They rarely allow him to play music. Or more accurately, they rarely shut up long enough to let him play music. The Precursors aren’t stupid—they know it’s not a necessary activity needed to keep their meat suit alive, and they do their damndest to make sure he derives no joy from living. But it’s not like they can actually control his body (can they?) So after particularly long days of secret nefarious deeds, he can sometimes manage convincing them to just talk amongst themselves for a while.
If his family or, god forbid, Hermann knew about any of this he’s sure they’d get some laughs out of the fact that he’s never once been able to shut up in his entire life, and now here he is begging the aliens in his head to keep it down. The true definition of irony has always confused him (thanks Alanis Morissette,) but he’s pretty sure this is it. Irony in the purest, sickest form.
It’ll keep our minds sharp, he lies. Illia used to tell him this when he was just a kid trying to grasp the concept of the circle of fifths. Music is a science just as it is an art, he’d say.
Nowadays his mind is long past needing to be kept sharp. It’s all mush and all-knowing at the same time with no in-between. He doesn’t need music, he needs a fucking exorcism.
But whatever. It’s an outlet. He’ll take what he can get and he’s long past the point of being picky.
He sits at the piano more often than he holds a guitar. It might be the Precursors’ choice, but more likely it’s his own maudlin thoughts that make him gravitate toward the ivory expanse of depression at his disposal. If they’re going to let him indulge in self pity he might as well be dramatic about it and lay down all the D minors he can in whatever time he has left. In whatever time the world has left.
Minutes of bits and pieces from different arrangements always lead to the same tune. Not his favorite song—not even his favorite genre. Still, one of the most familiar pieces in his arsenal. Couldn’t forget it if he tried and, fuck, he’s tried.
The Precursors probably think it’s about them. While lyrically speaking they’re not wrong, it’s not the meaning that entices him. It’s the familiar comforting misery.
Long ago, it was the music box sent from an ocean away—the only connection little Newt had to his perfect stranger of a mother. Then it was Illia’s lessons. Now, well. There’s the one person who had to go and make it the most beautiful song in existence.
The words are always whispered at first. In his own humble opinion, he’s a pretty awesome singer. He has perfect pitch, after all. It’s just that the louder the words come out, the more likely he is to start crying, thus resulting in the Precursors ending the session. Happens every time.
Inevitably, the anger and hopelessness kick in. His brain has been a buzzing bee hive his whole life, only now it’s a hive mind and he’s not exactly him is he? He’s a passenger in his own mind.
In the dark it’s easy to pretend that everything isn’t horrible, that he doesn’t hate everything, everyone, himself, the damn Precursors.
Fingers slam hard and fast into the ridiculously expensive keys.
He misses his old keyboard. He hopes Hermann saved it. He likes to imagine that it sits safely in a cramped, lavender scented military issued room in Moyulan. And he wonders if, maybe, his poor Shakespearean tragedy is playing the same song.
It’s an impossible thought. That keyboard is long gone just like everything else that ever mattered.
Tears drip on the keys and snot runs over his lip. They don’t stop him. Maybe they’re amused—he feels like more of a mess than usual.
He plays on. He can’t stop. Not while he’s still allowed this one tiny freedom. He can’t stop just because he’s upset himself because what if he never gets this again? What if they never give him another moment’s peace?
He hiccups the rest of the words out. A never ending cycle.
That’s the power of the music of the fucking night.
Hermann has the longest, most beautiful fingers he’s ever seen and it makes him furious. It’s a shame is what it is. Anyone with fingers like that should have mandatory piano lessons beginning at birth, but here he is, essentially admitting he’s never so much as tickled a key. Unbelievable. Disrespectful.
“I do think you’re overreacting.”
“I do think you’re public enemy number one for all of us stubby-fingered musicians,” he mocks. “Dude, seriously, what the hell? I’ve had a perfectly good keyboard right here this whole time and you were just planning on letting that slide for the rest of who knows how long?”
Hermann’s eyes roll into the back of his head as he tries to tug his hand out of Newt’s grip. No way. He brought this all upon himself and Newt has a fantastic idea, really the most brilliant thought to ever cross his mind.
“Let me teach you!” He pulls Hermann’s hand against his chest in excitement, practically vibrating out of his skin. Something fun! At the end of the world!
“I don’t need you to teach me anything, thank you.”
Yeah, he knew that was coming. He does his best puppy impression but judging by the stone cold expression locked into place in front of him, it doesn’t do much. Here’s the thing though:
Serious as his face may be, those stupid brown eyes hold the most playful glint.
This is their game, isn’t it?
His chest feels all soft and mushy all of a sudden because what an opportunity this could be. Right now, nothing in the universe is more important than the thought of sitting on a bench beside this nerd, doing one of Newt’s favorite things together. Something fun. At the end of the world. With his best friend who he’s kind of ridiculously in love with (though he’ll let the end of the world happen before he admits that part.)
