Hermann returned to his apartment and sank onto his couch, his head in his hands. He thought absently of starting (and finishing) the bottle of wine in his fridge on his own, but the thought only served to bring tears to his already tired eyes. He had bought it for tonight, of course, though he’d hoped to open it under much different circumstances, in different company than just himself and his misery.
He hadn’t even expected to be home so early; he had been sure, after dinner, Newton would have wanted Hermann to give him a local tour, or take him to Hermann’s favorite bar, or at least walk the busy streets of Berlin, just to have an excuse to be in each other’s company. Hermann didn’t frequent many bars (none that were worth showing Newton, anyway), but he would wave away Newton’s inevitable disappointment and suggest, well, they could always go back to Hermann’s flat, and he’d have let Newton see more of him than anyone had ever wanted to.
Hermann had pictured it all. Newton on his loveseat, shifting closer with every glass of wine, his smile loose and sultry, hands on Hermann’s leg, his thigh, his neck, his face.
Hermann had planned it all, because he was a man who made plans and stuck to them, because plans were comforting, and plans were concrete, and plans made it easy for Hermann to be brave and take risks. Calculated risks. Planned risks.
Then Newton had gone and thrown a wrench in Hermann’s plans, and Hermann couldn’t bring himself to forgive him for it. Not yet, anyway.
The wine, tainted with the expectations of the optimistic Hermann of yesterday, was out of the question. Instead, he pulled out his phone and called the first person he thought of that wouldn’t ridicule him.
“Hermann? What’s wrong? What happened?”
“I met Newton today.”
“Oh my God. Did you happen to check the time before you called me, you idiot?”
Hermann glanced at his watch and winced. While it was only nearly seven in Berlin, Sydney was ten hours ahead. “My apologies. I can call you tomorrow, if you’d prefer to get back to sleep.”
Karla’s sigh crackled over the phone. “No, I have to get up soon anyway. What’s this about your American?”
“He is not my anything,” Hermann spat. “He is an insufferable arse.”
“All right. What’s wrong with him?”
It was Hermann’s turn to let out a sigh, throwing his head back against the sofa.
“Newton Geiszler is the most conceited, immature, self-centered man I have ever met. He moves as if it’s his right, as if the sea should part for him anywhere he goes, and it does! That is the worst part of the whole spectacle, Karla. It’s as if the whole world knows his self-importance, and they encourage it.”
“You got all this from… what, three hours in his company?”
Hermann scowled. “Barely two. We didn’t make it through dinner.”
“So he wasn’t what you expected. People never are. What’s so awful about that?”
A glass of wine (or two) was starting to sound more and more like a good idea.
“He made it very clear that I wasn’t what he had expected, either. Or what he’d wanted.”
“Oh, Hermann. What did he say?”
“He pitied me. I could see it in his face. It fell when he laid eyes on me for the first time, you know that?” Hermann scoffed, hand posed instinctively to protect his injured leg. “He asked about the cane. About the accident. Proceeded to defend the kaiju that caused it. We had an argument.”
“Not a debate like you wanted, I gather.”
“No,” Hermann agreed. “Not a debate. We got kicked out of the restaurant. Apparently screaming matches aren’t considered very family-friendly, especially when one’s language is almost as colorful as his body art.”
“He’s got tattoos?”
“Yes. Kaiju, all over his arms. Doesn’t bother to cover them.”
“Are you going to write him again?”
Hermann shook his head even though Karla couldn’t see him.
“I sent the last one,” he said. “I doubt he’ll write back after this mess.”
“Well, he doesn’t deserve a response, even if he does write back,” Karla said. “Either way, the ball is in your court, Hermann. It’s your decision. And if he doesn’t think you’re good enough for him, then I’d say fuck him and his opinions.”
Hermann frowned. “Well, he’s not–”
“If his head is so far up his arse that he can’t see what a catch you are–”
“I am hardly a ‘catch,’ Karla.”
“Hermann, you’re literally one of the smartest people on this planet. You know that, right?”
“That’s not true.”
“Yes it is. Father won’t say it, so I am. Geiszler’s missing out.”
“That’s very… nice of you.”
“Look, fuck this guy. He’s obviously an idiot, if all he cares about is being right. You can do a lot better than some ableist kaiju groupie with a god complex. And you deserve better than that, too. He’s just another guy, you know? He’s not worth crying over. He won’t matter in a year.”
Hermann frowned. “Newton is a pioneering mind in his field. And he… he was so different than he was in his letters. He was a different person.”
“Well, when you can edit yourself after the fact, you can make yourself sound like anyone.”
“That’s not… No. That can’t be it. You haven’t read them. You wouldn’t know.”
Hermann could feel Karla rolling her eyes from Australia. “I have asked several times to read them. You were just so protective of them you wouldn’t let me see them. Do you still have all of them kept in that lockbox Nana gave you?”
A glass of wine sounded really nice right now.
“You do, don’t you? You should burn them or something.”
A spike of pain shot through Hermann’s chest at the idea, so sharp that he actually gasped into the phone.
“How dare you!” he hissed. “Burn the only evidence I have of…”
“Of someone liking you?”
“My god, Hermann. You’re so dramatic.”
“Oh, but burning them isn’t?!”
“Hermann! The guy’s a dick! He literally did nothing but insult you and get you kicked out of your favorite restaurant.”
Karla sighed, and Hermann couldn’t blame her. “Look. He’s just not good enough for you, even if he’s a ‘pioneering scientist’ or whatever you said. He can have as many degrees as he wants, but he doesn’t get to make you self-conscious about your cane and get you thrown out of a restaurant in one night. You deserve better, and I’ll keep reminding you if I have to.”
“This isn’t helping.”
“I’m sorry, Hermann. I really am. I know how important he is to you. And those letters.”
“It feels like I’ve lost him.”
“He’s not a bad person.”
“Letter-Newton wasn’t a bad person. Real-life-Newton might be, just a little.”
