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It's Only Noise

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It's summer, and Kenora always gets like this: the sun high overhead, a warm breeze coming in over the water, soft grass underneath their feet.

Mike spends a the Sunday afternoon at his older brother Matt's place, just sitting out on the back porch, not doing much of anything. Austin sprawls all over his feet, tongue lolling as he pants happily. Jace, bouncing around the house while relaxing during summer vacation, shows Mike a picture he drew of Whiskey Pursuit. It's not the most accurate representation, full of misshapen boxes that are only approximately in the right places, but Mike can feel his chest clench with the memory of it. He tries not to examine that emotion too closely. He considers putting the picture up on the fridge, though the kitchen seems to be becoming Jeff's domain these days.

"Thanks, little man," Mike says, holding out his fist for a bump.

Jace beams at him and bumps fists. He pets Austin and then wanders off. Austin, head perked up at the idea that Jace might be doing something more fun, chases after him.

Matt pokes his head out. "Hey, Mikey," he says. Mike suspects he checks in every five minutes to make sure that Mike hasn't accidentally gotten his kid killed.

Mike nods at him. "Hey." Jace is trying to climb a tree near the edge of the lawn, but he's not getting very high up, so Mike doesn't think Matt's planning murder. He is working his way up to something, though. He's lingering. Matt hates lingering.

"Ran into Doris at the supermarket the other day," Matt says eventually. "Said that your new roommate seems nice."

Mike grits his teeth. Two weeks in, and Jeff is already messing with the carefully constructed structure of Mike's life. Maybe it's not fair to be upset that Jeff has talked to literally anyone else in town, but Mike's not feeling like being very fair right now. "Jeff's on leave. For whatever reason, he decided to spend it visiting my sorry ass."

Matt watches him, the way he does when he's trying not to be nosy and is obviously nosy anyway. "And... that's okay?"

"It's fine," Mike says, and he's only lying a little bit.

---

When Mike gets home, Jeff's already started making dinner in the kitchen. It smells like vegetable oil and freshly-chopped onions, a sense-memory from Jeff's childhood, something his mom used to cook.

Jeff is too focused on the stovetop to hear Mike come in, so Mike takes a moment to stare at the familiar span of his back, the angle of his neck, the strength of his arms. A moment of vertigo hits, psychic residue from the Drift, where he feels outside of his own body, because his body was Jeff's body and he remembers how it was: the way it moved, the way it felt.

Mike blinks a few times, trying to clear it, but all he gets for his troubles is a blistering headache that starts at his temples and spreads backwards until it feels like his whole skull is vibrating with it. Fuck. He's been getting these more and more often after Jeff showed up on his doorstep. It hasn't been this bad since he left Anchorage.

There's-- he needs to get to the medicine cabinet in the bathroom upstairs.

He turns around, back down the hallway to find the stairs.

"Richie?" Jeff calls out behind him.

Mike pretends not to hear.

---

One morning, Mike wakes up to find his nose bleeding. He spends a good half hour waiting for it to stop, sitting on his bed, staring at the wall as he waits. Maybe it's ridiculous, but the last fucking thing Mike needs is to add more fuel to Jeff's pity-fire. He always get that same look on his face every time Mike starts exhibiting symptoms. It reminds Mike of kicked puppies. As if Mike is doing any of it on purpose.

He swipes a granola bar from the kitchen before heading out to the shop. A thunderstorm is going to blow in around noon, but the skies are clear right now. Summer rain is like that, there and gone in a second. He leaves the side door of the shop open so that a breeze can make its way inside. He turns on a fan to keep the air moving, cutting through the humidity.

Around eleven, the sky clouds over and the air starts to taste like ozone, like incoming electricity, like the moment right before a Jaeger drop. Mike has a moment to wonder if Jeff's closed all the windows, because Arnold gets freaked out at the sound of thunder. And that leads to wondering about other things, like what the hell Jeff is up to right now. As far as Mike can tell, his sole hobbies involve cooking and cleaning in Mike's house -- maybe chatting with Mike's neighbors on a good day. It's galling to think that Jeff might think that Mike needs a housewife or whatever. He's just doing that same shit that he was doing during Mike's last days at the Shatterdome, treating Mike like a child who needs to be coddled and cared for.

