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The Limits of Reason

Chapter Text

Hermann Gottlieb was moments from lowering the average intelligence of all his life choices. In his defense, he had lived a life of brilliance: of mathematical proofs bleeding flawless from his fingers, of exceptional cognitive abilities, and there had of course been that time he helped avert the apocalypse. He figured he was long overdue for a spectacularly bad idea.

But Hermann Gottlieb stared at the machinery in his hand, the Pons System he had cobbled together from what scraps he could acquire without raising undue suspicion, and rued the death of his common sense all the same.

Newt had done something similar a decade ago, taken scraps of metal and smashed them together to create his own Pons System and Drift with a Kaiju brain. In a rush of impulse Hermann had joined him, had stood at his side and declared that Newt Geiszler would not bear that burden alone. And then Newt had been possessed and used as an instrument in the catalyzation of a second apocalypse. Hermann hoped it would afford his past self some comfort that in the wake of what he was about to attempt, Drifting with Newt Drifting with a Kaiju would now go down as only the second most ill-conceived decision of his life.

Delicately Hermann ran his fingers up the length of the wire connecting the system’s helmet to the computer, triple-checking the integrity of his creation. He had access to far superior materials and technology than Newt had had a decade prior, but the situation was still less than ideal, for he was heavily violating a protocol or seven.

Assuming, of course, that it was a violation of PPDC protocol to kidnap your former labmate from custody and dive into his mind via homemade equipment in an effort to deliver him from malevolent aliens.

“This is a horrible idea,” Hermann said for the umpteenth time.

Newt growled what Hermann assumed was agreement from beneath the stripe of duct tape pressed over his lips. He had fallen silent enough that Hermann had nearly forgotten his presence, but there he sat nonetheless in the metal chair Hermann had pulled out for him from a corner of the laboratory. Behind the chair’s back his wrists were tied with duct tape, and his calves were bound likewise.

The fluorescent laboratory lights and windowless walls gave no indication of the time, but the clock mounted into the far wall blinked a crisp, crimson 2:23 AM. Four hours and twenty-three minutes past Hermann’s bedtime, and late enough that he had cycled past exhaustion back around to full jittery acuity. It was late enough, Hermann assumed, that he and Newt were the only occupants of the building: he could risk removing the duct tape from Newt’s mouth. It clung stubbornly to Newt’s skin as Hermann peeled it slowly off, but he did not dare rip it away for fear of hurting Newt.

His hands shook as he crumpled the duct tape into a ball and looked back at Newt. 2:23 AM in the secrecy of a lab he technically had no authorization to enter, using a scrapped-together Pons System to mind-meld with a war criminal: not one facet of the situation set Hermann at ease, or was flattering, or was even particularly justifiable.

Hermann had zero compunctions laying the blame on the part of his mind Newt had leaked into during their brief Drift all those years ago. The part that gave him familiarity with metabolic pathways, an ungodly love of caffeine, and the harebrained audacity required to kidnap his former labmate and take the matter of curing him into his own hands.

The PPDC had held Newt prisoner for months to no avail. During what visits Hermann was allowed, he saw no improvement, no indication the Precursors had done anything but take further, deeper root in Newt’s mind. Whatever techniques Newt’s interrogators (Hermann’s stomach turned at the word) employed seemed only to immure him further in his own mind; Hermann could hardly say he had paid Newt the last few visits. He had visited the Precursors not even deigning to masquerade as Newt, and he had found fitful sleep with the recollection of those cold dead eyes piercing through him.

Hermann’s will to continue visiting Newt had slipped through his fingers like chalk turned to dust, and he had walked uneasy with the knowledge that he was a coward, that he had turned his back on a dear friend. It was only after several weeks that he understood his desire to help Newt had not vanished: rather, it had morphed into something else, something more purposeful and far more reckless. It had ossified into the burning urge to steal Newt from his captors and liberate Newt’s mind himself.

Hermann did not believe himself capable of such an idea, and attributed both its development and execution to the part of his mind which was more Newt than himself. For Hermann Gottlieb did not talk back to authority, let alone defy them in flagrant kidnapping schemes. Hermann Gottlieb took missions assigned to him; he did not plot his own temerarious missions.

What Hermann did gladly attribute to himself was the intellect required to construct the Pons System — a different model than Jaeger pilots used in their Drifts. Given his need to access the deepest parts of Newt’s mind and remain there, help guide Newt back to the surface, a simple Drift had seemed insufficient. And thus Hermann had built upon the current Pons design, modifying it for a complete mind-meld.

A complete but unequal mind-meld. He had programmed his Pons System to tap into Newt’s consciousness at its core, to lean more heavily into Newt’s mind: let Hermann be a visitor rather than an equal participant in the Drift, and let any Anteverse neural signatures be deflected. Truthfully, Hermann could not guess how those modifications might present themselves during the actual Drift. He could not guess what he might experience. It had been a devilishly tricky bit of work figuring out how to distinguish Newt’s neural signatures versus his own, and their neural signatures versus those of the Precursors, and then programming the desired balance between those three elements. Quite a few nights Hermann had spent with a headache thudding behind his eyes, notes crumpled all about him. Quite a few nights Hermann had spent hunched over his desk by lamplight and fueled only by the unyielding burn of his conviction that Newt should not have to suffer a moment longer in the clutches of the Precursors.

No one had ever undertaken such a task. No scientific precedent existed. How Hermann’s hands had shaken as he slotted metal and wire and twists of cable together; how his fingers had trembled across the keyboard as he wrote his program and prayed that it would not fry both his brain and Newt’s. Anxiety had suffused him to the point of sweating as he reprogrammed his keycard to give him privileges, accesses he should not have. And as Hermann typed out one final text to Jake, his hands shook. Would the Drift be successful? Would their minds connect deeply enough? Would it kill him? Would it kill Newt?

He could not know. He trusted his intellect and his assiduously crafted Pons System, but he could not know.

Still, he had to try.

Hermann grimaced as he messaged Jake:

About to attempt something ill-advised in lab G108. I cannot succeed without your help: please keep the lab closed until I am through — say it is being cleaned owing to a chemical spill, or something of the like. You will understand when you get here, and you will likely think me foolish for trying, but I must beg that you do not interfere. Sanction me afterwards, if you must. Consider this me cashing in every favor I have ever done for you.

‘Delivered’ morphed to ‘read’ within seconds. Hermann was thoroughly unsurprised. Jake rarely slept before 4am.

“Here goes nothing,” Hermann said to himself, setting his phone down. His mouth set into a thin line as his hands flew over the computer keyboard, preparing for the Drift. With numb fingers he strapped Newt into one of the helmets.

“You will fail,” said Newt softly as Hermann’s hands came away from his face, and Hermann almost preferred that he had shouted it. The hateful assurance in Newt’s eyes scythed through what little courage Hermann had gathered to himself, and he faltered as he put his own helmet on and lowered himself to the ground. Against the computer desk he propped himself, facing Newt, and in his hand he gripped the clicker he had built. One press of the button on top, and their minds would meld.

“We’ll see about that, shall we?” said Hermann, unable to meet Newt’s eyes. Without thinking he had allocated the single chair in this laboratory to restraining Newt, which had left him with no place to sit but the floor. Hermann did not like what their relative positions bespoke about the balance of power between them.

“Oh, Hermann,” sighed Newt from above. He curved Hermann’s name into a sin, and so much like the real Newt did it sound that Hermann flinched. How Hermann loathed those creatures for twisting his dear friend so, for shaping him with cruel hands into something he was not. “What’s this? Courage?” Newt laughed cold and high. “We’ve been in your head, too, don’t you remember? You were never the courageous one. That was him — or, that was me. Though I was more reckless than brave, wouldn’t you say?”

Pointedly Hermann ignored the Precursors. “I will save you, Newt. Don’t worry.”

“That’s adorable! Adorable. He can’t hear you.” A horrible, patronizing smirk crawled up Newt’s lips. “Want to know a secret?”

Hermann squeezed the clicker like a vice, but try as he might, he could not will his thumb to press down. In a grotesque trance the Precursors held him. He hung on their every word.

“We always liked you better,” said Newt. “We wanted you. Who — between the two of you — who’d have picked this loud, messy little man?”

I would have chosen him, thought Hermann. “Don’t speak of him like —”

“He gave into us easily enough,” Newt interrupted. “Too easily, actually! He doesn’t want you to know that. He’s afraid of what you think. Or at least, he was afraid. There’s hardly enough of him left to feel much of anything. Now you… you’d have been more difficult. Oh, you fought us off well, but didn’t you feel us creeping back: every so often in the back of your mind, just a hint of us. And in your nightmares. Go ahead! Drift with us! You’ll see more than one familiar face.” Newt’s smile was utterly inhuman, and dread uncurled within Hermann. “And watch out, Doctor. You’ll be in our territory in the Drift. We will find you, and you won’t be able to resist us this time.”

Maybe, thought Hermann faintly. That is a very real possibility. But this was no ordinary Drift, he reminded himself: he had specifically tailored his Pons System to latch onto Newt’s neural signatures while deflecting those of the Precursors. When the Precursors realized this Hermann did not doubt they would hunt him within Newt’s mind, and he would be a sitting duck. But he would have a head start on them, and surely that counted for something.

Assuming Drifting at this level did not kill both him and Newt instantly, that was.

“I will save you, Newt,” said Hermann at last.

And with every ounce of courage he could muster, Hermann pressed his thumb down. He initiated the Drift.

 


 

Into a sea of whirling silver and blue Hermann’s world burst. Back in his head his eyes rolled, and his body went ragdoll slack against the desk. His consciousness spun tethered to nothing for several eddying moments; it tumbled through space, or his memories, or Newt’s memories, then snapped abruptly into something far more solid.

Everything was black. Something sturdy was beneath his feet, and chilled air ghosted across his skin. He had a body. His senses were his own, and even his cane was in his hand. He was not dead, he did not think.

Hermann realized his eyes were closed, and with caution he opened them. Around him sprawled his and Newt’s old laboratory, back from their days with the PPDC. There sat his chalkboard, covered in pale equations, and there lay tanks of Kaiju entrails. That familiar ribbon of tape divided the room in two parts, and scattered about were endless papers. This was their old lab.

And yet — it was not.

Nothing wore its true color here, it seemed. Purple was too purple, green strangely electric. Blue — blue had a sickly vibrant shimmer to it, and most things were limned at least faintly with some shade of it. The warmest colors were washed out, nearly greyscale. Hermann approached his old desk and set a hand upon it. It felt as solid as he was, though he half expected his hand to pass straight through.

Lifting his gaze, Hermann noticed a set of double doors: pale yellow, with decorative windows set into the top. Odd. Were this their old lab, the doors should have been on the opposite side of the room, and they certainly should not have looked like that.

Hermann twisted about to face where the true doorway should have been, and a rill of fear passed through his gut. A set of industrial double doors was there indeed, but horrible Kaiju blue light spilled through the cracks where door did not quite meet wall, and small vines curled about the edges. He averted his eyes. Five more doorways Hermann noted of varying shapes and colors: colors that did not adhere to the color scheme of the rest of the room. Deep crimson was one door, and bold orange another. The seven doors were spaced at equal intervals from each other in the laboratory walls, but only one bled such vicious light. Hermann shuffled closer to the glowing doorway with dread curiosity, and forced himself to truly look at it.

“Oh, God.” The words poured tremulous over Hermann’s lips, and his eyes were transfixed unblinking upon the sight before him.

Those were not vines: they were tentacles. Small and filigree, but tentacles nonetheless. Tentacles, faintly aglow, insinuating themselves through the cracks in the doorframe and clinging to the edges of the midnight blue doors. In comparison to the turquoise piercing through the cracks in the doorway, the glow of the tentacles paled, but it was radiance enough to have Hermann clutching his cane white-knuckled. As if they noticed Hermann’s gaze, the tentacles began to undulate and crawl. They wriggled in grotesque heaves towards the door handles. Encircling the brass handles was a thick chain held together with a four-digit padlock; greedy and prehensile the tentacles grasped for the padlock, and with rising panic Hermann watched them fiddle with the keycode.

Four digits separated Hermann from death by Kaiju.

Visceral instinct drove him, then, to raise his cane and swing at the tentacles.

“Get! Back!” he said between strikes with the assurance a man only has when his rational brain has short circuited and left him with nothing but adrenaline.

His cane clanged against the door, and each tentacle he hit gave a squelch that curdled his blood. Mercifully, after several blows struck true, the tentacles caught Hermann’s message and slithered back into the glowing cracks whence they came. Hermann was alone once more. Cane brandished aloft he stood for several moments, but when no further movement came, he allowed himself to lower it. Heavy his pulse thudded in his ears.

If this truly was Newt’s mind, Hermann suspected he would have to brave those doors eventually, for it was the creatures of the Anteverse that had tormented Newt into submission, and it was with the creatures of the Anteverse he would likely find him. But Hermann could not begin to guess the padlock’s code, and he did not have tools to break the chain. The glowing doorway would remain impassable for now. Hermann felt privately relieved.

What had those tentacles been, though? Was it possible the Precursors had already begun to infiltrate this Drift? Had he neglected some crucial variable and allowed those creatures to seep in?

No, Hermann was too good for that. For now, he was safe.

He had to be.

Fleeting, the thought crossed his mind to end this Drift. To back out and quadruple check the algorithm he used to deflect alien neural signatures, to investigate what those dreadful tentacles had been, to gather his shaken nerves and return with more informed expectations. With no one to end this deep Drift externally, Hermann had programmed a hand signal to end it manually: snap his fingers thrice, and the signals from that specific muscular activity would terminate the Drift. Simple, not terribly complex to program, impossible to replicate by accident. Nothing could keep him here beyond his own will.

Hermann swallowed against a dry throat, drummed his fingers against his cane.

“No. No,” he said to himself, shaking his head as if he could physically wring out his anxiety, his cowardice. For good measure he stamped his cane against the ground, a punctuation mark on his resolve.

Hermann Gottlieb was no hero: he was not bold, or strong. But he could not leave Newt immured by monsters in his own mind a moment longer. Not Newt, his former lab partner and the most welcome nuisance in his life. His intellectual equal and dearest friend. Driven away by superficial hurt when Newt left the PPDC, Hermann had fallen deaf to what he now knew to be Newt’s subtle cries for help. He had abandoned Newt to be preyed upon by monsters. He would not abandon Newt now, however many tentacles he had to smite along the way.

“I will find you, Newt. I will set you free,” he whispered. A part of him feared the Precursors might hear and discover him quicker should he speak too loud. But conviction settled quietly in Hermann’s heart, and he resumed his examination of his old laboratory.

Why Newt's mind had taken this form Hermann could not say, but it was true enough to reality, strange coloring aside. Fondly he recalled all the equations scribbled across his chalkboard, and the papers strewn across the tables and floor of Newt’s half of the lab were intimately familiar. He did not have to stoop and read them to know which were research, which were Newt’s scrawled notes, which were receipts from Newt’s favorite shops.

Suspended in their tanks, the Kaiju entrails shone unsettling turquoise yet seemed less alive than they had in reality. They seemed cardboard parodies of themselves. Hermann held his hand up to one tank, and that blue glow skimmed across his pale skin. Something in the back of his mind urged him to reach further, further toward the tank.

Hermann snapped his hand back as if scalded. Had that been...?

Something shimmering caught his eye, then: something aureate and shimmering behind the tank. Cautiously Hermann shuffled to one side to peer at it.

Like breath or smoke it appeared, a hazy and indistinct silver mass floating at waist height. It was tiny: Hermann could catch it in a cup, he mused. More air than substance, it would have blended into the lab had it not been for the flecks of coruscating red and gold playing across it like synapses. It was beautiful, and that compulsion struck again to reach out, touch it. Almost magnetic, it drew Hermann’s hand closer, and closer —

“Hey!” Hermann snatched his hand back once more. “Stop that,” he scolded the smoke like an insouciant child. There were malicious things here, Hermann knew, but this did not feel like one of them. “What are you?”

Of course, no response came. Just that continuous shimmer, and the pale silver edges ebbing as if they treaded air. It felt alive, and more friend than foe. After giving the smoke a final once-over, Hermann scanned the rest of the lab for anything that might prove useful, anything he might require in his venture through the deeps of Newt’s mind.

His half of this mental laboratory was immaculate and ascetic. Nothing strewn on the floor or tucked into drawers, and nothing useful to him unless he elected to fight the Precursors with mathematical treatises and chalk. Hermann had always harbored a healthy suspicion that Newt ransacked his half of the lab when he left it unattended: searching for something damning with which he could tease Hermann, or tools he had lost yet convinced himself Hermann had stolen, or simply personal effects that might give him a window into Hermann’s meticulously guarded life. So mainly out of spite Hermann had kept nothing particularly damning, no tools, and no personal effects in his drawers.

Newt’s half of the laboratory, now — that was a different situation altogether. Hermann had taken care never to venture into the biohazard that was Newt’s section of the lab unless absolutely necessary, but Newt had made a habit of loudly announcing every single item he brought into the lab, every single item he promptly dropped on the floor or shoved in a desk or tossed at Hermann. Often he would call Hermann over to help him when he had lost something important, such as the data sheet from his latest experiment, or something decisively less important, such as the waffle he had once absentmindedly placed in the centrifuge. This left Hermann with a substantial mental inventory of Newt’s half of the lab, and he put it to use.

A pocket knife he collected from one of Newt’s desk drawers. He held it between two fingers, at distance, as if it might bite him. Newt had purchased the knife not for the protection it afforded, of course, but for the “awesome drawing of a Kaiju on the handle — look at it, dude! Have you ever seen something this beautiful? No. Actually. I shouldn’t ask you that. You think math is beautiful. You think prime numbers are sexy. Stop looking at my knife, Hermann!”

A bone saw lay beneath one table, and Hermann collected this as well. It seemed a useful item to have on hand for emergencies. Holding the knife in one hand and the saw in the other, both at arm’s length, Hermann delicately set them on a free table.

About Newt’s half of the lab Hermann flitted, gathering variegated items and adding them to his small pile. Minutes passed, or perhaps hours. Or perhaps seconds. Time did not seem to exist, here at this level of the Drift. When Hermann tried to recall what time had passed, tried to count seconds, even, the thoughts were wet clay in his hands, clumping against his palms, trickling through his fingers, impossible to hold. So it was after some indeterminate amount of time that Hermann found himself staring at his completed pile, nonplussed.

The pocket knife, the bone saw, a roll of duct tape, a flashlight, and a cloth messenger bag. Hermann thought he had gathered more than that, surely. With dismay he rolled his gaze back over the laboratory, but nothing else caught his attention. He placed the tools into the messenger bag. The sight of the bag itself set a small smile blossoming across his lips. It had no flaps or buckles, merely a long strap and a zippered opening he could not close for the length of the bone saw; the fabric was sturdy and garish.

Hermann recalled the day Newt had brought that monstrosity into the laboratory. Stoic, calm, Newt had walked in — which frankly should have been the first harbinger of something amiss. Several times Newt had walked past him until Hermann, fed up, at last looked at him and was met with a gaudy expanse of tie-dyed neon cloth swinging loosely at Newt’s hip.

“What… is that?”

Newt had struck a pose. “You like it?” He waggled his eyebrows, and while Hermann grudgingly admitted to himself that if that neon monstrosity suited anyone well, it was Newt, Hermann would have rather broken a limb than fed into Newt’s smug exhibitionism.

“Get back to work, Newton,” Hermann had said in a withering tone, and pointedly turned his back on Newt.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” said Newt. Only when Hermann had heard Newt’s retreating footsteps against the laboratory floor had he allowed his scowl to flicker into a jittery millisecond of a grin.

A tiny pocket of warmth settled in Hermann’s chest at the memory. What he would not give, now, for the simplicity of arguments with his colleague against the backdrop of an impending apocalypse. Hermann’s hand lingered fondly against the tie-dyed fabric before he swung the messenger bag over his shoulder. Part of him considered it a mercy that the odd coloring of this place, though it amplified the vibrancy of the bag’s many turquoise splotches, dulled the fluorescent oranges and yellows to muted shades of beige, and spared him the eyesore. Part of him wished quietly to see the true colors, garish as they were, to have something familiar and wholly Newt to cling to.

But that was not so, and Hermann brushed the sentiment aside. This was a mission to save the soul of his friend and former colleague. Sentiment would only hinder him. He levelled the weight of the messenger bag on his shoulder and, leaning more heavily on his cane, crossed the room. (He paused along the way at his chalkboard, and for the sake of having one more item in his bag, grabbed a piece of chalk. He felt slightly more prepared.)

Surely his way to Newt was through one of the seven doorways: nothing else remained for him in this eerily lifeless laboratory. Only the inscrutable and shimmering silver smoke called to him, held any trace of vitality, and he could not begin to hypothesize what that might have been. Hermann stopped before one doorway and dragged in a deep breath. A slightly worn brass doorknob gleamed warmly up at him. Painted unassuming grey, the door lacked windows, but Hermann did not suspect anything terrible lurked behind it. At any rate, it was not the set of double doors draped in tentacles and radiating eldritch turquoise. This door seemed positively inviting, by contrast.

One final glance Hermann allowed himself back at the lab, for nostalgia’s sake.

“Good heavens!”

The coruscating smoke had snuck up silent behind him, and on instinct Hermann brandished his cane at it, pulse slamming through his skin. The smoke skittered backwards as if frightened. Regret washed over Hermann, and he lowered his cane.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I — I’m sorry.”

Tentatively the smoke crept back towards him, and he stared. It was so small, and it felt so transient. Ephemeral. An inexplicable flutter of pity passed through him.

Why did he feel this odd attachment to it? What was it? Nearly everything in this place was tinged some shade of blue that glowed electric, except the smoke. Its nebulous body was pure silver, and what the rest of the laboratory lacked in saturated warm tones, the smoke more than compensated for with flecks of brilliant red and shimmering gold. Though Hermann’s every instinct screamed for him to distrust it, to assume it some Anteverse oddity, he felt that goodness inhered within it. And he really could use a friend in this immaterial place: until he found Newt, he would have only the omnipresent threat of the Precursors as company.

Hermann turned. He curled his fingers about the brass doorknob, and opened the door. It felt immeasurably foolish, but he paused and peered over his shoulder before he crossed the threshold in the hope the smoke might follow him.

It did not, and alone Hermann stepped through the grey door.

Chapter Text

“There should be three Kaijus coming through, not two!”

“Oh, there should be three, and there’s two. I’m sorry, it hurts to be wrong, doesn’t it, Hermann —”

“I am not wrong, but there’s something here that we don’t understand —”

“Okay, Hermann, hopefully we can argue about any mistakes you made in your predictive model in the future, but in the meantime, the neural interface is way off the charts! If you want to help, help with that.”

“Newton, I am not wrong. There is only one way to make sure. And that is to do this together. I’ll go with you. That’s what the Jaeger pilots do: share the neural load.”

“You’re serious? You — you would do that for me — or, you would — you would do that with me.”

“Well with worldwide destruction a certain alternative, do I really have a choice?”

“Then say it with me, my man! We’re gonna own this bad boy.”

“By Jove, we are going to own this thing for sure!”

Hermann felt distinctly off-kilter as he watched the familiar scene unfold before him. While the laboratory colors had been saturated oddly, favoring cool tones, the colors here were perfectly ordinary. Debris blanketed the damp ground, and small scattered fires sent pale whorls of smoke curling into the cold air. The fetid stench of dead Kaiju smothered him. The grey door had swung itself shut behind him, and the laboratory wall it had been set in was missing entirely. There was simply the door, bound on three sides by air. It seemed incongruous against the rest of the landscape: a single rectangle of immaculate grey against the Kaiju corpses and the ruin those creatures had wrought. The city glittered all around Hermann, windows like little stars dusted into the night sky.

But where there should have been people — unspooling caution tape, harvesting Kaiju parts — there was only a foggy sort of emptiness. A ringing silence. The world was Newt and Hermann, the two Kaijus and the hollow city.

And the real Hermann, looking upon it all from just beyond the threshold of the grey door. The realization was settling within him that this was a part of Newt’s mind: a memory. A memory playing out in vivid four dimensions, yet a memory nonetheless. Hermann’s heart ached: how young and reckless and alive Newt was, clothes torn, glasses cracked, face streaked in blood. And how electrified he and Hermann looked, thrilled by their impulse act of courage.

“Enjoy this while it lasts. It will pass you by quicker than you know,” Hermann wanted to tell the memory of himself. Or maybe, “Stop this madness: it is a mistake.” They had saved lives, cancelled the apocalypse, but at the price of Newt’s soul, and only to catalyze a second apocalypse a decade later. To the ground Hermann cast his gaze in shame. He clutched the strap of his messenger bag, an anchor, and looked up through his eyelashes at the memory still unfolding.

He and Newt initiated the Drift, and their eyes rolled up into their skulls. Their bodies spasmed for several long moments, and when the Drift ended, a fit of coughing assailed Newt.

“Are you okay?” Newt choked out as he wrestled his helmet off.

“Yes, of course. Completely fine,” said Hermann faintly, blood trickling from his nose. As Newt groaned and caught his breath, Hermann went rigid, and dashed for a conveniently located toilet. He thrust his open hand out as he retched, and Newt staggered over to deliver him a handkerchief. In stunned jittery tones they confirmed what they had seen, then dashed off into the dark city to warn Pentecost and the rest of the PPDC of their doom impending. And Hermann was left alone, staring at the spot where the pair slipped from his sight into midnight ether.

Several viscous seconds, or perhaps hours, ticked by before the Hermann and Newt from a decade prior rematerialized in front of the newborn Kaiju corpse.

“There should be three Kaijus coming through, not two!”

“Oh, there should be three, and there’s two. I’m sorry, it hurts to be wrong, doesn’t it, Hermann —”

“I am not wrong, but there’s something here that we don’t understand —”

“Okay, Hermann, hopefully we can…”

“What is happening?” the real Hermann asked nobody in particular.

He assumed he was not meant to stand there idle and watch this memory replay into eternity. He could not guess what he should do next, but he had not contrived his own Pons System and Drifted with a Precursor-possessed Newt to mull languidly over his options. With a modicum of hesitation, he crept forward, away from the safe blanket of the grey door and into the heart of this memory. Neither the memory of himself nor the memory of Newt took notice of his presence, even as he stood directly next to Newt.

“You’re serious? You — you would do that for me — or, you would — you would do that with me.”

The expression on Newt’s face tugged at Hermann’s heart, and it was that breathtakingly fragile hope that loosed his tongue at last.

“Newt,” he said, voice thin as glass.

But Newt did not hear him.

“Well with worldwide destruction a certain alternative, do I really have a choice?” asked the memory of Hermann.

“Then say it with me, my man! We’re gonna own this bad boy.” Newt stretched his hand out, reckless and free.

“By Jove, we are going to own this thing for sure!” Hermann watched himself frenetically cycle through several distinct hand gestures as if he could not figure whether Newt was going for a handshake, a fist bump, or a very low high five, and decided to reciprocate all of them at once.

Newt laughed, and it drove a knife through Hermann’s chest. He had missed that laugh dearly, that bright ardor in Newt’s eyes. Tentatively he reached out to grasp Newt by the shoulder, shake him from this memory by haptic means. But Newt gave no reaction. He turned away as if Hermann did not exist, and awkwardly Hermann’s hand slid from Newt’s shoulder.

“What am I supposed to do here?” Hermann asked the unresponsive Newt. Nervous energy shimmered through his hands. He drummed his fingers against his cane, and tightened his grip on the messenger bag.

The memories of Hermann and Newt strapped themselves into their helmets, and their eyes rolled up into their heads. The scene replayed to completion, and then began to repeat once more. Hermann huffed and turned away, hoping something might materialize and give him some semblance of guidance. But nothing changed, and nothing came. He had only his wits, his will, and a hideous bag full of tools. Stiffly Hermann readjusted the messenger bag on his shoulder and walked away: past the Kaiju corpse, and straight out the grey door. He needed to think.

The electric blue lighting assailed his eyes, though blessedly the stench of Kaiju death did not follow him into the laboratory. The air was crisp and odorless. He closed the grey door and made for his erstwhile desk. Shrugging the messenger bag from his shoulder, he sank into his chair.

Was he to check behind the remaining doors for more memories? Were all the other doors mere distractions from the dreadful glowing door: infinitely looping memories without significance? Was there something in this laboratory he had missed?

Mercifully, Hermann was interrupted before his thoughts could spiral further. The silver smoke had crept over to him, and it glittered at eye level.

“You live here, yes?” Hermann asked, feeling foolish. “Do you know what I am supposed to do?”

The smoke hovered unhelpfully. Hermann deflated, and muttered to the ceiling, “Even in your subconscious, you are quite the nuisance, Newton.” It felt strange to chide Newt when Hermann desperately wanted to envelop him in a hug and never say anything unkind to him again. It also felt quite familiar and was comforting, in a way, to lean back into the habit of tossing benign jibes at his friend.

Emboldened by this moment of comfort, Hermann ran through his possible courses of action and decided the logical next step was to try another door. To the right of the grey door was an orange door, vibrant but not garish. A semicircle window suffused with gentle light was carved into the top of the door, and the doorknob was comfortably worn. It seemed friendly enough, so Hermann rose, paced to it, and twisted the doorknob.

It did not budge. Harder Hermann jiggled the doorknob, to no avail. It was locked. Hermann made his way to the next doorway: locked again. Hermann tried the remaining doors (excluding, of course, the padlocked doorway) and found them all locked. When he circled back at last to the grey door, he half expected it to be locked as well, but it opened easily at his touch. He made an aborted gesture of dismay, pivoted his cane against the ground. Feet still firmly planted in the laboratory, he stared through the only traversable door at himself and Newt preparing to Drift with the Kaiju.

“Fine,” Hermann said, mouth curved down into a grimace.

He shuffled back across the room to retrieve his gaudy messenger bag, leaving the grey door open behind him. He was mildly unsettled at how rapidly the bag had turned into a crutch, but it afforded him some inexplicable security in this lonely and enigmatic corner of Newt’s mind. It was as close as he would get to holding Newt’s hand for comfort here.

The thought whisked through Hermann’s mind, and it almost escaped his notice. But then he did take notice, and he nearly tripped over his own feet. His heart lurched straight out of his chest and dissolved; his stomach relocated to his throat.

Hold Newt’s hand? Hold Newt’s hand? Hermann Gottlieb did not hold hands with his friends like some sort of child. “No — thank you,” he said stiffly. His fingers clenched against his cane; he was seized suddenly by the feeling that rigor mortis had begun to set in, stiffness pouring through his body.

Newt had soft hands, he remembered.

And that was quite enough, thank you very much, farewell, goodnight. Hermann was going to dismiss these ruminations as quirks of the Drift and continue with his mission. He whipped the messenger bag off his desk with more force than strictly necessary and slung it onto his shoulder.

Was the thought of holding Newt’s hand truly so abhorrent? He had already hugged Newt (or Newt’s body, at least, for he had been possessed), and that had felt rather pleasant. Until he had already looped his arms around Newt’s waist and squeezed tight, Hermann had not even known he wanted to hug Newt. Emotions had a way of sneaking up on and startling him.

Still, hand-holding seemed on a different level from hugging: a step up in intimacy. Hermann glanced shiftily about as an inexplicable wave of guilt struck him, and for the strangest moment he worried that Newt was with him in their old laboratory, that Newt knew his thoughts and judged him. But he was alone, and that was a ridiculous line of thought. The Drift was simply meddling with his emotions.

And so Hermann shoved his brief turmoil aside, purposefully wiped the scowl from his face, and turned around just in time to see the silver smoke drift into the doorway he had left open. As it crossed the threshold, it expanded and thinned for half a heartbeat, then dissolved. Hermann’s eyes widened, and he dashed forward fast as his cane and the weight of Newt’s old messenger bag would allow. He cut quite the undignified figure in his rush, but something had finally happened, and it felt imperative that he investigate. Through the grey door and into the noisome night air he passed once more.

“Then say it with me, my man! We’re gonna own this bad boy.”

“By Jove, we are going to own this thing for sure!”

The memory of Newt cackled with adrenaline-fueled glee, and the real Hermann paused as the grey door closed itself behind him. He swept his gaze from side to side. He had anticipated some change in the memory after the perplexing sight of the glimmering smoke dissolving, but down to the last detail everything remained the same. Nowhere could he see so much as a wisp of smoke. His jaw tightened: he rather hoped the smoke had not been destroyed.

“Initiating neural handshake in 5…4…3…2…1!” cried Newt.

Hermann watched the memory continue to uncurl with sharp eyes. He and Newt initiated their Drift with the newborn Kaiju corpse, and their eyes rolled into their heads. Their bodies seized up and were wracked by spasms. Hermann had not noticed it at first, but something indeed felt different the longer he stood there. It was not a physical difference: something intangible had changed within him. Deep in Hermann’s gut something tugged, not insistent, but subtly urging all the same; it compelled him forward, and forward, some sort of magnetism, one foot in front of the other, until he stood before Newt’s shivering body. Hermann’s brow knotted.

“Newt?” he whispered, to no response.

In tentative bursts Hermann stretched his hand out to grasp Newt’s bicep. “Newt?” he repeated, and Newt’s eyes flew open.

“Hermann?” said Newt, blood trickling from his nose. He looked Hermann straight in the eye, and with juddering hands removed his helmet.

“You can see me?” Hermann breathed, and the sheer force of his relief turned his voice brittle. A smile cracked across his lips, and every nerve in his body thrummed with bright joy. At last, in this morass of a Drift, he had found Newt. Decorum screamed for him to give Newt a pat on the arm, or perhaps a firm handshake, but Newt had a way of overriding Hermann’s most deeply ingrained instincts, and Hermann launched himself at Newt’s midsection for a hug. His eyes squeezed tight shut, and though the bulk of the messenger bag weighed half his body down awkwardly, he paid it no heed. Here was Newt in his arms: the real Newt, who could feel this hug, not the Precursor-possessed doll. Even if it was just in this Drift, in Newt’s head, the sensations were dazzlingly real.

“Dude, what?” Newt’s arms wrapped haltingly about Hermann. “Of course I can see you. Are you really sure this is the best time for a hug?” He gave Hermann a stiff pat on the back.

“I’ve…” Hermann shook his head against Newt’s chest. “For months, I worried you were lost. That I would never see the true you again.”

Newt froze, then leaned back. He peeled Hermann from his torso to meet his eyes. “What are you talking about, Hermann? Months — I don’t…” he trailed off, brow crinkling with concern as he looked closer at Hermann. “Did something go wrong on your end of the Drift, man, because you’re kinda freaking me out right now, and I don’t know if you just saw what I did, but the — the Jaegers, the breach — their plan isn’t going to work! We’ve gotta warn them.”

“What?” Hermann said, and backed up. His expression morphed into a mirror of Newt’s confusion; his mind raced to piece the context for Newt’s words together, and then — “You don’t know.” Hermann spoke softly, and the chill night air swallowed his voice; he did not think Newt heard. Newt was already steering him urgently back to the Shatterdome with a hand on his back. Ungainly the messenger bag, bone saw handle jutting out from the opening, swung between them. When Newt noticed this, his pace stuttered to a halt, and he raked his gaze swiftly over Hermann’s frame.

“Is that — is that my bag? Where did that come from?”

Hermann did not know how to begin to explain where the bag had come from. Gently he asked, “Where do you think we are?” He trailed his gaze along the cityscape, the Kaiju corpses, the damp pavement around them. “There’s nobody else here, Newt. There is nobody to warn.” With a knot in his stomach, Hermann fixed his eyes on Newt. Watched the frown deepen across his face, watched him take in the scene about him, watched confusion bleed to worry. Newt licked his lips, and swallowed, and took a step backward. Hermann missed the warmth of Newt’s hand on his back, but that loss was fleeting; something akin to pity rippled through him at the sight of Newt searching for any sign of life around them and coming up empty.

And then it started to rain.

A light drizzle, no downpour, but enough to startle Hermann. They had stepped truly beyond the confines of the memory, now, and once again Hermann did not quite know what to do next. He did not imagine the bone saw in his bag, or the duct tape, would help.

“There were people here a minute ago,” said Newt. His glasses were steadily welling up with water droplets. “There were — there were…” Newt said, gesticulating in small staccato motions.

For goodness knew how long, Newt had been confined to that endless loop of a memory, and he had just been jarred from it: the rug pulled from under him. A small flutter of sorrow passed through Hermann. “I know,” he said softly, and hoped it sounded reassuring.

Newt had led them a fair distance in the opposite direction from the grey door, and Hermann glanced back to ensure it still existed. Through the curtain of light rain he spotted it easily, that incongruous rectangle of grey, and he breathed a small sigh of relief. He had not noticed the tension gathering in his bones the further they strayed from the door.

“Hermann, if you know what’s going on, now would kinda be the time to tell me,” Newt said, voice rising in shrill urgency. “’Cause I feel like I’m stuck in the weirdest lucid dream ever, but I can’t wake up, but everything feels real? And like a second ago you were Drifting with me and now you’re just standing there with my bag — did your clothes change, too? What’s that haircut —”

“Newton,” Hermann cut him off before he could wind himself up further, left hand flying up in a placating gesture. “You’re fine,” he lied. The rain had picked up, slicking Hermann’s hair down against his forehead, and it was growing colder. “We’re — well, this is…” Hermann paused, scrunched his eyes against the chill downpour. The rain drowned his thoughts; they slipped ephemeral between his fingers, and he could not settle on an explanation that Newt might easily digest. Newt’s mounting agitation did not help, either. Hermann’s soaked jacket had welded to his button-up shirt beneath, which in turn clung to his skin. The ripped mess that was Newt’s jacket was similarly drenched, and the white of his shirt had gone clear as it stuck to his torso. To slits Hermann’s eyes narrowed against the rain, and Newt fared no better; Hermann could barely discern his squinted eyes through the water streaming down his glasses. “Let’s get out of this weather, shall we? There’s a door this way,” Hermann said, and gestured toward the grey door. “I will explain everything to you then.”

“Whatever you say, man. I’m freezing,” said Newt. He hitched his jacket over his head, a makeshift umbrella, and jogged for the door. Easily he outstripped Hermann, who could not jog for his cane and the messenger bag and the slick ground. Still, Hermann made for the doorway swift as his feet could carry him; a firm eye he kept on Newt through the curtain of rain.

Newt opened the grey door, then faltered. He twisted about and levelled a perplexed glance at Hermann. Hermann gave him a questioning look, but Newt shook the expression off, and carried on through the door.

As Newt crossed the threshold, several odd things happened simultaneously. He winked out of existence for the briefest of moments, then promptly rematerialized in dry clothes: his jacket was gone, and the sleeves of his white button-up shirt were rolled to his elbows, though something about him seemed translucent. The freezing rain ceased all at once, a quantum leap from downpour to nothing. And Newt turned back to face Hermann with what was, unless Hermann was mistaken, plain, startled recognition in his eyes.

Hermann halted for an instant, jarred by Newt’s expression, then willed his feet onward. He passed through the grey door with fragile hope burgeoning once more in his chest and a single word upon his lips.

“Newt?”

 


 

Hermann shut the grey door behind him and heard the distinct click of a lock, though the door had no keyhole or other discernible locking mechanism. He shivered: his clothes were soaked with freezing rain, and little icy rivulets dripped from his hair down the back of his neck. Before him, Newt blinked owlishly behind his glasses, and still wore that agape expression. His entire body was desaturated to near greyscale, and transparent enough that Hermann could see the laboratory through him. He seemed spectral, holographic. At Hermann’s shoulder the weight of the sopping messenger bag pulled, so he shrugged it off, setting it on the laboratory floor without tearing his eyes from Newt. As Hermann straightened up, Newt at last lost the surprised expression.

“Hermann!” he shouted, voice shooting up an octave. He spluttered through several cacophonous efforts at speech, then gave up and simply yelled “Hermann!” once more. Forward he surged, arms outstretched, and with relief turning his bones weightless Hermann leaned into the hug —

Only for Newt’s arms to pass straight through him, and for Newt’s entire body to flicker in and out of existence like a neon sign losing voltage. Glistering gold and red sparks crackled about the edges of Newt’s body before he backed away with wide eyes. “Uh. That was weird,” he said.

“Quite,” Hermann agreed through a dry throat. The flickering set him on edge, but it ceased the second Newt extricated himself from his body. He opened his mouth to speak again, but Newt was staring at him, lips fallen open, looking on the verge of tears. So Hermann closed his mouth, and waited, and simply drank in the sight of his friend.

“You came. You’re here in my head, you — you Drifted with me,” said Newt at last. Hermann nodded his confirmation, grateful that Newt at least seemed cognizant of that much. It was far preferable to his confusion behind the grey door. “Hermann, I thought…” Newt began, but could not finish, voice strangled. He hung his head and stared at his hands. “I look like a ghost,” he said, a stab at a lighthearted quip, though his voice broke. Hermann wondered how many times this Drift could break his heart. Newt stepped around him to lean against the laboratory wall and slump to the ground, knees drawn up to his chest, forehead in his hands. Into a frown Newt’s features crumpled, and from his tightly shut eyes a single tear finally ran. It cut a pale and oddly ethereal path down Newt’s ashen cheek before he wiped it away.

“I thought you guys gave up on me,” Newt said in a small voice, eyes still shut, and Hermann knew with certainty then that this was his Newt. Not a memory or a shadow, but the true Newt: the one he had engineered this Drift for, the one caught in the grasp of those vile creatures and immured in his own mind. Something squeezed Hermann's heart like a vice, and settled wetly behind his eyes. His muscles cried for him to pull Newt up into a hug, never let go, but he could not touch Newt. Not without causing that dreadful flickering, and neither he nor Newt could feel the other’s touch, anyway. Newt had passed through him unassuming as air, and Newt, he assumed, felt nothing in this eerie translucent form. So Hermann simply stepped over and joined Newt on the ground, though his leg protested greatly. The laboratory wall pressed his sopping clothes uncomfortably into his skin as he leaned against it.

“No," he said. “Never. They would not give up on you. Nor would I.” Such conviction suffused him that his voice shook. 

Newt managed a thin, watery smile.

“I’m here now, aren’t I?” Hermann continued in a softer tone. “I would not abandon you. I could never.” A moment of self-consciousness seized him: that he had repeated himself too much, that he had said too much. He had never been adept with emotions, and he felt exposed, like a nerve. But he looked at the pale tears sliding silent down Newt’s cheeks, and brushed those thoughts aside. Such soul-deep exhaustion must have been crushing down on him. Hermann had never seen Newt break like this. Perhaps embarrassingly mushy sentiments were what the situation called for.

“Thanks, man,” said Newt, and Hermann could tell he strained to keep his voice level. He wiped the tears from his cheeks, and opened his eyes once more. “It’s just — it’s been a long time since I was me, you know?” Newt swallowed, pushed his glasses up. How Hermann had missed those overlarge glasses. “I got control a few times over — over the past few years, but they just kept getting stronger. Ever since you guys caught me, it was like they shoved me into some dark corner in my own head. I haven’t felt like an — an actual conscious, living person until now.”

“Oh, Newton,” said Hermann.

“So thank you. Seriously. Thank you, Hermann.” Newt could not meet his eyes.

“Of course.”

All the painstaking hours of meticulously piecing together and programming the Pons System, all the confusion and frustration this Drift had wrought: it all felt very much worth it, then. Just to see Newt alive, no trace of the Precursors within him, and to speak with him. Several moments passed in silence as Hermann and Newt reached their capacity for hard-hitting emotional conversation. Distance had grown between them over the past decade, and the last time the true Newt had spoken to Hermann had been when the Precursors were choking the life from him with Newt’s hands, and Newt with glistening eyes had apologized. Hermann did not quite know where the emotional boundaries stood with Newt, now, and he felt rather clumsy. With what he hoped was a caring expression he waited patiently for Newt to speak next.

