Hermann’s not sure how he ended up in this situation. Well, being invited to a family dinner isn’t that rare of a situation, it’s the accepting that’s an issue. For the first time in several years, all of the Gottliebs are going to be in the same place, or close enough to the same place. He knew that settling in a city like London would only mean he’d see his father more often as he came through on business, but he usually managed to keep that restricted to formal lunches. Now that both of his parents are staying for a week in their country home and his sister and older brother are in town. It’s only a brief invitation to Bastien before they’ve all agreed to assemble.
It’s a nightmare. Not only is Lars known for being a nosey and judgmental bastard, but now Hermann’s left with a particular issue. Dietrich is expecting his first child. Karla’s just finished her PhD and apparently has a new partner. And now Bastien. Bastien! The wayward baby, has a girlfriend that he’s rather proud of. Hermann’s sitting on a degree from several years ago that he hasn’t managed to do anything to impress his father with it just yet. His love life? Deplorable, but something he’s had over Bastien, who started sneaking girls into the house since he was fifteen. Hermann’s lack of partners was actually a positive for the longest while.
And now, he’s going to be forced through a dinner where he has nothing to impress. He’s remained the same Hermann he’s always been and he’s got nothing to show for it. For a few moments he debates calling the man he went on a solitary date with two months prior before he thinks the better of it. He can’t make up some sort of career advancement, but he could make up a love life, an interest in his personal life.
Even if he could secure a date, he’s not really sure how. How do people meet others for anything but sexual encounters, exactly? He’d been on the atrocious Grindr for all of ten minutes before he decided to delete the app altogether and give it up for a wash. He’s not looking for a lay, he’s looking for someone to pretend to adore the ground he walks on for a dinner in a very elegant country house about an hour outside of London. That doesn’t seem too difficult.
He searches back to his younger years, trying to remember ways he’d use to attempt to flirt with and meet men. He scours the internet before he ends up, of all places, on Craigslist. Most of the listing seem to be thinly veiled attempts at prostitution or ways to desperately ask for a quickie behind Tesco. Some men seem a bit too desperate for romance altogether, which Hermann has no time for. This shouldn’t be too difficult, because what he’s offering is a very good meal.
Then he finds the ad.
Want to make someone mad? I’m the most annoying man in the world.
Let me explain. I want you to take me to dinner to annoy your family or your friends or whoever you don’t want to ever talk to again. I promise after one dinner with me, no one’s ever going to want to invite you to their dinner party again.
About me: I’m 30, highly educated ( PhDs) currently living in London for research opportunities. I’m Americanish or at least talk with an American accent, which means anyone from here is already gonna hate me a bit. If I shave i can look about 20-22 but you’re probably going to want me to look unkempt to keep up the appearance. People have called my voice “grating” and my personality “obnoxious”
I’m doing this because I have no money and I’m looking for a nice hot meal, and because I had an ex who brought me home and his family can’t speak to him without reminding him of how annoying I am. Also I’m really bored. People here? Really boring. No one wants to talk to me on the bus or anything, which is bullshit.
Anyway, serious inquiries only. I can do the following:
- Talk over the most annoying/fake powerful person in the room
- Chew obnoxiously loud
- Flirt with your family members or friends- all genders
- Start on controversial topics that we decide on in advance that will make people very angry
- Act way more drunk than I am (can actually be drunk but you don’t actually want to deal with that, trust me!)
Hermann stares at the ad in disbelief for a long while. Then he finds he’s pressing his hand to his mouth to control his laughter. He’s giggling, amused in a way he never expected to be by this ad. This would solve everything, no doubt, and get his father off his case. They’ll be glad he’s single after the disaster of something like this, wouldn’t they? Hermann takes the chance and sends an email to the poster.
He talks to the young man on the phone in advance of their meeting. Settling down on his couch with his cat in his lap, Hermann feels anxious and out of place about placing the call, but he does it.
“So, you actually want to do this?” the man on the other end says. His voice is charmingly scratchy, though Hermann supposes he understands why other people would find it annoying, it’s high pitched and has a whine to it.
“I suppose so,” Hermann answers.
“What’s the occasion, then?” the other man asks, and he’s clearly got a mouthful of food.
“Nothing in particular. My parents are coming down to their house in the country for a week and want all of the children to come to dinner.”
“So you’re the family failure?”
“No!” Hermann defends. “The problem is-” Hermann sighs, there’s no way to say this without sounding rude. “My younger brother who usually gets the brunt of the criticism has actually done something right, and he’s bringing a nice young woman to dinner.”
“And you don’t have a nice young woman, so you just thought “fuck it” and got yourself a young man?”
“I only go for men, thank you,” Hermann responds. “I figure if I’m going to disappoint, might as well do it thoroughly enough I don’t get invited to Bavaria for the holidays this year.”
“Oh, I can manage that, so long as the food is good.”
“The food will be excellent.”
“Great. Where are we meeting, then?”
Hermann ends up agreeing to pick up the man in a rented car, so they can both drive together to the house. He figures the drive will give them time to perfect their story so it seems like they truly are an affectionate, doting couple. Or at least not two strangers that met on the internet only a few days prior to the dinner.
Hermann ends up idling outside of the man’s flat for fifteen minutes while he waits for him. He’s greeted by a flurry of chaos at his car door. The man is dressed surprisingly well in a blue button up and a tie with a lizard print on it. Okay, it’s tacky but well dressed. His trousers are rather tight and his hair looks like a bird’s nest, but otherwise he’s presentable. Hermann had mulled over asking him to forego grooming properly, but it really didn’t seem necessary.
“Newton Geiszler,” the man says, holding out his hand for Hermann to shake it. Hermann takes it. “Call me Newt.”
“Should you be giving your real name?” Hermann’s already used his phone number to reverse search him anyway, and if Newt has any common sense, he’s done the same as well.
“I have your real name, it’s only fair, I think.” Newt shrugs and settles into his seat, fastening the seatbelt. “Did some googling, actually, your family’s like...super impressive.”
Hermann rolls his eyes. The whole point is to not find them impressive, but he supposes it’s an objective fact. The sheer amount of degrees in his family is enough to start a whole new university.
