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Paranoia in the Sublime

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I.
There is light.

He sees it first as a blink, then a sparkle, then a winking spot in the distance of the dark space he calls his home nowadays. There’s something familiar about it, strangely enough, but it doesn’t quite hit Newt until he hears the faintest sound of footsteps. And humans do not, as a rule, have three feet.

Newt takes off like a shot, scrambling forward on atrophied limbs as he runs pell mell across the darkness. The light gets closer and closer, glowing brighter and brighter, until its shape begins to take place. A man-thing, then oversized clothes and a cane, and finally, a face. Open and hoping and wanting, oh God, the want that shows on Hermann Gottlieb’s face almost makes Newt trip over his own feet.

There are yards between them, then feet, then barely inches as they take those last few stumbling steps and crash into each other. Newt throws his arms around Hermann without thinking and lifts him into the air, spinning him around like a war betty as Hermann wraps his arms around his neck and presses their foreheads together. They are touching, and they are laughing, and they are crying, and they are home, home, home.

The glow around them grows brighter and brighter, consuming them until everything dissolves into light.

II.
Dr. Anako Flaerty leans back against the wall of Dr. Geiszler’s cell and counts to three. When they’re done, they take a step forward, reach over, and push the button to undo the restraints on his chair. Jake Pentecost gives her a funny look.

“Is it safe?” he asks. They give him the look they give everyone who questions their decisions.

“They’ll need it in a minute. Drift affect and all that.”

Sure enough, exactly sixty-four seconds later, Geiszler and Gottlieb’s eyes fly open with a gasp. Gottlieb scrambles forward, and Geiszler falls out of his chair and onto the ground. They grab at each other with desperate hands, pulling both into a crushing embrace. Geiszler starts gasping and sobbing, while Gottlieb tangles a hand in his hair and murmurs something in German into his shoulder. Jake looks supremely uncomfortable. Lambert even more so.

“Ghost Drifting,” explains Anako. “They’re experiencing the same effects that Drift partners who’ve been separated for a long time, then suddenly connected again, go through. Intense psychological and physiological dependence-- do not, under any circumstances, touch or separate them. They are literally in their own little world right now.” They nod at the two pilots. “This could take a while. I’ll keep watch if you two want to go play ‘cockbiter’.”

Lambert (fuck the guy, honestly) looks as if he wants to comment on their choice of games, but Jake puts a hand on his arm. “Leave it, mate,” he says. “The good doc can handle a few scientists.”

“Piss off,” they mutter under their breath as the two leave, although not without a glance in the direction of the two shaking men on the floor.

Anako leans back, fishes a cigarette out of their lab coat pocket, and lights it. They bring it to their lips and suck. The smoke curls out of their mouth and up to the ceiling, where the dim light of Geiszler’s cell filters through it like morning mist.They watch it lazily for a few minutes, trying to ignore the sounds of canoodling and sappy reunions. Blech.

I will never, they think, understand tenderness. Christ.

From the floor, Geiszler finally breaks from his reverie and gives them a funny sort of glance. “Uh,” he says hoarsely, “do you mind?”

They roll their eyes. “Oh don’t let me break up your little cuddle puddle. I can stay here as long as you need.”

Geiszler glances down. “I mean… the mood’s kinda ruined now.”

“Not my problem. Take care of your boyfriend and ride the Ghost Drift out. Then?” They shoot him a scathing glare. “Your little groupie ass is mine for the next three hours.”

Geiszler gulps. “Would it help if I said I missed you too?”

Anako lets out a heavy sigh. “I suppose it’s good to see you back in sound mind, Dr. Geiszler. Now get off the fuckin’ floor.”

He scowls and huddles further into Gottlieb’s arms. “Well. I guess that I didn’t miss.

III.

“Say ah.”

“Aren’t you going to ask how I’m doing?”

“No. Say ah.”

Geiszler shrinks into himself, but opens his mouth. Anako sticks a tongue depressor in and swirls their penlight around. “Hm,” they say. “Incisors are more pronounced. Sharper, too.” They frown. “Just how long were you Drifting with that brain?”

(The brain’s name is, supposedly, Alice, but Anako has seen enough monsters to know that naming only gives them power.)

Geiszler shrugs and snaps his mouth shut. “I lost count after a while. Maybe every couple of days for ten years?”

They swear. “Well no fuckin’ wonder your body has mutated. Your genes are probably confused as shit as to what you’re supposed to be.”

“Can you fix it?”

“No I can’t fix it, you bloody imbecile,” they say, throwing the tongue depressor in the waste bin. “It’s mutations. Long term ones, too. You can get a dentist to file down the incisors, but blood tests also detected trace levels of bioluminescence in your epidermis, so good luck getting that out.”

Geiszler looks crushed. “Fuck. I’m gonna be like this for the rest of my life?”

Anako ignores him and pulls their stethoscope off its hook. They place the circle on his chest and tap it. “Breathe in.”

Geiszler does as they say, and they listen close for a few moments. “Well. Nothing abnormal there.”

He kicks his legs back and forth in silence as they hang the stethoscope back up and fit a cap over the ear light. Just as they’re about to bring it up to his ear, he asks, “Why didn’t you ask if I was okay?”

Anako steps back and sighs. “Because, Dr. Geiszler, you’re traumatized, underweight, a former POW, not entirely in control of your own agency, and exhibiting symptoms of an entirely new form of PTSD. I can safely assume that you are not okay.”

Geiszler blinks. “Huh. Well, when you put it like that…”

“Yes, it makes perfect sense. Now hold still.” They stick the ear light into his canal and move it around. “Nothing abnormal here, thankfully.”

He sighs with relief. “Thank fuck. I don’t wanna learn anything new about my body today.”

Anako puts the ear light back in the drawer and stands in front of Geiszler, arms crossed. “Do you want to know exactly what’s wrong with you?”

Geiszler sucks in a breath. “Yeah.”

“You’re suffering from malnutrition due to disordered eating, light damage to your cerebrum, various cuts, bruises, and healing broken limbs, and most of all, a lot of psychological trauma. I suggest finding a good therapist— you’ll need one.”

He lets out a shaky sigh. “Oh boy.”

Anako tucks their pen into their messy bun. “Oh boy is right. You’re lucky it’s not worse.”