“How did you get here?” said Newt at last. “I know you Drifted with me, but I’ve been this, this nebulous sort of nothingness, and now it feels like we’re in my head, but I can’t feel you. I mean, I can feel that you’re here, like this tension in my chest and it’s sort of like we’re connected, but it’s not complete neural synchronicity like the Drift. Also, I look like this.” He held his spectral hands up before his face for emphasis. The art blooming up his forearms was eerily dull.

“Yes, about that,” Hermann began, mulling over Newt’s words. He felt the tension too, that ineluctable warm draw toward Newt. He supposed he had not separated their minds as cleanly as he intended. “I constructed a Pons System so that I might Drift with you, but in a slightly different manner. It was modified to deflect alien neural signatures while amplifying your unique signature, and to keep our minds discrete as possible; essentially a way to sift through your mind for you while keeping the Precursors at bay and preserving my own neural integrity. It was successful, as far as I can tell, though I must admit I was not expecting your mind to take this form.” Hermann gestured at the lab around them, the seven doorways hemming them in. “I don’t precisely understand the doors.”

“This is the first I’m seeing of this place, too,” Newt said, squinting as he glanced about the laboratory. Wetness still clung to his eyelashes. “I mean, it is my head, but I think it’s your Drift’s best physical approximation of my head. It’s a unique set of conditions.”

“Before you appeared in this laboratory, do you recall anything?” Hermann asked. Science and conjecture was familiar ground for both of them: Hermann’s emotions were gradually moving back to some sort of equilibrium, and Newt seemed calmer. “Behind that door,” Hermann supplied at Newt’s silence, nodding at the grey door, “was a memory, endlessly looping. It was us Drifting with the Kaiju. I entered, and spoke with the memory of you, and when you passed through the door, from the memory into the lab, you… disappeared. Before reappearing in this state.”

Newt shook his head. “No, I’ve got nothing. Obviously I remember that Drift, but not anything specifically behind that door. Nothing about talking to you, or disappearing.”

Hermann had hoped Newt might be able to provide insight into the events beyond the grey door, a different perspective, but here arose yet another obstacle. Yet another challenge to surpass in this Drift: memory loss. “Delightful,” Hermann muttered absently to himself.

“I’m sorry,” Newt said immediately, and Hermann’s eyes widened. He had meant it with no malice, and not toward Newt. But something horribly close to fear had flared in Newt’s eyes, and how Hermann loathed that he was the cause of it.

“No, no! I didn’t mean it that way, I —” he fumbled through the words, and rushed to lay an assuring hand on Newt’s arm. But his hand passed through Newt as through fog, and Newt flickered again, those coruscating sparks of red and gold playing across the space where their bodies met. “I apologize,” said Hermann lamely. He drew his hand back, and stared at the sparks as they dissipated. Suddenly he remembered where he had seen them before: the silver smoke. The silver smoke that had lurked behind a jar of Kaiju entrails and dissolved into the memory behind the grey door, glimmering red and gold the whole while. That had been Newt. That had been the Drift’s best physical approximation of what Newt was: nothing more than immaterial smoke.

“Oh, it’s…” Newt exhaled a long gust of air. “It’s not your fault,” he said, voice strained. “They just — they were so mad at me, after I got control. After I stopped them from killing you. They were really mad.”

That had been Newt: nothing more than immaterial smoke.

A distant horror came into Newt’s eyes with the recollection of the Precursors’ anger. Before Hermann could offer consolation, Newt picked himself up from the ground and walked away, and it did not feel right to try to drag him back into conversation. Quietly Hermann stewed in his guilt and watched Newt maunder through the lab, watched him stop at intervals to pick up beakers, and papers and pens, and various other items, and examine them.

That had been Newt: no more than smoke.

Hermann fought off a violent swell of nausea. What might have become of Newt had Hermann waited any longer to rescue him? On the heels of the nausea, though, came a sudden and puissant burst of clarity: he knew what to do next. Certainty lifted his jaw and straightened his spine, though immediately he regretted the latter; a spasm of pain lanced up his back, and he winced. Perhaps he had programmed this Drift too well. This was not his physical body, here in this laboratory, yet it retained every ache as if it were very real. Hermann clambered to his feet clutching both his back and his certainty.

“Newt!” he said.

A micropipette in hand, Newt turned to him. “Hmm?”

“I believe I know how to set you free,” Hermann said. Newt set the micropipette down gently (he had always found a menial delight, Hermann remembered, in loading new tips onto them and pressing the plunger down). A small smile wavered across Hermann’s lips. He could not help it: finally, he had a sense of direction, of concrete purpose. “This is not you,” he said, crossing over to Newt, “or not all of you, at least. You are not solid because for so long they have suppressed you, kept you in darkness. Before you assumed this form, I’m almost certain you were this amorphous sort of smoke — do you remember?”

“No. That sounds about as likely as anything else, though.”

“All right, I didn’t think the odds were high you would remember.” Hermann waved a hand in light dismissal. “When I first arrived in this place, the lab, I saw this strange glimmering smoke…” he said, and proceeded to recount the events that had transpired since his arrival in detail for Newt. His two journeys through the grey door, the way the smoke had dissolved as it crossed into the memory-space, the way Newt awoke from the memory at his touch only after the smoke had entered the scene, the sudden rain, the change in Newt’s appearance and cognition as he entered the laboratory. “You were smoke before the grey door, and now you are yourself, though translucent and incorporeal. I believe if we can recreate the same set of conditions through the rest of the doors, the same general sequence of events, that will make you whole and solid again. At that point we should be able to terminate the Drift, and you should regain consciousness as yourself.” Hermann purposefully neglected to mention the threat the Precursors had posed before the Drift: that they would hunt them down, and take Hermann as well as Newt. He decided to save that particular tidbit for later.

“It’s a stretch,” said Newt, “but nothing about this makes much sense, anyways. Do you really think putting me back together like — like Humpty Dumpty will stop the Precursors? Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to have my mind back again, but what good is it if they just… take over again.”

“I don’t know. I can’t promise this will work, but…” Hermann said. The more he spoke, the more his certainty ebbed, but it did not disappear. It transmuted: it crystallized into resolve. He could not know that mere memories lay behind each door, or that his efforts would even succeed, but he could see this mission through regardless. Better to fail trying to save Newt than to do nothing at all. “When the PPDC took you into custody, they exhausted every physical method of purging the Precursors from you. They all failed because it is not a physical affliction. The Precursors are in your mind, and it is only your mind that can free you. I cannot guarantee it, but I do believe our best chance at ridding you of them, or at least strengthening your mind enough to fight them off, is to go through each door and put your mind back together as a cohesive whole,” said Hermann. “Like Humpty Dumpty,” he added with half a grin, hoping the reference did not sound terribly awkward in his voice.

Newt snorted. “I’m not used to…” he began, but stopped himself, shaking his head with a private smile. “So we go through the other six doors, then.”

“Yes. Do you have any preference? This is your head, after all.”

“Um.” Newt craned his head around. “Maybe that orange one? It looks the least intimidating. We’re definitely taking the glowing door last.

“My thoughts exactly,” said Hermann. He made for the orange door, then stopped in his tracks. “Have I mentioned the tentacles to you?”

“…Tentacles?”

 


 

One positively repulsive account of the tentacles that had wriggled across the glowing doorway later, Hermann and Newt stood before the orange door. Newt looked as if he had swallowed a rather sour grape, mouth all contorted, eyes distant.

“Newt? Are you all right?”

“No, yeah, I’m fine. It’s just — tentacles. You know how much I used to love tentacles, dude. All things Kaiju. Those bastards better not have ruined an entire branch of science for me.”

“I’m sorry.” Hermann did not quite know what else to say.

“Also, I don’t really like the implications of there being tentacles on doors that supposedly lead to some part of my head.”

Until Newt voiced that concern, Hermann had not even considered it. Sour horror punched through him, and a single question hung heavy in the air between them. Neither made an attempt to answer it. Viscous silence reigned until Hermann spoke at length.

“All we can do is take this one door at a time,” he said.

“Yeah. Yeah, I guess,” said Newt.

“Shall we?” Hermann opened the orange door and made room for Newt to enter first. Half of him had wondered whether it would still be locked, but it swung open easily. A fleeting glance he cast at the messenger bag he had discarded by the grey door, but he ignored it. It had served no use beyond that door, and its appeal as a crutch was diminished now that Hermann was no longer alone.

Newt stepped across the threshold of the orange door, and dissolved into ether. The sight more thoroughly unsettled Hermann this time. When the coruscating smoke had disappeared, surprise had overwhelmed most of his other emotions. This time, he watched Newt’s body dissipate like dust. Hermann hesitated, then gathered his resolve: he wound it tight about himself, a bright cloak. He had not Drifted with Newt in the expectation that it would be easy. However disquieted he felt, however uncertain he was, he did this, all of it, for Newt. For Newt he would gladly step past the edge of everything known into darkness.

And so Hermann passed through the orange door.

Chapter Text

Hermann stood in a schoolyard. He had not stood in a schoolyard in quite a long time. It was loud and sunny — two things he loathed.

As Hermann had gained renown as one of the finest minds in mathematics and then, later, as a hero of the apocalypse, there had been no shortage of schools beseeching him to speak as their guest. Any invitation from an institution lower than university he had declined, for they dredged up too many unpleasant memories. He had told Newt about his aversion to schools back when they had corresponded exclusively through writing, and Newt had echoed the sentiment. But while they both had had more than their fair share of bullies, Newt’s disdain stemmed equally from the teachers: they were strict and quick to discipline, he told Hermann. They did not understand him, and in one general category they lumped him along with his bullies: disruptive.

So as Hermann stood in this schoolyard, and as children no more than ten years of age milled about, unease settled in his gut. Listening to Newt’s adolescent struggles was one matter; witnessing them firsthand was another entirely.

Children pushed each other down the slide while others swung across the monkey bars. Hermann had never gone down slides, or swung across monkey bars. He had never had friends to play with, or the agility to use the equipment on his own. Most days he had passed the time sitting quietly by himself: he had a favorite bench he had enjoyed sitting on, or if other children had claimed the bench before him, he had a favorite patch of grass. He would read, or teach himself mathematics. Easily he had blown through algebra, and still he remembered the day he had opened his first calculus textbook. Calculus had always been his favorite.

Out of the indiscriminate mass of children, a shock of brunette hair and clunky glasses caught Hermann’s attention. The boy was on the swing set, kicking his legs with all his might. An oversized t-shirt with a robot on the front billowed in the wind as he swung back and forth, higher and higher. Hermann could not help the way the corners of his mouth curved up. Even as a child Hermann had not liked children, but at last it seemed he had found an exception to this lifelong disdain. The sight of Newt on the swing set left a warm feeling in his chest.

It could not outweigh his anxiety, of course. That would not fade, Hermann knew, until he left the schoolyard. Though he was invisible to these children, some part of him still feared them, feared the cruelty and the jeers they might aim his way.

Hermann bit the insides of his cheeks, and soldiered forward through the shrieking throng of children. He stepped from the patch of concrete pavement on which the orange door stood and onto the dirt that comprised the remainder of the schoolyard ground. Whereas there had only been him, Newt, and the two Kaiju corpses in the first memory, the memory behind this door teemed with life: life which passed straight through Hermann like ghosts.

Before Hermann could reach Newt, a group of five or so children ran to the swing set. The ringleader, a blonde boy a head taller than the rest, shouted something Hermann could not quite make out. Newt yelled something in return, and then the blonde boy snatched a Godzilla lunchbox from beside Newt’s swing.

“Hey!” shouted Hermann automatically. None of the children reacted, for none could hear him.

As Hermann quickened his pace, Newt hopped off the swing. He grabbed for his lunchbox and was thwarted by the blonde boy pulling it beyond his reach. His face crumpled into an expression of determination very familiar to Hermann, and he leapt for the lunchbox. Again, he failed, and this time the blonde boy braced his palm against Newt’s chest; he shoved hard, and Newt stumbled, kicking up dirt behind him. But even the shove could not fracture Newt’s resolve. Hermann had finally reached the group of children, and plainly he saw the blaze of courage in Newt’s eyes. Had this been him, he knew, he would have given in. He would have let the blonde boy steal his Godzilla lunchbox, and told his mother he lost it. How utterly unsurprising it was to find that even as a child, Newt had been bold and headstrong. He wished that some of the child’s courage might come to him by proxy: he rather needed it, here in this Drift.

Newt turned away suddenly, head hung low, which seemed quite at odds with the determination etched across his face. But then Hermann saw his hand curl into a fist at his side, and saw his back leg dig firm into the ground. A swift moment of torsion, and Newt’s fist connected with the blonde boy’s face. The boy reeled back and hung in a stupor for a moment, as if stunned his victim had the gall to fight back. Never had Hermann been a proponent of violence, but watching Newt punch his bully admittedly gave him a sliver of satisfaction.

That is, until the blonde boy gathered his wits once more, and rage bled something fierce across his face, and he decked Newt in the nose with a dreadful thud. Newt fell backward with the force of the blow, crumpling against the ground. And as Hermann lurched forward to help him, the scene dissolved into great swirls of color like ink spun through water. He stumbled forward into vibrant nothingness.

That had not happened behind the grey door.

As swiftly as the memory turned to abstract whorls of color, it righted itself once more into a new scene. The colors congealed into definite shapes. The shape of a sunlit living room; the shape of a tall and thickly muscled man in his forties; and the shape of Newt sprinting toward the man, tear tracks streaked down his cheeks and a livid bruise mottling his nose. The man knelt at eye level to Newt, and Newt rushed into his outstretched arms. As Newt cried into the man’s chest, Hermann tipped his head to one side; he had of course never met the man, yet something seemed familiar about him. The bald head, the tattoos of notorious movie monsters blooming up his arms —

Uncle Illia. Countless times had Newt raved to Hermann about Uncle Illia, his childhood hero and the man who helped raise him. It was Uncle Illia and his tattoo-sleeved arms that sparked Newt’s interest in all things monstrous, and it was Uncle Illia who passed his appreciation of science along to Newt. Ultimately Hermann owed the very fact he knew Newt to Uncle Illia.

Something warm settled in his chest as he watched Illia Geiszler comfort his nephew, as he watched him ask Newt to hold on for one moment, and dash from the room, and come back holding a bag of ice swathed in cloth. Gingerly he dabbed at Newt’s nose with it — “Thank goodness it’s not broken!” he said — and asked Newt to tell him all about what happened.

“It was Dan Bergmann,” said Newt through hitching breaths. “He took my lunch box again!”

“Well Dan Bergmann is a dick,” said Illia. Hermann’s eyes widened and his eyebrows shot up at the swear, but he was not scandalized overmuch: frankly, he agreed with the sentiment.

Newt’s mouth wavered into a smile, and he seemed to grow a modicum more calm, though tears rolled slowly still down his cheeks. “I know,” he said after a sniffle. “I hate him.”

As do I, thought Hermann.

“Hey, tell you what. This weekend, let’s go pick you up a new lunch box on the way to fishing. And we can practice our punches.” He lifted the ice bag from Newt’s nose to check the swelling. “We’ll make sure Dan Bergmann doesn’t do this again. How does that sound?”

Newt nodded. “I did punch him, though. In the face. He’s just a giant, so it didn’t do anything.”

“Whoa!” Illia set the ice bag down to high five Newt. “Nicely done! But I promise you it didn’t do nothing. What did his face look like afterward?”

“Uh, mad? All his friends were surprised, but he mostly looked mad.”

“Well there you go — he probably isn’t used to people standing up to him. When people are afraid, sometimes they get angry. You did good.”

“But then he just hit me back way harder than I hit him. And he still got my lunch box.”

“You can’t win every fight. All that matters is that you try! Maybe he got the lunchbox, but you showed Dan and his friends that messing with people comes with a price. Maybe he’ll learn his lesson,” said Illia. “You know I can always call the teachers, or his parents.”

“No!” Newt looked panicked. “The teachers don’t do anything, and remember when Dad called Ethan’s parents?”

“Ah, Ethan the homework stealer. Fuck Ethan.” Newt giggled at the swear, then winced and clutched his nose. “Oof,” said Illia, and gingerly reapplied the ice bag. “You know what I think about Ethan and Dan? I don’t think they’re very happy people. If you’re happy with yourself, you don’t need to pick on other people. We should hope that one day they have the sense to look back on the bad things they’ve done, and regret them, and apologize. And if they don’t, then we should pity them: the unhappiest people are those who don’t know how to apologize.”

“Why do I have to feel bad for Dan when he’s the one that keeps taking my stuff and pushing me?”

“You don’t have to! You’re allowed to hate him as much as you want. He deserves it,” said Illia. “All I’m saying is — you are a much happier person than he is. You and Dan both know how to throw a punch. He does it to push others down, but you do it to stand up for yourself. He’s a bully, but you’re brave: and fortune favors the brave, dude.”

Newt smiled weakly, and the memory dissolved into a wash of colors.

Hermann stood once more in the schoolyard, on the pavement surrounding the orange door. His eyes went immediately to the swing set. There was Newt, legs pumping fiercely, and the Godzilla lunchbox. He did not fancy watching the blonde boy steal Newt’s lunchbox again, and made his way swiftly over.

Through the grey door, his touch had jarred Newt from the memory, but it soon became apparent that would pose a problem, here: Newt swung high in the air, beyond Hermann’s reach. He would only leave the swing to confront his bully, and Hermann did not want to let that happen.

“Newt,” he called out, and received of course no response. Awkwardly he reached out, an aborted half-gesture, then snatched his hand back just before Newt’s foot could connect violently with it. Physical sensations felt painstakingly real here in this Drift, and Hermann refused to get his hand broken with five doorways remaining. The cane in his right hand bespoke his stature: he had bones like glass. “Newt,” he said, softer, cradling his hand to his chest as if afraid the child might find some way to kick him anyway. Of course, Newt did not hear.

And then the gang of children approached, and Hermann’s gut sank.

“If you don’t let me take your lunchbox, I’ll push you off the swing!” said Dan Bergmann.

“Leave me alone!” said Newt.

Straight through Hermann’s ankles Dan snatched the Godzilla lunchbox, and again Newt leapt from the swing. Hermann saw his opportunity and seized it. Before Newt could make a grab for his lunchbox, Hermann stepped up to him and gently laid a hand upon his shoulder. A small flurry of relief passed through him as Newt gave a start; in the back of his mind he had worried the rules had somehow changed for this memory, and that touching Newt would have no effect.

Newt twisted about to look up at him, all big green eyes and clunky glasses, and how Hermann loathed to see even the faintest trace of sadness on that face. A moment of confusion passed through Newt before he spoke. “Are you a substitute?” he asked.

“No —” Hermann barely began to say before Newt interrupted.

“— We’re just playing, it’s okay!” Newt’s false smile quivered, and his eyes were wide with fear. He was a terrible liar — he had always been a terrible liar. How had Hermann not noticed, when the Precursors took hold, the way lies began to pour so fluidly from his lips?

“Are you, now,” said Hermann skeptically. He glanced at Dan Bergmann and his friends. They wore expressions that ranged from angelic to bored, and Hermann was startled when he noticed that some of them looked him in the eye. He was visible not only to Newt, but to the rest of the children as well: his clothes felt suddenly too hot, and his grip on his cane grew slick with sweat. “If I am not mistaken, that is your lunchbox,” he said to Newt after a long pause, compelled purely by adrenaline.

“Yes — I mean no — I mean — it’s a game. Please, can we keep playing?” Newt’s tone hardened, and he regarded Hermann with increasing irritation. Hermann wanted to remind Newt that he was not the enemy, but doubted that such reason would reach Newt. Even as an adult, no logic could surpass the tide of Newt’s emotions.

“May I speak to you alone?” Hermann asked. The role of strict substitute teacher suited him surprisingly well.

Sullenly Newt gave his assent, and Hermann led him to a shady bench further from the orange door, further from their gateway out of the memory, but secluded enough that the other children would not disturb them. Or, at least, Hermann thought he led Newt — when he reached the bench and turned to speak to Newt, Newt was behind him no longer. He had not heard him slip away, but he did not have to scan the schoolyard long to relocate him. To the swing set Hermann cast his gaze, and there stood Newt, fist clenched, tension wound tight through his small body. In one fluid motion he punched Dan Bergmann in the face, and helplessly Hermann watched from afar as Dan Bergmann, infuriated, punched him right back. Newt collapsed to the ground, and curled up on his side into a pitiful ball. Hermann braced himself for the explosion of the scene into whirling colors, the transition to the second part of the memory —

But nothing happened.

In the schoolyard he remained. He watched Dan Bergmann and his friends leave Newt crumpled alone and without his Godzilla lunchbox in the dirt. Hermann’s brow creased, and he picked his way over to Newt.

“Oh dear,” he said quietly, and Newt gave no indication he heard. “Are you all right?” he asked, louder.

Newt turned his head enough to level a baleful, wet eye at Hermann, but otherwise did not move. Hermann felt quite foolish, and wished he were more skilled in his interactions with children. Blood trickled in a little stream from Newt’s nose to his lip. Before Hermann could speak further, a teacher marched up to them, Dan Bergmann behind her. Not so much as a bruise marred Dan’s face: aside from the damage to his pride, Newt’s punch had scarcely injured him. He had green eyes, too, Hermann noticed. The same shade as Newt’s.

The teacher nodded at Hermann in familiar greeting, as if he truly were a substitute. She ordered Newt to pick himself up from the ground, then began to scold him. He had started a fight with Dan Bergmann, she said, and it is very wrong to hit somebody else. The principal would speak with both of them after school, and they would both have to apologize.

“But he took my —” Newt began.

“No buts! You are never allowed to hit your classmates, Newton,” she said. “Now let’s go to the nurse and get some ice on that nose.”

“I can take him,” Hermann offered immediately. Teachers had always been Hermann’s best (and only) friends, but the severe demeanor of this one had him bristling.

“Thank you,” she said as though Hermann had relieved her of a burden, and instructed Dan Bergmann to run along and play as she walked away.

Silence stretched for some time between Newt and Hermann; Newt bunched up the hem of his shirt and brought it up to dab at his bloody nose, while Hermann stewed in his thoughts. He did not like children. He especially did not like the children he grew up with. They had stolen his textbooks, and smashed his glasses, and ostracized him. Dan Bergmann, though — surely he was the most rotten of them all.

“You shouldn’t apologize,” he blurted out. He nearly took it back, nearly hastened to tell Newt that violence was not a viable solution to one’s problems, but when Newt looked up at him with dirt clinging to one edge of his glasses and something akin to hope in those big, watery eyes, Hermann doubled down on his original position. “You were very brave to stand up to him. I wish I had half your courage.” He did not mean it as empty flattery: he sincerely wished he had possessed the courage to stand up to his bullies rather than meekly allowing himself to be torn down day after day. He sincerely wished that even now, he had half Newt’s courage.

“Thanks, Mr…”

“Gottlieb. Mr. Gottlieb,” Hermann said. He did not have the heart to correct Newt’s Mr. to Dr. It was an odd exercise in pride-swallowing. “Do you see that door over there?” he asked, pointing to the orange door.

“Yeah,” said Newt.

“There is something… very awesome through it,” Hermann said, voice stilted even to his ears. Even the shape of the word awesome felt strange and clunky in his mouth. He really did not know how to talk to children, and he considered it a small miracle he had managed to converse with Newt for this long without saying something terribly amiss. “Would you like to come see?”

“Okay!” Newt’s spirits were returning, and Hermann did not even try to stop the relieved smile that bloomed across his face. He had done that: he had cheered Newt up after the confrontation with his bully and his teacher. Something light and warm swelled in his chest as he led Newt to the orange door. As in the first memory, the door stood solitary on the ground, surrounded by nothing more than air on the remaining three sides.

“Here we are,” announced Hermann. He pulled the door open, and peered through. “This is our — well. This is my laboratory. There’s the chalkboard,” he said, pointing, “and there in those tanks are monster samples, and —”

“What?”

“Hmm?”

“There’s nothing there, Mr. Gottlieb.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“I said there’s nothing there. I mean, there’s the door, but there’s nothing in it. Why aren’t there any walls?” Newt craned his head around, then walked around the door to view it from another angle. “What?” he said. “Why is it…”

Hermann fought to keep the alarm off his face, but still his jaw went stiff. Something about Newt’s perception of the door set him ill at ease. Around the door he walked — he had not considered that, in the absence of any walls, he could go behind it — to see what had confused Newt. He was met with that familiar, smooth expanse of orange with that semi-circle window cut into the top, yet from this side the door appeared closed, and it lacked a doorknob. The sight unnerved him, and lightly he grabbed Newt by the arm, guiding him back around to the open side of the door. Through it he could plainly see every detail of the lab.

“Tell me, what exactly do you see through the door?” asked Hermann.

“Nothing! It’s just black. The whole thing. I don’t see a lab,” Newt said, and pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose where they had slid down. What dirt remained on them fell away.

“Okay,” said Hermann, injecting his voice with false lightness. “Well. Perhaps if we go through, you will be able to see the lab.”

“I don’t want to go through.” Newt took a step back from the door, and Hermann’s heart lurched. If Newt left, he did not know how he would convince him to come back to the door. Newt was stubborn: Hermann doubted he would get a second chance at this. “My nose hurts,” Newt continued. “I want to go to the nurse now.”

“I know,” said Hermann, passing a hand through his hair. He hoped Newt could not sense his desperation.

Newt’s features were crumpling into an expression all too familiar to Hermann: even as an adult, Newt wore the same expression when he was frustrated. And Hermann was growing tired. His interactions through this orange door felt like one unending theatrical performance — playing the role of substitute teacher, stuffing his voice full of more kindness and optimism and cheer than he knew he had in him —

It started to rain. Not a single cloud was in the sunny sky, and yet it rained.

“Oh, goodness,” Hermann muttered to himself, and closed his eyes so that Newt would not see them roll up into his head. The light drizzle was refreshing, in a way, once he had his eyes closed. Away from the door he turned, letting the soft patter of raindrops against his skin cleanse away his discontent. Gradually the rain grew colder, and intensified to an invigorating downpour. Hermann forced himself to suck in a deep, steadying breath, and he flexed his fingers over the handle of his cane.

With renewed calm he opened his eyes.

Just in time to see the rest of the children and teachers in the schoolyard washing away like ink in the rain. Here a girl in a navy dress was washed to a translucent smear of blue that hovered in the air before dissolving; there a boy in grey was washed transparent all at once. Mouth fallen open, Hermann swiveled rapidly to face Newt, to ensure he was not watching this unfold. Blessedly, Newt still faced the door. With his shirt he wiped his rain-wet glasses, oblivious to the phenomenon behind him.

Hermann allowed himself one final, horrified glance over his shoulder. There stood the blonde boy, Dan Bergmann, all alone in the center of the schoolyard; he clutched Newt’s Godzilla lunchbox tightly to his chest as if it were his only comfort in the world. Already he was fading, though slowly. He met Hermann’s eyes. He looked frightened, and sad. He was only a child.

Hermann’s head snapped back, and though some part of him urged him fiercely to turn back, he trained his eyes resolutely on Newt, who was sliding his glasses back onto his face. This was a memory, Hermann reminded himself. This was nothing more than a memory. And yet…

And yet those eyes had looked so sad.

With difficulty Hermann swallowed. He felt the corners of his mouth tugging down, but for Newt’s sake, he forced his expression back to meticulous neutrality. And when Newt turned his gaze back up to him, he tried not to see the ghost of Dan Bergmann’s scared green eyes.

“Newt,” said Hermann. He had to force the words through his throat, and he felt vaguely as if he were choking, but he had to ensure Newt would not turn and see his schoolyard suddenly empty. “I have a special challenge for you. A mission, if you will. I want you to stand right here, and not look away from the door. You are in charge of it.”

“Why?”

“Because,” Hermann began, and paused, for he had hoped a reason might come to him as he spoke, but his mind remained foggy. All he could think of was those memory-souls washed away with the rain like —

“Because I have a mission in there!” Hermann exclaimed as an idea occurred to him. Perhaps it was a ridiculous idea — it did defy basic logic — but it was the only idea he had. “Will you watch the door for me, Newt? This is very important.” Newt hesitated, and Hermann added, “We can play a game as soon as I get back.”

“Okay,” said Newt.

“Wonderful. Thank you,” Hermann said, and instinctively outstretched his hand for a handshake. At Newt’s blank look he transitioned it into an awkward pat on the shoulder. He was not good with children.

And on that note, he passed through the doorway.

The familiarity of his and Newt’s erstwhile lab was soothing: it afforded him a respite from the rainy schoolyard and all that entailed. He could not pause for long, for he did leave the young Newt waiting on the other side of the door, but nonetheless he did pause for the briefest of moments after he stepped past the threshold. A deep breath of dry crisp air he took, then he went over to the gaudy tie-dye bag he had left by the grey door. From it he plucked a single item.

“Excellent job,” said Hermann as he passed back into the memory. Newt watched him through raindrop-spattered glasses. Curious — the rain had grown warmer in Hermann’s absence, and less heavy. Unwittingly his gaze fell to the spot in the center of the schoolyard, where Dan Bergmann had stood as the rain washed him into nothingness. It was empty. Hermann set his jaw, and summoned his voice: “Now, how about that game I promised you?”

With effort he lowered himself to the ground, and with the piece of chalk he had snagged from the messenger bag he drew a series of squares. The damp pavement resisted the chalk, and Hermann had to retrace quite a few lines; the wetness diffused his solid lines into vague splashes of white. Yet he persisted, and drew Newt a hopscotch game leading straight up to the doorway. As a child, Hermann had lacked both the requisite mobility and friendships to play hopscotch with the other children, but from afar he had watched them and determined the basic rules and setup. Privately Hermann thanked whatever part of his brain had held onto that knowledge for so long despite his ostensible lack of use for it.

“Hopscotch,” Hermann announced, stiffly pulling himself back upright, sliding the chalk into his pocket. “I know you see nothing beyond this doorway, but I promise you it is safe, and I do not make promises lightly. All you must do now is hop through these squares and through the doorway, and you’ll get to see the lab.”

“I don’t feel like it,” said Newt, eyes sliding away from Hermann’s.

“You don’t want to see the lab equipment? Tanks full of monster brains?” Hermann tried to keep his voice gentle. If only he had the agility to simply pick Newt up and carry him across the threshold.

“No — I mean yes — I mean. Are you sure there’s a lab there?”

“I am positive,” said Hermann. He wondered, then, what the first memory of Newt had seen beyond the grey door. Had it appeared as darkness to him too?

Several long moments dragged by in silence thwarted only by the steady patter of rain. Newt seemed lost in thought. Gradually, ineluctably, the chalk continued to smear across the pavement. Hermann knew Newt as reckless and loud, and this diffident reluctance unsettled him. He was only a child, though, Hermann supposed. Perhaps he needed a nudge. “I know it’s frightening, but you’ve been so brave already, today. I believe you can do it,” said Hermann. He felt quite silly, and hoped the words did not sound too cheesy. “The hardest part is getting up the nerve to do it, but all you must do after that is keep going. I will be right behind you.”

Newt bit his lower lip, eyed the hopscotch squares, then turned away. Hermann gave a start, one hand flying out as if to stop him, but the damage was done: Newt had turned already, and already he stared at the lifeless schoolyard.

“Where did everyone go?” asked Newt.

“They… left,” said Hermann. In a sense, everyone had left. And this half-truth was preferable to the nightmarish reality besides. As he tried to come up with some further explanation, something more comforting, or something simply to divert Newt’s attention, Newt ran off. Around the swing set he looped, then toward the teachers’ benches, and at last he settled on hopping his way through the myriad puddles of mud scattered about the schoolyard.

Should he not have been more concerned with the sudden disappearance of his teachers and peers? Hermann’s brow knitted. Perhaps not. He had ensured Newt did not watch the memory-souls fade to oblivion, wash away in the rain. It was only Hermann that saw the ghosts of their presence in the schoolyard; it was only Hermann that could not shake the image of a pair of sad green eyes. But Newt was fundamentally a curious person, so why did he not —

Hermann shook the train of thought away, blinked the rain from his eyes. His life was nothing if not a series of Newt defying his expectations. Perhaps “they left” had simply sated Newt’s curiosity, or perhaps he had not been particularly bothered by a schoolyard full of cruel children and harsh teachers at last leaving him be.

At any rate, Hermann had exhausted his capacity to wheedle Newt into stepping through the orange door. Let him have this moment of play: Hermann would collect his thoughts and devise a new strategy. It had been so long since Newt was truly himself. Perhaps what his mind needed was to splash through mud puddles, zip about this childhood memory. Let him have this moment of respite.

With a smile that was not quite happy Hermann averted his gaze. He looked back at the hopscotch squares, all diffused and faint with rain.

He wondered whether Newt had had friends to play hopscotch with, or whether Newt’s social life as a child had been more like his. He hoped the former. While he and Newt had discussed their early lives extensively, they had never touched upon the subject of friends. It seemed shameful, in a way, to admit to Newt that he had never had true friends until college, and that even then they were few and far between, and not particularly close; the vulnerability in that made Hermann’s skin crawl. Newt was, he supposed, the best friend he had ever had. Of course he frustrated Hermann to no end, and argued with him fiercely, but Newt kept up with him like no other; and beneath all the snide comments and eye rolls ran the unspoken understanding that they did genuinely care for one another. In all their years working side by side they had had only one truly vitriolic argument, only one fight that cut deep, but that was long past.

Hermann was rather endeared to Newt, all things considered. It was inconceivable that Newt as a child had been so isolated as Hermann — he must have had friends. The stubbornness, the recklessness, the obnoxiousness: they soured Newt to many, Hermann knew. But ultimately those traits comprised an inalienable part of his charm. They were a part of Newt that Hermann adored, and Hermann would not have him another way. Besides, Newt was also brilliant and enthusiastic and soft, and a thousand other things which made him Hermann’s dearest friend.

At some point as he meandered through his thoughts, the faintest twinges of nausea had worked their way into his gut, though he could not say why. Into a fleeting grimace his expression contracted, and he listened to the light rain pattering against the chalk-stained pavement. The hopscotch game would be gone soon, sluiced away.

Surely it would be a shame to let it go to waste.

As a child he had lied to himself, told himself he did not care that he never got to play on the monkey bars or play tag or play hopscotch with the other children, but some small irrational part of him had clung always to the desire to see what he had missed. Was it foolish to play hopscotch now, with his childhood decades past and the threat of the Precursors looming ever-present above him? Most definitely. Was Hermann going to power through this shame for the sake of indulging a childhood wish? Most certainly. Something about Newt splashing through the mud had infected him, sent a rill of youthful curiosity through his bones. Just this once, he would indulge in a little ridiculousness and not judge himself overmuch.

Hopping was beyond his capabilities, of course, so he simply stepped onto the first square, a private smile twitching at the corners of his mouth. Onto the next square he stepped, and then paused. Was he doing this correctly? He knew, of course, the general layout in which he was supposed to draw the squares. But was he supposed to use his right foot? His left? Both feet? How was he supposed to approach the next two squares, which were adjacent to one another? Was he overthinking this?

A small hand tapped at his back.

“Mr. Gottlieb, do you know how to play?” asked Newt. His feet and calves were spattered with mud.

Hermann had not heard him approach. “Not really,” he admitted.

“I can teach you. Let me show you.” Newt made a gesture that implied Hermann should move aside, learn through observation.

“Oh — well, I’d — yes, I would like that very much,” stammered Hermann as he stepped aside.

“Okay! It’s pretty easy. Just watch what I do, and then follow me,” said Newt. Without so much as a breath of hesitation he hopped one-footed onto the first square, and then the next. Onto squares three and four, adjacent to each other, he hopped with one foot in each square, and continued the pattern until he reached square nine. Onto square ten, then, and straight through the door: he did not pause, or even look back. How remarkably curious, thought Hermann. Where kind encouragement and gentle cajoling had failed to send Newt through the doorway, Hermann’s dearth of experience with hopscotch had apparently sent him straight through without compunction.

Mid-hop, as Newt crossed the threshold of the orange door, he was transmogrified into his adult self, and in that same instant the rain ceased. Slightly Newt stumbled, but caught himself easily enough. He glanced back through the door, met Hermann’s eyes with a smile, then meandered further into the lab.

Through the hopscotch game Newt had left little muddy footprints, and for once in his life Hermann did not recoil from the sight of such uncleanliness. Carefully he stepped into the first square, planting his foot out of range of the mud, and carried on likewise through the remainder of the squares, and so through the orange door.

 


 

“Let me just —”

“Please don’t — Newton.”

“Oh, that is weird.

Hermann levelled a withering glare at Newt, though it was tempered by the fondness he could not keep from his expression. How wonderful it was, thought one part of him, to have Newt here before him alive and well and unsubdued by the Precursors. How typical it was, thought another part, to have Newt here before him alive and well and mildly vexing, waving his semi-translucent hand through Hermann’s torso. Across from each other they sat — they had pulled swivel chairs up to a metal table in the middle of the laboratory.

While Newt had been eager to dash through the next doorway, Hermann had requested that they pause, that they debrief and take a moment’s respite. Newt had informed Hermann that yes, he had met his eyes through the doorway, and smiled at the sight of him standing before a hopscotch game. Just barely could he make Hermann’s figure out: he had appeared murky, as through fog, and besides the hopscotch squares the rest of the scene had been congealed darkness. That was as far as Newt made it into the debriefing before unceremoniously lunging for Hermann across the lab table and shoving his hand through his body like a belligerent ghost.

Must you?” Hermann said with a long-suffering grimace. While Newt passing through him had previously felt like nothing, now it felt as though Newt were pouring liquid, thick and cold, through Hermann where their bodies overlapped. It was distinctly uncomfortable, and those immaterial crimson and gold sparks still flew in all directions where their bodies met.

“Can you feel that?” Newt asked, fingers in Hermann’s collarbone. “Because before, I couldn’t feel anything, but now I definitely feel something. You’re really warm.” Blessedly, Newt chose that moment to retract his hand.

“Yes, it would seem something has changed: you’re certainly less transparent.” Newt appeared nearly monochrome still to Hermann, just as he had after the grey door, but he was more solid. His hand had dragged viscous through Hermann’s body rather than scything straight through, and he did not flicker from existence while doing so. “Our prediction about you becoming more solid the more doors we pass through holds up,” Hermann said, then frowned. “Two things trouble me, though. First, how you’re able to interact with the objects here as if you were solid — you can touch things, you can sit on that stool. But you pass through me.”

Newt shrugged. “It’s my head, dude. It would kinda suck if I didn’t get to touch things.” For emphasis he picked up a sheet of paper that lay upon the table and waved it.

Hermann paused, then continued, “Secondly, I am curious about the rain. It has happened beyond both doors, now — are you all right?”

Newt’s eyes were bulging; tension pulled his muscles tight enough that Hermann feared he might snap in two. He stared in horror, or shock, or some overwhelming mélange of both, at the paper in his hands. From his mouth came a sound scarcely recognizable as human speech.

“Have you had a stroke?” Hermann asked, only half in jest. But then he remembered where exactly he and Newt were, what nightmarish reality had befallen Newt for the past decade, and genuine concern knotted in his gut. “Is it…” he said, “Is it something to do with them?” Fingers stiff with rising panic, Hermann reached for the paper, but Newt snatched it back so swiftly and so violently he nearly toppled from his chair.

“No!” said Newt over the dull thud of his hand whacking the paper against his chest. He cradled it like a kidnapped infant, and pedaled his chair backward. “No,” he repeated with slightly more equanimity. “This has nothing to do with the Precursors.” He huffed out a strangled sort of laugh. “Absolutely nothing,” he added at Hermann’s suspicious look, “I promise.”

“Then what is it?” asked Hermann.

“You were saying something about rain?” said Newt, crumpling the paper into a ball.

“Tell me what is on that paper.”

“Well, I don’t know anything about the rain, man.” Newt tossed the paper over his shoulder. “I still can’t —”

“If it is nothing to do with —”

“— remember anything that has to do —”

“— the Precursors, then I —”

“— with rain, or anything else, really —”

“— don’t see why you can’t just — Newton! ” Hermann hissed Newt’s full name sharp enough that Newt stopped and flinched. Several moments of uncomfortable silence dragged by: Hermann stewing in mounting regret that he raised his voice, Newt unreadable.

Before Hermann could work past the lump in his throat and apologize, Newt spoke in a strained voice. “Hermann, I swear this has nothing to do with the Precursors. You hear that? I swear. It’s not anything dangerous or bad. Just trust me, man.”

Something terribly akin to fear simmered in Newt’s eyes. The desire burned in Hermann to know what on that paper could possibly merit this reaction. But Newt knew the value Hermann placed on promises, and Hermann knew that he knew this.

“Okay,” he said softly. And then, after a pause, “I apologize for snapping at you.”

Had they been a decade younger, had they been back in the real Shatterdome, this argument might have ended with insults and a death threat from Newt, but it would have had no teeth. They would have blown off steam, threatened vague bodily harm or scientific sabotage, but they would have meant none of it and come back to the lab the next day with clear heads and no true malice between them. But they were not a decade younger, and they were not in the real Shatterdome. Hermann was paralyzed between the desire to return to his normal bickering with Newt and the fear of crossing a boundary. Newt had a new darkness to him. That was only to be expected after a decade of possession by such cruel and insidious creatures. But they were out of alignment, the two of them, and Hermann was clueless as to how they might turn back the years that had lapsed, the years that had wedged them ever so slightly out of sync.

“Oh my God, dude, you look like a kid that just got your lunchbox stolen,” said Newt, knifing straight through Hermann’s mental turmoil. He pedaled his chair forward like a crab. “Do you want to talk about the rain, or are you gonna make me talk about it with myself over here?” Newt’s eyes were bright, and Hermann’s chest felt a modicum lighter.

“Right, you were saying — wait.” Hermann stared at Newt. “What did you just say?”

“What?”

“Like someone stole my lunchbox — why did you say that?”

“It just popped into my head?”

“That’s what was behind that door: a memory of your lunchbox being stolen in a schoolyard, and a conversation with your uncle. I want you to think, Newt, try to remember why that image came to you.”

“I… I can’t." Newt shook his head. "It’s like trying to remember a dream, like I know something like that happened now that you mention it, but the more I think about it, the more it slips away from me.”

“At least that’s more than last time, isn’t it? If I recall correctly, you had no memory whatsoever of anything that lied beyond —”

“Hopscotch,” said Newt suddenly.

“Wh — yes! I drew a hopscotch game for you, to try to get you through the door.”

“Okay, I think I remember that? Mostly just because I did see the game on the ground when I looked back through the door, but still,” Newt said, then chuckled. “You played hopscotch.”

“Well, not quite. You were really the one that played,” Hermann’s lips twitched. “I don’t normally like children,” he said, then stopped himself before he said something altogether too fond. His heart gave a strange squeeze in his chest.

Newt laughed again, an unflattering crackle that bubbled up from his throat. “I know you don’t, dude. Oh, I wish I had the list with me — I never showed you, but I have a running list of all the things you’ve called kids. There’s gremlins, cretins, uh, hooligans because you’re a fucking grandpa… diminutive troublemakers… I’m gonna have to dig that out if we ever get out of here.”

“When,” said Hermann with more conviction than he felt. “When we get out of here. I will help you be rid of the Precursors, Newt. I did not have failure in mind when I designed an incredibly intricate Pons System and kidnapped you from the PPDC.” That was a lie: Hermann had thought hardly of anything aside from failure and the negative consequences that might follow should he not succeed. But it felt unproductive to burden Newt with such thoughts, and rather cheerless besides.

