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Living in Salt

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The tryouts happen in a high school gym, the kind that has seen better days. Chipped and peeling paint on the walls. Ugly black scuff marks on the floors. Holes in the basketball nets.

It's also full of people -- kids mostly, like Jeff, who have passed their eighteenth birthday and want to become Jaeger pilots. He stops in the doorway to take it all in: the thin practice mats where some kids are already warming up in their tank tops and sweatpants, the tables of serious-looking uniformed adults who are reading their clipboards, the bleachers full of anxious parents. His sister, Christine, punches him in the shoulder when she thinks he's taking too long. She raises her eyebrows at him, and they approach the front table labeled 'Registration' together. The sign has a logo in the corner, the winged bird and star of the Pan-Pacific Defence Corps.

The people at the registration table are nice and respectful enough, but Jeff can tell that they're also eyeing him up, comparing him against the dozens and dozens of other applicants. Not that Jeff blames them. He can tell his smile is tight and uncomfortable on his face.

He can't mess up this opportunity. This is everything he's worked for, everything he's trained for since he was sixteen, watching the first Jaegers deployed. He was fourteen during the first Kaiju attack. He watched as it tore through San Francisco for six days straight. He had nightmares for months afterwards. When the PPDC introduced the Jaegers, the whole nature of the war changed. Humanity had finally developed a weapon that could take down a Kaiju, that could go toe-to-toe with the monsters from the deep. And Jeff had wanted a piece of that. Just the possibility was worth the effort.

He gets matched up against Christine for his first fight, same as most of the siblings who have shown up together. She lays him out once, but he's a lot taller, a lot heavier, more strength and reach. He gets four points on her, winning the match.

Afterwards, the man who's been watching the whole time, clipboard in hand and a US flag stitched to his uniform, frowns at them. They get sent to separate mats for their next matches.

So, not compatible, then. Jeff's not surprised, and he's pretty sure Christine isn't either.

The next matches pass by quickly. They're nothing to write home about. Jeff wins most of them, finding easy openings, taking advantage of his height and strength and speed. He still gets a lot of frowns, and it's frustrating, because he knows that winning isn't the point. But he can't help it if he's just that much better than anyone else they've put him up against.

Until, of course, he steps onto the mat to face off against a shorter guy, dark-haired, dark-eyed, broader in the shoulders than Jeff, but probably close enough to Jeff in age -- he's got an ugly pimple on his right cheek. Jeff doesn't get his name before the fight starts, but that's not unusual. He hasn't gotten the name of any of his opponents.

They size each other up at first, circling each other in the makeshift ring. Jeff spins the staff in his hands -- given to him, lighter and faster than his own practice staff -- and waits for the first strike.

The other guy doesn't mimic him, but he does smirk, a reckless sort of confidence. Jeff has seen plenty of that today. He resists the temptation to roll his eyes.

And in that second, the guy darts forward, and one end of his staff is coming down towards Jeff's face. Jeff blocks it. The force of the strike reverberates up his arms. The other guy twists away, out of Jeff's reach.

Jeff slides forward, ducking low to bring his own staff up into an uppercut. It gets knocked aside, to the guy's right.

The guy uses the momentum from the block to keep spinning. Jeff sees the next strike before it happens, plenty of time to bring his own staff up for a block, to try to turn the movement into a counterattack towards this guy's head from the left.

That doesn't get blocked so much as it is dodged. Jeff's staff doesn't connect with anything but empty air. This guy is good. It's not that he's faster than Jeff, but he's smart enough to read Jeff's positioning and movement, anticipating the next hit before it comes.

Jeff attacks again, not willing to slow down the match. Before Jeff can pull his staff all the way back for his next strike, the guy has slid into his space, too close for Jeff to put any power into his swing. It's a trick a lot of shorter guys learn, preventing the attack before Jeff can even make it.

Jeff dodges back, his staff up to block the next strike. He knows it's coming; it has to be coming; and then it's right there. Jeff flicks the other end of his staff out, trying to be quick enough to catch this guy out.

But the block is there, so fast he must have known exactly where to put it before Jeff even started moving.

The referee in the corner blows the whistle, ending the fight. Jeff bows to his opponent, breath heavy in his lungs, finally letting the exhaustion catch up to him.

Their match is scoreless, but this time, the ref smiles.

---

Another queue. This one's in the dingy school hallways, away from the crowded noises of the gym. The walls are painted off-white, the lockers a fading gray. There's muted chatter up that fills up the space, a nervous buzz that Jeff isn't immune to at all. This time, they're all waiting in pairs.

"Mike Richards," Jeff's opponent says. He holds out a hand.

Jeff shakes it. "Jeff Carter."

Mike grins. They're both still sweaty after the fight. Mike pushes his hair back from where it was falling over his forehead. It's curling, slightly. He tilts his head towards the doorway in front of them. Every so often another pair is let in and another pair is let out. "What do you think this one is?"

Jeff shrugs. "More tests," he says.

Mike nods along with that. "It's not unlikely." He fiddles with the zipper of his hoodie -- gray and soft-looking, worn-in. "You've got a sweet backhand."

"Uh, thanks," Jeff says.

"And you move a lot faster than most guys your size."

Jeff just shrugs again. He's not sure what Mike wants him to say. "I do okay."

And then it's their turn to step into the room. It used to be a classroom at one point. The inspirational posters are still on the walls. The desks and chairs have been cleared out. In its place is a machine that takes up half the room. Two helmets dangle from it. The rest of the room is swarming with technicians.

A friendly-looking woman in a military uniform comes up to them. Dark hair pulled back into a ponytail. Broad smile spread across her face. "Names, please?"

They give her their names, and somewhere along the way, Mike ended up with some additional paperwork that he hands over to her.

She looks it over, hemming and hawing over it. "Oh, you two scored quite high," she says, absently, like she's talking more to herself than anyone else.

Jeff glances at Mike. Mike raises an eyebrow that seems to say, well, duh.

They get fitted into the helmets. It feels heavier on Jeff's head than he expected it to be. He's imagined this moment -- his first time in the Drift -- dozens of times, but he'd never really imagined who his Drift partner would be. Mike's probably an alright guy. Jeff doesn't have anything to be nervous about.

"Okay," the woman says. "I'm sure you've heard a whole lot about the Drift already, but it's really nothing like the way the movies show it to be. The purpose of this test is to see how well you two manage to navigate the Drift together. Once you've adjusted, we'll have you perform simple tasks." She pats Jeff's shoulder in a way that's probably supposed to be comforting. "Any questions?"

Jeff shakes his head.

Mike says, "Nope."

Her smile, somehow, gets wider. "Good!" she says, stepping back. One of the techs behind an array of monitors gives the thumbs up.

The space around Mike and Jeff is cleared of people, everyone giving them a good five foot radius of empty space. The low hum of the machine gets louder and louder. The LEDs start blinking faster and faster.

Jeff closes his eyes for a moment, and then--

---

He's standing at the edge of a vast, green lake that Jeff's never been to, fishing pole in one hand. "Good," his father says. "You're doing great." The air smells like home.

And then--

He's in his childhood bedroom in London, Ontario, flannel sheets pulled up around his shoulders. He looks over, at his pair of worn skates leaning against the bedroom door, waiting for the hockey season to start again.

And then--

Sitting in front of the TV as the news shows the latest Kaiju attack. Fear and anger mixing together as his brother puts a hand on his shoulder, as his brother says, "It'll be all--"

And then--

A bright morning, where the air smells like cut grass and fresh pancakes. Sitting down at the kitchen table. Christine makes a face at him and drinks from her glass of orange juice and--

And then--

He's facing down himself on the mat this morning: tall, blond, lanky. He can read his own body language, controlled, careful. He's staring himself down, wanting to fight, wanting to win. Waiting for an opening. There's one. And then--

And then--

Jeff opens his eyes, and Mike opens his eyes. It's both his eyes and Mike's eyes. Their eyes. The room looks the exact same way it did before, except now Mike's perception of it filters in. It reminds Mike of his kindergarten classroom, something about the shape of the chalkboard, which is white with chalk dust.

"Neural handshake complete," one of the technicians says. Both Jeff and Mike turn to look at him.

"Gentlemen," the woman who greeted them originally says. "I'm glad to see the two of you in phase." Her smile is still bright and plastic.

Jeff finds it irrationally irritating until he realizes that it's Mike's irritation echoing over the link, becoming Jeff's irritation, too.

"I'd like you to take two steps forward and two steps back," she says.

They walk forward together, backwards together, perfectly in sync. Jeff doesn't need to look, doesn't need to check. He's in Mike's head. He knows.

"Excellent!" she says. She writes something down on her clipboard.

Mike's itching to get something actually challenging. He hates having to go through the baby steps.

"Mr. Carter, I'd like you to touch your forehead with your left hand. Mr. Richards, your forehead with your right."

It should be the simplest thing in the world. Jeff lifts his left hand, but there's something wrong with it. The fingers are different -- smaller, odder, covered in strange callouses.

Mike gives him the equivalent of a mental shove, and Jeff lands back in his own body. They take a few breathless moments to figure out how to be the same thing but still separate, disentangling their minds enough that Jeff no longer feels like his neck is itching the way Mike's is. Jeff lifts the correct hand then, and Mike does the same thing, mirroring him with his right hand. They touch their foreheads at the same time.

The woman claps. "Great!" She writes another thing down on the clipboard. Jeff wants to know what it says, but he doesn't care enough to try to sneak a peek at it. "Turn around."

Jeff and Mike turn around, so that they're facing a bookshelf.

"On a count of three, I want you to turn around and run forward as fast as you can for exactly five steps." She waits a few moments to speak again. "One."

Jeff feels a thread of worry about this task that's entirely his own. It'll be easy to fall out of phase. His legs are longer than Mike's, and the dissonance could throw them off.

"Two."

But Mike-- Mike is certain they have this. His confidence seeps into Jeff, steadying Jeff's nerves.

"Three."

They spin together, sprinting for the five steps. Jeff's ends up a few centimeters ahead of Mike, but they're still together-- still synced.

Jeff blinks once, twice, mentally nudging Mike and getting a mental nudge in return.

"Excellent work," the woman says. "That's all we needed to see, thank you." She says the words like she's already said them a dozen times today, on autopilot.

The machine powers down behind them. Mike drops out of Jeff's brain, leaving behind an empty place where he used to be. Jeff winces at the loss.

Mike doesn't bother waiting for assistance. He pulls the helmet off himself and hands it over to a disgruntled-looking tech. His hair is even more of a mess than it was before, but maybe that's to be expected.

After they're both fully disconnected, a severe-looking man in a suit ushers them back out into the hallway and tells them that the PPDC will be in touch with them if they get selected for the Jaeger program.

"Well," Mike says with an awkward half-smile, "he might be bullshitting us, but at least we got to see the Drift, eh?" His voice sounds strange to Jeff's ears, and Jeff can't quite place the dissonance until he realizes that he's used to how Mike sounds in his memories. It's a little like hearing a recording of his own voice. Familiar and wrong all at once. Mike's memories are all bunched up in Jeff's head, getting tangled up in Jeff's own, but it's not as weird as Jeff thought it might be. It was disorienting, but not in a bad way, to know someone like that, to be able to move with someone like that, to feel connected to another person, even a stranger. But Mike isn't a stranger anymore, is he? Jeff knows all of Mike's secrets and Mike knows all of Jeff's secrets, too.

"Yeah," Jeff says, and he smiles back.

---

Christine didn't get selected for anything, but she doesn't seem put out by any of that. Her interest in Jaegers was halfhearted at best. Their parents insisted that it would be a valuable sibling-bonding activity for the two of them when Jeff first started. It wasn't. She liked doing things like volunteering at animal shelters and the library. Jeff's love of physical activity had never quite rubbed off on her.

Christine does ask him about Mike, interested in hearing about Jeff's experiences in the Drift. They'd both heard so much about it second or third hand that it's taken on a strange, mystical quality to it. Hollywood hasn't helped.

But Jeff doesn't really know how to explain it. He and Mike barely said more than fifty words to one another, but he knows everything about the guy that there is to know. He knows about the time Mike broke his arm climbing up a tree after his parents told him not to. He knows about the time he and his younger brother pranked his older brother into telling a girl he was really into watersports. He knows Mike loved -- loves -- the ice as much as Jeff does, loves the speed of it, loves the mastery of his own body. "He was nice enough," Jeff says instead.

His sister nods at that, like it actually meant anything, and they don't say anything else for the rest of the ride home.

---

On Jeff's way out of the gym, someone had shoved a pamphlet named Everything You Wanted To Know About The Drift (But Were Too Afraid To Ask) into his hands along with a whole bunch of other paperwork regarding his application. Jeff doesn't even realize he has it until a few days later.

He's been sleeping weirdly, his dreams a mishmash of conflicting memories. A dog he's never owned. A friend he's never talked to. A campsite he's never seen. Sometimes, he'll feel around in his head, looking for a presence that's no longer there. (And it was only what-- five minutes linked like that?)

The summer stretches out in front of him, and it's not like he has anything better to do, so he reads the pamphlet. He hides upstairs in his room, settling in at his desk. It feels too weirdly personal to do this out in the open, where his parents or Christine could find him reading it. His parents also asked about Mike. Jeff didn't have much to say to them either.

The pamphlet assures him that being in the Drift might affect his sleeping patterns, that there can be residual echoes from the neural link. In fact, all these symptoms are good signs, the pamphlet says, that you and your partner have excellent Drift compatibility!

Jeff's not too proud to admit that he wonders about what Mike is doing now. Is he back in Kenora, swimming in his lake? Is he training as hard now as he was before the tryouts? They didn't exchange phone numbers or anything. Jeff thinks he should have it in Mike's shared memories, but it slips away every time he tries to recall it. Too much like a regular memory in that way.

And even knowing that it's supposed to be like this, that there's nothing technically wrong with him, he spends that summer always looking over his shoulder, always reaching for something that's not there.

---

Eventually, there is a phone call, more paperwork, and then Jeff is flying out to Anchorage, Alaska to attend the Jaeger Academy at the Alaskan Shatterdome. He'll be attending with Mike, as a part of a class of other potential Jaeger pilots. When they're deemed ready and worthy, they could even get a Jaeger of their own. Jeff spends the entire flight trying not to smile stupidly at everyone within five feet of him.

After he arrives, a serviceman takes him through the Shatterdome, which is a heavily shielded bunker with boring concrete walls, boring concrete floors, all of it reinforced with metal and laced with exposed piping. The air is climate-controlled, dry and sterile. They don't go anywhere near the hangar where the Jaegers are kept and maintained, much to Jeff's disappointment. He's seen videos of the space, but it'll be another thing entirely to experience it for real.