Mike can deal. Whenever his leave is up, Jeff will go back to the PPDC and find himself a new co-pilot, and Mike can go back to living his goddamn life.

A bright flash of light -- lightning. An echoing crack of thunder follows. Mike takes a moment to breathe in the humid summer air as the skies open up and rain starts to fall.

He turns back to his work, but he leaves the door open so he can listen to the thunderstorm as it rages outside.

---

Mike finds Jeff napping on the couch when he gets home. He's almost too tall for it. His head is resting on one armrest and his feet are resting on the other. He's snoring, lightly, in a way he only ever did when he was sleeping in his own bunk. Pressed up against Mike, he was nearly silent, just deep, calm breaths that would help lull Mike to sleep.

Arnold paws at the front door and whines. Mike grabs his leash, takes him out on a walk. The air gets clearer after a storm, breezy and cooler, drained of humidity. The sun has dipped low, casting long, dark shadows.

"Ah, Michael!" a voice calls out. It's Mr. Davis, sitting on his porch, enjoying this weather. He teaches at the elementary school Mike went to. Mike never had him as a teacher, but Mark did.

"Hi, Mr. Davis," Mike says. He leads Arnold up the porch steps. Arnold immediately starts trying to sniff at Mr. Davis's shoes.

"I met Jeff the other day," Mr. Davis says.

Mike shrugs. "I heard he's been introducing himself around the neighborhood." Doris and her big mouth.

He smiles at Mike, like this is a shared joke between them. "Small town like this, you can't blame us for being curious."

Mike certainly can, but he's not going to say that out loud. "He's just visiting," Mike says. He never bothered to ask how long Jeff's leave was, but he's half-hoping, half-dreading the day he wakes up and Jeff is just gone-- packed his bags and flown back to Anchorage without saying goodbye.

"Mmhmm," Mr. Dayis agrees, "and then he's back to that base of yours, where all the Jaegers are."

"Yup," Mike says. He swallows down his jealousy. Not just of Jeff and his functioning, Drift-capable brain, but also over who's going to replace him as Jeff's co-pilot. It's not a question of 'if' but of 'when'. Jeff's too good at it. The PPDC would throw every potential co-pilot in his direction and see who stuck. Maybe then Jeff would have something -- someone -- else to worry about, and Mike could go back to being a footnote in Jeff's life.

"What you boys did-- it's very impressive. I've been talking to the mayor, telling her she should put a monument up in honor of your service."

Mike winces. "Please don't." The last thing he wants is more attention, more chances for everyone to look at him and to feel pity. He can barely escape it as it is.

"Maybe name a street after you."

"Oh god, no," Mike says, and he knows what he's feeling must be written all over his face, because Mr. Davis laughs.

"It wouldn't be for your sake, you know," Mr. Davis says, a wry smile spreading across his creased, weathered face. "That's not what these things are for."

Mike blinks at him, not sure of what to say. He nods, feeling like a kid being taught a lesson. And here he thought he wouldn't have to deal with any of that once he left the Shatterdome.

Mr. Davis continues, "It's for the rest of us who want you to be remembered, long after we're dead and buried." He grabs hold of Mike's hand, fingers tightening around Mike's own.

Mike doesn't say that there may not be anyone left to read the monument or street signs or what-the-fuck-ever once this war is over. But-- it's not his fight anymore. He's no longer fit for duty. "Right," he says. He pulls away from Mr. Davis, tugs on Arnold's leash, and finishes the rest of his walk, careful not to make eye contact with anyone else.

---

Mike spends a quiet Wednesday morning explaining which lures are the best for bass fishing to a tourist in a big floppy hat -- she's up from Toronto, here with her wife for a week for an escape from the big city. She doesn't look like Izzy or Nats. She doesn't talk like either of them or move like either of them. Mike still finds himself thinking of them anyway. The quiet ways they would lean on each other, physically and emotionally, even when -- or maybe especially when -- things became difficult.

