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i forget the difference between seduction and arson

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In their haphazardly joined skull-space Newt draws a breath and Hermann excises it, pushing it out with a violence that Newt tracks carefully; the precision converts him, however briefly, into a spirometer. You and me and the squalling infant makes three, the barely-born with thoughts that glisten like viscera but stab like shatter-shards -- glass, shrapnel, who cares. Newt feels more or less Frankenstein's monster, the seams of this latest connection stitched with reckless abandon into the holes the last try left, and every nerve ending he's got is sobbing a fucking exhausting song. Somebody's childhood is screaming his name. Somebody's future is writing his obituary. You are not a spirometer, somebody's thinking, and it's almost definitely not the kaiju baby; about that, at least, Newt is pretty fucking sure.

It's weird, drifting, The Drift with its capital letters, the brain with all its hairpin turns. After, Newt'll remember pieces of lives that were never his, will tremble himself awake and asleep riding the crest of borrowed doubts, losses. With five, god, with fucking ten seconds to process, this whole thing'll be a different story, and he won't remember this piece of it, this part that's happening right now. He's three people -- he's two people and one not-person -- he's tracking the way he keeps pulling in air and Hermann keeps shoving it out again, keeps batting it away, because everything else is so goddamn loud.

I'm not going to fucking hold my breath for you, Newt wants to say, and the funny thing is that he's been wanting to say that for years but he's never meant it literally before, never meant, Would you stop fucking doing that, stop shutting it out, we need that, dude, we need it to live.

Except that he has meant that, and he's meant it every time. Somebody's stomach is turning against them. Somebody's glands are learning to secrete their momma's poisons.

---

They win the war and it's the apocalypse anyway, just a smaller one, more contained, a lot less death than Newt was originally bracing himself for. It's preferable to the leveling of the planet but it's still an exercise in sitting by, helpless; Newt's frustrated hands knot scars in to the hems of his three-day trousers as the world as they know it falls carelessly apart. There are offers, lecture circuits and teaching positions, commercial gigs that Newt would sooner spit on than whore himself to -- fuckers who want to synth the kaiju, like there's not better shit for them to be doing, like half the goddamn world isn't in ruins. It's sick, they're all sick, the Shatterdome's a teardown waiting to happen because everyone wants to forget, like history doesn't repeat itself. It's been two weeks since Newt saved the world and he's already wondering if he made the right call.

Hermann just sits there, his eyebrow arched, his gaze severe, and yeah, yeah, maybe it's good that he's got a level head. Maybe it's good that there's one of them to say it, "Careful with that!" and "No, you can't box those chemicals together, I'll do it," to people who are just doing their jobs. Newt's done jobs, done unpleasant jobs, it's not the packers' fault they can't have the lab anymore, it's not the packers' fault he wants to throw things at their heads until they're too busy bleeding on the floor to move anything else.

It's not Hermann's fault either, but that doesn't make it any easier, the way he's just handling it and Newt isn't, can't, the way Hermann fucking writes a tagging program so they'll be able to find their shit in all these boxes and Newt, what, mutters under his breath? Smokes like fifteen cigarettes out on the jaeger deployment dock that'll never get used again and snarls at the ocean? The ocean, like it couldn't kick his ass a hundred thousand times over -- yeah, Newt's as sick as everyone else, in his way. Sicker, because he knows better, because he worked his ass off for this and if he can't be happy then he could at least try not to be this particular brand of sad.

Glands that Newt doesn't have are trying to fill with acid all the time, these past few days, which is great. Great, to have phantom sensations in body parts he's never possessed, hadn't ever even conceptualized before those few fragmented seconds that were layered over a distillation of a man Newt's spent ten years apparently failing to learn. He would've guessed that the inside of Hermann's head was a chalkboard or one of those crazy serial-killer storage rooms, where there are rows and rows of shelves that are all stacked with identical white-lidded clear containers, and each container holds -- well, whatever. Newt doesn't know. He's never serial-killed anyone or organized his life in a pattern that would make sense to basically any mind but his own; it's an imperfect thought process, fine. They happen. People are human. Human people are human, anyway.

The inside of Hermann's head was a cathedral, all vaulting arches that Newt could tell, somehow, had been standing for thousands of years without any mortar, were standing still on the merits of their mathematics alone. Which was so -- just -- fuck, Newt doesn't want to know that, doesn't want to know what the ocean looks like on this bitter-bright day, the sun shining overhead. The world's still ending, even if it's just his world. The sky could've had the goddamn courtesy to keep up with the rain, to maintain the pathetic fallacy until Newt himself was a little less pathetic; fuck.

--

They get shunted into this tiny lab in San Francisco, and, okay, maybe Newt overreacted a little, maybe Newt was a little overdramatic, because the lab in San Francisco, it's not bad.

Or, no, it's really bad, it's horrible -- Newt's pretty sure there's mold in the walls and not even an interesting kind, just the normal shit that he's allergic to -- but hey, whatever. It's not like he ever breathes normally when there's so much going on, when Hermann's screaming at him to, "Put the tape down the center of the room, Newton, I will be damned if I'll allow you to cheat me out of even an inch of space that is rightfully mine." Newt's inhales catch very slightly in his chest and the tape down the center of the room this time is fuckshit crazy glitter rainbow striped, because in San Francisco half the streets are still rubble-dusted but you can get rainbow duct tape, like, anywhere.

There's still offers -- lecture circuits, teaching positions, money-grubbing shitstains who can die in a fiery pit and get their filthy fucking hands the hell away from Newt's research -- but the military wants them here, so. Here they are. Not separated. Not that Newt would've cared if they were, or anything.