“He doesn’t have to be a bad person to not like me, Karla. There’s nothing to be done about it. We didn’t get on like I thought we would. He’s under no obligation to return my feelings.”
“No, he’s not,” Karla agreed. “But it’s still all right if it hurts that he doesn’t.”
Hermann sighed. “You should get going. Thank you for everything.”
“Sure. Try to get some sleep. Eat some ice cream or something. Don’t get drunk, you’ll regret it when you wake up. I’m not answering the phone if you’re hungover.”
“How kind of you.”
“All right. Good night, Hermann.”
“Good morning, Karla.”
Hermann had been stationed at the Hong Kong Shatterdome for two months when he learned that the new biologist assigned to the K-Science division was none other than Newton Geiszler, and it had taken less than two months after that for them to establish a routine.
They worked, sometimes in silence, most of the time while arguing, or with Newton’s cacophonous music wafting through the lab. They ate lunch separately, if at all, and dinner together in the mess hall, when it became apparent that they both needed that accountability. If left to his own devices, Newton would hardly eat at all, always either caught up in something that needed dissecting or too apathetic to feed himself. Hermann himself often lost track of time, finding himself standing outside the mess hall doors well after it had closed. After dinner, they’d invariably head back to the lab, and, invariably, pick another argument to replay before they got back to work.
That was four years ago. This was now.
Hermann watched with hawkish eyes as a pair of jaeger pilots made their way through the mess hall, trays in hand, mouths flapping. They were both well-built and dark-haired, though the shorter one’s skin was much paler and more freckled than the taller’s. The taller threw his arm around the other’s shoulders as they passed right by Hermann’s table.
“Hey, we still heading into town for Kaidonovsky’s birthday?”
“Hell yeah. Gotta round up the usual suspects,” the shorter replied. “We got half the jaeger pilots, some J-Techs.” He laughed in the taller man’s face. “Heard Gina’s gonna be there. You gonna shoot your shot?”
“Eh. Hey, Tendo’s not bringing Geiszler, is he?”
Hermann’s ears perked up, and he paused, his fork halfway to his mouth. Mashed potatoes plopped back on his tray. Newton caught his eye from across the mess hall, where he’d gone to cause trouble in the kitchens about the lack of gluten-free options (The last rationing had forced them to cut back on foodstuffs, while the one before had been on fabric, and tech the one before that.) and waved before turning back to the chef.
“What, the bio guy? No way. Dude’s insane. He’s totally fucking bipolar or something.”
Hermann stiffened in his seat. This was far from the first time he had heard someone question Newton’s mental stability, but it was the first where their insults ended up being right. Newton did have bipolar disorder, along with an extensive history of ADHD, and Hermann was acutely aware of what that meant for his lab partner in a way that no one else, barring someone else with Newton’s particular brain chemistry, could hope to match.
There were the high days, where Newton was excited about kaiju and experiments and life in general, and his inane chatter and insipid music filled the blank white space of the lab so fully that when Newton wasn’t there, when he was in a low spot, when he couldn’t seem to get out of bed for days or sometimes weeks, the silence was so heavy it felt like Hermann could suffocate in it.
It should have been irritating (Newton was always irritating), but it was simply a part of how Newton functioned. In any event, Hermann couldn’t very well blame Newt for his brain when Hermann’s wasn’t up to par half the time either. To be quite honest, Newton's behavior was leagues better than how some of the jaeger pilots conducted themselves.
Hermann cleared his throat and adjusted his grip on his cane, which, in an effort to stop people (read: Newton) tripping over it, was tucked neatly under the table. With the smallest of nudges, one end found itself in the path of one unlucky jaeger pilot. His tray went flying, and he hit the ground hard, and though Hermann was sure nothing had been broken by the fall, he still fought back a grimace in sympathy at the loud thud that echoed through the mess hall.
Chatter at the surrounding table went silent, and several pairs of indifferent eyes landed on Hermann, who was pulling his cane closer to himself, placing it safely in his lap.
“Perhaps if you used more than two percent of your brain power you’d be able to see where the hell you’re walking,” Hermann snapped. Better to get his anger out under the guise of defending himself than have anyone know he was doing all this for Newton. The pilot stood, and Hermann, not one to be outdone, stood as well, though it took him a second longer. At least he wasn't the one covered in gravy. “Honestly, if you’d just take your head out of your arse for five seconds–”
Newton chose that moment to show his face, setting down his tray and holding his hands up in surrender. Anyone else would have turned towards the jaeger pilot who looked one insult away from murder, but Newton just looked at Hermann. Newton always looked to Hermann.
“Hey, hey, everything okay over here, man?” Newton’s voice was high and scratchy and vaguely irritating, though Hermann had always found a sort of warmth and comfort in it. “What's going on?”
The pilot glanced from Hermann to Newton, glare intensifying as his eyes settled on the hyperrealistic kaiju scrawled across Newton's skin. He opened his mouth to say something, but his friend elbowed him in the side, shook his head, looked pointedly at Hermann’s cane.
“Nothing,” he said. “Sorry to bother you, Dr. Gottlieb.”
The shorter of the two nodded. “Won’t happen again.”
“No, I should hope it doesn’t,” Hermann agreed. “If you two are quite finished, I’ve better things to do than stand here and engage in idle chit-chat.”
The jaeger pilots mumbled their agreements and separated, one heading towards his table and the other towards the kitchens. Hermann settled back into his seat, tucking his cane back under the table, where no one would trip over it. Newton gave him a curious look when Hermann failed to explain.
“Uh, dude, did Seamus Kirk just almost kick your ass?”
“Nonsense. It was merely a misunderstanding.”
“Dude! A misunderstanding?” Newton laughed. “He looked like he was about to freaking jump you, dude. Pearce had to hold him back. And then I’d’ve had to, like, best him in hand-to-hand combat and defend your honor.”
Hermann rolled his eyes. “He wouldn’t dare lay a hand on me, Dr. Geiszler. You have nothing to worry about.”