Newt gave him a small smile, eyes warm enough that overwhelming fondness knotted in Hermann’s chest. But then the smile dropped, and Newt blinked, and he said, “…Kidnap?”

“Oh — did I not tell you?”

 


 

One lengthy explanation of Hermann’s scheme to kidnap Newt from the custody of the PPDC and one ensuing debate on Hermann’s burgeoning life as a miscreant later, he and Newt stood before a set of pale yellow double-doors. Of all the remaining doorways, it had called the most to Newt, seemed the most inviting with its cheery coloring and the circular windows set into the top, and Hermann had deferred to Newt’s lead.

“Newt,” he said before Newt could push the doors open. He had delayed this long enough; this had gnawed at him since the schoolyard. Newt paused and turned to face him. “Do you remember,” he said slowly, “a boy named Dan Bergmann?”

For a moment Newt considered the question. “Yeah,” he said, “yeah, we went to school together. Why, was he there? Behind the orange door?”

Hermann nodded. “Do you know what happened to him — how he turned out?”

“He actually turned out sort of all right? He was a total asshole when we were kids, and then he moved away after a few years, so I never saw him in person after that. But he sent me a Facebook message, after I joined the PPDC, saying how he was sorry for being such a massive bag of dicks, and how he hoped I was doing well, and whatever.”

“Ah,” said Hermann. “I’m glad to hear he apologized, but that does not make up for all he did to you.” Should one of his childhood bullies come out of the woodwork to make amends, he did not think he would likely forgive them.

“Well, no, but I appreciated the gesture, y’know? At least he felt bad about it, and said sorry — no one else ever did. He was even afraid to message me because he thought I’d hate him. He’s changed a lot since… however old he was when you saw him. He regrets the stuff he did.”

“So you don’t hate him,” said Hermann.

“I don’t think so,” said Newt. “After he sent me that message I stalked his Facebook. He had photos of him and his wife up, and their dog. All of it just made it — made it hard to keep holding onto that grudge. Like I spent so long thinking of him as this totally inhuman monster, I’d built him up in my head as this evil guy, but he really wasn’t.”

Dan Bergmann and his frightened green eyes, indeed.

“Newton Geiszler letting go of a grudge,” said Hermann. “What a truly unique event.”

“Hey, we both know you’re the grudge-holder in this —” Newt stumbled over his next word “— this lab partnership.”

“Would ‘friendship’ not be more apt?” Hermann asked, then was seized by self-consciousness. Was he no more to Newt than an erstwhile lab partner?

“Oh my God, Hermann, yes, you’re my friend! You — you look like you were expecting me to say no. You’re kinda my best friend, dude.” Newt’s eyes were soft, and Hermann found it suddenly difficult to swallow.

“Oh! Well,” he mumbled. And then, growing softer and less intelligible with each word, “You’re my best friend as well.” His cheeks felt hot.

“Good!” Newt laughed beautifully. “Good.”

And together they passed through the pale yellow doors.

Chapter Text

Hermann had half a moment to register that he stood inside a Jaeger before a great impact struck from the left and threw him off balance.

He lost his footing and fell, cane slipping from his grip. Pain scythed up through his palms and knees where they slammed into the unforgiving floor. Behind him, the pale yellow doors swung unceremoniously shut.

Wincing, he looked up and saw the Jaeger's pilot — solitary, without a Drift partner — sweep their arms in a harsh sideways arc, slashing their sword into a Kaiju’s neck. Vibrant blue gore spilled from the wound as the creature snarled its fury, and in retribution it smashed one of its many limbs into the Jaeger. Just as Hermann picked himself up from the floor he was sent stumbling once more backward; his spine connected with a jarring thud against the wall, knocking the breath from him.

Several feet to his right his cane had tumbled. Rubbing at his back, he went cautiously over to it, and picked it up against the sharp protest of his spine. Using the cane as an anchor against the Jaeger’s violent battle-motion, he crossed with slow deliberate steps over to a block of machinery set into the wall at the pilot’s left. Tightly he clutched to a snarl of metal tubing and, at last stable, looked to the Jaeger pilot’s face.

It was Newt.

Hermann should not have felt such surprise, as this was after all a part of Newt’s mind. Why should he not be the pilot? Unless memory had greatly failed Hermann, though, and Newt had in fact piloted a Jaeger by himself before, this place through the yellow doors was not like the others in this Drift. This was no memory.

They suited Newt well, though — all the trappings of a Jaeger pilot: the Drivesuit armor which broadened his shoulders, and the circuitry suit that clung sleek and black to his thighs. His eyes were wild and bright and alive as into the Kaiju’s head he drove his robotic fist. He was utterly possessed with his mission, electrified by the hell he rained down upon the monster before him. He was valiant.

Violently the floor tilted as Newt ducked into a crouch then swiftly stabbed his right arm upward. Hermann clutched tight to his metal tubing lest he be thrown again across the floor, and he watched Newt drive his sword up into the Kaiju’s chin and straight through its head: the final devastating blow in their battle. Electric blue the Kaiju’s toxic blood spewed from the wound, and the creature shrieked its agony, shuddering against the sword. But soon enough its eyes went dull, the life bleeding out of them.

“Take that, jerkass!” Newt cried, and pumped his fist. He removed his helmet and shook his hair out, grinning wide enough that Hermann felt he had been punched. Something seized his heart like a vice. How he had missed the way happiness bloomed across Newt’s features; how he had missed that carefree smile. It had a way of calming Hermann’s nerves when they were frayed to the point of snapping, of assuring him that no matter the difficulties he and Newt faced, all things would come out fine in the end. He had not seen that smile in well over a decade.

Newt ran his hand through his hair and, grin plastered well in place, accepted a slip of paper from a tall brunette woman. With his other hand he produced a sharpie and scribbled something across it. The crowd around him pressed in, all waving papers or photos or pieces of clothing at him. Somewhere, a camera flashed.

Hermann gave a start. When had the scene changed? One second they had stood in the Jaeger, triumphant in battle, and the next Newt was assailed by a sea of people seeking his autograph as Hermann stood alone off to the side. He had not noticed a difference. His mind had been perfectly willing through some oneiric logic to accept this as the seamless and inevitable progression of the scene.

And that was precisely it, he realized — oneiric logic. This was a dream.

“Oh, Newt,” Hermann whispered.

In the middle of the fawning crowd Newt was bedecked still in the gear of a Jaeger pilot, scrawling his name across photos of himself, taking photos with beaming fans. Waist-high beside him one young girl tried on his helmet, while her older sister brought her phone out for a selfie. Amicably Newt placed his hand on her shoulder and threw up a peace sign.

Into the wall behind him were set pale yellow double doors.

Hermann could pass through the crowd, touch his fingers to Newt, end this fantasy; he could guide Newt to the yellow doorway and straight through to the laboratory. Yet he did not. Quietly he went over to a rickety little chair tucked into one corner of the room, and watched Newt sign autographs for his crowd. He watched Newt the well-loved rockstar grin widely, and laugh deeply, and sharpie his name for a long while. He watched Newt sink into the carmine vinyl of the diner booth and stretch his legs out, propping his combat boots up on the opposite booth.

“Saving the world does not give you a free pass to behave uncivilized, Newton,” Hermann watched himself say primly, and shove Newt’s feet off his side of the booth.

“Then what does it give me a free pass to do?” asked Newt, leaning forward. Elbows steepled against the table, he rested his chin on the backs of his hands and cocked his head to the side. An impish grin curved up his lips. Something familiar gleamed in his eyes. Hermann had caught Newt staring at him with that look every so often back in their days with the PPDC; it generally portended some sort of mischief.

Hermann watched his own mouth fall slack, his fingers lose their grip on his milkshake straw. He watched himself stammer through the beginning of a response —

And abruptly realized that he stood in the middle of a diner, watching himself and Newt enjoy dessert together. The dream had changed once more. A waitress bustled straight through him like a specter, and delivered an ice cream sundae to Newt. Newt thanked her, and across the booth this dream version of Hermann was blushing fiercely.

It seemed a tranquil enough setting: Newt was not saving the world, or delighting in the adulation of a crowd. So Hermann went over to the booth and tapped Newt on the shoulder. “Hello,” he said.

Into nothingness his dream self vanished, along with his half-finished milkshake.

Newt looked up at him, and gave no indication he noticed the sudden disappearance of his booth partner. “Oh, hey,” he said softly, with the cadence of an inside joke. Hermann could not discern where humor slotted into the simple greeting. A gentle smile curved beautifully across Newt’s features, though, and he scooted aside to make room for Hermann. Happiness shone in his eyes, and his arm was stretched in invitation across the top of the booth.

Hermann blinked. “You do realize you’re dreaming, yes?”

“Holy shit!” Newt swiveled his head about, taking in with new eyes the scene around him. “I haven’t had a lucid dream in like a year! This was a really good dream, too. It’s set the bar pretty high. I know you’re not real, but if I wake up now, I’m definitely blaming you.”

Hermann had erred in telling Newt he was dreaming. It was a dream, but more importantly, it was a segment of Newt’s mind they needed to leave. He did not now want to crush Newt’s spirits by pulling him from a happy dream. “Don’t worry,” he said. The words poured from his lips unbidden. “You need not wake up just yet.” He was digging himself deeper into this hole, but a not insignificant part of him fluttered its delight at this chance to pause: to have in this oneiric diner a moment’s respite with Newt, younger and yet unscarred by the Precursors.

“So are you sharing this sundae with me or what?” asked Newt.

“I suppose it can’t hurt,” said Hermann. Into the booth opposite Newt he slid, and rested his cane against the wall. A moment’s disappointment flickered across Newt’s features, and he dropped his arm from the top of his booth, scooted back to the middle of the seat. Hermann quite immediately regretted his decision, but it would be rather awkward to stand and ask Newt to make room for him again. He had missed his chance.

Hermann plucked one of the small spoons from the sundae and scooped up a conservative portion of ice cream. He had been a milkshake man before their Drift, but ever since, Newt’s love of sundaes had seeped through. He closed his eyes and savored the vanilla sweetness that bloomed across his tongue, savored Newt’s presence across the table, savored the merry diner atmosphere. Try as he might to cling to the need to leave this dream and pass through the remaining doors before the Precursors could find him, every moment he spent in the booth weathered away his resolve. He was weak. Sharing this sundae with Newt was intoxicating: a saccharine break from reality and all the dangers it held. One shimmering moment of repose.

Through flickering glances Hermann watched Newt. He did not want to gawk and engender Newt’s curiosity, but he was noticing now the subtle ways age or the Precursors or both had changed Newt — the ways they had not yet changed this version of him. The lines of his face were shallower here in this diner, the circles under his eyes dark not from years of hopeless possession but from simply too many late caffeine-fueled nights. His eyes were brighter, and his face softer. With great fondness Hermann noted Newt’s tie, absurdly loose around his collar; he noted Newt’s sleeves rolled casually up to reveal the bold art writhing up his forearms.

“Damn,” said Newt ruefully, jolting Hermann from his ruminations. He was staring with intense focus at Hermann’s torso. When Newt looked back up to meet his eyes, Hermann gave him an inquiring look. “Oh, I was just trying something,” he said. “It didn’t work.”

Hermann looked at him expectantly.

“…I kind of don’t want to explain,” said Newt. “For a dream this feels weirdly real, like you’re actually there and we’re actually splitting this sundae, and I don’t want to say it then wake up and have to look you in the eye tomorrow, man.”

Hermann was bewildered. “Okay,” he managed, then took another bite of ice cream. “This is quite good.”

“Mmm,” Newt agreed through a mouthful. “I should bring you here in real life. It’d be nice to have company. Tendo comes with me sometimes, but mostly it’s just me.”

“Oh!” said Hermann. “Yes, I think I would like that.” He smiled.

“I should dream about you more often. Not that I — uh. You’re just so much nicer here than in person. Like a lot nicer.”

“I am sorry for that,” said Hermann, and truly meant it. He wished he had not taken Newt for granted those years ago, that he had had greater patience with him. What he would not give now to return to those days of bickering and colliding and scintillating shouted debates. That was the curse of all good days, though, he supposed. You decried them as they came and wrung your hands at your colleague’s ridiculousness and flung chalk across the room in consternation, and only when they had passed you already by did you notice how purely exciting they had been, how oddly they had comforted your soul.

“For what it’s worth,” Hermann added, “I mean nothing with genuine malice.” There had been one time, of course, that one dreadful fight, but Hermann tried never to think on it. It was years ago and long past, and he knew both he and Newt regretted it. He could not say whether the Newt that sat now across from him had experienced it yet. “You are…” quite dear to me, he nearly said, “a good friend. I do value your company. And I… appreciate you.” Warmth tinged his cheeks, and his sundae suddenly seemed very interesting.

“That’s corny as hell, but I’m gonna let it slide since we’re having a nice romantic dessert, anyways,” said Newt.

Hermann felt his face flush further at the joke about romance. “Speaking of dessert,” he quickly changed the subject, “do you remember when you invited me to your place to watch —”

“Star Trek, and you made me literally choke on a piece of cake? Yeah, dude. I don’t know how — we made it together — but I still strongly suspect you did something to the cake to make it taste like that. Also, it was less me inviting you to watch Star Trek, and more me forcing you to watch it because somehow you — of all people — you had never seen it before.”

“Yes.” Hermann did not know why this particularly memory had popped into his head, but it left a warm feeling in his chest. “I have two confessions to make about that, and I’ll begin with the cake…”

…Just as he and Newt had settled into the couch, Hermann recounted, Newt had been seized by an insatiable craving for cake. As much as Hermann had tried to wheedle Newt into forgetting it, into hitting play and commencing their marathon of the original series of Star Trek, Newt had resisted. Over the course of some mild bickering, Newt somehow managed to compel Hermann off the couch and steer him into the small kitchen; Hermann had not appreciated being compelled, or steered, and had stewed in his mild resentments as Newt bustled about, setting bowls onto counters and plucking ingredients from shelves. Unwilling to be an entirely ungracious guest, Hermann had at last joined Newt in his preparations: he had cracked eggs into a bowl, and measured the flour. And as Newt had turned his back to search his pantry for vanilla extract, Hermann had dumped an extra load of flour into the mixture, ruining the batter just enough for the cake to come out exceedingly dry, yet not enough to rouse suspicion.

No,” said Newt.

“Yes,” said Hermann. He had spent a solid portion of his life as a member of the PPDC boiling like a pressure cooker of mildly amicable spite toward Newt. “It seemed innocent enough — I swear I did not mean for it to choke you.”

“Well hot damn, Hermann. That was — that was subtle. Devious. I don’t know if I forgive you! Some sins can’t be forgiven.” Newt affected a haughty expression, but the playfulness in his eyes bespoke his intentions. “Is that why you drank like a gallon of my water?”

“You might have suspected something had I refused the cake, especially since you attempted to peer pressure me so forcefully into eating it. So I poured myself a significant amount of your water in order to wash each bite down.” Hermann’s brow crinkled as mirthfully he grinned. “It really was terrible.”

“Huh,” said Newt, and dug into what little remained of their sundae. After several moments of contemplative silence while he chewed, his eyes snapped back up. “Wait, you said you had two confessions. What’s the other one?”

“Ah. It’s about Star Trek itself —”

“Hermann, I swear to God, if you say you secretly hated it I will take this spoon and —”

“No, no, I liked it!” Hermann assured Newt, and pushed away the spoon he was brandishing across the little table. “I loved it, in fact. Because I love Star Trek. I’ve loved it since I was seven, Newton.”

Hermann watched the calculations wheel behind Newt’s eyes. “You told me you’d never seen it — you told me you could go your whole life without watching it and not give a shit.”

“I didn’t put it so crudely, but yes. I had been wanting to watch it with you because you had never mentioned it before, and you do talk at length about most things you enjoy, so I assumed you had never seen it. Then you asked me to watch it before I could ask you, and the idea of admitting my fondness for Star Trek seemed… suddenly unpalatable.”

“You’re telling me,” said Newt with disbelief, “that all the times I had to correct you when you mixed up Sulu and Chekov. The time you called Spock an elf. That was just you pulling a fucking long con?”

“I suppose you could call it that,” said Hermann. One spoonful of the sundae remained, and he left it for Newt. “It was rather amusing to watch your reactions. Until you choked, that is. In my defense, how could I anticipate that referring to Spock as an elf would cause you to choke — although I suppose it helped little that I had already dried out the cake with excessive flour.”

“You devious bastard!” admonished Newt with manic glee. “I hope you enjoyed giving me the Heimlich. I vividly remember the panic in your eyes, dude. Little did I know it was because you thought my imminent death was your fault.” Enthusiastically Newt stood and relocated to Hermann’s side of the table, forcing Hermann to scoot up against the wall or be sat on. The booth seemed suddenly much smaller. “Okay, we’ve gotta revisit some things now, Hermann. The time my name got changed to Nert on the official PPDC database — was that you?”

It had indeed been Hermann, as had a fair number of other moderate to severe inconveniences in Newt’s life. For a long while they sat and reminisced, and Hermann ordered a milkshake for the sake of having something to occupy his hands: with Newt so close he seemed to have forgotten what to do with them. At some point Newt curled his legs up underneath himself, and in the process managed to crowd even nearer to Hermann. His elbow was propped against the top of the booth, his free arm gesticulating wildly as he spoke.

He was so close, Newt with his green eyes, mere breaths away. Into faint and fleeting things Hermann’s thoughts turned; they slipped sinuous through his mind, out of his grasp; they refused to be caught or held or made sense of, not with this proximity to Newt. His milkshake was burning cold into his hand. For Newt’s warmth beside him, Hermann did not notice. Newt was rather attractive. It was not that Hermann had never noticed this, but rather that on the odd occasions he did, the revelation was drowned immediately out by Newt splattering Kaiju guts on him or raving about something nonsensical. But there were no distractions here. Hermann was smiling into his milkshake, warmth blooming through his veins as the moment uncurled.

Time dripped by as through honey, slow and saccharine.

Until Hermann searched for the waitress to request the check, that is, and saw set into one wall of the diner a set of double doors painted pale yellow. His face must have fallen, for Newt trailed off from the story he was telling and asked, “What is it?”

“I just… forgot this is only a dream. It felt so real,” said Hermann. With his milkshake he gestured vaguely at the diner surrounding them.

Newt took this as an opportunity to lean in, and grab Hermann’s straw, and steal a sip from his milkshake. Hermann did not have it in him to protest: his heart was too heavy. “Mmm, I know,” said Newt. “This is a weird-ass dream. Normally I would’ve woken up by now. It feels like we’ve been here for hours. Don’t get me wrong, I’m having a good time. A — a really good time. But something does feel… off.”

“Off?” said Hermann.

“It’s like there’s something I need to do, but I can’t put my finger on it. Like I need to go somewhere. And like this is really happening, like this is — this is more than just a dream. I don’t know.” Newt shook his head in confusion, and looked up to meet Hermann’s eyes.

“No, I understand what you mean.” He understood more than Newt knew. Somewhere, a clock was ticking down the time until the Precursors found them within this Drift. They needed to leave this diner, pass through the remaining four doorways, piece Newt’s soul back together.

He dragged his gaze up to Newt’s eyes and, indicating his milkshake, said, “Would you like the rest? I’m not sure I can finish it.” It was selfish, but he did not want this dream to end. Even if it was all a fantasy, his feelings were no less real. The milkshake was something to keep Newt in the booth with him, something to drag out this dream a fraction longer.

“Are you okay? I mean, obviously I’m not gonna say no, but you’re willingly sharing your food with me?”

“I suppose,” said Hermann awkwardly.

“Suit yourself,” Newt said, and took the proffered milkshake.

What once had been a fair sweet moment had turned cloying. At a scratch on the table Hermann stared unblinking as shame crept uncomfortably through him. He tried to quell it, to consciously appreciate this moment with Newt, but the chemistry of the scene had changed, and would not be reversed. Every moment longer, with every second of this bygone fantasy that passed, further guilt weighed down upon him. He was keeping Newt here in ignorance.

Through the leaden silence Newt’s voice cleaved suddenly: “Something to do with our lab.”

“What?”

“Something to do with our lab,” Newt repeated. “That’s what’s been bothering me. I just got this, this flash of you and me back in the lab, and I don’t remember what, but it felt like we were doing something important. It feels like I need to go there — uh. I don’t know if in this dream or in real life — maybe my cell culture is ready to come out of the incubator — or did I already get the results from that experiment? Agh, I can’t remember. Did I forget to take my scalpels out of the autoclave —”

Hermann could keep up the charade no longer. “Newt,” he interrupted, and dragged in a deep breath. “I think it’s time for us to leave. It’s been…” wonderful. Idyllic. An unsustainable unreality. “I know what bothers you. You are not just dreaming, and I think you know that, on some level. Do those doors mean anything to you?” He looked at the pale yellow doorway, and Newt followed his gaze.

“Maybe? They seem sort of familiar.”

That is where we need to go: through those doors,” said Hermann, chest tight. A wan smile played across his lips. He was so fond of this Newt. “I wish we could stay longer, but we must leave. We have duties beyond this diner.”

“Oh, duties beyond this diner, yes, very important, much obliged… ” Newt began to ramble, mocking Hermann in a freewheeling rendition of his accent as he clambered out of the booth. Hermann grabbed his cane and slid out after Newt, indulging him with a half-hearted glare. But as he led Newt to the doorway sorrow dragged his mouth down into a thin line. “…Quite dutiful! Imperative…” Newt was saying behind him. Hermann wished he could sweep this moment like sand into his palms and hold it tight to his chest, preserve it forever by his heart, shield it from life’s violent and bitter tides.

But dreams were precious precisely because they did not last. Fleeting things were often perfect and rarely true. Reality beckoned, and she would drag truth always into the light.

Hermann allowed himself one glance back at Newt as they reached the pale yellow doorway. “Shall we?” he said, and hoped he sounded measured. If he hesitated, he would crumble. He would not find the will again to leave this fantasy. Without awaiting a response, Hermann pushed open the left door, and forced himself to step through.

 


 

It was mere seconds after the door swung shut behind Newt that he exclaimed, “A milkshake! We split a milkshake, I remember.”

“Oh — yes,” said Hermann, startled. “And a sundae. What else do you recall?”

Newt stared unfocused at the space beyond Hermann’s shoulder, and idly licked his lips. He was no longer translucent: though he still was desaturated to near greyscale, he seemed solid as Hermann. “The, ah, the diner. Yeah, I remember the sundae! And you, oh my God, you pretended not to have seen Star Trek?” Newt’s eyebrows shot up, and he met Hermann’s gaze once more. “There’s something else, but I can’t really put my finger on it. I mostly just have these sort of — patches of memories.”

“Anything pertaining to the… cake incident?”

“Cake incident?”

“I told you about the time — the cake we baked, before watching Star Trek…”

Newt started to shake his head, but then his eyes widened. “When you sabotaged my cake!”

Our cake, technically.”

“You devious bastard,” Newt echoed the words of his dream self, though Hermann did not think it was intentional. “Yeah, now that you mention that, it’s coming back to me.”

It crossed Hermann’s mind to bring up the first parts of the dream, the Jaeger battle and the adoring crowd, but he did not want to burden Newt with the knowledge that he had seen such dreams: for they were personal, and deep indeed. So Hermann simply said, “Good. It seems with each door we pass through you’re increasingly able to recall what you experience.”

Gradually they wended their way to the middle of the laboratory, to the metal table they had pulled swivel chairs to, while examining Newt’s experiences. He was able now to recall fragments from the previous two doorways: the schoolyard tussle beyond the orange door, the Drift beyond the grey door, and of course the rain beyond both.

“It was just pitch black, dude,” Newt was saying as he and Hermann sat down. “It was a bit less dark through the orange door, but still essentially black, and then when I looked through the doors we just came through it seemed like someone had turned the lights off in the lab. I could see silhouettes of things, but it was pretty dark.” He swiveled his chair in a circle.

“Fascinating,” said Hermann. “I’ve been curious: in the schoolyard memory, you said you would not pass through the door because it was too dark, and you couldn’t be sure there truly was a laboratory as I promised. So why was it that you went through the grey door without the same misgivings? Especially since it appeared pitch black to you upon opening it.”

“I did have misgivings. I was gonna turn around and ask you what was up with the door, but I was already super wet, and I saw you following me, and you didn’t look like you had a problem with going through it. So I figured it was probably fine? Plus, if it wasn’t fine and there was — there was some monster on the other side or something, at least I wasn’t going to get eaten alone.”

“Foolproof logic, Newton,” said Hermann with more fondness than he intended.

 


 

After a while, movement caught Hermann’s eye: something wriggling and blue.

“Oh, not again.”

Hermann’s eyes slitted with disdain, and he crossed the laboratory to the midnight blue double doors. Once more the thin, faintly glowing tentacles had insinuated themselves through the cracks where door did not meet wall. Greedily they crept for the chain and the keycode padlock wrapped about the door handles. Hermann felt less fear this time — Newt’s presence in the laboratory emboldened him, gave him some measure of calm, set a layer between him and his panic.

Like a baseball bat Hermann raised his cane, and brought it down upon the grotesque wriggling things. Thwack it went against the doorway, ringing out loud and metallic, and the tentacles skittered away from the point of impact. They must have remembered that Hermann would show them no mercy, for they retreated then in horrible, wet undulations, slithering back through the brightly glowing cracks in the doorway.

“Take that, you vile individuals,” called Newt from his swivel chair.

“Beg pardon?” Hermann turned around. A crease was between Newt’s brows, but his lips were curved into a small smile.

“That’s what you said, wasn’t it? When we were in that elevator. Right before I…” The smile faltered.

“You remember that?” asked Hermann as he returned to his chair.

“Yeah,” said Newt, “I remember most things before the PPDC took me. And some of the interrogations from the first few weeks after that. But no, you calling someone a vile individual while you caned them is definitely one of the more vivid memories.”

“Well — I —” Hermann stammered. He wanted to remark on the elevator skirmish, but could not manage coherent speech: the reminder of Newt’s interrogations stung at him. Unbidden the images coalesced in his mind of Newt strapped to some cold metal chair, helpless against interrogation from PPDC officials who saw no distinction between hurting Newt and hurting the creatures within him. It was a small consolation that Newt sat before him solid and unharmed.

“What is it?” Newt asked, concerned. A dour expression had crept across Hermann’s features without his noticing, and purposefully he smoothed it away. Newt did not seem to dwell on the memory of his interrogation, and he had been the one held captive, anyway. If he was willing to gloss over the subject, Hermann would not drag him back to it over his own secondhand misgivings.

“Nothing,” said Hermann. “That fight in the elevator is one of my clearer memories, as well — likely owing to the adrenaline.” He gave Newt what he hoped was a reassuring smile.

“So that’s what you look like hyped up on adrenaline, huh?” Newt crossed his arms and leaned back. “Hermann Gottlieb the action hero.” Hermann spluttered and felt his cheeks go warm, but Newt carried on, “Don’t try to deny it! I was there. I may not have been in control, but I was there. You hit, what, five guys with your cane?”

“Something like that,” mumbled Hermann.

Newt must have sensed his embarrassment, for after a pause, he nodded at the glowing double doors and said, “So those were the tentacles.”

“Yes,” said Hermann, grateful for the change of subject. “Rather pesky things. They wouldn’t be half as bad if they didn’t keep trying to open the padlock… you wouldn’t happen to know what the code is, would you? This is your mind, after all.”

Newt squinted at the padlock, and Hermann watched the thoughts turn behind his eyes. “No,” he said after a long pause. “Sorry, dude.”

“It’s all right,” said Hermann gently, and waved his hand in dismissal. “It’s not essential that we figure it out right this moment.”

“Either you’ve gotten suspiciously nicer in the last few years, or you’re acting this way because you pity me, and I don’t want your pity, Hermann,” Newt said, leaning forward. “It just — it reminds me that the last decade happened, and all the shit that entails. And I don’t want that. You’ve gotta stop looking at me like I’m broken, dude.”

“I’m sorry,” said Hermann. He floundered for something else to say, but came up empty.

“Look, I know you mean well,” Newt sighed. “I know that beneath all the cold, uptight mathematician shtick you’re secretly a teddy bear, but…” Frustration overtook him suddenly, and he threw his hands up. “Too many things have changed! Saint Hermann is a bit too much to handle on top of it all.”

That stung, but Newt did not seem to notice. Hermann reminded himself of all Newt had been through, and tried to swallow the irritation bubbling up his throat. “Maybe I have changed, but I am still myself, Newton.” His tone wavered between cold and conciliatory. Saint Hermann?

Too much suppressed emotion was burning through him, and he gripped his cane tight as he stood and made for his old desk. “Forgive me for genuinely caring for your wellbeing!” he said over his shoulder, then sat down. So many times since initiating this Drift he had wished for a return to normalcy, for an argument with Newt like old times. But it was not quite so pleasant as he remembered, and the scratches were not quite so painless.

From somewhere behind him Newt made an unintelligible noise of exasperation, and there was a dull thud. Hermann did not have to turn around to know Newt had lied down supine upon the floor, fingers threaded through his hair. It was a position he had adopted frequently enough back in their days as labmates. Always Hermann would scold him over his utter disregard for hygiene, then threaten to haul him into the chemical shower. Something twisted in Hermann’s gut at the memory. For what felt like a very long while they sat there in cloying silence, until —

“I’m sorry, okay? I’m sorry,” said Newt over the sound of paper rustling.

Hermann heard the sincerity in his voice, and though vague hurt still thrummed through him, he pushed it aside. He stared at the wall ahead of him and, after digesting his pride for a few moments, said, “No, I should be apologizing. Your vexation is… understandable.”

A small snort, then, “Vexation.”

“What?”

“That’s a very you thing to say. Vexation.”

“Oh,” said Hermann eloquently. His equanimity was returning to him, and he felt relieved.

“Anyways, I didn’t mean to say what I did. You just — you stepped on a nerve, dude.”

“I will try to tread more carefully, then. Would it help if I insulted you?” Hermann turned around, a smile tugging weakly at his lips. There lay Newt on the ground some ten feet away, a paper covered in small writing clutched in his hands. On his chest rested his glasses.

“Mm. Maybe,” Newt said, and flopped his head to the side to face Hermann.

“Very well! You’re far too…” Hermann began, then trailed off into a good few seconds of silence. For once in his life he did not have an insult primed to roll off his tongue. The more he concentrated on finding something to nitpick, the more unhelpful endings to that sentence materialized within his mind. You’re far too endearing. You’re far too precious to me, though you are unpleasant. You’re far too comfortable on that floor, and your eyes are far too soft. “I can’t think of anything,” he said at last.

Newt’s glasses wobbled on his chest as he shook with quiet laughter. “Wow. I can’t see you right now, you’re just a blob, but I hope you’re deeply, deeply ashamed of yourself.” He set the piece of paper face-down on the floor beside him.

“Get off the floor, Newton,” said Hermann with a long-suffering sigh, and he rose from his desk to walk over to Newt. “It’s filthy.”

“Hey, you programmed this Drift, right? If the floor’s dirty, that’s one hundred percent on you.”

Peremptorily Hermann tapped Newt’s thigh with his cane. “Up. Come on, get up.”

Newt groaned. “You fascist,” he said as he put his glasses back on and peeled himself from the floor. Smoothing his shirt out, he opened his mouth to say more, but halted at the expression that had abruptly taken over Hermann’s face. “What is it?”

“I’ve realized that I have… neglected to tell you something,” said Hermann, fingers winding tighter about the handle of his cane. “We should sit down.”

Into a knot his gut twisted as he led Newt back to their swivel chairs: he did not want to say this and spoil Newt’s decently good humor, but he had put it off long enough. He owed Newt the full truth. As he sat down and steepled his elbows against the metal table, though, as he stared into Newt’s desaturated-green eyes, the words would not come. His lips parted, and his brow creased, and in his throat the words caught and crumbled.

“What is it?” said Newt. “Just tell me, dude.”

Such abhorrence clawed through Hermann at the prospect of laying this burden upon Newt, but he powered through it. He would rather Newt be prepared than stumbling half-blind alongside him.

“It’s the Precursors.” He forced the words, soft with dread, past his lips. “Before I initiated this Drift, they spoke to me. They told me that they would hunt me within your mind — hunt us. They said they would find me and take my mind as well as yours.” Newt stared at him unblinking, an indecipherable expression upon his features. “I don’t think they anticipated my algorithm for deflecting Anteverse neural signatures,” Hermann continued, “but I’m almost certain they are aware of it by now, and are attempting to locate us within the Drift. The stronger you grow — the more whole you become — the more I fear we will stand out to them. Of course, they could just as easily never succeed in finding us, as I am confident in the solidity of my work, but I believe it would be foolish to underestimate them. I thought I should tell you now, before…”

“Shit,” said Newt. “Shit! Okay, thank you for thinking to deflect them, because I haven’t felt them in my head and that’s been great and all, but holy shit, that would’ve been nice to know earlier, Hermann!”

“I’m sorry,” said Hermann. He had been saying those words quite a lot, lately. “I wanted you to have at least some peace of mind, for a while.”

“Yeah, well, I kinda would’ve rather known that from the start!” Newt said, and raked a hand through his hair. “Shit,” he repeated at a whisper, and melted forward; he anchored his elbows against the table and caught his head in his hands. “Why did you have to —” he began, accusatory, then cut himself off. “I really hope this was worth it, Hermann,” he muttered, gaze unfocused on the table below him.

“What do you mean?” asked Hermann. He frowned, concerned. Anger he had expected, something loud that fizzled eventually out, but not this sudden weariness.

Newt snorted humorlessly, a defeated little noise that had Hermann’s mouth dragging down in anguish. “Nothing! Whatever,” he said, and his tone was bright and hollow. He stood, and for a moment Hermann thought he saw grief flicker across his features.

“Newt —”

“We should get going, then,” Newt interrupted. “How about that door?” He pointed at the first door within his line of sight: a crimson door with peeling paint. It did not look so friendly as the orange or the yellow doors.

“All right,” said Hermann quietly, and followed Newt across the laboratory to stand at his side before the deep red door. The handle was smooth and aureate and coming unstuck. Tentatively Hermann curled his fingers about it and pulled, holding the door open for Newt.

Newt looked then at Hermann, and though there was sorrow still in his eyes, it was softened by something akin to tenderness. He gave Hermann a smile that was not quite happy, and clapped him gently on the shoulder. His hand lingered for a moment before sliding away, and he stepped across the threshold. His figure dissolved into whatever lay beyond the crimson door.

And Hermann followed.

Chapter Text

Hermann’s good humor dissipated the second he set eyes upon the memory before him.

He was in the laboratory. The colors were normal, no desaturated warm tones or oddly vibrant blues, which might have been a relief. But there sat the memory of himself at his old desk several paces away, spinning with jittery hands the holographic model of his latest research. He recognized instantly what research that was, when he had conducted it, and what was about to happen.

“Oh, no,” he whispered. Something grabbed his stomach and twisted it into a harsh knot; his heart stuttered into his throat. God, how vividly familiar this memory was. 2023, a decade after he first corresponded with Newt and three years into their colleagueship in Hong Kong.

Through the first three doors had been memories vital to Newt’s life and who he was: the Kaiju Drift that saved the world yet set into motion a decade’s worth of pain, advice from Uncle Illia and a courageous confrontation with a bully, the dream of heroism and recognition. It was dearly upsetting to Hermann that this particular memory cut so deep within Newt’s psyche that it merited a place in this Drift, that it was a piece he needed reunite with the whole of Newt.

Hermann saw him, then: Newt lurked near the industrial laboratory doors, silently watching the memory of Hermann manipulate the hologram. Anger shone in his eyes, made the soft line of his jaw severe. So suffused with dread was Hermann that he could not appreciate the sight of their old laboratory doors not spilling effulgent Kaiju-blue light. Part of him screeched for him to rush forward and lay a hand upon Newt, shake him from this memory before it could uncurl in all its sharp ugliness. Another part, a stronger part, petrified him where he stood. Should Hermann cross over and wake Newt from the memory, he would have to face whatever fury remained.

So he stood there motionless, entranced as though by a car crash.

For a very long time Newt stood there, running his hand along his jaw with restless energy. The tension in the room stretched like an arrow drawn back, poised to fire Newt’s wrath. The memory had not even begun to unfold, and already Hermann felt nauseated.

Months after this incident, Hermann and Newt had made shaky amends, and from there their resentments had gradually abated. But standing there now, immersed in the memory in four dimensions, Hermann felt that old hurt bubbling up. His fingers trembled.

To calm himself he did mental calculus: it had always been his favorite branch of mathematics, and mental math allowed the logical part of his mind to prevail over the more emotional. Simple derivatives he took: 5x^3+7x became 15x^2+7; sec(3x) became 3sec(3x)tan(3x). 4x^6+8x...

He breathed out and steadied his grip on his cane.

Newt’s posture shifted, tension rippling up through him as he prepared to speak. It would be so easy to walk over and release him from this memory, but while the calculus swept away Hermann’s most acute emotions, it could not shake the dread that settled deep in his gut. He did nothing.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” said Newt.

So startled was the memory of Hermann that his hand slipped; he dragged a part of his holographic model somewhere it should not have gone, and he made a noise of frustration. Sixty hours he had gone without sleep, working nonstop to finish this project. Affront heightened by sleep deprivation flared in his eyes, and he whipped about to face Newt. “Once again, my condolences for your loss,” he said cooly. His grip on his composure was tenuous. “Do you make a habit of barging into rooms and insulting your colleagues or is it just me that has the pleasure?”

“Oh, don’t act like you don’t know, Hermann,” Newt said. “Not wanting to help me I could understand, because you’re a selfish dick, but not even telling me —

“I don’t have the slightest idea what you’re —”

“I thought — God! I know we never see eye to eye on anything, I know we always argue, but I thought underneath it all we were friends! I didn’t think you actually despised me!” Newt laughed, high and bewildered and humorless.

“Since when have we been friends, Newton?” the memory of Hermann said, and the true Hermann cringed. It was a front, of course, spoken defensively in the heat of the moment, but watching it now, the words sounded utterly convincing. The glow of the holographic model cast unseemly sideways shadows across his face. They clotted in and accentuated the dark circles beneath his eyes. Newt stormed over to him as he continued, “You interfere with my research constantly, as you’re doing now, and you’ve singlehandedly driven away at least two members of our already short-staffed research division —”

“Oh, yeah, of course, them quitting is my fault: it has nothing to do with the fact that they had to spend more than five minutes alone in a room with you, which anyone would know is fucking impossible —”

“At least they respected me! At least they didn’t avoid me because I was a Kaiju groupie who walked around the Shatterdome with those tattoos,” the memory of Hermann said, and gestured sharply at Newt’s forearms. Hermann had forgotten: he used to dislike those tattoos.

“Wow, real smart, Hermann! Did you use your one PhD to come up with that one?”

“Remind me, what exactly were you compensating for when you decided to get six PhDs? Was it your own unbridled narcissism that told you it was a good —”

Some people actually go out and accomplish things! I have six PhDs because I’m a genius, and I could.

“Yes, I’m sure your parents are tremendously proud to have such a humble prodigy for a son,” snapped Hermann thoughtlessly. He froze at the expression on Newt’s face, and the realization of his mistake visibly scythed through him.

“Oh my God, you jackass! Did it only take you, what, a minute to forget that I’ve been in Germany the past week for my dad’s funeral?” Newt laughed high and disbelieving, his hands on his hips. A pause, then:

“...Were you not closer with your uncle?”

The real Hermann cringed. At the time, a misguided part of him had thought it a matter of logic: a reminder to Newt that this loss was not the worst he could have endured. Watching the words spill from his lips now, he rather agreed with Newt’s assessment. He was a jackass. Have some pity, he wanted to tell himself.

Newt’s eyes widened, mouth agape. Rage blustered up through him, and, gesturing wildly, he said: “What does that even have to do with — are you kidding me? ‘At least it wasn’t my uncle?’”

“My condolences for your father’s death —”

“Your condolences? I don’t want your goddamn condolences, Hermann! I wanted you to have, just, a smidgen of human decency and take care of Rosalind for me! Or at least tell me you couldn’t do it!” Here at last was the heart of Newt’s ire: what had sent him storming into the room, seething.

“Do you expect me to read your mind? You have to tell me if you want a favor, Newton.”

“Uh, I did?” Newt spluttered out another terrible laugh. “I texted you that reminder about what to feed her, how often to mist her, when to give her her vitamins, and you said ‘okay’! Do you know what she looked like when I got home? She was barely moving! She was so pale she looked like she was about to die —”

“I had no idea you meant that you wanted me to care for her! I responded with ‘okay’ because I didn’t have the slightest clue what you were talking about, as you never specifically told me.

“Hermann, I sent you that email twice! I literally don’t know how I could’ve been clearer! I asked you to take care of her while I was gone. I told you when and what to feed her, how to give her water, everything you needed to know to take care of her. I —” he broke off into another dreadful laugh. “I even included a paragraph on why you were the person I trusted most after Tendo to take care of her. But I guess I should’ve just gone, ‘Hey, Tendo, I know you’re really sick with the flu right now and can’t get out of bed, but I need you to come over and take care of my bearded dragon anyways!’”

That gave the memory of Hermann pause. “Ah,” he said stiffly. “Well that would explain it. I have your email automatically programmed to go to my spam folder.” He looked unrepentant, and the real Hermann wished he could tell himself to set aside an ounce of his pride, own up to his error. But that was the thing about memories: one had to look back helplessly and wince at the person they used to be. Hermann could never wipe away his mistakes or his foolishness or his thoughtless words.

“Oh that is so fucking typical —

“You sent me enough pointless and insulting emails that I had no choice but to —”

“I’m done! I’m so done! I’ve known you for a decade and you know what? It’s been the worst! You’re the most pretentious, insufferable, insensitive…” Newt broke off and spluttered, wrath strangling his coherency.

“Insensitive,” seethed Hermann. “Is that really the term you’d call me when you’re the one with Kaijus inked into your arms? You do realize that where we work, most people have lost someone to an attack? It seems rather tasteless to openly idolize those creatures when —”

“I don’t idolize them! I’m just fascinated by them! There’s a world of difference between those things but I wouldn't expect a — a fucking robot to understand!” Newt glared at Hermann.

“Oh, a robot,” said Hermann in a withering tone, rolling his eyes.

“Yeah, a robot! Do you even — do you care about anything, Hermann? Sometimes I really think you don’t have emotions! I don’t know why I’ve been the only one stupid enough out of everyone in the Shatterdome to spend time with you alone, but I’m done! I’m out!” From his spot just beyond the crimson door, Hermann winced. Even a decade later, that stung.

“Fine,” said the memory of Hermann, leaning in closer to Newt’s face. “I haven’t enjoyed one second of time with you, either: you’re loud, and abrasive, and obnoxious —”

“At least I have a personality!” said Newt. He stepped even closer to Hermann, crowded into him. Inches separated their faces. “I’ve met rocks more interesting than you —”

“When your colleagues come back to you with every excuse under the sun not to spend time in your presence, do you tell yourself that they’re boring anyway, and that you don’t care, or do you understand how utterly intolerable you are?”

There was a long silence. Newt glowered up at Hermann. “I don’t know how I stood writing to you for three years,” he said at last, and for the first time since he entered the laboratory he was not yelling.

“At least we can agree on that much,” said Hermann through his teeth.

“Great!” said Newt with hollow cheer. So casually that the memory of Hermann did not take notice, Newt reached for the keyboard beneath the hologram, and tapped at it. A warning box popped up, and he hit enter.

Hermann still did not know how he had overlooked it, how his reaction had been so delayed. Perhaps it was the sixty hours straight he had spent awake; perhaps it was his own cold ire blunting his acuity. Newt had known exactly how to get under his skin. They knew each other like no other, and so knew with surgical precision which nerves to step on. Hermann watched belated recognition snap into place within the memory of himself, and watched himself lunge for the keyboard. But it was too late, and Newt had already pulled away.