Mike is already in the barracks when Jeff gets there. The two of them get their own room, it turns out, but unsurprisingly, they're expected to share. It's smaller and darker than what Jeff is used to -- bunk beds, a small attached bathroom, bare gray walls, cold concrete-- but he's about to start training to become a Jaeger pilot, to become a Ranger. He's not complaining.

Mike's kneeling over his suitcase as Jeff enters, unpacking his bags into a small dresser. It looks like he's claimed the bottom bunk for himself, which Jeff thinks is just plain unfair.

"Hey," Jeff says.

Mike stands up and turns around. He breaks out into a crooked grin at the sight of Jeff standing there, and then he pulls Jeff into a hug. It's a little awkward -- they've never done this before -- but they figure it out, with Jeff leaning over slightly to get his arms around Mike's shoulders, and Mike clinging to Jeff's torso.

"You fucker," Mike says against Jeff's shoulder, warm, like he's been missing Jeff, too. "I had to be scarred by your crush on Mrs. Baudin in third grade for like, months."

"She was hot," Jeff says.

"She had that weird mole on her neck," Mike says.

"I kinda liked that."

Mike snorts. "I could tell."

Maybe it should be embarrassing. It's not like Jeff's told anyone else about that crush, not even Darren, his best friend at the time. But Mike's been in Jeff's head, and Jeff's in Mike's, and for all that Mike sounds like a judgmental asshole, Jeff knows that's just how Mike expresses affection.

Mike lets go of Jeff, stepping back, leaving behind another ghost-impression, this time one of comforting pressure and body heat.

"Man, why'd you make me take the top bunk?" Jeff asks, so that he doesn't accidentally say something sappy. "Now I'm going to worry about falling off it in the middle of the night."

Mike rolls his eyes, his mouth turned into a smug little smirk. "Get better at sleeping," he suggests.

And then he throws a pillow at Jeff's face.

---

The next day is weird. They're hustled into a group of other trainees, all of them looking as confused and uncertain as Jeff feels.

Jeff knows better than to think they'll get anywhere near the Drift today, but he's surprised by the number of meetings they end up going to. There's even more paperwork (Jeff's signature has turned into even more of a messy scribble by the end of it). There are physicals. Jeff gets weighed and measured. Blood is drawn. Eyes and ears are inspected. He's asked about every single illness that has ever plagued a member of his family. They give him two dog tags on a chain: last name, first name, serial number, blood type, religion.

Some of his classmates don't pass the physical, at least as far as Jeff can tell. They're sent off with packed bags, no dog tags in sight, followed by frowning, apologetic doctors.

All of it would be terrifying and awful if Mike wasn't there with him, also stripped down to his boxers, radiating a certain amount of low-key annoyance at all the bullshit they need to deal with. Jeff keeps glancing at him to make sure he's still there. It's stupid, but they've been separated for months. And Mike's right here right now. Just being around him is soothing.

Lunch is standard cafeteria food. Soggy overcooked pasta. Limp, tasteless vegetables. Dry chicken.

"So," Mike says. They're sitting at a table by themselves, away from the other people in their class, mostly because they are both irritated by the number of people they've already met today, an endless string of names and ranks that is almost impossible to keep track of. "What did you end up doing over the summer?"

It feels weird to have this sort of conversation with Mike. But they haven't had any Drift time together, and so the summer is a blank spot in their shared memories. Jeff shrugs. "Video games. Training."

Mike's lips quirk into an indulgent smile. "Exciting."

"Like you did anything more interesting," Jeff says.

Mike shrugs. "Kenora's really nice during the summer. Did some camping with my family."

It's pretty much what Jeff was expecting, knowing Mike as well as he does. He says, "Cool."

They lapse into silence, but it's not awkward or anything. Just, quiet. They don't say anything, because they don't need to say anything. Just the way Jeff likes it.

---

Their days settle into a rhythm. The Shatterdome is mostly underground, sealed up tight against Kaiju attack, so there's not a lot of sunlight. And the days get shorter anyway as they approach December, but Jeff does miss it. His life becomes defined by concrete walls.

They have classes in the mornings, lectures to attend about the nature of the Drift, about the construction and operation of the Jaegers. Jeff wants to pay attention to them -- he really does -- but he's never been particularly good at learning by being talked at, so he spends a lot of time doodling in his regulation-issue notebook. He and Mike sit close enough together that Mike gets in on the doodling as well. Sometimes they trade notes by writing on the same piece of paper. Mike will lean in, pressing his arm along Jeff's, until they're basically in each other's laps, but whatever. Jeff doesn't mind.

Afternoons are about physical training. That's when Jeff starts to pay attention. His mind always works better when there's movement to go with it. And it's nice to actually do things rather than just talking about maybe doing things later.

There's a ton of conditioning, more than anything else. While the Jaegers do most of the heavy lifting, there's a physical toll on the body, having to control them. Mike can bench and squat way more than Jeff expected. He's a smaller dude, but he's all tightly corded muscle that twists and flexes under the effort. Mike picks up on Jeff's skepticism, and he smirks. "You weren't the only one who spent this summer training," he says.

Jeff turns away, a little embarrassed at being so obvious, and Mike just laughs.

And then there's the hand-to-hand combat work, them and everyone else in the Academy. The Jaegers, it's explained to them, are designed to closely mimic human fighting styles. They have guns and swords, sure, but it's best not to rely on them. A Jaeger isn't as much a weapon as much as a body and has to be thought of as such.

Jeff doesn't get to fight Mike as much as he'd like to. Their Drift compatibility is more of a liability than an asset in this sort of thing. They need to learn how to adapt to different techniques, different fighting styles. Need to learn things that they don't already know. Jeff doesn't get that with Mike, for all that they fight differently, for all that they are different people.

As trainees, they do have free time after dinner, and Jeff tries to get to know his classmates better. It's not like the support staff seems in any hurry to socialize with them. Brian holds board game nights in the room he shares with Malik every other day, and Sonja brought her guitar and lets people borrow it or throws her own impromptu concerts. But about two weeks in, Brian decides he's too homesick and too wimpy (his words) to stick around, and a week after that, it's decided that Sonja's hand-to-hand combat skills aren't up to scratch, despite her excellent compatibility with her Drift partner.

So Jeff ends up sticking close to Mike. Because Mike won't just disappear, won't decide he's not cut out for this. Jeff knows full well how much Mike wanted this chance, knows just how hard Mike will work for it.

And Mike's great to be around in general. Mike can talk about Jaeger tech in a way that isn't boring. Mike will boggart their room's only holo screen and watch hours and hours of mediocre reality TV. Jeff tries to teach Mike how to bluff in poker, so that they can fleece some of the other trainees out of their quarters, but it turns out they're both awful at lying, so they mostly just lose a lot of quarters instead.

"You know you two don't actually have to be joined at the hip?" Carlos, their main physical trainer, asks while Jeff and Mike are getting into an argument about oreos or something like that in the weight room. "It's not actually a requirement."

"Yeah," Mike says. "We know." The corner of his lips twist in a way that counts as a smile.

Jeff just shrugs, but he can't stop his own grin from spreading across his face.

---

Their first day inside a simulator is the first day they're back in the Drift together. It's a big milestone in their training. At least half of their fellow trainees have already been cut.

When they get to the locker room, they're presented with two brand new drivesuits, making use of all those measurements from the first days. Mike's vibrating with nerves and energy, shoulders hunched, eyes focused on a point on the concrete walls. One of the interesting things that Jeff is getting used to is relearning all of Mike's reactions from the outside. He's been inside Mike's head, but until he got to the Shatterdome, he hadn't had a chance to watch Mike, to see what he looks like when he scratches the back of his neck or when he yawns or he does stupid-looking yoga stretches in their shared room.

Their drivesuits are bulky, but not as heavy as they look, made out of some sort of white plastic and metal. Jeff's worn plenty of hockey pads, but this is something different. This is designed to wire straight into Jeff's brain.

The simulation room is painted a glowing white -- the sort of white they have in creepy dystopian movies -- and two bays that Jeff at least recognizes as their piloting stations. He slides his helmet on and steps into place, glancing over afterwards to see if Mike has done the same. He has.

The foot-straps snap in first, almost a little too tight. Then Jen, one of Jeff's favorite techs, snaps something into his suit along his spine. Arms next, hooked up to long tubes that dangle from the ceiling.

"You ready?" Jeff asks Mike. His voice echoes a little oddly inside his helmet. His own nerves are starting to get to him, from the roil in his stomach, to the urge to shuffle his feet, to the quickness of his breath.

"Of course," Mike says.

That thing in the high school, that first exposure to the Drift, that was kid-stuff, neural link testing. This is way closer to the real deal. They're not in an actual Jaeger, but there isn't much of a difference.

Another tech is counting down over the comms. Jeff tries not to hold his breath, because one of their lectures mentioned that it made things worse, but he can't quite get his lungs to work the way he wants them to.

And then--

It's not as disorienting as the first time. Mike isn't there, and then suddenly he is. Not smooth, not exactly, but this time around Jeff knows what to expect. They're a part of each other again. The physical space, the metal and plastic of their suits, the wires, all the things that are separating the two of them, don't matter. It's just the Drift. No barriers between them left.

It's not that Jeff doubted it, but Jeff's kind of glad to know that Mike missed Jeff as much as Jeff missed Mike. Maybe not in the same way, but it's still definitely there, as vibrant as Mike's nerves, and it's...nice.

The instructors have simple tasks for them all over again. Walk forward. Walk backwards. Lift your arms. Punch with the right fist. Then with the left. Activate various subsystems. Pick something up. Turn around. Jump.

Jumping is a lot harder than Jeff thought it might be.

But just as soon as they're getting the hang of it, as soon as he and Mike are filling the neural link with their glee and excitement and pleasure at their accomplishments together, the session is over.

Mike's steadiness vanishes from Jeff's mind. The foot-straps retract. Jen comes by to disconnect Jeff's arms, his spine. Jeff lifts his helmet off himself, tucking it underneath his arm. Mike's also got his off, but it's dangling from his fingers at his side.

"Everything you dreamed it would be?" he asks.

"Not yet," Jeff says. He can't wait until it's a real Jaeger, a real machine of power and metal, under their control. This stuff, it's still just practice.

They share a grin, and it doesn't matter if Jeff can't feel Mike's response. They've got another session scheduled for next week. That's not very long at all.

---

Another meeting. This time it's just the two of them and a couple of the instructors. The room is bare bones. Just a round table, a monitor, a few chairs.

"So," one of the instructors says, "yesterday's session was a success, but we'll need the two of you in perfect sync when it comes time to fight an actual Kaiju." He smiles mildly at the two of them behind his wire-rimmed glasses. And then he starts to drone on and on about the nuances of Drift alignment.

Mike nudges Jeff's foot underneath the table. He doesn't so much even glance in Jeff's direction, but gets what he means. This is boring as fuck.

Jeff nudges him back to say, We'll get through it.

Mike slightly steps on Jeff's foot, as if to say, If only it wasn't this awful.

It's almost getting easier, talking without having to use real words. It makes him wonder what it would be like to, like, play Family Feud. They'd kill that shit.

"Trainee Carter," the instructor says, interrupting Jeff's train of thought. "Please, this is important." His expression doesn't change, but there's a shift to it, like he's holding back a smirk, like he knows exactly what Jeff and Mike were up to. Jeff winces. This guy has been training pilots for how long? He's seen it all before and then some.

Sometimes, Jeff has to remind himself that he and Mike aren't really all that special. There's at least another twenty people on this Shatterdome that have experienced the same things he and Mike have, that have the same sort of bond that he and Mike share.

Mike glances at Jeff, his smirk curled with a perfect at least I didn't get caught at it twist of his lips. Jeff would throw something at him, but he's already in trouble, so he just glares.

---

Now that they're better settled, they've started eating with the Rangers, the ones who have already graduated, the ones who have their own Jaegers. Izzy and Nats pilot Sierra Howl. Jammer and Piker pilot Savage Tundra. Spike and Catball pilot Polar Sleight. Sapie and Zeke pilot Chrome Brutus. It's not that anyone else can't sit with them and their matching jackets, but no one else does. Mike and Jeff are invited in because they're the most promising prospects from this batch of trainees and everyone knows it.

They've been acing all their tests in the simulators. Every task they're given is almost too easy. Even inside each other's heads, they're one step ahead of everything else, like Jeff knows what Mike's thinking before Mike thinks it. Their instructors can't quite keep the surprise out of their voices when they talk about how well Mike and Jeff are doing after only a few months.

Jeff tries not to let it get to his head, but he likes it, knowing that he and Mike are the biggest badasses around. He almost wants to tangle with a Kaiju for real, instead of the awkward, lumbering simulations they've been dealing with. He wants to put his training to use. He wants to put a missile down a Kaiju's gullet, and he wants to skewer Kaiju on the end of his sword. He's sure they can do it, and Mike's sure they can do it, but they still have months and months of training left.

The actual Rangers are more experienced than they are, which isn't difficult, but most of them are not actually all that much older than Jeff and Mike are. Despite all that, he and Mike still get treated like the kid brothers.

They're also given nicknames.

"It's so great, Carts," Izzy says, ruffling his hair. She has to stand up to do so. She's a tiny brunette with a pixie haircut and a wicked grin, and she would totally be Jeff's type if she was any less married. "Too many of us have the same last name. You and Richie are here to help switch things up." It's true as far as Jeff can tell: nearly all the pilots are related to their co-pilots, whether by marriage or by blood. Mike and Jeff are one of the few exceptions.

Jeff looks at Mike, whose eyes are starting to glaze over while Nats, Izzy's wife, talks his ear off about Dungeons and Dragons. Mike glances back. He shrugs.

Jeff turns back to Izzy, who has this look on her face that seems way too old and too knowing for the two years that separate them, like she can see right through him, even if Jeff doesn't have anything to hide. "Sure," he says.

---

Fourteen months after they first arrived at the Shatterdome, Mike and Jeff are the only ones left standing out of the potential Ranger class. And that means they get to pilot a real Jaeger.

Sapie offers up Chrome Brutus for their first test run. It's a tradition, of sorts, the old guard handing over something to the new. Eventually, Jeff and Mike will get their own Jaeger, but for now, they're forced to rely on the kindness of their fellow pilots.

"It's the least we could do as fellow Canadians," she says, "even if you two are a couple of sad white boys." She's from Nunavut, used to fly a helicopter for the Corps before she became a Ranger herself. Zeke's her younger cousin. She and Mike talk a lot about ice fishing.