Geiszler begins to bounce his leg nervously. “How the hell am I supposed to find a therapist for this?”

They blink at him blandly. “I assume the Yellow Pages? Not my medical doctorate, not my problem.”

Not seeming to hear them, Geiszler continues, “I mean, seriously, no one’s ever been possessed by aliens before! There’s no roadmap! I don’t know if anyone could even understand!”

In an ever-so-slightly mocking voice, Anako replies, “You might be surprised to learn this, Dr. Geiszler, but your experiences are not as unique as you might think.”

He snorts. “Yeah right. No offense, doc, but smart as you are, you couldn’t possibly understand what I’m going through.”

They freeze for barely a second, then straighten again. (Don’t respond, don’t respond, don’t respond--) “Would you like to try your luck?”

Geiszler gives them a funny look. “Dude. Doc. You’re depressed. And, other than that, relatively normal. Don’t read me the riot act, okay?”

Anako blinks. “You think I’m depressed?”

“Yeah,” he replies. “Ceremander, remember? Besides, you’re a fucking medical doctor. For the military. They don’t let crazy people do that.”

Anako counts to three and breathes in deeply. They let the air hiss out of their lungs, catalogue the feeling of oxygen leaving them as their chest contracts. When they open their eyes again, the itch is almost gone, but the voices remain. Quiet, but. Well. No good can be done about that, they suppose.

“Did you know, Dr. Geiszler,” they say calmly (because that is how they say everything, must always be how they say everything) “that there is a clause in the global health care system that allows doctors to refuse to treat people with personality disorders?”

Geiszler frowns. “Um. That’s not good. But what does that have to do with—“

“No, it isn’t. Due to this, people afflicted with these disorders often suffer some of the worst abuse at the hands of hospital staff, discrimination from administration, and stereotyping from everyone else.” They cock their head. “When you think of the phrase ‘borderline’, what kind of person comes to mind?”

“Uh…” Geiszler appears to think on it. “That girl from Eternal Sunshine? Maybe a couple of serial killers? I dunno, man, I’m bipolar two. I don’t have a lot of experience with the underbelly of mental illness.”

Anako nods. “Mm. So, you typically think of someone in a pysch ward, yes?”

“I guess.”

They shrug, the tiniest hint of care in the rise and fall of their shoulders. “Then I assume you would be surprised to find a doctor such as yourself with that kind of affliction.”

Geiszler blinks. “Wait. What? You--?”

“People like me do not typically find themselves in the position you were before your possession,” they continue, not stopping to allow him to sputter. “We do not get doctorates, or cushy military jobs, or a college education in general. We do not get the respect you garnered as a legend in your field. We are shuffled off to the side and left to go mad in hospitals, occasionally drugged to oblivion and straightjacketed, or just outright killed by lack of treatment.”

“I-- doc, I didn’t mean--”

“Quiet,” they snap, and Geiszler shuts his mouth. “Dr. Geiszler, you are an extremely vain person. Even as a free and healthy man, you carefully crafted every bloody thing about you to appear rebellious and dangerous and cool. People assumed you were a little crazy. You reveled in it.”

Geiszler bites his lip and looks away. “I… I’m sorry. I didn’t realize--”

“Do you understand that during your possessed state, you displayed every symptom of borderline personality disorder? Impulsivity, emptiness, mood swings, intense loneliness-- every box was checked. But now, you’re free. You’re fixed. You get to walk away from this.” They pause. “We do not all have that luxury.”

He looks confused. “So the Precursors made me borderline?”

“The Precursors were, essentially, a very powerful mental illness,” they explain. “One that, luckily enough, could be cured. But Geiszler, let me make this unspeakably clear: you spent ten years with crazy. I have lived it my entire life. Do not give me your little ‘woe is me’ speech about how no one could possibly understand you, when that is very much not the case.”

Anako snaps their clipboard down on the counter, and hands Geiszler his clothes. “Get dressed. You’re done.”

“Anako, I’m sorry--”

They sigh. “I know you are, Dr. Geiszler. It’s not your fault. But I’m really not in the mood to talk about feelings right now. Please, please leave.”

He takes his clothes from them, but they can feel him watching as they shut the door behind them.

IV.
Newt wrestles his pajama shirt over his head and swings his legs over onto the bed. Beside him, Hermann pushes his glasses up the bridge of his nose and marks another number in his sudoku book. The lamp on their bedside table casts a soft glow over the room, making everything feel warmer somehow. Newt pulls the covers up to his waist and leans on Hermann’s shoulder.

“So,” he says conversationally, “I think Anako hates me now.”

“Dr. Flaerty?” Hermann asks. “Why on Earth would you think that?”

Newt takes the pen from Hermann’s hand and writes in a number. “I dunno. They’re just really grouchy towards me. I mean, I did give them a lot of work to do, what with the whole possession thing, but… I guess I thought they’d at least try and lighten up.”

Hermann snorts. “Rubbish. Dr. Flaerty doesn’t hate you, Newton. They were the first to join your team once I proposed the idea of rescuing you.”

“What?” says Newt incredulously. Hermann nods.

“In fact, they were the one who argued my idea of Drifting to the marshalls. Happy to help, in fact. Said something about ‘owing Geiszler a favor’.”

Newt stills. His memory is still a little fuzzy on small details, but some things are coming back, and with Hermann’s words, one day stands out in particular…

Rewind

“Doc?” says Geiszler, peeking into Anako’s office. “Are you there?”

Anako freezes, the fuzz in their brain clearing for a moment to allow Geiszler’s voice to cut through. They regain control of themselves enough to wipe their eyes with the sleeve of their shirt and clear their throat. “I’m busy, Dr. Geiszler,” they say, voice still a little shaky. “Come again some other time.”

Geiszler, damn his perception for the unimportant, takes a few steps further. He takes in their red eyes and smeared eyeliner, and a disgusting look of concern spreads across his face. “Hey, Anako… you okay?”

They scowl at him. “I’m fine. It’s just allergies. Don’t you have research to do on Ceremander?”

With a shrug, he replies, “We barely got any good footage sent thanks to the budget cuts. But seriously, what’s wrong? You look like you’ve been crying.”

And then, to Anako’s horror, he pulls out the chair in front of their desk and sits down, elbows on his knees and listening intently. Fuck.

