Each new spring takes Newt by surprise. Spring comes quickly here. One moment the air is cold and the light grey with snow, and Newt dozes in the vague torpor that is the closest he can get to sleep.
But it seems as though between one moment and the next, the snow melts, the air thaws, the trees burst into bloom and the woods beyond the crumbling house suddenly come to life.
And Newt opens his eyes and smiles. He can smell the scent of flowers, of growing grass coming through the rusty open window. The breeze carries birdsong and the rustle of budding leaves. He gets up and heads outside; he still uses the door, but has long stopped bothering to open it.
The sun washes through him as he stands outside; eyes closed to better enjoy the warmth sweeping out the sluggish chill of winter. He can hear the chirps of newly migrated birds in the trees, the lost croaks of sleep-befuddled frogs.
Newt has lost count how many times he has stood here, like this, in the first blush of spring. Ten years, twenty? He can’t remember any more. But it has never been less than perfect.
Behind him, the old, rambling house creaks and murmurs, as though it’s waking from long hibernation; like the hedgehogs in the woods, and the frogs in the grasses.
The grass tickles his bare feet as he walks across towards the pond. Barely a touch, like a hand brushing just above skin, the sensation of prickles of electricity grounding through the stalks.
Newt kneels down by the pond. Two of the frogs have gotten in early- the pond must have thawed a few weeks ago- and the overgrown surface is dotted with frogspawn. A newcomer leaps unsteadily from the grass and Newt instinctively holds still, doesn't breathe.
The frog doesn't see him. It misjumps and misses the pond, landing through Newt's foot. It croaks in distress at the sudden shock, and jumps again, this time landing in the overgrown verge.
"Come on." Newt bends down and touches the frog's back leg, encouraging it to jump. It croaks again, jumps blindly and gives a muffled ribbit in shock as it lands in the water.
Newt sits down, watching the frog slip under the water. He remembers to breathe again; the air is so sweet with spring it would be a shame to miss out on it.
The crop of daffodils is larger this year, and when Newt moves towards the woods he's delighted to see the bluebells have spread almost everywhere. They're not in bloom yet, but in a few weeks the forest floor will be blue. The little headstones are almost lost in their sproutings and green leaves.
On the bark of the trees, the ants are creeping out to forage, the first bees are emerging from their wild hive. Newt goes from one to the other; he loves this time, when everything is alive and exciting.
An odd, rattle-knock noise catches his attention, and has Newt snapping his head around, he's seen woodpeckers in the woods, but never up close, always from the house, if they're nearby-
But no. It's not coming from the wood, it's from the road. And that's even stranger. Because it might have been seven months since he saw the woodpeckers, but the last ones to drive down that road were Newt's father and uncle. A long, long time ago.
Newt hurries back to the house because- well. It's stupid to get his hopes up but he hasn't seen Dad and Illia for so long- how long has it been? He doesn't know any more. It's been years.
The car creaking up the drive is rust-addled, ancient. It coughs and rattles down the overgrown path leading to the house. Newt huddles against the wall of the house- half inside it- more out of instinct than anything else. No one has seen him since he died. Even Jacob and Illia, who'd known something was there, couldn't see him.
The car barks a final groan, and settles by the front door. The man who gets out is dressed in a grubby three piece suit, hair plastered down with what could be dirty pomade, or just sweat. Newt grimaces, he has no idea who the man is, but he hopes he won't be staying long.
"As you can see, the place is very isolated." The man says cheerfully, walking over and opening the passenger door, "Full of history and very unique- a little aged, of course, nothing a little loving care and DIY won't fix-" he breaks off, looking embarrassed.
"Quite." A sharp impatient voice answers.
The man who gets out is dressed like one of his old biology professors, all tweed and sweaters, but he's not much older than Newt. His face is tight as he maneuvers himself out of the car; carefully setting both feet on the ground before levering himself up. He straightens with difficulty, both hands braced on a cane. There's no sign of a brace or a cast to explain the stick, but it's obviously not a fashion statement.
The man's broad mouth is set in a stiff, severe line that's almost painful, but when he looks up at the house his eyes soften a little, his face relaxes. It makes him look younger, young and very tired.
"A lovely place." Greasy's nasal twang makes them both wince, almost in unison. Newt grins; apparently this guy feels the same about Greasy Oilhair. "We can have the renovators in next week-"
"I'll take it." The man snaps, not even turning to look at Oilhair.
Oilhair chokes. "Oh but- yes, wonderful- when can we expect you-"
"I was told the house came fully furnished."
"Ah- yes, the -ah- previous owners did not want- the- ah- reminders-"
"And you have the keys on your person?" He still hasn't moved, looking up at the old, worn red brick, the ivy creeping over the top floor windows, the nests the swallows made in the roof.
"Uh- certainly, the tour-"
"I do not need a tour. Give me the keys."
Greasy, dumbstruck, hands the keys over. The man takes them. "You have the necessary documents?"
"Yes, but- I cannot vouch for the- condition of the furnishings, Doctor Gottlieb; no one has been here for-"
Newt strains to hear the date, but the man- Gottlieb?- interrupts. "I am- not a doctor yet." His tone is polite, but his back is stiff as a rod; as though the word had been a blow. "And," Gottlieb pulls himself under control, "I am quite capable of calling in any renovators and cleaners I might need. I have everything I require with me, and if more is wanted, it will be sent for. Give me the papers."
He signs the papers then and there. Newt watches as Greasy puts the papers away in his briefcase, and takes a large duffle bag from his car boot and drops it on the doorstep. Gottlieb doesn’t open the door, just sits heavily on the bag with his cane between his hands.
Greasy pauses, halfway into the car. "You are aware -ah - of the house's -ah- reputation. That the previous owners vouched that it was- ah-"
"Is there anything unsound about the house? Anything I should be concerned with the- the required timespan?" Gottlieb spits the last words out.
"Ah- nothing, but-"
"Then it is irrelevant. Good day."
He and Newt watch the man climb back into his car and drive off. Only then does Gottlieb get up and try the door.
The lock is so stiff that Gottlieb struggles to turn the key. Newt wishes he could tell him the back door has been open for all this time. As though he’d be able to hear him. Newt remembers the months after- after. With Dad and Illia crying and messed up and with him right there and unable to be seen and heard. And when he'd learnt how to move things, and tried to show them-
Well. Newt wonders if he ought to scare this man away too. Gottlieb curses fluently in German, wraps his sleeve around the key and wrenches it around.
Newt closes his eyes and slips through the wall, Gottlieb tests the lights. They haven’t worked since that first winter. He sighs, drags his bag inside and closes the door.
Newt watches as he tests the water- which is running, to Newt’s surprise- the gas -which isn't- and puts in a call to the electricians and the gas company on the tiniest portable phone Newt has ever seen. He doesn’t look around, doesn’t go upstairs. He opens the first door- which is the kitchen, and goes in.
There's a chair beside the window, where Newt still sometimes sits. It used to stand by the door, but he'd dragged it here when it became obvious his parents weren't coming back. The window overlooks the wild herb garden and out over the pond into the wood. It's somewhere to sit in the long winters, when the cold sinks in deep and becomes part of him for those endless months.
Gottlieb eases himself down into the chair carefully, as though scared it would collapse under him. It creaks under the unfamiliar weight- so much heavier than Newt's form- but holds, and Gottlieb leans back in it, sighing in relief. The old blanket that's hung over the back since forever slides off to the floor, Gottlieb glances down, then sighs and picks it up.
It's a quilt, one of the few things Newt had left from his mother. It should hurt seeing someone holding it- it should anger him to see someone in his house, sitting in his chair, the quilt in his hands. That was what ghosts did right? When someone came into a haunted house to live there ghosts got angry and moaned and threw stuff.
Newt probably could throw something, but moaning would be a waste of time when no one could hear him. And it has been so long since he had felt angry at anything that he can't really remember what it felt like. Just the calm of this house. How quiet it was.
How lonely it could be.
Gottlieb examines the quilt, face widening to surprise for a moment. Newt has a tendency to zap any moths and mites on whatever he is sitting on, and the blanket is in good shape for the however many years it has hung here. Gottlieb smiles a little- again, his face loses the hard, pinched look, and turns soft and tired. He tucks the blanket around himself, digs in his bag and pulls out a sleek little laptop, settling in and starting to type.
And that's where he stays. He makes a few more calls on his tiny phone, writes on the laptop. Gets up stiffly to pour himself tea from a large thermos and eat a few sandwiches. Goes back to the chair. Types a little more, than talks to someone- through the screen? Weird- finally, he falls asleep.
Newt carefully pulls himself completely out of the wall and creeps over to the guy. Then feels pretty stupid because it's not as though he's gonna hear him. He crouches next to Gottlieb, looking him over.
He's maybe a bit older than Newt, but with lines around his mouth and eyes that look out of place on someone who's twenty-five, max. Short dark hair that looks like it was cut by a blind person wielding a lawnmower. Heavy shadows under his eyes as though he hasn't slept for weeks.
Newt looks down and spots the gorgeous laptop half buried in the blankets and covered by one hand. He's got one upstairs but it's something like ten times the size of this lovely thing. This is almost paper thin, silver, with a rather familiar logo on the back.
Huh, it's a shame; Newt had kinda liked the rainbow apple. But it would have looked pretty garish on this sleek little number. He holds his breath- stupid- and slowly reaches out.