"I don't want to disturb your growing hamster nest," Hermann says, dripping disdain, on their third or fourth day; Newt's not sure which day, the sun's up but it's hard to know if it's already done the whole setting and rising again thing or not. He got absorbed in unpacking the way people do when they fucked off to sulk and left the actual packing part to someone else, and he's been finding old shit, fascinating shit -- god, he's thought and tried to prove so many wrong things over the years. There's even this one box that he's pretty sure he did pack himself, but when he first joined up like a decade ago; it's all just papers, jammed and folded and crushed like someone sat on them to get the box to close, and most of it's research for his PhDs. It's interesting. It's like a glimpse into whoever the hell he was before he was himself.

He wants to ask Hermann, with his cathedral brain and his wilting stare, what the inside of Newt's head looked like to him. He doesn't, though. God only knows what it would give Hermann the opportunity to finally say; Newt doesn't like setting himself up to be Hermann's punchline, since it would really suck if Hermann started to get bored.

Hermann slams the handle of his cane down on the aluminum table next to Newt's head. The noise is astronomical, cataclysmic, and Newt throws his arms and all the papers he's holding in the air, shrieks, "What?!" Then he tracks back and remembers that there was something said, that there were words that begged a reply, says, "Jesus, dude, chill, that was so totally unnecessary. Do you seriously need to blow out my eardrum for a response to 'I don't want to disturb your hamster nest?' Which, by the way, bullshit. You obviously want to disturb my nest, or you wouldn't be standing here. I'm not a hamster."

"You're right," Hermann says, "and my apologies to the entire family cricetidae. Let us all hope they don't infest this lab in punishment for my comparing you to them. Do I have your full attention now?"

You don't want my full attention, Newt thinks. It's not the first time he's thought it, because this is a thing Hermann says, a turn of phrase Hermann is ever-so-fond of, like Newt's full attention is something he even controls. Hermann's been saying it for years and this is what Newt always responds with, but only in the privacy of his own head; he thinks, You don't want my full attention, but he says something else, something like, "I'm sorry, do you hear that? It sounds like some sort of egomaniacal buzzing, really obnoxious, god, I wish it would stop," or the faster, simpler, "Shut up shut up shut up." Sometimes he just starts rattling off pi in the wrong order because he knows that's like nails on a chalkboard to Hermann, because the way Hermann turns purple and yells about how some thing are meant to be sacred gives Newt time to think it some more: You don't want my full attention, you don't. Even I don't want it, so you couldn't possibly.

Except that this time they've drifted, so yeah, Newt's thinking, You don't, he's thinking it because Hermann said, "Do I have your full attention," and it's what Newt always thinks when Hermann says that, but it's different, now. It's different because Newt knows Hermann knows he's thinking it, he can see Hermann realize -- remember -- whatever. They have one of those moments that Newt can't help but conceptualize as intellectual heat waves, where the air nearly shimmers with understanding passing between two bodies: this is a thing Hermann picked up when their minds melded, this little thought pattern, Hermann's until-now unknowing part in this brief call and response.

And, shit, it's different because Newt's seen inside Hermann's head, too, and those staggering, fragmented seconds beneath the cathedral arches raked Newt's certainties across a bed of hot coals. Took Newt's thought, Newt's well-worn You don't want my full attention, and, to the end, like a dare, tacked a Do ya, punk? Do ya?

So: "Yes," Newt says. "You got it."

He realizes it for a mistake immediately, knows at once that he can't actually live with the way Hermann's eyes widen and highlight his single blood-ringed iris, the part of his face that means he and Newt will always be a matched set. It's too intimate, and forget the mold in the walls: this is the shit that impedes Newt's breathing, Hermann's supposed to be the one on exhale duty and he can't just stop like this, can't just look back when Newt looks at him. It's irresponsible respiration and they're a system, the two of them, who cares if it's air or blood or facts they're pumping because all of it's vital, necessary, if they collapse an entire network of fragile connections and possibilities and ideas will collapse too, and that shit is more important than whatever this shit is. They are geniuses, goddamn it, Newt might not know what the inside of his own fucking brain looks like but that doesn't mean it's, like, anything but idiotic non-sanity to notice the perfect arch concealed within Hermann's neck.

"Did you have, you know," Newt says, "a point?" His voice drags into a record scratch, this unintended echo of afternoons playing his parents' old vinyls, and he wonders if that transferred to Hermann, any one of those sunlit hours before dinner. "Or are you just in the mood to hover over me? Because I have to tell you, man, this is vaguely bat-like, this thing you're doing right now. With the like, billowing ugly black sweater from hell? And the fact that you look like you're considering murdering me -- wait, am I the insect in this situation? Because I'd rather be an insect than a hamster but, I'm just saying, ideally we'd both be bats. Or I'd be a bat and you'd be the insect. Or you'd be yourself and just I would be a bat, I think I'd be better at the bat life than you, because, no offense, but I'm pretty sure you'd die in about six seconds if you were forced to live in a cave filled with guano."

Hermann stares at him for a moment, and then, this one long, lithe motion, he shakes himself out of it. "I share a lab with you," he says, "I am already forced to spend the majority of my time in a guano-filled cave. One constantly echoing with horrible chittering sounds, even. And yes, Newton, my point is: do you have any idea what we're doing here? Or do you suspect, as I do, that we have simply been sent somewhere out of the way to avoid, ah, ruffling any feathers?"

"Huh," Newt says, tilting his head. "…Shit."

"Yes," says Hermann, "quite."

--

The apartment above the lab in San Francisco has two tiny bedrooms but Newt takes the couch anyway, this hideous too-bright chintz monstrosity he got from some asshole on Craigslist. Hermann won't even sit on it, so Newt makes a point to press his entire body into it whenever Hermann's watching, to drool on the pillow covers and sprawl out across it in his undershirt and boxers. It makes Hermann twitch, that really nice one, like he does whenever Newt hums under his breath -- because Newt's always doing that, he makes a point to -- and it's worth it, Newt thinks, for this. It's worth the world not ending and the fact that he's going to get some kind of venereal disease, probably, from this Craiglist asshole's couch, because if everyone on earth had been trampled in the name of kaiju habitability, Newt would never have had the chance to make Hermann wince that way again.