“Please let me teach you?” he brings it down a notch, earlier shrill of his voice mostly gone. It must do something because Hermann’s no longer able to meet his eye.
“Newton, we hardly have the time for—”
“We do though! We do. Come on, I know we’re geniuses trying to save the world and everything, but we’re not machines, dude. Nobody expects us to be at it constantly. I’m not talking like, extensive and rigorous lessons here. Just whenever we both got a minute? It’s all formulas and shit—you’ll love it. And it’ll help keep our minds sharp. Let me teach you, Hermann.”
“I’m sure the work we do daily does nothing to keep our minds sharp,” he says dryly. “Are you quite done now?”
With the way that faint blush looks on his cheeks, Newt’s got a good feeling about this. And an unfair urge to kiss his knuckles.
Old people and dying people say blink and life is gone just like that. They have no idea. No idea. He’s missing ten years. He woke up and he’s him again but he is still not him. He blinked and he’s middle aged. He blinked and there are grays in his hair and he blinked and his tattoos are faded. He blinked and his fortieth birthday has come and gone and he blinks and blinks and it’s not enough to keep the tears from falling.
And the guy holding him—he’s not the same one from ten years ago either. Forty-five looks good on Hermann. Like, insanely good. That sad, wannabe Peaky Blinders cut has grown into wavy fluff and fine lines are etched into his forehead and around his mouth. Not a gray in sight.
Most importantly, there’s the same inquisitive brown eyes that made him weak in the knees the second he first looked into them. Hermann is just as imperfectly gorgeous as he’s always been. There’s just—
One ugly, horrible thing.
Shirt collars buttoned to the top can only hide so much.
His stomach flips and he starts hyperventilating himself into a mess. He did that. He remembers doing that. I hurt you, he means to say. What he chokes out is:
Why did I let Them do that to you? Why couldn’t I be strong enough to keep Them out of my head? Why are you still here, oh god, why are you touching me, aren’t you scared? Why did I have to ruin everything? Why haven’t I been publicly executed?
He doesn’t say any of that but he thinks Hermann hears it anyway. His voice is unbearably soft when he says that it wasn’t him and that it’s fine and I grew up with three siblings, this is hardly a scratch, darling.
Hermann is someone who calls people darling now. Or maybe he always was. Maybe it just took alien possession to wring the sentiment from his lips. It only makes him cry harder.
How different would things be now if he hadn’t gone and gotten himself knocked up by Precursors? Where would they be now? Married? Still orbiting around one another, each one refusing to crash into the other? He’ll never know. Ten years riding passenger. Ten goddamn years wasted, and Hermann was, what? Just waiting for him to come around? How long would he have waited?
He deserved better. He deserves better.
It’s been a month and he still can’t decide if it’s really real or some kind of mass hallucination. The memorials feel real. The booze stashes getting cracked open every other day feel real (or, rather, the mornings after feel real.) It’s when he’s alone that it all feels like a hazy dream. He’s never been very good at being alone.
Luckily though, he’s rarely by himself; Even when he is, he’s not really. The ghost drift is still strong between him and Hermann, which is both a little awesome and a little spooky. In the middle of the night, alone in his bed, he can feel a presence beside him. Sometimes he even hears the faint whisper of voices and wonders if Hermann is having a 4 AM call with his sister. Which is weird, but whatever. Time zones.
It’s hard being physically apart. Hard in the sense that he doesn’t want to be more than ten feet away from his drift partner at any given moment and hard in the sense that, well, it’s literally hard to stay away from one another. They keep accidentally running into each other when they’re supposed to be off doing different tasks on opposite ends of the Shatterdome. There’s so much to do around the place, they’ve got all hands on deck. Nighttime is for living the rockstar life and daytime is for paperwork, boxing shit up, and shuttling said boxes outside to be shipped off. They frequently meet in the middle of wherever they’ve been stationed for the day, both temporarily forgetting what they were supposed to be doing. Almost like a trance.
Yesterday he’d been in LOCCENT one minute and in the next, smiling like a doofus on the catwalk of an empty Jaeger repair bay. Empty except for the man on the ground floor below, looking around in confusion as if the same thing hadn’t happened five times before.
“Come here often?” His voice had echoed throughout the vast emptiness of the bay.
It’d been a nice moment. A deep contrast with the one he’s having right now.
He’s in bed and the creepy-ass whispers have just started up. It’s looking to be another night of fitful sleep. Seriously, where is Hermann finding the time to rest when he spends all night yakking? He pulls a pillow over his face. The voice gets louder but still indecipherable. He screams into the pillow for good measure before chucking it across the room and propelling himself to his feet, fully prepared to end this insanity.
It’s not super late so there’s still a few people out and about. If they give him weird looks for his kaiju themed boxers and hole ridden T-shirt, he doesn’t notice. He’s a man on a mission.