It scatters sparks under his hands, like his old one used to, before the power died. By the time he'd been able to lift it enough to charge it, the electricity had been cut off. But this? This is so light it's barely there- a featherweight in Newt's translucent hands- the perfect laptop. Every ghost should have one.
Newt lets a giggle escape, and Gottlieb suddenly opens his eyes. Newt yelps and jumps back, dropping the laptop. Gottlieb clutches it and stares at him-
"What are you doing here!" He shouts; fumbles for his cane, hands lost in the tangle of quilt. "This is my house, what do you think you're-"
Newt falls back, covering his head with his arms- the noise. It's been so long since he heard anything louder than thunder, and the noise- the human voice raised and shouting-
-shut that kid up-
-cover his mouth before those old fucks hear-
Newt shrinks in on himself; but Gottlieb stops; he lowers his cane slowly, and carefully gets up. He's not shouting. He's not even angry. He's pale, dark eyes wide and fixed on Newt.
Newt slowly uncurls himself from the floor, he's shivering. "Can you see me?" The words fall out almost of their own accord.
Gottlieb nods slowly. "You're a - a ghost." It's not a question, but it doesn't sound as though Gottlieb can believe it.
Newt gets up slowly, not wanting to startle the guy. "Yeah- I mean, I think so?"
"You're transparent and standing through that table." Gottlieb points.
Newt looks down. He's fallen through the coffee table where Dad used to keep the record player. "Heh. Oops?" He tries, Gottlieb's expression doesn't change. "I don't know. I never met any other ghosts? Maybe I'm a poltergeist?" He steps out of the table.
Gottlieb is still staring at him, disbelieving. He's a good few inches taller than Newt, which is a bit galling. Newt had been banking so hard on a last minute growth spurt and now he's stuck at way too small forever. "Hey, say something, you're scaring me."
"I'm scaring-" Gottlieb splutters. "By- Jove you're a ghost and you're in my house-" Newt flinches and he stops, taking a deep breath, trying to calm down.
"Um, I know you paid for it and all, but it's kinda my house too. I mean, I live here- okay, not live, exactly, but you know what I mean." Newt waves a hand vaguely. And, actually- "And, uh, do you know what year it is?" Yep, really bad at this.
Gottlieb stares at him for a few more really embarrassing moments before he blinks and seems to come back to life. He pinches the bridge of his nose. "It's 2014. And- yes. You're right. This is your home. I suppose this is what that odious man was trying to tell me. The previous owners left because- of you, I suppose."
The reminder sends a kick of something miserable and sad through Newt, but he tries to smile. Ghosts are supposed to be proud of their hauntings right? A positive note for the horrible weeks of watching his father and uncle break down in front of him, trying to help them and making it so much worse- "Yeah, that was me."
"I see." He sighs and looks sadly around at the kitchen. The scrubbed bare table, the neatly carved shelves, the green shutters, the rocking chair and its bright quilt. "I am sorry. I am the one intruding. I'll put in a call to the estate agent and have them cancel the buy. I will be gone at once-"
"No- don't!" The words are out before he can think because after twenty four years alone here he can't bear to think of losing the only human contact he has had since he died. The only person who can see him holy fuck-
And maybe also because of the wretched, broken look in Gottlieb's eyes as he surveys the kitchen. Does he have anywhere to go? Is this his last hope?
"Look, it’s okay. You can stay, if you don't- you know, mind me? Mind having a ghost around?"
Gottlieb hesitates, about to say something, but his leg suddenly trembles under him and he staggers back to the chair, sitting down heavily. He draws in a deep breath, closes his eyes, face drawn up in pain.
"Are you okay?" Newt takes a step closer.
"No." Through gritted teeth. "But it will pass."
Gottlieb doesn't move for long moment, sitting stiff and rigid in the chair, hand knotted on the handle of his cane until Newt wonders if he's going to leave nailmarks in the wood. Finally, he opens his eyes, and his body relaxes a little. "To answer your question- no. I don't mind. I won't be able to access the second floor anyway, so that part of the house can stay as it is. And I suppose that I- I wouldn't mind the company."
Newt grins. It feels so weird to smile like this after so long, but the joy is a warm ball of wonderful inside him and Newt wonders if he'll finally work out how to fly and float through the roof, he's so happy. "That's awesome. Don't worry; I'll get you settled in. I know everything in this house, so if you want anything, just ask. I mean, I'll be either here or in the garden, so I’ll hear you if you shout."
"I'll keep it in mind." Gottlieb's tone is dry, but he's smiling too. "In that case, I believe introductions are in order. My name is Hermann Gottlieb. Pleased to meet you." He holds out a hand.
"Oh yeah, I head you tell that guy outside- didn't you say you were studying for a doctorate or something? I had a doctorate in Molecular Biology before I died and-" Gottlieb- Hermann- raises an eyebrow at his still extended hand. "Oh, right. I'm Newt. Newton Geiszler. Don't call me doctor though, please, I'm only twenty and that makes me feel old-" he tries to take the hand, and only goes through it. Hermann snatches his hand back at the sudden sting of electricity.
"Technically, you must be older than that." Hermann leans forward, hands clasping on his cane. "When did you die?"
"1990." Then, because Hermann probably wants to know and is probably too uptight to ask; "It was a home robbery. I saw them come in and started shouting. They tried to shut me up and I suffocated." He tries to smile, but the thick wetness of the pillow is in his mouth, the horrible draining pain filling his lungs, the hot, desperate panic searing every nerve. "I've always been a loudmouth." It's meant to sound cocky, but instead it just falls flat.
Hermann just looks at him, a little sadly. "What happened then?"
Newt shrugs. "Don't know. When I woke up they were gone and Dad was crying over me. I tried to show them I was- still here, you know? But they couldn't see me and they just- got scared." The awful, awful days when grief turned to terror until Dad and Illia just grabbed overnight bags and left. Never came back. “I don’t know what happened after that.”
"I could find out for you." Hermann picks up the laptop, which had fallen in the tangle of quilt. "If you want to know."
And- it's stupid, but Newt's nonexistent heart leaps at the thought. He's been alone for so long- twenty four years - with no one here, no idea what had happened- "Please!" He tries not to sound too eager. He fails utterly.
Hermann smiles warm and tentative, and opens the laptop. "Do you know what the internet is?"
Newt pulls a face, "Dude, I didn't die in the Dark Ages. We had it at MIT- wait; you've got it on that? Here?"
"I have a 3G connection." At Newt's blank look he adds, "Mobile internet. How do you spell your name? Thank you. And what date did you die?"
"19th of January." His calendar is still open to that page in his room.
"That should be enough." Hermann types the details in a search bar, and adds home invasion for good measure. "Ah, here."
There are thousands of webpage results. Obviously most of them can't be about him, but all those pages, they must have servers the size of skyscrapers just to house all this data-
The page Hermann clicks on opens, and Newt forgets to breathe as he reads.
It's from MIT, a quiet little headline in the university journal. Death of second youngest student accepted to MIT during burglary. And just under it, is a picture of Newt.
He's just graduated, holding up his doctorate and grinning. And on either side, hands on his shoulders, are Dad and Illia. They're smiling, eyes shining. They look so proud of him. They had been so proud of him. They had all been so happy.
A huge, hollow feeling opens inside Newt.
"It says two of the robbers turned themselves in. They hadn't meant to hurt you." Hermann looks at him, "I'm sor-" He stops himself. "I mean, are you alright?"
He'd been twenty. He'd been working on his next PHD in Applied Chemistry. He'd been teaching classes as an assistant lecturer. He had been planning to go visit his mother for Easter break.
Twenty four years ago.
Oh god, what had happened in that time? Were Dad and Illia okay? Were they even alive? Or had they long ago moved on, and were wondering where Newt was? Why he hadn't been there to meet them?
Newt turned his head away, a cold, dead weight in his belly.
"Oh- please don't be upset- don't cry please." Newt wipes at the tears streaking his face, they spark and flicker, form tiny balls of light on his fingers. "I'm sorry- and that's so useless to say, I hate it, but I-"
Newt sniffs, tries to smile to cut off Hermann's babbling, and it hurts. "It's okay." It's not. Twenty four years. But what can he do? "What happened? Was there a trial?"
Newt cannot tear himself away from the laptop, losing track of the hours as he fills in more than two decades of lost time. Two of the men who killed him got thirty years, the other two- who turned themselves in and pled guilty- got fourteen. Newt barely cares, huddling over the screen as Hermann searches out his parents, and the room begins to grow dark around them.
They're alive. Which is such a relief; at least they're not waiting for him. Jacob and Illia moved back to Berlin after they left him, and his Mom retired and lives in Italy. They're doing okay, from what Hermann can find online.
And, maybe because Newt is a bit stunned by all the information in front of him that he gets carried away, or because he's always been a bit blind when it comes to others, but he’s so fascinated with browsing the now seriously world wide web that he doesn't notice how much Hermann's typing has slowed, how he flexes his hands over and over as though trying to work out a pain that won't leave. The way his head starts to droop over the laptop, how he blinks, over and over.
In Newt's defence, Hermann says nothing to him either, so it's a shock when Hermann's hand falls slack against the keys and his head drops back, eyes closing and body falling lax as though he's collapsed after running a marathon, rather than just sitting here reading.
"Hermann?" He doesn't get an answer. The laptop starts slipping from Hermann's lap and Newt catches it before it can hit the floor. The screen flickers when Newt holds it, but doesn't switch off. Newt puts down it on the coffee table.