It's worth the world not ending, but Newt's subconscious -- that fucker -- it can't get onboard, it's not feeling the beat, it's not ready to get down to that sweet, sweet groove. Newt's not sure why he's thinking in ridiculous cliches except that it's what his father used to do when he was a kid, say dumb shit like that -- "You're in treble now," and that sort of crap, which, Christ, what a Dad joke. Newt should call him, would call him, except what would he say, really? Hey, I know it's four in the morning over there in Germany but I fell asleep at noon because I've really stated to get the hang of it, this whole adult life thing, told you I'd get there before I hit forty! Anyway, just wanted to say hi, what's shaking, a few weeks back I helped my dudes Mako and Raleigh totally fucking annihilate a parallel universe full of staggeringly intelligent alien beings, how's tricks? Did you know you used to tell me terrible Dad jokes when I dreamed about -- I don't know, Dad. What do kids have nightmares about? What's scary anymore? My lab mate, roommate, I don't know what to call him, he and his dad haven't talked for years, caught the edges of that when he was my headmate, too. You play any good gigs lately?

Newt's arms itch, and his eyelids, and the thin skin between the still-growing bones of his wings that don't exist. His heartbeat doesn't feel human, but that's not, like, all that new or anything, he's not a stranger to this, to his skin fitting wrong. He's not a stranger to waking up screaming, either, except usually it's the other way, usually he's falling asleep screaming -- he likes that better, he thinks. He's usually got what feels like a good reason at the time.

The apartment is quiet, the heavy kind that means emptiness, that means the lab downstairs is vacant, too. Dust dances in beams of early-evening light, and Newt sighs, stands up, spits in the sink until he's sure it's only saliva in his mouth, puts some pants on.

He goes for a walk, because San Francisco is good like that, good for that, full of streets that teem with life but never get too close. The heavy reassurance of his shoe-soles hitting the ground helps a little -- one, two, no third or fourth foot hanging out anywhere, no extra knees, no opposable toes -- Newt's human. He's fine. Nobody looks at him twice, except for the people who always do, whose eyes linger on the sleeves he had inked into his skin in a testament to an itch he had no way to know, then, wasn't even the half of it. He smiles at them, but not a nice smile. Not the kind of smile that invites them to smile back.

Newt's whole life has been itching; know more see more save more do more, keep going and going and going until there's nowhere left to go. He wants to go get wings needled into his shoulder blades in a studio that screams hepatitis, wants to absolve himself of sins he can't categorize with the pinpricking, agonized burn. He wants it like breathing. He wants it like he once wanted tomorrow.

But there are better places to go to absolve sins, better choices to make than the ones that feel right at the time. He gets ice cream -- butter pecan, which he's never liked before, which tastes, today, like guilty pleasures, old comforts -- and starts walking towards the wall.

Their lab, their new lab, is spitting-distance from the ocean, obviously snapped up dirt-cheap when this was high-probability kaiju stomping ground. If Newt was that way inclined, if Newt felt like war-profiteering, he'd get Hermann to go in with him and buy the building from the military, sell it for a cool million or two when the market bounces back. They'll all be moving out to the coasts again soon enough, the powerful, the cowardly, who scuttled inland like soulless hermit crabs when the going got tough. They'll want to forget the bad old times and enjoy their ocean views again, pretend nothing ever happened, that no one was ever lost. Jesus, Newt hates them.

There's no ocean views today, though. Today there's just the wall, this bench a block from their building with a fantastic view of the wall, this spot on that bench that Newt's pretty sure is going to wind up with a permanent imprint of Hermann's ass on it, one of these days. It's not like you can even pick out any detail, really, from where Hermann's always sitting, from where Newt finds him sitting now -- the construction workers are too high in the air to be visible individually, and the progress is painstakingly slow. It's just, Newt wants to to tell Hermann, you're just watching humanity picking at a scab. Why are you wasting your time this way? Why don't you come back when it's done?

But Hermann hasn't once jabbed his usually indiscriminate fingers into the way Newt keeps waking up screaming, the way Newt's spent the month they've lived here flying and crashing, flying and crashing. Hermann just narrows his eyes and makes himself conspicuously absent, his vanishings almost like an invitation, an olive branch, something. Newt doesn't really want an olive branch from Hermann unless Hermann plans to hit him across the face with it -- they've never worked that way, never fucked around with peace offerings, because they're not peaceful people and it's no good to pretend -- but he appreciates the sentiment. He appreciates the way Hermann's shoulders are straight and stiff, the brand of rigidity that means refusing to be bowed more than anything else, as he sits there on the bench and watches the wall come down.

Newt sits next to him, intentionally a little too close. He knocks his shoulder into Hermann's hard enough that it might bruise -- which one of them, it's hard to be sure -- and then lets his whole body twitch, the way it's kind of been wanting to since he woke up, to pretend he has an excuse. Hermann cuts this knowing, mocking look at him and Newt's spine tingles, Newt's skin starts to fit again, so he licks at his ice cream cone and watches the way Hermann's eyes can't decide where to land. Butter pecan, Newt realizes, is an acquired taste. He even knows where he picked it up.

There are a lot of things Newt could say -- that he's exhausted too, that he's heartbroken too, that this wall could be a big honking metaphor if they wanted it to be, if they wanted to make this easy on themselves. Newt could say say that when his dreams aren't bad, they're good, they're great, they're sneering-hearted violent-mouthed viciousness and it's amazing, it's unprecedented, it demands years and fucking years of further study.

