Chapter 1: The Skeleton Crew
6 October 2035
Newton is three bottles of beer down and staring out at the Jaeger bay like it's something out of a bad dream. After the victory and de-escalation, after Tendo and Herc and a tiny handful of other die-hards being declared the Hong Kong Shatterdome skeleton crew a decade ago to the day, the PPDC hadn't gotten around to shutting the place down. Bureaucracy has staying power.
For some reason—probably being sick and tired of being at war—nobody had foreseen where the scrapping issue would lead. When Herc had phoned up three years back asking if the K-Science-team-in-cozy-academic-retirement would consider returning to part-time active duty, Newton had been the one to blow a gasket. Why did they need Hermann on hand to supervise the building of new Jaegers?
Oh, because even Mori and Becket had been tempted back from Tokyo to become brass.
“You're spacin' out on me, brother,” Tendo says quietly, nudging Newton's elbow. “What's up?”
“Vengeance is a shitty name for the rebuild,” Newton says, chugging what's left of his Blue Girl.
“Yeah, well, orders are orders,” Tendo replies, tapping his console until the display changes. He frowns at something Newton can't perceive. “But Al agrees, what with all the mods Hermann had her make so that thing's safer around civilians.”
“I don't feel so great,” Newton mutters, dropping his bottle on the floor. “Can't believe he's gone.”
Tendo releases an excruciating breath, forcing it between his teeth as he reaches down to pet Max.
“Herc wouldn't want us to mope,” he says with conviction. “He'd want us to get more wrecked.”
“Nice of HQ to clear use of the landing pad for a funeral,” Newton sighs. “Burial at sea. Should've seen that coming.” He shuts his eyes, digs into his eyelids with the heels of his hands; he can see the ink he'd done for Herc in the decade-ago aftermath, sees it swallowed in salt-washed oblivion.
“He's with Chuck now,” says Tendo, steadily, although he's got the cross part of the rosary around his wrist clutched in his fist and isn't fooling anyone. “As for this old man,” he adds, patting Max again, “I dunno. Dan will worship Al and I forever if we take him. The shit parents do for love.”
Newton doubles over and offers his hand to Max, which earns him a filmy-eyed look of devotion.
“You've gotta be, like, fourteen now,” he says. “Outliving all your humans, that's a raw deal, man.”
Max licks Newton's hand, but instantly trots away when Daniel, on his lanky way to Wei-triplet height, ambles in. The eleven-year-old looks put-out to be wearing a tie, but cuddling Max makes it better.
“Hey, Newt,” Daniel says, on his knees not far from where his father and Newton are sitting with a lapful of devoted bulldog. “You don't look so hot. Should I get on the comm and tell Hermann to come up?”
“You, Dan-my-man,” Tendo tells his son, “do not have the security clearance. But I'll do it. I swear I will.”
“Nah,” Newton says, swaying to his feet, taking a few seconds to gauge whether he can walk or not.
“I'll escort him down if you want,” says Alison, breezing in with a dubious length of cable wound from neck to torso, never mind that she's dressed to the nines. “Just what the hell's this Shao tech think it's doing, huh?” she demands, showing Newton the peculiar feature she's picked apart with a screwdriver and pliers. “Has Hermann said why the fuck we're using it for these rebuilds?”
Newton shrugs, blinking at it. “Not my division, dude. I'm just here in case a zombie Cat-V attacks.”
“Undead kaiju,” Daniel murmurs, half to himself and half to Max. “That would be wicked.”
“No, it'd be really gross,” Newton reassures him, starting for the door, “and I can write you an entire paper on why. No thanks. Let me take the PPDC's chump change on top of my HKU wages in peace.”
“Hermann's in the lab,” Daniel calls over his shoulder. “He's taking Ming through the math again!”
“Tell your damn husband to stop poaching my J-Tech recruits!” Tendo chimes in, sounding resigned.
On his wobbly way downstairs, Newton runs smack into Mako. He wishes that were a figure of speech or something, but no: she rounds the corner before the elevator so fast that she knocks the breath from him. Newton's only consolation is that her face is as tear-streaked as his.
“Sorry,” he mutters, straightening his waistcoat and squaring his shoulders before he salutes. “Marshall. I guess that's you from here on out, huh? Unless the asshats who yanked us back for active duty have other plans? You've gotta admit, it's hard to turn down the cash.”
“Headquarters tried to promote Raleigh yesterday, but he refused,” replies Mako, dully. “He said absolutely not, said it was me or nobody. I am . . . grateful that he knows his place—” her bleary attempt at humor falls flat, but both she and Newton laugh anyway “—but . . . not ready for this.”
“What, the boss-people gave in to good ol' Becket's demands? Just like that?” Newton asks with mock-disbelief. “Nah, couldn't be! Heaven forbid they should respect you as much as he does!”
Mako laughs again, but the peal collapses into breathless tears, and they end up clinging to each other.
“For my family,” she hiccups, finally regaining her composure. “For all of you. It's what I must do.”
“You know you could kick it back at him if you really wanted to, right?” Newton reassures her.
Mako nods, but the lines of her jaw and her eyes, finely tuned with years of strain, are formidably set.
“Hermann is in the lab,” she deflects, gesturing in the direction whence she'd come. “He sent me for you.”
“Must've read both your minds,” Newton murmurs tonelessly, brushing past her with an apologetic pat.
His grief twists with each and every inexorable step through the weekend-empty halls, on disconsolate autopilot. They weren't supposed to lose guys like Herc Hansen, not to a freak heart attack. Fuck, he hadn't even had the chance to turn sixty. They should've had at least six more years of him barking orders and fussing over Daniel like a goddamn grandma and spoiling his beloved Max rotten.
Newton realizes too late that there will be no hiding his convulsive tears by the time he stomps through the lab's open door.
The two figures at the blackboard turn in startled unison to face him: a study in equal and opposite reactions, each occupying a point at the end of the same parabolic continuum. Youth and age; beauty and grace. More different in their contrasts than they could ever hope to imagine, yet more similar with each passing year than either would care to guess.
Ming dresses a lot like Hermann now, an adamantly butch affectation. It suits her down to the ground.
“Oh, there you are,” she gasps, running to him; her code-covered forearms, exposed by rolled-up cuffs, loop around his neck and drag him into a hug. “I know how much you miss him. I know.”
“This event is total bullshit,” Newton declares shakily, clinging to her, “and has ruined my Saturday.”
“I would agree,” says Hermann, stock-still and red eyed as he leans on his cane, “but memorial services are—”
“Memorial services are for getting trashed,” Newton explains to Ming. “Did we tell you about the first one we ever had here? No? Well, see, it was the night before our PPDC-sanctioned honeymoon—”
“Press tour,” Hermann corrects, and his vitriol is almost convincing. “Newt, you're maudlin.”
Newton chokes on the next desolate spasm; trapped in his ribcage, the center cannot possibly hold.
“When your own spouse doesn't call you by your full first name anymore, you know you're in trouble.”
“You need to stop this,” Ming hisses in his ear, shaking him before she lets go. “He's a wreck, too.”
Newton nods glumly, swaying where he stands as she rushes out. And then they were alone like they'd always been, shaking with disconsolate rage and nowhere to throw it. At each other? Not a chance.
“Darling,” says Hermann, quietly, making his way to Newton with merciful speed, “please come here.”
They meet halfway and sway there, clinging to each other for the longest time. Hermann is crying, too.
“I should've pulled myself together before I got down here,” Newton begins. “Hermann, I should've—”
“Bollocks,” Hermann says unsteadily. “We are mourning one of our oldest friends in the world.”