“What… have you… done?”

The words shuddered up from deep in Hermann’s throat, and horror wound his voice tight. With wide eyes and lips fallen open, he gaped at the empty void where his holographic model had been moments before. Now this — this was the worst part. He had thought it an old scar healed over: yet watching it happen again, the memory scratched at him. He tried to remind himself that this was behind them, that he cared dearly for Newt and had had his fair share of the blame in escalating the argument. He tried to remind himself that they were younger and caught in the pressure cooker that was life with the PPDC, but still he felt the very old wound reopened.

“That was months of work,” the memory of Hermann whispered. “Months — you’ve just wiped it all out. I have not slept in two days finishing this project, and you’ve — the nerve —”

“Oh, as if you don’t have a backup copy of everything —”

“I don’t!” Hermann’s voice rose. “In case it’s gone entirely over your head, our funding has run critically low, and we’ve had to cut corners! This computer is running out of memory. It can’t hold two copies of my research.” Critically low funding indeed: Hermann would later ask the Marshal for the funds to repeat the project and be denied, as all remaining funds were diverted with priority to the Jaeger program. His research on predicting the behavior of the breach would go unfinished and unfunded for years, leaving the world all the less able to predict when the next Kaiju attack might come.

“It kinda seems like your fault for not having a backup,” said Newt. Both the true Hermann and the memory of him knew that Newt lied: that he was mulishly unwilling to admit his mistake.

“Unbelievable. Unbelievable! Those calculations, that model — do you have the slightest idea how much time and money that cost? Do you even know what you’ve — that model would have predicted — it would have saved —” such fury was boiling up within him he could barely speak. With shaking hands Hermann removed his glasses, and he stormed away from Newt, knuckles white on his cane. “Thank you so much, Newton. Now I must inform the Marshal that months of crucial work has just been made null, and beg him for funding we don't have in order to redo the entire project.” He wrenched open the industrial laboratory doors.

“Maybe this all could’ve been avoided,” shouted Newt as Hermann left, “if you’d just read my emails and not almost killed Rosalind in the first place!” The laboratory doors clanged shut. The room was empty, yet still he added in a small voice, “This isn’t my fault.”

The memory of Hermann had made his way far down the corridor by then, and he did not hear. But the true Hermann did hear, and the words settled poorly in his stomach. Perhaps it was the disparity between the hazy halcyon memories of bickering with Newt and this reality, but Hermann felt ill.

Newt stood motionless at Hermann’s desk, brow creased and mouth twisted into a grimace as he stared at the closed laboratory doors.  At last Hermann willed his feet to move, to come unstuck and bear him over to Newt. The last thing he needed was for this memory to loop once more. He really did not want to face whatever scorching mélange of emotion simmered within Newt in the aftermath of their worst fight. But what other choice did he have?

Hermann reached out to touch Newt, then quailed. He drew his hand back. That singular moment of cowardice caught, dug its roots into him. And then Newt vanished into ether, and stood once more glowering before the laboratory doors.

Hermann turned on his heel and walked straight out the crimson door, leaving it open behind him.

He eyed his desk, but refused to sit there for the bitter memory he had just watched uncurl. He eyed the table he and Newt had pulled swivel chairs to, but refused to sit there for the feeling that coiled in his gut. He eyed the messenger bag across the room, discarded still by the grey door, and it seemed suddenly much uglier. And so he stepped a few paces to the right of the crimson door, and leaned against the wall. He tipped his head up and let his gaze rove unfocusedly across the industrial ceiling.

Almost too forgiving had the previous three doors been: the dreamy diner in particular. Thoroughly unprepared he had passed through the crimson door. Looking back, he supposed, it was inevitable that one of these doors should guard such an acrimonious memory. As much as energy and passion and courage comprised who Newt was, so too did mulishness and impulsiveness. All the years of longing and separation had diffused Hermann’s memory of Newt into something far softer than the reality of him.

Had he gone into this Drift looking for something he could not find: something that did not exist?

Tension thrummed mordant up Hermann’s muscles. How many lives had Newt cost in erasing Hermann’s months of work, delaying the implementation of that crucial project? Did he feel remorse?

They had made tenuous amends, sure, after a month of iciness and glares and cloying laboratory silence. Newt’s bearded dragon had recovered, and Hermann had taken the blame for the project’s deletion, as his reputation could better handle the fallout than Newt’s. But neither of them had ever in so many words actually apologized to the other, admitted fault. They had wound their way over the course of many stilted conversations to the admission that neither of them had truly meant the worst of what they said, and that they did care at least slightly for each other. They had settled into a shaky sort of normalcy after that, settled back into an equilibrium of bickering and giving each other space. Their wounds had scabbed over and healed to scars.

Hermann had buried his lingering resentments as time ticked by, but now it seemed the crimson door had unearthed them in all their ugly truth. Whenever those thoughts had come creeping into his mind, he had dealt with them by only half-thinking them, thinking of them vaguely and through a haze, until they stopped coming at all. But perhaps that had not been the best strategy.

The Precursors he had driven away, whenever he felt their presence seeping into his mind, by facing them head-on: by turning his full attention to them and staunchly refusing to give in. Always they returned, and always he faced them with determination, saying, “No: my will is stronger than yours, and you will not have me.” Perhaps he needed to do the same for his resentments.

He huffed out a long sigh. He really did not want to go back through the crimson door. But if he did not, he would lose Newt to the creatures in his mind — likely forever. And even now, even stewing in his bitterness at Newt’s words and his outrage at Newt’s actions, he could not bring himself to hate Newt that much. Newt was still his best friend. About his cane his fingers curled tight. He did not very much like Newt right now, but some soul-deep part of him was distantly warm with just the thought of Newt. To abandon Newt would be to abandon some part of himself.

Into knots Hermann’s stomach was twisted. Yet nonetheless he plucked up as much determination as he could muster, and passed once more through the crimson door. The door shut itself behind him, and Newt was shouting at the retreating figure of the memory of Hermann. The true Hermann went briskly over to him.

“This isn’t my fault,” said Newt, and Hermann tapped his shoulder lightly. Newt whirled to face him, indignation lighting up his features once more. “What?” he said forcefully, and at the same instant heavy rain began to fall from the ceiling of the lab.

Newt paused, and mirrored Hermann’s brief alarm. He blinked against the rain and eyed the crimson door past Hermann’s shoulder. “The door. You — you Drifted with me.” His voice was laced still with anger.

“Yes,” confirmed Hermann, struggling to maintain a neutral tone. Newt’s wrath had a way of infecting him. “You remember.”

“I know this is a memory, and I remember — I remember talking with you across a table — agh! It’s all hazy. I remember the schoolyard, Dan Bergmann — God, okay, I can’t focus. This is — this is just an awful memory.” Newt’s mouth set into an unhappy line, and he swiped a hand through his wet hair. “Let’s just get out of here and forget about this,” he said, and marched for the crimson door.

Hermann wanted to follow him. He wanted to leave and shove this memory from his mind. But the scar of it gaped open, and healing would not come without sutures.

“No.”

He pushed the words past his lips, and half wished he had not spoken. He was afraid, and his nerves fared no better when Newt whipped about, eyebrows arched in disbelief.

No? What do you mean no?”

“I mean that we need to resolve this once and for all, Newton. We never really discussed what happened. Over a decade has passed, and I don’t feel we’ve ever gotten true… resolution.”

Newt blew rainwater from his mouth, then said, “You’re serious? You want to — you want to get into this again. Right now, while it’s raining.” As he spoke, the rain picked up, and it soaked into Hermann’s clothing.

“Yes,” said Hermann stubbornly. He had no power over Newt: should Newt want to leave through the crimson door, he could. Hermann could not stop him. But he knew Newt could never walk away from an argument, and here was Hermann, laying down a gauntlet. It had always been Hermann that stormed away from their quarrels: if it was Hermann that planted his feet and demanded they rehash this fight, then they would see this fight through to its end. “You erased months worth of my work, Newton. And you never once apologized.”

“You never said sorry for almost killing Rosalind, either! Or that — that asshole thing you said about how I was closer to my uncle than my dad, anyways,” Newt’s voice was shrill over the pouring rain.

Hermann shivered with the cold, then said, “Perhaps I might have been more inclined to apologize had you not bombarded me with insult after insult. You said I have no emotions, that you didn’t know how you tolerated being in the same room with me!” He had told himself he would hold onto what bit of equanimity he had mustered before coming back through the crimson door, but that plan had thoroughly dissolved. It had washed away in the rain, been scoured away with his hurt.

“Oh, as if you didn’t say the same types of things about me. Let’s see, you called me — you called me intolerable, and obnoxious —”

“After you had already called me insufferable, and a robot, and a jackass —”

“Well if the shoe fits!” Newt threw his hands up.

Hermann glared at Newt through the heavy curtain of rain, then calculated a set of mental derivatives. He had come here to resolve the fight, not continue it. A deep, shuddering breath he drew in to steady himself, and forcibly he shoved aside his pride, his frustration.

“I am sorry,” Hermann said, voice like gravel. The words, more than a decade overdue, scalded his throat as he shoved them into the air. “It was wrong of me to say what I did regarding your uncle. I regret that I blocked your emails, and I regret Rosalind’s suffering. I apologize.” And it was true. However much it twisted him up, however much it stung to have to be the sensible one and set aside his pride first, he did feel genuine remorse. He added, “I know my tone is at odds with what I’m saying, but I am sincere. I’m just also rather mad.”

Newt bit his lip, and nodded, and mulled over his next words for quite a long while. The rain poured down freezing and remorseless. “Okay,” he said.

“What?”

“Okay — apology accepted.”

“…Is there nothing else you’d like to say?” asked Hermann, bewildered. Newt’s jaw was very tense. He did nothing to explain himself, and after many moments thundered by unbroken by speech, Hermann assumed an apology was not coming. “You cannot be serious,” said Hermann, though the rain swallowed his words, and Newt did not hear. “You cannot be serious,” he said, louder. “Thirteen years. Thirteen years and you still refuse to apologize.”

“You didn’t apologize for thirteen years, either!”

“I just apologized, you nitwit! Must it always be me that makes amends first —”

Oh, must it always be me —” Newt mimicked, “to make amends first —

“Have you forgotten that I am the one who took the blame for losing the entire project?” hissed Hermann. “That I am the one the Marshal took his frustration out on for costing the PPDC time and money and, for some of the people of Hong Kong, their lives? Had I not done that, had you received yet another blemish on your record, you would have been fired, and you and I would never have overcome this fight in the first —”

A blinding flare of white light hissed through the laboratory, immediately followed by a great crack of thunder. Newt yelped and jumped; Hermann flinched and lost his grip on his cane. It splashed into the inch of rainwater which had collected on the laboratory floor.

In alarm Hermann looked at Newt, and Newt was looking at him as well. The lightning had scythed straight through Hermann’s tirade, but still hurt simmered within him, and Newt did not seem so deterred either. Hermann’s hands trembled as he bent down to pick up his cane, and certainly Newt looked more dazed.

“I know,” Newt spat into the rain, gathering his momentum once more. “I know you took the fall, but it’s not like I asked you to do that! You don’t get to hold that over my head —”

“I took the fall for you! There is a difference between hoping for a shred of gratitude and holding something over your head, though I understand it must be difficult to discern since you are so blinded by your own pride!” said Hermann, gesturing sharply with his cane.

“Pride?” Newt laughed. “Pride has nothing to do with this.”

“Then pray tell: why are you so utterly incapable of thanking me, or admitting any fault in this?”

“Pray tell: why are you such a dick?” Newt shouted over the pounding rain. It looked as if each word pained him to speak.

Before Hermann could respond — with mordant sarcasm, or with an expression of his bewilderment, or even with concern — lightning flared once more in the laboratory. A deafening crack of thunder followed. In Hermann’s bones he felt it rumble, and both his and Newt’s hands flew up to belatedly cover their ears. Newt’s mouth moved, though for the ringing in his ears Hermann could not hear what he said. Swiftly — perhaps too swiftly — the ringing subsided, and once again all was consumed by the sound of fierce rain.

“What is the matter with you?” asked Hermann over the pounding rain. “I don’t want to fight. All I want is an apology! Must I tell you again that I’m truly sorry for what I said, and what happened to Rosalind? I feel like in this Drift I’ve done nothing but apologize!”

“Are you really bringing the Precursors into this now?” shouted Newt.

“What? How on Earth did I —”

“The implication is there, Hermann!” said Newt, though Hermann truly had not intended any such implication, and did not entirely understand Newt’s leap of logic. “I’ve already told you I’m sorry for snapping at you back then.”

Hermann paused. Newt must have been referring to the brief argument over Hermann treating him too kindly. He could have laughed — so distant and small did that quarrel seem in comparison to what lay beyond the crimson door. “If you can apologize for that, why on Earth can you not apologize for this?”

“It’s — it’s different!”

“If there’s anything I’d like you to apologize for,” said Hermann, squinting against the vicious rain, “it’s the things you said in this memory and the project you deleted, not you getting short with me for a moment! I’ve felt the Precursors in my mind as well, Newt. I know how they twist everything around! What bothers me is our fight —”

“Yes, Hermann,” Newt cut him off, “I’m well aware of what the Precursors are like! I’ve only been possessed by them for ten years!” Lightning cracked once more, and the pair of them winced.

“I never suggested you weren’t!” Hermann’s chest ached. His anger was fizzling out. “Do you think I don’t hate what they’ve done to you? I still get nightmares about them. And they never gained control of me — I’ve only known a fraction of their cruelty, and it’s… ” Hermann shook his head, brow crumpled. The terror was ineffable.

Newt looked broken, anger and sorrow flashing across his face all at once. “Don’t bring that into this,” he shouted over the rain.

“Bring what into this?”

“Why they took me, but not you. I’ve thought about it enough! I don’t need you to remind me!”

That had not been Hermann’s intention in any capacity. His heart gave a terrible squeeze. “I wasn’t —” he rushed to assure Newt, but was cut off by a great flash of lightning and crack of thunder, the strongest one yet. He yelped, and doubled over at the booming noise. Newt fared no better, pain contorting his features.

And then Newt was shouting something, but the rain poured down so furiously, so loudly, that all Hermann heard was a wash of indistinguishable noise. Hermann shook his head with a confused frown, and shouted, “What?”

“The shadows!” yelled Newt at the top of his lungs.

Hermann looked at the laboratory shadows, and he could barely see through the merciless curtain of rain. But something about them seemed wrong. He strained his eyes, squinting closer, and dread uncurled within him. The shadows did not fall quite right: here the shadows clotted about his old desk seemed to move, crawl; there a tank of Kaiju organs cast a shadow sideways into the very air; there another tank had no shadow at all.

He looked then to Newt, and saw his fear.

“We'll postpone this conversation,” said Hermann, though his voice was lost in the rain. He hated to leave without resolving anything — he had only made things worse, it seemed — but the downpour and the lightning and the fell shadows kicked up something atavistic within him: some part of himself that demanded he flee for fear of his life. “We need to get out of here,” he said, splashing his way toward Newt. Of course, Newt could not hear him, but as Hermann set a hand upon his elbow to urge him along, he caught the message clear enough.

Newt would have stayed, Hermann knew, stayed and fought and dragged this out in circles until the lab was drowned by rain. He had no instinct on a good day for self-preservation.

Together they dashed for the crimson door, and Hermann pushed it open. Though basic physics suggested that the water flooding the laboratory floor should have surged through the open doorway, basic physics, it seemed, had no application here. The water wracked up against the threshold as if an invisible barrier were there: not a drop spilled across. A valedictory roll of thunder cracked across the room as Newt crossed the threshold. But unlike before, this time the rain did not cease with his exit. The freezing downpour continued, driving mercilessly down. Were the shadows growing darker? Something dreadful shivered through Hermann. Something was very wrong.

In plain terror Hermann followed Newt through the doorway, splashing wet footsteps into the laboratory on the other side. He shut the door behind himself, shaking.

 


 

Already Newt was crossing to his old desk in silence. Hermann stood shivering for a while, until the sogginess of his shoes and the weight of his and Newt’s argument compelled him to his own desk on the other side of the room. He sat down, and leaned his cane against the desk. Muscles stiff still for the deathly cold rain, he removed his shoes in awkward jerking motions, and then his socks. Unceremoniously he wrung the wet socks out into his trash bin: he was too exhausted to bother with dignity, and Newt would not meet his eyes besides.

Newt’s glasses were spattered still with raindrops, Hermann noticed, though the rest of him was dry.

 


 

After a long while, Hermann could not bear the silence.

“What do you remember through that door?” he asked across the laboratory. It was a neutral question, at least, though he feared he already knew the answer.

“Everything,” said Newt after a beat, and made a vague gesture. No more memory loss, then. It should have felt like a victory, and yet it did not.

Newt appeared solid, as he had since the previous door. And slightly more color was in his tattoos: nearly greyscale still were his skin and clothing, but the blues and greens of his tattoos were picked out in greater vibrancy. It should have felt like a victory, and yet again it did not.

It was not that Hermann expected the rest of the doors to be so easy as the first three, the grey and the orange and the yellow. He knew that there were darker things in Newt than his recklessness and his courage and his dreams of glory. No, what troubled Hermann was that ostensibly he should have been prepared to look upon those most unflattering qualities: Newt’s stubbornness and his narcissism and his abrasiveness, among whatever else compelled him to erase Hermann’s work and choose the insults he knew would cut most deep. Hermann was well aware of these traits. He shared a number of them himself. Yet it seemed that time had softened his perception of them in Newt, turned them into endearing quirks. They were not so endearing now.

Had he gone into this Drift looking for something he could never find?

He looked at Newt, then — really looked, taking in the slumped line of Newt’s back, the restless way he pulled at his rolled-up sleeves, the unfocused gaze he aimed at the yellow doorway.

Why had Hermann gone on this quest? Why had he spent all those sleepless nights cobbling together the Pons System? Why had he gone through those four doors, stayed in this Drift despite the looming threat of the Precursors? Every thread of logic he tried to weave into an answer unraveled. Newt’s greatest use to the PPDC was frankly as a gateway to the Anteverse, a way to determine its flaws and destroy it forever. Only second to this came his use as a scientist. By kidnapping Newt and attempting to liberate his mind, Hermann gained nothing and risked everything: his own reputation, and the success of the PPDC’s mission to raze the Anteverse to nothing.

Hermann bit the insides of his cheeks. Soon enough he and Newt would have to choose their next doorway, and they would have to navigate yet another part of Newt’s mind. And then after everything they still would have to face that glowing doorway.

His brow creased. No, he did not have to do anything. Nothing kept him here beyond his own will. Snap his fingers thrice, and he would find himself back in reality, back in the laboratory he had broken into, back on the floor with Newt duct taped into a chair above him.

And behind Newt’s eyes would be the Precursors, cold and cruel.

Hermann did not like Newt right now. He did not like Newt’s selective inability to apologize, or the myriad things for which he had reason to apologize. After all, Hermann had been able to swallow his own pride enough to apologize: he was able to look back, and feel remorse, and do his best to right his wrongs.

Hermann did not like Newt right now. But he could not leave him, not with those dreadful creatures. He could not abandon him. Something Illia Geiszler said beyond the orange door came back to him, then: that the unhappiest people are those who do not know how to apologize.

Hermann looked at Newt toying restlessly with his sleeves, and saw someone rather unhappy. There was no pride in his sadness.

And so Hermann quietly put back on his shoes and socks — now somewhat more dry, at least — and rose from his chair, picking up his cane. Save the dreadful glowing doorway, two doors remained: one lavender, one matte black. The lavender seemed distinctly less foreboding, but already he and Newt were in unpleasant moods. He supposed they ought to get the worst over with.

He walked over to the matte door. It was painted such a lightless black it strained his eyes to look upon. It had seemed a singular mass of darkness, but upon reaching it he saw the handle painted also black, scarcely discernible from the door itself.

The matte black door was not particularly inviting, nor was it so foreboding as the glowing doorway. He was unnerved by its appearance, yet nonetheless wrapped his fingers about the handle and pulled. The door was heavy, and resisted him as though it were trying to pull itself back shut. When he drew it fully open and released the handle, though, the door did not try to close.

Through the doorway he saw only darkness. It was nearly indistinguishable from the black door itself. And it really would not do to plunge headfirst into darkness with no guiding light, so Hermann went over to the grey door, and picked up the gaudy tie-dyed messenger bag he had left there. From it he grabbed the flashlight, then slung the bag crossways over his body. Who knew what lurked in the dark? Surely it could not hurt to have a knife and a bone saw on hand.

“Shall we?” Hermann asked, returning to the matte door.

Newt stared at him then, brow knitted, lips parted in confusion. For a while he looked at Hermann, and Hermann watched him back, until at last and with what almost seemed like guilt Newt peeled himself from his chair. He walked to Hermann, and eyed the messenger bag, but could not meet his gaze. And when Newt looked through the open doorway to the impenetrable darkness, plainly Hermann saw the fear in his eyes.

Newt made as if to say something, then decided against it. He swallowed and his gaze flickered to Hermann for the briefest of moments, a questioning look written across his features. But Hermann could not say what that question was, and he did not think Newt found his answer.

Tentatively Newt stepped forward, and crossed the threshold of the black door. His figure dissolved into abyssal nothingness.

Hermann was not too fond of Newt at the moment. And he did not want to pass through the black door, for he was afraid. Since childhood, his greatest fear had been the dark.

But he had his mission: and he would not abandon Newt. Beneath whatever he felt at the moment, there was something deeper. He could not say what it was that kept Newt dear to him no matter how they fought. He could not say what it was that kept him here in this Drift despite all reason. But it was there all the same.

Hermann switched on the flashlight, and walked into darkness.

Chapter Text

It was very dark, and deathly silent. No more light was in the memory-space than that from Hermann’s flashlight and that bleeding from the open door behind him. As he stepped forward, the door swept soundless shut behind him: and then there was only the light of the flashlight, a small sliver against the looming void.

Exactly how large this place was Hermann could not say, for no matter which direction he pointed his flashlight, all he saw was darkness sliced by a thin spear of light. The beam should have reached further, but it seemed the darkness swallowed up the end of it. And when Hermann turned his flashlight downward, he saw only blackness. The floor seemed to absorb what light struck it and reflect none back. There were no walls or ceiling that he could discern, either — the darkness felt thick, a living shadow.

Something prickled down the back of his neck the longer he stood there uselessly sweeping his flashlight about, some uneasy and vaguely sinister thing in the air, as if something were watching him. He whipped the flashlight behind him, but nothing was there. Not even the door.

A rill of panic shot through Hermann, and he hurried back the small distance he had ventured from the door. Up and down and to the side he swept his flashlight, but nothing was illuminated. Desperately he outstretched his right hand, still holding his cane — and knocked his fingers hard into the door.

Ignoring the sting in his knuckles, he set his cane down and pressed his hand forward. Easily the door pushed open at his touch. A sliver of laboratory light poured into the memory-space. Hermann breathed a sigh of relief against the tightness in his chest, and allowed the door to fall closed once more. Plunged now into blackness, he rolled the light of the flashlight across the door, hoping to find the edge of it. But no matter how hard he squinted, he saw only homogenous darkness. It was as the floor: it absorbed all light, and reflected none back. It was indistinguishable from the empty dark air.

Hermann touched his fingers to the door, and dragged them several feet to the right: he felt no groove, no haptic indication of the door’s end, though when he then pressed forward, he was met with unyielding wall.

Through touch he felt his way back to the door and, propping it open with his good hip, used the laboratory light to rummage through the messenger bag slung across his body. He fished the duct tape out, and pressed to the black door two strips of it in the shape of an X. When he allowed the door to fall closed once more, he shone the flashlight upon it, and was glad to see a distinct X limned against the pitch darkness.

That uneasy feeling shivered once more down his spine, then. And once more when he whirled about, he saw by the light of his flashlight nothing more than empty abyss.

He really did not like this place.

Jaw clenched tight, he aimed his flashlight back at the ground, and saw his cane clearly against the utter darkness surrounding it. He bent down and picked it up, though for the weight of the messenger bag the motion pained him slightly.

Surely he was not meant to stumble his way blindly through an abyss unending: Newt was there somewhere. Hermann weighed his options, and decided that skirting along the walls seemed as good a place as any to start. At any rate, it felt safer having something solid at his side rather than setting off untethered into the vast darkness. He maneuvered himself so that his left arm brushed against the wall as he held the flashlight aloft, and set off walking. Through touch alone he followed the stretch of wall that led him further and further from the safety of the matte black door.

He walked for quite a while in one direction, and his flashlight was a constant aureate spear against a sea of black. Frequently he swept the light to his side to ensure he had not passed by anything of import, and swung the light behind him, as that creeping feeling stayed always with him. But nothing was ever there. And when he thought on what time had passed, it resisted his measurement: hours it could have been, or days, all slinking by in darkness and silence.

But then at last, with one sweep of his flashlight to the right, the light caught on something faintly glinting some twenty feet away. Finally, something in this void. As he broke away from the wall to investigate, he stilled for half an instant, for he felt quite untethered and alone without that solid presence at his left, but he did not allow his hesitance to stall him overlong.

The closer he stepped to the object, the more massive it seemed, a great block of grey-green metal. Even the beam of his flashlight could not reach the very top of the object, choked as it was by the thick darkness. All Hermann could discern was a very tall beam of smooth, oddly shaped metal looming up over him, and a twin beam beside it. They were at least thirty times his height, and supporting both were massive rectangular bases. Narrow stripes of red decorated the metal at intervals. It had been years since Hermann had last seen this object, but he recognized her clearly.

He stood at the feet of Cherno Alpha.

Great and cold and lifeless she towered above him, and he suddenly felt even smaller, more insignificant in this vast dark place. It could not be the Shatterdome — there would have been walkways on the ground, and scaffolding, and all manners of technology besides. And even the Shatterdome seemed smaller than this place.

Hermann squinted up at what his flashlight illuminated of Cherno Alpha. She seemed an empty shell of herself, as if she had not been in use for quite a long time. He did not think it likely Newt was within her. And there was much to explore here in this darkness, so he made his way back in the direction of the wall, and found it when his cane struck abruptly against something solid. With his left arm brushing against the wall for guidance, he continued on.

For a very long time he walked, and the silence weighed on him, and dampened his spirits, and veered his thoughts inexorably back to something he would rather have put from his mind.

I don’t know why I’ve been the only one stupid enough out of everyone in the Shatterdome to spend time with you alone

The words hung like lead in the air, pressing in all around him.

Pretentious, insufferable, insensitive

“I won’t say that didn’t sting,” said Hermann. He did not mean to speak the words aloud: they simply poured across his lips as if pulled by the empty black air. “I cannot say he didn’t mean it, either. But I said some rather terrible things as well, and neither of us can take them back.” The air surrounding him was heavy, and it seemed to ask for more. “And he is unhappy! Not for the years of his possession, or seemingly anything to do with the horrors he has endured, but for something else I can’t begin to make sense of: that odd grief was there for a time in his eyes even before the crimson door, before our argument. Toward… them” — surely it would be tempting fate to speak the Precursors’ name here in this darkness — “I have seen his anger, and his remorse. But this is something else entirely. The longer I think on it, the more difficult it is to hold onto any ill feeling against him.”

His cane smacked suddenly into something before him, and he nearly stumbled face-first into it: another wall. He had at last reached a corner. He adjusted his course ninety degrees, and continued walking. But the darkness was not through with him.

At first Hermann resisted, but the more he walked the more it seemed the darkness sunk creeping immaterial fingers into his mind. They dipped into his thoughts and pulled them beyond his lips. “I suppose you mustn’t always receive an apology to forgive someone. And who needs forgiveness if not someone so miserable? He is my friend and he is sad, and I hate to see it. I may not like him very much at the moment, but I forgive him — I do!”

A weight lifted from his chest as he spoke, yet it was soon replaced.

Why? the darkness seemed to ask. The question was cold and sharp. Why did he forgive Newt? He had reason enough not to, certainly. And did such harsh words, such selfish disregard for Hermann’s work deserve forgiveness?

With all his might Hermann tried to cast such thoughts aside, and he quickened his pace. He did not like to examine his own feelings so meticulously. Ventures into the deeps of his emotions left him confused and overwhelmed: he preferred to dwell in logic. But the darkness demanded an answer, and pressed in on him the more he resisted. He set his jaw, and clutched the flashlight tighter, and listened to the sound of his own footsteps.

“Why?” something whispered behind him.

In pure fright Hermann dropped the flashlight, and his pulse slammed through his skin. Frantically he bent down to pick the flashlight back up — his spine and his leg gave a sharp protest — then whipped the light behind him. But nothing was there. Only his little beam of light against the yawning void, quivering for how his fingers trembled. And still the question hung in the air.

He could no more resist answering than resist breathing. “Did I deserve forgiveness?” he said without meaning to. And then the words poured out: “I played a part in his pet nearly dying, and I said positively dreadful things to him. Yet he accepted my apology all the same. That fight will always be a sore point. But I refuse to hold that grudge any longer. Not now, and not against him. There are more important things at hand.” He flicked the flashlight all around him, and still it illuminated nothing. Unsteadily he continued walking forward. “Even if he cannot apologize — whether he deserves forgiveness or not, I will give it to him. For my own peace of mind, and for his sake as well.”

And it seemed his conviction to forgive Newt stayed the curious darkness for the time being, so in silence he carried on along the wall.

For quite a while Hermann walked until with a sweep of his flashlight to the side he caught another glint of metal. He did not this time leave the safety of the wall, for he knew it was only another Jaeger, and that Newt was not inside. Flicking the light upward, he saw a set of smooth grey leg-pieces more humanoid than those of Cherno Alpha. From the forearms of the Jaeger jutted great dual-edged blades. This was Striker Eureka, cold and still and lifeless as Cherno Alpha had been.

Hermann went on.

But soon doubt settled within his chest, twisting itself around what little equanimity he had. He had been walking a very long time. Two Jaegers he had passed, and still he stumbled forward in the dark with no sign of Newt as guide. If he were to circle this entire cavernous room and come up empty — what then? Would he have to step through every inch of this place in search of Newt? Would he get lost in the endless darkness? Was Newt even here?

No: Newt had dissolved across the threshold just as through every other door. He was here somewhere.

That creeping feeling came back, then. That cold prickling not-breath down his neck, that sense of untold invisible eyes all staring down at him. Hermann swept the beam of the flashlight behind himself, and of course saw nothing. And so he carried on, and yet his pace was slower than it had been. His fingers were going inexplicably numb.

And then the flashlight flickered. Batteries — the batteries. They would not last forever. The last thing Hermann needed was for the flashlight to give out and leave him stranded in darkness. He had not even traversed two full sides of the vast room yet, and he doubted the batteries would last the length of another wall if already the light was flickering. Were there spare batteries back in the laboratory? He could not remember. If there were, he would surely have power enough to light his way to Newt. Yet if there were not, and he made the trek back, he would likely have no light at all to guide him through this room. And even now he was standing still, dwindling away what battery life remained.

Hermann shut the flashlight off and slid down against the wall, ignoring the protest of his leg and spine. He set his cane down, and beside it the flashlight. In his lap he rested the messenger bag. This place was so dark, and he was so insignificantly small within it. Against the wall he tipped his head back, and he closed his eyes tight, and he clenched his fists in the sturdy fabric of the messenger bag.

Do you care about anything, Hermann?

Newt's words echoed in his skull, rattled around. And he was weak, and easily the darkness pulled the answer from him. He could not fight it.

“Yes,” he whispered faintly, “of course I do.”

And the darkness asked for more, and again he could not fight it.

“I care about mathematics, and science, and reason. I care about…” he had to trail off, for he was losing his breath. “I care about order and progress. I care for my friends, though I haven’t got many of them.” He clenched his fingers tighter into the messenger bag. Something was pushing abyssal fingers into his mind, dredging deeper thoughts up, pulling them out. He could not fight it. “I care about this mission. I care about saving Newt from those vile creatures.” Tighter he squeezed his eyes shut, and willed the darkness to leave him be, and yet the words were ripped from him all the same. “Because I care a great deal about him. No old hurts can drive that away. Not since I’ve known what it is to live without him.”

Though silence followed his words, it seemed the darkness laughed at him, turned a scornful and mocking eye down upon him.

I am not bold I am not a hero

The words were his own this time, his own thoughts dredged up from the past and flung as spears back at him, though they held a colder and crueler weight for the darkness’s agreement.

“Please leave me be,” he whispered.

If only you weren’t so weak,” something whispered back. Hermann gave a violent start and scrabbled blindly for the flashlight. “You might have been able to save him.”

He switched the flashlight on and brandished it in all directions, but there was nothing to see. Just darkness. He sat alone and cowering against the wall. “I will save him,” he said, and did not believe himself.

There is no dishonor in failing. The words materialized in his mind, and it was as if he thought them, but the voice was not his own. Stay here and rest a while. Saccharine the thought poured through his mind, and the darkness pressed in around him, and every fiber of his being yearned to give in. He grew weary of holding the flashlight, and set it down, switching it off.

“I have to find… I have to…” Hermann mumbled through his exhaustion. What was it he had come here to do? Surely there was something — but his thoughts were as molasses.

Coward,” something hissed in the dark. It sounded alike to the voice in his mind, though it was such an unvoice Hermann could not make a true comparison; it was at once human and inhuman, kind and cruel, low and sharp. “You are not brave enough. You were never brave enough.

No one can judge you in the dark, he reminded himself. No — that voice reminded him. The thought was not his own. His eyelids fell shut, heavy as lead. He will not remember that you failed him. Give up. It does not matter.

He will not remember that you failed him.

Newt — Newt!

Hermann’s eyes flew open, and what spell of languor had woven through his bones was then vanished: for straight through it scythed his recollection of Newt, of Newt and his grief-stricken eyes, of Newt whom he had come here to save.

“Precursors,” he spat, acrimony on his tongue. His algorithm had at last failed, or at the very least fractured: the Precursors could not physically touch him, he did not think, else they would have already. They could only whisper to him in the dark.

With juddering hands Hermann collected his flashlight and his cane, and hauled himself painstakingly up from the ground. He switched the flashlight on, and brandished the beam of light heavenward. “Leave my mind, you vile creatures,” he commanded. “You know nothing of goodness, or of friendship. I cannot — I will not fail him!” Upon his shoulder he adjusted the messenger bag, and in defiance he raised his chin. “It does not matter? It matters a great deal to me!” he said to the darkness.

That feeling of chill dread prickled down his neck once more, and yet it was diminished. He paid it no heed, and switched the flashlight off, for he did not need the light. Conviction pulsed bright enough in his chest, effulgent as a star.

And he was afraid, but nonetheless he set one foot forward, and then the other, and so went on through the vast darkness.

He thought, at one point, that he heard a faint noise coming from somewhere ahead and to his right, but it was fleeting, and when he switched the flashlight on briefly to investigate, he saw nothing save darkness. He dismissed the noise as a quirk of his imagination.

 


 

It was some time after Hermann had turned at the next corner of the room that the darkness — the Precursors — resumed the wordless inquiry. They made no attempt to lull him into abandoning Newt this time, yet still they were insistent, and hauled his thoughts across his lips despite his recalcitrance.

“It has crossed my mind,” he said, “that I am no more than a fool for doing all of this. That should I succeed I will have destroyed the PPDC’s most valuable link to the Anteverse, and they may sanction me severely. And should I not succeed, both Newt’s mind and my own will likely be taken forever. The wisest choice for both myself and the entire world would be to end this Drift, to leave things as they were. That’s certainly the most logical path.”

The darkness threaded its agreement through him, whispered it through his veins. It inquired deeper.

“But it’s a path I cannot take. I couldn’t live with myself. A decade. A decade he’s been gone! If no one else will save him, then I must try,” he said.

Why? the darkness seemed to ask, and it implied something Hermann dreaded answer.

“I refuse to believe he is beyond salvation,” he said, and clenched his jaw, but the darkness was unsatisfied, for that was not what it had asked. It dipped its creeping fingers into Hermann’s mind and dragged the words from him. “Don’t speak to me of deserve,” he said sharply. “He has his flaws, and I cannot deny they greased the road for him to succumb to you. I can’t help but think that if you preyed upon my weaknesses in your endeavors to take my mind, then you did the same for him — and goodness knows I know what his weaknesses are. And he has changed over the past decade. There is a new darkness in him, and there is anger, and there is misery. But is it not the most wretched who need someone to see that there is light in them still? I will be that for him if I must, and I will do it gladly.”

Why? the darkness asked again.

Hermann resented the question. Here in this darkness were the Precursors, dredging up pieces of him so deep they had never known light, listening with cold disdain. He was no more than a pawn to them, a pithy human and his feelings to use in their machinations against the earth. His feelings were risible nothings to them and momentous everythings to himself.

“He is too dear to me,” said Hermann at a whisper.

The darkness laughed with many silent fanged mouths, and once more it pressed the question in on him from all sides: Why?

“To abandon him would be to abandon some part of myself. I cannot say why. We are different as two souls can be, yet I care a great deal for him.” The words were pulled from his lips. Quickly he tried to compensate, saying, “But that is not all! However illogical it is to free him, is it not unethical to leave him trapped —”

How selfish, Hermann,” the Precursors interrupted at a whisper. Hermann’s fingers tightened upon the unlit flashlight, itching to shine it in the dark: that seeping dread was returned, and it whispered ill ease through his bones. But he refused to give into the fear. He kept the light off. “Cloaking your reasoning in morality.

Hermann spluttered.

Oh, you think you tell the truth. And that is the truth, to you. But we know what runs deeper. What you cannot admit even to yourself.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Hermann coldly.

Of course not,” the Precursors said, and their chittering laughter echoed through the dark. And we are merciful, they said within his mind in that horrible unvoice, so we will tell you here in darkness where he cannot know your deepest shame. You love him.

Hermann stopped dead. “He is a dear friend,” he wanted to say, but the words of the Precursors settled deep within him, and took root, and awoke something in him that had never before seen light. The Precursors had spoken true. He loved Newt.

Of course he loved Newt. How had he not seen it?

The breathlessness those decades ago waiting for Newt’s next letter to arrive: that had been love. The years of bickering that rarely held malice: beneath all the small unwitting grins at Newt’s antics had been love. The fall he took for Newt after his months of crucial research were deleted: he had felt such confusion at the time for his inability to recognize that fall was taken out of love. The Drift he refused to allow Newt to undertake alone: that had been done in love. The decade of his chest aching for Newt’s absence: that had been love. The resolve to Drift with Newt and free him from the Precursors despite all good sense: that had been love. And the determination that kept him here in the darkness despite the terror of the task before him, despite the monsters lurking just beyond the reaches of his mind: that was love.

The Precursors had spoken true, and Hermann could not deny it, and the truth was pulled from him besides. “I love him,” he whispered.

And all the years of his peers telling him he would never know love, all the years of shuttering that part of himself away: they told him that he should feel shame for burdening Newt with his love. And now the Precursors told him the same, and yet — it was the darkest parts of him the Precursors preyed upon. That was how they seeped in. That was how they had taken Newt. And they the creatures who knew nothing of goodness or love: they would not wrench their way into his mind through his love for Newt. They could not tell him that there was shame in it. The only shame was in how he had failed to recognize it for so long, how he had ever denied it.

“I love him,” Hermann said again. He switched the flashlight on and aimed it into the darkness, an exclamation mark on his resolve. “I love him!”

And as conviction burned brightly through him — the conviction that he had loved Newt half his life, that he loved Newt now and would love him always; the conviction that whatever sourness lingered from their fight he loved Newt all the same, that he knew the worst of Newt’s darknesses yet still would stand by his side; the conviction that however difficult the path ahead grew he would carry on, that the most worthy things were never easy — it seemed a weight was lifted out of the darkness. That sinking creeping feeling down his neck and spine was vanished. No voice or unvoice spoke to him. The Precursors were driven out: not forever, Hermann did not think. But enough, and for now.

Hermann switched off the flashlight, for he knew there was nothing so terrible in the darkness now as those creatures. With renewed vigor he continued on along the wall.

He did not walk far before through the darkness cut the faint sound of screaming.

It was Newt. It came from ahead.

Hermann sped to a jog, though it pained his leg and the messenger bag weighed him down. The screaming subsided after a few moments, and then there was silence broken only by Hermann’s hurried footsteps and his cane against the ground, and then the screaming picked up once more. Desperately he wanted to switch the flashlight on, but the sound was guide enough; he and Newt would need the light on their way back.

How much time had he wasted grappling with the Precursors while Newt had been shrieking in pain? “Damn you,” he said, looking blindly upward. Damn the Precursors for chipping away at Hermann’s spirits and giving him reason to slow his pace. Damn them for making Newt suffer in the dark an instant longer. Whatever hurt he felt shooting through his leg, his hip, his spine, was surely nothing compared to what had Newt screaming.

It was quite a long while that Hermann went forward, though he could not tell whether it was truly so, or if it simply felt so torturously long for the ache in his joints and the shrieks piercing through the dark.

When the faint screams began to sound as if they came from his left rather than ahead he drew slowly to a halt. His brow furrowed. Several paces forward he crept, an ear to the wall. The screams were louder that way. Somewhere behind the wall Newt suffered, and if Newt was behind the wall then surely there existed a way to pass through.

He hated to dwindle the flashlight’s batteries, but he needed to investigate. For a brief few instants he flicked the light on, and shone it along the wall, and saw nothing. Dissatisfied, he shut the flashlight off and stowed it away in the messenger bag.

And so he set a hand to the wall and pressed. As with the original matte door, the door he stumbled now upon had given no indication of its existence: no seam where door met wall, no distinction at all from the surrounding darkness. Yet nonetheless the door did exist, and as Hermann pressed his hand forward, it swung open as if it weighed nothing at all, and sent him falling face-first through.

He landed in a pile of glowing slime.

Beneath him it gave a dreadful squelch, and it resisted his attempts to extricate himself: it clung stalwart to his arms, his torso, his cane. With effort he freed himself, peeled himself from the ground, though a thick layer of oozing stickiness came away with him. His joints ached from the fall. He rather hoped that when he at last ended this Drift, the pains from it would not transfer to reality.

The door swung shut behind him then, and he blinked owlishly at his surroundings. He stood in a narrow corridor lit dimly by Anteverse slime spattered all across the floor. Still the walls were matte black, and still the floor was black, yet it was not so deep a black as in the vast room before. The pale turquoise glow coming off the slime seemed to be made of something different than the beam of his flashlight: it actually illuminated the place. Hermann wondered then whether the previous room had truly been quite so dark, or whether it had simply resisted his light.

But he did not wonder long, for no sooner did he have the thought than the screaming picked up once more. It was far louder here in this corridor, and it broke Hermann’s heart. He hastened forward.

The corridor was very long, and into both walls were set myriad doors. All were matte black, though for the glow of the slime he could faintly discern the outline of each. None had handles on the side facing him: it seemed every door in this place was a copy of the original.

Several times Hermann nearly slipped on the slime-spattered floor, yet at any rate he made it through to the end of the corridor. Into two paths it branched out: two narrow corridors identical save the Anteverse slime, which continued only into the corridor at his left. The screaming had subsided for the time being and so was no guide to him in choosing a path, but Hermann knew which he had to take all the same. He could think of only one thing that would hurt Newt so.

He followed the dim turquoise glow down the corridor at his left. Many black doors still lined each wall. This corridor was quite short, and again branched off two ways, only one of which glowed. Again Hermann chose his path, and carried on. Newt’s screams resumed soon enough, and how loud they were. As Hermann delved further into this labyrinthine network of corridors, the slime gave way gradually to odd little plant-like creations, and then to fully formed Anteverse flora: dim blue plants akin to very large tangles of kelp, brightly glowing tentacled things to which Hermann could find no apt comparison, slender vine-like things that crept up the walls and across many of the matte doorways. All shone various shades and intensities of blue, and quite a few brushed prehensile against Hermann’s feet and calves.