“Oh, don’t worry, I think you’re the most impressive of all, Hermy,” Newt continues.
“That’s an absolute no,” Hermann answers as the car pulls away.
He turns and gets a good look at the other man when they’re finally on the road. It’s worse than a case of him simply being moderately well dressed, the man is attractive. His face is soft, tapering down to a weak chin, which Hermann finds endearing. Overall it’s an unassuming face, not the face of a supermodel, but something rendered charming by good nature and green eyes. This is the type of man Hermann would want to go on a date with, he realizes. Good thing he’s brought him with him as a date. (“Strictly platonic,” the man had said over the phone, shortly after they both managed a hello. It was firm.)
Karla opens the door, which Hermann is eternally grateful. She pulls her brother in for a hug immediately and looks the newcomer up and down before giving him the same treatment. He’s always envied his sister her openness of affection in these situations.
“I didn’t know you had a boyfriend, Hermann,” Karla says, her tone teasing. “How long have you had this one?”
“Just a few months,” Newt answers instead of Hermann. “You must be his sister, I’ve heard so much about you.”
“Karla,” she says, extending her hand to Newt. “And you are?”
“Newt. Pleased to meet ya.”
Karla smiles at him and takes his arm, already bound to start conspiring with him, no doubt.
“You know,” Hermann catches her saying as they move to the living room. “You’re exactly my brother’s type, are you also a giant nerd?”
Before Hermann can say more to defend himself, he’s pulled into an embrace and lifted ever so slightly off the ground.
“Kleiner Bruder!” Dietrich says, in his usual warm tone. “You’re smaller than I remember from when I last saw you.” (Dietrich says this every time, as all six foot four of him towers over the rest of the family.)
“I’m precisely the same as when you last saw me. Is your lovely wife here to make you behave?” Hermann asks, once he’s free of his brother’s grasp.
“Oh yes, she’s being cooed over by mother. They’re very excited about finally having grandchildren.”
“Twins, Hermann.” Dietrich pats Hermann on the shoulder. Leave it to Dietrich to always do the most impressive thing. “I see you’ve brought a man to dinner with you. A hired escort, no doubt?”
This is all light-hearted teasing, of course. If anything, Dietrich believes Hermann is far more capable of finding a partner than he actually is. Dietrich believes the lies about Hermann being married to his job, which are really only half lies. Hermann simply doesn’t know how to find himself a long term partner.
“Ah, yes. Newton?” Hermann calls out. He’s not sure why he’s going with the full name, given that Newt has asked to be pointedly called Newt, but he supposes it lends a touch more credibility.
Newt looks up from where he’s talking to Karla (leaning in a bit too close) and moves over to Hermann, wrapping an arm around his waist. “Yeah?”
“Oh!” Dietrich exclaims immediately. “An American. My wife’s from Canada.”
“Not quite the same,” Newt answers. “And I’ve got dual American-German citizenship, thanks.”
For a moment, Hermann is alarmed by how rude and seemingly out of character this is from Newt who is nothing but chatty, but then he remembers that he’s brought Newt here to be off-putting. Newt is supposed to be rude.
“Oh, well, that’s great too.” Dietrich good-naturedly smiles and doesn’t comment when Newt rushes back off to Karla’s side. “How long have you been seeing him?”
“A few months,” Hermann explains, glad that Dietrich’s looked away so he can’t catch him on his lie. Karla, if anything, would enjoy the lie if she found out, but Dietrich would force Hermann to do some soul searching over what he’s chosen to do at this event. Older brothers are the most awful of all.
The profound mixture of regret and sick satisfaction Hermann feels when Newt greets his father by hugging him and seemingly burping in his ear is something Hermann can’t articulate in words. The look on Lars’s face when Newt pulls away is a whole other level of satisfaction. He actually looks too confused to even glare at Hermann at all, but instead regains his usual steely composure and directs the family to the dinner table. Newt’s seated between Hermann and Karla. The seat beside her (nearest to Lars) is vacant as her partner Riley couldn’t make it. Hermann stares across him at the spaces where they are still waiting for Bastien to show up. At least Bastien has not suddenly grown punctual. But dinner starts when it’s scheduled to start, as it has for every meal Hermann’s had with his family since he was a boy.
They’re having a roast- what the British would consider a Sunday roast, but it’s a Saturday and they’re German so they don’t really care either way. Lars leads the conversation, as he always does. Hermann is always impressed by how much his father likes the sound of his own voice, how the sense of self importance is inflated when speaking to his own family who would love him for being far less than he is. Halfway through a speech Newt leans over.
“Dude, no offense, but your dad really reminds me of a croaking bullfrog right now,” Newt remarks. It’s loud enough that it’s clear that Newt is talking but not loud enough that anyone can hear him.
Hermann covers his mouth with his hand and tries not to laugh. Newt is hired to be uncouth, but Hermann does not want to follow in this and be disowned. He is rather fond of most of his family, after all. He just doesn’t want to be invited to the house in Bavaria for Hanukkah when he could have a nice London holiday. When he looks up properly, Lars is glaring daggers at them. Even though they’ve interrupted absolutely nothing, Lars clears his throat and begins to speak again. This prompts Newt to take another giant spoonful of potatoes and exclaim about how good they taste. Hermann doesn’t notice Lars’s face this time because he’s distracted by the sight of Newt licking some errant potatoes off of his index finger.
“If you’re quite done now,” Lars says, his accent heavier than usual. Hermann knows he’s annoyed when it’s obvious that he’s German. All of the Gottliebs have mastered the ability to hide their accents rather well, to show their intelligence not just in their respective fields, but their ability to speak multiple languages. It helps that all but Bastien were sent to England for school, and the payoff with Bastien was immense as he chooses to speak with an American accent largely to annoy his father.
“Oh, I’m done. Thanks, doc.” Newt smiles over at Lars and Hermann can see Karla biting her lip to keep from laughing in his periphery.
Lars blinks a few times then continues to talk. Everyone at the table, as per usual, seems immensely bored. There’s peace as everyone eats silently for a few minutes. Then Newt speaks up again, after polishing off his glass of wine, this time more pointedly to Karla.