Newt could even say what he wants to say, which is: Hey, cathedral-brain, how 'bout you and me get on our knees already? I wanna press the most dangerous parts of you into my skin until the imprint sticks and stays. I wanna shred my fingers playing the Ave Maria so loud that your ceilings finally learn to regret relying on their mathematics alone. Come on, come on, exhale already, I'm so ready to taste new air.

But he wants Hermann to move first, because it's not some meaningless midnight screaming match, it's life, it's their lives. Newt's not afraid of giving in and the truth is he usually does give -- or, honestly, lose -- when it comes to battles and Hermann, but Newt's not going to fucking do it this time. He spent a few endless seconds being this man and he knows Hermann's plays now, his tricks, there might be a perfect alabaster cathedral in there but Newt'll never get inside, not really, if Hermann's not the one to open the goddamn doors.

He wants Hermann to move first, and he wants Hermann to just eat the goddamn ice cream already, Jesus, it's his favorite stupid boring delicious flavor and Newt got it for him, has been eating it for him, even if he didn't know it until just now. So Newt swallows -- single esophagus, no acid glads, humanity strikes again -- and says, "You'd better not be eying my cone, dude. This cone is not up for sharesies, okay, grown men do not -- hey!"

Newt doesn't smile, doesn't so much as let himself blink, when Hermann makes a low, satisfied noise at the taste of the pilfered ice cream. But when Hermann knocks their shoulders together -- too hard again, and this time Newt's sure it'll be him with the bruises -- he lets himself start to shiver, doesn't bother remembering to stop.

---

Two months, and the deconstruction of the wall has progressed enough that Newt wakes, sometimes, to the sound of the ocean. Three, and Hermann's got him down in the lab, shrieking about new models and theories and god-knows-what as he makes Newt cover every surface with chalkboard paint. After four months Newt's hands still smell like turpentine and he's knee-deep in research, having latched like the starving artist he's always been onto Hermann's new pet project: "For god's sake, Newton, you said yourself that we basically terriformed the planet for them. I know you are in many ways the perfect embodiment of the concept of idiot savant, but surely it's not beyond your ken that it might be wise to work on undoing that, hmm?"

Hermann's fingers are constructed out dreams Newt can't stop having and it's been five months, now, the wall's low enough that he can see the ocean and most days Newt wants to throw himself in it. Most days Newt wants to open his human mouth and his human throat and his human lungs until they're all filled, salt-preserved, until he too is a relic of times and crimes gone by. He doesn't tell anyone because there's no one to tell, not his family who love him but better from a great distance, not the friends who he helped scatter across the floor of the Pacific. Not Hermann, who barks and snarls and claws and snaps at him; who keeps touching him like it's an accident; who already knows.

Six months, and Newt opens the door -- three pm and he's boxer-clad, wild-haired, half-alive and still blinking the red out of his world beneath his glasses -- to find Mako sitting on his doorstep.

She looks… good, Newt thinks, healthy, and he's hideously unsurprised to see her, which is terrible. It's terrible, the way he was almost expecting her, the way he knew, one way or another, that she would come. She did little bits and pieces of her growing up under his and Hermann's respective wings, and it's not like they were good at it or anything, not like either one of them would ever be describe as nurturing, but they know her. Newt knows her, what she likes to read and where her secret hiding places used to be, how many jellybeans she can fit in her mouth when huddled in lockdown with two other people trying desperately to pretend everything's all right.

Mako's got bleached-white streaks in her hair where the blue ones used to be, and Newt thinks clarity, Newt thinks, renewal. She's got adulthood in the set of her shoulders and the way she holds her head, and she's here, of course she's here, Newt just didn't know until now that he always knew she would come. The same way Hermann's a person who's Always Right, the same way Newt's a person who Can't Stop, Mako's a person who Shows Up. There's no way to know if it's a trait she always carried or one she picked up from Pentecost, but either way Newt sees Stacker in the jut of her chin and hates himself -- for looking, for spotting, for being so much of the reason Mako looks like someone forged anew by loss.

"I missed you," she says. it's simple and it's honest and it's not the whole truth, but Newt hugs her anyway, goes with her to the tattoo parlor anyway, tells her expressive stories that are half lies and pretends not to see her tear up as she has a small red shoe inked into the inside of her elbow.

"You'll get addicted," he warns her, hungry just watching, running the pads of his fingers along his own familiar paths. The trace of Yamarashi's outline is such a nervous tic for him that he's surprised, honestly, that he hasn't left a scar by now. "Take it from me, kid; people always do."

"I won't," Mako tells him, and Newt wouldn't believe it from anyone else.

When she's done he aches to run his fingers over the fresh ink, to try and smear it -- he always wants to do this with his own tattoos, always has to have them bank-vault bandaged. He hadn't thought the urge would strike with someone else's skin and he sticks his hands in his pockets, jangles loose change, bites and bites and bites his cheeks. Mako wears sunglasses and a hat to keep from being recognized, talks about the military machine with a bitterness Newt's never known from her but recalls from a few conversations Stacker would've insisted never happened, if anyone'd ever asked. No one ever did, and Newt pesters Mako with questions about Raleigh that she dodges deftly, eyes dancing; it's awkward, the air so heavy with things unsaid, but not so awkward as it could be. Not so awkward as it once was, those few days in the Shatterdome before assignments pulled them apart, where everyone spent every moment hovered between joy and despair.

Hermann meets them for dinner. They talk about research and futures and the already-fluctuating housing market, the changes in the rationing programs and the inter-governmental conflicts starting to rise in the absence of a common enemy, and somehow no one says it: remember? Somehow no one brings up Stacker, brings up Cheung, Hu and Jin, brings up Sasha and Aleksis, brings up Chuck. Newt never knows what kind of blood is on his hands, what species of viscera, because it's impossible to tell sometimes through the thin red film forever coating half of his vision; he thinks he prefers it when he thinks of himself as a world-eater, really. The kaiju, in all their fascinating, monstrous beauty, were never friends. Thinking of their world collapsing on his word tightens all the muscles of his body, yeah, but it doesn't make Newt feel as though he's being chased through the streets of Hong Kong, like he's standing under a cracking ceiling waiting for everything to crush him.

