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All of My Tomorrows

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Life hadn't started on easy for Janis.

That was the nice, neutral way of describing the childhood of someone who had been raised by Arthur Clay. To anyone who had been an avid reader of seedy tabloids he was nowhere near what someone sane would consider a man. He was much closer to something foul. And his only child knew it from as far back as she could remember.

Janis spent her childhood not understanding the reason behind the women who would oftentimes be brought, drugged in a stupor, into the trailer complex. It was a mild blessing. The other option would have been helplessness in the full knowledge of the evil that was perpetrated in the system of tunnels underneath their trailer. In the end, Arthur was a particularly disturbed, burrowing vermin, but was, nevertheless, barely anything than vermin.

If he was anything, Arthur was pathetically unspecial, save for the evil imagination and lack of empathy he expressed. The only thing "non-human" about Arthur were his eyes. They weren't brown, but yellow, yellow like the eyes of a coyote.

The few positive things that Janis could attribute to the man had been the arduous training he put her through, survivalist training that he continued to train her with the narrative of preparing for the government sending its "jack-booted thugs" in to kill them. There was also the paranoid obsession the man had with watching the skies for things, the names of which he got out of the weird radio stations he listened to. The man certainly had a knack for making even the night sky seem menacing and horrible to his child. Flaps, Pleiadians, Grays, Reptilians—he would sometimes talk about them as though it were as normal as talking about the weather. Or whatever it was that passed as "normal" between a father and his child in the abandoned trailerpark they lived in.

Even Arthur had moments that would surprise Janis in retrospect. Like the time he got her a half-empty box of Natural Ice and a worn, dirty looking copy of a white nationalist physical training guide on her tenth birthday. Once he'd left to do who the hell knew what for the night, she started a garbage fire and threw the book into it and ended up drinking the remaining beers in the ensuing next couple of days. If she were honest in the years to come, it was the twin memories of puking up Natty Ice and looking at the evil, ugly book that turned Janis off of drinking beer nearly altogether. Still, it felt incongruous to her that the man had remembered her birth date.

In the grand scheme of everything, at least the man was right in worrying about the threat of what might come from the great darkness of space. Wrong in every conceivable way possible, but he would end up being her first source for a fear of the great unknown. In the years that Janis would spend, in her own way watching the sky with a degree of paranoia that her father might have been proud of, Janis would wonder about just what other traits she may very well share with the man beyond the obvious.

For one thing, the very yellow eyes that once struck Janis with a mortal terror were also set in her own face. Ultimately, that was a bitter denial of the man's very vocal belief that Janis was not truly his biological child, that her mother had been a whore who had simply offloaded the scrawny child onto a random man she vaguely remembered fucking. She also wondered if she had the endurance and strength that she had witnessed in her father, evidenced by how long he would spend digging pits that she would find had been filled in during the night. A similar endurance ended up being a trait that she would later become well known for.

But aside from those things? Janis would consider herself lucky if she never found a single thing more that would tie her to the man.

She changed her last name as quickly as she could, once she found a way to do it. Admittedly, living in the shadow of an infamous serial killer left her with a chip on her shoulder. One that happened to be exactly what someone like Janis would end up needing.

Above all, the main concern that she heard from people if they managed to make the connection between her and the "Trailer Park Bundy" had been the question of if he had ever "done" anything to her. Or, at least, the expressions they wore when they pushed the eventual conversion seemed to always be questioning it. Sometimes she had seen the skepticism in their eyes whenever she told them that nothing had happened to her, back when she cared enough to try to explain it.

Well, nothing outside of getting hit with a belt whenever Arthur had gotten mean.

What she didn't tend to tell people, unless they had figured it out for themselves, was that she had never had anything to fear from a woman-hating scum like her father had been. After all, she hadn't been biologically born a woman, but had lived most of her life knowing she was one, mostly afraid to express it. Only once she was older and wiser did she learn that living as her true self was the perfect way to spite the legacy of a man whose life seemed dedicated to hating women.

Her life had been a strange uphill climb, and, as Commander Janis Ludovico felt what surely had to be her life draining out of her, she may have thought about how no one would have believed that the teenager who stood, shaking and covered in her own father's blood, would ended up being killed like a rabid animal like this.

As she felt a slow rattle emerge from her chest, however, Janis thought that she could see her father leaning over her, as if to examine the last woman that he would ever break in the last moments of her consciousness. Or, at least, she could swear that she could see his eyes. A pair, resin-yellow bright, felt as though they were looking through her, alight with an unstoppable rage. Just before the darkness took over, Janis realized what she was seeing, understood that it was not some horrible version of her father come back for her, but was a red-skinned, horrible thing. Up close and personal for a change.

 

Twenty Years Later

John Bradford pummeled the training dummy with a variety of kicks, well aware that he had been in the room at this for far longer than he was supposed to be. Old habits had a way of reappearing, the more angry and fixated he got. And he would have been damned if he could imagine a time when he was more wound up, tense. For now, he at least tried to find solace in working out so hard that some night he struggled back to the bed he shared with his faux wife.

The house was strange. At first it felt, uncannily, like a home, a normal suburban house, all clean and modern. However, the tech panels and displays that turned on, revealing first, always, the ADVENT symbol, never let him forget that this was nowhere safe for either he or his mission partner, Jane Kelly.

As he walked down the hallway leading out of the gym, Kelly appeared out of the end of the hall, stopping John, en route to a much-needed shower. She surprised him, pressing a hand to his shoulder. And she kept pressing, stopping him as he tried to walk past her, who was still too aggravated to want to attempt a conversation.

Before he could ask what she wanted, Kelly forced his face to turn towards hers, and, staring him in the eyes, she asked, "Can I expect you to cooperate on everything like we planned it tomorrow?" In his estimation, having had to put up with a bitter old man and pretend that they were husband and wife gave the young woman carte blanche to tell him whatever she wanted. There were, however, still limits to his patience and he was already at the end of his rope, months into this humiliating and bizarre experience.

It didn't help that, if anything, he was the greasy shadow of a man he thought he once was.

When John scoffed, Kelly tightened her grip on his jaw. "I know it's going to be hard to keep it straight, but we have to work together, do what we need to do to in that Gene Bank."

He hated when people touched him. Still, John behaved, brushing her hand off of his face and started to walk around her. "Don't need to worry about me, Kelly, I still remember how to be a soldier." Translation: I know how to be a good boy.

Kelly shouted after him, stopping John in his tracks. Once he turned to look at her, she demanded, "Then tell me that you're going to cooperate with the plan that we decided on months ago."

John felt his jaw setting tight on his face, could only guess the anger that showed. Knew that it did not help his insistence that he could stay emotionally removed. Still, he stared his co-operative in her eyes and said, "There's nothing more that I want than to have Gatecrasher be a success."

Damn the woman, but Kelly's expression changed into a near copy of the one that John was undoubtedly wearing. "Wanting something and being capable of doing it are two separate things."

It was strange. Once upon a time he could recall someone else giving him near the same verbal spanking. And, like this, he was sure, he most certainly deserved it. Or at least, he would realize it in a few minutes, once he could calm down. So John only shook his head and walked to the bathroom.

Yeah, his communication skills had only gotten better with age, to be sure.

Once the door was shut behind him, John violently shucked his clothes off. His fists still throbbed from hitting the speed bag and then the heavy bag that they had installed in their micro gym—in the room that was designated from the floor plan they had been given as a "nursery". Still, John felt a familiar itch in his hands to hit something until he had destroyed it or his knuckles were bleeding.

Not for the first time since he resigned to live like some schmuck, John thought to himself, I could really use a damn drink.

 

Everybody John had met that day greeted him the same way, either wishing him it or declaring it to be a happy Unification day. It struck him that it was odd the way he was celebrating something, even if only secretly, at the same time that nearly everyone else was celebrating for the complete opposite reason.

But he would have had to have been insane if he still wasn't riding a nervous terror that was so potent he could taste it like old copper in the back of his throat.

As was to be expected, the bar was almost filled to the brim with people fresh off of their shifts at work. It was this way on the anniversary, but this year would prove to be special.

The place was so packed that John and the co-workers from the manufacturing facility he had agreed to come with had to settle on sitting at tables next to each other. To say the least, this place was far from where he wished to be.

Sometimes John thought that, if he closed his eyes, he could remember that old dive bar the Commander used to bring him to. Before XCOM, he had just been a man floating between positions at the base where he had once been a recruit. His favorite place had been the bar on the outskirts of town. At least, spending time with her had been most of the joy of the place. Still, if he concentrated he could imagine the smell of polished wood, peanuts, and stale beer, paired with the sound of one of the regulars getting rowdy with his friends as well as the slightly lame but somehow fun jukebox music.

The sound, of one of John's newfound "friends" letting out a loud, whooping yell, brought him out of his thoughts. Suppressing the need to roll his eyes, John let one of those ill-fitting smiles grow on his face and approached the table next to his, gladly abandoning the foul-tasting "liquor" that their alien masters had engineered with the full promise that it would have all of the taste of a beer with additional nutritional content.

Letting out a laugh, John asked, "What's the need for the fanfare?"

The man in question was busy on his headjack, talking to someone excitedly when one of the other men at the table spoke up. "He just heard that his wife's got the approval from the ADVENT Research Center that their delivery is going to be a test run for one of the new therapies."

It had taken years for John to learn to not react like he wanted to in a moment just like this. Which was to say, physically recoil and grab the man talking on his headjack like he had just gotten the best news of his life by his neck, then proceed to throttle him.

Instead, he smiled broader and brought his hand down onto the cold circular metal table with a loud slap. "Con-grad-u-lations!" He boomed, earning a new round of cheers from the men at the table with the exception of the man who was awkwardly trying to hear the other end of the conversation on the headjack.

One of the other men had done an impromptu, one-man toast then took a long drink of the venom-yellow liquor in his tall glass. After he gulped his drink down, he looked John squarely in the face and asked, "How about you? Any news, when you're getting your first?"

John felt his eye twitch. Poor Kelly—he was sure that any of the younger operatives deserved someone better to have as a partner for this operation than some old man.

The plan they had decided to implement was that both would live as a newlywed couple, in order to both be seen as innocuous as possible in the relevant City Center as well as to qualify for one of the Family Units, housing that had at least an expectation of privacy.

Of course, getting such a unit was a necessity—privacy an increasing rarity in cities with a strong ADVENT presence. Even after they got their respective places in the community, it had not been an easy thing to stay under the radar. More appropriately, it had been hard on John, having to act to the rest of the world like he was just some complacent man, newlywed to a woman two decades his junior. He took solace in drinking, outside of the house, at bars that operated under the radar and still served good old fashioned whiskey and beer. Maybe too much solace, especially for a man set to be the failsafe if Gatecrasher should fail.

Jane Kelly, in contrast, took everything with almost frightening stride. Hell, she even looked sincere in the faked wedding photos had taken half a year prior, the visible potpourri they used to scatter in their two-bedroom apartment. What a joke, having to act happy while some cranky, scarred, disillusioned old man held her.

Even though Kelly never complained as long as it wasn't about how John was rightfully acting like an ass, he never failed to find a new way to feel uncomfortable in this degrading existence. And it never failed to make John feel like a creep, getting the special medication at the City Center that was meant to help his supposed virility problem. It wouldn't do, after all, for a new couple with no true reproduction issues withstanding to remain unable to produce any children that would need to be delivered in ADVENT's special Nursery facility.

Not that any of that should matter come later tonight.

One of the other men at the table spoke up, saying, "I know it's harder for a man as he gets older—look at me, I had a bit of a problem with my third, but all I had to do was talk to a counselor and they put me on a work plan for fertility treatment." He grinned proudly. "Looks like we're staying in our Class B Townhouse another two years!"

And to think, there was once a time when it wasn't completely normalized to harangue your friends and co-workers about their fertility. Like they were purebred dogs.

What a brave new world indeed.

John wished he had his glass to take a drink out of to momentarily hide his complete emasculation. All he could do was pretend that the reason the heat that had been steadily creeping up his neck was starting to appear in splotches along his jaw was because he was embarrassed. Not completely enraged.

Not for the first time, John had to wonder why he was doing this, if it was all just to save idiots like this. The sad part what that he knew why he was doing this, was seemingly never allowed, for a moment, to forget. After all, all it took was for him to see an ADVENT emblem and he knew that he needed to destroy it.

 

It was a blur in retrospect. At the moment, it felt to John as though something possessed him, a mixture of old and never forgotten training as well as a rage that had never forgotten him. His chest throbbed, courtesy the rifle butt that an ADVENT Peacekeeper had bestowed on him moments before.

He remembered seeing Kelly, crouched behind one of the hideous light poles that ADVENT had installed. He could remember a passing moment when it almost felt like XCOM had never been incinerated, sending all of them scattering like embers. Like it was all a mission, the kind that he would have spent in the base of operations, watching. Only this time he was up close and personal with the very creatures that had stolen the futures of everyone on his planet.

He thought he could see Kelly give him a look that he knew all too well, the question in her expression plain. Are you going to do what we planned?

And at first John kept his mind straight like a good boy. He watched as the two Squaddies who had dropped from Firebrand flanked and made a successful hit on one of the Troopers positioned in front of the Gene Bank. When he watched the other Trooper make a run to flank the Squaddie that had shot the other Trooper down, John felt the pretense of his calm leave.

Almost as soon as the calm had come over John, any pretense, of the emotional distance that the secret organization had afforded him, was gone. His hands tightened into fists, knuckles bone-white as he clenched the rifle that had been planted underneath the car that had been parked there deliberately. They had told him that him getting the gun had been nothing more than a backup measure until it became his turn in this play.

It more felt as though he was watching himself vault over the concrete barrier, firing the rifle at the Trooper, and then run so that he was standing only a few feet from the sprawled body.

Genie's outta the bottle now, he thought, walking the distance between him and the Trooper. He glanced down at It, watched as the helmeted thing pressed a hand to Its head and began to talk into Its headjack in a too-familiar babble. Without hesitation, he brought his boot down as hard as he could on Its head.

When he heard Shen demand what the hell he was still doing, John felt himself answering back automatically, his eyes trained on the face of the Trooper, now revealed from the cracked-opened helmet. As he heard Kelly approaching him from behind, he felt his stomach turn at the sight of that face, the first real emotion he felt besides rage.

Flat, with small, far-set eyes and a near-non existent nose, the pale face that ultimately lived behind the huge helmet seemed, at first, fake. As though it were a mask, and underneath it there would be a familiar, more humanoid face. After all, they had all been told that this was supposed to be a hybrid, mostly Human. Almost as soon as the thought crossed his mind, John knew that he was staring at the true face behind these sterile hives that the Elders had made for their Human quarry.

Notes:

Made some additional edits. Sorry, not planning on screwing up and posting broken syntax and such again.

Chapter Text

John stepped through the doorway in the back of the Gene Bank. It felt as though he had lived a lifetime for this moment, could feel in his bones that he was near her. Closer than he had ever been in two decades.

Through the gloom of the room’s darkness, John searched, then he saw it, standing on the right side of the room. A large tube, ominous in the red glow that the ADVENT insignia stamped across the sarcophagus’ face cast, John recognized the tech from intel gained nearly half a year ago. He wasn’t even aware that he had walked to it until he was standing in front of the opaque tube, every hair on his body standing on end.

Everything in the last two decades had brought him in front of this object. Unbelievable though it was.

He wasn’t aware that he had hit the lever, watched as the panels slid open to reveal it. The Package. That was what they called the mysterious item, hidden behind a locked door, sealed inside an ominous, dark little room. ADVENT had never thought that someone would ever be audacious enough to break in here, to enter this hidden sanctum.

The enigmatic thing had come via a tour that had seen the conspicuous ADVENT sarcophagus taken from Bank to Bank, meant to stay here until after the Unification celebrations had passed. A day when they could count on ADVENT’s resources being stressed more than any other time of the year, barring a rebellion their overlords would have to quash. They had no intel on where the sarcophagus was to go—or what would become of it, once it was due to leave the premises. Taking the Package was going to happen tonight or it would never happen.

True, there was hardly any way of believing that this could be her, but what else would be under typically heavy guard, kept in the Gene Banks, facilities equipped with the means to maintain a person kept in near continual stasis? Anyone else who had ever been taken by ADVENT was expected to be dead, long dead. And it wasn’t just John’s desperate hope; Richard Tygan, the man who had made it his first big task to find out if the rumors were true, believed that the only person ADVENT would keep like a trophy for two decades—had—to be her.

As Shen asked him if the intel that had finally led them to this place was good, John felt himself take a step back, his eyes stuck on the image of the floating thing stuck in the pale green liquid inside of the sarcophagus.

It was a figure, which looked like it was wearing the sort of gear that immediately brought to mind the deep diving suit worn by old Jules Verne characters. In reality, John knew it was a Stasis suit, meant to keep the occupant stuck in whatever status they had when they were put into the sarcophagus. Once out of the tube, none of them were quite sure what they would find inside of the suit.

The thing seemed to move, then he realized that the liquid the figure was suspended in was beginning to drain, seemingly triggered with the lever automatically set to drain the contents of the fluid.

John pressed his hand to his headjack and confirmed to Shen that their intel had, indeed, been good. She started to tell him something about an access panel, but John was in the middle of readying his rifle, was bringing it against the glass as hard as he could, heard a soul-satisfying crash as it cracked open and Shen cut short what she was saying. The remaining pale green liquid sloshed out in a wave that soaked his boots; a powerful, reeking odor that pierced the sterile smell of the Gene Bank’s meticulous hygiene systems.

John murmured, “Next time,” then reached in, pulling the figure in the suit out.

He knew in his heart that he was looking at was a ghost imprisoned in a heavy, hermetic suit. If not for the fact that the weight and size of the suit and the body inside of it took him off-guard, John would have carried it out of the room in one motion. Instead he laid it on the ground, vaguely aware of Shen saying something sarcastic in response to his reactionary decision on how to remove the suited body. Soaked partially by the strange liquid that covered the suit, John took a look at the suited figure and thought: I can't believe we're really here.

Now he had to get out with it.

Staring at the hard-red glass of the thing’s helmet, John prepared himself for the task of firefighter carrying this unwieldy body out to the evac zone with only the thought that inside of that suit was someone who had been waiting for him. Untouched by all of the ugliness, the death and subjugation that was nothing but normalcy for the rest of them.

As he carried it, John wished with every step that he could at least see her face, know that the reason they had risked everything was worthwhile.

 

 

It was pandemonium inside of Firebrand, and the one thing John was cognizant of was that he always kept a hand on that suited figure they laid on the gurney in the center of the aircraft. It took so much from him to not rip the helmet off of it—off of her. He had begun to fear what he would find inside of that suit, that they had only taken a disfigured science experiment.

When he wasn’t on auto pilot, somehow managing to give basic answers to the people around him, John felt a non-stop run of thought course through his mind like an electrical current. Shit, shit, shit.

Space inside of the 'bird was hardly ever "spacious" to begin with, but with the necessary gurney kept in the center of it, almost everyone had barely any choice other than to huddle around the suited figure.

Tygan couldn’t accompany them on this mission. After all, it was risky enough for one member of the Officers to be in the rescue vehicle, even if it was in the service of the Commander. In spite of John knowing, logically, why the man who could crack the suit open wasn’t on hand to make sure the subject in the suit didn’t die en route, he spent whatever mental energy he had left after being terrified for the fate of the stasis suit’s occupant on damning the Biologist for not being on hand.

The last thing he needed was the off-hand comment he heard someone in Firebrand say. “How do we even know that she’s still alive in there?”

John didn’t realized that he had taken hold of one of the suited figure’s shoulders, tightened his grip until he felt Kelly lean in close to him, murmuring for him to “Stop gripping like that.”

John let go reflexively, horrified by his obvious reaction.

Was this how Central was supposed to behave?

It was a thought that had haunted the man, but it felt oddly more fitting as he sat over the hermetic suit. Painful though the thought was, it worked to steady John.

It felt like it took far too long for them to reach the Avenger, hidden in its canyon. For the rest of the time they spent in Firebrand, John hunched over the hermetic-suited figure, hoping that his every emotion wasn’t reflected on his face.

Landed, he watched as Tygan’s scientists wheeled the figure in the suit out of the hanger. John caught up with them as they moved the figure onto the prepared bed, everyone working with admirable speed. Acting as though this event were nothing out of the ordinary, rote procedure. It was funny; John felt rooted in place, as though he were either in a dream or a nightmare, and he wasn't sure which it could be. He heard Tygan and Shen half-debating their actions, then he heard someone bring up “atrophy”.

John was too fried to feel the horror that term implied, unable to imagine a world where they would crack the suit open only to find a dying husk inside; that the act of pulling the suit out of the sarcophagus has set some sort of an automated shut down on the life support inside of the hermetic suit. That he had killed his mentor with his own hands simply by trying to pull her free from her prison. But within seconds of experiencing that chilling fear, they learned from the life support machines that at least whatever was inside was alive. Against all odds, someone lived inside of that suit. Someone that their every piece of intel told them was none other than the supposedly deceased Commander Ludovico.

But, as John overheard Tygan reminding Shen, they were far from being out of the woods. If what they heard about this mysterious figure in its sarcophagus had been true, they needed to perform a life-saving procedure and they needed to do it now.

Hearing that lit a fire under John's ass. “Good, then let’s get on with it,” he said, watching as Tygan wiped off the misting that had formed on the helmet's glass. John placed his hands behind his back, standing as if he were awaiting a new set of orders, then decided to just give in to what he wanted to do. As he quickly walked to the side of the figure, John watched Tygan disengage the mask on the suit, the thing making a pneumatic whine as it pulled away, and then he heard two soft gasps.

He was grateful that his hands were clasped behind his back to hide their shake.

“Remarkable,” he heard Tygan say, breathless.

John agreed, adding, “Just like twenty years ago.”

 

 

It was a perpetual nightmare that had no beginning or end. The only calm she was given were the brief respites of pure oblivion in between the forced periods of horrible consciousness. They looked at her without any thought for her humanity, let alone modesty, probing with horrible, sharp instruments.

A few times she believed that they weren’t even aliens, imagined that it was her father leering over her, grinning at her with his crooked, stained teeth as she writhed in agony. But when the drugs didn’t manage to terminate her ability to think coherently, Janis recognized the tight-stretched face of a Thin Man leaning over her, moments before an intense pain ripped through her entire body.

When she felt the mask disengage again, Janis wished that she could override her body’s instinctive need to remain living, she could simply cease breathing.

Please, just let me die.

This time was different, strange. Worse than any other time, because somehow they had found a way to torment her with the faces of Humans.

 

 

If not for the shock of seeing her looking the exact same, with the exception of the death-like pallor of her skin, John might have thought he was looking at something his imagination had created.

John knew that Tygan was firmly resistant to the thought that this was going to be anything but a long shot. After all, their agreement to do this was due in no small part to it being one of John's contingencies for agreeing to give his all to this resurrection of XCOM.

When Shen voiced her concern at the erratic readings they got from the vitals, John was too fueled by adrenaline at that point to let the possibility of failure sink in. He felt a desire to take control overcome him, a drive that he had long ago lost a connection to. When he snapped at the two half-arguing scientists, it felt good, good to finally be able to do something, anything.

“No Plan B here, people. Do it.”

At first Tygan’s face betrayed shock, then a resolute glint replaced his uncertainty. The Head Scientist looked to Shen as though they shared understanding of what they had to do next. Wordlessly, Tygan brandished the evil-looking white tool, stolen from an ADVENT lab. The thing’s sharp protrusions popped out at its end, looking like a wicked-sharp set of two monstrous mandibles.

As John watched the man lower the edges of the tool to the incision, he felt his stomach twist into knots. He had barked at the two to hurry, afraid that at any moment he would lose his own nerve. Growing surer by the second that they were going to kill her.

He feigned ignorance to the blind-eyed terror that he saw on the Commander’s face, found relief when her gaze had sunk into a vacant stare. But as he watched Tygan pull out the implant set in her skull, he realized that what he had thought was her almost certainly falling into shock had been nothing but a desperate fantasy.

She cried out around the blocks that had been placed in her mouth. He could tell from the wide, dilated quality of her bright, bright eyes that if not for the blocks she would have been screaming.

After that it was only ten minutes that the team of doctors, a Chief Engineering Officer, and the Executive Officer spent over the slack-jawed (and, finally, drugged) body of the Commander. To John it of course felt like forever. He wanted nothing more than to take the hand still encased in the hermetic suit, hoped that somewhere in the dreams she was half-submerged in that she would know that he was here for her. Here, and would never again let her go more than one room away from him.

Finally, Tygan informed them that the Ludovico’s status was stable. John didn’t bother to hide the relief on his face.

As Tygan turned to tell one of his scientists something, John hovered over her, said, “Told them it would take more than that to keep you down.” He leaned in closer to her, realizing that her gaze, earlier hazed and unfocused, had locked onto him, her pupils wide, as though with some drugged form of recognition.

“Welcome back…” He felt a shiver run up his spine as he said it, a smile itching at his lips. “Commander.”

John watched her gaze falter until her eyelids fluttered shut before he walked away. He knew that staying by his superior’s side had been an important duty, thankfully one that he could reason to anyone. Now, even though everything in him screamed to remain by her side in case even the Chief Scientific Officer had been wrong in his assertion that her condition had stabilized, he had enough work ahead of him before the Commander was expected to awaken, work that needed done, and not enough time for frivolities like sleeping. After all, he had just gotten what could be considered his promised payment for agreeing to do everything in his power to bring the Initiative back from its grave.

 

 

Every time Janis had been resurrected, she woke in an uncomfortable metal thing that she thought must have been a flat platform shaped like a bed. And, typically, someone was hurting her. It might have begged the question if the sadists had any knowledge of Human biology at all, or if they were doing it just to torture her. Except Janis had a pretty good idea of the reasoning behind it all. The obvious answer was that being able to torture the head fool who had thought to stand against them was nothing more than gravy.

After all, everything evil had the same set of protocol. She would know, better than anyone.

But this time she could feel bedding surrounding her, almost felt as though it were swallowing her whole, unused to anything resembling something soft or covering besides cold or lukewarm liquid. When her sore mouth fell open, her olfactory senses took in the smell, the taste of the air.

And then she heard it, the soft sound of something that made her pulse quicken in her throat. The soft, undeniable notes—a Human voice—something that didn’t make sense to Janis. It was almost painful, alongside the tender, pulsating ache that seared in the back of her mouth, to open her eyes. Still, she—almost regretfully—let her eyes fall open. Her eyes nearly shut again before she heard his voice.

“Glad to see you’re finally coming out.”

Janis’ eyes snapped open and she gazed at the Human who seemed, at first, to be standing in front of her.

With light tanned skin, long lashed brown eyes, and dark hair, the man looked a few years older than her. The only thing that seemed to be imperfect or abnormal on him was the long line of a scar on his face. But aside from the odd warmth—almost familiarity—she found in his eyes, it almost felt as though she were looking into a strange mirror that reflected the weight that her role and duties sometimes crushed her with.

Immediately she felt sorry for the man. He was here it was because of her failure, the thing she was continuously punished with by being trapped in this eternal limbo. She wanted to tell him that she was sorry she had failed him, that he was trapped with her. Sorry, like how she was sorry that she had failed the entire Human race.

Maybe he saw it, the desire she had to tell him that she knew it was her fault. There was an amused note in his words, unless she was misplacing it beneath the low, rough weight of his voice. “Don’t envy the headache you must have, though.” His gaze—stare—never wavered from her eyes, would have been pinning her down, if not for the warmth that felt as though it were radiating from him. “Still, can’t fault Dr. Tygan. Especially as no one’s attempted something like this before.”

She turned her head, losing the stare that they shared, looked at her surroundings. Took in the foot of a bed where feet— her feet—protruded underneath a layer of blanket, then turned to look at the surprisingly large room she shared with the man.

Two black couches, facing each other, sat what had to be ten feet away from her. Just on the right side of the man was a monitor. On the monitor was something that told Janis that she was either dreaming, or the lifelong Atheist had nevertheless finally died and passed onto another layer of consciousness.

The insignia, badge-shaped, had two words in latin, words that Janis knew all too well.

Vigilo Confido.

I am vigilant.

Janis looked back at the man, still unsure if she was dreaming this, already feeling her stubborn desire to believe what she saw with her own eyes overriding any belief she may have had that she had died. But it was ridiculous, a poor fantasy, if indeed it was something she imagined. After all, this could just be a new psychological torture they’ve somehow buried me inside of.

She didn’t realize that she had sat up to look at her surroundings until she felt the man place a hand on her abdomen, another hand cautiously barring her from—what, attempting to get up?

“Easy—we’re not entirely sure what they did to you.” He drew her attention to another monitor, this one on her left side. When she looked, Janis realized that she was looking at an x-ray, then some strange, sharp item that looked like it belonged in some electronic. “That chip was buried half way into your skull.”

In spite of her still lingering belief that this was a fantasy meant to torture her, Janis turned to look at him, could feel her eyes widening.

She opened her mouth, then found that the man had placed his fingers to her lips, said, “Don’t be in a rush to use your voice just yet. We had to… try something a little dangerous to disengage you from the chip. Way Tygan tells it, you’re not likely going to be able to speak for a few more days. Else we risk damaging your ability to talk permanently.” He let out a sound that Janis could have mistaken for a chuckle. “Can’t have that.”

She gazed at the stranger, mind swimming with questions she ached to ask. Tygan ? Who the hell was Tygan? Dr. Moira Vahlen, ever-curious oddball but persistent source of comfort—and, to Janis, was one of the rare people she could have considered a friend—was the only person she would have trusted to operate on her.

What happened to everyone the day I was taken?

Janis’ eyes drifted over the room before settling on a display case to her left. An obviously un-Humanoid skull sat on a bottom shelf and on the shelf above it were models of ships, the kind that brought memories of days both glorious and heart-shattering. Above it were pictures, pictures of people that, even if she never admitted it aloud, meant as much to her as family would have to someone else.

As though guessing her line of thought, the man said, “Lost a lot of good soldiers looking for you over the years. Almost gave up hope you were still out there. Acted on the intel as soon as I got word.” He didn’t look at her directly for the first time since she had awoken, stood up, walking away from her.

She noticed it as though it were a broken rhythm, the slight hitch in the way he walked, like one of his legs were ill fitting. It was odd to see on him, a man that seemed to be well made in every other way, signs of defects like the scar and the hitching limp he walked in almost making him seem more real to her than if he didn’t possess either attributes.

He surprised her as he flung his arms out, gesticulating for emphasis as he talked, his back turned to her. “Not sure what you remember, but a lot’s changed.” He turned, then faced her again. “Did the best I could, but the last twenty years... have been tough without you.”

For the first time, Janis noted the hilt of the knife, a combat with finger grip grooves inlaid in the hilt and circular moons that gave it the sole aspects that weren’t a cold black, set in a easy-grab holster on the side of his chest. It was too easy to imagine the man, a stranger, Janis was well, too aware, of, taking it out and slashing at her with it.

Seemingly unaware of the terror and confusion that played out in Janis’ mind, the man motioned towards the monitor that he had been standing in front of previously. “While you heal, Shen has the archive up and running on your terminal.” Janis turned, looked at the terminal, relieved to hear a familiar name, even if it was coming from this dangerous-looking stranger. “Otherwise, I’d go see Dr. Tygan when you’re ready. There’s some things you should know. He’ll be better explaining them than me.”

And, before Janis could even think of acclimating to the presence of the uniquely intense man, he walked towards the door. It surprised her when he stopped, turning around as he said, “It’s damn good to have you back, Commander.”

Chapter Text

Thirty-four years earlier

 

John knew that he would regret it if he didn’t do it. At least try it. Knowing this did nothing to calm the rapid beating of his heart or dry the damp sweat on his hands which clutched the completed paperwork. He found that it was far easier to tell himself it was nothing but an aspect of dry bureaucracy when he had been staring at an unfinished form. After all, he had filled out the application the night before only after taking a shot of whiskey, then another one five minutes after. The problems with such a way of coping would not come for many years, over two decades.

And now he was standing in front of his C.O’s door, about to apply for a job that he felt like he didn’t deserve. It was like this was actually the culmination of weeks of agony. Cold comfort, but John tried to tell himself that he was overreacting, a natural reaction in response to applying for a post underneath a man whom he respected so much.

As John knocked on the door, he told himself that no matter what was going to happen at least he would know that he had gone for it. Hadn’t let something important pass him by.

It took a moment; a few seconds that were almost enough for him to turn and pitch the paperwork in the wastebasket back down the hallway. Then the door opened.

Commanding Officer Jain Ludovico was a deceptively lean and lanky dark-brown haired man, with a slender set of features that leant him an androgynous demeanor.

“Yes?” Jain looked at Private Bradford, a look on his face that suggested that he wasn’t at all surprised by the younger man’s appearance at his office. It was a look that did something to alleviate the weight that felt like it was pressing on the younger man.

John was afraid that nothing was going to come out of his mouth, surprised when he actually said words aloud. “I was—” John cleared his throat, brandishing the papers as though it were a shield. “I filled out an application for the position of Assistant. Your assistant.”

Jain seemed to examine the man who was a decade younger than him with a playful glint in his dangerous eyes, one almost covered by a falling wave of the hair he had been growing out in the past few months. In spite of that, he held a hand up to his full lips, his expression set as though he were emotionally removed. Finally, he nodded to John, motioning for him to come into the office.

John shut the door behind him after he entered the room, watched as Jain walked to his desk. Instead of sitting in his chair, the C.O walked in front of his desk and leaned back as he sat against the edge. He was a tall man, long-limbed, the height difference between the two men was so that if they stood in front of each other Jain could rest his chin on John’s head.

The S.O looked at John, a serious look on his face, until he burst into laughter. “Sorry, sorry,” he said, his pale skin already growing pink from the laughter. “You just, you looked so serious.”

John didn’t know whether to be relieved or embarrassed. Instead, he felt slightly pissed. “Commander—”

Jain groaned, stilling his resounding chuckle. “I thought I told you, when we’re alone, it’s Jain. Jain. You're not some green recruit, even if I haven't been here to see you turn into... He ended it wordlessly, motioning to John.

John felt his own blush, angry as it crept up the back of his neck. “Damn it, I want you to take me seriously.”

This, this is what he had dreaded as he struggled the night before to put into writing the concrete reasons why he deserved to be considered for the job. He knew he was young for the position he was applying for and he had a record that on paper was a far cry from some of the resumes that such a popular C.O as Ludovico undoubtedly had been given. Not as though John was a hundred percent sure that Jain even had much belief in him.

After all, Jain had gone, disappeared on a classified mission for two years, only reappearing into the lives of people he might have once instructed two months ago. Whatever the mission had entailed, Jain had not told him anything about it, but apparently after kissing someone’s ring he was allowed to return, having jumped several rungs up the proverbial ladder.

Since the enigmatic man’s return, they had spent the time that John had gotten to know his mentor anew as if Jain were his best friend. Yet, John had a feeling that he would forever be that young, angry man to Jain, the one that the C.O had known before he had left. Still— still

Jain paused, a hand pressed still to his mouth as he examined his friend. Something, like realization, settled on his face. He let out a soft sigh. “Alright, Johnny. I’m sorry.” He motioned towards the paperwork that John only then realized he had been clutching, hard, in his fist. “So you’re applying to be my direct subordinate? Hand it over, I’ll consider it, let you know what I think once I go over all the applications.”

John passed the resume over, then watched as Jain seemed to be looking at it. He started to read it in earnest, settling back on the desk, absent-mindedly nibbling at his right thumb nail. John watched in awkward silence, until Jain flipped the stapled cover page over and started to read the resume in front of him.

John let out a heavy sigh, barely stopping himself from groaning. “Je-su-s—”

“So it says here that you envision yourself a problem solver, that you have a background in our line of work…”

“Could you stop?”

“Seems like you have a high ranking officer here for your reference. But I thought I heard about this guy, this Jain Ludovico. Heard he was a…” Jain sniffed. “miscreant.”

“Goddamn it, Jain—” He had enough at that point and stood up, earnest as he tried to pull his resume from his friend’s hands.

Only, the older man pulled away in time before John had a chance to grab the papers. Jain, sporting a wide grin, started to pace around the room with his friend walking after him, begging him to stop it. “”Hard Worker”, “Great Communicator”, why don’t you just put “has a big dick” in here?” He emphasized his words with the sound of him flipping a page.

John maneuvered around the taller man, nearly tripping but getting his prize clenched in his hand. He almost tore it free of the C.O’s hands before Jain let go, stepping back with his hands on his hips. As the red-faced Private clenched his resume, Jain walked back to his desk as though he had not just teased the other man in a way that both knew no one outside of the room would likely approve of. At least, not on duty hours.

Taking a drink of the bottle of water he had on desk, Jain motioned towards the other man, then said, “Get rid of that. You can start work for me as soon as Leonard’s taken everything out of that old desk, sometime in a week or so.” John must have been staring in shock at the man, because Jain rolled his eyes and waved at him dismissively. “Did you hear me?”

“Are you kidding?”

Something not friendly flashed in the C.O’s yellow eyes. “Is this going to be an issue, or do I have to actually read through a bunch of applications?”

John could hardly believe what Jain was saying. He stared at the man like he had antennas growing out of his neck, even as Jain’s expression began to form a scowl. Finally, the other man said, “As much as I like spending time with you, I actually have something to work on today, and hiring you is supposed to solve the problem of having to deal with all of the shit I have to do with some of the new guidelines coming into place. Don’t make my life any harder than you need to, ‘kay?”

John finally found his voice. This time, to his horror, he was telling his would-be direct superior exactly why he shouldn’t be considered. “But I’m sure there’s plenty of—of guys in the mix that have better credentials than me—”

Jain interrupted, at this point he had started to massage his temples. “Lemme ask you to do me a kindness, Johnny. Because I don’t have the time to deal with whatever crisis this is.” He winked, then leaned over, tapping the sheaf of papers that John had not let his death grip release from. “Get back to me before the week’s up and tell me if you’re taking the job or not. I don’t need to read that to know that you’re the best person suited for the job. Even if you haven’t quite grown into that person yet.”

John stared at his friend, who leaned back against his desk.

The S.O looked at the Private with that bemused look in his eyes that John had become accustomed to.

Jain was the kind of person—exactly the sort—that the woman who had raised John, his grandma, would have warned him against. A man she would have described, in a low voice and only once the man in question’s back was turned against them, “He has the devil in those eyes.” And it wasn’t just the jackal-yellow tint Jain's brown eyes had to them.

Jain was multifaceted, a hard-ass one second and just the other, more than willing to act as though he meant to shove John into a mud puddle on a day the younger man would have worn a brand new uniform. Never hurt that Jain had never had a problem with finding a woman more than willing to look past those animal eyes of his, even as he, in his own words, was “quickly approaching grand dad age”, twenty years the Private's senior. But John had always had the hunch that, more than likely, it was due to those yellow eyes that women had a knack for bothering the C.O whenever he went off base. Whether he wore his uniform or even  those gaudy but somehow endearing Tommy Bahama shirts and sandals, as though every moment not on duty was a vacation.

When Jain gave him a conspiratorial wink and motioned for him to leave, John walked, stiffly, to the door and nevertheless turned to look back at the man before he left. The S.O waved warmly at him, an unabashed grin on his face. He wondered, not for the first time, if this whole thing was a ruse, an ultimate practical joke at his expense.

Almost as soon as John got to his quarters, he regretted not taking the job immediately. And with it not being his and Jain’s designated night out, the man was left to wonder if he could stand to sit on his hands for the night and tell his friend as soon as he could the following day that he would be honored to take the position, no questions asked.