"Thanks," Mike tells Sapie.

She slaps him on the shoulder. "Good luck with the big test. Not that you'll need it."

It's not until they're actually in the main hangar, ground level, looking up at the Jaegers, that the magnitude of what they're about to do hits Jeff all at once. He'd known that they were huge, has seen plenty of footage and pictures, and even once, visited a museum where they had just one humongous foot on display.

That's a different thing from seeing it all for himself. He has to crank his head up to even see the top of one. He's nothing more than a tiny speck against the sheer size of Chrome Brutus, but soon he's going to be controlling all of that, all of that size, all of that power.

"Yeah," Mike says. Jeff hadn't said anything, but maybe he didn't need to. Mike's standing shoulder to shoulder to Jeff. His head is tilted up, eyes flitting between the high ceilings, the complex network of catwalks, the sheer number of people required to make all of this happen. Something close to the awe that Jeff feels is written all across his face.

Other than that, it feels like any other trip into a simulator, and that's probably the point. Just another day of suiting up and being strapped in. That was probably the point of all their simulation exercises.

But this time, the room itself moves. They're being dropped, and instead of a placid blue ocean outside their main viewscreen, there's just the hanger, metal and concrete flying by.

The first twenty minutes are-- quiet. There are system checks, the hangar door slowly sliding open in front of them. Jeff tries not to let his nerves get to him. This is the easy part. They don't have to fight anything. This is just a drill, just a test. Over the comms, their main operational tech, Choi, says, "Prepare for neural handshake." He starts a countdown.

And then--

They're in the Drift together. Jeff's still distracted, but Mike's focused. Mike believes 'single-minded' is the highest form of compliment that he could ever receive. Mike is thinking about the first time they were neurally linked together, the disorientation of it, but also the thrill, the joy that can only be shared by two people who know each other so well.

A ramp lowers in front of them. They're almost outside.

It's noon, a clear sunny day. The ocean rises and falls, but nothing major. Nothing coming out of the Breach.

He and Mike take their first step forward. Easy. They've practiced this. They keep walking forward, one step at a time, descending into the water. The Jaeger's sensors are wired into Jeff's brain. He can feel the water surrounding them.

And then--

Jeff's thrown into a memory. He's just a kid, tiny, on a summer holiday to Florida. Summer sun and wet sand. His mom is wearing a wide-brimmed hat. She tells him not to go far, but it's so hot, and the ocean is so interesting. He runs out into the surf. The waves lap at his legs, his waist, his chest.

He gets so far out that his head is the only thing sticking out of the water. He giggles every time a wave washes over his head. His mom calls out to him from the beach.

He turns, starts to run back, but he slips. Catches a mouthful of salt water. Panics because he can't tell where the ground is, and he can't breathe, and--

"Carts!" Mike's voice echoes through the water. "Stop chasing that fucking rabbit."

Jeff fights to stay afloat, to get his bearings. He knows how to swim. He knows he knows how to swim. He's not that kid anymore. Not--

He slams back into the present. He's in a Jaeger. The Jaeger is in the water. He's fine. He's not drowning.

He looks over at Mike. Mike, who's frowning. Mike's irritation and fierce concern and terror almost give Jeff a headache, but it's a relief, too. It's a relief to have Mike with him, steadying him.

"Thanks," Jeff says, out loud, because it's not enough to just feel it.

"Just don't fuck this up for me, okay?"

"Can't promise you shit, Richie," Jeff says, though his voice is wobbly. "I can't save you from yourself."

That gets a laugh out of Mike and a warm wave of relief through the Drift. "Fuck you, too, asshole."

---

The rest of the test goes smoothly. Lots of basic movements. A kata or two. The Drift hums with the power that's under Jeff and Mike's control. It's still amazing. It still leaves Jeff a little breathless. Mike revels in all the sensory detail that they get from being in a real Jaeger.

When they get back to the Shatterdome, Jeff gets chewed out by Marshal Pentecost in the debriefing afterwards for choosing a bad time to get caught out chasing the rabbit. But afterwards, the Marshal smiles. "Congratulations," he says. "Welcome to the Rangers."

There's supposed to be a real ceremony later, but that's just a formality.

In the locker room, Mike drags Jeff into a hug, as casual about invading Jeff's space as he's always been, since that very first fight. Jeff's leaned over, so that Mike's mouth is right next to his ear.

"We fucking did it, Cartsy," Mike says. He breathes warm and wet against Jeff's skin before letting go.

Piker shows up with a bottle of vodka. "Congrats, kidlets," he says. "Good job not letting the white rabbit get the better of you. Zeke would never forgive you if you brought home Chrome Brutus in pieces."

Piker's from Chicago. The black part of it, he says, like that's supposed to mean anything to Jeff. He's a good foot shorter than Jeff is, but he has a wicked right hook. Jammer's his older brother. Likes to look at everyone with stern disapproval, even though he's only about twenty-five.

"You know us better than that, Piker," Mike says. He takes a swig from his water bottle and then holds out a hand for the vodka.

They're twenty, which is legal enough in Canada, but technically, for all that the Shatterdome is a multi-national collaboration, they are on US territory. But fuck it. They just passed the final test. They're going to be pilots. There's a Jaeger being put together in some Ohio factory in the middle of nowhere with their names on it.

Mike takes a drink straight from the bottle and then winces afterwards.

He hands it over to Jeff next without even checking with Piker to make sure that it's okay. Jeff takes his own sip. It burns on its way down. He hands the bottle back to Piker.

"Well, I can't hog you guys all to myself. What would the other Rangers say?" Piker tosses an arm around Mike's shoulders and leads them out into the hallway.

Of course, then he just leads them into a lounge where Jammer, Nats, and Izzy are already halfway to getting smashed. Nats is listing to one side, leaning heavily on Izzy, who's shorter than her. They both have dopey grins on their faces. The sight of them like that, easy and carefree for once, is rare enough that Jeff sneaks a picture of them on his phone's camera. Jammer is regaling them with a story about how he met Marshal Pentecost for the first time, making huge comical hand gestures as he does it. He almost smacks Piker in the face by accident, which causes the two of them to glare at each other for two straight minutes, communicating entirely with their eyebrows before it's settled.

There's a table in the corner filled with booze of various kinds, a mishmash of half-filled multi-colored bottles (and even a few boxes and cans). Someone hands Jeff a drink, which he downs in one go. It's a mixer of some sort, too much fruit to taste the alcohol, but Jeff's not picky right now. He punches Mike in the arm, just another celebration in the midst of this celebration. Mike grins back and punches him in the shoulder.

Sapie and Zeke show up after drinks number two or three. "Richie!" Sapie shouts. She pulls Mike into a headlock and Mike lets her. "I hear you kept Carts from breaking my Jaeger. I knew there was a reason you were my favorite."

Zeke's the quiet one out of the two of them, so he just gives Jeff a nod and a fistbump. It reminds Jeff of why he's always liked Zeke.

There are more drinks. The night drags on. At some point Jeff ends up on a couch. (He didn't even know that the Shatterdome had couches. He just assumed that it was industrial benches and shitty desk chairs.) The world is stretched out and pleasant, fuzzy at the edges, warm. Though that part might be Mike's body heat next to his, one arm thrown over the back of the couch, but his hand is pressed up against Jeff's shoulder. One thumb is tracing along Jeff's shoulder blades. It's nice.

"So," Mike says, "you think about drowning a lot?" His voice is blurry. His eyes are half-lidded, sleepy. It was a lot for one day, and they're both feeling it. His breath smells like beer.

Jeff shrugs. "Not really." Not since his parents made him take swimming lessons, anyway. They told him the Drift could be like that, memories resurfacing at the least convenient times, but he didn't expect it to be so all-consuming. "I'm glad you were there for that, though."

Mike's hand stills. It's so big and so warm. So much bigger than any girl's hands. Not as big as Jeff's dad's hands, though. "I'm glad, too." Mike says, so quiet Jeff barely hears him, but that doesn't matter. Jeff knows what he means by the sound of his voice.

---

The sirens start blaring in the middle of the night. Jeff rolls over in his bunk to see the Kaiju alert message glowing, and it's way too bright for the headache that's starting to make its presence known. Jeff hasn't been this hungover since his first shitty high school party, unsure of his tolerance level. He really should have had some food before letting Piker drag them to the party. Or some water. Something.

"Fuck," he mutters. He pulls the pillow over his head with the hopes that the noise will stop and go away and leave Jeff alone with his misery.

Someone pokes his hip. Jeff lifts the pillow up so that he can glare at Mike.

Mike's already standing, rubbing at his eyes, and grumbling under his breath. "It's not going to stop if you just ignore it," he says. They don't have to suit up for this fight, but the whole Shatterdome will be on high alert.

"Fuck," Jeff says again, but this time he sits up, slides off the top bunk bed and lands with a dull thump. He puts on a shirt, feeling the tags pressed against his chest, because he figures that's probably expected of him, but his pajama pants should be fine enough to pass as acceptable for off-duty.

Mike just keeps glaring at him like Jeff's somehow the one responsible for the Breach opening while they're both hungover and sleep-deprived. As soon as Jeff's reasonably dressed, Mike shoves Jeff out of their room and into the bustling hallway.

The best place to keep an eye on things is the cafeteria. It's packed, as it always is when a Kaiju warning goes off. Jeff is relieved to see that there are people who are more obviously in their pajamas than he is. He pushes his hair back away from his face and shoves Mike's fat ass over so that he can squeeze onto the metal bench next to him. Mike just grunts in annoyance.

For this mission, Sierra Howl -- Izzy and Nats' Jaeger -- is the one being sent out. This Kaiju isn't all that big, just a Category I, according to some of the veterans. It looks a little like a sloth if it were reptilian and vicious and its head was mostly teeth. They've apparently code-named this one Calamity.

The footage is blurry, but the comms are clear. The cafeteria usually echos from all the voices, all that noise filling up the space, but tonight, it's nothing but a dull murmur.

"We have visual," Izzy says. She doesn't even have the decency to sound the slightest bit hungover.

"Preparing to engage," Nats says.

On the holo, the Kaiju rears its head above the water, eyes glowing an unearthly blue. Sierra Howl rears back, left arm cocked. The punch catches Calamity across the jaw, picture perfect. It crashes back into the water, clearly shaken.

But then it's lurching forward, taking a swipe at Sierra Howl's chest. Sierra Howl draws back, tries to angle its giant metal body out of the way, but it's not fast enough. Calamity catches its left arm, leaves ugly black scratches down it.

Izzy yells out in pain over the comms.

Choi's voice comes on next. "Sierra Howl, status?"

Nats answers for both of them. "Shut off the sensory receptors in time. We're good." She sounds like she's talking through gritted teeth.

The next attack, Sierra Howl is ready. When Calamity surges forth, mouth open for a vicious bite, Sierra Howl catches its upper jaw in one hand and its lower jaw in the other.

And then Sierra Howl rips the Kaiju in half.

Jeff lets out the breath he was holding. His fingers start tingling. He glances down at where his right hand has been resting on the cafeteria bench. Mike has just let go from where he was squeezing them tight.

---

Sierra Howl makes it back to the Shatterdome to scattered applause. The repair crews jump onto it as soon as it enters the hangar.

Izzy is sent to the infirmary for observation. Jeff and Mike check up on her during the next day just before breakfast.

She's asleep, looking paler than normal. Streamers and balloons decorate her cot. Nats is at her side, dark bags underneath her eyes.

"Hi," Mike says. He shuffles, head bowed, like he doesn't know what to say, but he desperately wants to.

Nats makes an expression that almost resembles a smile. "If it isn't the golden children. Thanks for coming." She's from Southern California, Mexican parents, came up to Anchorage for J-tech training and fell in love with Izzy, who was here to be a pilot. Their Drift compatibility was undeniable and the rest was history.

"How is she?" Jeff asks. There isn't any visible damage, but Jeff's had enough experience with the Drift to know that it can leave other sorts of scars.

Nats shrugs. "Mostly, she just needs a lot more rest. I've been through it before. You sleep all the time, and your co-pilot freaks the fuck out."

"Oh," Jeff says, and tries not to imagine what it'd be like if it were him and Mike. It's been so easy over the last few months to take Mike's presence for granted. To assume that he'll be there every morning when Jeff wakes up, that he'll be there when Jeff goes to bed.

Nats looks him over, and her face softens. "It's not going to be as bad as you think it is. I'm not going to tell you that it's all puppies and rainbows or some shit, but you suck it up and you deal, and it gets easier."

Jeff looks over at the rise and fall of Izzy's chest, the two dog tags bright and shining against the pale hospital gown, and he tries not to feel sick to his stomach.

Mike nudges his shoulder with his own. Jeff takes a shaky breath and nudges him back. It's not a lot. For now, it's enough.

---

It only takes Izzy a couple of days to be back at one hundred percent, just in time for her to watch Mike and Jeff’s official graduation. It's mostly boring, lots of speeches and ceremony, but there is one bright spot: Marshal Pentecost gives them the name of the Jaeger they'll be piloting.

Whiskey Pursuit.

It's almost complete, due to be shipped up to Anchorage in a month. Mark-III, kitted with rockets and blades all sorts of new and neat ideas that the engineers cooked up.

Jeff is terrible at concealing his excitement over it. Mike is probably even worse.

"Jesus," Spike grumbles. "Why can't you guys fuck it out and be done with it?" He grunts as he does another deadlift. He's married to Catball, and he assumes that fucking it out will solve any sort of emotional or behavioral problem. Jeff tries not to think too hard about the implications of that. Mike finds the whole thing hilarious, because he's a sick and twisted human being. He's just lucky that he reminds Catball of her actual younger brother, so she refuses to discuss any of the gory details while he or Jeff is in earshot.

"Don't be jealous," Mike says. "Carts and I are very happy together with our new toys, which is more than you can say, old man." He finishes up his set of kettlebell swings while rolling his eyes. There's a damp patch of sweat on his gray shirt.

Spike's almost thirty, used to serve in the US Army, still keeps his hair in a buzz cut, which does nothing to hide the fact that he's starting to go bald. He spends a lot of time talking about the good old days. He says, "I don't want to hear about your kinky shit, Richie."

Mike snorts, but it's true that their love lives have been kind of sad. Jeff knows Mike's been flirting with Theresa in requisitions but hasn't slept with her yet. Jeff's been trying to make some headway with Jen, though she seems to take all his attempts at asking her out as just being friendly.

Jeff says, "We could say the same about you, Spike."

Spike just laughs.