“You’re not going to leave me alone, are you?” they ask wearily. Geiszler shakes his head.

“‘Course not. I couldn’t leave a friend hanging.”

“We are not friends, Dr. Geiszler,” they snap. He raises an eyebrow (Do not punch him, do not punch him, do not punch him).

“You’ve given me over two-hundred stitches, saved my life, and are usually amicable enough to hook me up with an IV when I’m hungover. I’m pretty sure we’re friends.” He scootches the chair forward. “Seriously. Are you okay?”

Anako sucks in a deep, deep breath, and blows it out slowly. They count to ten and bounce their leg a little. (He’s not going to make fun of you, moron. He just wants to help. People are inherently good. Not everyone wants to hurt you. Let him be nice.)

“Is it because of the attack?” Geiszler prompts. Anako feels something lodge in their chest. The attack. That’s what they’re calling it now. It isn’t special. It isn’t momentous. It’s just another typical day in the Kaiju War.

“Yes,” they answer. “It involves the attack.”

They can see Geiszler thinking, watch him think some more, and then the answer hits him. His eyes widen. “Oh, fuck. Did someone--”

Anako glances down at their desk. It’s a plain, standard issue brown, with burn marks from where they’ve stubbed out cigarettes. They rub their thumb along the grain. “Yes.” A beat, and then: “My brother. Hiro.”

They can feel pity oozing from him, even without meeting his eyes. “God. Anako, I’m so, so sorry.”

“Why?” they ask sharply. “He isn’t-- wasn’t-- your brother.”

“Well yeah,” Geiszler says, “but still. You lost a family member. I can be sympathetic.”

“Have you considered that your sympathy isn’t wanted?”

Geiszler snorts. “You’re starting to sound like Hermann. Yeah, okay, maybe you don’t want people feeling sorry for you. Fair enough. But, your brother was a conservationist, right? Working in Hawaii on the coral reefs. I read some of his work in grad school.”

The thing in Anako’s chest grows bigger. “He knew we were destroying the world,” they say. “He just wanted to make it better.”

“Then he’s a goddamn hero,” Geiszler says firmly. “More than any meathead in a Jaeger. Science, man. That’s where the real saviors are.”

Oddly enough, that makes Anako feel somewhat better. They snort. “Right you are. Fuckin’ Aussie bastards. Never liked the young one. Too much of a manbaby cunt.”

Geiszler laughs. “Yeah, Chuck’s kinda the worst. Too bad, too; he and Jake and Mako used to get along great. Guess that’s what happens when nobody knocks you down a few pegs.” He reaches across the table and takes Anako’s hand. They flinch, but don’t move. “Hey. Seriously, I’m sorry. No bullshit here-- let me know if you need anything.”

“I don’t need your help, Dr. Geiszler.”

He winks. “Definitely sounds like Hermann. So, lemme tell you what I told him after he got the flu and refused to come see you: maybe you don’t ‘need’ help. Maybe you’re fine on your own, maybe you’ll take the hits as they come, maybe you can get by without a single person walking alongside you. That’s cool. More power to you.” He leans back and smiles without a trace of dishonesty. “But maybe, just maybe? You deserve to have someone give you a hand. Sure, you could take the whole load on by yourself, but that’s insane. No person deserves that, least of all someone as amazing as you. Let other people help you. Okay?”

Anako presses their lips together in a thin frown. This is new. People don’t typically want to help them (at least, help that doesn’t involve putting them on an entirely new set of meds). They worked their way through their PhD and medical doctorate with elbow grease, sake, and good old Irish stubbornness. They’re self-sufficient. They know how to take care of themselves. And now Dr. Newton Geiszler, wunderkind prodigy of the American dream, wants to help them?

Bullshit.

(Shut the fuck up.)

No, bullshit! Why would he want to help them? Sure, he thinks they’re friends, but wait until he gets to know them. Wait until he figures it all out. Then he’ll see.

(This is not a productive line of thinking. Use your DBT skills. You can’t split people.)

He’s probably judging them right now; looking at their disgusting, tear-stained face and wondering what he can do to make them snap. That’s all anybody wants, to rile them up, to make them go crazy so they can shove them right back in the ward where they belong.

(Stop it. He doesn’t want to hurt you; you’ve read his medical file. He’s been in and out of hospitals too. You have to think about this with ‘wise mind’. Take a breath, calm down, and work through this.)

But--

“I said stop it!” Anako shrieks, and slams their fist down on the desk. Geiszler jerks his hand away and jumps, freezing in his seat. He gives them a long, uneasy look.

“Dr. Flaerty? Are you… okay?”

Anako feels the blood drain from their face. “Er--” they try, but the thing in chest moves up to their throat and they can’t speak and suddenly the room goes strange at the edges, a kind of fuzzy blur that has nothing to do with their glasses, and their heart begins to pound loudly in their ears and the little voice in their head, the one they refuse to give a name to because names create power and this creature has ruled their life for too long, the voice begins screaming and raging and pounding at the inside of their brain like a hammer and they can feel their mind begin to disconnect from their body so they grab onto the edges for dear life and with all the strength they have left after this motherfucking disaster of a day dig in and pull--

“--tor Flaerty! Anako! Hey, hey, talk to me!”

The world rushes back with a shoomp! and Anako snaps to attention, their vision clearing abruptly and revealing a very concerned-looking Dr. Geiszler waving his hand in front of their face. They blink.

“What?”

Geiszler pulls away and gives an audible sigh of relief. “Jesus. You scared the shit out of me, dude.”

Anako shakes their head to clear the static. “Sorry, I… sorry. Lost myself for a minute. It’s been a long day.”

Geiszler pats their hand gingerly. “Yeah, no kidding.” He stands. “Look, you’ve had a really shitty day. You just lost your brother for fuck’s sake. Take those couple of hours before Striker gets back and go the hell to sleep. Eat some soup. Steal some of Hermann’s tea; God knows he hoards the stuff. Breathe. You deserve it.”

They let their breath out through their teeth with a hiss. “Sure. Fine. Why not.”

Geiszler smiles. “Hope you feel better soon, doc. Let me know if you need anything.”

