of murmured voices from beyond the door, drifting muffled to his ears from farthest end of the long hall, fills him with a succession of uncomfortably tangled emotions. He's less embarrassed for himself than he is for Ming, although what he feels most keenly still is the stab of raw, desolate shock as Hermann's words, unspoken at first and then succinctly articulated, had settled irretrievably in his mind. Beneath the covers, he strokes along Hermann's arm until his hand settles over Hermann's against his own jersey-covered belly.

"How are we feeling?" asks Hermann, softly, stifling his yawn against the back of Newton's neck.

"Weird," Newton says after a few moments' hesitation, rubbing his palm in circles over the back of Hermann's hand. "Like somebody wiped my brain and re-installed it badly? Let's go with weird."

Hermann nuzzles Newton's hair, kisses just behind his ear, and twists his hand beneath Newton's till they're palm to palm with fingers entwined. "I'm glad you took something. It helped you sleep."

"The blank-minded thing gets on my nerves," he confesses, closing his eyes, nuzzling back into his pillow. "How much longer was Ming here?" Newton asks. "I don’t remember you coming in."

"Nearly three hours past the point I saw you to bed," Hermann murmurs. "I ordered her a taxi."

Newton sighs and releases Hermann's hand, squirming around in the tight curl of his arm till he's lying on his back and Hermann is propped up on one elbow to peer down at him with brows knit. "So, what kind of damages are we looking at? She's probably gonna drop my class, and I guess odds are even as to whether she'll stay in yours or hightail it out of there. She's probably way too embarrassed. I can't blame her, I guess; I'm kind of pissed off, but not too pissed off, because there's a lot she didn't know and even more I couldn't have expected—"

"Hush, you're rambling," Hermann sighs, trailing his hand up from where it had settled over Newton's heart to stroke Newton's jawline, fingers curling to cup his cheek. "She'll do nothing of the sort," he reassures Newton. "She shan't be withdrawing from either of our courses, although heaven knows she offered to do so repeatedly throughout our conversation. She's mortified that it should have come to this, and she agreed to having crossed any number of boundaries; by the same token, I conceded that we've done the same. We're certainly guilty of favoritism."

"So what about the variety show?" ventures Newton, hesitantly. "What's she going to have us do?"

Hermann's lips twist in a wry, knowing frown. "I hope you'll forgive me for having withdrawn us from the performance end and for having pledged financial and audience-based support instead."

"She's probably pissed about losing fifty bucks to Parth, though," Newton sighs. "That sucks."

"I've seen to it that there's no longer any wager," sighs Hermann. "The scarcest hint at disciplinary action will be sufficient to nip it in the bud if Mister Sethi so much as doubts her word."

"Politics," Newton points out, grinning, but he squints; as dawn grows brighter, the sheer curtains' luminescence hurts his eyes. "You're as good at that as you are at poetry. Maybe even better."

For a few seconds, Hermann's eyes narrow and his lips purse and he looks like he's about to say something snarkier than Karla at her über snarkiest, but he breathes out, backs down, and continues to fondly stroke Newton's scruff-riddled cheek. "I would like you to know the full extent of everything I shared with her," he says. "I won't have you face her again without full awareness of what knowledge she now carries with regard to our peculiar history, our years as PPDC colleagues, and, subsequently, our romantic involvement up to and including marriage."

Unmedicated, Newton would probably have laughed at that, but all he can muster in response to those words is a slow, amused nod. He's not sure he likes the thought of Hermann having had to deliver such a heavy litany on his own; his chest clenches when he realizes he's not getting anything from Hermann's end of the drift-residue wire, not even static. He tenses, but Hermann soothes him.

"This information, too, is useful," Hermann says. "I can still read you , and I'm sorry to have caused distress by having undertaken the task alone. Barring precise, excruciating details unnecessary to the narrative, she has a mercilessly full data set at her disposal. Have I done wrong?"

"Nah," Newton tells him, reaching up to return the face-stroking action, because it's really, really nice and Hermann being all conscientious and thorough is sexy as hell even if Newon's pretty sure he couldn't get it up to save his life right now. Everything feels hazy, disconnected. Pale.

"I've informed her that she's not to ask you any prying questions," Hermann adds firmly.

"But you know she'll ask anyway, Hermann," Newton says. "Eventually. She's Pandora."

"Until such time as she does so, please mind how freely you speak under unrelated conversational circumstances," Hermann sighs, pulling Newton tight into his embrace. "No more minor disasters."

"I'm not sure minor is the term I would have applied," admits Newton, tensing a little. "Can I speak frankly about this? Never mind; I'm going to do that anyway. You've always had better . . . hmmm, finely tuned Jedi-mind-trick control over whatever it is that the drift-partnered have got?"

"Yes," agrees Hermann, reluctantly, and the faint strain in his voice is dreadful to hear.

"I'm not sure how or why I didn't get the full picture when we went under," Newton says. "Maybe it was so subconscious, so instinctive even for you that our first time was inevitably going to be too much of a maelstrom for either one of us to pluck out each discrete strand of recollection, but, seriously, back when we were talking shit out? That's some shit you should have mentioned."

"You blamed me!" blurts Hermann, helplessly, and, oh, great; he's blocked from tuning in properly enough to perceive that Hermann is legitimately upset and lashing out in a quid-pro-quo type way.

"That was awful and petty and juvenile of me and I fucking regret it, okay?" Newton sighs. "I didn't know with one-hundred percent certainty that I was going to survive, but I strongly suspected that I was going to come out of it alive, how about that? Even residual optimism makes flippancy a lot easier than it should be under circumstances as dire as the ones we were facing. Do you agree?"

"You are, in fact, talking sense," Hermann allows, "but your words on that recording hurt, Newton."

"Your death-wish reduced Horatio's grief to a bad facsimile of the real thing! Rip my heart out!"

The edges of Newton's existence seem ragged, insubstantial, but he clings to Hermann in the close tangle of their limbs and bodies in the warmth of their bed. He breathes because Hermann asks him to breathe—as he's done for so long, in medium after medium and with care.

"We shall work on this," insists Hermann, cradling him. "There must be a way to file the edges."

"Your neurons are better shape for that right now than mine," replies Newton, his face buried in the curve of Hermann's neck, and he can feel Hermann nodding resolutely against the side of his head.

"I'll give it my all, I can promise you that," Hermann replies. "But some breakfast might help."

Newton nods and closes his eyes, content for the moment. He doesn't want to let go, not yet.

 

*

 

They had spent the entirety of Sunday between bed and the sofa; Hermann had seen to that, and Newton, in no mood or in any state to protest, had never been more than a hand's breadth away. They'd watched quite frankly appalling television, but having Newton in such near-constant, sprawling, sweetly clinging vicinity had been sufficient to render the programs tolerable.

Newton doesn't rouse when he's shaken, not beyond a breathy, fragile sigh, so Hermann tucks him back in, fetches his cane and his mobile, and stalks off to the kitchen for purposes of ringing up Newton's department to inform them that he'll be taking a personal day.

"Poor thing," remarks Professor Xiu, her voice a curious mix of sympathy and mischief. "He's ill?"

"His medical history ought to have told you what you need to know," Hermann says. "He'd had a good run of it for a while, a good run of it under very poor circumstances, so I should think that he was overdue an episode severe enough to warrant rest. Thank you for your consideration."

"Tell him to feel better," she replies. "Go easy on my faculty, Doctor Gottlieb. Don't break him."

For all that Hermann can appreciate this woman's sense of humor in normal circumstances, he finds it remarkably easy to hang up on her without saying goodbye. He eats breakfast alone in the kitchen and dresses as quietly as he can; Newton doesn't stir, doesn't so much as roll over or shift in his sleep, so kissing his forehead and leaving him in a hunched cocoon of covers is easily done.

Hermann half expects a phone call or a barrage of texts no sooner than he's reached his office, but he passes a quiet hour-and-change before he's due in the classroom. Ming arrives late, and she doesn't take her usual seat at the front; Hermann is almost glad of the deferential avoidance and proceeds to fill a third of the chalkboard before turning to grill the first student to make eye contact.

After class, Ming hangs back and comes up to hover next to the desk, offering a tentative wave.

"Is Doctor Geiszler okay?" she asks before Hermann can greet her. "I didn't break him, did I?"

"I have never, not in all my many years at his side," says Hermann, "known him to be breakable."

Ming nods, cracking a tentative smile. "You guys are tough. You're tough as it gets, Doctor G."

"That's a well-chosen word," Hermann tells her, returning the smile, "in nearly every respect."

Hermann's second class session comes and goes; by lunchtime, he's heard nothing from Newton at all and wonders if he ought to find it peculiar. He senses no distress, no distant snags of warning, and supposes that perhaps a measure of distance might prove more help than harm. He fetches a salad and some weak tea from the cafeteria only to return to the sound of his mobile ringing behind his office door. He struggles to open it quickly, spilling his tea in the process, all for the sake of—

"Newton?" asks Hermann, fumbling the mobile off his desk and up to his ear. "Love, what is it?"

"Having a handsome young husband at home has done wonders for your disposition," Karla says.

Hermann scowls at the nearest entity he can find, which happens to be his salad. "How lovely to hear from you," he replies. "Bastien has done something well and truly appalling, I presume?"

"Bastien is arse over teacup in love and too enraptured to give me the details," Karla sighs. "Is Newt skiving off for the day, then? Did you have a bit too much fun over the weekend?"

"If you must know, he's ill," says Hermann, evasively. "Don't make light of it. He's resting."

"Oh," Karla murmurs, and it's then that Hermann remembers she's in the know. "I'm sorry."

"As for more excitement than usual, yes, I fear that did have a hand in it," Hermann admits.

Karla is silent for a moment; Hermann could easily have done without a reminder of how intuitive she can be when presented with only a voice from which to gather clues. "Is someone giving you trouble? Is the media trying to interfere? Shall I ask Father to send one of his stern notes?"

"Between you and me, no," Hermann says, opening the salad, but one prod through with his fork and he's disinterested. "It's to do with a student who tried to rope us into an am-drams fundraiser, and to rather disastrous result. Her choice of material was . . . much less than ideal."

"You've got to take it easy on yourselves," Karla chides. "Take it easy on him. You've had so many changes in so short a time; little wonder he's gone high-strung. Is it the girl you told me about?"

"None other," Hermann confirms, pushing the salad aside. "We've taken her under our wing, I suppose you might say, and with an abundance of sound reason, but she . . . pried indirectly."

"Would it kill you to speak plainly, Hermann?" Karla asks. "Now you've got me worried."

"I should think I need not explain in excruciating detail why having us audition a death scene from one of the Bard's tragedies for a student-run variety show, even in private, was a wretched idea."

"No," Karla whispers. "Oh, no. Quite. But surely you wouldn't have told her so much—"

"Several mugs of tea and one panic attack later, not telling her had ceased to be an option."

"She'd better take it to heart," Karla seethes, "and butt right out. What a load of nerve."

"She's contrite, at least," Hermann reassures her. "We're decidedly off the dramatic hook."

"Can't you find a way to protect him?" Karla implores. "I mean—more than you do, of course, because I can see you're each other's wards against madness, make no mistake. You're more adept at matters relevant to the issue at hand, I know you are. That impeccable restraint of yours."

Hermann bites his lip instead of cursing her into oblivion; she's being honest, but there's more than a touch of sarcasm underlying her words. "I've been giving it some serious thought," he tells her.

"He's suggestible as long as you're the one doing the talking," Karla says. "Or thinking, I should hazard to guess, given what you're dealing with. What do you know about guided meditation?"

"Enough to realize we need not enroll in a class, thank you," Hermann mutters. "The concept as a model should be more than sufficient; the rest is . . . highly abstract, more intuitive than that."

"Then use your blasted abstraction, Spätzchen," Karla says encouragingly, "and help yourselves."

"The fall of a sparrow indeed," Hermann murmurs. He'd never given much thought to Karla's preferred childhood endearment for him, not beyond the fact that it has always been an annoyance, and certainly not through the lens of its literal translation. "My dear, you're uncanny."

"Hamlet?" she asks in disbelief. "That child mustn't have a single ounce of sense in her skull."

"There is method to her madness," sighs Hermann, wearily, "and I do believe we've sussed it."

 

*

 

Newton wakes to find that it's a quarter past noon and that Hermann has left one of his nearly illegible notes on the nightstand detailing the actions he'd taken on Newton's behalf. There's no cold cup of tea, which makes Newton wonder if Hermann had absentmindedly left it in the kitchen; he stretches and wanders out to find everything in its place, every dish clean in the rack.

"It's just you and me, Bertie," he tells the fish, wandering into the living room with a bowl of cereal and a glass of juice. "I'll hang out for a while, but I think fresh air sounds like a great idea." He sets his breakfast aside and rummages in the drawer for the canister of food; Bertie dances in excitement till Newton hand-feeds him several pellets, one after another. After the third, Newton doesn't remove his finger, and Bertie regards it for a moment before butting his head up under it and swimming on past so that his dorsal fin gets some attention as well. Newton grins.

"You cuddle slut," he chides, wiping his hand on his t-shirt. "Don't you dare tell Hermann."

Once Newton has eaten and washed up and gotten himself something resembling dressed. He can't be assed with his habitual image, not today; the jeans he hauls out of the dresser are the loose-fitting, faded old blue ones he'd tended to wear to ink-sessions, and he's pretty sure the sage green pull-over he's layered on top of the fresh t-shirt he's selected (Tendo's sense of humor in action: one Christmas, it had been Harry Potter; yet another Christmas, it had been Star Wars, so today it's K-Science Ewoks emblazoned across his chest) is about a million years old.

He grabs his messenger bag and heads for the bus stop. He hasn't got a destination in mind besides getting himself near enough to campus for purposes of taking a long walk from which he can head straight for Hermann's office. On second thought, as he steps off the bus and onto the sidewalk, he realizes how close he is to Lu's apartment. She takes most Mondays off, so a detour is in order.

Lu answers the door barefoot and dressed in a black short-sleeved cotton dress that Newton has never seen before, and her wet hair, fresh from the shower, hangs almost to the middle of her back. Newton realizes then that he's only ever seen it swept up in messy ponytails and knots.

"Newt! You surprise me," she says, taking hold of his wrists so that she can pull him in and kiss both of his cheeks. "Come in, honey. Too chilly out there! You don't look so good. Poor thing."

"I, uh," is all he can manage to say before she's tugging him into her tiny kitchen and forcing him down in one of the mismatched chairs at her ink-stained wooden table, "had a rough weekend."

"I can tell," Lu says, punching the button on her electric kettle with her other hand cocked impatiently on her hip. "You're skipping work, very naughty. What does Hermann say?"

"He's the one who called me in sick," Newton says, watching her rummage in the cupboard until she exclaims aha! and turns around with a small tin in her grasp. "I had kind of a . . . an episode on Saturday when Ming came over. You know, the fundraiser scene I texted you about."

Lu frowns at him as the water starts to boil and shoves a stringless tea bag smelling strongly of jasmine sencha into each of the mugs she's lined up on the counter. "Wanna talk about it?"

Newton nods heavily, sighing, and sets his chin on his hands. "Yeah, that's why I'm here."

He's well into an account of Saturday evening by the time Lu comes over to the table with tea; the lines in her forehead deepen as she listens, and her fine eyebrows arch every so often in dismay. By the end of it, she's got one hand over Newton's and the lip of her teacup clenched between her teeth. "That girl will get a lecture," Lu snaps, "and she will not like it as much as Hermann's!"

"Oh, God, no, don't," Newton pleads, patting Lu's hand. "I think Hermann scared her shitless."

"Well, good," says Lu, relieved her features softening again. "Just when I'm getting to like her."

"She's basically a good kid," Newton sighs. "She's intelligent and has a lot of interests—too many, maybe, and I know what that's like—and her dad's not in the picture, and her mom's almost never home. She's been left to her own devices for a long time, so university's been like . . . fuck, I don't know, like learning how to be a shark in a sea full of other sharks, some of whom are bigger than she is, what when she's used to sharing tank-space with a few unresponsive polyps. She's got a ton of ambition, and she can't figure out what to do with it. She worships the ground Hermann and I walk on, and there's also the point that she, uh, would get in Hermann's pants given less than half a chance and me out of the equation, but you already know that. There was bound to be trouble."

"That's why I keep an eye on her," replies Lu, sipping her tea. "She needs better influence."

"Maybe you should offer her the apprentice slot I vacated," Newton suggests, shrugging. "It would keep her hands busy and get her to focus. Listen, Lu. She's no good at delivering egg waffles."

"Wei won't like that," Lu sighs. "Too young. But smart, like you say. Quick head, strong hands."

"At least ask him about it," Newton suggests, finishing his tea. "I'll sleep easier knowing you tried."

"Drink up," says Lu, snatching Newton's cup as soon as he's finished. "You need more air. Exercise is good for you. Get out of classrooms, out of the lab. Hey, I'm thinking—this place is too lonely when Hannibal's not around. I loved Bertie in here. Fish make nice company."

Newton's grinning before he knows what's hit him. "You want me to help you pick a fish and set up a tank, huh? What do you have in mind? A fighter like Bertie, or something more ambitious?"

"Find me a nice one like him," she says, sweeping up her hair and pinning it. "Let's go look."

Their search takes them through several independently owned aquarium supply shops of which Newton hadn't previously been aware. Lu spends a lot of time cooing over the tiny fry they find for sale in the first of these, although she seems disappointed that gender is, at that point, largely indeterminate, and they move on. Newton asks her if she'll consider taking home a girl, but Lu seems dead-set on bright coloration and finnage. The second shop has only a few sickly looking veil-tails, and, although Lu seems to fall for the listless red-and-lavender, Newton manages to convince her that she doesn't want to be dealing with a dead fish within days.

I'm so sorry, he thinks as they leave, taking a last look. If you weren't beyond saving . . .

The third shop is dingy, ill lit, and has a cracked concrete floor. However, the tanks are markedly cleaner, and although there are only three male bettas on the premises, all of them are lively, inquisitive, and make Lu squeak with glee. By the time Newton has wrangled a tank and the rest of the starter-kit she's going to need, she's head over heels for the black-and-white cellophane rose-tail.

"Angry boy! Awww," she coos, holding up the container while the fish flares at her finger.

"He's still pretty young," Newton says, trying not to drop his arm-load. "Might settle down."

When they get back to Lu's apartment with their parcels two hours later, the door is already open. Newton experiences a vague stab of panic, but Lu's frustrated huff is far too resigned for him to assume they're in any danger. They find Hannibal reading a newspaper at the kitchen table.

"Seriously?" Newton asks under his breath, setting down Lu's bags. "You gave him a key?"

Lu ignores Newton's commentary, marches straight over to the table, and tears the paper out of Hannibal's grasp. He takes off his shades and regards her with irritation too fond to be genuine.

"Look here," she says, bending over to give him a brief, fierce kiss on the mouth. "This is Jeeves," she says, holding the container right up in his face. "So Bertie will have company when I babysit."

"I consider this your fault, Doc," Hannibal tells Newton. "She'll never pay attention to me again."

"If you can't beat us, join us," Newton advises, unpacking the tank. "But I think you already have."

 

*

 

Hermann doesn't receive a response to any of the various texts he'd sent Newton throughout the day until he's leaving his office and it's nearly six o'clock. Sorry, Newton writes. Was out helping Lu.

This foolishness when you ought to have been resting? Hermann texts, waiting impatiently for the bus to arrive. What could possibly have been so important that you were willing to venture out?

I needed another sane person to talk to, okay? Newton responds several minutes after Hermann has already boarded. I also needed some fresh air, and Lu needed somebody to help her find a fish.

Please tell me you didn't talk her into a community tank complete with bottom-feeders, Hermann types, sighing, and hits the bell for the next stop. I shall be home shortly, and I assume you've not been back long. Have you given any thought to what you'd like for dinner? My treat.

Take-away's not necessary, Newton writes back. I'm already on it. You like miso soup, right?

With rice and furikake on the side? replies Hermann, hopefully, as the bus shudders to a stop.

Dude, if you shake out half the damn bottle again, I will laugh at you, Newton writes back.

You say that as if I'd done it accidentally, replies Hermann, disembarking as fast as he can.

Lu named her betta Jeeves so that he can keep Bertie company when she watches him while we travel, Newton replies, and it reaches Hermann's phone as he arrives on their doorstep. FYI.

"You are, I repeat, a terrible influence," Hermann tells Newton when he answers the door.

"Yeah, but Lu's not one of the kids," Newton points out, "so she doesn't count. In fact, I don't think you quite realize that we're kids to her. She's forty-nine, Hermann. That's not ancient, but . . . "

Hermann steps inside, bends to set down his briefcase, and straightens to find Newton sidling right into Hermann's personal space once he's shut the door. He's got some color again, although his cheeks may be pink because he's been working over the stove, and he's wearing old jeans paired with the least tasteful of Tendo's holiday shirts. He looks relaxed and happy; he looks well.

"I can see that a day off was just what the doctor ordered," says Hermann, and kisses him.

"I love you," Newton mumbles into Hermann's mouth, "for being all sneaky and calling in for me and fending off whatever other stupid inquiries came at you today because of my absence."

"It was no trouble," Hermann reassures him. "Besides, I'd like to think you'll do the same."

"Yeah, I totally will," agrees, both arms wrapped around Hermann's neck, "but I don't like to think about your bad days, because I saw some of those back in January. You're demanding, and I might not always be home future instances to wait on you hand and foot. That sucks."

Hermann kisses Newton again, feels him shiver. "You promised me soup, I believe?"

Rather than lead Hermann into the dining room, Newton pushes him down on the sofa in the living room and tells him to entertain Bertie, who's been neglected for most of the day, until he's got everything ready. Before Hermann can finish explaining to Bertie why speaking to a creature such as himself is an obvious waste of time, Newton makes several trips in from the kitchen and back until there are two bowls for each of them, a pair of beers, and the shaker-bottle of furikake.

"Your soup is served," says Newton, flopping down beside him, "and some rice, too, if you want it with your condiment binge. Go easy, though, okay? I swear it costs more every time we run out."

"I'm not worried about the cost," Hermann insists; he picks up the bottle, uncaps it, and sprinkles a liberal amount on both his own bowl of rice and Newton's. "I'll reimburse you if I must."

Newton leans into him, sipping from his bowl of miso. "See that face, dude? Bertie's laughing."

"He won't be laughing when he meets Jeeves, I'm sure," replies Hermann, reaching for his beer.

They eat without turning on the television, content to compare notes on the day; Newton seems relieved to hear that Ming hasn't fled their presence altogether, but remains nervous with regard to seeing her on Wednesday. Hermann dumps what's left of his rice into what's left of his soup and finishes it using one of the spoons that Newton had brought as an afterthought. Newton calls him a heathen, and then makes a face at his half-consumed beer before shoving the bottle toward Bertie.

"I gave you a scare," he sighs, waiting until Hermann has set aside his bowl to curl sideways onto the sofa and swing one leg across Hermann's lap. "On Saturday night. And yesterday, I guess, and today when I didn't call or text to let you know I was going out," he adds, settling close, resting his forehead against Hermann's. "I guess it's just—while we're back on airing shit that's way, way overdue for airing, I'm sorry for what an ass I can be when I just don't think things through."

"For every time that's been the case," insists Hermann, hands playing along Newton's spine, "there have been any number of times when I've dismissed, discredited, or outright mocked you without sound cause. Where reconciliation is concerned, this is remedial. I'm sorry for what I've done, too, Newton, sorry just as many times over, and, as far as I'm concerned, you're already forgiven."

Before Newton can respond, he's aware of how still Hermann has gone, aware of breath and connection and warmth thrumming beneath the brush of Hermann's lips against the corner of his mouth. The medication must be clear of his system, or in the very least beginning to fade; he closes his eyes, nods, and breathes in the memory. It's not their finest hour, but it's also not their worst.

"I always wondered how much you really meant that," says Newton, taking a slight detour in order to sigh against Hermann's earlobe, savor the way Hermann shudders under him when he nuzzles there. "Telling Herc and Pentecost that was the part where I went really crazy."

"The very thought of you undertaking such a venture was intolerable," Hermann whispers. "Of course I was going to say whatever was necessary to prevent you from making the attempt, up to and including implying that to try would be utter madness, not to mention impossible."

"You were smiling at me, though," says Newton, letting his head drop to Hermann's shoulder. "You were smiling at me the whole time I was talking, that sneaky one you crack when you don't want people to know you're so taken with whatever you're looking at that it isn't even funny."

"If you'd been looking at me instead of at them, you might have known," suggests Hermann, sliding his fingers tentatively beneath the hem of Newton's t-shirt to stroke Newton's sides. "But it's all right. I'm giving you this because I want you to remember that not all of those hours we passed filled with dread. That is to say, looking back: even in our darkest moments, I find hope."

"I wouldn't have called that moment dark, Hermann," Newton murmurs, suddenly overwhelmed with the need to curl in even closer, tighter, to express without words how much he appreciates this. "Marginally annoying at best and super freaking annoying because I love this guy and want him to respect me at worst. We got there eventually, didn't we? It took long enough, but we got there."

Hermann makes a soft, pained sound and continues with what he'd been doing, which is, of course, hitching Newton's t-shirt up by degrees so that he can find more and more skin on which to lavish attention. After almost forty-eight hours of not feeling like doing anything even remotely sexy, Newton is starved for touch and skin and anything essentially Hermann he can possibly get.