That probably makes Newt a horrible person, that he prefers to think about the higher body count because those bodies weren't human, weren't known to him. It probably makes him a horrible person that does his best not to think of them, his friends lost to the sea. Whatever. Whatever. It's not like he was such a great person before.

He drinks five beers even though he's drunk after three, and when Mako gets into her cab he finds himself swaying next to Hermann in the street. Hermann doesn't reach out to steady him, which Newt knows is because Hermann would quite like it, actually, if Newt fell down and knocked one of his teeth out. It's nice, that; it's better than how many different ways he can't apologize to Mako, how many different ways he knows Mako wouldn't accept it if he tried. Whatever else he is with Hermann he's always honest -- the truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth -- and the truth is that Newt is unsteady as shit right now. The truth is that Newt's unsteady most of the time, and it's never mattered, it's pretty much the only thing Hermann's never held against him.

"You know what I think about sometimes," Newt says, into the chilled night air (it's winter and Hermann's wearing his stupid huge coat, even though San Francisco doesn't get fucking cold enough for that, what's wrong with him), "is, like. I don't know, man. Are you watching me come down like the wall? Because I'll tell you what, Doctor Gottlieb, I might be, like -- I mean, maybe I did have a lot to drink and maybe I did build that one thing out of garbage the one time, but I'm not the wall. I'm not the wall. I don't do walls, I fuck shit up and I knock shit down but I don't build shit. That's not what I do. I make things go in pieces and then I make the pieces make sense. You build things, so you can stop, okay? You can stop fucking watching."

"That," Hermann sighs, after a long, weighted pause, "was indecipherable nonsense."

"You know what I meant."

"I assure you that I do not," Hermann says, and it's clipped and it's cold and it's lies, and Newt's so disappointed it burns in his stomach like the acid he's mostly learned to how forget to imagine secreting. Except then Hermann clears his throat and curls his lip and says, "And even if it were not, Newton, even if I had the slightest inkling of what on earth your mad ramblings were trying to convey, they would be incorrect. I am not nearly so blind nor so stupid as to think you are someone who is even capable of crumbling slowly. You are demolition made flesh. You are a chaos-person. If you imagine I am watching you for signs of your quiet collapse, you are even more of an idiot than I have always thought." He pauses, smiles nastily. "Which, I might add, is a real achievement. You should be quite proud."

"So, what?" Newt says. He blinks into the air that's now hanging askew, somehow, between them. "You're watching me because -- because you feel like it?"

"If I am watching you," Hermann says, "it is because it is generally considered wise to keep a sharp eye on time bombs with whom you share houseroom."

Something cold and bony closes around Newt's wrist. It takes Newt a second to realize that it's one of Hermann's perpetually freezing hands holding him in a death grip; it's another second before Newt can really process that as something that's actually happening in reality. He doesn't move. He stays, in fact, very, very still.

"And," Hermann says, tone frightening, furious, "there is the chance, Newton, the chance, that I have been watching all along, and you have simply never been quite so obvious in your own practice of it to notice. And may I say that if that were, indeed, the case, then you would have rather a lot of nerve to be scolding me in the street, you filthy, foul-mouthed imbecile."

"Hypothetical," Newt murmurs, his ears burning, his vision clouding, his brain starting to spit and hiss the way it's refused to for months now. "I mean, you said there was a chance that's what was going down. So I'm only hypothetically a filthy, foul-mouthed imbecile, right?"

Hermann's grip tightens on Newt's wrist to the point of pain. "No," he says, a serenity in his voice that wasn't there a minute ago, and Newt grins into the darkness.

---

The thing is that for all they're always lumped together, they're such radically different people -- and yeah, sure, it's the basic shit, right brain, left brain, whatever, whatever. It's not what Newt means, when he thinks about it, when he lets it really sink in: he's not thinking about the fact that Hermann's got a stick so far up his ass he wouldn't know fun if it punched him across the face, the way no one would ever mistake them for the countrymen they actually are.

No, no, they're different in the way they see things, the way they touch things, they way they conceptualized each other and themselves. They're different because on his good days -- which, hey, not all of Newt's days are good but he has them, it's some of them, maybe even most of them, and fuck you very much for asking -- on his good days, Newt's a people person. Or, well, maybe not, but if not then he's at least a person who doesn't object to the concept of people, who doesn't hate every living soul on sight. Hermann's a misanthropic fuckhead and Newt likes that about him, or likes not liking that about him, likes having gotten far enough past the outer layers that he can say, "Would it kill you to acknowledge this nice lady verbally, Hermann? Really, I can't take you anywhere," and make Hermann roll his eyes.

But that boils down, right, to the really essential thing, to the line in the sand, so to speak (or be spoken for). The really vital piece of it is that Newt needs people, and Hermann doesn't. Newt needs a tape recorder and the idea that he's preserving his brilliance for generations to come; Newt needs to be able to carry just a hint of personalized swagger into any room with him; Newt needs to honestly believe that someday, in the deep future, when someone says "Newton" people will respond with "Geiszler," not "Isaac." Newt needs to be the biggest, the best, the loudest, the brightest, the fastest draw in the goddamn West, and you can't be any of those things without a comparative bar. You can't be a rockstar without an audience.

Hermann doesn't need any of that shit; Hermann just needs to be right. In retrospect, Newt probably should've just given in from the get-go. Newt should probably have put together faster that Hermann's always been the one of them possessed of, like, any patience at all.

"I cannot believe this is where you are choosing to do this," Hermann says, is saying, breathless enough that Newt can't help but be gratified. "I mean, the timing I understand -- you have always been a dawdler except in those cases when it is absolutely imperative that you stop and think -- but honestly. Honestly. We have a perfectly functional apartment a block away."