He closes the door gently behind him, a kindness they did not expect from someone so loud. Anako counts to ten, feels the pulse of their heartbeat (their body is a traitor, yes, but it can hide them, it can protect them, if they know their body they can know the world), and pushes their chair away from the desk. They stand, walk exactly eleven paces to their couch, and pick up a pillow.

The scream they let out is two minutes long.

V.
Newt shows up the next day with a bag of dried mango and a hand-drawn card that says “Sorry for being a self-absorbed asshole even without the evil capitalist aliens in my head”. Anako stares at him for a good thirty seconds before taking the card and mango with a suspicious look. “What are you supposed to get out of this?”

“Nothing,” Newt says. “Just wanted to say sorry. And that yeah, I guess I kinda understand now.” He puts a hand on their shoulder. This time, they only flinch slightly. “You’re not alone here, Anako.”

With a thin frown, they shrug his hand off. “I’m well aware. Thank you for the gesture.”

There’s an awkward few moments where Newt doesn’t know where to leave or not, until Anako sighs and grabs a sticky note and a pen from their desk. They scribble something down and hand the paper to Newt. “This bar, at this time, Saturday night. I’ll put it in your file that you can leave the base. Bring your boyfriend. Don’t be late.”

Newt blinks as he takes the paper. “Uh. Okay. Sure?” He doesn’t recognize the bar, which is a relief, but he suspects he won’t be drinking that night. Anako nods.

“Good.” A pause, and then: “And you owe me a drink.”

VI.
The bar is hot and crowded when Anako finishes setting up their guitar. They tune it down to a bass level, turn off the amp, and shuffle through the crowd to the bar. The bartender, Mike, gives them a nod. “Usual?”

“Yeah,” they reply, and hop onto the barstool. The people around them create a throng of noise that’s almost soothing, and they tap out a small beat on the glossy wood. A minute or two later, Mike hands them a glass of scotch. “Thanks.”

Anako is a heavyweight, but they still feel a rush of warmth after swallowing some of their drink down. The taste is smooth in their mouth, and they roll it around on their tongue. Two breaths, another sip, and the nerves that tangle in their gut before every performance begin to unwind.

“Anako!” calls a scratchy voice from behind them, and they turn to see Geiszler and Gottlieb pushing their way towards them. Gottlieb is in his typical workwear of slacks and a cardigan, but Geiszler wears a familiar-looking leather jacket, skinny jeans that are just the slightest bit loose, and Doc Martens. The contrast to his possessed self, buttoned up and sleek, is palpable. He looks slightly uncomfortable with all the people and noise, but Gottlieb holds his hand in a tight grip, and the two stay within inches of each other. Anako gives them the tiniest of smiles. “You made it.”

“Of course,” says Gottlieb politely. “It’s good for the both of us to get off the base for a change.”

“Are you playing tonight?” Geiszler asks. They nod.

“Just a few songs. It’s open mic.”

Geiszler gives her a grin. “Cool! I didn’t know you sang.”

“There are many things you don’t know about me, Dr. Geiszler,” Anako replies dryly. From behind the bar, Mike knocks a few times and gives them a look. They slip off the stool. “That’s my cue. Hope you enjoy the set.”

The bar goes quiet when Anako taps the mic, slinging their guitar around to the front. “Hullo,” they say. “My name is Anako Flaerty; you might have seen me around our local Shatterdome. I’m going to be playing a few covers and a few originals. This one is a song by Mitski, it’s called Your Best American Girl.”

They begin to strum their guitar on a low note, leaning in close to the mic. An aching want spreads through their chest, as it does every time they play this song. “If I could, I’d be your little spoon and kiss your fingers forevermore. But big spoon, you have so much to do and I have nothing ahead of me.”

When the chorus kicks in, they stomp the button on their pedal that turns the grunge up on their guitar. The chords are choppy and desperate, full of a crunchy bass tone that’s reminiscent of their first instrument. They let their voice break a few times, then snap back control for the second verse.

“You’re the one, you’re all I ever wanted-- I think I’ll regret this.”

Then there’s the guitar solo, chords screaming out over the bar in varying pitches. Anako’s fingers jerk up and down over the strings, their pick scratching them like a hammer. Their heart soars over the crowd, out of the bar, into the city that’s been their home for so long and down the streets to the ocean where it swirls in sunset colors across the water. They sing the words in the little diary inside their heart, almost wailing into the microphone.

“Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me, but I do, I finally do. And you’re an all-American boy, I guess I couldn’t help trying to be your best American girl.”

After another run of the chorus they pitch their voice down and soft, letting their lips barely brush the tip of the mic. The song finishes out with the same thrumming chords they begun with, insistent and yearning. There are a few seconds of silence, and then the audience begins to clap.

Anako plays three more songs, then turns the mic off and unplugs their guitar. There’s another round of applause, and after they put their guitar back in its case, Geiszler comes up and raises a hand for a high-five. “Nice job, dude!”

They delicately return his gesture. “Thanks.”

“No,” seriously,” Geiszler gushes, “you’ve got some talent! Would you ever wanna play together sometime?”

“Er,” says Anako, and feels their cheeks heat up. “I guess. Why not?”

Geiszler gives them another high five. “Awesome! Hey, Hermann is gonna go get a drink, and I just discovered I have huge separation anxiety when it comes to him, so I’ll catch you in a few, okay?”

He barely gives Anako time to answer before setting off in search of his fiance (Anako spotted a ring), leaving them to collect a few more compliments before grabbing their guitar case. They’re about to head over to the bar to join K-Sci when a shadow passes over them.

“Anako!” The shadow says, and in the dim light of the bar, Anako sees clearly who it is. Their heart drops.

“Dick,” they say dryly. “I honestly would never have expected to find you here.”

Dick grins. “Yeah, me neither, but Newt told me that you were playin’ tonight, and I wanted t’ come and see you! Y’did great, by the way. I really liked th’ song about ‘standard deviation’ and all that.”

“I wasn’t aware you were a musician.”

“I can play the fiddle!”

Anako wants to scream. “Of course you can.” They glance over at the bar, looking for a way out of this. “Well, it’s been lovely talking, but I really must--”

“Can I buy ya a drink?” Dick asks earnestly. Anako is genuinely caught off guard by this. They frown.

“Dr. Geiszler is already buying me one.”

Dick looks confused, like a goddamn puppy. “I thought he and Gottlieb were gettin’ married.”