As the night wore on, though, John found that it was impossible to not think about the dumb mistake he made.

Eventually John found himself on the edge of his bed, head ducked low as he tried to call Jain’s room. When the man didn’t pick up the phone, John was disappointed, but didn’t think anything of it. Maybe the man had gone out for the night, took one of those thirsty waitresses out to relieve some tension, or maybe just go out bowling with. He was indeed a man of many tastes, a wild card.

John thought that he would wait until the next morning to talk to the man. At any rate, he eventually fell asleep for the night.

What he didn’t know was that it would be five long years before he would ever speak to the man again, and that Jain would be a different person entirely the next time they met. And that it would be far from the last time they would, once again, be separated.


Present Time

 

John sat back on his stool, grunting as he felt the ache in his chest where the ADVENT Trooper had so kindly hit him with the butt of his rifle. Hopefully the drugs made it so, at least, she didn’t see me limping earlier , John thought with a grimace.

He took a drink of whatever thankfully genuine Human liquor had been placed in front of him. Really he didn’t have the energy to wonder if it was vain to not want to be seen walking like a lame dog the first time you met someone again. Even if he was, in reality, nothing more than a lame mutt.

The bar in the base was typically busier than this, but either due to the promise that it might be the last time people who had family could be seeing their loved ones or because of the rigid drills that had been ordered for everyone, an order signed by John himself, it was empty. Even the bartender, Masud, was seemingly in the back room, probably accounting for the resources they would need on their first ride. That was fine; John was sure to keep a running tab, either on a napkin or in his head. He was used to either and his days of shorting a bartender was, thankfully, past him.

With that in mind he knocked back the rest of the drink, then reached over to pour himself another.

“Whoa there, cowboy,” A familiar voice called out to him, approaching his side. “Make sure to leave me some.”

John grunted something, but left the bottle on the counter after he took a swig out of his tumbler. Part of him wished that the slight woman wasn’t taking the bar stool next to him but another part of him was thankful for the company. A twelve-stepper he was not, but he knew the dangers of someone like him drinking alone in a low-lit bar with only the ghosts of his past to keep him company.

Per her request that he not put the bottle of whiskey back, Shen reached over and took the bottle. Not even close to sloshed, John was about to motion for the spot under the counter where Masud kept the glassware when he watched Shen knock her head back and pour the red-plastic spout of the bottle above her ready mouth. John felt his eyes widen as he watched the small woman down the whisky with heaving gulps before she slammed the bottle back down.

“Damn there, need tension relief?”

Shen shook her head, wincing. After a sound, somewhere between a retch and a groan, emerged from her mouth, she said, “You don’t know the half of it.”

John looked back at the pale amber liquid in his tumbler, his hand itching to knock the glass back another time. Instead he sat back up in his seat, his hand hovering over the sore spot in his chest.

“That still hurts?” John hesitated, then when he nodded, John watched his companion give him a sympathetic quirk of her lips and shook her head. “Told you to leave it to one of the Squaddies.”

John’s fingers twitched, itched to grab the tumbler that was a few precious inches away from his hand. “Can’t leave everything to someone else just because they happen to be younger than you.”

“Yeah, well, I’m sure Tygan would have a thing or two to say to you about how fast someone over fifty can heal versus a twenty-something. The thing is, it’s actually more about how much you’re worth to us than about your age.”

“Yeah? How so?” John felt himself drawling the words out, growing more annoyed by the second.

Shen didn’t seem to take the bait, getting up from her bar stool as she walked around the bar, finally pulling three shot glasses out and pouring the same whiskey that she had mainlined a few moments before. As though off the cuff, she nodded towards John’s glass and asked, “How many’ve those have you had?”

John reached over, giving into the urge to knock the tumbler back. As he sat the glass back down on the counter with a sigh, he said, “Not nearly enough.”

“Where’s Masud?”

“Back there. You can hear glass clattering back there sometimes—” As though to punctuate his words, John was cut off by the sound of something surely breaking—what sounded like glass—followed by cursing in Arabic. John raised his empty glass in the direction of the closed door that lead to the storage room, then turned his glass back towards Shen. “Seeing as how you’re back there…”

If Shen hesitated it didn’t last more than second. The woman took the glass and poured whiskey until there was only a third of it filled with the liquor. She handed it back to John, who looked at the glass, ready to tell her to finish pouring the drink before handing it to him. When he looked at her and saw her staring at him, a challenge of sorts written on her face, he gave her one of his cracked asshole grins and rose the glass up in mock thanks.

“You keeping a tally on how many you’re drinking, Central?”

John took a drink from his glass, then said, “Oh, don’t worry about that. Keeping a running list in my head.” He tapped his forehead for emphasis.

“That so? How many you up to now?”

John felt his teeth clench together, his lips bared in a growl. “Don’t know who put you up to this—”

The woman backed up from the bar, her hands raised in a mock surrender. “I didn’t mean to antagonize you. Just curious.”

“Yeah, well, you do me a favor by being less curious. That alright?” It was curious habit for a man who didn’t have a habit of caring about what an impossible god would think of him, but John thought a quick prayer to himself, hoping that the woman would stop hassling him. He didn’t know if it felt better to stagnate a bit longer in a once-familiar depression or if he wanted to think more about what had happened and what would happen. For now, he wanted to linger in the pleasant darkness that night with something doping in his system.

Shen drew her hands out, exasperation written on her face. “Believe what you want, I just came down to get a drink.”

John could feel the scowl forming on his face and did nothing to stop it.

Shen laughed, her hand pressed over her mouth as though she meant to mask the smile on her face. “You think I’m annoying? Count your stars I’m not Kelly.”

That almost made John wince. His housemate for a number of months had been vocal about her hatred of his “drinking habit”, and with the exception of visits out with the boys that John had taken with co-workers to allow him to blend in better with the community, he had relented to Kelly’s pressure that he not drink a single drop of liquor while in the apartment. At least, physically obstruct of the apartment.

Shen stopped his train of thought by downing one of her shot glasses, slamming it down as her lips formed a tensed O. That’s the good stuff.”

Is it good? John could remember the taste of the first few drinks— tastes like the old days , that’s what he thought at first—but it had rapidly become nothing more than something to drink, something that made the foul feeling in the pit of his stomach dissipate, just a little. His Grandma’s Lord knew that even almost a year since the Bad Days were well in his rearview, it still took at least a bottle of the stuff Shen was sharing with him to get good and loaded. Or maybe he was too drunk to know the difference. Wouldn’t that make a great vision of Central, a drunk, moody old man clinging to the bottle?

Shen took another shot glass down and as she slammed it onto the bar, she turned to John and said, “So, did she remember you?”

“What’dya mean?”

Shen had an impatient look on her face, her lips creeping into a smile. “You know what I mean. Old pals—” She maneuvered his shoulders in an insinuating wiggle. “c’mon, did she feel like she was in safe company, waking up with you over her?”

It was hard to tell what tone of voice the woman had asked the question in. The darkness of the room had started to feel like it had taken a turn. It felt, almost, as though he were in an interrogation room—the kind he used to visit a long lifetime ago with terrifying regularity as a teenaged joyrider who fed his habit with grand theft auto. The kind who was only tamed through bootcamp, followed by years in the service.  Perhaps it was just superstition, brought on by old emotions, but to John, it was as though Shen could see through him. Knew he had a goon’s soul, right beneath the XCOM insignia and the neat uniforms. After all, he had gone right back to those nihilistic drives as soon as XCOM had been murdered before his eyes.

John turned away, his eyes trailing over to the display of original trophies that had been, somehow, salvaged from the old base. He glanced at them, realizing that more than the people who sacrificed their blood earning them, they symbolized something more personal to him. They were reminders that the time he spent working underneath Janis had not been a fantasy that his Alki brain had made up. Old weapons that had been kept and partially disassembled—the work of the original Shen, no less—had been thoroughly studied then put on display to show the workings of each differing model.

Without meaning to, his eyes drifted over to the Beam Rifle of a Muton, its wicked-looking protrusions seeming to glint even more menacingly in the vague light of the bar.

Before an old rage had a chance to come creeping up his back, he felt a hand on his own. He glanced down, realized that Shen had rested her hand over his own, which had clenched into a fist.

“Don’t tell me you still feel guilty over something two decades in the past.” The earlier good humor had disappeared from her voice.

John had a strong desire to tell the young woman to fuck right off, but remembered old advice that someone he held very dear had once told him: treasure the people who would call you a friend. Even when you want nothing more than to bang their head like a basketball on cement. Well, it was time he started listening to that advice, even if it was pretty damn late for it.

“Shen,” he said slowly, not quite making eye contact with her at first as he retracted his hand out from under hers. “what the hell does any of this matter to you?” Well, it’s nicer than just telling her to fuck off.

Used to people backing down pretty fast in the face of a partially drunk and scarred man, when Shen instead leaned on the counter, her chin resting in the cradle of her hand, John could only scoff and take an instinctive drink out of his tumbler. As he sat the glass back down, Shen reached over and took it, setting it underneath the bar counter. Fighting the urge to tell her to give it back, John instead rubbed his face with his hand. He needed sleep, sleep and maybe some alone time to deal with all of the built up tension in his body, one way or the other.

“You know what you need to do?”

John, still rubbing his face with his hand, muttered under his breath, “Take a shower and a nap.”

“Whatever you need to tell the Commander, you should do before it gets too late. Or it starts getting awkward.”

John blew out a puff of breath and sat up in his seat. God , was his face turning red? “Just what are you referring to?”

He was more drunk that he thought he was—or sleep deprived, or stressed—because to him, Shen’s face revealed nothing. She blinked, then downed the last shot she had poured for herself before she said, “Y’know, someone who can’t talk quite yet—might be more of a blessing in disguise that you’d think. Would give them more time to mull over anything you tell them without jumping to conclusions. Or at least, saying them out loud.”

John’s hands twitched, and he either wanted to ball them up into tight fists or jam them into the pockets of his pants. He stared at Shen, his mouth hung partially open before he snapped it back in place, a tight, patented frown fitting tight on his face. “Lily—”

She leaned a minuscule amount forward and asked, “So, tell me, Central, have you told her who you are?” She leaned back a tic, understanding about something she seemed to recognize in his face lighting up her eyes. It almost seemed like she was going to smile, or smirk. “ Interesting .”

By the time John got off of his stool and was walking out of the bar, all promises he had made to himself that he would try to play nice as part of a change in attitude he was trying out gone, Shen had fished her phone out of her pocket, hesitating before she sent a message to a private group that had been set up a few days prior.

As she heard John stomping out, she sent a message: Think I spooked him. He’s not gonna go for it, at least not tonight. Under her breath, Shen muttered, “Shit.”

Chapter Text

The menu provided an interesting set of choices for Janis: Puree of cauliflower and soup, or mashed potatoes and meatloaf. Meatloaf was likely a nice way of putting it, but beggars couldn’t be choosers.

Janis had lived off of far worse, the memories of MREs of days past had a bad habit of creeping up on her whenever she ate eggs to that day. On the opposite side of the spectrum was an old memory, one of the few pleasant ones she had of her childhood, which followed her tonsils getting taken out at eight years old.

For Janis, the ability to eat ice cream and watch cable when she had been laid up in the hospital so long ago had almost been a revelation. A peek into what normalcy was like. It was no surprise, then, that as Janis ate her dinner, she would have gladly exchanged it for some melting ice cream and Bob Barker.

Still, there was no chance that she would’ve been bored once they told her she could get out of bed. And there was something to be said for her new co-worker, the man who had earned her trust through the simple fact that he was a major reason why she was standing upright, breathing.

Tygan was an almost always patient guide into what Janis came to realize had been a two decades’ long Rip van Winkle nightmare that she had awoken from. At least, most of the technical aspects of it. All of it felt familiar, yet so much of it astounded her. A few days outside of that first day fully awake, he told her that she was almost healed up enough to start talking again. In spite of the fact that she couldn’t ask the questions she wanted to ask, yet—aloud, at least—Janis filled her time walking around freely. Once she had the strength to walk, she did it, usually accompanied by either Tygan or Shen, who was the kind of young woman that even if she didn't happen to be the daughter of Dr. Shen, Janis could see becoming her friend.

News, of older friends who were MIA or definitely recorded as being dead, was something that was soothed somewhat by the new, fresh faces who eagerly greeted her every time she walked outside of her room. Still, nothing could take away the pain of those people who regarded her in some way as their protector. Their voice. And not being able to talk, at least not yet, made it feel as though some major aspect of who she was—who she once was—had been taken from her.

There was one face that had surprised Janis the most, one that she learned belonged to someone that she feared the day she woke up that she would never see again. After all, where the hell else would Johnny have been, if not by her side?

John Bradford had aged two decades physically since she had last seen him, in flashes she could recall of being nearly killed as the infiltration squad had come to subdue and abduct her. A young man who, in those last moments she could remember, with his mouth wide open in either a roar of rage, or a howl of distress.

He had been bound by honor he had once learned, but one who still had boyish features, from his brown eyes and soft-looking lips. No matter how clean-cut and no-nonsense he looked, as though he had never left the official avenues for service, John had been her drinking buddy, a manboy that she felt semi guilty teaching her own tricks to.

The biggest shock is how he seems to have emotionally aged double the years I’ve spent asleep. Not to say that John, at least the Johnny she knew like a little brother, had ever been a man who was easy to make laugh. At least, anybody else but her. But, no; laugh wasn’t the right for it. Sometimes she could, even during the roughest days during the original XCOM’s reign, make that boy bray like a donkey until his face was red and he was almost choking. It had been a point of pride for her, to earn those rare, wild laughing fits. Janis couldn’t imagine making this man who at least called himself John Bradford laugh.

Johnny had been soft around the edges, prone to quiet contemplation, and above all, proper in every way in the face of everyone in XCOM. This John was chipped at the edges, sunk into moods that even she could tell this early on felt like it bordered, always, somewhere near an intense explosion. The handful of times in the few days Janis had spent awake with John were always in the presence of someone else, almost acting as a buffer. He would always address Janis when he spoke to her by staring deeply into her eyes, sometimes talking as though she was verbally responding to the conversations. He had a habit of making Janis feel as though they were the only people in whatever room they were in together.

He also had a habit of shouting out orders to people, especially when he wasn’t aware Janis was in the room or in listening distance. He reminded her, most of all, of one of those fighting dogs that one of her father’s disgusting friends kept, the kind that stayed alive for a very good reason, and not because it was friendly .

She hated to think it, but in many ways this man was like a strange, distorted version of the boy that she had grown to care, deeply, for. It haunted her to think of, nearly as bad as the thought of all of their people who had died. What had happened to John Bradford?

 

Tygan had assured Janis that she would regain her voice any day soon, but for a while all she could do, if she wanted, was to croak pitifully. It did wonders to make the already isolated woman feel even more like a burden.

Janis had been accompanied by Shen and a seemingly ever present John to look at some of the alien tech that had been seized with the capture of the once ADVENT supply ship and renovated base of operations. But in the middle of a frenzied explanation, the Engineer had walked out of the room to go attend to a member of her team and Janis realized, with a shock, that just like that she was alone in a room with him.

Sat on a stool and looking at the shining finish of her combat boots, Janis had gotten used enough to the man’s presence that she could dive into her own thoughts. It was easy enough; she was overwhelmingly preoccupied by what she was going to do once she got her voice back. And John was prone to his own periods of brooding.

Janis thought: I’m a freak. Just some barrier between these people going for a resurrection of the world I knew. A relic.

No matter what anyone told her, Janis felt that the only reason they were at a stand still was because they expected that she would take command again. It had not even been considered, it would seem, that Janis would be incapable of doing it. Or didn’t want to.

She was unsure how much time had passed since Shen had walked out, but the silence that had grown in the room ended abruptly.

He stood against one of the walls with display monitors which glowed with schematics of alien technology. As always these days, he was standing with body language that said that he was expecting something to happen at any moment. Then, out of the blue, John said, “Won’t be too long, Commander, we’ll be up in the air. Can make the bastards pay for everything they’ve done.” He spoke with an honest vitriol in his voice, biting.

He hadn’t spoken much to her, not since the day she had woken up, considering everything that had happened. What he had once meant to her.

But now the woman could only stare at the man, overcome by the urge to ask him why he sounded so eager to hand off control to someone like her. She did have an ability to communicate with anyone on the base, of course. Communicating with pen and paper or with the text function of their communicators had been an avenue quickly opened to her. If she wanted to answer him, she could have, but there was something in her that felt strange, uncomfortable in the physically older man’s presence. As though he weren’t addressing a person, but rather a ghost. Or some symbol.

He spoke again, as though it was nothing but an addendum to a longer conversation that they had been having, unending from the day that Janis had been taken. “It’s not gonna be easy; not at first. Some point, we’ll hit our stride. Like we always do.”

Yes, she wanted to tell him, then this time they’ll take you and I’ll have lost everyone who ever mattered to me twenty years ago, along with two decades’ worth of life.

Finally John seemed to lose some of his bravado. He hesitated, making an inarticulate groan. “Know I’ve been… distant. Once everything’s like it should've been twenty years ago, can go more in depth, tell you about how things’ve changed. I don’t know,” John stared into her eyes, those dark browns so intense they may as well have been black. “Feels strange, not having you talk to me. Feels…. wrong, Janie.”

Janis’ chest felt like it seized, and she realized that she was about to cry. It was the first time that she felt like she was truly seeing a man who at least once meant something a great deal to her.

He called her by not just her first name, but a nick name that she had only let him call her after she had found him before she recruited him to join the original XCOM. Even though the man who looked at her felt like a stranger who had taken her friend’s name, hearing him talk about her once-outgoing personality made her realize that she was looking at a person who mattered a lot to her.

She could tell by the softening expression on his face that he recognized something in her reaction. As Janis rose a hand up to cover her reddening face, they both heard the door open. Turning, Janis saw Shen, a fresh sheen of sweat clinging to her bare upper arms as she walked in, not looking at either occupant of the room as she started to talk. 

“Sorry, I swear, one thing gets fixed, breaks three other things—” She stopped, trailing off as she saw Janis. She hesitated, then walked closer to the other woman, her mouth curving, soundlessly, with a question that she couldn’t bring herself to ask yet.

Janis turned, looking one last time at John before she got up, walking quickly out of the room. As the door shut behind her, Shen looked over at John, confusion clear on her face.

“What was that about?”

John had to suppress a tremble as he shrugged, said, “Not sure, might have something to do with the dosage of whatever Tygan has her on.”

Once back in her absurdly large room, Janis crumbled onto a couch, hands buried in her face. She couldn’t figure out why it was that definitive proof that someone she cared about had survived made her feel the weight of everyone who had died so overwhelmingly.

 

John was making a check on the bridge, but was really trying to bury himself neck deep in work so that he didn’t have to think. Only, work seemed to make the little moments when he imagined her face the way it looked an hourS ago feel like someone was putting a hot cattle brand to the part of his brain that could piece coherent thoughts together. Not one who was already, in the short week he had taken de facto control of the Bridge, known for coherent structure in the orders he gave, John was back to answering mostly in terse affirmatives or negatives. And that was when he was able to pay attention to the questions anyone might have asked him.

When a voice repeated the same question to him after John had blindly answered a “yeah”, in response to, he blinked and turned to look at the Defense Matrix Specialist who was looking at him with an expression that could only be described as a mixture of unease and confusion.

John rose a hand up to his face, feigning a headache as he winced. He struggled, but let his voice drop to a softer level, aware that he was acting like a barely contained tiger to these people who relied on him for the time being. “What’d you need?” After the kid got the answer he needed—likely the first real answer John had given since his run in with Janis earlier—he wondered if he was better off finding a bed to pass out in. As if he was just tired and sleep would take care of all of his pesky emotions.

As he stood in the center of the room that made up the motherbrain of XCOM, John hesitated, starting to turn as he decided to go for a walk to clear his head. No sooner than he started to leave the bridge—leaving more than a few technicians in his wake who could, finally, breathe a sigh of relief—than he was stopped by Jane Kelly, waving to him from the doorway he had planned to walk out of.

Before he could ask what she wanted, the newly minted Specialist nodded for him to follow her as she turned and walked out of the room. Letting out a half-anguished sigh, John looked at the other people on the Bridge before he followed his once-roommate into the hallway. Outside, Kelly waited for him to reach her, then, before he could ask what she wanted, the woman said, “Heard you haven’t been going to dinner recently.” As John started to deny it, Kelly interrupted, saying, “Come on, can’t make plans to kill aliens on an empty stomach.”

In spite of feeling what had to be the most antisocial John could imagine, he will-lessly followed the Specialist to the mess hall and grabbed one of the cellophane-wrapped, squished squares of a sandwich, choosing the one with the tag, “PB&J”. Taking a slim bottle of soy milk and the sandwich, John reluctantly joined Kelly at her table. When he realized she only had a bottled soft drink and sans any food, John had to stop himself from asking her what the hell it is she wanted. Instead, he took his seat across from her, breaking open the seal on his milk.

John sighed, then asked Kelly, “How’s training been treating you?”

“Since you haven’t been micromanaging us? The Rookies aren’t flinching as much. The bruises have been healing up, thanks for asking.” And, before John could say anything, working on unwrapping the cellophane around his sandwich, she said, “I hear you’ve been acting like a jerk to anyone who crosses your path.” She paused, the added, “More than usual.”

John’s back stiffened, his hands freezing in the middle of picking up a sandwich triangle. Not looking at the woman across from him, he muttered, “Don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Kelly rose her voice, smacking her hand on the table. “You can tell anybody else whatever you want to, but I had to live with you for months. I’m used to you being angry—depressed, whatever—but this? It’s a whole new level.”

“That so?”

Kelly’s face tightened, any good humor that might have been in it crushed. Finally, she said, “When it was just the two of us in a house, we thought there was no way we could actually do what we dreamed of doing, you being non-responsive was an annoyance. But right now? When we actually need you?” Kelly leaned further back, no longer looking at John as she screwed the top off of her drink, shaking her head. “A distracted, emotional leader’s just gonna get some of us killed. If not all of us.”

John leaned forward on the table, his hands tightening into fists. “Don’t need to worry—your leader just needs to heal.Then I can go back to doing what I do best.”

Kelly stared at him, setting her drink to the side. “And just what is that, John? Also, we don’t know about what she’s capable of yet. We don’t even know if she’s ready—or willing—to accept that role again. We all agreed, when we broke into the ruins of the old base, that we wouldn’t let XCOM be a Despotism; we have to agree that a person is capable of making the choices and the active decisions for the group.”

John’s face felt hot, and whether it was anger or humiliation at having someone talk to him this way, he could feel his grip on his temper becoming looser than he would have liked. Barely aware of what he was saying, John said, “Don’t need to be talked to this way. People like me kept the spark of this organization alive; no, we brought it back from the dead. You don’t need to be worried about me or the Commander. We're going back to what we've always done.”

About to stand up and walk off—respect he held for the woman be damned—Kelly stopped John by calling out, “Have you at least talked to her about how you really feel?”

John’s hand froze on the table, where he had pushed his weight on it to get to his feet. He turned, looked at Kelly with all of the rage that he felt burning inside of him, barely registered that she remained, utterly, unmoved.

“What I talk about with the Commander is none of your concern.”

Kelly smiled, a strange expression, one that she managed with only a lift to half of her lips. “So you haven’t told Janis how you feel.”

John scoffed. “I don’t need this.”

Kelly continued, saying, “You haven’t told her why it is you’ve followed her ghost for twenty years, John. Do you think it’s good for you to keep holding this in?”

“Don’t know what you’re talking about.” John hadn't noticed that his voice had risen until he was nearly shouting.

“Do you think it’s fair for her to not understand the tension between you?”

He was about to deny what she was saying, deny it until he was yelling at her, until even the aliens knew that he would not accept her talking to him like this. Instead he got to his feet and was nearly out of the room before Kelly said one last thing to his retreating backside.

“You’re making a mistake. In a place this small, word’s gonna get out eventually.”

Chapter Text

Janis had begun to believe that she would never be able to talk again, at least, not in the way that she had once been able to converse with people. Then she woke up one morning and found that, while hoarse, strained, and somewhat painful, she could speak again. She was willing to take whatever version of talking she was capable of doing by that point, even if it was conversing in barks.

That day had been two days in the past, and Janis was still trying to figure out how she was going to tell John what she needed to—what XCOM needed her to do.

It was always nice, Janis mused bitterly, when the man who was supposed to be there to talk to her about her expected role never made it a point to show up to the meetings without someone else entering the room before her. Not that she had any particular reason to want to be alone with him, besides the obvious private conversation she needed to have with John. He always showed up late, and the last time she saw him she suspected that he had been drinking. If that wasn’t a sign that the man had zero interest in even pretending to have respect for everyone else in the room, then she didn’t know what would constitute respect in the first place.

He came in either last or near last to the meetings that were held, in preparation for the day that would mark the official re-birth of XCOM in earnest. More often than not, he would make some excuse for why he had to leave early. Even if Janis would have wanted to give the once consummate professional the benefit of the doubt, all she had to do to know the truth of his late entrances and quick exits would be to look at the exasperated looks that either Shen or Tygan wore.

When she resorted to sending messages directly to Central, requesting that the man who was, in theory, going to be her Number Two, to talk to her in private at his discretion, she ended up waiting more than a day and then got a rote response back that Bradford was too busy with preparations and overseeing training. Neither of which she was prepared to believe he was doing.

And either because she was getting frustrated with not being able to just talk to the fucking man about her role in XCOM or because the memory of the man who was once her best friend felt like it was trampled with every action the man made, Janis felt a cold rage build inside of her every time she saw the oversized goon walk past her in a hallway without making eye contact. She had really started to notice the limp he had, and where once she felt sorry for him she now wanted to push him against a wall and yell at him when he tried to stride past her with that subtle dip in his walk. She had debated sending a warning email, but Janis knew that she didn’t have the patience for whatever game her old friend was playing. She decided, instead, that she had her own goal to meet.

She waited next to the bar in the hour before one of the meetings was supposed to happen, waiting. This time when John walked down the hallway towards her he made direct eye contact and their gazes remained locked together.

Good. At least the man has the decency to look like he’s shocked.

Janis had been leaning against the wall with her hands in her dress pants’ pockets when John discovered her. She stared at him for a few moments longer, then crossed her arms over her chest. It was a struggle to talk, and even then her voice emerged, a hoarse frog’s gasp when it took too much effort to vocalize. Nevertheless, Janis knew that now she had her voice back that she needed to use it.

“Got a minute to talk?”

The boozer’s eyes darted over to the bar’s entrance before they went back to Janis’ face. An unusual thing happened; the man’s mouth partially fell open and he seemed to be struggling to find what he wanted to say. Finally, though, his expected excuse emerged. “Have some… preparations I need to make.”

Janis’ lips started to purse together and she rose one side of her mouth up. “Before the meeting, you mean?”

“Yes—of course.”

“Hmmm.” Janis looked away, letting the pressure alleviate from the man. “I’ve been trying to talk to you for a while now. Days, at this point.” When she looked back at John she wasn’t fully surprised to see the expression he wore. It was as though Janis was pointing a gun at him. “What have you been up to that’s made you so busy you can’t even have a beer with an old pal who’s wanted to treat you for saving her life?”

It only took John no more than two seconds to talk, but she knew that that was too long for someone like him to tell her the truth. “Sorry—everyone’s been busy, you know that. Once we’re functional we’ll have plenty of time to hurry up and wait. We can talk more then.” He was about to turn, walk back in the direction he had come from.

Janis wasn’t ready to let the man off the hook. “What have you got that has you so busy you can’t talk to your direct superior?”

John flinched—a subtle quirk in his facial muscles, but one that Janis, an old hand at body language, caught—and he said, “You can’t imagine how much work’s gone into getting everything working on the Bridge. The stuff that was cutting edge two decades ago now seems like toys—”

Janis interrupted the man, found that old instincts returned with shocking speed. Felt damn good, like she had just gotten a part of herself back that she had started to believe had been stolen from her. “Shen is still trying to make the combat GREMLINS operational for the first mission, and Tygan is trying to make sure that there still isn’t something the aliens left in me that won’t detonate or turn me into a Manchurian Candidate. They still make it to meetings. And if I were to ask either to have a private conversation with me, they would do it.” She might have imagined it—and she was sure she didn’t—but John’s adam’s apple seemed to bob as he swallowed. “So do you want to have a private conversation with me, or do I have to drag you over to an Interrogation cell?”

That finally provoked an obvious reaction in the apparently seasoned, gruff man. His eyes flashed some strong emotion—shock, perhaps—his pupils dilating as he recoiled a step. Yes, it certainly was a human reaction. A welcome change of pace from the way that he had been acting, like she was infected with something that he was afraid to get if he was around her long enough alone.

John said, “You don’t mean that—”

Irritation—that he was focusing on the threat aspect of what was otherwise a demand that he tell her what the hell his problem was—struck a chord with her. “You have a choice, Johnny. We can have a pleasant talk or I’m going to have to put handcuffs on you.”

John ducked his head, closing his eyes. Finally, though, he said, “Let’s do it in your quarters.”

Janis lifted one shoulder to show her affirmation and they both walked the short distance to her room. Once inside, Janis closed the door behind her, turning around in time to watch as John sank into the couch, bringing his knees up, his hands clasped in front of him.

It happened in an instant—a flash of old memory, the look on Johnny Bradford’s face when he was brought in for punishment.

The day that Janis had met him, they couldn't have been in more opposite stations in life. At the time she had the far from auspicious role of Commandant of the recruits, and it was what allowed her to meet Recruit John Bradford during his second week in service. He had gotten into the army only because the judge in his case had agreed to shorten his sentence for grand theft auto had recommended it to him for much needed discipline—then had followed up with pulling strings to get the man into the service. The man in question, a scrap of a boy more than a man, really, sat in nearly the same position that his far older self sat.

The polar opposite of what Janis, at the time known as Jain, had been expecting from someone who had gotten in so much trouble already in life. No, what had actually been surprising had been the raw humanity she had seen in his eyes when he finally looked up at her. She could still remember the thought that had struck her. Holy hell, he looks like Bambi when he’s scared.

It was weird to realize that buried somewhere deep in that man was the boy who Janis had taught how to put on a strong defense for the world more than she actually disciplined him.

John looked up at her, and any thought she had in her head, that she might expect an argument—or worse—was gone. Instead, Janis realized that she might be looking at the face of a conversation she wasn’t really willing to touch yet.

Suddenly, it was Janis’ mouth that felt dry.

 

John looked at his old mentor, still somehow frozen in time two decades past. He realized, too late, that he had been stupid to think that if he stayed away long enough and anesthetized himself with enough alcohol that he could push this conversation away. Foolish, to believe that he could delay, or maybe even stop it from happening altogether.

The way Janis looked at him, so well aware of how much control she exerted in her whole body, John wished he could tell her everything he wanted to. About how he knew that not only was he a poor substitute for someone like her, but also that it went deeper, far deeper than he had ever been truly comfortable. Went beyond him wishing he could live up to her standard.

Most of all, though, he wished that she would say something . Put him out of his misery. Even if she was just going to tell him what he deserved to hear; that he was a worthless bum.

A flicker of something, like doubt, showed on her face before she seemed to shake it off. Janis crossed the space between them, and John thought that she was about to walk over to him. Perhaps stand right in front of him. Instead, she came over to sit on the couch opposite him, a good five feet of space between them. Enough distance between them that he almost felt like he could breathe without a hitch in his chest.

She sat straight up, her spine nearly straight, the soft weight of her dark hair laying against the right side of her face as she stared straight at John, the rest of it bound in a youthful pony tail of sleek black. Earlier, when she had passed by him, John had gotten a breath of her perfume—it had been a present, as it was the very kind that had been found in her quarters years ago. Something not entirely feminine, but nevertheless delicate, pervasive, almost herbal.

And damn , if the woman didn’t look like the suit she wore embodied her, or might have been the other way around. Army green, Earth green, as had been the protocol for anyone who joined XCOM to wear until they earned another color, if they wished it. Black skinny pants, a dark green vest over a grey-green polo whose top two buttons were undone—if the way that the uniforms were wasn't already attractive to John, seeing it on her could have made him forget that they were supposed to be utility first and looks second.

Grunting softly, the Commander suddenly laid back, her arm supporting the back of her head in an almost relaxed pose as she stared at John with those wonderfully strange yellow eyes that made her look feral. Her voice was a rasping hoarse note, and he couldn’t help but admire her for even trying. It seemed like it hurt to even speak.

She said, “Something you want to get off your chest?”

It was that ache, the pain in his chest, as well as the residual surprise he felt at being confronted, that made him say something he might not have—ever—admitted out loud. A reason I didn’t want to be alone with her. “I missed you more than you could ever imagine—” Almost as a desperate attempt to bury what he had just admitted, John added, “Commander.”

Janis’ eyelids twitched, surprise briefly giving those eyes a glitter of surprise. She swallowed, but her eyes never left John’s. “Missed you too, John boy.” Maybe it was just because of the healing damage to her throat, but he could swear he heard a genuine, agonized tone in her voice when she said it.

Not exactly a boy anymore, though, am I? It took a lot for John not to breathe a sigh of relief. He did, however, wipe at his face. As though he were forcibly putting that hard outer shell he had learned to wear back on.

“The years—they've been hard on everyone. But I’d be lying if I’m maybe not the worst to come out of it, who’s still not alive or… possibly being kept captive somewhere.” As he said it, it was though some part of him had been punctured and everything in him, ugly and greasy, were falling out of him. John was embarrassed to realize what he was telling this woman, of all people about his pain .

Not only was she his idol in many ways, but she had lived a hell that hopefully most could only ever imagine.

And she looked damn good standing over it.

Janis had lifted one of those long legs, placing it over the other knee. “I wouldn’t know anything about it,” she said. “you never told me.”

For good reason. “Didn’t want one of the first things you hear when you’re brought back to be me complaining about what life’s been like.”

These days, it seemed, a smile on Janis was a rare thing. But it grew, spreading across her face, a tender, warm thing that felt as close to home as John believed in.

“It’s never complaining, nothing you ever tell me. You know that.” she blinked, then corrected herself, clearing her throat, the smile gone from her face. “You used to know that.” Before John could say anything, Janis continued, said, “You have a pronounced limp and you always have that damn knife close at hand.” She blinked, and if not for how well he still knew her, John might have missed the stir of emotion in an otherwise emotionless facade. “I get the feeling it’s all leftovers from the last time we were together.”

His heart hurt. John felt his mouth fall open as he needed, ached to say something, anything. He slunk down in the couch, not capable of meeting those once-familiar eyes. “I’m not fit to take your position. I don’t have a cool head—least, I don’t have one anymore. It’s been difficult, trying to live up to your memory. And I—we thought we’d lost you.”

Silence.

John looked back at her, saw the shadow fall over Janis’ eyes and she lost eye contact with John. Slowly, she removed her arm from behind her head and crossed it over her chest. “That’s something I wanted to talk to you about.”

“What’s that?”

“I’m no longer fit to serve as the Commander of XCOM—the offensive portion of the missions meant to take control of the Earth back.”

Chapter Text

All John could do was stare. Any worry that he might look as shocked as he felt, once something that held him in near terror whenever he was around her, was now beyond the man’s ability to comprehend. He had crawled through a metaphorical and sometimes a literal cesspit to get to where XCOM was, with any chance at all of success, but nothing could have shocked him as much as her words, almost sheepishly spoken, did to him.

Finally, he spoke. “So you think you’ll need some more time to get caught up to speed.” It felt like how he had once heard someone describe the experience of being mortally wounded. He was staring at a gaping wound in his chest, monkey brain unable to comprehend his own death.

She gave him a look—almost sad, wry—and once more smiled that strange smile, the one that didn’t reach her eyes. “No John, I don’t need any more time to wonder if I can ever make the magic come back for me. I’m not good for anyone else.”

John wasn’t aware that he had stood up—he couldn’t tell why he’d stood up, either—but as he stood at a height higher than the still sitting Janis, he could see the expression on her face as it changed to an almost humored, but sad look, then abruptly to a minute flash of worry before it was in turn replaced by surprise.

He said, “What? No, no, you—we still have plenty of time till we’re ready to come back, I get it if you’re still not sure about the plan going forward. Everyone here is willing to wait until you get your bearings.”

Her voice was damnably soft as she damned John. “You’re not getting it. I’m telling you, as clear as I can, that I cannot lead XCOM.”

It was as if John were trying, desperately, to plug a hole that had been punched into him. He actually laughed, a nervous thing that came out of him without him meaning to. “But—Commander—we’re all here. For you.” Part of the reason I agreed to resurrect the XCOM Initiative was to have you back. Commanding it. “You have a lot of people on board already relying on you, as well as countless people on the ground. People who need you .”

One thing became clear to John at that moment; the look in her eyes told him that this wasn’t something spur of the moment. No, her expression looked haunted beneath the veneer of warmth.

“What we have is a base full of people who need you , John. They need the man who was brave enough to rescue me. Not the person that he had to rescue in the first place.”

John had taken a step forward, as if he could just—just touch her, touch her and she would realize how much she meant to all of them. To him. “Janis—”

The woman stood up, her eyes burning with a disapproving glare that felt like it was an artifact of John’s rookie days. She said, “You agreed to lead if something happened to me. That day has come, so you’d better start showing up to meetings on time. And if I catch you drinking a drop from this day forward, so fucking help me Christ, I will make this a dry base if I have to drop everything out of a hatch while we’re in the air myself.” When John only stared back at her, she followed up, asking, “Do I make myself clear?”

John’s hands were opened next to his hips, as though he were instinctively grasping for something. Everything felt like it was spinning out of control. He wanted to reach over, fix whatever was wrong, then collapse somewhere until he could get his bearings on reality back.

Instead, he asked, “Why’re you doing this?”

Janis’ eyes narrowed, but he thought he could see the briefest glimpse of something in them, some vulnerability. “Leave me alone, John. I’m not going anywhere, at least not anytime soon. But give me some space.”

“Have you told Shen? Tygan?” The anger that started, low in his gut, felt like it might infect him. It was fueled by an agony that he knew he couldn’t vocalize, one that had once felt like a mortal wound that was rotting him from the inside.

“I plan on doing that today. Just—” Janis broke off, her own humorless laugh coming out of her. “for some reason, I thought you deserved to know first. Not have me announce it publicly and let you learn it that way. Old loyalty.” Janis scoffed, shaking her head. Disappointment, disbelief was clear in her features as she dove her hands into her pockets and started to turn to leave. She muttered, almost too low for John to hear her say it, “Won’t make that mistake again.”

He could hear it in his voice, the desperate, almost bleating note that he felt like he had no choice but to nearly cry out in. “How could you do this?”

He wanted to repeat his question, force the answer out of her, no matter what the consequences could be. But before he could, she turned and walked out of the room.

 

“—so, as you can see, we have every reason to believe that what we are dealing with is a forced evolution on what was once known as the “Thin Man”, and what we are indeed seeing on the photos that have been shared with us are—”

The sound, of the door to the meeting room slamming open, made Dr. Tygan stop mid-sentence. Out of her peripheral, Janis could see Shen’s eyes dart over and widen. The cause of the commotion was no surprise to Janis. John was late to the meeting—what a shock—and Janis kept her eyes on the research that some of Tygan’s scientists had been working on. In spite of everything that had occurred before she had come into the meeting, her first instinct was to get up and yell at the man for being late, today of all days.