---

They get their shiny new toy. They run exercises in it, get used to the way it handles. It's theirs, his and Mike's. All the pilots are a little weird about their Jaegers, and Jeff is no different. Mike isn't either. If he could, Mike would probably spend all his free time polishing Whiskey Pursuit until it shined.

Two months in, they're sitting in a dull class explaining the technical details of Jaeger armor, when the sirens go off. Category I, Whiskey Pursuit on deck.

Jeff takes off running for the locker room, Mike hot on his heels. It's rote by now. Suit up, strap in. But there's a new sort of buzz to it. Their first actual Kaiju. Time to put all those martial arts classes to good use. He thinks about the other pilots, gathered in the cafeteria, watching along.

"Gentlemen," Marshal Pentecost says over the comms. "This isn't a drill. This isn't a practice session. This is the real thing. I won't wish you good luck. You wouldn't be here if you weren't ready for it."

"Thank you, sir," Mike says, and somehow, he manages not to sound sarcastic.

Then the neural handshake is initiated, and they're back in the Drift. Mike's nervous and angry and focused, but he's almost always like that. Jeff's used to it.

The ocean is calm today. The sky is gray overhead. They can see the Kaiju -- codenamed: Centipede -- as it slithers over the surface of the water. It does look like a centipede. Long body. A million legs. Two spindly antennae extending from its head.

Mike takes a deep breath. "We've got this," he says, out loud.

They walk forward, one step at a time. It's Jeff's body, and it's Mike's body, and it's their Jaeger's body together, all of them perfectly in sync.

The Kaiju's antennae turn towards them. The Kaiju's head picks up.

Jeff moves out of instinct, months and months of drills kicking in. "Readying weapons systems," he says. He taps a few buttons, waiting for the chime to alert him that everything is in place. He hears his own breath as it echoes through his helmet.

Centipede moves faster, now that it has a target. Jeff can feel the way Mike's heartbeat kicks up. His own is hammering in his chest.

When Centipede is close enough, they make a grab for its tail. Whiskey Pursuit's hand crashes into the water as Centipede dodges away. Jeff grits his teeth in frustration.

Another swipe for Centipede. It dodges out of the way of this one, too. It's close enough now that it slithers its way up one of Whiskey Pursuit's legs.

"Fuck," Mike says out loud. Jeff shudders, because it feels gross, an echo of the real sensation, his own body but not.

He manages to get it together, triggers the defensive electrical field. Centipede shrieks as it gets shocked, twisting in the air before it crashes into the water. Even this tiny bit of success tastes sweet on Jeff's tongue.

They take a step back. Centipede is recovering from being electrocuted. Another grab with the left hand. This one's successful. Jeff can feel the Kaiju twisting and turning in Whiskey Pursuit's grasp. Gotcha, Mike thinks, and Jeff sends back a wave of agreement. It's a massive creature -- it could probably eat a city bus without getting indigestion -- but next to the size of Whiskey Pursuit, it's tiny. Next to what Jeff and Mike of capable of, it's nothing.

Jeff activates one of the newer weapons: a blade that juts out from the wrist of the right hand. They slash Centipede with it, cutting it in half. It shrieks again, loud enough that Jeff winces. The half they're holding onto goes still and limp in their hand.

"Kaiju signal is down," Choi says over the comms. He sounds happy and pleased.

Jeff breathes in, breathes out, feels Mike doing the same. They did it. First confirmed kill.

---

There's some celebration when they get back to the Shatterdome. Jeff feels lit up, a hum of electricity under his skin. He faced down a Kaiju today. He felt it wriggling in his (his Jaeger's) hand. He killed it. He and Mike together. It's not exactly what Jeff imagined it would be, but it's not that different, either. Marshal Pentecost shakes their hands, tells them that they proved their mettle today, and Jeff doesn't need to be in the Drift to read the pride on Mike's face.

The celebrations also include drinking with the other Rangers. Then lots of paperwork. ("It's a lot less awful when you're buzzed," Zeke says with a careless shrug, and Jeff gets the distinct impression that Sapie makes him do her paperwork as well.)

They sack out early, exhausted after the stress of the day.

---

At first, Jeff doesn't realize he's dreaming. He's in his bed, dozing. It's like any other night. Nothing special at all.

But then there's something crawling up his leg, underneath the sheets. He tries to kick it off, tries to reach down, pull it off. But it skitters out of reach. He thrashes, trying to find it, to get it off--

He wakes up as he reaches the edge of his mattress, but that's not enough to keep him from falling. He lands on the floor with a thud.

"Fuck," Jeff says.

Mike rolls over so that he can to look at Jeff, eyes half-lidded and sleepy. "Hmm?" he asks. His voice is muffled. "Cartsy, are injuring yourself while sleeping?"

"Fuck you," Jeff says. He looks up at the top bunk. Everything about climbing back up there is really unappealing right now.

He must make a face or something, because Mike says, "You can sleep here." He rolls over again, leaving just a sliver of empty bed. Jeff has no idea how this is supposed to work, but he's tired, and he wants to get some sleep.

He climbs in next to Mike, gets stuck being the big spoon because he's taller. They're pressed right up against each other, Mike's back to Jeff's front. Mike smells like booze and shampoo. His body is warm, practically a furnace. It should be weird, too close, too intimate, but Jeff has the memory of the first time Mike jerked off, so this probably is less weird than that.

He closes his eyes and falls asleep.

---

Their life settles into a comfortable rhythm.

The PPDC brass usually doesn't send out more than one Jaeger at a time, so most of their time is spent waiting. Or training. Or listening to scientists give lectures about the Drift or Kaiju anatomy. Or eating. But mostly waiting.

Mike manages to rustle up some sticks and a ball from somewhere, and finds a mostly unused storage room with enough space to play hockey. Somehow he even manages to get some of the Americans to join their weird rec league. Jeff and Mike always play on the same team, even though some people grumble about how it's really not fair. Too bad for everyone else.

They get another two confirmed kills, nothing more dangerous than Category I, but they're still kills, they're still proof that what Jeff is doing is worthwhile, that Jeff is making an impact on the world. It's still a rush after every one. It almost doesn't seem real at times, that they're capable of bringing down a Kaiju, even with the full power of a Jaeger at their disposal, but their record shows otherwise.

After their third one, Mike decides he needs to get a tattoo to commemorate it or some shit. He heads into Anchorage and comes back with this weird tentacled monstrosity on his right shoulder that looks more derpy than terrifying. "Jesus Christ, that is ugly," Jeff says.

"Just like your face," Mike says.

Much to Jeff's consternation, the nightmares never quite fully go away, and he doesn't get any better at stopping himself from falling off the top bunk. Falling off the top bunk is awful. Mike is always extra cranky the mornings after. After a while, Jeff takes to just tucking in behind Mike at the beginning of the night, to falling asleep to the sound of Mike's heavy breath in his ears.

Mike doesn't ever complain, out loud or in his head, and Jeff doesn't question it.

---

It doesn't strike Jeff how long he's been a Ranger until there's a new batch of trainees.

He and Mike are leaving the training mats while a new group of them filters in. They're all wide-eyed and eager. Jeff tries to remember what that was like. Now, he can wander around the overly warm room that smells a little too strongly like the inside of a used shoe and feel nothing but familiarity and comfort.

"Look at these babies," Mike says, shaking his head.

Jeff punches his shoulder in a way that means, be nice to them.. He and Mike are only twenty-two, but it does feel like a lot longer than four years. Jeff gets quiet on the phone back home to his parents, to Christine. He's not sure what to say to them, even the parts that aren't classified. In the empty spaces, he ends up talking a lot about their rec league and about how Mike is a competitive asshole. They seem entertained by Jeff's stories, but he can tell they want more, and Jeff doesn't know what to give them.

These kids, though. Jeff all of a sudden understands why their fellow Rangers treated them the way they did. You don't really count until you've seen some shit, but it doesn't hurt to help shepherd some of them along to get to that point.

He must be staring for too long, because Mike elbows him in the ribs. "Stop being creepy," he says. He sounds dead serious, but Jeff can tell he's being teasing by the quirk of his lips, the slight brightness of his eyes.

"I'm not," Jeff protests.

"You haven't gotten any since Jen, and now you're so pathetic you're mooning over the newbies."

There was a really great three weeks when Jeff could say Jen was his a girlfriend. He even took her to an off-base restaurant and everything. It didn't last. Mike, on the other hand, has been fucking his way through the Shatterdome, men and women both. He'll come back to their shared room smelling like sweat and sex, and he'll shove Jeff over and crawl into bed without saying anything. But it's not like Jeff doesn't know or won't find out the next time they end up in the Drift together.

Jeff says, "Stop projecting, man." And he leaves it at that.

---

It's another day, another Kaiju siren. Evening, when everyone is already gathered in the cafeteria for dinner. Polar Sleight's the one that gets called in to suit up. Jeff catches sight of Spike and Catball grumbling to themselves as they leave their half-finished trays on the tables, only stopping to give each other a wet, messy kiss before they take off running into the hallway.

This Kaiju is big but slow, codenamed: Executioner. A good matchup against Polar Sleight, a Mark II that hits hard but isn't very agile.

Jeff keeps expecting things to get easier, but every time, it's the same clench of fear in his belly. Mike's exuding that same sort of tension next to him.

They watch together as Executioner gets a good shot in, taking the head off of Polar Sleight in a swipe of one of its paws. The Jaeger was off balance already when it happens, and it goes toppling backwards into the water, leaving behind a giant splash.

The whole cafeteria is silent. Marshal Pentecost says, over the loudspeakers, "Chrome Brutus, Savage Tundra, I want you ready to go five minutes ago."

Sapie and Zeke, Piker and Jammer, are out the door before he finishes speaking.

Jeff stares at his hands. He wants to be out there, too, but he knows why he's not. Need to make sure that they still have backup in case anything else goes wrong. He glances at Mike. Mike's lips are pulled into a grimace, eyes angry and dark. It could have been them out there. Jeff's always known, but it feels sickeningly real right now.

Even though it managed to take down Polar Sleight, Executioner is no match against two pissed off Jaeger teams. There's no applause when Choi announces that its signal is gone. Mike huffs out a breath that almost could be a sob. There's an empty space in Jeff's chest that Jeff refuses to poke at.

That night, Jammer organizes an impromptu wake. He's the most religious out of all of them, and at the beginning of it, he reads a psalm about walking through the shadow of the valley of death while Piker throws an arm around his shoulders. All the pilots pass around a bottle of tequila and share stories about Spike and Catball. About the weird nasal thing that Spike did when he laughed, about the way Catball's taste in music was so atrocious, she was banned from touching the weight room speaker system, about the two of them together. They always managed to get the whole base in on their anniversary celebrations, so when March rolled around, there would be flower petals strewn all throughout the cafeteria, Barry Manilow over the Shatterdome's speaker systems, extravagant repairs made to Polar Sleight's joints.

When Jeff is finally too exhausted to keep his eyes open, he crawls into bed behind Mike, wraps an arm around Mike's chest, holds him as close as he possibly can.

---

There are more missions. More fights. The Kaiju get nastier, but Jeff and Mike get better. Every fight is a mixture of different feelings: relief, exhilaration, fear, accomplishment. Every fight is Mike's presence: bright and fierce, guiding the way.

Their downtime takes on its own sorts of routines as well. Mike and Jeff win their intramural hockey league. It did cause a minor brouhaha since Mike was organizing and winning it all until Choi rolled his eyes and offered to take over the organizational responsibilities. His only qualification was that he didn't give a shit about hockey. For winning, they get awarded an Alaskan souvenir mug that has a polar bear on it. Choi tells them that they need to give it back before their next 'season', but Jeff proudly drinks coffee out of it as often as he can.

There are a few trainees who are showing promise, who get invited to sit with the Rangers. Tals: Chinese guy from Vancouver, always cheerful, always smiling. Renny: his older step-sister, more serious, studied marine biology for a while. Miri: Jewish, from Seattle, had ambitions for getting an Olympic medal in Judo before the IOC cancelled the Games semi-permanently.

Apparently this class is thin on trainees who are Drift compatible. Even Tals and Renny are barely scraping by in their exercises.

"We lucked out, didn't we?" Jeff asks. It's night, and Mike is curled up next to him. That makes it easier to say, to put the feeling into words. He sometimes wonders what it would have been like if he'd never been matched up against Mike in that high school gym. What strange roads his life might have taken. The most important person in his life right now, and Jeff wouldn't even know him. Jeff wouldn't know the stupid way Mike laughs at his own jokes or the coiled, careful way Mike moves when on the mats or the softness that crosses Mike's face gets when he's on the phone to his parents or his brothers.

"Sure did," Mike says. "Now shut up so I can get my beauty sleep." He kicks Jeff's shin, but there's no heat to it, so it's more of a tap than a kick.

"That's going to take a lot more than sleep," Jeff says into Mike's hair.

---

They're just rolling out of bed when the Kaiju alarm goes off again.

"Couldn't even have waited for me to get coffee," Mike grumbles, pushing the hair out of his eyes. He's been letting it get a little long. He'll need to get it cut soon to make sure it stays regulation length.

"They're really bad at respecting our schedules," Jeff says.

He follows after Mike as they shuffle out into the hallway. Every Kaiju is another shot of adrenaline, another fight to take on, another opportunity to win. But Jeff would be lying if it isn't inconvenient every once in a while.

They've been through this routine enough times before. Strap in, wait for the drop, watch the hangar doors to open, feel the neural handshake linking his mind to Mike's. After that, it's just one step at a time.

The Kaiju is big. It reminds Jeff of the rancor from Return of the Jedi, except obviously, a gazillion times larger. Its eyes are huge and black. When it snarls, mouth open, its teeth are dripping with Kaiju Blue. This one has been codenamed Enmity, Category II.

Their first punch makes contact, catches Enmity's jaw, causing it to snap backwards. It rears up, standing taller, and howls.

Mike activates one of the cannons, putting a few missiles into Enmity's chest. It does damage, but Enmity is still lurching forward. It reaches out for a swipe, and--

---

Jeff wakes up a hospital bed in the infirmary. White sheets are tucked underneath his arms. Machines are beeping slowly and steadily all around him.

He tries to sit up, but his head starts to spin, the world tilting sideways. A medic rushes over. Pretty. Blonde. Jeff's pretty sure Mike's slept with her at some point, but he can't remember her name. "Oh," she says. "You're awake."

"What--" Jeff croaks out. "Where--" Mike's not here, and Jeff knows Mike should be here. It could just be that Mike went to take a piss or hop in a shower for a few minutes, but Jeff doesn't know, and he needs to--

"You were knocked out during the fight," she says. "Mike had to finish off the fight for the both of you. Took a lot out of him." She nods towards a different bed, and if Jeff squints, he can make out Mike's dark hair. Jeff feels himself relax, the tight knot in his chest loosening. They're alive. They're okay. He takes a deep breath.

