"You ready, Bucky?" Steve asked, glancing over to his co-pilot.
Bucky, cocky as ever, grinned back at him. "Always. Let's go kick some Kaiju butt."
"American Shield, ready," Steve said.
"Copy, American Shield," Stark said, his voice distorted slightly by the radio. "Let 'er rip."
The helicopter ride to the site of the kaiju sighting was short, and filled with the usual banter between Bucky and the 'Howling Commandos,' the shatterdome's team of chopper pilots. Dum Dum hung out of the belly of the center chopper, machine gun in hand, watching for any surprises that might pop up from the surface of the ocean. "You've got four confirmed kaiju kills, American Shield, that's one less than than Helios Thunder. You gonna even that up today?"
Bucky laughed. "Dugan, I guarantee that by the end of the day that Hammond and Raymond will have nothing to brag about."
Steve frowned, his chest tightening in a way it hadn't since Erskine's treatment had cured his asthma and given him a body that could match the strength of his will. Something wasn't right; he could feel it in his bones.
Bucky felt his disquiet through the drift, and turned to look at him. His voice in Steve's head was soft. "Hey, Steve, it's gonna be fine. We got this."
Steve couldn't help but smile at the rush of affection running through the drift toward him. "Yeah, you're right," he answered in kind. "Let's do this."
They intercepted the kaiju more than five kilometers from the shoreline, and the Commandos dropped them into the sea. The fight was brutal, but relatively quick; Steve had barely worked up a sweat when they powered up the plasma caster and shocked the monster into submission.
"Yeah!" he heard over the comms, and he couldn't suppress his smile.
"That's five, Steve, we did it!" Bucky yelled, turning to grin at him. Through the drift, he could feel Bucky's elation, overshadowing the ever-present feeling that he wasn't good enough, would never be good enough. In this moment, though, James Buchanan Barnes was on top of the world, and Steve was happy to be with him.
And then it all came crashing down on their heads.
The kaiju they'd thought was dead burst up from the ocean, roaring in anger. Steve and Bucky tried to shift back into a fighting stance, but the monster's tail wrapped around the jaeger's midsection from behind and spun them away. They managed to keep the jaeger upright, but in doing so, were unable to defend from the kaiju's next attack. Its huge, armored head rammed into the jaeger's midsection, where the nuclear power core sat. Bucky and Steve brought the jaeger's left elbow down hard on the kaiju's vulnerable neck, driving it to its knees.
"Damn, Steve, it's a fighter," Bucky said as they kicked out, sending the monster several body lengths away. It stood up and shook its head as if to clear it, then roared a challenge to the sky.
Stepping in unison, Steve and Bucky stomped toward the kaiju. "Power up the plasma caster," Steve shouted as they threw a punishing right hook at the monster. It fell back, and the jaeger followed, plasma caster humming as it charged.
The kaiju used the momentary pause to launch itself at their jaeger, aiming for the left arm and its plasma caster. Bucky screamed in pain as its teeth sunk into the metal like nothing, then jerked his head to the side and ripped it off. Steve felt his own left arm go numb through the drift, and the voices of Command in his ear faded into so much background noise. He brought the jaeger's right arm around and wrapped its fingers around the kaiju's neck, digging into thick, reptilian flesh.
"Bucky!" he screamed, doing nothing more than holding the monster at arm's length while he felt for Bucky's mind in the drift. "You gotta come back, buddy, you can't chase the rabbit!" Even as he started to reach for Bucky's mind inside the drift, the kaiju's clawed hand ripped open the conn-pod, the metal-on-metal screech horrifically loud in Steve's ears. Helplessly, he saw that same hand wrap around Bucky's body and pull him away, tossing him carelessly into the ocean.
It was suddenly eerily quiet in his head, the comforting background of Bucky and his mind gone, tossed into the cold Arctic sea with his body. Reeling, Steve squeezed tighter around the kaiju's neck with the jaeger's remaining arm, squeezing with all the anguish and pain and fear in his body. The kaiju gasped for air and flailed its arms ineffectually, slashing razor-sharp claws toward the wrecked conn-pod. After far too long, it gasped its last breath, and Steve tossed its body into the ocean and stomped on it, crushing its ribcage and skull, and turning the ocean kaiju blue.
His mind began to buckle under the strain of holding the neural handshake alone, but Steve refused to give in. He gritted his teeth and began walking the jaeger toward the shore, each step more miserable and lonely than the last. It felt like an eternity before the coastline came into view, and the relief was so sharp, Steve thought he might cry.
As soon as he felt the ocean floor slope up toward the beach, he let go, and the jaeger crashed to its knees before falling forward. Steve struggled to unhook himself from the conn-pod, his head throbbing and vision blurry. He crawled out the gaping hole where Bucky had been torn from him onto the cold, wet sand of the Alaskan beach and lay there, gasping for air.
After several minutes, he realized that the buzzing in his ears was actually Stark's worried voice, asking him what had happened and where he was. Steve pulled himself into a sitting position, leaning against the jaeger's metal body for support. "Bucky's gone," he said, voice rough with emotion. "The kaiju pulled him out of the conn-pod and out of the drift. I'm on the beach. Alone," he added, though it was unnecessary. Of course he was alone; his co-pilot was floating in the cold and unforgiving waters of the Arctic Ocean.
"Bucky," he breathed, closing his eyes and searching futilely for the drift. "Need you, Buck," he mumbled, words slurring together as he started sliding toward unconsciousness. "Need you so much."