Mack, the owner of Kenora Bait and Tackle, stops by after lunch. He grins at Mike, pats Mike on the shoulder, asks after Mike's brothers. Mike has memories of Mack from when Mike was just four years old, Mack leaning over the counter at this very store, smiling at him and handing him a piece of caramel candy. Now Mike's taller than him and Mack's hair has gone entirely gray.

"You know, son, hiring you on was the smartest thing I've done in years," Mack says.

"Right," Mike says. He ducks his head to avoid Mack's gaze.

"Your father always said you were a good, hard worker. Never had any reason to doubt him then, and I definitely don't have any reason to doubt him now."

Mike knows that people talk about him. It's pretty obvious. They don't bother to hide it. Maybe they don't think it's something they even should have to hide. Mike's still not sure how he feels about that. "Uh, thanks," he says.

"When you went away, your parents were worried about you," Mack continues. When he gets going, there's no stopping him or getting a word in edgewise. It's better just to ride it out. "You were so young, and there was such a huge responsibility that was being put on your shoulders."

Mike blinks in surprise. His parents had never been anything but supportive to his face. They'd drive him to his martial arts classes. They'd signed all the PPDC applicant paperwork that Mike needed to fill out before Mike turned eighteen. They threw him a party when he got his offer to go to Anchorage for further testing and training. Never once did they show a sign of hesitation and doubt in him or his chosen career.

Mack says, "I'm sure they're thrilled to have you back now. We're all proud of what you've accomplished, but I think we're all happier knowing that you're home and you're safe."

Mike nods. He tries not to think of the way his mom cried when picking him up from the airport, the way his dad hugged him tight. "Uh, yeah," he says.

"I think when you started working here, you thought you had something to prove. I'm just trying to say that you don't. Not to me. Not to anyone." Mack smiles and ruffles Mike's hair, which Mike hates, but he always lets Mack do it, because Mack only does it when he's trying to make a point.

Mike takes a deep breath. Squeezes his eyes for a moment, trying to fight back the tears. There's a reason he came back here. A reason why he stayed. He'd considered going somewhere else, somewhere his past couldn't follow him, but he couldn't. For all that Kenora is tiny, for all that everyone knows him and his business, this is where he's cared for. This is where he's loved.

It's important. He's learning that all over again every day.

---

When Mike bought his house, the bathtub in the upstairs bathroom came with a brown ring that circled the bottom. He made a cursory attempt to get rid of it with soap and water, but the ring was stubborn and wanted to stick around. He supposed it would last until long after he left.

One morning, he stumbles into the bathroom for his usual shower to find the ring gone. Jeff must have spent some time yesterday getting it out. Not for the first time, Mike wonders what the fuck it is that's keeping Jeff here. It's not Mike. It's not Mike's house. It's not Kenora.

Kenora is the place where everyone knows Mike's name, the place where they have to accept all the messed up broken pieces of him, the place where they do. It's not that for Jeff at all.

And yet, here Jeff is, an omnipresent reminder of everything Mike can't have anymore. The Drift. Whiskey Pursuit. The PPDC. Jeff himself. Those mornings where they'd wake up and not saying to one another for hours, because they didn't need to say anything. The power of an entire Jaeger at his fingertips. The joy Jeff always felt in the Drift, raw and pure and overwhelming.

Jeff still has most of those things at his fingertips. He can go back to them whenever he wants. Despite all that, Jeff still decided that Mike really needed a clean bathtub. Mike doesn't understand it at all.

---

On the lake, the air is cool and breezy. The sun is bright overhead. They're far enough away from shore that they can't take advantage of shade from the surrounding trees. The back of Mike's neck is already sweaty, as is the hair underneath his baseball cap.

Mark, his younger brother, is behind the wheel of the boat, leading them towards the center of the lake. He drops anchor in one of their longtime spots, one they've been coming to since they were just kids, far away from the seasonal tourists. Geese honk and cry as they soar overhead in flocks.