"Hermann, are you okay?" No answer. "Hermann? Herms? Come on, what are you playing at?" He touches his hand.
Hermann jumps at the static shock, eyes flashing open. He pales for a moment before flushing. Looks away, at the window, at the far wall, down at his lap. At anything but Newt. "Where’s the laptop?"
"I caught it, it's on the table. Look, what happened-"
"It doesn't matter. It's getting dark, and unless you have candles, I'm going to need to sleep anyway-"
"I can get you candles, but what was that, you just-"
"It doesn't matter." Hermann sits up, almost snarling. "Now, will you leave me alone!"
"You just passed out dude! You scared me, okay?"
For a moment Hermann says nothing, just glaring. Then, stiff, furious; "Very well, I might as well tell you. You are going to find out anyway. I already told you I was- unwell. I have- malignant multiple sclerosis. Do you understand what the means?"
Newt hesitates. It's been years since he read a medical text, even before he died. It had never been his strong point. Still- "That- isn't good, is it?"
"To the specialists, it means a prognosis of about seven months." He sighs, and suddenly all the anger seems to drain out of Hermann. He slumps a little, and shit- no wonder he passed out, he looks exhausted. "Seven months of increased physical and mental degeneration until the inevitable happens. I suppose it might explain why I can see you. I'm more than halfway there."
"Oh." Newt has no idea what to say. 'I'm sorry ' seems absurd, particularly coming from him of all people. "So, why are you here?" Alone, in the middle of nowhere?
His face tightens "Assuming this is even any of your business, I want to live independently, and my diagnosis will not change this. If I have to- to go- it will be on my own terms.” His hands are clenched on the handle of his cane. "And as to alone- well, clearly I will never have any time to myself, if you are any indication." He glares at Newt, but it's weaker than the others and Newt just shrugs. "I need peace and quiet to finish my studies, and I would be grateful if you allowed them to me."
Which should be a warning sign, but Newt can’t help it. “Okay, but- why? I mean, it’s not like you’re going to need to get a job or something-“
“Because I want to finish something!” Newt shrinks back, half inside the wall. “I want to have done something worthwhile before I- before I die! Because I wasted so much time on- on nothing and I won’t live long enough to do- anything else-“ His voice cracks, he turns away from Newt, one hand coming up to cover his face.
“Hermann?” Newt pulls out of the wall, cautiously comes a little closer.
“I am sorry.” His voice is a little muffled. He swallows, turns back to Newt. His face is flushed, eyes shining. “You are not the one I’m angry with. I should not be taking it out on you.”
“No, I get it man.” Newt sits down next to him. He hesitates and touches Hermann’s arm. The tweed threads spark and stand on end. “I wish I’d done something better for my PHD. I mean, who wants to be known for salamander life cycles? I mean, could have done something awesome, like Monitor Lizards or Komodo Dragons. Nope, anyone looks me up all they get is axolotl spawnings.”
Hermann looks at him; he’s trying not to smile, but it’s slipping through. “And does a thesis on the gravitational influence of black holes meet the required level of ‘awesome’ in your opinion?”
Newt can hear the airquotes, and grins back at him. His hand slips through the sleeve and Hermann winces at the tiny shocks, but doesn’t pull away. “Definitely. The most awesome ever.”
Hermann smiles at him, and reaches out a hand tentatively to brush the outline of Newt’s, drawing tiny sparks.
Newt stumbles to his feet, “I can give you a tour, if you feel up to it?”
The house crackles with so much electricity that Newt draws sparks if he brushes against a light fitting. It feels alive, waking like a hibernating bear as all the little holes and breakages are fixed, the gas flows again, Hermann's few belongings are installed.
The electricians can’t see him when they come, and Newt does do his best not to move things but Hermann left his laptop on and it takes way too long to get the power back on and he might have decided to browse a bit.
Hermann sends him a number of ugly looks out of the corner of his eye and the workmen shift and look uncomfortable and it’s only after that Newt works out they could see the light change when he switched webpages. They leave rather quickly.
Hermann complains, but Newt offers to show him the garden and no one can be miserable in the garden.
They are there now. It's the best time for being in the garden; a hot, endless day in summer. The daffodils have faded, but the bluebells are rivaling the sky. Dappled blue under the thick green leaves and dotted with tiny clouds of white. The air is damp and heavy under the trees, rich and hot and close to storming, though the sky’s still clear. Newt can feel his skin buzz with electricity, it’s so near. In the summer, in the heat and closeness and power of the sun, Newt almost feels alive again.
They come into the garden almost every day now. Newt continues his endless exploring, his examination of all the plants and animals while Hermann sit under the trees with his laptop and works. But every day it becomes a little harder. Hermann stumbles more, can't go as far. And today, the walk tires him enough that he falls asleep almost at once, laptop open and buzzing by his head.
Hermann’s not quite awake now, lying in the bluebells. Eyes only half-open behind a pair of rather sweet glasses, face nearly hidden in the riot of blue flowers. The shadows of leaves and petals play across his face. He looks so quiet here, face relaxed, so close to sleep. The heavy heat has even encouraged him to take his jacket and vest off. His shirt is slightly damp with sweat, sticking to the outline of his lean, weary body.
Newt leans over him. Distracted, the miniature laptop Hermann had given him – a tablet- slips through his hands and thumps on the grass. Hermann opens his eyes. “I’m awake.” He murmurs.
“Sure you are.” Newt folds his legs under him and picks up the tablet again. It’s a marvel- so light! – and registers the jolt of his touch. He flicks through the pages on wildflowers, native trees, birds. After more than twenty years of guess work, he can finally learn the names of the plants and animals he had been sharing his afterlife with.
Hermann sits up. Sleep makes him clumsy, but he moves more easily in the summer heat. He picks up the laptop from among the flowers. “I was working.” The screen blinks back on, a mixture of words and equations that make up Hermann’s thesis.
Newt shifts over to sit next to him, both of them settling back against a tree. An ant crawling up the trunk sizzles and falls when Newt gets a little close. Hermann watches it, then reaches out a hand and brushes Newt’s shoulder. Newt watches as little flashes dance out to halo his hand like St Elmo’s fire, the prickles that are all he can feel.
“Why can I not touch you?” He murmurs, “You’re solid and- there- enough to pick up the tablet, why can’t I-“ He trails off, gently brushing his fingers up and down Newt’s arm.
Newt shrugs, “Don’t know.” Hermann gives him a look and he shrugs again, helplessly, “I really don’t, I can’t touch anything alive. Anything inanimate, yes, or anything-“ he hesitates, breaks off.
“Anything dead.” Hermann smiles a little, “You can say it.” He sighs and shakes his head slowly. “I wish- I would give a great deal for a few more years. This is unbelievable- incredible-“
“I’m more interesting than black holes?” Newt grins. The breeze picks up a little and Newt feels sparks break out across his forearms.
Hermann smiles, pushes his glasses further up his nose and continues to trace up from the curve of Newt’s shoulder, just above his collarbone, raises flickers up his neck. Newt closes his eyes and smiles, cascading sparks in a long, lovely shiver.
“Sorry,” Hermann whispers, so close that the sparks must be stinging his lips. “Is this alright?”
“Nah, it’s great.” It’s wonderful. The heat of the day, the faint hint of a storm of the horizon, the breeze sweeping through him. Hermann’s touch drawing tiny shocks running up and down his body.
“You should be impossible.” Hermann's voice is shushed. “There is nothing else like you in the world.”
The thought sends an unexpected flash of pain through Newt. It sounds so utterly lonely. “Nah, there must be more. If no one can see us, how do they know?”
“How do you know? Have you been outside this place?” Hermann’s fingers trace over the edges of his sleeve, then pauses, “Can you leave? Is that possible?”
“I can leave.” Newt hugs his knees. He had tried to leave, when Jacob and Illia left, but he couldn’t keep up, couldn’t hold himself inside the car. Then there’d been nowhere else to go but back to the empty house. He forces a smile, “But hey, who’d want to go? I loved it here, so Dad and Illia put me here after- after I died.”
Hermann looks to the edge of the woods, to little headstones, and out to the old, overgrown house just beyond the tree line. He hasn’t done much to it. The roof had some loose tiles, and a broken drain, but beyond those repairs it hasn’t changed at all. The ivy runs down the façade like a cascade of emeralds, the stones bleached white in the sun, red tiles standing out vividly against the sky.
“It is a wonderful place.” Hermann agrees softly. “Is it always like this?”
“Yeah.” Newt leans in a bit, just enough that their shoulders brush- and, it’s dumb, but this is the closest he’s ever been to anyone outside his family. He can feel the warmth of Hermann’s body; can hear the soft breathing, the beat of his heart. “It’s always lovely. Winter isn’t much fun though, but with the gas fixed it could be okay.”
Hermann’s smile fades, and he hoists one shoulder in a shrug. “I doubt I will see much of it. The winter will most likely carry me off.”
Maybe it’s the edge of clouds on the horizon, but the day suddenly feels that tiny bit darker. “Hey. It’s okay.” Newt touches his hand, the solid warmth against his fingers, feels the tiny flares ground themselves in the fine hairs on Hermann’s skin. “You’ll finish your PHD, and- it’ll be okay.” He finishes lamely.
Hermann doesn’t say anything, staring out over the house, the threatening thunderclouds. “Does it hurt?” It’s barely a whisper.
