Steve is sixteen years old when the first Kaiju attacks San Francisco.
He and Bucky huddle in front of the crappy television at the shitty Brooklyn halfway house they’re living in with clenched fists, set jaws. There’s nothing they can do but hope and pray with everyone else and when it’s finally taken down they try and get on with their lives. They’re too young to join the service – to help fight, they’re too young and poor to get down to ‘Cisco and help in the reconstruction efforts.
Steve hates feeling useless.
After the second attack and then the third Bucky gets them fake ID’s and they enlist. Becoming Jaeger pilots is a no brainer.
Their first drift is intense, he’s known since Bucky forever but suddenly they’re one - Bucky’s him the day his mother dies, gasping her last breath – Steve’s Bucky the day his mother leaves, the day his father spends the last rent cheque on beer – there are no secrets between them, nothing left unsaid and it feels right.
Their Jaeger is a Mark-2, Howlin’ Commando, they take down their first few Kaiju’s with ease – then another and another.
They’re practically superheroes with five kills, they go on talk shows and news programmes, they sign autographs and even have their own groupies. Not bad for two kids from Brooklyn.
(At some point he and Bucky start sleeping together – Steve’s never been able to pinpoint exactly when their bond became something else, something deeper but he knows it was sometime after their first Drift. There was something about that emptiness they felt when they were parted that had them scrabbling at each other, desperate for something to get that closeness back. They’re both desperate for that connection again, too wired to sleep and maybe they’re trying to escape each other’s nightmares but they stop sleeping in separate bunks and one day they get back to their room to find a crappy double mattress where their beds should be – they don’t ask but they’re grateful.)
It’s inevitable that they lose one day, Steve’s seen pilots far better than they are taken down but it’s still a shock when it happens.
It’s a Tuesday, 4.am. a Kaiju is heading towards L.A. – a category three with six arms and razor sharp claws.
Steve doesn’t know where it goes wrong but suddenly it’s tearing through the Conn-pod and all he can feelhearsee is Bucky’s pain, Bucky’s fear, Bucky’s scream.
He feels Bucky being torn away and the pain is blinding – has him reeling (he can hear Colonel Phillip’s voice in the distance saying something but the words don’t make any sense because Bucky.)
For a moment he thinks Bucky’s gone.
But then their Jaeger is falling and there are alarms and sirens and the Jaeger A.I is repeating warning, warning, warning and oh god, his arm.
(They’re only saved by someone overriding their escape pods and the timely arrival of another Jaeger – Steve watches Howlin’ Commando get torn apart from a helicopter while Bucky moans and shakes in pain on a stretcher beside him.)
“I’m sorry, Steve,” Colonel Phillips says wearily, “Just got word from Commander Fury, they’re pulling the plug on the Jaeger programme, we don’t have the resources to fix her up.”
Steve leaves the programme. His Jaeger’s gone and anyway Bucky can’t pilot with one arm – he doesn’t want anyone else in his head, not after feeling that. (He keeps wondering what would have happened if Bucky had died – he thinks he probably would have died right alongside him – how could he not?)
The trouble is during a war you’re only important if you’re useful – they don’t get any help from the PPDC, not that they were expecting any. They head back to Brooklyn, rent a shitty apartment and lay low until Bucky’s complaining grinds Steve down.
“We’ve gotta do something,” he says one evening (they’ve just watched a Jaeger piloted by Peggy Carter go down just offshore of Alaska and Steve’s not sure how he’s supposed to feel.) “I hate sitting around like this, the worlds going to hell out there and we’re stuck watching.”
“You’ve got one arm, Buck,” Steve points out. “What are you gonna do?”
Bucky throws a pillow in his direction, “I didn’t say I was going to do anything, Mr Able-Bodied. What’s your excuse?”
You, Steve wants to say, he can’t leave Buck, it’s not safe for anyone who can’t defend themselves now. (He doesn’t say this though – Bucky would protest and then demonstrate that he was perfectly capable of defending himself thank you.)
“We could help out on the wall project,” Bucky suggests. “Well, you could. I’ll be your groupie.”
They’re only in Alaska for a month before Fury comes to find them.
“We need you, Rogers,” He says sternly. “You too, Barnes.”
Bucky snorts and snarks and Fury tells them about Hong Kong, tells them they’ll be pilots again. Before they go Steve pulls him aside, “I won’t Drift with anyone but Bucky, you know that right?”
And Fury just gives him a look and says, “Get in the chopper, Rogers.”
“We’ve got four Jaegers left including yours,” Fury says as he and Hill walk them through the Shatterdome.
“Four?” Bucky repeats, “No offense sir but that’s not gonna do much.”
Fury shoots him an annoyed look, “I didn’t say that was all we had, did I Barnes? Now shut up and follow me.”
The dome is bustling with activity and Fury indicates a massive black Jaeger to his left, “The Widow Hawk piloted by Clint Barton and Natasha Romanov.”