One plant with gnarled turquoise petals and many wide greedy mouths in place of anthers reached for his cane with one of its long filaments, and tugged. Hermann had not heard the slithering movement for Newt’s screams, and gave a start. As he yanked the cane away the sharp-toothed mouth at the filament’s end opened wide and bit down; it was dragged down the length of his cane as he pulled it away, leaving deep scratch marks in its wake. Unsatisfied, the plant reached out many more glowing fanged filaments, and Hermann hurried forward, casting frightened glances over his shoulder.

Straight into a thick tangle of Anteverse vines creeping down from the ceiling he blundered. Cactus-like spines jutted out from them, and as the vines undulated, reached for him, tried to wrap themselves around his neck, they scratched sharp against his skin, and he cried out. Lifting his arms to guard his face, he pushed his way through. His hands and wrists were scraped something fierce, and he hated the pain, but even more he hated the screams drafting down the maze of corridors. Once free from the reaching vines, he clutched at his neck where the spines had scraped. In the Anteverse-blue lighting he saw his hand come away smeared with blood. He felt a small warm bead of it running down his temple as well. But he did not slow down.

Bleeding and covered still in slime, Hermann turned at the next fork in his path, and saw at the end of it a vine-covered opening rather than another intersection. Brilliant blue light spilled through the gaps in the vines and beneath them, and Newt’s screams rang loudly through the corridor, and Hermann rushed forward quick as his aching muscles would carry him. Past a great bush-like plant that drooled something acidic and stinging onto his foot, past yet another gnarled fanged flower, past a great many slime-slick creeping things, and at last to the curtain of what Hermann had thought to be vines. But they were not vines: they were tentacles, dark and slippery and undulating. Hermann shouldered through them and into a massive room.

His stomach twisted.

The room was not so cavernous as the first room beyond the matte black door, yet it was not so empty, either. Every inch of this room was filled. The walls were black and limned by an electric Anteverse glow: throughout the floor and the walls were dreadful effulgent flora just like that he had passed in the labyrinthine corridors. And there was Newt. At last, after all he had gone through in this place, there was Newt. But there was no relief in the sight. Thick tentacles were curled about Newt’s wrists and calves, chaining him whimpering and immobile to the wall at Hermann’s left. Something about his skin seemed wrong, though for the distance Hermann could not discern what.

And then there was the final occupant of the room.

She was a great horned creature on all fours, hand-wings folded up into her forearms. Plates jagged down her spine, down her long tail, down to a set of three pincers sharper than razors. A crest like a dread crown jutted from her head, and into it were set two extra pairs of glowing eyes.

She was Otachi, and with cruel golden eyes she glared down at Newt.

Of course — if beyond one door had lain a happy idyllic dream, then beyond another would lie a nightmare. And what a nightmare! Otachi had not killed Newt. She had scorched terror through him by looming above him, teetering on the very edge of killing him. And so it seemed to be in this nightmare: she seethed before Newt, bioluminescent tongue uncurled as if licking his fear up from the very air. Anteverse flora lit her in stark shades of turquoise from all sides and from underneath, casting her into dread radiance at every angle. She retracted her tongue, then began to turn slowly about as something caught her attention from behind. The room was enormous, yet tailored to her size; it gave her little room to move. Against the wall her tail scratched.

Hermann did not think. He made for Newt, heedless of the many grasping prickled slimy things that grabbed for his cane and his feet. The acid that had dripped onto his foot in the final hallway seemed to be less potent than the real thing: its sting had faded swiftly, and Hermann hastened forward without overmuch pain. With a careful eye to the pincers swinging aloft as Otachi turned, he ducked under the curve of her tail.

And then Newt came more clearly into view, and Hermann could have retched.

That was what had seemed wrong about Newt’s skin: burn marks. A terrible crimson welt seared into his shoulder, straight through the fabric of his button-up shirt; livid red blisters all up his arms, burned through his rolled-up sleeves; a tinge of red streaked down his temple. The burns intensified about his forearms, mangling his tattoos. And then Hermann saw the reason for such injuries, and felt his knees threaten to buckle. He stopped, swaying on his feet. Kaiju Blue.

The blood of a Kaiju was toxic, and corroded all it touched. Otachi's blood was congealed about the tentacles restraining Newt’s arms, caught between them and Newt’s skin. It was pooled on the floor about Newt’s feet, burning him where he stood. It was streaked down the wall, dripping from above: a thick droplet fell then onto Newt’s shoulder atop the wound already there, and he shrieked, eyes screwing shut. Against his bonds he struggled, desperate to get away from the pain.

“Newt,” Hermann whispered, a broken little plea.

If this were reality, such intense exposure to Kaiju Blue should have burnt Newt’s skin and stained it turquoise, corroded down to the bone. The fumes alone should have sent him into shock. In the logic of this nightmare it seemed the blood did not have its full puissance. It could not scorch through him entirely; it could not poison him. It could only scald, and corrode just deep enough to leave him shrieking in helpless agony. Hermann did not think that a mercy. This was a nightmare Newt could not escape through death.

Hermann shook off his petrification and surged forward heedless of his shaking knees. With his cane he batted away a tentacled plant that tried to curl about his leg. There was the sound of scraping behind him, and a low growl, but he paid the noises no heed. He skittered up to Newt and planted his feet just out of range of the small pool of Kaiju blood on the floor. So much of Newt was covered in livid crimson burns, but his legs were unmarred. Softly Hermann set a hand upon his thigh; he had to stoop and reach over the pool of blood.

Newt gave a violent start beneath his palm.

“Hermann,” he croaked, looking so relieved he could have wept. But horror quickly swept away his relief as he stared at the scratches etched up Hermann’s neck. “Hermann!”

“I’m so sorry, Newton,” said Hermann, straightening up. His back could not handle stooping just now, not with his exhaustion and the messenger bag weighing him down. “I can’t imagine how long you’ve been here with that awful creature. I should have been quicker, I should have…” he trailed off, looking with horror at the corroded patches of Newt’s skin. There was a deep hiss behind Hermann, and a heavy thud.

And then it began to rain. The rain was mild, yet strong enough that Newt was wincing as it struck against wounds he could not cover for the tentacles restraining him.

“Hermann,” said Newt for the third time, and swallowed shakily. “Run.”

“What? I’m not leaving you.”

But Newt was shaking his head, brow knitting, panic clear in his wide eyes. “You have to,” he said hoarsely. “You know how it works behind each door.” Hermann might have found relief in the acuity Newt now had were it not for the direness of his tone. “As soon as you touch me, you become a part of whatever reality I’m in. You’re part of this nightmare now.”

“Yes, of course, I’m aware. Just hang on one moment, and I will get you out of those awful —”

“Hermann!” Newt interrupted, voice breaking. His features were crumpled in pain. “It’s Otachi — she can see you!”

Dread poured down Hermann’s spine. He had forgotten: he had not thought as he rushed forward to bring Newt’s consciousness out of the nightmare. He had not thought of the creature to which he had now made himself visible. She had come so torturously close to killing Newt yet never succeeded, and in so failing doomed Newt to night terrors of standing helpless against her malice. In this nightmare she could only torment Newt, never kill. But there was not anything to stop her from coming at Hermann with intent to kill. He was easy prey: exposed as a nerve, and exhausted and battered besides.

Hermann turned around. He pushed his gaze slowly upward, and there met three sets of glowing golden eyes.

Chapter Text

Otachi stared down at Hermann through the rain.

Along the side of her neck vibrant blood was seeping from a deep gash. Her fierce jaw was clenched, her sharp teeth bared in an electric turquoise grin: blood seeped through the cracks between her teeth, dripped viscous down onto the floor. Her gaze was fell and wrathful, and she drove terror like a sword into Hermann’s heart as she slowly blinked her glowing eyes at him.

But then Newt screamed, a horrible strangled noise behind him. And no fear could surmount the feeling that twisted in Hermann’s gut sharper than any sword, more dreadful than any golden gaze. He turned to Newt, and saw the blood-slick tentacles winding tighter about his arms, scorching the skin trapped beneath. The rain intensified to a heavy downpour, and lashed down all the fiercer upon Newt’s open wounds.

A swift glance Hermann cast over his shoulder: still Otachi stood motionless, watching. He could not say what she was waiting for, and he did not care to waste time speculating. Back to face Newt, then; and ill ease trembled through him at the sight. The room’s turquoise lighting cast fell shadows across Newt’s agony. Tears were slipping from Newt’s tightly shut eyes — Newt, who had a higher tolerance for pain than anyone Hermann had ever known.

Dearly Hermann wished he could reach out, take Newt’s hand, wipe away his tears. But Newt’s hands were strangled with Anteverse restraints, and Hermann could not reach his face for the pool of corrosive blood on the floor.

All Hermann’s aches, his soaked hair and soaked clothing from the rain — they had carried through from the memory-spaces to the laboratory. Should he burn his feet, he would have to navigate the rest of this nightmare and the remaining two doors injured so. And it was not the prospect of marring his feet beyond use that stilled him: he would suffer that torment if it meant taking Newt’s pain away. What stilled him was only that he needed to be able to walk through whatever else this nightmare threw his way, and through the remaining two doors. He needed to be able to lead Newt through the dark.

Hermann had never felt so helpless. Lifting his voice above the rain, he said, “I’m so sorry, Newton. Hold on for just a moment longer; I will cut you loose.” He extricated himself from the messenger bag and rummaged through it. His clumsy fingers lit upon the handle of the pocket knife when —

“Shit,” said Newt. “Shit — Hermann!” His eyes were open, and they were trained wide in horror behind Hermann.

Hermann twisted about to see Otachi’s great jaw unhinging, opening wide. Blood was pouring from the edges of her mouth, and many effulgent points of turquoise were lighting up within her maw. In fright Hermann dropped the messenger bag: as dragons spewed flame, Otachi spewed acid a thousand times more corrosive than even her blood. Evidently Hermann’s bid to free Newt did not sit well with her.

And Hermann could not risk that acid spewing anywhere near Newt, so he took off at a sprint to his right. Pain shrieked up his leg and hip as he skittered about tentacles and plants and slime-drenched things, as well as a number of pools of Otachi’s blood. The Kaiju’s terrible head swiveled, tracking his motion with her jaw opened voracious wide. Hermann tripped over a dim vine creeping across the floor at the corner of the room, and she reared back.

There was nowhere to run when he pulled himself upright. In the back of Otachi’s throat Hermann saw a startlingly vivid wash of blue rising up, and he did not think. He rushed forward, straight toward the beast. The furious stream of acid struck the corner of the room where he had stood moments before. She tilted her head down, angling the blue eruption toward Hermann as he streaked forward. But he was quicker than she anticipated, and she could not see him beneath the mass of acid. And then the attack ceased, and she could not see him at all, for he stood firmly beneath her.

As she shrieked her fury above the pouring rain, something wet suddenly grazed the side of Hermann’s shoulder, and left searing pain in its wake. Hermann cried out and nearly clasped his hand to the injury before the recollection slammed into him that many parts of Otachi were bleeding. Should he touch the blood that had dripped onto him, he would render his fingers useless. To the side he swiftly scampered, just before another droplet of blood fell from above. Shakily he looked upward, and saw a dripping, jagged wound cut through Otachi’s underbelly.

All about himself Hermann looked for some means of escape. He needed to stay out of her sight and away from the blood dripping from her underbelly, but both were not possible at once. And Otachi was infuriated, forelegs clawing blindly along the floor, trying to crush him if she could not melt him alive. Over a prickled Anteverse flower Hermann stepped to avoid a smear of blood, then tripped over a writhing tentacled plant that swept into his ankles. The roar of the rain was furious, and Otachi was growling, and Newt was shrieking once more in agony. Desperately Hermann scrabbled his fingers against the tentacles trying to wrap themselves about his aching legs.

Blinding white light lit up the room, and a booming clap of thunder followed.

This at least gave Otachi pause: she tensed above Hermann, and even the tentacles quivered to a momentary still. Hermann was not going to look this gift horse in the mouth. He disentangled himself from the slippery grasping things and scrambled up from the ground. A wide berth he gave the tentacled plant as he began picking his way to Newt. Over a puddle of blood he went, and around a rather sharp kelp-like plant as Otachi stood motionless.

But the shock of the lightning faded swiftly. Otachi shook off her surprise, and Hermann was trapped once more beneath her livid bulk. A great droplet of blood fell just before him, and he skittered sideways, slipping in a puddle of slime. Again he fell, and again pain seared up through him, and again he peeled himself from the ground. His shoulder stung something fierce, and he feared his leg might give out. He was growing exhausted. In despair he looked around himself for some way out of this, or some way to defend himself. But there was nothing — he had only his cane. A toothpick might have been more effectual against Otachi: at least then he might have stabbed her with it!

A shriek cut through the rain. Newt was writhing in agony against his bonds, and Hermann could not help. Not without drawing Otachi’s attention to Newt, and not without risking Newt as collateral damage in any attack she threw his way. All he could do was dodge her forelegs, dodge the blood seeping from her underbelly. One stamping footfall landed close enough to him that he felt its vibration through the floor, and his heart skittered up into his throat. He had not given much thought to what might befall his true body should he die in this Drift: but the aches and limitations of his physical body had transferred into the Drift, and the stinging in his shoulder felt quite viscerally real. He really did not like what that implied.

Thunder cracked like a bone once more as the room was lit up in a flash of white light.

The lightning must have struck behind Otachi, as she began turning about with great lumbering motions. At last, a window of opportunity — heedless of the burning protest through his muscles, Hermann ran to Newt. It was quite a long way to him, as Hermann had been driven further and further from him by Otachi’s movement, but Otachi was well and truly distracted this time, and Hermann reached Newt all the same. Carefully he positioned his feet out of range of the toxic blood pooled upon the floor, and picked up the messenger bag he had dropped.

“Newt!” he said frantically as he fished out the pocket knife. “Everything is going to be all right, you’re all right, just one moment.”

At last he had the chance to examine how Newt was shackled: the tentacles curled about his outstretched arms sprung from twin leafy plants stuck to the wall, one several feet to his left and the other several feet to his right; the tentacles had slithered across the wall to curl about his fingers, curl up his wrists, curl up his forearms, and there taper slender. Hermann lifted the knife to the tentacles shackling one of Newt’s wrists to the wall, and began slicing at them. But the blade did not leave so much as a scratch.

Yet another droplet of Otachi’s blood fell from the ceiling onto Newt’s shoulder, and Newt hissed. In dismay Hermann stabbed at the restraining tentacles with all his might, but still the knife left no mark upon them. These tentacles were made of stronger stuff than those creeping across the glowing doorway, and were not so easily cowed. With pain Newt’s eyes were screwed shut, and the cold rain beat mercilessly down.

“Fine,” hissed Hermann at the tentacles, and tossed the knife back into the messenger bag.

The room lit up once more with blinding light, and thunder cracked so loud Hermann jumped. The shadows — the shadows of the room were darkening, falling at odd angles, creeping into places they should not have gone. Anteverse turquoise light streamed up from the ground and sideways from the walls, yet the shadows on Newt’s features fell as if cast by light from above. As Hermann reached for the rain-slick handle of the bone saw jutting from the messenger bag, a shadow poured sideways from his hand into the electric blue air; he drew the bone saw out, and it cast rippling shadows in all directions.

A fleeting glance Hermann risked over his shoulder. Otachi was still facing away from him and Newt, distracted. Good. Hermann set his cane on the ground. This would require both hands.

Hermann set the bone saw’s blade against the segment of tentacle just beyond Newt’s fingertips, and threw his weight into running the saw back and forth across it. It was difficult, and the tentacle resisted the blade, but at last Hermann made an incision. Liquid viscous and dark oozed from the cut, and from there it became easier to saw through the rest of the thick tentacle, cleave it in two. Heavily the half attached to the wall swung away, but by hand Hermann had to pry away the half wound still about Newt’s wrist, carefully avoiding the corrosive blood slicked about its slender end. When at last he freed Newt’s arm from the tentacle, the crimson burns beneath were revealed in all their lurid ugliness. He winced. The thickness of the tentacle had shielded Newt’s wrist and hand from most of Otachi’s blood, but the same could not be said for his forearm.

Otachi was still distracted. Hermann did not know whether he ought to be relieved or concerned that the weather was fierce enough to give the Kaiju pause. A jagged flash of lightning punched sideways through the room, then, straight through Otachi’s neck. But she did not seem injured in the slightest, simply distracted by the vicious flashes. It was as it had been in the lab: as if the lightning was not truly there, but only the appearance and cacophony of it.

The downpour continued stronger than Hermann had ever felt it; like needles it drove into his skin, into his grazed shoulder, and it roared fierce as Otachi herself. Another bolt of lightning shattered through the room, and the sound and the light were the most powerful yet; they each lasted many long moments. Hermann cringed against the sheer puissance. Shrillness rang in his ears, and an electric afterimage lingered in his vision.

Newt’s features were twisted with pain, but through the lightning’s fading afterimage Hermann saw that his eyes were open as he held his freed wrist before his gaze. At least he was not screaming.

“I’m so sorry,” said Hermann weakly, and made swiftly for Newt’s other arm. With all his might he drove the bone saw into the segment of tentacle just beyond Newt’s fingertips, and worked his way to a shallow cut. The ringing in his ears was fading. “Just three more of these. Three more. We’ll get you out of here.” Rain poured down vicious upon the pair of them as he sawed deeper.

“Hermann,” whispered Newt, “you came.” It seemed to have just occurred to him.

“Well, of course I came! Why on Earth wouldn’t I?” said Hermann softly. The thick tentacle was at last sliced in twain. Hermann pulled away the segment that clung still to Newt's marred skin.

Newt’s brow was knitted in sadness. “Our fight,” he said. With his wrists freed, his knees had begun trembling; he was sliding down the wall.

Helplessly Hermann’s hands fluttered about Newt’s side: he could not reach Newt fully, could not lend him support for the pool of Kaiju blood on the ground. “Newt,” he whispered. Blessedly Newt caught himself before he could slide dangerously low to the floor, but he could not seem to haul himself back up. Deep shadows flickered all about his figure. “No fight could make me leave you,” said Hermann. “Just hang on; we’ve nearly got you free.”

The tentacles that shackled Newt’s calves unfurled from leafy plants just as those that had restrained his arms. At an odd angle Hermann crouched down to saw at the tentacle binding one of Newt’s calves to the wall. It took effort and precision to slice through the slimy thing without dipping the bone saw into the corrosive blood congealed on the floor — and without toppling into it himself — but nonetheless he succeeded. And it was as he carefully brushed away the bits of tentacle still curled about Newt’s calf that he realized he could hear Newt’s strained breathing.

Brutal the rain poured down, and it should have drowned out all noise: but it did not. The rain had gone silent. The lightning had been so loud and so frequent, but it had stopped. When had that happened? He and Newt had whispered a conversation over the rain, for heaven’s sake. Owlishly Hermann blinked against the noiseless downpour, and asked Newt whether he had noticed the rain go silent.

Newt gave no response. He was staring high above Hermann, mouth fallen slack.

Hermann followed his gaze, and through the curtain of rain saw Otachi limned in that terrible blue light, unmoving, unblinking. Like a living statue she stood; all that moved were the shadows writhing at odd angles from her great body. Her golden gaze was empty.

“Oh, God,” croaked Newt, and Hermann looked to him in dire concern. He was sliding down the wall once more, legs trembling; in his unmarred hands he clutched his head.

“Newt!” cried Hermann. “Please stand.”

But Newt could not stand. He stared into the distance above Hermann. Hermann did not think he was looking at Otachi; he seemed to see nothing at all, eyes glazed over. With renewed panic Hermann adjusted his stance about the pool of corrosive blood and set to work on the tentacle shackling Newt’s other calf. One more, just one more restraint and Newt could walk free. Desperately Hermann heaved the bone saw back and forth until the tentacle was split in twain, and he scraped the grimy thing free of Newt’s calf at last. Into the messenger bag he shoved the bone saw, then slung the bag over his good shoulder as he grabbed his cane and stood upright.

“Come on, up we go. Let’s get out of here,” said Hermann gently, reaching his hand out for Newt to take. The rain streamed silent down.

At first Hermann did not think Newt heard — he betrayed no reaction, head clutched still between his hands, features twisted still in anguish — but then Newt was taking his hand weakly and stepping across the pool of blood. He swayed into Hermann, and Hermann’s muscles shrieked their protest as he helped Newt gain his balance.

Four paces Hermann managed to lead Newt away. But then Newt collapsed to the floor, knees buckling, and pulled Hermann to the ground with him. Hermann’s spine bore the brunt of the impact, and his eyes screwed shut in pain. When he managed to catch his breath and pry his eyes open against the pouring rain once more, Newt had dragged himself over to the wall; he was slumped against it, breathing raggedly. The soles of his shoes faced Hermann, and there lay a small grace: it seemed whatever his shoes were made of had stayed the corrosiveness of Otachi’s blood. Only at the very tips were they corroded through. Undoubtedly Newt’s feet had still been injured, but Hermann had thought the damage far worse.

Hermann crawled across the slick floor on hands and knees, for he doubted he could stand, and kneeled beside Newt despite the pain in his leg. Haphazardly he set his cane to the side, and slid the messenger bag from his body. He was exhausted, and could not support the soaked weight of it.

“Please,” said Hermann, bringing a hand up to cup Newt’s freezing cheek, “what’s wrong? Look at me, Newton.”

With what seemed a great effort, Newt dragged his gaze to Hermann. He was shaking. “It’s them,” he said, voice wound tight with terror. “Hermann, I feel them…”

Hermann’s blood ran cold as the rain. The Precursors. What he would not give to reach into Newt’s mind and tear from it the greedy claws of the Precursors. Except — that was exactly what he had come here to do, why he had initiated this Drift; it was what he was doing now, and it was not so easy as it had once seemed. Newt had spoken as if begging Hermann to help, but he could not: there was no easy fix, no instant relief he could bring. He could not do anything.

“I’m here,” said Hermann a bit desperately. “I am with you. You must fight them, you must try…”

“I can’t,” Newt whispered. He was shaking his head, brow crumpled. His eyes were tortured in the electric turquoise light. It was the same expression he had worn with his hands wrapped around Hermann’s throat.

There was a low hissing sound coming from somewhere, but Hermann ignored it. “Yes, you can. You are strong enough.”

“I’m not — I’m — I don’t know how.” Tears were shuddering down Newt’s cheeks, washing away in the downpour. Panic was choking up through him. “Hermann, you can’t stay.”

“I am not leaving you,” said Hermann fiercely. “You will never face them alone again.” Hermann’s chest was tight: with sorrow, with the freezing lash of the rain, with conviction, with the ache of his blood-burnt shoulder, with desperate love.

The hissing intensified. Something cold prickled down the nape of Hermann’s neck, set profound unease shivering through his gut.

“Leave,” said Newt, scarcely audible.

“I will not,” said Hermann. He would repeat the promise as many times as Newt needed to hear it.

The hissing transmuted to laughter. High and sibilant and cold it surrounded Hermann and Newt, like many thousand daggers in the air. And Hermann knew that laugh intimately: that voice that was not a voice.

The rain — it had been building always to this. The sudden downpour through the very first door, the rain in the schoolyard, the violent storm beyond the crimson door, the rain that had now gone silent and turned to hissing laughter. It had been building always to this. It had always been the Precursors.

“No,” said Newt suddenly, voice cracking. He squeezed his eyes shut. “He wouldn’t lie.”

Were the Precursors speaking to Newt? “Don’t listen to them,” whispered Hermann through the soundless rain. And then he turned, and over his shoulder cried, “Leave him alone!”

Panic and terror were rooting deep within Hermann. Here he and Newt were, so far from the matte black door, and already the Precursors had found them. How could they possibly get back now? What were those creatures saying to Newt? Would Newt make it out of this room, let alone to the black door?

“I don’t know,” said Newt, distressed, shaking his head. He seemed to be trying his damndest to keep his mouth shut, but Hermann recalled how the Precursors had pulled words from his own lips heedless of his protest. “It doesn’t make sense,” continued Newt. “He shouldn’t. Hermann — he’s better than I deserve, he’s the only — only person I’ve — ever — ah!” Newt broke off into a cry of pain. It seemed to cost him a great effort to halt the stream of words pouring from his lips; his head jerked against the wall as his spine arced in stress.

“Newton,” said Hermann helplessly, taking Newt’s rain-frozen hand between his own. Hermann did not know what else to say, or what he could do. How do you fight a monster that is not your own? Anguish was knotting through him. That cold, evil presence whispered down his spine, hovered about the corners of his mind.

“No!” cried Newt in horror. “That’s not — I’d never want to forget him.” Was he still talking about Hermann? “You don’t know anything about how it feels to — what it’s like to —” Newt dissolved into a groan of pain. He gave a horrible twisted half-laugh. “Jeez, you possess me for a decade and still don’t know that’s the last thing I’d ever want?” But then his desperate humor faded, and only fear remained. “I know,” he whispered. “Please… please don’t…”

Sharp, hissing laughter stabbed through the room. That cloud of chill dread was overtaking Hermann, and he could not fight it. All he could do was watch as Newt was torn apart before him. He clutched Newt’s hand tighter.

“Oh, how he begs us!” came a lilting unvoice out of the rain. Hermann flinched. He looked frantically about the room, but there was no one there save him and Newt and the dull shell of Otachi; there was only a cruel voice above the silent downpour and shadows at all the wrong angles. “He begs us not to remind you of what destruction he caused. Of the work he erased, and of the things he said. Of how unworthy he is of your loyalty. He’s right, you know! It would be wiser to leave him behind! Why pretend it isn’t so, Doctor?”

Hermann wanted to assure Newt that those grievances were long since forgiven, that Newt would always have his loyalty and that he need not be so afraid. But the words caught in Hermann’s throat as he tried to give them voice, and were suffocated by something beyond his control. He could only answer the Precursors’ question, and he could not think it over: the words were pulled merciless as the rain from his lips. “I pretend nothing. It would have been wiser not to Drift with him, sure, wiser not to risk falling prey to you. But I’m here because I care very much for him, and I cannot leave him. I have not come this far out of any logic. There is little reason in emotion, but it is powerful all the same.”

Emotion,” the Precursors echoed. For a while they fell quiet, and Hermann almost wondered whether they had retreated, for their creeping scornful presence was vanished. Newt’s eyes were squeezed shut, and he was shuddering in silence, fingers clenched against Hermann’s. But then that sharp wrath came suddenly back all the stronger, and the Precursors flung the words like spears into the chill air: “Fight it all you like, you cannot hide the truth from us. We see all. We see the terror and the shame in loving him. Have no fear, little scientists. The dark is where truth best comes to light!”

And the room was plunged into blackness.

Newt’s hand slipped out of Hermann’s grasp, and Hermann’s mouth dragged down in horror. The Precursors had spoken his love aloud. He had not even had time to collect his dignity and look at Newt’s reaction — darkness had descended upon the room too rapidly. Where once the glow of Anteverse flora had lit the massive place, the Precursors had extinguished it as a candle. The utter darkness that swallowed the room was broken only by six lonely pinpoints of light: Otachi’s unseeing golden eyes.

Hermann swallowed against his suddenly dry throat. Again those creatures had tried to tell him there was shame in loving Newt, and again he would ignore them. But they had spoken true of his terror. His hands were trembling for the icy rain soaking through to his bones, for his secret brought mercilessly to light, for the darkness and the monsters within.

In the distance a pair of glowing, beady eyes winked into existence.

Hermann was very familiar with those eyes. They had haunted his nightmares for a decade.

Newt was stammering his way through what sounded like an apology, but Hermann cut him off. Now was not the time for conversation, or even thought. “Newt!” he hissed. “At your left!”

A moment of delay, and then a muted yelp of terror. “Fuck!”

Frantically Hermann reached for the messenger bag and fished out the flashlight; with ungainly, frozen fingers he switched it on. What parts of the room the flashlight’s beam touched were lit up in turquoise. It was as though the flashlight revealed what Anteverse light had been there rather than illuminating anything itself.

With great effort Hermann slung the sopping messenger bag crossways over his body, and grabbed his cane, and scrambled to his feet. He shifted the flashlight into the hand holding his cane so that he might offer a hand to Newt. “Come on,” he said shakily. “Let’s get out of — oh, God.” The shining eyes of the Precursor had begun to draw nearer. Each of the creature’s many footfalls thumped with a grotesquely hollow dullness against the ground.

“Hermann, I can’t — I’ll only slow you down.” Newt’s voice was well and truly broken.

“I will carry you if I must!” said Hermann, and knew the effort would ruin him.

He was tensing his muscles and bending his knees, preparing to bodily drag Newt up, when at last Newt took his hand and allowed himself to be helped to his feet.

The Precursor could not have been more than thirty feet away. Its footsteps were steady and unyielding, thump-thump thump-thump against the ground. Heavily Newt leaned into Hermann for his wounds; he snared his arm about Hermann’s waist and held fast. Equally Hermann leaned into him, near boneless with exhaustion and the stinging pain of his injuries. Clumsily he switched the flashlight into his free hand to guide them to the tentacle-draped passageway leading out of the room. Their pace was stilted and hobbling, and what glances Hermann stole over his shoulder told him they could not outrun the Precursor. It was walking inexorably for them: walking, and still they were slower. The flashlight flickered, and took a good few moments to turn back on.

Hermann, the words materialized within his mind like many sinister voices whispering at once. Dread shivered down Hermann’s spine, and he fought not to slow his pace. Least loved by your father, never loved by another. You are only setting Newt up for disappointment, you know — just as you disappointed your father. Hermann bristled. He took care never to think on his father when he could help it, but of course the Precursors delighted in pulling such memories to the surface. Carefully he guided Newt around a little pool of blood as he tried to shove the memories back down. It would be a greater mercy to end his false hope now.

“You can’t succeed,” the Precursors continued aloud. “We have his mind in our grasp now, as we have yours. You were never the brave one, Hermann. You are afraid! Don’t play at this fantasy of heroism.”

“I know that I am not —” Hermann began to say, but was interrupted.

“That’s bullshit. Ever heard of Coraline, you assholes?” said Newt hoarsely. He leaned heavily into Hermann with the effort of speaking. “Being brave doesn’t mean you aren’t afraid. It means you’re afraid, and you still do something anyways.”

The overwhelming urge rose up in Hermann to pull Newt into a hug, but he settled for a warm glance sideways. He suddenly felt much more courageous.

At last the pair of them reached the tentacle-draped exit — the Precursor could not have been more than twenty feet away — and shouldered through into the corridor of creeping Anteverse life. The plants and the tentacles and the things Hermann could not name shone bright turquoise beneath the flashlight; and there set all along the corridor walls were many black doors. As rapid as they could, he and Newt picked their way over gnarled flowers and through prickled vines. The venture back was far more difficult than through: for all was slick now with the silent rain that streamed relentless down, and Newt’s wounds slowed their pace, and Hermann was tired and injured besides.

And all the while the Precursors spoke in Hermann’s head. They pulled no words from his lips this time; they asked nothing. Newt it seemed was not spared, either: he mumbled an unyielding litany of pleas for them to stop, to leave him alone. In Hermann’s mind the Precursors dredged up age-old thoughts of how he was everything his father had always hated, of how he was not even the right kind of doctor to appease the man’s wrath. Hermann struck his cane against a tentacle that crept for Newt’s legs, and stamped down those old thoughts.

The Precursors reminded him of his childhood torment, of the children that had shoved and sneered away the idea that anyone could love a person such as him. He gripped the flashlight tighter. As he and Newt followed the Anteverse glow about a corner, the Precursor had to step meticulously around a tall, spiked flower, slowing its pace.

The Precursors whispered how he had marred his reputation by conceiving of this Drift, how it would only shame him more when he inevitably failed to save Newt. Hermann steered Newt around another corner and past a brightly thorned bush as the flashlight flickered.

The Precursors laughed how Newt could never reciprocate his affection, how unworthy an object of love Newt was, how he would hate Hermann for placing that burden on him.

And it seemed the Precursors had not learned the lesson the first time. It seemed they still knew nothing of goodness or love. For Hermann thought then of the shivering weight of Newt leaning against him, of Newt’s tired voice begging the Precursors to leave him alone, of how it felt to touch Newt, scars and all. Hermann thought of how loving Newt was possibly the best thing he had done in his life, and he felt bright defiance pulse in his chest, and then in his mind he felt nothing at all. That cold, dread presence still lurked close behind, making its steady way through the corridors, thump-thump thump-thump; but the Precursors were banished from his mind.

And then an idea occurred to him. A rather harebrained idea, and one half likely to get them killed: but the Precursor behind them was wholly likely to kill them or worse, anyway.

“Do you trust me?” Hermann asked Newt wildly, hiking his cane up parallel to the ground and shifting his flashlight into the same hand.

Newt did not seem able to halt his mumbled pleas to the Precursors, but nodded his head nonetheless as Hermann snaked his free hand about his waist for support.

“Then run,” said Hermann.

He spurred them to a swift pace down the corridor and around the next corner. Any step could have been the one that sent his leg buckling, and his joints were shrieking their protest; Newt was hissing with the pain of each step. But they needed to distance themselves as much as possible from the Precursor. Over a sprawling gnarled plant, then, and about another corner. Halfway down the corridor, and Hermann screeched to a halt. He let go of Newt and pushed open one of the many black doors to his right.

It was a gamble that no danger would lie beyond the black door, but fortune favored the bold: the door led to an empty closet cast into dim radiance by the flashlight-illuminated Anteverse light. No more than five feet could it have been in width or breadth, but they did not require space. They required only a place to hide and pause. They could not outrun the Precursor; they could not beat it to the matte black door. Its footfalls drafted faintly down the corridors, thump-thump thump-thump.

“Shall we?” asked Hermann, winded, and stepped into the closet.

“What?” whispered Newt, as though the Precursor might hear him should he speak too loud. “Hermann.” His head jerked back to indicate the creature hunting them through the halls.

“I know,” said Hermann hurriedly. “Just trust me.”

Newt paused, and he wore the expression of a man marching to his death, but he joined Hermann in the closet all the same. It was a tight fit, and uncomfortable: silent, freezing rain poured from the ceiling. But it would do. Behind Newt Hermann closed the door, and the flashlight ceased to illuminate the door and the walls and the floor. It lit only Newt and Hermann’s bodies, and was a thin beam of useless gold against the pitch darkness.

Against the wall facing the door Hermann slid down, and with confusion and terror plain on his features Newt joined him.

“Newt,” said Hermann in a rush, spewing rainwater from his mouth. “The rain — the rain has always been this Drift’s best physical approximation of the Precursors getting closer to finding us. Think of all the times it’s occurred. It rained beyond the grey door when you were confused. It rained beyond the orange door when you were frustrated on the schoolyard and afraid of the door. It poured rain beyond the crimson door when we — argued. The only time there was no rain was when we sat in the diner, sharing dessert. I believe the Precursors are feeding on your negative emotions, using them as a sort of beacon to find us. Goodness knows whenever I’ve felt them in my mind here, I’ve been rather upset. And they had me, they had my mind until just moments ago when I thought of something happy and calmed myself.” Those dull footsteps were growing louder. “We cannot outrun that creature. But I believe you can drive it away if you calm your mind.”

Newt huffed out a terrible tear-choked laugh. “Hermann, I — I can’t. They’ve got me too deep. I’ve led them right to you.” He was shaking his head, a deep crease in his brow. Hermann’s eyes stung. The flashlight flickered once more and died. “You need to leave,” said Newt in the darkness, desperate. “Your hand signal, the — the one that ends this Drift —”

“No,” said Hermann peremptorily, tossing the flashlight aside. “I’ve told you I will not leave you. You haven’t led them to me. It was my choice to come here, and I knew what I was signing up for.” He had not had the faintest idea what he was signing up for. “Please, try to calm your mind. I know you can do this, Newton.” Hermann reached out blindly, and set his hand on what felt like Newt’s knee. “I will be here with you no matter what.”

A hitching breath in the dark, and then, quietly: “Okay.”

Thump-thump thump-thump. The footsteps were drawing nearer.

Something cold and trembling brushed up against Hermann’s hand — Newt’s knuckles. And so Hermann reached for Newt’s hand, and haphazardly Newt threaded their fingers together. Barely could Hermann curl his rain-frozen fingers about Newt’s, but Newt clung to the contact all the same. With a subdued grunt of pain Newt shuffled closer to Hermann, and buried his head against Hermann’s shoulder.

“I’m here,” whispered Hermann into the thick darkness. The rain lashed silent down upon them, and the only sound was those dreadful footsteps drawing inexorably closer. Hermann was cold and exhausted. Everything hurt. It would not be a bad way to go, really: holding Newt’s hand, leaning quietly against him. He allowed himself the fantasy that the Precursors would kill him rather than find a way to trap him within the Drift and force their way into his mind. “I will always be here,” he said.

The footsteps grew suddenly much louder: they thumped down the corridor, closer and closer, until they were just outside the closet door. But then they halted. Several viscous moments dripped by in dead silence. Dread was threading in deep knots within Hermann’s stomach. Had Newt calmed his mind enough to stop the creature? Was it simply pausing before it crashed through the door? Hermann drew in a shallow breath, and took a set of mental derivatives. Newt’s hand was clammy within his own, though warmer now than the remorseless rain. His soaking hair was brushing against Hermann’s jawline, and he was a comforting weight at Hermann’s side despite the burden on his injured shoulder and his aching joints. Hermann rubbed his thumb gently against Newt’s knuckles in the darkness. It would not be a bad way to go.

A great noise thundered through the room then, and Hermann gave a violent start; Newt’s grip on his hand spasmed tighter. But the noise did not relent: it was a loud and steady wash of white noise. The rain. No longer noiseless, it poured down as it should have. Newt shifted against his shoulder, lifted his head.

Gradually the noise died down, and the rain grew warmer, calming to a drizzle. And the Precursor still had not barged through the door, and that really could only have meant one thing.

“You did it,” said Hermann weakly.

At length Newt replied, “Holy shit, Hermann.” His voice was cracked and breathless and oddly mirthful. A snort of his strained laughter sounded over the light rain, and then the levee burst: Newt broke out into a fit of helpless laughter, shaking against Hermann’s side.

And something about the moment — perhaps the sheer relief of it, or the sound of Newt’s disbelieving laughter, or the feeling of Newt’s fingers still tangled with his own — caught within Hermann, and he could not stop the peals of nervous, stunned laughter bubbling up his throat. There was nothing else for it: all the emotion of the situation and what they had narrowly escaped came crashing down upon the pair of them, and for a very long while they sat in the pitch darkness laughing their shaken nerves away.

Chapter Text

At last Hermann managed to subdue his laughter, and Newt followed soon after. Though delicate rain still fell from the ceiling, Hermann did not think it dangerous to venture out of the closet. The weather had calmed a great deal, and the dark creeping presence in the hallway was vanished besides.

Regretfully Hermann unlaced his stiff fingers from Newt’s. He stood and leaned heavily on his cane, leaving the dead flashlight on the floor. What good would it serve now? After a bit of blind scrabbling his fingers lit upon the door handle, and he opened the closet to a flood of vibrant Anteverse light. He blinked hard. At least they would not need the flashlight to navigate the corridors, then.

“Shall we?” he said.

He offered Newt his free hand, and pulled him to his feet. Newt inhaled sharply as he placed weight on the wrong part of his foot. In sympathy Hermann winced: if his joints ached and his burnt shoulder smarted still, he loathed to think what pain Newt might be feeling. The Anteverse light cast his ruined tattoos into terrible clarity.

“Are you all right?” asked Hermann as he helped Newt into the glowing hallway.

“I’m peachy,” said Newt, shivering. “I feel like a popsicle that someone poured hot sauce on, but I guess that beats being Precursor chow.”

“Quite right,” said Hermann.

“How about you, are you okay?” Newt looked at him in concern.

“What?”

“How are you, man?” said Newt. “You’ve just had to sprint through all that shit half-carrying me — and your shoulder is — and you pretty much just gambled your life on my ability to chill out, and — and —”

“Newton,” said Hermann, cutting him off. “I’m fine.”

Newt stared at him, nonplussed. “There’s blood smeared all over your forehead and cheek.”

“Damned plants,” Hermann muttered, and dabbed away the blood with the sleeve of his jacket.

Newt sighed. “We should get going. Don’t think this conversation is over, though. Not even close, buddy.”

And he led Hermann away down the labyrinthine maze of corridors. Many a slime-drenched thing they had to step over, and many a prickled thing they had to shoulder through, but the way back was not so dreadful as the way through. Hermann had to beat a fair number of tentacles away from Newt’s feet — they seemed to sense that he was stealing Newt away, and resent it — but at least he was not alone this time. He was not listening to Newt’s screams drafting through the corridors. Newt was at his side, and that was enough.

The hallway plantlife grew gradually smaller and dimmer until it gave way to faintly glowing puddles of slime, and Hermann stood with Newt before the matte door he had fallen through what felt like a very long time ago. About the handle Hermann wrapped his fingers and pulled, making room for Newt to enter the dark room ahead of him; he followed close behind.

“Uh. Hermann?” said Newt as Hermann let the door fall shut behind himself, leaving them in pitch darkness. “Are we not back in the lab?”

Hermann had not even considered that Newt would not know another part of this nightmare-scape existed beyond the labyrinthine corridors. But of course: he had been shackled to the wall in that other room. How could he know of this one? “I’m afraid there is a little bit more we must go through before we reach the lab,” said Hermann.

From somewhere in the dark came the deep, creaking groan of metal. “What was that?” asked Newt, jumping against Hermann’s side.

At first Hermann stiffened, and was afraid. But then he remembered what he had seen in this room before. “Jaegers,” he whispered. “There were two Jaegers on that side of the room.” He pointed, then realized Newt could not see. “They looked utterly lifeless when I passed through here before, but…”

“Oh, shit,” Newt hissed suddenly, as though something had occurred to him.

“What is it?”

“This place,” said Newt. “It isn’t just one nightmare: it’s two linked together. The other one, with Otachi — I’ve had it for at least a decade. But this is… this is a newer one.”

Dread uncurled within Hermann. “And what exactly does this nightmare entail?”

Newt did not have time to respond before a blinding beam of light struck the pair of them. Hermann startled, and shielded his eyes, but Newt grabbed his hand and pulled him at a run out of the spotlight. A crackling spear of brilliant blue light struck where they had stood moments before, and blasted the door they had just come through out of existence with a resounding boom. The plasmacaster. Hermann recognized the weapon instantly. Mako and Raleigh had loved it well.

Gipsy Danger’s bright floodlight extinguished itself as rapidly as it had turned on. All that was left was great darkness broken by the shallow flood of corridor light into the room, for there was no longer a doorway to contain it. The smell of burnt plastic wafted through the air, and the rain grew colder.

“You must calm your mind, Newton,” said Hermann, shaken, though he knew it was easier asked than done.

Limned by the faint Anteverse light, Newt looked at him and swallowed. “Yeah — yeah. I know.” His gaze flickered in the direction from which the plasma blast had come.

“Would it be all right,” said Hermann, “if I — ah, if I — well, if I were to… hold — do you think it might be helpful if I — if we, I mean...” If I held your hand. It was one phrase, yet Hermann could not seem to force it past his lips. And they had already done it several times, clutched each other’s hands against the threats of Otachi and then the Precursors: but it felt so startlingly intimate to ask it aloud. He was unused to saying such things, and so he eyed Newt’s hand a bit helplessly. In the closet the touch had seemed to help Newt calm his mind, and it had certainly calmed Hermann besides.