Newton feels the throb in his chest transmute into something immense and terrifying. The swell of anxiety is worse than he's had in months, with the force of every last shatterdome ghost behind it.
“This can't be real,” he whimpers before he can get a handle on his mouth. “Please don't let it...”
Hermann presses a fortifying kiss against the corner of Newton's mouth before steering him over to where a pair of parkas hang by the door. He bundles Newton into one of them without explanation.
“Where are we going?” Newton asks as he's being dragged toward the elevator at the speed of light.
“You need some air,” says Hermann, insistently, punching the buttons, “and I need to see the sky.”
Newton can't argue with either of those clauses, so he holds his tongue until they're hobbling together through sluicing rain onto the landing pad.
Two of the latest prototypes stand guard, their four collective pilots turning the Jaegers' heads to acknowledge Newton and Hermann as they pass.
“How is Ming's junk-heap in the basement coming along?” Newton asks, desperate for distraction.
“Don't let her hear you call it that,” Hermann cautions. “Don't tell Mako I'm letting her build it.”
“Kiddo's gotta learn somehow,” sighs Newton, letting Hermann propel him to their favorite vantage-point along the railing. “Precociously-completed first doctorate in hand or not.” He paused for breath, managing to sneak in a proud, sidelong smile. "I think we did pretty okay at the unofficial-parenting thing, you know? Short of actually adopting her, she's about as equal parts you and me as it's possible to get. I'm glad you insisted on snail-mail while she was gone. I would've gone off my rocker without actual paper in hand, emails or no emails."
“I'm ever so glad to have her home,” Hermann admits, throwing back his hood. “America spoiled her.” He averts his eyes, taking a moment to wipe a tear from his jaw. "I would have suggested that we adopt her if her biological mother hadn't still been alive and in the picture. Time renders the seeming expediency of some legalities moot. She didn't aim to beat your record for sheer number of degrees, but I believe her completion rate from undergraduate to postgraduate gives your early years a run for their money. And your favorite alma mater was disgustingly pleased to have her, of course. To say nothing of the utterly appalling pranks she managed to orchestrate year after year."
“You're still mad she didn't choose your old stomping grounds,” Newton says, brightening. “Admit it.”
“Only a little,” says Hermann, offering Newton that fierce twist of a smile. “She'd have hated the place.”
“At least Boston let her come home inked to the nines,” Newton says, leaning hard against him.
Hermann stares into the restless waves, as lost in reminiscence as Newton had been in LOCCENT about twenty minutes before. The weather system had subsided, leaving moonlight almost blinding in its wake. The glint of it gilds Hermann's haunted eyes in otherworldly light.
“I keep you up nights,” he whispers, “without cease. I can't shake them, not even for trying.”
“This would've been worse than nightmares,” Newton says, pulling him closer, “if you hadn't stayed.”
Hermann's unadorned platinum band rubs against Newton's set as Hermann clasps his hand, grating on diamonds scattered constellation-like across the wider of the two. Stars, storm-tossed and inescapable.
“Newton,” Hermann scoffs, leaning until their lips meet. “Where else would I have gone?”
Chapter 2: The Lighthouse Keepers
6 October 2035
Hermann stares out the window of the PPDC standard-issue Jeep the whole way home, doing his best to ignore the fact that Newton is so jittery that he's critiquing Ming's driving every step of the way. And Hermann has it on good authority that Newton hasn't driven since his twenties.
"Be quiet," he says eventually, trapping Newton's frantic hand against the seat between them. "Newt, for the love of God, be still."
"Like, I can't figure out if you're doing that because you think it's fashionable, or because you're mad at me," Newton says glumly.
"I am, after all these years, trying to respect your wishes," Hermann informs him tartly. "That is what you tell everyone to call you."
For a moment, Newton looks like he's going to start shouting at Hermann instead of Ming, but what he does instead is unbuckle his seatbelt and curl up sideways with his head in Hermann's lap. It is petulant and immature and staggeringly unsafe, but it's too endearing to discourage.
"You're not everyone," he mumbles feebly against the fabric of Hermann's waistcoat. "So maybe cut that shit out, huh?"
"Newton," says Hermann, softly, beginning to massage Newton's scalp. "Are we in migraine territory? Is this all right?"
"No," Newton mumbles, eyes closing behind his glasses. "And yeah, dude, it's totally fine. Apologies to the chauffeur."
"You guys just lost one of your dads," Ming says levelly, although Hermann can hear the depth of her grief. "It's fine."
"Two dads left," Newton replies before Hermann can tell him not to chase that particular rabbit. "Well, dad and uncle."
"Your father and Illia are in the flush of youth," Hermann says firmly. "Seventies, and your family routinely hits ninety."
"We're about six years from hitting fifty, Hermann," Newton reminds him with reluctance. "Why don't you chew on that?"
"You underestimate the extent of my interest in numbers," warns Hermann, cuttingly. "I don't feel a day over thirty."
Ming whistles and interjects, "I'd give anything for a time machine. Front-row ticket to your bickering back in the day."
"You have no idea," Newton tells her, dropping a silent, unexpected kiss against Hermann's hip. "Hermann is mean."
"No duh," Ming replies, trotting out her latest favorite vintage slang. "He was hella mean in class. At least at first."
"Thank goodness you had the sense not to speak like that as a student," Hermann replies. "I might have failed you."
"Nah, he wouldn't have done that," Newton chuckles, his warm breath seeping through the fabric of Hermann's trousers. "Hermann's terrible secret is what a big old softie he is. Like, seriously. The minute I figured that out, chipping away at his stiff upper lip was easy."
"I'll give you something to chip at," Hermann mutters between clenched teeth, approaching the brink of uncomfortable arousal.
"Mmm, I know," Newton says, sitting up as abruptly as he'd lain down. "Just drop us off, Ming," he says distractedly. "Thanks."
"That's what I was going to do?" asks Ming, uncertainly. "Unless that's your way of saying, uh, no coming in for a nightcap."
"That is absolutely Newton's way of saying he's not fit for human company," Hermann clarifies, eager to drive the point home.
Ming leaves them on their doorstep with reluctance, asking if they're one-hundred percent sure there's nothing she can do.
For a split-second, squinting through the driver's side window in the icy drizzle, he's tempted to ask her to stay until her morning shift in LOCCENT. In the event that Newton were to suffer an especially severe anxiety attack, having her on hand would be indisputably useful. She'd all but moved in during the year between graduation and leaving for the States; the guest room was, for all intents and purposes, hers.
Instead, Hermann tells her to drive safely, finds his keys, and marches Newton inside as swiftly as his aching hip will permit.
"Hi there," says Newton, as if finding himself backed against the inside of their front door isn't out of the ordinary these days.
"If you ever do that again in Ming's presence," Hermann seethes against Newton's parted lips, "I shan't speak to you for a week."
"Silent treatment, mmm-hmmm," Newton hums, licking his way past Hermann's teeth. "Somebody's nostalgic tonight. Fight me."
After being dropped piece by piece across the floor, a somber-shaded trail to the bedroom, their funeral clothes will need pressing.
"Hermann, please," Newton begs, all the mischievousness gone from his tone as Hermann takes his time about propping his cane against the nightstand and rummaging in the drawer for—well, let him guess whether Hermann is after a toy or something simpler. "Cut me some slack, okay? I didn't mean to tease you like that. Not at first, anyway. Maybe it was a little too easy."
Hermann closes his fingers around the bottle of lubricant and rolls away from the nightstand, not even bothering to close it.