She thought that the man would eventually sit down so that the doctor could continue his presentation. What she didn’t expect was the feel, of someone grabbing onto the back of her chair, then pulling until she was receding from the table, turning her chair around.

If up till that moment Johnny looked like he was operating with some emotional sub system in that square head of his shut down, Janis was unprepared to see the full fury or passion that made eyes she once described as Bambi-like into the bright pits of an inferno. It managed, at first, to make her flinch instinctually.

Behind her, Janis heard Shen curse then ask, “Are you drunk?”

Instead of hitting Janis or screaming, as she had begun to worry he would, John, with a slow, almost quiet seriousness, asked, “Have you told them that you’re quitting?”

As she heard a gasp from one of the two people circled around the desk behind her, Janis recovered some of her composure and looked her once-lieutenant in the eyes.

“I was waiting for our missing fourth to show up.” Before John could do anything, make a bigger ass out of himself, Janis stood up, pushing him away from her before she turned around, looking at the two expectant faces of the two leaders of the research and development teams.

“Although I don’t see myself leaving any time soon, I no longer believe myself to be the person capable to take the seat of Commander of the XCOM Initiative. What’s more, I’m nothing but pure liability with their experimentation done on me.” She shrugged. “I essentially revoked Command of the Initiative when I was taken hostage and then used as an experiment. I never agreed to accept the role, so think of it as a refusal, now that I am recovered enough to have use of my full mental facilities.”

Prepared to answer any questions from either person she had just told the news to, when John instead spoke up first, Janis turned partially around to look at him.

“Why are you doing this?” When Janis only stared back at him, at first only wishing the man could just shut up, he added, “Just tell me. Tell me why.”

No matter how ridiculous he had been acting, in spite of everything she knew better, she'd only felt sorry for him. At that moment, Janis felt something instead of sorry for the man, she felt pissed off . How fucking dare this man, who defiled the memory of a young man she would have trusted her life with, continued to embarass the both of them like this?

Before she did anything rash, anything she would regret, Janis stared at the man, collected her thoughts, and softly asked, “Is there any particular reason why you feel like you have the privilege to tell me what responsibilities I feel I can take on?”

A slow, somewhat cruel smile ticked at the side of John’s mouth. “If you say I’m your superior now, going against my orders would constitute insubordination, then I would have to—”

John didn’t get a chance to complete that sentence. Janis swung hard, hitting the man in the jaw although she had actually planned to hit him in his throat. She punched instinctively, just the way she had learned how to scrap, decades in the past: thumb tucked over her knuckles, wrist tilted down, braced for impact. Like riding a damn bike. However, not used to hand to hand fighting and with a weakened body, she was surprised, beneath all of the rage and adrenaline, to watch as his head knocked back, followed by John staggering backward.

At first she couldn’t see if she had hurt him. John had covered his face with a hand, eyes overbright with emotion. All it took for Janis’ rage to dissipate was the sight of his eyes, staring right at her with everything she wouldn’t have wanted to see. Regret filled her so overwhelmingly that Janis nearly forgot where she was. What roles they had to play.

Maybe he recognized something in her eyes as well. Still holding onto his jaw, John walked out of the room, disappearing out of the room before Janis could think of anything to say.

 

As the poor medic finished the x-ray of his mouth, John sat on the edge of the cot, staring down at the ground between his boot-covered feet. If he told the medic that he was grateful, on some level, for the radiating pain in his mouth, then he was sure the young woman would look at him like he was insane.

And maybe he was, what his problem truly was. The only other answer to the disease that had turned his mind amok for what was half of his life was—

“‘k,” the woman said, finally turning around from where she had been examining the x-rays that she had nervously taken a minute before. “like you said: I’m gonna need to put a filling in. Lucky it wasn’t a front tooth, or else I’d have to get a bonding put in.” Was that an attempt at trying to cheer him up? Based on her voice and the way she smiled too-tightly at him, John got the feeling that she was trying to lift the mood for both of them. He could tell she didn’t know him very well, in spite of the relatively small quarters of the Base, or else she would be doing the wise thing and only doing what was necessary, getting the hell out of his way before he could do something that would make both of them regret having talked to each other.

Luckily for her, John was still too preoccupied with wanting to get the treatment done. Get it done, so that he could do whatever it was that needed done. Only, he couldn’t figure out what that was at this point. He had already followed the person who was supposed to guide him after she had left him, three times before.

Luckily, as always, there was something to distract him, this time in the form of a woman wielding a syringe in his direction. He might have been imagining it, but the woman seemed to actually be fighting back a small smile as she approached him.

“Gonna need you to lay back and keep your mouth open, Central.”


Thirty years ago

 

John had arrived at a restaurant where he was told he would be able to talk to someone he had not seen in years. Three years by that point, to be exact.

He had checked himself at least five times in the mirror before he left the apartment, but as John turned the corner of the block, his eyes caught sight of a reflective surface—a parked car’s window—and he took yet another look at his reflection. He made a quick adjustment to the wool scarf he wore in a loose but, he had been told, fashionable knot underneath his perfectly clean tan overcoat. He backed away from the car as quickly as he had strode up to it, mindful of being caught worrying over his appearance.

As he walked back onto the sidewalk he nearly collided with a woman. As he let out a hurried apology, John looked at the person, surprised to realize immediately that the woman was taller than him. Not anywhere near the seemingly unflappable man that he would one day grow into, John was too shocked at first to say anything.

The woman giggled and put a hand on his shoulder to calm him. “Whoa there, you look like you’ve seen a ghost, kiddo.” Her eyes were hidden by sunglasses, which made her lips look almost more vivid. Inviting. She couldn’t have been more than a few years older than him, surely, but the way she spoke to him indeed made him feel like a boy to her.

Escaping before his face could turn red, John repeated his earlier apology and walked to the entrance of the coffee shop. When he entered, John stood on the entrance mat, scanning the restaurant for a blessedly familiar face. As soon as he realized, with a sinking worry that he couldn’t recognize the man’s face in the small crowd in the building, John felt something hit him from behind.

As he felt the breath gasp out of him from the soft but unexpected impact, he heard the voice from before, crying out in surprise.

“We can’t keep meeting like this!” He could feel her hands, slender, wrap around his upper arms to either brace herself or try to stop him from tripping forward.

John turned around, looking again at the woman that seemingly couldn’t stop colliding with him. Dark-haired and kept in a slight bun that still left her hair falling around her face, the woman peered at him from behind sunglasses with soft, curved frames. Her lips, soft things with a protruding, pouting bottom that hinted at an underbite, were accented with a small glisten of soft-tinted lipstick.

That was the moment that John smelled her perfume—not overtly feminine, as he would have thought—but a slightly cloying, appealing fragrance that reminded him of a dimly lit, secluded room. Something in his chest jolted at the smell.

John stared, at a loss for words, then worried she might be able to see his obvious reaction. He took a step away and tried to make it look subtle when he rested his hand against his chest to feel the heavy weight of the rhythm his heart was beating in. At a loss for words, John muttered another apology and began to walk away, this time headed for the bathroom.

Once the door to the private bathroom closed behind him, John let the breath that had trapped in his lungs out. He had not been intimate with another person in months, since he had broken up with a girlfriend who had not been one of his best decisions he had made in a partner. The immediate thought to John was that he had finally gone too damn long without dealing with natural, but altogether unwelcome, annoying, urges. Now was far from the right time to become fixated on someone, even for a brief moment of flirtation.

Once he felt as though he had gotten his head back into the right space, John left the bathroom. He was simultaneously trying to scan the room for someone he wanted to see and was trying not to catch the eye of someone he needed to not see. With a cursory scan of the small place, John realized that the restaurant was missing both people he had been expecting to see.

He sighed—a sound of disappointment, or relief?—and, after a moment of consideration, decided he would spend the rest of his time in the restaurant nursing a coffee. As he ordered his drink of choice, John started to walk towards the pick up edge of the counter when he heard a voice that gave him a start.

“Would have pegged you for a coffee, black kind of guy. Not a heap of sugar with a generous portion of cream.”

John turned, saw the woman as she stood a few feet away from him. He had only really ever seen a true to term Cheshire Cat grin on one other person’s face before, but this woman was wearing one as sure as she was still wearing those sunglasses.

The smile did something to de-fang the annoyance that he might have otherwise felt.

“Waiting for your coffee?” What John wanted to ask, instead, was, are you following me?

That grin disappeared as the woman’s lips turned into an upward, thoughtful slash. “Oh, I haven’t ordered yet. I just came from the bathroom,” she pointed with her thumb back in the direction of what John supposed was the women’s bathroom, down a hallway she had her back facing. “Great minds—bladders—think alike.”

Why did that dumb comment make John feel like he was surely turning beet red? With the option of letting her see his face turn more and more red or cutting this conversation short while he had his dignity in his possession, John was grateful when he heard the barista say his name. Without a word to the woman, John turned and grabbed his coffee.

He was walking to the entrance, thinking that he could stand outside and greet his old friend and mentor when he saw the grey quality of the light outside of the window. Realized that the rain that had been promising to dump down on them had finally made its appearance.

Trying to make it look as though he had meant to do it, John walked to the booth next to the doorway and sat down. Knowing the coffee was still too hot to drink, he held it in his gloved hand, feeling the not unpleasant sensation of the heat against his hand.

The coffeehouse wasn’t packed, nowhere near in fact, and the few customers who sat around their own cups and occasional light meals had the feeling of regulars, keeping to themselves. John looked out of the window, relieved when he could feel the heat leaving his face.

It felt like he was almost recovered when he saw a person sit on the opposite side of his booth table. The tall woman sat with an ease, as though she were meeting with someone that she knew well.

Too surprised to say anything, John was saved asking the obvious question when the woman said, “I decided not to get anything. I’m waiting for someone. Caffeine makes me jumpy.” She gave him a smile that was supposed to be apologetic. “Don’t want to have to wait alone. Some things are just better with company.” She had a breathy voice, one that reminded John, strangely, of old movie stars, the kind he used to watch on his gramma’s antenna tv before he started committing crimes out of sheer boredom. It almost felt like she had a wicked streak to her, reminding him specifically of Faye Dunaway from Bonnie and Clyde. Under the warm lights of the coffeehouse, the woman’s dark hair revealed subtle, lighter shades that belonged to errant strands of her partially kept hair.

John stared at her in open disbelief. He worried he wouldn’t be able to say anything, like she robbed him of his ability to speak. Finally, he said, “Ma’am, I’m a little busy right now, I can’t keep you company—”

She smiled at him again, this time showing a flash of almost predatory, coy teeth as she bit into her lower lip, leaving an indent. “”Ma’am?” I’m a decade older than you, max. I hope someone you’re flirting with some say calls you old man.”

John was glad that he had not taken a drink of his coffee, or else he might have spit it out.

The woman laughed, likely at the obvious look on his face, then leaned back in the booth. She had a long-fingered, bare hand on the table, and John couldn’t help but look at it, took in the slight curve to her fingers, the well-kept quality of her nails. She definitely seemed like the type of person who took care of herself. No one as—classy—as this woman had ever had any interest in him before. To say that he wasn’t sure how to react would have been a grave understatement.

She said she was waiting for someone. For a heartbeat, something primitive in the man jumped at her earlier remark, a sudden possessiveness, before he had a chance to shake it out of his mind. He forced himself to look at her face, into eyes he couldn’t see much of beyond the barrier of those semi-opaque plastic lenses.

John grasped his coffee cup, took a sip of his drink to steady himself. Grateful that it didn’t scorch his tongue. “Who’re you waiting for?” Not exactly a pick up line, but neither was it anywhere approaching a solid fuck off.

One thing became certain to John, even if he had started to have a feeling about it earlier: she loved this moment, seemed to bathe in his awkwardness like it were sunlight. Still, she surprised him by dipping back, until her head was thrown back, her pale throat exposed above the gentle outward curved collar of her coat. The movement, it was, undoubtedly, fucking erot—

“Whoo,” she said, hand already working at the top clasp of her peacoat. “I had a bit of a walk here. Haven’t been on public transportation in a long, long time.”

What accent was that? It felt a little blunt, but still somehow soft, like a midwest state. Strange; John would have picked her for belonging to a more cosmopolitan place, a city, but her voice seemed to tell of a different demographic that she belonged to. It made a strange dichotomy, but one that was not unpleasant. Somehow, it even fed into the strange Bonnie fantasy that had started to grow in his head.

He might have asked her to just cut the shit if not for how she gave John pause as she worked herself out of that nice fitting coat. With her coat off, John realized she was wearing a sweater . There was nothing improper about it, in a sense, but it fit her frame too nicely without being obscene, revealing too much. Maybe it had to do with how John was already anxious, or because he had gone too long without female company, but it felt like he could read a come on in every movement she made, deliberate, soft.

Without thinking about it, John started to remove his own coat, realizing that he, too, was hot. When he turned his right arm out of the coat and finished putting it on the seat next to him, he looked up in time to see a wicked smirk on her face. Perhaps realizing that she had been caught, the woman cleared her throat and turned away. With a sigh, she finally removed her sunglasses. As she sat them on the table between them, she looked up at John, and he couldn’t help but think that there was something expectant in her eyes.

About to take another drink of his coffee to more alleviate the awkwardness that felt like it was choking the man, John stopped as he was about to put the cup to his lips, taking a second look at the woman. More specifically, at her eyes. It wasn’t every day that someone had brown eyes that light in color—no, less light, more like they were bright.

She seemed to tolerate his stare, humoring him as she ducked closer, blinking so that her eyes were enlarged. When John frowned, his earlier blush returning as soon as he caught a whiff once more of her perfume over the cozy smell of the coffeehouse, he sat back in his seat. The smell and the closeness of her presence felt like it made him dizzy.

This game his unwanted companion was playing had finally gotten to him, and he had to admit that someone who was unused to women coming to him to, possibly, flirt, struggled with the attention, among other consideration. Like that thumping, irregular heart beat in his chest.

“So,” she asked in that slightly husked voice of hers. “who could a man like you be waiting here for?” Before John could answer, she followed it up with, “Got a girlfriend?”

If this was a trap, at this point John had long fallen in it. He blurted out, “N-no. Haven’t got—anyone.”

He was almost horrified at what he had blurted out. He expected her to look triumphant over the obvious control she had over him. Instead, she looked almost sad for a moment, then a familiar smile spread across her face.

Almost under the soft sound of the light jazz muzak, she spoke in a lulling, compelling tone. “Mmm. You know, on a rainy day like this, it makes me wish I still smoked. I stopped—officially—five years ago, but I had a relapse about three years ago. Stress, and I felt… isolated.” It was almost impossible to believe, but she looked sad, introspective, her lips twisted into a tight bud. “Have a lot of memories, some nice. A lot involve the guy I’m waiting for.”

John was beyond reason or shame. He had forgotten why he was even in the coffeehouse to begin with, and when he had to stop himself from asking her what the guy she was talking about meant to her, he realized that this had gone beyond a simple attraction. Might have had something to do with him not being the kind of guy a woman hit on—might have had a lot to do with it, actually—but the woman sitting across from him had become in a short amount of time someone that he realized he wanted, desperately, to get the phone number of. He had already looked at her left hand, didn’t see a ring on her fourth finger.

He cleared his throat, trying to remind himself, the part that wanted to let a goofy grin stretch on his mouth, that he wasn’t here to flirt with some strange woman. “My name’s John.” he didn’t know why, but he added, “You can call me Johnny.”

He waited for her to tell him her name, and instead she asked, “Who’re you waiting for, Johnny?”

He liked that she said his name, liked too much the way it sounded in her voice. “An old friend.”

Something seemed to turn her brown eyes into the exact shade of honey, a gold viscosity. She blinked rapidly and it left, even as it remained burned in John’s memory.

She leaned further back in her seat. “What kind of an old friend?”

Something managed to get through the embarrassingly obvious infatuation that turned John into something like an imbecile caveman. “Why’re you asking so many questions?”

She actually batted her eye lashes at him, which went against the mischievous upward curve her lips had. “Just curious, wanting to pass the time.” John got the feeling that he should have pressed her, demanded she tell him just what piqued her interest in a plain man like him. It was a feeling he ignored, willingly falling into the lush, yet invigorating emotion that he was mainlining.

“The man I’m waiting for—” she stopped herself and then it was finally her turn to blush.

John’s heart started to ache, and he felt like his organs were getting twisted up. “What is it?”

She made a soft cough into her closed fist, said, “I wonder if he really wants to see me again. If it’ll—give him closure.” A genuine look in her eyes, a vulnerability, almost shocked John. “I wanted—I hope he’ll come with me.”

“Come with you where?”

She looked like she was about to say something, then she closed her eyes, sitting back in her seat. It felt like something in her closed down, closed him off. When she did open her eyes again she didn’t make eye contact with him, instead seeming to stare at her hand where it rested on the table.

Without looking at him, she said, “What do you do for fun, Johnny?”

Fun? John was stumped at the question. It took him a few moments to formulate an answer, even a fake one. After all, what kind of a woman would want anything to do with a man who sounded like he spent his days working and his nights trying to fall asleep?

He stuttered, then said, “I like… reading.”

She looked up at him. A flicker of that earlier amusement filled her eyes once more. “What do you like to read?”

Shit. When was the last time he’d read something for pleasure? Quickly, he remembered the name of a book, one that a very dear friend had given him to read a long time ago. “My favorite is The Master and Margarita.”

She froze. It was the truest description of that term, truer than any other time that he had seen someone stop dead. Her eyes seemed to dart to him questioningly before she feigned a smile.

“That’s a strange book to pick as a favorite. Soviet Russian satire and romance.”

“It meant a lot to someone who gave me a copy.” Yes, a copy that he still kept.

An honest smile seemed to edge at her lips. “That’s funny, I lost my old copy some time ago.”

John laughed, the sound odd and somehow off-putting to his ears. As he looked at the woman, he realized that her body language had changed. She glanced out the window, as though examining the weather. He had forgotten that she was also waiting for someone and he felt the fear that she was looking for an escape from him, even in the beating waves of the rain waiting for them outside.

He jumped on the attack, pushing his coffee cup to the side as he gesticulated towards her as he spoke. “So, this weather—”

She interrupted him, giving a light wave. “I’m sorry, I need to say something.” She cleared her throat and her voice sounded strained, deeper. “It’s me, John.”

John scoffed, searching her face for the answer to her behavior. “What’re you doing?”

She finally gave him a brief look of annoyance. “I know it’s been years, but who else would have my eye color? And, really,” she motioned towards him, her voice sinking into the deeper baritone with better ease."The Master and Margarita ? Need to cut this out.”

He was about to point out that she had been obviously—very obviously—flirting with him when something coalesced in his mind. John stared at the person across from him, and in an instant she transformed from a woman too beautiful to want anything to do with him into someone that was still very close to his heart.

His voice sounded like a hiss or a squeak as he nearly gasped the one word question out. “Jain?”

The woman threw her arms up and an almost apologetic, still somehow mischievous smile revealed her white teeth. “How’ve you been, Bambi?”

Chapter Text

She wasn’t a person who was shaken easily, especially physically, but as she spoke to Tygan and Shen she had to keep her hands underneath the long table. They were still shaking, as though the impact one of them briefly felt with John’s flesh had dug into the bones of both of her knuckles. At some point, though, without thinking, Janis had reached up to take a drink from the water glass that had been put on the table in front of her. As she took it, she briefly glanced at Shen, and saw the young woman’s gaze caught on her hand. She looked up and their eyes caught for an instant before Janis looked over at Tygan, who was explaining the very same point that Shen had just made before. Only this time, Tygan made it clear about his particular feelings on an XCOM Initiative lead by Central with no real oversight.

“The man has become a menace," the Biologist said, enunciating each word deliberately. “I worry not only for the general day to day operations that we’ll undoubtedly see beneath the poor decision-making abilities as well as the impulse control that Bradford has exhibited at every chance he has been given, but also the quality of aid and counsel he would provide the so-called boots on the ground work to be executed by our soldiers.”

Janis leaned back in her chair, placing her hands behind her head to rest as she listened to the man’s impassioned plea. She waited a second, seeming to mull it over before she asked, “And what are you suggesting, what exactly?”

She had only known the man a few days, but she had not anticipated that he would be so quick to supplement his statement. “I am dismayed that you would want to effectively resign, but if it’s a decision you’re set to make, I request that you wait until we can find a worthy replacement before you leave.”

Shen spoke up, the irritation that had been growing on her face reaching her voice. “I don’t think we have the right to talk about the man without him in the room. After all, he signed up for the Initiative with the understanding that control would be handed over to him in case of a situation just like this.”

Janis watched carefully, saw the momentary flinching of muscles on Tygan’s face. She had the inkling that both had a very professional relationship, but had a hunch that the man had an aversion to listening to someone who was his junior in both years and experience. It was after all a look that she had once had to deal with in her own career so long ago for a variety of reasons.

Tygan answered, “I was prepared for this eventuality, in the chance that we did not succeed at Gatecrasher or in bringing the Commander back in a status capable of her previous role, but I had every intention of talking with Bradf—Central about it before I made the decision. I have always been… to a certain degree, skeptical of the man’s ability to lead. His current behavior leads me to understand that I don’t have a choice in the matter. I have no belief in an XCOM where that man is at the helm, and I say it as a person who believes that this is truly humanity’s last hope.” He paused, then added, with a flinching, weary sigh, “As well as a man who was personally pulling for Central to prove to all of us that he was capable of taking over the role you once held.”

As Janis opened her mouth to say something, she was interrupted by Shen. “I can’t believe you’d say that.” She scoffed. “Nothing we have now is free of that man’s handiwork. He fought like... someone fighting for his life, for all of this. For us to live without fear of ADVENT.”

As Tygan answered, Janis knew that this had gone from a meeting to a fight that felt as though it had been growing between the two department heads for some time now. And she was already tired of infighting.

“Of that I am well aware of, but I have to ask if passion alone is all it takes to lead the Initiative.” Before Shen could counter, Tygan stopped her, extending his fingers towards her. “Lily, I am not, nor have I ever, denied that the man’s drive is why any of us are here now. It’s obvious to me, at least, that he is emotionally distraught on top of not being the kind of personality and possessing the set of experiences that we need in a person whose duty is the safety and wellbeing of everyone who takes a part of this Human resistance movement. This is XCOM, we mean more to the masses, at least, we will, than anything else ever done to counter ADVENT.” When Shen only looked back at him with her lips drawn tight, anger clear in her eyes but obviously holding back what she wanted to say, the man continued, speaking to both women, his voice only lowering, softening a few measures. “The success of this operation is the one thing I want more than anything. The continuation of my life included.”

Janis continued to look at the man, and when he didn’t break a sustained moment of eye contact, she sighed and sat further back in her seat. Well, I need to say something now, pull it right out of my ass, or I might not get a chance to stop these two from tearing XCOM from the inside out over this.

“You keep talking about worthiness and characteristics,” her mouth twitched, a tic she never fully forgot even after being stuck in stasis. A propensity to maneuver her lips around either a cigarette or, after she quit, a toothpick. “But you, neither of you, know who I was before I was in stasis. I’ve had the feeling, though, that most of you harbor some misconceptions about me, both back then and, by proxy, me right now. Let me make something absolutely—crystal—clear to both of you.

"I could go on with all of the failings that I possess that should have made me less of a competent head of the original Shadow Initiative—perhaps led to my eventual downfall as well as that of the official Initiative—but if you want to be analytical about this, then I want you to take into consideration that what I went through made me fundamentally unfit to lead and will continue to make me unfit for duty.” When Tygan made to interrupt her, it was Janis’ turn to quiet him, raising her hand in a mirror of the gesture he had used to quiet Shen earlier. “You have a man at your disposal to place in my stead, a man who, as Shen has already pointed out, has proven his determination and will to this organization and to humanity. He’s also a man who has studied and learned from me, and what’s more, by the end of my original run as the head of XCOM, I would have been willing to promote Second Lieutenant Bradford to my position as the Commanding Officer in my last breaths without hesitation, if the situation had ever emerged.

“It is my understanding that in the time I spent in stasis, the official military training for Humans has, well, gone a bit by the wayside.” When Tygan flinched, Janis had to struggle to keep a smile from forming on her lips. “I will never say that I would believe in a million damn years that I was the best person possible to appoint, just take a look at my original discharge from the service to prove that.”

Shen spoke up then. “Yeah, but… the reason they discharged you was—” She paused, then said, “Stupid.” The smile that Janis had been trying to repress earlier surfaced then, spreading, warm, on her face. “And they ended up seeking you out to be the head of the original, the Shadow, XCOM Initiative. That should be proof enough that you’re—that you’re extraordinary.”

“Yes,” Tygan added. “there were reasons beyond… Bradford’s personal attachment to the chance at recovering you for us to risk trying to reinstate you in the role of Command. Please excuse my earlier insistence on this point, but people worthy of leading this operation aren’t easy to find. We did not choose you to be our leader just because of your status.”

“You mean my status as a science experiment?” When Tygan gave her a pained look, Janis gave him what she hoped was a comforting half-chuckle at her failed joke and said, “Come on now, you guys deserve better than some wash-up whose lack of preparation and poor impulse control lead to them getting kidnapped in the first place.”

It was true, at least to Janis. She had overreached, risked not only her own freedom and twenty years of her life, but the lives of many of those very people who had relied on her. She could remember those final set of decisions that had lead to the demise of the Original XCOM Initiative like it had happened days prior. She had felt perhaps too overgolden, thought that she had the space and opportunity to press the invasion into a corner.

Realized only by the time she was on the ground and Central was bellowing out a war cry as some Mutons closed in on her that she had lost the most crucial gamble in all of Humanity.

She was done playing war games on that high a level, didn’t know what she would do if it ever came time again to watch as a choice she made would end up destroying everything she once took for granted.

When both of the other people in the room only stared back at her, Janis sighed, leaning forward and resting her hand on her forehead. “Don’t try to massage my ego,” she glanced over at Shen. “don’t try to appeal to my heroism; you don’t know me as well as you think you do, reading old reports of me, maybe even reading my diaries for all I know,” she glanced over at Tygan. “what you’re both saying is that putting Bradford in the Command seat is not a good idea. One of you thinks that he’s not fit for the role, period, while the other seems to think that he just needs to grow into it.” She shook her head. “If either of you value my judgement as you both say you do, then you’ll listen to me when I say that you’re both wrong.”

When both spoke up at the same time, Janis winced and cut both of them off. “I’ll only tell you this once, and then I’m out of this room.” She looked at one, then the other, hoping that her serious face was still something she was good at. “John is loyal, John cares. When he’s not being a stubborn—sonofabitch—he’s the only other person I’ve ever met who has the guts to do what needs done. Truly done. Based on what I’ve heard from the both of you, the only reason we’re here now talking to each other about this is because he risked everything to re-build this and has the audacity to not be perfect. You’re both aware of the fact that he’s got the right mix of crazy and cold-analytical head needed to make this work, trust me, even though I haven’t known this man for the two decades I spent gone, that kind of savant nature doesn’t go anywhere. What you guys don’t seem aware of is that the kind of experience you guys seem to want is the kind he can only earn from leading. People who’re willing to throw away any chance at normalcy and take the risks of leading aren’t made. They have to be… formed, in the crucible of experience. Or, shit,” Janis rubbed the back of her head. “I don’t know.” She was tired, and one thing she knew she wouldn’t miss from a position so high up the mountain that she grew altitude sick was politicking.

She stood up, and before either could say anything, Janis said, “Don’t worry about him being a hothead. He just needs a minute to calm down.” She thought about her options, then added, “He’ll be ready before launch day. You have my word on that, even if he’s on the Bridge the day of, ready to go.”

One of them said something as she was leaving, but Janis ignored them. It wasn't her place to have to sit and listen to what everybody had to say, after all. And she was still too hurt, lost, to hope that she was capable of guiding anyone else. Least of all, herself.

Nevertheless, as soon as the door to the room closed behind her, it felt as though she had left something in there. Something that, in spite of what she had thought, didn’t feel good to abandon.

Janis went back to her room, showered, and dressed herself in nondescript clothes. She had taken the uniform she had been wearing and carefully folded it, sitting it on one of the chairs in the room. As she brushed her hair, Janis found that it was hard to not look at the stack of clothes. It felt like they were there as a reminder of the duty that she was derelict in. Feeling guilty over old regrets was nothing new to her, but this one managed to bother her even as she walked out of the room.

She got something to eat, then got a walk around the base. Tried to clear her head.

Somehow it wasn’t a surprise to her, how she searched for him without consciously meaning to. She found John down in the gym and it was also no surprise that he was alone.

Perhaps he was a beacon to her, one she responded to subconsciously, like she was forever swimming for the light of a lanternfish in the depths of the heaviest gloom of the ocean. Wanting, needing some light, some hope.

Under the glaring overhead lights, Second Lieutenant—“Central”—John Bradford might have just looked the most like his old self that she had thus seen as he, shirtless, tore into a training dummy. Stripped of his shirt, Janis noted, he was nevertheless still in possession of the knife, now kept on the belt of his cargo shorts. She had begun to get used to seeing it worn on his chest like a trophy. Or, as something always whispered in the back of her mind whenever she saw the knife’s hilt, like some albatross.

She barely felt like she knew this man any longer, but she recognized the moment when he discovered her presence. With his shining wet back turned to her, Janis saw the ripple in the muscles surrounding his shoulder blades, saw as he stopped in the middle of a set of heavy punches that had sent the hapless red dummy flinging back with each blow.

She considered waiting to listen to what he would say but found that she didn’t have the heart to play the Superior. Right now, more than anything, she wanted to remember what it felt like to be this man’s friend. To her, it felt like that time was just over a week or so in the past, beyond this gauzy barrier of pain and fear. If she could just reach past it, she felt like she could find the man who had once been her confidant, the self-appointed guardian. A boy she watched become a man.

She wanted to ask him if she had hurt him, but Janis realized before she asked him that she couldn't ask that. Knew she didn't have a right to do that. So Janis leaned against a chair and tried her best to summon cheer she didn’t necessarily feel into her voice. 

“What’s up, Doc?” She winced as soon as she said it, the first thing that came to her mind though it was. Corny, terrible.

John didn’t turn around. He made a sound like a sigh—or maybe an almost growl. “Just trying to catch up on some muscle building. Haven’t had the chance to use this gym too much.”

“I heard you had to play pretend house with a rook.” There it was again, an awkward fumble. It sounded like she was teasing him, and to be honest, she wasn’t sure if she knew him well enough to tease him.

After a pause, John threw a punch at the dummy, then reared back and started to continue his earlier set. Pow. pow—pow—pow—pow. “A necessary arrangement,” he remarked, his tone not betraying anything as he reared back and threw another set at the poor dummy.

It crossed Janis’ mind, of course, that what he wasn’t telling her he was instead subjecting the doll to. If he’s just mad at me, I’d understand it. Hell, it would be preferable to whatever his behavior had been telling her.

His actions told her of a confused mess of emotions. Anger and the various ways of working through it were things she was well-versed in, healthy outlets or otherwise. Take a beating from John and he’d start acting like his old self? She would have welcomed it, gladly, as long as they could share a few drinks afterwards.

“How was your mouth after that hit?” When he didn’t answer, Janis cleared her throat, said, “You know, this needs two people to work.”

John passed again, but this time it felt more profound. As if her words had been a physical paralyzer. Finally he turned to look at her, his brow creased. “Whad‘ya mean?”

“A conversation, Johnny.”

“Oh.” His face almost fell, and Janis had to stop herself from asking what it was that he thought she meant. He turned back to the dummy, then as though he had decided against it, turned back again to face her. John didn’t quite meet her eyes—another one of those annoying habits this rough-faced man who said he was Johnny had a habit of doing. “So—you’ll be sticking around, right? After the way I acted, they’re not gonna have me for the role of Command.”

It was disheartening to see the hope in the man’s eyes. Out of respect for him, Janis shook her head, knew that she couldn’t keep him in suspense, or lie to him. 

“On the contrary. I made sure they knew that the only correct answer would be to have you in that role. So we’re gonna do something about your attitude and before you know it, planning tactics out in advance will feel like something you’ve spent your whole life doing.” She tried to smile reassuringly at him.

His face tightened up as though every muscle in it had been pulled as hard as it could go. “You can’t make me take a position like that.” Whether it was conscious or not, John took a defensive stance, although his arms remained at his side.

The sight, of him wet with sweat and taking a stand with his surprisingly impressive chest puffed out, had a strange and immediate effect on Janis. Suddenly uncomfortable with the subconscious, almost feral reaction, Janis cleared her throat and found herself striking a stance that was a mirror image of John’s. 

She said, “I’m not. I’m going to guide you to make the right decision. Even if you can’t see that, yet.”

He gave her a look that she had never seen Johnny ever give her. It felt like those brown eyes of his were alight with an anger she was shocked to see, angry at her . “With all due respect, Commander, I’m more than capable of making my own damn decisions. Been making them with more or less positive results in the decades you’ve been gone.”

It took a lot for Janis to not give in, to shout at the man. “That’s what I’m talking about! You have the experience of building all this up, you rescued me, and you know more about what these last two decades have changed more than I ever will. How in the hell am I the right person to take command of the Initiative?”

When John spoke, it was low, soft but with an unmistakable edge to it. “You don’t know things I know, and one of them is how much we need you, here. I still need you. Commander.” When Janis only stared at him, he made a soft shake of his head and turned back around, readying himself to start punching the dummy once more.

Janis almost regretted asking it as soon as it left her mouth. But something about the question felt like it was meant to be asked. Something that she couldn’t avoid forever, even if a large part of her had been wanting to forget it.

“So are we going to talk about what you said on your birthday twenty years ago?” Janis tossed her hand out, annoyance finally getting to her. “Or are we going to keep talking in circles around it again?”

She saw it, how John stopped in place, could hear as the air in his lungs escaped in one long gasp.

 

 

Twenty Years Ago

 

The week of John’s birthday happened to also coincide with the rarest of the rare: a time period when it was decided they could give everyone in the base a long-needed couple of days off. Everyone’s nerves had been wearing thin. And given the fact that John—Central—had become such a pivotal figure in almost all of their lives, the idea of throwing him a party, which he was only semi-enthused about, felt like it had been a purely grassroots event, where it seemed as though everyone had gotten the idea to throw him a party at the same time.

That day, roughly a year and eleven months months since Janis had successfully recruited John, had all been in the back of her mind as she got ready for the party. Although, as she checked herself in the mirror one last time to make sure that the dress looked just right, perhaps the memory of that rainy day should have returned to her.

Janis took a look at her face, realized that with the ability to see how she looked in the red party dress, the way she had asked one of the Rookies that she trusted the deft hands of to style her hair and have it curled made her look, well—

Damn! She regretted that she had already put her makeup on, because once the waterworks started, she ended up swabbing her whole face onto a Kleenex. Once she got a hold of herself and re-applied makeup, Janis dared to take one last look in the mirror. It was hard not to marvel at the sight; it was years in the making and it honestly felt like the first real time Janis realized that around most of the people of XCOM, she would be outing herself as explicitly outwardly female with her choice of clothes.

And although it was shocking to think, she looked good , imposter syndrome be damned. For a moment, all Janis could do was stare at the woman in the mirror, in disbelief that she was looking at herself. To test out the belief that the woman was her, Janis stuck one of those long, long slender legs out, watched as the temptress in the mirror did the same.

Janis knew she was bound to be late as it was, so she looked away out of fear that she would burst into tears again, left her room in the vast underground base once she grabbed the wrapped gift that she had sitting next to her gun on the table.

As she feared, once she walked into the bar, Janis discovered that she was late for the start of the party. As she tried to slide into the background, she watched the party goers—all XCOM operatives, for once, letting loose, and in some cases, really loose—drink and play with the special gift that Janis had installed in the bar for the night. A karaoke machine managed to make the part bar, part memorial feel inviting, reminded Janis of what these places should have felt like, outside of the Initiative. 

As she entered, she could hear a French scientist as he tried to awkwardly sing—what was that, Waylon Jennings?—which seemed to be the cause for everyone’s attention to be drawn away by the late arrival of their audaciously dressed Commanding Officer.

Honestly, as she semi skulked around, Janis felt like she was just a few degrees removed from feeling as though she were streaking. It wasn’t a completely unpleasant thought; if anything, the dress felt against her shaved legs, smoothed body like the most natural thing that she could have ever worn. The real problem was going to be: how the hell was she going to go back to wearing those drab military clothes tomorrow? In all seriousness, the one thing she most looked forward to was seeing the expression on the birthday boy’s face.

As everyone watched and cheered on the would-be Jennings impersonator, Janis finally found her target, sitting at the bar, his back turned to the counter as he watched the spectacle. A grin spread on Janis’ face when she realized she had found the birthday boy, her intended target. She knew that well-kept military haircut anywhere, and what’s more—as always—good old Central wore that green sweater emblazoned on the left side of his chest with the insignia of the XCOM Initiative.

Janis went forward with her covert operation, snuck up behind the bar, relieved that no one had blown her cover yet. It was going better than she would have ever imagined; she had hoped that, somehow, John would be the first person to see her in the dress that she had bought as a promise to herself. Now, as she walked around the un-tended bar, Janis’ hand clenched around the large square package that she pressed to her hip. She hadn’t meant to, didn’t consciously think about it, but as she reached out to tap him on the shoulder she realized she cared how John would look at her.

After all, there would forever be that memory in the back of her mind from her reunion with John, the look on his face as he talked to her in the coffee house. She longed for a new look she could see on his face, brought on by surprise. Hopefully a pleasant one.

Almost as soon as she tapped his shoulder, the man almost jerked in his stool. He turned around, eyes blazing in anger at being snuck up on, then the anger disappeared as he recognized her, looked at her. His eyes widened until they were discs with an umbra of brown, surrounded by a vast sea of white.

His voice sounded choked and behind the collar of his tie and dress shirt Janis saw his Adam’s apple jump up. “J-Janie?”

She liked that, enjoyed how he called her by her nickname. She meant to thrust the present that she had been carrying at him, but found that the moment was too exquisite to ruin. The way he looked at her, seemed to be trying to take all of her in, at least the portion that wasn’t obscured behind the bar, felt like being bathed in a spotlight. And maybe it was however much beer he had already drunk, but his eyes seemed to shine, warm.

It felt natural—too natural—to dip backwards a few steps, making it look instinctive as she slipped backward enough for John to look at more of her. He took the initiative, almost standing on the rungs of his barstool as he leaned forward to look at as much of her as he could. Janis swore she could feel his eyes where his gaze drifted across her in her dress.

The Commander willingly forgot that she carried with her always the weight of responsibility, the appearance, always, of strength. A strength that she sometimes didn’t honestly feel.

Janis tilted gently, lifting a leg in a gesture that was supposed to look natural. As she watched him lean over enough to look at her down to her legs, Janis leaned back against the back of the bar, settled back onto her elbows. To the contrary as she heard of the experience of being stared at in a dress, the feeling of being examined by John felt exhilarating, empowering. She wasn’t drunk, so she barely allowed the other feeling cross her mind.

That the way he looked at her made her feel sexy.

When his gaze followed back up the path it had made, sliding up her body, Janis realized that John’s mouth had fallen open. 

He finally said something before he slammed his mouth shut, his lips sucked in tight beneath his teeth. “Commander—”

Janis was about to remark that she might have been overdoing it when she picked this dress when she heard as the Jennings song ended and someone spoke up, sitting next to John. “What—holy shit, is that you, Commander?”