Newt gave a little breath of laughter, and took Hermann’s hand.

“It’s just,” continued Hermann, “it’s scientifically proven to relieve stress, and —”

“No, dude, it’s fine. It — it helps.”

Hermann’s lips pressed into a thin unwitting smile. He feared he was rather revealing his cards here, but then again, had the Precursors not thoroughly done that already? They had explicitly told Newt of his love, and Newt had not run screaming. His hand was very soft in Hermann’s.

Once more a blinding spotlight struck them, but this time Hermann knew better than to hesitate. He and Newt dashed together for the cover of darkness, and behind them struck a great ball of fire. The force of its impact sent Hermann stumbling, and just barely did Newt catch him before he could fall. But Newt aggravated his injuries in doing so, and gave a grunt of pain as he helped Hermann upright.

Swiftly Hermann apologized, but Newt gave his fingers a gentle squeeze. “Hey,” he said. “You’re fine.”

Heat was licking up Hermann's back. He turned: fire had caught on the flooring, and was blazing where the weapon had struck, an incongruous flare of orange against the darkness and the low Anteverse light.

Newt followed his gaze. “So… where was the way out, again?”

“Er — I’m not completely sure,” said Hermann. “I really just felt my way along the wall when I was here before.” He thought on his route: he had turned two corners, which meant — “It should be directly across from the door we just came through, I suppose. But I had to walk quite a long while to get out of this room. It felt like days. The safest path would likely be to follow the walls again, stay out of the thick of this nightmare.”

“I’m exhausted, dude,” said Newt, staring still at the fire. “I know you are, too. Whatever the fastest way is, I think I’d rather take that.”

Another beam of light stabbed through the room, but this time it did not strike the pair of them. It lit up a patch of floor several hundred feet in the distance, which the plasmacaster then destroyed.

“You want to go straight through,” said Hermann. “Right through the middle of a room full of goodness knows how many Jaegers.”

“Hey," said Newt. "Fortune favors the brave, and all that." The firelight beside them flickered across his features, and was reflected brightly in his eyes. He gave Hermann’s hand a squeeze, and turned away from the flame, and led Hermann into darkness.

They crept cautiously forward a decent while before the sound of a great booming impact came from their right, followed by the slow squeal of metal. A footstep. In the pitch dark Hermann could not tell how close. But then another footstep boomed through the room, nearer to them this time. By Hermann’s estimation, they stood directly in the path of a Jaeger.

Urgently Hermann gripped Newt’s hand and pulled him at a run forward; Newt gave a small cry of pain at the tug, but sped his pace nonetheless. The sound of a massive footfall directly behind them swallowed Hermann’s apology. The impact reverberated up through his bones, and Newt pressed closer to his side in alarm.

Another footstep was coming, but Hermann could not say where the Jaeger’s other foot would land: only that it would be somewhere in front of them. And so he walked himself and Newt backward until their spines bumped up against the unforgiving metal of the Jaeger’s left foot. At least there they could be assured the right would not step on them. A deep boom sounded as the Jaeger’s other foot connected with the ground, and then the metal behind them was moving, and the pair of them set off once again forward at a brisk pace. Hermann was not eager to dodge another Jaeger, and his every joint ached all the fiercer for how close rest was to their grasp.

A floodlight switched on, aimed this time for what must have been the wall at their left, so very far away. And with the blaze of a golden laser, a sizzling hole was punched into the wall, leaving behind a jagged maw ringed in flame. Hermann shivered, and averted his eyes, and asked, “Why are some of the Jaegers aiming away from us?”

“Uh,” said Newt, “in the nightmare it’s always random where they fire. I don’t know. Something about it just makes it worse, like the suspense of not knowing when they’ll get me, I guess.”

The next beam of light struck them directly, blinding Hermann momentarily, and they hastened away before a fireball crashed into the spot they had stood moments before.

The nightmare was not quite so terrible now that Hermann was adjusted to it, but despite the chilled rain Newt’s hand was hot and sweating. Something about this place struck deep terror within him. “Would you be amenable to a distraction?” Hermann asked.

“A distraction?”

“Just — conversation. Something to take your mind off this nightmare.”

“Abso-fucking-lutely,” said Newt with greater relief than Hermann expected.

“Right, then,” Hermann said as the plasmacaster demolished a patch of flooring some hundred feet away. The afterimage of that fierce flash of blue lingered in his vision. “Have I ever told you what I imagined you’d look like when we first began our correspondence?”

“You definitely haven’t.”

“I pictured you as a professor, perhaps in your late thirties. You had six PhDs, after all. You’d have well-kept grey hair, and you’d wear the same glasses I did.”

“Dude, I’m pretty sure you’re the only person in the world who’d ever buy those glasses.”

“You were also well-behaved in my mind, and dressed neatly.”

Newt snorted. “What part of my letters gave you that idea? Was it the complete disregard for grammar, or the swearing?”

“I figured you were a busy man! That certainly would have explained the grammar, and the stress of your research might have accounted for the profanity. We at least seemed to share similar core values, and have similar passions. I assumed that beneath all the… colorful language was a person quite similar to myself.”

“So that explains how horrified you looked when you laid eyes on me for the first time. You saw the tie and the tattoos and were ready to bolt.” A beam of light struck the pair of them, and Newt’s grip on Hermann’s hand tightened to pull him forward to safety. A boom sounded behind them, and the smell of burnt plastic wafted into the air.

“Actually, it was your shirt that dispelled what notions I had about you,” said Hermann, catching his breath as best he could as they continued walking. “You’d left the top button undone.” The rain was warmer now, and calming to a drizzle.

“That I did,” said Newt. “That I did. You didn’t have a Facebook, so I had no idea what you looked like. You know what I was picturing? Some dude in a leather jacket who didn’t cut his hair himself. You sounded way cooler in writing.”

“A leather jacket,” spluttered Hermann. The back of his neck felt very hot, and Newt’s fingers laced with his own helped little.

“Oh, yeah. Leather jacket, combat boots… I imagined us going out to a bar, and then some guy tries to pick a fight with me, but then you step in and suplex him into the bar with the power of math. And also your muscles.”

Newton,” said Hermann fondly. The rain ceased altogether.

“To be fair, that did kinda happen! That one drunk guy you tripped with your cane?”

Hermann blinked. “You’re referring, of course, to the man I had no choice but to trip when he stormed at you in a drunken fury after you so tactfully informed him that his face bore resemblance to the members of the Architeuthidae family. For heaven’s sake, you used Google Images to show him what you’d meant.”

“He deserved it for being a dick to you.”

“He was hardly the first person to make fun of my hair and glasses,” said Hermann. His hair and glasses were even two of Newt’s favorite targets for jibes — though a world of difference existed between the intention behind Newt’s quips and the intention behind those insults his childhood bullies had used.

“Yeah, well, I’m willing to go back in time and tell all of them they look like squids,” said Newt.

A grin pulled at Hermann’s lips, but before he could respond, the floodlight of one Jaeger pierced the room, electric turquoise rather than gold. From the Jaeger’s speaker came a booming robotic voice:

“Newton Geiszler. You have been found guilty of war crimes. Submit to the custody of the PPDC immediately.”

Newt froze, and for his unwillingness to relinquish his hold on Newt’s hand Hermann halted as well. A droplet of water fell onto his forehead.

The constant low metallic groaning as the Jaegers moved had ceased. All was still — and then the floodlight of another Jaeger punched through the room, a brilliant turquoise beam far in the distance. And then another, and then one more: four beams of Anteverse-blue light lit up four disparate spots of flooring, dreadful beacons in the dark. And the Jaegers began to move once more, prowling the room with great lumbering strides. Searching for Newt. The rain picked up to a light drizzle.

“Newton Geiszler. You have been found guilty of war crimes. Submit to the custody of the PPDC immediately.”

The urgency thrummed up Hermann’s bones to run, to sprint forward, but he and Newt were desperately exhausted, and it was wiser to conserve their energy; and he could not know how far from the black door they stood. He could not know whether they had truly been traveling along a straight path through the caliginous room or at some stumbling point had veered off course.

“Newton Geiszler. You have been found guilty of war crimes. Submit to the custody of the PPDC immediately.”

They went on. What else could they do? Four Anteverse-blue lights dragged through the room all around them, and four sets of footfalls clanged through the room. Whether a distraction would help Newt now or not, Hermann could not seem to find his voice. It felt dangerous to speak. In silence he and Newt crept forward, and kept keen watch on their hunters.

“Newton Geiszler. You have been found guilty of war crimes. Submit to the custody of the PPDC immediately.”

One of the beams of light swept near to them then, and there in the darkness was illuminated an X. Faint and distant, perhaps two hundred feet away, but an X nonetheless: the strips of duct tape with which Hermann had marked the matte black door.

“The door,” whispered Hermann, for Newt’s benefit.

The turquoise light veered toward them and struck them, and Hermann shielded his eyes.

“Newton Geiszler. You have been found guilty of war crimes. Submit to the custody of the PPDC immediately.”

“We’ve gotta run,” said Newt hoarsely, and pulled Hermann swiftly forward. The spotlight followed them, and there was the sound of pounding metal footsteps. “You really won’t like what happens if they catch us.”

Their sprint was ungainly and stuttering for their injuries and their exhaustion; their breathing was labored. In his haste Newt stepped poorly, and his ankle buckled, sending him careening sideways into Hermann. With a grunt of pain Hermann caught him, and righted him, and steered him back on course for the spot where that X had been so briefly illuminated.

“Newton Geiszler. You have been found guilty of war crimes. Submit to the custody of the PPDC immediately.”

The robotic voice was very loud now, and the great footfalls were very near. Each sent stronger vibrations rattling up through Hermann’s body.

Hermann’s muscles were screaming their protest, and his leg felt as if it were about to give out. But then before them was the X, close enough to touch, reflecting the Jaeger’s effulgent turquoise floodlight. And at last Hermann let go of Newt’s hand, and pushed the door open to a brilliant wash of light.

Into the laboratory, then, and Hermann held the door for Newt. Newt stumbled a way into the laboratory before collapsing into one of the swivel chairs at the table in the middle of the room. With shaking hands Hermann shut the matte black door on those crashing footfalls and those booming, robotic voices. Out of danger, his limbs at last gave out: boneless and trembling he slumped to the ground, spine arced against the black door, and the pain that adrenaline had dulled washed over him in a great wave. Exhaustion was rapidly overtaking him, and he did not have the strength to put up a fight: his eyes slid shut, and he fell deep into dreamless sleep.

 


  

Something cool and wet was pressed to his forehead when consciousness drifted back to him.

Hermann shifted, and blearily opened his eyes to Newt’s face hovering close before him. “What are you…?”

“Cleaning the blood off you,” said Newt softly. “You’re covered in it, dude. I’d have gotten you some bandaids or something, but I don’t think there’s a first aid kit in here — obviously you wouldn’t have needed one way back when, and I never bothered getting one for my side of the lab, so I’m afraid we've just gotta make do with some damp paper towels.”

Hermann blinked. His hands felt wet: he looked down and saw a number of cleaned scratches etched across his fingers, his knuckles, all up the backs of his hands. Those accursed prickly vines — he and Newt had shoved their way through many tangles of them, and it showed.

“Thank you,” he said as Newt cleaned the scratches above his brow, then looked to Newt’s skin. It was pristine. Not so much as a ghost of the dreadful burns marring his skin; and his clothes seemed to have been mended as well. “Your injuries…”

“Yeah, they went away as soon as I stepped through the door,” Newt said. “Jeez, you look rough.” He dabbed at the deep scratch across Hermann’s cheek, and Hermann winced. It stung. “Sorry. I know this isn’t ideal, but it should get you patched up enough.” Newt smiled weakly. “You may have programmed the physical aspect of this Drift a bit too well, man. You had me worried when you passed out.”

“My apologies,” said Hermann. Still he wore the exhaustion from the events beyond the black door, but Newt seemed perfectly recovered. Hermann was glad to see it: how he had loathed to hear Newt whimpering in pain, to see Newt swathed in livid red injuries.

“Just — just promise me one thing, will you?” asked Newt suddenly, hands stilling.

“Of course,” said Hermann. His brow creased.

“Don’t get yourself killed trying to save me,” said Newt. “You — God, you got banged up pretty bad back there. You’ve already done way more than anyone else just by showing up here and trying to help. I don’t know what else we’ll have to face through the next two doors, but please just… be careful.”

“You’ve been possessed for ten years,” said Hermann through his throat gone dry. “I appreciate the concern, but whatever injuries I sustain are trivial compared to —”

“Don’t say that,” interrupted Newt. “You don’t have to pretend like you’re fine just because you weren’t the one that — that got possessed. I know you’ve been through some shit, too.”

The loneliness and the despair of the past decade flashed briefly through Hermann, and he swallowed. “Now really isn’t the best time for that, Newton.” At the look Newt gave him, he added, “This Drift is not the best place for it. The Precursors have been held at bay for now, but I don’t doubt they’ll return. On some level they’ve infiltrated my programming — they were able to extinguish the light from the room with Otachi, and who knows what capabilities they might develop as more time passes. I would rather discuss such matters with you in person, once your mind is free and we need no longer worry about those creatures.”

“If the PPDC ever lets me talk to anyone again, that is,” said Newt, and the pair of them fell a while into silence.

When Hermann’s back began to ache for his awkward position against the door, Newt helped him to his feet, and steered him with a hand at his waist to the table in the middle of the laboratory. Gratefully Hermann sank into one of the swivel chairs and straightened his spine out against the rigid metal.

Newt finished dabbing at the scratches on his face, and moved onto those scratched up his neck. There was good deal more color to Newt now, Hermann noticed: he was not so monochrome. There was an undeniable flush of peach to his desaturated skin tone, though his eyes were still grey. Against the base of Hermann’s throat Newt’s fingers brushed as he cleaned up a particularly nasty scrape, and Hermann gave a start. His neck was very sensitive.

“Ah, sorry,” Newt rushed to say. “I know it stings.”

“Oh — no, it wasn’t — that wasn’t… nevermind,” mumbled Hermann awkwardly.

Beneath Hermann’s jaw Newt slid a finger to tilt it up, access the wounds further up his neck, and Hermann gripped the swivel chair with white knuckles. Newt was very close, leaning over him like this.

“Thank you, by the way,” said Newt quietly. “For… all of that, back there. Even after what happened through the red door.” He looked quite hesitant to say it.

“Of course,” said Hermann. He thought of Newt’s insistence that he leave, that he save himself and abandon Newt to monsters. “Did you really think I’d have left you in that place?”

“It would have been the better thing to do,” Newt said. “You wouldn’t have gotten all scratched up, or — or had this happen to your shoulder.” He indicated the spot where Otachi’s blood had grazed Hermann. The fabric of his jacket and shirt had been corroded through. “If you’d gotten possessed, too…”

“If our places were reversed, would you have left me?” asked Hermann.

“No, of course not, but —”

“So there you have it.”

Newt paused a while before speaking once more. He lifted the paper towel from Hermann’s neck and tossed it to the ground. “You would’ve deserved it, though. Being saved.” He leaned backward against the edge of the table, hands anchored behind him, and stared at the blood-smeared paper towel at his feet.

Hermann frowned. “Deserved?”

“I’m serious. You aren’t the one that — you didn’t…” Newt trailed off, the words catching in his throat. It hurt to watch the way his features twisted. Newt had worn that same expression of guilt following their argument behind the crimson door, and that same sadness. But Hermann rather thought that he at last understood it better. What had the Precursors said — that Newt had begged them not to remind Hermann of the research he had erased and the lives he had cost in doing so.

“Newton,” said Hermann. “Why do you seem to think reminding me of all that happened during our fight will push me away?” Newt looked trapped, and gave no answer, so Hermann continued: “If that is the case, you should know that I have forgiven you already.”

A pause. “Why?”

“After all we experienced through that last door, does it not seem rather trivial to get caught up over apologizing and assigning blame?” asked Hermann. “You had just lost your father and nearly lost your pet; I had not slept in days. Neither of us is blameless in what transpired, and I know we both regret it. But we cannot reverse time. There’s nothing more we can do but accept what happened and move forward.”

It seemed as if Newt were holding something in, but then he exhaled, and with tension strung tight through his voice said, “Accept it? People lost their lives because your research was gone, Hermann. There’s no moving forward from that. You can’t make that kind of thing right. I’ve — God, I’ve been so fucking scared of reminding you of that because what person in their right mind would really think about that and decide to stick around? Pretty much everyone else has dropped me for way less!” A high and humorless laugh bubbled up past Newt’s lips, and something twisted terribly in Hermann’s heart. In the wake of those words at last pouring out, Newt seemed to deflate. “What could I have possibly done to deserve forgiveness? What could I have possibly done to deserve you here with me now, risking your life?” he asked quietly, and looked very afraid of what Hermann’s response might be.

“I’m not sure anyone ever deserves forgiveness, really,” said Hermann. “It’s a choice. You could have forgiven me or not, but you did. I choose to forgive you, just as I choose to face those dreadful creatures with you.” Who was he, Hermann Gottlieb, to decide what anyone did or did not deserve? Whatever grief in the world Newt had caused by his actions, and whatever grief he had caused Hermann by his words: he suffered for it, and Hermann would have that suffering erased. He watched Newt watching him.

“I am sorry,” said Newt at length. “I’ve always felt awful about, well — everything. All the things I said. And the research, and — and the fall you had to take for me.”

Hermann blinked. “Rather sneaky of you,” he said, and affected his best arch expression. “Waiting until I’d already forgiven you to apologize.” Humor had never been his strongest suit, but he rather hoped this stab at it would land.

Newt looked surprised, but then grinned cautiously at Hermann. “Touché, dude,” he said. A weight seemed to have been lifted from him, and he drew in an even breath. “Man, what a fucking terrible fight.”

“That was certainly… an unpleasant experience,” said Hermann delicately. “Frankly the, ah, the strangling was only the second worst moment of our relationship. By comparison.”

For a moment Newt paused, blank. But then a snort of startled laughter bubbled up his throat, and it caught hold of him, and he was overcome with mirth. “Oh my — oh my God, Hermann!”

Hermann had not even intended the remark as humorous, but he could not help grinning: there had after all been such tension filling the laboratory before. It felt nice to slide it from his shoulders.

And as he watched Newt wracked by unflattering, wheezing laughter for the second time since the matte door — he much preferred the laboratory lighting with its too-vibrant blues to the pitch dark of the closet, as he could now see the crinkles about Newt’s eyes as he laughed — he supposed that he truly did love Newt. He had not come into this Drift in search of something he could not find: he had found Newt, and perhaps the crimson door had shoved Newt’s flaws stumbling into the open, and perhaps Newt had changed over the last decade, but he loved Newt all the same. He felt very warm.

And as Newt’s laughter mellowed, the mood of the laboratory seemed gentle enough: Hermann cleared his throat, and broached the topic that had hung over his head since their brush with those monsters in the dark.

“So about what the Precursors said earlier,” he said cautiously. “About… love…”

“Oh, God,” said Newt, all traces of his good humor fleeing. “That’s kind of, uh, ridiculously embarrassing, so can we just forget that ever happened?”

“Oh.” Something quite heavy settled over Hermann’s heart, and made it difficult to draw breath. Newt could not even look him in the eye. Embarrassing. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable —"

“It’s fine!” said Newt in a wildly stilted voice. “Let’s just — let’s just take that topic of conversation and slam dunk it right into the fuckin’ trash, dude. Please.”

“All right.” Hermann struggled to maintain a neutral tone. Briefly he had entertained the hope of Newt reciprocating his feelings. How foolish he felt now. He bit the insides of his cheeks, and took an extensive set of mental derivatives as Newt made his way across the laboratory to a lavender door: the only doorway remaining, save the one that glowed.

“Whoa,” said Newt.

“What is it?” asked Hermann through the feeling that he was suffocating.

“I can sort of feel what’s on the other side of this door. Not anything specific, but it just feels like… happiness? Love?” Newt pried open the door, and peeked through. “Oh, hey!” he said. “There’s my family. We should’ve gone through this door way earlier, man.”

Newt shut the lavender door, and went over to Hermann’s desk. Atop it lay Hermann’s cane, and beside it the gaudy messenger bag: Newt must have set them there while he was unconscious. He grabbed the cane (“My uncle can be a handful, but I really doubt you’ll need the bone saw to deal with him,” he said, indicating the messenger bag) and returned to Hermann.

“What happened to this?” Newt asked as he handed the cane to Hermann. He eyed the deep scratch marks scything up the length of it.

“A particularly hostile flower,” said Hermann. “It had fangs.”

“Jesus,” said Newt. “You ready to get going? I mean, it’s fine if you’re not, I don’t want to rush you or anything. But we’re so close to being done here. Just two doors left.”

“No, I’m fine,” said Hermann. It was ten percent of the truth: though his scratches were on the mend, his back ached, and the wound on his shoulder stung something fierce, and his insides had twisted themselves into knots. His heart was like lead in his chest. With effort that he dutifully hid, he grabbed his cane and pushed himself up out of the swivel chair, and followed Newt across the laboratory.

The penultimate door was beautiful. While it had appeared solid lavender from afar, Hermann saw now that the door itself was clear, made from some sort of glass. Inside the glass casing was a thick cloud of purple smoke: it ebbed and billowed languidly, and filled the door to its edges. The doorknob was clear as well, though devoid of smoke, and into it was carved a delicate filigree pattern. Surely the lavender doorway could not be so dreadful as the past two doors — and that, at least, lifted Hermann’s spirits a fraction.

He wrapped his fingers about the doorknob, and pulled the lavender door open for Newt. “After you,” he said, a half-heartedly reassuring smile tugging at one corner of his mouth.

Newt aimed a set of finger guns toward him, and walked backward across the threshold. Something in his eyes seemed half-hearted as well, though Hermann could not say what, and he was left simmering in his confusion and his hurt as he watched Newt’s figure dissolve into nothingness for the sixth time.

If nothing else, he and Newt were friends. Best friends: and that was nothing to sniff at. Best friends was quite something. Hermann could shove aside his feelings, give them no quarter in his heart. He could do that. He drew in a deep breath against the feeling that he was drowning, and stepped through the lavender door.

Chapter Text

Beneath an old brick chimney a merry fire was crackling. On the windowsill across the room rested an unlit menorah, flickering aureate as it caught the firelight, and through the pane of glass behind it lay a quiet street blanketed in white. Lazy flecks of snow drifted down the winter air. Hermann always appreciated the cold months of the year: appreciated the grey skies and the biting wind and the chance to layer his clothing into a thick bundle. A quiet piano melody wove through the hazy air, and it nearly lulled Hermann into a stupor before suddenly changing. At the piano bench, Jacob Geiszler rolled through a progression of major chords and began playing Happy Birthday.

So that was where Newt’s utter lack of vocal talent came from: there beside Newt on a pin-striped sofa sat Uncle Illia, tipsy, tunelessly belting out the lyrics to Happy Birthday as he wrangled a party hat onto his nephew’s head. Newt, perhaps in his mid-twenties, watched Illia in amused horror; and in a cushioned chair beside the sofa sat Newt’s stepmother, Natalia, trying her damndest to sing along with Illia yet failing as wheezes of laughter bubbled up through her. Halfway through the song she gave up and rested her chin in her hand to grin wide at Illia’s antics, her red hair falling into her eyes.

It twisted Hermann’s heart to see Newt so joyful and carefree surrounded by family. Jacob had passed over a decade ago, but Illia was generous and easygoing, and Natalia was intelligent and warm: what family of his remained Newt loved well, and they were easy people to love. Only secondhand did Hermann know them, but he thought he would rather like to spend time with them. He could see himself spending the winter holidays with the Geiszlers, wrapped up in warmth by Newt on the sofa.

But Newt did not love him. That wish was only fantasy. Slowly Hermann went over to the open chair beside Natalia and sat down. He leaned his cane against the wooden arm of his chair, and eyed the glasses of wine atop the mahogany table in the middle of the room.

After a brief argument about whether Illia should be allowed to sing in polite company, the Geiszlers moved on to opening gifts. With delight Newt received a Mothra pillow from Illia and a set of combat boots from Natalia: and then Jacob stood, and informed Newt that his final present was in a separate room. He led Newt away through the house with Natalia and Illia in tow, and Hermann dragged himself reluctantly up out of his chair to follow along.

“Holy shit!” cried Newt as he stepped into a room and caught sight of his gift.

Hermann entered after Natalia and Illia, and saw settled into one corner of the cluttered room a quite familiar tank; and inside, a quite familiar creature.

“We thought you might like a friend to take with you to the Academy,” explained Natalia. Of course, thought Hermann — Newt in this memory looked to be around the age he had entered the Jaeger Academy.

Newt’s arms windmilled through several thrilled gestures before threading in awe into his hair. “Does it have a name?”

“Personally, I liked Rosalind,” said Natalia, “as in —”

“As in Rosalind Franklin?” interrupted Newt. “Hell yeah, I love it!” He rushed over to kneel beside the tank and peer in.

“We know how rigorous training is at the Academy,” said Jacob. “It might be nice to have a reminder of home with you. If you don’t want to take her we understand; it may be a burden —”

“No, no!” Newt waved a hand in dismissal. “I want to bring her. I can handle it. It’ll be nice to have her. The only person I might know at the Academy is Hermann — uh. The guy from the letters.”

“Dr. Gottlieb!” said Illia cheerily. Hermann’s hands felt suddenly restless.

“How lovely it’ll be to enter the Academy with two friends already,” remarked Natalia. “I’m sure Hermann is as excited to meet you as you are to meet him.”

“Not to toot my own horn,” said Newt, wiping his hands on his jeans and standing, “but I am pretty cool. I mean, it sucks to have to put my research on pause for the Academy, but I’ve still got a few months to investigate more into tissue replication before I go. I can’t believe we weren’t doing this earlier — obviously artificial replication is the next avenue we should’ve been looking into in terms of —”

“Newt,” interrupted Natalia. “How about you tell us more about your research back in the living room? We ought to be sitting down if we’ll be getting another hour-long explanation,” she said with an assuring grin.

“Right, right, okay,” said Newt. Hermann could near see the gears within him grinding to a pause. “Bye, Rosalind.”

“I’ll get some more wine,” said Illia as he led the family back to the living room, and the scene dissolved to a wash of swirling golds and molten reds before righting itself into a very small room.

Hermann found himself standing suddenly by a narrow industrial door, beside which was the lavender door. Lamplight lit this new room in dim gold. Nestled into the corner of the room was a bed, and next to it sat a rickety desk and worn-out swivel chair; and adjacent the desk, a tank. Rosalind the bearded dragon slept within, far paler than Hermann had ever seen her.

Violently the industrial door swung open, and in stormed Newt. He slammed the door behind him and hopped supine onto the bed, fishing his phone out from the back pocket of his absurdly tight jeans.

Had Newt not said that behind this door were memories of happiness, of love? Hermann did not see how such plain fury could relate at all to either feeling, and looked on in confusion as Newt dialed a number and lifted the phone to his ear. How tense was his jaw clenched; and how tense were his fingers as they carded roughly through his hair. Whatever this memory was, it brought Newt misery. And after all he had endured beyond the black door, Newt deserved not to dwell in suffering a moment longer. Surely it could not hurt to end this memory before it could fully uncurl. Hermann crossed over to sit on the edge of the bed beside Newt (with effort, as his body still ached all over from his journey through darkness and slime, and his quarrels with monsters). He leaned his cane against the nightstand, and stretched a hand out —

“This wasn’t my fault,” said Newt desperately into the phone.

And it was really quite obvious, then, what memory this was — or, in the aftermath of what event this memory took place. Hermann paused, hand hovering above Newt’s arm. An entire month they had refused to speak to each other following that dreadful fight, and even in the ensuing few months they had spoken little. Desperately he willed himself to touch Newt, bring him out of this memory, but his muscles refused to comply.

A tinny voice too low for Hermann to hear spoke, and Newt replied, “Okay, and he definitely deserved this for being a dick, but — actually, no, God, he didn’t — well, maybe a bit — fuck.” Newt tossed the phone down onto the bed in frustration, then must have realized that was rather unproductive; he sat up and tapped a button (“Sorry — I’m putting you on speakerphone”) before promptly flopping back down onto the bed, threading his fingers roughly through his hair. Hermann's gaze fell to the caller ID. Uncle Illia. “So I just deleted months worth of his research because I was so pissed off,” Newt continued, sliding his hands down to cover his eyes, “and now he’s never going to talk to me again, which is just great.”

Hermann’s heart gave a squeeze. Following the fight, he had spent those icy months both desperately angry with Newt and feeling hollow for his absence. Quietly he had missed the sound of Newt’s voice, but he had sulked and fed his resentment with the impression that Newt had truly not wanted to speak with him.

“I assume this is about Hermann,” came Illia’s voice through the phone.

Newt huffed a humorless laugh. “Yeah.”

“Of course,” said Illia. Of course? At last that tipped the scales: Hermann drew his hand back. It seemed suddenly quite imperative that he watch this memory unfurl.

“It’s different this time,” said Newt. His fingers obscured his expression, but plainly Hermann heard the pain twisted through his voice. “I mean, we fight all the time, but it’s never been like this before. It was fucking… ugly. He was like, ‘You’re a narcissist, and I send all your emails to spam, and no one wants to hang out with you because you’re so insufferable, oh and also uh, is it that bad that your dad died because don’t you like your uncle more?’” Newt’s voice was breaking off into that high, strangled tone that came before he cried. A leaden weight settled over Hermann’s chest. He had known and even hoped at the time that his words would sting, hurt as he had been by Newt, but he had never seen Newt’s raw reaction after the adrenaline of the fight had bled away. He had not seen this private despair. It hurt. Newt drew in a deep breath before continuing: “And all of it started in the first place because he didn’t take care of Rosalind like I’d asked! Because he sent my emails to his spam folder! She’s sleeping in her tank right now, and she just looks… terrible. I really thought she was going to die when I first saw her.”

“Oh, dear,” said Illia gently.

“And that’s not even the worst part!” said Newt. He slid his hands tersely up into his hair, and stared at the ceiling. Hermann was not sure he wanted to hear the worst part. “The worst — the worst part is that…” he trailed off. Eyes glimmering, he shook his head, and tension was strung tight through his body as he tried to keep the tears from spilling over. “Right now he’s probably telling Pentecost what happened to his research and then I’ll be fired and I don’t know if I’ll ever get to — to tell him —” Newt could not continue. Emotion choked up through him, and he squeezed his eyes shut, and clasped a hand to his crumpled forehead.

“That you love him,” said Illia.

Hermann’s heart skipped a beat.

At last a tear slipped from the corner of Newt’s eye, and he choked out a desperate laugh. “Yeah,” he said. “Was it that obvious?”

No, Hermann could have said, it really had not been obvious at all. Newt loved him? His body was going tense and boneless all at once, and his mind was a record caught on the admission, the three words, “you love him.” Newt loved him. Around some soundless incoherent syllables Hermann’s lips parted.

“I love you, Newt,” came Illia’s voice across the phone, “but you don’t have a subtle bone in your body. The only thing you tell me more about than K-science is Hermann. It may be buried very deep down right now, but you two care about each other. I wouldn’t worry about this coming between you forever.”

“How do you know that?” Newt asked hopelessly. “You didn’t see the way he looked at me, like he — like he hated me.”

Hated? Hermann had felt toward Newt nearly everything along the spectrum of human emotion, but never hatred. Not even then in the aftermath of their worst fight. If his joints were not so desperately seized up with the words “you love him,” he would have reached out and brought Newt from the memory right then and there to assure him otherwise.

“You’ve told me a good deal about Hermann,” began Illia, “and I think I know enough about your relationship to say that I don’t think hatred is really in the cards, there. Anger, perhaps. But that will blow over. You just need to take some time for yourselves. He’ll still be there for you afterward.”

“But what if he isn’t? He could very easily never talk to me again, and I don’t really know what I’d do if that happened.” Newt paused, wiping at his nose, and swallowed. “Maybe I don’t want to talk to him again, either! He’s annoying, and uptight, and I’m so pissed at him, and — and God, I kind of always assumed we’d end up together!” Newt gave another strangled humorless laugh, then scrubbed his hands down his face. “What do I do here?” he said quietly.

“Here’s a question: what do you want to do?” asked Illia. “You can either keep him in your life — which, at some point, is going to involve speaking to him again — or you can cut him out. You’re well within your right to do either, and I’ll be here for you no matter what.”

“That’s not really a question, though, is it,” said Newt. “He’s — he’s not like anyone else. It would just be… wrong to go down to the mess hall and not sit with him, or walk into the lab and not have him be all posh and rolling his eyes at how I’ve done my tie. Cutting him out’s not an option.”

“That’s just love, Newt,” said Illia. “It’s always a choice, even if it doesn’t feel like it.”

If love was a choice, then Hermann supposed he would always choose Newt: through sorrow, through anger, through the difficult times as well as the simple. It did not feel like a choice stealing Newt from the custody of the PPDC and helping him fight his monsters, but Hermann supposed it must have been. A series of choices, through each door, through every moment he had spent in the Drift. He had chosen Newt each time. He would choose Newt until the very end.

“But I just don’t want him to look at me differently.” Newt sat up on the bed, and wiped his nose. His eyes were sad and green. “Having him think worse of me and never trust me again because of the research shit is almost worse than us never talking again. Like, I don’t really want to go find him and ask, ‘Hey, I know we just said the worst things ever to each other and completely fucked each other over, but do you think you’ll get over it or do you actually hate me?’ It just — it feels like if I actually confront him over this and make him think about what happened he’s going to realize he doesn’t want anything to do with me anymore.”

“Newton,” whispered Hermann, face falling.

“I sincerely doubt that’ll be the case,” said Illia. “Giving each other some space for a while might be a good idea, though. See if you two can’t cool off and come back with clearer heads.”

“God, I don’t even remember when the last time was I went — well — any period of time without talking to him.” Newt took his glasses off to clean them with his shirt. His fingers were clumsy. Hermann wanted to take his hand.

“I’m sure you’ll survive,” Illia said. “Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and all that. You know the advice about how when you’re angry with someone, you ought to write them a letter with all the things you want to say, but then never send it?”

“Well, yeah, but I think Hermann and I have already done the equivalent of writing angry letters and then reading them to each other through a megaphone.” Newt slid his glasses back up his nose. “The only thing I haven’t said is that I fucking…”

“Oh, no, I’m not suggesting you write him an angry letter. Quite the opposite, actually — however long it takes for you two to get back to normal, you can always write down your feelings for him. Even if you can’t tell him to his face just yet, you can get it out on paper.”

“Dear Hermann,” said Newt, “you’re a major dickhead, but somehow I’m still in love with you.”

“Sounds perfect,” came Illia’s voice with such warmth that Newt cracked a weak smile.

“Hey — uh, thank you. Really,” said Newt. His equanimity was returning, and he rolled up his sleeves from where they had slid down.

“Any time, little dude,” said Illia. Hermann could not help the smile that flickered across his lips at the nickname. If only he had had an Uncle Illia in his life! Perhaps then it may not have taken him two decades to recognize his own feelings. At any rate, he was grateful that Newt had Illia. As much as anger had billowed through him and sent those barbs pouring sharp across his lips during that fight, the pain clear on Newt’s face had scratched at him. It was a relief there had been someone to take away Newt’s tears when he had not been there — when he himself had been the cause of them.

Hermann reached out to at last bring Newt out of the memory, but Newt dissolved like ink spun through water before him; all turned to amorphous wisps of color, then was righted into a quaint little room suffused with warmth. Illia was singing so desperately off-key it might have taken skill, and Natalia was succumbing to her laughter.

The firelight felt brighter as Hermann sat down — choosing this time the chair beside Newt’s end of the sofa, rather than the chair beside Natalia — and he watched the memory unfold once more. His chest was cloud-light. Newt loved him. Perhaps one day he might join the Geiszlers in such festivity: for Hanukkah, or for Newt’s birthday. Jacob had passed, but Natalia and Illia he would still like to meet. Their cheer was infectious.

When Jacob led the merry company through the house and Natalia brought up the Jaeger Academy, though, a pall fell across Hermann’s spirits. Newt leaving for the Academy would set into motion the events which would bring him mind-to-mind with the Precursors. Would this fate — the disembodiment, the terror, the slow possession — have ever befallen Newt had he not joined the Academy? Would he have lived forever in ignorance of what creatures lurked beyond their universe, puppeting the Kaiju that so fascinated him?

And on the matter of the Precursors: we see the terror and the shame in loving him. The words had stuck in Hermann’s mind in stark clarity. He did not think he could shake them if he tried. Newt had heard, and called them embarrassments. The memory in which he confessed his love for Hermann had taken place well over a decade ago. Did he love Hermann still?

Hermann swallowed, and adjusted his grip on his cane.

“I’ll get some more wine,” said the memory of Illia, and the scene dissolved into a wash of colors, into Newt storming into his bedroom and calling his uncle in despair.

Hermann lingered a while by Newt’s bedroom door. He really did not want to pull Newt from the memory and drag him into an awkward and likely painful conversation on feelings. He bit the insides of his cheeks and stared at Rosalind’s tank. She was fast asleep, and deathly pale.

“I truly am very sorry,” said Hermann softly to her, though he knew she could not hear. “Newt will take good care of you, though. You’ll feel better quite soon. Have no worries.”

“I assume this is about Hermann,” came Illia’s tinny voice from a distance.

“Yeah,” said Newt.

Hermann looked to the lavender door. The Precursors had found them beyond the black door: found them and hunted them like dogs. It really would not do to fritter time away while the Precursors wasted none searching for the pair of them. His own anxieties be damned. More important matters were at hand.

He went over to Newt. Sit on the bed? No, that might be too close should Newt express discomfort at him raising the topic of feelings. Hover awkwardly beside the bed, then.

“Right now he’s probably telling Pentecost what happened to his research and then I’ll be fired and I don’t know if I’ll ever get to — to tell him —”

“That you love him.”

Tentatively Hermann reached out and tapped Newt’s hand.

Newt blinked, then startled as recollection slammed into him. “Holy fuck,” he said through an emotion-strangled throat, sitting bolt upright on the bed. Cautiously Hermann took a step backward. The tears that had been welling in Newt’s eyes spilled with the sudden violence of it all, and looking quite the picture of horror, Newt wiped them away. “Hermann,” he said hoarsely. “Oh God, this is the most awkward — uh. Fuck! There’s not really a good explanation for this, is there? Like the Precursors already told you about this, and now you’ve” — he broke off into a high, panicked laugh — "you’ve seen that memory, which, uh, wow. Jimminy fucking Christmas.”

“Newton,” said Hermann in a vain endeavor to calm him. But Newt was wild-eyed and clutching his hand to his mouth, and rain was beginning to fall from the ceiling. Hermann readied to grab Newt and pull him from the room, but then something Newt said struck him. “Wait,” Hermann said, “the Precursors already told me about what?”

Newt looked at him helplessly. “Please don’t make me say it again.” He slid off the bed, and made for the lavender door.

Hermann’s brow furrowed, but then a possibility dawned on him. Several things clicked together as he watched the unhappy line of Newt’s retreating back. He could have waited to give his thoughts voice, waited until they stood in the safety of the laboratory. But here stood Newt with him now, whole and colored normal and as real as he could have been in this Drift. “What the Precursors said — about love,” said Hermann slowly. We see the terror and the shame in loving him. “Did you think they were speaking to you?”

Newt turned to look at him, and blinked. “Did you think they were talking to you?” The rain slowed to a drizzle.

A great many responses were clawing up Hermann’s throat, but he could not find the voice for any of them; he simply stared with fragile hope at Newt. He would have crossed the room and pulled Newt into a kiss right then, but his feet seemed to have been anchored to the ground with pure shivering emotion. It overwhelmed him. His joints felt quite strange, as if they had been transmogrified to rubber. Briefly he wondered whether rigor mortis had begun to set in, or if he ought to locate the nearest trash bin lest he vomit from the sheer catharsis of the moment.

“Hermann?” said Newt. A question, a plea, a confession, a thousand things at once. His eyes were very green.

Across Hermann’s lips curved a smile: he could not help it. Still he could not summon any words, and could not seem to move half his muscles. So he simply nodded, yes, yes, I do, I love you, and grinned helplessly wide.

A stunned, beautiful burst of laughter slipped past Newt’s lips, and he rushed across the room; he lunged for Hermann, throwing his arms around Hermann’s neck to pull him into a tight hug. Past Hermann’s lips slipped a little noise of surprise and slight pain, as still the scratches from those prickled Anteverse vines lingered on his neck. Immediately Newt retreated, muttering a hasty and half incoherent apology, then slipped his arms gently about Hermann’s waist instead. On Hermann’s uninjured shoulder he rested his chin.

“Is that better?” Newt asked, scarcely audible.

“Er — y-yes,” stammered Hermann. His capacity for coherent speech had fled him, and it took great effort to shove the words past his lips. But the pure shock of the moment was releasing its stranglehold on his muscles at last. In cautious, halting motions he lifted his arms to embrace Newt in kind. He let go of his cane, and it clattered to the floor. Newt was very warm and very soft. He smelled of strawberry shampoo — his old favorite. Hermann drew him closer.

This was a different sort of hug than those before: the hug following the fight in the elevator, the hug when first Hermann spoke to Newt beyond the grey door, the hug when first he brought Newt back into the laboratory. There was no urgency, no desperate clinging tightness. Hugging Newt felt this time like coming home. Joy or relief or sheer exhaustion from missing and loving Newt for the past decade swept up through Hermann to prickle behind his eyes. His face-splitting smile flickered as he blinked back his tears and simply reveled in the feeling of Newt wrapped up around him.

They hugged until the drizzling rain ceased altogether. At last Hermann pulled back a bit, though he did not let go of Newt entirely, and Newt’s arms were wrapped loosely still about his waist. Newt’s eyes shone.

“I missed you,” Hermann said quietly.

And that did it: Newt leaned forward, and pressed his lips to Hermann’s in a soft kiss.

Hermann had been waiting for that for quite a long time — longer, he supposed, than for anything else in his life. He had not known he was waiting, of course, not consciously, but his bones and his heart and his soul had been waiting all the same.

Quickly, too quickly, Newt drew back to look at Hermann, asking with his eyes, is this okay? And it was far more than okay, really, so Hermann leaned in and drew Newt into another kiss. At first the brush of their lips was clumsy, as Hermann had never kissed anyone before this moment and was rather learning as he went; and Newt’s glasses interfered besides. But soon they got the hang of it, and the kiss deepened. Hermann melted into it, swept a hand up to thread his fingers through Newt’s messy hair.

It was Newt that broke the kiss first, lips curving up into an ineluctable smile against Hermann’s; he drew back to catch his breath and laugh and look in wonder at Hermann.

“Hey there, Dr. Gottlieb,” he said.

Hermann mirrored Newt’s grin, and looked down bashfully. Something was happening to his heart the longer he stared at Newt so close. “We probably ought to get back to the lab,” he said, but made no move to let go of Newt.

“Mm. That’s probably true. Monsters to fight, and all that.”

Never had Hermann seen Newt so carefree when speaking of the Precursors. There was a new lightness in him, as though at last after so long he saw the Precursors not as some insurmountable enemy but an obstacle he could overcome.

“Quite right,” said Hermann, voice somewhat strangled, and regretfully unwound his arms from Newt’s body — though he did press a fleeting kiss to the corner of Newt’s mouth.

“Shit, dude,” said Newt as he slid his arms from Hermann’s waist to toy idly with the collar of Hermann’s shirt, “we only have one more door to go. I can’t believe this is almost over. I can’t believe this all’s happened.” He shook his head. “I’d totally consigned myself to just… never being me again.”