Mike and Mark bait their hooks and cast their lines. It's good. Mike doesn't have anywhere else to be, doesn't have anything else to do. They chat for a bit, gossiping about the kids they knew growing up. The ones who now live in the 'Peg or Toronto, or even, somewhat scandalously, Kentucky. Eventually, even Mark runs out of gossip, and then it's just quiet.

"Matt's worried," Mark says to fill in the empty spaces, "about you, I think."

"Matt should fucking get in line," Mike says. Everyone needs to get off his fucking back. He's dealing with it. Maybe he's not dealing with it particularly well, but that's his own fucking business right now.

Mark rolls his eyes. "Get over yourself," he says.

Mike blinks once, twice. "What--"

"Jesus, I get that you got injured in the line of duty and everyone is being super nice to you," Mark says, "but holy fucking shit, wallowing in your self-pity isn't going to get you anywhere."

"I'm not--" Mike says, bristling at the implication.

"It's not going to actively fucking kill you to go to therapy or get a psychiatrist or whatever," Mark continues. As the baby in the family, they always did let him get away with too much shit. Mike's regretting that right now.

"And what, fix my head? It doesn't fucking work that way," Mike snarls. He remembers the long hours of tests. The grim faces of the doctors at the PPDC, the experts at J-tech who insisted that Mike couldn't ever go back to piloting without risking death. Mike had been so desperate to beat the odds, so desperate to prove them all wrong.

"No," Mark says. "Not like that. Just like, everything else. It's fucking you up, and it's fucking the rest of us up just watching it fuck you up."

"I don't need your--"

"If it was me-- if it was Matt -- if it was Mom or Dad -- if it was that guy who was your co-pilot and who is living in your goddamn house and who you haven't mentioned to anyone -- if it was any one of us, what would you do?"

Mike ducks his head. Checks his line just so that his hands have something to do. "That's different," he says. It comes out a little like a mumble, his voice not as strong as he'd like it to be.

"Fuck you. It's not any fucking different," Mark says. He throws an arm around Mike's neck. "You're our brother, and we fucking love you and want you to be happy, no matter how broken you think you are."

Mike doesn't say anything to that. He doesn't need to. But he does lean into Mark, just a little bit.

---

Mike has considered getting another tattoo for a while. It's a memory, a reminder written on his skin. It's not like Mike thinks he'll forget, but he likes the thought that he always has it with him. The Kaiju on his shoulder (and fuck everyone who hates it; Mike still thinks it's awesome) is like that. He's fought the monsters and won. That's something he did once, even if he never does it again.

After leaving the PPDC, Mike wanted to get another one. A different sort of reminder for a different sort of thing to be remembered. But he could never quite settle on a design that he liked, so it never happened.

It still nags at him, like a word on the tip of his tongue.

---

One quiet weekend afternoon, Mike peeks out the back window, sees Jeff shirtless and playing fetch with Arnold in his backyard. Jeff's tanning quickly, his skin browning in the summer sun.

It's easier for Mike to be around him these days. The doctors at the PPDC did say it would take time, but it had been weeks dragging into months without any change. But now, even with the headaches farther and fewer in between, Mike doesn't know how to break their detente.

Outside, Jeff smiles, the grin spreading across his face like they're playing ball hockey in that shitty storage room, like Mike's pass had just found his tape.

The wave of nostalgia that comes with the memory is almost too much -- too sharp, to painful, too sweet -- but Mike doesn't turn away from it. He lets all those old, remembered feelings wash over him, and he lets himself believe that maybe he'll be able to feel that way again.

---

Mike stops by to visit his parents on his way home from work, ostensibly because his dad wanted to take a look at some of the new lures they just got in stock, but he's pretty sure it's some sort of parental intervention.

This house is the one he grew up in, for all that it seems both bigger and smaller than it did when he lived there. It still feels like home when he steps inside. It still smells the same, like walking back into a memory.

His mom greets him in the kitchen, pulls him into a hug. They chat for a few minutes about her garden, which flowers are doing well after a bad winter and which ones didn't survive it.

His dad spreads the lures out on the dining room table, puts on his reading glasses so he can examine each of them in turn.

"So," his dad says. He isn't even looking at Mike, but Mike can feel the weight of his stare.