"Hey," he says, sitting up and struggling the rest of the way out of his shirt so that Hermann can mold his hands to Newton's chest, his ribcage, his belly—anything he can reach —without obstruction. "It's not like I went anywhere, but . . . I missed you. I missed you lots."

"Karla says that . . . having you has . . . improved my disposition considerably," says Hermann, taking an unsteady breath, lifting one hand so that he can run the pad of his thumb along Newton's lower lip. "I can't say where I would be without you. That, of all things, is impossible."

"You without me?" Newton asks, rucking up Hermann's sweater vest so he can get to the shirt buttons beneath. "Yeah, agreed. And me without you—I can't endorse that as possible, either."

Hermann leans forward to kiss him, steady and slow, his fingers eagerly curling at the waistband of Newton's jeans. "Darling," he murmurs, sighing against Newton's mouth. "May I?"

"Hermann," says Newton, grinning stupidly; he can't help it. "I'll kick your ass if you don't."

 

Chapter Text

Newton likes mornings like this one—lazy, warm, cocooned in blankets—in all but two respects.  One, Hermann's alarm is chiming again with its innocuous yet ominous harp-tone, which means Hermann has already been up for a full ten minutes; two, Hermann is therefore, quite obviously, no longer in bed with him.  The shower is running full-blast; Newton groans into his pillow.

 "Why is it Monday again?" he shouts in the direction of the bathroom, but there's no answer.

It's been a long week: a week since he'd helped Lu pick out a fish of her own, a week since he'd promised Hermann he wouldn't fear facing a fearless teenage girl in the classroom.  To be honest, that hadn't gone too badly; Ming had been the model student, and she hadn't handed in a single assignment late in the days since.  That said, weekends often wreak havoc on student memory.

"Newton, for God's sake, did you say something?" Hermann abruptly yells.  "I can't hear you!"

"Never mind!" Newton replies.  "Not important!"  He sighs and sits up, scratching the sudden, prickly itch that seizes his right forearm; the room is chilly, so he makes a bee-line for the bathroom door and slams it gratefully behind him.  The steam is far more than welcome.

"There he is, slug-a-bed," Hermann mutters behind the shower curtain while Newton is busy shedding his t-shirt and boxers, barely audible above the impressive onslaught of near-scalding water.  "One wonders how we ever make it out on time at all."

Newton reaches to draw aside the curtain, about to make a smart-ass comeback, but it's then that his eyes fall on the corner where Hermann's chair usually sits folded against the wall and realizes it's not there.  Newton tells himself he shouldn't be surprised; they've been restless these past nights, feverish, tangling in each other till sleep finds them.  That invariably takes its toll.

"Hey, you started without me," he says, stepping carefully in behind Hermann, one hand resting on Hermann's damp shoulder while he draws the curtain shut again.  "Burning the midnight oil again, I guess."

"Don't start," snaps Hermann, turning his head to kiss Newton's wrist.  "No guilt, understood?"

Newton nuzzles the back of his wet head and lets both hands slip down to map his chest, brush at his nipples, dig in massaging gently at the juts of his hips.  The plastic back of the chair is impersonal, unyielding against Newton's belly and groin, but Hermann lets slip a soft, startled sound of approval and Newton couldn't care less about the impersonality of that particular obstacle.  He swallows and presses against it, letting Hermann guide one of his hands down to wrap around Hermann's growing erection.  So much for leaving on time.

"You never think about anything else, do you?" asks Newton, giving him a tentative squeeze.

"Why should I," Hermann sighs, leaning back into him, "when you're so attractively amenable?"

Suddenly, Newton can't think; all it takes is a few words, one inescapable reminder of how desirable Hermann finds him, to get him just as hard as the cock in his hand and to see to it he'll keep kissing the back of Hermann's infuriatingly sexy neck till well past they've missed their bus.

"Come here," Hermann says, tugging at Newton's arms, and Newton almost slips in his haste to make his way around the chair so he can get down on his knees under the spray. It's not as if they haven't done this before, but it never seems to get old.

"We don't have long," he reminds Hermann, gripping both sides of the chair to brace himself, but Hermann is leaning to kiss him with that disarmingly fierce passion he's never experienced in anyone else living.  He doesn't care that he has to screw his eyes shut against the just-shy-of-boiling onslaught; he likes a long, hot shower as much as Hermann, and this is as hot as it gets.

"Then I suggest you make short work," Hermann replies, "so I can see to it you get yours, too."

It's almost undignified how fast that gets his mouth on Hermann's cock, but Newton knows desperate measures even better than he knows desperate times.  He licks and sucks at the head, worries Hermann's taut foreskin with his teeth, and it isn't long before Hermann's fingers are clenching and unclenching at Newton's shoulders, before he's gasping his way undone.

"Hermann, fuck," hisses Newton, stealing a breath, and then draws him back in.  He's got his left hand wrapped tight at the base of Hermann's cock, working him in time with the slide of his tongue and the scrape of his teeth, and he's fisting his own hard-on with his right, because, never mind how annoyed Hermann's going to be about that, he's so close he can't even think.

"Newton," Hermann groans, and that's all he gets by way of warning.  "Oh, that's—that's—"

Pulling off while Hermann's mid-orgasm isn't his finest moment, but Newton can't hold back the string of besotted nonsense he sobs right into Hermann's slick, heaving belly.  He comes, breathless, with his head cradled in Hermann's lap and hot water mercilessly hitting his back.

"So impatient, darling," murmurs Hermann, loose-limbed and out of breath as he wipes water from his eyes, fondly massages Newton's scalp while he recovers.  "Will you at least let me wash your hair?"

"Wash anything you can reach, dude, by all means," Newton sighs, slumping a little as he grins dopily and nuzzles into the inviting crease of Hermann's thigh, "because I don't think I can move."

 

 *

 

 It is, simply put, the worst sort of listless afternoon: Hermann's office is so warm with the first flush of spring that he's found it necessary to open the window.  Both his one-thirty and his two o'clock tutorials have canceled (a rare, divine strike of providence indeed), so he's left with little choice but to pick at an article in progress or to sift through a flood of inane departmental email.

You're so bored I can hear you dithering from over here, comes Newton's smug text message.

Very funny, replies Hermann, tapping the keys on his screen harder than necessary.  You're an absolute riot.  Haven't you got a batch of exams to mark?  Hadn't we set a wager on Ming's?

Man, we have learned precisely ZILCH from her and Parth, Newton texts back.  Go us.

You're clearly as bored as I am, Newton, replies Hermann, sighing.  What do you want?  He's scarcely hit SEND when Newton's mobile number starts ringing through; he answers, startled.

"Just to talk to you," says Newton, somewhat huffily.  "That's all.  I married you so I could pull this kind of shit whenever I want, remember?  Not that I didn't do it before, I mean.  Hi."

Hermann feels the corners of his mouth turning up in fond exasperation before he can express feigned disgust, so he gives in to the smile and stares out the window.  "Why don't you just come over?" he asks.  "I can see your building, and, after all, you haven't yet got that sofa."

"Dammit, Hermann" Newton hisses, and it's then that Hermann recognizes the breathiness in his tone for what it really is.  "Leave it to you to see right through my ruse.  Ah, well, see—me coming over there would kind of ruin what I had in mind.  Would ruin it a lot, in fact."

Hermann narrows his eyes and drums his fingers on his desk, frowning, because he's already more than half invested in the thought of Newton writhing under him on the settee he'd inherited from his office's previous occupant.  "This has quickly grown far too inconvenient for my liking," he says tersely, "so get to the point."

"We haven't, um," Newton manages, audibly swallowing, "done the phone thing before, so—"

Hermann's mouth goes dry, and he struggles to swallow in kind.  "The phone thing," he echoes.

"Jesus, this is not working," Newton mutters.  "I'm extremely turned on over here, for the record, but if you're not on the same page, I don't actually see any point in experimenting further—"

"You!" Hermann gasps, suddenly laughing so helplessly that there's nothing for it.  "You see no point in experimenting further!  Oh, Newton.  That is.  Rich," he manages, nearly hiccupping.

"Did you know you're sexy when you laugh?" asks Newton, almost too quietly to be heard.

"Tell me more," says Hermann, regaining his composure, because Newton has his full attention now.  He fumbles in his pocket, finds Newton's handkerchief exactly where he'd left it after its last laundering, but doesn't unfasten his trousers just yet.  "Why is that?" he asks quietly.

"Because I can see your face," says Newton, his tone still uncharacteristically soft.  "I can just picture it, and I don't think I tell you often enough that you can get to me just by smiling."

Hermann draws an unsteady breath; on the other end of the connection, Newton makes a sound that isn't quite a whimper and isn't quite fuck, and that makes all the difference between both of his hands clutching at the handkerchief and one of them making short work of his flies.  "Then you should bloody well do it more often," he grits out, letting his eyes slide shut as he works his hand inside his pants.  "Unproductive to . . . to bottle it all up, don't you think?  Newton?"

"Sorry," Newton gasps, and it takes no effort, no effort at all, for Hermann to let a flood of sensation that's not his own take over.  "I really . . . really wish this was . . . you . . . "

"Shhh, not so loud," Hermann murmurs, shaking as he draws himself out; the pace Newton has set washes over him in merciless waves; it's all he can do to keep up.  "That . . . that feels . . . "

"I said phone thing, not your sneaky cheating telepathy thing," Newton whimpers, but Hermann knows they're both too caught up in this now for it to fail.  "I hate you," he whines.  "I do."

"That is what you said to the Registrar of Marriages, after all," replies Hermann, leaning back and shifting his hips.  He bites his lip and runs his thumb over the head of his cock.  "I should hardly think you'd have wasted your precious time cooking, cleaning, and sharing my bed if you—"

"Keep talking," Newton pleads.  "Hermann, don't stop, Hermann, please just . . . keep . . . "

"You must be close," Hermann whispers, his grip on his mobile faltering.  "I know you must—"

"Oh," Newton whimpers, and there, there, there it is; the pulse-spike of confirmation is fierce, sudden, and impossibly immediate.  "Oh.  Fuck.  Jesus, Hermann.  I'm really, I'm.  Yeah . . . "

Hermann shudders with the last throes of it, dropping his phone; he hasn't managed to catch all of the mess in the handkerchief, but what's gone astray won't be difficult to clean.  He braces himself against the edge of his desk, breathing harshly, and collects his mobile from the floor once he's certain he can soothe Newton down from the beautiful disaster he always becomes.

"Hermann?" he asks, voice shaky.  "Are you there?  Did I . . . ah, mmm.  Wow.  Are you—?"

"I'm here," murmurs Hermann, faintly.  "And I'm . . . yes.  Very much whatever you're asking."

"I won't go so far as to say we suck at this," Newton replies, but there's laughter in his voice, which is a favorable sign, "but I'm gonna say it needs work.  I'll just come over next time."

"Order that sofa," says Hermann, trying to find his breath, "and I promise I'll come to you."

 

*

 

 Newton has nearly finished shaving when he hears the front door slam.  That means Hermann is back forty-five minutes early; Newton's own Thursday schedule consists of leading Ming's seminar group through their lab practical, which is the primary reason he'd headed straight for the shower on getting home.  Ming and her lab partner had done an atrocious job of setting up their experiment, and had therefore required assistance.  Their efforts had also proved volatile enough to ruin a shirt for which Newton, when pressed, would have admitted fondness.

"You need not tell me about it, Newton!" calls Hermann, loudly enough for Newton to hear him through the bathroom door; Newton also hears Hermann's briefcase click open, and he wonders if that means Hermann's going to sit on the bed marking papers for a while.  "I ran into our favorite reprobate on my way to catch the bus, and she had a thing or two to say about class."

"Fantastic!" Newton shouts back, narrowly avoiding a nick.  He rubs the spot just below his chin and frowns, setting the razor aside.  He'd only been doing fine-detail work anyway, and there isn't a single patch of stubble he can find—at least for now.  Yeah, the shit he'll do for love.

"Come sit with me a while once you've finished," Hermann replies.  "It's been a long day."

"Yep," Newton agrees, patting his face dry, and haphazardly hangs the towel.  "You can say that again."  He wanders naked into the bedroom, aware of Hermann's eyes behind his reading glasses flicking up from the work he's marking in his lap.  He starts to rummage in the dresser for a t-shirt and boxers, because he's not getting fully dressed this evening, not if he can help it.  He glances over his shoulder at Hermann, who's trying to look busy, but is obviously distracted.

Screw this getting dressed lark, Newton thinks, closing the drawer.  You asked me to come sit with you, and I can tell those damn problem sets aren't really your entire existence right now. 

Newton steps over to the foot of the bed and crawls onto the mattress.  They rarely bother to make the bed unless they're expecting company, so he muddles his way through the tangle of covers and finally settles close next to Hermann, peering over his shoulder for a few seconds as he makes swift, merciless corrections with a red fine-line marker.  It's not quite the same as watching him work at a chalkboard, but it's one hell of a tantalizing substitute.

"Who am I kidding?" Newton tells him.  "You don't even have to be smiling to get to me."

Hermann glances sidelong at him over the rims of his glasses, awkwardly working his free arm around Newton's waist. "Monday morning and Tuesday afternoon weren't sufficient?"

"I can never get enough of you, okay?" Newton sighs, curling against him so that the papers in his lap tip askew, a few of them skittering to the floor.  "As far as I'm concerned, we'll be making up for lost time until we're dead, and maybe even after.  Will that be a problem?"

"No," Hermann sighs, correcting the equation over which his marker-tip has been poised for the better part of thirty seconds.  "But I'm trying to get this finished before supper."

"You asked me to come sit beside you," Newton mutters into the curve of Hermann's neck, and it's too easy to take hold of the remaining papers and send them flying onto the floor along with the rest.  Hermann makes an indignant sound that's almost a squawk, but falls silent when Newton straddles his lap and settles flush against him.  "I take that kind of request seriously, you know?  One of my students, one of your students, blew some shit up in the lab today, and I'm not amused.  That was a good shirt, Hermann," Newton says, pulling off Hermann's glasses and setting them aside on the table.  He leans close, squinting, because he's left his own glasses in the bathroom.  "Don't I get to ask you how your day was and then go mix you a drink?"

"Now you're just taking the piss," Hermann sniffs.  "I enjoy your company while I work, is that too much to ask?  I'm sorry to hear about the shirt, given it's difficult enough to get you in proper attire to begin with.  I'll buy you a new one, how's that?" he asks, and the snit he'd been attempting to maintain is on the way out; his hands insistently stroke Newton's back.

"I want the same one," he insists, leaning in to peck Hermann briefly on the lips.  "In fact, I want two if you feel so strongly about cleaning me up."  He can feel Hermann hard inside his trousers, and there's something about the way Hermann's breath catches and he goes perfectly still beneath Newton's weight that tells him this isn't about distraction anymore.  This is about Hermann being unexpectedly, desperately turned on, and if running with that isn't a fantastic idea, then Newton doesn't know what is.  "And I want to get you another one of those waistcoats."

Hermann's left hand has drifted up from the small of Newton's back and molded itself carefully to the back of Newton's neck, and his eyes glaze over a little when his fingers find an errant water droplet that's escaped Newton's hair.  He leans forward with that fiercely determined, challenging look that Newton knows so well, and licks the droplet away from Newton's skin.

"Haaah," Newton breathes, wrapping his arms tightly around Hermann's shoulders; the licking has become concentrated sucking, and Hermann is nothing if not brilliant at leaving hickeys when he applies himself.  "Oh, man, the stuff I want you to do to me right now," he gasps.

Hermann only stops what he's doing long enough to murmur, low and focused, "Tell me."

Newton squirms against him, restless; he'd like to shift away so he can start undressing Hermann, but Herman's got him trapped in an embrace stronger than any vise.  He gives up and nips at the side of Hermann's neck in retaliation, which causes Hermann to relent: he sighs against the side of Newton's neck and massages taut, possessive circles over Newton's shoulder blades.  Newton works one hand under Hermann's sweater-vest, determined, and starts to untuck his shirt, but one of Hermann's hands flies to his wrist and prevents him from continuing.  He's perplexed by this action until Hermann runs his unoccupied hand from Newton's shoulder blade down to squeeze at his backside with appreciative deliberation.  Whoa, he thinks.  Didn't see that one coming.

"I want you to kiss me all over," says Newton, determined, and gives Hermann another thoughtful bite.  "Take your time, dude, none of this . . . well, we rush, and I know we can't help it most of the time, which is awesome, but I . . . like, I want you to just kiss me everywhere.  For hours, Hermann.  I don't even care if my dick ends up in your mouth or not, I just want—"

It's the sharp jerk of Hermann's hips that clues him in first, but by then, it's too late.  Hermann is shuddering with his climax, groaning against Newton's neck, squeezing the breath out of him.  For a few stupefied seconds, Newton just blinks at the spot he'd been worrying with his teeth and his tongue; it's easy after that to press his mouth up against Hermann's ear and whisper a few more things—want you to fuck me after you're done kissing me, want you to fuck me over your desk sometime, want you to blow me on the sofa once I've got it—before coming harder than he's come in recent memory, and that's saying a lot.  He chokes out Hermann's name, musses his hair.

"I will assuredly do all of those things," Hermann breathes, melting back against the pillows with a boneless shiver.  "Those and more, assuming you haven't rendered me incapable of doing so."

"You clothed and me naked, huh?" asks Newton, grinning.  "Wanna turn the tables next time?"

 

 *

 

Hermann rubs his eyes and looks away from the screen, glancing at the clock on the nightstand.  He's been working for six hours, and Newton has been gone for four of those.  Lu had rung up asking if he'd take a few jobs at the Studio and then close up, as Wei is off visiting family, and she'd expressed the desire to leave early (no doubt for purposes of gallivanting with one Mister Chau).  Hermann frowns at the progress on his article, which isn't so much stalling now as going in circles, so he rises from the desk chair and, using his cane for support, stretches.

He's been shut in for too long, he decides; he needs fresh air, a stroll, and perhaps a bus ride to the Studio while he's at it.  With any luck, he'll reach Fong Road as Newton is closing up.  He shrugs into his jacket, which had been draped across the back of the chair, and pats the pockets to make sure he's got both keys and wallet contained in them.  He leaves the flat feeling somewhat stiff, but by the time he reaches the bus stop, his mood and his mobility are both much improved.

The closest stop to Wei Sun studio leaves him at the temple-end of the Slums; he can't help but let his eyes drift up to study the grim architecture of Reckoner's remains.  He supposes that the cult will linger, although he can't help but hope that they're content to accept that their scourge and judgment will not be returning, at least not as long as he has anything to say about it.

Hermann passes Newton's final appointment of the day, a young woman with one securely bandaged forearm, as he pushes through the door of the Studio.  Over at the workstation normally occupied by Lu, Newton looks up from tugging off his gloves, smiles, and says, "Catch!"  He's tossed a set of keys at Hermann, but then, it's not as if he's had no warning; catching intent several steps ahead is a foregone conclusion.  Hermann snags the keys out of mid-air, nearly dropping his cane in the process, and uses them to lock the door behind him.

"Shut the blinds while you're there?" Newton asks.  "Lu hates it when I leave them open."

"Less force next time, perhaps, if you wouldn't mind," he sighs, and does as he's asked before making his way over to watch Newton wipe down the work-top and equipment with practiced ease.  He lets Newton take the keys out of his hand and lean in for a kiss: habitual now, automatic, but not an act taken for granted.  "Back to your usual, grating self, I see," Hermann murmurs against Newton's mouth, letting his hand catch the rasp of stubble at Newton's jaw.

"Yeah, dude, that was forty-eight hours ago," Newton says, "although you might persuade me to shave more often if that's the kind of reward I'm going to get every time.  What do you think?"

"I don't want you going around flayed to bits, so no need," Hermann tells him.  He watches Newton reach for the dispenser on the wall, from which he unrolls a fresh stretch of paper to lie across the broad cot that resembles nothing so much as a medical exam-table.  Fresh, still, the memory of having pulled up a chair to sit beside Newton while Lu had worked on him.

"There, all set for tomorrow's first victim," Newton says, smoothing the paper into place, tacking it at top and bottom with bits of first-aid tape.  When Hermann doesn't look up from the spot on the floor at which he's been staring too intently, lost in the memory, Newton steps right into his space.  "Hey," he says, tilting his head.  "Hermann?  Listen, I know what you're think—mmmf!"

Ludicrously easy, to back Newton up against the table and kiss the look of surprise right off his face.  They are in an inappropriate location at an even more inappropriate time, but Hermann cannot be arsed to care. One forceful nudge gets Newton situated on the edge, scooting back till he's firmly seated on the paper he's just tacked down.  Hermann breaks away, catching his breath, and presses his mouth against Newton's ear.   "Can you be very quiet," he whispers, "and very quick?  Not but what I shan't do my best to expedite the process, however—"

"Oh my God," says Newton, wrapping his arms around Hermann.  "Please don't tell me you've been plotting this.  I'll never be able to walk in here again without blushing my face off."

"On the contrary, this is what you would call one of those seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time type moments," Hermann reassures him, making sure his cane's propped safely out of harm's way before bracing himself against Newton's thighs and getting down carefully on his knees.  Perhaps not the best idea on a hard floor, but, after Newton's careful attention, he's certain it's cleaner than the floor of their shared laboratory in the Shatterdome ever had been.

"Jesus," Newton breathes, cupping Hermann's cheek before he strokes along Hermann's lower lip with the side of his thumb, "you haven't, like, pulled out a long-standing fantasy of mine here.  Nope.  Not at all.  What could possibly have given you the idea that I'd want—"

"Your sarcasm is flagging, poor darling," Hermann murmurs, untucking Newton's shirt before efficiently unfastening his jeans.  "You're far too flustered to be convincing.  Spread a bit."

Newton closes his eyes and does as he's told, breathing harshly.  Hermann draws out his cock, letting the fabric of his underwear catch and tease.  By the time Hermann has one hand curled around him, sucking gently, Newton has both hands tangled in his hair and is a shaking wreck.

"I knew it, I knew it," he gasps, one hand dropping to the back of Hermann's neck; his fingers clench and unclench, combing frantic and unfocused at Hermann's nape.  "You have a thing for them, you always did, should've—fuck, oh, Hermann, fuck—should've known even back in the day when you pretended you were all horrified to hear I had even—even a few—"

Hermann pulls off for a moment to regard Newton's delirious rambling with an expression that he hopes conveys a blend of annoyance and feigned pity, but which actually must convey how helplessly, hopelessly in love he feels in this moment.  Newton is looking down at him in slack-jawed desperation, and it's impossible not to give solemn thanks for what's brought them to this.  "I wouldn't have you any way but as you are," he murmurs, nuzzling, and draws Newton back in.

Newton's cry seems too loud in the low-lit space around them, but Hermann makes no move to quiet him with a pinch to the back of his thigh; he's preoccupied enough swallowing once, twice, almost choking the third time.  He presses an open-mouthed kiss to Newton's exposed belly, by now breathless and aching, and Newton is already tugging at him, indicating that he should rise.  It's no effort at all for Newon to tip onto his back and scoot over so that Hermann can climb onto the cot beside him, and even less effort still for Newton to curl an arm around Hermann's waist, work his shaking fingers inside Hermann's trousers to finally, finally touch him.

"I wanted you," Newton whispers, and his pace is demanding, is perfect, "for so long."

Hermann can't find his voice for the blinding intensity of his climax, can only gasp, yes.

Newton waits until he's breathing properly again, until Hermann's pulse has returned to normal, before tugging at him and getting him to roll so that they're facing each other, clothes in disarray, limbs tangled.  Newton gives him a sated kiss and tucks Hermann's head under his chin.

"Lu teased me when I told her we were tying the knot," he yawns.  "For settling down."

"And I suppose you did her one better," Hermann replies.  "Hannibal is, indeed, settling."

"Have I mentioned it's creepy when you do that?" mutters Newton, winding tighter around him so that neither one of them falls off the table, but he's smiling.  "Because it is pretty creepy."

Hermann nuzzles the top of his head, kisses his temple.  "Do you feel as if you've settled?"

"Jesus, no," replies Newton.  "As soon as I figured it out, you were all I could possibly want."

"And in kind," says Hermann, "your happiness and pleasure are all that I could possibly ask."

"Yeah?" asks Newton, sighing, and twines their fingers together.  "Then I'd say you're covered."

"Good," Hermann whispers, resolving to hold him there, right where they'd begun, a little longer.

Chapter Text

17 December 2016

Newton isn't in the habit of waking up not knowing where he is, let alone waking up to find somebody else in bed with him.  He's comfortable enough where he is, what with his pounding head tucked under the interloper's chin and both his right arm and his right leg draped across said party's body, but the momentary disconnect—Where am I, and who is this?—is sufficient to cause his already queasy stomach to seize in panic.

It's not the snuffle from his bedfellow as they turn in their sleep, curling closer and wriggling till they're pressed up against Newton front-to-front, but the irritated, half-drowsing sigh from the bunk overhead that clues Newton in regarding where he is.  The voice from overhead, even as inarticulate as its utterance had been, is recognizable as belonging to Whisper.  Newton squeezes his eyes shut and wills himself not to be sick until the wave of nausea passes.  He remembers the previous evening with sudden, incisive clarity, which means—

"S'all right, baby," Tendo murmurs thickly, nuzzling the top of Newton's head.  "You can stay."