"Thanks," he says. It's so difficult to keep his eyes open, so he closes them, and drifts back off into sleep.

---

When Jeff wakes up again, he's feeling a lot better. His head is clearer. His stomach is rumbling. He sits up and glances over at Mike's bed. If he's lucky, Mike will be also be awake, will be downing five cups of coffee and grumbling about how the infirmary food is even worse than the cafeteria food.

But no, Mike's still asleep. His face is drawn and pale. There's a few days of stubble on cheeks. Jeff feels his stomach sink again, but he quiets that feeling. Mike will be okay.

A doctor notices that Jeff's awake, and that means getting grilled on everything to check to see if he has a concussion. He gets to eat some breakfast. They let him back to his room to put on some proper clothes.

Mike sleeps through all of it. Jeff sits by his side, because there's nowhere else he wants to be. The other pilots show up to pay their dues. Sapie sits down next to Jeff and pets Mike's hair a little. ("Richie's tough. He'll make it.") Zeke tells Jeff weird stories about spelunking. ("Always bring spare batteries, man. I'm telling you.") Piker sneaks a flask of whiskey in and doesn't say anything. Jammer gives a half-hearted lecture about how it's always the worst the first time you have to go through it. ("Just like, it's important to be grateful for what we have. Piker and I lost an uncle and a couple cousins in that LA attack two years ago. Shit was fucked up because it wasn't even the attack that killed them. The Kaiju Blue afterwards did.") Izzy and Nats give Jeff a big hug, and Nats lets him tuck his nose into her shoulder. He doesn't cry, but he thinks about it.

("You're both here," Izzy says. "You're going to be in this together. That's the important part.")

---

Mike wakes up the next morning. "Fuck," he mumbles out. "Please tell me that they have some of the good painkillers."

"Fuck you, Richie," Jeff says. "You don't deserve them for scaring the shit out of me like that."

"You're all heart, Carts," Mike says.

Some medics hustle over, nudging Jeff out of the way so that they can make Mike go through a similar battery of tests that Jeff went through the day before.

They don't tell Jeff the exact prognosis, but from what they tell him, he can tell that it's not great. They're keeping Mike in the infirmary overnight. They're prescribing Mike the good painkillers. Mike puts some food into his body and goes back to sleep.

Jeff sticks around, rattling with nerves and anxious worry. Renny, who's kind of a brownnoser but not in a too obnoxious way, grabs him a book from his room, and that helps, just a bit. It's not that he misses Mike's voice, Mike's conversational skills. Jeff's spent plenty of time just being quiet around him. Mike's not the chattiest guy himself. But this isn't them passing around a flask on the banks of an Alaskan beach in the middle of the summer, watching the sun slowly set over the water. This is Mike being kept overnight because the doctors have no fucking clue what to do with him.

Jeff ends up thinking about that stupid fucking pamphlet, Everything You Wanted To Know About The Drift (But Were Too Afraid To Ask), about one of the sections that detailed exactly why it was so dangerous to pilot a Jaeger alone, the neural overload from trying to control that giant machine all by yourself. Jeff remembers thinking that it'd never be relevant, because he never wanted to pilot a Jaeger alone, not if he could have Mike with him to help him out.

The infirmary chairs are shitty and way too short for someone of Jeff's height, but he falls asleep in one anyway.

---

The doctors keep Mike around for a week. They don't tell Jeff much, but Jeff can hear them murmuring about "neural load" and "pain levels" and "that study seven years ago".

But at least Mike is awake for most of it. He's cranky as fuck, even while high on the oxy they have him on and recovering from whatever brain injury he sustained while Jeff was out of commission.

"Richie, come on," Jeff says, on one of the days when Mike tries to get to the bathroom without assistance and then half stumbles onto the ground.

"I'm not a goddamn invalid," Mike grumbles, but he lets Jeff help him up.

He's heavier than Jeff expected. His face gets mashed into Jeff's shoulder. Jeff doesn't mind much, because Mike is solid and real in his arms, exuding heat and annoyance.

He leaves Mike to deal with the toilet himself, but there's no denying that Mike is still swaying unsteady on his feet.

Jeff's pretty sure that trying to help him out now would mean getting punched -- not that it would hurt much with Mike as weak as he is -- so he stares at the floor, tries to ignore the fear that's lodged in his throat.

He wants-- he wants to go back, to duck that attack, to refuse this mission, to--

"Stop sulking," Mike snaps, standing in front of Jeff again. His eyes are dark and tired, and his grimace is awful to look at. He lets Jeff wrap an arm around his back, and Jeff leads him back to the hospital bed. He's asleep almost as soon as his head hits the pillow.

Jeff watches him. Watches him and waits.

---

There's a bit of a party when Mike gets released, because the Rangers never give up an excuse to party. Mike can't drink due to his meds, but he does accept a jelly doughnut and gets powdered sugar all over his fingers and mouth.

Jeff drinks, though. Not enough to get totally wasted, but enough to feel buzzed, mellow, after the stress of the last week. Somehow, that doesn't stop him from ending up with his head in Mike's lap, staring at the ceiling as his knees hook over the arm of the couch.

"I--" Jeff says. "I'm glad you're okay."

Mike looks down at him, still too pale, but half of a smile creasing his face. There's something in his eyes that Jeff doesn't recognize, though. And Jeff really wants to. Jeff reaches up before he realizes he's doing it, cups Mike's cheek -- still covered in a week's worth of beard -- in one hand. Mike doesn't react besides huffing out a soft breath. Jeff wants -- he doesn't quite know what he wants -- it's twisted up in his chest, confused and painful. Mike says, "Me too, bud." His voice is soft, almost gentle.

And then he pulls away.

---

Their first time back in the simulator is an unmitigated disaster. As soon as the neural handshake is established, Jeff is struck by blinding pain for all of five seconds before Mike rips his helmet off and vomits onto the eerily white floors. Jeff's stomach rolls with sympathetic nausea. Because of the sudden break in their connection, the space in his head where Mike usually sits feels tender, sore.

Mike gets sent back to the infirmary for more tests while Jeff strips off his suit in the locker room, trying not to worry too much and probably failing.

He heads to the infirmary as soon as he's dressed. He gets there just in time to see Mike get into an argument with one of the doctors. "I'm fine," Mike says. "It was just-- I wasn't expecting it this time."

The doctor frowns. "Look, the Drift tech has gotten better, but it's still not designed to be handled by a single pilot. What your brain experienced-- it was traumatic. You should be taking things slower. Let yourself recover before throwing yourself back into your routines."

Jeff knows Mike better than to think that'll change Mike's mind at all. "I'm fine," Mike says again, but he doesn't protest when they keep him in the infirmary again overnight.

---

On doctor's orders, Mike's not allowed into the Drift for another three months. It's the longest time they've spent apart from each other, mentally, since their first meeting.

Mike doesn't take the news much better than Jeff, but he throws himself full force into the rest of his training. He'll spend longer in the weight room than anyone else, go more aggressive on the mats than he ever did before, to the point of recklessness. This would all be fine if he could keep food down, but his appetite seems to be scattershot, and if he eats too much, his stomach revolts, leaving him heaving over a toilet bowl. Jeff can tell that he's losing weight.

"Will you stop fucking hovering?" Mike snaps during lunch.

Jeff thought he was being subtle by saving an extra cookie for Mike, but apparently not.

And then there are the nosebleeds, which come and go, seemingly at random. One minute, Mike will be fine. The next minute, there will be blood dripping over Mike's mouth, onto Mike's shirt. "It's just the stupid HVAC," Mike grumbles as he pulls out another tissue. "The air is too fucking dry."

It's bullshit, because Mike's lived in the Shatterdome for fucking years without any problems. It pisses Jeff off, not just because Mike is lying, but because Mike thinks that he can get away with lying to Jeff.

And the worst part might be the fact that there's still an empty spot in Jeff's head where Mike used to be. He thought it might be easier this time around, with Mike right in front of him. Somehow, it's not that simple.

Jeff ends up dreaming a lot about the surface of Mike's lake, smooth and unbroken in the hazy orange light of the rising sun.

---

Their second attempt in the simulator goes better, but not by much. The neural handshake takes forever to complete, and then even when it does, Mike keeps sliding out of phase. His mind feels slippery in a way that it never has before. Jeff can't get a read on his thoughts or his memories at all. It's full of static, a buzz that fills up Jeff's head until he can't quite focus on anything by himself.

After half an hour without any progress, the session is cut short.

Mike radiates annoyance and frustration, and even without the neural link, some of that bleeds over to Jeff.

"You have to stop resisting the connection," one of the techs says to Mike as he helps detach Mike from the machine. He's a new one, started two months ago and hasn't yet realized how not to get in Mike's way when Mike's in a mood.

"I'm not fu--" Mike rubs his right temple. "I'm not resisting it."

"You don't get to keep secrets in the Drift," the tech says, sounding like he just read that out of textbook and wants to regale everyone with his wisdom.

Jeff watches as Mike grits his teeth, but much to his surprise, Mike doesn't say anything else.

"I don't--" Jeff starts to say once they get back to their room. "That guy doesn't know what the fuck he's talking about. It's not your fault."

Mike grimaces, and then he turns to stare at the wall -- the one they've wallpapered with photos of their families, their misadventures in Anchorage, their fellow Rangers and techs and trainees over the years -- avoiding Jeff's gaze. "I'll take the top bunk tonight," Mike says.

---

Can you miss someone you see every day? Jeff has a lot of time to spend pondering that question. The bunk bed that was always way too small for the two of them feels huge, cold, empty without Mike there. At night, Jeff keeps himself still and awake, listening for Mike's gentle, familiar snoring, just to remind himself that Mike is there.

Mike's never been much of a morning person, but it's more difficult to get him out of bed these days. It's not that he's a dick about it or anything, it's just that Jeff has to shake him harder, prod him more often to get him awake, like he's clinging harder to sleep.

Sometimes, Mike will go back into the infirmary for more testing, refusing to let Jeff come along with him, and he'll come back tight-lipped and frowning. He doesn't say anything to Jeff about it. His eyes slide away from Jeff when Jeff tries to talk to him.

Jeff hopes that the other Rangers will be able to help Mike out, but Mike shuts down around them even more than he does around Jeff. Even Sapie can't get him to talk about fishing, which is nothing short of a miracle.

Mike's started eating more, but it's still not enough, and that makes him slower, sluggish, even when he's clearly putting all of himself into a fight. One of the newest trainees, the younger Beckett brother, manages to lay Mike out flat in all of about five seconds on a lucky strike that Mike was too slow to block. Mike puts on a good face about it, but Jeff can see how he's seething underneath the surface.

"You okay?" Jeff asks that night, with the lights off, the two of them in their respective beds. When they first started, they'd sometimes chat between their bunks, sharing excitement, worries, fears, staying up through the night just to keep each other company. They haven't done it for years.

Mike takes a deep breath. "It's just-- I'm fucking useless," he says. "I can't even--"

"You're not," Jeff says. It carves things out of him to hear Mike talk this way. He wants, he wants, to put this feeling into words. Once, it would have been easy. They didn't even need words.

Mike huffs out a breath, and Jeff can't even tell if that's supposed to punctuate a roll of his eyes or a shrug of his shoulders.

"You're not," Jeff says again, and he hopes Mike believes him.

---

Jeff finds himself watching Mike more, now. It's in part because Mike is being especially awful at taking care of himself right now, and also in part because Jeff likes the reassurance that Mike hasn't disappeared off the face of the earth.

Which is how he ends up noticing things.

The way Mike's hair curls around his forehead, the curve of his spine, the sharp jut of his nose. Jeff has to stop himself from touching Mike at inopportune times, from running his fingers over Mike's shoulders, from tracing Mike's lips with his thumb. It's probably some sort of transference thing, his body craving what his mind can't get anymore.

Mike feels so far away. Jeff just wants to know how to get closer.

"What?" Mike asks. They're sitting in the cafeteria, dinner, and Mike's just pushing his food around his plate, but Jeff's been distracted by Mike's hands for at least five minutes. It's weird, because he knows those hands so well, but they seem so unfamiliar right now, like when you say a word too many times and it stops sounding like a word anymore.

"Nothing," Jeff says. He stares down at his own half-finished plate, and he tries not to think about what it would feel like to have Mike's hands on his body, Mike's hands pushing him around, Mike's hands holding him down, Mike's hands touching Jeff's face, Jeff's hair, Jeff's neck.

Maybe once Mike would have called him out on his obvious bullshit, but Mike just says, "Okay," and leaves it at that.

---

Jeff gets called to the simulator again. Without Mike. When he gets to the locker room, he finds Miri already suited up, ready to go. She's one of the older trainees, good on the mats, an excellent fighter, especially when the fight gets taken to the ground, but they can't find a good Drift partner for her, and she didn't enter the PPDC with one. Jeff gives her a friendly punch on the shoulder -- the kind he liked to give to Mike before a session -- and she looks at him like he's grown another head.

Their session is-- okay.

He and Miri aren't particularly Drift compatible. She ends up chasing the rabbit into a happy memory of her dead father, and while Jeff does his best to get her out of there, it does take them at least ten minutes.

Afterwards, Miri says, "Thanks for that."

Jeff says, "Sure."

It's awkward, stilted. Jeff knows she's embarrassed that he saw one of her most private memories, but he can't do anything about that. That's the whole thing about the Drift. No secrets. No barriers.

Once he's showered and changed, Jeff finds Mike napping on the Rangers' only couch. A baseball cap is pulled over his eyes. His hands are resting on his stomach. He looks peaceful in a way that Jeff hasn't seen for a while. Jeff doesn't wake him.

---

"I just wanted to understand why, sir," Jeff says.

He's sitting in Marshal Pentecost's office, hands folded into his lap. The Marshal's office is small, cramped with the amount of furniture that's been fit into it, desks, chairs, framed photographs of a small Asian girl, trophies and medals from the Marshal's time as a Jaeger pilot. Marshal Pentecost raises an eyebrow, "I would think that's pretty obvious, Ranger," he says. His voice doesn't give anything away.

"Richie's my co-pilot. I know he's not at one hundred percent right now, but I don't think it makes sense for me to be paired up with anyone else," Jeff says.

Pentecost fixes him with a look that could mean anything. "So, here's where I am," Pentecost says. "I've got a fully functioning Jaeger. I've got a fully functioning Jaeger pilot. I've got a class of potential pilots who are having a hard time piloting with each other. Exactly what would you propose that I do differently?"