"I have been talking to one of the PPDC counselors," Mike says. After his conversation with Mark out on the lake, it seemed like-- it seemed like something that couldn't hurt. He hides out in the storage room at work and video chats a nice lady named Laura who has very big, very concerned eyes. Somehow, it's easier, talking to a stranger who doesn't know him at all. It's still grueling and miserable work, but it does-- it does help.

His dad grunts in approval. "That's good, that you have someone to talk to." He doesn't look away from the lures.

His mom appears at his dad's shoulder. "And your... friend. Have you been talking to him?"

"No," Mike says. "It's-- it's not like that."

His mom is wearing that look-- the one she would wear when Mike would fake sick to get out of school and she wasn't buying it at all. "You know, for years, we couldn't have a conversation with you where Jeff didn't come up, and now he's living with you, and you're pretending he doesn't even exist."

"I definitely acknowledge he exists," Mike protests. "I asked him to feed Arnold this morning because I had to get into work early."

"I'm not sure that counts," he mom says.

Mike shrugs, staring at the ceiling to avoid her gaze. "Whatever. He's the one who decided to stick around."

"You haven't kicked him out yet," his dad says. He holds up one of the lures to the light, squints at it. "Are you sure you want him gone?"

Mike takes a deep breath. How do you explain what it's like to lose a part of yourself-- your other half, the person who knew all of you, all of the bright parts and all of the dark parts, as intimately as you knew yourself? To have that part of yourself become a stranger all in one instant. To have that part of yourself lingering, haunting your house, waiting for something that you don't know how to give him. Mike settles on, "It's complicated."

"It's probably less complicated than you think." His mom ruffles his hair, kisses his cheek.

"Talking helps," his dad says.

"Right," Mike says.

---

Jeff isn't in the kitchen when Mike gets home. He's not in the living room or his guest room or the basement either. Mike won't pretend like he's an expert on Jeff's whereabouts or anything, but his car is still in the driveway, so he probably hasn't gone too far.

Mike does find Jeff in the backyard. He's holding the wooden staff in both his hands, and he's practicing some of their old katas. Mike's fingers twitch with the desire to match his movements, to shadow him like they're training in the Shatterdome all over again. But it's nothing like the Shatterdome out here. There's a crisp breeze. There's the buzz of summer insects. There's Arnold, just napping on the deck in the sunshine.

So Mike just watches from the deck, leaning against the railing. Jeff's still beautiful to watch as he moves: smooth, fast, controlled. In the summer heat, a familiar sheen of sweat spreads across the back of his neck, and Mike feels an echoing prickle on the back of his own. He stares down at the ground for a moment, blinking a few times behind his sunglasses, feeling a roiling nausea in his stomach that might be nerves or might be what his doctors try to delicately call 'ongoing symptoms.' He's not sure, but he knows he can't let it stop him.

When he looks back up, Jeff has finished his kata and is turning towards the deck. There's an almost comical expression of surprise that crosses his face when he notices Mike there, but then he schools it into something more neutral.

Mike says, "Your uppercut isn't as good as it could be because you aren't dropping your hips low enough, but your backhand is still pretty decent." It's a familiar critique. Mike's told Jeff about it dozens of times, but Jeff never seems to correct for it. Maybe that's Mike's fault. Mike's center of gravity is pretty different from Jeff's.

"Yeah?" Jeff asks, eyebrows raised. He grabs a cup of water from the deck at Mike's feet that Mike hadn't even noticed. "You want to fight me and see how good it is when it's coming at your face, Richie?"

Jeff's staring him down, pissed off in a way that Mike's never seen him before a fight before. This is a bad idea on so many levels, chief among them the fact that Mike is out of shape and Jeff definitely isn't. But this is-- it's a way for Mike to be honest. You can't lie in a fight the way you can in a conversation. No matter how many fake outs you pull off, the truth always comes out eventually. "Okay," Mike says.

He goes barefoot, takes off his hat and sunglasses, feels the freshly-cut grass underneath his feet. He does his warmup routine, doing his best to ignore the weight of Jeff's attention. He's been dodging it for over a month now, and he's not sure how to deal with it all at once.

