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The Book of Images

Chapter Text

March 17, 2035.

Things were different after Mt. Fuji.

Not that Amara had a baseline for "normal" ranger life. Or even normal life for cadets. Not that she and the others were even particularly being treated like rangers. Reyes had shuttered her in the research and development area; breaking down the components and re-shaping the mechanisms for the next series of Jaegers, while Vik and the others were routed back into training under new supervision. No Lambert, no Jake. Their new overseer was a veteran from the first war -- dark hair, suspenders, rosary beads that Vik said reminded her of her grandmother.

The Shatterdome was under new supervision, too. Interim Marshal Becket stalked around the place for weeks, brooding and saying very little to anyone that wasn't Ms. Shao or Dr. Gottlieb. Dr. Gottlieb himself looked harried and under-slept. If Amara saw him at all, he was usually rushing between the medical bay and the sub-basement elevator. She spotted him coming out just the one time, Becket on one side and...

"Alert the med bay, cadet! Now!"

Amara felt frozen to the spot, despite the marshal's order. It was the tattooed man on Dr. Gottlieb's other side screeching "PLEASE!" that finally got her to run for the emergency phone.

Chapter Text

January 16, 2024.

Hermann bolted awake with a nightmare four hours before his shift was scheduled to start -- shades of blue, a tightness in his chest that signaled drowning. It had been a recurring image in his dreams since four years into the war, when coding the Jaegers had been replaced by locating the breach; fire replaced by water, petechial hemorrhaging by pulmonary edema. 

He blinked back tears as he sat up fully in bed, gasping raggedly as he fought to catch his breath. He counted prime numbers from 1 to 100 and again in reverse. He reached for a well-worn field notes pad next to his bed; wrote out a list of materials they needed to “requisition” for the lab; tried and failed to go back to sleep as the band around his chest constricted painfully and his hip began to throb. His hip despised him with a vengeance on normal days but tonight, in the wake of a night terror and the interminable chill of a Hong Kong winter, it felt particularly personal. He assumed this was the agony he would have been fortunate enough to sleep through a decade and a half ago. Back when he was at Cambridge, and the most anxiety-inducing thing that plagued him was an unruly student body.

He limped to the bathroom grappling for purchase and paracetamol. By the time he shook out two, swallowing them dry and leaning heavily on his cane, he decided staying awake might be the better alternative. He changed into his shirt and jumper from the previous day, swapped out clean trousers, laced his brogues the way he had watched his father lace his dress boots for countless military parades and assemblies. His breathing was still ragged as he navigated the short walk to the lab.

A few muffled notes through the door revealed Newton was already awake, working-- if indeed he ever went to bed at all -- and tinkering out a few notes on his keyboard.

“...the milk truck hauls the sun up… the paper hits the door… the subway shakes my floor…and I think about you...”

Years before, when he had gotten that first email from Dr. Geiszler at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, name recognition had driven him first to Wikipedia and journal articles, then to videos of his lectures. The video search had also turned up a clip of his short-lived heavy metal band performing in a Boston dive bar, which his higher vocal range was wasted on. He gave the door a soft tap before entering, meeting Newton's gaze as he closed the door behind him.

“Nilsson?”

“Newman. 'Couldn’t sleep either?” Newton asked. He was sitting at one of three separate keyboards he had moved into his lab space the first week they arrived at the Shatterdome five years earlier (his "favorite" one, if Hermann's memory served him correctly). 

He sniffed in reply. Grateful that Newton, of all people, had seemed to accept and master the interpretation of his nonverbal communication over the years. Many others had never bothered to try. He set the list on top of the keyboard.

“I’m meeting Sasha and Aleksis for lunch tomorrow,” he said. “Add on anything else you think we might need and I’ll get a quote from them.”

“Will do.” Newton nodded, picking up the list to read through the contents.

He moved past him, toward the miniature fridge mounted on the lab counter. As the budget for the division emptied, and more staff left to fill positions in various military posts, government think tanks, and the private sector, they had migrated their shared “non-essential” equipment to the middle of the room, where it could waste less energy and be more immediately available to the remaining staff (all two of them).

“Fair warning. I may have stolen the last two Pop-Tarts.”

Hermann reached for the bread on the counter, unwrapping and popping one slice in the nearby toaster.

“So long as you didn’t break the toaster, I really couldn't care less.”  He tried the lever, eyes widening as the spring mechanism failed. “Newton…”

“What? I didn’t touch it! I swear…”

“You are a menace to modern technology,” he said, examining the sides of the appliance, noting the scorch marks on the bottom and on the counter just underneath it. “Did you stick a knife in this?!”

“...I said I didn’t touch it.”

“We only had one knife in the drawer, Newton!”

“And you weren’t using it at the time, Hermann!”

“You have no respect for shared belongings or space.”

“I’m sorry! I’ll steal one from the mess in the morning.”

“Yes, meanwhile I have to spread Marmite on un-toasted bread. With a spoon.” The indignity of it along with the lack of sleep made him sharper than usual as he slammed the drawer behind him, moving to his desk.

There was a pregnant pause from the other side of the lab where Hermann should have known that he was in trouble. As it was, he was too busy despairing at the way the edge of the spoon tore through the surface of the bread and the brewers' yeast spread tore through it even more to pay attention to the minor key Newton had already queued up and the soft tenor as his lab partner began to sing.

...so why, my darling...how can you love… Vegemite ?”

He paused mid-chew, the lyrics sinking in.

It tastes like sadness… it tastes like batteries ...it tastes like asses…

Hermann turned his gaze to the ceiling. “No chance this is an actual song...”

I cannot hold a man so close… who spreads this cancer on his toast… it is the Vegemite, my darling, or it’s me!

“It’s Marmite, Newton.”

"Which is just as gross." Newton's smirk fell. “I knew you skipped the Dresden Dolls tracks I gave you!”

“I skipped most of the music that you gave me,” he said, chewing his Not-Vegemite on Not-Toast. It was only partially true. He had given up on some playlists twenty seconds in, while he had listened to others on repeat through any number of sleepless nights and too-early mornings. But that was nothing Newton himself needed to be aware of. “I was afraid I’d hit ‘play’ and you’d be the vocalist.”

He slammed his fingers on several keys, producing a dark crescendo as Hermann turned toward the blackboard on the farthest end of the lab. The tightness in his chest momentarily forgotten, he wondered if he might be able to climb the ladder. 

“Put down the Vegemite, you fucker... or I'll leeeeeeeeeave..."

"Yes, thank you. Put 'toaster' on the list before you go, please."

Chapter Text

July 7, 2035.

The cadets’ quarters were far from the K-Science lab. Vik knew she had stalked the halls and stairways for a long way when she ended up in front of the main lab doors.

There was a long disorienting moment where she half expected them to slide open when she got close. But it was after midnight, and the automatic doors were locked. Instead, she was confronted with her own bedraggled reflection breathing heavily in the glass, still clad in her sweats and night shirt, adrenaline fallout from the incident that drove her from her bed making her shake all over. She turned to face the opposite wall, goose-flesh breaking out over both of her arms.

There was an emergency kit mounted to the wall next to the fire extinguishers: a large metal box painted grey to match the walls and concrete floors, full of blue-resistant hazmat gear, masks, gloves. Things people needed when catastrophe struck. The front panel of the box dented under her fist as she brought it down once, then again. Again and again, the burn in her knuckles and tendons almost satisfying as she started to seriously pummel the sides as well as the front.

“Whoa, hey! Hey, uh... yeah, hello there,” a voice called from behind her. “Look, I don’t mean to be nosy or anything... but, the last time I checked, rangers still needed use of their hands.”

She turned toward the figure at the end of the hall, feeling her chest rise and fall as her breathing grew staggered.