“What is it you do for a living, then?” Newt asks her, leaning forward with keen interest.
Karla has to swallow her mouthful of food before she can speak. “I’m an engineer, chemical engineering. And also a part-time poet.”
Hermann can’t see Newt’s face fully, but he can see the traces of his smile and he feels a tightness in his chest at the prospect of someone turning a smile like that on him. The man is either incredibly earnest or a very good actor, and weirdly Hermann thinks most of this is not an act, it’s his escalated self. He leans over and pours Newt another glass of wine simply to be closer to that smile.
“I’m a biologist and part-time rockstar,” Newt supplies. “So we’re sort of kindred spirits.”
“I don’t think you can self designate yourself as a rockstar.”
“Hey, I can give you a private show sometime if you’re in doubt.” Newt shifts closer to Karla. “You live in London, too?”
“I do, at the moment,” Karla answers. “Are you offering to come to my flat and perform for me?” She leans on one of her hands and bats her eyelashes just so. Hermann’s always impressed by just how masterful his sister is at moments like this. He hides his reactions behind his glass of wine.
“I mean, that may be just what I’m implying. Something intimate.”
Karla laughs. “Oh, so just me and my girlfriend, then?”
“Well, if you’re into that sort of thing-”
“She might be, I’m not.”
“My sister,” Hermann cuts in then, to keep Newt from digging himself deeper in a hole. “Is a lesbian, Newton. If you’re going to flirt with one of my family members at the dinner table-” He’s trying hard to look angry and not amused. “Make sure it’s someone who’s romantically interested in men.”
“Which would be?” Newt asks, sheepish but not sheepish enough for the situation.
“Only me, dear,” the other elder Dr. Gottlieb, who was sitting quietly listening to her husband, cuts in. “If you’re so keen, I’m sure Hermann would switch seats with you so you can woo me.” She winks at him. “But I think he’s probably the better catch for what you’re looking for, so maybe be more respectful.”
Newt goes bright red at this and shoves a mouthful of food into his mouth to, Hermann suspects, keep himself from saying anything further that may embarrass him or Hermann. For some reason, the “sorry” he mouths to Hermann afterwards seems far too genuine and is accompanied by the squeeze of his knee. A blush rises to Hermann’s cheeks which he quickly quells. He needs to do something very soon about this absurd crush on Newt, because this is a man he’ll never see again after tonight. He can’t imagine Newt would like someone like him in the first place, let alone like him enough to associate with him after being exposed to his father for several hours.
“Hermann,” Lars says, once he’s had enough to say about himself. “How’d you meet this one?”
“It was a networking event,” Hermann explains. “For young professionals in STEM. Newton is a biologist and while I don’t know much about biology, his research interested me very much and I asked him to coffee the next day. We didn’t intend it to be romantic.”
“Speak for yourself,” Newt chimes in. “I was tempted to ask you to go home with me after the event. You looked so-”
“Newton.” Hermann’s blushing again. Surrounded by a variety of facial expressions, the oddly fond looks of his siblings and sister-in-law, the neutrality of his mother, the disapproval of his father, Herman feels awkward and oddly exposed.
“Sorry, sorry. Just, have you seen yourself lately, babe? A total dish.” Newt tears into some bread and speaks with his mouth full about halfway through the sentence. “Are there any more of these?”
“Perhaps if you think my son is such a prize you can talk some sense into him about leaving a perfectly good job at Cambridge,” Lars says, “to move down to London to work.”
“Father,” Dietrich speaks up then. “University College London is the top ranked school in the country-”
“Besides Oxford and Cambridge.”
“With all due respect, Doc,” Newt’s finishing a bite and pointing a finger at Lars. “Oxford and Cambridge are build on the concepts of classism and elitist thinking and most of the colleges there are either pipelines for the rich and elite to send their students, regardless of how smart they are, or don’t have the endowments to be successful without the support of overcharging international students to attend. And they will attend because the names carry prestige. I’m not saying UCL is without its issues, but it’s not build on the same imperial bullshit as the rest of this country.”
For a moment, Hermann thinks his father’s jaw may unhinge like a snake for him to swallow them all whole. But instead, in his typical fashion, he takes a few moments to collect himself so he can always have the upperhand. This is probably one of his least favorite things about his father.
“I wouldn’t expect an American to understand how things work in other parts of the world,” Lars states, as though that resolves anything.
“Ich bin kein Amerikaner,” Newt responds coolly. “I was born and raised in Berlin.”
“Ah, a Berliner? Do you think that’s any better, young man?”
Hermann’s not entirely sure, but he thinks if Newt had his way, he would launch himself across the table and physically fight his father. Honestly, Hermann thinks he just might let him, damn the consequences. He’d probably pay Newt extra if he did it and take him for an additional dinner. At a very nice restaurant.
“Lars, darling,” Dr. Lina Gottlieb cuts in. “This is our guest, in our home. And this is our nice family dinner. We haven’t seen Hermann for several months.”
“Of course.” Lars collects himself, back to his impassive expression. Hermann hates that he can see himself in his father’s face, can trace the similarities of their features whenever he looks at him. It seems unfair that he couldn’t have inherited the round and kind face of his mother, which stares at him so charmingly through Karla’s features and even more prominently through Bastien. He at least has solidarity in this, Dietrich is a Lars doppelganger. This seems even worse, that the man was gratified by not only having his eldest be a boy, but a boy who would grow to be a man who is successful and looks remarkably like his father.
“I’m very glad you’ve found a job that you enjoy,” Lina adds. “We’re very proud of you.”
And that’s the kicker, hearing the “we” every time. Hermann knows his mother means it earnestly for herself, that no matter how celebrated and decorated she is, she’s always going to be proud of her children for their accomplishments. For his father, the pride is hollow and will never be enough. No matter who Hermann becomes he needs to become a step further. He’s had enough of it, if he’s honest with himself.
“Thank you, mother,” Hermann says quietly and he refuses to meet anyone’s eye, let alone Newt’s. He’s not going to turn this into pity, he’s paying Newt to annoy his family, to make his father feel something he’s not sure he can articulate. He doesn’t need this stranger to pity him.