"Shhh, I'm well aware that you did not," he murmurs, handing the bottle to Newton so that he can concentrate on kissing him. "You required comfort, and I was glad to give it. The vicinity in which you chose to seek it was merely . . . unfortunate. What do you need?"
"Nothing fancy, because you're a ball of ow," Newton replies, using some of the lube as massage oil at the crease of Hermann's burning hip, "and I'm a hot mess. Is fucking after a funeral kosher? I feel like this might be inappropriate."
"We fucked after my father's two years ago, so I don't see why you're concerned now," Hermann huffs against Newton's cheek, satisfied at the sound Newton makes when he wrests Newton's hand away from his thigh, slicks his own fingers with what's left on Newton's palm, and starts to jerk him off. If their considerable entourage of ghosts lacks the good sense to bugger off, then Hermann will give them a reason.
"Your hands, fuck, Hermann, I fucking love your hands," Newton babbles, pushing desperately into Hermann's fist. "Nobody's—fuck, just like that, ever—touched me the same way you do, like I can't even put my finger on why—"
"Remember to breathe," Hermann instructs, and then pins Newton on his back so that he can kiss him, deep and filthy, all he likes.
"Greedy bastard," Newton accuses when they break for breath, his belly heaving beneath Hermann's forearm. "C'mon, harder."
Hermann catches Newton's lower lip between his teeth and sucks mercilessly, twisting Newton's cock until he sobs with release. He remembers the first time they'd ever done this—in the laboratory, braced against a desk, too frantic to fully undress. Newton feels the same as he'd felt then, all taut and restless hysteria in Hermann's arms. Afterward, they'd kissed under the fragile and flickering lights.
"That'll teach you to imply I'm selfish," Hermann pants. Rutting against Newton's thigh produces an exquisite jolt down his spine.
"Something's out there, Hermann," says Newton, shakily, breath irretrievably scattered. "Something Tendo's not telling us about."
"I don't know what you think you saw," Hermann replies, stroking his cheek, "but it cannot have been the thing we all fear."
Newton props himself up on one elbow, peering at Hermann in quiet desperation. He kisses him like the world's ending.
"Maybe some of the scrappers are up to something worse," he whispers. "Maybe one of them got their hands on some really good black-market specimens and . . . and, I don't know, grew some cultures or something. Revived that brain fragment, got a response. Not the good kind."
"There is no such thing where spare kaiju parts are concerned," Hermann tells him, shifting until he's pinned Newton on his back. "Oh, darling," he sighs, lost in relief that is equal parts desperate arousal and alleviation of the pain in his hip. "You don't have to do anything."
"To you?" Newton ventures, busying his mouth at Hermann's collarbone. "Or about the SNAFU down at the 'dome?"
"It's . . . not a SNAFU," Hermann whimpers, trapping Newton's eagerly-offered thigh between his own. "It's . . . likely nothing more than anomaly. That equipment has been stretched far beyond its years, and . . . and I should like . . . " He panted, attempting to follow his breath in defiance of how wonderful Newton's attentions felt. "We need more funding. We need more staff. We need them to . . . carry through on that threat of hauling in every last ne'er-do-well who might have applicable knowledge. Heaven knows the brass have pinpointed dozens of locations worldwide in which the . . . the most skilled marks, criminal or otherwise, have done bloody impressive work."
"Sex brain doesn't do you any favors, dude," Newton mumbles, gently biting down. "Save the analysis for later. I'm sure Mako's gonna need you for more than just running the lab and helping Al keep her head wrapped around those rebuilds. You'd be a great choice for second-in-command, but we know that's going to Raleigh. Tendo's likely to bitch about the next crop of J-Techs they haul in, so you're gonna have to keep him calm."
Too blissfully preoccupied to argue, Hermann nods in fierce agreement, running his fingers through Newton's wild, subtly-greying hair until he can grab just so. He yanks, and Newton's appreciative whimper tells him he's got his restrained and proper pulling technique down pat. Easy enough, to make Newton lie still against the pillow, with his head tipped back, so that his miraculously ink-free neck is on display.
Hermann bites and sucks at his favorite patch of skin, satisfied at how tightly Newton's hands latch onto his hips.
"It's been too long, darling," he gasps, sliding fast into oblivion as Newton rubs against him. "Weeks. I cannot—"
"You can too get by," Newton says with a touch of irritation, but it's entirely fond. "Look how long we both did. Not that it was an ideal set of circumstances or anything, but we're experts at holding out for years. Besides, I'd like to think we hold the world record for longest foreplay."
"I have no desire to repeat it," Hermann grits out, and all it takes is one more taut thrust to send him gasping.
"Fuck yeah," Newton sighs, hands sliding up to rub Hermann's back while he's wracked with pleasure. "Damn."
"Not as, ah," Hermann says, slumping against him in heartfelt satisfaction, "explosive as our bygone days, but."
"Hey, no judgment," Newton reassures him, squeezing Hermann's backside, ever the tease. "I still like your butt."
Unable to prevent himself from laughing, Hermann clings to an equally hilarity-afflicted Newton until they can't breathe. Gazing down at Newton's salt-and-pepper stubble brings the moment into sobering focus. Ten years since they had declared themselves. Since they'd saved the world from a threat so improbable that neither one of them would have believed it on the best of days.
"I have had the privilege of loving you," Hermann whispers, overcome with emotion, "for longer than I ever could have dared to hope."
"Oh jeez," Newton moans, in tears again before Hermann can do anything to prevent it. "Don't do this to me, Hermann. Please don't."
"You don't have to say anything, either," Hermann reassures him, pressing them chest to chest, cheek to cheek. "I know how you feel."
"I've never been able to find the words to tell you even half of how I feel," Newton sobs, clinging to him, "so how would you know?"
"You married me, for one," Hermann reminds him, trapping Newton's hand against the pillow, clinking their rings together for emphasis just as he'd done earlier. "I learned a long time ago that your actions speak even louder and more obnoxiously than the rest of your demeanor."
Newton grins up at him shakily, and it's worth kissing the tears off Newton's cheek just to elicit a few helpless, hiccuping giggles.
"How could I have said no?" he manages, much calmer. "You would've bugged me and left notes all over the place until I said yes."
"There's my darling," Hermann murmurs, sealing the words with a reverent kiss against Newton's eyelid. "Now, where were we?"
Chapter 3: The Zealot's Daughter
6 October 2035
Ming wants nothing so much as to return to her PPDC-allotted quarters at the shatterdome, because fuck this noise. She gulps down tears as fast as they sting her eyes and thicken her throat, but it's a losing battle. It's all she can do to make sure she's under the speed limit, and her head feels like something's trying to crawl out of it. And she has the feeling it's something about as scary as Hermann's nightmares.
Hercules Hansen is dead, and, with him, the last of the giants on whose shoulders her heroes had stood.
There's also the fact that her dads aren't okay, like, at all. Herc had been kind of like a non-shitty dad to them in his own right—to Hermann in particular. Not that Lars had been completely worthless, but she'd never been able to unsee him as the asshat behind the Wall of Life project.
Just as Ming nears her exit for the harbor-front, her mobile phone starts to ring. Just her fucking luck.
She punches the console button that will route the call on speaker and says, in curt Cantonese, “Hey.”
“It's Saturday night,” says her mother, as guilt-inducingly cloying as ever. “Are you coming to see me?”
“As long as you're home from chanting or whatever, yeah,” says Ming, grudgingly, and passes the exit.
“I didn't raise you to be rude,” replies her mother, oddly placid. “You must tell me about the funeral.”
“Still kinda raw, but okay,” she says, and punches END CALL so she can focus on the road.