“‘Yeah, hi. Good evening,” Dr. Geiszler cleared his throat. “Listen. I-uh, just made some tea. Do you want some tea? Or would you rather beat up the hazmat box some more?”

--

Dr. Geiszler’s office was smaller than the main office, closer to the end of the hallway than the lab itself. The interior space was small and hemmed in with a cluttered desk, sofa, and a large keyboard. He had eschewed the fluorescent overhead lights for a pair of desk lamps and the glow of a hologramatic computer screen.

Vik was grateful for the dim lighting as she dropped onto the sofa, eyes adjusting as they focused on her hands in her lap. The burning from the punches grounded her to the present moment, but in the dark, it was easy to let time slip past her.

“How are your hands?”

She answered by shoving them inside her frayed cuffs of her flannel shirt. She kept them there even as Geiszler passed her a mug of chamomile-mint tea. He moved a Kleenex box within reach, didn’t say anything when she kicked the latter away so forcefully, the side of the box dented against the side of his desk.

“Right,” he sat down in his desk chair, turning until he was facing her. “So, you can sit for as long as you need to. I don’t have what you’d call set office hours, so I can be here a little while longer. There’s a box of yarn and knitting stuff by the sofa if you feel inspired. A friend of mine recommended it to me for stress -- it doesn’t take long to pick up...”

She glanced up. The scientist was shorter than Vik and looked even smaller when sitting in his chair, booted feet resting on the casters of the rolling chair. He was wearing jeans and an Oxford shirt with the long sleeves rolled up to his elbows. She dimly registered that, below his bundled cuffs, he was wearing knitted sleeves that started at his forearms and went all the way down to his fingers, with a wide hole for each thumb.

"What? Not a fan of the fiber arts?"

“Are you wearing sleeves... at the end of your sleeves ?” she said.

“What?” he asked, puzzled. Glanced down at his arms. “Oh, yeah. Uhh… I have tattoos. Full-sleeves, both arms. And I get fidgety, so I tend to push up my shirt sleeves. So, knitted sleeves, to cover tattoo sleeves, at the end of my shirt sleeves.”

“...dress code?” Vik asked. She had watched Reyes fold down her collar to cover shadows of ink at her sternum countless times. Young rangers were discouraged from body modifications, but the higher officers seemed to have an abundance with varying degrees of display.

“It’s not exactly a dress code... per se,” he replied. “I would probably need to be doing actual work for that... but, you know, it’s probably better not to talk about that at this time of night. Let’s just say the subject matter can be upsetting for some people.”

“I’m not upset by tattoos,” she interjected. “Or kaiju. I’m not a baby.”

“I never said you were--”

She’s a baby!”

Dr. Geiszler flinched, nodded slowly. “Okay.”

Vik blinked slowly, face heating up as she realized there were tears in her eyes and one had escaped to roll down one cheek. She swiped at it furiously, cradling her cup against her chest, the heat from the tea mirroring the heat from her bruised fingers. The scientist sat forward, as if poised to rescue the cup -- or her -- if need be. It was an odd reversal from the battle in Tokyo -- her brain coughed up the image of a kaiju darting out to steady a tilting jaeger just before it crashed into a building.

“She had nightmare.” The word seemed pitifully small compared to the agony Amara had seemed to be in. Vik had reached out to touch her shoulder and found herself slammed into the side of the bunk while the rest of her friend’s bedding went flying in her need to escape whatever demons laid waste in her mind. “I just wanted to help. She blow me off. Left.”

Geiszler said nothing, just nodded slowly, green eyes focused and oddly murky.

“Things were better before she came here,” she sniffed, blotting her eyes and nose with her sleeve. “Less confused.”

“Do you really feel that way?” he steadied the tea cup, preventing it from spilling. She lifted it toward her face, letting the steam waft over her nose and chin.

“I was less confused,” she replied, taking a sip. The tea was milky with a hint of vanilla that sweetened the mint further. If this has been a few hours earlier, handed to her by... someone else ... she might have smiled.

“Yeah, I know how that is. From both sides of this, believe it or not.”

“Then you tell me!” she shouted, blanching as he reached to take the cup before she could send it flying and scald them both. “Why didn’t she let me help?!”

“Anxiety, fear, fight or flight response,” he said, reaching over to set her cup on the desk, the blue from the hologramatic read-out casting it with a ghostly hue. “People don’t always process what they’re feeling in a moment like that, let alone register other people.”

“She thinks she’s the only one – ‘special case.’ I have nightmares, too! Not just Mt. Fuji. I had them before then.”

“I’m sure she knows that. It doesn’t always help, particularly in the moment,” he replied, tone soft. “Talk to her. And not with your hands -- not saying that you would do that to her or anybody else, but it can be a terrifyingly short leap from inanimate objects to people. Nicht gut.”

She would not… or rather, she didn’t think she would. Vik had been warned after every fight, even the ones she had not started. Resolution, conversation, “share.” As though she hadn’t been trying to do that when this happened. As if Amara didn't already know Vik’s mind as well as her own.

“We drift.”

“You still have to say it. Use your words. And if you can’t, you have to try. Trust me — I found that out the hard way.”

To her mortification, she felt more tears slide down her face, unheeded by her inward plea for dignity and strength in the presence of others. Geiszler rolled his chair to retrieve the discarded Kleenex box. This time, she accepted it when he handed it to her.

“Thank you,” she said, nearly whispering so her voice wouldn’t break as she grabbed a fistful of tissues from the box, dabbing and rubbing until her face felt raw to match the rest of her. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” he replied. The emotion that lay under the surface of his gaze washed over her: a pervasive and insidious sadness, giving weight to everything he conveyed. “Hey listen, ‘you hungry? The toaster broke this morning, and I’m still too scared to go to the mess even after hours, but I’ve got cereal bars and Pop-Tarts. And possibly stuff to make pancakes if we want to get adventurous with the coffee maker.”

Vik blinked slowly as she processed the question.

“...pancakes,” she answered, partly out of preference, partly because she was abruptly dying of curiosity.

Dr. Geiszler, for his part, seemed enthused by her answer.

“Okay!”

The pancakes ended up involving some complicated maneuverings with sliced banana, a package of instant oatmeal, and a tin of condensed milk. Vik watched rapt as Geiszler blitzed and mixed the liquid concoction before heating it on the carafe plate of the coffee maker. Five minutes of turning later, Geiszler produced a rather haphazard stack of pancakes on the table.

“Sorry, there’s no syrup or butter. Can’t really keep that without a fridge. Do you want the last of my Nutella?”

“What’s that?”

Geiszler smiled. “Oh my young friend, you are going to love it.

Vik eyed the jar dubiously right up until the smell of hazelnut and cocoa flooded her nostrils. The pancakes were gone faster than she expected. Dr. Geiszler only smiled as she stammered through an apology.

“No problem. You should probably be off,” he said. “It’s late. And while it’s...Saturday?”

Vik nodded.

“Saturday! Right. You might not have training today, but I’m sure they’ll find other stuff for you guys to do.”

“And you?”

“Me? My fiancé messaged me twenty minutes ago,” he said, pressing a button that shut down the holoscreen. “So I’ll be heading back to my quarters, to try and reclaim some of the sleep I lost at the start of the night.”

Vik nodded, remembering what he said earlier. “If you want to go to the mess… tomorrow or another time, I can be your escort. If you need.”

Geiszler's smile was smaller this time, belying neither amusement nor joy. Gratitude. 

“I’ll keep that in mind. Thank you.”

--

Officer Reyes and Deputy Marshal Choi were both in the cadet’s quarters dressing down Amara by the time Vik returned. Her bunkmate was red in the face, eyes still damp as she turned to face her.