“And what do you do for a living then Dr- it is Dr, right?”
Newt’s just opened his mouth to speak when a disruptive sound ripples through the house.
“Hullo?” someone exclaims. “The prodigal son has returned and he’s brought gifts.”
“And a wife!” Another voice cuts in.
Hermann pales. Bastien had definitely not said that he was married. To the best of his knowledge, Bastien has only been with his girlfriend for about half a year, which is hardly long enough to know someone to love them, let alone marry them. The youngest Gottlieb has, nonetheless, always done everything at a breakneck speed.
The moment Bastien’s in the room, everyone but Newt and Lars is standing to greet him warmly with hugs and kisses on his cheeks. He appears only once a year at best, the wild child, the baby of the family. Even when Bastien’s successes mean Hermann’s failures, he still dotes endlessly on his little brother. It’s the gift of being the baby of the family, endless love and affection.
“What’s this you said about wife?” Lina asks, eyeing up the tall woman standing beside her youngest. “Oh, she’s lovely.”
The woman laughs and extends her hand. “Zoe, it’s lovely to meet you. Bastien’s told me so much about all of you.”
When Hermann’s back in his seat and the table’s back in a flurry, Lina and Dietrich eagerly talking to Bastien about wedded bliss, he sees two distinct images. The first is the stormy image of his father glowering at everyone. The second is Newt pouring himself yet another glass of wine and downing it in a matter of moments.
“Was there not a proper wedding?” Lars says in place of congratulations.
“We’re going to have a real wedding later this year,” Zoe explains. She’s not prepared for Lars Gottlieb, she’s likely barely prepared for any of the family.
“You could have waited until then, no doubt.” He immediately disregards her. “Bastien, how thoughtless of you to not bring her here for our approval first.”
Bastien stares at him for a few moments. “Dad, it’s...it’s my life. I’m an adult now. I’m allowed to do what I want.”
“You’ve already done enough of what you want with your horrible haircuts and your job hopping and your-”
They’re spared more of Lars upbraiding Bastien by the abrupt toppling over of a nearly full bottle of wine on the table.
“Oh shit!” Newt all but shouts. “Shit, what a waste of wine.”
A waste of wine, indeed, seeing as Hermann doubts these bottles cost anything less than fifty pounds a bottle. Newt’s snatching napkins from everyone’s laps to sop up the mess and pulling out his shirt from his trousers, as though he’s going to use that as a napkin as well. In the mess, he knocks over some gravy and Hermann’s cane, one of which he upends immediately.
“Oh fuck, fuck,” Newt mutters to himself as he’s trying desperately to solve the problem he’s created. Deliberately.
“Oh, don’t worry about it,” Lina says, rising to fetch something more substantial to wipe up the remainder of the mess.
Hermann is honestly too shocked to do anything more than scoot back and watch as the disaster unfolds. Dietrich picks up what remains of the roast to keep the wine from the pan and Bastien sits and calmly eats as everything falls to pieces. Karla’s clearly in the midst of a video of Bastien and Zoe, looking far too calm and collected and Hermann is truly grateful he’s hired Newt to come with him this evening. After all, it kept from something too severe. Hermann is not sure what he had expected of having a date for the dinner, but this is certainly not it.
When the mess clears, Newt takes his seat beside him and Hermann mutters a “thank you”. Newt shoots him back a confused look, followed by a wink. This was not, Hermann realizes, Newt being a bad date. This was Newt keeping Lars from shouting at his youngest son, from making his son’s wife feel uncomfortable with her new family. Hermann wonders if he really should give Newt the extra dinner for this. Not just for his own selfish purposes.
“I think now might be time for dessert,” Dietrich declares as he places the roast gently back down on the table. “What masterpiece have you prepared for us, mother?”
Lina smiles. “I’ve made a Prinzregententorte, if you’ll believe it.”
“You spoil us,” Dietrich’s wife, Katrin, cuts in. “Spoil us rotten.”
“My first grandchildren deserve it,” Lina answers, rising to the kitchen to fetch the cake in question.
When it’s laid on the table, Hermann is teleported back to his childhood, when his mother would serve them afternoon tea with cakes and pastries. Even better, he remembered when she’d let him help bake, dressed in his apron and so eager to assist. Once he reached about ten, his father would scold him for wanting to help in the kitchen so much, and he stopped. Now, he’d occasionally make recipes his mother sent to him, sometimes video messaging or calling her when he made mistakes. He doesn’t do things like this enough.
He finds himself startled after the cake is cut by Newt taking the first slice. Of course Newt would take the first slice, it’s the rude thing to do, and he’s paying this man to be rude and keep him from being invited to more awkward dinners like this, after all.
“Have you had this cake before?” Lina asks, turning to Newt.
“Nah, we didn’t associate with anything Bavarian if we could help it.”
“What’s wrong with Bavaria?” Lars asks, looking like the grumpiest man to ever have a piece of cake in front of him.
“He was joking, father,” Hermann says.
“That didn’t sound like a joke to me.”
“It’s cool, dude.” Newt laughs. “What’s the stereotype? Everyone’s farmers up in the mountains and all that.”
“Dude?” Lars actually physically leans backwards. “That’s Dr. Gottlieb to you.”
“Oh, I can’t use that.” Newt turns to Hermann. “That’s my pet name for Hermann here, you know. And I wouldn’t want those getting confused.”
Lars and Hermann turn the same shade of red at that and an awkward silence ensues for a long while. Hermann’s looking hopelessly at various members of his family for some relief, and no one cuts in.
“This cake is delicious.” It’s Bastien, oddly, who finally cuts into the conversation. “I don’t know why I ever moved away in the first place, when there’s food like this around.”
“You could always come to visit, Bas,” Lina says sweetly, and she leans over to pinch his cheek fondly. Hermann envies how easily his younger brother receives and gives affection.
The sweet moment is ruined by the sound of Newt belching rather loudly and reaching for another bottle of wine. After he spilled one, three remained at the table, and Newt is taking advantage of this as best as he can. Hermann clears his throat as a warning, but Newt fills his glass anyway. Half the table eyes him warily. Lars looks like he’s about to burst a blood vessel, but is remaining as calm as he can.