Janis only stared at John for a brief moment before she looked over at the interloper but she could swear his face looked bright pink. She said something to the man she recognized as a rookie, only a week into the Initiative, then turned back to John. She realized that he hadn’t moved from his earlier position where he sat, stiff on his barstool, face indeed turning bright pink.

It occurred to the Commander that this wasn’t entirely fair to the man. The joy she felt at seeing his reaction was more a gift to her, and it was his birthday. Good thing she had brought the present.

As she slid it across the bar it seemed to take John a moment to realize that she was offering it to him. The man who had interrupted their moment earlier had to nudge him, as though he were in a trance. John shook, then looked down at the package, covered in a silver wrapping paper.

“Oh,” he said softly. “You got me something.” He coughed, covering his mouth with the back of a half-closed fist. He made an effort at looking up, then seemed to lose his nerve as he looked back down at the gift. “Shouldn’t have.”

His reaction almost worried her. Janis wanted to see him opening the gift, but when she heard someone else cry out in surprise and realized that it was a reaction to how she was dressed, she found herself almost cornered by their overly friendly co-workers, none of whom seemed to have made an effort to dress out of much other than their untucked uniforms, let alone dressed up. Well, hell, Janis’ get up was more than what anyone would consider “dressing up”.

She knew, when she had originally put the order in for the dress, that what she was ordering wasn’t so much a dress but a fantasy, something that she had never experienced before. The chance that those who saw her knew, without a doubt, that she was a woman. And, in an even more secret part of her heart, she wanted to be seen as a beautiful woman, a gorgeous one.

People plied her with drinks, the light, fizzy kind that the bartender knew Janis loved. Light and fizzy though they were, she began to feel like she was slowly lifting, her high-heeled feet not touching the ground as she moved through the crowd. It helped with the remaining terror that started to creep into her mind, surrounded by so many staring eyes.

Even though her face, long practiced in showing only the emotion that she wanted to reveal, was only showing joy as she talked to everyone who came up to her, most marveling at her dress, in reality she was hoping that she could get free from the attention of the other party goers to talk to John. Before she knew it, though, it came time to face the karaoke machine as she was almost moved towards it by the crowd of people in the bar. Maybe it was because of her role in the Initiative, or maybe it was because of the fact that she was wearing that deep, red dress, but she picked an audacious song to sing. Hell, why not belt out Lou Reed while not taking a single look at the prompter, it being a song she knew by absolute heart?

When she finished it was through the sound of resounding applause, and Janis wished she had drunk enough to not feel completely self-conscious. Thankfully after that point, no one seemed intent on bothering her. As she ordered another drink, it occurred to Janis that she wanted to see what John had thought of her gift. Almost dropping the drink she had just ordered, Janis turned away from the bar and looked through the room for the sight of John’s green sweater.

When she finished scanning the room three times for the telltale shape of her Lieutenant's head, Janis resorted to asking around for the lost star of the party. It should have surprised her that John could manage to slink off in his own party, but she knew the man well and knew differently. Once she asked one of the vets where he had seen the reason for the party disappear towards, Janis sat her drink down and went after him out of the bar.

She found John walking away down the hallway in the direction of the crew barracks, holding onto the present she had given him. She saw it was still wrapped up and even before she reached him, Janis had the feeling that there was something wrong.

Still, she was a few feet away from him when she called out, “You didn’t unwrap my present yet?”

John stopped walking and slowly—slowly—he turned around to face her, as though he had been deciding if he should just keep walking away from her. The man’s face was pink, probably from the liquor he had been drinking. Still, he didn’t quite meet her eyes. “I’m a little… under the weather,” John, consummate professional to most of the rest of the world, almost slurred the word “under”. “I wanted to—open it tomorrow. Maybe you could be with me when I do it.”

Janis smiled at him, any earlier thought that she would guide the birthday boy back to his party brushed aside. Christ, when was the last time she had seen him this drunk? For that matter, had John Bradford ever drunk enough for it to show so obviously?

“And what’re you gonna do for the rest of your birthday? Sit alone in your room, listen to one of your playlists?”

The wheels were clearly spinning in the inebriated man’s head. Finally, though, he said, “Don’t feel good, just gonna… lay down.” When he saw the disappointment clearly in her eyes, he added, “I might head back over in a bit.”

Both not entirely doubtful of how drunk he was but also not about to assume that he was lying to her, Janis took hold of the slightly shorter man by his upper arm and started to walk them back down the way he was heading in the first place. John’s muscles felt stiff in the arm she had hold of, and Janis could not shake the feeling that he had not been leaving an overpacked party in a small room. He had been leaving to get away from her.

Still, Janis helped the man to his room, watching as he struggled to wedge his body so that the hidden pin beneath the sewn XCOM insignia on his sweater could activate his door’s locking mechanism. Judging by his lack of usual coordination, Janis started to believe that he was just as drunk as he had told her he was. When the door opened he turned around, gazing at Janis, clutching her present to his abdomen.

John looked like he was struggling with something to say to her—based on body language, he was about to tell her good night. Well, fuck all that.

With another warm smile, Janis wrapped an arm around his shoulders and maneuvered him into his room. Luckily, he was too drunk, surprised, to react to her. She was back to being his mentor and best friend, knowing that this was going to bother the hell out of a man who likely only wanted to pass out in his own palpable misery. Well, she wasn’t about to let him pass out, not on his birthday.

She leaned over, flicked the light switch for the room on. As she heard him start to try to enunciate some words, she said, “You’re just gonna fall asleep and let the night pass you by, John. Forgive me if I’m not willing to let a birthday we’ve been planning for over a week end like this .”

John seemed to accept this, but to what degree he was displeased Janis had no way of telling. She was hoping she was bothering him, at least a bit. It was always fun to tease this straight-edged man, the one her old once-problem child of a grunt had transformed into. Nevertheless, Janis gently half-steered the man to his brown leather couch, letting him sit down on one end of it before she walked to the other end.

Sitting down in the dress was an interesting experience. Janis carefully folded one leg over the other and craned her head back, supported by her right arm that she propped up on the arm rest. She felt real in this outfit, half as though she were indeed pretending, but she managed to crush that ceaseless feeling that she was an imposter, at least for a glorious moment.

When she looked at him, for what felt like the first time since she had been torn away at the party, she was fully aware that John was looking at her and only her.

Janis had to admit once more, this moment was less for the man whose birthday it was and more for her own satisfaction. With a refreshed grin, Janis sat back, tried to envision a reclined, lazy position that a model would relax in. 

“How does it look?”

Instead of saying anything, John’s mouth slowly fell open. His eyes seemed to almost be trying to look through her, so disconcertingly heavy and bright that it made Janis felt like she was on display in some kind of exhibit.

Slowly, Janis drew an arm over her chest and sat up, feeling her face surely grow red as she looked away from him. In a low voice, she said, “‘I wore this to get a rise out of you. Can only imagine how ridiculous I look. 'k, get it, not like I’ll be wearing this again anyway—”

John finally spoke, his voice hoarse, rasping, surprising Janis so much she looked at him. “N-no, Janie, you’re so—you look so —” John was gesticulating with his hands, seeming to have problem speaking, as though his tongue had swelled up in his mouth. “I don’t know how much you wanna hear, like I don’t have—don’t have the right to tell you, but I—” He stopped, as though something just occurred to him. She was suddenly afraid that he would stop, would never tell her what he meant. Then, he added, “It looks good on you. Amazing.”

Not expecting what he said, Janis laughed, half relieved and half surprised. For some reason she had the feeling that he wasn't lying to her, or extending the truth. Still, she motioned towards him, said, “Alright, enough with the ass-kissing—” she paused, realizing that John was staring at her again. 

Feigning a cough, Janis sat up in the couch, wished that she wasn’t so obviously blushing. Just what the hell was her old friend getting at here? But, then again, seeing John act just this way—hadn’t it been the very thing she had been fantasizing about for the whole week?

“Open the damn gift so I can see what you think of what I got you.” Not that the contents of the present was exactly a shock. A giant, flat square either meant it was a coffee table book or the more likely answer: a record. Well, a record wasn’t exactly true.

In spite of his inebriated state, John opened the present with a minimal amount of fumbling. Once opened, he stared at the front of the package. “Uh, wow, thank…. Thank you.” This time he didn’t sound anything but shocked, in a good way.

It was a vinyl copy of David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars , an album that both had sung the entire song list of on multiple occasions together, her influence on the younger man. They were good memories, the kind that Janis wanted to remind the man she had never forgotten. In fact, she wanted to bring those nights back, only now, hopefully, sitting in some alien’s craft they had taken, looking down at an Earth they had helped save.

When John sat the album back down on his lap, Janis shook her head at him, pointing at the album on his lap.

“That’s not the only one.”

John looked confused, then he moved the album to the side. It was probably because of his drunken state, but he didn’t react to the cover of the second one at first. Then John laughed, reminding Janis for what felt like the first time in months of what it looked like to see him happy. He had to put the back of his hand over his mouth to stop the braying laughter that poured out of him.

If Janis wanted, she could glance over, see its title. Mothership Connection , by Parliament.

John's speech sounded less slurred when he spoke, as though the laughter had sobered him. “I’m seeing a theme here.”

“Mm-hmm. Definite theme between rock and funk.”

John covered his mouth, stilling his laughter. God, it felt good to see him laugh. To see him be, for a moment, Johnny, not Central. 

John managed to stop himself from laughing like crazy, but his face was red by the time he finished and a few tears were welling up in his eyes. He sighed, a grin spreading across his face, his brown eyes shining so that as he looked at her he seemed like the adorable Disney character namesake that Janis still called him. “I don’t have a player.”

Janis shrugged. “I got one. Feel free to come over any time, I miss spinning vinyl.”

John did that thing again, staring at her as though he could see something in her that she couldn’t. “I’d like that.” He paused, then looked away, seeming to blurt out, “What is you ever saw in me, a person like me ?” 

Not expecting that level of frankness, Janis’ first reaction was to laugh. But something stopped her before John looked back at her. She sucked her lips in and sat further back in the couch. 

She decided to act like he had never asked the question, told herself it was a drunken misspeak. “I wouldn’t mind you coming over, Johnny. Playing records together, I mean.” This was all giving her strange vibes. Not—bad—but something in her, something that had perhaps fueled her entire reason for dressing the way she did felt like it whispered to her. Something she wasn’t blind to in John, not entirely, but also not something she allowed herself to see in full.

It was a thing that could easily destroy the best friendship she had ever had, especially if she was reading it wrong. After all, he couldn’t see her that way. And she couldn’t be encouraging it, no. She was just—just teasing him—

John seemed to sense the unease in her, and the shadow she saw pass over his eyes made her regret her obvious discomfort. He held the small stack of records in his hands and seemed to contemplate them for a second.

She wasn’t expecting the way his voice sounded when he spoke up. John’s voice sounded choked, thick. “Commander, can I admit something to you?”

It was like Janis was hiding the fact that it felt like she was being pulled into a whirlpool as she laughed humorlessly. “Don’t tell me you’re not a George Clinton fan after all. I don’t think I could live with myself, being friends with a guy who couldn’t like Funkadelic.”

He looked up at her. This time neither looked away.

Chapter Text

Present Day

 

That sentence she said, a few simple words, might as well as been landmines that she had set off in John’s mind. Old memories—recollections of a time he had gotten pretty bugfuck drunk—came back to him. Memories that he never would have thought were capable of hurting again to think of, let alone to stop him in his tracks.

If he wanted to ask her what she meant, she went forward with it anyway, saying, “We never got a chance to talk about that night. What you said.”

He turned to look at her. John closed his eyes, hating the man he had been two decades ago for doing this to him. He released a breath he had not realized had been trapped in his chest. Softly, he said, “I was drunk.” it was the easiest thing to say, also the closest to anything resembling what he could admit.

He was sure he was witnessing something from his nightmares—or was it secretly from his dreams—when Janis tilted her head to the side, her feral eyes flickering with doubt. Doubt and—something else? “Alright Johnny. If you promise me what you said meant nothing, then I’ll leave it. But I can’t shake the feeling—” she paused.

John ached for her to finish whatever it was she was going to say. But something, an old scar covering his heart, perhaps, stopped him from asking.

Instead, he said, “I’m embarrassed that I told you that. It was—” a mutiny, resonating from somewhere inside of him, made him blurt out, “I had a problem around you when I was… when I was a young man. It made me—that is—seeing you in my room like that, it was—” he could feel it, his face growing red, ears getting warm. “Anyway, I wasn’t equipped to have you in my room like that. It made me say some things I regret I said.” Good, redundant nonsese, altogether.

To his surprise, Janis’ expression didn’t change as she gazed at him. She said, “I did not ask you how you feel about what you said. I asked if you were telling the truth, Johnny. Were you telling me the truth that night?” Before he could say anything, her expression softened, and she said, “I hope you don’t think I’d ever—I’d throw away what we have. You accepted me more than I could have ever wished. How could I not accept you for everything you are, John? If I have anything to do with why you’d want to throw this chance to speak the truth out, then...”

He felt it, like he had been choking on some emotion for over two decades—closer, maybe, to three—and she had just opened his airwaves. Like he could taste fresh air for the first time in so, so long. Still, why did he feel like he could hardly take in a breath from the thick weight of some new—no, just long forgotten—emotion balled up in his chest?

 

Twenty Years Ago

 

John was a man who was a natural skeptic. One of those things he believed was that alcohol was something more of a cultural “out” for people who would otherwise not have let an urge or an emotion leave them so freely. He was doubtful that liquor was some sort of a lasso of truth, as he had heard on numerous occasions. But if someone had told that to him that night, he would have had to admit that some liquor in the blood had an effect of loosening urges that he would have kept tightened in his heart otherwise. It was a combination of the liquor and the presence of a leggy woman wearing a red dress for his birthday.

Some part of him wanted to believe that it wasn’t just for the occasion, that she had decided to wear it for him.

He hadn’t seen her come in. Oh, how he would have given almost anything to have seen her walk into the packed bar like she had come off of a movie set. Or from his dreams.

When she tapped him on the shoulder and he saw her for the first time, in all honesty he couldn’t comprehend if she were real or a fantasy. Couldn’t blame it on the booze yet, because John had not drunk the massive amount of liquor that would contribute to his lack of coherence and general drop in motor skills at that point. When the woman handed him his gift and spoke to him, it took everything that was in him to not blurt something stupid out. Blurt something out, or reach out and touch her, as if he were afraid that she was an illusion.

Then she was pulled away from him and John was left in a puddle of sweat. None of the people around him mattered. Didn’t matter, either, that he was thirty five years old that day and that everyone here was supposedly here for him. If anything, he was a thirty five year old man and obviously still compelled by a longing that, by all accounts, should have been long gone.

She never once looked back at him, but John watched her as she mingled. God damn, she was good at this, at making everyone feel at ease, important not just to the Initiative, but to her, on a personal level. It was a skill he told himself he would one day pick up, even if it had to rub off of her onto him, nevertheless, unfortunately, it was one he never would properly learn. She smiled, moving in that dress that fit oh so perfectly, and every once in a while he thought he could catch some of her voice. When she laughed, John’s hands tightened around the gift she had given him. It was a wonder he never broke the damn things in that package, as hard as he started to clench it.

Before she got onto the stage, John started to knock back drinks. The warmth inside of him felt like a stabilizer. Like if he focused on the sensation, he could drown out the feelings that started to crowd out every other thought in his head.

Then she got on the stage, looking over the crowd. She glanced over him, he was sure, then launched into a song that felt too on the nose, might have even been a sign to him for how apt it was. As she sang “Perfect Day,” John watched as she finished, wishing that he didn’t love the way she sounded as she gave her all to the music, frenetic with happiness, never once looking at the prompter. This, this was where his feelings for her started, this bravery and charm that she called up so effortlessly. She was the type of person who wasn’t ashamed to admit that she knew a song by heart in front of the people she commanded in a secret Initiative, and she was the type of person who knew so strongly that she was a woman, even if she had happened to of been born in the wrong body, that she risked every bit of her confidence to be up there on a stage in a dress.

John got up, quietly leaving the bar before someone might see him. He had decided, halfway down the hallway, that he needed to go to bed and sleep off whatever he had done to himself. Before he had a chance to make a mistake.

Then he heard her voice. At first he couldn’t believe it was her again. He was so shocked that he sounded drunker than he actually was when he spoke up.

Standing in the hallway, he could examine Janis in that dress without anyone crowding them. Some of her hair was loose and her skin was flushed, giving some realness to an image that otherwise John might have attributed to his imagination. She was tall, yes, but more than that, she had a frame that John could almost feel ashamed he had never been able to realize had been feminine before she had gone through surgery. No, the surgery wasn’t what had made her a woman; she already had had a tenderness, a sensuality that was evident in the soft curves of her body, in the poutiness of her lower lip.

She was a bombshell, and the reality was that John was not a man used to being around someone so potent in their whole being, let alone a woman.

As she steered him to his room, some primal instinct, intent on protecting him from embarrassing himself, compelled him to try to talk his way out of going into the room with her. Tried to stop something that, he would later realize, had surely been eventual.

It didn’t work. Of course. Sat down on his couch, alone with a beautiful woman who was also his idol and yet somehow also so much more, John realized something, in between him opening his present and having her softly talk to him. It was now or never; not in the way that this would be his last chance to do this (although it very well also could have been) but this was the time it was going to happen. He would die or he would finally admit to something that he had once told himself he would—could—never, ever admit to.

And, damn it, John wanted to live , to truly jump for something he wanted, yearned for so much that it left him aching.

He awkwardly fumbled at first, then asked it, both regretting and feeling relieved as the words came out of his mouth. She joked, then understanding seemed to come over Janis. They stared at each other as what John was going to say was, in its own way, said aloud in that moment.

The smile faded on her mouth but that warmth, that look that always felt somehow like home to him, never left.

“Always, Bambi.” She nodded, affirmative, calm.

It did nothing to calm him. To the contrary, the liquor and his emotions made him trip over his words, as if he had been carrying something valuable and had dropped it. It turned what he had always secretly fantasized about into a fucking joke, one that would go on to haunt him.

“I want to—I wanna marry you, once things are calm.” John was horrified to hear his slurring, the mess of his voice. Feared that she wouldn’t take what he was saying seriously, if she thought that he was drunk. Still, he dove deeper, couldn’t stop if he wanted to. “Always wanted to make sure you can’t ever disappear on me again.”

She hardly blinked, looking at him. For a moment, something—pity?—crossed over her expression. She smiled, then laughed a small, ineffectual chuckle. “You don’t have to worry. I’m not ever going to go away again. I mean, I'm old enough to be like, your cool young aunt, and I was like a dad to you once, right?" She held her hand over her mouth, as if something she said physically made her feel bad. Her face was turning red, and almost as soon as the expression came onto her face, she removed her hand, said, "I’m where I need to be, and once we’re done...” she gestured loosely with her hands. “Not like I have anyone else in mind anyways, why not get hitched to my best friend? We could share a bank account—”

In any other situation, if John had been sober, he would have backed down, taken the obvious out that she gave him. Hell, he would have been embarrassed by her reaction, which felt like a mixture of pity and disgust. Should have pretended that it was a joke. But now that he had said the words, alone in a room with her, close enough so that he could breathe the heavy, lush weight of her perfume, John knew he was going to jump and miss, hard, or else he would land in unknown territory.

He stopped her, reaching his hand across the couch as he instinctively wanted to gather her hands into his own. “This is crazy, but I want…” he swallowed, hard, then said, “I want to be with you, Janie. I’m not joking, it’s not because I’m drunk. You're the most beautiful person I know, there's no one like you.” He was running, full force into the land of no return—no, John was launching himself into the no man’s land without any place to land. “I love you.”

At first she just looked at him, a dumbfounded look on her face that said more than she could have. This obviously blindsided her, and if there was a moment that John had ever had where he wondered if it were possible that she ever reciprocated his feelings, then he believed he had his answer there.

The expression changed on her face as she reached over, putting her hand over his own. “I never thought of it like that, Johnny.” She didn’t look back at him, her lips lopsided as she looked deep in thought. “Huh.”

John closed his eyes, thought he was extremely close to just crying. “Alright.”

“Oh, no, no,” Janis added hurriedly. “I just—” she finally looked at him, head on, inescapable. “You can do so much better than me. You know that, right?” She laughed, nervously. "I'm old and all cut up, sewn together..." For a second John thought she was going to start to cry, her eyes shining with what seemed like tears. "Do you know how many girls would love you?"

Was that supposed to be a way of comforting him? John clenched his eyes shut, took his hands out from under hers. “Just forget it.” He stood up, walked towards his bed, grabbing onto the edge of his blanket as he threw himself under it. It felt childish, terrible, but in his inebriated state, John couldn’t think of any other way to try to escape the situation. Knew, anyway, that he would pass out if he tried to storm out of the room.

He said, loud enough for Janis to hear, “It’s fine. Tomorrow, I’ll just have been drunk. Right?” He waited, then repeated, “Right?” When she didn’t answer him, John looked across the room, turning partially on his back.

Janis hadn’t gotten up from where she was sitting on the couch. All he could see of her were her bare shoulders and her shining black hair, faced away from him. She was still, quiet.

Finally, she stood up and walked towards the door.

John wanted to say anything, do anything to get her to stay. Apologize, bleat out his every feeling until she had no choice other than to acknowledge them one way or the other. But he found that after everything, this one blow she had dealt to him had taken all of the fire, the fight, out of him.

Still, something in him clung to the way she paused before she walked out of the room. When she left, Janis said nothing, leaving behind the gift she had given him in more senses of the word than he wanted to think about.

 

Twenty years later and it felt to John as if he had never left his room back in the underground base. As though Janis had walked back into his life no sooner than she had left it. Two decades spent, covering up emotions with liquor and honest work for the good of humanity—no, John couldn’t lie to himself. He knew what all of this had really been for. If he was honest, he couldn’t deny the teasing Shen and Kelly gave him for his supposedly altruistic motives. He ought to have been embarrassed for his infatuation with a ghost, one who didn't ever, even, really love him back.

She physically hadn’t aged much more than a few weeks from the day she disappeared, but when Janis returned, undoubtedly she found him a broken man in the depths of a complete failure. As she had healed, John felt like he was watching someone come back from the dead, stronger than ever. Had watched in what he only pretended was in passing, her physical therapy with Tygan and some specialists who were there to make sure she would walk again, talk again.

There had actually been a part of him that thought he had grown up. That the part of him that saw too much in every movement she made had gone. In reality, there had only ever been the same old desire, the long shot that he had never truly stopped believing in, wished for. Did part of him believe that she would wake from her long slumber and, on seeing him, declare her own feelings for him? Was he that stupid, still?

Janis could see the struggle on his face, no matter how he might have tried to force himself to articulate something—anything. She said, “I can’t try to deal with whatever there is between us without you telling me what it is. C’mon, John, are we still friends?”

Before he knew it, John’s mouth opened and he knew he was saying something he wouldn’t be able to talk his way out of. “After what I said to you, you never told me how you feel about it.”

Janis’ face barely seemed to move, but her eyes were animated, bright. “I don’t know what to think. I guess—it was two decades ago, even though it doesn’t feel like that to me. Thought you would have put any of it behind you.” Her face contorted, as though something stopped her, in the middle of trying to smile. "Would've thought—Johnny would've found some maiden fair to rescue from some muton."

“Then what made you bring it up?”

One of those cryptic smiles etched its way across her face. “I know you better than you know yourself. At least, I used to.”

John sucked a breath in. “Then, did you know how I… that I—”

She interrupted, something flickered in those over bright yellow eyes of hers and the smile that tentatively started on her mouth began to fade. “I had an idea, John. Maybe I knew, that first day we met again.” She hesitated, then added, “I was hoping I was imagining it. Or you’d grow out of it, I don’t know.”

John stared at her in disbelief. “Grow… grow out of it?” He barked out a laugh, although he didn’t even remotely feel like laughing. “It’s a little late for that, don’t you think?”

Janis massaged the bridge of her nose, her eyes slammed shut. “Okay, okay, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to sound like I was demeaning or…” She sighed. “I just didn’t think that if that was the way you felt, that you’d still feel that way. I’ll be honest, I don’t know where to go from here.”

That light feeling in his chest felt like it disappeared. It was replaced by a once-familiar sense of isolation. He said, “I know I’m not your type, but I get the feeling you doubt my professionalism. I might be… that is…” Damn it, why couldn’t he just say what he felt, or at least say something that wouldn’t continue to embarrass him?

So he closed his eyes and said what he wanted to say for the last thirty years. “I don’t give a damn if it’s a problem, I had feelings for you twenty years ago. I’m not going to deny that, but you know what?” He stared into her eyes, found a sense of relief, no matter how pyrrhic, in saying what he had always been afraid to say to her. “No matter how I feel now, I promise you—promise—that it won’t interfere with how I work, and will continue to give myself to XCOM.” He took a breath, then said something that made his heart cry out to say. “Even if you no longer wish to be a part of it.”

She smiled at him, but there was a shadow behind the brightness of her eyes that felt like it didn’t leave. “Glad to hear it.”

“Yeah?” John felt it, a primal anger that made him ache to drown it in alcohol. “Then can you do me a favor, do what you’re best at. Leave me alone.”

Janis looked away, a sad curve taking on the shape of her smile. “We’ll talk again.”

John was already turning around, readying to start beating the shit out of that training dummy with renewed vigor. “You can bet on that.”

Chapter Text

It had been hours since Janis had spoken to John. In spite of her belief that it would be a relief to get away from the man, no more than five minutes after she had left him she realized she wanted nothing more than to turn around. Try to get it through his thick skull that nothing he could ever admit to her would make her want to leave him.

He had been brave, admitting that. Even though it was a tension that, in truth, both had felt for the years that XCOM had been operational, Janis knew how hard it had been for someone like him to admit to something like having feelings for her. Still, she had never forgotten the night of John’s thirty fifth birthday.

She wondered what it would take for him to say it out loud, to spell it out the way he had twenty years ago. But then there was the feeling, how she half feared what she would do if he told her how he felt for her this time. And she knew that she was no good for a man like him. Couldn’t stand the thought of disappointing him again and again and again. All she was good was for abandoning. And, beneath the veneer of a strong woman was just a shivering, frightened boy, afraid of what he'd find if he looked too closely into his father's dark world, but never able to look away. 

She wandered like a ghost for a bit, then found a comforting relic of her past in her room, an old ipod. It was not actually hers, like most of everything that she came to find in her quarters. Most of it seemed to be awfully close copies of things she once kept; it would not have surprised her if most of her items had been destroyed in the ensuing chaos following the day the original XCOM hadgreen terminated, or perhaps had been taken by the aliens as some sort of macabre relics, trophies.

To her surprise when she turned it on, she found it filled with some of her old personal favorites. Who, exactly, put the MP3s on this thing? She pushed away the lingering thought that there was only one person still alive who knew her well enough to stock it so well with music that was her taste.

In need of something to do, to comfort the maelstrom in her mind, Janis plugged her earbuds in and strolled around while listening to music. She was grateful that for the moment the base was almost empty with everyone preparing for the day that XCOM arose from its grave.

She walked into the labs and found them empty. Being around that many scientific instruments reminded her of a woman whose heavy German accent and sharp eyes used to make a lab very similar to this one feel like home. As she strolled around in the tiled, dimly lit room, she remembered the days she once spent in the base’s lab. Had learned, early on, that Vahlen didn’t like coffee, in spite of how everything else about the woman would have screamed that she was outwardly serious, mature.

When her assistants went to bed for the night, at times Janis would surprise her with cocoa, sometimes made with real milk but always with a powdered base. Nothing wrong with the cheap stuff; it reminded Janis of the happier childhood memories, precious nights spent alone in the trailer. And Vahlen never complained during all of the time both people spent sat at a desk, talking sometimes till the morning.

Those nights were ones she would always treasure, even the ones with some bizarre corpse laid open like a book on an autopsy slab in the corner, sometimes reeking, to the point where Vahlen would insist that they had to wear paper masks over their mouths and noses. 

A few years before she came to work in the XCOM Initiative, the only relationship Janis had ever had with other women had been romantic, but if she were in the mood for honesty, it mostly only ever amounted to booty calls. Talking with Vahlen, the first woman she had truly opened up to since her reassignment, it was like peering into a world she long wished to jump into. Sometimes in spite of the occasional “wetwork” left out in the open.

It didn’t hurt that the doctor happened to know more than a passing amount about who she came to call her “unique specimen”. It wasn’t meant cruelly, just a playful nickname that Janis understood the intent of without question. She also seemed to understand that surgery and heavy hormone, coupled with physical, therapy, was something that no one could wade through without support.

In honesty she had cried more than her fair share over those memories—and many more, dealing with the innumerable other people she had lost as well, to either time or to the cruelty of those who had stolen her—weeks ago. Still, she could feel her eyelids sting with tears as she longed to hear that professional-sounding voice softly address her, ask if she had brought anything to drink.

As she watched one of Tygan’s specimens float in liquid that Janis knew was close to the type she had been imprisoned in, she couldn’t help but recall those words, spoken by a man who she had feared more than anything letting down. 

I want to marry you. I love you.

She was haunted by ghosts both living and dead, and she struggled with how she could possibly lead every one of them to something resembling victory. If she were even, in truth, capable of such a thing.

Janis almost missed the man who had inherited her old, dear friend’s position as he walked back into the room. Without realizing it, she had been singing softly along to a song that was playing through the one earbud she wore in her ear.

He didn’t seem surprised to see the same person who had just rejected the role of Command, sitting in one of his office chairs in civilian clothes, staring at one of his specimens. Still, expecting him to comment on her surprise appearance, it was instead Janis’ turn to be surprised by what he said.

“What you were singing before I came in—I can’t put my finger on it. Then again, music was never my… repertoire. “Love me till my heart stops/love me till I’m dead...””

Janis smiled at him. She couldn’t imagine that it was easy to find a place to listen to pop music from over a lifetime ago. “The Talking Heads. I’d say it’s an old guilty pleasure, but I don’t really believe in guilty pleasures.”

“Ah.” Tygan looked awkward.

Janis felt sorry for him; she didn’t know how these people were going to feel about her presence, now that she told them that she couldn’t take the position of Commander like they wanted her to.

“I see you’re looking at a partially regenerated limb I collected during my time at a Gene Bank. I hid it in a jar that a colleague of mine used to keep his pickles in, but ended up forgetting about in our staff fridge. Of course, I threw the contents out before I collected the specimen, although a brine would not have been the worst choices available to me to preserve the specimen. I wish I knew more about true scientific breakthroughs that ADVENT never deigned to share with their conquered species…” he trailed off, a frown marking his face. “You have the look I’m used to seeing on some of the younger medical students I used to mentor in the Gene Banks.”

Janis’ toes curled in her boots and she hoped she wasn’t blushing. Was she that see-through? “I guess I just came to talk to you about Jo—” she coughed, decided in the middle of saying his name that she would rather call him by his eponymous callsign. As though it could distance herself from him. “Central.”

Tygan’s frown deepened but he grabbed another one of the wheeled desk chairs, orphaning it from its station. He dragged the chair closer to Janis, until he was a few feet away from her. As he sat down, he said, “I’m relieved we have a chance to talk in private. I hope you’ll forgive me. It’s for the sake of the Initiative that I want to speak candidly with you.”

It took some effort to not wince. Since she had recovered, it felt like all anybody wanted to do was be painfully honest with her. Still, she nodded to him. “Of course.” What did it matter? Not like they could force her to take command. Unless they wanted this rebirth of XCOM to go up in flames.

“The man you’ve chosen as the alternative to you is problematic to say the least.”

It was a relief to feel something aside from the vestigial feelings left over from her earlier talk with John. Janis crossed her arms over her chest and stared at the man. “I thought I’ve already explained this to you—”

Tygan lifted a hand up, said, “I don’t know what Bradford was like two decades ago, but his actions and activity nowadays I can more than attest to. He is very easily flung into rages, people are afraid to speak to him directly out of fear of what he will do or say to them.”

“And what has he done to them to make them fear him?” When Tygan only gave her a pained look, Janis said, “I’m willing to bet—he hasn’t made good on any threats he may have made.” No, somehow she knew John wouldn’t do more than some admittedly not great verbal abuse. Of course, the verbal abuse was its own problem, one that she was ready to correct before John took her place.

The man parroted exactly what she had just thought. “A group like this runs on morale as surely as it does food and funds. We cannot have a drunken pest stomping around the base, barking orders at people.”

That she could agree with. But Janis was well aware that she could not show any weakness on this point. Tygan might not have been aware of it, but he wanted to do away with the only man that she could ever envision being able to withstand the stress of the position. In due time, he would be able to make all of the hard decisions, perhaps better even than she once did.

Tygan continued, saying, “And if that were the only issue, I would be willing to let the man take the position, with the caveat of you guiding him. The other issue is one that it seems only I see as… pressing.”

“And what would that be?”

Finally it was time for the man to look uncomfortable for a change. “You may not be aware of it, but much of his behavior stems from one source in particular.” He stared meaningfully at Janis, and when she only looked back at him, the man made an annoyed groan, said, “His feelings for you may be what, in no small part, inspired him to help in the recovery and much of the work that lead to the rebuild of the XCOM Initiative, but at this point he appears to have allowed the very same… sentiments to lead to a profound decay in his morale and outlook, to say nothing of his behavior.”

Janis could feel herself staring at him, a deer in the proverbial headlights. She felt herself ask it, as if it were some fight or flight instinct talking, “What do you mean?”

Tygan gave her a look of veiled disgust, which shocked her. “You know, everyone here seems to be taking part in this macabre betting pool over this, but I see nothing funny in the unprofessional behavior of either candidate for that of the role of Commander.”

She could feel her face growing red as rage built inside of her. “You should be careful of who you talk to like that—”

“As I said, I speak candidly only for the good of the Initiative. And at this point the Emperor is nude and believes himself to be wearing clothes.” Tygan waited a moment, as though allowing her space to have another outburst—exactly the kind of thing that she never would have been caught dead having. “As I said before, if you are set on leaving XCOM, I only wish you would let us have time to find a proper candidate in your stead. What I didn’t say before, out of respect for whatever personal relationship you have with Central, is that if you want me, all of us, to truly accept who I suppose is your protege of sorts, then you must do whatever needs done to help him come to terms with the fact that he is a key member of the Initiative and must be expected to behave as such. And do not mistake me saying this as, again, intruding on your personal lives, but I would recommend that you allow him to come to terms with whatever your relationship is and will be before we crash and burn, hopefully figuratively but perhaps literally.”

Janis stared at Tygan, overwhelmed by the experience of being emotionally dissected by the man’s words. It was as though he had taken a scalpel to her chest cavity.

She felt her expression grow tight on her face. “That everything you wanted to say?”

Tygan let out a heavy breath, standing up and putting a hand on the back of the chair. “Good God, I hope so. I don’t think I could withstand another talk like this, even if it is for the good of Humanity.” He shook his head, but Janis got the feeling that there was something good natured in it. If she knew the man better, she might even guess that he was being playful, if not for how deadpan he was acting.

Still, Janis found that she had been clutching the cold, smooth matte-grey ipod very tightly in her hand. She slipped it into her pants’ pocket before she stood up. She meant to shake Tygan’s hand, but when she looked up, Janis discovered that the man must have quietly taken the chair back to its earlier position and was already halfway across the large room.

He was quick, moved quietly, and when he did speak, it was to the point. Everything that, once Janis got a clearer head, she would come to see as a powerful set of traits to have in the role vacated by the late-great Dr. Vahlen.

Before he had a chance to make an escape, she called out to him, “You don’t happen to have any stakes in that betting pool you mentioned, do you?”

Tygan didn’t hesitate, only pushing his no-nonsense rectangle-frame glasses further up the bridge of his nose as he answered, “I put money on Bradford not ever telling you how he feels. In spite of everyone knowing his emotional state, seemingly better than he does, the man will never admit to anything.” He nodded towards her, a subtle show of respect, or perhaps what was supposed to be a mutual understanding. “If that man ever finds someone, it will have to be some sort of a wild woman, I’ve imagined. The kind that will knock him over the head and drag him into a cave.”

That made Janis laugh. As she watched Tygan flick something resembling a smile at her as a means of good-bye, she had to stop herself from telling the man that he severely underestimated Central.

To the contrary, the man had already made what she could now see as a chasm-like leap two decades prior.


She didn’t come to the decision rashly, or quickly. Janis went back to her room, where she sat on a couch and tried to summon every thought she had ever had about the feeling that John treated her differently, not like someone he would consider a friend or a mentor. Thinking about it here or there, seeing how it felt in her heart like she was trying on a variety of clothes, had been something that she did almost as a way of not thinking about her current situation, the feeling that she was abandoning XCOM and not trying to save it. Frustrated, Janis stopped, feeling like she was about to give herself a headache from thinking about it.

Eventually, she found herself moved to stand in front of the small memorial in her room. Looking at reminders of people who would never have the chance of talking to someone they cared for sobered her. It did have the effect of reminding Janis that there were worse things than deciding to confront John.

But a strange thing happened as she walked away from the memorial. It was as though not thinking about it, at least, trying not to think about it, had allowed some mechanism in her mind to slide into place. As she picked out what she wanted to wear, Janis found herself staying in front of the full length mirror only because she wanted to make sure she looked good. As close to perfect as she was capable of.

As soon as she finished, Janis closed the door to her quarters behind her and walked in the direction of John’s room, figuring that it was the only possible place where she would find him. When she realized that the room was dark and he didn’t answer any knocking, Janis just stood there, fearing that at any moment the unique courage she had needed would desert her.

“Shit.”

The first assumption had been that he had gone to the bar. When she went over there and didn’t see him, she walked back to the gym and didn’t see him there, either. Getting frustrated, Janis stalked around half of the length of the entire base, hoping to find him. When she still didn’t find him anywhere, she walked back to his room and this time she let herself in with the, thankfully, still in her possession skeleton key card that had been given to her. The fact that she was, at least for the moment, considered the Commander, why she had that card in the first place, almost made her laugh to think about.

She walked in and realized that John wasn’t hiding in the dark and not answering the door. 

Hard to believe though it was, he was seemingly nowhere in the base. And, Janis realized then, she suddenly had to pee.

 

She had considered leaving the light off, sitting in the dark as she waited for him to return. Thankfully, she realized how stupid that was—how much it would make this feel like a “gotcha” surprise, as if she were a spouse catching her partner out too late, or worse, a parent catching their child—and decided to sit on his couch with the light on. It was a good thing that it only took what felt like twenty minutes before the door opened. Even though John surely could have seen the light in the window, even obscured by the blinds like it would have been, she could see the obvious surprise on the man’s face when he walked into the room and saw her.

As if by instinct, John closed the door behind him before he turned to look back at Janis. The surprise on his face barely seemed to have faded as Janis said what she had decided she was going to say when he returned.

“So, weeks I hear you never step foot off of the base, and the one time I need to talk to you, you leave.”

He stared directly at her, at first not blinking. As though he were afraid that if he would blink she would disappear.

“Just needed some air. Real air, not recycled.” The way he looked at her, the sincere feeling that he was totally keyed into her, was so clear that it was strange, especially given the way that they had last seen each other. But was it wholly unpleasant?

Why did something feel weird, flighty in her stomach as she stood up? She said, “I think there’s something we’ve been needing to talk about. For a long time.”

John tilted his head to the side and what felt like for the first time since he had come into his room, he blinked. It was uncanny; it felt like she once again saw the young man in him, the one that she had grown to trust. 

“What about?”

It might have made her angry, that he was going to play coy with her after their earlier conversation. Instead, Janis felt a smile growing on her face. 