"Where did you go?” she demanded, as though Vik had been the one to leave in the first place.

“Malikova,” Choi intervened. “Good to see you back. Get some shut-eye. Your duty roster just got moved to 1300 hours.”

Da, sir,” she nodded, exhaustion abruptly taking over as she crawled into her bunk, pulling the blankets over her head.

“Oh, but she doesn't get a reprimand?" Amara’s question was muffled by the wool.

"You can thank Ranger Pentecost for that one,” Reyes retorted. “You were unaccounted for for three hours. Dr. Geiszler messaged me to tell me where Ranger Malikova was ten minutes after you both went missing."

--

“You went to Dr. Geiszler’s office?” Amara asked, once the others had departed and the lights were out once more.

“He made me pancakes,” she replied. “In a coffee maker. They were good, but looked a bit dangerous.”

The answer provoked a string of giggles and creaking bed springs above her. “Yeah, that sounds like him... I’m sorry about before. I didn’t mean to run. I got scared when you hit your head.”

“It’s fine,” she replied.

“It’s not.

“No.” She held her hand out experimentally over the edge of the mattress, into dark space, smiling when a small hand slipped into it, fingers shorter and warmer as they laced with hers.

Perhaps, it would be fine. Sometime.

Chapter Text

March 17, 2035.

He’d had it in mind -- always in mind for when Newt came back. ‘Not yet, don’t push it.’  

Of course, after Hong Kong, it was about springing something on him that he had clearly missed that first time. Now it was about making a hard pass at someone who was -- on paper, at least --a subordinate in his care. One that had changed into one of his too-large shirts and trousers -- because Newt had shredded the suit he had been wearing since his capture-turned-rescue and the only other options were military fatigues or a hospital gown.

Now was not the bleeding time -- not when they’d just gotten him back. Not when this was the longest he had been awake and aware in ten years. And certainly not while Mako, Raleigh Becket, Caitlin Lightcap, and Pentecost the Younger were currently in the conference room, threatening to eviscerate what was left of the PPDC’s upper echelon if they tried to take Newt away.

Hermann hoped they wouldn’t be called into the room. He knew Mako, the proud hero visibly recovering and steadfast, would be more than enough to hold the line. Becket and Pentecost flanking her in that room added still more weight of heroism and loss.

He suspected Caitlin herself would be the linchpin in the whole argument. She had both their medical records. She had her previous studies of jaeger pilots who had lost their drift partners. Most of all, she had an irrefutable timeline of events that started with the triple-wave pattern in both their EEGs a month after Operation Pitfall. EEG results that the corps had retained for ten years and no one had seen fit to follow up on. By her analysis, Newt’s incapacitated state had started with that second drift, ordered by Stacker Pentecost -- a man the council had maligned and ignored, then taken on as an object of reverence and public relations gold the second he was dead. The PPDC would need to save face if they were going to get support for relief efforts and a future invasion. And that would be enough to buy Newt the freedom that the enemy had stolen from him for ten years.

Hermann was happy for him and Newt to be out of that discussion, even as it involved them both.

For one thing, he was pretty sure the two of them had been non-verbal for the last two hours, both still buzzing with effects from that last drift, at last unimpeded by the static of the hive mind. He thought the last words they spoke aloud might have been in German and the memory of just whose words they were was… hazy. 

Tut mir leid...Tut mir wirklich leid...Nimm mein Hand...”

They were in alignment.

They were in the same space.

Newton’s knee was bouncing. Hermann was shivering.

They couldn’t sit still and they couldn’t not touch.

So instead of being in the room with the others, they sat on a bench in the corridor outside, huddled together. The hand that wasn’t trembling as it gripped Hermann's cane was around his partner’s waist. Newt’s stubbled chin leaned heavily on his shoulder as his fingers clutched at his sleeve and shirtfront, breathing close and tying his stomach in knots.

Still, he couldn’t. They could not

I’ve never heard Caitlin shout before.

Hermann laughed, moving his hand up to squeeze Newt’s shoulder. Be glad you weren’t there when Jasper took credit for the entire Jaeger program. She had him cowering in one corner of the lab. Ranger D’onofrio and I just took cover and tried not to be conspicuous.

There was a breathless giggle at his shoulder as that memory transmitted through the ghost drift.

I never liked that man.

Nor I.  Though if Jasper Schoenfield and Newton Geiszler had ever crossed paths in person, Hermann wasn’t aware of it. Meaning that the truly palpable antipathy he could feel echoing across their shared landscape either came entirely from him or from Newton’s attachment to Caitlin. Or both.

Where’d Liwen and Tendo go?

He looked up, puzzled. Indeed, the last remaining members of their escort appeared to be gone. Liwen had built the portable apparatus to monitor the neural connection, while Tendo watched the readings and monitored the alignment. Liwen had been the one to unlock Hermann’s restraints, stepping to the side as he tore the apparatus messily from his head and neck while Tendo took care of Newt. One of them had retrieved the extra clothes from his office. Another had shoved a glass of water first at Newt, then him. He had lost sight of both of them after that, aware of their shadows lingering in the periphery, but his drift partner’s presence -- free and scrambling for equilibrium-- took precedent.

“I dunno...fucked off somewhere?”

Newt started giggling and Hermann suddenly realized what he had answered aloud. In a tone that was embarrassingly informal and almost as dazed as he still felt.

“Hermann Gottlieb just said ‘fuck'...out loud... on duty,” he laughed breathlessly, voice raw. “I’m marking that on the calendar when I get one... What year is it again?"

““It’s 2035. March," he managed. "...I think."

“…cool,” he said, even as the ripple between them telegraphed devastation, the free-fall of grief for lost time; then, finally, relief and comfort as he pressed even further into Hermann’s space. "Are we supposed to be unsupervised out here?”

"Probably not," he murmured, lips brushing his partner's brow.

Perhaps this was why the last of their entourage had departed. Though the additional voices and escalated shouting in the next room appeared to contradict that speculation. Hermann cleaved to the former out of sentiment, a small part of him hoping it would at least soften the fall when it was disproved.

“Keep hanging on to me, will you?” Newt whispered in the direction of Herman’s sternum. “I kind of feel like we’re on the edge of a glacier here.”

He turned to wrap both arms around his partner's neck, burying his face against his hair, pouring everything into his touch, into his consciousness, whatever Newt could feel emanating from him.

And in the end, the thing he had been holding in check for so long, escaped almost without notice.

“I’ve got you.”

I love you.

It was the last thing he thought right before the earth slipped out from under him.

Chapter Text

May 19, 2035.

It should have been odd, Tendo thought, how easily some things still came to all of them after so many years.

The flight into Hong Kong had had a feeling of "old home week," with Becket in the seat next to him, Lightcap seated across; the deja vu palpable as they were soon after overwhelmed with the familiar smells and sights of military transport and the Shatterdome struggling to rebuild in the wake of an attack. Even the sub-basement lab as they barreled through days of questioning, analysis, prepping and switching on the drift tech had a terrifying echo to the first days of the drift prototypes. (Though visibly calm throughout the process, Caitlin privately confided she was more terrified of Geiszler and Gottlieb stroking out in their restraints than she had been when Captain Casey had slid into the pilot seat of that first Mark I).

Most of all, he thought of how easily each one of them had dropped back in to their various roles in a crisis. Leaders, facilitators, problem-solvers. Even once the initial crisis itself had abated, they were all still here. Him in the Deputy Marshal's chair this time, Cait in the medical division, while Raleigh prepped the marshal's office for Mako’s return.

Once again he was thrust into the role of facilitator, overseer, an old favorite if not a familiar face to Reyes and the next generation of rangers coming up. Being the person someone else came to for guidance felt new, somewhat uncomfortable after nearly a decade in retirement. He found himself lingering long after his shift was done, taking it all in, as though he could soak up the wisdom he was supposed to provide through osmosis.