The tiny apartment where her mother raised her alone feels less like home than the dorms she had occupied as a student during her time on scholarship at HKU. Come to it, no dorm she'd occupied as either an undergraduate there and as a graduate student at MIT had felt as much like home as either the spare room at her dads' place or the room she currently occupies at the 'dome.
“I'm here!” she shouts perfunctorily, knocking before she slots her key into the door, and pushes inside.
Her mother is seated at the tiny, battered kitchen table at which she had eaten breakfast every morning until she'd hit her early teens. She'd learned to leave before her mother woke each morning and seek the company of friends. She'd been eight years old when Trespasser made landfall in San Francisco, and the Scourge of Heaven had reached the height of its fervor by the time Reckoner made landfall in Hong Kong three years later.
The city had permitted the Scourge to make a temple of Reckoner's remains on the spot where she fell.
“I have not seen my daughter in a month,” says Meiling Yan, setting her winged white headdress aside on the battered tabletop with stiff, calculated poise. “If she is even still my daughter. I never recognize the woman who comes.”
“Knock it off,” Ming says, hastily unlacing her combat boots, setting them on the mat beside the door. “Of course I'm still your kid, who else would I be?” she asks, making her way to the electric kettle. "I even look like you did at my age."
“Your father was not good to us,” replies her mother, knowingly. “Maybe that is why you neglect me.”
“Don't you dare try that one,” Ming warns, filling the kettle, “and don't you pretend you were there for me, either. Your religion comes first.”
“I am indebted to the tragedies that have befallen us,” says Meiling. “They have cleared a bright path.”
“Yeah, a bright blue one,” Ming mutters under her breath, dropping the kettle back in its cradle. “Fun.”
“You haven't been taking the supplements I gave you,” her mother chides, folding her hands in her lap, inside the red silk sleeves of her ceremonial robe. “You're too thin. Those white men work you hard.”
“As of today, my boss is a Japanese woman, so don't count on that argument anymore,” says Ming, testily. "Also, Officer Choi ain't no gringo." She drops bags of jasmine tea in the nearest clean mugs, one after the other, and fills them to brimming before carrying them over to the table. “How many times do I have to tell you those supplements have been proven dangerous? Kaiju bone powder is harmless, at least, but the crap you've been taking for like twenty years now is hazardous to your health.”
“Why must they fill your head with such lies,” says her mother, tone soft and pained, accepting the tea.
“Uh, I'm not sure how many times I have to tell you this,” Ming replies, taking sip of the understeeped liquid, “but Newt's the world's foremost expert on kaiju anatomy. Most of it is toxic, even once it's been dried and processed and ground up. Have you been reading any of those cancer studies I keep giving you? There's more than a decade of data, and they're peer-reviewed to boot. That adrenal-gland tincture you love so much will kill you if you keep sucking it down. Thank goodness the temple's supplies are going to run out sooner than later. Are you listening to me?”
Meiling shakes her head, swilling her tea. Under the harsh kitchen light, she looks fragile and old.
“I wish you had not been seduced by those scientists,” she murmurs. “If only you knew the truth.”
“The truth is that we beat them, Ma,” Ming snaps, setting her cup down so hard some of the tea sloshes onto the table. “They were alien monsters from another fucking dimension, and they're gone. The PPDC dropped a nuke right down Slattern's throat. Bam. I know that's her on the medal you wear. I wouldn't be half as offended if you'd gone with victory tattoos, but no. You had to go and worship the fuckers. Do you have any idea how offensive your faith is to people like—like my friends? How offensive it is to me? People saved your ass and mine. Actual human beings who lost their lives in awful ways. What did you do, just—just tune out the news reports?”
As restrained as ever, Meiling continues to shake her head with pity for Ming's so-called ignorance. But she raises it from her reverie, determined, fixing Ming with such an uncanny expression of certainty that it's chilling.
“The Scourge will return,” she says, clear-voiced, her gaze hardening. “We will answer for our sins.”
Ming groans and covers her eyes, wishing she could just get through. She feels like she's eleven all over again, watching her mom fall in with a batshit cult that has the fucking nerve to still revere what swam out of the Breach.
“We've been over this so many times,” she says, “but it just never sticks. For once, I've got nothing.”
Tenderly, Meiling reaches across the table and covers Ming's hands with her own. She squeezes them.
“Oh, my poor lost girl,” she whispers, eyes glittering with tears. “Your mother would never lie to you. The prophecy we've waited for, waited for so long to hear, has come. You say I am the one who doesn't listen, but you must be the one to listen now. The Scourge will return to us, even as spokes on a burning wheel. Again, they will come by sea, skins aglow with stars. Again, they will ravage the land, claws and teeth bared. But this time, they will not be driven back into the depths whence they came. This time, they will ascend, triumphant, to set the Heavens ablaze.”
The tragedy, the absurdity, is too much. Ming pulls her hands free and gets to her feet, tea abandoned.
Officer Choi's tight-lipped jumpiness around LOCCENT for the past week had been too much, and then, then, Marshall Hansen had died alone in his bunk. She's a J-Tech trainee, so she's not ignorant of the telltale tremors they've been recording. In so many words, she is terrified.
“Have a nice night,” Ming says, striding to the door. She shoves her feet back into her boots and doesn't bother to lace them, straightening her uniform jacket. “I've gotta get back to base. Stop taking that stuff, okay?”
“I will pray for you,” her mother says, resigned as Ming opens the door. “I will pray that you return.”
Once Ming is safely back inside the Jeep, she locks all of the doors and sobs for a solid ten minutes. She hadn't shed a tear during the service earlier, not when Newton had cried enough for everyone and Hermann had kept his shit together for the same reason. She blows her nose on one of Hermann's loaned handkerchiefs until her head feels less congested.
As soon as she's sure she can talk without giving away her condition, she dials LOCCENT and puts the call on speakerphone. Her hands shake against the wheel with each ring, and finally there's a click.
“Officer Becket here,” answers Raleigh, sounding like he's had even more bottles of beer than Newton and Tendo combined. “This is LOCCENT's private line, so I'm gonna assume you have business calling.”
“C'mon, man, you know better,” Ming says unhappily to the Jeep's console. “Hand over Tendo, stat.”
“Hi, Ming,” Raleigh replies, sounding relieved to know it's her. “Tendo's busy. He and Dan are trying to keep Max from chewing up Al's cables. I'd like to see him succeed, though. Shao tech's tough.”
“Not to downplay our mutual loss or anything, but I'm having a bad night,” Ming says. “Put Tendo on.”
“I'll see if I can find Max's leash,” Raleigh sighs, and he sets down the phone. “Hey, Tendo! Phone!”
Still trembling, Ming takes a few seconds to collect her thoughts. They're a panicked miasma, but her mother's preoccupation with those supplements, as well as her creepy insistence on another point, is not sitting well. Something had caught and snagged at the back of her mind, the pain of it blinding, and now it was doing its best to re-enact her mother's crackpot prophecy.
“PPDC Command Central, HKSD,” drawls Tendo, sounding as weary as Ming feels. “Choi speaking.”
“Yan speaking,” Ming says in English. “Sorry to do this to you, sir, but I've got an urgent question.”
“You should've been in bed an hour ago, cadet,” replies Tendo, but his heart's not in it. “What's up?”
“Newt—I mean, Officer Geiszler,” she begins, kicking herself, “once mentioned the 'dome had a ton of leftover specimens that got auctioned off to the highest bidders. Do you know anything about where they went?”
There's an odd silence on Tendo's end of the line, followed by what sounds like him sipping his coffee.
“Classified information, Yan,” he says cautiously, “but I think you know who you can ask about that.”
