Hermann spends the rest of the day reorganizing his notes; out of curiosity, he'd rechecked Pentecost's brain scans against the other pilots'. At first, at least in the early ones, there's nothing significantly different—just run-of-the-mill neural-stress related increase of brain activity in certain areas, but after the death of his original partner, the scans get...odd.

There's still the activity from before, but it's almost as if it's...a ghost, or an imprint, on top of the new activity. On the off chance that it means something, he compares it to the other pilots who've lost Drift partners—and it's there. It's all there.

They all have similar ghost-activity, for lack of a better term—not ghost Drifting, because their partner is dead, but almost. Almost.

Comparing it to those with living partners who retired and went their separate ways shows another set of irregularities; check-ins for pilots are a mandatory, bi-yearly business, and thus, he has a decent amount of data.

All of them report various incidents of ghost Drifting that originally abated with the physical distance, but then got more intense, like some sort of withdrawal; a craving to initiate the Drift with their partner.

Hermann swallows, mouth suddenly dry. If that's something that happens with every person who's Drifted...then why hasn't he experienced it? And for that matter...how did it affect Newt? He Drifted with the kaiju brain by himself...is it possible that he did so again.

Oh, no, Hermann thinks with a dawning sense of horror. He did. He Drifted with it again.

Hermann has no idea how recently, either—for all he knows, Newt could be just a shell controlled by the Precursors, his own mind gone, or he could be absolutely fine, and there's no way for Hermann to figure out which it is.

And he has to find out; the fate of the world could depend on it.

Suddenly, the dinner seems significantly more ominous.

He gnaws on his lip. But how to proceed? If he acts off in any way, the Precursors—if it is that bad. He hopes it's not—will know, and the game will be up; any advantage he may have had would be lost. So: he's going to have to act natural.

He's going to have to act as if he has no inkling of any possible ulterior motives; like it's just a dinner between friends Drift partners colleagues. Though what his motives are, Hermann has no clue, but given what he suspects has happened, he doubts they're going to be pleasant.

This Alice, though, is...well, it's odd. It's not that Newt didn't have relationships before him, it's just, well, not to sound harsh, but...they never lasted longer than a few months. Even the two of them barely made it past the one year mark, as much as it hurts. And, apparently, Newt and this Alice have been in a relationship for at least the last three years, if not longer; Hermann's not sure, but the way Newt talks of her indicates they've been together for a significant amount of time.

So: a nice, clean suit, two bottles of champagne and his acting skills are the only things he'll have with him in the face of what could possibly be the shell of the man he loved is in love with still controlled by alien overlords from another dimension.

Not bad, he thinks, I've had worse.

He sleeps in, a rare occurrence, but it's Saturday, so he doesn't feel too terrible about it. He draws himself a bath, too, because, as the voice in his head that sounds suspiciously like Newt says, Fuck it, if I'm gonna die in eight hours, I might as well take the time to enjoy a bath.

And, well, the heat of the water is divine, honestly, relaxing the tightly-clenched muscles of his leg and easing the pain. The lavender epsom salt, which he's pulled out from it's spot hidden behind a really ridiculous amount of cleaning supplies under the sink, smells heavenly, and for a moment, he thinks of lazy weekends with Newt—

No. He mustn't. The water suddenly feels cold, and he shivers, clambering to his feet and pulling the drain and shampoos his wet hair, the strands sticking to his forehead, and scrubs his skin with the washcloth with a sort of detached efficiency, focused on the evening.

The hot spray of the shower head does warm his skin slightly, and he gets out feeling more relaxed than he has in a while, despite the looming possibility that the man he's going to have dinner with might actually be controlled by an alien hive mind.

Until then, however, he hasn't got much to do—he's caught up with all his paperwork, and he suspects that looking at any more data on the Drift will make him sick with worry.

So, in a bid to try and relax, he pulls on a pair of sweatpants, and old, soft sweater, and curls under a blanket on the loveseat and plays one of the audiobooks he's been meaning to listen to for a while, and pulls out his rarely-used sketchbook and begins to draw.

At first, they're just scribbles; quick strokes forming unintelligible shapes, but as he lets his mind wander, they begin to form shapes. The pencil scratches a wild shock of hair, clunky glasses askew, a silently laughing mouth, and a sadness in his eyes.

It's his last happy memory of Newt, he realizes; they'd been sitting on the couch, Newt's head in his lap as he carded his fingers through the biologist's hair, mussing it, and Newt had smiled at him, eyes crinkling at the corners, and said, "I'm lucky I get to be with you."

There'd been something almost...longing about his tone, like he'd already lost Hermann, but Hermann has brushed it off.