"Fuck," says Newton, groggily; his voice sounds even worse than usual.  "Hey, this is. Uh . . . "

"Not what you think it is," Tendo replies, sounding more awake, "but it can be if you want."

"Oh, hell no," Whisper groans overhead, burrowing beneath their covers.  "Randy's bad enough."

"Then why don't you do us all a favor and try to put Genji out of his misery!" Tendo grouses.

Newton stiffens further as Tendo's fingers massage careful circles beneath his shoulder blades.  "Your bunk-mate's got a point, dude," says Newton, with an effort.  "Like, you and Miranda—what's up with that, exactly?  I only know what I saw in the showers that one time, so . . . "

"We have an arrangement," replies Tendo, "and it's not an exclusive one, FYI.  It works."

Newton presses a wistful smile against Tendo's bare collarbone, lets his hand splay for the briefest of indulgent moments at the small of Tendo's back where the waistband of his boxers has bunched damp and awkward.  "You left all my clothes on, or at least the ones that didn't have puke on them.  What a gentleman.  Seriously, I do not want to play dice with your girlfriend's jealousy, which I know she'd deny having."

"Boy, she'd break into the lab and gut you with your scalpel like a goddamn fish," says Whisper. 

"Not an exclusive one, huh?" Newton asks sternly, poking between Tendo's ticklish ribs.  "Huh?"

"I might have a communication issue," Tendo allows, grabbing Newton's wrist and wrenching it back down to rest on his hip.

"As in, you're not so great at telling Randy when you hook up with somebody else?" Newton prompts, feeling nauseous.  He puts his head right back where it had been when he'd awakened, finds Tendo's steady and solid warmth against him an unbelievable comfort.

"Sorry," Tendo agrees, nuzzling the top of Newton's head again.  "You feeling better?"

"Full disclosure?" Newton ventures, clinging to him more tightly, and hopes this won't come back to haunt him in a disastrous fashion.  "My insides can't decide whether they want in or out, not in either intended meaning of the phrase.  Thoughts?"

"If you haven't hurled again already, my guess is you got it over with last night," says Tendo, and his voice is low and his mouth is far too close to Newton's ear and fuck, yeah, Newton's body is sending even more mixed signals than it had been before.  "If you're not in, then I'm—"

Just then, Newton's phone chimes plaintively from somewhere on the floor.  It's the harp-tone, which he's attached to only one person in the entirety of his contacts.  "Gotta get that," Newton mutters, disentangling himself from Tendo with reluctance, and sits on the edge of the mattress.  He's in his undershirt and jeans, but his button-down shirt and his socks are sitting within reach in an untidy pile on the rug.  He flips back the arm of his shirt and finds his phone lit up with disgusting, inanimate enthusiasm at having received a message.

"I'm never getting back to sleep, am I?" asks Whisper, heavily sighing, and sits up to stretch their long, graceful arms toward the ceiling.  "Saturday fuckin' morning, might as well head out for a run.  Don't do anything I wouldn't do, Geiszler."

Newton blinks at the screen of his phone, which has lit up a second time, as if impatient by now instead of exuberant, with Hermann's text: Are you quite all right this morning, Newton, or ought I not to ask?

Tendo stretches and sits up, glancing over Newton's shoulder, far more interested in the proceedings than he's ever been before.  "Between letters, emails, and texts, it must be all talk, all the time.  You guys never really switch off, do you?"

"Not really," says Newton, absently, as he begins to type, Tendo and Whisper kept me overnight so Genji wouldn't get his ass busted dragging MY drunk ass back to OUR bunk.  He rubs his eyes one-handed and gives up trying to hide the exchange, holding his phone up for Tendo.

Hermann writes back almost immediately, Credit where credit is due. And here I'd assumed you had fallen in with a pack of utter hooligans.

Whisper, down the ladder in a flash and wearing absolutely nothing, looms over Newton to read.  "Look at that.  Guess he's not some kind of especially convincing robot after all.  Everyone I know who's met him says he's cold, but he worries about you."

"I worry about how much he worries about me," Newton admits, chewing his lip, and types back, They ARE a pack of hooligans.  Huge onesChoi especially.  Take it from me.  You would be completely scandalized by our Friday night shenanigans.  Have you ever even done shots before?

Tendo thwaps Newton's shoulder with the back of his hand, and then gives Whisper a shove in the direction of the closet.  "I don't mean to pry, brother," he says, abruptly leaning against Newton from behind, "but what the hell has been going on between you and Doctor Gottlieb?"

You are the least fit creature for the post for to which you aspire, Hermann texts in reply, and I say this with the utmost fondnessYes, I have done shots before.  Many, many times.  Drink some water, take an aspirin, and go back to sleep.

"I'm not sure we know," says Newton, and texts okay sweetie back to Hermann with surreptitious sarcasm; he sticks his phone in his back pocket as he rises.  "Thanks for letting me crash." He's almost managed to stagger back to his room when Hermann's reply comes through.

You are incorrigible, darling, it says.  Please rest assured I shall never call you that again.

 

 

2 May 2026

Newton knows he's lucky to have gotten away from Hermann and out the door by ten o'clock—well, not lucky as such, as Hermann's ideas with regard to proper Saturday morning activities would have seen to it that Newton wouldn't have made it to Wei Sun until past noon.  Lu is just settling up with a client as he arrives; she gives him a sunny wave over the man's shoulder.

"You take care," she tells the customer in Cantonese, handing him his change, and Newton is thrilled to realize he's understood her without much effort.  "Any problems, you let me know." The man bids her a courteous goodbye and gives Newton a puzzled nod on his way out.

"Guess that guy's never seen me here before," Newton sighs, unshouldering his bag, dumping it behind the counter.  Lu hops off her stool, hugs him, and doesn't let go for a full minute. He's fiercely glad Wei isn't around, because they'll be goofing off between jobs until closing.

"I didn't see him for a long, long time," she says, switching to English.  "My baby, here for a whole day!  Make me greedy.  I'll take you home tonight.  Hermann won't see you for a week. He'll have to come knock down my door if he wants you."

"You're brave, Lu," he says, kissing her cheek.  "Most people I know wouldn't dare cross him."

"Jeeves is settling in very well," she says, dragging him over to her workstation by the elbow.  She picks up her phone and taps through to her photo library, starts flicking through a dizzying sequence of shots in which Jeeves, comically inquisitive, has gotten closer and closer to the camera lens with each shot.  In the final one, he's quizzical, looking at the viewer straight on.

"Well, he's not flaring at you anymore," Newton observes, rubbing his neck.  "That's a start."

"He flares at Hannibal all the time," she says, shaking her head fondly at the photograph, and then turns off her phone.  "You're right; red is no good for them, poor things.  I tell him a thousand times, why not try to wear black?"

"You might have to tell him you're the one who wants that, not your fish," says Newton, grinning, and pulls on a pair of gloves.  He studies her face, her carelessly upswept hair, the wrinkles in her forehead and at the corners of her eyes, and feels more protective than he'll ever admit.  "Not that it's my business or anything," he continues, "but what's up with you guys?  Getting pretty serious, I assume?  I guess it's been . . . huh, time flies when you're hitched.  It's been almost four months, hasn't it?"

"In another few weeks," Lu agrees happily.  "I told him he's taking me somewhere nice."

"For dinner?" prompts Newton, turning toward the cot, and strips away the paper from her previous appointment.  "A movie?  Dinner and a movie?  Dancing?  A trip to the aquarium at Tendo and Al's raving recommendation?  C'mon, what's the plan?"

"I've missed dancing," Lu says, "and he says there's this club across town he knows.  Jazz."

Newton goes over to the dispenser on the wall and unrolls a fresh length of paper.  "Don't tell Hermann about that," he sighs, and fetches the roll of medical tape.  "He loves jazz."  He turns and spreads the paper across the table, abruptly flooded with the memory of a week ago.  Heat rises in his cheeks as he tapes down the edges of the paper; he blinks at the sterile surface.

"Then I tell you what, Newt," says Lu, elbowing him.  "You two come along."  She elbows him a second time when he doesn't look up or respond, and it isn't until she bends and gets right in his face a little bit that he can bring himself to meet her eyes, but only with intense chagrin.

"Uh," says Newton, unhelpfully.  "Mmmm.  Nah, we couldn't do that.  It's your anniversary."

Lu goes from gaping to grinning at him, and then affectionately smacks the back of his head.  "I can't believe you!" she cries, laughing so hard he's sure she's going to be in tears if it continues for any length of time.  "I would say—you better tell me you cleaned up, but I don't have to ask, right?  Wei will kill us both if he finds out," she adds, wiping her eyes.  "Don't do it again."

"Yeah," Newton agrees, smirking so hard he might start laughing himself.  "We won't."

Chapter Text

20 September 2025

Barring unforeseen intrusions, this is how Hermann passes his Saturday evenings: sequestered in the lab without Newton's habitual chatter, because Newton generally makes a point of being as far from exposure to Hermann's musical proclivities as possible.  Hermann shifts in his seat, grimacing at the flare of pain in his hip, and manipulates the holo-display so that the model tilts on its axis.  What Newton does in LOCCENT with Officers Choi and Shizuka is anyone's guess, and Hermann has better grounds for guessing than most.

It's far easier to run data existing elsewhere as artfully-configured chalk dust when Newton isn't available for snide running commentary.  He types notes one-handed at the console, deftly shifting a few crucial pinpoints of artificial light with the other, casting a quizzical sidelong glance at the computer screen as Ahmad Jamal's You Don't Know What Love Is makes a smooth fade transition into Frankie Valli's I Make a Fool of Myself.

"Dude, what is this?" demands Newton, barreling into the laboratory with an unevenly batched sheaf of reports under one arm and a bottle of Blue Girl too casually clutched in the opposite hand.  "Did I miss the Oldies Night bulletin or something?" he asks, waving the beer.

"The only bulletin you seem to have missed is the one regarding your own habitual weekend activities," says Hermann, acidly, and turns back to his work.  "Which I see you've brought along for an evening of hacking and slashing in spite of my repeated insistence that you do not—"

"If you say one word about what I'm wearing, Hermann, I swear, one word, I will remind you at every opportunity that your musical choices render all the rest of your opinions invalid," Newton snaps back, depositing the reports on his desk, taking a desultory swig of what's left in the bottle.  He approaches Hermann's workspace and holds it out at arm's length, sloshing the remainder in Hermann's face.  "C'mon, have a drink with me for once.  Would it kill you?  I'm at least drunk enough to tolerate whatever this shit is we're listening to, I mean—I want so much to be the only love you see / I fall each time I try?  Seriously, what is this, a nineteen-fifties prom?"

"The jazz tracks, I will entirely own," Hermann seethes, killing the holo-display with a frustrated slap; there's a certain futility in even pretending to work when it's clear they're overdue for another petty row.  Tensions have been running high around the dome, and understandably so. 

"And the moldy-oldie interludes?" Newton prods, drinking what's left of his beer, chucking the bottle in the nearest bin (which happens to be the one next to Hermann's desk).  "I've walked in on you listening to everything from Duke Ellington to the Beach Boys.  Why the odd mix?"

Shockingly, Newton's questions smacks less of belligerence than mildly drunken curiosity, so Hermann looks up and fixes him with what he hopes is an earnest and mostly unthreatening (if vaguely annoyed) expression.  "This was my mother's music," he says.  "She was very fond."

"Well, this kind of stuff does run in families," Newton allows, shoving some books back by about six inches so he can settle on the edge of Hermann's desk, not quite sitting.  "Look at mine, I guess."

"We shall not be blaring any of your uncle's experimental travesties tonight, thank you," Hermann sighs.  There's an awkward moment in which neither of them says anything, both staring at their hands; Frankie is crooning you're unaware of the love I have to share / inside me dying, oh I'm crying and the entire situation feels like it has got suddenly, foolishly out of hand.

"She must've been one classy lady," Newton offers, gesturing at the pair of ancient, tinny speakers.  "Your mom, I mean.  I guess I can dig this stuff at the level of nostalgia, too; it's more my dad's speed, and Illia makes fun of him like you wouldn't believe.  Weird, the stuff you remember."

"I remember summer holidays in Cornwall, during which we listened to little else," Hermann says before he can reconsider.  "I remember my parents dancing; I remember Karla trying to get Dieter to dance with her.  Terrible coordination, the lot of them, but not my mother.  She . . . "

Newton is giving him a glassy-eyed look that's equal parts under the influence and melancholy.  "Hey, I didn't mean to turn this into a mope-fest," he says hesitantly, and, much to Hermann's dismay, reaches over to clap Hermann on the shoulder.  "At least those memories are good?"

"I suppose," Hermann replies, setting a hand on Newton's before gently lifting it away and pressing it back into his lap.  The contact is close, intimate somehow; his pinkie brushes Newton's denim-covered thigh as he draws his hand away and the moment feels suspended on a thread.  "Bastien was much too small to do other than sit and clap, but my mother taught me how to dance."

Newton stares at the floor.  "Yeah, Dad taught me.  That didn't go so well.  I can't lead to save my life, but that never stopped me from trying."  Don't know if I'll get through being destroyed by you, sings Frankie.  He looks up at Hermann with that strangely disarming expression again.

"Heaven forbid you should fail to succeed at something," says Hermann, wryly.  "The nerve."

"Low blow, man," Newton replies, but he's smiling now.  "Are you ballroom quality, then?"

"I fear not," Hermann says.  "Heaven knows what a parent deeming one competent counts for."

Pray for jazz and you will get the alternative; Frankie Valli fades, and Stand by Me ebbs in.

"Hey, we could test that hypothesis," says Newton, cringing, and, for once, Hermann can't even bring himself to express consternation.  "Dance with me?" he asks, reaching, and Hermann is more tempted to those strains of no, I won't be afraid / oh, I won't be afraid than he has ever been.

"Alas, this has not been the best of days," replies Hermann, ruefully patting his hip.  "Perhaps next time."

 

 

20 May 2026

Hermann waits until Lu has cleared the entrance to fix Hannibal with a stern, insistent glare.  The man's still holding the door with an air of chivalrous contempt, as if he expects Hermann to pass gratefully with Newton in tow.  Hermann clears his throat, standing his ground, and Newton taps him on the shoulder.  "Dude, just go in," he hisses uneasily.  "This is not our turf, okay?  I don't wanna fuck up."

"You should try listenin' to your hubby for once, Doc," says Hannibal, and strides inside.

Hermann sighs in relief, lunging to catch the door with his cane before it swings shut, and steps back to hold it for Newton.  "After you," he says, valiantly resisting the urge to smirk, but it's an entirely lost cause.

Newton picks at his collar and swallows, clearly nervous, before straightening his tie.  "Right.  Onward."

"What on earth is the matter, Newton?" Hermann asks, keeping his voice low, easing the door shut behind them.  "You look just fine, so if it's proving under-dressed that you're afraid of—"

"Hermann," Newton hisses, grabbing his arm, "take a look around.  It's these people I'm afraid of.  Jesus."

"I wouldn't be too hasty," says Hermann, scanning the crowd in the dim, elegant lounge, finally spotting the table at which Lu and Hannibal have settled.  "They're just out for a pleasant evening, I'm sure."

"I'm not sure what part of Hong Kong underworld types hang out here you didn't understand," Newton replies in a loud whisper as Hermann leads him past the stage, where a short-haired, stylish young vocalist sashays up to the microphone as the band begins to play.  "I might recognize some of these people; you know I've got a great memory for faces.  Some of them might even recognize me."

"And you are now under their feudal lord's protection," says Hermann, dryly, tugging out the chair next to Lu, indicating that Newton should sit down, "and therefore have absolutely nothing to worry about."

"You sure you've never been to Kalamazoo?" Newton retorts, but the fight drains from him as Lu leans over, tucks her arm through his, and kisses his cheek.  "Aw, hi.  You look amazing. Sorry I'm such a downer."

"You better tell him to relax, honey," she says to Hermann, patting Newton's arm.  "Keep calm."

"Dear girl, I have done nothing but precisely what you're suggesting since before we left the flat," Hermann sighs, sliding into the chair next to Newt.  He's more or less across the round table from Hannibal, which makes for a fascinating moment of disgruntled eye contact.  "In spades."

"You ain't got nothin' to worry about, kid," confirms Hannibal, gruffly.  "You're with me."

The band strikes up Charlie Parker's Au Privave, so Hermann settles back to listen while Newton glances nervously at the adjacent tables.  Hannibal has waved over one of the cocktail wait-staff and commandeered four very large, colorful drinks off the young man's tray.

Newton blinks past the lime-and-raspberry adorned rim and frowns into his cocktail.  "I think I can smell blueberry and white rum in there, maybe even vodka and sugarcane.  Do I wanna know?"

"What it's called, you mean?" asks Hannibal, smirking, taking a sip.  "Nah, you probably don't."

"Kaiju Blue would be both too obvious and too tasteless," Hermann remarks, but Lu's suddenly in absolute fits.  Hannibal looks like he'd be laughing, too, if he didn't have an image to uphold.

"That was all you, Geliebter," Newton mutters into his glass, apparently all too glad to get started.

"Not my department," replies Hermann, and samples the concoction.  It isn't half unpleasant for a bizarrely mutated mojito, and, in any case, it'll be enough to have Newton down for the count for the rest of the night.  "But you were the one thinking it.  I did the rest on your behalf."

There is food to contend with, and rather excellent food, too, which at least puts a damper on Newton's tipsy descent.  Once they've finished picking at their repast, Hannibal rises and offers Lu his arm.  The current song is nearly over, but they make an energetic go of not tripping over each other's feet in time to Thelonious Monk.  It's ridiculously charming, so Hermann admits as much.

"Your idea of what's cute is totally not okay," says Newton, as the raucous number winds to a close.  His eyes are fixed on Hannibal and Lu, who are laughing in the midst of cheers and applause directed at the performers onstage.  They stay where they are, anticipating the next number.

Hermann leans over and murmurs close to his ear, "Up to and including yourself, darling?"

The band strikes up a set of familiar opening chords, and Lu hops in place, pleased by what she's hearing.  Hermann watches Hannibal raise the back of her hand to his lips and regard her over the rims of his shades with candor.  When the night has come and the land is dark / and the moon is the only light we'll see suits them, Hannibal with his head bent and Lu with her hand on his shoulder.

"Ugh, please don't do that," Newton sighs, sagging a little, leaning into Hermann with half-lidded, adoring eyes.  "I'm getting kind of drunk, and you're charming even when I'm not drunk, so—"

The vocalist delivers no, I won't be afraid / oh, I won't be afraid with unwavering certainty, and, for once, happenstance can be permitted its habitual lapse into predictable sentimentality.  At this stage, Stand by Me feels less like a grave temptation and more like a second chance.

"Dance with me," Hermann says, taking hold of Newton's arm as he rises.  "I owe you this."

"If you can keep me on my feet," says Newton, sliding his arm around Hermann's waist so that the cane becomes an afterthought, easily left behind, "you can do whatever you want with me."

"Shhh," Hermann murmurs, smiling, and leads him onto the floor.  "Later.  I'll hold you to it."

Chapter Text

When Hermann returns from the kitchen with a cup of tea in hand, Newton looks even smaller where he's curled up in the corner of the sofa with his legs tucked under him, a blanket draped across his shoulders, and a pile of final exams cradled in his lap. He's got the heel of one hand dug into his eye, leaning heavily on the arm-rest, and the pen in his other hand moves across the answers on the page at a snail's pace.

"Poor darling," says Hermann, setting the cup of tea in front of Newton on the corner of the coffee table, and reaches to rub the back of his neck. "You ought not to have had that second cocktail last night. Don't even try to claim I didn't warn you off it."

Newton drops the marking pen and wraps both of his lovely arms around Hermann's waist, mindful of the cane. There's no other word for this part of Newton, much to Hermann's chagrin; he withdraws his hand from the back of Newton's head and strokes from colorful pectoral to sharply defined elbow as the blanket slips. Newton buries his face against Hermann's belly, huffing pitiful breaths into the fabric of Hermann's pajama-shirt. Hermann wants to let the cane fall, wants to let his other hand find purchase where it will, but collapsing in an undignified heap on the floor and dragging a badly hung-over Newton with him won't do.

"Wasn't gonna," Newton groans, kissing the spot against which he's been breathing before he pulls back to peer up at Hermann. "Ugh. You brought me tea. How are you so fucking sweet?"

Hermann bends, kissing Newton's forehead, and reluctantly extricates Newton's arms from his waist. "Because misery loves company. Now, get on with your marking, and I'll fetch my tea."

End-of-term breakfasts will look very much like this for the foreseeable future, Hermann can't help but sense. Once he's fetched his own mug and, with yet a third trip, a plate of what scones remain from Lu's baking foray the previous week, they spend at least half an hour trawling their respective piles of student-inflicted paperwork. It's not Hermann's ideal Sunday morning, not by any stretch, but Newton shirtless and wrapped in a blanket will always cover a multitude of sins.

"Dad's been bugging me," says Newton, eventually, around a mouthful of goji-berry scone.

"About our visit, I gather?" Hermann sighs, setting his mug aside. "Have they confirmed?"

"He says book away," Newton replies. "Late June or early July is fine by them. They're dorky about Independence Day cook-outs, so they'd like to have us there for that if possible."

"July fourth in New York City," Hermann mutters. "I shudder to think. What about Boston?"

Newton frowns at the exam he's currently marking, which Hermann determines with a glance belongs to Ming, and chews on the end of his pen. "They tried to elbow in on that, but I said no."

"I shan't share you with anyone while you're showing me around," Hermann insists, finishing the last exam in his stack before setting the whole lot on the coffee table. Bertie darts down to inspect the pile and twists up to regard Hermann in disdain. "Young man, those are far beyond your comprehension," Hermann chides the fish, and then scoots closer to Newton on the sofa. "It's your end of the bargain.  Our honeymoon's not over."

Newton shuffles his exams to the floor and curls sideways into Hermann's lap, dragging the blanket over both of them. Hermann loses track of the next ten minutes with an armful of whinging, clinging Newton cradled against him. He doesn't even mind the hair up his nose.

"Remind me why I agreed to do this special session tomorrow?" Newton huffs. "I regret it. Friday was officially the last day for anything, and that was two days ago. Don't tell me it's because I'm a glutton for punishment, either. I'm sure it had something to do with big eyes in the front row."

"If I recall, it was because you've had several students pestering you since start-of-term about your fabled area of expertise," Hermann says. "You told them if the entire class passed, you'd give them an overview of your most obscure findings. But Miss Yan's begging will have sufficed."

Newton glares at the pile of exams on the floor, of which only a few remain unmarked. "Well, like I told you, I know they all passed, because I took a quick glance through yesterday. There weren't enough errors in any given packet for that to be the case, so it's just splitting hairs at this point to determine the particulars. I'm stuck doing this, aren't I? Welcome to K-Bio 101."

"Don't make promises you won't enjoy keeping," Hermann warns mildly. "They admire you."

"Yeah, no kidding," Newton says in amazement. "Do you know, this is the first time I've administered an undergraduate exam that nobody's failed? These kids are either really bright or really quick studies or all of the above, and I'm not sure which scenario I'm looking at."

"Perhaps I'll drop by tomorrow so I can see why they've been so inspired," Hermann muses.

"Why would you do that to yourself?" demands Newton, pinching Hermann's side. "You know the material like the backs of your hands because you've had years of hearing it right at the source."

"Because," says Hermann, swatting Newton's hand away, "I've never actually seen you teach."

"That's what I'd call some gross oversight," Newton replies. "Sit at the back and be quiet, okay?"

"I had no such plans as leaping in at inopportune moments to correct you," Hermann reassures him.

"Yeah, but you know how we are," Newton sighs. "Can't keep out of each others' monologues to save our lives, especially not when there's an audience. You'd better tape your mouth shut."

"I'll keep quiet," Hermann says, tilting Newton's chin up for a kiss, "but as for right now . . . "

Hermann sees to it that they pass the remainder of the day quietly between sofa and bed, what with Newton so willing to accept Hermann's ministrations (be they marking assistance, food delivery, or otherwise more intimate in nature). Newton falls asleep without difficulty, although Hermann lies awake well into the night pondering whether his presence will prove a distraction to the students.

Eight hours later, Hermann finds himself sitting alone at the back of an empty classroom while Newton shuffles papers, fusses with his tablet hooked up to the projector, and keeps glancing at the chalkboard like it might bite him. Hermann shifts in his chair, makes sure it's backed up as far into the corner and against the wall as possible, and props his cane to one side. Newton looks at him.

"We've got like half an hour," he says. "Come up and flip through the figures and tables now, get your bitching over with. It's not like this is a conference or anything, nobody's gonna judge—"

Just as Hermann is about to rise and take Newton up on his offer, Ming and Parth come through the door arm-in arm with Starbucks cups in hand. They look about like they've been caught doing far, far worse than intellectual one-upsmanship and goading each other into petty wagers.

"Um, hi," she says to Newton, brightly, dropping Parth's arm in a hurry. "You're here early."

"So are you," Newton says, indicating the desks. "Sit down and let me finish poking the tech."

Hermann gives Parth a stern nod from the back of the room; the young man wastes no time in grabbing Ming's hand and dragging her to a pair of seats in the second row. Much to Hermann's dismay, the room fills to the point that he's quite certain not all of the bodies present are even Newton's students. At eight forty-five, fifteen minutes past Newton's intended starting time, Newton nods to Hermann and then at the door; Hermann hears whispers as he rises, pulls it shut, and then returns to his seat. Whatever they're saying, they stop when Newton opens his mouth.