It was funny; her entire life, any time she had been with someone, she had never really had to be the pursuer. The women had always come up to her, before and after the gender reassignment, asking her out on dates or, if they felt more forward, for quickies. It was weird to think that it was her turn to be the forward one. And for this, out of all things. Weirdly enough, it felt natural.

“I just needed to confirm something.” Still, it was terrifying to think about what could happen. Before, she had been plagued by old feelings of inadequacy, and fears of how she could irreparably damage this relationship if she was reading into John's emotions wrong.

So instead of thinking about it for one more second, Janis went for it, knowing that she might have this kind of courage only for a brief moment in time, the will to walk that distance in the room. To stand in front of her dearest friend.

She was taller than him, always had been, and this exact moment was why Janis, a taller-than-average woman, dreaded a relationship with a man. But this surprised her. 

It felt natural, good even, to look down at him, a man whose forehead came to her chin but who was strong, hard all over. Whose eyes, filled with unmistakable shock, seemed to glow honey brown, his mouth falling open. He was older than that man who had professed his feelings for her, and unmistakably, he was more masculine to her now than he ever had been. He smelled indeed like sunshine, the warmth of the world outside of the base, fresh wind.

She never realized how much she missed the smell of wind.

Janis knew this man so well, she realized then that the years separating the decades that he had grown, lived without her, were nothing but a temporary barrier. It was that realization, that she could see her friend in this strange, hard-edged man, that had her reaching down. 

Her fingers—God, she was shaking , the trembling starting in her shoulders and intensifying in the joints of her index and middle fingers—curled, braced underneath his chin, guiding his mouth closed, maneuvered his face towards hers.

Looking back, Janis would wonder at the fact that if she had slept for so long in a sort of wicked curse, that it was her who initiated the first kiss.

Chapter Text

She had meant to really go in for a kiss, the good kind that used to make her ache when she had ever done it with a woman. The kind that was patented to make them fall into her arms. Maybe it was some remaining barrier in her mind, but Janis ended up softly pecking him on his admittedly, well-shaped lips. The understanding that this was Johnny, a man in her memories who was ten years her junior and who was—still—her subordinate, felt like a thought that was always there in the back of her mind.

As she withdrew, John’s eyes were closed, plain expectation on his face. Janis only had a moment to feel displeased at her bad first effort when she felt his arm come up, clutch at her back. She was too surprised to react, ended up being pulled to him. Wordlessly, the man brought their lips together, began kissing her. There was no time for her to think about what this meant in the moment, or even to react to the fact that this was the first kiss she had ever had with a man. And, what a kiss .

At first they only kissed with their lips mostly closed, but lingering deliciously close to opened. Then it was John whose lips parted and tongue slipped against her own. Immediately, Janis’ mouth was flooded with the sweet taste of his tongue, and it sent shockwaves through her body. Only moments before she believed that she was about to disengage and go from wherever this had brought them emotionally. But the taste of John in her mouth had her whimpering softly like she never had for anybody before, reaching around to grab onto the back of his head.

He shuddered, pulling away just enough to force their lips apart. The back of his head felt soft, feathery, with his short, slightly thick hair between her fingers. It was like Janis was holding onto some amazing but strange specimen. He felt warm, utterly mammal. Somehow—as familiar to her as her own body now felt.

John’s voice was almost a whisper, rough with both the natural husk of his voice as well as breathlessness. “Been waiting over thirty years for that.”

As Janis looked at him in a near-daze, she saw that his gaze was stuck on her mouth. The weight of his eyes on her mouth had her instinctively sucking her lips in, the sensation on them almost too much to bear. Slowly, he rose his eyes to hers and before, his eyes had been a warm brown. Now they looked almost like their brightness could be attributed to a fire originating in the dark depths of his overblown pupils. His lips twitched, caught somewhere on the way to a grin. “Clearly, it was worth every second.”

At first she wanted took half tease him, growing rapidly horny as she was, that he couldn't make that assessment quite yet.

Where was Janis' restraint, her belief that she could stop after a kiss to confirm what he felt for her—to tell her in a way that was beyond the obvious barriers the man had erected over his heart, what it is he truly felt for her?

If his longing for her as a mentor had done something to his head, made him think he wanted her when in reality he never would want to be with someone like her.

The protectiveness she had for him was nowhere, maybe, because when John came back, feeling like an eternity as he crossed the space between their lips, Janis did nothing to extricate herself. Instead, she leaned forward, all sense of this being for his own good, forgotten, in a wave of enlivening desire.

They kissed, softly and with an underlying passion that neither had to vocalize or ever hope to fake. It was like combustion between them, or lightning. When their lips parted, it was Janis’ turn to push her tongue into John’s mouth, the invasive move welcomed by the man with a guttural groan.

It felt natural, headier and more exhilarating than any kiss she’d ever had before.

He tasted male , Janis discovered. She never would have thought that such a thing would have a “taste”. And she was completely enslaved to the sensation, whatever it was that was coursing through her blood. A feeling she hadn’t experienced in a very long time. But for that golden moment when she first deeply tongue-kissed the man she had never envisioned loving the taste of, Janis simply enjoyed the experience. Immersing herself in a full-body phenomena that finally woke her libido from where the long-depressed woman had forgotten it.

John’s hands started to slide down her back, and she moved into his hands without thought. Then he let go, again disengaging their kiss.

Barely suppressing a cry, Janis looked at the man she had forgotten about ever having had a thought of that didn’t include sitting on him and making damn fucking sure he couldn’t stop kissing her if he wanted to. John looked at her, breathless as he tried to regain some air in his lungs, his scarred, beard-stubbled face shockingly pink and bordering on red. His breath came and went out of him, his white-vested chest heaving, gently touching her over sensitized chest with each gasp he made.

He finally said, with his voice dangerously close to cracking, “We can’t go any further, not unless you consent to where this is headed.” He looked at her and Janis almost saw the desperate weakness in his eyes. “You… you are wanting to go back to my bed with me, aren’t you?”

She didn't blame him. In his eyes, "hard to get" didn't even come close to describing her behavior. If not for how out of breath, emotional he looked, John may as well as been asking her to confirm something dealing with the day to day operations in the base.

I’m about to fuck Johnny. Aren’t I? For all Janis could recall, the only reason she had come in here was to hopefully thoroughly fuck the most delicious tasting man she could have ever dreamed of.

She nodded, this time being the one who brought their lips together for a deep, heady kiss. Sometimes their tongues didn’t even successfully find the other’s mouth and they tasted plenty of the other’s lips, chin, and cheeks. Their legs were moving, awkward and uncoordinated, due to the fact that their shared clutching became the only things keeping the two up as they merged and aggressively slid their bodies against each other.

Good fucking god , did she always get so turned on with kissing?

She was greedy with lust, eventually dragging her overeager partner to his aforementioned bed through heavy concentration, panting for air as she pulled her mouth away from his. She sat on the edge, delirious with the fresh height difference it afforded them. As they pulled apart from yet another unbroken, long, passionate kiss, Janis started to pull her shoes off—aware of where this was all going—then she looked up, saw that John was smiling. No, not smiling , he was grinning. Any question that this was somehow an innocent mistake evaporated as she saw the open desire in his eyes. The expression on his face that looked more fitting on someone who had just been released from a decades’ long stint in prison.

He didn’t look at all like the young man he once had been that she had been so afraid that she was destroying the happiness of.

Janis almost lost her breath, her lips falling open. How had she ever misjudged this situation? It went beyond simple lust. This felt like someone’s long-held, aching fantasy was coming true. The scary thing to her should have been that she wasn’t sure whose it was.

“Come here,” she almost whimpered, beckoning to him with her hands opened.

John rushed her, hands on her legs as he brought her body close to his as he angled over her, dropping her back on the bed. She wrapped her long legs around his back, drawing her ankles close together as though she meant to trap him. Janis waited for him to start kissing her when he surprised her, dragging a thumb across her heavy lips. The feel, of his calloused fingertip against her over sensitized lips, had her wanting to cry out in frustration in a strange, painful ecstasy.

Hadn’t she always, it felt like, fantasized about some strong man treating her like this?

Her own hands found the front of his Unitarian uniform, yanked up. John pulled back, allowing her to remove his clothing, heard the tell tale clink of something metal as it hit the ground, the sound softened by the clothes. The reappearance of his naked torso, the one she had been seeing in her mind wherever she closed her eyes since earlier in the day,  had Janis leaning as close as she could, dragging her hands down his strong chest. Looking back up at John’s face, she realized he was staring at her, a look of disbelief replacing his earlier effusive happiness.

Before she could ask him what was wrong, he licked his own softly swollen lips, his exhalation bathing Janis in the mist of his breath. “Tell me what you want, Commander.”

Janis felt something squirm inside of her at that unexpected term, perhaps awakening a longing she never knew she had. At least, not one she had ever imagined also having with a man.

He continued to speak, sounded like he was on the verge of babbling. “Just tell me what you want from me. I want to give you it. Want to give you anything—anything you want.” As though emphasizing his words, John, whether purposeful or instinctually, thrust his hips forward to knock him against the open cradle of her thighs.

So— beautiful —her oldest, most treasured companion’s body, face, was. Whoever said that a man was hottest pinning someone down like a dog was a moron. Being teased like this and promised as much or as little as she wanted by someone so masculine and so consumed by her, Janis just didn’t know if she could ever come down from this experience.

She could hear herself tell John, “I want you to fuck me.”

Something flickered in his eyes, something warm like humor. He said, “Think I can handle that rigorous task, Janie.”

Oh, good. Some part of her was worried that he would take this predicament he had walked her into and try to trade what had to be sex so delicious it would surely burn anything resembling sexual need out of her, for an agreement to take the position of Commander. Janis from over twenty years ago would faint in shock to feel how now her body felt like it was threatening to combust, that she would agree to anything just to see what John Bradford looked like without any clothes on.

He knocked against her with his hips again, and this time Janis realized she could feel something in his pants that definitely wasn’t his leg. Or, at least, not the kind he could walk on.

Bending down close to her, John asked, “Can we get your clothes off? Least your shirt. Feels vulnerable, standing here like this.”

Janis bent up, taking another one of those kisses from him that made her feel whoozy and breathless. Then she stiffened up on the bed, started to slide out of her shirt. She wasn't surprised to find John’s hands against her shoulders, helping her out. But once she had thrown the shirt off, left only in her bra, she realized that John had placed his hands over the cups of her bra.

“Oh, wow , Johnny,” Janis said, her voice to her own ears sounding like she was somewhere between a mental breakdown and the prelude into a fit of hysterical laughter. “I can’t believe we’re doing this.”

It seemed as though every muscle in John’s body had grown taut, still. He caught her gaze with his own and in a hesitating voice, he asked, “Is that—a bad thing?”

Damn he was adorable, but she could slam his head into the ground and yank those pants off of that muscular frame of his. Instead she grabbed onto the back of his neck and drew him in close, kissing his mouth, his stubbly chin, then his neck before she pulled away to answer.

“You don’t have to ask me that, John, if I’m this close to getting on my knees to beg for it.”

It sounded like John was about to say something, then it got caught in a sound that was somewhere between a groan and a sigh. Somehow it almost sounded relieved. Still, when he did speak—only after he took his turn and began to eagerly kiss, then started to lick and suck on her neck until Janis was moaning for mercy—it was to ask, almost hesitantly, “I’m not gonna... hurt you, am I?”

At first Janis wondered what the hell he was asking about. Did he think she was a virgin, at least in the sense of penetration? Was he trying to insinuate something about his size?

Then she saw it, the concern in his soft brown eyes. And it hit her, genuinely surprised her to realize what being in his embrace made her forget. As someone not born, biologically, at least, a woman, it sometimes felt like Janis barely went for very long without some reminder that she was, outwardly, finally the person she had always felt she was. Somehow in his arms, bathed in what felt like the leaden desire that bordered on pure rapture in John’s eyes, Janis forgot something that sometimes felt like it haunted her every action.

She realized what John was trying to, gently, ask her. Again it was something she was not excited at the prospect of dealing with. The potential first time she was with a person in the possession of that oh so synonymous of a male aspect: a penis. But after she had just spent who knew how long kissing him, knowing that he did not see her as some weird, inhuman thing, Janis realized that it didn’t have to be a horrifying, dehumanizing experience to explain that she wasn’t one of the aliens they were united against, or some fragile piece of china.

In fact, asshole that she was, Janis relished in the utterly manly John hesitating out of fear of hurting her.

Biting her lower lip, Janis batted her eyes at her second in command, loving the way he turned a somehow even deeper shade of blushing red. “I don’t know, daddy, you’re not gonna hurt me with that billy club in your pants?”

John’s eyes almost bugged out of his head. At first Janis worried that she had gone too far. That the playful, erotic teasing would make the poor man take off running with a hurriedly retracting boner.

Janis surprise was indescribable, when John took hold of her legs and forced her back on the bed, her back hitting the bedspread so fast that it took the breath out of her lungs. His hands were at her belt buckle and he was ripping her belt off as though she were a present he couldn’t wait to get unwrapped. By the time he had undone the dastardly bindings of her pants, Janis was in utter disbelief at his transformation.

Her pants were torn down her legs until all she was wearing were socks, panties, and a bra. Somewhere in the back of Janis’ head she lamented the fact that she had not worn a matching pair. For a second she thought that John was about to pull his own pants down and either tear her panties off or slide them down one of her legs, then fuck her with the poor thing dangling off of one of her feet like she was a porn star. But a fact she ought to have remembered about John, of all men, was that he sought to exceed expectations if he did not at least live up to them.

He did pull her panties off—grabbing onto the crotch and yanking, looking all the time like he was hyperventilating, he was breathing so hard and erratically—then in one movement the man was on his knees and he had reached, grabbing and holding onto her ankles in one hand so that he had her partially lifted up. The realization of just how exposed she was, and that her protege was staring at her, her feet trapped, was something Janis only had a brief chance to comprehend.

Before she could even assume what this supposedly chivalrous man was contemplating, John had buried his face between her thighs, letting her legs drop around him. Janis thought she gargled out some guttural, animalistic cry, but her head felt like it was so full of the sound of her own blood rushing and her rapid heart beat that she couldn’t comprehend reality.

As John wildly ate her out, a finesse-less feast that left Janis thrashing on the bed, the base could have been assaulted by ADVENT and neither likely would have cared.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Janis heard someone saying, realizing only after it was said that it had been her. “Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohhh my goooood…” As she regained the ability to comprehend her surroundings, Janis propped herself up on her elbows and looked down at the man turning her into a horny slut.

John’s head moved to an erratic rhythm, the answering sensations of which she could feel like an electrical current dancing through her. Holy shit, he was using his tongue for pleasure, but it also felt like he was trying to lap up the juice his kissing had left her bathing in. And his stubbled cheeks made for a rough contrast as she erratically closed and opened her thighs. It was going to leave her with something like rug burn between her thighs, if he kept up with it for much longer.

If there had ever been a worry that he would somehow not like what he would see, that thought had been shattered as she felt what she realized was a stroking, soft entrance with a finger into the very place John had been lavishing with his tongue. Again, Janis answered this with a gurgling, broken noise as her hands reached down, grabbed onto his hair. The sensation, of one of his fingers sliding into her, left Janis wondering what he did think of what he was feeling.

And then John answered that thought for her, as he let out a long, throaty moan and said, “How can you feel so good?

At first all she could think of was, where did this wet dream of a man come from?, then she realized that she was going to cum. In a panic, she clutched his hair hard, hearing him make a surprised groan. As she met his eyes with her own, she said, “John, I need you to—” it was her turn to lose her train of thought. Finally she refocused, said, “I want you to fuck me.”

Creativity was not Janis' strong suit, she discovered, when she wanted to see John's naked body.

His mouth hung open as he stared at her. In the shadow that the overhead light cast on him, which was blocked by the back of his head, Janis could only imagine the expression in his eyes. Then he, blessedly, stood up and undid his pants. As he pulled his pants down, Janis could see his boxer briefs, the color of which was, ridiculously, a decadent and lascivious crimson. She realized she could see something in the fabric of his boxer briefs against one of his thighs. Oh, god, she thought, he might kill me after all .

She had played with many a girl post-op, including the kind who had toys of all shapes and sizes to play with. But she still hadn’t tried the kind out that was attached to a living boy. And this one looked like it might pose an interesting dilemma for her.

John waved at her, getting her attention away from his groin. When he spoke, his voice sounded husked, thick. “Hey—Jainie? Is this going to be okay, I’m going to—you know—take these off, and we can’t go back.” He awkwardly reach a hand behind his head, scratching at the nape of his neck.

What? There was a point of return still, even after he had face fucked her pussy?

Well, she couldn’t have that .

Janis reached back, undoing the clasp of her bra in a practiced motion that thankfully left her with the hook bindings of her bra coming off without her needing to scramble to get them loose for once. As she took the bra straps off, she looked over at her near-naked partner, letting one of her eyebrows cock expectantly. “Well? I’m feeling awful exposed here. I don’t want to be the only person here with that cold recycled air on my tits and cunt. Not that you have the latter,” she added helpfully.

Yes, it was vulgar, but she could also tell that it was exactly what was needed to get John to slide the elastic of his underwear down his legs. As he bent down to awkwardly take the underwear off of his ankle, Janis got an eyeful of what she had felt earlier.

When he looked up at her, John’s eyebrows creased as though he saw something in her expression. Then he looked embarrassed. “What—don’t like something you see, or—”

Janis, almost angrily, silenced him. She stared another eyeful of him, knowing she couldn’t see this older John Bradford naked for the first time ever again. Her first thought: I wish I was the first one to give head.

Impressive? Well, yes. Actually, John’s cock was bigger than would have fit his frame, not grotesquely so. And he was shaped like someone had built him out of a sex toy, stiff, straight, thick . And it happened to be pointed straight at her. The rest of him was similarly well shaped, even beautiful. What right did a man his age have to be downright chiseled?

“What is it,” John finally asked, fairly concerned by the abject staring Janis was doing, but apparently deaf to the cartoon wolf manner she was staring at his naked body. “something wrong?”

“Ohh, boy, oh, if this isn’t right, I don’t even know what values Humanity is supposed to have.” She beckoned to John, happy she did look at his face, or else she would have missed that beautiful look of relief on it.

John climbed onto the bed as he arched over her, gently lifting one of her legs up, lining himself up against her with his other hand. He came close to her face, seemingly not able to resist taking another kiss, which Janis hungrily returned. The taste of herself on his mouth was an aphrodisiac, left her wishing she could lick the taste off of him. She almost forgot about the big cockhead rubbing at her.

His smell coiled around her, enclosing her as much as his body bore down, deliciously, on top of her. He smelled like himself, perhaps after ten minutes of sparring, as well as her own smell, which still clung to his mouth and chin. He wasn't ever the type of guy who used cologne or one of those strong-smelling soaps. If anything, the man seemed to smell even more decadently delicious with some sweat on his strong body.

He breathed hard, finally pulling away from their kisses until he dropped his head next to hers. Janis reached a hand around, ran her fingers down his back. Reveled in the way he let out a resounding groan, shivered.

She said, “You do know—you’re gonna be the first man I’m going to have inside of me?”

John let out an audible gasp, and she felt him jerk until an achingly delicious, teasing hint of his cock slipped inside of her, only for him to pull back.

Against her ear, John said, “You never... but I thought—you were gone, like this, for years—”

Janis felt a smile on her mouth, agonized by pleasure and the promise of yet more to come. “Guess I was waiting for Mr. Right? Or, Mr. Fuck Me Hard?” When John let out a long, lush groan that Janis swore she could feel all the way down to her over-excited clit, she reached around to his back with her other hand and pushed. “I think I waited long enough to see if I can take a real stress test—

Whatever she was about to say was choked in her throat as John pressed forward, started entering her.

Janis cried out, throwing her head back. She had never been so ready for insertion, for the feeling of aching, filling pressure. And it was with a part of John, unbelievably fuckable John .

She was relieved when he didn’t ask her if he had hurt her. Although as he started to fill her more and more, Janis realized now, more than ever, that she had been built tighter and smaller than someone who had been born with the parts she had installed. And, it seemed her partner wasn’t wholly oblivious to what was happening.

He was breathing as if she was literally crushing him, and if not for how he dipped and rocked inside of her, Janis could believe she was hurting him.

If Janis was afraid she was crushing his cock into a diamond, she was alleviated of any fears that she was hurting him when he let out a choked cry and groaned, “I’m going to get addicted to this!”

They clung to each other like they were afraid of slipping apart, gasping and moaning softly, occasionally breaking to kiss each other, as if to reaffirm some bond, something perhaps even sacred beyond the profane way their bodies moved together. By the time they had locked into a more or less steady rhythm, Janis could feel her grip on the situation become torn away, clutching back at him and moving in this strange dance she was sharing with John Bradford.

She reached a hand between them, rubbed herself until she felt like she was in her own lusty heaven.

Then something, as she felt the rippling relief of the pressure building, told her it was only polite to tell him that she was cumming, worried that she could do actual harm to his tool when she clenched him.

Maybe Janis had at least a little to worry about, as she felt her body thrown into sensations the likes of which she had never before experienced rock its way through her. As the waves of pleasure started to die down, she thought the well-endowed man on top of her was going to die.

As she regained enough of the ability to think, she saw that John had slammed his eyes shut and was gritting his teeth. She could feel him truly fucking her with abandon, slamming into her as far as he could go until they were conjoined, then pulling almost all of the way out to slam back in.

And then she felt his pace grow more uneven until she could feel him seem to become even harder inside of her.

With a cry, Janis said, “Cum in me, John!”

Chapter Text

Janis spoke, splayed back on his bed, a wide grin spread across her face, her eyes closed. “Decades since I last smoked, Bambi, but I hate to think of the things I’d do for one.” Her voice was deliciously husky, perhaps more than a little fried from her hoarse moaning.

John stood between her legs where they had ended up, watched her breathe as she laid on her back. It felt as though he was in a trance.

She was gorgeous all over, to say nothing of how she tasted, all pale and with a light network of blue veins running through her wrists, a subtle few in her lush handfuls of breasts. Her nipples were a shocking pink, no longer hard pyramids atop of her body as she moved violently against him. He still wanted to taste those, even if his body told him that John wasn’t a young man anymore and couldn’t follow up with giving her breasts the kisses he’d long wanted to give them so soon after he had come.

Her lips started to fall out of the grin, slipping into a relaxed expression. John thought that she was falling asleep there with him still inside of her. But surprising him, she said, “I’ll settle for a shower. I’m a sucker for real tender aftercare,” she finally turned, looked at him with one of her yellow eyes cracked open. “FYI, just in case you’re looking for tips on how to make sure I never want to leave you alone.”

It would have been an overstatement to say that it took John a lot to not make an embarrassment out of himself when she said that. He was almost intoxicated by the implications of that seemingly throw-away phrase, too drawn in, in fact, to tell her that saying that she loved aftercare was surely redundant.

When they eventually got up, John wished he had thought to pick her up and carry her to his bathroom, like he had weeks ago in that hermetic suit. He settled for letting himself wrap an arm around her back, feeling the satin lushness of her skin and the lovely weight of her slender frame against him.

Not for the first time, John wished he was at least a decade younger himself, had something extraordinary about him that he could offer her. He was scarred, limped when he walked, prone to natural frowns, antisocial in many ways. And definitely shorter than her. What the hell reason did someone like her have with coming into his room and offering him everything he had ever wanted?

For the first time in what might have been hours, he was able to push thoughts like that aside as they piled into the bathroom. John watched as her took the lead into the shower, watching Janis’ nude body as she moved. It went without saying, but someone as far as he was from his twenties wasn’t about to get ready to go so soon after having an orgasm.

It was a relief, though, that John was still more than capable of appreciating a beautiful body without the need of an overactive libido. It could help, if he needed to make her understand that he wasn't just some pervert. Or so he thought.

As Janis turned the water on and turned to welcome him in after her, John was completely transfixed by her pale, slender body under the shower’s water. He saw the playful smirk on her face as she seemed to look down at his waist.

John didn’t need to reach down to realize that he was getting more than a little hard again, already.

“Seems like you don’t know when to stop,” she remarked, biting her still thick, rosy lower lip.

John was bemused by this; he had not felt this ready so quickly in years after he had already had sex for as long as they had. Although, come to think of that, when was the last time he had had sex?

Luckily John was more interested in feeling her soft, wet body against his, as opposed to trying to see if he could put himself into a coma. And at first he tried to behave himself in the shower, lathering up a loofah for them to share as the stunning, tall woman lathered his hair with shampoo. The little shows of affection meant more to John almost than the sex they had shared, made him feel beloved, welcomed.

It also happened to put him at nearly eye level with those breasts of hers that he had gotten transfixed on before.

Fighting off the urge to ask her if it was alright to touch her—figuring she was more likely to be annoyed at what sounded like his continued fear of offending or hurting her—John reached forward, ran his hand along the full, lush weight of one, then he switched hands with the soapy loofah, running a sudsy hand against her pale flesh, those rapidly hardening pink nipples.

Janis moaned, and at first John worried that he was hurting her somehow. A glance up revealed the same look of ecstasy on her face that he had seen when he had eaten her out. So he simply made sure his hands were good and coated in soap before he dropped the loofah and ran his hands down her chest, sliding down her abdomen.

Her smooth, wet skin was a world beyond his hairy, sturdy body. She was so slender that he thought that she could break at his touch. It made her lush moaning all the more surprising. Erotic.

He washed her, taking joy in feeling her move, revealing more of herself to him to clean. She turned her back and John was entranced at first by the sight of her birdwing-like shoulder blades, then his gaze fell to the subtle curving of the small of her back and hips into her ass. He washed all of it as tenderly as he could while still luxuriating in the feel of her flesh. She made soft, appreciative sounds every once in a while, and it emboldened him to freshly lather his hands and cup his fingers between her legs, running a soapy duet of index and middle fingers between her legs, reaching forward until he was sliding against her vulva. Soft, delicate, John caressed her with his fingers until she softly parted.

John was hardly aware of what he was doing; being this forward and teasing was never in his wheelhouse. He had always told whomever he slept with that he just wasn’t the guy for being adventurous—or really nailing the emotional part of that whole “intimacy” thing. If he had ever told Janis that, then she would have been very confused. She fell back against her once Second in Command, letting him gently suds up her soft, seductive body.

John didn’t realize his breathing had sped up until Janis ducked her head further back, her black, long hair gliding over his wet neck. Softly, she said, “I can hear you back there. You doing alright?”

He let out a long, heavy breath. “More than alright.” I feel like I’m in heaven. But wouldn’t that be a treat, collapsing and dying as he stroked his Commanding Officer’s naked, wet body?

He had been stroking at the entrance of her soft, welcoming pussy when she whispered, “Now it’s only fair, John, to share your toys.”

At first he didn’t know what she meant. As she abruptly pulled away from him, he could see his erection bobbing against her leg. He winced in embarrassment, the lower half of his body blooming with heat, feeling like a horny teenage boy. Or like his penis was an unwelcome intruder as he tried to explore her lovely, perfect body.

Janis turned around, then bent down. Everything felt like it went still as John thought that she was about to go down on him. Then she stood back up, resurfacing as she was covered in shower water, holding the forgotten loofah. John would have thought that it was just his mind in the gutter, if not for the grin that stretched on Janis’ lips.

“Alright,” she said in that honey-sweet voice. “I think it’s time I got to grope you.”

John shivered, trying to suppress an outward show of fear. How in the hell would she find him anywhere near as appealing as he found her? Still, he didn’t fight as she re-applied soap to the loofah, then John remembered that she had done him the kindness of shampooing him. He reached over, grabbed the shampoo bottle and squirted a good portion in the center of his palm, deciding to be bold and go for it.

Janis lowered her head, and before John could start to lather her hair she surprised him by ducking close to him, kissing him. John let out a surprised noise as though it had been trapped in the back of his throat and reached over, grabbing onto the back of her neck to push her against him. Like before, kissing Janis felt like it made everything in his mind disappear, lit his body on fire with a desire that shook him to his core.

When she pulled away, John heard her chuckle. “I think you ended up putting all of that on the back of my neck.”

John grabbed more shampoo and before he could start massaging it into her long black hair, he felt her hands on his chest, against the sparse hair that grew there. Her fingers teased, gliding over his surprisingly sensitized nipples. He closed his eyes, letting his breath hiss out from in between his clenched teeth. Finally he got the nerve to open his eyes and he saw that Janis was no longer smiling.

Instead, the woman seemed to be concentrating, taking in his body as she took her time washing his chest and shoulders. Thankfully, John remembered that he was going to wash her hair. Having something for his hands to do did. Something to stall the strange experience of being stroked by her soft hands.

He wasn't used to a woman wanting to touch him, at least, beyond his dick.

It wasn’t so strange that it stopped his erection from growing; to the contrary, every time her hands danced in a swirl across his chest, John thought that he might burst from how full his dick felt with blood. But that touch was just the start, as her hands drifted lower, soaping his abdomen. It felt like his stomach could do nothing but tremble and he stood, frozen, caught between an arousal that felt like it had grown so heavy inside of him that he could hardly tolerate it as well as shock at the turn of events.

At any moment John expected that Janis would touch him and John didn’t know what he would do. As she took her time leisurely washing his stomach, he started to think that she wouldn’t touch him there, on the offending part of him that seemed now to have a mind all its own as it bobbed, hit whatever part of her body she glanced past him with. Finally, as one of her hands casually slid down, traversing the length of his dick, John groaned and leaned into her hand instinctively.

He thought he heard her make a sound—a hiss or a groan—then before he knew it, she was touching him in the area surrounding his heavy, heavy penis but not doing more than a glancing touch with her hands.

John let out a choked cry, wincing. “I feel like I’m going to explode.”

Janis didn’t react to that, seemingly busy as she washed him. Softly, she ordered him, “Turn around,” then she began to wash his back.

And then she started to tease his ass with her hands and the gentle, rough graze of the loofah. John was surprised but he allowed her hands, fingers to do what they wanted. Almost cheered the adventurous, slippery journey of her fingertips as they did slow circles around the rim of his hole.

Sometime later they kissed again and John got a good handful of whatever part of Janis’ body he could have ever wanted, wanting to reward her groping washing. But aside from that seemingly innocent touch, Janis didn’t indicate that she was overly aware of how John was obviously feeling. He didn't know whether he would have more welcomed her touch on his overfilled dick or letting her play his ass. It was a foregone conclusion to him that both were hers, if she wanted either.

As they dried each other off, John considered his options with dealing with his unrequited lust as he walked back into his room, leaving Janis in the bathroom to finish toweling her hair off. As he looked at the bed—at the spot where he would forever remember the feeling of being with the Commander—John wondered if he could get her to lay down with him, if not for the night then at least for the nap. The thought of falling asleep with the tall bombshell felt like another fantasy that he never would have the guts to say aloud, but wished for, deeply.

He didn’t hear her walking behind him, wasn’t aware of Janis’ presence until he felt a hand reaching around his chest, motioning for him to turn around. Sucking in a heavy breath, John turned to face Janis, emboldened by her hands as they searched along his body anew. No longer held back by the pretense that she was helping him get clean.

Her eyes were bright, wide pools of blond gold, honey lit with the sun’s rays, so full of a genuine desire that it shook John to his soul.

John found his voice, asked her, “What do you want to do now?”

Janis leaned in close, close enough to kiss him. She said, “I was wanting to repay you for something you did for me earlier.”

John didn’t know what she meant at first. As he felt one of her hands discover his only slightly softened dick, sliding it in her palm, he watched as the woman sank to her knees in front of him. John felt his earlier eagerness return, his mouth hanging open in shock as he watched her cup him in her hands, then lean forward to envelop him with her mouth.

He had to choke back a whimper of pleasure when she paused, drawing off of him to suck her index and middle fingers into her mouth then to slather her tongue against those digits, her eyes caught on his. Surely his eyes were as wide as they could go. He felt, watched as she resumed sucking, the pleasure of that alone so great he couldn't stop from moaning, as her hand slid between his ass cheeks.

That's when John had no choice other than to come to the conclusion that he wasn't just a lovesick puppy for Janis. He was as perverted, lusting for her, as a man could be for a woman he had waited decades for.

 

Janis woke up on her side, unapologetically laying with her once-Lieutenant curled up against her back. Like everything she had experienced with John since she had come into his room, she found that she enjoyed this experience with him. Maybe too much, to the point where it could be dangerous to both of them.

Once the mentor to the man who was still asleep, Janis felt an uncomfortable amount of responsibility for him. Admittedly with his dick in her mouth and playing his ass like it was her instrument, Janis had found that the same thought in the back of her mind had transformed into something exceptionally obscene and dirty. But now, awake in the darkness of his private quarters, Janis had to wonder if the promise of this relationship was a good thing or a bad thing.

She had told herself, as Janis had sat in the room earlier, waiting for him to return, that she wanted to do this, to see just how far John was willing to push it. To see how deeply his apparent feelings towards her ran.

Would this be construed as a backfire? The sane part of Janis said that this was a complete one-eighty, if she had meant to try to put John on the correct path—away from her. To shock him into realizing he was propositioning his trans best friend. Someone who might as well have been his den mother, at least once upon a time.

The part that was rendered brutally insane from pleasure and shock at the turn of events was deliriously happy. And it wasn’t just because the tender but rough fucking felt like it satiated something that she hadn’t even been aware had been a deep seated need. Although Janis didn’t consider herself particularly foolish, and a fool was someone who threw a good lay like John out.

And, oh, he felt so good, so right nestled against her back, naked as though he had come out of her fantasies.

But even she had to think about the weight—the worth—of personal happiness, measured against the needs of the Initiative. Thinking about XCOM at a moment like this felt like a horrible torture. Wasn’t she allowed to be happy, surviving a certain death? Didn’t this make John happy, too?

The problem was that Janis knew exactly what the right answer was. With every moment that passed that she could feel his heat, his presence on her back, Janis knew that she was short changing not only XCOM, but the potential future of the man who still slept against her back. She was the wrong person to be in possession of either wonderful, rare things as the power to make decisions in a rebellion, and the emotions of a strong, beautiful person like John Bradford.

 

When John awoke, it felt like a terrible sickness that had overwhelmed him had broken. In the near darkness, he felt a satiation that he didn’t know if he had ever before felt. But, quickly, he realized that he was alone in bed.

Sitting up with some of the blanket still draped over his knees, John tried at first to see if he could find Janis in the near darkness of his room. When he realized he couldn’t see anything, John hesitantly asked, “Janie?” When she didn’t call back to him, he started to get out of bed.

He was ashamed to think it, but it certainly felt like he had been left alone.

Chapter Text

The next time John saw her, the woman was leaning over a display module on the Bridge. He could have said what the module was, unerringly, if he had been in the right state of mind. After all, once they had successfully stolen the Avenger, he had made it a point to remember everything to do with the currently flightless bird. He had wanted to know how everything worked, short of the tech that Shen and Tygan used, so that he could teach it all to Janis.

As he watched her, realized that the woman was talking to Bridge personnel with her almost trademark casual demeanor, John felt his chest constrict. He was overwhelmed by the feeling that his knowledge wouldn’t be needed.

John walked across the room, mentally checking to make sure he was outwardly appearing as if he were doing nothing but approaching his superior. As he walked closer, one of the members of personnel walked in front of him, then swooped around to take his place at Janis’ side. He could hear the man murmuring a question to her and watched as Janis answered it easily, gesticulating warmly with her hands.

John stopped mid step as though he had hit a force field. Why did he get the feeling that this was as close as he deserved to get to her? He roughly pushed the uneasy thought from his mind. Still, he stood back as Janis spoke to some of the personnel, both answering and asking questions. After a minute or so, as though those around her could sense that they weren’t wanted in the vicinity, they seemed to disperse, walking more than far enough away for John to feel as though he could get enough space for a semi private conversation.

As he approached, Janis remarked, without looking up at him, “Been wondering when you’d wake up.”

All in a moment the unease that John felt seemed to disappear. With an easy smile on a face that never used to be able to support one well, John walked around her, a feeling in his chest that felt like it might expand, then burst at any given moment. “Commander.” He had meant to call her Janie, low under his breath so that no one else could hear it but her, but something stopped him, had him instead call her her seemingly permanent title.

As he stood, facing her at her side, John took a moment to try to store away in his memories the way she looked. A few strands of errant black hair had come loose from the ponytail she had put it up in, and the always slightly ghoulish light on the Bridge seemed to bathe her pale skin in an ethereal glow. Her golden eyes were animated, full of curiosity and planning. Something that seemed to never leave her in as long as John had known her.

“Figured there’d be one way to lure you out onto the Bridge,” Janis explained, leaning back as she stood up straight, then turning to look back at the console she had been leaning on. “and I was hoping I could find out how much of this place you already know about. I found out you know almost everything there is to know about how this place operates. Which is good; I have a major gap in knowledge about this stuff, especially compared to you.”

John nodded, a smile that he could not suppress growing across his face as though it had never left. “Good to hear.” it felt like he itched with things that he wanted to say. Needed said.

She paused, as though Janis wanted to tell him something. He almost pushed her to tell him what was on her mind when she leaned in closer to him by a few precious, conspiratorial inches, said, “We have a few days till this comes back. You’re good enough at all of this, we’ll get caught up by that time, no sweat.” Before he could say anything to her, Janis stepped away, telling him, “I have a lot to tell the Engineers, or let them tell me. We’re gonna talk later, alright?” She winked, nodded slightly.

She never let John say anything in response, already headed out of the Bridge.

He watched her leave, the doors shutting automatically behind her, a barrier between them. Too late did John realize that he hadn’t been able to tell her anything, let alone ask her of what she thought of last night.

Perhaps he was imagining it, but everyone on the bridge seemed to be looking at him from the corners of their eyes. Did he look different , somehow?



Janis slipped her hand underneath the modified GREMLIN, still unable to believe Shen’s promise that the little machine was lighter than a book. Not a paperback, mind you, but as she lifted it up she had to suppress a gasp.

“There’s no way this thing can—what did you say you wanted these to do?”

Behind her back, Janis missed the smile that formed on the young woman’s face. “Hacking. Healing. Target Immobilization. You name it.”

“But— how ?”

Shen came up next to her, took the shutoff GREMLIN from Janis’ hands. “Hey, that sounds an awful lot like doubt. I thought you said you were going to keep an open mind? If you’re not, just do that when you’re talking to Tygan.”

“You think this can take the place of immobilizing subjects up close and personal?”

Shen seemed to relax, her lips catching in an almost devious grin. “Oh, I think that’ll be the least of what I can do with one of these, once I figure out how to do it. For now, though, I don’t even know if I have a good enough model to share with the soldiers.”

“That’s a pity—”

Whatever Janis had been about to say was cut off with the soft sound of someone hitting the doorway with their knuckles. Both women turned around to see John standing there, an undeniably awkward look on his face. He said, “I was hoping I could talk to Ja—the Commander.”

Again, a feeling of unease, the first time she felt it when he had called her by that title, came up Janis’ spine. Nevertheless, she looked over at Shen, about to say something when the other woman spoke, her head turned to look at John.

“And here I was thinking you were coming to talk to me .” The slight, teasing humor in her voice went over the intruder’s head.

John glanced over at Shen for a moment before his gaze re-settled on Janis. “Is this a good time?”

What better time for this talk than now ? “Sure, John.” She turned, giving Shen an apologetic look before she walked out into the hallway after the man.

She asked him what he wanted, but instead, the man directed her to follow him. Curious, Janis did, letting him lead her to a small alcove in the hallway. She turned into the small space and found herself face to face, alone, with John for the first time since she had left that morning.

