O'Neill tracked him down. John had been lying low, working construction on the barrier wall south of Seattle. He might not have gone with O'Neill but that very morning the vid feeds had been full of the latest Kaiju attack on Sydney. The monster was the biggest yet recorded – a huge category three – and it had broken through their barrier wall, smashing months of back-breaking labor in less than five minutes. No point working on a meaningless project. John had suspected the towering seafront walls were a waste of time – he'd seen Kaiju up close. He'd wanted to be doing something, though, anything that seemed useful. The work had stopped him thinking, so he'd pushed his misgivings aside.
O'Neill told him he thought anyone who didn't want a second chance at piloting a Jaeger was whacked, and John didn't argue. He hated that O'Neill knew exactly how to push his buttons, but John went back with him anyway. What else was there to do?
John had been dragged into the Jaeger program back near the beginning, pulled off advanced fighter training very much against his will. He wanted to fly, but he was a captain in the US Air Force. When the brass said jump – or rather, pilot a Jaeger – he said: "Yes, sir". Everyone in the armed forces had to take the barrage of psychometric tests to screen for suitable Jaeger operators. John's results pinged all the boxes. The recruiters went on and on: his visuo-spatial skills were "uncanny", his reaction times "exceptional". Basically, if it was a man/machine interface, John was the biz: he could operate anything. The weirdest thing, though, was the co-pilot who'd been matched with him in the world's strangest computerized dating service. Marshall Sumner – a hardass Marine old enough to be John's father. Which was where the trouble started, of course.
John figured O'Neill thought he was a loose cannon, undisciplined. Sumner had had years of combat experience – hand to hand, advanced tactics and strategy, the works. He was a colonel, so obviously the brass wanted Sumner to keep John in line. It shouldn't have worked, not with John's messed-up history with his own father. The more Sumner bossed him around, the more John behaved like a bratty teen, all masked insolence and secret smirks.
The day they first test-drove their Jaeger, Atlantis Rising, when they first tried to mind-meld in the Drift, the crew took bets on a spectacular melt-down. Zelenka's hand was on the power switch the whole time, John learned later, ready to pull the plug. He didn't need to – they melded beautifully, John's virtuoso interface with the Jaeger backed by Sumner's iron discipline. Most people didn't realize the tight control under John's slacker front, forged by years trying – and failing – to please his father. Add to that the years of hiding who he was from the Air Force so they'd let him fly fighters and helos. Yeah, John could do control.
Thing was, in the Drift, John liked Sumner. He made sense, when John was right there in his thoughts. In there, there was no military stick up his ass. His hopes and fears and the memories of his family made him real. He cut through John's masks, through to his need to serve and please, his need to protect. John mostly suppressed that stuff, tried not to think about it, but Sumner validated the hell out of him, praising his skill with the Jaeger. Heady, when someone was inside your goddam head saying what you'd always wanted to hear. Asking you to do right and please them, like no one had let you do before. And, yeah, maybe it did come down to John's daddy issues. Maybe that was why they worked. The son Sumner'd always wanted. The father John'd always needed. So the fuck what.
They were a team – they were the team, the Jaeger duo. For a while, they cut a swathe through the Kaiju, unstoppable. Until Alaska – or until the night before Alaska. In some ways it was just bad fucking timing – in others, it was inevitable, a train wreck waiting to happen ever since he and Sumner'd met.
That evening they were in Sumner's quarters at the Jaeger base, watching a DVD. Maybe if it'd been something that held John's interest better...but it probably would have happened anyway. The Drift forced you close – it was why most of the other co-pilots were family, or married. It was only loners like John that they had to find partners for - most Jaeger operators came in pre-formed sets. The Russian couple, the Chinese triplets, that new Aussie duo who were father and son for real. In the Drift, if you weren't already bonded you got there pretty damn quick. Couldn't operate a Jaeger otherwise.