Ming falls silent in her turn, thinking, No, Newt is the last person I can ask about that right now.
“Listen closely,” Tendo says, his tone suffused with ominous urgency. “I don't mean the Chaotic Good answer to that question. I mean the Chaotic Neutral answer, if you catch my drift. And I'm probably going to hell for that pun.”
“Oh God,” replies Ming, switching back to Cantonese. “Loud and clear, sir. Permission to take another detour relevant to to this line of inquiry, sir.”
“If you think you've got a lead,” says Tendo, in her native tongue, “on anything, then hell yes.”
“Thank you,” Ming replies, switching back to English. “I won't let you down. You have my word.”
“I'm not the one you'd be letting down, sister,” says Tendo, whistling abruptly. “Max! Cut that out.”
Ming ends the call before more chaos erupts. She squares her shoulders and takes the Jeep out of park, peeling into the street like the reckless Bone Slums brat that she is. She hadn't grown up in Reckoner's shadow and studied her ass off only to fail her dads, who'd saved the world.
Please be awake, she thinks, already ten miles above the speed limit. Please, Lu. Please.
Chapter 4: The Leaning Tower
6 October 2035
Watching the blue-lit tank in silence, Lu pours herself another shot and downs it. Baijiu burns every inch of the way, more merciless than vodka. She leaves her misused teacup on the coffee table and crosses the room, barefoot on the plush carpet.
Fingers splayed against the sixty-gallon, Lu clicks her tongue as the lone black ghost knife rises eerily from the filter-blown weeds. She understands how fish, like bulldogs, become family.
“Pretty lady,” she croons to Reckoner, tracing a figure-eight on the glass for the knifefish to inquisitively follow. “Old lady, tell me your secret. How are you still here with me? You never age a day.”
“It's those sad eyes,” Hannibal interjects, shouting so that his words reach her from the open balcony. “She was born old, that one, and still outlived 'em all. Are you bringin' the booze out or what?”
“Sure, honey,” Lu sighs, turning from the glass, fetching both the liquor and her teacup from the table.
Hannibal cuts an imposing figure against the city lights below, but Lu knows better. His joints creak in concert with hers. His good eye, his restless eye, has been on the business-end of a medical laser one too many times. Hannibal accepts both bottle and teacup, filling the latter to the brim for himself before handing the bottle back to Lu. He clinks the teacup against it, and they drink.
“Thanks, darlin',” he parries, their own private joke. If Lu calls everyone honey, then Hannibal calls nobody darling—except Lu, when the whole wide world isn't watching. “Sky's restless out there. There'll be an unholy tempest by midnight, no mistake.”
“Thunderstorm coming,” Lu says, taking another long pull from the bottle. “Look at those waves.”
“I don't envy those bastards down at the 'dome,” Hannibal replies, sipping baijiu pensively.
“I don't envy my kids working late at the studio,” says Lu, swaying into him. “I should be there.”
“Your interns are crème de la crème, and that's who they serve,” Hannibal reminds her. “They're fine.”
Lu nods, her eyes seeking the real Reckoner's hulking bone hull at the city's heart. “I miss Wei Sun.”
“You've been sayin' that every day for six damn years,” Hannibal reminds her. “Time to move on.”
“The Slums don't move on,” Lu sighs, refilling the teacup for him, tugging her robe back up her shoulder. “They condemn the place, renovate to make room for more bubble tea, but I know better. Ghosts left over from the war live in every corner.”
Hannibal slides a bare, scar-and-ink armored arm around her waist, softly kissing the top of her head.
“Thought maybe we woulda blown this joint by now,” he sighs, “but there's no escaping her, is there. The wreck of Reckoner, great soul of Hong Kong City. The fanatics say more miracles happened here than anywhere else.”
“Says the guy who bought this shiny condo,” Lu scolds fondly, unable to deny that she loves the view.
“A guy's gotta retire somewhere,” Hannibal says, squeezing her tight enough to lift her off her feet, “especially when he's got the city's hotshot tattoo artist and a fussbudget fish to keep in style.”
Lu slaps his forearm, yawning against the back of her hand. “Don't tease her. She can hear you.”
“I could hate her for outlivin' all the others, Christ,” Hannibal says, glancing over his shoulder, through the glass, to where the knifefish paces restlessly back and forth because her humans are outside. "Newt says she could live half another decade. Holy jeez."
“You love her best, always,” Lu reminds him. “I only see you more upset when it was Bertie who—”
“Don't fuckin' remind me,” Hannibal gripes. “Newt was a mess for weeks and hung around here treatin' the last of my ghost knives like his grandbabies. Glad he's still got two of those loaches. Keepin' those mischievous buggers fed is enough to occupy anyone.”
“Change is hard for him,” Lu says quietly, jumping when the door-buzzer intercom sounds. “I'll get it.”
“It had better not be those proselytizing nut-jobs,” Hannibal calls after her. “I liked 'em better when they stuck to just chanting in the streets. There was no harm in it. Kept to themselves. Swear to God I never shoulda...”
Lu tunes him out, breathlessly hitting the button.
Only two people ever call on them without warning. She hopes that it might be the brilliant, endearing scientist she's come to think of as her son. Three people if you count Ming and her son-in-law, too, but Hermann never comes alone. She knows it's because of Hannibal.
“Hey,” she says into the intercom. “Come right upstairs, honey. We were just talking about you.”
“Hannibal was talking about me?” Ming scoffs, all fussy static. “Yeah, that'll be the day.”
“You're his favorite fish-sitter, sure,” Lu reassures her, holding the button one more beat. “Come up.”
By the time she opens the door, it takes Ming sixty seconds to storm through. The girl is breathless, in full PPDC regalia. She is also wild-eyed and furious, dripping with the first onslaught of rain.
“Get the hell in here, Mr. Chau,” she shouts in the direction of the balcony, “and fuckin' explain this!”
Lu releases Ming's arm, taken aback at how uncontrollably the girl is shivering. She grabs the nearest blanket she can find, which is Hannibal's favorite silk hand-weave over the back of the sofa.
Ming lets herself be wrapped in it, teeth chattering, while Hannibal stalks inside and slams the sliding glass behind him. He pauses in front of the tank, letting Reckoner follow his finger for a moment.
“Kinda uncanny, kiddo,” he says gravely, turning to face her as she advances with one accusing finger extended in his direction. “If only you'd been there the night of Otachi's attack.”
“I was home,” Ming snarls, “with Ma, who refused to get us to a shelter because she was convinced it made no difference whether we were smashed or spared. She prayed the whole time. Prayed.”
“You woulda seen what they call the Miracle of the Slums,” Hannibal reminds her. “Met him early.”
“I'm tired of telling stories,” Ming laments, letting her hand drop, and Lu has an awful feeling the girl might collapse if she weren't holding her by the shoulders. “Except that's kinda why I'm here.”
“Sounds like you wanna know something, Ms. Yan?” Hannibal challenges, swiping the from baijiu bottle where Lu has left it on the coffee table, offering it to her. “I figure we're like family by now, all things considered. Ask away.”
“Ten years ago, when they were, like—first married, you know, when they'd just won the War,” Ming stammers, pulling the silk tight around her shoulders with one hand, grabbing the bottle with the other, “there were a shit-ton of kaiju parts still in the 'dome lab. We're talkin' like...” She swigs straight from the bottle; three gulps, and the remainder is gone. “Oh, see, there was a funeral tonight, y'know, Herc's funeral? Yeah, would've been nice to see you there. Anyhow, I think Newt sold you what was left. Just the odds and ends, nothing anybody would really miss. I heard HKU got that segment of Mutavore's brain. The Museum was ripshit, but we students were secretly happy because we thought that meant we might get to work with it in the lab. Funny thing about that, they never let us. They said it was better if the thing stayed locked away. Security? I mean, Newt didn't even have to convince 'em of that. He agreed. All I ever got to cut up was skin from one of the first Cat-IIs.”