“Worried?” Newton coughed, sending bits of egg and cheese flying across the table. “I'm not worried about you, man. Hah. Nothing to worry about.”
Hermann stared at the mess in distaste, lip curled, and Newton hastily wiped it all up with a napkin, though not before knocking his glass of what was certainly chocolate-flavored almond milk all over the table. Milk slowly dripped onto Hermann’s trousers.
“Oh, shit! Totally my bad, dude. Let me– Let me get that.” Newton reached across the table, dropping a few paper napkins into Hermann’s lap. “Heh. Well! It’s definitely an improvement over your grandpa clothes, right?”
“Honestly, could you be any less coordinated?” Hermann tsked. He stood, tapping his cane on the floor in emphasis. “I’ll be heading back to the lab, then, while you clean up your mess, as usual.”
“Oh.” Newton shrugged. “Sure, whatever, man. I’ll, uh. I’ll be here. Yeah.”
Hermann rolled his eyes. “Eloquent as always, Dr. Geiszler.”
“I’ll get the truth outta you sooner or later, you know.”
“Try not to lose too much sleep over it.”
Hermann Gottlieb prided himself on being a man unlike his father. Yes, he could be considered cold, and he kept his life professional. No one would hesitate to compare him to the machines he’d built years ago: functional, but dispassionate; useful, but only in its element. He was a private and serious man, but he was kind (at least, he liked to believe he was). He was working. He was helping. His father was not, in the slightest, helping.
“The jaegers were useful while they were needed, Hermann. It’s time to put them to rest.”
“Of all things to put your money behind, you choose the one project that is doomed to fail.”
“It is not an insult to you or your program. It’s simply a more sustainable option.”
“Perhaps for your wallet,” Hermann replied. “This is not a business investment. This is the fate of the world. There are real lives at stake.”
“Real lives that will be saved when the Wall of Life is erected. Think of the jobs being created, the–”
Hermann removed his phone from his ear and leaned back in his desk chair. It’d been just a few hours since the proposal for the Wall of Life had been endorsed by the PPDC, and the first thing Hermann’s father had thought to do was start an argument. Letting his eyes fall shut, Hermann tried to ignore the tinny arguing coming from his phone.
“–take it so personally. You’ve always acted like every decision I make is a slight against you. How you ever got to be so sensitive, I’ll never know. Look where you are now. Licking your wounds after being told your little robots aren’t good enough. I suggest–”
Hermann had long since come to terms with the fact that he’d never be good enough for his father. It didn’t bother him anymore. He was a man in his thirties, with his own life, his own choices, and his own work to keep him busy. Hermann didn’t need his father’s approval to feel as though his work was worthy; he knew it was. He was saving lives. Maybe not on the front lines, but from where he could. Didn’t that mean anything?
“–weren’t bad enough, that biologist! Never have I seen such inappropriate behavior from a professional! That Geiszler–”
“Dr. Geiszler deserves every ounce of respect he gets,” Hermann snapped. “He is quite literally the world’s most valued xenobiologist, and disagreeing with him on a matter as ill-fated as a concrete wall is not going to change that. Until you have something productive to speak about, I’d rather not listen to you gloat over being on the wrong side of the most important question the world has ever faced. Good day, Father.”
Hermann set his phone down and put his head in his hands. A call from his father was rarely something to celebrate, and his father’s full enthusiasm for a hare-brained plan doomed to fail didn’t make it any more bearable.
Just then, Newton strolled into the room, holding two steaming to-go cups. He started ranting as soon as he walked in, his whole tiny body shaking with rage. Newton set a cup down in front of Hermann and moved over to his side of the lab, throwing himself into his own desk. He moved like it was second nature, being kind to Hermann. He expected no thanks. He didn’t even mention it.
“So, like, what’s the fucking point if it’s all gonna collapse, you know? It’s the biggest waste of money since they replaced all the microwaves in this place,” Newton spat. “There’s no way that shit’s getting funded. If it does, I’ll– I’ll get Lars Gottlieb’s face fuckin’ tattooed on my back.”
Hermann looked up from his tea (which was made exactly right, even though he was sure he’d never told Newton how he took his tea) and scowled.
“Now, there’s no reason to ruin–”
“What a frickin’ idiot. What kinda– What kinda asshole do you have to be to treat your kid like that in front of their fuckin’ colleagues, man? I mean, okay, sorry, keep shit professional, I get it. But come on.”
Hermann felt himself blush, and he turned to his chalkboard to mask his embarrassment.
“My father shows me no favoritism, Dr. Geiszler. I admit that his name has been helpful in furthering my education, and I don’t pretend to be above that fact, but I assure you, everything I’ve accomplished at the PPDC has been entirely on my own merit.”
“That’s– We’ve known each other for like ten years, man, I’m not– I know that, obviously,” Newton replied, waving him off. “I just can’t, like, wrap my head around the logic. It’s never gonna happen.”
“It will get passed.”
Newton scoffed from across the lab. “You can’t be serious. The jaeger success rate–”
“Will not be enough to convince them, no,” Hermann reasoned. “The jaegers have been successful, but we are no closer to solving the problem. The wall is new, and it seems promising. People need hope, and the wall will give them hope. The jaeger program will be there for them when the wall fails.”
“Okay, fine” Newton said. “Doesn’t make your dad any less of an asshole.”
“Oh, of course not.” Hermann turned to his desk, took a sip of his tea. He caught Newton smiling at him and flushed again. “Please, do go on insulting him. It’s quite entertaining.”
Newton rolled his eyes. “Whatever, man. You know I’m right.”
“Hang on, can you say that again? I wanna get it on tape.”
“Get back to work, Dr. Geiszler.”
Newton grumbled from his side of the lab, and Hermann turned back to his own work.
Hours later, after Newton had long gone to bed, Hermann drained the last of his tea, ice-cold and disgusting, and smiled softly to himself.