John looked vaguely uncomfortable, his hands shoved into his pockets. He even seemed to find it uncomfortable to look her in the eyes, but he still did it nevertheless. “I was hoping—” he cleared his throat, his eyes dancing away from hers. “Wondering when we’d talk about this.”

When we would talk about this? Janis wanted to ask him what he thought this conversation was or would be. Instead, she said, “I wanted you to have some time and space first.”

John’s brow creased as his eyes returned to hers, staring deeply. “Why would I need any of those things?” There it was in John’s voice, perhaps unconscious. A biting, snapping annoyance, or at least very close to it.

Fighting the urge to blush, Janis rose a hand out as if she meant to stop the ensuing rush of emotions and words to come. “I needed to get my head clear, I thought—figured—the same could be said of you.”

John’s eyes seemed to darken until Janis could have been mistaken to ever think that they were brown and not black. “I don’t need space, don’t need to… to clear my head ,” John threw an arm out, nothing more than a passionate gesture, one that he likely didn’t think anything of, meant no threat by. Nevertheless it drew Janis’ attention, prepared as she had been all morning for this eventual confrontation. “I know what I am. How I feel.”

Her heart leaped in her throat, where it remained, stuck, as she spoke half truths. “And we can talk about this kind of thing, later.” She didn’t blink, stared deeply into John’s maelstrom-like eyes until he met her gaze. He was breathing hard, like he had just been running the gamut down in the training room. She wished she didn’t understand that this was bound to happen, had read this eventuality in his body even as he laid in calm repose that morning when she had left him.

Her worst fears, she thought, were coming true. Janis had damaged their relationship beyond repair, all because she could not resist being with someone who, at least once, had said he loved her.

She couldn’t believe it herself when she said the words: “For now, I thought we could agree on one thing. XCOM comes first.” Janis saw it there, in his eyes. It didn’t calm him, nowhere close, but that acronym seemed to work on him as though it had been an ingrained command. “I mean it, I’m not saying no to anything, anything between us. Just… not right now.” She felt her lips draw in, tight. “And I’m not—I’m not saying no because I didn’t like—that is—” God fucking damn it , why was it that all of the times she had had to say good bye to the women who she had fucked been easy, compared to this?

What had given her the cracked idea that she could have sex—her first time with a man—with the one man that she was supposed to be protective over? And that there wouldn’t be any fallout from it?

It was her turn to awkwardly clear her throat. Finally, she said, “I think we should put this on ice. At least until we’re up in the air.” Let John get the good sense he always had back.

To the contrary, the man’s face revealed a mind that was at war with itself. Disbelief, shock, anger?—it was hard, almost impossible for Janis to figure out what he was feeling. In many ways, this wasn’t the young man she watched grow from a sullen bully into a respectable, reliable man she had been proud to call her second hand. He was nearly a stranger.

Why, in more ways than one, Janis found him so deeply fascinating.

More than enough reason for her to turn and walk away before he had a chance of saying, doing, anything that both would later regret.



The whole thing was dicey. A part of her had thought that John would somehow be ready as soon as she told him what she thought of where their relationship could go. Even when that didn’t go the way she had been hoping, it was why she gave him a day to himself, some time to recuperate following the last conversation they had had. She figured, after all, somewhere in him had to still be the man who would have followed her to hell and back without a word to the contrary. So it hurt, to see that the man did indeed have no intention of showing up to this meeting.

Standing in the room with both of the heads of the differing departments, it took a lot for Janis to not want to blush a bright red in embarrassment. Finally the silence that had grown in the room was broken by Tygan.

“We need to get a move on, Commander,” he said. “We have a limited window with which to prepare for our pivotal first week.”

Janis took in a deep breath and considered her options.

John had gotten the summons, she was given a vocal receipt from the apologetic woman who had gone to tell him that he was to show up to this meeting. The problem was that this was not the kind of meeting they could have without the pivotal last person in it. She knew John was likely more than upset with her—the look she had seen on his face before she had left had more than told her that—but that he would ignore a direct summons from her left her more than angry. Janis was completely blindsided by the novel feeling, of John Bradford not obeying her.

It was like they were back to square one. And she couldn’t shake the feeling that it was her fault. It would have been impossible for what she was feeling to not show on her face.

It was Shen who spoke up, pity—enragingly—in her voice. “Don’t worry, I can go. Bring a guard with me, if I have to—”

Janis, who had been standing with her hand on the table, turned around, away from the two pitying department heads. “No, you stay here, I’ll get him on my own.”

Before either could argue with her, Janis walked out of the room, in a beeline for the very same room she had been a more than willing visitor to just two days ago. She didn’t bother to knock, although she knew for sure this time that the man was inside. Gone was any propriety, any lingering feeling she had for this man as her oldest, dearest friend. As she used her skeleton keycard to get inside, Janis quickly discovered the man in question sat on a chair, facing the wall to the left of the door.

He was immediately, obviously, shocked by her sudden appearance. He jumped in his seat, eyes wide with surprise, mouth fallen open. As soon as the door closed behind her, he said, “Commander—”

Janis rose a hand up to silence him, sure that she was shaking with rage, hoping that it did not show in her hand. “Bradford, you will accompany me to the meeting you were told began fifteen minutes ago or you will face a tribunal of me, Shen, and Tygan. And let me tell you: Richard is already not the biggest fan of you, following your recent behavior, and if you think that Lily likes you, I have news for you— he loves XCOM more.” She took a steadying breath in, knew that her rage was apparent on her face.

How could she not be angry? After everything she had shared with this man, not just that night but all through the years they spent together, she thought that he respected her. Respected the organization.

She had counted on throwing John off balance but had not counted on him getting up from his seat and walking the distance between them quicker than she would have hoped for. Soon she was standing in front of her old once-Second in Command, every inch of him looking like he was ready to fight.

Some things in life were true: the height on a person really had no effect on the impression they gave off. At that moment, John looked like the embodiment of every minute he worked out, every injury inflicted on his body and soul, his face was an accurate representation of exactly what he was feeling. Which was pissed off.

Unfortunately there was another impression, a definite memory, which Janis could not scratch out of her head even in that moment. Of just how strong she knew he was when he decided to put that body to good use.

“Janie, you should know better than to doubt my allegiance to not only XCOM, but to you. Don’t need to be at a meeting to know how to do my job, so if the only reason you came in here is to chastise me then you can just walk out the way you came.”

Janis stared at the man, too astonished at first to react. Thankfully that moment passed. “I think you should try listening to yourself for a change. You hold a key position here, for chrissakes. It’s time you started acting like it.”

That did nothing to calm the man down. “I don’t care who you are, not going to be threatened—not by someone who wasn’t there when we needed you most, when I needed you,” there was no time to reflect on what he said as he launched into his next diatribe. “rest assured that when it’s time to fight back at ADVENT that I’m going to hit with every bit of fire I have in me.”

And, judging by the fire she saw in his eyes, it wasn’t going to be an inconsequential one.

That promise—in spite of the fact that Janis was sure she could smell the telltale fumes of alcohol on his breath—calmed her down. Not totally, but enough to make her feel like her head was secured back on her shoulders.  “That’s right, that’s why we need you to come and participate. We need you, but we need you… straight.” she looked at him meaningfully.

Unfortunately in his state, John either couldn’t or just wouldn’t catch her meaning. His brows knitted tight, and he stared at her. His voice lowered, sounding dangerous. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Janis clenched her eyes shut. “Let’s not do this, John. Please, you have to stop with the drinking—”

“I don’t have to stop a damn thing. Last time I checked, a superior doesn’t have any right to tell their underling what the hell they have the right to do with their free time.”

She meant to tell him that what he did, as long as it was something destructive like his drinking, was her business. If not as a Commander, then as a lifelong friend.

Instead, Janis felt herself saying, “That’s why I wanted you to come to the meeting. As of today, you don’t need to worry about any position I have over you.” She turned, started to walk out, only found the strength to look at the shocked face John was giving her for a moment as she added, “I’m making it official: I have no intention of taking the role of Command. And I expect you to take that role in my stead.”



“Well, that wasn’t very nice.”

Janis felt her jaw setting into a tight line on her face. She had always fantasized about what kind of a woman she’d be, if ever she got the chance to live as one. Although she might have sheepishly told someone that being “nice” was one thing she would have wanted, in all honesty it was something she wouldn’t have cared about if she tried. She hadn’t lived as a male imposter for over thirty years and more than enough change as someone that could be described as “nice”. Why would the transformation into a woman’s body leave her with a character trait she had never been able to express previously?

But, well, even Janis had to admit that the voice’s owner, Jane Kelly, wasn’t wrong. Even by her standards leaving John to process that information had been really cruel.

They had gotten the story out of her in gradual pieces. Heartless, really, refusing to let Janis sit and stew in her room—or, rather, what was for the moment her room—and just smother herself in depression for the night. Sat in the bar sandwiched between Jane and Lily Shen, Janis found that the old adage, her usual standby—that it was for someone else’s own good—dried up in her throat before she could say it aloud. Instead she just sighed and stuffed a handful of bar nuts into her mouth and considered herself lucky in the fact that John hadn’t—yet—made an appearance in the bar.

This time it was Lily’s turn to remark, saying, “You know, I’m no biologist, but I’d hesitate before I put any of those in my mouth.”

Instead of laughing, Janis stared at the back wall of the bar, at the collected artifacts, and said, “We don’t have very long until we’re sending people out on their first mission.” Worry, over the impending, official resurrection of the XCOM Initiative, was more than enough of something to worry over. Adding to that the fear of the mental state of the de facto soon to be Commander. At least, he would be, unless he found some way to royally fuck it up.

And, a bitter thought crossing Janis' mind said, John had always been a person who was exceptional at exceeding expectations

Lily spoke up, leaning back in her stool. “Yeah, I know we’re all supposed to be scared and worried. To be honest, I’ve been preparing for this day since dad told me about the original XCOM. I’m ready to go yesterday.” She grinned, the smile fitting her face better than any expression Janis had ever seen her wear.

Janis mirrored Lily’s relaxed pose, washing down the taste of the nuts with the alcoholic seltzer. Her drinking habits had always been the girliest thing about her, and once upon a time it was a preference she used to hide while in group events. “I wish I had your enthusiasm could rub off on me.”

“About that,” Kelly spoke up. “I was wondering—what’s your plan, if it’s not as the Commander?”

Janis took a thoughtful drink out of her tall glass of pink, tart seltzer, then said, “I figure John’ll need all the help he can get till he gets on his feet.” She looked at the woman, mildly surprised to see the concern on the woman’s face. “Hey, don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere anytime soon.”

Lily leaned on the bar on an elbow and looked at both women, a soft smile on her mouth. “So, speaking of him —”

Janis sighed and rested a hand on her forehead. “All I ever seem to talk about nowadays.”

“Hey,” Kelly asked. “what do you expect? I mean, really?”

Janis thought about that for a second, struggling to figure out the meaning behind her words. Did she mean because of the importance John held in the Initiative? Was it because of this mild drama that became of Janis trying to quietly step down from the role that had been foisted on her two decades after she effectively lost it? Or could it be something that she thought she was hiding better than she might have been...

She groaned. “You know, not everything between us has to be fodder for the weird bet you guys have set up.”

They were too quiet for a moment too long, otherwise their shared murmurs of denial, of knowing exactly what she was talking about, might have been mildly believable. It was Lily who said, “I normally make a habit of staying out of peoples’ business—”

“Could have fooled me.”

“But there’s not much happening right now. Take whatever entertainment we can find. Especially the kind that doesn’t involve people dying. Or our planet being in the control of an alien force that seems so unimaginably big compared to all of us that it’s hard to envision being able to survive fighting back. Let alone winning.”

Janis wanted to tell them that this weirdness with everyone was beyond what she was willing to imagine for too long. After all, Lily just said it: none of them knew, working in XCOM, if any of them would even survive for long enough to do real damage to ADVENT. Let alone actually live long enough to try to accomplish anything.

Like trying to mend an old relationship that she had stupidly lit the spark in, anew.

Janis said, “More the reason why no one should be obsessed with my personal life , of all things.” When both women were quiet, she found that she just felt bad about snapping at them.

To be honest, even the questions of what was going on in the relationship she and John shared was something that didn’t bother her. When the man himself had made it too clear about how he felt for her, her major concern for their privacy had been settled. Still, who would have thought that the young man who had struggled with expressing his emotions to his first real friend and confidant would end up unceremoniously doing everything short of yelling them out atop one of the canyons outside now?

After all, her first issue had been damaging his reputation from being with someone like her.

That thought made her wince. Trying to push away the feeling that she wasn’t a woman, like the two who sat around her, was still a mental barrier that Janis feared she would never get over. It was so real, in spite of years of therapy and endless self-affirmations, that it had been no small part of the reason why she had so stupidly launched herself at John the way she did. She had made her own bet to herself: that there was no way that John was actually attracted to her. She could prove it in the oldest, crudest way possible. And then she could have reliable Johnny back. And it had, soundly, blown up, right in front of her face.

Just thinking about it all made her wish for something stronger to drink, or a whole hell of a lot more of her hard seltzers. And for the time being, the promise of the dark room waiting for her was too much to ignore.

Pushing her seat back, Janis got to her feet, shoving her hands in the pockets of her light jacket. “I think I need to sleep this off.” Lame excuse—it was hours till sundown.

Still, the last time Janis looked at either women she saw them exchanging a worried look but neither said anything, letting her walk out of the bar and back to her room.

The walk did do something, blessedly, for clearing her head. As she neared her room, the blinds behind the glass walls drawn, Janis resigned herself to a two part way of doing something about the malignant sadness that felt like a weight in the pit of her stomach. She had a minibar tucked in the corner, in that minibar was a small fridge with a little freezer, and in that freezer were a few pints of ice cream, most left over from her healing period. She meant to down at least a pint, then she would try to find some porn, or, barring that, she could play back memories of her last sexual encounter and jerk off. Then she would try to sleep.

With luck, she would be sleeping in her bed in an hour.

Then she realized that she might not be in for as easy an end to her night as she had been hoping for.

Janis opened the door to her room and realized that the blinds had obscured not the overhead light but rather the light of the floor lamp that sat next to one of the couches. At first she thought that she had just left the light on.

It was a dumb thought to have, as she rested a hand onto the closed door and tried to remember if she had left the light on. No sooner than her hand touched the door than she heard a voice call out to her from the darkened corner of the room.

“I figured it was my turn to show up unannounced, Commander.”

Chapter Text

Twenty Five Years Earlier

 

The last day she ever went by Jain had been her last day on the base. It was not by her choice.

It may have not been the last thing on her mind, but that day was also one that set in place the fate of John Bradford. Later, she thought that the person she left behind would, finally, get his chance to show what he was worth. After all, the man was strong, willful, and compassionate as she had trained him to be. And, she reasoned to herself, she was only holding him back from greatness.

Not that she was given a chance to say good-bye, even if she had wanted to. Jain got the news that she would have ten minutes to clear her things from her office and leave or else be escorted off of the premises by who was likely to be someone she had trained herself—maybe even John. She knew that it was construed this way to make damn sure her back was permanently turned against the place that had been a home for her for over a decade. Save, of course, for the time she spent on the "project" that had seen her doing little other than throwing three years of her life away in a strange land. Three precious years that she spent in the time since wishing she could earn back, spend on something more meaningful.

And now, when it was her turn to be bold and try to do something she wanted to do, Jain realized the truth of what she was to these people after everything. A misfit toy who had served its purpose and was now trying to start a personal rebellion that the politics of the time couldn’t stand for.

Humiliated wasn’t even the half of what she was feeling as she walked, carrying the box of what she could find in her office that was worth grabbing before she would never see the rest of it again. The sinking feeling, that she had left something behind, was something that took months to get over. Even then, certain feelings never really went away.

Once she was outside of the gates, the tears had started in earnest. There was no time to think about the fact that she said nothing in the way of a good-bye for anyone. Hell, no one she cared about remotely even knew that she was being effectively wiped out of the service because of her “indiscretion”. She might as well of been killed, along with over a decade she had spent mostly in the chainlink fence of the base. Almost another decade on top of that, trained to live as a cog in a large war machine.

What the hell was a cog supposed to be, when it had been torn out of a machine that had warped, broken it?

When she got to the duplex they had given her to live in for a good few months until she "found her footing"—a place conveniently located in skid row half an hour away from the base by car—Jain was deep in a sort of pain that left her spending most of that first day sitting in one of the dining chairs in the next-to-empty kitchenette. It was one of the rare pieces of furniture there was in the place, and it wobbled anytime she moved even a little bit in it.

The place reeked , smelled like the remnants of the fire that it had been badly repaired from. The outside of the house had never been fully repaired, and the hideous peek of baby blue material that had been used to patch the damage in the upper part of the walls looked like an unhealed scab. The memory of an old fire, and the combined nasal bouquet of the old filthy carpet, had a habit of killing any appetite she may have otherwise had. Would be a major reason for her almost extreme weight loss in the months to come.

For a brief moment, Janis found her old humor before the mood of the place suffocated it. Good luck to me, finding any chick who’d come in here.

She found herself counting the years of her life, fingernail dragging across the fabric of the thigh of her pants as though she were writing it out on paper. 

Three years on a pointless project, which she spent in some desert making sure the algebra of stupid, pointless war made some semibalance of sense. A handful of years, learning how to be a person of value, unlearning everything her filthy excuse for a father had taught her. Fifteen years—and then some—doing what she loved, whether it was mentoring young men and women or deciding stratagems for everything from budget concerns to defense planning. And this was her gold watch.

A remodeled meth lab and a gag order that she couldn't hope to break out of, unless she wanted to never work again in this country. Her homeland.

She was staring at the filthy uncovered window in the kitchenette as though the view of the wooden plank fence two feet from her window could give her some understanding. What she ended up doing was listening to her neighbor on the other side of the wall watching what sounded like that Republican news channel. It was the only sane reason why she would catch someone ending a sentence by saying, “...and I think we saw evidence of the good instincts the President has with this new bill.”

Burying her face in her hands at those words, Jain could feel the moment she lost hope. It was like a switch had been flicked in her head, taking her from the person who felt as though she had been submerged in a frozen lake to finally feeling the killing hypothermia biting through skin and muscle. Staring at the fence, Jain wondered what she would even do tomorrow. The regimen of being in the service had been a strange but welcome contrast to herself, bright, insane bird she was.

The suicidal thoughts were intrusive but subtle against her thoughts and mood, as though they were nothing more than the brush of a butterfly’s wings against her mind. In a way they were a comfort in a situation that would have otherwise felt like she was cattle being shoved down a chute.

At some point, though, even someone trapped in a maze of morbid thoughts had to pee.

Getting out of the chair and heading into the claustrophobic bathroom, where the voice of the blaring misinformation news network was all the louder through the ridiculously thin wall, Jain urinated into the off-white toilet. Still not having tucked herself away, as she passed by the poorly made bathroom mirror she paused and looked at herself.

She looked a fucking mess, a fitting addition to the neighborhood she had been unceremoniously dumped in. They had taken the uniforms she had gotten used to wearing until they were a second skin, left her with the street clothes she had. Currently she was wearing a shirt that she had won at a Trivia Night at the bar that was a short distance from the base, a worn white shirt with the words, “Trivia Games Winner”, written in dorky, once bright, 90's-riffic colors. It was old—much like her, she thought, bitterly—dating back when she used to do those things without Bradford as her friend.

The title of “winner” written on her chest equally might have been what drew her eyes to her reflection, but what drew her attention was the thing she was holding in her hand.

As though in a trance, Jain pulled her hand away from her penis then lifted the hem of the ridiculous shirt up, over her head. Balling it up in the crook of one of her arms, Jain stared at her flat, undeniably male chest. As she stared at herself—more accurately, at the body that she had been slowly trying to crawl herself out from for the past decade—she felt something besides shame, sadness.

Anger, visible in her reflection with the way she was breathing heavily, dragging in air so that it shook her frame, felt like it, at least for the moment, was a formidable antagonist to the creeping, deceitful feelings that inspired a self-immolation. She realized something, remembering why she had had no choice but to confront her superiors. The day that she had planned for a long time was coming up, a surgery that felt as far from elective as she could ever imagine. The first step towards finding who she was going to be for the rest of her life.

They had done more than take her past away. They had tainted a future for her that felt bright, shining. Clean. And they expected her to kill herself in this place. If not outright, then to bury herself into obsolescence quietly.

Uncomfortably since she was a teenager, Jain had started to show more and more of the strange and undoubtedly handsome attributes in her face and body frame that fit Arthur’s to a tee.

Of course on the man she had inherited the attributes from, everything had been corrupted, made ugly in some way. The easy, slightly wicked smile that her mouth had a habit of naturally forming felt downright evil whenever she had seen Arthur grin, probably at something in itself evil, wrong, his teeth tobacco stained, chipped. Her slender, straight posture had been ruined on Arthur, whose habit of slouching and love of overindulgence in alcohol left him with a perpetually bloated look. Near the end of the man’s life, Jain could remember too easily the blotched, broken network of veins the skin on his nose had, also a gift of his alcohol abuse. Otherwise, Jain knew that he might as well as been staring at a slight duplicate of Arthur’s face, with slightly more slender cheekbones, a sharper chin. There, the same curving of the man’s forehead, the same sharp blade of a nose. Even a similar, subtle dip of the cleft in her chin was a clear carry over from the dead man.

Staring at a man who looked uncomfortably too close to the father that she wanted to leave in the miserable, unmarked grave they had buried him in in a potter’s field, Jain realized one thing that was more powerful than her despair.

She couldn’t die in this body, in the bizarro, unfitting meat suit that never felt like it was hers.

 

It was months later from that rock bottom of a day, and Janis was sitting in the hospital’s day room, working on a crossword that she kept balanced on a knee. She hadn’t realized that the room had been gradually emptied of other people until she heard someone speak, and she knew it was directed at her.

“How goes the house hunting?”

Janis felt the pulse in her neck jump into high gear. Instead of looking at the speaker, sat in one of the plastic chairs on the far side of the room, she pretended to be gazing at the puzzle a moment longer before she turned, focused on making her body language look only slightly curious. 

How long had that man been there? She was shocked that she couldn’t recall. Was she so easily rendered placid by some time spent away from chain link, out of uniform?

Wearing one of those smiles she had resigned herself to weeks ago that she would never lose, Janis looked at the man in the suit. The one that she had assumed had been waiting in the room until it was his time to visit someone.

Now Janis could have kicked herself at missing the obvious Spook—a term that wasn’t a racial slur in this context, but was rather referring to an immaculately dressed man who was purposefully as nondescript as possible—that she was currently sitting in a room, alone, with. He had “government” written all over him. To be more precise, deep government. The kind that transcended presidential dominion, political party.

She answered back, “Oh, you know. Could be better. By any chance, did you get, in those notes of yours, the information about my ten visits to the shrink? Did you already ask her about my mental state, or would you rather I just tell you?”

The man hardly seemed to smile, as if it was the ghost of good will—or the revenant of it—crossing his features. “There’s no need. The therapist was a plant. Been working with us since we contacted her for this job.”

“Oh, that’s fantastic. ” Janis felt her need to remain calm, to not show any emotion to the unwelcome intruder, leave her. “So I take it this is a “warning”? I need to know that I can be touched, that my information’s not private, that I’m not safe? Well, in that case, you should know that I don’t have anyone that you can threaten me with.” When the man said nothing, Janis almost burst out, “Someone further up the pipeline not in the mood to deal with some weirdo who might want to air dirty laundry in public?”

Almost to her surprise, the man finally spoke up. “I think you have me confused for someone else. I do... apologize; this is not how I would have preferred us to meet. In fact, we had every intention of reaching out to you once your suite of operations was a foregone occurrence, and you had healed to an appropriate degree that we could be sure that you were in good enough condition.”

Janis was out of her own seat, unsure if she was relieved that this was a private conversation or if she should be worried about being isolated. She was still healing, in truth she had further to go than she could almost stomach imagining. More time in stitches, sometimes left to sob in agony, alone save for the occasional compassionate nurse to listen to her bawling. In fact, this felt like the first time in a month that she felt anything except for physical agony at the metamorphosis she was undergoing. Anger and fear was an almost welcome inclusion.

She bared her teeth at the man, said, “Good enough condition for what ? Planning on—on cutting me open to take a look at me, is that it?” To her surprise—and genuine terror—the older man started to smile, the first genuine show of emotion she had witnessed on the man’s face. “Because you can’t threaten me , alright? You shitheads already took everything from me—”

As quickly as the smile had formed on the man’s face it disappeared. “Whoa, Janis, hold on—”

For some reason hearing him use her new name, the one she had given herself to start this new half of her life with, enraged her. Forgetting that she was a fragile, newly stitched together thing, Janis flung the chair she had been sitting in, sending it clattering to the ground before it nearly knocked over another chair, whacked against one of the small circular tables. 

She nearly shrieked, “What the fuck do you want?”

It was the Spook’s turn to look worried. He held his hands out, rising out of his seat. “Be careful, I don’t want you getting hurt.” Janis, about to tell him that that was news to her, was cut off by the man. “I thought meeting you in public would be the way to stop from causing you—undue stress.”

“Well, that obviously isn’t fucking working,” Janis snarled, her body a puppet for the stress and instincts that coursed through her body.

“I can see that.” Again he held out a hand, as if he were trying to soothe a feral animal. “This is obviously one sided. I can promise you a few things. First of all, we don’t want to hurt you, quite the contrary. Secondly, if you cooperate, I can tell you everything you want to know.”

Something wicked, angry and spiteful at the situation, made Janis ask, “Alright. What are you sexual preferences? Come on, you already know too much about me. You’ve read those notes—hell, probably have recordings of me—from that therapist. Come on. Know that I’ve always been interested in playing for both teams, but I’m terrified of letting a man see me naked, never been with one aside from a regretful jack off sesh when I was still in training?” When the man paused, stunned perhaps, she tilted her head to the side, waiting. “Fair is fair.”

With a sigh, the man said, “Personally, I don’t think there’s such a thing as gay or straight. It’s a—a spectrum.” He feigned a cough, an awkward, face-saving measure that didn’t fully work.

Catching his wind, Janis felt a smile form on her mouth. “First thing you’ve said that I agree with.” She stared a hole through him, saw that besides his obvious embarrassment at having told her his own sexual preference that he was apparently unshaken. “So what are you here for?”

He said something that at first left no impression in her mind, any memory of what it could be in reference to. “Do you remember Clear Skies?”

Janis scoffed, felt angry at the man once more. “Uh, is that supposed to mean something to me?”

He blinked but otherwise showed no real emotion. “You were interested in the leftovers from Project Blue Book. Might have been a passing interest, but it’s one we know of, nevertheless.”

Okay, that definitely rang a bell. The inheritance Arthur had left his child had been the rights to a trailer park that was almost immediately seized by the authorities following his “untimely death”, and a strange predilection for strange lights in the sky. Although she never took to listening to Coast to Coast or to buying those crackpot books that Arthur once ordered through the mail.

Quickly she remembered her inquiries into the strange project that seemed to only exist for a short period of time before it had disappeared into the ether. Clear Skies had been the title of an email that seemed to have been sent by accident, surely, a truly eerie missive that recounted surveillance done and a variety of collected information on figures, subjects referred to by names that immediately recalled memories in her childhood, spent listening to her father’s conspiracy theory radio shows.

She had been lucky; some instinct had lead to her making a copy, both digitally and hard. She only then realized that surely both were lost to her when she lost her office. Shortly after it had been sent, Janis had only been half surprised to discover that any proof that it existed had been wiped clean. Her email appeared to have been destroyed, someone undoubtedly performing a clean from the server.

Janis could feel the blood draining out of her face. She had opened that email half a year ago and if not for the stress that had made up her life she would have not forgotten the disquieting mis-sent update on a seemingly on-going project that seemed to suggest…

The man seemed to have regained some of the control in the conversation and he took advantage of it. “You inquired about an email that you were never supposed to see. Tried to be subtle. You were good, you know. If you hadn’t already been under surveillance, you might have slipped under the proverbial radar.”

Janis swallowed. She had been ready, in spite of his assurances that she wasn’t in danger, to deal with fallout from her dishonorable ejection from her station. She was beginning to realize that this was far more dangerous, potentially, than someone wanting to keep a trans woman from speaking out against her former employer.

Slowly, she asked, “Am I… in some kind of trouble for this?”

That earlier, strange smile returned on his mouth, this time—almost—comforting. “Of course not. You passed a very important test. We made sure that select people, people with the skills we need, were “accidentally” sent the same correspondence you were. Imagine our surprise when only one person took it upon themselves to dig deeper into such a strange, ongoing conversation.” He nodded meaningfully towards Janis.

“What the hell is this?” Janis felt some of her earlier anger returning, unabated. “Am I in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?” When the man, infuriatingly, didn’t answer her, Janis added, “Maybe everyone thought it was a joke. This could still be a joke, for all I know.” Or a ruse, meant to lure her into a false sense of security. Right before she ended up “suicided”—another one of Arthur’s favorite conspiratorial terms.

If she thought she would find some answers in her unnamed visitor’s face, she was disappointed. Blank faced, but with a hint of warmth, he said, “They were likely afraid. Afraid, or incurious. Both traits that we find ourselves in... current abundance of.” His eyes seemed to flicker with some emotion, surprising depth in a man who made it a point to outwardly look unfettered. “Neither are traits we need in our potential appointee.”

Janis was wracked with confusion; confusion and curiosity, until it overwhelmed even her fear. If she was right, this conversation had gone from being what felt like a threat to an opportunity. But what dark arm of the government wanted to hire some trans woman who had been dishonorably discharged for some trumped-up charges meant to make her disappear off the map in a time where the politics swung as hard and away from people like her as was possible? 

Let alone one who was being patched up like a misfit toy being sewn together.

The man sensed her unease, took a few steps towards her. He was close enough that she could smell his aftershave—like the rest of his outward appearance, it was boring, but not notably bad, like something a child would buy for Father’s day. “Your reaction is reasonable. Our intel says that you’re in between operations and you should be up for some light walking. Would you like to accompany me for a light walk?” He held his arm out, as though he meant for Janis to take hold of it, like she was some old silver screen actress on a date.

The first really funny thought she experienced all day passed Janis’ mind and almost made her smile. Too bad he’s not my type.

The one thing she would come to learn about this man she would come to know as the Arbitrator, the connecting tissue that would be formed between the XCOM Initiative and the Council’s Spokesman, was that he was very good at his job. And funny enough, successfully scouting her had been his own first task with the job. Passing this had been a crucial stepping stone in his career—one he kept, until the day he was imprisoned following the fall of XCOM and was tortured to death.

But this was still years away from his early, tragic death.

Apparently seeing something warm in her eyes, the Arbitrator smiled for the first time, a surprising show of emotion. “You’re gonna like what you see. Think of it as a long-overdue promotion.” She would also come to learn that he meant everything he said, made it a point of never lying unless it was to outsiders to the Initiative.

 

Months after the “promotion” was in effect, Janis found her thoughts returning to her old friend, John Bradford. At first she had thought that she could compartmentalize it; that she was insane to think about reaching out to him, of all people. After all, even at this point, she knew she had cut and run on him. At that time, though, she was sure that what she had done had been for his good. Undoubtedly without her there to be an unneeded crutch, he could finally find his footing, prove what kind of a man he was always meant to be. 

She believed that on his own, John Bradford was almost certainly strong, not just physically, but even more importantly, maybe even strong enough emotionally to make the kind of difference she ultimately failed to make.

Nevertheless, by the time the voice in her head that said that she at least owed the man an explanation became more of a shriek, she called him and discovered that Bradford was no longer there.

She was stunned by the news. Although she was hesitant to involve John in the Initiative, she had always envisioned reconnecting with him. Showing him her new self and laughing about the strange turn their lives had undoubtedly taken, had been a continual fantasy for her. For a day, she thought that she might never see the man who had been such an important part of her life again.

And then she got the fuck over it, decided that she would find John if it was the last thing she did.

Chapter Text

John watched as she entered the room. He could see the confusion on Janis' face as she recognized him.

Leaned up against the inset bar, he kept his hands behind his back, hiding them. John didn’t think he was shaking but he couldn’t afford to look like he was.

True to Janis’ form, the woman stood in a stiff, straight posture, a nearly inscrutable look on her face. The first line of defense for someone who was always even better than him at hiding her emotions. He waited for her to speak. John was rewarded when he thought he saw something, some flicker of emotion in those pale gold eyes for a moment before she seemed to recover.

“What did you want to talk about ?”

“Occurred to me that I wasn’t behaving... correctly the last time we spoke. I’m sorry for raising my voice, for not obeying your commands.” He was being honest; he did regret his behavior. One thing he didn’t say was that he was a lot less apologetic about his reasons for reacting the way he did.

Her face flushed pink, it was Janis’ turn to show genuine emotion. It was annoyance, but it was something that showed on that face for once. Made John feel as though he wasn’t a stranger to her. “It wasn’t an order. I’m just trying to do what’s best—”

John interrupted her, knowing this altruistic refrain that Janis had a habit of parroting by heart. “—for me.”

Janis’ eyes narrowed. “Not just for you. For XCOM.”

XCOM, XCOM, XCOM. He was partial to thinking of the Initiative as a relationship, one that had the habit of taking everything there was in him. If that were the case, then both had their own complicated relationships with the entity. Once upon a time, however, it had felt like a threesome that was strengthened by both the Commander and the Lieutenant's tenacious loyalty. Now he feared that it would only tear him away from the person he needed most.

And could stop a person who needed him as well.

Still, he wanted to be angry at Janis for using the Initiative as a shield for what was obviously a conversation about them, but he knew that he had done the exact same thing himself. Now it seemed it was his turn to feel the pain of having it used against him.

Janis spoke again, her annoyance growing, evident in the tone of her voice. “How’d you get in here?”

“You turned the skeleton key over. All I needed to do was sign the paperwork for the duty change over. Tomorrow everyone’ll know that I agreed to take on the duties of Command.”

She looked relieved—even happy. It made something feel like it was spasming painfully in John to see, expecting her to look horrified. To be ready to take back her rightful place.

She said, almost breathless, “I’m glad you’re listening to reason—”

“In exchange, I need you to sit down and listen to me.”

“Come again?”

John felt a grin stretch across his mouth. “Neither of us are leaving until we decide what this,” he motioned between them, at the wide space in the room between them. “is.”

She had an answer ready. “I’ll always care about you. I want to be there for you, answer any questions you might have.”

“Uh huh. And what, then?”

“Excuse me?” She seemed genuinely taken aback by the question.

Now John could feel his temper fraying. God fucking damn it, wasn’t she the one who once taught him to be up front?

“I’m too damn old to play games, Janie. Sure as hell not getting any more attractive, or more tolerant to waiting any longer than these past two decades.” He struggled\, frustrated with himself for his inability to find the right words. “You see, before, I was scared I would fuck up something I care about more than what’s healthy…” he trailed off, realizing he almost laid it out, bare. All that time, spent longing, nearly losing his mind. And he was afraid that he was close to going back to that pit of failure.

Before he had been found by Shen, John had been on a death spiral. In all honesty, before she had shown him evidence of a grassroots revival of the Initiative, he had not been more than a handful of days from being discovered for the acts of sabotage that he had been committing against the ADVENT base constructed atop the ruins of XCOM. More importantly than news of XCOM's revival was a message that was delivered via one of Shen’s proto-GREMLINs. It was a lead that was more a legend of a prisoner long thought dead, experimented on, trapped in a glass sarcophagus. Like Sleeping Beauty, in some old, stupid fairy tale.

Still, even the chance that she was still alive was more than enough to bring John out from the shadows he had lived in for a decade by that point. Inspired a revenant of the old Earth to believe, desperately, in old made-up stories like a rightful monarch held captive, trapped in a world between life and death for eternity. Waiting, perhaps, for their Prince to arrive.

John knew it was true; he wasn’t willing to wait any more, but there was a difference between blurting it out like a teenager and trying to make himself appealing. It was something like sophistication, or at least discipline, a thing that the young John would have been thoroughly incapable of.

Covering his eyes with his hand—only to realize then that he was, indeed, shaking—John said, “Come, sit down.” When he didn’t hear her moving, he removed his hand, about to start losing his temper in earnest, perhaps bark at her to do what he said. Then he saw how Janis was looking at him.

Yellow eyes wide, mouth softly parted; she was so unspeakably beautiful, that, his anger, what he was about to tell her became caught in his throat. Letting out a steadying breath, John recalled without realizing it advice that she had once given him. 

Wordlessly, John moved, sitting down on the black couch that faced her and the door, taking lower ground and leaving himself, instinctually, vulnerable. He looked at her meaningfully, waiting. It was, after all, her turn to make a move. And he started to worry that she would actually disagree with being alone with him.

Then Janis moved, walking around the other couch before she took the seat directly across from him. She surprised him when she finally seemed to lose some of whatever it was that had been shielding her, her body language becoming looser.

She said, “Have you had anything to eat?” When John, confused, shook his head, she almost rolled her eyes and thoughtlessly lifted one of those long legs over the other, propped by the other knee. “I think this is going to be a long conversation. We ought to call the canteen and tell them that we need something to sustain us.”

John was taken off guard by the assessment. He had thought that they would be struggling with this conversation before she would agree to talk honestly about their relationship. He didn’t know how to take it. Was she getting ready to turn him down, somehow knowing exactly what he was planning to say? Or, could it be possible that she—

With a nod, Janis called someone on her headset, John imagining that who she was talking to was working the canteen. After explaining that she and John were going to be having an impromptu meeting that was expected to last a while, she asked for something to eat, then ordered something on John’s behalf. As she said it, she paused, turning to look back at John. “That is what you still like eating, right?” When John nodded, feeling somewhat numb, she continued. “Expecting that as soon as you get done with it. Good.” She hung up, overwhelming John under the heavy weight of her gaze. “Hope you can wait fifteen minutes for that.”

He had to take a brief moment to let his admiration for the resolute nature of the woman seated across from him, characteristic though it was, leave him, before he could let the air that had been trapped in his chest out. “I want to talk about last night.”

Again there was something in her eyes, something that didn’t reflect on her features. “How did you feel about it?”

Was she serious, talking to him like this like she was a therapist—or just a superior? Maybe she just needed shaking up; it’s why he almost spat out, “Janie, what we did wasn’t some team building exercise. We fucked.” Fucked. He used words that he too easily recalled her using the night before.

He watched her throat move, constrict as she swallowed. “Yes.”

John balanced his upper arms on his knees, leaning forward and purposefully pinning his flighty mentor down with his gaze. “Did you... like it?”

For a second her eyes lost eye contact with him before she met his eyes again. My god , he thought, she’d faced down crises that once made John wonder how she could manage it. Being asked if she liked sex with her Lieutenant left Janis looking like she was being interrogated by a member of ADVENT.

“I’m not sure what you mean.”

John felt his hands clench around his knees. “Oh, come on—”

“I’m not evading the question. I just—did I like it? Yes. But I mean, after everything…” Her mouth hung open and there was an understanding between them, which John could feel and read in her eyes. She had admitted it, even if she was trying to bury it like a dirty secret. “But I don’t know if it was best for us.”

What’s best for us. What’s best for XCOM. Frankly, at this point, after everything he had sacrificed, John had to wonder how much more he could stand to give up for this place’s “own good”. Hell, even Janie had, famously, given more than her fair share for a military system that ended up chewing her up and spitting her out.