They're between kisses on Hermann's stupid bench, the one in the now-vanished shadow of where the wall used to loom, and Newt thinks their whole lives are cast now, might be cast forever, in the shadows of things that don't exist anymore. But Hermann exists, is right here, and Newt laughs out a strangled sound, says, "I don't notice you fucking going anywhere, man," before he grabs the lapels of Hermann's shirt and draws him in again.

Hermann bites him. It's not a sexy dragging of Newt's bottom lip or anything -- Hermann fucking bites him, bites his entire mouth, top and bottom lip caught between his teeth. The weird thing is that it's hotter than the sexy dragging thing would've been, and Newt moves for a better angle, tilts sideways so his weight is balanced uncomfortably on one hip. He shoves basically his entire tongue in Hermann's mouth as punishment, is totally indelicate about it, and Hermann makes a disgusted sound that isn't fooling anyone and, shit, Newt's never kissed anybody this way. This is fight-kissing, and he's thought that before, with other people, that they were grappling with their mouths or whatever, but he was wrong. Those times what he was doing was just aggressive regular kissing, and this, this actively-attempting-to-be-bad-at-it thing he and Hermann are rocking right now, this is what fight-kissing really feels like. This is what it really means to go at it mouth-to-mouth.

"You're the worst kisser," Newt says, when Hermann leans away to growl and snap a path down Newt's neck, when Hermann yanks too hard on Newt's jacket zippe, starts sucking a bruise just above his collar line. "Seriously, okay, the worst one, and I've kissed a lot of people, Hermann -- "

"Ah," Hermann says indistinctly, "so you do turn out to be a whore. How deeply, deeply shocking."

"Whatever, I've been in your head, I know you have fucking weirdly sexual feeling about, like, imaginary numbers and shit," Newt says. Hermann hums and returns to sucking and it occurs to Newt that he's been marked, right now, that Hermann is most definitely intending this little hickey to be visible. His thoughts shatter and piece back together in this completely fucked order, all the edges of everything fusing wrong in a haze of overstimulation, so he says, "Fibonacci freaky fetish sequence, right? Or, whatever, switched some words around, it's fine. But I definitely saw some shit about skirts and spanking too, so. Judge not, Herr Gottlieb, is what I'm saying here."

Hermann pulls away with one last sharp nip and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, makes this face almost like he wants to spit; Newt's never wanted someone to fuck him this much in his life. "This is what it takes to get you to stop calling me by my first name? Dear god, I should've put you out of your misery years ago."

"Like you weren't in just as much misery, Hermann," Newt says, and his dick twitches to Hermann's exaggerated wince. "Hermann, Hermann, Hermann."

Hermann rolls his eyes. "Misery is relative, Newton. For example, whatever you witnessed that made you bring up spanking was certainly not unfounded. The abject agony of this moment is lessened considerably at the thought that, at some point in the fairly immediate future, I shall be availed of the opportunity to strike you where you so richly deserve to be struck."

It takes Newt a long moment to get over that mental image, for his circulatory system to recover from all his blood trying to simultaneously rush to his dick and flush his cheeks. "Oh, you bastard," he chokes, furious, mortified, hot like his goddamn clothes are going to burn right off his body as he clambers down off the bench and gets on his knees, "I'm going to fucking blow you until you can't say shit like that anymore, what is wrong with you? Like, listen, okay, you have to pay is what I'm saying here, I'm going to suck your stupid brain out of your dick and then you're never going to be able to say that again, Jesus. You can't win dirty-talking! You filed an HR complaint because I said 'fuck' once!"

"You screamed fuck," Hermann corrects, as Newt unbuckles Hermann's belt, undoes Hermann's flies, "approximately three inches away from my ear, while I was in the middle of a very delicate piece of coding. That complaint was entirely deserved."

Newt blithely ignores him, figures it's more interesting to just get on with pulling Hermann's briefs down enough to free his dick, and Hermann makes this really, god, it's such a satisfying little angry-cat noise when Newt's fingers close around his cock. It's the first really sign that Hermann's not in total fucking control of himself, and he leans over, pulls his coat up enough to sort of cover what's happening, except, you know, not really. It's ten thirty at right and they're two men at a bench, one sitting down and one on his knees: only a complete idiot would look at them and not know exactly what the fuck was up, coat or no. Newt kind of thrills to think of it, honestly, that someone might walk by. That someone might see them, and make all kinds of assumptions about what they were up to, and be just exactly fucking right.

"You are not going to blow me on a public bench, Newton," Hermann hisses, leaning down so it's delivered inside the little bubble of coat. Newt pauses, his mouth open and an inch away from Hermann's dick, because, well. He's a lot of things but he's not an asshole, and he's pretty sure Hermann doesn't mean that for shit, but he's not going to risk it or anything.

So he just raises an eyebrow, an arch over his glasses, the Do ya, punk? Do ya? he's been waiting to deliver for so long. He licks his lips, and waits.

"Bugger it all," Hermann snaps after a hanging second, and buries a hand in Newt's hair, pulls him sharply forward. Newt would grin if he didn't have better things to do with his mouth.

--

The first time they met, eleven years ago, almost twelve -- the first time they met Newt thought, Who's the angry hottie? and then, Wait, is he glaring at me? and then, "What the fuck is he doing opening that box? That's my fucking box! Get the fuck off that box," which is the part he actually said out loud. That's usually the way it goes, that Newt has two thoughts he manages to keep imprisoned before the third one makes a desperate bid for escape, and he's wondered once or twice or an oodleplex of times what would've happened if it'd gone differently. If Hermann'd been only very slightly less attractive, if maybe he'd been wearing the stupid coat that day, and the thoughts had gone in another order.