Hermann did his best work when he visualized it. Chalk scritched delicately across his blackboard, white curves and lines mapping out the math in his head. The sound carried through the otherwise silent room, and Hermann was getting worried.
He had not seen nor heard from Newton in over one hundred and fifty hours.
The lab was quiet. The air was still. And while Hermann appreciated the absence of Newton’s awful music, he found he couldn’t concentrate as well without the biologist there. Silence took up too much space in his head, and he stared at his equations with a frown etched on his face.
He missed Newton’s noise. (God help him.) The soft sound of humming, singing along to his radio under his breath. The tap of his ridiculous boots on the metal floor. The disgusting slice of a scalpel cutting through tissue samples, the squelch of gloved hands removing innards from yet another dismembered kaiju. The whir of the centrifuge machine Newton insisted on using because it was “like, so frickin’ cool, dude.” The triumphant little noise Newton would make when he made another discovery or came up with another theory.
It wasn’t often that Newton missed work, and certainly not for as long as this. It was only when Newton was stuck in what he called a “low low” that he ever disappeared for quite as long as he was, and if Hermann had learned anything about Newton in the years working with him, he knew that it could be days before he saw him outside his room again.
Hermann checked his watch and frowned. It was past lunchtime and nowhere close to dinner, but he was almost certain Newton hadn’t eaten in the last week (which was purely unacceptable).
Making his way to Newton’s room with enough food for a man on the brink of starvation was a balancing act Hermann hoped never to repeat again (although he knew, of course, should the occasion arise, he would in a heartbeat). He managed to knock on Newton’s door with his cane, not quite expecting a hasty response.
As Hermann predicted, Newton didn’t bother to open the door. He knocked again, more insistently this time, and called out to him.
“Dr. Geiszler, do be quick. I cannot stand out here all day.”
There came a small thud, as if Newton had rolled out of bed and onto the floor, and some manic shuffling and swearing. Hermann shifted on his feet as Newton threw open the door, trying not to let his eyes track up and down the smaller man’s body.
He looked absolutely awful.
It was clear Newton hadn’t showered in the time he’d missed work. His hair was greasy, sticking up here and there and completely flat on one side, where it was apparent he’d been lying on it. He was wearing a threadbare MIT sweatshirt, mismatched socks, and stained sweatpants with one leg rolled up to his knee. Looking past the man in the doorway, Hermann noticed the piles of clothes, empty takeout containers, and paperwork littering the floor.
“Hermann! What, uh, what are you doing here?” Newton asked, voice raspy from disuse. “I didn’t steal any of your chalk, dude, that was one time, I’m sure you just gotta put in another order for it. I’m doing– uh, I’m doing some important work in here, so if you could make this quick–”
Newton, finally seeming to notice the tray in Hermann’s hand, threw the door open.
“Oh, shit! You brought me food?”
Hermann scowled, as if to deny that he had, in fact, brought Newton something to eat, despite the evidence being directly in his hand. Newton opened the door for him, kicking debris out of Hermann’s way.
“That’s, like, literally so nice of you, Herms. I’m starving.”
Hermann set the tray of food on Newton’s desk and frowned at the messy room. Newton looked about ready to descend on the tray of food like a madman, but Hermann blocked him.
“Shower first,” he said. “You smell rancid.”
Newton rolled his eyes. “Aaaand back to normal.”
“Shower, then eat. You’ll feel better.”
Newton scoffed. “That’s not how this shit works, man. If it were that easy, I’d’ve been up and working days ago. A shower’s not gonna fuckin’ cure me.”
Hermann nodded. “No, it won’t, but it’ll make you infinitely more bearable to be around.”
“Fuck you, man. I’m really not in the mood for this dumb rival shit right now, okay? I’m fuckin’ tired, I haven’t slept in days–”
“Yet you haven’t gotten out of bed.”
“Uh, yeah, Hermann, crazy story: it’s actually hard for me to do that sometimes! I’ve just been staring at the fucking wall. You wanna trade places, dude?” Newton ran one hand through his hair, tapped aggressively on his temple. “I’ll take a fucked up leg in place of this shit any day.”
Hermann scoffed. “No you wouldn’t. Trust me.”
“You can’t possibly know that. There’s no goddamn equation for mental fucking illness, man. Do all the math you want,” Newton snapped. “Did you come here just to shit on me or something? ‘Cause I really don’t need to feel any fucking worse about myself, dude, so you can see yourself out.”
With that, Newton stormed off to the connected bathroom. Hermann stood in the middle of the room, considering his options.
Leaving felt too much like defeat. It felt like confirming what Newton already thought of him: that he’d only showed up to worsen his condition. Of course Hermann could set out to do something kind for Newton, for once in his life, and end up making the whole situation worse.
The shower turned on, and with Newton actually following his directions, Hermann decided that perhaps his presence wasn’t too unwelcome. He made himself busy picking around the mess that Newton called his room. Paperwork and notebooks went in a pile on his desk, dirty clothes went in the hamper hidden in his closet, and rubbish went into the bin.
Twenty minutes later, Newton exited the bathroom wearing a different pair of sweatpants and a Nirvana t-shirt. His tattoos, clean and vibrant as ever, were shockingly bright next to his casual clothing. Newton paused when he saw the difference Hermann had made in his room. Hermann was preparing to wave off his gratitude when Newton scowled and pointed towards the door.
Hermann almost shrunk under Newton’s angry gaze before he remembered he was supposed to be untouchable.
“Honestly, now, what’s gotten into you?”
“Some fucking dignity, man. Self-respect. Get outta my room. I don’t need this– this–” Newton’s hands gesticulated wildly as his anger grew. “–this pity from you, okay?! I’ve got enough of that everywhere else. I really don’t need it coming from you of all people.”
Hermann soured. “You think this is pity?” he snapped. “I’ve known pity longer than you’ve been a scientist, Dr. Geiszler. This is not that.”