"So, the fact that you guys are here before ten on a Monday morning post-finals really says a lot," he remarks, grinning, and Hermann can sense that the thirty-odd bodies seated at the desks in front of him are beginning to relax and focus. "Thanks for that, guys. More than I can say. Some of you definitely aren't in this department, and you aren't cross-registrants, either, but, shhh, whatever. I won't tell. I think Doctor Xiu only let me book this room because she's recording this for one of her twisted social experiments or something. By the way," he adds, jabbing a finger at Ming, "turn that off and put it in your pocket. I am serious. If this turns up on YouTube, you're toast."

Hermann marvels at the flurry of activity: at least half the room makes busy turning off mobile phones and demonstratively putting them away. Newton doesn't waste any time setting the tone; part of this lecture, he'd delivered as a portion of their joint presentation several months back, and it had gone over beautifully. Hermann tunes out the information he knows by heart, could recite in his sleep, focusing instead on what he hadn't had benefit of witnessing whilst onstage alongside him.

Newton moves with peculiar, restless grace and gestures with easy, humor-laced confidence that makes Hermann shift in his seat. It's too easy to remember having snuck into the back of that session all those years ago, too easy to recall the strands of hate, desire, and regret tangling inextricably in his chest. Hermann sees Newton pause, then, in the midst of transitioning from his early-stage findings at the Academy to the more in-depth discoveries he'd begun to make in Lima; it's a beat too long to be natural hesitation, and he's looking straight at Hermann. Karla would be shouting her head off right about now, something about helping themselves, so Hermann sucks in his breath and takes hold of the warmest strand of the lot, the one at the heart of it all, and lets himself unravel.

"Kaiju skin is a hyper-efficient filtration system," says Newton, picking up where he'd left off, and flicks to the next screen, "and those mites are one of the cogs that permits it to run. Kaiju are built to draw their sustenance from whatever environment is most immediate: air, seawater, you name it. They extract gases and minerals found ambiently here and use them for sustenance. Did you see that spooky phosphorescent-acid action Otachi had going on? Some of them needed fuel."

Hermann can't help but fixate on the enthusiasm in Newton's voice, the sheer wonder . Each discovery, no matter how many times put to the test and confirmed, is always and already new. Newton makes a segue involving skin mites, but the particulars are lost on Hermann; he's focused too much on the flash of Newton's throat as he breathes, as he speaks, too entranced by the contours of his right forearm as he points, body turned, affording Hermann a perfect view of his arse. He's in the lab again, they're in the lab again; he thinks of coming up behind Newton, of slipping an arm around his waist, of pulling him close and seeking that bright flash just beneath Newton's collar . . .

"I—" Newton clears his throat, loudly, and shakes his head as if to clear it "—never got to sequence skin-mite DNA, so the question remains: did they already exist in the Anteverse ecosystem and the Precursors decided to incorporate them, use them as an efficiency-maximizing tool, or—" He's flushed, losing his focus, and Hermann knows that he's the one to blame; meanwhile, there's another set of eyes, too fierce and focused, fixed on Hermann. Ming is watching Hermann over her shoulder, blatantly ignoring Newton's attempt to recover. "Or did the Precursors go so far as to engineer those, too, to ensure that their monsters would run? We'll probably never know."

From there, he's on about skin-mite waste, by-products of and overall usefulness to carriers, but Hermann is far too caught up in his fantasy to let go. He gestures sharply at Ming, indicating she should turn around and mind her own business. Although she complies, Hermann gets a jog-on gesture for his trouble (no doubt the first and only time he'll end up grateful Newton had shown him Hot Fuzz ). It's easy, far too simple, to ignore Newton's talk of burrowing through various strata of the dermis in favor of imagining he'd ever had the nerve to approach Newton while they worked for purposes of nuzzling, licking, worshipping the skin he exposes button after unfastened button . . .

"And, that's, ahabout as far as I got when samples dried up," Newton fairly squeaks, and it's enough to bring Hermann back to the present, to make him realize the very real damage he could be causing if he permits this to run unchecked. "So—so you can imagine, right, how incredible it was to see one of those things alive, and suddenly what the guy said about ammonia saturation made sense —" He breaks off and goggles at Hermann, gesturing helplessly. "In summary, there was still a hell of a lot of work to do, and I didn't get to do it. I'm pretty sure that's not what you wanted to hear, but sometimes science is disappointing like that. Thanks for—for coming," he croaks.

Hermann waits until the applause dies down, until they realize that Newton's immediate dismantling of his media set-up indicates that he's not going to take questions, until everyone but Ming has reluctantly shuffled out in order to get on with their plans for summer. Ming approaches Hermann before he can get close enough to help Newton pack up his gear and whispers, "You're mean, huh?"

"You would do well to leave immediately," Hermann tells her. "Catch up with your young man."

"I know I promised I wouldn't use your confession against you," she hisses, edging alarmingly close, "but I can't help but think of all that stuff your sister said. Maybe you should listen?"

"Good day, Miss Yan," says Hermann, nudging her through the door. "It's not what you think."

"No," she replies over her shoulder, "it's what you think, Doctor G. You'd better work on that."

"Kid doesn't miss a trick," says Newton, shakily, shoving his tablet into his messenger bag, and it's all Hermann can do to take hold of the pile of papers before he can get to them and shove them in for him. "I mean, if . . . " He turns his body toward Hermann's, visibly trembling, and Hermann is willing to risk being seen by anyone, by the bloody world, just to hold him. "My office or yours?"

Hermann kisses him gently, taming the fire if Newton will have it. "I'd rather take you home."

It's just a long enough taxi ride that Newton ends up more than half in Hermann's lap, and kissing makes more sense than talking under the circumstances. Hermann is grateful that most drivers know better than to comment upon what happens in the back; he tips the young woman exceptionally well for her trouble, steadying Newton on the pavement while she speeds away.

"Dude, if you don't get the door open, like, five minutes ago," he tells Hermann, "you're toast."

With keys in hand, Hermann obliges, fairly dragging him inside. There is a lot of awkward tripping out of shoes and cane-dropping and tugging at clothing that's still too firmly tucked into other pieces of clothing, but they're both shirtless by the time they reach the bedroom. Newton topples them on the mattress with practiced ease, and Hermann works his hands down the back of Newton's tight jeans. This is twice as much foreplay as they usually manage; he feels smugly pleased.

"Full disclosure, this is not why I had misgivings about letting you watch," Newton pants, fumbling between them to unfasten his trousers in order to give Hermann better access, "but that was awesome in an embarrassing kind of way. I will totally give you that much credit. That could have gone in so many dark directions it isn't even funny, but you managed to spin it so that I'd want to jump you instead of spend the rest of the day crying about shit that happened ten years ago."

"There shall be no crying," Hermann mumbles into a fresh onslaught of kissing, his words breaking on a sigh when Newton turns his fingers on the problem of Hermann's trousers. "I forbid it."

"Mmm, yeah, you promised me slower," Newton sighs, wriggling while Hermann pushes at his jeans until he's finally able to shove them off his ankles using his feet. "This is almost too slow."

"Karla was blessedly unspecific as to the nature of her suggested solution to our various. . . issues," Hermann says, happily letting himself be rolled onto his back so that Newton can tug off his trousers, too, in impressively short order. "I should think landing us in the sack is better than the alternative."

"I'm so gonna get back at you for this sometime," Newton insists, but the sentiment is mostly swallowed by the sigh that passes between them at the first prolonged press of flesh against flesh. "I don't even know what I'm saying. Ever since I saw that shit in the drift, you don't even know—"

"Tell me what you saw," Hermann murmurs, framing Newton's face with both hands. "You never . . . "

"Never mentioned those fantasies of yours, what snatches I got? What was I supposed to do with knowing you—" Newton gasps, ducks his head, mouthing rather desperately at Hermann's collarbone "—you touched yourself just like I wanted to touch you after reading a few of my letters, or—spent so much of your time up that ladder wanting to come over and jerk me off while I was working, which, by the way, would have been highly impractical and more than a little unsafe and I would've been like, hey, how about we take this to your room instead, because I want—"

"I know what you wanted," says Hermann, with eyes closed and head thrown back in the skewed duvet as Newton works his way down to nuzzle and lick his way up the length of him. "What I saw was—was that time you made a joke of asking me to dance, please don't laugh, it was . . . sobering, no sobering is the wrong word, Newton, what are you—" He clenches his fists in Newton's hair, gasping as Newton's teeth graze the head of his cock. "It was . . . humbling to think you could want nothing so much, at least in that moment, as a dance and my mouth pressed to yours. Truly."

"You are way too good at talking why I'm doing this, why are you so good at talking about how bad I wanted you to feel how hard I would've been by the time that damn song was over and fuck yes I was thinking about you kissing me and taking me to bed—fucking always, Hermann."

"Why didn't you say something?" Hermann murmurs, tugging at Newton's shoulders until he crawls up to settle on top of Hermann, right where he'd been before, with a breathless whimper tucked against the side of Hermann's neck. "You know that I . . . that, frankly speaking, I wasn't . . . "

"Not the best at breaking the ice after all the bad crap we'd been through, I get that, but you have to understand that I didn't feel like I could do much more for like two weeks after that except drop thinly veiled hints at wanting you to watch me get inked and maybe put two and two together, because, Jesus, that stuff in your head was so intense as to be intimidating, as in, how could I ever live up to the expectation of the way you see me, Hermann? Part of me just couldn't, oh fuck."

Hermann wants to murmur It's all right or I understand, but he's got both of them in hand now, stroking insistently; Newton is kissing him, is shaking so very hard, all writhing and desperate. You are everything I want, Hermann thinks, and Newton comes between them with a choked groan. Everything and more, he adds, releasing them when concentration proves too much, when what he wants is to wrap around Newton with arms and legs and breath and never, not for anything, let go.

They lie tangled like that for a while, until Newton breaks the silence. "So if this is the worst I have to worry about," he ventures, "what would you make of a standing invitation to watch me teach?"

"I'd like to see you withstand such a proposal with your dignity intact," Hermann replies.

"Hey, you know me," says Newton, grinning. "Fast learner. I'll be fighting back in no time."

"In that case," Hermann murmurs, fondly kissing his forehead, "I'd just love to see you try."

Chapter Text

It's Tuesday morning, but it feels like a Saturday because Newton is seated up against the headboard with a pillow stuffed behind him—feverishly gripping Hermann's hips, trying not to come—while Hermann uses said headboard for leverage. Hermann has ideas about Saturday mornings, and, now that the academic year is officially over, those ideas now apply to any morning Hermann wants.

"Newton, why," demands Hermann, breathless, scarcely showing any sign of strain save for the slight sheen of sweat across his forehead, "are you holding back? You know I don't—oh, yes, oh, look at you, so help me if, ah, if you stop—you know I don't mind, you know I never—"

"Hermann," he whimpers, "Hermann," and he knows he sounds pathetic and Hermann is so tight and feels so fucking good and he isn't going to last. "Wanna feel you come on me, I want . . . "

Hermann lets go of the headboard, gasping, and gives himself a few hard strokes in time with their movements; inside seconds, he's kissing Newton and moaning into Newton's mouth because Hermann's coming all over his belly and that's way too hot to ignore. Newton groans loudly, manages to slip out just as his orgasm hits, but it hardly matters because Hermann is sighing with relief as he holds him and there is nothing, nothing in the world Newton would rather be doing.

Hermann kisses Newton's forehead as he comes down, catches his breath. "How was that?"

"Guh," Newton says, or at least something that sounds a lot like it; he tips over sideways, dragging Hermann with him. "Mmm. Great. I'm running out of positive feedback, just so you know."

"Your end-of-term review is equally favorable," says Hermann, mopping at the mess, and kisses him. Newton's phone starts to ring on the nightstand; Hermann pulls back, looking vaguely cross.

"Better get that," sighs Newton, flinging his boneless right arm in its general direction. His fingers scrabble over two pairs of glasses and Hermann's phone before latching onto his own. "Hello?"

"Good morning!" chirps Lu, managing to sound both cheerful and sheepish. "No more classes, huh? Sorry to wake you up so early, but Jeeves . . . " She trails off. "His fins look funny."

"Rosetails are pretty frilly," says Newton, unable to get his brain to focus on anything other than how attractively Hermann is scowling at the mess he's continuing to clean off their bellies and the insides of his thighs with the tissues he's fetched from the floor. "Are you sure it isn't just a trick of the light? Wait till he fans out and look at him from another angle. What are you seeing?"

There's the sound of a brief scuffle, followed by Lu's indignant shout and a heavy, familiar sigh from the other end of the line. "I hate to break it to ya, kid," says Hannibal, "but this fish is sick."

"How the hell would you know?" asks Newton, indignant, sitting up straight; meanwhile, Hermann is rising to discard an overflowing handful tissues and regarding him with entirely too much amusement. "You wouldn't know the symptoms of one disease or parasite from another."

"I know what rot looks like, you little punk," Hannibal seethes. "You think I haven't seen a thing or two in my line of work? Huh? Now, you get over here and have a look at my girl's fuckin' fish."

"Oh my God, he'll be dead inside twenty-four hours if more than a quarter of his tail's in shreds or has been eaten away already, what the fuck," Newton mutters, his mouth on auto-pilot. "How bad is it?" When there's no answer, he rolls off the bed and grabs the nearest article of clothing he can find. "Jesus, are you deaf? I said, how bad?"

"Tiny shreds at the bottom," says Lu, sadly, back on the line. "Brown at the edges. Poor baby."

"And he's moping, right?" Newton sighs, struggling into his underwear. "Ignoring his food?"

"Yeah, honey," Lu sighs. "He didn't eat last night. Just being stupid, I thought. Won't eat now."

"I take it you're being strong-armed into a house call with Bertie's kit in tow?" asks Hermann.

Newton nods, grimacing, and covers the mouthpiece of his phone. "Come with me? Please?"

"No, darling," Hermann replies, "but make it quick and there'll be breakfast when you return."

Newton spends the taxi ride silently lamenting the state of his hair in the driver's rear-view mirror, not to mention the fact he's not wearing socks and that the first t-shirt within reach had been another Tendo special (PPDC CO-ED NAKED QUIDDITCH). The driver keeps shooting nervous glances at the plastic tub full of bizarre-looking bottles, nets, spare filters, and other supplies in his lap.

"My mom's fish got sick, okay?" Newton snaps, wrapping his arms around the tub. "Right here."

The driver screeches up to the curb and doesn't even look terribly fussed when Newton only adds a couple of bucks for tip. He drives away in a hurry, leaving Newton alone to hang on Lu's doorbell.

"Twenty-two minutes, Doc," Hannibal says as he yanks open the front door, tapping his wrist. "That ain't bad. I don't even know a vet who'd do this on short notice. Are you comin' in, or what?"

"I bet the vet would refuse if their clients hadn't bothered to get dressed," Newton mutters, regretting the mid-thigh to ankles view he's currently got of a guy on whom he'd really, really never hoped to see that much skin again. The dressing gown isn't Lu's, at least, and it's not like he's got it hanging open enough to expose that much chest hair or ink. "How's the patient doing?"

"The same," Lu says, rushing to greet Newton once Hannibal's shown him into the kitchen. "Come over here," she says, grabbing his wrist once she's kissed both of his cheeks, dragging him over to where the tank sits on her counter. "Look, Newt. See? Like somebody shredded him."

Newton sets the plastic tub down next to the wall and frowns at the fish currently flaring at him and making a huge fuck-off display of get the hell out of my space. It's not the worst case of fin rot Newton's ever seen, but if he goes untreated for much longer, Jeeves won't see the rest of the week. Newton turns out the light, pulls off the top of the tank, and sticks his pinkie in the water. Jeeves backs down quick as a blink and darts to hide in his cluster of Amazon sword plants, the wuss.

"The water's clean, so you're doing a good job with that," Newton tells Lu, wiping his hand off on his shirt, "but it's cooler than it should be, and it's cooler in here, too. We've had temperature drops outside these past couple of nights, and I know you haven't been running your heat now that summer's coming. Temp drops can stress a fish to the point that ambient bacteria—that is, shit that's gonna live in your tank no matter how obsessively you clean it—will start eating any dangly bits that look tasty. Bettas have a lot of those, unfortunately. My point is, don't blame yourself." Lu, nodding, looks visibly relieved, but Hannibal has his arms folded and looks pissed off.

"What do we do now, just make the little bastard comfy till those germs eat the rest of him?"

"Nope," Newton tells him, bending to rummage in the tub, and comes up with a glass bowl in one hand and a carton of aquarium salt in the other. "We set up quarantine and nuke those suckers."

 

*

 

"Just got off the phone with grandma," Newton tells Bertie on Friday afternoon, holding Drifter's scrimshawed tooth up close to the tank so the fish can stare transfixedly at it, "and your . . . uh, hmmm, awkward, your uncle, I guess, if we're gonna stick with this ridiculous familial paradigm, is doing okay. No new rot, original damage healing, eating habits back to normal. I'd say that's a win. In comparison, though, you were wicked easy to cure; maybe I'm just lucky I found you when I did. Hey, we've had you for over three months. That's pretty cool, huh? Awww, buddy."

Hermann, seated beside Newton with his elbows on his knees and his chin in his hands, shakes his head slowly. He watches Newton set the tooth down right next to the tank and, accordingly, Bertie swim down to patrol the length of it several times and blow appreciative bubbles at Newton.

"One would think you'd hung the bloody moon ," he mutters. "Unbelievable. And, yes, I know," he says, suddenly addressing the fish, "it's all well and good for you. At times, I'm almost jealous."

"Don't listen to Daddy," Newton tells Bertie, who is now absorbed in nibbling at a piece of gravel and not paying the least bit of attention, and leans to bump Hermann's shoulder with his own. "He's just a sourpuss about the fact that you imprinted on me first. Isn't that right?" he asks Hermann, smirking sarcastically. "What would you have done if I'd set up a big community tank in the lab?"

"I'd have invited all and sundry interested parties to do a spot of fishing," Hermann mutters, but he's turned so that he can easily cup Newton's cheek, lean in to kiss him soft and slow on the mouth.

"You and Bertie get along better than you think," Newton tells him when they draw apart for breath; they're in no hurry, that much he can tell, and lunchtime can wait if Hermann's craving a somewhat nontraditional apéritif. "He's not afraid of your voice or your footsteps anymore, and he responds to you if I'm not here. I was thinking maybe we could get a second tank, get him some company—"

"I absolutely refuse," Hermann snaps in exactly the same instant Newton's phone starts ringing.

"Ugh, that's just great," Newton says, frowning at the letters H CHAU lit vibrant on his screen.

"Let it not be said the man's sense of timing doesn't deserve every last drop of mockery it invites," says Hermann, reaching for Newton's phone, but Newton gets there first. "You'd spoil my fun?"

"You can snog me and send him fuck-off shots later," sighs Newton, and answers. "Okay, what?"

"You know those gangster movies where tough-guys have got piranhas and crap like that in huge tanks?" Hannibal asks without preamble. "It kind of adds to the image, doesn't it? Intimidating."

"First of all, if you think you've got even a sliver as much image to maintain now that your primary livelihood has all but dried up, guess again," replies Newton, helpless to do anything but laugh. "Second, if you think a freaking fish tank is going to help you salvage said image, guess again."

"Son," says Hannibal, gravely, "I don't give two fucks what you think. I've got a cooler full of, how do you call 'em, ghost knives down here right now, and they ain't lookin' so good. D'you read me?"

Newton blinks stupidly at Bertie, who perks up and wiggles happily at the resurgence of attention.

"Do you mean to tell me you went out and got a bunch of Apteronotus albifrons without any idea what the fuck you're doing? Do you have any idea how big they get? Do you even know where they come from? When you say you've got a cooler full, do you mean you've got, like, more than one fish that gives off a faint electric charge and might actually grow to more than fifty centimeters? Do you even have a tank to put them in? Do you even have the first clue how to take care—"

"Amazon Basin," says Hannibal. "Primarily nocturnal. They need heated water and logs and plants and leaves and shit, plenty of places to hide. As it happens, I've got five of 'em, and there's a sixty-gallon special sitting right here just waiting for somebody with know-how to set it up."

Hermann, for once, looks so horrified that he wants to reach through the phone and punch Hannibal's lights out. It's a welcome return to his default, and Newton could kiss him for it.

"I assume you've, uh, got the logs and plants and leaves and shit, too? Because I don't keep those in my kit, and I'm not going to stop off at some specialty shop on the other side of the island just to pick some up for you, either. Since you've been doing so much research, maybe you should set it up yourself. It'd teach you some responsibility, for one, and maybe if they all die on you—oh, for fuck's sake. You said they don't look so hot? If you went and bought sick fish, I'm going to—"

"Holy jeez, Doc," says Hannibal, and then whistles; it transmits high and shrill over the line, making Newton jump. "Relax. I'm gonna pay you for your trouble, time and a half. Don't I always?"

"Time and a half at the Studio rate, or time and a half at the University rate? Big difference."

"Time and a half on both pay-scales, you prick, if that's what it'll take," Hannibal shoots back.

"Can you give me a second here?" asks Newton, dazed, and covers the mouthpiece. Hermann is looking at him like he's completely lost the plot, and, to be fair, Newton suspects he has, too. "Big guy here thinks he's gonna look all bad-ass with a tank full of black ghost knifefish behind him when he's got low lifes in his office for a talking-to, and he wants me to do the dirty work."

"From what I've heard, the fish are already on the premises?" asks Hermann, and he actually sounds distressed. Whether it's for the fish or for Newton, though, is a toss-up. Maybe it's a bit of both.

"I haven't got all day," says Hannibal, testily. "Are you comin' over here to make sure these sweet little ladies and gents don't die on me, or what? Don't you tell a goddamn soul, but I've already got a soft spot for Reckoner. She's got kinda sad-looking eyes—"

Newton's attention snaps back to the phone quicker than Bertie had turned his attention back on the tooth when Hermann had pretended several seconds ago that he'd intended to take it away. "You . . . wait, okay, you named one of . . . no, let me guess. You named them all after kaiju, because you are that douchebag. You totally are. Please tell me you named them after the awesome ones, at least. I'll grudgingly permit you Reckoner; she's on my approved list."

"Good, because otherwise we've got Yamarashi, Trespasser, Knifehead, and Otachi," Hannibal replies, sounding entirely too pleased with himself. "Lu thought a tank might brighten the place up. She thought these suckers were better lookin' than piranhas. I took what they had left, two girls and three boys. At least that's what they tell me. I don't know shit about how to sex a fish; maybe you can tell me if that jerk-off knew what he was talkin' about or not. Look, I'll send a car if I have to."

Newton sits back, defeated, grateful to find the curve of Hermann's arm waiting for him. He lets himself be pulled in, cradled, and rests his head against Hermann's shoulder. He watches Bertie continue to patrol the intricately-carved expanse of his hoard's undisputed crown jewel.

"You do that," Newton replies. "Tell the driver to ring, because I'm not waiting outside."

 

*

 

"I almost wish I was joking," Newton tells Tendo late the following week, wiping his eyes. "The poor sucker's got five gorgeous creatures capable of mild electrogenesis, and all they do is hide from him! He's gotta sneak into his office early in the morning just to get a good look, but the minute they twig to the fact he's there, bam, they're back under the driftwood and the weeds."

"Let me guess," says Tendo, and takes a long swallow from his glass of wine. "You know this because he calls you up at random times just to keep you updated on what the fuckers are doing?"

"Dude, if you thought I was a nightmare of a fish mommy," Newton tells him, "then I think it's time for you to reconsider. He's called me at least once a day, maybe every other day, since he shelled out like a thousand dollars just to have me spend a few hours setting up the tank. He's nuts."

"I bet he tried to tell you it was Lu's idea," says Allison, bouncing Daniel until he quiets down, crawls from her lap over to Hermann's, and goes back to flipping pages in the dinosaur book Newton's brought for him. "Tough-guys never want you to think the cute pet was their idea."

"Once you've seen the pets in question," offers Hermann, gathering both Daniel and the book more securely into his lap, "I think you'll reconsider that description. They're beautiful, perhaps, but somewhat eerily so. While I don't doubt that Lu may have done a great deal to talk him out of, er, some more toothsome variety, he seems to have grown alarmingly fond in a short period of time."

In the armchair across from the sofa where Hermann, Allison, and Newton are sitting, Herc plops a squirming, snuffling Max on the floor and snags his beer off the coffee table. "I ended up with that one right there because I couldn't deny my kid anything. Now he's all I have left of him. I wouldn't be so quick to judge the guy for getting attached," he adds. "What if Lu leaves him?"

Newton blinks; he'd never even considered the possibility that there'd been a time when Herc had been opposed to the idea of a dog, much less the possibility that he might be hoping Lu ends up single again sometime. "It gets better, though," he says. "Tough-guy even bothered to name them."

"Brother, if it's ugly," sighs Tendo, hunching a bit lower in his armchair, "then keep it to yourself."

"Oh, I bet I know what he did," says Alison, clapping in wicked delight. "Let's see if I'm right!"

"Baby, you're always right," Tendo says. "Fine, get it out of your system before the food comes."