He wants to say no. He wants to say he won’t suffer, that it will be over so fast he won’t feel anything. But the pillow is over his face again, the hot panic in his blood, his lungs scream for air that never comes. Burning pain turns cold, draining. He tries to cry out and his lungs are empty. His brain breaking down as it dies; starved of oxygen. The shock of the blood vessels in his eyes bursting.
“I-“ He tries to find the words, but Hermann can see it in his face.
He turns away, resigned. “I suppose it must.”
“I’m sorry.” He says helplessly.
“Don’t be.” Hermann pulls his shoulders up as best he can, “I would rather go like this here, than- back there, even with the drugs.”
There’s nothing to say. A rumble of thunder breaks the summer sky. “We’ve got a few hours.” Newt touches Hermann’s hand as he starts trying to get up.
Hermann relents, settles back beside him. “And afterwards? Do you know what will happen- after?”
Newt shrugs. “I don’t know. I mean, I never really- believed in this stuff when I was alive. I thought you’d just stop, go in the ground. Rot. You know; biology.”
Newt hesitates. His skin crackles with the energy that maintains him. He feels the odd tug within him, the reminder that he is out of place here. “I’m… not sure. I don’t think you just stop. But you do go somewhere. I don’t know where, because-“ Newt waves a hand over himself, raising his eyebrows. “But I can feel that there’s somewhere else. It’s like a-“ he curls his fingers and pulls at his midsection- “like a hook. I don’t want to go, so I don’t, but it’s there.” Then, because Hermann looks uncertain, “It doesn’t hurt. I mean, it can’t hurt. I don’t have the nerves and- brain and things to hurt.”
Hermann nods, but he looks a little better. “I suppose I believe there is something after death. That was what I was told, although,” He smiles a bit. “It feels rather different, when you have to look at it in the face.”
He lapses into silence again. A soft, peaceful silence, only broken by the distant grumbling of the storm. Then “Is that your grave?” Hermann points over to a little headstone, at the edge of the forest.
“Nah, I’m over there.” Newt points at his old grave, cradled in ivy and half-hidden in a riot of flowers.
“Is that why you stay here?” Hermann leans a little closer to him. His eyes are soft. As tired as he always looks, as hard as it is for him to get up when he wakes and as harder as it is becoming for him to walk, cook, care for himself, he looks younger than he did when he first came here. Happier. It ignites a lovely spark of joy inside Newt. “You just don’t want to leave?” He’s so close they’re almost touching, and even the static shocks don’t deter him. “Heaven must be something very special to be better than this.”
Newt laughs. “Just wait til the storm hits. It won’t be that nice. It’s cold in winter, and the kitchen can get a bit wet if you don’t seal the door.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” Hermann smiles. “But, why do you stay? You say you can go, why remain here?”
Newt shrugs. “Everyone I like is still alive.” Hermann doesn’t look satisfied, and Newt finally sighs. “Look, don’t laugh, okay? It’s stupid.”
“If it’s important enough for you to stay here, then it’s not stupid. Tell me.”
Newt sighs again. This is embarrassing. “I- look. I went to MIT when I was thirteen, I was just this kid. And even after I was always the youngest so I never- you know, met anyone. I thought I’d get the chance and I- didn’t. It just seemed like such a waste.”
“You stayed because-“
“’Cause I wanted to fall in love.” There. He’d said it. “I never did, and I wanted to know what it was like- before I go.” It’s stupid, particularly to Hermann, who’s fighting off death to write a paper on Astrophysics. Newt winces and waits for Hermann to laugh.
He doesn’t. Instead, he’s looking at Newt with surprisingly soft eyes. He’s smiling, but it’s not mocking, it’s kind. “It’s not stupid."
Newt smiles, hesitantly. “It kinda is.”
“It most certainly isn’t. Hermann straightens as the thunder roars closer. “It is the best reason I could think of.”
Newt gets up, carefully picking up the tablet and Hermann’s laptop. “It’s not very likely. I mean, I stay out here, and no one can see me.”
“It’s still a worthy reason. I wish-“ He picks up his cane, “It’s not something I have ever known either. I can see why you would stay, to learn what that is like.” He braces himself against the tree, and slowly works up way upright, little by little.
You could stay. Newt wants to say, as they start their way back to the house before the first drops of rain reach them. Just a few weeks together, and Newt is vividly aware of how lonely he had been before Hermann came.
How lonely he will be when Hermann dies.
The leaves are starting to turn when Hermann finally sends off his thesis and Newt is grateful. He'd been starting to understand why Hermann had wanted to get away from everyone to write it. No one would have let him carry on like this, working impossibly late nights, skyping at all hours with his increasingly concerned project advisers. And writing, writing until his hands cramp and lock into stiff knots of bone that have him hissing in pain.
He sends the files off so late the sun is rising, and curls up in the downstairs bed. He falls asleep so quickly Newt has to help him pull the blankets up.
And he doesn’t leave, standing beside the window. Outside, the ivy is starting to turn to the gorgeous, gleaming scarlet of fall. The low sunlight is a burnished, glorious gold, but Newt can already feel the first chill in the breeze as the light drifts west again, the first taste of the snow that will cloak the house completely, sink into Newt and make him part of itself. The quiet. The solitude.
"What are you doing here?" Hermann blinks at him, waking and fumbling for his glasses, but his crooked hands only knock them to the floor.
Newt picks them up and helps Hermann put them on. "It's nice in here, you get all the best sunsets."
"Some would say it's off-putting, having a ghost watching them sleep."
"I wasn't watching you." Newt says a little too quickly. "Besides, this used to be my room; I've got a right to be here, kinda."
Hermann snorts and leans back on the pillows. He rubs his hands together, trying to work flexibility back into them.
"You want a heating pad?" Newt is already going to the desk before Hermann has time to nod. He takes two and snaps them, tucking them against the snarled claws of Hermann's hands.
He stares down at his fingers sadly, lying unmoving on the covers. "I think I finished just in time."
They are in the garden when Hermann's results come. Summer chooses to stay late this year, and still lingers even in October. Outside, the world is a treasury of gold. The leaves hang heavy in yellow and red and mahogany brown. The tawny grass gleams in the setting sun, and the house is alight in scarlet leaves like a bonfire.
Hermann is dozing, sitting out in the sun, making the most of what will be one of the final days before the frosts turn the world to crystal. Newt had been reading to him, but he stopped some time back, and Hermann hadn't notice. Beside them, the pond ripples and the new generation of frogs join the old in finding holes to hibernate in and wait for spring.
The wind whispers; carrying loose leaves and the first touch of ice, the smell of woodsmoke from the house. Newt closes his eyes and under his feet he can feel the grasses storing strength in their roots in anticipation for winter. The trees huddling within their bark for warmth. The evergreens putting out new needles in preparation for the snows. The small animals curling up in their burrows for the long months of cold.
"I wish I could sleep." Hermann murmurs. Newt jumps. He'd though he was asleep. His eyes are still closed. "Sleep my way through winter and see spring again. It's so beautiful here." He opens his eyes, and gives Newt the tiniest of smiles. "I’d like to have spent a full year here; get to see everything this place has to offer.”
Newt has spent more than thirty years here, alive and dead, and every month he sees something new. Before he can point this out, however, there's a faint knocking from the house.
"Oh blast." Hermann sits up with difficulty. "We're back here!" He calls out.
The postwoman walks around the back of the house, frowning when she sees Hermann alone. Probably deciding he either meant the royal we, or had gone a bit mad, she hands him the envelope and leaves almost at once.
It's stamped CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY.
"Hermann?" Newt hesitates. Hermann says nothing, just staring at the broad envelope. “You gonna open that?”
“Give me a moment.” Hermann’s crooked hands flex the cardboard, trembling a little and that’s more than just muscle weakness.
“You want me to open it?”
“A moment!” Hermann snaps, not looking away from the envelope.
He hesitates, then carefully slides a finger under the flap. His hand spasms and locks, tearing the paper. Hermann swears. He drops it to his lap, and clenches his hands over and over, trying to work the pain out.
“I can-“ Newt tries again.
“I want to do this!” Hermann snarls. Then, more softly; “I want to finish it.” He picks the envelope up again.
Newt shrugs, and sits beside him, looking up expectantly.
Hermann gets the flap open, and turns the envelope upside down to slide the papers out. Newt leans over eagerly and Hermann growls as his arm is shocked.
He picks out the cardboard certificate, breath coming in sharp inhalations. Newt leans right through his arm in eagerness.
“Hah!” Newt shouts and punches the air, barely missing Hermann’s shoulder. A First! “Told you, Doctor Gottlieb!” Newt grins at Hermann.
He’s still breathing hard, but there’s more colour in his face, a tentative, sweet light in his eyes. His hands shake, spilling papers across the ground like dead leaves from the trees. Newt bends down and picks them up- they’re so thin and light it’s uncomfortably fiddly.
“They’ll publish it.” Hermann is out of breath, slumping back in his chair. “A summary’ll appear in the Apj. They’re including it in the first November issue. It’s getting a citation in The New Scientist.” He sounds dazed.
Newt grins, leans in without thinking to hug him. Hermann hesitates, and Newt freezes, uncertain. Remembering what he was.
Then Hermann opens his arms, and Newt dives in because who the fuck cares at this point? He puts his arms around Hermann, passing through the back of his chair and closing them only enough for tiny shocks to touch his skin. Hermann’s arms tremble, only just holding up around his body, spilling sparks to the grass.