This was how he found himself on the platform when the last mail shipment came through in the evening, and happened to catch a familiar name as the staffer on duty read off the names of recipients.

"Which parcel?" he asked, voice loud enough to give the technicians on the docks pause.

"Erm, this one, sir," a kid in grey-green overalls said, holding up a small box bearing a 'Par Avion' label.

"I'll take it for him,” he said. “Where do you want me to sign for it?"

--

While he had re-enlisted on paper, Newton Geiszler had not been approved to officially return to work. His medical care was under PPDC oversight. He had a limited guardianship set up with Gottlieb that predated the final drift that brought their friend screaming to the surface and had put his partner in the medbay. And, per the condition that he observed the former, he had been granted both accommodations and freedom of movement within the Shatterdome.

Still, according to the others, he rarely traveled alone from one part of the dome to the other. When his medical appointments wrapped up, he tended to wait it out in the common area until Gottlieb came to get him. Which was where Tendo found him that evening, seated in an empty waiting room with his back to the wall, eyes focused on the knitting spread out across his knees.

"You're getting pretty good at that,” he observed. He couldn’t recall which of their crew had given Newt the first pair of circular needles and wool weeks ago. He suspected it might have been Raleigh -- he dimly recalled a story about his mother teaching him and Yancy when they were younger; anything to keep two rowdy boys quiet during long car trips.

"I'm a very quick study," he replied, looking up. "Don't tell me you've got a shrink appointment, too?"

"Not today I don’t. Just a delivery," he said, settling himself into the chair next to his old friend. "Personal touch."

"Hot damn!” he grinned, shoving the knitting into his messenger bag. “Just this one?"

Tendo shrugged, handing over the package. "I think everything else got delivered to your quarters -- er, Gottlieb's quarters? Anyway, according to the boys on the loading dock, there were multiple parcels. This is just the one they missed. Lucky you, it was small enough for me to carry."

"Lucky Hermann, " he smiled, setting the box on his lap. "If the rest are here, that means I can stop stealing his stuff."

Tendo smirked. The frightening pathos of watching Newt tear at the suit he’d worn in captivity had given way to a rather endearing trend in recent weeks of watching the scientist wander about in other people’s gear, mostly his drift partner’s. The taller man had broader shoulders and five inches of height on Newt, who had compensated by concealing the extra inches of material with sweater vests and, at one point, Gottlieb's old parka. Today, with spring in full force and the temperatures spiked past 80 degrees Fahrenheit, he was wearing a light knit cardigan half-buttoned over a dull, threadbare tee with the sleeves pushed up just past his wrists. A badge pinned high on the left side read “Death to False Metal!”

He watched as Newt struggled to remove the tape, finally producing a set of keys from his pocket to slice through it. The top flap ripped in half as his friend tore it open, revealing a sea of plastic filler and...

"Nail polish?"

"What? A man can't need to feel pretty once in a while?"

"A man absolutely can," he laughed. "We send Valerian off to school with painted nails more often than not. Sometimes with matching streaks in his hair."

Newt smiled. "The kid has a good sense of style. What color does the fashionable twelve-year-old wear these days?”

“Eleven-year-old. Yesterday, it was dark purple.”

“Well, who am I to argue with today’s youth?" he said, retrieving the appropriate color. "Do you mind if I...?"

"Nah, brother.  Go ahead."

“I don’t think I’m supposed to. This is technically a therapy office -- there are rules about fragrances and other disruptive smells.”

“We’re also in the Shatterdome -- every place has a disruptive smell eventually.”

“Well, when you put it that way,” he said, unscrewing the cap from the bottle. They sat quietly for a long moment as the smell of ethyl acetate filled the air.

"I take it you got an offer, then," he clarified. "You said 'send,' not sent. You send Valerian to school with painted nails... present tense... I don't know unless I'm hearing that wrong? Which is entirely possible."

"You heard right,” Tendo confirmed. “The corps wanted us all back -- and now they've got us, whether they like it or not." And he suspected, after that video call with the committee last month, they did not.

“All of you?”

"Well, we'll have Raleigh until Mako's well enough to come back on duty. Caitlin’s going to be working with neurology for a while. The corps started a short-term contract with her. She'll have an option to extend it, depending on..."

"...depending on," Newt finished, using the polishing brush to gesture towards himself. "Yeah."

In addition to therapy, Newt had ongoing neurology appointments -- MRIs, PET scans, EEG. All of the various poking and prodding the jaeger pilots had undergone since the founding of the program; monitoring for drift side effects, damage to the neural systems in the wake of drift partner death and/or constant drifts over a period of years. In addition to the standing appointments, there were occasional “emergency” examinations -- small hiccups that required further investigation. Such as...

"You know,” Newt said, expectantly, interrupting his train of thought.

"I heard. Hearing isn't the same as knowing." Particularly when the 'hearing' was from a second-hand source: in this case, an obnoxious kid from Lambert's crew who was either screwing or attempting to screw one of the med techs. He had passed a note along to Raleigh about organizing a brief on medical confidentiality for the entire section.

Newt nodded, not looking up from his work. "I freaked out. We haven't really been apart for four months. I mean, I was watching from the rafters and air ducts for half of that... but even in Sydney, the connection was strong before we drifted again. And it's been solid ever since. Of course the second he's off base, I can't feel him, and it sends me into panic mode--"

"The way I heard it, you weren't the only one panicking."

"No," he shook his head. "The EEG results came back for both of us. The dual wave is alive and active. Dual, not triple -- which is what we were all really worried about. They’re going to do another follow-up with each of us separately to be sure -- apparently we were messing the techs up by talking without actually speaking aloud . Again."

Tendo laughed.

"So, odds are the block isn't physiological. Which means..."

"Which means," he nodded. "I gotcha."

“It’s not fair, man," he glared at the nail brush as it jerked, abruptly coating the side of his thumb in purple glitter. "I mean, I don’t know why I would expect anything with my brain to ever go the way I’d like it to. Still, though.”

“You said so yourself: the connection is strong when you’re together,” he said, reaching over to steady his hand. Strong enough that the didn’t need to be verbal, apparently. 

“Yeah, except we’re not always going to be together--"

"Aren't you, though?" That last year before the end of the first war, if the last two members of the K-Science division had ever operated on separate schedules, Tendo couldn't recall it. And he couldn't see them having different shifts once Newt was cleared to come back to the lab.

This, at least, got a laugh from Newt. He privately tallied the point in his head.

"... he can still sense me though. Anytime he wants," he said, taking advantage of the temporary stability to give his last three fingers a second coat. "So, there’s that at least.”

“But?”

“He’s obnoxious about it for one thing!” he exclaimed, smirking as Tendo laughed. “And it doesn't mean he'll be able to sense if something goes wrong. He couldn’t tell something was wrong for the first ten years.”

“Which is why he has his own appointments with Cait lined up. And his own shrink, right?” he asked, tone turned serious. He waited for Newt’s small nod before reaching over to lay a hand on his friend’s arm. “We’re all in this together, Newt. You’re not going to get lost again.”

There were, Tendo figured, at least a dozen possible replies that flitted through his friend’s mind in the long pause that followed -- many of them pessimistic, given the way he became suddenly focused on drying his newly purple and sparkling fingernails. The fact that he didn’t give voice to them gave him hope, hope that he had gotten through.

“I think this color looks better on Valerian than me,” Newt finally said.

Tendo examined his nails, shrugged. “Looks okay to me. Maybe another coat?”