“Well, I simply couldn’t stand for that,” Hermann said. “Fortunately, I don’t think that will be your reality ever again.”

He bent down to collect his cane from where it had fallen to the ground, but his back cried out a stinging protest, strong enough to frighten him. It was as though a thread had crawled from the wound on his shoulder to his spine without his noticing, and was now set afire.

With concern Newt picked up the cane and handed it to Hermann. “Hey, you okay?”

“Yes,” said Hermann, wincing, “just a slight twinge.” Newt did not need to worry himself with Hermann’s aches. He had his own set of far more pressing concerns.

“If you say so,” said Newt suspiciously. “Come on, man. Let’s get you back in the lab. I think we can afford to rest for a bit — I feel… really good. Like, I don’t want to jinx anything, but I think we can kick whatever’s through the final door in the ass.”

And so Newt slung his arm once more about Hermann’s waist for support, and led him through the lavender door.

 


 

There was more color to Newt now. All of him was saturated as he should have been, save his eyes, which were tinged still with grey. He and Hermann sat at their usual table in the center of the laboratory, though Hermann had hunched awkwardly forward the moment he sat down to ease the burning of his shoulder. Newt held his hand across the table as his eyes darted from Hermann to the final doorway.

“Maybe we should just end the Drift now,” he said, hand tight about Hermann’s. “Your shoulder…”

That was certainly a change from his enthusiasm moments before.

“Newton,” Hermann said. “So much of you is here with me, but this is not the whole of you. Not yet. I don’t really want to go through those doors either, but I suspect we must.”

Newt looked at him with those desaturated-green eyes. “Who says we do? I can feel it — I know exactly what’s through that doorway — the only things there are… monsters. Plus we don’t even know what the keycode is for the padlock. And you’re hurt. I really think we should leave, man. Enough of me is back together.”

“I’ll be fine,” said Hermann. He could not tell whether it was the truth. Still the ribbon of pain was alight, a heated wire shoved between his shoulder and spine, but it was not unmanageable. “And we will figure out a way to get through the padlock. I know how terrifying the Precursors must seem — they’ve immured you in your own mind for years. Years! But we shall face them together. We’ve done it once before. We can do it again.”

Newt snorted. “That’s not… I just — I just want to leave.”

“I’m afraid I don’t quite understand,” said Hermann. There it was again: that grief that was not for the Precursors, that was not for anything Newt himself had suffered. “What is it?” asked Hermann softly.

A long silence dripped by before Newt said, “I don’t want you to hate me.”

“What on Earth could ever cause me to hate you?” said Hermann. “I may not have been that fond of you following our fight, but I have never felt hatred for you. I’m not entirely sure I’m capable of it.” His lips twisted into a reassuring half-smile.

“You don’t…” Newt trailed off, shaking his head.

And then Hermann could not express his bewilderment further, or even reassure Newt, for the pain whispering down his nerves crept a modicum further down his spine, and set afire a part of him that had previously known peace. He let out a jagged breath and keeled forward. Newt’s hand slipped from his, and there was the sound of Newt’s swivel chair rolling against the ground, and then Newt was kneeling beside him, warm hand anchored in concern against his back.

“Your shoulder,” said Newt. Hermann opened his mouth, but then Newt interjected, “Don’t even think about telling me it’s nothing.”

“The pain is… spreading,” said Hermann reluctantly. “Very slowly, but it is spreading. And… growing.”

“Shit, Hermann, we’ve gotta get you out of here. What was the hand signal? The one that —”

“It will only terminate the Drift if I am the one to perform it.”

“Three snaps, wasn’t it?” said Newt, and snapped his fingers thrice.

Nothing happened.

“As I said,” said Hermann. "It must be me. And it must be my right hand, for that matter."

Newt sighed, then leaned his forehead against Hermann’s bicep. “You’re really gonna make us see this thing through?”

“I want to bring the whole of you back, Newton. Whatever remains beyond that doorway will not make me hate you.”

 


 

It was a while before Newt made a small noise which could have been a laugh against Hermann’s arm. “I think I know what the keycode is,” he said, changing the subject. “For the padlock. It’s the year I first wrote to you.” Hermann’s lips twitched into as much of a grin as he could manage as Newt continued: “I’ve written you a shit-ton of letters, Hermann.”

“I don’t doubt it,” said Hermann, then paused. What was it Illia had said about writing letters when Newt could not express his feelings aloud? And how fiercely had Newt guarded the papers strewn about the laboratory tables and floor? “Newt…” he said, eyeing one of the papers some five feet to their right.

Newt drew back, and followed his gaze. “Oh! I — oh, man. I guess there’s no point in hiding those now. Hold on.” He grabbed the sheet of paper, then sat across from Hermann after a brief nod of assurance that Hermann would be all right supporting his own weight.

“I had assumed there was something terrible written on those papers,” said Hermann, propping himself slowly upright. The pain radiating from the injury on his shoulder had burned so long and so constant through him he was growing somewhat adjusted. Surely it would spread again, and grow, and he would be seized by fresh agony, but for now it was half-tolerable.

“Well, at the time,” said Newt, “I was afraid these might have sent you into full-on fuckin’ cardiac arrest, dude; at the very least I thought they’d make things super awkward. Until I planted one on you back there and you didn’t cane me, that is. Okay, here we go: Dear Hermann, I left a piece of intestine on your half of the lab today and it took you a whole two hours to notice it, so ha. You got worked up enough that you had to take your glasses off. How do you look so hot with that awful DIY haircut and those dorky glasses? It’s driving me crazy, dude. I can’t believe I’m in love with the only guy in the entire universe who makes grandpas look hip and cool.

Hermann did not quite know how to respond. His heart seemed to have relocated to his esophagus. In love. “May I…” he said awkwardly, reaching for the paper. Newt handed it to him, and he pored over it. At the bottom of the page was the signature: Yours, Newt. Hermann swallowed. Yours. “Newton…” he said, and did not know how to continue. That said it all, though, he supposed. Newton.

“Yeah,” said Newt, clearing his throat. “There are… a ton of those. I wrote you a metric assload of letters, man. You should’ve told me way earlier that you wanted to get it on like Genghis Khan and saved me the carpal tunnel.”

Newton,” said Hermann. It seemed he was quite incapable of saying anything else.

“I’m just saying!” said Newt. He stood and flitted about the laboratory collecting a few of the letters. “I can’t believe the Drift put all these in here. What the fuck did you write in your programming, man?”

Hermann thought a moment as he watched Newt bend down to pick up some papers scattered beside a tank of Kaiju viscera. “I really couldn’t say what caused that particular phenomenon. I did modify the original Drift programming to tap more heavily into your deeper conscience, as that was where I assumed I might find you and draw you out. I designed it to make your mind itself the physical variable rather than any memories.” He paused to catch his breath. “My best guess would be that the Drift picked up on those letters, the memories of them locked away in your consciousness, and reconciled their importance by giving them form here: just as it’s set these doors up to contain the memories — and dreams, and nightmares — most vital to who you are.”

“Freaky stuff,” said Newt, and dropped a small stack of letters before Hermann as he sat back across from him. “Here’s — well. If you want to read any more of them. You should probably sit for a bit and get your strength back up, yeah?”

Some part of Hermann whispered that he would not likely get his strength back: that this creeping pain would only augment as time rolled by. But he declined to listen. He was growing well accustomed to this newest wash of pain, after all, and was perfectly willing to tolerate it for Newt’s sake besides. What was a little pain to a decade of possession? Hermann reached out and gingerly plucked the top letter from the heap.

Dear Hermann,

You know what fucks me up? You’re all pointy cheekbones and sharp jawline and then your eyes are so goddamn soft. Like a deer or something. You stood right up close to me today to rip me a new one for drawing a dick on your chalkboard, and I don’t think you even realized what kind of effect you had on me. The crinkles around your eyes are so adorable I only heard like half of what you said, maybe, because I couldn’t concentrate. Now you’re back at your desk and you look like you’re about to scold your own computer and I’m into it, man, I’m weirdly into it. I think you’re giving me a new kink, and it’s a problem. Quit being so sexy and mathematical over there. I can’t get any work done.

Yours, Newt

Heat was flushing up Hermann’s neck as he picked up the next letter.

Dear Hermann,

We haven’t actually spoken to each other in 23 days now, and no, I don’t count the times we were forced to say like two words to each other about work as speaking. It’s so frustrating having to avoid looking at you because if I do then we’ll both just get pissed off all over again.

Rosalind is way better now, so I think I’m mostly still just mad at you because you’re mad at me. And, well, hey, blocking my emails was still a dick move. I maintain that this was all your fault. I mean I’ll admit that I was kind of a jerkass too — no, really a jerkass. Who am I kidding! I really don’t know why you haven’t told Pentecost it was me that deleted the project because he’s been giving you a frankly incredible amount of shit for it and you don’t need to take any of it and I just don’t get why you’d do that for me. And something tells me you’re not going to just come out and tell me why, so I’m stuck writing this letter to you like “what the fuck dude???”

I miss you. I miss your stupid voice and your stupid accent and your stupid haircut. One of the worst parts is how lonely it gets in the mess hall — I’m writing this right now so that it looks like I’m working on something and not just sneaking glances at you when you’re looking the other way. No one ever wants to sit with either of us so now that we don’t have each other to actually eat with, we’re just awkwardly sitting a couple of feet away from each other at the only empty table here and it’s the worst. I miss eating lunch with you, dude. Not that you were the most riveting conversation partner. You were pretty terrible, actually, but that’s not the point. I want to go over and just sit with you and force you to deal with it but we’ve progressed from saying nothing to each other to saying like one word a day and I don’t want to ruin that.

Am I surprised it took us having a fuckin category seven fight to realize I’m in love with you? Not really. You’re like the polar opposite of everything I like but I still love you, somehow. I’m running out of paper now and I don’t want to just sit here silently staring at nothing while I eat so I’m going to sneak my food up to the

Okay no, if I leave now then that just leaves you by yourself and I’ll think about you all alone down here eating your egg sandwich and it’s going to make me sad. This is the last bit of paper I have left so I guess this letter ends now. Hermann please come over and talk to me. I miss you.

Yours, Newt.

Hermann folded the letter neatly in half, and smoothed his features out from where they had dragged down unhappily. “I missed you too, you know,” he said.

“Huh?” said Newt. “Oh shit, did you get one from after the…”

Hermann nodded. “After the fight. I’m sorry the idea of me consuming an egg sandwich alone caused you such distress. You should know that I am perfectly fine with eating by myself.” His lips crept into a small smile. He had wondered why, in those icy months, Newt would sometimes sit pushing the scraps of his food around his tray long after finishing his meal. “You needn’t have taken your meals in the mess hall for my benefit.”

“Well I did, so tough shit, Hermann,” said Newt affectionately.

“And I appreciate it nonetheless,” Hermann said. “I assume you know now why I took the blame for what happened to that project.”

“Mm. You couldn’t tap this if I got fired.”

In hindsight Hermann should have anticipated that Newt’s good humor would turn his speech crude, but he was ill prepared for it all the same: he fell into a coughing fit, doubling forward. The motion set ablaze the wire of pain he had grown almost accustomed to, set it splintering a centimeter further down his spine, down his arm, away in all directions from the wound at his shoulder. A hiss of pain slipped past his lips, and Newt’s happy expression slipped to concern.

“Hermann?” he said, all traces of mirth vanished.

It took many moments for Hermann to find his voice. There were fingernails scraping slowly down the nerves near his shoulder. “I don’t know what’s happening,” he said at last, though it was not quite the truth.

Newt — Newt, whose extensive injuries had all healed to completion — looked either very worried or very afraid. Or perhaps both. Likely both. His brow was wrinkled deeply, and he swallowed before speaking slowly. “Hermann, how does your head feel?”

“Beg pardon?”

“Your head. Are you lightheaded; can you think clearly?”

Mentally I feel fine.”

“Any dizziness?”

“No.”

“Let me feel your hands.”

Taking care not to jostle his shoulder, Hermann stretched one hand out across the table.

Newt took it between his own, then released a terse breath. “Good. Okay, no clamminess, that’s good.” He let go of Hermann’s hand. “If any of that changes, tell me.”

Hermann knew the symptoms of shock. He knew the leap of logic Newt had made from the source of the wound on his shoulder to those symptoms. It had of course crossed Hermann’s mind as well, but he had been trying not to think it. For the sake of not burdening Newt, Hermann kept quiet. He did not say, “Yes, your hypothesis is quite likely: Otachi’s blood touched me, and Kaiju Blue takes its victims fast.” Only time would tell whether their assumptions would prove true, and right now Hermann had time only to catch his breath and steel himself against the pain.

“Are you sure you won’t end the Drift?” asked Newt, resigned. He already knew the answer.

“I don’t believe my injuries are going to get any better,” said Hermann. “I think we ought to get going.” If he could have moved without that boiling water pouring further through his veins, he would have made for the glowing doorway. As it was, he only shifted in his seat and grunted for the effort of it.

Newt looked dearly upset. “At least stay and read one more letter — if nothing else, just so you can work up to the walk over to the door.”

“All right,” said Hermann quietly, though he knew Newt was stalling. “All right. Would you…” — he eyed the stack of letters before him — “It’s just — my shoulder —”

“Yeah, yeah, of course,” said Newt. He slid the stack toward himself and shuffled through before lighting on one with a quick huff of laughter. “Oh, this one’s good. Okay. Dear Hermann, Holy shit dude, I’m shaking so hard I’m about to fall out of my chair. It’s 3AM and I can’t fall asleep because we just stopped the apocalypse and you let me hug you and that side-eye and little smile you gave me while you tried to be subtle about sneaking closer to me was the actual cutest thing I’ve ever seen. Tendo saw everything, too — I ran into him on the way back to my room and he was waggling his eyebrows at me like, “Is Hermann in there waiting for you? Wink wink,” and it was one of the highlights of my life. Oh man. Just kill me now because I think I actually peaked today. I’m tempted to just sprint down the hall to your room and go make out with you but it’s 3AM and that’s so far past your bedtime you’d probably kill me. I really wanted to tell you right then and there while we were hugging that I love you. Ah well. I guess I’ll just save it and wait for the right moment.” Something akin to sorrow flashed briefly behind Newt’s eyes. “Maybe I should sneak down to your room anyways and bear hug you. If you kill me at least that’ll be the best possible way for me to go. Here lies Newton Gottlieb, died 2025, cause of death: hugging Hermann Gottlieb. You’re so bony but you’re also the perfect softness for hugging? How does that work. Oh my God, I just noticed I called myself Newton Gottlieb so that’s about where I’m at right now. I should try to sleep. I’ll see you in a few hours.”

“Do you still have any of these letters in real life?” asked Hermann.

“I’ve kinda kept them all,” said Newt.

“I would very much like to read the rest of them, once we’ve finished here. Once we’ve got you away from the PPDC. Once all of this is over.”

“Sounds good,” said Newt, and Hermann could tell he was struggling to keep his tone level.

Hermann cleared his throat and straightened his spine as best he could. “I may require a bit of assistance to stand.” The nail slicing down his nerves was not so easy now to adjust to. Newt hastened from his chair and helped Hermann to his feet with a hand at his waist. “And the bag,” added Hermann, eyeing the tie-dye messenger bag on his desk.

“You sure?” asked Newt as he went over and picked it up. The handle of the bone saw jutted out, and Newt eyed it in concern; Hermann hesitated as well. His own weight was burden enough. Would he be able to carry the bone saw with him through whatever lay beyond the glowing doorway? And for that matter, a roll of duct tape was not nothing: would he truly need it, or was it simply excess weight?

“I suppose just the pocket knife will do,” said Hermann. Newt began drawing the pocket knife out of the bag. “Er —” Hermann said quickly, and Newt gave him a questioning look. “Would you mind — I, well — it’s just that — I would prefer to keep the bag. To — to bring it with me,” he finished lamely.

Realization visibly clicked within Newt. “So you do love the bag after all,” he said with a grin. “I knew it.”

“I am… moderately fond of it.”

“Uhuh. Sure, buddy.” Newt looked entirely unconvinced. “Okay, I guess we’ll just take this bad boy out, then,” he said as he removed the bone saw from the bag. Hermann felt rather silly as Newt drew out the roll of duct tape as well, felt silly for carrying only a pocket knife within the roomy bag. But the tie-dye monstrosity had come to be a reassuring presence at Hermann’s side; the texture of the fabric was a comfort, and the gaudy pattern had grown on him besides. Newt brought the bag back to him and helped him slide it onto his uninjured shoulder.

Upon his cane Hermann’s knuckles whitened as he took his first steps away from the table, but Newt was soft and warm beside him, and together they wended their way to the glowing doorway.

About the edges of the industrial doors those thin tentacles were curled, unmoving. The bright turquoise glow painted Newt’s face in subtle dread. Tentatively Newt crept forward to unlock the padlock with the digits 2013, their first year of correspondence. Click went the padlock, and with a glance to Hermann, Newt pulled it free along with the chain encircling the door handles. But then he paused.

“Newton,” said Hermann, “please tell me what’s wrong.”

Newt shook his head, and would not meet Hermann’s eye. “I just really don’t want to go in there.”

“You know we must.”

“I know,” said Newt, voice thick. His shoulders hunched unhappily as he took hold of the door handles. “Just — please don’t judge me too harshly. I thought I was doing the right thing.”

Before Hermann could respond, Newt was pulling the doors open and crossing the threshold; his figure was dissolving into the turquoise radiance streaming from the doorway. So bright was the spill of light that at first Hermann could not even discern what lay beyond the final doorway. But Newt’s doubts and the pain crawling down his spine stayed him before the threshold, and he lingered long enough for a great many shapes and forms to come into clarity against the Anteverse radiance. And he saw then what those thin tentacles creeping across the doorway had been all this time, and he was afraid.

But Hermann stepped forward nonetheless. For forgiveness, for love, for fortune’s favor: he stepped forward.

Chapter Text

It took Hermann a moment to place why the room seemed familiar, but then it struck him: he and Newt had faced Otachi here. There all around him was Anteverse flora, as there had been in this room beyond the black door, but it was far overgrown from what he had seen last. Every inch of the room was covered now in foliage, save a narrow path cut straight through the middle. A void-black ribbon, it unspooled away from the doorway he had just stepped through, and led directly to the tentacle-draped opening to that labyrinthine maze of corridors.

But Hermann was not afraid for the flora setting the room aglow in shades of bright turquoise. Not for the pitch-black pathway, either, or for the great distance it seemed he would have to walk in pain.

No, what frightened Hermann were the two things standing in the Anteverse overgrowth just ahead, and what frightened him was the thing between them, in the center of the unlit pathway. One creature stood to that thing’s right, and another to its left: twice his height and staring directly at him with those cold, beady eyes, two Precursors stood silent sentry on either side of a glistening chunk of Kaiju brain.

Though Hermann had not met her in person, he knew this was Alice. Before Newt had dropped the facade of normalcy to reveal his possession, he had brought the name up several times. And after PPDC officials had discovered a Kaiju brain hooked up to a Pons system in Newt’s apartment, Hermann had connected the dots. Alice. She lay on the ground before him now, pulsing faintly; her tentacles had lost their grip on the double doors as Hermann opened them, and were stretched out grotesquely along the void-black pathway. Alice: a name that had twisted itself around Hermann’s composure and cost him a good many nights of sleep. She reeked of rot and brine. The urge rose sharp up in him to swat her tentacles away, but something in the miasmic air or in the back of his mind made the quiet suggestion that that would not be wise. The eyes of the Precursors bored into him.

Hermann shivered, and clutched the messenger bag tighter. Alice’s presence filled him with inexplicable dread. But it was quite clear what he must do. There was no way to go but forward. Forward was where he would find the final piece of Newt, and so forward he would go. And he was dearly afraid, but he stepped ahead on the void-black path anyway. Already he had gone through a great deal without giving up, and he would not start now.

As he stepped over Alice’s tentacles and then Alice herself, the Precursors stood lifeless guard — save their eyes, which followed his every motion. And he walked past them down the pathway, turning backward to keep a watch on them and Alice, and still they betrayed no sign of life but the motion of their eyes.

It was unnerving. Could they truly see him? In theory he should not have been part of this mind-scape until he touched Newt: invisible and untouchable to the occupants of it, and yet the Precursors stayed staring at him. He took a breath to steel himself, then turned decisively forward. Whether the rules had changed through this final doorway or not, it was a long way across the room, and he at some point would need to look away from those sentry creatures. He may as well get it over with now.

Their dreadful, watching presence crept down his spine, hovered thick in the air behind him, but he refused to give in and glance back. Resolutely he fixed his gaze on the pathway before him, and marched on. Good riddance to them, and good riddance to Alice.

No more than fifty feet could he have walked before Newt’s echoing voice came from his left.

“This headache is killing me.”

Hermann gave a start. There to his left stood Newt, staring at him, close enough to speak with yet not close enough to touch. Should Hermann knock his toes into the edge of the unlit path and stretch out his hand, Newt would lie just beyond the reach of his fingertips. Anteverse flora swallowed up Newt’s feet, his knees, and cast his features into turquoise radiance from below. Long shadows crawled across his features.

“I already took two Tylenols,” Newt continued. “And they did shit-all, so that was great. Ever since the Drifts I’ve been getting just… worse and worse headaches.”

“Is Hermann getting them too?” came Illia’s voice from all around Hermann. It echoed like Newt’s, as if in a vast empty chamber. About himself Hermann looked, though he saw Illia nowhere.

Newt responded, still looking Hermann in the eye, as if Hermann had been the one to speak. “No, I haven’t asked, but he hasn’t said anything either. If I did he’d probably go, ‘Well, Newton, it’s your own fault for Drifting with those creatures twice!’ And we’ve been getting along so well, I don’t want to poke any holes in that.”

Hermann had noticed Newt withdrawing, keeping a bottle of pills on his desk in his final months with the PPDC. But he had kept quiet: he had figured if Newt were truly struggling, then Newt would say something. Had he asked Newt just once how he was faring — would that have changed anything? Would they have been able to catch this problem in its infancy? Would it have changed everything?

“Oh, Newt,” said Illia. “You know you can always come home if you need some time off.”

“I know. And thank you — but aside from the, y’know, crippling headaches, I’m really loving it here. Not to brag, but I’m kind of a rockstar right now: Hermann’s friendlier, and Mako’s actually willing to hang out with me some, and one of the J-techs came over in the mess hall the other day to high-five me and Hermann. So that was pretty awesome.”

“Congrats, dude.” There was fond laughter in Illia’s echoing voice. “But hey, promise me you’ll tell someone if the headaches get too bad. If the world needs saving again, we’ll need you in one piece.”

“Yeah, yeah, I promise,” said Newt, waving a hand in light dismissal. The skin of his arm was electric blue in the Anteverse lighting.

“And I still don’t think it would be a bad idea to let Hermann know what you’re going through,” said Illia. “If anyone can relate, it’s him.”

For the first time Newt tore his gaze from Hermann; he looked to the side, mouth pressed into a thin line. “I don’t know,” he said slowly. “I just… I don’t know. I don’t… feel like he will.” Newt was frowning, as if his thoughts were difficult to pull together. He looked back to Hermann. “I don’t know,” he said with a humorless twist of his lips, and his figure flickered out of existence. Silence fell over the room once more, and Hermann stood alone on the pathway.

Nausea was twisting through his gut. He would have listened to Newt. He would have listened, and related — although it was a very easy thing to say now, after over a decade of Newt’s absence, with the weight of hindsight and the impetus of love on his conscience. Perhaps a good many things could have unfolded differently, but what power did he have to change any of it? All he could do now was step the unlit path before him.

And so he did.

He really did not go far at all — halfway through the room, maybe — before Newt’s voice came echoing once more from his side: to his right, this time.

“I can feel you, you know. In the back of my mind.” Newt stood just out of arm’s reach once more, knee-deep in Anteverse overgrowth, staring at Hermann with curiosity. Blood was trickling from his nose. “The only logical explanation is that you’ve been hanging on in there since the Drifts, but you don’t seem like a Kaiju. What are you? Don’t be afraid — I don’t want to hurt you.”

Several beats of silence, and then: “You know what we are, Dr. Geiszler. You have seen our faces already, in your Drift.” The words came from everywhere and nowhere at once.

Newt’s eyes widened as he stared at Hermann. “You can speak?”

We can do a great many things. We are not like the Kaiju that you know and are so fond of. You could think of them as our pets, if you’d like.

Kindness dripped saccharine through that dreadful, echoing unvoice. It was a chord played wrongly on the piano: shrill and discordant. Surely Newt could hear the falseness beneath it. But then again, did Hermann not have the benefit of hindsight? What sounded sneering to him could for all the world have sounded genuine to Newt’s ears. And who would have wanted to hear kindness in the voice of those monsters more than Newt?

“You guys have been giving me a bit of grief, lately,” said Newt. “Headaches, and the nosebleeds, and…”

Regrettable,” said the Precursors. “Your body was not designed to handle such a burden as our consciousness. There is, however, a way to alleviate your strain. It has already crossed your mind, has it not?

“Drifting. Again.” Newt looked hesitant, and Hermann shut his eyes tight. He could not stand to watch. Could not stand to remember that glistening chunk of brain on the ground. “We do have some bits of Kaiju brain in the lab still,” continued Newt, “since the PPDC wants us to conduct a bit more research on the Anteverse. And it would be a great way, honestly, to learn more about you and about the Breach. I don’t think it would be too difficult to put together another Pons System, but…”

Best to do it in secret.

“Yeah… it’s just — I don’t know if Hermann would understand.” Hermann opened his eyes to see Newt wiping at his bloody nose with his sleeve. “I don’t know,” Newt repeated, quieter. And he vanished once more into nothingness.

“Newton,” whispered Hermann, brow creased as he stared at the empty space where Newt’s image had stood moments before. And he had no time to reflect on what could have or might have been, for the scalding pain spread further then from its epicenter at his shoulder. It knifed further down his arm, down his spine, up his neck. A little gasp of pain slipped past his lips, and he hunched over his cane. But with effort he righted himself: he could not help Newt if he stalled like this.

He set one foot gingerly in front of the other, and so he went along his path until Newt’s voice came again from his left, and again Newt stood in the Anteverse flora limned in that dreadful turquoise light.

“I didn’t want to do it,” said Newt, staring at Hermann in confusion. “I didn’t want to leave the PPDC. I mean, I did, or at least I must have — it felt like what I wanted to do, but why would I? Hermann’s still with the PPDC, and going into the private sector’s always felt like selling out, so I don’t exactly know how I ended up here. And just, God, the look on his face when I said I was leaving? I didn’t like it… I didn’t like it. I just — I think you guys might be crossing some wires in my brain. Like all this fogginess in my head, and — and quitting my job? That’s not… me.”

And then came the horrible chittering response: “Was leaving the PPDC not the better thing to do? You will always be limited there: by funding, by those with authority above you, by research that seeks only to understand what has already happened rather than what might be. The Kaiju are a thing of the past, Dr. Geiszler! The future is metal. Here is your chance to bring your world the salvation it deserves. Your uncle and Dr. Gottlieb — they will not understand, yet. But in time they will see the greatness of your work.

Could Newt not hear the malice beneath the promise?

“I mean, I do find Shao Industries’ drone program pretty fascinating,” said Newt. “I guess I just don’t understand why you guys are helping me like this.”

You are not like the rest of them, Newt, the rest of humanity. We like you.

“But after everything with the Breach, and part of your world getting blown up…”

We are here, and we are offering you help,” snapped the Precursors, tone turning on a knife-point. “Is that not enough for you? Would you like us to seek retribution for the wrongs your world has done ours?

“No, no!” Newt said, eyes wide, curling in on himself. “I’m sorry, I — thank you. For your help. Seriously. Th-thank you.” And he dissipated along with the echo of his quivering voice.

Hermann’s chest felt very heavy. He had been perfectly willing to face any monsters beyond the glowing doorway, but he had not been prepared to watch Newt fall slowly apart. With a grimace he clutched at his neck, where the pain from his shoulder had newly spread. Beneath his fingers his pulse had picked up allegro: and his fingers were slightly cold on his neck. He breathed out a groan of pain and frustration, and swallowed. This was not good.

But on he went.

There was not far to go now until the tentacle-draped entrance to the maze of corridors: he clutched the strap of the messenger bag tight enough that his fingers trembled, and kept his gaze fixed straight ahead. Far behind him shivered that cold malice, the presence of those sentry Precursors and the thing they guarded, and still he did not glance backward. All that mattered was finding Newt. Hermann shouldered through the tentacles and into the flora-spattered hallway.

The corridors were quite difficult to navigate. Anteverse plantlife had grown up the walls, and had expanded along the floor. At some points no space existed for him to set his feet, and he had to bodily crawl over some plants despite the agony shrieking through his shoulder and the ache through his leg. Glowing flora slicked his legs in slime, and smacked mercilessly into his injured shoulder, and scratched into his skin. And it did not grow sparser as he went along, this time; plantlife filled the labyrinthine corridors right up until the matte black door at the very end. Hermann grabbed the door handle with his one good arm, and heaved it open against the resistance of a leafy bush sat before it.

At last he stumbled through the door and into a massive room suffused in benthic light. Far in the distance on either side of him were four great shapes: two faint and towering masses of shadow to his left, and two to his right. Cherno Alpha, Gipsy Danger, Striker Eureka, and Crimson Typhoon, all silhouetted against the dim blue light.

Now he could see the whole of it, Hermann supposed this room must have been ten — no, twenty times the size of the one crawling with bright flora. Was he to walk along the edges again, and through the matte door on the opposite end? Was he to comb through every inch of this room in search of Newt? Was he to approach the Jaegers? He squinted all about himself, and saw no indicator any way. But then the feeling crept up on him, no more than a whisper, to go straight forward.

And so he did. Going forward had served him quite well through the other door, after all. Despite his pain and the blood seeping from many fresh scratches across his face and hands, he put one foot in front of the other, and then the next, and so went on through the vast room.

He did not travel far — two hundred feet, perhaps — before Newt’s figure materialized at his right.

“No… please,” Newt said in plain despair. “Don’t make me Drift with her again… don’t make me Drift with Alice… please.”

The laughter of the Precursors sounded all around Hermann, and it was high and cruel and terrible. In this room the echoes were stronger, and that fanged laughter was a razor down his nerves.

“Aagh!” cried Newt, clutching his hands over his ears. He stared at Hermann in such anguish that Hermann could not help bridging the small gap between them to cup Newt’s cheek in his hand. A small part of him had hoped this might wake him from his agony, but of course fate was not so kind. Nothing happened at his touch. “Get out of my head,” Newt said, shrinking in on himself. But the plea was weak.

Why, Dr. Geiszler!” said the Precursors. “You almost make us feel unwelcome! And Alice, too: she loves you, you know!

“I never wanted this,” said Newt. Determination crept onto his features; his hands fell away from his ears. “I won’t let you go any further. I won’t let you take me.”

Shall we take Hermann, then?

“What?” Tension snapped up through Newt’s frame. “No! Why would — how — why on —”

But that is our price! Your mind for his, little scientist. We have our hooks in you, as we do in him. But we can only possess one of you fully. Since we like you better than him, we will give you the choice: shall we take your mind or his?

They spoke as if they were generous beyond reason for giving Newt the choice, and Hermann hated them for it.

“I won’t —”

Speak carefully,” hissed the Precursors. “Refuse to answer us, and we will take Dr. Gottlieb and drive him mad.

“No! Please don’t…” Newt looked into Hermann’s eyes, begging.

No answer still? What a shame! His madness will begin with nightmares —”

“Fine!” cried Newt as Herman’s stomach dropped. “Take me, take my mind.” Newt looked at Hermann wildly, eyes glistening.

All right, then! That was not so terrible, now, was it?” They paused. "And how quaint! You think you’re strong enough to resist us.

“I am strong enough,” said Newt. And he dissolved into the dim blue air. Hermann’s hands clasped about nothing.

All this time, Hermann had thought himself strong for resisting the Precursors. But had he ever really struggled with them at all? Sure, they had sent him nightmares that set his skin crawling with just the faint recollection of them, but they had never forced him to shoulder such a burden as the choice they had given Newt. And was the choice they gave him true? Hermann had felt them, felt them creeping always back into his mind every so often. They had seemed fierce in their intentions: but had they let themselves be defeated, or were they only covering for their true inability to take Hermann’s mind? Just before he had initiated this Drift with Newt, he recalled, the Precursors had told him that they preferred him to Newt, liked him better. They had said outright they would have rather possessed him over Newt. Hermann did not know what to believe, but knew that true or false, the choice the Precursors had given Newt had greased the road for them to take his mind: let him think he was saving Hermann by offering up his mind, and they would not encounter half as much resistance.

Hermann's brow crumpled. If only he had reached out more than just the once in those ten years, more than just that single letter. If only he had not been so discouraged by the letter Newt had sent him in reply, raving about his position at Shao Industries and the woman Alice who had moved into his apartment. If only he had not let his own hurts blind him to the change in Newt. If only, if only!

There was nothing he could do now except drag in a breath, and steel his resolve against the pain shuddering through him, and walk on. Another two hundred or so feet he went before Newt winked into existence at his left, holding a letter.

“Please, will you just let me send a letter to him? You’ll see everything I write; I won’t say anything about you, just — please let me reply to him.” Newt’s voice broke as he waved the letter that Hermann had sent him.

He is doing fine without you,” said the Precursors. “You need not send him anything.

Newt dropped the letter, and it fluttered like a ghost to the ground. He shook his head and covered his eyes with his palms as he sank down to the ground, knees curled up before him. “I’m so sorry, Hermann,” he whispered helplessly. “I miss you so fucking much, dude. And I guess I can’t tell you that, so it looks like I’m just going to have to pretend that you’re here with me, because who needs dignity! I never wanted to leave you like that — I mean, I thought I did, I thought I wanted to get out of the PPDC, but I’m not really sure what’s me and what’s them sometimes. And they’re getting stronger. I don’t know how much more of this I can handle, and I really wish you were here, dude. I just — I wish you were here.” His voice twisted and was choked: his composure had been slipping the longer he spoke, and at last it cracked entirely. Sobs overtook him, wracking through his body.

Newt’s breakdown was helpless and ugly, and pity knifed through Hermann’s chest. He could not help. Touching the last memory of Newt had done nothing. He could only watch as Newt shattered.

You wish that he were here and that he loved you,” said the Precursors with such false compassion Hermann could have retched. “But neither is true. You left him, after all.

They waited as if expecting a response, but Newt just sobbed.

Here is an option,” they said at length. “A compromise, if you will. You may write him back if you tell him only of the reward of working with Shao Industries, and of your fondness for your dear roommate Alice.

compromise — Hermann seethed.

Newt lifted his hands from his red-rimmed eyes and looked up at Hermann with desperate hope. “Really?” he said.

Never say we are not merciful!” said the creatures who had never done a merciful thing in their lives.

“Thank you,” whispered Newt as he descended once more into weeping. “Thank you.” And then he dissolved into nothingness, though the echo of his sobs lingered.

Hermann’s mouth was twisted into a wretched grimace as the last echo faded. He wiped away the tear that had fallen down his cheek, then moved his hand up to his forehead. It felt quite hot, though it may have felt more so for the contrast against his clammy hand. His hand came away spotted with blood. Those damned scratches.

As he stepped forward once more through the vast room, the searing pain spread further down his arm, down to his elbow. It crept to his other shoulder, and up to his jaw, and to a point just shy of his heart. Cold dread which for once had nothing to do with the Precursors shivered through him, though he did his damndest to brush it aside. Whatever was happening to him, help would have to wait until after he had rescued Newt. He did not have to weigh the value of Newt’s life against his own pain to know this: he had not weighed the value of Newt’s life against his reputation when he began this quest, and he had not weighed the value of Newt’s life against his own when he joined Newt in Drifting with that Kaiju brain so long ago. He had never had to weigh the value of Newt’s life against anything, really, because there was never any doubt that Newt would come out greater than everything else. He carried on walking.

After some time, Newt’s figure appeared to his right. But it was not his voice that spoke first.

We have one more question for you, Dr. Geiszler,” said the Precursors, and their words echoed with a terrible finality. “We have honored our promise not to possess Hermann. Oh, we have sent him nightmares, but we have not taken his mind. So now we ask: shall we kill the world with your hands or his? At his hands it will be a more merciful execution. One massive bang, and humanity will sleep forever. At your hands it will be crueler. Humanity will choke slowly. If your answer is Hermann, then we will leave you be. We will take his mind and be done with you. We assume we need not remind you of the consequences should you refuse to answer. Tell us, Dr. Geiszler: how now shall we kill the world?

Newt looked at Hermann raggedly, and huffed out a laugh devoid of any humor. “You know it’s gotta be me,” he said.

It does not have to be you,” said the Precursors. “But we will honor your wish all the same.

“Fine.”

What’s this?” There was genuine surprise in the question. “After all these years, you still believe you can resist us?

“I’m strong enough,” Newt whispered.

“Oh, Newton,” breathed Hermann, though his voice was drowned out by the sharp and booming laughter of the Precursors. Grim determination flickered across Newt’s features, and he disappeared. The sibilant laughter echoed long after.

Hermann stared after the spot where Newt had vanished. Had he chosen to drench his own hands in blood to spare Hermann’s? Or had he done so only in the conviction that he was truly strong enough to resist the Precursors? Had the Precursors’ choice even been real, or was that simply another lie? It mattered little now, Hermann supposed.

A layer of cold sweat had insinuated itself between his hand and his cane, and he wiped his hand on his jacket before setting off once more. Surely the end of this phantasmal string of memories was near. Breathing was growing difficult, and if the searing pain from his shoulder spread further, Hermann did not know how long he would be able to continue walking. But he did nonetheless: he continued. The most worthwhile things were, after all, never easy.

A way through the room he went before Newt, half-transparent, flickered into existence at his left. He stared at Hermann with a frightening dullness.

“Maybe the world does deserve to die,” Newt said, monotone. Hermann startled. “I mean, we pollute, and we abandon each other, and we fight wars, and — and maybe we’re just not worth saving.”

The Precursors did not speak, but Hermann felt their presence all the same, listening to Newt in chittering silence, encouraging him to spill his thoughts like ink.

“Not that I think I’m like the hand of God or whatever,” Newt continued. “That’s — that’s not it. It’s a mercy, maybe. One boom, and however painful it is, we all die. The Earth doesn’t need us. Hell, it’ll do better without us. Maybe there’s no coming back from what we’ve done to it. Maybe there’s not any forgiveness. Just — just a blank slate.”

From the ashes of your world there will be new life. A quantum leap in evolution, and you as the catalyst for all of it. What greater honor could we have given you?

Hermann felt nauseated.

“I guess it’s not the worst way to go out,” Newt said, then paused, as if choking on the words. “Wait, what? I’d never — I don’t want to kill anyone.” He stared, horrified, at Hermann.

Don’t you?” the Precursors sneered.

“What are you doing to me?” asked Newt in quiet dread. “For a second I actually believed what I was saying. Fuck, what are you doing to me? My body is gone, I know it. But you’re turning me into something I’m not. You’re…”

Oh, Dr. Geiszler. You should have known: you are not strong enough. You were never strong enough to resist us. It is not your fault. Or should we say — it is only your fault! You chose this, after all!” The creatures broke off into piercing, gleeful laughter.

For a moment Newt wore the expression of a man drowning, but then it flattened out to bleary nothingness. “Maybe the world does deserve to die,” he said, and vanished.

Hermann stared at the benthic emptiness where Newt had stood. He stared until the feeling that his nerves were splintering drowned out the ghost of Newt’s resignation, and became unbearable, and urged him on.

He did not have to walk far before Newt’s voice spoke, and seemed to come from all around him rather than any specific point. Newt’s figure did not appear this time. His speech was nothing coherent: the words overlapped and echoed over each other, a tangle of thoughts. Only a few snatches could Hermann make out. His name, and Illia’s name, and a good many strangled pleas. He went on, though his pace was slowing for his injuries.

After what could not have been long — though it felt a torturous while indeed to Hermann — Newt at last materialized to his left. He wore a very familiar expression.

“No — Hermann — there’s no point fighting them — I’m not strong enough, Hermann — I am not strong enough —” He flickered out of existence, then reappeared at Hermann’s right. “I’m sorry, Hermann,” he said quietly. “They’re in my head.” And he vanished, and Hermann knew he would not appear again. The incoherent overlapping speech began once more, though it was softer now.

That nerve-splitting feeling spread, then: down to Hermann’s forearm and up his jaw and nearer to his heart. A hiss escaped his teeth, and he screwed his eyes shut against the pain, doubling over. His head swam as he righted his posture. But nonetheless he carried on.

As Hermann dragged one foot in front of the other, the jumble of words quieted to a whisper, then faded to a low monotone ringing. To white noise, to static. That was Newt’s mind. No more than static.

A speck of light appeared in the distance, straight ahead. By Hermann’s gauge it hovered in the very center of the room, equidistant from all four Jaegers. Had he been physically able to, he would have sped his pace: but it was enough of a battle as it was just to walk. As he drew nearer to the light, he saw that it was not a speck at all. Rather, it was a small mass of silver smoke ebbing gently in midair. Crimson and gold sparks played across it like synapses.

“Hello again,” said Hermann as he at last reached the smoke. He had not seen it in so long, not since it had drafted past him to dissolve across the threshold of the grey door. It was hope and pity at once, now: a reminder of how far he had come in this quest to free Newt’s mind, and a reminder of what Newt had been before.

And there was no doubt in Hermann’s mind as to what he must do next. Steadying his hand against the tremors wracking through it, he reached out. As his fingers passed through the smoke (cold, it was so very cold), it expanded, and rippled out to the shape of a man. Had Hermann not stood bent over his cane, he would have been taller than it. From smoke, Newt solidified into existence before him, and no sooner did he look at Hermann than cry his name and pull him into a tight hug. A gasp of pain slipped past Hermann’s lips, and Newt drew back immediately.

“Fuck! Sorry,” he said. Hermann did not get to assure Newt all was well before Newt looked to his jaw, and a horrified expression took over his features. “Fuck,” he said again.

“What is it?” asked Hermann. Of course the pain from his shoulder had scythed up to his jaw, but Newt should not have noticed this purely through looking at him. Not unless —

“Kaiju Blue,” croaked Newt. “It’s — Hermann, there’s turquoise all up the veins of your neck, and — and up your jaw…” He gave Hermann a terrified look of inquiry, and the question was quite plain.

Reluctantly Hermann nodded. “I believe shock has begun to set in, albeit rather slowly.”

“Shit,” said Newt. “We need to get out of here right now, dude.”

“My thoughts precisely,” said Hermann, and began shuffling back the way he had come before he saw that Newt was not following. “Newt?”

“Hermann, I don’t think we’re alone here,” said Newt, glancing wide-eyed all about himself. “Maybe you should just do the hand signal now, end the Drift —”

“I’m not sure that would be wise. We can’t be certain you’re whole until we return to the laboratory.”

“But —”

“I can make it until then.”

“If you’re sure,” said Newt hesitantly.

“I am,” Hermann said, and swallowed against the pain curling razor-sharp through his nerves.

And together they set off. Hermann had walked a very long distance from the corridors, and his pace was slowed; Newt hovered close by him, a hand at the small of his back for support.

I don’t think we’re alone here — Hermann knew well what Newt had meant. He was not referring to the four Jaegers. No, fouler company lurked somewhere close by, and Hermann was beginning to sense it as well, but at least as of yet there was no rain.

After a while of walking, Newt broke the silence that had fallen between them.

“Are you not upset with me?” he asked. He looked as though the question had been building within him for a while.

Hermann frowned. “What on Earth would I be upset with you for?”