“Shhh,” Lu demands urgently, taking the bottle from her. “Sit down, honey, before you fall.”
Ming topples in a heap on the sofa, shivering. She isn't looking at Hannibal anymore, but at the tank.
“I need to know where that shit went,” she insists. “The remainders. The pieces that got away.”
“How the hell would I remember who I sold 'em to?” Hannibal counters, arms folded across his chest. “Highest bidder, no questions asked. It was while I was closin' down the storefront and warehouse.”
Ming's eyes fly from Reckoner's restless figure-eight pacing back to Hannibal's face. She scowls.
“You kept records,” she says. “Thorough ones. You might've been black market, but you were legit.”
Lu clears her throat, fixing Hannibal with an uneasy glare. She knows where the safe is, knows where every last shred of documentation lies, digitized, on a memory stick. She wishes he had destroyed it.
Hannibal grunts like the impact of a look alone can pain him, and Lu knows this, too: that it can. He crosses behind the coffee table and drops down beside Ming in defeat. He is ready to give the girl what she wants.
“This had better have somethin' to do with a code red situation down there,” he says. “Does it?”
“I'm afraid so, yeah,” Ming admits, lacing her fingers together between her knees. “Got the papers?”
“He has better than papers,” Lu says, darting for the bedroom. “You both wait here. I bring them out.”
When she returns with the tiny device in hand, Ming takes it from her with trembling fingers and snaps it into one of the many slimline ports on the side of her mobile. The screen flickers to life, and she taps through screen after screen, line item after line item until she settles into reading.
Lu passes behind the sofa and gives Hannibal's shoulders a squeeze as she passes, hoping he understands that she's proud. She crosses the room again, drawn to Reckoner's pacing as the alcohol settles heavy in her bloodstream. Her tolerance is high, but isn't what it used to be.
After a while, as she plays tipsy finger-chasing games with the fish, the only sounds in the silence of the room are Ming's disappointed, repetitive hums and Hannibal's snoring. He's fallen asleep much faster than usual, another heartbreaking betrayal of his age.
“This is useless,” Ming mutters after another fifteen minutes. “It's all here,” she says, and Lu turns to see her quite obviously toggling between separate screens on her phone. “Matches Newt's manifest, in fact, and...” She freezes mid-toggle, her jaw dropping. “No,” she chokes. “Oh no.”
Hannibal wakes at the sound of her raised voice, recovering his composure. “What did you find?”
“This,” Ming says, jabbing her finger at one of the items. “This...shouldn't be here, the University got it, I...” She covered her mouth, setting the phone on the coffee table. “You sold it to the same buyer that got the scraps off you? But how did you get it?”
Hannibal rubs the side of his face and sets his hand on Ming's shoulder, and Lu splays both hands against the glass as she turns away. Whatever is amiss, she wants no part in this revelation. She detests what demons the kaiju continue to wake.
Reckoner inspects Lu's fingers one at a time, the wavelike undulation of her tail-fringe eerie beneath the tank's blue night light. The knifefish's eyes are filmy with age, but they swivel to take in her surroundings all the same. She noses at the glass, at the pad of Lu's thumb, for food or contact.
This close, Lu thinks, she looks like one of Newt's legendary tattoos in miniature. Like a living myth.
“The way we did business back in the day, well,” Hannibal explains, “you wouldn't like it. I wanted what that brain segment would fetch me on the market, and HKU wanted enough money to hire Doctors Gottlieb and Geiszler. Win-win. In exchange for an anonymous donation beyond their wildest dreams, they gave me that jar and every last sucker-scrap in it. My buyer paid out the nose.”
“Your buyer,” Ming hisses, kicking what sounds like the leg of the coffee table, “was the Scourge.”
“Sweet girl,” Lu says in Cantonese, pressing her cheek to the cool glass of the tank. “Sweet ghost.”
Chapter 5: The Sleepless Few
6 October 2035
Tendo rubs the side of his face, taking a swallow of coffee from his mug. He's counteracting the six-pack he'd drunk between his first session with Newton and his second session with Raleigh. Ill at ease since Ming's call, he hasn't been able to focus.
“Those right there,” Raleigh says, tapping several miniscule blips on the holo-screen, “are the bogeys?”
“Dunno what they are, brother,” replies Tendo, shrugging as he sets down his mug and reaches to enlarge each radiating pinpoint. “At first, there was one. Now, there are three.”
“And the PPDL Council hasn't made so much as a peep about sending someone down to have a look?”
“Nope,” Tendo sighs, rotating the original site of disturbance so he can scrutinize it from another angle.
“Creepy, that they keep requesting more Jaegers,” Raleigh says, his chin resting heavy in both hands.
“My thoughts exactly,” Tendo sighs, manipulating the holo-screen's display back to normal. “They have more than enough to keep those rogue scrappers in check. Overkill, if you ask me.”
“It's like they know something we don't,” Daniel cuts in, ambling over with Max clutched to his chest.
“Christ,” Tendo mutters into his palm “Get your mom outta those cables and go the hell home, got it?”
“She didn't want to leave you alone for a night shift after the funeral,” Daniel confesses. “Neither do I.”
Raleigh swivels around in his chair, giving Max a thorough rubbing behind the ears. “I'll stay, kiddo.”
The doors burst open behind them, making everyone except Daniel jump. Mako strides in looking so furious that, for a moment, Tendo can't help but experience any number of flashbacks to her frustration with Stacker over this thing or that thing that he wouldn't let her do.
“Send them home, please,” Mako says to Tendo, looking briefly contrite when Daniel sets Max down, claps for the dog to follow, and flees in a hurry. “I need a word with you two.”
“Not gonna lie, Marshall,” Tendo sighs, pulling the nearest swivel-chair over so she can join them at the console, “but you look just like you used to when you'd lose an argument with your old man.”
“I did not lose anything except for patience,” Mako replies, taking a seat, “with the closest thing left.”
“Dammit,” Raleigh mutters under his breath, reaching for his wife's hand. “They finally caught him?”
Mako nods, taking hold, scooting to lean hard against Raleigh's shoulder. “Apprehended in California.”
“I'd say by now his luck's run out,” says Tendo, whistling, nearly impressed. “What's the sentence?”
“I just spoke with him via hologram,” Mako replies vaguely, her tired eyes tracking the movements of mother, son, and bulldog in the Jaeger bay far below. “He is coming here for his last chance.”
“Was he working alone?” Raleigh asks, wrapping an arm around Mako's shoulders, hugging her tightly.
Gravely, Mako shakes her head, gaze following Allison, Daniel, and Max until they melt into shadow.
“There was a girl with him,” she murmurs. “They were in a DIY unit. The girl claims that she built it.”
“A DIY,” Raleigh echoes, as if he can't believe what he's just heard. “As in a functional one?”
Tendo tries to fathom what that would even mean. Usually, when they catch scrappers playing Frankenstein with Jaeger parts, it's before the poor sucker manages to cause an explosion either while they're working on their misbegotten junk-heap or trying to pilot it for the first time.
“Not out of the realm of possibility,” he says, playing reverse-devil's-advocate in order to bolster Mako.
“It was small,” Mako confirms reluctantly, her eyes now fixed on Lady Vengeance's vast, unlit heart.