Jeff just frowns, tries to meet Pentecost's eyes, but it's not like he has an answer either. "Just until Richie's back?" he asks. He tries not to sound like a five year old who wants their favorite toy returned to them, but he's not sure he succeeds. He does want to pilot again. He misses the feel of Whiskey Pursuit all around him, all that power, all that metal, under his command. But he's not sure it will ever feel quite right without Mike in there with him.

Pentecost sighs. "It's not that I'm unsympathetic, you know," he says. "I'm sure you've heard about what happened to my co-pilot."

Jeff nods. There are plenty of stories about Pentecost floating around. Best friends. Radiation poisoning. Cancer. Death in a quiet hospital bed in Hawaii. Even a solo piloting jaunt in there as well. "Yeah," he says.

"We're at war," Pentecost continues. "We didn't choose it, but we're in one anyway. There will be casualties. I understand that you and Mr. Richards are-- close, but right now, he is not capable of piloting a Jaeger, and you are. We have to make do with what we're given."

Jeff tries to breathe. "How did it feel?" he asks. He's almost afraid to ask the question. He never let himself think about it, what his life would be like after. And in those rare glimpses, when he went to a retirement party or saw someone discharged after a major injury, he'd always assumed that Mike would be with him. Mike would be the one who would help Jeff make that call. What kept Pentecost here without his other half?

"You know what it felt like, Ranger," Pentecost says, and that's probably the worst answer of all.

---

When Jeff gets back to the room, Mike's in the middle of packing up all his shit. Jeff ends up standing in the doorway for a bit, just watching Mike as he shoves various articles of clothing into his suitcase, not even bothering to fold them. Mike's dog tags aren't hanging around his neck anymore. The metal chain isn't visible above the collar of his shirt.

Mike obviously tweaks to the fact that Jeff is there, because he turns around and raises one eyebrow, staring Jeff down like he's daring Jeff to say something. He hasn't shaved this morning. Maybe he's decided he doesn't need to anymore.

"So," Jeff says. What the hell can he even say to this?

"I figured it would be good for me to get the fuck out while I can," Mike says.

"They wouldn't-- they wouldn't kick you out," Jeff says. He just a had a conversation with the Marshal about that. Or he thinks it was about that. Hopefully.

Mike shrugs. "There isn't any reason why I should stick around anyway." He turns back to the suitcase. Jeff feels like there's a boulder in his stomach. "Maybe I can get them to send me to someplace warmer. There's a Shatterdome in LA."

"The beaches suck now," Jeff says. Repeat Kaiju attacks have left them poisoned and ugly.

"Whatever," Mike says. "Better than here." Away from you, he doesn't say. He starts to circle the room, collecting his things, his towel, his toothbrush. He doesn't touch any of the things that they've collected together. The Anchorage snow globe. The action figure based on Whiskey Pursuit. The wall full of pictures. The mug they earned from winning their rec league.

"Mike--" Jeff says. "It's just-- temporary." He wants to beg Mike to stay, but he knows that once Mike's made a decision, it's nearly impossible to move him on it.

Mike stops short for a moment, back still to Jeff. "We both know it's not," Mike says. "I hoped-- but there's no fucking point in pretending, okay? They've already got you training with other pilots."

It shouldn't feel like an accusation of infidelity, and yet-- "It's temporary. Who knows if any of them will work out."

Mike doesn't say anything for a few moments. Jeff watches the rise and fall of his shoulders "You're going to have to let me go eventually, Jeff," he says, voice quiet.

It's like getting hit in the solar plexus (something Jeff has a little experience with) all of the air leaving his lungs all at once. It hadn't felt real until Mike said it, that Mike was really leaving, and this might be-- this might be the last time Jeff ever sees Mike again. Because Jeff's stuck here and Mike could just fuck off to god knows where. And Mike would do it, too. Jeff knows Mike would do it. Jeff's been a fucking coward for weeks, afraid of all the wrong things, like he didn't know how to be brave without Mike there to be brave for him.

Jeff closes the distance between them. He puts a hand on Mike's shoulder, spins Mike around so that Mike has to face him. Jeff says, "You can't fucking leave. I fucking love you, okay?"

He only gets one look at Mike's startled expression before he leans in to kiss him. Mike's shorter, but he's taller than most of the girls Jeff's kissed before. Jeff curls a hand behind Mike's neck, feeling the soft, thick hair there. He breathes Mike in, soap and shampoo and the eggs he had with breakfast. Mike's lips are chapped, familiar, closed. Mike's not kissing back.

Mike gets two hands between them, pushes Jeff away with more strength than Jeff knew he had in him. "Don't," Mike says, shortly.

"Mike--" Jeff says.

"Don't fucking do this to me," Mike says. He turns his head away. He wipes his nose with the back of his hand. It comes away bloody. "Fuck."

Jeff grabs him a tissue, holds it out for him. Mike takes it without comment. Jeff hopes it might mean something, that Mike might--

The holo chimes, alerting Jeff that he's due to be at hand-to-hand combat training in five minutes.

"Sounds like you have someplace to be," Mike says. His head is tilted back to stem the bleeding, even though that doesn't actually help. Jeff can see red blood staining the white tissue. "Teach all the babies how to fight."

Jeff wants to protest, wants to stay, but he thinks he might be on thin ice with the Marshal as it is. And Mike-- Mike isn't going to change his mind, not like this. Jeff won't get anything else out of him. That's not how Mike works.

Jeff leaves.

Mike's not there when he gets back.

---

Jeff plans on spending the evening alone, but the other Rangers show up at his door, booze in hand. It's not like Jeff is going to turn that down.

It's quiet for the most part. No one says much. But it reminds Jeff too much of Spike and Catball's wake. Everyone in fucking mourning.

When he's drunk enough to be honest, Jeff says, "Fuck this. Richie's not dead."

Izzy wraps an arm around Jeff's shoulders and ruffles his hair, and Jeff doesn't know if he wants to scream at her or cry on her or both. Izzy's been here long enough that she'd met some of the Mark I pilots, the ones who'd either died from fighting Kaiju or the radiation poisoning after. Izzy knows what it's like to be left behind. Izzy says, "That doesn't mean he's not gone."

---

The dreams get worse, like Jeff's subconscious is trying to resolve Mike's absence by torturing him. Their memories will merge in weird ways: the first time they go on the ice, lacing up two different pairs of skates with an odd mix of brothers and sister; a school dance with two different dates in two different venues; diving into water that is both the dark murky consistency of a lake and the harsh chlorinated smell of an indoor pool.

There are days when Jeff will wake up thinking he needs to call his mom except it's Wednesday and only Mike calls his mom on Wednesdays.

The worst dreams are the ones where Jeff shows up, Jeff as Mike used to see him. Did Jeff really smile that much, laugh that loudly? Was his haircut really that terrible? Was he really that warm, that affectionate? Was Mike really that happy just to see him, to talk to him, to be around him?

The memories Jeff has access to are the ones from before the incident, and Jeff can't tell if that's better or worse. If it's better to have this version of Mike in his head, untouched by whatever pain and anger came afterwards. Or if it's worse that he can't see what Mike was going through, that there's a whole messy section of Mike's life that Jeff doesn't get to know.

But it's not like he knows anything about what Mike is doing right now.

Mike doesn't call. Mike doesn't send e-mails. Mike doesn't send regular mail. Mike has vanished from Jeff's life, and he's left a crater in his wake. Jeff kind of hates him.

---

The next potential co-pilot that Jeff's paired up with is Tals. Tals is a chill dude, nothing too emotional or intrusive. His favorite place growing up was the Vancouver Aquarium, and his mind is a little like sitting around watching fish swim. Soothing. Pleasant. He and Renny work well together, but they've never been close. They've always been just a little distant from one another, and it shows when they pilot together.

The session is fine, nothing spectacular, except for the part where Jeff fucks it up.

One second he's in the simulation room waiting for the neural handshake, and the next second he's back in his room watching Mike pack. It comes back in all its awful vivid detail: the way Mike's shoulders are slumped, the little gaps in their room where Mike's stuff used to be, the way Mike had gone stiff and still when Jeff had kissed him.

Jeff eventually manages to claw his way out of the memory, back to pure white of the simulation room. They manage to finish the tests, slowly and awkwardly. But now, he's the one feeling humiliated for chasing the rabbit, for airing out all of his dirty laundry for Tals to see.

Afterwards, in the locker room, Jeff's the one apologizing. "I'm sorry," he says. "I just--" He waves a hand trying to convey everything that's happened, and Tals was in his head, so he probably gets it.

Tals gives him a solidarity punch in the shoulder. "It's cool," he says. "I know you and Richie were tight." He says it lightly, like he thinks Jeff's fragile right now or some shit.

"Yeah," Jeff says. "Sure."

---

More trainees. More test co-pilots. More paperwork. The weeks stretch into months. No one gels with Jeff quite right. Jeff had a good-- Jeff had Mike, so he knows what it's like when it's working.

It's not working.

Two of the newest class of trainees (Jeff hasn't bothered to learn their names) end up piloting Whiskey Pursuit for their final test, and they even manage to not break it. Jeff is jealous, watching them move together, but it's a faint sort of ache.

He brings booze to help them celebrate, but he ditches the party early. He ends up in his room -- no one's dared to give him a roommate yet -- and climbs up to the top bunk so that he can stare at the ceiling. It's bare except for the single fluorescent strip. Jesus, stewing alone in his room. That's what Jeff's life has been reduced to.

He's been assigned more training rotations, filling the time he's not spending in the simulator with other things that can be helpful. A couple of Kaiju have appeared in the last month. Category II. The other teams have been handling it fine. They're all old hands at this.

When he was sixteen, all he wanted to do was join the PPDC, to become a Jaeger pilot, and he was one. He was a good one. Six confirmed kills in total. But it seems like that life, that dream is slipping out of reach. Was this what it was like for Mike, in the end? Jeff wishes he knew.

He rubs his eyes, covers his face with his hands. For a moment, he just focuses on his own breath, the rise and fall of his chest. It'll be fine. It has to be fine. He's just-- he's stuck. But he can get unstuck. He can.

---

More paperwork.

Jeff gets called into Marshal Pentecost's office, again.

"I got your request for extended leave," Pentecost says from across the desk. He looks up from the form that Jeff filled out and submitted yesterday. "I thought I might want to talk to you for a bit before granting it."

Jeff nods. "Of course, sir," he says. He was kind of hoping it would be one of those things where some bored secretary gives their approval without needing a whole lot of brass intervention. But apparently Jeff isn't that lucky.

"This is the first time you've asked for leave this long," Pentecost says. "And it's obvious to everyone that you're... dissatisfied with your current situation."

Jeff manages to keep his expression steady, but he doubts he's fooling anyone. "It's just been a rough few months," he says. "I think I need some time and some space to get my head together."

"Of course," Pentecost says. "And if I were to mention that I have the contact information for Michael Richards, formerly of the PPDC, that wouldn't mean anything to you?"

Jeff flushes hot then cold all at once, stomach sinking at being caught out. He swallows. "If you have that information, sir," he manages to get out, "I would be really grateful for it."

Pentecost raises his eyebrows, but he doesn't seem at all surprised. "You can have it," he says. He signs off on Jeff's paperwork right in front of him. "Take as much time as you need."

Something of Jeff's surprise must be written all over Jeff's face, because Pentecost almost smiles. "I did tell you that I was sympathetic to your situation. Maybe this time you'll believe me."

---

Kenora is pretty much exactly how Jeff expected it to be from Mike's memories, especially this early in the summer. Sleepy and warm. Lush green grass. Lush green trees. Water that glitters in the afternoon sunshine.

It's so quiet compared to the bustle of the Shatterdome. Jeff nearly runs over a rabbit as it scampers across the road.

Mike's house is small, can't have more than two bedrooms, and it's surrounded by tall trees. It's bland, almost sort of run down, with an unkempt lawn and white, vinyl siding. A black SUV sits in the driveway. It's not right up against the lake, but it would only take a five minute drive to get there. A lot of Mike's neighbors have their own boats.

Jeff parks his own rental car on the street. He tries not to hyperventilate after he shuts down the engine, but he sucks it up, pulls off the seatbelt, pops open the car door.

He climbs up the front steps to Mike's house and rings the doorbell. A dog starts barking inside, and for a moment, Jeff's worried he has the wrong place until he remembers, Mike's always wanted a dog.

And then there's the sound of footsteps. a muffled voice says, "It's probably just the mailman." The door opens.

It's Mike.

He's grown his hair out longer. He has a beard. A loose t-shirt hangs over his shoulders. There are flip-flops on his feet. A black lab pokes its head out from behind Mike's legs. Mike's also wearing glasses.

"You're wearing glasses," Jeff says, before he can stop himself. He knows he sounds like an idiot.

"Yes," Mike says flatly. "That doesn't explain why you're here." His voice sounds the same, at least.

"Uh," Jeff says. He hadn't actually thought it through this far. He'd used up all his willpower to even show up here on Mike's doorstep. It didn't leave a lot of time to actually, you know, come up with a plan.

Something must show on Jeff's face, because Mike rolls his eyes. "Whatever," he says. "Might as well come in." He turns to walk inside, whistling for his dog as he goes.

The inside of Mike's house is a little like the outside. Bland white walls. Ugly carpets. A stack of mail on the kitchen table. The dog's got a bed in the living room, at least.

"Can I get you something to drink or something?" Mike asks as he leads them into the kitchen. Jeff has a vague recollection of Mike's mom teaching him proper hosting etiquette. That's what Jeff's been reduced to, the unwanted houseguest.

"Uh, I wouldn't say no to a beer," Jeff says. He sits down in a wooden chair at the kitchen table and decides that it probably isn't weird if he stares at Mike right now.

Mike pulls open the refrigerator, bending over so he can grab a bottle out of the refrigerator. He's wearing baggy shorts so it's not even like Jeff gets a good look at his ass.

Mike walks back over to the kitchen table and sits down in the chair across from Jeff. He doesn't say anything, but he does pop the cap off the bottle and push it across the table.

Jeff picks up the bottle, takes a sip. He looks down at the fake wood grain of Mike's cheap ass table. He still doesn't know what to say.

"So," Mike says, "I assume there's an actual point to this visit." He's staring at Jeff with all of his unnerving intensity.

"I just--" Jeff says. "I just wanted to see you again." It's only been like four months since Mike left Anchorage, but they've been an awful four months.

Mike narrows his eyes, which is less intimidating now that he's wearing glasses. "This doesn't have to do with your whole freakout at the end there, does it?"