“They are. He owes me a favor for saving his stupid life.”

“Oh!” He brightens at this. “Well then, I’ll get the next round. My pleasure.”

He moves to take Anako’s hand, but they quickly pull theirs away. They lead him begrudgingly over to the bar where Geiszler and Gottlieb are standing, shoulders pressed together. Geiszler sees Dick and pales.

“Uh,” he says meekly. “Hi, Ranger Pinkerton. How’re you?”

Dick seems unable to see the awkwardness in the air, giving Geiszler a big smile. “Hey, Newt! Good t’ see ya back on your feet. Can I get ya anythin’?”

Geiszler laughs nervously. “Ha! Uh. No thanks, man. I don’t drink. Hermann likes beer, though.”

Gottlieb opens his mouth to protest, but Dick claps a massive hand on his shoulder and exclaims, “Sounds great! Some crafts for us and a water for Newt. I’ll grab ‘em.” He turns to Anako. “Mind helpin’ me find the bartender?”

Anako glances over at the scientists, who both glance semi-nervously at Dick. They sigh. “Fine.”

They walk over to where Mike is serving drinks, and Dick orders cheerfully. Anako scowls. This is not the place for unrelenting optimism. Mike comes back with three local beers and a glass of water, and they and Dick reach for the bottles at the same time. Their fingers brush.

Anako jerks their hand back like it’s been burned, looking away. “Sorry,” they mumble. Dick stares at them oddly. He always does this, always gives them those elevator eyes that don’t feel much like the real thing at all. Did it the first time they met, too; a night later than this one many, many years ago...

Rewind

“Well hey there!”

Anako turns from where they’re putting away the last box of cotton swabs and frowns. It’s one in the bloody morning. Who the hell could sound so chipper at this hour?

The who in question is a man standing in their doorway, grinning from ear to ear. He’s tall, about as tall as them (a difficult feat), with massive shoulders that give way to muscled arms and a broad chest, barely contained by his t-shirt. His skin is dark, dark brown-- almost ebony, with a riot of freckles all over his face, and finely cropped hair. The most startling thing about him is his eyes; a warm, gentle blue that stand out in the darkness of his face. He gives Anako a look over, not objectifying, but almost as if he were taking in a summer sunrise.

Anako, against all better judgement and common sense, blushes. “Do I know you?”

The man holds out his hand. “Not yet, I’m afraid. Richard Alexander Pinkerton-- my Jaeger just got shipped in this mornin’. Proud t’ know ya.”

Anako gingerly takes his hand, half afraid he might crush their own. “Dr. Anako Flaerty, Chief Medical Officer.”

Richard gives them another blinding grin. “Pleasure to meet ya, Anako--”

“Dr. Flaerty.”

“-- just wanted t’ stop in before th’ sun came up and make sure y’got my mama and I’s meds. She takes all the multivitamins and th’ probiotic, I’ve got th’ Buspirone? Keep forgettin’ t’ take it sometimes-- don’t know where my head would be ‘f I didn’t have it screwed on! I’ll be by every mornin’ before breakfast and after dinner every night t’ visit, so I guess we’ll be gettin’ t’ be good friends before long! My Jaeger’s Dixie Twilight, best dang ‘bot in the whole dome if ya ask me. She’s the yeller one with the blue stripin’ and the purple toe-caps? Why, I near cried first time I saw her, she was so beautiful. Can’t miss her, that’s for sure.”

Anako blinks. “Do… do you ever stop talking?”

Richard lets out a booming laugh. “Ha! Ya sound like my mama, darlin’! Listen t’ me, talkin’ your ear off in the dead of night. Awful sorry ‘bout that-- ya seem pretty tired so I’ll leave ya t’ it. I’ll be by in a few hours for th’ mornin’ dose-- you’ll meet my mama then. Again, dang proud t’ meet ya, Anako. Have a nice night!”

He takes nearly all the air out of the room when he leaves, including what’s left in Anako’s lungs. To their horror, they note, his jumpsuit fits him extremely well. “Dick,” they mutter.

God-mother-shitting-damn-it.

VII.
Geiszler’s treatment team, consisting of Gottlieb, Anako, Jake, and Nate, meet along with the man himself over a nice tray of bagels to discuss what to do with the elephant in the room. Or, rather, the giant floating brain.

“We’re not going to reestablish a connection with Geiszler to get any intel on the Hivemind,” says Jake, spreading cream cheese on a pumpernickel. “That’s stupid. But we need a way to access the Precursors and conduct as much warfare on them as we can. That’s where their little side project comes in.”

“Alice,” begins Nate, but Anako interrupts him.

“Let’s leave Geiszler’s poorly-done Lewis Carroll metaphors out of this, please?” From across the table, Geiszler shoots them a grateful look. Gottlieb smiles, as if they’re two friends sharing a secret. Anako clears their throat awkwardly. “Carry on.”

“Right,” Nate says. “The brain was originally purely Kaiju; a conduit for the Hivemind. Think of it like a big homing beacon that the Precursors could connect with Geiszler through, and control him through repeated Drifts. We can access the Hivemind through it, but we’d need someone compatible enough to initiate the Drift and keep the connection open to gather information. Plus, they’d need to be strong enough to not fall prey to the Precursors like Geiszler did.”

“Where the hell are we gonna find someone like that?” Geiszler asks. “The person with the highest compatibility score of all time is long dead, and I can’t think of anyone other than Pentecost who’d be able to resist the Precursors.”

Gottlieb taps his fingers on the table. “We could train them,” he proposes. “Psychologically, like soldiers are to resist interrogation.”

Jake shakes his head. “That would take too long. We don’t have months to develop an entirely new form of psychological resistance. We need someone strong enough right now.”

Throughout all this, Anako has begun to bounce their leg and fiddle with their bottom lip. They’re getting an idea. A stupid, reckless idea that might land them right back in the ward, but one that could potentially get the PPDC exactly what it needs, and save billions of lives. It isn’t ‘wise mind’. It isn’t in the middle ground. It’s certainly not something any of their old therapists would approve of.

They knock on the table. “If I may.”

The men look up at them, curious. “Go ahead, Flaerty,” says Nate.