“Back in the day, they managed a couple of single-pilot prototypes,” says Raleigh. “Not big enough.”
“Either she's a genius,” Tendo replies, transfixed by a spike from one of the blips, “or got blueprints.”
Noticing Tendo's preoccupation, Mako lifts her head from Raleigh's shoulder and extends her hands. For one breathtaking moment, it looks as if she's reaching for Vengeance. She enlarges the holo-screen so that the pulsing pinpoint is almost perfectly aligned with the Jaeger's quiet core.
“Are we any closer to understanding what these are?” she asks, her brow furrowed in palpable pain.
“Hermann and our shared apprentice say they line up with known areas of geothermal activity,” Tendo says, shrugging. “I don't like how the intensity increases by degrees, though. Subtle. Controlled.”
“Speaking of Cadet Yan,” interjects Raleigh, yawning hugely, “what was that call all about, anyway?”
“Call?” Mako asks, her frown intensifying. “Is Ming not here on-premises? It's well after curfew.”
Tendo hides his face in both hands, leaning hard on his elbows at the edge of the overworked console.
“She had a lead on something that might be related to this fuckery,” he groans. “I told her to chase it.”
“Without consulting me first?” Mako demands, voice skirting the edge of anger. “Why would you...”
“Because it concerns one of those messy hand-waves y'all made about ten years back,” Tendo replies.
Raleigh nods grimly, as if he can see where the conversation is headed. “Herc's fudged paperwork?”
“Maybe he shouldn't have taken Newt at his word when he said that slice of missing research stock was incinerated so the 'dome wouldn't get slapped with a health-code citation,” Tendo prompts. “S'all I'm saying. The War was finally over, and nobody wanted to ask too many questions.”
“The larger specimens went to legitimate institutions,” Mako insists stubbornly. “I have the records.”
“The question you really need to ask,” Tendo continues, hating himself for it, “is why HKU never put that brain fragment on display. Would've been the gem in any xenobio department's collection.”
“If the university chose to sell it on the black market,” Raleigh ventures, “it wouldn't be Newt's fault?”
“I've gotta tell you this shit in case,” Tendo presses on, feeling feverish. “Just—in case. Okay?”
“Okay,” Mako agrees gently, reaching to set her hand on his against the console. “What do you know?”
“Newt sold the minor stock, scraps and whatnot, to Hannibal Chau,” Tendo sighs. “Down-payment.”
“We had better stick to the story they were incinerated,” Raleigh mutters, “nice K-Sci condo or not.”
Tendo nods miserably, wishing his coffee wasn't gone. “Ming's the best and brightest we have, so there's no way I wasn't gonna let her chase this. If anyone has a shot at squeezing info out of Chau...”
“It is her,” agrees Mako, quietly. “And if she cannot get it from him, then there is always Ms. Zhen.”
“Lu treats that girl like her grandkid,” Tendo says, tipping his mug sideways. “Has since Day Zero.”
Seeming more sober than he had for the past half an hour, Raleigh reaches across Mako to pat Tendo's shoulder. He stares at the most active of the blips, unable to tear his eyes away from it.
“She's looking for proof that the university let that brain fall into the wrong hands, isn't she?” he asks.
“Ten-four,” Tendo mutters, affably shrugging him off. “That is my between-the-lines understanding.”
“I can't imagine how anyone who is not an expert could...” Mako waves at the holo-screen.
“I don't even know what question to ask,” says Raleigh, picking up where his drift-partner leaves off.
“The Breach showed as a string of closely-spaced anomalies for months before opening,” Tendo says, recalling retroactive data that had poured in from oceanographers around the Pacific. “These bogeys, as you call 'em, behave similarly. Trouble is, they're hundreds of miles apart.”
“Hong Kong, Sydney, San Francisco,” Mako says, pointing to the blips one by one, using the nearest coastal cities to each as a point of reference. “They did not appear all at once.”
“Nope,” says Tendo, panning the map as far as possible. “Three to four weeks apart, in that order.”
“Reckoner, Mutavore, Trespasser,” Raleigh murmurs under his breath. “Not the order they attacked.”
“I thought about that, too,” Tendo admits. “Asked Hermann's opinion, but he called it nonsense.”
“Haunts me that it's those cities, is all,” Raleigh says. “Those particular kaiju. Those memories.”
“Hermann says that the next one may appear soon,” Mako whispers, “but he doesn't know where.”
The monster and the location hover unspoken—Onibaba, Tokyo—like a shared nightmare.
“This is some ghost-story bullshit,” Tendo mutters, killing the holo to give his eyes a goddamn rest.
“What's that thing you're always saying about vigilance?” Raleigh asks, smirking at him exhaustedly.
“If I don't turn this thing off for five or ten minutes once in a while,” Tendo confides, rising to stretch, swiping his mug as an afterthought, “I go crazy. Anybody else want coffee?”
Before either Mako or Raleigh can answer, Cadet Malikova bursts through the doors with a clipboard.
“Marshall Mori, ma'am,” she says, as fed-up with the night shift as Tendo. “This has come through.”
Mako accepts the clipboard, scanning it with her mouth set in a stern line. “Monday. So soon.”
“Arrivals roster of two,” Malikova says, sounding displeased. “Namani, Pentecost. Does this mean—”
“Don't trouble yourself with what it means,” Mako orders, “and get back to your post until relieved.”
“Yan has the morning shift, ma'am,” replies Malikova, tartly, “and she is not in the J-Tech quarters.”
“Yan is off-base on official PPDC business, cadet,” Tendo snaps, brushing past her, “and that's that.”
Chapter 6: The Patron Monster
7 October 2035
Newton doesn't know what time it is when the sensation of Hermann's blunt fingernails digging into the underside of his arm drags him from deep, dreamless sleep. He is about to pull Hermann's hand from its present position when Hermann's sleep-heavy breath breaks on a cry.
And it's not just utterance without meaning. He can make out words, and they break his fucking heart.
“Newton, don't,” Hermann pleads, his fingers digging in harder than ever. “Tu das bloß nicht—”
“Hermann, shhh,” Newton whispers, disengaging Hermann's hand as cautiously as he can, relieved to find that it's sufficient to wake him. “S'iz gut, ir zent zikher.”
“Mukhl mir, Hermann gasps reflexively, taking Newton's hand. “I was only dreaming, it wasn't...” He opened his eyes, squinting at Newton in the slit of late-morning sunlight. “Is this your way of implying my Yiddish isn't up to snuff? Trying to lighten the mood?”
“No,” Newton sighs, staring at the ceiling as he cradles Hermann's head against his chest. “It's just, I didn't feel like...” The German that Hermann spoke while plagued by nightmares reminded him of incandescent anger, of arguments long put to rest. “I wanted to calm you down.”
Hermann nods in apology, kissing Newton's sternum. “I've lost the plot. I don't know what it was.”
“You said...” Newton swallows, tucking his chin over the top of Hermann's head. “Newton, don't—that was in English—and then started to say, in German, that I'd better not dare do something again.”
“Oh,” replies Hermann, quietly, tracing a circle in Newton's palm with his thumb. “It was nonsense.”
“I'd kinda like to know what nonsense,” Newton persisted. “Your head's my head, remember?”
Hermann tenses, face-down so that his eyelashes brush Newton's chest. “Grievances foregone.”
“Nuh-uh, no quoting Shakespeare at me,” Newton says, tapping Hermann's spine. “Spit it out.”
“I might've said that to you after you did it,” Hermann whispers. “After I found you bleeding, after...”
“Yeah, but you didn't,” Newton points out, relief pooling in his gut. “You took care of me instead.”