"Kudos to the fish-store guy for knowing he actually had two females and three males," Newton continues, and Daniel even stops flipping pages to listen. "Hannibal took them all. The girls are Reckoner and Otachi; he called the guys Knifehead, Trespasser, and Yamarashi. Not even kidding."

"Didn't think you were, mate," says Herc, staring at the floor. "Jesus Christ, what a piece of work."

Tendo is already succumbing to the most serious giggle-fit Newton has seen in a long time. Meanwhile, Alison is wearing a smug told-you-so look and absently shaking Daniel's hand because he's reaching for her in a shameless bid for attention. Hermann closes the dinosaur book and sets it aside, fully and wearily prepared for the fact that the boy might take off again at any second.

"So," gasps Tendo, wiping his eyes, "so, hell, that's . . . what, two Category IIs, two Category IIIs, and one Category IV all in the same tank. Must be, uh . . . ahahahaha, jeez . . . kinda crowded?"

Alison reaches across Newton's lap to smack Tendo on the knee. "What kind of host are you? Go up and wait for the food, what's your problem? They can't get in here without help."

As well kitted-out as Herc's quarters are, it's true: no delivery-person is going to get in without being swiped in, and even if they could get in, the Shatterdome's a fucking labyrinth of tunnels, memories, and unquiet ghosts. It'd take them hours to trace the sound of voices, much less . . .

Hermann's lips purse in irritation just as Tendo rises and, perfectly timed, Newton's phone rings.

"And here I was about to congratulate you on convincing some schmuck restaurant-owner this place is worth the UN-funded tip jar for his staff to haul out and deliver," sighs Newton, not even bothering to look at the screen as he taps the icon to answer. "Hey, speak of the devil," he greets Hannibal, smirking, and Hermann does not look impressed. "Were your ears itching?"

"You gotta help me out here, Doc," says Hannibal, not even rising to the bait. "Knifehead has some sort of sore or something on his fin. Looks nasty. Come over and tell me how to fix it."

Before Newton can even respond, Hermann has practically dumped Daniel in Alison's lap and lunged past the startled boy in order to yank the phone out of Newton's hand. "No, he will not drop everything at your slightest whim!" he shouts into the mouthpiece, and Daniel hiccups, bewildered, before starting to cry. "Surely it can wait until morning; the infernal creature is hardly going to die overnight! Oh, I see. Really? Because I wouldn't have bloody known!" he howls, and hangs up.

While Hermann is busy apologizing to Alison and trying to convince Daniel he isn't mad at him, Newton steals back his phone and texts Hannibal. Gotta keep my man happy, dude, and he's right about it having to wait till tomorrow morning. We're way the fuck out at the Shatterdome.

Bright and early, Hannibal texts back. Time and a half. DOUBLE for all I care. Doesn't look too good at all, and I think Trespasser's got it in for him. Chases him, nips at him, shit like that. Probably smells growing weakness, you know? Stupid bastard wants to be alpha fish.

Newton raises an eyebrow and tilts the phone so that Tendo can lean over and read. I don't know, he responds. I haven't observed that kind of social structure in Gymnotiformes before; mostly I think they're just gregarious, but hey, whatever, nobody knows better than I do that fish in captivity develop weird quirks. Is Yamarashi still hiding and hogging the girls? Babe magnet, warned you.

"Jesus fuck," says Tendo, clapping Newton on the shoulder. "That is goddamn terrifying."

"Wait till you hear him get on the subject of breeding plans," Newton says, grinning hard.

 

*

 

Behind him, Newton can hear Lu whispering loudly to Hermann, which can't be doing anything for Hannibal's overall disposition. Lu's been having a hard time keeping him back from the tank while Newton studies Yamarashi, who's inexplicably come out of hiding and is hovering curiously where Newton's got one hand splayed against the glass. Knifefish are smart, and they're curious, too. Trespasser paces restless back-and-forth zigzags, pausing every so often to regard Newton with puzzlement, but Yamarashi is the deal-breaker here and at least a thousand kinds of adorable.

"He never comes out," she whispers. "Only one time for me. And now look how sweet he is!"

"Hi," Newton says. "I hear you're the shy one, is that right? I can't imagine why, though; you've got the neatest band-pattern on your tail that I've ever seen, so that's pretty awesome. Living up to that namesake for the win. Nobody's gonna forget you any time soon."

"Oh, you'll come out and say hi when he's here," grouses Hannibal, sourly, "but you don't give me the time of day?" He shifts beside Lu and folds his arms across his chest. "You married yourself a goddamn fish-whisperer, Gottlieb. It would explain a lot about what happened, don't you think?"

"False correspondence," says Newton, but he can't keep from smiling as Otachi glides up, her caudal fin gracefully rippling, to nose at his fingers through the glass. "Kaiju aren't fish; they aren't even related to anything on this planet. I just got lucky with them; otherwise, this is going to sound like a stretch, but these guys remember I'm the one who saved them from certain death in that super unstylish cooler. Where's Reckoner? Huh? Where's Knifehead? I need to have a look at his fin."

"Have fun getting the rest out of hiding," says Hannibal. "If they decide you aren't on the Nice list, forget it. Naughty for you, all the way. Only Lu's gotten a close look at the fin. Says it's festering."

"I think Trespasser bit him," she volunteers, so Newton turns to look at her. "It looked very pink."

"Then you're in luck," Newton tells Hannibal. "If it's not rot, you'll just have to make sure the water's cycling properly and that you're doing partial changes like I showed you. Done deal."

"But what if the bastard keeps gnawing on him?" asks Hannibal, and there's something in his tone which, if Newton didn't know any better, sounds almost anxious. "It won't heal if that happens."

"Then he'll learn," says Newton, turning back to the tank, and finds himself face to face with the smaller female, who's appeared out of nowhere; Reckoner is, indeed, lovely in a sad, thoughtful-seeming kind of way. Otachi nudges past her and then drifts up to the surface, only to dive back to eye-level with Newton. "He'll get faster, or he'll fight back. You guys are just like Bertie; you only want one thing. Well, look, I can't feed you. I don't know where the food is, and Daddy says no."

"That's the only time I get to see 'em all," Hannibal mutters. "Fuckin' frenzy, you should see it."

"Might I trouble you for a chair?" asks Hermann, wearily; Lu doesn't waste any time escorting him back to Hannibal's desk and settling him in the ugly, yet comfortable-looking monstrosity behind it.

Newton gives her a nod, and then exchanges brief, sheepish glances with Hermann before turning back to the glass. Knifehead has come out of hiding, and the sight of him unexpectedly steals Newton's breath; he's bigger than all of them, even bigger than the twerp who's bullying him, and the wound on his caudal fin is as raw as Lu had described it. Newton slides his fingers up to where the giant is hovering, cautious, and releases the breath he hadn't known he'd been holding. It's not like he hasn't seen this fish before, not like he hasn't seen any of them, but the moment stands.

"Look at you," he says admiringly. "You're an old man, isn't that right? Tired of this whippersnapper bullshit? That's what I thought. You've got the right idea. Hide away with those fine ladies, dude. Show Mister Chau here what top of the line offspring really looks like. And the next time this idiot— " he indicates Trespasser on the younger male's next zigzagging pass " —takes a pot-shot at you, either swim away or bite him back. That's all there is to it. He'll learn, too."

"Did he do one doctorate on fish?" Lu asks Hermann in a whisper, but not quite softly enough.

"Marine biology," Hermann mutters, but there's fondness behind it. "Somewhere in that unholy mix, yes."

"At least I'm not gonna lose one of these slime-balls after only a week," says Hannibal, relieved.

"Don't knock it till you've tried it," Newton replies, wiggling his finger at Knifehead. "Aw, hey."

Chapter Text

The festival atmosphere at Victoria Harbor is a glorious, colorful blur, but Hermann's enjoyment thereof had decisively fizzled out at least an hour ago.  He'd held on for as long as he'd been able, what with his hip aching, but Newton, in between fits of frenzied cheering for the Tokyo rowing team, had taken irritatingly swift notice of his discomfort and had insisted on breaking out their posh, ridiculous portable lawn chair. 

This means he's been forced to trade an excellent view of the dragon boats for a view of Newton's, Lu's, and Ming's backsides by turns.  To be honest, he's only enjoying one of the three, and, even then, the incessant cheering from both his immediate company and the daunting crowd around them leave something to be desired.

"Aw, come on!" Newton shrieks, bouncing on the balls of his feet.  "I've got friends in your city, for crying out loud!  They risked their freaking necks to save this city's ass!  Yeah!  Win it for Mori and Becket!"

Ming glances down at Hermann with a crooked, apologetic smile and taps Newton on the shoulder.

"You might want to shut up about that!" she says loudly enough to make herself heard over the din.

"Fai chaai!" Lu shouts, gesturing angrily at a boat which, courtesy of all three backsides at once now, Hermann can't even see.  "Can you believe these guys?  No-good bums rowing for my hometown, shame!"

"Why would I want to shut up about it?" Newton yells back at Ming.  "They're fucking awesome!"

"Because you bloody well might attract the paparazzi, that's why!" Hermann snarls in aggravation.

Three pairs of wide eyes turn on him; the only gaze he can bring himself to meet, and that only with chagrin, is set in a fetchingly sunburnt face now adorned with a ghostly smattering of freckles.  Newton drops to a crouch beside him and ducks under Lu's parasol, which she'd lashed to the back of the chair to keep the sun out of Hermann's eyes.  Ming has her phone at the ready, pretending to text someone, and Hermann bristles.

"If a photograph from today turns up as the summer desktop image on our i-lab terminals—"

"Sorry, Doctor G," Ming mutters, shoving the offending gadget into the back pocket of her shorts.

"You want some water?" asks Lu, cheerfully, rummaging in her shoulder bag.  "I brought us lots!"

Newton glances from Ming to Lu with fierce chagrin, and then meets Hermann's unblinking glare.

"Hermann, chill," he sighs.  "It sucks you can't see anything down here, but I don't want you in so much pain you won't be able to stand flying a week from now.  Dad and Illia will fuss the whole time, and so will I."

"Given the temperature in which we're broiling, I find your proposition absurd," Hermann mutters, reaching over Newton's shoulder to accept the bottle of water Lu offers him.  "You'll be crimson before sundown."

Newton digs his thumbnail experimentally into the flesh of his cheek and winces.  "Hmmm, yeah, you know what," he says, hunkering down cross-legged in the grass next to Hermann's chair, "I'm just gonna stay down here till these fine ladies are ready to call it quits."  He takes Hermann's hand, but Hermann tugs it away.

"If it's all the same," he sighs, "I think I've seen quite enough for one day.  But it's hardly my choice."

Newton makes an irritated face at him, but it quickly gives way to something worse—mockery.

"Know what?  You're right," he says, getting to his feet, and makes short work of detaching Lu's parasol from the back of the chair.  "You've had no say in a single fucking thing we've done all day, boo-hoo.  Let's go."

"Newt," says Lu, warningly, and shuts the parasol as she takes it from him.  "You be nice.  It's very hot."

"You don't have to stay," offers Ming, but her voice is laden with disappointment.  "I'll film the winners."

"That's kind of you, dear girl," sighs Hermann, heavily; he permits Newton to help him to his feet and hand him his cane.  "However, four hours in the midst of shrieking chaos does . . . wear on one, as it were."

"There are several thousand people out here," Ming replies, vaguely hurt.  "Surely we weren't that loud—"

"He meant me," Newton clarifies, shoving the carelessly folded chair back in its shoulder-sling carrier.  "Because, you know, it doesn't take six fucking doctorates to interpret that tone of voice.  It's a thing—"

In an unprecedented, impressive turn of events, Lu uncaps her water bottle and splashes both of them.

"Go home!" she scolds, putting a consoling arm around Ming.  "We'll have girls' day out, you watch."

"Ugh!" Newton shouts, slinging the chair over his shoulder.  "Hey!  Seriously, Lu, what was that for?"

"I shan't stop you," says Hermann, and begins to cut through the crowd with Newton trailing behind.  Ming shouts something after them that's half apology and half see-you-later, but Hermann is, by now, in too much pain to parse it.  Three quarters of the way to the impromptu taxi queue that he's spotted on the far side of the car park, Newton catches up and snatches Hermann's hand, not about to let him tug it away this time.

"Must you try my patience?" demands Hermann, resigned to accepting Newton's damp, clinging grasp.

"You do realize I busted out the chair because you looked like you were about ready to pass out, right?" Newton asks, slowing to account for the fact that Hermann simply can't keep up his habitual clip at the moment; Hermann is secretly, profoundly grateful.  "Between your hip and impending heat stroke—"

"That's not what I meant," Hermann snaps, catching the nearest driver's attention with a curt wave.

"Then what did you mean?" demands Newton, helping Hermann into the back seat of the cab before chucking the chair after him and sliding in.  "That sounded an awful lot like one of your why-did-you-have-to-go-making-my-life-easier-when-I-was-just-beginning-to-enjoy-my-misery specials."

Hermann is so incensed at how right Newton's read the situation that he doesn't say another word for the entirety of their ride back to North Point.  He leaves communicating with the driver entirely in Newton's capable, if agitated hands, and, twenty-five minutes later, when it comes time to pay the fare, he leaves that to Newton, too.  Hermann manages to unlock the front door on his fourth try, and Newton dashes after him.

"I told you to bring the painkillers, Hermann!  What else was I supposed to do?  Take them for you?"

"Any further exposure to the sun and you'd have needed them as much as I do," Hermann mutters, kicking out of his shoes before making his way down the hall to the bedroom and, subsequently, the bathroom cabinet.  "Why you insist on harping with such bloody-minded insistence, I can't possibly—"

"I wasn't harping on you!" Newton shouts, hovering in the doorway while Hermann rummages through bottles in the cabinet.  "I was helping you!  At what point did you decide you forget the difference?"

"I wasn't talking about the chair, Newton," Hermann sneers, shoving his cane up against the wall, and struggles to get the pills uncapped.  "I was talking about your vapid need to remind all and sundry of your mind-numbingly dull educational exploits.  There isn't a soul on this planet by now who doesn't know—"

Newton lunges for the bottle and yanks it out of Hermann's hands, opening it with one spiteful twist.  "Oh, wait," he says, handing it back to Hermann with a smirk, folding his arms across his chest.  "Do you mean all those awesome degree titles after my name, a full five for which you haven't got matching equivalents?"

"Quality over quantity," Hermann chides, swallowing two painkillers dry, although that turns out to have been a dreadful idea, because he's coughing and reaching for the cup they keep on the sink within seconds.

Newton leans against the door-frame as if he's settling in for the long haul.  "Well, dude, I hate to break it to you," he sighs, "but my work to date displays both of those characteristics in abundance.  You were saying?"

Hermann gulps down half of the water he's just run into the cup, furiously determined to ignore the fact that he can see in the mirror that he's every bit as red-faced as Newton, and not owing to anger, either.  "Oh, yes, six doctorates," he continues, slamming the cup back where it belongs.  "What exactly have you done with half of them, other than—than collected the whole lot like table-top gaming figurines?"

"Okay, I am not going to explain to you for, like, literally the thousandth time that they all turned out to be pretty fucking necessary in the grand scheme of things," Newton seethes, reaching across the sink for Hermann's cane before Hermann can get to it.  He shoves it into Hermann's hand and wraps Hermann's fingers around it, practically dragging him out of the bathroom.  "Let's take an inventory, how about that? MIT, Molecular and Cellular Neuroscience.  Are you gonna tell me I didn't need that kind of kick-ass foundation for the rest of what I was going to go on to pursue?  C'mon, Hermann.  Try me. You're going to claim that number two, Computational and Systems Biology, wasn't worth my time, either, aren't you?"

"Biological Engineering, MIT again," Hermann counters, pulling away from Newton's grasp, making it to the edge of the bed before Newton can forcibly settle him there.  "Utterly superfluous in light of the first pair. You might have used that time to publish more."

"Times like this, I'm reminded that you genuinely do not know your shit the second your brain wanders outside the hallowed halls of physics and math—whether applied, theoretical, comical, tragical, historical—"

"Bastardization of Shakespeare, how positively quaint," Hermann snaps, viciously unfastening the buttons of his shirt, and it's obvious that this is a turn Newton hadn't been expecting.  "Marine Biology, MIT in collaboration with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.  You probably haven't taken two-thirds of the diplomas out of the envelopes in which they were handed to you.  They wouldn't happen to be in mint condition, would they?"  Hermann shrugs off his shirt, savoring the flare of indignation in Newton's eyes.

"Better mint condition than tea-stained and tattered," counters Newton, and he's got his faded t-shirt up and over his head in a flash.  "You only have one dead horse to beat, dude, and it's framed in your fucking office.  You'd better start taking better care of it, or you'll have nothing left to flog.  If you're gonna go all M:TG metaphor on my ass, then it's pretty obvious my deck's better kitted-out than yours."

"Xenobiology," taunts Hermann, unwilling to relent, and briefly considers the button on his trousers before deciding to leave them for the time being.  "Also MIT; did you lack your signature sense of adventure in those early years, one wonders?  At least my doctorate is in a real field.  Science fiction, Newton, I ask you.   I'm shocked they even knew how to spell the word in order to print it above your name."

"Okay, dumb-ass, first of all," Newton practically shouts, "you've clearly never had a good look at the certificates for any of my first five, because the degree statement goes below the candidate's name! Second of all, why are you still such a goddamn motherfucking prick that all I want to do right now is go raid the lab for those remaining tissue samples—which, by the way, aren't looking so hot—and leave them lying around the kitchen?"  He almost trips himself stripping out of his shorts; at that point, Newton standing there seething in a pair of faded Red Sox boxers is the most uproariously funny thing Hermann has ever seen.

"To make matters worse," continues Hermann, but the laughing fit that's seized him is so severe that the words emerge more wheezed than spoken, "your remaining venture, Vertebrate and Invertebrate Paleontology, was, if I remember correctly, conducted under the auspices of Harvard University.  Did your home institution have even the faintest idea you were sleeping with the enemy?"

Briefly, the look that crosses Newton's features is sufficient to make Hermann think he's genuinely crossed the line.  Taking Newton's first ill-fated love affair into account, he's seized by remorse, fully prepared to launch into a string of the most heartfelt apologies he can muster, when Newton starts laughing just as hard.

"You're too fucking much, Hermann, you know that?" he asks, and Hermann has no warning, no time to prepare for Newton, flustered and sunburnt, dropping to his knees in front of him.  "The PPDC wasn't about to chuck me out on my ass when I demonstrated the relevance of having studied certain classes of Nothosauria and Sauropoda to laying the groundwork for kaiju skeletal theory so shut," he says, punctuating his statement by popping the button on Hermann's trousers, nuzzling his way inside, "the hell up."

"That," Hermann gasps, because he's been painfully hard for at least the past five minutes, "doesn't necessarily account for your having bothered with invertebrates, does it?"  He squirms on the mattress, more interested in helping Newton get him out of the remainder of his clothing than in the argument itself.  "Next thing I know, you'll be trying to convince me Otachi had no spine, or—" he groans, because Newton has got straight down to business sucking him "—or that her bones were hollow, like—like a bird's, ah.  Newton."

Newton immediately pulls off, a glint of challenge in his eyes.  "Wanna know which ones had internal avian features?  Tough luck," he says, giving the base of Hermann's cock a twist.  "That's another lecture for another end-of-semester intellectual strip-tease, and don't you dare think you'll get off so easy next time!" 

Mercifully, Newton goes right back to it.  Hermann closes his eyes and lets his head fall forward, letting his fingers comb through Newton's sweat-and-sunscreen streaked hair.  He's dizzy now, dizzy with this, dizzy with everything; the painkillers have begun to kick in, and there's a hazy, slowed edge to his pleasure.

"Darling, I would," he manages, his control slipping, "get off easily enough regardless of the subject."

Newton pulls off again, which, given how close Hermann is to coming, is nothing short of cruel.  But it's brief, blessedly so, just enough time to press a kiss against Hermann's belly and whisper, "Yeah, I know."

It's this Hermann loves, has always loved: Newton's restless, breath-consuming brilliance.  Hermann shudders and sighs, falls back into the waiting tangle of covers while Newton crawls up from the floor with his mouth pressed to the back of his hand and his eyes alight.  He isn't far behind, isn't far behind at all; it doesn't take much effort to eradicate the ludicrous boxers and to wrap one careful, soothing hand around him.

"God, your brain," he moans softly, nosing into the curve of Hermann's neck.  "Before anything else."

"Shhh," Hermann replies, letting his fingers work faster to keep time with Newton's thrusts.  "I know."

This, too, is worth loving, he marvels as Newton comes.  Body and soul, what we strove to hold together.

They're still for a long while, lying tangled and contrite.  Newton turns his head, presses his lips to Hermann's breastbone, and murmurs something Hermann is far too drowsy to decipher. "Did you even hear me?" he murmurs after a while, coaxing Hermann back to wakefulness with the terrible job he's making of clean-up using his crumpled boxers.  "Hermann?  Aw, I'm sorry.  Hey."

"I'm afraid you'll have to repeat yourself," Hermann sighs, "and heaven knows nobody wants that."

Newton smacks him on the thigh, grinning, and tosses his boxers on the floor.  "You suck," he says.

Hermann rolls his eyes and tugs at Newton's shoulders until he's sprawled back over Hermann's body like a sticky, sunburnt human blanket.  "Resorting to juvenile non-sequiturs, are we?  No desire for the last word?"

"Look, my mouth on your argument boner was the last word," Newton says.  "Where have you been?"

"All too happily enjoying the fruits of your victory," admits Hermann, yawning.  "Win-win."

"Don't you try to call this a draw," Newton grumbles against Hermann's collarbone.  "Jerk."

"I do believe we owe the ladies an apology," Hermann sighs, uselessly attempting to tame Newton's hair.  "That trip to the aquarium for which Ming's been pushing?  Dinner afterward, perhaps?  There's that restaurant on the waterfront Alison had mentioned."

"If you start a fight in public about my educational history, dude, you'll be sent home.  No buts."

"Speaking of which," says Hermann, pinching two handfuls.  "There was nothing wrong with the view."

Chapter Text

To: ngeiszler@mit.edu; ngeiszler@oeb.harvard.edu
From: h.gottlieb@damtp.cam.ac.uk
Date: 20-Feb-2013 09:32
Subject: An introduction and a proposal

Greetings, Doctor Geiszler,

By way of introduction, my name is Doctor Hermann Gottlieb, and I am writing to you from the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge (UK). I am sorry, as they say, for spamming you, but I could find no indication as to which email address between your two apparent institutional affiliations is the most preferable.

Perhaps it is forward of me, but I must admit that I find the spectrum of subjects covered within your various degrees accrued to date is both impressive and mystifying. Am I given to understand that you hold not only five doctorates from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (with Woods Hole in collaboration on the fourth of these), but that you have also recently completed your sixth within Harvard’s Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology? Whilst holding a full-time teaching appointment at your home institution, at that? One marvels that you had not already found your plate quite full enough.

The hashing of particulars at this early stage is unnecessary, given I have no idea whether or not you would be interested in what I have to say—however, your prodigious roster of pursuits suggests that you may at least be worth the risk. Ventures into the wilds of interdisciplinarity are, regrettably, often regarded with a modicum of suspicion within these hallowed halls (and, in truth, they the poorer for it). I have been working on an article to which I feel contributions from one such as yourself would prove invaluable; not to put too fine a point on it, I have read your first, second, and third doctoral theses, and find myself utterly convinced that you are the man for the job. If I am mistaken, is there any other individual in whose direction you might point me, preferably one with interests similar or identical to yours?

Not to wax redundant, but I should be fascinated to know what Xenobiology, Oceanography, and Palaeontology have to do with your initial areas of research. If at this point you are merely indulging some sense of whimsy (which, I do not hesitate in the least to confess, I find utterly inscrutable), may I suggest eradicating the web page on which you chronicled your inane, if oddly charming aquarium fish breeding habit circa 1999 - 2004 right alongside your only slightly later ill-fated and delusional music performance exploits? I guarantee you that gossip will do you no academic favours, although I assure you that the unfortunate evidence of your juvenile indiscretions is safe with me. Having seen that atrocity of a digital teenage-years scrapbook, I can perhaps understand your continuing interest in underwater affairs.

You need not respond to this right away; please do take a few days to think it over. Regardless of your final decision, I shall very much look forward to hearing from you whatever the case.

Cordially, with thanks,
Dr. Hermann Gottlieb

*

That’s some hilarious bullshit right there,” says Newton, looking up from Hermann’s tablet screen, grinning. “Do you have any idea? At the time, I was like, oh my God, what a bitch.”

“Must you read those aloud in company?” Hermann sighs, shaking off the pH test strip, holding it up to the single kitchen light. He glances sidelong at Bertie, who is busy being utterly and adorably perplexed by Jeeves’s display of aggression in the next tank over. “You’re in the clear,” he tells the fish, flicking the strip into Lu’s trash can, and wipes his hand on his trouser leg.

“You mean to tell me this crap’s actually been going on for thirteen years?” Hannibal asks from where he’s standing next to Lu in front of the fish tanks with his arms folded across his chest.

Ming, meanwhile, is sitting across the table from Newton, practically squealing behind her hands. “He wrote to you first? Are you serious? He didn’t tell me that! Doctor G, why didn’t you tell me that? Newt, is that website still there? Because I really, really wanna see—”

All it takes is a handful of hurried taps to ensure that said website is no longer, in fact, there, although it’s a moot exercise, because she’ll probably just hit up the Wayback Machine later if she can manage to locate the original link, which isn’t that hard. Hermann looms over Newton’s shoulder and gives him the look that says, are you quite sure you aren’t taking the piss?