But she said that she liked it. Liked being with him. And it felt like more than he could comprehend, left him breathless.

He wasn’t stupid, or naive. John knew that they had both felt good the night before, saw the wildness in her eyes, pupils blown into large pits encircled by thin, rich rings of gold. He had been willing to do anything she wanted, had been overwhelmingly relieved and excited to find that her needs met his own. What was it that Shen had once teased him by calling the way he felt for Janis? Kismet.

He was starting to smile and the look on her face confirmed that he looked as goofy as he felt. Almost as though she were afraid of what he was thinking, Janis asked, “What—what are you asking for?” Sitting further up, her body language growing stiff, she asked, “You next. What did you think of—” she stopped, as though the words got caught in her throat before she could say them.

He said the thing he had been afraid to say, albeit hidden in another term. “When we made love?” He let that sentence linger between them, watched her face carefully. When her expression revealed nothing, John knew it was his chance. Knew at the very least that she was open to him right now, even if it was just a crack. “I don’t know what I was thinking—all of the chances I wasted. Threw away. To hell with what’s best for me, I want a reason to live , to be.” He drew back against the couch, looked away from her for a second as he willed himself to go through with it.

Janis’ still face was betrayed by her eyes, reminding him of gold, molten and heavy, overbright. “What are you asking?”

“I’m not asking for anything. You can tell me to go to hell, but I’m not hopping around it anymore. You saw what I did to get you back.” He could feel the heat that had been growing steadily on his neck bloom on his face, his heart pounding so loud that it felt like it was drowning his voice out. “Part of me thought—hoped—that would be enough. For the record, Janie, I don’t need to say anything. If none of this is obvious to you, then I don’t know what I could even say. But if this isn’t what you want…” He trailed off as an old fear, the very same fear that once felt like it chained him, kept him from ever asking this countless times before, rose up. “I don’t want to lose what we have. Nothing I feel for you would make me ever not want to stop being friends with you. You’re my mentor. My hero. I don’t want you to be afraid that opening ourselves up to a new opportunity with destroy what we already have.”

She closed her eyes, a moment that felt like it stretched through an eternity. Finally, Janis opened her eyes, revealing—nothing—of what she was thinking. John was growing afraid of what she would do, then she said, “I want—want to know that you’re sure. Like,” she had opened her eyes wide, was taking her turn at pinning John with her eyes. “ really , one hundred percent sure.”

John almost said something angry, potentially destructive. It was as if something that his Grandma once would have called a “better angel” had a tight rein on his growing hair trigger. That, and a fear of losing this chance, what felt like his final chance.

So, making sure to say his words—carefully—and ready to stop Janis from interrupting him, John said, “I spent more time than you could imagine, sure about this. I breathe, I reaffirm that this is what I want, then I exhale. I know,” he stopped, holding up a hand to stop her before she could indeed try to interrupt, waiting until she closed her mouth. “that you worry about… what I think of you.” He almost closed his eyes before he said the rest, knew that no amount of mental preparation would prepare him for what he knew he had to say. “Personally, I never cared if you were male, female, whatever.” Finally something occurred to him to say, something that made him have to fight to suppress a laugh. “A Sectoid. You can be a Sectoid and I’d still want to do this with you!” Finally he discovered that he couldn’t stop the laugh that bubbled out of him.

It just felt so good . Even without her telling him anything, John realized that it felt like some burden he had been carrying on top of his heart had been thrown off. It felt like he could breathe, he could laugh. He added, “Okay, maybe not if you were a Sectoid.” 

When she didn’t laugh back, John started to feel uneasy.

Janis seemed to be deep in thought, eyebrows furrowing. Finally, she asked, “How long have you felt like this?”

The smile faded from John’s face. Regaining his control, he said, “No, you don’t get to push everything you want out of me until I’m empty.” Even I know that’s not healthy. “Tell me how you feel.”

She shook her head and let out an exasperated sigh. “I don’t think you really know what you’re asking for. Don’t know why, honestly, it’s like you don’t understand the situation we’re in.”

“And what situation is that?”

Her voice rose a few octaves, passion clear in her eyes, her face. “You need to raise XCOM from its ashes.” Finally, the first show of real, genuine emotion, a vulnerability, in too many minutes. “And it might be stupid. It might not be anything to worry about, but I can’t get over something.”

John leaned back in the sofa, one thought above all others clear in his mind. She’s not saying she hates the idea of us as a concept. Honestly, it sounded like she was grasping at straws. But, why? Is there something about me she doesn’t like?

Throwing his arm over the back of the sofa, he asked, “What’s the problem?”

Janis’ eyes almost crossed. “Problem? More like problems .” Before he could ask exactly what she meant, Janis, finally breaking the almost eerie calmness that formed a mask over her emotions, said, “Let’s start with morale. I’m worried that us… doing…” she hesitated, her face growing pinker with each moment that passed. “Anyway, what it’ll mean for both of us in the Initiative. If being in a…” she trailed off, her face growing redder by the moment before she stuttered out, “with you, what it could do to us. Especially if it doesn’t work out.”

Before she could get to another god-damned point, John added, “Personally, I’ve lived long enough wondering what could be. I’d rather get to the possibilities and deal with the aftermath—after.” Still, he should have known that this was what it would be like, trying to get this woman to agree to go out with him. Knowing her, she was stressing variables that would be years in the future, in spite of how she came off to others sometimes as a carefree person. 

Janis blinked, then said, “I am…” It was obvious, she was struggling to say something, but it didn’t want to leave her mouth. “I don’t know if I want to make that kind of commitment.”

The words left John’s mouth before he could censor them, wonder if he was being too cruel. But by that point, John was past caring about being nice. “You know what?” He laughed, a chuckle that had no humor in it. “If you just feel nothing for me, then you can just—stay in here.” He started to get up, meaning to leave. Starting to try to make himself believe that he would forget about this day, maybe not tomorrow, but someday.

He was so angry, mostly at himself, that it felt like his emotions were filling his ears till he could hear his heart beating an enraged rhythm in his chest, felt like it was engulfing his head, cannibalizing his thoughts until they were a bright, ADVENT red.

John had reached the door and had actually thrown it open when he was stopped by someone in the doorway, whose hand was raised to knock. Both men made eye contact before John felt someone pulling him back in the room from behind. He might have made a noise—a yelp—as he watched a hand that was not his own reach out next to him, slamming the door shut. His hand was already reaching for the handle of his knife, mentally ready, always to redeem himself for his lack of ability to save someone from an intruder’s grasp.

But It was pitiful; all of John’s training and he tripped like a newborn giraffe, almost had to be steadied by his unexpected captor. Adrenaline fueled him, his hand shaking with the need to fill one of them with the combat knife. His heart was beating a barbaric rhythm in his chest even as he realized who it was that must have grabbed him.

When he was maneuvered around to face her, John wanted to tell Janis that there was someone outside, but was stopped by her, wrapping an arm around his back, pressing him to her.

“Hey, let’s not be hasty,” Whatever John was going to say felt like it was smothered by the weight of the bright intensity he saw in her feral eyes. “You can’t just show up into my life again, all grizzled and hate-fuck and expect me to deal with trying to learn how to properly be wooed by my ex-protegee while recovering from surgery and post traumatic stress disorder.” She breathed warm, misting breath onto his face as she took in a deep, steadying breath. “Oh, and trying to figure out where I stand with my old family, here.” Before he could properly react, or even take a breath, Janis leaned over and kissed him.

John struggled, then got his arms around her, pulled the leggy bombshell on him. Worked on kissing her back like how he had wanted to all damn day, with some added, vengeful, horny intensity thrown in for good measure. He didn’t know how long they spent like that, only that they were interrupted with he heard an almost tentative knock on the door behind him.

Groaning, John wrenched away for a moment, donkey kicking the door behind him with his booted foot and heard a satisfying smash in the metal. He didn’t have any time to worry about who it was that had been knocking at the door, or really even if he would start feeling an answering pain from the kick in his foot, as Janis grabbed onto either side of his face, roughly, and started kissing him so hard he was surprised she wasn’t trying to gnaw his face off.

One of them pulled the other back to the couches—he really wasn’t sure which—and as Janis started to pull his sweater off, John had to stop her, grabbing ahold of her hands gently.

Out of breath, the dark haired woman looked at him, her own anger burning in her jackal eyes. “What the fuck are you doing?”

She looks like she wants to rip my hands off for disobeying her. And it was hard to tell if he had ever been as turned on as he was in that moment with her lust-created rage burning at him. John took in his own steadying breath before he said, “Just—thought I should warn you. Not in the mood for… gentle.” he swallowed, felt his heart beating heavy in his chest. All of that sudden fight he felt in his blood that her sneaking up on him had not left, instead it seemed to be pooling in his groin until he felt like he was going to explode. “To be honest, I’m not gonna be too playful if we—I’m just gonna be… hate fucky.”

He wanted to close his eyes and scream himself hoarse for how fucked up and weird he must have sounded.

To his complete shock, Janis gestured affirmatively, nodding, before she said, “Haven’t tried that yet with you. Better fuck me good if you’re gonna try to warn me.”



John was lying face up on his ex-Commanding Officer’s bed, naked and with his head lolling off the bottom edge. The pillows were long forgotten about, had been sometimes props for knees or something for Janis to bite into when the man who was seemingly passed out on the bed had been throughly fucking her. They had been thrown off at some point and the blankets were completely rumpled and yanked loose from the heavy shifting on the mattress. The fitted sheet was almost loose, all but one edge clinging to the bed for dear life. All in all, by Janis’ appraisal, the bed had never looked better or more inviting.

The bed’s owner was laying on the closest couch, legs dangling over the arm rest. Janis couldn’t think about what would be considered improper about the current situation or what was approved protocol. She was too busy with laying on her back, half dreading when she would try to sit up, naked and covered in sweat, both hers and John’s. Oh, and there was the indelicate nature of what felt like a vast amount of moisture, not of her own creation, that filled her cunt like she was a goblet. Christ the leather on the couch was going to punish her more than anyone ever threatening her for screwing a co-worker ever could, and she dreaded the trail she was going to leave on the ground as she walked. 

Really, though, she loved fucking her ex-protegee so much that she was half certain at some point that hell would rise up an swallow her whole for corrupting a man so strong and pure in his dedication as John was.

She wasn’t sure if the man was asleep—or even if she had managed to kill him—but she hoarsely called out, “If you’re tryin’... trying to get me to agree to be the Commander again by playing to my most crippling, unacknowledged weakness… of muscular daddies… then you’re going to be disappointed.” She trailed off with a weak, semi-hysterical giggle.

John, half-surprising her, answered back, “You have a fetish you didn’t… tell me about?” He was close to slurring his words, sounded like he could barely get them out of his mouth. Still, he said, “You know, I meant it when I said… said that…” He almost sounded like he was drowsing off, before he said, “I’ve had a crush on you for forever. Pre-op, I mean, even.”

Janis had to swallow back a hard ball of emotion that formed in her throat. She was answering that unexpected admittance, asking, “Have a preference, though?” When he didn’t answer at first, she tried to sit up, struggling with her wet noodle of a body from where John had left heron the couch. She was unsuccessful in sitting back up, finally admitting defeat as she just tried to stop from passing out.

John finally replied, “I see pros and cons in both. Wish I got to do this with you before you got the operation. Would have liked the contrast.”

“In what sense?”

John paused, then answered, “Both, I guess. Between our bodies… also remembering what it would have been like—fucking my S.O.” Unexpectedly, John let out a dry, genuine chuckle. “Used to imagine I’d probably be the sub, but I would have liked it the other way, sometimes.”

Janis almost laughed. She finally found the strength to sit up, pulling her skin away as gently as she could from the material sticking to her flesh. She looked at the man, realized that his eyes were closed so he looked like he was asleep. Almost to confirm that she hadn’t been imagining his confessions, she said, “I never thought you were such a slut. Guess I thought too well of you.” Trying to sound as serious as she could, she ruined it by breaking into a peal of laughter. When she looked back at him, she saw that she was being watched by a pair of upside-down, doe-brown eyes.

Something in his voice, when he spoke, told Janis that the jokes had ended between them. “Would you have ever imagined me like this?”

Janis sucked in her chapped lips, wetting them with a flick of her tongue. “Like when?”

John cocked one of his brows at her, the look far less intimidating coming from an upside-down, naked, man. “Back when we worked together at the base.”

“You mean the original XCOM?”

John’s lips tightened into a frown that should have been ridiculous in the situation. “I mean back when you used to order me to run laps for misbehavior.”

He meant back when he was young Johnny Bradford, Bambi to her. And specifically, when he was a raw cadet and had been thoroughly off limits in any stretch of the imagination.

Janis sat up further and willed herself into a state of semi sobriety before she said, “John, that wouldn’t of been cradle robbing, it would’ve been highway robbery.”

Finally a grin, truly wicked, spread across the man’s face. “I know, right?” She—must—have been imagining it, but John sounded horny as he said it. Which was unimaginable, given the fact that what they had done had surely taken a decade off of the man’s life.

“Just to be clear here: you’re saying you wanted to fuck me when I had a fully operational set of G.I Joe parts?”

“A lot more than that,” the man admitted. “Used to be fun, thinking of you breaking into the barracks, pinning me to the bed.”

“Jesus.”

John, sounding like he was reanimating, added, “Would have made this guy’s twenties and most of his thirties if you’d pushed me into an alcove and made out with me. Out of nowhere.” He weakly flung his arm for emphasis.

Janis thought that the breath had drained out of her lungs, like she was back in an ADVENT lab with a needle in her chest. Hell, this turn of events left her semi wondering if this was a planted experience in her head. A dangerous-looking man telling her that he’s lusted after her for, what, most of the time she’d known him? Insanity.

She sat up, drawing a leg close to her so she could hug it. Finally, she asked, “How long’ve you felt like this?”

The joy on John’s face wore away. He coughed, then struggled get up himself. She was starting to wonder if he’d answer her when, with his back turned towards her, he said, “I dunno. I think it took a month or so after meeting you.”

Christ, what would that have made him? Was he even twenty when she met him? She was shocked by the confession and felt something like pity, unexpected, color her now too obvious memories. “Johnny—”

John held his hand out to stop her, then turned, looked at her with warm brown eyes. “If I could make sense of human emotion, I would be selling all the answers to why someone would obsess over someone else for the better part of their life. Unrequited—something like that.” Slowly, he turned around, fully nude and sitting on the edge of her bed. “You don’t need to say anything. I can tell—you didn’t feel that way about me.” He waved his hand towards her. “That’s fine. ‘long as I’m what you want, now.” Janis ducked her head and to her horror, John seemed to see something in her expression. He almost smiled and, in a cajoling voice, he asked, “What is it?”

“What’s what?” She tried to wipe the look off of her face.

“That.” He pointed at her, was now grinning. “You look—” he stopped, and in a laughing, accusing voice, he said, “that’s a shit eating look on your face.”

Janis couldn’t look at him as she said it. “I—may have entertained the thought—a thought or two.”

John straightened himself on the bed and craned forward. “Since?”

Janis felt like a criminal admitting to a crime after hours spent in an interrogation room. “I liked the way you looked at me, when I was all… femme. But, I mean, even when you were, I think the term is “young, dumb full of…”" She faked a cough, looked away. “The thought crossed my mind, I mean, for a bit I thought you did have a thing for me. I was kind of waiting for you to blurt it out to me.” She turned her head towards the couch, which she wished she could bury her suddenly very warm face against. She muttered out, “Or pin me against my desk.”

At first she didn’t know if John had heard that last bit, but he almost seemed to roar. “That’s because I did have a thing for you!” He laughed, almost falling backwards as he held onto his mouth, only partially successful as he stopped the chronic laughter that shook his chest. Finally he let go of his mouth, and as Janis looked at him she saw that his eyes were filled with tears from laughter, he said, “If I knew you felt that way, we could have had a much more fruitful use of our leisure time together. And… what would you have done, if I had pushed you against a desk?”

Janis, now thoroughly embarrassed by the situation and not entirely sure why, covered her face with her hands. “Now we’re talking about more reasons why they would have discharged me. Corrupting the youth, just—add that.”

“Can’t corrupt what was already there to begin with.” He waited a moment, waiting until Janis pulled her hand away from her face, then said, “So now I have to figure out how to get you to accept the role of Commander.”

The sleepy, sated smile that had been forming on Janis’ mouth stilled. Glancing away, Janis sighed, then said, “Christ above, I really need that ice cream now.”

“Janie—”

Janis held a hand out and stood up, wincing from the sudden pull caused by the leather on her skin. Sucking in her teeth to stop from letting out an anguished cry, she turned around, headed for the mini-fridge. Each shoeless step on the ground felt like a sobering wake up from the bubble of fantasy both had created and indulged in, aided in no small bit by how she had to consciously grip her thighs shut to stop the torrent of the crude evidence of her time spent with the man she had no place fucking from coming out. Still, she doubted anyone would ever openly disapprove of this, even if it was a relationship that they were going to continue would be in not-exactly secret. Her mind kept going back to that fucking betting pool they set up for them. That, and the fact that if someone had a serious problem with it, they would be risking not having any Commander for the Initiative.

Not entirely comforting; Janis hadn’t been bluffing before they had had sex that she was concerned about what a relationship would mean for not only them but for XCOM. But thinking about what this would mean to John was in itself a fear she had not imagined two nights of sex would lead to her worrying over.

Goddamn it.

Even as she pulled the fridge open and grabbed not one but two containers of ice cream, she realized that she didn’t want to think about reality, at least for a while longer. Turning around with two spoons in one hand and the stacked containers of ice cream in the other, Janis plastered a fake smile on her face.

John, who was sitting on the edge of her bed, took one look at her face and asked, “What’s wrong?”

Janis felt her smile straining at her lips. “What? Nothing.”

Another one of those eyebrow cocks. He kept dutifully quiet, until the moment that Janis tried to pass him his ice cream. He took a hold of her wrist as she tried to pull back, then pulled until she was sitting on the bed on her knees, the ice cream sitting next to them, forgotten. At first she thought he was going to kiss her—or fuck her—but then his hand came up behind the nape of her neck and he steadied his gaze directly onto hers.

He spoke softly, each word sounding as though it was snagging against the rough edges of his voice. “You’re doing that weird smile you make when you’re scared about something. Funny, you don’t even seem scared, even when a mission’s going bad.” He almost hesitated, then asked, “Is the thought of being with me this stressful? I’m not a kid anymore—some dude in his twenties. You do know I’m older than you now, right?”

Janis knew she couldn’t evade the questions any more. Not after what they had done together. She answered honestly, felt the tension caused by the fake cheer to leech out of her with each word she spoke. “It all scares me, Johnny. I don’t think I’ve been this shook by anything in my life.”

Something like unease seemed to draw tight on John’s face. “Why? I’m here for you.” He shifted on the bed, coming closer to her. He was pressing her against him, until Janis was grateful to bury her face in his thick shoulder. “We can do this together. Just like always.”

Smelling him with her eyes closed, Janis admitted what she had been ashamed to say aloud. “No, I can’t ever go back to that.” She didn’t realize that sorrow had snuck its way into her until she found that she had to fight back a whimpering cry. She couldn’t stop the tears that started to flow down her face, wetting his warm skin. “I can’t be trusted. I failed you, all of you.”

John was silent, and Janis was grateful for the feel of his hand, now running through her hair. And when he spoke, she could feel the vibrations through her body, against his frame. “I would never trust anyone at the helm besides you. If we couldn’t find you—save you—I was resigned to the end of the world. No,” he corrected himself. “I would have killed myself first.” He let out a sound, it was almost like a dry chuckle, but it was empty of anything happy. “Fast, a bullet, or slow, liquor.”

Janis pulled away from him, staring down at him as anger filled her, replacing her shame, her sorrow. “No. You’re too valuable. You’re meant to take this from me, do what I failed to do two decades ago.”

She was almost surprised to see the not-yet fallen tears in his eyes, tears that seemed to Janis like they had been needing to fall for far too long. John took in a breath of air, then said, “You don’t understand. I’m the useless one. I need you. I need you .”

At first Janis wanted to tell him that he didn’t need her like some good luck charm, then she felt herself say, “I can be here for you. Can be anything you need.” It didn’t shock her to realize that she meant what she said, found the thought of aiding John and taking him in this bed whenever they were allowed a moment alone was more than pleasant to imagine. It was a future that was too amazing to believe.

John steadied his gaze on her, then he took ahold of her hands in one of his, grasped so tight it almost hurt. “Then—I need you to command me. I want to help you save us. Save me.”

Janis was trapped in those eyes as easily as if he had ambushed her. It all felt like, became, much, much more than two people struggling to figure out how they could fit their ragged edges together. She knew then that everything he said was true, that her worth to him was beyond even a romantic need. It was disconcerting, to see that unwavering, zealous loyalty, a look that should have only belonged in the eyes of a cult member gazing on their messiah.

Janis should have been disturbed by it, scared. What had she come to mean for a man who had done so much, and increasingly, she realized, it was all for her?

Janis felt herself lowering on her knees, sweeping closer to him, her hands cupping either side of his strong jaw. She kissed him, as though as a means of anchoring herself to something real, something to steady her mind. She knew, somehow, that this man’s desire for her would surely kill him. He was the one who needed an anchor, something to hold him to reality—

His lips were firm and surprisingly generous, a surprise in a man who looked like the last thing that could have been a part of him, and it was an erotic, irresistible pull. As their mouths opened up to kiss more deeply, Janis felt the control she had over her knees become lost.

It turned out that the thought of being worshiped was exactly what she wanted.

It both scared and invigorated Janis. Before she knew it, the kiss that she had planned to tie herself and the man that had tossed her mind into a chaos had transformed into John pulling her to him forcefully, open-mouthed kissing until they were nothing more than two people who desperately wanted each other. Wordlessly, it was transitioning into fucking, especially with no clear head to steer them into sanity.

By the time it occurred to Janis that their conversation was more important than having sex again, John was laying beneath her, with Janis sitting on his waist.

She was going to say something and stand up, she really was. As Janis tried to formulate what she wanted to say, she felt John reach forward and start to run his hands against her hips. She closed her eyes, realized that she was tired—only it wasn’t her body. To the contrary, her body felt like it was on fire, sitting atop a man she had no right exploiting the affection of.

Janis was tired of fighting her own wants, her libido.

A life time ago she had been a sort of weirdo play boy, and now her old voraciousness with sex was coming back to haunt her. Didn’t help that fantasies were swirling, heavy like clouds leaden with rain and thick pressure, drawn in by the confessions of the man lying beneath her. It had felt good, amazing to explore the side of herself that she had never gotten a chance to feel before, with her old Second in Command making Janis feel full of him like she was his own form of intoxication.

A wicked thought crossed her mind as she felt John’s choppy breathing, saw how his irises had disappeared, swallowed whole by an engulfing darkness.

Biting her bottom lip, Janis said, “You’ve been a bad boy Bambi—” she stopped herself, then changed it to, “Central.”

John’s full mouth fell open and it sounded as though a gasp or a moan emerged as a throaty choke.

“Fantasizing about your S.O. Disobeying direct orders.”

John finally spoke, and Janis knew that she had him in her complete control from the sober, almost tense voice he spoke to her in. “What’re you gonna do?” If not for that slight tremble of anticipation, he might have sold it, that he wasn’t on the edge of his own control.

She smiled, one that he had never seen before on her face. “You want to play with my emotions, make me stay in this room with you like a hostage?” She could feel it, the way John’s breathing sped up, until it felt like his stomach was hitting her abdomen like he was fighting to breathe.

She leaned forward, her hands finding his wrists, attached to hands that gripped the rumpled mess of the comforter as though for dear life. Gently but forcefully, Janis wrapped her fingers around his wrists, pulled up, until she forced his hands above his head, kept them trapped there. When she looked down into his eyes, she saw that John was staring up at her unblinkingly, lush honey brown irises stuck on her. He looked stoned, yet at the same time she thought she could see a part of his consciousness that Janis had never before seen in his eyes, bright and very much aware. His mouth was softly parted and his words slipped out as though irresistible.

“What are you going to do to me…” He paused, and natural though the refrain was, Janis could see that in his mind he was still struggling over some final barrier in the moments before he conquered it. “Commander?”

About to answer him as naturally as though this was something they had always done—were meant to do—Janis instinctively shuddered. As she moved, she felt John’s swollen cock press against her ass. “F-fu—I’m going to need you to make sure that if I pass out on top of you, I don’t fall off the bed.”



Sometime later both laid in the bed, which had been nearly decimated of everything that made it anything more than a mattress, with Janis’ head laying on John’s chest. She liked hearing his breathing, feeling his too human chest rising and falling as he took in air. Liked a lot more the fact that he seemed to take pleasure in her laying on him as well, had an arm drawn loosely against her shoulders.

She had brought up a shower earlier, and this time Janis had been certain that he had finally given into sleep. When she tried to move, however, she felt John’s arm tighten on her. She understood that it was not time for them to leave the position she was in yet. Anyway, she enjoyed the smell of John’s body post-post coitus, the subtle smell of her own body that clung to his chest.

Sleep was something they would have to figure out eventually and even the warmth that felt like it formed a halo around their bodies, resulting from the physical labor of explicit love, would not protect them all night from the harsh air of the ship’s life systems on their naked bodies.

Surprising her, John spoke, his voice resonating from where her ear was pressed against his torso. “Well, I have to hand it to you. You were right about us needing food after we were done. It has been a long night.”

Janis let out a long chuckle. It took her a stupidly long time to recall it, as if the recent memory were in her current state like a moth that her slow fingers couldn’t clasp around. She asked, “Who was that at the door when you tried to leave?”

She felt John shrug. “I don’t know—didn’t have the time to ask him what he wanted. I was a little—distracted.”

Her libido finally tamed, it left her mind free to understand things in a calm, doped manner. “Oh my god. That was Terrance from the canteen, with that food I ordered.”

He didn’t seem to react at first, then John started to chuckle before it turned into a full blown laugh. It made Janis have to get up, watching John laugh so hard that he had to cover his face, his whole body shaking with it. It was a revelation. As much as she cared about him, there was a feeling that she had lost the man that she had started to fall for before she had been stolen two decades before. Up till that moment, Janis had succumbed to a process of what felt like falling heavy for a man who was very different from the man he had once been.

Seeing him laugh in that slightly high pitched, wheezing way of his, made her feel like she had been having really good sex with a close friend she thought she had lost as well as this very serious man who spoke with a world of experience in his throat. 

It was the moment she lost any chance she may have had at leaving these nights somewhere in the back of her mind for the good of XCOM—even for the good of John.

When he finished laughing, John pulled his hand away from his face and looked at Janis. The laughter in his eyes dissipated as he looked at her, his mouth uncurling from the absolutely beautiful smile that he had been wearing. “Janie, anything wrong?” He started to look uneasy, shifting his gaze away from her. “We can get something else to eat—”

Janis forced herself to relax, willing herself to smile even though she felt like her heart was racing. This was scary, but the thought that she could not shake from her mind felt more exhilarating than anything ever had been. “No, nothing. Tell the truth, I don’t think I could walk more than five feet in the state I’m in. Think I just wanna pass out, preferably soon.”

That smile reappeared on John’s face, making that weird tingling feeling return to her chest. “That’s alright with me,” He said. He started to move, dragging his way up to the head of the bed, where he flopped his head onto a rumpled pillow with a satisfied sigh.

What a comfort, to be with a man, albeit an extraordinary man, but a Human male nevertheless. The kind who fucked like someone who never got sick of it and who loved the feel of her body against his in the afterglow.

As Janis crawled her way after him, she thought, There’s no way this isn’t going to be the man I spend the rest of my life with. As impossible as it seemed in their situation. 

As they were dropping asleep, something occurred to Janis to say. She didn’t know if John was asleep yet, but she felt compelled to say it to him. Something that was long overdue in needing to be said, especially in the wake of John being brave, stepping out of his comfort zone for her so often recently.

“You once asked me what I saw in a person like you. I just… I never got a chance to say it, because I thought it was obvious. That I would’ve never needed a reason to be your friend, let alone…” She trailed off, half-wishing that John was asleep so that he didn’t have to listen to her stammer. Still, Janis found a thread of what she wanted to say. “I guess, I never forgot about you because you’ve always looked vulnerable. You have this gentleness to you that I lost a long time ago. You have… such a beautiful soul. I should be so lucky, that you’d want me even after all this time. Even after everything, you came for me. It’s like we were meant to be together, like the part of myself that my father took from me reappeared in my life the moment I looked into your eyes for the first time. Knew I was going to have to stop you from losing that… softness. Like I was a slave to it, being pulled to you—” Janis stopped herself, her mouth fallen open before she said, “No, you’re like a beacon, or, or the sun, breaking over a long, really dark, night.”

And, as quickly as she had started, Janis stopped. She had admired John for his emotional bravery, but now she understood how good, relieving it was, to get something off of your mind. Before she could think to ask, to see if John were awake, Janis felt her grip on consciousness fade.

She didn’t believe that John had been awake, had found it comforting to think that he had not heard her. But even as she fell into a heavy sleep, John’s eyes were open, his freshly awakened mind trying to piece together what she told him. 

He was wondering if he could get over his woman seeing him as weak, vulnerable. Tried to wrap his mind around the thought that it could be okay for him to not have an iron grip on everything, a notion that felt impossible after he had spent so long denying that he had anything soft left inside of him that could be hurt. But, if it was vulnerability in him that she prized...

Chapter Text

John lay asleep, half of his nude body clad in a coal black comforter. He was unaware that his old mentor was standing with her back against the wall next to the bed, dressed only in a tank top and watching him.

Janis didn’t know why she was awake. Deeply asleep until seemingly a few minutes ago, she awoke with John’s arm on her in the early hours of the morning. It felt so good that her conscience wouldn’t allow her to keep laying there, tolerating its weight on her body. At first she sat on the edge of the bed, surreptitiously looking at her sleeping lover, then she stood up, her tired mind trying to figure out why she had woken up in the middle of what had felt like the most restful sleep she had since she had been taken out of stasis.

In the near-darkness of the room she found a distraction in the form of a long forgotten pair of ice cream containers. The paper cylinders had fallen on the ground and were leaking their once frozen contents onto the ground into grotesque puddles. Trying to be quiet, Janis cleaned the mess up, only making a noise when she threw it all into the trash. When the sound of the resounding clang of the containers hitting the metal bottom filled the room, Janis looked over at the bed, certain that the noise would wake John up. When she realized that he was deeply asleep, Janis understood that there probably would not be much that could wake him up. It was funny; the energy he had been giving off was the feeling that he wanted to seem as though he was always ready, alert.

Right now he was asleep, reminding Janis delectably of something vulnerable, innocent.

For a long few seconds, Janis looked over at the door. Thought about leaving, taking a walk to think about what the next few days would be sure to bring not only them but all of the Initiative.

It was the soft sound, of John making a wordless vocalization in the back of his throat in his sleep, that drew a newly guilty Janis’ gaze back to him in the bed.

She recalled the last time this had happened, how she had left him and how they had spent a day not sure how to treat each other. God, she hated not feeling free enough to kiss him. Regretted missing the chance to see him when he woke up.

Back when the original Initiative had been operational, Janis’ tenure had been marked with few nights she actually spent asleep. Even nights not marked with emergency operations, leftover work from the day before, or night time meetings Janis often spent awake in her office. It had been a large reason why she had formed so tight a bond with Moira Vahlen, another textbook definition workaholic. Although she would never admit it to anyone, the thought that everything they did would influence not only the souls that were sent to the battles but also potentially the rest of humanity, had always left her a tense mess. A mess made worse by the fact that she had no one she could genuinely confide in. Or, at least, felt like that was the truth.

After she woke up from stasis, broken, weakened, Janis started to find something about herself she would have never realized if she hadn’t lost the control that she had once become obsessed with. Losing everything, the lives of people who trusted her, even being the reason why John had lost two decades of his life, had left Janis with a surprising silver lining, an almost life-affirming mantra. Ever since she realized there was no way she could ever accept the role of Command again, given her past failure and after having been a test subject of ADVENT, she slept through the night more soundly than she ever had as Commander of the original Initiative.

Slept soundly, that was, until she started to worry over the feelings she and her old protege shared.

As Janis looked back at John, she couldn’t forget for a moment that tomorrow would surely bring more to think about than she could sleep on easily. But as she looked at him, splayed out on her bed, she thought about a promise she made to herself as she struggled to find her voice for over a week. That she would do her best to make the rest of her life full of opportunities that she would take, not miss or throw away, and she would try to catch up with all of those missed nights of sleep and dreams.

What luck, that at that moment John was both.

She walked to the other side of the bed, which John’s back was facing, and started to crawl on the bed. As she started to sink to her elbows, Janis realized she was still wearing the tank top. In the presence of John’s naked body she felt like she only wanted to meet him in the same way, so she shucked the thin tank top off, the cold air in the room making her nipples stand up, tight. Eagerly, Janis slid underneath the comforter, giving up on trying to find some that still had a flat sheet to slip against her skin. She was more interested in crawling to John’s back, slipping her knees until she was huddling around him until, finally, she threw an arm around the sleeping man’s abdomen and gently drew him against her cold chest.

John made a soft moan in his sleep, but he sank against her unconsciously, warming Janis’ body until she felt rosy, overcome with a comforted happiness that she had never felt before. Her last move she made before falling asleep was to sweep her face close to the back of John’s head and press against the nape of his neck, bringing her limbs tighter against him.

 

Call him stupid for believing the same thing twice in a row with the same woman, but John had assumed that following the last night they shared together that the enigmatic ex-Commander would be more communicative with him. She would at least take what he had said about her accepting her—rightful—role of Commander so they could get on with their lives. He couldn’t stop feeling so tense it was a wonder he could sleep at all at night.

Well, it didn’t hurt that the cause of his tension had a habit of pulling him into her room at night, where they both shared at least an hour making up for lost time and chances. By the third morning after, watching Janis continue with everyone else like nothing was happening, John had to wonder if he had just gone insane and was imagining all of those nights and some mornings spent exploring her body. It would have been a shame, if some of that truly hot role playing they did was just his imagination. But, no, the time he got truly frustrated and pulled her into a closet with the intent of asking her when the hell she planned on telling anyone what her plans were about taking the role of command... had instead lead to him realizing he had gone too long without eating her pussy. Regrettable, but as he voraciously ate her out, knocking her against the back wall on the shelf where he had trapped her, he wasn’t exactly thinking of XCOM first.

That was what had started to really bother him. Sure, they spent their time at night not just fucking and some times eating a private, small meal together, but the conversations tended to go towards their pasts or about the inner workings of the current XCOM. Any time he tried to right the conversation back to something relevant, Janis proved that she was still the master of misdirection. If he had ever believed that he was incapable of being herded like a docile cow, John learned that he was made too pliable with just Janis stroking his ego.

When he asked her, point blank, what she planned to do, Janis asked back, “So you were the one who took me out of the sarcophagus?”

John sighed, but was tricked into humoring her. “Yeah, that was me.”

He saw her eyes widen and an admiring light animated those wildly beautiful feral golden eyes. “Oh, wow.” She ducked her head, laughing softly, sending a wave of black hair to hit the side of her face. When she looked back up at him, she was starting to blush. “I can’t believe you did that.”

John faked a cough, had to look away from her. It started there, he almost forgot his point in the conversation. Still, he couldn’t resist continuing this line of talk. “Yeah, I wanted to make sure—” He realized, halfway through the sentence leaving his mouth, that he had gotten pulled in a direction that was bad if he wanted to try to get his ex-Commander to talk straight with him.

Unluckily for him, Janis was leaning forward, chin resting on her hand. “What?”

He fell for the same trap, drawn in by the sight of those eyes looking at him in open admiration. He made an almost instinctual, self-effacing chuckle, and said, “Wanted to make sure the job got done right. Y’know?”

All it took was her reaching over, touching his knee, fingers gently kneading. John was lost, an animal that had taken bait.

 

The sad thing was that being able to have her as his lover had left John stupidly content in her presence. It was shameful, to realize how content he was with her wanting him—in his deepest wishes, he believed that she needed him—so much so that he neglected getting her back where she belonged. In the Commander’s seat.

On the last night before the final day, John sat at the bar, with the drink that he had been nursing for the past hour. For everyone who was in the ship, the night was treated as an impromptu celebration. As he would expect of her, Janis was walking around, talking with everyone. Where before—especially two decades ago—John would have been jealous of the time she spent talking to anyone else, now he was confident enough in himself that he could even talk on his own with what few people considered him agreeable to talk to, facing away from the rest of the room as he sat at the bar.

He was relaxed with barely any liquor in him, and to be honest, he might have been against drinking even the tumbler of whiskey if not for the special occasion. The bar smelled of the drunken denizens and the appetizers that had been made for the occasions, and everyone in the room had a propensity to be loud, especially when someone made a lewd joke, eliciting laughter. Someone had a mixtape on, selections that were both modern music meant to be happy and light, with some additions from way, way long ago, meant likely for old fogies like John. It worked; as he joked with Shen for what felt like the first time in weeks, she pointed at him.

When he asked her what it was, Shen said, “You’re swaying to the music!”

John almost glared at her. “No, I am not.” Then he stopped, realizing that he had been softly moving. Muttering something under his breath, John took a drink of his whiskey and tolerated the young woman laughing at him. As the party wore on, John found himself sitting next to none other than the only other woman he had ever lived in close quarters with.

Jane wasn’t nursing her liquor—far from it, the woman was knocking drinks back, had danced quite a few times with anyone who wanted to. She was rosy with happiness, liquor, and from her many bouts of dancing. Although he was aware that she knew him well enough not to do it, John tensed for a moment as she plopped down next to him, sure for a moment that she would ask him to dance , which he had absolutely no interest in.

“Hey there, wallflower.” John nodded over to her in answer, and was disappointed when she kept talking. “Came to say hi. You’ve been busy these last few days, which is too bad. Haven’t been able to talk to you before that, either.” When John didn’t say anything back, Jane sighed, drawing back dramatically. “Nice to see you too, Mr. Talkative. Let me get to the point, then. There is a small matter of a coupla hundred dollars on the line, so I’m gonna need to get a straight, honest answer outta you. Hopefully before the fall of ADVENT, preferably.”

John clenched his eyes shut. “Just what are you talking about?”

“Play dumb then. I just want to know how long you two’ve been together.”

John stopped, in the middle of drawing the tumbler of liquor to his lips. He knew as soon as he did it how guilty the movement made him look. Still, he sat the glass down and looked over at his drunken friend. “I don’t know how anything dealing with my private life is any of your concern.” God, was it just him, or did he sound guilty, like he had been asked if he was the murderer in some sort of a really bad whodunit?

Jane laughed, proving that his obvious—guilt?—wasn’t just something he could sense. “Oh, if I was dating someone, no one’d care. But you two, mmm,” she paused, taking a drink of her beer. “You’re you, and, well, Janis is… well, it’s Janis .” She leaned in closer to John, her eyes bright with liquor, her breath reeking of it. “We figure if we succeed, or if we fuck up, either way you two will be the people who’s picture adorns either all of the news or as the thumbnail ADVENT’ll use on their folders they keep on this incident. So you two getting together, that’s kind of big news. But could’ve saved you some time, asking one of us to just tell her that you wanted to be with her.”

John wanted to bury his face in his hands. The way she talked about them reminded him of how people once talked about pandas in captivity. That was, before ADVENT had stepped in to bio-engineer them into being capable of breeding more easily.

“I’m in a good mood right now, Kelly.”