Jeff stiffens. Mike's an asshole, but he's not usually an asshole. "That wasn't a freakout," Jeff says.

"Then what was it?" Mike asks. "Bribery? Hate to tell you this, Cartsy, but it would have taken a lot more than that to make it worth it for me to stay."

Jeff flinches. Mike's always been capable of shredding Jeff to pieces if he wanted to, but he's never wanted to before. "That was me confessing my feelings for you, dickface."

Mike's the one who looks away this time, bowing his head so that Jeff can't get a clear look at his expression. Good, Jeff thinks, a vicious anger taking up space in the center of his chest, you're not the only asshole here.

Jeff says, "I know you have a hard time with feelings and shit, but I told you I loved you because I fucking love you and not because of some stupid mind game."

Mike glances up. He's frowning, but his eyes have been drained of all their hostility, and in its place is a kind of emptiness that's worse than the anger could have ever been. "Is that supposed to change anything?" he asks.

"What the fuck is that supposed to mean?" Jeff says. It's not like he's ever confessed his love to anyone else before, but he's pretty sure it usually goes better than this.

"It means that love isn't going to fix my fucking head," Mike says. "And it's certainly not going to stop a Kaiju from eating you."

Jeff closes his eyes, pinches the bridge of his nose. Why had he come here again? It had seemed like a good idea at the time, something to do with closure. But Jeff's beginning to realize that Mike's never going to be something he can put away on a shelf and leave there. "I did just want to see you," he says.

Mike is quiet for a few moments. "Sure," he says. "Thanks for coming to check up on me or whatever." Then there's a scraping sound, Mike's chair being pushed back, away from the table.

Jeff opens his eyes in time to grab Mike's wrist. "Mike," he says.

Mike shakes his head, and it's awful that Jeff can't tell if it means not now or fuck you or all of this is bullshit, not anymore. Mike says, "I'm really not worth the effort, Jeff."

And just like that, Jeff's angry again. "Fuck you," Jeff says. "You're the last person who gets to decide that."

Mike's lips pull into a tight line. His throat works as he swallows. "You should go back to Anchorage. Tell Sapie I said hi. Tell Piker he still owes me five bucks. Tell everyone else-- tell them something nice."

It's a dismissal, but Jeff can match Mike's stubborn bullshit with stubborn bullshit of his own. "No," Jeff says. "I'm on leave. I'm going to stick around."

Mike glances at him, studies his face, letting the moment drag out. Jeff refuses to back down from his attention. Eventually, Mike says, "Whatever."

Jeff lets go of his hand.

---

Mike does have a guest room, and it even has an actual bed and sheets and pillows and everything. Jeff's at least ninety percent sure that Mike's mom is responsible for that more than anything else. The bed sags in the middle, and the pillows are mostly flat, and the sheets are scratchy, but Jeff's been sleeping in a military bunk for years. This is nothing.

It's ridiculous, but Jeff stays quiet and still and listening, hoping to hear the telltale sound of Mike's breathing. But Mike's down the hallway. Their doors are closed. Nothing. Silence.

---

Jeff wakes up late, because of the time zone change and because he doesn't have an alarm here. The sun is already up, peeking through his windows. It's been so long since Jeff lived in a place with natural light.

Mike's already in the kitchen when Jeff makes his way down there. The coffee maker is burbling. The smell of toasting bread fills the room. Mike's crouched down, topping up a bowl with dog food. The dog noses in, trying to get at the bowl before Mike's done. Mike says, "Arnold, no."

His voice is gentler than Jeff would have thought it would be. He almost forgot that Mike could be nice to people after being on the wrong side of Mike's edgy hostility for months. "Good morning," Jeff says.

Mike looks up at him, face unreadable. Jeff thought-- Jeff hoped that when he found Mike, reading Mike's moods would be easy again. It's not so much that Mike is a different person, but that there's a whole new vocabulary to him that Jeff needs to learn. The first time around, the Drift had made Mike an open book to him. This time, Jeff doesn't even know how long it's going to be before Mike tries to kick him out.

Jeff says, "I can make eggs for breakfast."

Mike looks down, scratches behind Arnold's ears. "Sure," he says. "I have to be at work in an hour."

Jeff hadn't even considered that, but he probably should have because Mike turns into a menace when he's bored. It's good that he's not trapped in his house all day. It's good. "Okay," Jeff says.

---

Mike's job is at a bait and tackle shop. Jeff offers to go with him, but Mike just says, "no," and disappears before Jeff can ask him for tourist tips.

So Jeff gets stuck inside the house all day with nothing to do. He cleans Mike's kitchen: scrubs down the counters, brings out the trash, mops the floor, puts away dishes. Mike's not exactly a messy person, so there isn't a whole lot to do.

He goes out to visit the lake, walks for a bit on one of the boardwalks, but without the hazy filter of Mike's nostalgia, it's just kind of pretty. It's just a lake.

He ends up sitting on Mike's shitty (almost definitely second-hand) couch, watching daytime TV. The talk shows are just awful, but he ends up on a Law & Order marathon, and it's easy enough to settle into the predictable rhythms of the episodes. The living room is partially connected to the kitchen, so he even watches some TV while making himself lunch. After lunch, it's back to the couch, though.

Arnold settles down at Jeff's feet and looks up at Jeff with baleful eyes. Jeff pets him. "He'll be back soon," Jeff says, and it's pretty pathetic how he doesn't know if he's reassuring the dog or himself.

---

"You're still here," Mike says when he comes into the kitchen and sees Jeff cooking dinner.

"Yeah," Jeff says as he shoves the lasagna into the oven. "It'll take a lot more than your dog to scare me off."

Mike just stands there, shaking his head. "Sometimes," he says, "I don't fucking get you at all."

Jeff wants to say something to that, something like yeah, feeling's mutual, asshole or I've told you why I'm here or fuck you, too, but the words get caught in his throat. He sets the kitchen timer. He listens as Mike's footsteps trail away.

---

The next day doesn't go much better. Or the day after that. Jeff takes to cleaning the rest of Mike's house. Most of that is just vacuuming up dog hair. He goes for runs by the lake. He does push-ups and dips and even finds a tree branch that's a decent height and strength for pull-ups. He meets Mike's neighbors, some of whom knew Mike as a kid, some of whom didn't. All of them are impressed with Mike's military service, and by extension, Jeff's. He watches mid-day marathons of Supernatural. Some days, Mike takes Arnold with him to work, leaving the house even quieter than usual.

Jeff calls his parents, gets the riot act for not coming home before going to Kenora. He also calls Christine, who's just started her first real adult job and has endless amounts of soothingly petty office gossip with which she can fill up the empty spaces that Jeff leaves in their conversations.

Because Jeff's not the asshole that Mike is, he sends email back to Anchorage, just to let people know what's up. He passes along Mike's messages.

Tell him that I said he could go fuck himself, Sapie writes back. And that he should visit soon. Zeke's been crying himself silly over missing him.

I don't owe him shit, because he's a cheater, Piker writes back. But let him know I'd probably buy him a beer, just to be nice.

It's quiet here, and while Jeff would have said he was addicted to the constant tension and stress of the Shatterdome a few years ago, he can tell that it's not true. He likes the way the days stretch out without the constant worry about missing that meeting or that training session or that lecture. His life was controlled and dictated with a military strictness, and now it isn't anymore.

Mike doesn't say much, to Jeff or otherwise. If Jeff cooks, he'll appear in the kitchen, dump some food on his plate, and then disappear back into his room. Sometimes, Jeff will hear him talking on his phone to his parents or his brothers. Every morning, he still looks surprised to see Jeff still here, still toughing it out.

"What are you waiting for?" Mike asks eventually. It's before he's had his morning coffee, so he looks rumpled and exhausted. He runs a hand over his face, and Jeff still wants to back him up against the counter, still wants to crowd into Mike's space, still wants to kiss Mike and feel Mike kissing him back.

"I'm waiting for you to pull your head out of your ass," Jeff says. He dumps a lump of egg and cheese and mushrooms onto Mike's plate. "You're going to have to eat quickly if you want to get a shower in before you have to leave for work."

Mike blinks at him in confusion, and Jeff knows this time that it's his What you just said doesn't make any sense to me look and not his I cannot parse English sentences without caffeine look.

"Deal with it," Jeff says.

---

One night, a Jeff's got the TV on while chopping vegetables, just a low murmur that fades into the background, until the announcer says, "-- when another Category I Kaiju emerged from the Breach this morning and attacked Eureka, California. It was intercepted by a Jaeger deployed from the Los Angeles Shatterdome, a new Mark-IV by the name of Mammoth Apostle--"

Mike manages to walk in at just that moment, Arnold trailing in his wake. Mike's eyes also focus on the screen, where the news is showing footage of the fight. Mammoth Apostle is big and nasty looking, all sharp angles where weapons have been installed, and the Kaiju it's fighting is smaller than it, resembling a deranged squid. The entirety of the fight takes about three minutes, which means the news can show the whole thing. Mammoth Apostle puts five holes into it with a hand cannon, and the Kaiju sinks once again into the ocean.

"Look at all the fun you're missing right now," Mike says.

Jeff shrugs. "Doesn't look like much fun." He tries to remember if he knows who pilots Mammoth Apostle. LA tends to give the veterans the new Jaegers and hands down the older ones to the newbies.

"Don't even give me that," Mike says, almost a snarl. "I was in your head the whole time. I know how much you loved it."

Jeff looks down at the chopped bits of onions on his cutting board. "Yeah, but so did you."

Mike stays quiet for a long moment. The news has switched over to something about the stock market. Arnold pads over to Jeff, nudges Jeff's knee with his nose. Jeff goes back to chopping up some bell peppers.

"You loved it so damn much, Carts," Mike says, voice soft. Jeff's head snaps up. Mike's watching at him, studying him.

"Turns out that I'm not actually Drift compatible with most people," Jeff says. And because he's a glutton for punishment, he adds, "Not like I was with you."

Mike frowns, eyes narrowing, and Jeff can practically see the gears turning in his head. Mike did always think too much. It was always one of his best and worst qualities.

Jeff dumps the vegetables into a pan. Mike doesn't stick around. Arnold does, though. That part's nice.

---

Apparently when Mike moved in, he shoved most of his stuff into a storage room in the basement, still packed up into boxes. Jeff stumbles on his stash when he goes looking for a weedwhacker.

Most of it is old. Jeff has this image of Mike's parents showing up on his doorstep with a pile of boxes that they'd just cleared out from their own basement. Out of morbid curiosity, Jeff pokes through it, and he's surprised by how much of it he actually remembers from Mike's memories. Awkward family photos. Beat-up, worn-in hockey gear. A bike with a flat tire. Mike's framed high school diploma.

A wooden staff. Jeff has the memories of Mike working with it: the weight of the wood in his hands, the echoing thwack when he and his brother traded blows in their training dojo, the callouses it would leave behind on his hands.

Jeff brings it back upstairs with him. Mike's clearly left it behind, the way he's left so many other things behind. He's not going to miss it.

Of course, Mike chooses just that moment to walk down the hallway. He frowns at the sight of Jeff holding his staff. "Is that--"

"Yeah," Jeff says. "Found it downstairs."

"Right," Mike says, before continuing down the hallway.

---

Jeff spends as much time as he can outside. His leave is for three months, altogether, and once it's over, he'll be back in Anchorage, spending most of his time in a concrete bunker. Even if this trip isn't-- well, Jeff had no idea what this trip was going to be, but he might as well take advantage of what he can.

He mows Mike's lawn, because it was so ugly it was hurting his eyes. He pulls some weeds. He seals some of the cracks in Mike's driveway. He washes Mike's windows.

When he's finished everything he can think of, he takes Mike's staff out into the backyard and spins it in his hands. Mike always thought that sort of move was unnecessarily flashy, but fuck him, he's off selling lures to people or whatever it is he does. It's not like Mike comes home and tells Jeff about his job.

Jeff goes through the moves of one of his katas. It's easy to lose himself in the moment, to focus on the swing of his weapon, the shift of his weight to get the strongest blocks, the fastest attacks.

He's sweating by the time he finishes his third one. He turns to grab the glass of water he left on Mike's deck, and he stops in his tracks. Mike is standing there watching him, arms resting on the railing of the deck, eyes hidden behind sunglasses, a cap pulled over his head.

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."

"Yeah?" Jeff asks, still a little high on the endorphins, and still more than a little pissed off at Mike. "You want to fight me and see how good it is when it's coming at your face, Richie?" He chugs the water, wipes the sweat off his forehead with the back of his arm.

Mike hesitates, and Jeff can read his indecision clearly. Mike's never been one to back down from a challenge. But maybe Mike's given up on that sort of thing, too. "Okay," Mike says. He kicks off his flip-flops and then steps out onto the grass.

Jeff places the staff on the deck. If they're doing this, it's going to be hand-to-hand.

Mike takes off his cap and sunglasses and starts rolling out his shoulders. Jeff's seen Mike's warm-up routine a countless number of times. It hasn't changed.

They square off against each other. Mike's moving a little more hesitantly, out of practice, but Jeff's not going to take it easy on him.

Jeff makes the first move, fast, a jab to test out Mike's reflexes. Mike blocks it, then shifts his weight like he's going to slide in on Jeff's bad side. He always liked that move, exploited it as much as possible.

Jeff turns so that side is not exposed. Mike shifts his weight back.

Mike usually fights defensively, especially against Jeff. Jeff's got reach on him, can read him pretty well, which means that if he attacks, Jeff's got more time and more space to react.

Jeff's not-- Jeff's not going to make this easy on him, because seriously, fuck Mike. He settles back in his own defensive position, waiting for Mike to come at him.

Mike does, darting into Jeff's space. Jeff throws a punch, hoping to catch Mike out. Mike doesn't block in time, but he pulls up before Jeff's fist can make contact with his face.

"One-zero," Jeff says.

The next time Mike comes in towards Jeff's weak side, and Jeff manages to dodge out of the way, bringing his knee up to tag Mike in the ribs.

"Two-zero," Jeff says.

They reset again. Mike's not as fast as he once was, but he can still read Jeff easily, almost as easily as Jeff can read him. Jeff watches Mike watching him, and it's so achingly familiar. This is the language they'd shared even before they ever set foot in the Drift, before Jeff even knew Mike's name.

The next time, Jeff attacks first, coming in quick to try to see if he can grab a fistful of Mike's shirt, if he can bring Mike to the ground. But he's a little too reckless: too much speed, not enough control. Mike side-steps his attack, grabs ahold of Jeff's wrist, uses Jeff's own momentum to throw him to the ground. He locks Jeff's arm as soon as Jeff lands face-up so that Jeff can't move without putting his shoulder in a whole lot of pain. "Two-one," Mike says. He lets go of Jeff's wrist.