“So what do you think of him now?” asks Lu, teasingly, and wiggles her finger at Jeeves to distract him from his new temporary neighbor. “Still a bitch? Hopefully cute, too, honey.”

Hannibal is now bent over next to Lu with his elbows on the counter. “Mine don’t do anything like that,” he says, sounding almost proud, and if it isn’t the funniest shit Newton has ever heard since these first messages he and Hermann had exchanged, then there’s something wrong. “Ever since I got Trespasser to stop gnawing on Knifehead, we’ve been in the clear. No fights.”

“Sure, take all the credit,” grouses Newton, glaring at Hermann as he reaches over Newton’s shoulder and closes the browser containing his webmail archives. “To answer your question, Lu,” Newton continues, finding that it takes some effort to turn within the tight, abrupt circle of Hermann’s arms around him, “you bet he’s still a bitch, but at least he’s an adorable one.”

“I’m gonna miss you guys while you’re gone,” Ming wheedles. “When are you leaving?”

“Friday,” Hermann informs her, pretending that the way in which he’d been pressing his mouth to the top of Newton’s head for the past few seconds had not been intended as a kiss. “Which is why we were quite determined to get Bertie settled in before undertaking the daunting task of packing enough clothing for another hectic fortnight abroad. Newton, what are you doing?”

“Making sure there aren’t any other humiliating websites that I didn’t delete back when you told me to,” Newton mutters, running a few swift searches on various permutations of the name of his band-that-wasn’t-or-at-least-not-really, amazed to find himself in the clear.

“You’re headed for New York first, right?” asks Hannibal, unexpectedly. “Give my regards those old haunts I told you about. I had some fan-fuckin’-tastic times there back in the day.”

“Yeah,” says Lu, jabbing his shoulder with her index finger. “You’re gonna take me sometime.”

“I can’t believe you’re going to Boston without me!” Ming fairly wails, and Newton experiences an excruciating moment of wondering that’s what he sounds like at his worst. Hermann cringes.

“There’ll be lots of time for that later,” Newton reassures her. “After you graduate, and I swear, dude, it will be a professional grad-school scouting venture, or we won’t do it at all.”

“I shall, albeit reluctantly, offer my services as a chaperone,” Hermann sighs, tapping the side of Newton’s arm. “We ought to be going. Those suitcases are hardly going to pack themselves.”

“Oh! I forgot to tell you,” says Ming, rising from the table, and goes over to take hold of Lu’s wrist. She turns Lu’s arm over and points to some of the bold, thorned vine-work in between the intricate pink roses creeping up and down her arms. “I’ve been doing Lu’s touch-ups, look!”

Newton sets down Hermann’s tablet, disentangles himself from Hermann’s embrace, and gets up in order to have a closer look. If he squints, he can see a few places in which her driving of the needle has wavered, but, from a distance, such minutiae won’t be noticed by your average set of eyes in the street. He gives Lu an apologetic look and flakes a bit of dry, scabbing flesh away.

“Watch the edges of your outlining,” Newton tells Ming, and she drops Lu’s arm with a scowl. “You don’t want even occasional patchy bits, got it? Lu, make her tighten that up once it’s healed. That’s what she always made me do, anyway,” he tells Ming, and her smile returns.

“Kiddo can do my new one if she wants,” Hannibal offers, and all four of the rest of them look at him as if he’s suggested that she join his black-market ops. “Knifehead,” he says, “right here,” and indicates the underside of his currently sleeve-covered right forearm. “The goddamn fish.”

Newton knows better than to think that the sudden, violent snort from Hermann while he’s busy wrangling his tablet into its case is actually a sneeze. “How’s the algae problem coming along?” Newton asks, and Hermann snorts again, this time muffling the sound in the crook of his elbow.

Lu and Ming burst out laughing a split-second later, so whatever sincere answer Hannibal had been about to give is replaced by a menacing snarl and the pounding of his fist against the counter. Bertie and Jeeves stop flaring at each other just long enough to scatter and hide.

“You losers are just askin’ for it,” he seethes, and then looks at Ming. “I was serious about you taking care of the job as soon as you’re up for it. Do you want five hundred bucks or not?”

“I haven’t seen your fish in person,” she says, meeting his uncovered, asymmetrical gaze with hesitation. “Can I come over and see them sometime when Lu’s there? Then I’ll decide.”

“Think of next semester’s tuition,” Newton whispers loudly. “Insist on time and a half!”

“Please excuse him,” Hermann sighs, grabbing Newton’s elbow. “We were just leaving.”

“Oh, boys,” says Lu, squashing the two of them into her embrace. “I’ll miss you, too. You take lots of pictures, okay? You keep me and Ming in the loop or else. Buy your mother nice things.”

Ming latches onto both Newton and Hermann from the opposite side, tucking her chin between their squashed-together shoulders. “I want a hoodie from MIT,” she says. “And a Harvard one.”

“No offense, Doc,” says Hannibal, loudly, “but I ain’t comin’ over there to join the group hug.”

“Don’t push your luck, dear girl,” Hermann mutters, but Newton knows Ming has already won.

*

To: newtgeiszler@gmail.com
From: h.gottlieb@damtp.cam.ac.uk
Date: 28-Feb-2013 21:15
Subject: Re: Isn’t it almost past your bedtime?

Good evening, Doctor Geiszler,

It is not nearly past my bedtime, you insufferable muppet. Why it’s such a struggle to keep you on-topic for even two consecutive messages is a mystery; it’s a good job you consistently respond within twenty-four to forty-eight hours, or else we’d be making no progress. I imagine you’re just now sitting down to supper, or down to whatever passes for supper in such a topsy-turvy world as the one you inhabit. I’ll have you know macaroni cheese should not be that colour; before you go correcting my seeming lack of ‘and’, this country has never bothered with it.

If all work and no play makes you a dull boy (pardon the expression, but I’m still in absolute fits whenever your old website comes to mind), then just say as much. There are other topics in existence than those upon which we’ve been conversing with single-minded insistence, and a very small number of them are equally engaging. For instance: to my dismay, I find the subject of your hilarious eccentricity quite riveting. Your ‘laboratory mix’ (I will spell out the name of the space in its entirety, thank you) musical recommendations have left my ears ringing; your suggestion that Ms. Prankster’s ‘Tits and Whiskey’ (I will spell the alcohol ‘e’ in situ, if you please) might prove ‘right up [my] alley’ could not have been farther off the mark (I will leave you to draw your own conclusions). ‘Mercyfuck,’ however, is the least objectionable of the lot.

I sense that, out of some sense of rebellion toward your absent and infamous mother, you will not have taken me up on the suggestions of Bach, Haydn, Liszt, and Scarlatti. That’s perfectly fine, but I would like to think that your unquiet mind might also find solace in unquiet music of a different stripe. Your classical education runs deeper than you’ll confess; I’ll let the matter rest and console myself with more of the least deplorable of your choices (Hirasawa, SQÜRL, etc.)

There was something pressing with regard to those draft paragraphs you had sent the day before yesterday that I’d meant to say, but our present tangent is agreeable enough to pursue of a Thursday night. There has been no lack of grief in my life these several weeks past, and I must apologize for excesses of both veiled sarcasm and forced levity. Simply put, you distract me; you remind me there’s a wider, brighter sphere beyond these walls. For the love of God, don’t stop.

With all best wishes,
Dr. Hermann Gottlieb

*

“Is it just me, or is that weirdly touching?” Newton asks Alison, scrolling back to the top so that she can read the message in its entirety. She’s seated beside him on the brand-new sofa that she and Tendo have installed in their brand-new condo, and it makes him all the more determined that his office is going to be the next lucky recipient of such furnishing. “I thought so, anyway.”

Hermann, who has long since given up on preventing Newton from reading aloud, merely bounces Daniel in his lap and turns the page of the book he’s been reading at even greater volume than Newton has been reading their erstwhile correspondence. “What would you say?” he asks the boy. “Do you like Uncle Newton’s story, or has he been dreadfully annoying?”

“You think twice before you answer that, buster,” Alison tells Daniel. “It’s touching as hell.”

“Annoying,” Daniel says, looking Hermann in the eyes, giggling mischievously. “As hell.”

“A-plus parenting, Al,” Newton says, giving her a double thumbs-up. “Between you teaching him profanities and Tendo teaching him the concept of kicking people’s butts, he’s covered.”

“You know very well why I was in need of said distraction,” says Hermann, meaningfully.

“Jesus, you guys had a rough time of it back then,” Alison says. “From the sound of things.”

“We were both perpetually in transition, I guess,” Newton reflects. “Shit refused to settle.”

“Shit,” says Daniel, nodding sagely, pointing to the page. “Hermann, read,” he commands.

“Al, we’ve gotta do something about these guys,” says Tendo, coming into the room with his hands full of a stack of tumblers and a bottle of Ron Diplomático (Reserva Exclusiva, nothing but the best for JA Section B misfits). “They’re a terrible influence. Isn’t that right, my man?”

“No,” Daniel tells his father, touching Hermann’s hand against the page. “Book. Read this.”

“At least he’s getting a decent education along with his profanity,” Alison says. “Honey, pour me some of that. I never get to drink because he’s always in my lap trying to grab the glass.”

“Drink away, please,” Hermann tells her, and then reads a few sentences off the page of Daniel’s book. “I’ll gladly refrain tonight so that you can indulge. Heaven knows you’ve earned it.”

Newton sets Hermann’s tablet aside on the coffee table in exchange for the tumbler Tendo hands him once he’s given Alison her share. “Aha, I remember. The only rum I can drink straight.”

“Nah,” says Tendo, taking a seat beside Alison, pouring himself a liberal measure. “You managed to drink 10 Cane neat, but you could never manage to drink anything straight.”

“Oh, shut the fuck up,” Newton tells him, and swallows half of what he’s been poured.

Newton!” snaps Hermann, indicating Daniel, who is utterly rapt, with a warning nod.

“If you repeat that, Dan,” Tendo tells the boy, “you won’t get any juice on my next trip.”

“Want juice,” Daniel says, forcing the book shut on Hermann’s hand. “Please,” he adds.

“One OJ, comin’ right up,” says Tendo, setting his tumbler on the table. “Be right back.”

“Hey, you can’t say he hasn’t got any manners,” says Alison, grinning. “Isn’t that so?”

Daniel flashes Hermann the same mischievous smirk as before, and then says, “Fuck.”

Newton whistles, downing the rest of his rum. “This kid is awesome. You’re screwed.”

“Let’s stop swearing, change the subject, and not tell Daddy,” Alison suggests, swilling her own drink before taking a long swig. “How long are you guys gonna be in New York? I miss it.”

“That’s what Hannibal said,” Newton replies. “We’ll be staying in Long Island with my father and my uncle for just over a week, and then we’re moving on to Boston for the remainder.”

“I thought we’d decided to split the time evenly?” says Hermann, with a hint of disapproval.

“I know you don’t wanna get short-changed on Boston, and neither do I,” Newton sighs, “but seriously, if we don’t spend enough time with them, they’ll never let us hear the end of it.”

“Family politics,” says Alison, with distaste. “That’s why I only visit mine once a year.”

“With any luck, we’ll see them less now we live out here,” agrees Tendo, returning with a sippy cup full of orange juice for Daniel. “Mom isn’t high-maintenance, and who knows where my old man’s gotten off to. Last I heard, he was still kicking around Shanghai. He doesn’t visit much.”

Newton can’t help but notice that Hermann has taken to staring at the bottle of Diplomático with a kind of wistful longing, so what he does next is get up, refill his glass, set it at the end of the coffee table nearest to the armchair Hermann has been occupying since they arrived, and lifts the kid out of Hermann’s lap. “Your turn,” Newton tells him, absconding with Daniel to the floor.

“Trip?” asks Daniel, sticking his fingers in his mouth and giggling as Newton tips over on his back and holds him up in the air. “Go where?” he asks, reaching for Newton’s glasses.

“New York City,” says Newton, lifting the boy higher so he can’t snag them. “You been there?”

“Don’t know,” Daniel replies, waving his arms and his legs. “Newt, go high up,” he instructs.

“You are not to balance that child on your filthy stocking feet,” Hermann scolds into his glass.

“Whatever, Grandpa,” Newton says, hoisting Daniel up even as he shrieks with glee, and keeps a tight hold on the boy’s hands. “Who’s an airplane? Vroooom, whoosh. Look at those clouds!”

“My older sisters did that to me all the time,” says Alison, refilling her glass. “I turned out fine.”

“We only children took whatever we could get,” muses Tendo. “Isn’t that right, Uncle Newt?”

“Those of us with more siblings than we know what to do with spent a great deal of time hiding,” mutters Hermann, and reaches for the bottle. “Tied down, pinched, tickled within an inch—”

“I have trouble believing Karla was as awful as you’re suggesting, dude,” Newton interrupts.

“Dieter was the least of our worries,” replies Hermann, darkly. “Bastien would agree with me.”

“She had to be tough with three brothers around,” says Alison, winking, not serious in the least.

Doooown!” Daniel finally shrieks, so Newton lowers his legs and lets the boy land on his own feet. He races immediately to Hermann, who defensively holds his glass up and out of reach.

“You shan’t be trying any of this,” Hermann informs Daniel when he fusses. “Not today.”

“I think it’s time for somebody to go to bed,” says Tendo, rising, and swoops down for Daniel with one arm while his tumbler remains in his other hand. “What do we say, Dan-my-man?”

“Night,” sighs the boy, resigned, and lets his head drop to his father’s shoulder. “Night Newt.”

Newton sits up and waves at him, feeling entirely too warm and fuzzy for as little as he’s had to drink. “Good night, Dan,” he says. “Me and Uncle Hermann will bring you some presents.”

The boy smiles and closes his eyes, nuzzling into Tendo’s shoulder. “Want presents,” he says.

“When we return, there’s a fine lad,” Hermann tells him. “Go to sleep. Have sweet dreams.”

“Don’t you bring Tendo an I-heart-NY tee,” Alison warns. “He has way too many stupid shirts.”

“Hah, yeah,” says Newton, scooting over so he can rest his head on Hermann’s knee. “Me too.”

*

To: newtgeiszler@gmail.com
From: h.gottlieb@damtp.cam.ac.uk
Date: 17-Mar-2013 19:42
Subject: Re: And I once partied with a shamrock on my face, what do you care?

Hello again, Doctor Geiszler,

I’d like to inquire whether the shamrock was painted, or was it one of those cut-out fabric ones attached to an elastic headband? In either case, the mental image is ridiculous. My family's predilection for holiday shenanigans was never so extreme, although I suppose you'll be telling me next that this happened just a few years ago in some fraternity house of especially ill repute.

I hazard as much because my older brother, Dieterich, had something of a reputation at university; our father was much less than pleased to learn he'd accrued several disciplinary counts for disorderliness and/or dormitory noise infractions. Karla, Bastien, and I were distinctly disappointed when he came home tame, contrite, and engaged to a young woman he'd met on his course. Well, we were disappointed with the first two factors, at any rate, because we'd very much wanted to see him bollocked for his behavior in person. The woman who is now his wife, we welcomed with open arms; she has, as they say, classed up the joint. Mother always fancied it was her sound influence that brought him round in the end.

I realize now that I know next to nothing about your family except what I've read online and in the papers. What with at least two of them nearly as famous as you are in certain select circles, I believe your father remains an unknown variable. You've mentioned his vocation, but that does not necessarily speak to his overall interests and character. Am I to assume that both of your parents are Berliners by birth? And what of you, having been born there yourself? You were quite young, or so you've said, when your father relocated you to New York for purposes of joining his brother. You may be German by birth and American by choice, but how did you feel about the change at that point in time? Were you already fluent in English, or did you pick it up as quickly as you seem to have done with everything else? For my part, I was so young when my father's career relocated us to the United Kingdom that I can scarcely remember a time when I didn't speak both German and English with equal facility. I admit almost sheepishly to having preferred English for as long as I remember; my earliest memories of Father's harshness, as you can imagine, are firmly tied to the first tongue you and I ever heard spoken in this world.

I cannot reiterate strongly enough how refreshing I find these exchanges. All has not been well at home for me, I fear, although I shan't divulge more than that regardless how insistently you press me for details. Your concern is rather touching, Doctor Geiszler. Let that be enough.

Most sincerely yours,
Dr. Hermann Gottlieb

*

“Should’ve known you’d be like this,” Newton murmurs, his voice thick with sleep, and turns in the direction of the nuzzling that’s been going on against the back of his neck since—well, he’s not sure since when, given he’s only just awakened to the sensation of the attention he’s receiving and to the accompaniment of Hermann’s erection pressed up against the small of his back. “Sweet even back then,” he murmurs, curling into Hermann’s embrace so they’re pressed front-to-front and it’s a really good thing they’re both already naked. “Soft under those spikes.”

Idiot,” Hermann says against Newton’s mouth, but, between them, the word is efficiently swallowed. “You were disarming even back then,” he counters, using the back of Newton’s thigh for leverage, pressing into his belly. “Vulnerable beneath all of that irritating bravado.”

“You gonna tire me out before we even get on the road?” Newton asks, still drowsy in spite of how turned on he is, so he lets Hermann roll on top of him. “If I let you snog me now, will you still do it on the plane tomorrow? C’mon, don’t give me that face. It’s tradition.”

“I will pass our transit time in whatever fashion most effectively keeps you quiet,” Hermann tells him in a whisper, trailing careful fingertips down Newton’s jawline, “but, as for this particular moment, you had better let me fuck you—because that, I will not do at forty-thousand feet.”

“Oh God,” groans Newton, in spite of himself, “yes please.” He scrabbles uselessly at the side of the mattress, trying to feel his way to the handle on the nightstand drawer, but Hermann smacks his hand away and goes rummaging. He comes up with lubricant deftly, yet precariously pinched between index and middle finger, crushing Newton’s mouth in a merciless kiss.

“On your side,” he coaxes, apologetic, and Newton, more awake now, is quick to comply. “I’m afraid last week’s festivities have left me more inconvenienced than I had expected, so I think—”

“So I think you should let me ride you or suck you or give you an awesome hand-job instead,” Newton suggests, starting to sit up, but Hermann kisses him into submission. He’d find the manhandling a massive turn-off if Hermann were in anything resembling severe pain, but if they do this quickly and get a painkiller in him afterward, they’ll both be happier for it.

“Don’t think I’m not grateful for the offer,” Hermann says, lightly nipping at Trespasser, which has become just as frequent a possessive tic as that kissing-the-side-of-Newton’s-neck thing. Newton huffs into the pillow while Hermann uncaps the lubricant one-handed against Newton’s hip and gets more than half of what he’s trying to squeeze into his palm all over Newton’s belly; it’s cold, so Newton jumps and both of them start laughing so hard that the bed-frame shakes.

“Would you let me help with that, at least?” Newton asks once they’ve recovered. Hermann presses tentatively, teasingly into Newton with what little he’d actually got on his fingertips, and Newton takes a few gasping breaths to steady himself until Hermann holds out his hand for more. “Not gonna take much,” he sighs, squeezing out just enough. “Not after last night.”

Hermann finger-fucks him with ruthless efficiency until Newton is afraid, between that and his own slick hand on his cock, he’s going to pass out from sheer sensory overload. “I won’t last either, darling,” Hermann manages; he lines himself up and slides in with a shout muffled against Newton’s shoulder. “Ah, I love,” he breathes. “This, I—oh, heavens, you impossible—”

Newton can only nod frantically against the pillow, dragging Hermann’s hand down to press low against his belly, hissing with pleasure at each of Hermann’s perfectly-angled thrusts, before wrapping it around his cock. Hermann moans and stills against him; it takes less than an inkling of transferred between them, less than a spark. Me too, Newton thinks, and they’re gone.

Once they’ve cleaned up, Newton brings Hermann his pill and a glass of water from the bathroom. They doze for another hour and forty-five minutes; Newton realizes he’s not actually getting back to sleep like Hermann, so he gets up and starts packing. Hermann eventually wakes up and tries to conduct the affair from where he’s propped himself up in a nest of pillows, so Newton shuts him up by abandoning the packing effort and going to make up a breakfast tray.

“Why are you rushing me?” Hermann complains around the last corner of toast, which Newton has unceremoniously shoved in his mouth. “Do we have an appointment, and I’ve forgot?”

“I, um,” says Newton, licking a spot of butter-cinnamon-sugar off his thumb, “might have promised Herc we’d haul out to see him before we leave. Like, no set time or anything.”

“It’s nearly two in the afternoon,” replies Hermann, “and you only thought to tell me this now? Our flight is at ten tomorrow morning, and we haven’t managed to pack everything.”

“Fine,” Newton protests, snagging his glasses off the nightstand. “I’ll stay up and finish it.”

“Come on, then,” sighs Hermann, gently. “Let’s get showered and call a cab, shall we?”

Newton texts ahead to confirm that just dropping by at any time is all right, and Herc suggests they come for seven so he can offer them dinner. That probably means food ordered in and a six-pack of beer, but Newton says that dinner sounds great, he’ll see them then. It isn’t raining when they arrive and file into the elevator, but it’s humid enough that the air’s palpably damp.

“Feels like it’s been a while,” says Herc, offering them occupancy of the sofa in his cramped quarters. While Newton distracts Max so that Hermann can take a seat without tripping, Herc bustles in and out of the adjoining room until he’s laid out several steaming cartons containing chicken curry, rice, and an unidentified noodle dish. The beer is another six-pack of Magic Hat #9, and Newton still wonders who Herc and Tendo had to kill to get his hands on such a stash.

Or who died and left it behind, is what he thinks next, and he firmly squashes the supposition.

“Yeah,” Newton agrees, chopsticks in hand, making up a plate for Hermann first. “A few weeks at least. Tendo’s moved off-site, huh? Nice place. Does that mean he’s no longer full-time?”

Herc nods gravely, winding noodles around his fork. “He’ll be in two or three days a week, so me and a couple of the remaining junior staff will pick up the slack. Ever since Alison got that IT job, living out here just didn’t make any sense. She’s arranged it so she works from home on the days Tendo’s out here. Dan’s never on his own, so good on ’em both for making it work.”

“It means we’re closer and can look after Daniel of an evening if need be,” Hermann says, digging into his curry. “Ming’s kept an eye on him once or twice; she’s proved competent.”

Herc shakes his head, swigs his beer. “They’re lucky to have you screening the help, so to speak,” he says, wiping his mouth, and then pauses, thoughtful. “It’s bizarre, isn’t it?” he asks.

“What is?” asks Newton, stopping mid-bite. “Doctor Hermann Gottlieb, Toddler Expert?”

“Nah,” sighs Herc, returning Hermann’s exasperated smile. “I meant life now, mostly.”

“I almost hadn’t expected there to be life out the other end of this at all,” Hermann admits.

Newton keeps his eyes trained on his plate, nonetheless reassured by Hermann’s hand on his.

“Give the States my regards,” Herc says. “Make up for lost time, have the fun I couldn’t.”

“We can,” says Newton, lifting his gaze to meet Herc’s, and smiles. “I’ll make sure we do.”

*

To: newtgeiszler@gmail.com
From: h.gottlieb@damtp.cam.ac.uk
Date: 18-Apr-2013 17:54
Subject: L’amour, c’est comme la guerre

Doctor Geiszler,

You're a thorn in my side, albeit a useful one. Let it not be said that hardship does not instil in us the resolve to do nothing save what essentially must be done. I congratulate you for having inadvertently taught me a lesson or two in the effective application of reckless bravery, and via example no less. We have endured a harsh winter on this island, and, in some respects, and even harsher spring. It is not in my nature to share the particulars of heartache with strangers, yet I’ve grown keenly aware that you are at this stage, although not someone I count inseparably close, anything but. I lack a template for the nature of our relationship to date; in three months’ time, you have reduced me to easily sharing a level of detail with regard to my personal life which, although it may seem limited in scope, is nonetheless to me a veritable torrent.

I am not chiding you for your influence in this state of affairs; I have never for a moment assumed your continued presence in this collaboration, this conversation, is solely for personal gain. We hold equal stake in the work we’ve undertaken, and at this moment in time there is no soul living with whom I would better like to share it. Your mind is, in both my experience and my estimation, without equal; if I but pretend to genius in expressing joy at having found you my sole kindred spirit in intellect, then let it be so. Your outlandish demeanour, I willingly forgive.

Something too much of this, as I believe the Bard once wrote (Hamlet; Act III, Scene II). You will in turn forgive my not having had this citation on immediate recall; it has been a long time since sixth form, or at least it seems so to me. Did you even attend high school? If so, were you there for very long? According to the best available public records, you were fourteen on your acceptance to MIT, and you completed the requirements for an undergraduate biology major in less than two years. I cannot imagine that part of your history any more than you can imagine the earliest parts of mine, and yet—I think of you so young and bright, so fiercely determined, so completely attached to your unfortunate hobbies and your grand aspirations, and I am content.

Until next time, at which point I expect revisions,
Dr. Hermann Gottlieb

*

“You kind of went all sexy English professor on my ass,” Newton tells Hermann, slouching down in his seat to lean against Hermann’s shoulder as they both silently read. “And in case you had forgotten you made that Hamlet reference, well, I hadn’t. Which is now pretty obvious.”