Jane grinned, play biting the edge of her glass. “Oh, I know. You don’t have this cloud of hate and death swirling over your head at the moment.”

John paused, felt a muscle twitching involuntarily in his jaw. “Can you—please—go back to minding your own damn business?”

“Just tell me how long you guys’ve been together.” When John didn’t respond, she rolled her eyes, scoffed. “Look, it’s no secret, you two have had this tension between you... even before it became impossible to find you in your quarters at night. And before people couldn’t pass the Commander’s quarters without hearing someone having a loud orgasm .” She ignored John making choking sounds, continued, “So why don’t you just tell me exactly how many days it took before the two of you got it over with, and,” she mimed thrusting against the bar.

John closed his eyes and buried his blushing face in his hand. “ Kelly—

Jane ducked closer to him, resting a hand on his shoulder as she spoke, softer, to him. “Look, there’s no reason to be embarrassed about the inevitable. I just want to be the one who walks this old boy down the aisle, if you guys decide to do that. Don’t let anyone else try to guilt trip you to be Groom, or put up with any of that gender bias bullshit about “groomsman”. I kept you out of more trouble than you can ever appreciate, when I had to live with you and be your pretend wife.” When John groaned in misery, Jane continued, “So why don’t you tell me how long you guys have been together so everyone can lose that money that’s been burning a hole in their pockets and give it to me?”

Face still buried in his hands, John asked, “I don’t know. How long do you think it’s been?” He couldn’t believe those words were coming out of him.

“Mm. If either of you had had the guts, I was expecting to hear that you’d carried her to the quarters, Swamp Thing style, and had both of your ways at the same time the first night she could handle it. Not to insinuate that you’re a creep or anything, I just thought the tension would have been too much to sustain for longer than you seeing each other for the first time again.”

John finally drew his face out of his hands, remembering how Janis looked when she laid in the bed, her voice taken from her. He could remember feeling so bad for her, how he was on the verge of hating himself, seeing her waif-like body, thin from how long she had been in stasis, weakened. But he would be lying if the connotation that Jane was lending to that first meeting between them in two decades didn’t have John’s blood pumping heavy through him.

What if he had walked across the room as soon as he saw her lush, pale gold eyes open, and had instead told her his name, said that he missed her more than words could describe, and started to kiss her? His lips almost felt dry, as his imagination did leaps and bounds in his mind, imagining her kissing him back, a confusing and strange man, but one that she wanted on top of her…

“Hey,” Jane snapped her fingers in front of his face. “Can you be a little more considerate with that longing on your face, there’s a single woman sitting next to you.”

“Sorry,” John mumbled without thinking. “What—what did you want?”

Jane leaned in closer and asked, louder, “How—long—have—you—two—been— fucking ?”

John pushed his whiskey away, worried about the damage he would do to his reputation if he drank any more. Christ, what was wrong with him? He said, more as a way to get Jane to leave him alone with the painfully full erection in his pants so he could stand up sometime without a tell tale tenting in his slacks, “Been six days.”

Six days?” Jane scoffed and winced. “That sucks! I had you two pegged no more than three days after you met!” Before John could react, the woman had gotten out of her seat.

“Hey,” he called to her. “Where are you going?”

Jane called back at him, “I owe Shen more money than I have on me, now I have to go get the rest of it. Thanks , asshole!”

Embarrassed by her calling that out, John rethought his decision to not drink any more, this time slugging back the whiskey. No sooner than he drank it than he felt a hand on his shoulder. He knew, this time, that it belonged to one person in particular, so he turned around and tried to will a smile on his face.

This time it was her turn to look at him suspiciously. “Why’re you smiling like that?”

“Like what?” When she kept looking at him, John felt the fake smile fall off of his face. “Did you know that everyone here knows that we’re together?”

To his shock, Janis shrugged. “Yeah—I mean, we aren’t exactly subtle .” She motioned towards him as John’s mouth nearly fell open. “Not a big deal or anything. The day after we made love I went and talked to Tygan and Shen. They’re alright with it, as long as we don’t screw during a mission or have a big, emotional break up over it.” She grinned, an honest expression that made her dimples reappear in her cheeks. “Never thought I’d get a hall pass to screw the sitting Commander.”

“Oh, my god.” He had buried his face in a hand, sure he was beaming a bright red all over his face.

“Hey,” Janis knocked his shoulder gently with her fist. “It’ll be old news sooner than you think.”

He tried his best at giving the beautiful woman a glowering look and felt the mask of anger cracking on his face. He gave in finally, sighing. “Just wish—would’ve appreciated you talking to me about that first .”

Janis said nothing at first, walking around him until he felt like a whiff of her perfume hit him like a fresh breeze in the bar. She took a seat at the stool next to him, then reached over, tapping the bar counter until Masud appeared and sat a tall glass of sparkling lime-green water in front of her. She gave him a thumbs up and took a drink, with John staring, far too fixated on the shape of her lips around the tip of the straw she sucked from.

As though sensing his eyes on her, Janis softly said, “This behavior, John Bradford, is why it’s impossible to keep anything hidden in a place like this.” As though he had been caught doing something bad, John sat back, his face growing red once more. She rose her voice a few measures, said, “But the reason I had to go ask the heads of engineering and science if they were okay with an open relationship between me and you is because I couldn’t handle another devastating blow if they said that they were uncomfortable with it.”

John clung to his discomfort. “I don’t know, I just…” He sighed, clearly defeated. “It makes me feel like some kind of an exhibit at a zoo.”

Janis turned to look at him, a playful smile on her lips. “Oh, hunnie,” the unexpected pet name made John feel like his blood was pumping heavy in his ears. “They’re not on the other side of some glass. These people are our family, and judging by the people I’ve met thus far, no one would care about what we do on our own time.”

John suddenly recalled something Janis had said previously. He looked at her seriously and asked, “If they told you we couldn’t be together—it would’ve been a devastating blow to you?”

She rolled her eyes, taking another drink of the vodka concoction before she said, “Quit fishing for compliments. I spoil you more than enough as it is.”

A slow grin, the kind that looked more than a little malicious on his mug, started at one of the edges of his lips. It was true; Janis knew the right ways to seduce him, had proven thus far to be an incorrigible distraction. Still, he asked the same thing he knew Janis might never give him a straight answer to. “When are you ready to take Command back?”

Expecting a quick distraction from her, he was surprised when Janis was quiet, stirring the ice cubes in her drink into a mini green hurricane. After a strange pause, she said, without looking at him, “You tell me why you think I deserve the post over you.”

John, surprised by the question, struggled for a moment before he rose, eagerly, to the question. “You have the experience of running a place like this. You have people skills. You have respect. People really like that you came back from the dead. You’re a fighter, you’re—”

Janis cut him off, an annoyed look on her face, gesticulating with her hands as she spoke. “ Damn it , you people have got to stop saying that I “came back from the dead—””

“Can you let me talk? Forgive me, but you haven’t let me tell you why you’re the only person fit for the job and now you want me to tell you. So, let me tell you.” He waited until Janis sat back in her stool before he continued. “You’re a symbol, yes, of a time before ADVENT, but you’re so much more than that, Janie. You’re the best person for this job, we won’t ever— ever —find someone who understands a situation just like this better than you. Everyone is broken down, depressed.” He stared at her, felt like he was trying to look into her soul. Knew that he had to talk her into this before tomorrow or else knew, somehow, that they wouldn’t succeed. “Some of us know things about how everything is now that you don’t, but that can be taught. And—I want to teach you. Anything you might want to know. I won’t be so cordial to whomever might try to take your position next.” He felt a sudden brush of embarrassment, always aware that his hero worship of the woman in front of him had a habit of coloring how he looked to others. Had always been afraid it would scare her off.

John continued, saying, “Or Shen, Kelly, Tygan, any of them could tell you anything you want. What none of us have is the ability to keep all of us together.” He laughed reflexively. “Keep me from maiming someone, Tygan from getting hit in the head by Shen. We’re all misfit toys, we need you to keep us together.”

Janis’ eyes looked like they were warm, glowing with emotion. Then she looked away and John thought that she was going to start to cry. Panicked, John leaned in closer to her and she surprised him by asking in a low voice, “I failed us all. And I was their science experiment. Johnny, what’ll happen if I—if I go berserk, if they turn something on in me?” She looked up at him and he discovered that her eyes were swimming, filled with tears that had not yet fallen. “You deserve someone better to lead you.”

John didn’t have an answer to what she told him, only knew that he could offer her himself. He leaned forward so that he swept her close to his chest in case she started to cry. He rubbed her back, discovered that the itching he had been feeling in his eyes had been his own tears as they fell down his cheeks.

Barely suppressing his own moan, John shuddered and whispered, “No, no, I failed you, I failed you.” He felt her softly rocking against him, as tears he knew that she had been holding back for far too long came out of her. At some point he lost his own ability to hold his own back and he started to weep, their bodies shaking together in an uneven rhythm.

He didn’t know how long they spent together like that, but at some point she spoke, her voice cracked. “What if I’m not myself any more? What if I hurt you while you slept one night? They could’ve… put something inside of me, something they could use to control me.”

John almost crushed her to him, wishing that he could go back in time, wished that he could stop any of them cutting into her, hurting her, breaking her heart and stealing decades of her life. He felt that dream of saving her palpably almost every day of his life, but for what felt like one of the first times, he just felt sad about it, minus all of the rage he usually felt when he thought about his failure at saving Janis, failing XCOM, failing humanity. He realized as he held her that this is what he had been denied being able to feel for so long. Understood, instinctively, that this was an aspect of his humanity, a part of him that had been lost or tainted.

Finally, he answered back, “You won’t. You won’t.”

Against his chest, Janis softly asked, “How do you know?”

John shook his head. “You don’t understand. You’re here. That’s enough of a miracle.” He grabbed her hand, pressed it against the grip of his knife, always on his chest for ease of access. “Feel this? This is for you, Janie. I promised… When you left…” He felt the earlier damnable tears returning, trying to choke the words from his throat. Words he needed to speak. “This is for you. I promised—I promise—to live up to our credo. I’m going to be forever vigilant. I’m going to do whatever it takes, I’ll protect XCOM.” He leaned his head down until he was whispering into her ear. “Even if you don’t want me someday, I’ll protect you. I’ll always be there for you.”

It didn’t occur to John as he sat there that there were people who could see them. Luckily, everyone else understood the importance of what they were seeing and no one bothered them, huddled onto each other like two lovebirds trying to keep warm in the gloom of the night.

Janis finally pulled away from his chest, looking up at him with eyes luminous with tears. “That’s what I’m supposed to say to you , Johnny. I was supposed to be there for you. You were still so young, you deserved to be happy.”

John half-feigned a smile, one that he could feel proud of himself for later. “Like it or not, I’m the one with a decade more of experience. And the position of bodyguard along with Second Lieutenant’s been taken, by me.”

She stared into his eyes and he thought he could see something in them, the emotion that she had wept out earlier. She licked her lips, something resolute changing in her expression. “I’ll think about it.”

Think about it?” He softly chuckled, unable to believe that that was what she said. “What’s there to think about?”

Janis shook her head, face still wet with her earlier tears. “You’ll know one day how hard it is for me to even say that. Give me one more night to think about it.”

It hurt John, but he nodded. He couldn’t fake a smile this time, it took too much effort to push back the gloom, the sorrow that had laid a siege on him at long, long last. Still, he managed to say, “Alright. One more night.”

It took everything in him to not follow her as she left, swabbing at her face but still managing to walk away with that resolute stature and posture that he always admired. Still, once she left he felt like he could release a breath that had been trapped in his lungs.

Chapter Text

He wanted to be angry. He really did.

On top of Janis not showing up for the morning meeting, leaving John to awkwardly try to come up with a speech he had had no intention of having to give in order to stir everyone up on the base, she had left him the night before, retreating—of all places—to his old quarters. Which John himself had not gone back to, unless he needed a change of clothes, for a week at that point. She had locked herself in the room the whole night and no amount of pleading would get her to come out.

John spent the night sitting against the wall next to the door and he believed he had passed out at some point. Which made having to give a speech all the more fun.

And, it seemed, she wasn’t going to show up for the rest of this crucial first day, either.

As John walked from one end of the Bridge to the next, pacing like an inmate, he knew he was scaring the shit out of the crew. Someone had tried to ask him when they were going to head out and John just barely stopped himself from snapping at the poor young man who had asked it. Instead, John told him, in as soft a voice as he could manage, that they were going to wait another ten minutes before he would have to take formal control of their first operation.

When Tygan buzzed into his earpiece to inform him that they had waited longer than they should at the moment, it took a lot of John’s hard won patience to tell the man that they weren’t leaving yet. He wanted to say to the other man was to come up here and try to start XCOM on the right foot himself, along with a lot of expletives.

He took a seat in the Commander’s chair and massaged his forehead. He couldn’t believe this was happening. It wasn’t supposed to go like this. 

He couldn’t guide the rest of the Initiative, he could barely guide himself into making semi coherent decisions.

“Hey, what’s this?” John looked over at the source of the voice, felt his heart sink for a moment before he rose to his feet. He walked over to the man and let the technician explain what he found.

Goddamn it, Janie, where the hell are you?

They needed her. He needed her—

“Com—” the voice stopped, it was a female’s voice, one he recognized as being one of the Bridge crew’s members. As John turned to look at her he didn't censor the hostility in his expression until he saw the frozen look of terror on her face. As he sighed, relaxing the look on his face, she continued, saying, “C-Central, Shen wants to talk—seems there’s a part she needs that recon has identified in a supply caravan—”

John silenced her with a wave of his hand, starting to pace in front of the hologram station as he called Shen.

As he expected given what the member of the crew had already told him, Shen sounded breathless as she spoke. “Central,” she started. “I heard about what you guys found. I need to know how soon we can actually get moving , you have no idea what we can be capable of with it. We might be able to get what we need to fix this, get us in the air. I know you understand more than anybody how much of a target we’ll be if we do this like the original Initiative. Now that we’re operational, I really need to stress how much we’re going to need to be mobile—”

John carefully controlled his voice as he interrupted, “I heard you, Shen, when we get the thing, you’ll be the first to know.” He had paced in front of the main display when everything stopped as the world flashed a panic red.

Attention. An unauthorized presence detected.

Instinct kicked in at first and John wanted to reach for his knife. Something—the body language of the men around him—drew John to turn, to look at the entrance on the Bridge.

That’s when he saw her, late, but dressed for the part in the Initiative he had no desire to take. Hair bound up so that she looked, alluringly and respectably, unreachable, strong. Too beautiful for words.

She looked like the Commander, the rightful one. 

For a split second, it felt like it was twenty years ago, only this time he needed to welcome her back on the Bridge of the base she commanded.

He saw the panicked expression on her face as she flinched. He held a hand out, and, remembering that even he had to obey propriety on the Bridge, he walked towards her, as he called out, “Commander. Give me a second.” He looked up, addressing the ship—her ship—in as clear a voice as he could manage. “Execute Echelon protocol.” The room was bathed in a blue light, and John could feel it, the emotion he had been too afraid to anticipate since the night before. Relief.

Attention. Senior command exchange confirmed.

She walked to him, dressed in the Commander’s uniform that had been made for her, fitting her perfectly. She was dressed once more in Humanity’s olive-green, a beret resting naturally on her head with her long black hair drawn up in a bun, giving her an edge that nevertheless did nothing to how goddamn beautiful she looked. Her expression was almost blank, but as she neared him, a smile seemed to itch at the edges of her lips. She looked wary, deep in those feral eyes of hers, but that wariness was something that he was sure that someone who didn’t know her well enough would never be able to identify.

John found that he had to fight back his own smile. “I had wanted that to be a little more… ceremonious,” he gave her a knowing look and he could swear he could see her looking—somewhat—ashamed. “But we got something.” He pointed to the main display and told her about where the power converter had been discovered, all the while marveling at the fact that this was happening; it was really happening.



Janis had spent the night going from one extreme, both emotionally and with the decision she would have to make. She made the decision last night and had meant to enter on time and declare her choice to return to the XCOM Initiative as the sitting Commander… except she must have fallen asleep.

When she awoke in a panic, saw what time it was, Janis shook as he got her uniform on, taken from her room as she decided she would spend the night in John’s old room—or, well, his correct room—and figure out what she needed to do the next day, shoving her hair into a presentable bun with shaking hands.

Getting to the Bridge, she hesitated as her eyes fell on John, who wasn’t aware of her presence. Everyone seemed to be in a beehive of energy and she realized that something had happened. Still, she couldn’t unlock her eyes from John, standing near the center. Looking like this was exactly where he belonged. When she walked up and watched in horror as the room flashed red, Janis nevertheless looked at John for guidance, watched as he made the command switch over. Saw the warmth in his eyes as he beckoned for her to come to his side. Right where she belonged, as though this place, the base of XCOM, were their true home.




Four Months Later

 

“Ooh, that’s right,” Janis cooed playfully. “come to mama.”

The squaddie gave Janis a look of disbelief before he cracked into a loud peal of high pitched laughter. “Oh my god , Commander —”

She ignored the man, who had disintegrated into a laughing fit, shaking with it. She took the mic from him and gave her thankfully unbound hair a toss for effect before she pressed her finger on the song choice on the holoscreen. Clearing her throat, Janis prepared as the first bumping beats of Chromeo ’s “Old 45’s” blared on the speakers. Suppressing her own laugh, Janis started to sing, dancing in a bob to the beat.

After all, this wasn’t just a chance for her to have fun. She had to do this, for the good of the morale of the soldiers and crew.

It had been a rough week. Janis had known that things wouldn’t be easy, as they were up against a literal fascist Alien regime, but even she would have to admit to feeling like they would never complete a mission without losing someone or some artifact they could have desperately needed. When she had come into the bar, the place felt more like a funeral.

As she got to the song’s bridge, Janis located her target in the bar, sitting in his usual bar stool, watching her sing with all of the gusto she had in her too-tall frame. Snapping her fingers towards John, she watched as his eyes widened. She could see the displeasure on his face, the plea for mercy. There was no mercy to be found for the Lieutenant, who was going to have to bear the burden of moral boost alongside his Commanding Officer.

As he rolled his eyes and got to his feet, those seated around him clapped. It made John turn a very tempting shade of red, and Janis watched him as she sang a song effortlessly from memory, walking with his pronounced limp to her. He had, months ago, referred to himself and everyone in the bar as a misfit toy. It gave Janis pleasure to think of him that way, a fellow, strange thing that didn’t belong anywhere else but together with her and with the rest of the other misfits.

Janis, who knew she didn’t have a voice for singing, nevertheless sang out, “...you only see schmucks, and you've really had enough. It's not adding up, and you just don't understand. Straight shooter, he's a straight shooter—Cut to the chase, and he asked if he could do her—P.S., he had a ring on his left hand…” Loud laughter followed that verse, and if Janis were capable of shame she should have been embarrassed at least a bit to sing it.

As John walked up to her, a look in his heavy brown eyes that told her this had better be worth it, Janis handed him the mic. As she hoped, John wrapped an arm around her—a wonderfully possessive gesture, even in a room of their co-workers—and he sang along.

“If you think romance is dead and go-o-ne, find an old jukebox full of 45's, pop a nickel in it and it all comes back to me…”

They took turns at the mic, John aiming it at Janis and Janis swerving it back to him as they finished the song, both barely able to contain their laughter. As the song ended, both discovered that the sudden decision to turn the karaoke machine on worked. Everyone in the bar laughed and clapped them at the end of the song, and both saviors of the bar’s morale walked back to the bar to indulge in a celebratory drink. Janis hardly noticed that John had not removed his arm from where he had held her to him until he leaned over and stole a kiss from her as she had ducked her head to laugh at a joke an engineer told them.

If the singing had done something to revive the moods of the people in the bar at least for the night, a kiss from John felt like it did the job for her. Laughing as she broke the kiss off, Janis knew deep in her bones that they would be continuing from where they left off earlier that night. The connotation of future intimacy left Janis with a shuddering anticipation from the continued weight of her lover’s arm around her.

Sure enough once it was time to head back to their quarters—John’s old room now turned over for much needed space for someone else—they hardly made it to the bathroom for a much needed shared shower before John had pinned Janis to the wall and was kissing her as though she were his source of oxygen.

“Ho-hon-honey,” Janis managed to barely pant out between rough kissing. “We need to get our clothes off if we’re gonna take a shower—”

John nodded, his hands clasped around her thighs. “You’re right. We need to take our clothes off.” Before Janis could get prepared, John maneuvered her torso, had pulled her uniform out of where it had been tucked in. She shrieked as the shorter, albeit stronger, man picked her up by her ass with one arm and had pulled her shirt and camisole off with practiced ease with the other.

“Bambi, we’ve done this almost every night for the past month—”

John sat her feet back down on the ground and resumed his earlier kissing, leaving Janis’ mind a buzzing catastrophe. Finally he pulled away, breathing heavily as he said, “What, you getting bored?” When Janis shook her head, he panted, then asked, “Feeling sore, Commander?” When Janis reached forward and nipped him playfully on his rough, stubbly chin, he let out a groan. “Must not be feeling sore or tired, you wanna tease me.”

She helped him get undressed—as she had once told the man, there was no point to being naked in the cold recycled air alone—and they somehow got to the shower stall. Once they got inside, John started to resume kissing her before he broke it off, gently bracing her chin with his hand.

“We have the luxury of a full night tonight.” That was true. They were headed back to a comm station where they would be waiting for intel from a skilled network of informants. “I think we can do better than a quickie.”

Janis couldn’t resist the grin that stretched, Cheshire-like, on her face. “What did you have in mind?”

“If you’re up for it—I mean, if it’s alright—”

“Spit it out.”

She saw it in his eyes, the moment his entire being transformed. John, not a man who was taller than her, nevertheless exuded a persona in the confined space that was totally male, dominant. A smile, one that felt somehow sinister, slipped along his mouth. “You might have to use that safe word.” He said it softly, his voice nevertheless a warning.

Janis had to suppress a giggle. It wasn’t funny to her; to the contrary, the sound was more from a promise of danger was both nerve-inducing and irresistibly dangerous. The safe word, chosen on a whim based on a momentary, anxious slip on John’s part when he was trying to tell Janis how he felt about her, was “Sectoid”. To this point, Janis had never had a chance to say it... but she had, on one occasion, left John hoarsely crying it out well over a week ago when she had decided that it was time to make his ass her plaything.

Some part of her had wondered when it would be her turn to face the music for finding one of John’s thresholds of pleasures. It had been a day she had been anticipating.

“Promise?” She almost forgot the danger she could see in John's eyes, reaching over and sliding her hand along the harsh edge of his chin as she liked to do whenever she had the chance. She was surprised when John grabbed her wrist in a gentle but firm grasp. He almost tricked her; the firm, stern look on his face nearly made Janis’ heart stop in her chest.

Not letting go of her wrist, John pushed her, pressing until he guided her to turn her back to him, maneuvering her wrist until he held it against the small of her back. From behind her, John growled out, “You did a miserable job in training today.”

It took Janis a moment to understand what he meant, but when it clicked it sent a shiver down every part of her body. “Did I? I wasn’t aware you were my C.O—”

John tightened his grip on her wrist, just enough to get her attention, never to hurt. When she stopped talking, John trailed the fingers of his other hand down her spine, past her bound wrist. “You’re anything I want you to be. Understand that?” Janis wanted to moan in response, but immediately started to play along as if by instinct, nodding. “I watch your form. Think I have an idea for an… exercise I can show you.”

Janis’ mind felt like it was drowning in anticipation, in surprise. Fantasies of John taking control like this had formed in her mind throughout the weeks they had spent together, but she had started to wonder if the man would ever feel comfortable enough to play along with a too willing partner. To boot, she felt the undeniable implication of this fantasy he was indulging them both in. Recalled how he had once told her that his feelings for her had begun back when he was a young man who had come as a half-willing, directionless recruit ten years her junior.

Biting her lip to keep from moaning or whimpering, Janis asked, “What did you have in mind?”

John’s loose hand dropped to her ass, fingertips lightly dragging across one cheek. As Janis realized what he was about to do, she let out a shocked gasp. No sooner than she was about to jut her ass out than John pressed up against her, speaking in a husk whisper.

“Are you sure you’re okay with this? 'know you said you were okay with “rough stuff”, said you’re not made of glass—”

Instead of perhaps whimpering out “Sectoid” as he might have been expecting, Janis pressed back against him and cried out, “Oh fuck, spank me, daddy!”

The only vocalization John let out was a heavy intake of breath as he drew away from her. In what felt like a second, Janis’ cry was answered by a full hand swat on her right ass cheek.

Not quite expecting the assault on her ass, Janis drew forward instinctively, thighs squeezing together tight. Fuck! Back when Janis had fucked women and had the very occasional girlfriend, she had not been shy about telling them that she had a propensity for pain, both giving and taking it. Any that had the guts to spank her were often rewarded with Janis turning into a mewling mess. Nothing like seeing your boyfriend squeal like a girl.

Behind her, John stuttered, again dropping the facade it seemed like he had been so eager to take on. “I didn’t—didn’t hurt you, did I—”

“God-damn it,” Janis snarled between clenched teeth. “If you’re going to hit me, you need to do it harder .”

Nearly breathless, the man behind her proceeded to slap and spank her protruding ass in a frenzy with either side of his fingers and his open palm, all while maintaining a grip on her wrists with his other hand. Janis didn’t know who was howling, until John had to stop to reach behind them and turn the shower on, shushing her, having to finally shove his fingers into her mouth when she didn’t obey.

Thank fuck he didn’t think she said Sectoid .

He reached forward then and started to roughly kiss the side of her neck until he made her squeal around his fingers as he latched his teeth against her neck and sucked, hard. As he pulled away, John said, beneath the sound of the hitting water, “You can’t be yelling like that…” He almost sounded calm, if not for how breathless he sounded. Or the fact that he had surely just left welts on her ass and neck.

The too cold water felt like icy blows falling on every part of her flesh it hit except for where it soothed the reddened flesh that was surely present where John had abused her ass. Her nipples, pressed to the cold glass wall, were so painfully hard whenever she rubbed against it it was as agonizing as the water. 

Around his fingers, Janis struggled to say, “Yeah, gonna have to put a gag in my mouth, gonna slap me around like that…”

John let out his own groan, removing his fingers from her mouth. “This feels dangerous—afraid I’m gonna hurt you or—” Panting, Janis felt as his saliva-slickened fingers traveled down her back, slipping between her relaxed thighs.

Janis almost jumped, feeling John bury his face against the nape of her neck. In a hoarse whisper, he said, “My god, Janie, you’re so wet ...”

“Well, it is a shower—” before she could get any more words out, John thrust his hips forward, letting go of her bound wrist, pressing her hand until she had braced it against the sliding glass. Janis realized what was coming only a few seconds before John had grabbed onto her hip with his other hand and she felt something too familiar pressing into her pussy.

Surprised, Janis let out a choked groan and reached her hand down to rub at her stiff clit in time for John to thrust all of himself inside of her and pull out. She felt like everything in her was electrified and she realized she was close to cumming.

“Ah—gonna, gonna—” She let out a squeal as she felt John rear back and with a loud, ragged release of breath, he brought his hand down across her ass with a hard slap. As he jerked his hips forward, hard, Janis felt it, a rare orgasm earned almost solely through insertion.

“Oh, fuuuuccckkk,” she cried, turning her face until she pressed it into her wrist, where she sobbed in relief at the unexpected release.

As she came down, Janis felt John thrusting hard inside of her, felt him pounding so hard that the ring he kept in a chain around his neck struck her back. The ring that Janis kept in a chain around her own neck bounced helplessly, hitting either curve of the breasts it hung between as John released his grip on her wrist, groping her chest with seeking, roughly using fingers.

It felt like they were trapped in their own heaven, as Janis’ mouth hung limply open. She wasn’t sure if she came again, but she experienced an earthquake-like tremble that filled her whole body and lead to her letting her own roar, rocking back against John as she rode him just as hard as he slammed into her.

Not a typical talker when they got this close, with John surely close to cumming, Janis nevertheless heard him ranting, low, under his breath. “Yeah, like that… my cunt… fuck…”

Janis loved hearing him spit out profanity when they fucked. It was like she had unleashed some part of him that the man, nowadays at least, kept safe, tucked inside of himself. A remnant of a very bad boy who liked to steal cars for fun. Didn’t help that she enabled it.

“Y...yeah? Sh...show me. Show me whose cunt this is.” God, the words leaving her mouth, filthy, made her clench tighter around him.

Without warning, John reached forward, forced her against the wall, stilled her from thrusting back against him.

Janis’ eyes rolled back in her head, unable to think about something as silly as the bruises she might get left with on her body—especially the telling one that she would be sporting on her neck. She was eager to feel John lose control inside of her, behind her.

It was like a bad nightmare, the sound of the siren blaring in the bathroom, bathing the room in a panic-red.

Janis gasped, dragged out of the fantasy that she had been living. “Ah—”

John grabbed the side of her neck, then his fingers again found their earlier place, sliding into her opened mouth with shocking ease. She moaned around the fingers, feeling the tell tale rock hard quality of John’s cock inside of her. Couldn’t believe that he was actually going to cum inside of her as they were being summoned onto the Bridge for an emergency.

About to either give into her own pleasure and desire to feel John lose himself inside of her, or cry out “Sectoid!”, Janis felt as the conundrum was solved, seconds after the alarm had sounded.

The feel of John cumming in her erased, for a brief moment, the panic induced by the alarm sounding.

Janis came out of her own haze, wondering if the pleasure of feeling completely full of John had made her cum again. It seemed as though she became aware of the alarm anew as John drew out of her, leaving her feeling empty. Then he clutched her arm, turning her around.

John, his face freshly rosy and with a familiar gleam in his eyes, said, “Well, I think that’s our cue.”

Nodding, Janis opened the shower, heard as John turned the shower off. Having only a brief moment allowed to swab the remnants of their coupling from her thighs and inside of herself, Janis watched as John strode out of the bathroom, looking as emboldened and strong as though he were an animal sauntering through his territory. She made sure to spend a brief moment admiring the curves of John’s naked ass as he walked away.

He called out, over his shoulder as he pulled his trousers on without any underwear, “Planning on joining me any time soon, Commander ?”

Janis chuckled, shaking her head as she muttered under her breath, “ Someone’s getting too comfortable after indulging in certain fantasies.”

John, who she watched zip up his trousers, turned to look at her. “What’s that?” Luckily, Janis knew he couldn’t hear her over the damned alarm.

She smiled at him and entered the main area, wondering if she had a chance to pull on any underwear herself before deciding to follow John's example and threw her uniform on without anything underneath. As Janis was getting into her boots, she was very much aware that her Lieutenant was waiting next to the door, ready to go for who knew how long this would take to deal with.

Already anxious by the alarm that wouldn’t stop blaring, Janis hurried as John held the door open for her. As they jogged down the hallway to the short distance to the Bridge, Janis remarked to John, “Haven’t had one of these in a while.”

John answered back, “All we can hope is that some time sensitive resource was found.” He was right; the potential, unthinkable alternatives were what had Janis’ heart racing in her chest.

When they reached the Bridge, both were greeted by a familiar sea of red light bathing the whole room. As soon as both walked in they were greeted by a member of the Bridge crew. “Hopefully you’re both—” she stopped talking, her gaze seemingly stuck on Janis’ head. Janis realized too late that her hair was likely wet—almost certainly, dripping wet with cold water.

Clearing her throat, Janis said, “I think we’re feeling straight—sober.”

John added, “We got our mind clear when we had a shower.” Although suspiciously close to a joke, Janis thought that John had not meant it to be one on purpose. Nevertheless, she had to fight to not burst out laughing.

In spite of the unceasing alarms, the Bridge member stared at them, blinking, then numbly said, “You had… a shower.”

Not in the mood for this stunned reaction—frankly, Janis was just surprised that anyone, even the new people, had no idea about the “special situation” that the Commander and the Lieutenant had together—she reached forward until her hand rested on the woman’s upper arm. “What’s the situation?”

Only then did she have to wonder if she reeked of sex. Too late to worry by that time.

Blinking, the woman came to her senses and pointed to the main display. Both Janis and John moved briskly, walking past the obviously newer member of the crew, approaching a more senior member of the staff who was looking at some coordinates on the display.

John spoke out first, forever Janis’ mouthpiece, or perhaps more accurately, her guard. “Tell me what I’m looking at, people.”

As both were cued into the details of the new opportunity that had appeared only a few minutes ago, eventually the alarms went off and the decision was made to leave select members of staff to help with people who were still on the ground. They would have no choice other than to set off a day away to the location described in the intel they had just gotten. After all, XCOM didn’t get where it was by not taking calculated chances.

Nevertheless, Janis hovered over the personal holographic display, reading the report that had come in, detailing the resources that they would supposedly find at the site: as long as they arrived in no more than a few days. Else risk everything getting seized by ADVENT.

It would be a day before they reached the site, but to Janis, it never got any easier. She rode a shot of adrenaline, left over from the blaring alarm and the same fear that took hold of her at times like these. The fear, always present in even situations like a drop, was that they would end up in the snare of some trap.

As she stared at it, always wondering in the back of her mind what was real or an ambush, she felt the brush of a familiar touch on her hand. Glancing over, Janis saw John’s hand grazing her left hand, sliding until it fit against her own. Before she could ask what he wanted, John leaned in close and softly whispered to her.

“It’s cold in here and you’ve chosen not to wear a bra.”

“So?” Janis, realizing what he must have meant, looked down and saw the twin peaks that poked out of her uniform. “Oh, my god.”

John, his voice barely perceptible to most, but to Janis she could hear the note of humor as he spoke, said, “Don’t worry. I’ll go get your jacket.”

Janis winced, grabbing onto his wrist before he left. “No, I walked out like this—”

John freed himself of her grasp, saying before he left, “They need their Commanding Officer. I’ll be right back.” In spite of his kind words, Janis didn’t miss the warm, humored smile that started on his mouth.

Janis sighed as she turned, watched as John left, drawn for a brief moment by the sight of his now familiar, uneven gait. Instinctively, she crossed her arms over her chest, mortified by the thought that she was standing on the Bridge like Barbarella, in front of much of her staff with her nipples exposed as hard points in her uniform. Great.

Some of these days were honestly easier than others. She could remember too easily how once commanding XCOM had felt like a second nature to her. Had, in truth, reveled in the wild danger of it, felt like their continued existence was a gamble that she just kept doubling down, rode like some pirate queen as they fought back an alien menace that had been an invasion. Now, Janis often still had to struggle to keep her inner turmoil from feeling like it was pouring out of her, obvious surely to anyone who looked at her.

The fear, that they would once again lose, this time as the last vestige of hope for humanity, was not her only fear. In truth, Janis had never lost the fear that ADVENT had somehow left her as a booby trap meant to be found, would either explode from some device left planted in her or that she would lose her will, once turned on like some automaton, and would proceed to kill anyone who happened to be near her.

Likely, she knew, that person would be John.

As she felt her breath speeding up in her chest to think about it, a familiar refrain entered her thoughts. Intrusive thoughts. Yes, as the therapist they had picked up had taught her, such things were never going to go away all at once. As the (mostly) bi-weekly sessions had taught Janis, she could learn to contain and deal with the old, horrible memories and the fears of what she was capable of in order to put on a facade to the outer world. The hope was that, one day, Janis would grow to believe in it herself, that it wouldn't be just a mask.

As she struggled to continue reading the report, Janis became aware of the still wet, cold weight of the chain inside of her shirt. Glancing around for a moment, Janis reached under the collar of her shirt and drew out the chain, and the ring that was attached to it.

Looking at the simple gold band, Janis turned it to the side until she saw the inscription engraved in the inside of the ring. A familiar, too important phrase in latin, engraved specially by Shen herself down in the tech lab three weeks ago, felt like it filled Janis with a warmth to look at. Vigilo confido . Always vigilant, that was indeed a desire that was more personal to Janis than it being just the creed of XCOM.

As she looked at the ring, one of a pair which had been given to her by the man who was currently grabbing her something to wear, Janis felt an excitement start, low in her chest as she thought about the promise of the rings that both she and John had promised to not wear on their fingers. Not until the day, not “if”, but when, ADVENT was gone, and their jobs, a vengeance for many who had died so they could be where they were, was complete.

The ring was a reminder that ADVENT, as well as the intrusive, obsessive thoughts that she knew John also dealt with in his own ways, were impermanent things. That a love that lasted for over thirty years in some way or another had outlived the invasion and would continue, once ADVENT was a thing of the past.

She was busy rubbing the ring between her fingers when she was startled by the sound of boot-clad feet hurrying up to her. Janis almost managed to put the ring back underneath her uniform when she felt someone clap a jacket over her shoulders.

“Here,” John said, coming to stand next to her. “I’ll—” he paused, and Janis could feel his gaze on her hand as it touched his gift to her.

As Janis, embarrassed, tried to put the ring back, she watched as John reached inside of his sweater and pulled his own chain and ring out.

He held it in his hand, gazing down at it. Chuckling softly, he said, “Sometimes, I can’t believe it’s here, either. When I’m alone, I end up pulling it out, looking at it. It’s like a reminder that my nightmares are in the past. That there’s only blue skies ahead for us, one day.” He turned, looking at Janis with soft, warm brown eyes. “Can’t believe I’m actually wearing it some days. It feels… alien.”

Before he could realize what he said, Janis felt a smile stretch on her lips. “The good kind, I hope.”

John’s expression broke as he almost laughed, grinned. “You’re goddamn right it is.”

Before anyone could say something more, they were interrupted by someone calling out to them. Janis, almost feeling guilty for what always felt like a brief respite of joyous pause from a world of otherwise coldness, hurriedly put her ring back under her uniform and drew her jacket tighter around her before she turned to look at the approaching crew member.

As they spoke, Janis was very aware of the presence of the man standing next to her. An anchor, a savior, a set of wings all her own, John Bradford was all of those things and more. At the moment, acting only as Central, the hard-nosed and thoroughly pragmatic Lieutenant of the Initiative, John was a comforting presence for a Commander who knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that she would never have accepted the role if not for him.

At some point everyone moved to separate, work on different aspects of executing the new plan. As they moved, Janis obviously surprised John when she reached over, grabbing him by the back of his head. She kissed him deeply, remembering too easily, even in their circumstances, the time they had shared only twenty minutes before.

John kissed back, as always, seemingly eager to keep kissing her as long as she wanted, only stopping when Janis pulled away from him, panting softly.

John smiled at her, a slightly wicked, lustful reward for the unexpected show of intimacy. Propriety be damned, everyone on the ship either knew what they did when they were alone or would soon know. After all, Janis was not about to waste any more time she had with the man she loved.

John, whispering in a husked voice as he ducked his head close to hers, said, “You have to watch yourself, Commander. I’m already distracted enough tonight after the time we shared.” He pulled away, then, hesitating, leaned back in and whispered, “If we’re stuck up here all night, we can sneak away for “coffee” once we know things are fine.” For emphasis, John reached out, lightly dragging his fingers down Janis’ jacket-clad forearm. “Would you be in the mood for coffee ?”

Janis felt an unintended giggle burst out of her. Not worried about it being heard, Janis leaned closer and with her own grin, said, “I don’t care if we’re stuck up all night. You know I’m always up for the coffee you make.”

Before either could continue the ridiculous conversation in weak euphemism, Janis was called over to look at the plans for take off. As soon as she had a chance to, she found herself searching the room for her Lieutenant, found him standing in front of the globe display. Was only partially surprised when she realized he was looking at her, a look of warm recognition on his face as he lightly smiled at her.