When he pounds on the door he expects an annoyed Hermann to open up, maybe rolling his eyes and maybe holding his phone. But he doesn’t appear. It takes only a second of pressing his palm flat against the door to realize Hermann isn’t in his room. Which really only leaves one option.
The lab door is open and the echo of keys dance throughout the hallway. The song is a familiar one and he doesn’t know whether to grin or scoff. When he leans against the entryway and watches as Hermann’s fingers fly gracefully over his beloved keyboard, he does both.
Years ago, when he annoyed Hermann into informal piano lessons, he’d ordered bulks of sheet music. Together they’ve gone from nearly every selection the world has to offer, from Grieg to Bowie. He’s frequently wondered what Hermann chooses to play on his own time, but this song was so not a contender. Though, now he can totally see it. Of course Hermann is a closeted Phantom fan. And, really, who isn’t?
The song finishes with with an added flourish and Newt is in love. He barely even remembers that he was both angry and tired.
“Did not peg you as a musical theatre type.”
Hermann turns, smiling softly. He’s doing so much more of that now that the world’s not ending. He thinks the guy has smiled more in the past month than he has in ten years. Hermann is happy and it is infectious.
Naturally, it only takes a second to realize why Hermann has chosen this song, why it means anything at all to him. The memory floods back to him as if it is his very own.
Their mother is worried about bringing baby Bastien to the theater, but he turns out to be perfect. He only wakes once throughout the entire show. Hermann is only ten and he thinks it’s all a bit silly and fake-posh, but the music is very pretty. He knows his father is not enjoying it, which only makes him like it all the more. They simply watch and listen and they are here as a family. The six of them, dressed up, fake-posh, and not fighting, and all alive. It is magical.
Newt drops on to the bench beside him and tries to quell the urge to lean over and kiss his cheek. He taps a few random keys, making a horrible racket.
“I believe your mother was in the production we saw.”
He gives one long nod. Yep. He saw that. “Small world after all, huh.”
“Do you hate it?”
Hermann asks so gently and his eyes are so big and brown, he has to look away.
“No. No, I like it,” he plays the first line with his right hand. “Especially after hearing you play it.”
Hermann doesn’t respond to his sleep deprived flirtation, but out of the corner of his eye he can see him bite his lip to tamper down a grin. Perfection. He plays the next line and Hermann decides to make it a competition by playing faster. Soon they’re in sync, increasing the speed with each line, laughing and content, and Newt is so in love it fucking hurts and—
And he messes up first, which causes his competitor to look way too smug and, shit, he’s about to wipe that look right off his face because he can’t control himself anymore.
Hermann beats him again. He has a hand around the back of his neck before Newt even has time to lift a finger.
Hermann kisses him first.
He’s imagined this scenario a million times over the past decade and none of them ever began like this. Hermann will never, ever stop surprising him. In fact, he’s so surprised, his hands instinctively fly forward to grip Hermann’s shirt as if that will anchor him to the Earth just in case he starts floating away. I hope you realize you can’t leave me now. Not after this. Not ever.
It’s an unbelievably soft thing, especially considering it’s them—the Shatterdome poster children for anger management—and it’s tragically gone in an instant.
“Ah, I’m—” Hermann starts. Oh no you don’t. He chases his lips immediately
“God, dude, if that’s an apology about to come out of your mouth, don’t. Just shut up and do it again,” he punctuates the demand with a hard kiss of his own.
There is a hand on his cheek and a hand in his hair and time passes and time slows and time flies. Someone’s hand presses against the keyboard, sending out a sudden echo of sour notes. They grin against each other’s mouths. This is definitely not what he expected to be doing an hour ago. An hour ago he—
And he remembers why he came here in the first place. And he is promptly unsettled because…
“Hey, were you on the phone or something a while ago?”
“Newton,” Hermann would be rolling his eyes probably if he wasn’t so fucking love drunk right now, holy shit. Newt feels victorious. “No. Why?”
“Oh. You weren’t talking to anyone at all?”
“No, I was alone for hours before you interrupted. Why do you ask?”
Well, that’s some kind of revelation. One he doesn’t even want to think about right now, not after what’s just happened. He’ll figure it out later. Right now is for resting his head against Hermann’s bony shoulder and closing his eyes and feeling peace.
“No reason, I just thought I heard someone else when I came in. Guess it was just in my head.”
Hermann is silent. Newt knows he’s staring a concerned hole into his skull.
“Play it again?” he yawns.
Hermann does. Again and again, slower and slower until Newt drifts off.
And the whispers start.
Later. He’ll get to it later.
Hermann kept the keyboard because of course he did. Newt suspects it made a straight move from the Hong Kong lab to the Moyulan lab right along with the scientist who suddenly found himself in custody of it. His guitar is here too, and perfectly tuned. He hopes Hermann hasn't picked up the guitar skill over the years—he’s not sure his heart could take it.