“I believe that’s when I knew,” says Hermann, turning his head to look at Newton with an expression composed of equal parts wonder and apology. “When I knew I couldn’t in sound conscience keep Theo any longer. Knew what a fool I had been, knew that I wanted . . . ”

Newton closes his eyes and kisses Hermann’s shoulder. “Shut up right this minute, dude,” he says. “I mean it. I am not having a repeat of the Aquarium on this motherfucking plane.”

Hermann turns off his tablet and tucks it into the pocket of the seat in front of him, gathering Newton close against him. “Let’s rest a while,” he murmurs. “We have four more hours left.”

They’re the front pair of seats in first class, and nobody’s in the pair to their left; if the steward is offended by their sleepy make-out session and the nap that follows, then they never hear about it. Newton wonders if he ought to worry about their fuck-you attitude when it comes to doing whatever they want, whenever they want, but mostly he doesn’t. Hermann makes it easy.

Clearing customs at JFK isn’t an easy proposition, but with Hermann in tow, that’s a universal constant. They stagger out of baggage claim with their two suitcases and single carry-on and find the nearest courtesy phone; the number Newton’s father had sent them the night before does, in fact, summon a comfortable private car to carry them from the airport to—well, home.

During the ride, Hermann remarks that a place called Brookhaven sounds terribly idyllic. He approves of the presence of both Stony Brook University and Brookhaven National Laboratory, and Newton finds himself pleased to at least admit the former of these two things played a crucial role in occupying his time during the hyper-curiosity of his formative years.

The house is modest and well kept, exactly as he remembers it. Hermann pays the driver while Newton wrangles their luggage, and the car’s scarcely pulled away when there’s a flurry of activity on the front porch punctuated by the slam of the front door. It’s almost one in the afternoon, so odds are even as to whether the pair of comically excited sixty-somethings currently stumbling down the porch stairs and toward them across the lawn had only just eaten brunch a couple of hours ago or are terrifyingly hungry because they’ve been waiting for Newton and Hermann to arrive so that they can all go out to lunch.

“Your father gave me a heart attack yesterday,” says Illia without preamble, reaching them first, and folds Newton in the tightest non-Hermann-sourced hug since the one Bastien had given him in Berlin. “He thought you were arriving then rather than now, which is quite the mistake.”

Departing June twenty-sixth, Dad,” Newton groans, waving at his father over his uncle’s shoulder. “You have to remember it’s an overnight flight. Arrival’s always the next day.”

“So it’s the twenty-seventh and you’re here,” Jacob says with a dismissive wave of his hand, turning with open arms to Hermann. “I have forgotten already. Hermann! Schön, dich wieder zu sehen,” he says, and, much to Newton’s surprise, Hermann embraces him without hesitation.

“Indeed so,” Hermann agrees. “Although seeing you in the flesh is, I admit, preferable.”

“What a charming young man,” Illia says, elbowing Newton once he’s let go of him, taking hold of the nearest suitcase. “Let’s go inside, put these in your room. You must be starving by now.”

“Yeah, I could eat,” Newton agrees, trying to make off with the remaining suitcase, but his father gets there first. “Exhausted, though,” he adds, contenting himself with the carry-on. “Let’s.”

Hermann politely endures Illia’s enthusiastic impromptu house tour while Newton and his father haul their luggage straight to Newton’s old bedroom. He’s never been more grateful of the queen-size mattress, although the ancient bed-frame protests when he thunks the carry-on down on top of it. Jacob finishes lining the suitcases up against the wall and chides him.

“Be careful, Newton,” he sighs. “For a while, this room was almost all I had left of you.”

“I seriously hope you don’t spend lots of time in here,” Newton replies. “That’s morbid.”

“During the worst of it, I did,” Jacob admits, taking a seat on the edge of the bed while Newton unzips the carry-on and starts chucking its miscellaneous contents on the floor. “We didn’t know if you were going to survive. We didn’t know if any of us were going to survive.”

“Well, the mission was successful, and we all did,” Newton tells him, re-zipping the dramatically lightened carry-on before stowing it along the wall. “We’re really here, Dad. It’s fine.”

Just like that, Newton finds himself nearly smothered in a hug twice as fierce as his uncle’s.

“Don’t downplay what happened,” says Jacob, his tone harsh, but proud. “What you did.”

Hereditary terrible timing ensures that Illia chooses that moment to drag Hermann in through the bedroom doorway and starts pointing out various photographs on the walls. “And these—”

“Oh God, no,” Newton says, tearing away from his father, rushing to Hermann’s rescue. “We aren’t doing this shit till we’ve had food and showers and the jet-lag’s gone. I forbid it.”

“I thought you might say that,” replies Illia. “Let’s go out since we’ve still got shoes on.”

There’s always been a diner in this location, or at least there has been for as long as Newton can remember. It’s on about its third or fourth management switch in thirty-odd years, which he supposes is all right. He doesn’t waste any time ordering pancakes, bacon, the worst and most delicious things he can possibly find; he’s on freaking vacation, he’s survived a fifteen-hour plane ride, and he deserves it. Hermann spends a lot of time scowling at the menu’s overlarge selection and just ends up copying Newton’s order verbatim. Jacob and Illia seem amused.

By the time they return to the house close to four o’clock, they’re full of not just decadent breakfast food, but pie and ice cream to boot. Hermann hasn’t looked so pleased about irresponsible eating in quite a while, but Newton’s already regretting the sundae. He lounges in an uncomfortable ball in the corner of the sofa while his father hands Hermann a flat box.

“It’s a welcome present,” Jacob explains, glancing from Illia, who’s smiling, to Newton, who can’t suppress a suspicious frown. “This one right here, I know he won’t be happy about it.”

“I can’t see why he’d be displeased with regard to a gesture of hospitality,” says Hermann, wryly, pulling the lid off the box and lifting the tissue paper. Newton uncurls himself and crawls across the sofa cushions to peer at what’s sitting uncovered in Hermann’s lap. It is completely dire.

“Freaking fanatics,” he spits as Hermann holds up the dark blue Yankees t-shirt. “Hermann doesn’t even follow baseball. What did you think you were going to accomplish, huh?”

“I, er,” says Hermann, awkwardly, but Newton’s fury hasn’t escaped his notice. “Thank you.”

“Then it will make for a nice sleep shirt,” suggests Illia, mildly, but Newton knows better than to believe that innocuous façade. “You let Boston infect you, Newton. With mediocrity or worse.”

Ah,” says Hermann, the syllable flat, yet indicative of something resembling comprehension.

For several seconds, Newton is so mad he can’t respond. Fortunately, though, he thinks back to having gotten dressed approximately twenty hours ago in Hong Kong. And he’s in luck.

“Whatever,” he says, rising, and strips to his boxers before anyone can protest. “Go Sox!”

*

To: newtgeiszler@gmail.com
From: h.gottlieb@damtp.cam.ac.uk
Date: 05-May-2013 12:10
Subject: Re: Re: Re: L’amour, c’est comme la guerre

Good afternoon, Doctor Geiszler,

If you object so vociferously to my subject line of some weeks ago in this particular stream of discussion, then why haven’t you bloody well changed it? I feel I’ve been patient beyond all reckoning when it comes to tolerating your unfortunate subject lines—and just how old are you in that unfortunate shamrock-face photograph, eighteen or so? I might have said I’d seen worse on your erstwhile website, but I daresay you’ve proved me wrong.

As if I’ve never behaved foolishly, you retort? I’ve made mistakes in my time, most having to do with judging others’ character. One such instance during my time at TU might’ve been sufficient to prevent future relapses, you’d have thought—but then, you’d have been wrong. The primary flaw in my character, as you’ve no doubt noticed, is an overabundance of trust in spite of my best efforts at projecting an impression to the contrary.

There are days when I have my doubts as to whether we’re on the same page, but it would be a discredit to you if I were to assume that this is broadly the case. In the grand scheme of the universe, which is incomprehensibly vast indeed, my suspicion is that we are more or less alone together (as it were) in the sharing of our particular eccentricities. I take comfort in the fact that, whatever idiocy you next produce, I shall always be glad to hear it.

Best of luck with your presentation,
Dr. Hermann Gottlieb

*

“Always with the snark,” Newton marvels, scrolling down his phone screen.  “Even when you were trying to say, I like you so much it hurts.  That kind of blows my mind.  Just a little bit.”

“Why don’t you come over here and admire the view?” asks Hermann, ignoring what he’d said.

“We were always glad to hear about his idiocy, too,” says Illia, grinning.  “And there was never a lack.  Newton, come stand with your husband this instant.  Your father wants a photograph.”

“For the record, you guys suck,” Newton says, pocketing his phone.  “Deeply and officially,” he adds, turning his back on criss-crossing iron grillwork, sidling up to Hermann until Hermann can get the arm not occupied with holding his cane around Newton’s waist.  “You guys have been up here a million times, I’ve been up here a million times, and even Hermann has been up here before.  Tall buildings are boring, especially this one.  I want my money back.”

Hermann pokes him in the side till he’s quiet, and Jacob takes a sequence of photos with his phone until they’re all tired of wearing plastered-on smiles.  They’ve only managed to get Newton up here because he insisted, in return, that they have lunch at 86 Siao Chao Wong in Brooklyn.  He’d texted Hannibal to ask if he’d gotten the right place in spite of the variant spelling, and what he’d gotten in response was, Nice detective work, Doc.  I guess they got rave reviews on Yelp back in the day?  Who knew.

After eating, they spend the afternoon in Central Park.  This, Newton doesn’t mind, because they’ve chosen an unoccupied corner for sitting in; it’s quiet and green and full of curious squirrels who seem disappointed when Hermann spreads his graceful hands to reveal a lack of edibles.  They lie back together in the grass while Jacob and Illia argue on a nearby bench about what they’re going to do over the next five days.  July fourth is cook-out time, off limits.

Just as Newton’s getting comfortable enough to drowse with his head pillowed against Hermann’s chest, his mobile buzzes.  He holds it up for Hermann to read off the message, because he’s too comfortable and this moment is perfect and he honestly can’t be bothered.

“Ming says,” recites Hermann, sighing, “You’re not posting enough selfies.  Frowny face.”

“She means you’re not posting enough selfies,” Newton snorts into Hermann’s sweater-vest.

After dinner that evening, they post the Empire State Building photographs to Facebook and watch as comments and likes arrive from everyone in Hong Kong, Kenna and Jasvinder in Minnesota, Mako and Raleigh in Tokyo, Hermann's family in Berlin and London, and a number of Newton's former MIT undergraduates now scattered around the globe.  It's their second night in Newton's old bed, and they're no longer exhausted.  They make love like guilty teenagers, wrapped cozily in too many covers, biting their tongues and their knuckles to stifle the noise.

The next four days pass in a blur, never enough for Newton’s insatiable parents.  They drag Newton and Hermann to the Statue of Liberty by day and, by night, show off childhood photographs so humiliating that Newton’s sure Hermann will never stop laughing.  They insist that a Broadway matinee is requisite, which results in the four of them sitting through the latest Cabaret revival.  Hermann, wonder of wonders, is the one who jabs the rest of them awake whenever they drift off.  They have dinner at Café du Soleil and drink too much wine.

Jacob and Illia insist on hitting up the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Hall of Science on July first and second respectively, so Hermann goads Newton into striking a plea bargain on the terms that these destinations are acceptable as long as they get to go to the Cloisters unaccompanied on the third.  Forty-eight hours spent trawling iconic artwork and insipid science exhibits aimed mostly at children pass quickly enough.  Hermann’s penchant for high to late medieval architecture is charming, and they’re giddy to finally steal some time alone.

“I thought they would’ve tried to elbow their way into this,” Newton says, following Hermann into the sunlit, pillar-lined courtyard.  “It’s peaceful, and it might’ve reminded them of home.”

“They know we were overdue some privacy,” Hermann replies, chivalrously offering Newton his arm.  “I’m grateful of the respite; I can hear you again.  Their voices nearly drown out yours.”

Newton latches onto him and leans in happily, regarding the trees and shrubs lining the flagstone walkway, which remind him of nothing so much as the greenery from the tapestries on display in the gallery come to life.  “If that’s true, then you can’t claim I’m the loud one anymore.”

“Not the loud one in your family, at any rate,” Hermann allows, patting Newton’s hand.  “I reluctantly admit that even your mother gives you a run for your money.  Astonishing.”

“You and Karla fight for control of conversations,” Newton tells him, kicking a piece of gravel off the path.  “I’ve rarely heard you louder than when you’re trying to talk over her.”

Hermann raises a dubious eyebrow.  “Not even when I’m trying to talk over you?”

“It’s different with family, man,” says Newton.  “It’s brutal, it’s dirty.  It’s personal.”

Hermann pauses mid-step, forcing Newton to stop, too, and turns to directly face him.

“You are more family to me than my blood, Newton,” he says softly.  “It’s a blessing.”

Newton kisses him, contact reverent and brief and suffused with the weight of centuries.

“I guess this makes up for not having made it to synagogue or to church or wherever,” he says, grinning against Hermann’s mouth before they part.  “City hall was more our style anyway.”

As they're leaving, Hermann insists on stopping in the gift shop to find postcards for his family.  Newton lingers just inside the entrance while Hermann crosses to the stationery and starts rifling through images.  His phone buzzes in his back pocket, so he sighs and fishes it out.

Lu demands, where u been honey???  no texts in 3 days.  love the pics.  what u doin rn??

He wants to tell her that her shorthand is getting worse, but instead he smiles and replies, Me and Hermann wrangled some time to ourselves.  We're at the Cloisters.  Google it.  Even as he types, he's aware the woman at the cash register is eyeing him with strange insistence.

"Newton," Hermann calls, "won't you come have a look at these?  I can't quite decide—"

"Ja, Moment mal," he says, shoving his phone back in his pocket, and realizes only too late that resorting to German was probably the worst attempt he could've made at thwarting scrutiny.  He glances sidelong at the cashier as he makes his way to Hermann.  She looks stunned, and he can see her thumbs moving fast on her phone screen just below counter level.

"I think somebody's tweeting an us sighting as we speak," he says to Hermann under his breath.  "Or maybe she’s just texting her bestie to say she's got K-Science rock stars right under her nose, but seriously.  Pick your damn postcards and let's get out of here."

When Hermann kisses him, as quick as it is, the woman's startled intake of breath from behind them is audible.  His hand lingers against Newton's cheek for a moment as he pulls away, and he holds up the impressive spread of postcards fanned in his other hand.

"We'll pick up an extra one to sign for her, of course," he says magnanimously.  "It's been a terribly long time since we've let the press have anything, don't you agree?"

"Was auch immer, Geliebter," Newton sighs, tapping the card bearing a depiction of the collection's famous Reliquary Arm.  "How about that one for Bastien?"  They don't turn at the sudden camera flash, but he mutters show-off and kisses Hermann again, just because.

*

To: newtgeiszler@gmail.com
From: h.gottlieb@damtp.cam.ac.uk
Date: 04-Jul-2013 22:48
Subject: Re: you must not get out v. much

Doctor Geiszler,

You will forgive me for not immediately retaliating with such an unfortunate bombardment of attachments as you have just dropped in my lap.  The revisions, yes, those are items for which I’m always grateful, but the photographs?  At exactly what manner of party are you carousing this evening?  You appear to be reasonably intoxicated; to what substance do you owe your current state?  It’s reassuring that you have friends, but at what cost to your liver?

I do, in fact, ‘get out’ now and again.  Departmental drinks are, as they say, a thing that happens.  If ever you make it to these shores, I should take great satisfaction in hauling you to this town’s fine selection of pubs and other alcohol-serving establishments.  You would doubtless provide hours of entertainment in such condition, for if your current modified typing skills are any indication re: hilarity, then I would indeed be most richly entertained.

I do not make a habit of excess, nor do I advise it as frequent practice; however, it’s obvious to me that you’ve been considerably stressed of late, so I shan’t castigate you for cutting loose.  Were you here and not celebrating a spurious holiday with your horde of unrepentant Colonials, I’d keep the shots coming so long as you were to promise you’d be able to keep them down.

Felicitations on the 237th anniversary of your adoptive country’s birth,
Dr. Hermann Gottlieb

*

“Well, that was awkward,” Newton slurs, setting his phone back down on the cushion where he and Hermann are lounging drunk in the dark living room.  They can hear Illia’s music echoing up from the basement patio that opens out onto the back yard, and they’ve tolerated mumbled apologies from other friends and guests who’ve stumbled up to use the bathroom only to find a pair of world-renowned academics snogging on the sofa.  “Should’ve gone to visit you sooner.”

“Quiet, you,” chides Hermann, and leans back in to nip at the patch of Newton’s neck on which he’s been sucking.  “It would’ve been an outright disaster, and you know it.  Too soon.”

“Might’ve gone better, though,” Newton gasps, squirming under Hermann, “if we’d gotten drunk and giddy before we had the chance to argue . . . ”  Hermann pinches Newton’s backside, and he gasps again, hips pushing against Hermann’s.  “You’re an exhibitionist when you’re tipsy, and sometimes even when you’re not.  Like when you want to get somebody to fuck off, or like yesterday when you were showing everybody what a fine piece of biologist ass you scored—”

“Dream on,” Hermann mutters, licking his way up to nip at Newton’s earlobe, and that’s when the music downstairs dies and, several breathless minutes later, the lights come on.  “Er.”

Jacob stands blinking with his fingers still poised on the switch, but his eyes are narrowed with amusement in spite of the fact that Newton knows he’s had twice as much to drink as anyone else.  He says, “This never happened when you were a kid, so I’m glad it’s happening now.”

“I never brought anyone home,” Newton says, adjusting his collar and re-buttoning his shirt while Hermann sits awkwardly rubbing the side of his neck.  “Wasn’t even interested until grad school, let’s be honest.  Tick this off your Bucket List and forget about it, okay?”

“I fear I’m knackered,” says Hermann, shooting Jacob a chagrined glance as he fetches his cane and rises.  “My best to your lovely guests, and tell Illia I wish him a good night, won’t you?”

Natürlich,” replies Jacob, clapping him on the arm as he stiffly walks past, down the hall, and into the sanctuary of Newton’s bedroom.  He comes over and sits beside Newton, who’s just buzzed enough not to care that he’s more than halfway turned on and his father is right there.

“Yup,” Newton says, winding his tie restlessly around his fingers.  “Awkward would be right.”

“You make each other happy now instead of miserable," says Jacob.  "That's all we could ask.”

“We always made each other happy,” Newton replies, setting his tie aside (tiny skulls and all).  “The misery was just a blip in the grand scheme of things, if you think about it.  An anomaly.”

Jacob shakes his head fondly and reaches for the tie; he uncoils it, draping it carelessly around his own neck.  “What do you think?” he asks in German.  “Does it suit your old father?”

Newton laughs, running one hand through his thoroughly mussed hair, biting his lip.  “Yeah,” he says, not sober enough to abandon English.  “You must’ve been a real heartbreaker.”

“That was your mother,” Jacob continues, insisting on German.  “You are her son.”

“I don’t know about breaking hearts on purpose,” Newton admits.  “I always did it without meaning to, and got my own broken in the process.  Verstehst du denn?  Nicht mit Absicht.

“Oh, I understand too well,” says Jacob, clapping Newton on the knee, switching to English.  “But your mother didn’t understand her charisma any more than you understand yours.”

“Would you please stop worrying?” Newton asks.  “You heard Hermann.  We hurt each other more than enough.  Sure, there are rough spots, but we’re learning how to work them out.”

“You leave tomorrow,” sighs Jacob.  “Too soon.  Forget about Boston, stay with us longer.”

“Nah, man,” says Newt, shaking his head, firm in his resolve.  “Honeymoon Part Two.  I have a lot of stuff to show him.  He was so curious back when we were first writing,” he continues.  “Wanted to know everything about it.  Do you know, for all those years he spent in LA, he hardly ever visited the East Coast?  He went to New York once or twice for conferences, but he’s never been to Massachusetts.  Come on, you know you still love it, too.  Those North Shore camping trips, the stargazing and all that crap when I was young.  I want him to see.”

Jacob leans forward and, unexpectedly, kisses Newton on the forehead.  “You have an early morning ahead of you, so get to bed,” he says.  “I’ll tell your uncle you said good night.”

“Hermann loves you guys,” Newton says before he can let the moment pass and regret not saying it.  “He loves you as much as I love a couple of his siblings and those freaking adorable rugrats in London, maybe more.  That’s saying something.  Keine Sorge, Dad.   Nicht mehr.”

“I’ll try, Newton,” says Jacob, half smiling, and shoos him toward the hall.  “Good night.”

“You should totally keep the tie,” Newton says, giving him a thumbs-up.  He finally spins on his heel and dashes the rest of the way to his bedroom, eager to find out whether Hermann had been telling the truth about feeling tired or whether that had actually been code for get away as quickly as you can, love, and let’s finish what we started, but what awaits him is less than desirable.

Newton bristles, swaying as he shuts the door behind him.  “You come into my house—”

“Correction. These premises belong to your father and to your uncle,” replies Hermann, and kicks the covers down.  The Yankees shirt covers him just past mid-thigh, although it’s doing him no favors at the moment because he’s still got a hard-on and fuck Newton’s life.

“Take that thing off,” Newton insists, kicking out of his unlaced boots, setting his glasses aside on the dresser so he doesn’t have to look at the goddamn travesty Hermann is wearing.  “There’s no way I’m sleeping with the enemy.  You don’t even understand the rivalry, do you?”  

Hermann licks his lips, watching Newton strip off his shirt.  “I understand that the Yankees are, of the two teams, statistically superior.  You cannot argue with over a century’s worth of data; the team relocated to New York City from Baltimore in nineteen oh-three, but did not officially take the name Yankees until nineteen-thirteen, so I’ve taken the latter date as my starting point—”

“How do you even know that shit, Hermann?" Newton demands, unbuttoning his jeans before Hermann, now perched on the edge of the bed, can reach out and do it for him.  It doesn’t prevent him from catching hold of Newton’s waistband, however, and pulling him forward.  “You asshole, hands off.  I’ve already told you, not while you’re wearing that.  It offends me.”

“Sweetheart,” Hermann croons, and, even though the sarcasm isn’t lost on Newton, hearing an endearment that’s thus far proved uncommon between them gets him even harder.  Hermann shoves Newton’s tight jeans down and off his hips, leaning forward to mouth at Newton’s belly and regard him through half-lidded, suggestive eyes.  “Do I deserve punishment?” he asks.

Jesus,” Newton whispers, threading his fingers through Hermann’s wrecked hair, “I’d fuck you into the goddamn mattress if I had any faith in our ability to keep quiet.  Dude, for serious.”

“You might give it a go,” Hermann suggests, slipping one careful hand inside Newton’s briefs, coaxing his cock out into the cool air of the room.  “I can keep quiet, but I can’t speak for you.”  He wraps one hand firmly around the shaft, and then proceeds to tongue lightly at the head; Newton chokes, clenching and unclenching his fingers against the base of Hermann’s skull.  “Answer me, Newton.  I’ll suck till you come otherwise.”

“You’re so evil I can’t even,” Newton moans, disengaging himself from the tight, hot suction Hermann has already begun to apply with exquisite skill.  “If you haven’t removed that abomination by the time I come back from the suitcase, nobody—and I mean nobody, I will not let you anywhere near my ass if you insist on wearing that—is getting any dick tonight.  Klar?”

Ja, eigentlich,” Hermann says, the words muffled by what Newton hopes is the ditching of said horrible garment while he rummages for condoms and lube.  They rarely bother with protection unless dealing with a mess wouldn’t be preferable; in this case, there’s no way in hell Newton is going to leave that kind of bullshit for his family to deal with laundry-wise.  He finishes stripping, comes back to bed with supplies to find Hermann waiting naked and impatient.  They kiss and tangle together, shivering in spite of the heat.

“Tell me what’s not gonna hurt,” Newton says, hissing as Hermann rolls the condom onto him with ruthless efficiency.  “We’ve done a fuck-ton of walking in the past week, so tell me—”

“Come here,” Hermann whispers, tugging at Newton’s shoulders, and then settles on his back, propped on his elbows while Newton wastes, like, zero time getting lube all over his cock and on his fingers so he can press against Hermann’s entrance teasingly.  “You twat, I said—”

“You are the worst,” Newton tells him, bending to kiss anything he can reach—Hermann’s knee, his belly, his thigh—while he works three fingers inside Hermann at a steady, familiar pace, and Hermann drops fully back against the pillows, gasping.  “Literally the worst, like, that you could even think wearing that shirt is funny, let alone be googling statistics all week behind my back, so that’s what you were doing on your phone, don’t even pretend that you weren’t, Hermann, fuck, I love to hate you so much sometimes I can’t—just can’t—”

“Get on with it,” snaps Hermann, tone almost angry, and then, more gently, “if—if you please.”

“God, yes,” Newton sighs, shaking as he slides in, and Hermann quiets him sweetly with a kiss.

*

To: newtgeiszler@gmail.com
From: h.gottlieb@damtp.cam.ac.uk
Date: 14-Jul-2013 18:32
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: you must not get out v. much

Good evening, Doctor Geiszler (or at least it is here),

I find our lack of commitment to altering the subject line of this particular conversation-stream distressing, but I can’t be arsed to do it.  While we’re on the subject of travel and what actually constitutes ‘getting out’, I’ve been meaning to ask some questions on the subject of what to do in Boston should a conference or similar ever bring me to your domain.  I’m aware I’d likely have you as a guide every step of the way, but one likes to know what one is getting into, as it were.