“Thank you.” His lips brush Newt’s chest. “For your help, I couldn’t-“
Newt snorts. “Don’t dare say you couldn’t have done it without me.”
“I couldn’t have done it so comfortably, without you.” Hermann looks up at him just as Newt looks down. Their eyes meet.
Hermann looks so happy.
He’s smiling, broad and so incredibly bright, eyes shining and alight. The sight sends sparks spiraling through him, filling him up with flashing, shimmering energy. It floods his body, his mind; he can taste it in his mouth. Like a lightning flash that never ends. Like a sun bursting to life inside his chest. In the heart he’d thought he’d lost.
“Hermann-“ The word drops sparks from his lips.
Hermann just keeps smiling. Tightens his grip until his arms slip partially through Newt’s body. He crackles. It has to hurt, but Hermann doesn’t move. “Thank you.” He says again. Sweet. Simple.
“No problem.” Newt manages. “Anytime.”
Hermann closes his eyes, leans back in his chair and lets his hands drop back to the armrests. “Thank you.” Tiredness overtakes joy. Excitement is draining, these days. Newt settles back next to him, hugging his knees.
The sun drifts down. The cloud slips across the sky and a sudden chill breaks across them. It’s getting late. “You wanna go back in?” Newt looks up.
Hermann says nothing. His eyes are closed and his head tipped back. He looks- calm. Happy. Utterly at peace. “Hermann?”
“I will see spring.” Hermann murmurs.
“What?” Newt sits up, looking down at Hermann’s exhausted, sweet, painfully young face.
Hermann opens tired eyes. “I will live through this winter. I will see spring again.” His voice is quiet, determined. “I will live a full year here.”
“Okay.” Newt smiles. “After this, I bet you can do anything.”
Hermann smiles, gentle. “Thank you.”
“You want to go back inside?”
“I suppose I must.” Hermann sits up reluctantly, and starts the slow, difficult task of maneuvering his wheelchair back to the house.
Newt has to concentrate to pick up the logs. He's gotten better, but it’s a hard lift, heavy weight and he can feel the burrowing insects inside the wood fry when his hands slip. The logs crack and spit when he gets them to the fireplace, thick grey smoke rising from the burning moss and fungi.
Hermann’s eyes are only just open, from where he’s sitting by the fire, gazing at the flames. He’s wrapped in the quilt, and Newt’s added a nice nubby wool blanket from upstairs around his shoulders. Winter is settling outside, the first flakes starting to drift down from the monochrome sky. It will take some weeks for the cold to sink into the stones of the house. Hopefully, the central heating and fire will keep it at bay for a bit longer still.
Newt sighs, his hands crackle as the splinters and moss from the logs slip through them. He walks over to Hermann, pushes hard, and manages to nudge his chair closer to the fire.
“Thank you.” Hermann curls up a little more closely in the blankets, hands lost in the tangle.
After the chair and the logs, it’s a relief to pick up the slender tablet and switch it on. He flicks through the bookmarks. “Want to check out the news?” Newt looks up.
Hermann starts to nod- then his phone rings. Newt jumps and Hermann starts- it’s not the Meals on Wheels people, they turned those messages to Email last month- trying to fumble for the mobile and only managing to drop it as his useless hands refuse to grip.
Newt goes for it. It’s so light it’s barely there. He holds it up and Hermann paws at it uselessly, unable to uncurl his fingers. His face twists, eyes bright with unshed tears of frustration.
Newt manages to flick the call on himself, holding it to Hermann’s ear. Hermann manages to wedge it there between head and shoulder, managing a weak smile of thanks. “Hello?”
His face falls almost at once, tightened into the hard, miserable lines he had worn when he first came to live with Newt. “Yes. No, no, I’m still here.” He looks tired in a way that has nothing to do with his illness, wretched and defeated. Newt comes close to him and Hermann glances up, and his face relaxes a little, grateful.
“Merry Christmas to you too, and Bastian and Dietrich.” Newt touches his shoulder, and Hermann leans through it a little. “Thank you, but I’ll be staying.” He looks up at Newt, and something like a smile pulls at his mouth. “I’m not sure I’d survive leaving. No. I’m quite happy here.”
Whatever they say at the other end of the line must be awful, because Hermann’s face contorts until Newt fears he’s having a seizure. “I don’t care.” He snarls. Glares when whoever it is responds. "I wasted most of my life trying to please him." Another pause. “Well, you can tell him how sorry I am for not dying on schedule.”
He brings his hand down clumsily, as though he wants to slam down a handset, but his hands are too ruined to cut off the line. “Do you want me to-“ Newt starts.
Hermann hesitates, then shakes his head a little, trying not to dislodge the phone. “I’m not going anywhere.” He says finally. “No, forget it. I- I’m sorry, but I’m not leaving.” The anger fades from his face. Newt brings both hands up around Hermann’s free one, and gets a grateful look. “Thank you. I’m sorry. Yes. I love you too, and the boys.”
He tries to put down the phone and only knocks it into his lap. Newt takes it to save Hermann some dignity. Hermann’s eyes close. The faint pale light of the winter sun plays across his face, cutting caverns in the deepening lines of his face, washing his skin pale as bone.
“What was-“ Newt starts.
“No.” Hermann says simply. One word; and Newt knows better than to try again.
But he wonders about it. Sometimes he forgets that Hermann is not a ghost. Oh, he’s real, of course, solid and alive but- he keeps himself so isolated Newt assumed that, like him, everyone outside thought he was dead.
He wonders why Hermann lives like this, why he’d wanted to go into the forest and die alone, with no one but Newt beside him.
It snows for Christmas.
And yeah, maybe Newt's a bit excited because he never really had a white Christmas when he was alive, and while it might technically have snowed on the 25th of December after that, it was hardly what Newt would call Christmas.
Although Hermann's idea of Christmas isn't exactly what he's been used to. With Illia and him fighting over the decorations and Dad's enormous explosive dinners and the ancient Christmas LP collections they played over and over.
It's very quiet. A perfect, silent night. The clouds clear shortly after the sun goes down and the moon is full. The snow is so white it’s almost blue, millions of tiny, gleaming crystals. Outside it is so cold that frost traces over the windows and the trees are bare and still. Even in the house, away from the fire, the air is freezing.
The Meals on Wheels people delivered a Christmas dinner special and Newt refuses to help Hermann with setting down the cutlery until he’s finished the majority.
"Enough." Hermann leans back in his chair and this time, Newt doesn't push. More than half the food's gone and that's the most Hermann's been able to keep down for weeks. "Slave driver." He murmurs, smiling a little.
"You're not going to see spring on two mouthfuls of soup and half a baby carrot." Newt slips his hands through Hermann’s and eases the spoon out of his locked fingers.
Hermann's smile fades, and for a moment he doesn't say anything, staring up at the ceiling, the flickering golden reflections of the fire. "It's becoming hard to swallow." He says finally.
Newt pauses, so distracted the tray almost falls though his hands. "Oh." That's...really not good. "Are you gonna be able to-"
"I will see spring." Hermann says, quietly firm as though stating the obvious. The inevitable. He’s determined to make it and Newt isn’t going to argue.
"Yeah." Newt tries to smile. "I'll get you there, Herms, promise."
Hermann is too tired to protest the nickname. He closes his eyes and leans his head back against the backrest. Newt gets the tray to the side table, in preparation to making the long haul back to the front door-
"Stay." Hermann whispers; and Newt pauses.
"Sure man, if you want." He folds himself up beside the chair.
Hermann smiles. His eyes slip closed and his breathing grows soft and steady. The fire casts warm light over him, softens his face and wipes away the lines of pain. The crackle of the fire blends with the murmur of the wind outside, the heat soaking through Newt’s flickering form, Hermann’s tired body. Newt glances up at his friend, half sure Hermann's fallen asleep. He’s just wondering if he can slip away long enough to grab his tablet, when Hermann suddenly opens his eyes and looks at him again.
"I have something for you."
Newt blinks. "For me?"
Hermann nods and moves his useless hands inside the bundle of blankets, dislodging a small box. Newt stares because seriously, how did Hermann manage to hide that? He helps him dress and gets his chair and everything. But Hermann's smile is impish and warm and smoothes the lines of pain and tiredness from his face and Newt is totally ready to be made to look an idiot forever if Hermann will just smile like this all the time.
Hermann nudges the box towards him, Newt takes it carefully, and feels the familiar spark-crackle of electricity. "Oooh, you got me something nice!" Newt grins.
The box isn't wrapped, but plain brown cardboard. Getting the flaps out is the tricky part, with the excitement that's rising bright and prickling through him, and his hands slip through the box several times before he finally gets it open and looks inside.
It's a case for his tablet. Black and sort of stiff and when Newt picks it up it crackles again and he frowns at it for a moment because no way fabric does that-
Hermann is watching him, twisting the blankets around his fists, eyes bright. "It's- a solar charger. When I- when I go, the house will be empty; and they'll cut the electricity off again- but with this at least you'll still be able to use the tablet." He's so hopeful and eager that Newt has to smile back, “Merry Christmas.”
Newt hesitates, stroking the stiff panels, blue sparks wreathing his hands. He won't spoil this for him. It's such a thoughtful gift, and Newt hasn't had a present for more than twenty years. "Thank you." He let the charger slip to the floor. "It's awesome, I love it."