“What is this, then? You come into my room and– and you sort my laundry and you organize my notes and tell me to go shower like I’m some little kid or something. Well, you’re not my mom, dude, and I’m not your responsibility, so you can stop wasting your time here.”
Newton, apparently believing that his point had been made, finally moved to stand by his door, colorful arms crossed.
Hermann didn’t move.
“You are not– I am not wasting my time,” he replied shortly. “This is not pity, Dr. Geiszler. This may come as a shock to you, but I have far too much respect for you to do that.”
“Don’t give me that bullshit. You don’t give a fuck about me. I know you hate my guts, don’t even deny it.”
Hermann’s eyes tracked over Newton’s features. Eyebrows furrowed, cheeks flushed (from the hot shower or embarrassment, Hermann couldn’t quite tell), eyes ricocheting anywhere but Hermann, mouth pulled into a deep scowl, arms pulled over his chest not to intimidate but to protect. Suddenly, Hermann could see it written all over him: Newton wanted Hermann to like him. Newton liked Hermann. And he thought Hermann couldn’t care less about him.
“I don’t hate you.”
Newton scoffed. “Don’t fuck with me, man. You make it pretty clear.”
“I’m not. You’re very irritating, but I’ve never hated you, Newton.” Hermann gestured to the slightly less-disastrous room. “I’m here, aren’t I?”
Newton didn’t respond. They just stood there for a few moments, staring at each other. Hermann couldn’t remember a time he had seen Newton look so soft. The bottoms of his sweatpants pooled a little around his ankles, and he was only wearing socks instead of his customary combat boots, which usually gave him one or two inches. He stood, uncertain, searching Hermann’s face for god knows what.
When almost a full minute had passed without Newton speaking, Hermann took a mental note of all the washing up that Newton had to get done and started planning his tactful exit (and a tactful way to remind Newton to take care of himself if he wasn’t going to let Hermann do it for him).
“If you’d really rather I leave–”
“No, I–” Newton’s face flushed to the tips of his ears, and Hermann had never been so in love with him. (Now, that was a thought that would keep him up all night.) “You can stay. If you want to. It’s sort of a disaster zone in here, and I understand if you wanna get back to the lab, there’s a lot to do–”
Newton swallowed. (Hermann very distinctly didn’t notice.) “Yeah?”
With a heavy sigh, Newton grabbed his food and threw himself onto his bed, slipping under the covers before Hermann had a chance to protest. (Newton really did need to change those sheets.)
“You can sit at my desk, if your leg is bothering you,” he said, voice unnaturally quiet. “Sorry about what I said earlier. Totally outta line.”
Hermann nodded. “No harm done.”
Newton nodded back. He dug into his food as Hermann settled into the chair at his desk. It was just then that Hermann realized he hadn’t brought anything to keep himself busy, so he made up for it by continuing to organize Newton’s notes and textbooks.
“So my mother called me the other day.”
Hermann’s eyebrows rose, and he gestured for Newton to continue.
“I’ve told you about my mother.”
“Yes, you have. All wonderful things.”
Newton rolled his eyes. “Yeah, yeah. She called me recently, and you know how that goes. Parents, amirite?”
“I can’t say I do.”
“Well, it’s pretty shit.”
Hermann nodded. “Do you want to, er… talk about it?”
Newton shook his head. “I’m fine.”
Newton stuck his tongue out at Hermann, and Hermann only rolled his eyes in response. They were quiet. Hermann commandeered a clean sheet of paper and a pencil sharp enough for his standards and began to rework some of the equations he’d been stuck on in the lab. Newton devoured the food he’d been provided and played some insipid game on his phone. Hermann was just about to make a breakthrough (he could always feel them coming, although he couldn’t always tell where they were going to take him) when Newton interrupted his thought process.
“I have six PhDs, you know.”
Hermann’s head snapped up to look at Newton, who was glaring at him, arms crossed.
“Yes, I know.”
“It’s pretty damn impressive.”
“Yes, it is.”
“I’m basically a fucking rock star.”
“If you want to see it that way.”
Hermann sighed and tucked his notes into his jacket pocket.
“Newton,” he asked, “is there something you’d like to get off your chest?”
“God, I’m just sick of my mom acting like I’m some kind of disappointment. I’m a doctor. I’m a certified frickin’ genius. I’m the top xenobiologist in, like, the world, and I’m literally making groundbreaking discoveries every day, and it all means shit to her,” Newton ranted. “It’s all ‘You should get out more, Newton,’ and ‘Have you found a girlfriend yet, Newton?’ and ‘I can’t wait forever for grandchildren, Newton’ as if she didn’t dump me on my dad the first chance she got. Why would I even have kids at a time like this? Like, fuck, Hermann, we could literally die any day here. Jesus Christ.”
Hermann, as usual, responded poorly. He didn’t say a thing at all, just stared at Newton with wide, unhelpful eyes.
Newton’s eyes widened too, and he shrunk in on himself even more than before.
“Shit, sorry, sorry! You don’t care.” Newton wrapped his arms around his knees. “You so didn’t need to hear all that. Ignore it. Ignore me.”
“I often experience similar conversations with my family,” Hermann admitted. He spoke robotically, logically, like his father had always taught him to. “I’ve mentioned my father in–” my letters “–passing.”
Newton nodded and unfolded himself. “Yeah, he’s the worst. No offense.”
Hermann waved the comment away. “I programmed the first jaegers, I’m a leading scientist in my field, and I work for the most important military branch on the planet. I have proven myself, over and over, to be a man worth respecting. A man whose opinions carry weight in this world. And still my father believes that a mess of concrete and steel beams is better protection against the kaiju than the machines I created.”
“Well, that wall’s gonna get millions of people killed,” Newton snapped. “Your dad’s an idiot. And you’re, like, a genius, or whatever. He can suck shit.”
Hermann let himself smile at that, unable to stop his lips from curling, just a little.
Newton was quiet. His cheeks were pink.