With dessert complete, the siblings all rise to collect the dishes and remove them to the kitchen. It’s practiced with the grace of a ballet and the attention to detail of a military parade. They’ve been doing this since they were children, Hermann remembers being as young as three or four and clearing away the table. Everyone but his father played their role in the preparation of meals and, to the best of his knowledge, both of his brothers played an active role in the caretaking in their homes as adults. He’s thankful this privileged attitude was not passed down to any of his siblings.
Everyone naturally gravitates to the living room when the table’s adequately cleared, with the tablecloth stowed away for a wash. Newt’s going on about some trick he’s learned where white wine is used to remove red wine stains but no one listens to him fully. Before Hermann can get settled down, Karla pulls him aside.
“Alright, what’s the deal with this man?” she asks. “I know you wouldn’t bring someone home after a few months, let alone someone so-”
“That’s the thing, though. He’s not actually rude. This is...over the top. There’s no way you wouldn’t have warned someone about dad in advance.” She crosses her arms and he’s met with a look of steely resolve, the only facial feature that Karla’s inherited from her father.
“I hired him.”
“You brought a bloody escort to dinner?” Karla clearly is trying very hard to whisper and not shout.
“No! He’s not a sex worker, Karla. Everything he says about himself is true, but I am paying him to be here. Well, I’m not paying him necessarily. Now that I’m saying this out loud, I am questioning why I brought a stranger to dinner on the condition that he is rude to my family in exchange for free food.”
“Did you just find him in a bar or-”
Karla’s mouth drops open. She takes a few long moments to try to collect herself to speak. “So when dad calls you the genius of the family, he really doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
“Father doesn’t refer to me as a genius.”
She sighs and lops her arm around Hermann’s shoulder. “Course he does. But the secret is, he only does it when it benefits him and he’s not around. He tells everyone Dietrich is the apple of his eye and Bastien is forging his own way ahead or some nonsense. He knows how to spin us all to seem really great to his stuck up friends.”
Hermann shakes his head. “And what does he say about you?”
“The hell if I know, Hermann. Last I heard he calls me “the girl” which means shit.”
“I could ask Newton to spill the next bottle of wine directly on him.”
Karla laughs, a bit too loud, and all but pushes Hermann out of the hallway and into the living room. He’s shoved between her and Newt on the couch as they’re all forced, yet again, to listen to Lars drone on about something that he thinks is far more interesting than it is. Newt looks visibly bored and Hermann’s fairly certain this isn’t an act. For the first time, Hermann’s acutely aware that he’s had two glasses of wine with dinner himself and he catches himself staring at Newt’s face instead of listening.
The soft angles of his face and jaw look even more pleasant in the evening light, dimly lit by a lamp. He’s got more than a small smattering of freckles, sweeping across the entirety of his face, though especially on his cheeks and forehead. Despite living in central London, Newt must spend a good deal of time in the sun. Hermann wonders if his research opportunities as a biologist involve any fieldwork, maybe short jaunts to explore the flora and fauna of England on his free weekends.
Despite the size of the frames of Newt’s glasses, he looks over the tops, skeptically at every word that tumbles out of Lars’s mouth. This is not an act, Hermann can sense, Newt dislikes his father immensely. His lips are parted, just a bit, as though he’s waiting for the moment to jump in and verbally eviscerate the man, but thankfully he doesn’t do that. If he crosses Lars too much, they may both find themselves abruptly removed from the house.
“Is there any more wine?” Newt asks at length, turning to Hermann.
“I believe we’re done for the evening.”
“Aww, where’s your sense of fun, brother?” Bastien cuts in. “We can open another bottle, can’t we?”
“Champagne to celebrate all the good news,” Newt suggest.
Katrin, wrapped up in her husband until that moment laughs. “I think that’s when we will duck out, then. I cannot celebrate my good news with any wine, and we’re both rather tired.”
Hermann’s glad for the reprieve as his brother and sister-in-law take their leave and Newt and Bastien sneak off to find another bottle of wine to consume. Hermann notices that Newt’s glass looks like he’s not filled it very much at all, which he’s relieved to see. Newt is not a lush, but rather very dedicated to the role he’s playing. He settles on the couch and puts his arm around Hermann’s shoulder. They’ve agreed to no more physical contact than this, but Hermann’s’ become acutely aware of how much he misses having someone warm and comfortable beside him. It’s been too long. Karla gives him a look, but he refuses to acknowledge it.
They’re playing pretend tonight, so there’s no reason for him to not go along with it, even if he enjoys it, down to the barbs his date is throwing at his father. Newt has mellowed, no doubt, but Hermann notices that any time Lars tries to turn his judgment towards one of his children, that’s when Newt’s need to create a scene comes out. This is a kindness that Hermann doesn’t know how to repay, how his weird request has become a kindness for his siblings.
It’s later than Hermann expected when they start to get ready to leave, Bastien and Zoe following after. (Karla’s spending the night with their parents.) They should have enough time to get back to London and in bed before midnight, but won’t have time for much else. It’s been a long day and Hermann’s already dreading the drive, but he’s also aware that there’s no possible way for Newt to drive home in his state. Thankfully, it’s been several hours and a few glasses of water since Hermann’s last drink, so he’s feeling sober. Even if he’s still oddly dazed most of the time when he looks at Newt’s face or his hands or his dorky tie.
They’ve just made it to the front door when they’re greeted with the rattling sound of a thunderclap and the accompanying downpour.
“Oh, bugger,” Hermann mutters. “It’s England, it’ll clear up in an hour or so, we can wait it out.”
“It’s late,” Lina says. “We have two guest rooms, if Karla doesn’t mind sleeping on the couch tonight.”
Karla is thoroughly amused by this situation and laughs. “No, not in the least. I think it’s best that everyone stays here tonight, too. Wouldn’t want my little brothers getting struck by lightning or ending up in a ditch.”
Hermann looks to Newt, who looks surprisingly passive in the situation.