Hermann nods ferociously, as if to reassure them both that the statement is true. “I did, didn't I.”
“Fucking PPDC,” Newton spits, nuzzling Hermann's hair. “Might as well call it PTSD, am I right?”
“You are right about most things,” Hermann murmurs, aimlessly licking his way down Newton's chest.
“Dude, nope,” Newton says, grabbing Hermann's shoulders. “None of this apology blow-job bullshit.”
“I'll blow you if I bloody well want to,” Hermann gripes, but he pauses all the same. “If you want it.”
Newton drags Hermann right back up to where he'd been in the first place. “Just make-outs, maybe?”
“Your infantile vocabulary wins the day,” Hermann concedes, but he's smiling, and that eye-crinkle of his might well be the reason Newton changes his mind. “Now, darling...”
They don't get far, and the bizarre cause for delay is Newton's pillow practically vibrating off the bed.
Newton fishes his phone out from under the edge of his pillowcase, about to toss it on the floor. However, texter's name catches his eye, and the content does a number on his heartstrings.
“This had better be very good indeed,” threatens Hermann, “or you will be showering alone.”
“Reckoner's not doing so hot,” Newton says, surprised to see a second text follow swiftly. “And it's Hannibal doing the talking, or maybe Lu's using his phone. Either way, that fish is hella old, and I wish I could've...”
“Please, in the name of all that is holy,” Hermann replies, “do not mention our dearly departed.”
Newton had done everything in his power for Bertie when the time had come; it hadn't been enough.
“Zichrono livracha,” he says under his breath. “I wasn't gonna. But do you think I'm about to let a fin-brat I've nursed through everything from lacerations to parasites suffer?”
“No,” Hermann groans, flopping across Newton's middle, “I sincerely do not. May I come with you?”
Hermann's coming along for the ride, Newton texts back, whether you like it or not.
Hell no, what do I care, comes the immediate reply. Concerns him, too, numbnuts.
“Since when does an ailing knifefish concern...” Hermann gives up, scoffing, and rolls out of bed.
Newton lingers under the covers a while longer while Hermann starts the shower, ill at ease. It wouldn't be the first time that Hannibal had concocted a half-baked excuse to bend his ear, but it also wouldn't be the first time Hannibal had contacted Newton in a panic over fish health.
An hour and a half later, Lu buzzes them inside the complex no sooner than their lift has sped off.
“Oh, Newt, it's good to see you,” she says, clamping onto Newton like she hasn't seen him in a year.
“Charmed, as always,” Hermann says, setting a hand at her nape while Newton struggles to get free.
“Not so fast, honey,” Lu says, catching Hermann sideways, and it's all Newton can do not to laugh.
“Now you're free,” Hannibal says, taking Newton by the elbow, leading him over to the tank, “here's the issue. Regular blast from the past.”
“Um, duh,” Newton says, looking at a sluggish, but otherwise cheerfully-rippling Reckoner who has, by the increased speed of her fins' undulations, recognized Newton's voice. “That's dropsy. We've been over what you do about this. Fast her for a day so the tummy unbloats.”
Hannibal, taking a moment to make sure Lu and Hermann are occupied, grabs Newton by the collar.
“That ain't what I meant,” he seethes, whisky-breath and smoke. “Ms. Yan came around last night. Demanded my business records for the past decade and change, compared 'em against yours. Now, seein' as you and the eggheads up top scared me straight, and seein' as the kid feeds and loves my girls here, I coughed up the deets. She seemed awful upset after takin' a look, you follow me?”
“Oh,” Newton squeaks, too flabbergasted to do anything but dangle there. “Wrong, uh, Reckoner?”
“If we may continue to use this city's patron monster as a metaphor, then yes,” Hannibal growls.
“Gah, dude, put me down,” Newton gripes, throwing Hannibal off just as Hermann and Lu rush over.
“If an explanation isn't forthcoming,” Hermann says, cane at the ready, “I shall call the authorities.”
“Holy jeez, you are the authorities,” Hannibal replies gruffly. “That's why the hell I called.”
Newton turns to Hermann, winding his courage so tightly that the proverbial mechanism snaps.
“Ming was here last night,” he blurts. “She must've come after dropping us off. Now she knows what I did a decade ago to, like, get us a life. She must be working for the brass; maybe they've ordered Mako to delegate the investigation, uh, to sweep out the dirt—”
“Then we're all implicated,” says Hermann, to Hannibal, accusingly, “because even Herc had a hand—”
“Would you slow down,” Lu pleaded, stepping between the three of them. “Please. There is more.”
Hannibal ran one callused hand through his hair. “This ain't a witch-hunt,” he says, defeated. “It's a clever kid tryin' to save your asses 'cause you once saved hers. She's onto those anomalies.”
Hermann narrowed his eyes and replanted his cane on the floor, stepping right up to Hannibal's chest.
“And what have you got to do with it? Quite frankly, I trust her amateur sleuthing to a fault.”
Hannibal nodded glumly, glancing sidelong at Reckoner. He planted his palm against the thick glass.
“I might've been the one to persuade good ol' HKU to hire Newt,” he said. “Quid pro quo, I told 'em.”
“So what?” Newton challenges. “I always suspected the endowment funds came from you. Who cares.”
“Quid. Pro. Quo,” Hannibal seethes, jabbing a finger at the glass. “Are you listenin' to me?”
“Yeah?” replies Newton, in abject annoyance. “You gave them money, they hired me? Deal's done.”
“Newt, kiddo,” Lu sighs, taking Newton's hand gingerly between her own. “You don't listen well.”
Hermann, however, has caught wind of some elusive meaning that skirts the edge of Newton's mind.
“You can't have done,” he whispers in horror, his wide eyes fixed on Hannibal. “Tell me you didn't.”
Hannibal closes his eyes and nods—heavily, once, like the weight of the world is his until the end.
“He would never do it now,” Lu insists tearfully, tugging on Newton's hand. “Honey, I promise—”
The vacuum in Newton's chest is indescribable: memory of that pitch into blue-edged terror, helpless and alone. If Hermann's nightmares are half as bad as his, then he's a goner by secondhand exposure.
“The brain segment,” he stammers, voice cracking beneath the weight of ten years gone. “You...”
Hermann pulls out his phone without a moment's hesitation. His cane falls to the floor as he flips through screen after screen, his movements a breathtaking blur. He pauses, grim.
“I should like access to whatever data you provided Ming,” he says coldly, “please and no thanks.”
“Sure,” Hannibal replies, and Lu rushes out of the room as if on command. “Memory stick's on the way. I'll say it to your faces, even. The Scourge paid three times what I gave those eggheads.”
Newton's mind trips from recollection into full-blown anxiety spike in the time it takes Lu to return.
“Do—like, do you mean Scourge as in the shortened version of the cult's name, Scourge of Heaven, or—Scourge as in that's what they call the kaiju, and bam, there's your actual customer?”
“Kid, I'm at the point I rue this every day,” Hannibal says. “I've kept tabs on those wackos, but it took me too long to connect the goddamn dots.”
Lu presses the memory stick into Hermann's palm, unable to meet either of their gazes. She turns and leans against the aquarium glass, her cheek pressed to where Reckoner circles for attention.
Newton can't look at her. He shrinks against Hermann's side, sick with regret at bygone carelessness.
“This isn't everything, is it,” Hermann snaps, “and there's more than you showed our child last night.”
“See, you're getting it,” Hannibal replies, indicating that they should follow him to the sofa. “Whose child she is,” he went on, helping Hermann settle Newton on the cushions, “well, there's the trouble.”