“Maybe. ‘Could see how it looks with one of my new shirts. Or I could throw a coat of black glitter on top a little later, give it a textured effect…”

Newt looked up, eyeline swerved toward a point fixed off toward the far wall, as if he could see through cinder blocks and concrete.

Tendo smiled. “I know that face. ‘He nearby?”

“You don’t-- I barely know this face!” Newt blurted, indignant. “How do you know? What’s my face doing?”

“Dewy-eyed and vaguely irritated. You’ve only had it for the 20 years I’ve known you!” Tendo smirked. “How far away is he?”

“...four floors up?” Newt screwed the top back on the bottle, dropping it back in the box. “He’s in the east elevator. So, four floors up and down the hall. Headed this way.”

“And you were worried,” he brought his hand up to sling his arm around his friend’s shoulders. “Want me to stick around for the handoff?”

“Would you?” Newt leaned in.

“Any time.”

Chapter Text

January 20, 2021

Hermann remembered birthdays at the science divisions in both Lima and Anchorage being relatively low key affairs. No cake or sweets to be found in a time of rationing, barely any alcohol or tea. Not much to celebrate as everyone scrambled to return to their stations to code, to analyze the latest casualty reports or breach data.

Perhaps it was Hong Kong and the freedom of its open port. Perhaps it was everyone’s longing for the recently passed winter holidays. Or perhaps it was just Newton. Whatever the reason, his lab partner's birthday had arrived and closed out with a comparatively garish amount of fanfare, loud conversation, and excessive drinking all in the middle of a busy work week.

He had indulged briefly, drinking the too sweet cocktail poured by one of the LOCCENT technicians: 90 proof vodka mixed with Newton’s “earl grey mead” and crushed mint procured from one of the J-tech crew’s numerous hot house plants. The subsequent dehydration and headache resulted in twice his usual dose of paracetamol and what he hoped was only temporary loss of his peripheral vision.

It was the visual impairment that came back to bite him the next morning as he made his way to the lab, only to trip straight into a large, plastic-wrapped obstacle situated in the middle of the floor. It was wider than Hermann’s desk and nearly as tall as the dissection tables.

"Newton! Did you happen to order any new equipment?"

"What?" the biologist called from the doorway, stumbling in ten steps behind. He removed the sunglasses covering his normal lenses, then his ordinary frames; eyes squinting blearily then widening as he took in the large, plastic-wrapped monstrosity.

"If you could just move it to your side of the lab, I would greatly appreciate--"

Words stalled as the shorter man glanced at the packaging label then began to tear at the plastic; first at a curious, then a more frenzied pace.

Eventually, the last ragged pieces fell away revealing an upright piano with a mahogany finish, scratches and dark spots in the patina revealing its age. It had to be at least a hundred years old, the scent of orange oil covering the slightly musty smell of long (and recent) storage. The other biologists filtered over, each doing their own version of hungover shambling and incredulous gawking.

"We have a piano now?" Harold asked.

"I don't think K-Science has budget for that," Svetlana replied, running dark painted nails along the top of it.

Newt silently pushed past all of them, retreating to his little-used desk.

"Newton,” Hermann called out. “Newton? You're supposed to have personal items delivered to your quarters."

Though, having been one of a half dozen people squeezed into it the previous night to watch the first Alien sequel on an ancient laptop screen, he could concede that the already cluttered space was probably too small to house it.

"Shut up for one second, Hermann!" He shouted, uncharacteristically sharp. There was a rustle of papers, then a familiar clatter as he mounted his tablet, screen facing forward and up.

The screen filled with a familiar aqua logo, the childish bouncing sounds that were supposed to be less irritating than the sound of a ringing telephone. Finally, the call connected and the image of a smiling woman filled the screen, dark hair pulled back, familiar green eyes sparkling.

"Guten abend, Herr Doktor Doktor Dok--!"

"Ja, hallo Mutti," Newton interrupted. "Guten morgen --”

“Hast du dein Geburtstagsgeschenk erhalten?”

...yeah. Uhhh. Du hast mir ein Klavier geschicken? Warum? Warum ?"

“Does anyone else here speak German?” Harold wondered aloud.

The subsequent shushing and hurried scramble let Hermann know without glancing over that someone had informed the microbiologist that at least one other person did (and that he could request a translation at his own peril).

"Es ist der Schiller, der einmal deinem Onkel Gunter gehörte! Ich habe es gefindet letzten Monat in meinem Lager in Stuttgart. Magst du es?"

A family heirloom, Hermann thought. Did Newton really have a choice in whether he liked it or not?

"...Yes. Ja, danke. Aber warum ...?"

"Ich hatte nichts die alte Ding gesehen für Jahren. Dein Vater hat es im Frühling '89 für mich gestimmt, als ich Mathilde aufgeführte... wie alt bist du, Mausbär?"

Hermann startled at the sound of a pencil snapping in two, leaned heavily on his cane as his bad hip objected to that small reflex. Newton, for his part, looked equally pained.

"I'm 31, Mutti,” His lab partner informed the smiling woman. “Thank you for remembering."

"Natürlich! Alles Gut zum Geburtstag, Herr Doktor Doktor Doktor--"

"Ja, Danke, Mutti, Danke!"
Newton killed the video feed with a flick of the button, ripping the tablet from the mount and letting it clatter to the desk, screen facing down.

‘Only my mother calls me doctor.’ Newton had told Hermann as much, first in their correspondence, during their first meeting in Stockholm, and finally upon their official reintroduction several months ago. Not merely a humorous aside then. Even Hermann had to privately admit adherence to that particular protocol of observing every single title would give anyone an aversion. And there appeared to be other factors as well. 

He waited ten minutes before walking over to where his lab partner stood next to his present, slumped against one side and pinching his brow. Somehow, he didn’t think the lingering hangover was the cause.

"She, erm ,” Hermann paused, cleared his throat, “I couldn’t help overhearing… she sent you the piano that your father tuned--"

"--during the trip when I was conceived,” Newton replied, mirthlessly. “Yeah, Hermann, you heard that right. The math wasn't very hard, but congratulations anyway."

"Well, it's a lovely instrument--"

“Please stop.”

“Right,” he nodded.

"At least it had already been refitted -- the ivory ban would have meant it arrived stripped of its keys. One more precious thing ruined because of me."

Hermann took a deep breath, tamping down the nausea and mirrored grief that briefly flooded his own stomach.

“Well, don’t worry yourself about moving it right away. It’s no bother so long as it’s just sitting dormant.”

“...oh really?” Newton glanced up, a flicker of mischief replacing the resigned frustration from earlier. He fingered a key; two keys; tickling out a brief tune before casually dragging a chair over with his ankle. All while maintaining eye contact with the man who said the presence of the instrument was fine, so long as he didn’t actually play it. "Is that so, Dr. Gottlieb?"

Hermann shook his head, turning back towards his chalkboard as his partner filled the otherwise quiet lab space with a familiar instrumental. Ten minutes and two equations later, he was still trying to decipher the melody. Svetlana, who was humming along, had already figured it out. The mystery resolved itself minute later as Newton began to sing.

"I try to explain… that he’s mostly tame… so long as there’s pizza and video games … God, is 1989 the last time this thing was tuned?!" he blurted out, trying some alternate keys.

Hermann glared at the chalkboard, covering his eyes against the ensuing headache.

Chapter Text

June 12, 2035.

Life went on under the new mission, as best as Amara could understand it: force the breach open, dive head first into another world to take on colonialist aliens who had nearly destroyed their world -- twice.   The job of the J-Tech team under Deputy Marshal Choi and Officer Reyes’ supervision was to create new tech -- working drones and piloted jaegers -- that would be “Anteverse-ready;” working with Shao Industries resources and the K-science division's data to determine the kind of armor plating, defensive, and weapon systems they would need.