“I don’t have any objections, as long as Hermann doesn’t mind,” Newt says. “I’ve nowhere to be tomorrow.”
“Oh, alright. I wouldn’t want to drive in this and I’m perhaps too tired to wait it out.”
He allows himself to be ushered to one of the guest rooms. It’s a bit dusty, but the bed is large enough for both of them and he’s at least given some privacy, even if it involves sharing a room with a relative stranger.
“I’m sorry about this, Newton,” Hermann says, sitting on the edge of the bed. He leans over to plug in his phone to charge, grateful that Karla apparently travels with an excess of spare chargers. “I realize my family is...a lot.”
“It’s fine,” Newt says. He’s already undoing his tie and undressing. “Your family is...they’re actually really great. I’m mostly just sorry I wasn’t able to get you uninvited to Bavaria for the holidays, like you said you wanted. They’re...good people, though, I think you’ll manage.”
“Well, most of them.” Newt hesitates for a moment. “But I think you know who I don’t think so well of.”
Hermann grimaces for a moment. “It’s no secret that my father is not a particularly likable man.”
“Your dad’s a complete dick, Hermann. The way he talks to his kids as though you’re not all highly successful and interesting people! He doesn’t know how good he’s got it. And on top of that, he’s won the wife lottery.”
Turning on the bed, Hermann’s met with the sight of Newt slipping out of his shirt. Like his face, Newt’s body is charmingly soft, something he’d like to wrap his entire body around if he were allowed to. He’s not.
“Erm,” Newt begins, “I hope you don’t mind if I sleep in my pants. Like what you call pants, not what I call pants. My boxers.”
“I know what you mean, Newton. It’s alright. I know I might look like a boring and repressed man in a sweatervest but I’m used to casual nudity.”
“Well, if you’re giving me permission to sleep naked-”
Newt laughs and Hermann blushes. Is this teasing or flirting? Hermann can’t really say.
“No, I think you should keep your boxers on, thank you.” Hermann turns back and starts to remove his own clothing. He’s not keen on sleeping in bed in nothing but his underwear with a man he knows he’s very attracted to who would probably not think twice of him, but there’s very few other options. He keeps his undershirt and briefs on and wastes no time on climbing into the bed. Newt seems to take his cue and lays beside him.
They both stay like that for a few long moments, staring at the ceiling in the dark without talking to each other. Hermann knows Newt is still awake, can tell just from the sound of his breathing he hasn’t managed to sleep yet, but he can’t find anything to dispel the awkwardness.
“Why did you put out the Craigslist ad?” Hermann settles on.
His first answer is a snort, then the sound of Newt carefully deliberating. “It was mostly a joke, there was a thing I saw on the internet of a felon doing that for Thanksgiving dinner, and I figured...hey, no one’s gonna answer this and I’ve had a few too many beers and then three weeks later, you came around.”
“Oh. So you didn’t-”
“Oh, no. You don’t know me well enough to know that everything I do is half in jest, half completely serious.”
“Okay.” Hermann rolls onto his side, facing away from Newt. “I hope it wasn’t a complete waste of your time, then.”
“It wasn’t. I actually-” Newt sighs. “This is gonna sound really bad, but I largely did this because after we spoke, I looked you up and thought you were really cute.”
Hermann can feel himself start to blush but he does nothing about it. “And your thoughts have undoubtedly shifted now that you’ve seen the reality.” He really doesn’t mean to be so down on himself, but he knows the reality of who he is and how he looks to others. At all times, Hermann knows who he is.
“I understand you now, but I still think you’re super cute.” Newt stops for a moment, as though he’s waiting for an answer. Hermann’s not sure of how to answer. “Good night, Hermann. Thanks for letting me slander your good name at a family dinner. I’m more than happy to do this again.”
He’s really not sure what this comment means. Does Newt want to continue the lie? Does Newt want to make this truth? Hermann’s not sure how that transition would go, how he’d be able to save Newt’s reputation with his family after what they’ve had to endure tonight already. Lars would definitely never forgive Newt for the way he acted, for his insubordination and rudeness and questioning. Then again, Hermann’s not so sure his father’s opinion makes all that much of an impact on who he does or doesn’t date these days. He’s an adult and free to do as he likes or doesn’t like with his life. And maybe he’d like to see Newt again, just to have the chance to get to know the real him. He doesn’t have to decide just yet, he knows. He has until the drive home tomorrow.
They’ve just drifted off to sleep when Hermann jolts awake at the sound of something thumping rather loudly against the wall. Then there’s the sound of a soft moan.
“Is that-” Newt whispers softly.
“No! My parents are on the other side of the house. It does not make it any better that it’s my baby brother, mind you.”
Hermann can make out Newt’s grimace in the dark. “Ugh, I’m sorry.”
“You’re sorry? We both have to hear this.”
“We could like- you know.”
“Newton!” Hermann actually clutches his sheet to his chest like an offended housewife. “What are you implying?”
“Not for real! I was just saying, we could pretend to give them a taste of their own medicine.”
“Oh,” Hermann answers softly. Pretending seems sad to him, for some reason. He’s pretended with Newt for several hours tonight already. “No, it’s alright. I hate to infer, but I suspect it will be over before too long.”
Newt snorts. “God, growing up with so many boys must have been a nightmare for your sister.”
“Karla could more than hold her own, and despite my father’s influence, we were socialized and raised identically by our mother, regardless of gender.”
“Oh, that’s cool. My dad was...just really chill with everything. He’s the coolest dude in the world, even now.”
“I’m happy that you like your father.” Hermann can’t help but frown at that.
“Shit! Probably bad timing. Listen, I don’t need to or want to get into any issues you do or don’t have with your dad, but you seem like a great dude and-” Newt stops then to bang on the wall. “Can you two be a little more quiet?” he exclaims. “His lack of understanding of his children is really all on him, it doesn’t touch any of you. I have an absentee mom and I had a lot of issues growing up from that, but eventually I realized that her not wanting to be in my life had fuckall to do with me and a whole bunch to do with her.”
“I’m sorry your mother was not around.”
“Hey, the point is to not be sorry about this, right? We’re gonna be strong and independent young men.”