They’ve met Natasha before, Bucky’s Drifted with her twice when Steve was out of action, she gives them a small wave as they’re hurried past (which for her is practically a bear hug.) He’s only met Barton once but he’s heard a lot about him, a kill record of six with his past partner. He’d been the one who saved them that time. Steve never had thanked him properly for that. He’d been too caught up in Bucky.
The next Jaeger is a Mark 4, huge and bulky. “The God Hammer,” Fury explains, “Piloted by Thor and Loki Odinsson and the Iron Patriot,” he indicates the Jaeger opposite. “Piloted by Phil Coulson and James Rhodes.”
Steve’s heard of all them of course, Thor and his brother are the stuff of legends – eight kills, no breeches to the Wall they were defending in their six year long patrol. Coulson is new, an officer turned Ranger but Rhodes has been in it since the beginning.
“And here’s yours, the Howlin’ Commando.”
Steve thinks Bucky might cry. She looks as good as new, better, they’ve updated her – added new cannons, given her a new paint job.
“She’s good as new, Steve,” Bucky’s saying. “Look at her! Good as new!”
(But all Steve can see when he looks at the Conn-Pit is Bucky’s blood.)
“This is great, Sir, really, but I’ve already told you; I’m not piloting with anyone other than Bucky.” Steve says, ignoring Bucky’s dark look.
Fury quirks an eyebrow, “Have you met our research team yet, Mr Rogers?”
Their research team is a lot smaller than Steve remembers, two scientists, one intern, one mechanic. Granted that mechanic is Tony Stark but still, in Steve’s day they had whole buildings full of divisions and labs and simulators.
“Mr Rogers, Mr Barnes, I would like you to meet Mr Stark, Dr Banner, Ms Foster and Miss Lewis.” (You can call me Darcy, Miss Lewis interjects.)
Tony Stark has been in on this programme from the beginning, he helped develop the prototype, has had input on the weaponry of every Jaeger ever made. He takes one look at Bucky’s stump and nods, “I can have something by tomorrow.” Then he turns to Fury, “So now you’ve collected all your little heroes can we get on with what we’re all here for, please?”
Fury looks like he’s deciding whether or not to punch Stark but he must decide against it because he nods and says, “I’ll gather up all the necessary personnel and Stark, if you start any fights don’t think anyone will come and save you this time.” He sweeps out of the room.
“Noted,” Tony calls and Darcy comes up on Bucky’s left side and says, “So you lost your arm, huh? I watched that fight on T.V. you guys did awesomely.”
“Apart from the part where they got shredded, right?” Tony adds.
“Excuse me?” Bucky snaps and Steve steps between them – he doesn’t need them to start brawling in the middle of this very empty lab. “No, Steve, I wanna hear what the man has to say.”
Tony doesn’t look the least bit intimidated. “Your problem is that you guys are too hung up on following orders, you don’t think for yourself. You were too busy listening to that voice in your ear to notice that the thing you were fighting had a tail and that’s what brought you down,” he turns to Dr Banner, “Right, Bruce?”
Bruce wriggles uncomfortably, “Uh, well –”
“Oh, come on Banner, you’ve watched the battles as many times as I have. Don’t tell me you haven’t thought about their shortcomings.”
“Well, he does have a point...” Bruce mutters.
“Easy for you to say,” Steve snarls before Bucky can launch himself at Stark. “From in here with all your fancy equipment, you’ve got no idea what it’s like to be out there fighting those things.”
“Maybe not but at least I can think for myself, you’re just a mindless soldier, Rogers. You’re a gun, you get pointed and shot, I’m the guy who points you, who pulls the trigger so you tell me; who’s really fighting those things?”
“Guys,” Jane says, somewhat shakily, “Could you please stop this?”
“No! This is just getting interesting,” Darcy hisses and Jane swats at her.
“Alright,” Steve says (one hand on Bucky’s chest to hold him back) “How about we send you out there next time there’s an alert, see how well you do?”
Tony steps closer to him, dark eyes narrowed but before he can open his mouth Fury’s back and saying, “As enjoyable as it would be to watch Mr Stark being torn apart I’m afraid we can’t spare the technology.” He strides in, the other pilots trailing behind him.
“You wound me, Nick.” Tony says as he passes.
There are introductions and greetings and briefings and then they’re all seated and the research team step up. Tony begins, “See the thing is Bruce and Jane both think that the Kaiju’s are going to start coming through more frequently.”
Bruce nods, “The data suggests that we could see a double event soon and after that a triple and then – well, you can figure it out.”
“We’ve also worked out that the Kaiju’s have a sort of hive mind,” Jane takes over. “They’re all connected; they could potentially coordinate far better than we could.”
“Now we have trouble taking down one category four with a Jaeger – if multiple Kaiju’s start coming through we’re not going to be able to take it. This is our final offensive.”
“Why now?” Natasha interjects before anyone else can start talking. “I mean this is our end game, right? So what’s changed?”
Jane steps up and flicks the screen to show the rift between the two worlds, “We’re going after the portal. The Iron Patriot is outfitted with a nuclear device that we’ll detonate through the rift. It should destroy the tunnel linking our two worlds.”