Hermann nods, looks satisfied. His eyes are shadowed, bruise-dark, and sweet. "I- I have been worried about you."
Newt blinks. "Why? I mean, come on," he grins and waves a hand at himself, the house. "I'm a ghost, what's gonna happen to me?"
"You were alone." Hermann isn't smiling, face still and sad. "You had been abandoned in this house for so long you didn't even know what year it was, before I came. No one should go through that."
“It’s what you wanted,” Newt points out, “You didn’t know I was here, you wanted to be alone here.”
"I have a time limit on my sojourn here." Hermann frowns. "You- do not. It was pure chance I could even see you." He sighs. "And I have my phone and laptop to communicate with. At least with the tablet you can learn, and keep up with the world. You could even talk to people through skype, if you keep to typing." He looks down at his hands. "I am only- sorry I will not be able to stay longer."
Newt looks away, at the fire, at the walls, down at the charger. Outside, at the cold, still snow; he can hear the hum of the radiators, the silence of winter kept at bay for at least one year. It's not fair. Hermann put so much thought and care into this and it couldn't have been easy, putting in the order and getting it delivered and hiding it without Newt noticing. But if he's that worried about Newt then… maybe he ought to know.
"Look, you- you don't have to worry. About me, I mean. I – I’m not sure I'll be staying much longer anyway."
Hermann sits up so suddenly he almost upsets the chair. “You’re leaving?” Newt isn’t sure if it’s the exertion or shock that’s made him so pale.
“Hey, no!” Newt touches his hand, smiles. “Not yet! I’m not leaving you, don’t worry.”
Hermann relaxes a little, but his face is still taut and lined, “But, why? You love it here, why would you want to go?”
Newt looks away; drops his hands to his lap, twists his fingers together and cascades sparks over the rug. “I guess I just- I don’t have any need to stay, any more.”
“No need to-“ Hermann starts, almost indignant, then he gets it. He suddenly falls silent; “Oh.”
“Yeah,” Newt dares a quick glance up at Hermann, his face is flushed, eyes wide and mouth a little open. “You don’t have to- say anything or- I mean, I don’t need you to- It’s enough, just like this and- oh please, don’t let this be weird, I’m sorry, it won’t change anything, I promise-“
“Stop.” Hermann lifts a hand to cut off the flow of desperate words. “Please, I- I-“ he breaks off, apparently lost for words.
“Thank you.” Newt manages, barely a whisper. “And I’m not going anywhere, I mean, I feel like I need to,” Newt touches his abdomen, where the hook is lodged in deep, pulling, “but I can stay and- you don’t have to say anything. I don’t want you to feel you have to- return it, or something. Just- thanks?”He tries a smile, uncertain, “For letting me feels what it’s like. It was worth the wait.”
Hermann swallows, and – Newt stares in horror- his eyes gleam with unshed tears. “Oh, please don’t!” Newt begs. “Please, I’m sorry, I’ll never mention it again-“
“No.” Hermann’s voice is a little choked. “Thank you.” He swallows. “Thank you,” he repeats, more steadily, “for such a wonderful gift.”
Newt stares at him, “I didn’t give you-“
“You did.” Hermann smiles and it’s breathtaking, beautiful, it catches somewhere in Newt’s chest. “I never thought I would have the chance to- discover this.” He continues, softly. “I thought I would die here. In peace, but alone. And then you-” He closes his eyes, and two tracks of tears streak down his face. “Thank you.” He holds out a hand to Newt.
Newt takes his hand in his. The sparks flying up Hermann’s wrist to his forearm, but Newt’s fingers close on nothing. Their hands occupy the same space, but never touch. The firelight painting them both in shades of flicking orange.
Hermann opens his eyes, their faces only inches apart. “I only wish-”
Newt can’t look away, “Yes.” He leans in.
Sparks branch between them, breaching the space they can’t. Hermann’s lips are sting-swollen where they brush over Newt’s. Newt feels the heat of Hermann’s body, his body bursting with sparks like a thunderstorm.
“I love you.” Newt manages, head spinning.
“I love you.” Hermann repeats, barely a whisper, eyes closed, his breaths warming the air between them, sweet.
His eyes open, he smiles, sweet as spring sunshine. “Thank you. For such a wonderful Christmas gift.”
The sun rises earlier every morning these days; and when it does, it’s time for Newt to get up to start their morning. Always the same routine, every day.
First there’s the heating. It’s always on, but Newt checks the weather outside before setting it for the morning, making sure it’s not too high if it’s warmer, turning it up on the freezing February days, and sometimes getting a fire going in the living room, if it looks like it‘s going to be a good day.
There are so few good days any more, and today is no different.
Newt maneuvers the box of porridge over a bowl and pours it in. Adds milk. Singes the plastic bowl when he puts it in the microwave and the machine briefly shorts out and spits sparks at him. Puts the bowl and a glass of water on a tray and balances the tray carefully in his hands, carrying the porridge into Hermann’s room.
The curtains are always open, and the faint, bleak light cuts across the bed, bleaching Hermann’s face paler than the bedclothes. “Hey babe.” Newt sets the tray on the bedside table.
Hermann stirs, but doesn’t wake. Newt touches his cheek, and his eyes open blearily, they fight to focus on Newt.
“Is it spring yet?” His mouth moves clumsily, slurs the words.
Newt’s hands shake, his lip quivers, but he forces a smile. “Not yet, sweetie. But it’s warmer today, we’ve even got some sun. It won’t be long now.”
Hermann closes his eyes; he’s half-asleep, half-lost in unending exhaustion and pain and Newt’s not sure how much he’s taken in. Hermann slowly works his way up the pillows until he’s almost sitting up on a pile of pillows. Newt smiles encouragingly as he fluffs them up and settles the tray in Hermann’s lap.
The spoon is the heaviest Newt could find in the draw, an old pewter spoon with a good weight- not too light, not too heavy- and easy for Newt to pick up and carry out the slow, careful work of feeding Hermann.
Hermann looks away as the spoon reaches his mouth, humiliated. He rocks his paralyzed hands into the blankets, over and over, as though he could work sensation and life back into the useless knots of bone. Newt tries not to looks, to change the subject. “You slept okay?” Newt slips the first spoonful into Hermann’s mouth.
Hermann smiles around it, weak, but still there. His throat works as he tries to swallow. Newt waits until he finally gets it down. “Thank you.” Hermann manages, leaning back and closing his eyes. “I slept well.” He takes a breath, as though even those few words had exhausted him. “But I’m always tired.” He starts to trail off.
“Hey,” Newt prods his hand, “No going to sleep before you’ve had a few more, lazy.”
Hermann hums, and opens an eye, a smiling tracing his mouth. “Make me.”
He sounds like a child, petulant and deliberately irritating. It just reminds Newt how young he is. Twenty six. He should barely be out of university, looking to follow up his brilliant thesis with a research position or even teaching or work with NASA. He shouldn’t be here.
How horrible is it that Newt is glad that he is?
Newt prods him again. “I’ll keep at it until you eat. Come on. Ten spoonfuls. You’ve already had one, so you’ve got nine to go.”
“I had seven yesterday.” Hermann pouts.
“Yeah, and you’re not going to make spring unless you eat more. Come on. Nine.”
They manage eight. Then Hermann slumps back, eyes closing and this time Newt knows not to push. He puts the bowl aside and settles next to him on the bed.
“I wish I was still alive.” Newt leans over and Hermann opens his eyes, questioning. “That way I could cuddle up to you and keep you warm and- just- hug you, and stuff.”
“I could think of some other things you could do,” Hermann murmurs.
Newt blinks, and glares down at Hermann’s now smiling face, mock-outraged; “Are you impinging on my honor? Are you trying to take advantage of me, Doctor Gottlieb?”
Hermann’s smile just broadens, “I do still have certain- desires. Even now. And you are- very beautiful.” His hand brushes clumsily across Newt’s cheek. “I would enjoy having- intercourse, with you.” There’s a touch of red on his pale cheeks and Newt can’t bring himself to tease him.
“Yeah, me too.” He moves to lie a bit closer- thin as he’s become, Hermann takes up almost no space on the small bed. “I’m sorry, babe.”
“It’s not your fault. It’s fine.” Hermann rolls over to face Newt, hands tucked between them. Eyes drifting closed. “I’m not serious. I am glad you’re- here, like this. I can almost look forward to it now.” His voice slowly trails off.
Newt watches as Hermann falls asleep. When he’ll wake up again, for lunch, he’ll ask Newt again if spring is here. And it’s getting harder and harder not to lie, not to tell him that yes, yes it’s over, that Hermann doesn’t have to fight any more, can just let go. Better than this, better than watching Hermann suffering through day after day, as his body slowly dies around him.
The cold has worked its way through the house so slowly and gradually that Newt barely notices it as the days go by and January turns into March. He dozes more, but his routine keeps him from losing track of time. The days of looking after Hermann, keeping him washed, making sure he eats; it makes this winter – after so many that had seemed unending- pass much more quickly.
Outside the frosts thaw and freeze, the snow melts and darkens to black ice, then is covered in fresh layers. The plants sleep, deep in their roots. The small animals hibernate in nests of dead leaves. The chill filters through the windows, soaks through the brick work, drifts down through the roof. It comes through everywhere, so gradually that Newt doesn’t notice it-
-until it’s gone.