Sumner was sprawled back on the couch, loose and easy after a beer or three. John lounged on the floor beside him, shoulder brushing Sumner's leg and Sumner's boot against his hip. The contact felt good; it felt right. John usually fought the impulse, but that night he let himself slump, head resting on Sumner's thigh. He closed his eyes – their training session'd been brutal – and then Sumner's hand was in his hair, a soft touch, stroking behind his ear. John might have made a noise in his throat, and he'd let himself sag further, let his legs fall open, leaning into Sumner. Sumner was murmuring yeah, John, that's my boy, that's my good boy, and John had moaned, pushing his head up into Sumner's hand like a cat.
Sumner had chuckled, carding through John's cowlicks, and later he'd pulled John around between his legs. He'd held John there, safe between Sumner's thighs as Sumner bent down to kiss his mouth, big hands cupping John's face. John had opened Sumner's pants and sucked him while Sumner muttered fuck you're good, you're my best boy, John, yeah, like that, harder, good boy. John's cock was trapped and throbbing in his jeans, but after he'd come in John's mouth, Sumner had let him strip his pants off. He'd pulled John up to straddle him on the couch, let John jerk himself off while Sumner told him what to do. Slower. Faster. Fuck your hand, John, make it good. Sumner had an arm around his waist, palm splayed big and warm in the small of his back. He reached down and squeezed John's balls. Come now. John came, sobbing, then slumped down on Sumner's chest, shuddering through the aftershocks while Sumner stroked his back.
Sumner knew what he wanted. John had tried to hide it, but Sumner'd seen it. There was no hiding anything, in the Drift.
The next day, they'd gone out to fight the category three Kaiju near Anchorage, and while they were mind-linked, Sumner had died screaming when the creature ripped off one of Rising's arms.
John didn't remember much of the next few weeks after he somehow got the damaged Jaeger to shore single-handed. They'd had to sedate him. No one said it was John's fault – they all tiptoed around him, kind and careful. He'd had nightmares, panic attacks. Sometimes he woke screaming. There were plans for a medical discharge, he'd been told. As soon as he could, he'd bought a false ID and slipped away. Atlantis Rising was ruined, anyway. Everything was ruined.
John gasped for breath, bent over, hands on his knees.
"That was much better, John," said Teyla, the Jaeger program's premier martial arts coach. She was an eskrima expert who'd lived through the devastating 2014 attack on Manila. Working construction had kept John fit, but his technique was rusty. Teyla was making him spar with fighting sticks, not the usual longer stave. "You must work both arms equally, John," she said. "The Kaiju will certainly be using all their limbs."
"They don't stop at two arms," muttered John, straightening and grimacing as he stretched and his bruises announced themselves. Teyla never went easy on him.
"All the more reason to practice with the bantos," Teyla agreed. She was mildly flushed, but hadn't raised a sweat; John was dripping. "You must, as Muhammad Ali once put it, 'float like a butterfly; sting like a bee' – even in a Jaeger. Take up your sticks again."
Groaning, John retrieved his bantos from the mat where they'd fallen when Teyla disarmed him. "Wish you could co-pilot with me, Teyla. You'd be unstoppable."
"Alas, as you know I am incompatible with the AI interface. Mecha does not come naturally to me." She circled him, looking for an opening. John tried to imagine her as a miniature Kaiju, fast and deadly. "O'Neill has not found you a co-pilot yet?" She spun in, almost getting under his guard, and he took a strike to the upper arm, grunting in pain. His own riposte was deflected as she ducked gracefully and blocked his blow.
"Nope," John panted. "Hear he's shipping in another flyboy from the States. Maybe we'll have more in common, I don't–" She caught him behind the knee and he tumbled, bringing his bantos rods up to defend himself. He managed to roll away, clipping her with a glancing strike. "Uncle, jeez, I give up!" he groaned, flopping back on the mat.
"Yes, that is enough for now – but you must never give up, John. The breakaway at the end was good: never let your opponent pin you."
"Course, he's gonna have major firepower out there, not just sticks," said Ronon, leaning in the doorway. "Blow the fuckers away." He made both hands into gun-shapes and pretended to fire twin ballistic mortar cannons. Ronon piloted the Hawaiian Jaeger Pele Protector with his girlfriend Amelia. He sure loved his guns.
"Ronon," acknowledged Teyla, inclining her head. "Have you come to spar?"