It’s not like he’s going to ask him about it, though. He’s not going to ask him much of anything because he’s trying his damndest to make himself scarce.
Since being released to roam free range around the Shatterdome, he’s only come out of his issued room at night when everyone would logically be asleep. He’s a regular in the kitchen at three in the morning. And Hermann’s lab.
There in the beginning, Hermann had been by his side constantly and Newt fucking hated it. Since then, he thinks Hermann’s kind of given up on getting a conversation out of him or even seeing him. The guilt is unbearable. Newt can barely even look at him. Not without seeing what he’d done, not only to Hermann, but to the world. To those kids.
It’s another night. He sits in Hermann’s cozy lab in front of his now fifteen year old keyboard that he’d thought long gone. He doesn’t play it. He does cry a little bit, though, because that’s a thing that happens a lot more randomly than it used to.
“You’ve been avoiding me,” comes a voice from behind. He jumps even though he knows who it belongs to in an instant. Shit. Probably no amount of forceful rubbing at his face can hide the fact that he’s been bawling like a baby for half an hour straight, but he’s nothing if not ambitious.
“It’s the middle of the night, man, why are you in here?” Amazing. His vocal chords sound like they’ve been run over by a lawn mower even more so than usual.
“I could ask you the same.”
With a steaming cup of tea in his hands, Hermann makes his way over to sit on the bench beside him. He’s clad in cotton pants and a now faded Weezer 2023 tour shirt that Newt distinctly remembers owning. It seems Hermann has kept every piece of him.
His eyes get hot and wet again. He tries not to bolt.
How does he even begin to explain how sorry he is? There’s no conceivable way to compact a decade of shame into words.
“If you’re ruminating on how to apologize, then you might as well stop. It’s not necessary,” he takes a sip of tea, and now that he’s so close Newt can smell that it’s actually not tea, but coffee. Hermann holds it out for him to take, so he does and, dammit, they’re supposed to be maintaining distance not drinking after each other.
Who are you, he wonders and is pushed into further self loathing from not being here to witness this weird transformation that Dr. Hermann Gottlieb has apparently undergone. Maybe if he were here he could’ve prevented this personality infestation. How is Hermann still so in tune with him?
“You’re so different now,” he doesn’t really mean to say it out loud, but then maybe he does.
“People tend to change with time, yes.”
“It’s like I don’t even know you. You’re more me than I am.”
“I most certainly am not.”
“Uh? Dude?” He makes a show of looking around the lab filled with instruments and Kaiju figures.
Herman scoffs. “Because I kept the things you left behind? Or because I sometimes prefer coffee to tea now? Please, Newton, that has nothing to do with drift induced personality bleed.”
Right. Maybe this can be chalked up to missing a person for ten years. Dammit. No matter how many times he thinks it, it’s never going to get any easier to grasp is it? Ten years, ten years, ten years.
Hermann has been missing him for a decade, just the same as he has. Maybe it’s been even worse for Hermann, because yeah, sure, Newt missed the guy like crazy, but he was a little bit preoccupied with other thoughts at times. Like, say, actively trying to refrain from murder on a daily basis. But Hermann wasn’t possessed. Hermann has been himself this whole time so, shit, what must he have thought when Newt just up and left one day? After they’d kissed, oh shit, oh shit, ten years, ten years, ten—
“I’m sorry,” it tumbles past his lips before he can second guess it, and his hands begin shaking uncontrollably. Hermann sighs, taking the mug away with one hand and with the other, pulling Newt into his side. It makes him want to sob. Again. “So fucking sorry.”
“What did I just say about apologies? You never listen. I suppose not much has changed after all, hm?”
“I don’t—I don’t know. I can’t. I don’t think I can stay away from you,” he cringes at how Brokeback Mountainesque that sounded and tries to go on with more clarity and less sad-cowboy-on-verge-of-panic attack. “You’re the only one who—you’re you. And I’m me again. And we’ve missed each other too much. And I don’t know what I’m trying to fucking say.”
So much for clarity. He buries his burning face against his own T-shirt, which he supposes isn’t really his anymore.
“Why would you stay away from me? Newton, they are gone. If you think staying away is going to protect me, I’m afraid the truth is quite the opposite.”
“I hurt you. I’ve been hurting you for so long, in so many ways, and I didn’t even know.”
“Yes, and I hurt you just the same, didn’t I? By not realizing? We’ve both got ghosts, darling, but if we try apologizing for all of them, we’ll be ghosts ourselves before we finish.”
And Hermann claims to hate poetry. Right. Well, actually, he’s not sure how Hermann feels about it these days, since the world is turned upside down and all. He’ll needle it out of him later.
Right now, he kind of wants to see if they’re still on the same page about fake-posh musicals.