Jeff knows he should get up, continue the match, but the grass is nice against his back, and the sky is very blue, dotted with fluffy white clouds. His chest hurts -- not from the fall; Jeff has plenty of experience getting thrown -- but from that same old longing. Mike's within reach, but he still won't let Jeff touch him.

A shadow falls over Jeff's face. Mike's bent over him, frowning. "You okay?" he asks.

Jeff looks up at him, at the way a curl of Mike's hair is trying to fall in front of his face, and Jeff's just so fucking tired. "Yeah," Jeff says.

"You're lying," Mike says.

"Yup," Jeff says. He considers getting back up, because a verbal fight with Mike is always worse than a physical one. But Jeff's sick and tired of tiptoeing around Mike and his issues. Mike can fucking deal with it.

Mike sits down next to Jeff, feet planted, knees up. He nudges Jeff's knee with one foot, but it's not a get up, you lazy asshole sort of nudge; it's a nudge that says, hey, I'm here. Out loud, Mike says, "Thanks for--" He makes a gesture with his hand that seems to encompass the whole house, not just the lawn.

"Sure," Jeff says.

"You were always a better person than I was," Mike says. He's pulled himself inwards, back hunched, staring at the ground between his feet.

There's a time when Jeff would have turned it into a joking insult, agreed with Mike, insisted that he was slumming it by spending all his time with Mike. There's a time when Mike would have known it was a joke, would have known how Jeff felt about him the next time they were in the Drift together again. "You're better than you think," Jeff says. He swallows around the lump in his throat. "I just-- I just want you to be happy."

Mike stops fidgeting with a blade of grass to look at Jeff. There's something unfamiliar in his expression. Jeff doesn't have context for this. He wishes that he did.

Mike leans over Jeff again, his face cast in shadow. A curl does fall over his forehead this time.

Jeff holds perfectly still while Mike kisses him, but he does let his eyes fall closed. Mike's beard is prickly and soft, his lips firm. Jeff knows the way Mike likes to kiss -- wet and more than a little dirty -- but this isn't that sort of kiss. It's sweet, almost. Kind of delicate. A promise that Mike loves him back, even if he can't say it and is terrible at showing it.

Mike pulls back, and his expression is so open, so vulnerable, Jeff feels like there's a weight on his chest, squeezing tight. He reaches out, manages to find one of Mike's hands with his own, manages to thread their fingers together, manages to hold on.

---

That night, Jeff follows Mike up to his bedroom after dinner. It's the only room in the house that Jeff has not been in yet. The door has always been firmly shut, whether or not Mike has been home. Jeff would have felt weird about entering on a whim, a breach of unspoken boundaries.

It's as plain as the rest of the house. The same white walls. An old wooden dresser, where one of the drawers has a mismatched handle. A closet. Mike's bed is bigger, nicer than the one in the guest room, but it's not much fancier.

Mike doesn't comment when Jeff slides into the bed behind him. They haven't spoken since dinner, but his shoulders are relaxed, his breathing calm and even. This thing they've built still feels too fragile, too tentative for sex just yet, but sleeping together-- that's something they have plenty of experience with.

Jeff says, barely louder than a whisper, "Your tattoo is still ugly." Mike didn't wear a shirt to bed tonight. The demented Kaiju on his shoulder moves every time he breathes. Jeff presses a kiss against it, now that he can, now that Mike will let him. Mike's skin still smells like sweat and grass and summer, and it's soft and smooth underneath Jeff's lips.

Mike throws an elbow into Jeff's ribs as retaliation, but he also laughs -- the sound of it bright in the darkness of the room -- and he doesn't pull away.

---

In the morning, Mike wakes Jeff up with a kiss, and this time he lets it get a bit dirty, morning breath and all. Jeff cups the back of Mike's head, tangles his fingers in Mike's hair. Mike nudges Jeff onto his back, climbs on top of him, straddling Jeff's torso. Mike's smaller than he used to be, but he's still broad and heavy, a comforting sort of weight.

Mike pulls back from the kiss. Jeff opens his eyes. The room is filled with warm morning sunlight, making everything glow. The corner of Mike's lips are curled up, almost a grin. It's not much, but Jeff thinks he can feel his heart stutter in his chest. How long has it been since the last time he saw Mike smile? Far too long.

They make out some more, lazy and unhurried. Mike cups Jeff's face in his hands, his fingers drifting over Jeff's cheekbones. Jeff runs his hands over Mike's back. He wants to relearn the shape of Mike's body the way he's relearning the rest of Mike.

Jeff loses track of time. Mike's nibbling on his collarbone when the mattress shifts, taking on new weight. The jangling sound of a collar accompanies it.

Mike pulls away, and his smile is even broader, even brighter this time. "I think Arnie's hungry," he says. His voice is still sleep-rough and soft.

Arnold sticks his nose into Mike's face and whines in agreement.

Mike gets up out of bed, nudging Arnold down with him, and pads downstairs, still only wearing a pair of sweats.

Jeff stays where he is, wanting to stretch out the lazy contentment of the morning for as long as possible. It doesn't last as long as he'd like. He has another month here before his leave is up. And then what? He goes back to Anchorage, and Mike stays here, free to stew in his self-doubt and ability to overthink everything. Anything that Jeff builds in the coming month could crumble away as soon as he's gone. He could go back to the Shatterdome, and if Mike refuses to take his calls, if Mike doesn't respond to texts or email or--

Instead of letting that thought fester, Jeff sits up, kicks his legs over the edge of the bed, runs a hand through his hair, stands up.

When he gets downstairs, the kitchen smells like pancakes. Mike's at the stove, doing the cooking for once. Arnold, now that he's eaten, is napping underneath the kitchen table. Mike doesn't look up when Jeff enters the room, but he does slide the completed pancake onto a plate and hands it over to Jeff.

He shoots the tiniest grin in Jeff's direction, and they don't say anything for the rest of the meal.

---

Jeff follows Mike outside after breakfast, climbing in the passenger side door as Mike starts up the engine. Arnold pokes his head into the space between them, panting happily.

Mike gives Jeff a questioning look out of the corner of his eyes, but when Jeff buckles himself in, he just shrugs.

Jeff says. "I don't have anywhere else to be." And he does want to stick by Mike some more, like they're back at the Shatterdome, inseparable. He's greedy for every bit of Mike he can get, for every bit of Mike that Mike will let him see.

The bait shop is like everything else in Kenora, which is a little small, a little quiet. It has its own empty parking lot, wood panelling, a picnic table around the side that was probably painted green once. A large sign announcing 'Kenora Bait & Tackle' with a painting of a fishing pole on it sits over the front door. Inside, it's much of the same. There's fishing poles lined up, tall and spindly. The walls are filled with racks and racks of lures in identical containers. A tacky plastic fish hangs from the ceiling.

Jeff is almost loath to say it, but everything about it feels like Mike. "Nice place," Jeff says.

Mike smirks, shaking his head. "Come on, man. I know you think fishing is boring as shit."

"No, I mean--" Jeff can see from slight slouch of Mike's shoulders, from the way Arnold's already made a beeline to a corner and started gnawing on a chew toy, that Mike is comfortable here, settled. Mike's house is just a building where Mike sleeps every night. This is the sort of place where Mike really lives.

Mike shrugs. "Stick around as long as you want."

Jeff spends most of his time hanging out with Arnold in Arnold's corner of the shop. He plays a little bit of tug-of-war with Arnold and Arnold's chew toy. He gives Arnold belly rubs. Out of the corner of his eye, he watches Mike. Mike as he takes inventory. Mike as he chats with regulars about their kids. Mike as he holds one of the poles, frowning at it, turning it over with careful hands.

There is a TV in one corner of the store. Jeff commandeers it and manages to find one channel with Supernatural reruns. That earns him another side-eyed look from Mike. Jeff just shrugs, grinning at him.

During Mike's lunch break, they go outside. Mike plays some fetch with Arnold and an old, beat-up and slobber-covered tennis ball in the sun while Jeff eats a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Mike talks a little bit about how his brothers have been trying to get him to play in their softball league. Jeff just nods along.

In the mid-afternoon lull, Mike finally turns to Jeff. They're standing behind the front counter. Jeff's slouched over, elbows resting on a glass case. Mike's fiddling with the cash register. Mike says, "You've got month left on your leave, right?" His expression is careful and controlled, though there's a tension around his eyes that Jeff doesn't miss.

Jeff bites his lip. "Yeah," he says. He still doesn't like thinking about it. For the longest time, all Jeff wanted to do is fight, to win, to feel powerful and unafraid. But he's starting to realize that there's other things that can make up a life. Sunshine and dogs and a quiet little shop with ugly decorations. Jeff spent so much of his time in the Shatterdome waiting. And here, in Mike's home, in Mike's life, Jeff can barely remember what he was waiting for.

Mike puts a hand on Jeff's shoulder. His thumb brushes against the back of Jeff's neck, the barest touch of warm skin. Jeff shivers from the contact, despite himself. "Okay," Mike says.

---

"I can't say this call was unexpected," Marshal Pentecost says.

Jeff stares at his feet, which he can do because Pentecost can't see him. "I know, sir." His phone feels sweaty in his hands. He tries not to think about how much more paperwork this phone call will generate. He tries not to think about what might happen if Pentecost turns down his request, if he calls Jeff back to a life in a bunker, to a life of teaching babies how to fight and how to die.

"You could still do good things in the PPDC," Pentecost. "You and Mr. Richards, both."

"I don't think-- I don't think I'm cut out for that, and I don't think Richie is, either." Jeff confesses. At the PPDC, their history would always follow them everywhere, the way it does for Pentecost. And maybe they could suck it up and deal with it, but Jeff's pretty sure it's better for everyone if they don't. It's not like he and Mike will ever get to pilot Whiskey Pursuit again. Being stuck on the outside, looking in, Jeff doesn't know if he could deal with that.

Mike took him out onto the lake yesterday. Just the two of them and the boat Mike had borrowed from one of his brothers. It had been cloudy, but with patches of sun. Mike had pointed out all of his favorite places, all of the places that had good memories associated with them, even though Jeff knew all of them already. It's still just a lake to Jeff, but in that moment, it was impossible to miss the warmth in Mike's voice, the smile that had lit up his face. In that moment, Jeff had felt an echo of Mike's love of the place, tight and overwhelming. It was the closest thing to the Drift that Jeff had ever experienced.

Pentecost says, "I do understand. Good luck to you both." He hangs up, leaving Jeff holding onto the phone, blinking in surprise. He was expecting to get a lecture about responsibility, at least. A guilt-trip, the kind his mother excelled at. Pentecost's easy acceptance is not anything Jeff could have anticipated.

Arnold wanders over, looking for some affection. Jeff leans over, scratches behind Arnold's ears as Arnold licks at his face.

He takes a deep breath and then lets it out slowly. Because that's it. He's done.

---

Epilogue:

Jeff's got the TV on after dinner, tuned to CNN. Kaiju attacks have been happening more frequently, and he wants to keep himself informed, even if Mike will give him these significant looks and tell him that obsessing over it won't change anything. But seriously, he's one to talk. Still, watching and waiting is the best they could do. It's not like they can just hop on a plane to Anchorage or anything. That Shatterdome was shut down a few months ago.

Mike's napping, his head in Jeff's lap. He's been sleeping more often these days. He still gets these migraines that leave him lying down for days at a time and inhaling Advil by the bottle. Jeff tries not to worry too much about it. Mike insists that he's fine, that it's been six years, that it's just about getting older, that he's getting better. But Jeff still worries.

Their life far away from the Pacific Ocean has been quiet. Jeff picked up a job with the Kenora police, though the most dramatic thing he usually has to deal with is directing traffic when one of the traffic lights needs maintenance. Mike took over the bait and tackle shop after the original owner retired, and his new life is filled with spreadsheets and long rants to Jeff about how rich people have the worst taste in equipment. In the winter, they coach peewee hockey together, and it's a nice way for Mike to get all his weird restless aggression out now that he can no longer punch Kaiju in the face. It's not perfect, but it's still good.

The other Rangers weren't so lucky. Izzy and Nats were the first to go three years back. Sierra Howl got its head bitten off by a Category II Kaiju. Then Sapie and Zeke, Jammer and Piker a year after that to a Category III, one of the first to emerge from the Breach. Tals and Renny after they were sent to the LA Shatterdome and tangled with an ugly Category III that also destroyed Mammoth Apostle. Whiskey Pursuit (shipped off to Panama City) also gets destroyed that year, piloted by two people Jeff's never met. It's a lot of funerals. A lot of flags. A lot of sad bugles. A lot of hugging the other survivors. A lot of holding Mike's hand and being thankful for what he has, a lot of thinking about how close they came to needing a funeral themselves. Jeff always comes back to Kenora a little messed up after one of those trips. Mike gets quieter, too, but he'll let Jeff be the little spoon when they fall asleep together, his chest pressed warm and broad against Jeff's back.

On screen, there's a breaking news report. "It appears that the Breach has been closed," the pretty blonde news anchor says, looking as shell shocked. "I repeat. The Breach has been closed. CNN is being told that there will be a press conference in the current PPDC headquarters in Hong Kong in half an hour, and in the meantime--"

Jeff nudges Mike awake. Mike blinks once, twice, clearing the sleep away. He frowns at Jeff, cranky the way he always is when his nap is interrupted. Jeff is fond of that frown. He runs a thumb over Mike's angry lips. "You're going to want to see this," he says to Mike.

Mike sits up, squinting a little as he reads the bottom scroll explaining the breaking news. "Oh," he says. His face does something complicated, shifting too fast for Jeff to read everything there. Jeff would love to say that he doesn't miss sharing the Drift with Mike, but he would be lying. He still dreams in Mike's memories sometimes, and it's hard not to wake up after one of them without feeling the jagged-edged reminder of everything that they've lost.

"Yeah," Jeff says.

Mike links their fingers together and squeezes. It's not a huge gesture, but it tells Jeff everything he needs to know, everything Mike doesn't have to say out loud: it's over, they did it, and I love you.

Jeff presses a kiss against Mike's temple, revels in the way Mike leans into it, and he knows that Mike gets what he's saying back: I'm so happy, thank you for being here with me, and I love you, too.

Maybe it's not the life Jeff imagined for himself when he was sixteen, too young and too stupid to dream of anything other than power and glory, but that's okay.

It's better.

 

FIN.