Hermann lowered his own gaze. “You’re not your mother’s expectations, Newton. You’re going to be one of the people that saves billions of lives. Even if you weren’t, you’ve made a life for yourself doing what you love to do, no matter how disgusting others may find it.” Newton scoffed at that. “Just because your mother refuses to see the value in your work doesn’t mean that there is none.”
“Aw, Herms, you think my work has value?”
Hermann grimaced. “Please refrain from calling me that anywhere in public.”
Newton flashed a grin and winked. “No promises, Hermie-kins.”
“I take it back. I despise you.”
Newton didn’t stop grinning. “No take-backs! That’s against the rules.”
“Ah, yes, how could I forget?” Hermann stood, adjusted his grip on his cane. “I’ve work to do in the lab. I should return while the day’s still young.”
“Oh. Yeah. Yeah, of course,” Newton agreed. “You should totally get back. Work on some math stuff.”
“Yes. Well, er…” Hermann paused by the door, frowning at his own inability to articulate anything intelligent. “Do feel better, Newton. Try to take care of yourself.”
Hermann gave Newton one last nod before heading back to the lab.
He had a lot to think about, after all, and he did his best thinking in front of a blackboard with a piece of chalk in hand.
Hermann Gottlieb had a good many reasons to be angry at the world. There was his leg, which wasn’t so bad once he got used to it, and the looks and comments he would get, which were worse. There was his father, whose sole purpose in life seemed to be making every second of Hermann's existence as miserable as possible. There was Newton, who never treated Hermann with anything resembling respect or even common courtesy despite Hermann’s obvious feelings for him. There were the giant murderous kaijus that were breaking through that blasted “Wall of Life” like it was nothing.
There were plenty of things to be angry about.
But Hermann had never been so furious as when he’d walked into the lab and seen Newton sprawled out on the floor, slumped against his work station, seizing.
Or perhaps it was fear. He’d never been the best with the whole… emotional maturity nonsense.
Perhaps it was fear that drove him to forsake his cane, kneel down beside Newton, and rip that cursed hunk of metal off his head.
“Newton, what have you done, you idiot?” Hermann patted Newton's stubbled cheek. “Open your eyes, come on. Buck up.”
It was the fear of Newton dying, of Newton leaving without knowing how important he was, how essential he was, that made Hermann settle Newton in his desk chair, give him a glass of water and a paracetamol, and give the other man his best I-am-two-steps-from-throttling-you glare.
“Holy– holy shit. Holy shit! It worked. Hermann, it–”
“It worked?” Hermann snapped. "It almost bloody killed you, you–! What were you thinking? Trying that when nobody else was around? Do you have a death wish? Do you want to leave me alone here?”
Newton started up at Hermann with wide eyes, one rimmed with red. His nose was bleeding. Hermann handed Newton the handkerchief he kept in his breast pocket, and he wiped at it hastily, trying to leverage himself out of the chair. Hermann pushed him back down with a scowl.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
“It worked, Hermann. I gotta get Pentecost, tell him what I saw. I can’t believe it– You wouldn’t believe it even if you saw it, man. It’s– It’s so crazy fucked up, dude, I gotta–"
“Stop! You’re– You’re not well, Newton. Please, just… stay here.”
“I gotta talk to Pentecost, man, we don’t have time to–”
“Stay here,” Hermann ordered, already turning away. “Pull yourself together.”
And then it was anger again, definitely anger, as Pentecost sent Newton into town in search of a– a black market kaiju brain. Newton’s voice echoed around Hermann’s head as he stormed down the hall, following close after Pentecost.
I can’t. I can’t do it again. I can’t. I can’t.
Pentecost barely turned around. “I’m very busy, Dr. Gottlieb.”
“Marshal, Newton cannot drift again. He won’t survive another drift. He barely survived the first.”
“Dr. Geiszler is a smart man. I’m sure he’ll manage.”
Hermann frowned. Yes, of course, of course Newton was brilliant, but he was also brilliantly stupid and determined and rash, and if Pentecost wanted him to drift with another kaiju brain, he was going to do it, even if it killed him. Hermann couldn’t let that happen.
He caught up to Pentecost and continued his argument at his side, though the marshal didn’t turn to look at him.
“The neural load is far too great. It’s a miracle he didn’t drop dead the minute he attempted it.” Hermann shook his head, dispelling the thought. “Jaeger pilots can’t even handle the connection to a robot of our own making, sir. The toll a drift with an extraterrestrial being, one Newton has only just begun understanding! It will kill him, sir.”
“We’re all risking our lives to be here, Dr. Gottlieb.”
“We are scientists, not jaeger pilots!”
Pentecost did turn to look at him then, and the look on his face was enough to stop Hermann in his tracks. He was silent, gazing at Hermann with some mix between annoyance and anger.
Hermann swallowed hard, adjusted his grip on his cane. “He’ll die, sir.”
“It is not my duty to keep Dr. Geiszler alive, nor is it yours. I suggest you get back to work while you still have a job in this Shatterdome. Do not question my orders again.”
Marshal Pentecost walked off, and Newton himself rushed out of the lab, throwing on his leather jacket and gripping a small piece of red paper in one capable hand. He sent Hermann a watery smile and a terse nod, but the rest of his body seemed to radiate the excited energy of a child on Christmas morning.
“Nah, dude, I don’t have time for you to yell at me right now. I get it, okay? Drift was bad, kaiju bad. But I have the chance to get an undamaged brain right now!”
Newton made to bound right past him, but Hermann stopped him with a hand on his arm. The biologist looked at him with furrowed brows, his mouth dropped slightly open in surprise. Hermann felt himself scowl.
“Be careful, Newton. Please.”
Newton’s whole face softened, and he cocked his head, and Hermann had the feeling that he’d given entirely too much away.
“Oh. Yeah. Yeah, I, uh. I’ll see you later, Herms. Hermann.”