Officially, Amara’s duties fell under R & D -- though the same corps that allowed her to pilot a jaeger in an emergency situation did not allow her to handle a soldering iron or a blowtorch unsupervised in a non-emergency one. Unofficially, her duties were spread out across multiple areas, accounting for her age, expertise, and previous status as a cadet “temporarily promoted” under extraordinary conditions. And, like the others, she still had to train and attend classes in addition to the new workload. Some days, she marveled at the things she got to do — picking apart and re-purposing existing tech until it created something new.

Other days, like today, she felt like a slightly upgraded errand runner. 

“Namani! Jinhai!” Reyes called out across the gym, interrupting as the two of them watched Ilya and Vik sparring. “Follow me, please.”

Reyes lead them out the end of the hall that opened out to the helipads, the entry point for new arrivals and deliveries. She pointed to a collection of eight large boxes, packed and secured to a flatbed dolly with bungee cords.

"Take these down to Dr. Geiszler. K-Science division, main lab floor, office B. We’re shorthanded and we need these out of the way."

“Geiszler?” she said, at the same time Jinhai exclaimed “ K-Science?

“Office B,” Reyes repeated, unperturbed. “Don’t forget to have him sign for them.”

"Okay, but,” Amara hesitated, glancing at the pristine tape on each of the boxes strapped to the flatbed. “That’s... a lot of boxes. Don't they need to be x-rayed? Or exploded? Or something?"

"We’re the ones that packed them, Cadet," Reyes said, almost smiling. "Seriously, on your way, now. You’re both due back at 1500."

--

Office B was smaller than the main lab floor, situated at the end of a long hallway. The dolly was heavy, even with the two of them steering it and maneuvering it around groups of people, specimen carts and the occasional trash can. Once they got to the end of the hall, it took an extra minute of further maneuvering so they would be able to move it inside.

“Aren’t you going to buzz the door?” Amara asked.

Jinhai hesitated. “Uhhh…”

“Never mind, I’ll do it,” she said, pressing the buzzer before reaching for the door knob and swinging it outward. The interior of the office was dark. Amara reached to turn the overhead lights on out of instinct. The small figure at the desk turned to look at them, blinking at the sudden illumination.

Dr. Geiszler had been different since Mt. Fuji, too. He wore glasses for one thing. Blocky and slightly too big for his face, which was more malleable and expressive than she remembered.

Amara had seen him a handful of times in the months since their hallway encounter: seated nervously on a gurney in the medical bay or in the mess with Becket and Dr. Lightcap. Once, she had gotten a glimpse at him in the common area of the interim marshal's office; Secretary-General Mori, still using a cane to get around, arms around him, managed to shoo her out with just her eyes. There was always a small spike of adrenaline each time, fight or flight kicking in before her brain hit a hard reset, reminding her that it was safe. That they were all safe (for now).

“Doctor Geiszler?”

“It’s Newt, Cadet um… Namani?” She nodded. “It’s just Newt, please.”

“Okay,” she replied, pulling the flatbed into the office . “Um, sorry to bother you, but Officer Reyes said you needed to sign for these.”

Jinhai released the first cable, wincing at the momentum as it snapped back, the hook hitting the floor with a loud metallic clanging sound. The top box tipped, falling to the concrete before any of them could dive for it. The crunching sound of broken glass filled the air.

“...I see.”

"Sorry!” She crouched to the floor, pulling aside the tape to survey the damage, brow furrowing at the contents. Several circular-shaped items wrapped in transparent bio-plastic wrap. “Sorry about that. If this is equipment--”

“I don’t think it would be. Everything I’m working on is pretty much in this room,” he shook his head, reaching for the clipboard Jinhai held. “Unless Herm— Dr. Gottlieb ordered something.”

“You call him Dr. Gottlieb?” Jinhai asked.

“No,” he replied, signing the invoice. “But you should.”

“Okay.”

“I don’t think it’s equipment. The components are all too small, no outlet cords or powers sources. They don’t look like lab glassware either,” Amara said, carefully retrieving the damaged items from the box, jagged glass edges poking through the bubbled wrap, oddly circular edges. “They kind of look like… Are these from your kitchen?“

Geiszler stared for a long moment.

“Back up,” he said, motioning for the two rangers to step aside and producing a small box blade from his pocket. He sliced the tape on the other boxes and pulled the flaps open up to survey the contents of each container. He grew oddly still as he stepped back.

“Is everything okay?”

"They’re from the flat in Shanghai,” he answered, voice flat. "Personal items. All of the assets have been unfrozen since I was cleared. Bank accounts are easy to divest but personal property... And I guess since there were so many this time, they decided to send them to the office instead of just stacking them in front of the door to our quarters. Nice enough I guess, considering one of us is disabled...”

"Oh. Okay, well that's a good thing , though. Right? I mean, you got your stuff back."

"It's not my stuff!" he blurted, rubbing his eyes as he caught himself. "It’s… not mine. None of these things are mine ."

Her eyes widened as she absorbed his meaning. She glanced over at Jinhai, whose mouth had dropped open.

"Oh...oh, wow."

"Yeah," he nodded, running his hands up into his hair, pulling slightly. “Look, I’m sorry I raised my voice. This is nothing you guys did.”

"Whoa…” she lifted the lid of the closest box to peek inside, blinking at the stacks upon stacks of bubble-wrapped, rippled blue glass “... they really liked weird plates, huh?"

"You're telling me. This is worse than drunk shopping. I don’t think they ever cooked any--" his voice tapered off, gaze turned toward the wall.

“Dr. Geis-- Newt ?” she caught herself, feeling her stomach sink.

"Do you want us to go find Dr. Gottlieb?" Jinhai asked, quietly.

Geiszler shook his head, not looking up. Amara reached tentatively in to the box, picking an intact plate from the stacks. With careful precision, she aimed for the concrete floor, throwing in an arc so that the glass shattered still contained inside the plastic wrap.

That got the older man to look up, still unblinking.

"Do you want us to break the rest of them for you?"

That suggestion, if anything, seemed to put a light into his eyes.

"You’re going to need safety gear first,” he said, reaching to unlock a box that had been bolted to the wall. “And this space is too small. We’ll do it in the northwest corner of the main lab --  it's away from all the equipment and Hermann’s team has the afternoon off."

--

Ilya showed up several minutes later, sent by Reyes and drawn to the noise that the remaining K-science crew on duty seemed to be retreating from. Between the four of them, fifteen dishes,  twenty pieces of glassware, and several modern art installations ended up being gleefully pulverized.

They were sweeping up the remains when Reyes herself arrived.

"What is going on here?!"

"Velocity experiment,” Geiszler replied, succinctly. “In my defense, we put two layers of plastic down."

--

Geiszler was waiting outside when she was dismissed from the deputy marshal’s office, safety gear gone, a parka with a fur collar thrown on over his shirt and tie, hands folded in his lap, staring into space. Amara felt the familiar adrenaline spike, morphed into something less familiar as she recalled a smiling face and friendly claps on the shoulder accompanied by a symphony of shattered glass and granulated resin.

“Hey,” she said, sitting next to him on the bench.

"Did I get you guys in trouble?" he asked.

"More trouble than sneaking into the jaeger bay to check out a rogue jaeger full of kaiju blue and stolen tech?" Amara asked, smiling at his surprised look. "No, mostly they just asked about you. They... seemed worried."

"Yeah, I get that a lot lately."

"They care." That much had been evident, particularly in Deputy Marshal Choi who visibly relaxed — even seemed amused — as she described the impromptu demolition in the lab.

"I care about them, too,” he replied, shoving his hands into his coat pockets. “That made everything that much worse."

“...how did that work? I mean, if it’s okay for me to ask.”