He opens his eyes and the light is bright gold where it dances through the windows on tiny motes of dust, warming through Newt and the bedclothes. Even with the windows closed, he can smell the quick-blooming flowers outside, the blooms opening the moment the snow melts. The first trembles of birdsong escape the woods, a few early croaks of frogs sound by the pool.
Newt sits up and outside, the snow is gone, the grass below is fresh, new-grown tender green. For the twenty-fifth time- forty-fifth, if Newt is counting from when he was alive- spring has caught him by surprise, creeping up unannounced.
Newt gets up and opens the window, letting the warming air, fragrant with early flowers, into the musty room.
“Hermann?” Newt touches Hermann’s hand, lying on top of the coverlet. It’s painfully thin, pale from the long winter, all thin, knotted bone. Hermann doesn’t react at the static shock, eyes closed and skin almost translucent in the morning light. “Hey, Herms! Wake up!” Newt can’t shake him, so he shakes the bed instead. It’s heavy work, and Hermann doesn’t stir.
It would be absolutely awful if he died now- he’s made it so far and for him not to wake up and see they’d made it-
But then Hermann’s eyes open. They’re glazed and he blinks several times, unable to get Newt into focus. “Hey, it’s okay.” Newt kneels in, trying to get to the sweet spot where Hermann’s failing eyes can see him.
“Is it-“ Hermann’s voice cracks, and Newt nods furiously.
“Yeah, it is. You made it. It’s spring.”
Hermann manages to lift his head, “Really?” He hardly seems to believe it; Newt’s heart aches because- god, he’d really given up hope, hadn’t he?
“Yeah, come on, you wanna sit up? You can look outside.” Newt plumps up a pillow invitingly.
“No.” Hermann closes his eyes and Newt is a bit disappointed. It’s gorgeous outside; he’d thought Hermann would want to see-
“No.” He repeats, and his voice is a little firmer, less slurred; his eyes open, full of raw determination. “I am going- out.” He catches his breath. “Get my chair- please.”
Newt’s heart jumps, excited because they have not gone out for months, but- “Are you-“
“Yes!” Hermann snaps, then starts coughing, harsh and heavy. He struggles to draw breath, face at first flushed, then slowly draining of colour. Newt notices with alarm that his lips are tinged blue.
“Okay.” Newt gets the chair. It’s stiff from lack of use, and the wheels need oil. Newt gets it open, and pushes it over to the bed where Hermann manages to sit up. He’s white as- well- a ghost, shuffling his arms and slowly, painfully, working his wasted legs over the side of the bed.
Hermann manages to get one foot down, then the other. His worn, dirty pajamas haven’t been changed or washed for weeks; and hang lank from his thin body. There’s nothing Newt can do to help, he has to stand by uselessly, at best trying to shift the chair into the better position so Hermann can get in more easily.
Hermann takes a few deep breaths, closes his eyes, and braces an arm on the back of the chair. Then he pushes himself off the bed. His legs don’t hold him, buckling almost at once. Newt gets the chair under him, and Hermann lands heavily in the padded seat. He smiles weakly up at Newt, face shining with sweat.
“You want a blanket before we go out?” Newt pushes hard and gets the chair moving. It’s a lot easier now than it used to me. It might be Newt’s gotten better at moving things, but more likely it’s a sign of how much weight Hermann has lost.
Hermann hesitates, eyes going to the old quilt spread on the bed, and nods. Newt tucks the quilt around him and Hermann smiles, starts to say something but it overtaken by another coughing fit. He’s horribly pale, and his lips are bluer still. Maybe going outside will help.
The chill is still enough that Hermann shivers and huddles in on himself when they go out. But his eyes are bright as he takes in the riot of green, the birdsong, the flowers. “Made it.” He chokes. Newt grins.
“Yeah. You kicked that MS’ ass. What’s that, five months more than the doctors said?”
Hermann nods, smiles, his head rolls back and he looks at the sky. Bright, beautiful blue, faint, upper cirrus clouds. The sun beginning to warm the long frozen earth. He closes his eyes and lets the heat play over his face. “Worth it.”
“Yeah.” Newt looks around, the trees putting out their leaves, the first dottings of frogspawn in the pond, the blue and purple and white of crocuses at the edge of the forest. “Where do you want to go?”
Hermann doesn’t answer at once, eyes closed and focusing on drawing even breaths. “The woods.” He gets out finally. Newt nods, and pushes the chair towards the trees.
They get as far as the little headstones before the going gets difficult. The old path they had used in the summer has frozen and thawed and frozen again, and the ruts catch at the rusted wheels. Newt swears under his breath and tries to force the chair over the cracks-
“Fuck!” His mind wavers, or he misjudges just how much he can push because his hands go straight through the chair. Hermann jumps at the shock, and the chair topples to the side. Newt tries to catch it but it’s too much, too fast, his hands close on nothing and Hermann falls.
“Oh shit, I’m sorry!” Newt kneels down next to Hermann. He’s rolled free of the chair to the soft grass, so he’s not hurt, but his breath is coming quick and irregular, and – shit - how are they going to get back inside? “Are you okay? Say something-“
“I-“ Hermann’s eyes open, his hair has grown long in the last few months, falling over his face. His hands trace over the new shoots of grass, the first stalks of daffodils, not flowering yet. “I- am-“ He trails off, eyes focusing on the minutia of tiny life around him. The dew gleaming on the grass, the first scurryings of insects. His voice is weak and breathless; “I am fine.”
“No you’re not.” Newt smiles, and sits down next to him. Hermann manages to roll over, facing the sky, but even that effort is too much and he starts coughing, hard and horrible and he’s fighting to breath, each one coming in a rasp. Newt holds very still. “Hermann?”
Hermann’s eyes open; he looks lost, mouth opening, moving soundlessly. “I- I’m dying.”
Newt hesitates, and for a moment there’s no sound but the birdsong, the croaks and plops of the frogs, Hermann’s ragged, failing breathing. His eyes tracking across the sky, the waving branches of trees putting out their first buds, the flowering bushes around them, the little old graves beside them.
“I mean-” Hermann tries to smile through the stuttered words, and Newt covers his hand with both of his, feeling the sparks scatter to the ground, “I’ve been dying for- years. But I think it’s now- I think that I’m-“
“Yeah.” Newt settles in as close as he can. Above them, a small bird starts to sing.
“It’s a good place.” Hermann chokes. The cyanosis is spreading past his lips; his eyes are bruises, his cheeks bluish. “I hope- no one comes. I hope- they leave me here-”
Newt tries to smile. “The Meals on Wheels people won’t come for another week, maybe two, and there’s a lot of hungry things in a forest in spring. They’ll need to bury you in a matchbox.”
Hermann gives a strangled laugh, high and desperate. He’s scared, and no wonder. Life is good, and after is okay; but going from one to the other is horrible. His body is starting to shake. “I- I can’t-“ His breath is coming is short, desperate pants, his eyes flaring wide. “Newt- I can’t-“
“Shh-“ Newt tries to smile. Tries to seem calm and okay but- fuck, not like this. Not like him. It’s an awful way to go. “Just- don’t fight, let it happen-“
It’s useless. Hermann’s mind might be listening but the rest of him wants to live. His whole body stiffens and the shaking gets worse, his face flushing a deep and horrible red. His thin, sunken chest spasms and jerks as he struggles to breathe through failing lungs.
Newt trembles in sympathy, remembering the panic, feeling the wet, solid weight over his mouth. He pushes the memories away, focuses on Hermann’s hand enclosed in his, a hand he cannot feel, not yet. “It’s okay.” He whispers. “It’s the worst part now, your body’s fighting to survive, and it’s going to kill you. But it won’t go on forever, it’ll stop and it won’t hurt any more-“ Newt’s not sure if Hermann can hear him, everything closes down after a while until there’s nothing but the pain. The all-devouring, unending pain-
He jerks, twists, Newt almost loses the hand he’s holding. Hermann’s head thumps against the ground as the few muscles that are still his to move strain to get him breathing. Newt shivers despite the warm sunlight, he had struggled at first under the hands holding him down, then his thrashing had become wilder and more desperate, as he went under, his lungs screaming-
Then finally, Hermann’s body starts to fall still, spasms turning to shivers as he slowly starts to go limp.
“Shh, it’s okay.” Newt tightens his grip, but his fingers just slip through Hermann’s still hand. “It’s over now. It won’t hurt. Nothing’ll hurt you. Not again.”
Hermann’s body jerks up, his eyes flash open and they are red with blood, his mouth opens, swollen and purpling, back arching in one last, desperate fight to breathe-
But nothing comes, and Hermann slumps backwards, a faint thump on the soft grass, a sickening, wet rattle coming from his throat as his lungs finally collapse. Newt takes his hand again, and waits.
The sun is higher now, warmer. A loud rat-tat-tat catches Newt’s attention and he looks up. In a tree above them, a large green woodpecker is pecking at the bark.
“Hey.” Newt smiles, “Hermann, wake up, look at this.”
There’s nothing, the body beside him is motionless, his hands pass through it as the cells still retain life, but there is nothing more. Newt feels a sudden, sickening chill because- what if he was wrong? What if he is just an- aberration, and there is nothing after death for anyone else-
Then, something twitches between his fingers. It’s small, barely there, like catching a butterfly with his bare hands. “Hermann?” Newt leans in; above them, the woodpecker chirps and flutters to try the next trunk along. “Herms, come on, you’re gonna miss it.”