He drops his pencil with a clatter.

What if—what if Newt started Drifting with the brain before he left for Shao Industries? But then—then he'd have been Drifting with it for years now. Hermann claps a hand over his mouth, horrified.

All of those little things—and, of course, the biggest of them all: accepting Shao's offer—that weren't quite Newt, almost like it was a whole different person, that Hermann had brushed off or ignored—what if that was all the Precursors?

And if it was, is it even possible that there's any of Newt left?

There has to be. He refuses to accept the alternative.

By the time six rolls around, he's shoved the thought to the back of his mind, wholly focused on his search for the champagne. He's already found one bottle, but the other's eluding him.

Finally, he finds it, uttering a triumphant "Hah!"

Newt's apartment is a bit further away than he's willing to walk, so he calls a cab. The ride is long enough that his dread returns. What if Newt isn't in there at all—what if it's just a shell piloted by the Precursors?

The thought is terrifying, and even worse is that it's quite possible, given that Newt most likely began Drifting with the brain over six years ago. He tugs at his sleeves and checks his hair in his reflection again, trying to calm his nerves; if they realize he knows, then all is lost.

The cab drops him off in front of a large apartment building. Hermann checks the address again, and swallows. He tries to tamp down his anxiety as he walks into the elevator and presses the penthouse button.

The doorbell's ring echoes loudly in the empty landing. There's a moment of silence before the door opens, and Newt exclaims, "Come in, come in! Here, lemme take those for you—" and grabs the bottles from Hermann's tenuous hold.

Hermann follows him inside, leaving his shoes by the door, the tap of his cane muffled by the plush, deep blue carpet on the hallway floor. Newt leads him into the dining room, gesturing for him to sit. "I'm just gonna pop these in the cooler," he explains.

The table is set for two, and there's a screen covering part of the room behind him. Hermann frowns. "Won't Alice be joining us?" he questions, and Hermann shoots him a confused look before his expression smoothies out.

"No, she's busy with... work," he replies delicately. "She's getting back later than expected, so she said not to wait up."

Hermann shrugs. "Well, then," he says, for lack of anything better, and situates himself in the tall-backed chair. Newt returns from the kitchen with a plate in each hand, setting one before Hermann and the other at his own place.

"Steak," he explains. "Would you like a glass of scotch?"

"Er, yes please," Hermann acquiesces. Newt pours him two fingers. "Aren't you going to have any?" Hermann asks, when Newt returns to his seat without pouring himself any.

Newt smiles sheepishly. "No, uh, health problems," he replies. Hermann nods. "So, how've things been?" Newt asks, cutting a small bite off of his steak. Hermann chews his own and washes it down with a sip of the scotch.

"Not much different than how it was before," he replies honestly. "One would think that there would be a noticeable difference, but, other than the marked lack of impending kaiju attacks, it's fairly similar to how it was—I run the numbers, report my findings."

"And have your findings brushed away?" Newt guesses, and Hermann gives him a surprised look. Newt laughs. "Dude, they didn't value you then, and they don't value you now, either," he says, waving the knife in the air.

Hermann sniffs, taking another bite. "It's...it is what it is," he shrugs. "And it's not exactly as if I have people clambering to offer me jobs." He suddenly frowns. He's feeling slightly tipsy already, and the glass is empty—he knows he's a lightweight, but it seems his tolerance has become even lower.

"Another glass?" Newt suggests, and Hermann nods slowly. "You know," he says, as he watches Hermann eat, "you could always get a job with Shao. She'd be more than happy to have you."

The way he says it makes Hermann shift uncomfortably, and he murmurs, "I'd really rather...not. Oh, dear, it seems my tolerance really is shot," he apologises when he almost misses the plate when he goes to cut another piece.

The plate swims before his eyes, and he blinks, trying to clear his vision. There's a hand on his shoulder—Newt's, he realizes belatedly. "It's alright, baby," Newt says softly, breath hot on his skin, and Hermann jerks back like he's been burned.

"Newt, what are you—?" Newt cuts him off with a kiss, and Hermann stills before shoving him away. "What are you—no, I can't—Alice—" he stammers, head spinning, and Newt grins.

"She won't mind, I promise," he says, like he's imparting a great secret upon Hermann. Hermann opens his mouth to protest, but Newt's fingers are cupping his jaw, eyes dark with intent, and he's too far gone to protest.

"Just a moment," Newt murmurs, pressing an open-mouthed kiss to Hermann's neck, and Hermann lets out a soft noise of protest at the loss of contact when he pulls away.