"Nah, thought we could get lunch," said Ronon. "Amelia's finished her simulator session – she's in the mess." He grinned. "'sides, I'm steering clear of the labs. McKay and Zelenka are having another screaming match. Beckett had to drag them off each other."
"Oh, like he doesn't join in half the time," said John, grabbing his duffel as Teyla packed her bantos. "Heard McKay taped a line down the middle of their lab. Told Beckett to keep his 'filthy alien offal' on his own side."
"Yep," said Ronon, as they headed for the cafeteria. "Says he's allergic to Kaiju."
"Him and the rest of the fucking world," John muttered. He'd gotten Kaiju Blue down his face, neck and arm in the Alaska battle. The skin had been discolored and scaly for weeks, itching like hell until it finally sloughed off. He'd had to grow a beard, the blue stain a stark reminder of his failure and Sumner's loss every time he looked in a mirror.
John got back to his quarters that evening following a long, grueling simulator session. He was toweling himself off after a shower when the door chimed. Cursing under his breath, he pulled on sweats and his sleep-shirt.
It was O'Neill. "Sheppard," he said, nodding and strolling in like he owned the place. Which, okay, he kind of did. John raised an eyebrow and tried not to let his annoyance show.
"Just calling by to introduce you to Mitchell," O'Neill said. He raised his voice. "Mitchell? Get your ass in here!"
There was a pause, then a tall, dark-haired guy dolled up in dress blues – fucking dress blues – appeared in the doorway. He looked tired and uncomfortable.
"Major Cameron Mitchell, meet Captain John Sheppard," said O'Neill, waving a vague hand.
John gave Mitchell a tight smile. "Air Force, huh?" He'd be fucked if he was saluting. He'd resigned his commission after Alaska.
Mitchell rolled his eyes, which made John warm to him a little. "How'd you guess?" he said with a grin, a slight Southern twang in his voice. His eyes flicked around John's room which, okay, was kind of grim. Metal walls, rivets, painted-over rust. Even John's Cash poster hadn't stayed fixed to the peeling walls and was propped, rolled up, in the far corner. You got used to it. "You?" asked Mitchell. His eyes lingered on John, taking in the bare feet, the sweats, the worn-thin tee.
John stood up a little straighter, then made himself slouch back again. Fuck this – it was his goddam room. "Not these days," he said, crossing his arms.
O'Neill clapped his hands. "Well, this is fun, kids, but I gotta get Mitchell here some quarters so he can catch up on his beauty sleep. Which he'll need, as you boys're gonna be sparring tomorrow. See you in the gym, Sheppard, 0800."
"Looking forward to it," John said, giving Mitchell a tight grin. No way was this guy taking him. Air Force hand-to-hand wasn't going to cut it against the training he'd done with Teyla.
Mitchell raised an eyebrow and turned to follow O'Neill. "Sure thing," he said. "Night, Sheppard."
The door clanged shut and John locked it. He leaned forward, shutting his eyes and resting his forehead on the cool, painted metal. Shit. A test-fight with a possible co-pilot and he was bruised up already. He sighed, pushed back from the door, and went to get some ibuprofen before hitting the sack.
"Fuck," spat John, barely able to catch his breath, face down on the mat.
He'd lost count of how many times Mitchell had put him down. With the stave, with bantos, bare-handed. He pulled himself up one more time, wincing as he found his feet.
"John," said Teyla, who was supervising from the sidelines. "Perhaps you should–"
John cut her off with a gesture. He dashed the sweat from his eyes and glared at Mitchell. "Who were those fucking monks you trained with?"
"The Sodan," said Mitchell. He was loose and ready, poised for action. John hated him.
John dropped into a fighting stance again. "Once more," he said. "C'mon, I can take you." He almost caught Teyla rolling her eyes but couldn't afford to take his eyes off Mitchell.
A minute later, Mitchell had him pinned to the mat. John cursed and writhed. Teyla sighed. "I am terminating this training session," she said in a tone that brooked no argument.
"Yeah, sure," Mitchell said easily. He pulled back and rolled to his feet, leaving John in a panting heap.
"I can totally take him," John muttered into the mat. He ignored Mitchell's offered hand and clambered to his feet.
Teyla gave him a narrow-eyed look. "Another day," she said.