The hand in his moves again- something inside the hand, like a hatchling within its egg. He feels forming fingers move tentatively against his. “Hey.” Newt leans over and puts a hand under his shoulder- that’s coming through too, solid and warm and- perversely- alive. The first living thing Newt has touched in twenty-five years.
Newt gets a better grip on Hermann’s hand and shoulder and –pulls - There’s a moment of tension, and then suddenly, as all resistance disappears, he hauls Hermann out of himself.
Hermann’s eyes start open and he drags in a deep, desperate breath. Newt helps him sit up, head between his knees as he struggles to catch his breath. He doesn’t need it. He will never have to breathe again, but Newt did the same thing when he first- woke up. It’s such a relief to be able to just breathe.
Newt lets him, puts his arms around him and gluts himself on the feeling of someone in his arms. More alive to him now, than he had been in life- solid, warm, the heave of his shoulders with every breath- he’s here oh god he’s here and Newt can hold him and he’s real and oh Hermann Hermann Hermann-
Hermann looks up, he’s shaken and pale from his ordeal, but he looks far better than he had alive. He’s regained the flesh he had lost over the last horrible, unending winter, and there’s colour in his face. His hand shifts in Newt’s; long, delicate fingers parting and moving as they haven’t for almost six months. They’re works of art, and Newt draws the hand up to his lips and presses a kiss to it. He can’t seem to stop smiling.
Hermann’s breathing hitches, and he looks up. His eyes are bright, no longer sunken, no longer dull and pained. All the pain and frustration and anger is gone, he’s young and vibrant and Newt’s heart aches at the sight of him.
“Newton.” Hermann whispers, eyes roaming over him, soaking him in as though Newt would disappear if he so much as blinked. His free hand comes up and traces the contours of Newt’s round face, the edge of his glasses, the tangle of his hair. “You’re-“ His voice breaks. “You’re here.”
Newt grins; helplessly, hopelessly happy; and Hermann closes the final space between them and oh god he’s in his arms- he’s solid and real and there and he’s in Newt’s arms and he can hold him and draw him close and can breathe the musky scent of his skin and it’s almost too much- it’s been too long- and Newt feels tears start to prick at his eyes at the sheer humanity of touch.
Then Hermann pulls back a little and Newt hesitates, arms still around each other. He looks up at Hermann- in case he’s read this wrong, if Hermann doesn’t want-
Then his lips find Newt’s and every thought, every particle of his being, explodes into a thunderstorm of lightning. His lips are soft on Newt's; his large, supple mouth moving hungrily against his and it sends a kick through Newt, a thunderbolt of want and his body responding hot and eager as it hasn’t for so long-
They break apart, and this time Newt is the one out of breath. Hermann looks so happy he outshines the sun, smiling broadly, eyes dancing. He slips in again, cuddling up against Newt and closing his eyes, tucking his face under Newt’s neck. Newt hugs him even closer.
“That was awful.” Hermann whispers, the buzz of his lips sending prickles through Newt.
He kisses the back of Hermann’s head, feels the soft hair tickle his nose. “Yeah, but it’s over now. You won’t ever hurt again.”
“Thank god.” Hermann looks up, “Not just- that-” he nods at his corpse “-even before, the last few months have been-” he shudders.
“I bet.” Newt nuzzles his ear, nips at the tip and feels Hermann shiver.
Hermann sits up, and looks at his discarded body. Newt winces. That’s never a pleasant sight. He’d seen himself after he died, and it was horrible.
Hermann doesn’t flinch, looking at his twisted, starved body; face slowly purpling as the blood congeals, tongue thick and protruding, eyes open and glazed and bloody. Red froth beading at the corners of his mouth. The smell of unwashed skin and waste. “God, I look dreadful.” He smiles sadly. “I hope no one comes, I’d hate for anyone to see me like this.”
Newt hesitates, hands wandering across Hermann’s shoulders. “Don’t you have anyone you’ll miss? They might want a funeral-“
Hermann’s smile vanishes and eyes shutter. “A funeral. Yes. My father would want some sort of- performance to show what a terrible loss he suffered, how brave he’s being. An open coffin, to elicit sympathy and to show how foolish I'd been to disobey him, to come here and to continue my studies instead of-" He breaks off, resting his head Newt's side. Newt cards fingers through his hair. "It would be such a – such a farce. I’d rather stay here.” He sighs, looks away, and calms down. “I’d rather stay with you. Look, we’ll only be a few feet apart.”
Newt nods. The tug in his abdomen comes suddenly, hard. Not a hook but a- wave, a cresting tide washing through him, drawing him away from the world. “Hermann-“
Hermann’s hands tighten on his, holding them together even as the rest of the world slips away. As everything fades to a watercolour wash of colour, Hermann remains clear and solid beside him, his eyes bright and happy, his smile dazzling.
Hermann opens his eyes to the golden light of morning. The morning chorus is in full swing, and the air is rich with the scent of jasmine and hyacinth. The bed under him is soft and springy; the bedclothes warm against the lingering chill of early morning. The same as every morning; as beautiful and as delicate and as perfect.
There is something a little different in the air this morning. Hermann rolls on his back and draws in a deep, delicious breath; tasting the scents of the flowers and the hot perfect smell of baking bread.
Newt’s side of the bed is cold, and when Hermann stretches out the bedclothes are tangled, and he can smell Newt on the sheets and pillow. He sits up and swings his legs over the side of the bed, delighting in the ease of motion, a body that responds immediately and without pain.
He jumps off the bed- just because he can. The bare boards are warm under his feet; he pads over to the door, scuffing the soft rugs underfoot, and opens the door.
The smell of baking bread is stronger here; he can hear Newt clattering downstairs in the kitchen. Hermann leans on the banister and slips down quietly, peering down and unable to stop a slow, wonderful smile at the sight.
Newt is humming to himself, rolling out and kneading a fresh loaf as the current one is baking. The windows are wide open and roses growing along the trellises on the walls outside are bobbing their heads just inside, adding a sweet scent to that of the bread. Newt is so distracted that he does not notice Hermann creeping up behind him until it’s too late.
Hermann’s arms snap tight around him, pulling him in close and nipping little love bites along his neck. Newt yelps and starts, but then relaxes into the embrace. “’morning.” He tilts his head up and smiles up at Hermann. He looks delicious, flour smudged across one cheek and dabbed on the tip of his nose. He smells of dough and fresh milk and roses and sunshine.
Hermann leans in and checks that Newt tastes just as good as he looks. Mmm, even better. Sweet with honey, fresh with milk.
Newt hmms into the kiss and Hermann steps back until they are leaning against the scrubbed unvarnished table. Newt’s tongue is hot and slick in his mouth, dancing and quick and clever. Hermann slides up on the table and Newt turns in his arms, kissing him back with more energy now he’s got the angle. Pushing Hermann to lie back on the table and Hermann pulls him on top of him.
Newt is wearing nothing but his pajama bottoms, Hermann nothing at all. Their hands duel to pull the pants away, until there is nothing between them- just skin, or whatever is skin for them, here. Newt’s is hot against him, cock pressed tight against his belly, hot and hard and when Hermann opens his eyes, Newt’s flushed pink and eager, lips kiss swollen and sweet when he claims them again.
Hermann’s hand wander across Newt’s back, soft, tender skin, the slight pudge at his waist, the swell of his backside. Newt shivers and rocks against him, slipping down until their cocks bump together. Hermann yelps at the sudden shock of contact and Newt giggles, slipping a hand between them and taking both their cocks in his hand.
Hermann groans, closes his eyes; bringing his hand down to join in. Newt’s cock is slick and slippery in his hand; the contact of silky skin and coarser palms on the tender skin of his penis. Pleasure shivers through him like a growing thunderstorm. Newt catches his mouth again, breathless, tongues touching like lighting striking ground.
Hermann draws his knees up, parting his legs as wide he can. His body crackling with pleasure; the devouring delight of human touch; skin on skin, sweat clinging hungrily to both of them. Hermann closes his eyes and drops his head back, drunk on sensation and lack of pain. Hands moving easily on both their cocks, legs strong, back arching into the pleasure.
He comes with a jolt, swift and easy with a soft gasp. Newt takes his breath and swallows it, and gives it back with a cry of his own, splattering wet and hot across both their hands, and Hermann’s stomach.
For a moment there is nothing but this. Nothing but the two of them, damp with sweat, naked across the table. The sunlight slanting through the rose petals and across the kitchen. The chirping of birds outside, blending with their own breaths.
For a moment, Hermann closes his eyes and there are no longer apart, no longer two but one, blended together with each other and flowing and melting into the kitchen and the house and the world outside, the birdsong and the roses and the hyacinths and the rich smell of baking bread-
“Oh fuck, it’s burning!” Newt jumps off him and opens the oven, releasing a cloud of smoke and the distinct smell of burning dough.
Hermann doesn’t move, staring up at the slatted ceiling and smiling at Newt’s soft swearing as he tries to rescue his loaf and burns his fingers. One day, he’s sure, they will simply melt together; become not two but one, with each other and the world. Never be apart, always together without even the concept of self to separate them.
One day. Not today. For now, this is enough. To lie together under the trees in a land of summer eternal, the softness of sheets around them in their lovemaking, their bodies, alive and strong and without pain. This place, this small, perfect cottage, tucked away in the forest, isolated and theirs, just theirs.