“I mean,” they begin, “neither of you can do it again. There’s too much connection.” They turn to Geiszler. “Geiszler, how did the Precursors manipulate you into giving them your body?”

Geiszler goes a little pale at this, but swallows hard. “Uh. They told me they could make me good enough,” he says quietly. “That I’d be… wanted. That- That people would love me.”

“Exactly. And that’s how they took over your mind. Neither of you can do this because you’re both very, very insecure people who have a lot of ammunition for them to use.”

Geiszler looks a little insulted. “C’mon,” he snorts, “I wouldn’t be manipulated by them again. It-- It’s not like they actually made good on their promises.”

“Didn’t they?” they counter. “You got exactly what you asked for. The Precursors took over your mind, yes, but they also made you-- or at least your body-- a famous, respected, powerful person. And, trust me, as someone who had to listen to him for the past ten years, Gottlieb really wanted you.”

“Yes, well,” Gottlieb snaps, “we all know the price he had to pay for that.”

“Correct, but we’re still at an impasse. Neither of you can go. You’re too much of a liability.” Anako sucks in a deep breath and lets it out slowly. “Which is why it has to be me.”

The conference room explodes in a flurry of protests. “You’ve got to be joking!” exclaims Geiszler. “That’s insane!”

“Really, Dr. Flaerty,” says Gottlieb, “think this through!”

“Even considering for a minute that we agree,” Jake says, “what kind of connection could you possibly have with them? Compatibility, remember?”

Anako gives him a thin smile, the whole situation achingly familiar. “I carry nothing with me into the Drift. I have no family left to bargain with, no partner-- nothing. They can’t touch me.”

Geiszler looks at them disbelievingly. “There’s nothing you really, really want that they could give?”

Something flickers in the back of Anako’s mind for a moment: a hint of a smile, a flash of blue eyes, a warm hand on their shoulder. They shake it away. “No, Dr. Geiszler. There’s nothing they could give me. Besides. You went into the Drift unprepared. I’ve dealt with monsters my entire life, and there’s not one in this world or the next that can hurt me anymore.”

Gottlieb looks desperate. “This isn’t going to work. They’re going to find some way--”

“No they won’t. I’m not nearly as valuable to the PPDC as you two; I’m not the foremost expert on Kaiju biology, I’m not a genius physicist, I am a perfectly average doctor. I’m smart, yes, but I’m not anything special. Easily replaceable.”

“But--” tries Jake.

“No. I’ve made up my mind. Either it works, and I come back out with a wealth of information for you all to comb through, or it doesn’t, and you cut the connection. By any means necessary. And,” they say, turning to Gottlieb and Geiszler, “I cannot believe I’m saying this, but I trust the two of you to make the judgement call that is best for the greater good. You can’t change my mind.”

There is a long pause in the room, tense and biting. The air is thick like a summer’s day. After what feels like years, Gottlieb carefully reaches over and puts a hand over Anako’s.

“We’ll be with you, then,” he says. “Until the very end.”

VIII.
Anako sits in a supremely uncomfortable chair, the squid cap in hand. Across from them is the brain’s tank, filled with green liquid and undulating tentacles, some sucking at the inside of the glass. Geiszler and Gottlieb stand a few feet away, Geiszler pointed looking away from the tank, Gottlieb casting angry looks at it every few seconds. Jake hands them the button.

“When you go in,” he says, “you’ll need to remain in the Drift for at least ten minutes for a full neural handshake to take effect. That way, all the information will transfer and create a strong connection. If you need to break it, snap your fingers. We’ll get you out of there.”

“Be prepared to do so at any moment,” says Gottlieb. “Even if you think it isn’t necessary, your safety is our top priority.”

Anako rolls their eyes. “I’ll do what needs to be done. You two can cut it off.” They look up at Jake. “Everything ready?”

Jake nods. “Good to go.”

“Right then.” Anako takes one last look around the room. Geiszler is staring at them, his eyes trying to convey some message they don’t understand. Gottlieb is beside him, holding his hand tightly and giving them a wane smile. Jake just looks ready for the worst. They take a deep breath in, hold it for a few seconds, then let it out.

The button’s beep is audible for only a moment, then the whole world turns blue.

Anako feels their mind being sucked into the Drift, pulled in every direction. They’ve done stimulations of this before, yes, but the real thing is chaotic and messy and crowded with so many voices. Everything rushes at them at once: the Hivemind, the Precursors, the Kaiju homeworld, blue and red and chittering. It’s a storm of noise and color. They scramble for a hold, using years of practice to grab onto the first stable thing they sense and plant their feet firmly. There are a few more moments of deafening noise, and then suddenly--

All is quiet.

They’re standing in a dark space, lit only by the soft glow of their body. There appears to be nothing around them for miles and miles, only endless black. The silence is suffocating, and they clap their hands three times to try and get a sense of the room.

“Okay,” they mutter to themselves. “Ten minutes. I can do ten minutes. Everything is fine.”

“ANAKO FLAERTY,” comes a voice, many voices curled into one, from the shadows. Anako feels their heart catch in their throat, but they snort.

“Dr. Flaerty to you lot. I still have two more PhDs than all of you.”

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING.”

Anako shrugs. “Finding out your dastardly plans. Collecting secrets. The usual stuff. If you all could be quiet for the next eight minutes, that’d sure be super.”

There’s a hissing from the darkness, and a strange blue wisp of smoke slithers out from among it. It has no mouth or lips or human features, but it still speaks. “YOU ARE CHOOSING THE WRONG SIDE.”

“That’s not very dialectical of you.”

The smoke shivers. “WE ARE NOT CONFINED BY YOUR PETTY HUMAN VIEWS OF BEHAVIOR. WE ARE MORE THAN THAT. YOU COULD BE MORE THAN THAT.”

“I’m rather content where I am, thank you,” they reply, keeping an eye on the surrounding area in case any more manifestations decide to come knocking. “I don’t need an army of monsters controlling my brain to be happy. Been there, done that, got the release packet. Pass.”

“LIAR,” the voices hiss. “WE HAVE SEEN YOUR MEMORIES, ANAKO. WE HAVE SEEN YOUR PAST.” The smoke begins to move in a circle around them, trailing soft blue pieces behind it. “NO ONE AROUND YOU COULD EVER DREAM OF WHAT YOU HAVE GONE THROUGH. A TARGET FOR YOUR FATHER. A MEMORY FOR YOUR MOTHER. NEVER LOVED. NEVER WANTED. ALWAYS ALONE.”