"Hey, Mitchell?" John called. Mitchell was sauntering off with his duffel. He paused and looked back. "You run?"
"Been known to," said Mitchell. "Where d'you go to run, round here?"
Nothing was easy, since the Kaiju. The city wasn't safe now, or clean. No parks, no wide streets. Too much debris from the last attack. John used the catwalks right here in the base – he hated treadmills. "I'll show you," he said. "My quarters, 0600."
Mitchell nodded. John watched as he hefted his duffel and stave, and pushed the doors open.
"John," began Teyla. "Are you?–"
"I'm fine," said John. "That Sodan stuff's hot shit, huh?"
"It is rare that they take acolytes," Teyla said, watching him carefully. "Not many have the training."
"You can teach me, though. Right?" John grabbed his gear and joined her.
"Major Mitchell can teach you," she corrected him.
John frowned. "Not sure I'm up for that," he said.
Teyla sighed. She seemed to be doing that a lot, lately. "Tell me when you are," she said.
Turned out John could run faster than Mitchell, plus he knew the catwalks, which helped. The glow lasted until Mitchell fleeced him at poker. John retaliated with a chess tournament – best of twelve, then when Mitchell edged ahead, best of twenty. John won, eleven to nine.
"Why don't you just fuck him?" asked Ronon. John spit coffee over his cereal, then punched Ronon in the arm. They were in the mess, early. John had won the run again and Mitchell'd gone to take a shower.
"Jesus, Ronon. You can't say that sort of thing," John hissed.
"Just did," said Ronon, unperturbed, biting a muffin in half.
DADT had gone – dropped after the first all-male Jaeger duo killed a Kaiju. It didn't help your career to be openly gay though, and Mitchell was an officer. "It's not like that," muttered John.
"Uh huh," said Ronon. "What is it like?"
"Shut up," said John. Ronon smirked and grabbed another muffin.
"You kids ready for a test-drive?" asked O'Neill, after a week. John was picking himself up off the mat in the gym. He wasn't in the best of moods.
"Sure," said Mitchell.
"No," said John.
O'Neill eyed him. "Might wanna work on that reply some, Sheppard," he said, and tapped his watch. "We're on a schedule, here. Kaiju wait for no man, or so McKay tells me. Now, you ready for a trial?"
John stared at his boots.
"Super," said O'Neill, rubbing his hands together. "0900 tomorrow, sharp."
"Yes, sir," said Mitchell. John glared at him.
It was late, but John hadn't been asleep, just lying on his bed staring up at the rusted ceiling. He ignored the knocking for a while, but whoever it was was persistent. John cursed softly, then got up and opened the door.
"Mind if I come in?" asked Mitchell.
"Can I stop you?" John retorted, walking away.
"This one of those things where everything's a question?" asked Mitchell, grinning as he shut the door.
"What if it is?" replied John.
"You're really gonna keep this up?" Mitchell raised an eyebrow.
"You got a problem with it?" John crossed his arms.
"Yeah," said Mitchell. "Why's everything a challenge with you?"
"That's me, I'm a big old challenge," said John. "And I won."
"No, I won," said Mitchell. "That there, that wasn't a question."
"You said 'yeah' before," said John, smug. "I won."
Mitchell wasn't grinning. "Why, though? Why do you need to win, all the damn time?"
John leaned against the wall and looked at his feet, then up at Mitchell. "You wouldn't say that if you'd ever fought a Kaiju."
"That's what this is about? You think I can't handle myself out there?" Mitchell glowered. "I've been in a full-scale battle. Been shot down, done things I don't wanna..." he trailed off and swallowed.
"Didn't say you couldn't handle it," muttered John, eyes on his boots again.
Mitchell was frowning. "What, you think...you think you can't?"
"Sure as shit didn't say that, either," John snapped.
Mitchell backed away, hands raised. "Sorry, sorry." His calves met the bed, and he sat, hands on his knees. "Okay, this isn't going how I...Sheppard, we need to–"
"If you're gonna say 'we need to talk', just don't," muttered John, shoulders hunched.
"Why don't you like me?" asked Mitchell. He seemed genuinely perplexed.
"Oh, 'cause everybody likes you," muttered John. He rolled his eyes.