There's something about his expression—Hermann's mind is too addled to figure out what it is, the room spinning before his eyes. He catches sight of the abstract painting on the wall—

Wait. Abstract painting? Newt would never—

It all rushes back on him, and he surges up, scrambling to his feet, wobbling slightly. He's been drugged, he realises. The scotch—that's why Newt refused it.

But it's not Newt, is it?

"No, we're not." The grip on his arm is tight, and Hermann hisses in pain. "Now, now," Newt—the Precursors, this isn't Newt—admonish. "Don't struggle, babe, you're finally going to meet Alice!"

His struggles are useless against them—Newt's body is significantly stronger than him in his drugged state, and they easily man-handle him back into his chair, snapping a pair of cuffs around his wrist, the other end around the arm of the chair, and pull back the screen.

It's a large tank, filled with a greenish liquid, and, just as Hermann feared, in it floats a kaiju brain. They grin. "Hermann, honey, meet Alice. You're gonna be the best of friends."

"Oh," Hermann murmurs, as it all clicks into place. They advance on him, pons headset in hand, and Hermann panics.

When they bend over to adjust it, Hermann sends up a silent prayer and, with all his might, headbutts them. They reel back, cursing, and with the last of his strength, Hermann forces himself to his feet, dragging the chair behind him, and leaps at the tank, shoving it as hard as he can.

"No—!" they shout as it slams against the wall, cracking, and tips over, the glass shattering on impact. "You— you will suffer! " they roar, voice multiplying, and there are fingers around his neck, choking him.

"N—Newt," he rasps, clawing at the chokehold.

"Shut up! " they snarl, but the voice is getting weaker, "you cannot save him—we will kill him kill you kill all of you— "

Hermann's vision is fading, the blackness creeping in on the edges of his vision. Vaguely, he tastes copper on his lips, a matching flow of blood from Newt's nose, but it's all hazy, like he's experiencing it through water.

His fingers go limp, dropping away, and he falls back into the black.

He wakes up. That's the most surprising part of the situation. He's laying on the ground, blood dried beneath his nose and on his lips, head throbbing. When he tries to move his neck to see the rest of the room, he lets out a hoarse gasp of pain.

"Hermann?"

Newt appears in his field of vision, looking terrified and trembling. "Hermann, are—are you alright?" he sobs, dropping to his knees by Hermann's side. Hermann tries to reply, but all that comes out is a croaking sound, and Newt reaches out to touch him before jerking his hand back like he's been burnt.

"Oh god," he says, voice high and panicked. "Oh god, Hermann I—I tried to kill you! Oh shit, oh fuck, Hermann, I—"

He curls in on himself, trembling, and Hermann reaches out his hand, weakly grasping his arm. "N...Newton," he croaks. "...not...your fault." The short sentence makes his throat burn, but he forces the words out anyway.

It's like a dam breaking; Newt pulls him up and into a crushing hug, tears flowing thickly across his cheeks and wetting Hermann's shoulder. "You're alive," Newt whispers. "Hermann, you—you did it, you killed A—A—" he chokes on the name, buries his face in Hermann's shoulder and sobs.

After a time, his breathing evens out, punctuated only by the odd sniffle. Carefully, Hermann runs a hand through the other's hair, some of his strength having returned. Newt sighs, relaxing against him, and says, softly, "Thank you, Hermann I—I don't know what to say. I spent—I spent all those years trying to stay as far away from you as possible so they couldn't hurt you, and—and even though I tried to kill you, you—you still saved me."

He lets out a shuddering laugh. "God, I was—I was terrified that you'd died, that I had killed you. But you—you're alive."

Hermann nods carefully, unable to say anything, and places a hand on Newt's cheek. Newt stares at him, confused, and Hermann pulls him in for a soft kiss. Love, he taps against Newt's arm in morse code, in an attempt to make up for his inability to speak. Love love love love love.

When he pulls back, Newt's eyes are shiny with tears, and he says, "You—you still love me? After—after all of this?"

Hermann nods, biting his tongue at the pain of the motion. Of course.

Newt starts crying again. "I missed you so much," he mumbles through the tears, and presses his forehead to Hermann's chest. "I—six years, I was so afraid that they'd hurt you. I'm so sorry, Hermann, so, so sorry."

Hermann rubs his back soothingly, lets Newt's tears soak the front of his suit. The chair lays broken off to the side, the handcuffs still dangling from his wrist. The green fluid's spilt across the floor, shards of broken glass of the ground, and the brain sits in the puddle, half squashed beneath the broken tank. The room is a mess—Hermann has no idea how they're going to proceed from here. But for now, he's content to hold the man he loves in his arms, tapping a steady rhythm into his skin.

Love love love love love...