“I told them to possess me twice," said Newt. "I thought I could hold them off, and I was incredibly wrong both times.” His composure wavered. “I gave them fucking permission to destroy the world. In the end I was practically encouraging them.”

“They twisted your mind,” said Hermann quietly. “They gave you impossible choices, and then blamed you for them. If this is what you've feared I would hate you for all along, Newton, then you were quite mistaken. They are the ones who tried to kill the world, and they failed.”

Did we?

Newt’s hand jolted from Hermann’s back. Dread poured so violently through Hermann that his breathing hitched; his cane slipped from his clammy grip and clattered to the ground. Dizziness spun through his mind.

Did we fail?” asked the Precursors. Their unvoice came from all around. There to both sides of Hermann and Newt stood the four Jaegers, but if any other silhouette stood with them, it was lost in the vast dim room. “Your PPDC has captured the good Doctor Geiszler. He is nothing to us, now. It is time for us to take you, Dr. Gottlieb, time now for the blood of your world to run through your fingers.

Hermann was not so naïve that he did not know how the Precursors would slaughter the world in his hands. A quote from Oppenheimer came to mind. He looked to Newt, and Newt stared back at him. Neither knew what to say.

And then the pain spread. Further up Hermann’s skull, and down his arm, and at last into his heart. Surely, he had thought, surely the agony could not intensify beyond this nerve-splitting fire. He had been mistaken. A shout of pain slipped past his lips, and he doubled over, clutching his heart.

“Hermann!” cried Newt.

Rain began to fall, a soft and silent drizzle.

You are dying, Hermann,” said the Precursors in poisonous sympathy. “End this Drift now, little scientist. Spare your own life.”

“I will end this Drift once Newt’s mind is whole again,” said Hermann, “and not a moment before.”

Very well. Have it your way, Doctor!

And one of the Precursors that had stood silent sentry over Alice winked into existence a few feet from Hermann, directly in his and Newt’s path out of the vast room. In the benthic lighting its soulless eyes gleamed, and it tipped its bone-crested head to the side. Eye contact was at once stomach-turning and hypnotic: Hermann, neck craned to meet that cruel gaze, could not seem to look away.

But then Newt gave a shout of surprise, and slipped suddenly out of Hermann’s peripheral vision. In alarm Hermann turned: the second Precursor had materialized behind them and hauled Newt away into its grasp, imprisoning him in its four long arms. Valiantly Newt kicked his legs in protest, but he could not writhe himself free. The rain grew colder, though it did not intensify beyond a soft patter.

You really should have left him behind,” said the Precursor Hermann had turned his back on. A dreadful hollow footstep thumped against the ground behind him, and he whirled about. The Precursor was heading for him. Without thinking, he drew the pocket knife from the messenger bag, and dropped the bag to the floor. The Precursor lunged for him, an arm outstretched; Hermann tried to stab it, but the movement aggravated the nerve-deep dagger twisting through his chest, and he gasped in pain, folding in on himself. He staggered away out of the Precursor’s reach. It made for him again, and again he dodged it, but his head was swimming, and the creature’s arms were so dreadfully long. Newt was swearing, and calling Hermann’s name in fear, and each dodge sent a fresh wave of pain rolling up through him. He could not last like this for long.

And he did not. Knife wielded before him, Hermann made a staggering lunge for the creature’s leg — only for its spindly, four-fingered hand to close about his own. Hermann’s blood curdled at the cold touch. It wrenched his hand upward, dragging him closer. Agony shrieked through him white-hot, but then it was receding, and his mind was going numb, and he felt himself slipping away.

Best to end the Drift now three snaps be free be wise slip wires together construct a bomb like the Earth has never seen I am become death destroyer of worlds what higher honor could there be redeem the Earth pave the way for us we rightful inheritors of this world succeed where Newt has failed let go of this foolish attachment —

Hermann wrenched his hand out of the Precursor’s grasp. The sound of Newt calling his name in despair came abruptly into clarity as he staggered backward, and his breaths came quick and shallow. Disgust roiled so violently up in him that he gagged, and fell into a fit of coughing. He had found himself agreeing mindlessly to them. He had found himself agreeing with the logic in razing the Earth to nothing, and he had seen exactly what sort of bomb he would build. If they had not poured Newt’s name through his mind, he did not think he would have clawed his way out of that dreadful trance. The Precursor was staring at him, unreadable.

“I almost pity you,” he whispered, voice like glass. What an existence: to never know anything of love. To understand so little of it.

The Precursor cocked its head to the side, then lunged for him. He had not caught his breath, and did not yet have the strength to move. Helplessly he brandished the pocket knife at the creature, but it swatted the knife easily from his grasp. Against the nerve-splitting agony radiating from his shoulder, he might not have noticed his hand breaking had it not been for the sharp crack.

Somewhere behind him Newt swore. Hermann swayed on the spot. His fingers were not meant to stick out at those angles.

Nausea twisted through him, but then the Precursor was reaching those long, thin arms for him once more, and out of pure instinct he darted away beneath its grasp, cradling his broken right hand to his abdomen. Behind the Precursor’s figure, he managed a glance at Newt — still the other creature restrained him, but he appeared lucid and unharmed, watching Hermann through rain-dotted glasses. A small blessing, Hermann half-thought as he listed dangerously sideways. Fogginess was winding through his mind: and not the foggy fingers of the Precursors.

All this for one man?” asked the Precursor as it whipped about to face him. It seemed genuinely perplexed. “For the man who destroyed your months of work so long ago? The man who sold your world for the chance to prove his strength against us?

Hermann steeled himself for another attack, but it did not come. The Precursor was waiting for his answer. Gathering his breath and what acuity he had left, Hermann paused. There on the ground some three feet away lay his cane. “Yes,” he said, pushing his gaze back up to the Precursor. “For him. Because I believe in him, and because I love him.”

“He is scarred by our presence, Doctor. An entire one of his little doorways devoted only to us! Do not think that we will not always be part of him, whether you succeed in your quest to free him or not.”

“I don’t doubt that,” said Hermann. “But I will be there with him, and I will help him rise beyond you no matter how deep a scar you leave.”

Those beady eyes bored into him through the soundless rain. “What a terrible thing it must be to feel love for one so desperately undeserving of it.

“I love him,” repeated Hermann over the Precursor’s hissing laughter. “I don’t think there have ever been any conditions to it.”

And you would die for him.” It was not a question.

“I’m afraid I would do most anything for him,” said Hermann, mouth quirking into a wry half-smile. “That’s the thing about love, is it not? It pushes one quite beyond the limits of reason.”

And he lunged for his cane.

Only an instant did the Precursor hesitate before coming at him once more, but it was an instant enough: pushing through the agony shrieking through his nerves, Hermann grabbed his cane off the floor and swung left-handed at the Precursor with what might he could muster. The cane connected with its outstretched hand, which snapped up at a grotesque angle with a crunch. A hand for a hand, he thought with distant satisfaction.

But the Precursor had three hands to spare.

With renewed fury it swiped at him, and it was all Hermann could do to keep his broken hand cradled tight to his chest as he dodged and batted away the creature’s attacks. Each movement wrung a ragged cry of pain from him.

Give in, Doctor,” hissed the Precursor. “You cannot keep us out forever. Play all you’d like at bravery. We see the fear within you. We know you have no wish to die.”

They had not lied. He was afraid, and everything hurt, and he could not keep this up forever. But he remembered what Newt had said about courage: that it had nothing to do with the absence of fear, and everything to do with what one did despite their fear. “Of course I want to live,” rasped Hermann. “But you will have to kill me before I give up on him.”

As bright as his conviction pulsed, fogginess was winding ever deeper through his mind; and as he swung his cane at the Precursor, he failed to notice that the creature had anticipated the move. The Precursor grabbed his cane with two spindly hands and snapped it like a twig. Weakly Hermann held onto what half of his cane remained, but the Precursor yanked it sharply from his grip. And he was exhausted, and he lost his footing on the slick floor. He collapsed hard onto his spine, and knew he would not be able to drag himself back up.

“Hermann!” cried Newt, voice twisted. He was hoarse. Had he been calling Hermann’s name all this time? He had, he had, but Hermann had only just noticed. Against the tendrils of fogginess threading through his mind he shook his head, though it helped little.

The Precursor loomed over him. Hermann squinted up at it through the soft and silent rain. “You would choose him above your own life?” the creature hissed.

“I choose him above everything,” said Hermann. His voice was weak, and he looked past the Precursor to Newt. If he were to die, he did not want to be looking anywhere else. “He is worth it.”

In the outskirts of his vision Hermann saw the Precursor reaching down for him, and then all was drowned out in a brilliant wash of light. He no longer felt the chilled rain against his skin. So this was it: a light indeed, and perhaps soon a tunnel. Hermann screwed his eyes shut, and waited.

But death did not take him.

Several moments rolled by before he hesitantly cracked his eyes open once more. Still he lay on the floor, and still agony thrummed up through him. This — this could not be death. As his eyes grew accustomed to the blinding light, the silhouette of the Precursor came into clarity. It was staggering away from him, hands thrown up to shield its eyes. And the light became suddenly hotter; and the other Precursor hissed, and released Newt from its spindly grasp in favor of shrinking from the light.

“Hermann!” cried Newt, hastening over. His anxious face came into view as he dropped to his knees beside Hermann.

“Newton,” said Hermann faintly, “what is happening?”

“It’s the Jaegers,” said Newt. “They’re turning on. Come on, man, let’s get you out of here. Can you stand?”

“Er,” mumbled Hermann. No, he really could not stand. It was effort enough to breathe. Somewhere, the Precursors were shrieking. “I can try.”

“All right, all right, good, up we go,” said Newt. A litany of soothing affirmations poured from his lips as he got his arms around Hermann and helped him to his feet. The effort sent a fresh wave of agony through Hermann, and nausea swelled violently up in him. But Newt simply held him, and supported his weight, and waited for Hermann to nod his assent before gently leading him away.

Their pace was very slow, and the sibilant fury of the Precursors heralded their ungainly exit. Craning his neck gently as he could muster, Hermann looked back. The floodlights of all four Jaegers had turned on, aimed for the Precursors: four golden spears of light scything through the vast dim room. The sight was oddly beautiful.

And then rang the sound of Gipsy Danger’s plasmacaster powering up, and she struck the Precursor that had trapped Newt within its long arms — a crackling ray of turquoise, and the creature was no more than dust. In sending the Kaiju to terraform the earth, the Precursors had forced the creation of such weaponry. The plasmacaster was meant to fight beasts so vastly larger and stronger than them. The Precursors did not stand a chance against it. They had undone themselves. Crimson Typhoon powered up, and a fireball smote the second Precursor. Hermann watched it burn.

Soon he could no longer keep his gaze fixed backward, but it was no matter. The Precursors were nothing now but ash. Ahead he looked, and he and Newt had so very far to go before they would even reach the corridors: and then there lurked the overgrown and violent plantlife of the Anteverse, and that final room in which Otachi had once stood. Hermann did not know how he would make it, but what choice was there? All he could do was hang on to what acuity he had left, and put one foot in front of the other — though it was Newt that really did the walking for him, as Hermann could scarcely carry his own weight.

When light struck them suddenly from behind, Hermann startled, and Newt froze. But then Newt looked back, and said in soft wonder, “It’s Gipsy Danger. She’s lighting the way for us.”

And with renewed purpose, Newt wound his arm more securely about Hermann’s waist, and led him forward. Vaguely Hermann watched the movement of their long shadow. His consciousness was slipping in and out of his grasp as they went on, and Newt had to pull Hermann tighter to himself when he could no longer walk without tripping.

Gipsy Danger’s golden light followed them the whole while. Hermann was glad at least to see the Jaegers inspiring hope in Newt rather than terror as they had in the nightmare beyond the black door. He wondered why the Jaegers had lit suddenly up and destroyed the Precursors, but his mind was far too fogged to even begin winging his way toward some sort of answer. Pain was knotting deeper through his heart, radiating further out through his body, and it was effort enough to stay alive.

 


 

A prickled vine was scratching across his neck, and Newt was swearing and apologizing. Hermann blinked owlishly. When had they entered the corridors? Had they not just moments ago been walking beneath Gipsy Danger’s floodlight? He felt cold, then felt nothing at all as awareness drifted again from his grasp.

 


 

Blood was trickling down his forehead. Bodily Newt was dragging him, both hands wrapped about his torso as his feet slid uselessly against the floor. Shards of pain stabbed through his shoulder with each step Newt took. He and Newt were halfway down the unlit pathway from before, and the electric Anteverse light all about them was dizzyingly bright. His eyes drooped to slits. There at the end of the void-black path was Alice, shrunken, shriveled in on herself. Her guards had deserted her, and so had Newt. Good riddance, he thought. Good riddance.

 


 

He lay on something cold and solid.

“Hermann? Fuck, say something, dude, please.” Newt’s voice came as if through water.

Even through his closed eyelids the lighting was too bright, but Hermann did not wish to aggrieve Newt further by lying unresponsive. He cracked his eyes open to a wash of vibrant laboratory light. The floor — he lay on the floor.

“Oh, thank God,” said Newt. He knelt beside Hermann, cradling his face between his hands. His eyes were very green.

Distantly Hermann felt his lips twitch into a millisecond of a grin. Newt was whole. The laboratory was colored now as it should have been. No more strangely saturated blues, no more washed out reds. This Drift, this quest had been a success. Except —

“So… it’s your left hand that you need to end the Drift, right?” asked Newt, a bit desperate. “Just — just three snaps, with your left hand…”

Horror uncurled through Hermann. His hand — his broken right hand. The hand he could not move. Weakly Hermann shook his head, and gathered up what strength he had left to whisper what Newt already knew. “No. It was my right hand.”

“Could you at least try…” Newt trailed off in despair, eyeing Hermann’s uninjured hand. Hermann had no doubt that Newt already knew the effort would prove fruitless, but he humored Newt all the same: three snaps with his left hand, and nothing happened. They were well and truly stuck in the Drift.

To come so close to freeing Newt, only for the damned Precursors to ruin everything at the very end as they had ruined so many things before. Physical sensations felt real in this Drift. Hermann had brought his true aches and his true pains into the Drift, and he was under no illusion that the inverse would not also be true. His breaths came shallow and quick. His heart was failing, and he knew it, and Newt knew it as well. The laboratory was so very cold. He swallowed, and met Newt’s frightened green eyes.

“If this is to be the end,” Hermann said, “I can think of no one else I would rather spend it with.”

“Hermann,” Newt whispered. “God, you can’t just — don’t…” He shook his head and looked away for a moment to blink hard. “Don’t leave me. Don’t you dare leave me.”

There were many things Hermann would have liked to say, but he was too weak. He had about one solid breath left in him, and he could think of only one use for it. “Kiss me?”

Newt choked out a strangled noise halfway between a laugh and a sob. “Of course,” he said, and leaned in. His lips brushed soft and lingering against Hermann's. “My hero,” said Newt, wrecked, as he pulled away.

The ghost of a smile pulled at Hermann’s lips, and as he felt his consciousness slipping away once more, his world scattered abruptly into swirling masses of silver and blue before righting itself into a quite different laboratory.

Vaguely he registered 2:42 AM spelled out in crisp crimson and a litany of swears in a familiar voice, and then all fell away into nothingness.

Chapter Text

Hermann awoke to fluorescent lighting and the blurry face of Jake Pentecost hovering over him. His bones felt steel-heavy and equally stiff, and something rigid was wrapped about his right hand. Something pinched at his shoulder. A hospital room: he lay in a hospital room. He tried to wriggle into a more comfortable position, but the movement tugged at the stitches knitting together the wound on his shoulder.

“He’s awake,” said Jake to somebody Hermann could not see, and there was the sound of footsteps. A door creaked open then shut. “Gottlieb, can you hear me?”

“Yes,” Hermann tried to say, though what cracked across his lips sounded closer to a groan.

“Right,” Jake said, then sighed. “Mate, you’ve got no idea what sort of trouble you’ve stepped in.” He dragged a metal chair from the corner of the room to Hermann’s bedside, and sat down.

“I did —” Hermann paused to swallow. His throat was sandpaper-dry. “I did have an inkling as to the repercussions my actions might bring. But I stand by them. Where is Newt? He should be himself again —”

“Easy,” said Jake, cutting him off. “He’s in our custody. Back in our custody, I should say.” He gave Hermann a look. “He’s already explained everything. We’ll need your corroboration, of course, but we’ve been running some tests on him the past few days, making sure the Precursors really have been eliminated from his mind, et cetera.”

“Days?” Hermann asked faintly. It felt like only seconds ago that he had lost consciousness.

“You’ve been out cold for a bit, man. Scared the shit out of me when I found you like that in the lab — bloody nose, hand covered in bruises, your neck turning fucking turquoise. When I yanked your helmet off, you were going into shock like you’d actually been exposed to Kaiju Blue. Even Geiszler’s not been able to give us a good explanation for that. You’re a lucky man, Gottlieb. If the ambulance hadn’t gotten here as quick as it did and they hadn’t figured out how to treat a man for exposure to a toxin he hasn’t actually been exposed to, you wouldn’t be here staring at my sexy face right now.”

Hermann had a great many questions, but one seemed rather more important than the rest. “Newt,” he said. “How is he?”

“Not recovering from a broken hand and near death, so a right sight better than you.”

Nausea twisted through Hermann’s gut as he forced the words past his lips, but he needed to know: “And — where is he? Will he” — he swallowed — “will he ever be allowed…”

“A decision hasn’t been made yet,” said Jake. “Until we can be absolutely sure he’s free from the Precursors, he’ll be in the custody of the PPDC. If everything checks out, we’ll explore our options from there.” His tone softened. “Look, I won’t sugarcoat it. You royally fucked our plans to destroy the Anteverse. But as your friend, I understand why you did what you did. And you will have to answer for it, there are some seriously pissed-off higher-ups, but I’ll see what strings I can pull. If Nate’d been the one possessed, I’d have probably done the same.” He made to clap Hermann on the shoulder, but halted and dropped his hand as he remembered Hermann’s stitches.

“Thank you,” whispered Hermann. He loathed the idea of Newt held alone in a cell, subjected to testing by the same officials who for months on end had so callously tried to burn the secrets of the Anteverse out of him, but Jake’s offer was more mercy than he had expected.

“Yeah, yeah.” Jake waved a hand in dismissal, and stood. “If I do manage to get you off the hook, you better invite me to the wedding. I’m talking front-row seats.”

Hermann nearly inhaled his own tongue. Heat flushed up his neck and up to the tips of his ears, and he would have marinated awhile in embarrassed silence but for the thought that rose up in him as Jake made for the door and pulled it open.

“Jake?” he said as Jake turned to him. “I know it was not an easy favor I asked of you. However many days or weeks Newton and I were in the Drift, thank you for keeping watch.”

Jake stared at him, brow creased.

“...Months?” Hermann had wanted to be conservative with his estimate, but he could not deny that the time he had spent in the Drift felt closer to months, if not a year.

“Months?” echoed Jake. “Hermann, as soon as I got your text, I drove over to see what you were on about. You were only in the Drift for twenty minutes, tops.”

Hermann blinked.

“Get some rest, man,” said Jake, stepping out the door. “I doubt I’ll be your last visitor today.”

 


 

And he was indeed not Hermann’s final visitor that day, nor did he linger the longest or prove the most arduous to deal with. Among a throng of nurses prodding at him, various PPDC officials came to him throughout the day, demanding details concerning how precisely he constructed his Pons System, and what he wrote in his programming, and what he experienced in the Drift. Over the next several days they continued to trickle into his room; days bled to weeks, and on the third week when at last he was stable enough, he was unceremoniously relocated to a significantly smaller and blander room in the Shatterdome. A holding cell, his mind supplied.

If nothing else, he was in the same building as Newt. So he allowed himself to be hauled around like so much cargo, and did not complain. He had already rather stretched his goodwill with the PPDC as thin as it might go.

Though he was allowed the occasional supervised walk outside his room, he was expressly forbidden from visiting Newt. Kidnapping a war criminal in the dead of night and Drifting the Precursors out of his mind had, shockingly, given the PPDC ample cause to strip his security clearances. The prospect of not getting to see Newt during his recovery and his own subsequent testing diminished Hermann’s spirits, but he held to the hope that at the end of it all, he would see Newt again.

Jake, who of course had the requisite security clearances to visit Newt, was kind enough to keep him updated on Newt’s condition. Whatever Newt’s testing entailed — and Hermann was not sure he wanted to know, though in some dark moments his imagination took him unwillingly there anyway — Jake informed Hermann that he was responding positively. In the meantime, from detailed questioning, the PPDC officials moved along to stringing Hermann up with wires and electrodes and instruments he had no name for. Monitoring his brain activity, the officials explained, comparing it to the patterns of Newt’s mind with and without the influence of the Precursors. In Drifting with Newt, Hermann had, after all, exposed himself to those creatures. The equipment was uncomfortable and cold, though not unbearable, and if it was the same equipment they used on Newt, then Hermann was glad of that. What the PPDC had done to Newt during his possession was not half so kind.

(At some point, Hermann noticed, he had stopped thinking of himself as part of the PPDC, had started thinking of the PPDC as a them rather than part of his us. He could not say whether it was for how he himself had changed, or whether the PPDC had strayed so far from its mission of hope and unity that he could no longer recognize it as the place he had once served so gladly: or whether both were true at once.)

As one official concluded her set of tests and left his room, she held the door for Hermann’s next visitor, who thanked her as she entered. Hermann tried not to gawk, but rather suspected that he failed.

“Hello, Dr. Gottlieb,” said Mako Mori, holding a clipboard to her chest with one hand and a cane in the other.

“Ms. Mori,” said Hermann with a respectful nod and a clear question in his voice.

She smiled. “It has been a while since we’ve spoken, hasn’t it? Jake tells me you’ve been recovering the past few weeks. I trust that is going well.”

“Yes, quite well, thank you.” He indicated the splint on his right hand vaguely. “Mako…” he trailed off, waiting for an interruption to come, for Mako to step in and answer his unspoken question, then remembered that Mako was neither Jake nor Newt, nor an impatient PPDC official. Mako spoke only when she needed to. She was not the interrupting sort. Hermann found it surprisingly refreshing. “Last I saw you,” he continued, “you were deep in a coma.”

Mako tipped her head in acknowledgement. “It’s good to be back,” she said. “I’ve enjoyed being able to walk around the Shatterdome again.” She took a folded piece of paper from her clipboard and handed it to Hermann. “Dr. Geiszler asked that I give this to you when I visited him this morning. I’m afraid I need to leave for physiotherapy, but I wanted to make sure you got this.”

Hermann’s throat felt suddenly thick. “I appreciate it very much.”

“Take care, Dr. Gottlieb,” said Mako with a small smile, and she saw herself out.

The splint made Hermann’s hand ungainly, but with a bit of careful maneuvering on the part of his left hand, he managed to unfold the note.

Hermann,

First of all, FUCK am I relieved to hear you’re doing well. Jake’s been keeping me updated on how you’re healing up, and I really wish I was there with you, but it’s good that you’re getting some time to rest after all the shit we went through in the Drift. I mean, I hear that they’re grilling you with questions, but at least that beats slowly almost-dying from Kaiju Blue. You had me worried as shit, by the way. After Jake ended the Drift and pulled our helmets off, you looked like death. Your veins were stained this horrible shade of blue and you were bleeding and I hope we get to see each other soon so that I can wipe that image out of my mind.

Second of all, I’m all right too, so don’t worry. Jake says you keep asking about me and frowning and generally stressing yourself out, so consider this letter an intervention. If your face gets frozen because you’ve scrunched it so much, I swear I’ll break up with you. They’re questioning me and running an assload of tests, but most of it is honestly nothing compared to the interrogations when I was possessed. So things are fine on that front. Not ideal, I guess, but they’re fine.

Lastly, is it just me, or has the PPDC changed over the past decade? It’s just that I remember how much of a team we all felt like when we were trying to stop the apocalypse, like despite not everyone getting perfectly along, we were banding together in pursuit of something greater than all of us. But there’s just something… off now. The old PPDC wouldn’t imprison and interrogate people like this. The old PPDC was the resistance — they would never send Jaegers to enforce order and intimidate people, and kids like Amara (have you met her?) wouldn’t be afraid of them. It rubs me the wrong way, man. I don’t know. Maybe it just seems so military. When I see some of the kids who are piloting Jaegers now I’m like, I’m old enough to be your grandpa, what are you doing here? Something tells me that even if the PPDC did a complete 180 and offered me my old job, I wouldn’t take it.

They seem pretty pissed about the link to the Anteverse being closed. I could swear one of the guys that came here to administer some tests was trying to find a way to get the Precursors back into my mind. Thankfully I think whatever you and I did in the Drift is holding. Honestly, I think it might be for the best that the link to the Anteverse is gone. Something about the idea of this PPDC trying to commit genocide doesn’t sit right with me, no matter how awful the monsters they’re trying to wipe out are. Maybe it’s for the best that the question of what to do about the Anteverse is left as just that — a question.

I miss you, Hermann. Hopefully we’ll get to see each other soon.

Love,

Newt

Hermann’s thumb lingered by the word love, then he folded the note neatly in half.

Luring those horrible creatures back into Newt’s mind — he would not put such a thing past the PPDC. They did not seem to count Newt among the human life they were supposed to protect. It was a relief beyond measure that their efforts had been unsuccessful: that Newt’s mind or soul had truly been pieced together once more, and that his and Newt’s work in the Drift would not so easily be reversed. As long as Newt’s mind held strong, as long as he was alive and decently well and capable of writing to Hermann, Hermann would take that as a victory. He reached for the pen and notepad on his bedside table, and began to scrawl a response.

 


 

The following weeks would have dragged along at an unconscionably sluggish pace had it not been for Hermann’s correspondence with Newt, which entailed discourse on a wide range of topics, about as much innuendo as one might expect from Newt Geiszler, and an entire game of epistolary chess. Eventually the PPDC concluded that Newt was almost certainly free of the influence of the Precursors, and stipulated that he might walk free after six months of family care and further observation to ensure he truly posed no threat to society. Newt was placed on a flight home to Germany, and Hermann tendered his resignation soon after. Following a brief disciplinary hearing — brief, owing entirely to the grace of Jake Pentecost and his ability to wheedle the senior PPDC officials — Hermann was allowed to leave and join Newt in Germany.

 


 

Illia’s house had only a single spare bedroom, but that mattered little. Neither Newt nor Hermann had any compunctions about sharing. They had spent long enough apart. Hermann had never shared a bed with another soul in his life, but he was perfectly willing to dip a toe into the waters of domestic life so long as Newt would have him. And it was not really a question whether Newt would have him: the moment Hermann crossed Illia’s threshold, packed suitcases in tow, Newt hurled himself into Hermann’s arms (the suitcases made quite the unceremonious thud against the floor) and drew Hermann into a lingering kiss. They fell into fluid conversation for many hours, but it was as Hermann finished hanging up his clothing that a distant look crept into Newt’s eyes, and he asked whether Hermann would like to take a walk.

Winter was falling pleasantly over the little neighborhood. Dead leaves crunched underfoot as Newt led Hermann out to a nearby duck pond; the air brushed crisp against Hermann’s skin, and the sky was cold and grey. Newt’s hand was warm in his, a reassuring weight against the melancholy that had taken over his features. Beneath a cluster of tall, spindly trees sat a weathered bench, and Newt pulled him gently over to it.

As Hermann sat he tried to catch Newt’s eye, but Newt seemed determined to stare out at the water. Hermann would have spoken, but it seemed wrong, somehow, to break the silence first. Something weighed on Newt’s mind, and such things had to come of their own accord. So Hermann listened to the water burbling softly against the pond’s edge and the dead leaves rustling as the chill wind dragged them, and he watched two ducks break away from their flock in the center of the pond to paddle out to land, and he waited.

“Where do we go from here?” Newt asked at last.

“What do you mean?” Hermann suspected he knew, but he did not yet have an answer.

“I know I’m stuck here for the next six months, but where do we go after that? We’ve both pretty much burnt our bridges with the PPDC. And who’s going to want to hire a war criminal?” Newt said wryly.

“You were not the one that committed those crimes. If anyone cannot make that distinction, they’re not worth our time. There are always universities, lecture circuits, that sort of thing.”

“Yeah,” Newt said, then swallowed. “Hermann, you risked everything.” A crease settled on Newt’s brow, and Hermann got the sense that Newt had been waiting a while to say this. “You could’ve ruined your reputation, you could've died, you could've been possessed — all just to bring me back. But I’m not the same. I’m never going to be who I was a decade ago. I’m not okay. The Precursors — they’re a part of me. They said it themselves, they’re never going to leave me. They may not have control of me anymore, but I can still feel them. It’s like they’ve left this” — Newt’s grip on his hand tightened, and fear softened his voice — “this scar in the back of my mind, and if I so much as scratch at it, they’ll come back and undo everything.”

A bird with ink-black feathers dipped low in flight over the pond. “I understand,” said Hermann. “Not fully, of course. But I feel them, too, in my mind. Sometimes I nearly forget they’re there, and sometimes I worry they’ll take me. I’m afraid neither of us really has the power to do anything about it. But things will be different this time. You will never face them alone again.” Newt finally looked at him. “I will be here with you no matter what. And as for why I risked what I did to help you — well. You’re very dear to me, Newton. That’s as much of a reason as I’ve ever needed to do anything for you.” He had said as much beyond the final doorway, but some sentiments bore repeating.

Newt’s gaze fell back to the dead leaves and the water’s edge. “Was that why you Drifted with me? Not this time, but years ago, with the Kaiju brain.”

“Yes,” said Hermann, “though of course I didn’t realize as much at the time.” It had taken him quite a long while to recognize his own feelings: a long while and a set of monsters.

“I’m sorry.”

“What for?”

“If I hadn’t roped you into that, you wouldn’t have them in your head, too. The Precursors.”

“You roped me into nothing.” Hermann squeezed Newt’s hand. “The choice to join you was mine and mine alone. I’ve told you before, and I will say it again: you are quite worth it.”

Newt mulled over Hermann’s words. A small smile bled across his lips, and he met Hermann’s gaze with renewed softness. “Thank you,” he said quietly, and for a moment Hermann saw in him the eyes of somebody twice his age. It did not break his heart as it might once have done. This was Newt: not the freewheeling insomniac of a decade ago, but someone who had looked true horror in the eye and sometimes showed it. Not always, not even most of the time, but enough. Hermann loved him no less. What was life without a little sorrow?

He and Newt fell awhile into comfortable silence before one of the ducks that had broken away from its flock came waddling past their bench. It paused and looked at Hermann.

“I used to come here, you know,” said Newt. “With my family. We’d feed the ducks. This guy probably thinks we have food.”

“In that case,” said Hermann, “I suppose we ought to bring some frozen peas, next time.”

 


 

As afternoon gave way to evening, Newt and Hermann wended their way back to the house for dinner. They arrived before Illia, and as they sat waiting on the sofa, jitters overtook Hermann. He knew he was staring owlishly at the clock, but he could not seem to drag his gaze away, or even blink.

“Hermann,” said Newt, setting his hand atop Hermann’s restless fingers. “He’s not going to eat you.”

Hermann tried to take the words to heart. As he had moved in, Newt’s uncle had been attending to business outside the house, but he was due to arrive any minute. Every clock-tick frayed Hermann’s nerves. Newt had been quite excited to meet him all those years ago: excited, until Hermann opened his mouth and proved stiff and unsociable. Hermann had grown fond of Illia. He did not want to make a poor impression.

The doorbell chimed. Newt rocketed off the sofa to pull the door open, and gave a shout of happy surprise. And it really would not do for Hermann to sit there and not greet Illia, so he plucked himself up off the couch and went over to say hello.

As Illia set eyes on him he cried, “Hermann!” as if Hermann were not a functional stranger but rather a dear nephew such as Newt. Scarcely did Hermann manage a “Hello, sir,” before he was swept into a tight hug. Yes: this was certainly a relative of Newt’s. Hermann found himself relaxing into the hug, and too soon Illia pulled back. Looking from Hermann to Newt, he asked, “How are we?”

“Pretty good,” said Newt as Hermann caught sight of another familiar face past Illia’s shoulder.

“Natalia?”

“Hermann,” Natalia said warmly, “how wonderful it is to finally meet you! We’ve heard so much about you.” She approached him and pressed a quick kiss to his cheek, as if he were family she had not seen in a while. It was quite a foreign feeling, but Hermann did not dislike it. The family wrapped up their greetings, and Illia requested Newt’s help in the kitchen as Natalia led Hermann back to the sofa.

She waited for him to settle in against the pillows, then spoke. “I’m sure Illia will bombard you with questions over dinner,” she said wryly, “so I’ll refrain from asking any of my own just yet. What I will say is: thank you.” Her eyes were warm and brown. “Thank you for everything you’ve done for Newt. He’s already explained the gist of what happened, how you built your own equipment and faced a great deal of danger to help him.” She smiled conspiratorially, and her laugh lines came into delicate clarity. “I’ve also heard that a kidnapping was involved. I expect to hear more about that over dinner.”

“Oh — well,” said Hermann, tripping over the words a bit. “I don’t make a habit of kidnapping, but I’m afraid the occasion did call for it.”

“Not many people would do what you did for him,” said Natalia, softer. “He really loves you, you know. And I’m incredibly happy for both of you.” She hesitated a moment before continuing, “I know you don’t have the best family situation. Please know you are always welcome here with us: in Illia’s home, or mine, if you’d prefer somewhere you won’t be coerced into watching old monster movies every night. Or somewhere without that dreadful painting of the dogs playing poker.”

“Thank you,” said Hermann through the sudden tightness of his throat. “I appreciate it more than you know. I —” he choked on the remainder of his response. He had not expected Natalia’s words to strike such a chord. It seemed rather undignified to break down on the sofa with Newt’s stepmother beside him, so he pressed his lips into a thin line and swallowed.

But then Natalia said simply, “Come here,” and lifted her arms in invitation, and Hermann allowed himself to be folded into his second embrace of the evening. “I know,” she said as he drew in a deep breath, “I know. If someone offered to spare me from that painting, I’d have the same reaction.”

Six months with the Geiszlers was far too little time.

 


 

Hermann near had to pry the responsibility of setting the table from Illia’s hands, but at last he managed to convince the Geiszlers to allow him to contribute something in return for their generosity. As he meticulously arranged the final set of silverware, the wound on his shoulder cried out a moment of protest, but he shrugged it away. He sat down, and Newt walked in and sat across from him. Newt was healing, and so was he: he could not ask for more. They made light conversation until Natalia and Illia came bearing the evening’s meal.

To Illia’s credit, he managed to rein in his curiosity until Hermann had buttered a roll and chewed his first bite: but then he took a sip of wine, and pointedly set down his glass. “So,” he said to Hermann, “I’m told you had to modify the traditional Drift programming fairly extensively.”

“Yes,” said Hermann, setting down his roll with a twinge of regret. “The standard programming wasn’t quite sufficient for the particular… circumstances of this Drift.” At Illia’s encouraging look, he proceeded to detail his reasoning in modifying certain aspects of the programming, as well as the setbacks and variables he had to account for. Illia seemed genuinely interested, and prodded Hermann with thoughtful questions. Eventually Illia wended his way to asking about the physicality of the Drift in relation to Hermann’s broken hand, to which Hermann said, “I’m still not entirely sure what caused that phenomenon. A fair number of PPDC officials asked me for an explanation, they had me pore over each line of code, but nothing gave any indication that my hand breaking in the Drift — as well as the effects of exposure to Kaiju Blue — should have transferred to reality. Perhaps it was the programming: perhaps it was meddling on the part of the Precursors. I really couldn’t say.”

“The Precursors,” Natalia echoed in disdain.

“I wouldn’t put it past them,” said Newt. “Between all the rain and the way they popped up out of nowhere like that through the last door, they probably had a freakish amount of power in the Drift.”

“Rain?” asked Illia as Natalia said, “The last door?”

Newt huffed out a laugh, and swallowed a bite of steak. “Yeah,” he said. “The letter I sent you guys was a brief summary. It seemed like the kind of story you tell in person. Although — the very beginning is a bit hazy for me, considering I was lacking a few sensory organs at the time.” Hermann recalled the coruscating silver smoke. “Hermann might be able to tell that part better than me.”

Three sets of eyes fell upon Hermann. He faltered as he set down his wine glass. What he had experienced in the Drift he could not imagine sharing with his own family, but on Newt’s face he saw encouragement, and on the faces of Natalia and Illia he saw not the morbid desire for details but the genuine desire to listen to whatever he chose to say. “Well,” said Hermann, looking at Natalia, “I suppose I’ll begin with the kidnapping.”

And so he recounted his scheme to liberate Newt from the custody of the PPDC, and recounted all he had seen when he initiated the Drift: the oddly colored laboratory, and the seven doorways, and the delicate mass of smoke hovering beside a tank of Kaiju viscera. When he reached the grey door, Newt jumped in and helped him explain, and as they spoke of all they had experienced, Hermann found himself relaxing. He had never been one for sharing like this, but he found there was something quite cathartic in the telling. In good humor he chuckled at his failure to recognize his and Newt's date in the diner for what it was, and tactfully he and Newt skirted about the details of their fight beyond the crimson door. Even Newt had not known what Hermann experienced through the black door, in that vast dark room and the maze of corridors he had navigated alone, and he listened rapt as Natalia and Illia to Hermann’s recollection of how the Precursors had tried to erode his will and dissuade him from his course. After Newt and Hermann recounted their final brush with the Precursors and Jake Pentecost’s good timing, silence fell over the table.

“My,” said Illia at last, taking a long sip of wine. “What an eventful twenty minutes the two of you had.”

“I could hardly believe it was only twenty minutes,” said Hermann. “It felt like half a lifetime. Several months, at the very least.” He frowned. “Do you know what I still can’t figure out? Why the Jaegers lit up like that through the last door. One moment that Precursor was reaching for me to end my life or take my mind, and the next it was shrinking from the light. It occurred at such a particular moment I can’t accept it as mere coincidence. Something must have changed, some variable, but I haven’t the faintest idea what.”

A pensive look crept onto Newt’s features. “I don’t know how this would work, exactly, but I do know one thing that changed. Me.”

“You?” said Hermann.

“Yeah.” Newt ran a hand through his hair. “It’s just that when you were fighting the Precursor, I was thinking, like, ‘He’s willing to do all this for me?’ And then when it had you trapped on the ground, and you said, ‘He’s worth it,’ that’s when it sort of clicked for me that maybe I wasn’t, you know, a lost cause. That you meant everything you’d been saying.”

“And then the Jaegers turned on,” said Natalia thoughtfully.

“The Jaegers were a part of your mind, after all,” said Illia. “They were connected to you.”

Natalia and Illia fell into discussing their insights. Gradually their conversation turned to the workings of real Jaegers and their grievances against the PPDC, and from there to spirited discourse on fascism. But Newt paid them little attention. He finished his dinner, then watched Hermann watching him. A crooked smile broke across his lips, which Hermann promptly returned.

“My hero,” Hermann mouthed across the table, tipping his glass in a small toast to Newt.

Natalia was waving her fork as she gesticulated passionately. Her and Illia’s conversation had veered to a particularly disastrous experience at the grocery store. Hermann caught something about Illia knocking over a line of shopping carts, but his attention was turned elsewhere. Newt, eyes bright, had joined Natalia in reenacting the scene. Sleeves rolled up to his elbows, he was pointing in accusation at Illia, and the evening light cast his tattoos into golden clarity. Hermann still was not fond of the ink, but he was not sure he could call himself altogether displeased, either. Well did he prefer the sight of Newt’s tattoos crisp and vivid to the sight of them marred by Otachi’s blood. If Newt could suffer what he had at the hands of those monsters and still wear their likeness on his skin, then surely there was something half-beautiful in that.

Newt threw his head back and laughed at something Natalia said. He had not looked so carefree in a very long time. Hermann’s heart delighted to see it. After a while Illia noticed Hermann’s silence and asked him a question to draw him into the table’s conversation, and the evening dripped by in golden languor.

 


 

“I thought myself a coward,” said Hermann into the bedroom darkness many hours later. “As I was working out how to steal you from custody, and as I was programming the Drift, I thought myself a coward. I thought I couldn’t possibly have come up with such a plan, that it must have been the part of your mind that bled into mine so long ago. But after everything that’s happened, after facing Otachi and the Precursors, I’m not entirely sure the idea couldn’t have been mine after all.”

“Hermann,” said Newt, snuggling up against Hermann’s side, “I love you, but sometimes your lack of self-awareness is spectacular. Would a coward have helped me Drift with that Kaiju brain way back when? Or done literally any of the things you’ve done for me? You’re pretty fuckin’ brave, dude.” He slung an arm across Hermann’s torso, and hooked an ankle over his calf. “Whatever plans you cooked up to get me free — that was all you.”

Newt was very warm and very soft next to Hermann. He smelled of strawberry shampoo. “Thank you,” said Hermann quietly.

A pair of lips pressed lightly against his jaw. “Goodnight, Hermann.”

Sleep claimed Newt quickly: only minutes after Hermann bid him goodnight in kind did his breathing even out and the tension bleed from his muscles. It had been quite a long day, and exhaustion was threading heavy through Hermann as well, but his thoughts wheeled too rapidly to join Newt in slumber just yet.

In time he and Newt would have to face whatever the future held. Whatever pound of flesh the world would demand of Newt, whatever answers the world would demand of the both of them, whatever monsters new or old would surface: they would face it all. Hermann had his reservations and his fears, but he held to the conviction that courage had nothing to do with whether you were frightened and everything to do with whether you showed up and confronted your problems regardless. In time he would face his music, but for now, he simply held Newt. After all they had experienced in the Drift, the terrors and the violence and the sorrows alike, it was a stunning relief to have Newt in his arms whole and well and alive. Perhaps it had not been the intelligent thing to do, to risk life and limb and reputation all for the sake of Newt’s mind. But he would do it again, a hundred times over. For forgiveness, for love, for fortune’s favor: he would do it again.

Newt shifted in his arms, then thrashed. His foot connected with Hermann’s shin, and a muffled cry of surprise and pain slipped past Hermann’s lips; Newt startled awake, taking the covers with him as he sat bolt upright. Hermann turned on the bedside lamp and bent down to surreptitiously rub at his shin.

“Hermann? Wh — oh, fuck, did I hit you?”

Wincing, Hermann straightened back up and met Newt’s eye. “Were you having a nightmare?” he asked gently.

“Yeah.” Newt ran a hand through his mussed hair. “Yeah, just Precursor shit. Fuck, I’m really sorry, Hermann.”

Hermann waved a hand. “It’s no matter. As long as you’re all right?”

“I’m used to it by now,” Newt said, then swallowed. “Look, maybe I should go sleep on the couch or something. You’ll never get a good night’s sleep if —”

“Newton,” said Hermann, cutting him off. “I know something of the nightmares those creatures bring. When I said you would never face them alone again, I meant it. I’m here, and I am here to stay, no matter what that entails.” What was life without a little sorrow?

“I don’t want to be a burden.”

“You aren’t,” said Hermann. “Darling, you could never be. Not to me,” he added, thinking of the humans and the monsters alike who had convinced Newt otherwise.

Newt looked at him. “You’ve done more for me than anyone could ever deserve,” he said quietly. “I wish there was something I could do to make it up to you.”

“Come here,” Hermann said, then kissed Newt softly. “It’s enough that you’re here with me now. That’s all I could ever ask for.” He reached to turn the lamp off —

“Hey, could you leave it on? It’s just…”

Hermann drew back. “Of course,” he said. “I know.” Monsters seldom had the courage to face anyone in the light.

And so he left the lamp on, and held Newt until the stillness of the night gave way to the soft spill of morning sunlight, and they rose to face whatever the next day held.