"Well, yeah," said Mitchell after a moment. He spread his hands and grinned. "What's not to like?"
"Really?" asked John, incredulous. "That line works for you?"
Mitchell chuckled. "Not so much. But seriously, what've you got against me?"
"Look I know you're O'Neill's blue-eyed flyboy and I'm just a has-been–" John started angrily.
Mitchell peered up at him. "You what? Where'd you get that shit? You're the big old hero, Sheppard. Best Jaeger operator in history, they say. Only one ever piloted a Jaeger single-handed – well, apart from O'Neill, that one time."
"Bet that's not all they say," muttered John, kicking at a rivet on the deck-plates.
"Hell, I don't know!" yelled Mitchell, suddenly exasperated. "All I know is you're fighting me every damn step of the way. How's that gonna go in the interface tomorrow, huh?" He leapt to his feet and stalked over, going nose to nose with John. "We could lose control! The goddam Jaeger could go rogue!"
John faced him down, heart pounding. He couldn't do this. He'd have to go find O'Neill and tell him he was out, kaput. Then what? The fucking Kaiju were still coming. People were still dying. McKay and Zelenka had fixed Atlantis Rising so she was good as new – better than new. More weapons, three times the power, better shields. He had to...but he couldn't. Not again. Not after Sumner.
"Yeah?" said Mitchell softly, and he leaned in and kissed John, bracing himself on the wall either side of John's face. Mitchell's mouth was soft. John kissed him back, hands coming up to Mitchell's waist, and Mitchell's arms slid around him as he pressed John back against the wall.
After a while, Mitchell drew back and rested his forehead against John's as they breathed together. "You're gonna have to tell me," Mitchell said quietly. "I'll know anyway, in the meld, tomorrow."
Mitchell ran a thumb around John's earlobe, and John shivered. "Yeah, I know. I just–"
Mitchell snorted. "Yeah, you're kind of legendary for that as well: not talking about stuff." John frowned at him, and he shrugged. "Teyla told me." John blew out a breath, annoyed. "Hey, they care," said Mitchell. "They're your friends." He studied John's face. "Is it what happened? With Sumner?"
John stiffened and pulled back a little. "You don't know what happened with Sumner."
Cam pulled him back in, kept on stroking behind his ear. "I know it wasn't your fault, John."
"Oh yeah?" John said bitterly. "And how'd you know that? Not like you were there."
"I read all the reports," Cam said quietly. "It was the biggest Kaiju anyone'd ever faced. Wasn't your fault Sumner got killed. You still took it down, even in shock and with Sumner gone, and got Atlantis Rising back to land."
"Felt like I'd failed. Lost..." John swallowed. "You still don't know what happened with Sumner. It's not in the reports."
"You were together? Fucking?"
John shut his eyes. "Yeah. It'd just happened, the night before."
"Christ," muttered Mitchell. "You'd only just...and then..."
"Yeah," said John. There was a long pause, while he screwed up his courage. "I was afraid I'd messed up - there are rules against fraternization for a reason. What if...I dunno, if it changed something? Made me react differently?"
"Why would it?" Mitchell said. "It always happens, in the Drift. There are papers about it, books and all."
Papers?" repeated John blankly.
"About what happens between co-pilots. It's been studied. There are articles."
"Reports?" asked John, amused. Mitchell seemed to like reports.
Mitchell snorted. "Hell yeah, reports. 'Pair-bonding due to telepathic linkage in Jaeger operators: a case series'. 'Report to the Joint Chiefs of Staff: Maximizing the dyadic relationship in Jaeger pilots for increased combat efficacy'. "
John frowned. "The brass know?"
"The brass encourage it," said Mitchell, wry. "They didn't just pick me out of a hat, you know. Probably matched us on our fucking DNA – pheromones and all."
"It really is a dating agency," said John faintly. Mitchell snorted. "So this, us–" John made a vague gesture.
"Yeah," said Mitchell. "They've been expecting it. Hoping for it."
John stiffened and pulled away. "You're not just doing this because O'Neill–"
"Jesus, no!" said Mitchell, pulling him in again. "Man, you're a paranoid bastard."