Maybe if his first words to Hermann Gottlieb had been, "Who're you, angry hottie?" Newt would've been getting laid years ago and it would have done something, anything, to change shit around. They say a butterfly flapping its wings, blah blah, whatever, chaos theory is more Hermann's bag of tricks than Newt's -- but still. Maybe they would've fucked their way to enlightenment years earlier, somehow, and Newt wouldn't still have so much death yoked across his shoulders.

Or maybe the Earth would be a burning, kaiju-covered husk right now. Hard to know, really. Could've gone either way.

--

It's sort of like -- with music, where there's certain songs, they hit certain chords in the soul, and Newt's gotten over trying to explain it. He could, he can, it's not complicated, it's all numbers and chemistry and he's versed in both when push comes to shove; Newt's a veritable expert in all kinds of things, a regular genius-of-all-trades, and mostly that was out of boredom and desperation and wild interest and an inability to slow himself down. Music wasn't ever like that, wasn't ever something where the explanation mattered. Or, it mattered, it matters, Newt himself knows the whys and hows of the way a song pulls itself together, he just doesn't care, because the ultraviolet spectrum of emotional reaction a series of notes and chords can wrest from him is so much greater than the sum of its parts that it's a little embarrassing, honestly.

It's what fucking Hermann -- what being fucked by Hermann, what watching Hermann watching him from the other side of their fucking lab -- is like. Like screaming lyrics he's mostly forgotten for a crowd of people who just want the excuse, want any excuse, to feel like they can burn shit down. Like Sympathy for the Devil for the first time and wanting to throw up from it, wanting to open his mouth and let the overwhelmed ecstatic brilliance climb out from his chest and go do something bigger and badder with its life.

He doesn't want to explain it, he doesn't care to explain it, he closes his eyes at night and opens them in the morning and nothing's changed, but everything has. There's an electric current thrumming always now through Newt's body that keeps trying to ground against Hermann's steadier brand of humanity and it's not working, maybe it's never worked, maybe neither of them wants it to; there's a come stain on the wall and the remains of a nose-bleed in the sink and Newt doesn't sleep on the couch anymore. The restaurant next door has leveled a noise complaint against them and neither one of them knows if it's from the shouting or the screwing or those moments they find themselves doing both, Newt with his hips spread and his chest heaving as he lowers himself onto Hermann's dick, as he reaches with his ever-shortening breath for the air to make his point heard over Hermann's (better) one.

"You fucking," Hermann gasps, and it's some night, some morning, some late afternoon with the blinds wide open and Hermann sitting on top of the lab table, his good leg wrapped like a vice around Newt's middle, grinding Newt's denim-covered crotch against the metal table edge. "You bloody fucking harbinger. Your disaster was never meant to be contagious."

It's a sign of how far gone they are, the way Hermann allows himself to say this at all, the way Newt leans forward to rests his forehead against the sweat-soaked plane of Hermann's bangs and Hermann doesn't shove him off. Newt chokes somewhere between laughing and sobbing -- he's an inch from coming and a mile from the moment Hermann will actually entertain the thought of letting him do so, Jesus -- and Hermann snarls at him low in his throat. Newt remembers wanting to play the Ave Maria until his fingers bled, until he shook the very foundations of Hermann's carefully constructed brain-space and god, how hilarious, how stupid, that seems now. Newt's fingers have been bleeding the whole time and Hermann totally rebuilt his foundations around Newt years ago anyway and they're both humming the Ave Maria, and Sympathy too, and that song with the lyrics Newt's mostly forgotten.

So: "Fuck you," Newt says, and there's a cadence to it, a lilt, last week they got thrown out of the supermarket for smashing jam jars to punctuate their points and Newt's never been so in sync with anyone. They're neither of them happy men, they never have been, that's just like, fundamentals, because, "You're a disaster too, Dr. Gottlieb. You can dress it up all you want but I'm not stupid, you didn't catch this from me. Like, you wanna talk about our cute little matchy-matchy couples eyeballs then yeah, fine, that shit might be my fault. But if I'm the harbinger that makes you the fucking thing I harbinged, doesn't it? The ill portent or whatever, the bad news on the rise, which, hey, related topic, are you trying to saw my dick off through my jeans on this table or what? Because -- "

"Harbinger," Hermann says, bites into Newt's mouth, "was never meant to be a verb," which, just, come the fuck on already, seriously.

"Harbinged," Newt says again, "harbinging, you're going to talk semantics at instead of harbanging me at a time like this?" and he comes in his pants at the way Hermann gags on his disgust, because, hell. Why the fuck not?

--

Sometimes, still -- like Newt wasn't itchy enough already -- he can feel Hermann just beneath his skin like a parasite, notices that it's Hermann's vision catching at the corners of his eyes. Newt cleans his glasses on the hems of undershirts he pulls out from beneath the Oxfords he's started wearing again; Newt cleans his glasses on the dirty silk ties he bought at the thrift shop, the ones in hideous bright colors because he knows how Hermann prefers him in black. It doesn't matter how many smears he wipes from the lenses, the way he presses them between cloth and finger so hard they creak in their plastic frames, and fuck, fuck, Newt knows it. He knows he's always going see wisps of Hermann's worldview the same way he's always going to feel guilty, a little not-human, somehow more awake than everyone else he's ever spoken to.

It's not quite a branding. Not the way Newt wishes it was.

There are things you can't say to the people you're fucking, to the people who're fucking you, to the people you're realizing too late are the scaffolding onto which you've built entire wings of your own reality. Things like, The way you look when you wear my underwear is a religious experience I never wanted to have, an afternoon with one of those cults with the snakes and the screeching, take them off. Don't take them off. Things like, Everyone else looks at me like an avalanche waiting to happen and you look at me like one that's already over. Things like, Put one bullet in one gun and hold that one gun inside my only mouth and after you've pulled the trigger five heartstop times you tell me, you rat bastard, you goddamn asshole, you tell me what my brain looked like to you already. Kill me, kill me, kill me, I have to fucking know.