Mike does his best to focus on the fight, but he's all jangly nerves with what they'll need to talk about afterwards, and Jeff scores two points easily.

Then on their third setup, Jeff overextends himself, tries to grab hold of Mike's shirt, and Mike manages a clean throw, finishing up with an arm lock.

"Two-one," Mike says. A warm flush of pride spreads through his chest. At least he's not entirely hopeless. His stomach settles a bit. Maybe they haven't changed that much. Maybe they aren't so different from who they were after all.

He waits for Jeff to get up again, for Jeff to settle into a ready stance for their next bout, but Jeff doesn't. He just lays there, breathing hard enough that Mike can see the rise and fall of his chest.

Mike leans over him. "You okay?" he asks.

"Yeah," Jeff says, in that hollow way he gets when he's lying.

"You're lying," Mike says.

"Yup," Jeff says.

And maybe that should be the end of it-- the both of them admitting that they're full of shit. Mike doesn't want to end things that way, though. He's committed now. The only way out is through.

He sits down on the grass next to Jeff and nudges Jeff's knee with one foot. "Thanks for--" he gestures towards the house and the lawn, towards all the things that Jeff has maintained and cared for since he got here for no reason at all.

"Sure," Jeff says, like it's actually nothing and not a huge fucking deal.

"You were always a better person than I was," Mike says. Jeff's the one who still manages to give a shit. Jeff's always loved it more, wanted it more, felt everything so much more than Mike ever did. All of that used to bleed into Mike, and now it's just gone, excised from Mike like the rest of Jeff is.

"You're better than you think," Jeff says. "I just-- I just want you to be happy." It's an echo of what Mark said earlier. A declaration of love; not the first one Jeff's made, but the most unintentional of them. Mike's first instinct is to brush it off, to just take it as another sign of Jeff's pity, but that's one of the things he's been working on with Laura: believe that people mean what they say to you. It's both easier and more difficult than it sounds.

Mike looks up from the grass, and everything Jeff's feeling -- the pain, the adoration -- is written across his face. It's the simplest thing in the world to believe him, to-- trust him. Jeff won't ever hurt him. Not on purpose anyway.

Mike leans over to kiss Jeff, pressing their lips together. Feels the way Jeff tenses, then relaxes into the kiss underneath him. Feels the way Jeff kisses back, tentative and unsure. Mike doesn't have the words for this wriggling, aching feeling in his chest, but maybe this is close enough. For now. For Jeff.

When he pulls back, Jeff just stares at him, his expression warmer, happier this time. He reaches out, grabs one of Mike's hands, threads their fingers together. It's not like getting a missing limb reattached. It's maybe like finding your favorite shirt again after you thought you lost it forever. A gentle sort of comfort.

They're not everything that they once were, but maybe Mike can work with that. Maybe they can be something different.

---

After Jeff decides to stay, calls it into the PPDC and everything, Mike figures out what sort of tattoo he wants to get.

It's a fully-colored phoenix spread across his left ribs, rising up from the flames from which it was reborn. It's a good reminder, one that he's ready to carry with him.

Jeff's the one who peels the bandage off when it's healed. He's not as careful with it as he could have been, which is good. Mike's been trying to train him out of treating Mike like he's delicate. He waits patiently for Jeff's reaction. Jeff says, "Do you seriously not know any good tattoo artists?"

Mike kicks him in the shin. "Fuck you, too," he says.

Jeff laughs at that, his eyes shining. Radiating joy so clearly that Mike doesn't need the Drift to feel the echo of it.

And for all that Jeff pretends to hate the tattoo, he still traces his fingers over the red-orange flames spread over Mike's hip, up the body of the bird to its spread wings, where the skin is still raw and sensitive. Mike fights down a shiver at the touch. "I'm glad you chose this one even if it looks like someone vomited Sriracha all over you," Jeff says, and Mike can tell he's not talking about the tattoo itself, but what the tattoo means. A reminder that endings can be beginnings if you're willing to fight for it.

"Me, too," Mike says.

 

FIN.