"Yeah, well," muttered John, holding himself stiffly, still feeling truculent. "Big fucking conspiracy." It wasn't that much of a shock, though. In some ways it was like with those damn seafront barrier walls. He'd known they were useless, but he'd needed to do something, to feel he had a purpose, so he'd pushed the knowledge aside. After Sumner, he'd pretended he was better off alone, that no one would ever know him like that. Hell, he'd told himself the thing with Sumner was his choice, that he'd been a free agent. What a fucking romantic. Learning he'd been manipulated by the brass just as thoroughly as he'd manipulated any Jaeger should have stung more than it did. At some level he'd known: he just hadn't wanted to know.
"We're good together, though, you and me," said Mitchell, and kissed him again. And so what if Mitchell was his designer boyfriend, courtesy of the Jaeger Program? They were good together. What did his feelings matter anyway, stacked up against the endless Kaiju attacks, all the death and destruction. John let himself have the kiss, let himself melt into it.
But shit, fuck, he still had to tell Mitchell. He broke off and pulled away, standing in the middle of the room, arms wrapped around himself. Mitchell narrowed his eyes, frowning. "Look," said John. "There's more you don't–" He took a deep breath. "Sumner and me, we–" Then he stalled out, tongue-tied.
Mitchell raised his eyebrows. "What, you mean the daddy issues?"
John's jaw dropped. "What? How did y–"
Mitchell shrugged, "Reports." He stood there, looking like he did in the gym, loose and ready and dangerous. John's mouth went dry. "Christ, John. You know how much testing they do with us – all those psychologists and questionnaires. You think they didn't know? Why d'you think they partnered you with Sumner in the first place?"
John felt cold. His ears buzzed. "It," he said. "They. Fuck, they what? With–"
"Sumner, yeah." Mitchell shrugged apologetically. "It's the end of the world, John. They'll do whatever fucking works, to stop the Kaiju. You and Sumner worked." He raised a hand, let it fall. "They think we'll work, too."
John stared at him. "But you, you're not–"
"Old enough to be your daddy?" Mitchell was right there, somehow, right there in front of John. "That's not the point, though, is it?" He reached out and cupped the back of John's head. "It's not about how old I am. That's not what matters."
Both his hands were on John now, holding him in place as Mitchell leaned in and kissed him again. It wasn't like the other times they'd kissed. Mitchell's mouth was rough and demanding. He gripped John's head and opened his mouth, all tongue and teeth, and Jesus, it was good.
John moaned and felt his knees give way, and Mitchell got a thigh between his, bracing him, one arm wrapped around his waist. He pulled John up hard against him, rubbing John's cock, hot and erect in his sweatpants, against Mitchell's BDU-covered thigh. John panted into Mitchell's mouth and humped his leg, and Mitchell kissed him and kissed him, telling John he'd look after him, how good he was, and that Mitchell was going to take care of him and fuck the hell out of him. John came in his pants, gasping into the crook of Mitchell's neck.
After, Mitchell manhandled him over to the bed and stripped him, rolling him onto his face. John could barely move but he spread his legs and shuddered when Mitchell got a finger into him, slick with lube. It didn't take long; he was loose after coming. When Mitchell finally pushed his cock in, John had to bite the covers not to shout, it was so good. Mitchell pulled him up to his knees and fucked him hard, driving John up the bed until he was braced against the headboard with every thrust. Mitchell was heavy and he covered John completely, in him and all around him, and John got a hand down under his belly and jerked himself frantically, coming again in a hot rush before Mitchell bit his shoulder and shuddered, hips stuttering.
"So," said Mitchell later, once they'd cleaned up and John was wrapped around him in bed, head on Mitchell's shoulder. "Any more surprises I should know about before tomorrow?"
"It is tomorrow," muttered John sleepily. Mitchell cuffed him and he growled and pushed his face further into Mitchell's armpit. It smelled good. "Just the usual," he slurred, yawning. "My whole life and every thought and memory." He opened one eye. "Reckon you can handle me?"
"Reckon you can handle me?" asked Mitchell, stroking John's hair.
"Yeah," said John, closing his eyes. "Don't worry, I'll look after you." For a while, anyway. For as long as we get.
"Deal," said Mitchell.