Hermann nodded once, released Newton’s arm, and stalked off in the direction of the K-Science lab without another word.
Two days after the breach had closed, Hermann finally felt something like himself again.
He had showered (a few times, if he was being honest), slept, and called his siblings, just to make sure they had seen the news (and that they were holding up better than he was, at least). His father had called him, but he’d let it go to voicemail.
There was paperwork to be done and materials to be packed up and a real, tangible future to consider, but Hermann found himself preoccupied with what had happened in his drift with Newton. (He refused to think of the kaiju as anything but monsters, much less as a drift partner. Only Newton could hold that title.) In the shower, scrubbing himself clean for the sixth time after a nightmare tinged in blue, Hermann caught himself slowly sifting through the memories Newton had shown him.
He’d dropped out of little league when he was eight. His father had tried to comfort him, but little Newton was inconsolable. He’d thought he’d failed. And he’d decided that he wasn’t ever going to do that again.
Then it was three years of report card after report card displaying nothing except F’s before Newton received his first diagnosis: ADHD.
Newton’s father and uncle were there when he graduated from MIT at seventeen years old with his first doctorate in biology. There was elation and pride and so much warmth, and Hermann felt it all too. He let himself bask in it for a moment, replaying the comforting feeling of Jacob’s Geiszler’s arms wrapping around Newton’s smaller frame.
Hermann had been beyond embarrassed when he shook himself out of it, blushing hard at the thought of Newton going through his own memories the way he’d been allowing himself to go through Newton’s. He had no way of knowing what he’d shown Newton in the drift, and that knowledge settled like a stone in his stomach.
He’d never been so desperate to avoid the other man’s company.
There was a balcony (a more accurate term would be ledge, but a nicer name never hurt) near the helicopter landing pad that barely got any foot traffic. It was secluded enough to be peaceful, and angled just right to provide a stunning view of the Pacific. The space was used for storage, so there was always a crate or box of something sturdy enough for Hermann to sit on while he enjoyed the quiet. As far as he knew, he was the only one who knew about it or, at the very least, thought to use it as a place of respite.
Of course, Newton was already there when Hermann arrived.
Newton sat with his back against a crate marked THIS SIDE UP (upside down), and his legs stretched out before him. His face was completely smooth, free of all worry or stress, and tilted towards the sun. His hazel eyes were closed behind his thick glasses. Wind whipped gently at his hair, and the corners of his mouth were curled in the softest smile Hermann had ever seen.
Hermann blushed as the thought raced across his mind, and, as if on cue, Newton turned his head to look him up and down.
“Hey, Herms! This your little hideaway?” Newton asked. He didn’t wait for Hermann’s answer. “I was going crazy inside thinking about all the shit that has to be done in the next, like, week, and all of a sudden my feet were carrying me here. I mean, I wander around the ‘dome a lot, but I’ve never been out here. I can see why you like it.”
“I’m surprised you’re not fidgeting with something or another,” Hermann replied. “I’ve been fiddling with the buttons on my jacket all day.”
Newton nodded. “Ha, yup. Definitely got that from me.”
“You’re saying my muscle memory found its way to you through the drift?”
“Yup.” Newton shifted, crossing his legs and looking up at Hermann. “We should probably talk about this stuff anyway. Wanna chill out here for a while?”
Hermann wanted nothing less than to have this conversation with Newton, but he couldn’t say no to the hopeful look on Newton’s face. He tapped Newton’s thigh with his cane, and Newton shifted just enough to allow Hermann enough room to sit.
Newton looked up at him. “So you got my last letter.”
“I convinced myself it was lost in the mail,” Newton replied, gazing out to the ocean, “so I didn’t have to think that you’d just decided not to write back. Which–”
“Which I had.”
“Yup. Can’t blame you, man, I was such an idiot. Jesus.” Newton let out a strained laugh. “I, uh. I wasn’t disappointed when I saw you. I know you thought I was, I know that now, but I was just– I saw you, and you were a real person, and we were really meeting, and it was all so…”
Hermann nodded, though Newton wasn’t looking at him. He’d felt it too.
“Real,” he said. “A bit… overwhelming.”
“Ha, yeah. That’s an understatement,” Newton agreed. “And I thought, you know, I thought ‘shit, I forgot that no one likes me, there’s no way this guy’s gonna be able to stand me for more than five minutes’ ‘cause, you know, you’re Hermann, and that’s just. That’s just how it goes most of the time.”
“And I– I just panicked, ya know? I gave you a– a reason to hate me instead of, just… waiting for you to hate me anyway.”
“I know, Newton. I read your letter.”
Newton’s head whipped around, and he stared up at Hermann in awe. “Wait, really? When?”
“After we first met again, when we were assigned here.”
“You kept it that long?”
“I almost… I thought about writing to you every day for, like, years, dude. Begging you to forgive me, to like me again. I, uh. I should’ve tried harder, I guess.”
“Why didn’t you?”
Newton shrugged. “I guess I just knew it hadn’t been lost in the mail. The last thing I wanted to do was dig my own grave, ya know? Figured it was best to let it go.”
Hermann couldn’t keep the bitterness out of his own voice. “Of course. For the best.”
“You’re the one who never wrote back to me, dude.”
“Yes, I was.”
“Couldn’t you figure it out from the drift?”
Newton shook his head. “Not at all, man. I’ve been thinking, for all these years, that you literally hate me. But sometimes you’re– nice to me, and I– I don’t know what to think! One day you bring me dinner when I’m a week into a depressive episode, the next you insult my life’s work. I wake up every day wondering what it’s going to be, and then I find out that you– you got my letter, and you decided to cut me out of your life, but apparently you kept the fucking letter for three years and– Will you just please tell me what I’m supposed to take away from this?”
Hermann looked out to the Pacific. He didn’t know if he’d ever be able to look at it the same way again, but it was still beautiful despite all the terrible things that had come from it.
“I am sorry I hurt you, Newton. Despite what it may have seemed, it was truly never my intention. Then, or now.”