Hermann snorts and rolls over so he’s properly facing Newt. “I’d be happy just to be sleeping.”
“God, so would I. I hate to say it, but I think your brother has stamina.”
There’s an awkward silence for a moment before Newt bursts out into laughter. It’s scratchy and high pitched, like most of his other sounds, but Hermann’s completely enamoured.
The next morning is bright in the way that mornings after storms often are. The sun is offering an apology with soft rays through the windows. Hermann’s awake before Newt starts to stir and he gives himself a chance to observe properly. Newt’s got his cheek pressed to his pillow and the blankets tossed aside. His torso is nearly completely covered in tattoos, which Hermann can finally see on display. Apparently halfway through the night, Newt decided it was too warm for both of them and kicked the blankets almost entirely aside. Hermann, surprising, was not freezing upon waking, but pleasantly warm. Or at the very least, warm enough.
Newt’s hand rests on his stomach and it’s easy enough for Hermann to trace the rise and fall of his breathing. He breathes opened mouth, with the barest whistle of a snore. It’s dangerous how much he likes this man for his softness, and he knows it’s absurd because he doesn’t really know Newt. He knows a version of Newt, that’s exaggerated and uncouth. He suspects the real version is also uncouth, but maybe a bit less likely to flirt with his sister or spill wine all over his mother’s good table linens.
“Staring is rude,” Newt remarks, not opening his eyes. “You’re really not used to sharing beds with people, are you?”
“Admittedly it has been some time since I’ve shared a bed with someone, yes. But I do know how to do so.”
“It’s not rocket science.” Newt shifts and lifts his hand up to stifle a yawn. “Do I smell breakfast?”
“Perhaps,” Hermann answers. “Do you want to stay for breakfast?”
“I really don’t have anywhere else to be.” Newt sits up. “And I’m here to eat, if you recall. That’s what I’m getting out of this, a warm meal, so two warm meals is a big bonus.”
Hermann watches as Newt cups his hand and breathes into it, grimacing at the state of his morning breath. His hair is completely askew and Hermann suspects there’s no hope for it, given that it seemed to be kept in place by hair gel.
“You’ve got like-” Newt begins, gesturing. “Two big cowlicks on the back of your head.”
How foolish, Hermann thinks, to imagine that he’s immune to the ill intent of mornings on hair. He probably looks like an absolute mess.
They make do with what they can find stocked in the guest bathroom to freshen up. Hermann considers himself presentable as he finds his way to the dining room in his shirt from the day before. Newt’s dressed much the same, completely foregoing the tie and leaving probably a few more buttons undone than strictly necessary. It gives a tease of the tattoos that adorn his torso, the twisting bodies of sea creatures, both real and imaginary. There’s a grotesque but beautiful nature to the tattoos and Hermann wishes he had more time to observe them and understand Newt’s reasoning, if any, for choosing the creatures he chose.
The only person at the table when Hermann and Newt arrives is Karla, who looks polished as she sips on her coffee.
“You two sleep well?” she asks.
“Tolerably. The storm didn’t keep us up at the very least,” Hermann answers and doesn’t say anything as Newt steps into the kitchen to fetch them both coffee.
“Did something else keep you up?” Karla raises a brow and her mouth quirks into a smirk that Hermann doesn’t trust.
“Not what you’re thinking. Someone in the room next to us decided to stay up late, to phrase it nicely.”
“Aww, Hermann. They’re newlyweds, that’s what newlyweds do. When you and Newt get to that point, you’ll understand.”
His face slips into a scowl. “That’s not funny, Karla.”
“You’re blushing,” she says, slipping into a whisper. “You have a for real crush on him don’t you?”
“I have- I have no such thing!” Hermann protests.
“It’s alright. I mean, I don’t know shit about what makes men attractive, so I’m sure the belching is really doing it for you and the-”
“Stop, please stop, Karla.”
“You could just ask him out for real. I think the only one in the family who actively dislikes him is dad and you know he’s wrong about most people.”
“It’s not that simple,” Hermann says, suddenly desperate for his coffee. “I don’t really know him.”
“Dating people is about getting to know people you’re attracted to, that’s the point. No one knows anyone that quickly. You’ve gotta actually put yourself out there to get to know someone and then bam. Next family dinner you get to tell dad you secretly got married.”
“God, I thought for sure he was going to lose it,” Hermann says, shaking his head. “What was he thinking?”
“You know Bastien likes to do things in his own way.”
“He should have just not told anyone if he’s planning on having a proper wedding.”
“That’s not his style.” Karla hides her smile behind her mug. “Not all of us can keep secrets.”
“Are you-” Hermann’s eyes go wide.
“Shush, it’s only an engagement, but we’ll see where this goes.”
Hermann stomps down the immediate jealousy that he will be the last to be married to smile and offer his sister his congratulations. He’s cut short by the lack of coffee and the sound of laughter coming from the kitchen. Grabbing his cane, he stands and makes his way to find the source.
What he finds is Newt helping his mother flip pancakes while she’s clearly in the middle of a story.
“And then he tried to tell me that Karla had upended the bag of flour on his head and-”
“She had!” Hermann interrupts. “Mother, please don’t tell Newt any more embarrassing stories about me.”
“Oh, hush. If someone wants to be with you, they have to know all the parts, the good and the bad.”
Newt offers a smile to Hermann and for a moment Hermann imagines how easy it would be to walk up to him and press a kiss to his cheek. But it’s not that easy, because Newt is not his to kiss. Then again, Newt had implied the night before that he would potentially be interested in kissing. But that can’t happen until they’ve had a conversation.
“I made your coffee,” Newt says. “Well, I poured it, and then asked your mother how you liked it because you’ve never let me make your coffee before and then we started to talk about how particular you are and-”
For a moment, for the first glorious sip of his coffee, Hermann zones out completely and doesn’t hear what it is that Newt’s saying about coffee and Hermann’s taste in coffee. He does know that Newt’s made the coffee nearly exactly to his specifications which is wonderful. Past partners have taken months or longer to get to that point.
“The pancakes are almost ready,” Lina says. “American style, just like you like them.”