“We’ve attacked the rift before,” Bucky interrupts. “It never worked.”
“Yes but we’ve studied the portal more, it stays open for a while after a Kaiju emerges and with what Bruce has found we think they’re preparing for something big.”
Jane’s science seems sound – it’s the first real hope Steve has had since this thing has started.
Bucky’s less optimistic, “It won’t work,” he murmers against Steve’s chest that night. “I mean come on, how do they expect it to work this time? All that’ll happen is us detonating a nuclear device and killing a bunch of fish – maybe a Kaiju or two if we’re lucky.”
Steve can’t afford to think like that. “Go to sleep, Buck.”
Bucky’s a little more optimistic the next morning when Tony outfits him with an automated arm. They’re given a few days to train – to get to know the other pilots and those days are mercifully Kaiju free.
It’s going great but then on the third day Fury says, “We need you two to do a test run.”
And Steve’s stomach drops. He’s not sure if Bucky really remembers the day the Kaiju they call Red Skull nearly killed him – he’s not sure how he’ll handle having those memories pushed on him again.
He bites his tongue and follows Fury and Bucky to the hanger, only half listening to Buck’s excited babbling.
Being back in a Drivesuit feels achingly right and stepping back into the Conn-pad feels like coming home.
Then it all goes wrong.
They Drift and Bucky slips – falls all the way down the rabbit hole and there’s blood and pain and screaming.
It’s no good, Steve thinks, this is never going to work.
It takes almost an hour for Bucky to come back to himself and then of course there’s Kaiju attack. The other three Jaegers are deployed and Fury shakes his head when Steve tries to argue, “We can’t have him freaking out in the middle of a battle, Rogers. You know that.”
They watch from Mission Control as Bruce’s predicted double event unfolds and Bucky’s hand never leaves his (and never quite stops shaking.)
They lose the Iron Patriot, it’s torn apart, lost under the waves. Tony puts his hand through a glass table and kicks a chair and roars.
Steve can’t sleep that night – he wanders around the dome once Bucky’s finally nodded off. The last person he expects to find in Tony, sitting in the empty space where Iron Patriot once sat.
Steve knows Tony was close to Coulson and Rhodes so sits down beside him, “I’m sorry,” he says quietly. He can smell the whiskey on Tony’s breath, thinks it’s probably not a good idea to leave him alone.
Tony nods, looking straight ahead; unshed tears in his eyes. “I should have built them better.” He mumbles. “Should’ve put in an automatic ejector or something. Now we’re ruined. It’s done. We’ve got no chance at beating these things. We lost an entire Jaeger today – plus we’ve got another two pilots out of commission.” He laughs hollowly, “So much for cancelling the apocalypse.”
Steve has no idea what to say that.
Steve wakes up to alarms blaring and Fury pounding on their door. “The triple event,” he says. “It’s happened. We need you.”
“Buck can’t go out there, Sir.”
“We know, Rogers. We’ve got you a suitable replacement – now suit up.”
Turns out the Howlin’ Commando has a nuclear core – that’s the game plan. Get through the portal (with a Kaiju because apparently it’ll only work that way) and detonate, ejecting before the core blows them to Kingdome Come.
Stark’s waiting for him in the Conn-pad, suited up, he offers Steve a wry smile and Steve just stares, “Do you even know how to do this, Stark?”
Tony waves a dismissive hand, “Of course I do. I designed them after all.”
“Neural handshake initialising,” Fury says and Steve closes his eyes as Tony sweeps over him – his father drinking, graduating M.I.T, building the first Jaeger, a woman with red hair, losing Rhodey and Phil. It takes a moment for him to find himself again, to sift through the memories and come back to himself and when he does he notices Tony’s gasping.
“First Drift?” he asks nervously (because he so doesn’t need a rookie.)
And Tony shakes his head, “Just different.”
They’re through the portal and something’s gone wrong, there are alarms and the A.I is bleeping about oxygen being low – his? Tony’s? (He can hear Bucky screaming and he knows it’s not real but he’s losing himself.)
”By hand,” Tony is saying, and there are hands on him. “I have to detonate it by hand.”
The words come together slowly and then make horrifying sense, “No,” he half-gasps. “You won’t make it. Let me– ”
But Tony’s already activated the escape pod and Steve’s vision is going dark.
He wakes up floating on the ocean, Clint and Natasha and Thor and Loki are floating nearby but there’s no Tony.
There’s a two minute countdown before a Jaeger detonates. It should take thirty seconds to for Tony to get back to the Conn-pad.
Two minutes to clear the blast radius.
It’ll take a miracle.
The pod resurfaces and Steve’s in the water before he can think it through.
He reaches the pod the same time as Thor and Natasha.
Tony is still.
“Is he alive? Rogers, is there a pulse?” Fury’s voice is static in his ear.
Natasha sighs, “No, sir. There’s no pulse.”
There’s silence and then Tony sputters to life.