There are things you can't say to the people you're fucking, so Newt doesn't say them. He learns for the first time in his life to trap his thoughts properly, learns to lick them into hiding around the rim of Hermann's asshole, learns to swallow them down around the bitter salt of Hermann's come; they prick behind his eyelids at night with the other thoughts, with world-eater, with friend-killer, and eventually they become less true. That's the kind of lie Newt knows with an intimate grace, the idea that true things can, with time, erode to falsehoods, but he doesn't care. He doesn't care because Hermann won't take off the underwear, won't stop looking at Newt like Newt's already come loose. Hermann would hold a gun with one bullet in Newt's mouth and pull the trigger five times if Newt asked him to, and he'd smirk even though his hands were shaking, and knowing that is enough. It's the power Newt needs to fuel the delusion that he will someday be better of this, will scab over knowing that to keep the world from ending, he helped to end the world.

Newt will never be better of that -- of other things, either. Some people aren't meant to get better. It's Newt's lot in life to shriek like rusted brakes, to caterwaul. It's Newt's lot in life to be a combination of desperate brilliance and stark insistence and an inability to control himself, to be much too much too much. It's Newt's lot in life to know his truths and Hermann's, too, to catch Hermann's reddened eye in the late hours and know that he is being seen, all of him, right down to those existential angles that he can't quite spot even standing between two mirrors.

But he itches. He itches like a catching fire, like spotting Hermann's vision at the corners of his eyes and never turning around in time to see it. He itches, itches, itches, itches, it's all he can think about, it's all he can taste or believe in, he's holding his breath again like always but this time it's because even the scrape of air on throat is all overwhelming urge and it's too much already. It's enough.

The tattoo parlor he finds doesn't scream hepatitis and that's Newt's only concession, that's the Hermann in him, the Hermann that was in him last year and this morning and will be again tomorrow. Newt can't court hepatitis anymore, can't flirt with that particular brand of danger because he's got another kind at home, and there's a lot of shit about himself Newt's learned to live with, but he couldn't fucking live with that. So he finds somewhere clean and yeah, maybe it feels a little like a betrayal to his younger self, laying on the table knowing that he's hunting the hurt but not the thrilling rush of this maybe being it, it, the aria before the very lasts of a fucking exhausting song. But Newt's been a betrayer before, he'll be a betrayer again, and better himself than Hermann. Better to piss on his half-assed little death wish, which has always needed to be coddled and carefully kept, than Hermann, who asks from him anything but.

"Fuck," Newt says, over and over, the soundtrack to the ink sliding in. His voice peels into raw little eddies of ecstasy as the needle whipcords exquisite anguish over the sinews of his back. "Fuck, fuck, I should've done this forever ago. I should've done this on day fucking one."

"Dunno what you're talking about, man," the artist says, "but if you're one've those freaks who gets off on it, it's cool. Just keep it to yourself, yeah?"

"Yeah," Newt says, "yeah, yeah, you got it, buddy, all right." He bites his wrist and thinks that maybe he'll have Hermann come along, next time. He gnaws on one of his knuckles until he tastes blood and thinks of butter pecan ice cream, of the little red shoe on Mako's arm, of sunlit hours with his parents' vinyls before dinner.

It's all one thing, the same thing, all these little moments of past and present that've gnarled together to mean that Newt is going to have a future. Worlds have lived and died before and they will again, and this itching has lived and died before and it will again, and all a tattoo is, really, is a posturing towards permanence. That's another thing Newt can live with: knowing that it's just posturing. In a lot of ways, he's a pretty adaptable guy.

Newt walks home when it's over, relishes the muted stab of agony whenever the bandages scrape against new wounds. Their lab still belongs to the military and someday the military will remember that, remember that they stuck Newt and Hermann here to keep them out of trouble; it'll probably be after they've caused some more trouble, some really significant trouble, because Newt can feel that coming. They've both scabbed to the point of functionality, to a place where they can work around their traumas; the wall is down and the year is up and Newt knows instinctively that soon, soon, they will find whatever it is they'll next sink their teeth into. He doesn't believe in clairvoyance but he hopes that when Hermann looked inside his head he saw a crystal ball or, shit, maybe a fucking kaleidoscope -- some mess of unfollowable colors and images that still suggested a bigger picture. Newt's never been much for self-awareness, but he'd like that. He thinks maybe he won't ask, so he can pretend for the rest of his life.

When Newt gets in, Hermann unwraps him like a Christmas present, takes off all the bandages and tuts his distaste at what lies beneath. They fuck with Newt on the bottom for once and it hurts and it bleeds and the way Newt is in love with this man, that hurts and bleeds, too, and all of it feels as good as anything ever has, better, sharper. He would say something, but Hermann wouldn't want to hear it. He would say something, but it would be as fucking redundant as the red in their eyes and the way their hands find each other -- pinching and scratching but searching all the same -- in darkness.

When they've finished, Hermann puts on a pair of Newt's boxers and Newt finds the remote control under a pile of research and they split a bottle of Hoegaarden, passing it back and forth between them as they mock the contestants on Jeopardy. Hermann traces the lines of the newly inked cathedral arch on Newt's back with his thumb, and there's a rare gentility to the touch, a hesitance, that'd almost look like reverence in the right light. That almost feels like the things they're never going to speak a word of, not in any gnarled future, no matter how many times the sky threatens to fall.

"Feeling a call to faith, then, are you?" Hermann asks eventually, and his voice is a question Newt wouldn't dare ask.

Newt snorts, rolls his eyes, snatches the beer bottle from Hermann's hand. "Yeah," he says, "don't hold your breath, dude," and their grins are razor-edged, knife-headed, well-worn.