She had heard fleeting details about the precursors from Jake: how they had managed to colonize Geiszler’s mind through repeated drifts, essentially hi-jacking his body for years until his drift partner terminated the connection. How the biologist had never been "normal" before and was nowhere near that now three months after his rescue; still feeling his way back to Earth and the present, while absorbing everything that had happened.

“It’s okay,” Newt nodded, pausing as if weighing his words. “Miscalculation, that’s probably the shortest answer. I miscalculated when I drifted that first time. And I failed to account for the long-term effects after the second time. I made mistakes. A lot of people… made mistakes. And a lot of people paid for it.”

Amara could feel a well open up somewhere inside, almost enveloping her like a collapsing star. Colder and darker than space.

“Do you remember--?”

“Probably not.”

"What's the last full day you remember?"

"Before coming back?"

She nodded. He paused, as if retrieving the precise date.

"My mother's funeral,” he finally said. "We had the service at the synagogue in Berlin and then we sat shiva for seven days. All of her immediate family and closest friends. She was a retired opera singer so there were quite a few friends and contemporaries, but not much family apart from me. Hermann was there. That was the first time I'd seen him in two years. I was kind of...in and out... in those days. Sometimes I had a grip on what was happening, but most of the time I didn't. I was definitely there for that week...”

And, if the look in the older man's eyes was any indication, every day after that had clearly been a struggle to not let himself sink. Amara moved to sit closer on the bench.

“I was alone for a long time," she said, feeling a small chill run up her back. "When Jake found me and Scrapper, that was the most I’d talked to someone in three years.”

Geiszler met her gaze, demeanor shifted, more grounded.

"...people are weird, aren’t they?” she asked. "Like, just even talking to people? It's weird and tiresome and, like, really, really awful."

Just the simple exchange of words and ideas with other people was exhausting enough that the drift had almost been a relief, even in the midst of world-ending catastrophe. She wasn't sure Jake, who had made a point of surrounding himself with people in every situation in his life, would get it. Every now and again, she saw Vik looking at her and... she sensed that she might get it. 

Geiszler definitely got it by the way he laughed; a near cackle, light and easy that made her smile.

“Ehhh, sometimes, yeah," he said as his breathing finally evened out, swiping at damp eyes.

“I’m not really used to being around them yet either,” she said. A kind of stasis had set in, but, in her bleakest, most solitary moments, she no more felt her place here than she did in her myriad of boltholes and hiding places in the tech graveyards of Santa Monica. She wondered sometimes if that would ever change. 

“You seem like you’re doing all right, though," Geiszler offered. "And you helped me today… a lot. So, thank you for that, Amara.”

Amara felt gravity take hold in that moment, putting them both on more solid ground and banishing the cold of space to the background. This exchange at least, was easy.

“You’re welcome.”

 

 

Chapter Text

March 17, 2035.

Less than an hour had passed when the council’s final decision buzzed on Interim Marshal Raleigh Becket's phone. He read the text in the enclosed waiting area of the medical bay with one eye on the door where Hermann Gottlieb lay unconscious, two IV lines running saline, sedatives, and AEDs to prevent another seizure.

'DECISION 19-1 IN FAVOR OF OUR PROPOSITION. ONE ABSTAINING (FOR OBVIOUS REASONS).'

Raleigh’s lip perked wryly at Jake’s addition even as he felt the sigh of relief in every cell of his body. He could feel an echo an ocean away as Mako got the same text message in her hospital bed in Sydney.

The days after Tokyo had taken them all through the wringer and the last 72 hours had been particularly harrowing as they all rushed to complete reports, wrangle estranged siblings and colleagues, to enact change -- real change -- before the matter was ripped from their hands. It was no wonder their energy was beginning to flag -- Raleigh could feel it as his partner finally drifted off to sleep half a world away. Could see it in Tendo and Liwen Shao’s relieved expressions as they each slipped away for much-needed showers, to pass along instructions to new subordinates, grab something that resembled food.

Newton Geiszler, meanwhile, was awake. And he was, in contrast, abruptly, apoplectically energetic.

"Six drifts! In two days!" His voice broke on the last two words as he scrambled to button the too-long sleeves on his borrowed shirt. "You're a neurologist, Caitlin! Where's your accountability?"

At least he was shouting in English. Raleigh had understood the slurred German he'd babbled at Gottlieb as soon as Tendo detached the PONS and unbuckled his restraints, but not everyone else in the room had. And the shared silence the two scientists had lapsed into for hours afterward had been even more worrisome. Particularly when Gottlieb briefly shook awake to pass instructions to Shao. Also in German.

The staff of the medical bay had long since departed -- either under the force of Geiszler’s invective or Raleigh’s stare -- to attend to the remaining patients, leaving the three of them alone.

"Hermann knew the risks. He was repeatedly informed of the risks," Lightcap replied, tone even and measured, volume lower than even what was recommended for engaging with pilots and test subjects in a post-drift state; her own energy clearly starting to drop. "He saw the readings and he agreed with me--"

"Like hell!"

Raleigh took a step forward, a hand on Lightcap's shoulder. “Cait. Give us a minute.”

Lightcap nodded, retreated toward the hallway. Raleigh waited until the door slipped shut before reaching over to adjust the lights, dimming them slightly. Geiszler wilted in the chair next to the wall.

"Ambience, Becket? Really?"

"’Es ist viel zu hell.' You kept saying it over and over again when you woke up."

The shorter man blinked slowly.

"...right," he said, dazed; laughed breathlessly. "I forgot you were a stealth polyglot."

"Most people do," he shrugged, settling in the chair next to him. “Is this any better?”

“Getting there. I’m not used to actually seeing with my own eyes yet,” he replied, letting his head fall back against the wall. “It’s… kind of like those first drifts? My eyes took a while to readjust afterward.”

Raleigh patted down the pockets on his combat jacket, locating a familiar outline. Gottlieb had retained most of Geiszler’s belongings after he had departed the PPDC, down to clothing and personal items. Between the third and forth drifts, he had shoved a pair of black frames wrapped in a white handkerchief into Raleigh’s hand as he helped the older man stand up.

‘If I should forget… make sure he has those.’

Raleigh unzipped the outer pocket, retrieving the familiar spectacles. The shorter man’s hands were shaking as he took them.

“How did you--?”

“Gottlieb said you couldn’t read his handwriting. And there’s no LASIK procedure in any of your medical files. We checked.”

“It probably wouldn’t be there,” he paused. “My memories of that aren’t exactly clear, but... Some back alley doctor that took a cash payment? I woke up staring at the ceiling. They took an Ativan for the pain and I spit it out… I wanted to remember.”

The pain. Raleigh swallowed thickly. He had wanted to remember the pain, so he might remember other stuff later. Geiszler slid the glasses onto his face almost experimentally, blinking as he gazed through the lenses.

“How are they?”

“Better. And not. Much as I don't love having my eyeballs poked and prodded in a dark room... we’re going to need an ophthalmologist’s opinion,” he replied, rubbing his eyes. “LASIK doesn’t… shouldn’t degrade this fast. Not without environmental factors. There could be scarring or something else. I could be mis-remembering when the procedure took place… or they might not have given me LASIK at all.”

"Right.” Raleigh nodded. They could work that in to the battery of medical tests and procedures he was likely to complete in the next few days.

He let his own head rest against the wall, eyes slipping shut as the air settled in to a series of distant hums and beeps from medical equipment. He realized he had briefly nodded out when Geiszler started talking again.

“I yelled at Caitlin.”

“She did a lot of yelling herself, earlier. It’s been that kind of day,” he replied. Seriousness took over. “This was not an easy decision for her, or anyone. This has not been an easy time. For anyone . But we’re all aware that for you, it's been much worse for much longer."