Hermann’s blushing again and he doesn’t know why. Well, he knows exactly why. Because of the German-American man standing in his parents’ kitchen and helping his mother make pancakes for breakfast.
“Is father coming to breakfast?” Hermann asks, trying not to sound too indifferent.
“He had some work to do this morning, so he’s working on that. He said to give you all his goodbyes when you leave and that he’ll see you all very soon.”
Neither of them comment any further when Newt mumbles something under his breath, though Hermann’s fairly certain he says “not too soon.” Hermann agrees.
Breakfast is quiet but pleasant. The early risers are halfway through when Bastien and Zoe emerge, but they don’t seem to mind that the pancakes or eggs have gone slightly cold. Hermann’s reminded of the calmness of mornings like this as a child, without the watchful eye of his father wherever they want. They’d joke and laugh and have a good time while he was off working on something that they all knew was not more important than them. His mother was a rock, a complete rock, who managed both a full time job and four children, and she deserves to sit quietly at the head of a table, sipping her tea, as she is at this moment.
“We should head back to the city,” Hermann remarks, after Newt’s cleared two full stacks of pancakes. “But it was lovely to be back with the family.”
He rises slowly, Newt following after him, and walks around the table to press a kiss to the top of his mother’s head.
“Thank you for breakfast, Dr. Gottlieb,” Newt says. “I’ll make sure Hermann gives you a call later this week. And every week after that.”
“Oh, he’s good about that already.”
“Hermann’s a mama’s boy,” Karla teases, but it’s far too good natured to have a negative impact. There are far worse things to be teased for than a fondness for one’s mother, after all.
“Clearly one of the most charming things in the world to be,” Newt responds. “Let’s get coffee or something sometimes and talk about your brother.”
“Will do.” Karla grins and winks at Newt, but close enough that Hermann can see her clearly. “Don’t be a stranger, Newt.”
The car ride is silent for the first fifteen minutes, Newt fiddling with the radio to find something smooth and easy to listen to and Hermann unsure of what he can possibly say.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t like...as terrible as I could have been at that dinner,” Newt says at length, still staring at the radio. “I meant what I said when I said that I really like your family. It’s hard to make people like that purposely dislike you.”
“It’s fine, Newt. Mostly I was glad you were there to keep my father from yelling at Bastien.”
“Ah, so you noticed the wine thing was actually altruism, then.”
“I have a parent who thinks I’m the family fuck-up, only I’m the only one,” Newt explains. “So I get it. And I’m sure being the youngest means he got a lot of shit but also coddled maybe a tiny bit, which is just a tinderbox of emotions. Sort of like being an only child.”
“Are you going to analyze each of my siblings based on birth order?”
“Of course I am, Mr. Middle Child Syndrome.”
“Oh, sorry. Dr. Middle Child Syndrome. Your sister seems to be above all that, but I mean...you brought me to your family dinner to act out your middle child frustrations, didn’t you? You probably weren’t very rebellious as a kid, so why not act that out now.”
“Are you a biologist or a psychologist, Newton?” Hermann turns to face him and he hates the smug look on Newt’s face. He wants nothing more than to kiss it away.
“What if I told you I had a PhD in psychology?”
Hermann huffs. “I have viewed your LinkedIn profile, I know what all of your absurdly many degrees are in, and none of them are psychology.”
“Nah, but I did minor in it in undergrad.” Newt finally stops fiddling with the radio. “And you, Mr. Maths. That’s how they say it here, right? Maths?”
“I’m a physicist.”
“Mathematical physics! I was right, so just admit it.”
“I also studied engineering.”
Newt snorts loudly at this, trying to keep from laughing. “So is engineering just a genetic trait for your family?”
“Engineering is a good way to keep my father happy. Karla pursued her degree because she knew she’d make a lot of money and would be able to write poetry in her free time. I was an overachiever who wanted my father to love me.”
“Did it work?”
Hermann pauses for a moment, takes a good long pause to think it all over. Does his father love him? His father certainly isn’t good with showing affection to anyone, save for a few brief moments with his mother. In fact, the only redeeming moments of his childhood had been the moments when Lars showed affection for his wife. And there was the one road trip, just Lars in the children, when he seemed good natured and didn’t shout even once. But there’s a truth that Hermann can’t repute no matter how hard he tries.
“It doesn’t matter if it worked,” Hermann responds. “Him loving me now doesn’t change anything for me, really, and I’m not seeking a better relationship with him. I’d tried that, fresh out of university when we worked together, and it meant nothing. I just want to be at peace with my family now.”
“That’s a good approach, I think.” Newt smiles at him. “Thanks for sharing your family with me.”
“I don’t say this to many young men, Newton, but of all the weird strangers on the internet, I’m glad I found you.”
“Yeah, of all the weirdos on Craigslist who could have murdered me, I’m really glad I got a response from you.”
Hermann bites his lip, then glances over at Newt for a few moments. It’s now or never, he supposes.
“I was wondering if you’d like to,” Hermann begins, taking a big breath. “Have dinner with me again. But not at my parents’ house, at mine. Just the two of us.”
“Are you asking me on a date, then?” Newt is pointedly looking out his window, but Hermann can tell that he’s trying to hide a smile.
“Technically I’m asking you in for a date, but yes, I believe that’s what I’m doing.”
“Oh, you’re asking me in.” Newt laughs. “Shouldn’t figured you moved fast.”
“That is not what I mean.”
“I know, you even had the opportunity last night and didn’t dare to make a move.”
He rolls his eyes at Newt. “You haven’t said yes or no yet, Newton.”
It’s silent for a few moments, except for the oddly fuzzy sound of the radio. Hermann was fairly confident Newt was going to say yes, but he’s becoming less sure. And then he turns to see Newt smiling at him.
“Yes, Hermann. I’d love to go to your place for dinner sometime. I’ll even spill a bottle of wine all over.”
“But I did mean what I said when I told your mom the white wine will get out the red wine stain, I’ve done it before and it worked marvelously.”
They talk during the rest of the ride back into the city, Hermann content with the sound of Newt’s endearingly scratchy voice. He suspects it’s a sound he could let himself listen to for years to come.