“You are correct,” says Anako snidely. “I am a very sad person with a very tragic backstory. Would you like a gold star?”

“WE WOULD LIKE TO HELP YOU.”

They shake their head. “I already said no thanks. Take the hint.”

The blue smoke begins to glow a little brighter. “YOU ALREADY SAID BEFORE, WE MAKE GOOD ON OUR PROMISES. WE HELPED NEWTON. HE HAD EVERYTHING HE HAD EVER WANTED.”

“Except his soulmate, or whatever. Kinda messed up on that.”

“WOULD YOU LIKE ONE?”

Anako freezes. Something cold pools in the pit of their stomach. “What?”

“IF YOU WANT A ‘SOULMATE’, WE CAN GIVE YOU WHAT YOU WANT. WHAT ABOUT…”

The smoke moves in front of them, then begins to twist and form into something different. It solidifies, changes color, and molds itself into a very familiar shape. When it’s done, Anako feels like vomiting.

“Hey, Anako,” says Dick.

“Stop it,” they growl, the cold feeling beginning to seep into their fingers. “I don’t care about him. Put it back.”

The Not-Dick steps forward. “Anako, it’s alright,” he says. “I ain’t gonna hurt ya. I never would. I just want y’t’ be happy. Couldn’t ya let me do that for ya?”

Anako balls their hands in fists. “I said, stop it.”

“Y’ve been fightin’ for so long. I couldn’t imagine what that must be like. Don’t ya deserve t’ rest?”

Their heart is thrashing like a trapped bird inside their ribcage. The ball in their throat is growing larger and larger, and Anako knows now that if this were real, they really would throw up. Their breath gets faster and faster, lungs constricting and refusing to fill with artificial air. “You aren’t real,” they half-yell, taking a step away from the illusion. “You aren’t real, and I’m not going to let you hurt me.”

Not-Dick reaches out and puts a hand on their shoulder. It’s terrifyingly warm. “It’s okay, darlin’,” he says softly. “It’s not a bad thing t’ want t’ be happy.”

Something ugly snaps inside Anako’s chest at this, and they let out a feral scream as they grab Not-Dick by the wrist and jerk it down with all their might. He stumbles enough for them to grab his shoulders and push, shoving him to the floor with them on top. Anako swings at his face, punching again and again and again as his form refuses to take the hits. They scream again and dig their fingers into his eye sockets, pushing in and up as his eyeballs dissolve in blue mist. There’s no blood, no gore, only smoke billowing out of wherever they scratch and hit. “Get out of my head!” Anako nearly howls, tearing at the creature’s face with their nails. “You’re not fuckin’ real, you have never been real, and you are not going to fuckin’ hurt me again!”

The now mangled form of Not-Dick dissolves underneath their hands. They stay on their hands and knees, tears streaming down their face and dripping onto the ground below. It feels like someone has torn open their chest and shredded their heart; they can’t stop sobbing like a child. They’ve felt this pain only three times before, and each time ended the same way. The voices around them hiss.

Anako bites down hard on the inside of their cheek and pulls in a deep gulp of air. They hold it inside their lungs for five seconds, then blow it out through their nose.

There will probably be a time, they know, when they will once again be faced with the ledge of a roof, or a drug-store razor blade, or a rattling bottle of pills, and succeed in what they have always failed to do. Perhaps it will be far into the future. Perhaps it will be next Tuesday. Perhaps it will be tomorrow.

But it will not be today.

With every last bit of strength left in their mind, Anako pushes themselves to their feet. They straighten their shoulder, tilt their chin up, and stare down the darkness that surrounds them. “I am not afraid of you.”

The hissing and chittering returns, louder this time, and shadows and smoke rush at them like a sandstorm. They stand firmly through the howling winds, closing their eyes right against the force of it. After what seems like hours, it dies down to a soft breeze. Anako blows a strand of hair away from their face and wipes the dust and tears from their eyes. “I will never be afraid of you,” they say, voice firm and strong. “Greater forces that know me far better have tried to break me, and they never succeeded. You’re an idiot to think you would be any different. I am a strong goddamn person, and I may have been through the kind of shit most people get nightmares about, but that does not make me pliable.” They smile the kind of smile that has always made those around them uneasy, the one that appears whenever they feel just a little less human than normal. “You may have sent monsters to fight us, but you didn’t expect that we’d have ones of our own. And I’m not talking about those fuckin’ robots.”

And, amazingly, they believe everything they say. It is true that they’re a strong person, that they’ve survived what most people couldn’t. Their father could kill them, and they couldn’t do it themselves either. The universe seems to want Anako Flaerty to stick around, oddly enough. Might be something worth thinking about.

They snap their fingers, and the darkness dissolves into light.

IX.
Sound comes first, echoing and fuzzy. Anako feels something soft beneath them, a light weight on top, and something cushioning their head. Said head feels like it’s been filled with cotton, run over with a semi-truck, then bashed repeatedly. They groan.

Something shifts next to them, and Anako pulls their eyes open to see a blurry, dark shape in front of them. “Glasses,” they croak, and the shape moves out of view for a moment before leaning in and sliding their glasses onto their face.

Dick looks down at them worriedly. “Anako? Y’alright?”

Anako’s first instinct is to scream, the memory of the Drift all too fresh in their mind, but they hold it back. Dick appears to see the unease on their face, because he pulls back. “You’re not supposed to be real,” they say.

He looks confused. “What?”

They blink a few times to clear their head. “You. You’re a pipe dream, or a hallucination, or a side effect of whatever I’m on. What the hell are you doing, anyway?”

Dick frowns down at them, looking infuriatingly concerned for a hallucination. “Makin’ sure you’re safe. You’re my friend, Anako. I wanted you t’ be okay.”

The fog in Anako’s brain begins to clear a little bit, and they shift to push themselves up on their elbows. It hurts, but then again, so does everything else right now. “Well, I’m fine now, so…”

“Y’don’t look it. D’ya need me to get the nurse? There’s a button next t’ your bed so ya can call her.” Dick reaches for it, but Anako shakes their head.