Geiszler shook his head. "Worse than for the thousands of people in Tokyo? In Sydney? For Mako, for Hermann ?"

"Mako is alive and so is Gottlieb."

"He had no right to risk his health that way! None. And none of you had the right to ask him."

"He and Shao had the portable apparatus built before Cait made her recommendations.” Raleigh had a feeling Gottlieb would get his own tongue-lashing over that one, considering he had been the one to bring his old friend in to review Geiszler’s case and make a report when he had his own plan ready to go regardless of what she might say. “Do you think any of us could have stopped him?"

"...no," he shook his head. “He’s stubborn.”

The fallout from the final drift had been immediate and surreal. They had all watched as the alien hive mind that had been screaming annihilation and ruin at them for days shuddered and died... only for the high strung scientist they had all known to emerge, jittery and disoriented, clinging to his partner the second he was within reach.

Raleigh reached into his bag, retrieving and powering up his tablet.

"Is this a statement?"

Raleigh shrugged. "I was just going to show you some scans. Are you wanting to give a statement?"

Geiszler’s eyes were misty as he spoke, gaze averted, fixed on some point above and to the left of them.

"When this started, I thought my medication had stopped working. The symptoms were all...pretty familiar,” he said. “I don’t know if you know what that’s like. When your meds stop working you, a lot of things can happen. You lose sleep. You have intrusive thoughts, wake up in strange places… make rash and irrevocable decisions. You learn to apologize, even if you can’t remember… and sometimes you learn to live with those decisions. I thought I was learning to live with it. By the time I knew what was really going on, it was too late.”

“When?” he asked, his own voice dropped to just above a whisper.

“People don’t generally wake up in Siberia by accident," he said, voice raw, blinking away tears. “I guess that would have been about 2027?”

Raleigh handed him the handkerchief.

"Thanks.” he said, blotting his eyes under the glasses. “I tried. I did what I could… which wasn’t a lot. I couldn’t speak. I stopped my meds altogether. Slower activity in the prefrontal cortex, rapid alterations of dopamine levels in the brain. That seemed to knock them for a loop for a while, anyway."

Gottlieb, Raleight thought, had made a good decision recalling Lightcap to service. Caitlin’s own background had led her to ask for Geiszler’s medical records from Shao in addition to everything else so that she could chart the information against the spikes in the homemade PONS data. She had made specific notes about the medication for his ADHD and his bipolar disorder and how refills on both had stopped in 2027 and 2028 respectively. In reaction, she posited, the precursors had built Alice, built the PONS system, upped the drifts.

"What you’ve just told me is consistent with the reports. Lightcap mapped everything out: everything from Shao, the PONS data… and the data from the other files.”

The mention of the other files made Geiszler sit up -- the folders and sub-folders, text files and audio files composed entirely in German, with side notes that seemed to be addressed to his lab partner directly and, among other things, had vital details on the Anteverse, gleaned from almost a decade of involuntary drifts. Mako had noted that the file itself was named for a Swedish warship, the significance of which seemed a mystery to everyone but the man the file had been created for.

“What she didn't have, Gottlieb was able to confirm the first couple of drifts. We know you fought it, and we know what you did for us."

"It wasn't enough!” Geiszler shook his head. After Berlin, all I could do was... try the 'off' switch. After that, all I could do was hide out, whisper lies and misdirection. And hope to hell someone actually noticed."

Gottlieb had noticed. Mako and Tendo had noticed. But without context and hundreds of miles between them and Geiszler, none of them had a complete picture and, therefore, none of them could intervene in a meaningful way. The rest of them had been content to let the contact slip once one of their own ran toward the private sector. Comfortable ignorance and -- Raleigh could see it better than the others save maybe Jake Pentecost, having been on that side of it himself -- no shortage of bitterness.

There was guilt in place of it now, the way there wasn’t when the same people engaged with him or Jake. The two of them had walked away on their own, after all. Geiszler apparently never had a choice.

"So what now?" Geiszler babbled as Raleigh gave him a questioning look. "Presumably, there's a 'now.' There's a plan. What is it? A signed confession? A little locked room? A hospital bed in a remote institution nowhere near the Pacific ocean? Don't leave me in suspense here, Becket. What's it going to be?"

Raleigh shrugged.

Geiszler stared at him, flabbergasted. "You’re not serious. "

"The precursors made a very thorough confession."

"I'm an enemy agent! I helped them!"

"Under duress, in an incapacitated state,” he said, borrowing a phrase from Lightcap’s report. “What’s more, you kept the data. You exploited their weaknesses. You left a massive file on the Anteverse for Gottlieb to find. An abductee in an asymmetric war who gathered intel against the enemy at great personal risk."

"So..."  he held his hands out.

"This is it."

"It can’t be… it can’t ."

“Do you really think your man went through all of this so we could throw you in a box?"

"Don't ." Geiszler shook his head. "He's not my-- that’s none of your business! Don't even start with me on that, Becket! Just don't."

Raleigh nodded, a pang in his chest that also might have been from an ocean away, but may have been his own recognition. With any luck, they would have time to work that out.

“Anyway, Gottlieb still had your medical power of attorney paperwork on file. He was able to set up a limited guardianship before the new jaegers even made it to Tokyo. Shao’s lawyers are currently working with us on their own paperwork -- your resignation, intel exchange, the whole damn thing."

"That’s… You're all. Crazy! "

"Maybe."

“No, I am an expert on crazy! There’s no ‘maybe!’

“If you say so,” Raleigh shrugged again.

"You can't tell me the council agreed to this -- I remember those people! Even with the file, even with a pile of evidence and the best experts to back it up, those bureaucrats couldn’t find their ass with both hands and a GPS. I remember how they treated us, Pentecost, Lightcap, you for that matter.."

"They had sufficient motivation."

That seemed to grab the scientist's attention.

“From what?”

He opened the folder, watched as the file opened before holding the tablet close for Geiszler to lean in and read.

“The EEG results from February 2025, four weeks after Pitfall. Lightcap couldn’t find the lab reports in yours or Gottlieb’s medical files – the digital copies were scrubbed. She finally located a hard copy in the ‘post-acceptance deletion’ index archive under your name. There’s a note on page three. It’s dated but not signed."

Raleigh watched as Geiszler leaned in closer to read through the pages, fingers shakily swiping at the screen. Green eyes widened as they landed on the hurried scrawl.

"Recognize the handwriting?”

"Son of a bitch . Does Hermann know?"

"I was hoping you might tell him once he wakes up.” Lightcap had told her old friend about the report, told him about the fact that the PPDC had concealed it. Everything else had been withheld, so that Gottlieb wouldn’t take it into the drift with him, where someone other than Geiszler might be listening. “Consider it an order, if you want. On paper, you've re-enlisted."

Geiszler stared at him, open-mouthed. "Are you kidding me?"

"Consider yourself on medical leave, but no. Officially, you gave Shao your resignation after the attack in Sydney. Gottlieb requested your assistance on the initial investigation. You had a medical emergency and were incapacitated during Tokyo."

Spare descriptions, just enough to be factual, further legitimized by all of their signatures and the council’s sanction. The narrative would be public knowledge soon enough, everything else classified.

"...which means any projects they conducted with her resources remain under her purview…and now ours so long as I’m…” his voice trailed off, both hands coming up to cover his eyes, pull his hair as if testing whether he was awake, whether anything he had just heard was real. “The last order I took didn’t go so well, Becket.”

“So consider it a favor,” he replied. “Honestly, I think he’ll take this a lot better from you.”

He shook his head, blinking furiously, finally letting his head fall back against the wall once again, eyes closed.. Raleigh's hand moved to the scientist’s arm, a comfortable silence falling between them, both of their breathing syncing up with the motions of distant machines.