A colleague of mine used to say that Boston reminded him very much of London; to think that there’s at least one city in America with a semi-European feel to it is somewhat reassuring.  Furthermore, knowing that someone of your temperament feels at home in said city is also a sort of comfort.  At times, I imagine you setting foot on these shores and finding yourself miserable, but I prefer to imagine that you would love London and environs as fiercely as I do.

As museums go, I’ve heard repeatedly that Boston offers some especially quirk-riddled gems.  I would like to visit the Isabella Stewart Gardner and Harvard Natural History collections for their particular charms on this front; Victorian ‘stuff collections’, as it were, were always a passion of my mother’s.  She used to cart me and my siblings to both the Cuming Museum in Southwark and the Horniman Museum in Forest Hill (before you so much as comment on either of those names in a juvenile fashion, please consider exercising a modicum of restraint).

I do not know when or if our paths will ever cross, but I hope more fiercely than ever that they shall.  Rest assured, however, that I would show you my cultural milieu with as much enthusiasm as I have no doubt you would show me yours.  Perhaps someday the stars will align.

With sincerest wishes for a new subject line,
Dr. Hermann Gottlieb

*

“We could’ve just driven this,” Newton sighs, dropping his suitcase in order to climb onto the vast, king-size bed without even kicking off his footwear, “but the flight was cheap and only an hour and five minutes long and how do I even have a hangover after only three beers last night?”

With eyes shut tight, he feels Hermann start to pick at his laces until they’re loose enough that he can tug off Newton’s boots and drop them on the floor.  There’s a sound that can only be Hermann untying and tugging off his own shoes while muttering and using his cane for balance; shortly thereafter, he climbs onto the bed beside Newton and stretches out with a sigh.

“I could fall asleep right here,” he says, “never mind my clothes, never mind the duvet.”

“This is one of the nicest hotels I know that’s central to everything,” Newton admits, rolling so that he can lie comfortably against Hermann.  “It’s historic.  Thought maybe you’d like that.”

“I shall take the proper time to appreciate the grandeur of this edifice when I’m no longer in danger of drifting off because someone kept me up half the bloody night,” Hermann murmurs, running his fingers down Newton’s arm.  “It’s know it’s scarcely noon, but I’m done in.”

“No more sex for you,” Newton murmurs, yawning, and wraps said arm around him.  “It’s okay, let’s just pass out and wake up whenever we wake up.  We can plan over dinner, I mean in the event that there’s stuff you want to do in the next six days that’s not on my awesome tour.”

“In that regard, all I ask are the two museums I mentioned to you a long time ago,” Hermann replies, gathering Newton closer.  “Otherwise, I’m here to see what you wish to show me.”

Mmm.  I hope you’re ready to, like, eat a lot,” Newton mumbles, on the downward spiral toward losing consciousness, “and walk around, and listen to me while I ramble about the old days.”

It’s madly endearing, really, the fact that Hermann’s already out like a goddamn light.

They wake up a few hours later and shower; in the absence of Omni Parker House bathrobes, Newton hauls their Stockholm trophies out of the suitcase and makes sure Hermann’s wrapped in his before he goes about donning his own.  He would never have imagined himself as the kind of person attached to lounging around in terry cloth, but saving the world is exhausting business, and Hermann is very attractive in next to nothing.  They order fancy dinners from downstairs, and Hermann pores over a guide book while Newton flips through hotel leaflets.

“Well,” Newton says, stabbing another piece of butternut squash.  “This place is haunted.”

Every old building in America is haunted,” remarks Hermann, wryly.  “And in England.”

“I guess the late Harvey Parker likes to make sure his guests are enjoying their stay,” Newton replies; he almost says, Do you think any of the Shatterdomes are haunted—and then thinks better of it.  Memories are hauntings enough for anyone.  “What do you want to do tomorrow?”

Hermann drops his guide book on the floor and ferries their plates away when it’s clear Newton isn’t so much eating what’s left of his roast chicken and squash as playing with it.  He leaves his cane against the nightstand and crawls back onto the bed, joining Newton under the covers.  “I’d like to spend this evening right here,” he murmurs.  “Under no circumstances are we setting an alarm, and we are not venturing out in the morning till we’re sufficiently rested.”

That wasn’t my question,” Newton tells him, sprawling over as much of Hermann as he can.  “We need a game plan, or you’ll get all cranky.  Don’t scowl at me, dude; you know it’s true.  Hey, something else I didn’t know about this place—Boston cream pie was invented here, really?  Does the ghost hang around to quality control on those, too?  Do ghosts even care about food?”

“I fear I’ve quite lost the plot,” sighs Hermann, rubbing Newton’s back, “and I’m tired, my love.  Let’s poke about in the immediate vicinity tomorrow, whatever’s right here.  That’s the Common just across the way, isn’t it, and the Public Gardens a bit further on?  We could take one of those Duck Tours, or investigate King’s Chapel—even the Aquarium’s not far, as I understand it.”

“Hermann, I lived here,” Newton reminds him.  “Most of my favorite haunts aren’t in this neighborhood, but there’s cool stuff.  So let’s get our fill of Downtown first, and then save the best for last.  We’ll have more than a few days to do Cambridge.  I’m not worried.”

They spend two full days exhausting the more touristy attractions, and Hermann seems to love every minute of it.  They take both the Duck Tour and the Trolley Tour, which gives Hermann some time to rest his hip.  Once he’s up for extensive walking, they visit the African American History Museum and then take to the idyllic, criss-crossing warren of streets comprising Beacon Hill with intent to follow the Black Heritage Trail.  Mostly, they just end up getting lost and sending photos of Louisburg Square to Karla.  Newton finally recognizes Charles Street as a thoroughfare that’ll route them back to the Common by way of the Public Gardens, so they don’t rush their way poking through the quaint, overpriced shops, because there are gifts to hunt and antique Bavarian spa glasses for Hermann to haggle over in Marika’s Antiques.

It’s Tuesday evening by the time they find themselves on a bench in the Gardens with ice cream; Newton seems to have been assigned hauling duties on Hermann’s several shopping bags.  They’re sitting in the shade of Newton’s favorite dawn redwood and watching the swans.  He thinks of Saint James’s Park in London, of feeding ducks on down-time during the press tour.

“Everything you said in that one message was true,” he remarks.  “It’s kind of uncanny.”

“Which message?” Hermann asks, thoughtfully licking his spoon.  “Be more specific?”

“The one where you talked about my happiness here being a comfort,” Newton replies.

“I’d almost forgotten,” Hermann murmurs, leaning into him, and Newton doesn’t even pretend that extending his arm along the back of the bench isn’t encouragement.  “Almost, but not quite.”

“Let’s hit up the Marliave for dinner,” Newton suggests.  “I never actually went during grad school, but it’s classy.  I not-quite-dated somebody who drank there, but you know about that.”

“That and more,” Hermann sighs, setting a possessive hand on Newton’s thigh.  “Yes, I do.”

*

To: newtgeiszler@gmail.com
From: h.gottlieb@damtp.cam.ac.uk
Date: 27-Jul-2013 23:47
Subject: Re: Dr. H. Gottlieb has a subject-line fetish.

Doctor Geiszler,

Unprofessional behavior is something I’ve come to expect from you now and again, but I’d hardly imagined it would come to trading low blows with respect to sexual proclivities.  I had merely tired of looking at the old one; we’d fallen into something of a second tier of discourse at that level, and I had found it, dare I claim I’m typing this with a straight face, fun.  If you’re expecting me to speculate on the subject of your preferences, then I assume we may be in the same proverbial boat.  In our lines of work, typeface (and what it obscures) is everything.

I feel celebration is order given yesterday’s acceptance missive.  We’d put in a damned lot of work on that piece to ensure that we’d made the submission deadline, and I have to admit that I’ve never seen any journal’s editorial board make such a swift decision.  That we did not run afoul of peer-reviewed fuckery, as you once so aptly put it, is a miracle and a half.  I’m for the most part ambivalent that we shall be credited alphabetically in the by-line; however true it is that the original concept was mine, it is now equally yours, and that’s at least worth a drink.

Therefore, having seen my initial proposal to completion, I’m making you another—an IOU of sorts.  If we continue to work together from time to time, which I should very much like to be the case, there will come a day, sooner than later, when joint presentation will become unavoidable.  At such circumstance as this first happens, I shall buy you whatever imbibable substance you wish (and perhaps keep a festive shamrock headband to hand, just in case).

This repayment of debt sworn most solemnly by the undersigned,
Dr. Hermann Gottlieb (whose fetishes are his own concern)

*

“Was that the first actual time you flirted?” Newton asks, scrolling as Hermann leads the way through the gallery to where there’s a choice spot along the balustrade for looking down into the inaccessible courtyard garden.  “I wasn’t quite sure.  I mean, not that you calling me a thorn in your side wasn’t flattering, but that still felt kind of like you being all stiff-upper-lip because everyone else in your family was cracking up at the time and you felt like you had to hold it together.  I appreciated that maybe-the-stars-will-align thing, too.  Just how stupid were we?”

“Not stupid enough,” Hermann sighs, leaning against the balustrade, and tugs Newton closer.  “Get out of the way; you’ll trip someone.  If we’d been more so, we’d have been happier.”

“Only temporarily, though,” Newton says, peering down at the intricate mosaic flanked by palm trees and exotic flowers and even a pseudo-Roman altar.  The entire arrangement is a catastrophe; none of the statuary matches, none of the greenery belongs in this hemisphere, and the glass ceiling high overhead, however airy, lends a sense of dreamlike claustrophobia.

“She called this place her pleasure—C’est mon plaisir, she’d say,” Hermann muses, running his fingers along concrete.  “It’s not possible to amass collections such as this, not anymore.  Gardner knew that the best remedy for grief was beauty.  That this trove has been kept intact—”

“I thought you were going to stick that Saint Elizabeth of Hungary under your jacket and run for it,” Newton interjects.  “I don’t think this place would have stood for another heist, and even if we are pretty comfortable now, I don’t think I can afford to shell out that kind of bail.”

“Bertie would have appreciated the gold leaf,” Hermann mutters.  “You can’t argue with that.”

“If you intend to hoard antiquities in your old age, I’m not gonna stop you,” Newton tells him, “but space is at a premium.  And for every weird piece of kitsch you bring home, I can have another fish.  I’m actually kind of serious about this; that spa glass is ridiculous.  I don’t care if the name etched in it just happens to have been your grandmother’s.  Do we have a deal?”

“The glass is irrelevant.  I thoroughly intend to drink from it.  Utilitarian pieces don’t count.”

“You paid two hundred and fifty bucks for that after bargaining,” Newton points out, sliding an arm around Hermann’s waist, because fuck if he isn’t just the cutest thing when he’s on about weird shit he likes.  “What if I drop it and chip it while I’m doing the dishes?  Wait, no—you derailed me, that is not an answer to the question I was asking.  Was that the first actual time—”

“Darling, I was always flirting,” says Hermann, exasperated, and kisses him on the temple.

For a Wednesday afternoon, the museum café is crammed, so Newton suggests they just say screw it and hop back on the Green Line.  He switches them over to the Red Line at Park Street, not really informing Hermann of his intention to funnel them into Cambridge ahead of schedule.  The ISG hadn’t taken very long; they’d got there at eleven and only taken a few hours to go through.  Finding both lunch and seeing whether they can get into Harvard Natural History for the remainder of the afternoon is ambitious, but he’s pretty sure his passport or any other form of ID bearing his name is going to get them free admission.  While they’re eating at Tory Row (the name had made Hermann laugh), Ming texts Hermann a video clip.

“These creatures,” he asks, turning his phone around so Newton can look, “aren’t dangerous if she’s sticking her arms in the tank like that, are they?  You’d mentioned an electrical charge.”

Newton frowns at the screen, not particularly pleased with what he’s seeing.  Ming’s got a stepladder behind the tank, and she’s up it just far enough to be leaning forward and sticking her arms elbow-deep in the water.  What’s awesome is that she’s got Knifehead, Yamarashi, and Reckoner eating right out of her hands and even letting her gently brush their sides; what’s not so awesome is that she’s clearly in Hannibal’s office, and Newton’s not sure who’s taking the video.

“Not enough to hurt humans, nah,” he says.  “I just hope she’s not hanging out there unattended.”

“I have no doubt Lu is somewhere to hand,” says Hermann.  “Perhaps even behind the camera.”

Newton snatches Hermann’s phone out of his hand and types, Who’s over there with you?

OMG AREN’T THEY CUTE?! she texts back.  I WANT LIKE TEN OF THESE DORKS.

Is Lu down there with you, or was Hannibal the one making that vid? Newton asks.

You need to relax, Ming replies.  Lu was taking the vid.  Hannibal’s pouting at his desk.

“I guess the big guy’s all down and out about nerds and teenage girls having more of a way with his fish than he does,” Newton tells Hermann, handing back the phone, “but what else is new?”

“Tell her where we are,” says Hermann, dabbing his lips.  “Tell her what’s just over the road.”

“No, man,” says Newton.  “Uh-uh.  Not unless you want her clamoring for hoodies, which, by the way, we are not gonna get from the newsagent next door.  Those are knock-offs.”

“I’m finished with this,” Hermann sighs.  “Why don’t we head to the museum before it closes?”

They get there at around three-thirty, which isn’t the end of the world.  They’ll only have an hour and a half, and if Hermann wants to see more than that, they can always head back first thing in the morning.  Hermann had never explicitly said as much, but Newton had strongly suspected that the Blaschkas’ famous glass botanical specimens were the draw in this particular instance.  

After seventy minutes of peering at intricate blossoms, buds, fruit, stems, and roots, it’s difficult to tug Hermann away from the exhibit in order to insist on a brief visit to Newton’s single favorite denizen of the establishment.  Hermann mutters under his breath the whole way up the stairs and doesn’t stop until they’re standing face to face with the eerie, staggering forty-two foot beauty that is Kronosaurus queenslandicus.

“Hey, baby,” he says, spreading his palms flat against the glass.  “Did you miss me?”

Hermann paces the length of the massive fossil, ominously silent, before pausing to read the tag.

“I had rather you’d been faced with one of these instead,” he whispers.  “Dead and safely gone.”

Newton takes hold of Hermann’s hand.  “In another life, sure, I’d have been digging these up,” he says.  “But I got the life I was handed instead.  I’d call that lucky, because you’re in it.”

“I’d have found you whatever the cost,” says Hermann, and Newton watches his lips twist, ghostly smile reflected in the glass.  “Don’t think I wouldn’t have done.  Never for an instant.”

*

To: newtgeiszler@gmail.com
From: h.gottlieb@damtp.cam.ac.uk
Date: 11-Aug-2013 16:29
Subject: Re: OH MY GOD ARE YOU SEEING THIS?

<Hermann, tell me you've crawled out from under your rock for long enough to realize your disdain for monster movies is now scientifically invalid.>

Please don't call me that; I'm already working on it.  That leviathan had to have come from somewhere, and I can tell you that odds are not in favour of terrestrial origin.  That is to say: this will in all likelihood keep happening, there will be more of them unless this one wandering in through some kind of . . . of rift, if you will, was an accident.  If coming from, shall we say, Elsewhere, such a destructive entity, such destructive entities, will likely have come (or have been sent) for a reason.  I do not like the high probability of aggressive intent on the part of this interloper; do we assume intelligence and aspirations of invasion, or do we assume that this brainless beast has sniffed out resources lacking in its home environment and has therefore come to plunder?  Apologies; I’m thinking aloud, I need someone willing to listen and you have always proved more than amenable.  My father referred to these suppositions as ‘unabashed insanity’ when I spoke with him last night, so, understandably, I’m seeking a second opinion.  And I can think of no better party to place on the receiving end of outlandish fancies than you.

My disdain for monster movies has and always been grounded in good sense, and requires no scientific evidence to be swayed in either direction.  Fictional monsters have little to no bearing on day-to-day existence, and I fear the one with which our countries’ soldiers are currently doing battle is all too real.  If this creature is victorious, roams unchecked, I shall fear greatly for your safety.  My door is open to you, Doctor Geiszler, should you make the decision to flee.

Awaiting your response,
Dr. H. Gottlieb

*

Paying a surprise visit to Biological Engineering on Thursday morning is not the brightest idea Newton has ever had, not least because they’re in the thick of summer and there’s not even any guarantee that any of the others who’d stayed at MIT will even be around.  If he’d been in any way thinking ahead, he would’ve told at least someone he was going to be in town.  After giving Hermann a quiet, fairly useless tour of the building, he swings them by the office door that had belonged, at least as late as twenty-sixteen, to one of Newton’s former advisors.

What he doesn’t expect to see on the name-plate is DR. K. HAYASHI—it’s not that he hadn’t known that Ken had stayed on and eventually been hired, but, rather, that he’d never have expected someone alongside whom he’d studied to be allocated this particular office.

“I feel weird about this,” he admits to Hermann, blinking at the sign.  “Should I knock?”

“If you don’t, I’ll bloody well do it for you,” Hermann mutters tersely, so Newton does.

Several seconds later, just as they’re turning to leave, the door opens.  Ken has more grey in his hair than he should, and his glasses are thicker than Newton remembers them being.  He blinks at Newton as if he’s seeing things, but as his eyes light on Hermann, that’s when it seems to click.

“This isn’t Candid Camera or Punk’d: Academia, is it?” he asks, and, Hermann is the one who starts to laugh before Newton gets over his nerves sufficient to realize that Ken’s made a joke.  “Six-times Doctor Newt effing Geiszler in the flesh.  How the hell are you?”

Hermann has enough sense to step back while Ken crushes Newton in a hug and thumps him on the back.  “I, um,” Newton manages when he feels like his ribcage has expanded back to normal, “I’m—pretty great, actually.  I don’t know if news made it back here or if anybody published an announcement in the alumni magazine, but this is my husband.  Ah,” he rambles nervously, “Ken Hayashi, meet Hermann Gottlieb.  No need for titles and formalities; we’re all doctors here!”

“Newton’s told me everything about you,” says Hermann, shaking Ken’s hand like he’s finally got the hang of the gesture; although there’s no malice in his words, there’s plenty of irony.

“Hey, won’t you come in?” Ken asks, opening the door wider, gesturing to indicate that they should follow.  “It’s been ages, and, you know, there’s that mind-blowingly important thing you guys did.  You’ve never seen any pictures of Gregory and Jessica, have you?  Christ, she’s two already, Greg and I don’t  even know where the time’s gone . . . ”

While Ken chatters and shows them photographs from his bookshelf and Hermann nods politely, Newton sifts through his memory for Greg’s department and comes up blank.  He remembers a laid-back, devastatingly handsome undergraduate with dreadlocks; what the photographs show is a somewhat less laid-back looking, still devastatingly handsome individual who’s lost the dreadlocks, but looks like he’d been born to hold the toddler in his arms.

They stay and chat for over an hour, which Newton wouldn’t have assumed possible given Hermann’s general impatience with strangers.  It might be that he’d fired up the electric kettle on his desk and handed them both mugs of tea; Lipton or not, Hermann would’ve considered it rude to turn down the offer.  Ken eventually makes his apologies for shooing them off, says he’s got work to do, but would they assent to meeting up with him and Greg at Davis later for dinner?

“We should like that very much,” says Hermann, sincerely, and folds Newton’s hand between his own before Newton can respond.  “Isn’t that where the barbecue place is, the one you’ve been wanting me to try?”  He turns back to Ken, who’s regarding them with a kind of glassy-eyed euphoria.  “Unless you and your partner are vegetarian or otherwise not amenable—”

“Childcare’s not an issue,” says Ken, quickly, “and Redbones is fine.  Greg’s sister can take Jess for the evening; she’s hardly a ten-minute drive away.  Funny story, did Newt ever tell you what happened the first time he tried eating the jerk sauce—”

“Same thing that happened when I tried eating my own vindaloo, yeah yeah,” Newton sighs, waving his free hand right in Ken’s face.  “Hermann’s had a firsthand demonstration.”

They part ways, so Newton spends the next few hours enduring Hermann’s relentless teasing while showing him around the remainder of the campus.  By about three o’clock, Hermann’s responses are clipped enough for Newton to realize he’s in discomfort, so he drags them into the MIT COOP just long enough to grab a black hoodie in Ming’s size along with a bottle of water.  

Newton gets them back on the Red Line and makes Hermann swallow half a pain pill en route to Davis.  He’s got a text message that says they’re not meeting Ken and Greg until six, so holing up at Diesel with Somerville Smogs and pastry seems like a solid plan.  The coffee shop proves as packed as ever, and Newton could swear he never understood these loner hipster students and their need to occupy an entire booth when it’s just them, their tech of choice, and some books.

“Oh my gosh,” says the girl at whom he’s been unintentionally glaring for about five seconds while he stands there with his and Hermann’s drinks in hand and Hermann hovers awkwardly beside him balancing a plate overladen with two giant cookies one-handed.  “Sorry, yeah, looks like you need this, I’ll just—”  She gathers her things and flees, but not before giving them another appraising look, even more wide-eyed than before, and taps frantically at her phone.

“Even during the press tour, were you aware,” Hermann tells Newton as they slide into their respective sides of the booth, “that this town more or less bows at your feet?”

“I’m, uh,” Newton says, handing Hermann his Smog in its tall, elegant glass mug before taking a shaky sip of his own (Earl-Grey-milk-honey goodness all the way down), “getting that.  Yup.”

“I suppose we’ll have to sign a few napkins and whatnot,” Hermann murmurs, sampling the drink with an approving, blissful sigh.  “Keep them happy.  If they get pushy, I mean.”

“I was distracted all those months ago,” Newton says, breaking one of the cookies in half.  “I wanted you to myself when we weren’t doing press appearances.  Fuck, Hermann, I still do.”

“Unless I’m very much mistaken, they may leave us to it out of deference,” says Hermann, soothingly, and reaches across the table to take Newton’s hand.  “Newton, you have me.”

They spend two and a half hours at Diesel, during which time they order second and third drinks and even track down the girl who’d given up the booth in order to sign something for her (a textbook) on their way out.  Hermann is vaguely fuzzy thanks to his medication, but not so far gone he’s about to fall over, so dinner turns out not to be the disaster Newton expects.  Greg is not as severe as he looks in the photo, an adorable six-foot-two fanboy when it comes to what K-Science accomplished in Hong Kong.  Ken orders the jerk sauce because he’s an ass, and the best moment of Newton’s life is when Hermann samples a spoonful and ends up streaming tears.

It’s well after nine when their cab drops them off back at the hotel, by which point they’re both too tired and too tipsy to do anything but help each other strip down and crawl wearily into bed.  Newton dreams of reading Hermann’s messages, of writing responses, of the brave new world into which they’d both stepped without so much as looking back.  He wakes just past dawn with tears in his eyes, with the pads of Hermann’s thumbs brushing them gently from his cheeks.

Shhh,” Hermann whispers, kissing Newton’s eyelids.  “This is now, and you are here.”

“We’ve gotta go get the other hoodie for Ming,” says Newton, urgently, and Hermann doesn’t disagree.  They doze and kiss and touch, map lines of ink and unmarked flesh alike; they eventually find sleep again, rest soundly until the sliver of sun through the curtains is insistent.  They don’t bother with ordering breakfast, deciding to forage Cambridge instead.

“What’s here?” Hermann asks on their way out of the Harvard COOP with the requisite merchandise in tow, and Newton feels much calmer.  “What are you in the mood for?”

“It’s just past eleven-thirty,” Newton replies, considering the cross-walk as they wait for the signal to start ticking.  “Grendel’s Den should be open by now.  They might still do brunch, and they might even still be cheap.  I don’t want anything too complicated after last night.”

“Nor I,” mutters Hermann, darkly, but his expression suggests no regrets.  “Lead on.”

The walk is blessedly brief once they’ve crossed over, scarcely three minutes at Hermann’s energetic, well-rested clip before they’ve passed the row of shop-fronts he remembers so well (some the same as they’d always been, some not), before they’ve passed the Garage Mall across the way (where he’d staggered with his drawing of a monster based on what he’d seen in gritty news footage before it had even fallen or been given a name).  They cross Mount Auburn Street, pass the granite signpost marked WINTHROP PARK (so easy, to brush it with his fingertips).

Newton doesn’t realize he’s slowed until Hermann drags him to a stop at the nexus-point where the diagonal walkways cross; he pulls him to one side, sequesters them safe in the grass in order to let some noisy tourists pass.  The ruin of Newtowne Market, a single remaining cornerstone, is as convenient a place to sit as any; he’s dizzy, his world’s spinning around him, it has changed.

“Please,” Hermann coaxes, bringing him back, taking Newton’s bag and setting it on the ground before taking hold of Newton’s hands.  “What are you thinking?  Where have you gone?”

“You already know,” Newton says, “but I’ll tell you anyway.  For me, this is where we started.  This is now, Hermann.  You’re right.  We’re here; we always were.  I think we always will be.”

“For once, I have no objections to your lunacy,” Hermann sighs.  “Darling, please.  Let’s go eat.”

“Okay,” Newton agrees, grinning; he glances up beyond the leaves into bright and limitless blue.