For once, Newton was speechless. Hermann felt his eyes on his face, and it always made his skin crawl, the way Newton looked at him like he could solve any problem in the universe. He wondered how long Newton had been looking at him like that.
“I’m so sorry, Hermann. I was dumb and nervous and I panicked, and… and everything went to shit.”
Hermann just shook his head. “I forgave you long before I read your letter. And when I read it, I realized I was perhaps the most foolish man on Earth.”
“I saw what happened after we met the first time,” Newton blurted. “In the drift. I felt it.”
Hermann closed his eyes. “Did you?”
“Yeah. Did you–”
“Well. Drunk crying alone in a hotel room kinda sucks.” Newton let out a dejected laugh. “Would not recommend.”
“No, I can’t imagine you would.”
A few moments of quiet fell over them. Hermann stared out onto the ocean. It was easier than looking down at Newton. The ocean, at least, was an impartial judge.
“You loved me.”
The next five seconds lasted hours. Hermann didn’t move. His life was about to crash down around him. First he’d lost the PPDC, and now it was Newton.
“You loved me,” Newton repeated, surer this time. “I felt it. I know I did, Hermann. Hermann?”
“Whatever you think you felt from my memories doesn’t matter.”
“No, it does. It does. I loved you too.”
He couldn’t help himself; shocked, Hermann whipped around to lock eyes with Newton. Newton stared up at him with wide, searching eyes. His mouth hung open, like he couldn’t believe what he’d just said. Hermann could hardly believe it either.
“And what good does that do us now?” he pleaded. “That was years ago, Newton. Nothing is permanent. People change. Feelings fade. I understand.”
Hermann made to stand, but Newton put a hand on his knee (his good one).
“They don’t! They don’t fade.” Newton swallowed hard, gripped Hermann’s knee tighter. “Mine didn’t. They never did.”
“Because we’re leaving this place in a fucking week, dude. I’m going back to Boston probably, I dunno, and you’re probably headed back to Germany, and… and I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life, Herms.” Newton’s voice was thick, wet with what might’ve been tears. Hermann didn’t know what he’d do if Newton began to cry. “I’ve been in love with you for over a decade. You don’t think I’ve tried to get over it? It doesn’t work. But I’d rather pine for you across the room than across the fucking world, man.”
“I just… I just need you to know, all right?” Newton sniffed, quickly running the back of one hand across his eyes. “In case it– In case it changes something. Anything.”
Hermann cupped Newton’s cheek, wiped a tear away with his thumb. Newton’s eyes were wide, but they slid shut when Hermann leaned down to press their lips together. It was over in a second when Hermann pulled away, but Newton followed him, fisting his hands in Hermann’s sweater and pulling him down for another kiss.
They broke apart eventually, though Hermann couldn’t tell exactly how long it’d been.
Newton laughed, and Hermann felt himself smile in return.
“Man, I am so glad we saved the world, Herms. We have so much time now. We can literally do anything we want.”
Hermann nodded. “Where should we start?”
Newton’s eyes widened, and his grin faltered. “Oh my god, we can do anything, Hermann. Not even, like– We saved the world! We can do anything! How the fuck are we supposed to keep going? Everything’s gonna be so weird. Like, we did it. There’s nothing left to do, if we can do it all. What’s the fucking point, man? We peaked.”
Hermann leaned down to press a kiss to Newton’s forehead, running his fingers through the side of Newton’s hair. Newton closed his eyes and leaned into the touch.
“Let’s just enjoy the view for now, shall we?”
Newton shifted so he was sitting back against Hermann’s good leg and let out a contented sigh.
“That sounds good. Keep doing that?”
“Of course, darling.”
There were a few moments of blessed silence, in which Hermann had the realization that this was the happiest he’d ever been in his life, before Newton interrupted his thoughts.
“Hey, Herms, did you really stand up to Pentecost for me?”
“You saw that in the drift?”
“Nah, Mako told me. Badass, man. He’s like– He was– He’s a legend. I can’t believe he’s gone, you know?” Newton swiped at his eyes again. “And– And– And Chuck, too! I– I mean, he called me a kaiju-fucker, like, four days ago, and now he’s just… dead. He was younger than either of us, dude. How the fuck is that fair?”
Hermann swallowed. “Life is not often fair. War still even less.”
“Jesus. We should probably, like, go to therapy or something.”
“Cool. You know what I did see in the drift, though? Oh, hey, also, I think your brain is wearing off because I’m definitely all over the place right now.”
“Yes, I can tell,” Hermann replied. “What was it you saw?”
“What? Oh! You totally tripped that pilot for me, Herms! Gotta tell ya: it’s way hot when you defend my honor. Like, you’re totally my knight in shining armor, dude.”
“Think that says more about you than it says about me, babe. I’m not the one in love with me.”
“You’d never know, by your behavior.”
“Oh, sick burn, Herms. That was a good one.”
Hermann sighed. “I do. Love you, that is. Quite a bit, actually.”
Newton turned and grinned. “Aw. I knew you were a big softie.”
“Yeah, yeah. You wanna get dinner with me tonight?”
Hermann opened his mouth to tease, but when he registered the genuine nervousness on Newton’s face, he couldn’t bring himself to do it.
“Eighteen hundred hours?”
“God, you’re so fucking weird,” Newton said, beaming. “Yeah, six is fine. Six is great. I love you so much, dude.”
Hermann rolled his eyes. “I love you too. Now, quiet down, if you’re at all capable.”
Newton stuck his tongue out but turned towards the ocean again, the tension melting from his shoulders. Hermann resumed running his fingers through Newton’s thick hair, short nails lightly scratching. He took in a deep breath and let himself relax, relishing in the absent weight of responsibilities that could wait until tomorrow.
“Hey, Herms, who do you think’ll play you in the biopic they make about this shit?”
“For God’s sake, Newton–”
“It’s a valid question!”