“I told you, I’m fine. I don’t need anyone fussing over me.” They pause, the memories coming back slowly. “What happened?”

A smile spreads across Dick’s face. “Well, th’ Drift was successful, apparently. Pentecost an’ Lambert are just waitin’ for ya to get back on your feet, and then they’ll have a lot of questions.” Then, he frowns. “Anako, what were ya thinkin’?”

Their brow furrows. “What do you mean?”

Dick gets up and begins to pace. “Do y’know how dangerous that was? Ya went into a Drift with an entire Hivemind completely alone! The strain on your brain could’ve killed ya!”

Anako shrugs a little. “It turned out fine. I don’t see the problem.”

“I don’t understand how the hell ya can’t! Y’could’ve really hurt yourself!” Dick turns back to them. “I mean, what d’ya think we would do without ya?”

“Survive,” they reply flatly. This seems to only infuriate Dick more.

“That ain’t the point!”

“Well then what is the point?” Anako snaps.

“The goddamn point,” Dick shouts, “is that some of us, includin’ me, don’t want ya gone!”

That same cold feeling worms its way into Anako’s stomach. “Dick,” they say sharply, “stop it. It’s not funny anymore.”

He has the gall to look confused. “Darlin’, there ain’t nothin’ funny about this! I don’t want ya t’ die!”

They fist their hands in the sheets. “You’re right about that, but this? Whatever little trick you’re trying to play with me? I’m not interested.”

“Anako, you’re not makin’ any sense.”

“I said, cut it out!” they shout. “You pretending to have feelings for me isn’t goddamn funny! I’m not a fuckin’ game!”

Dick freezes, dead silent. “Game?” he says softly.

He slowly walks back over to the bed and sits down, closer this time. His eyes are oddly sad. Anako begins to shake as his hand moves to rest on their knee. “Darlin’,” he continues, voice frighteningly gentle, “whoever said this was a game?”

Anako bites down hard on their bottom lip. They can’t look away from him. He lifts his hand off them carefully, before raising it slowly to be level with their jaw. Something comes to mind, a game they used to pay with their nurse in the hospital whenever things went too fuzzy. Quietly, they say, “Real or not real: you.”

Dick smiles. “Real.”

“Real or not real: me.”

The hand moves closer. “Real.”

Anako swallows. “Real or not real: you love me.”

Dick’s hand is inches away from their cheek. The look in his eyes is the softest thing Anako has ever seen. They’ve been scared many times before, yes, but in this moment, Anako has never been so terrified in their entire life. He could hurt them. He could hurt them so, so badly. He could beat them and break them and God help them, they might just let him for the tiniest bit of love. The voice in their head is screaming at them, insisting this is a hallucination, but the little light in their soul says that this moment could be the start of something lovely. In barely a whisper, Dick says, “Real.”

Anako leans forward.

His hand meets their skin, warm and solid, and their eyes flutter shut. It cups their jaw gently, thumb sliding across their cheek in a movement that could only be described as “tender”. Anako breathes in and out, shaking so hard they think they might explode. It’s so, so gentle they can barely stand it.

“This okay?” Dick asks, and Anako nods.

“Yes,” they whisper. He moves closer, breath ghosting over their face, their lips barely apart. He seems to be waiting for something, so Anako leans forward again and lets them meet.

The kiss is barely there, but it feels like fireworks, sensation exploding through them and tingling down to their fingertips. Dick is so warm, and his other hand is on top of theirs, keeping them grounded like an anchor in a roiling ocean. They pull away and sigh. “Oh.”

“Yeah,” says Dick, laughing. “Gosh.”

Anako moves back in for another, already half-addicted to this warmth that’s coming from every part of their body. Dick’s lips are soft and pliable and moving against theirs gently. The world feels like it’s falling away in the best kind of way, and their heart is shuddering, and they don’t know if they ever want to stop. If Anako had known this was what they were missing… holy hell. “This okay?” he asks.

“Don’t stop,” they murmur before kissing him again. “It’s always yes with you.”

“Won’t stop me from askin’,” he replies.

Anako smiles. “Dick.”

X.

Newt doesn’t stick around for the debriefing, but he does invite Anako out for coffee.

He expects them to take it black with no sugars, or something equally edgy, but they order a plain iced latte and refuse to disclose how they hell they aren’t freezing. Newt, of course, gets his usual drink of liquid sugar, and goddamn does it feel nice to be able to eat whatever he wants again. Anako looks at the steaming pile of whipped cream, syrup, and possibly actual coffee, and cringes.

“Geiszler, when I said you need to gain weight, I did not mean like this.”

Newt glares at them. “Well how else am I supposed to do it?”

“Red meat. Fish. Avocado. Foods that are high-calorie and will give you energy.”

He raises his cup. “Are you saying this won’t give me energy?”

Anako scowls. “Geiszler.”

Anako. Let me live my goddamn adult life.” They roll their eyes. He winks.

“That thing is going to give you a heart attack.”

Newt takes a long, pronounced sip. “A delicious heart attack.”

Anako sighs. “I have no idea how Gottlieb has kept you from dying all these years. Well. Sometimes him. Mostly me.”

“Yeah, I’ve been meaning to talk about that,” says Newt. He smiles. “Thank you. For taking care of me back then, for taking care of me now; for fighting for me when almost nobody else would. You’re one of the best people I know, Anako. Seriously.”

Anako blinks, their brow creasing the tiniest bit. They look away embarrassedly. “Don’t be an idiot, Geiszler. I did what any decent human being would do.”

“Yeah,” he says, “you did. I think you kinda need to hear that sometimes. You’re a really decent human being. No conditions.” He puts a hand lightly on their shoulder, and this time, they don’t even flinch. “Thank you.”

Anako looks down at him, the tiniest of smiles coming over their face. He can see their chest rise and fall in perfect counts of three. “Alright. You can have it this one time. You’re welcome.”

The morning sun hits the glass panes of the café and reflects onto Anako’s face, lighting it up in soft yellow. They look… lighter, somehow. Not necessarily happier, or better, but— freer. Although, there are many different kinds of freedom. Freedom can be good or bad. There can be terrible freedom. You just don’t know.

But Newt thinks, as the sun rises over the Tokyo skyline and washes the world anew, Dr. Flaerty just may have found the good kind.