Steve Rogers was one of the second line of Jaeger pilots; when hope was still bountiful and you could taste each victory in the air. He and his partner, Bucky, were close enough that they hardly even had to drift; it was like they already were. They knew everything about each other, which was probably why they were the best fighters anyone had seen.
The Howling Commando took down every Kaiju it faced. Steve and Bucky, once poor orphans in New York, were seen as rock stars. The best of the Jaegers. Their names would go down in history, it seemed.
Until Bucky was ripped away from Steve with a savage claw, tearing a hole in what felt like his soul at the same time.
Steve stumbled out of the Jaeger with a fog of fear coasting over his brain. Not his own fear, or, not only his own; Bucky’s fear as well. Oh, Bucky. No.
He looked up at the man standing in the snow and even though he knew it wasn’t, he looked like Steve’s father. Steve slid backwards on the cold ground, trying desperately to get away; both his and Bucky’s memories of abuse still fresh in his mind. The child running (the logical part of his brain said to get help) looked like a younger version of himself, scrawny and afraid.
Then he passed out and he -- thankfully -- didn’t have to think of anything.
The Russian Jaeger base, was, well, different than the rest. Not that those inside knew it, for they had never been anywhere else.
Each pilot at the base had been there from a young age; handpicked to save the world. But also to help the Russians, for they hadn’t exactly accepted the nations coming together for the greater good. When this thing ended, they intended to be on top, and so the soldiers would help them with this.
Natalia was the youngest pilot in the world, she was told, at only seventeen. Her strength and her mind more than made up for her age, however.
The first time she met her partner, there were no sparks or sudden realizations. A part of her whispered, he’s the one, and she settled for that. As they sparred for the first time, each touch of skin to skin sent a shiver through her thoughts, and when he laughed she felt the sliver of happiness inside of her, too.
Drifting was a strange experience for them both. She’d heard of people getting lost in memories, but when she looked into James’ mind, there was nothing. A blank slate. Empty.
She gasped and threw herself out of the Drift. Though James glanced worriedly over at her, he made no move to comfort or help. They were still connected, even if they weren’t wandering lost through each others memories anymore, and she could feel him mentally reaching out to her.
She put walls up around her mind to stop it. She didn’t need help. Not now or ever.
Natalia Romanova would be strong.
“Lets try it again,” she said, and the look on her face dared anyone to tell her no.
They took him away from her. Her James, gone.
It was hard enough being away from him for any length of time. Even when asleep, their dreams called out to each other and melded, so at least they were together in that; and when the dreams so often turned for the worse, they could comfort one another.
His absence from her mind woke her, and she realized it wasn’t absence at all: it was fear.
She ran through the halls, silent as a ghost, towards him. James, you’ll be okay, it’ll be alright, I’m coming James, James, James she thought as loudly as possible, praying to whatever gods are out there that he could hear her.
When she caught up to him, a pair of hands grab her arms. She felt the sting of a needle going into her arm as another pair of hands dragged James away, and she screamed out. James, I love you, she thought towards him, and there’s enough time to see him mouth Natalia before the world is gone.
She woke in a room with white walls and floors and ceilings and a door she was sure was locked.
She didn’t care about the emptiness of the room. The emptiness in her head was far more disconcerting. She can’t feel James at all, not the roar of thoughts from before she was taken or the simple nudge at the back of her mind that meant he was alright.
James, she screams inside her head, James you bastard, if you can hear me then please, oh god please tell me you’re okay. James! But she can only hear herself.
She allowed herself some time to break down, sitting on the floor and crying until she couldn’t anymore. James, her James, dead or gone or who knows.
When they came to give her a meager amount of food, she made her escape. They underestimated her, thought she was too broken without her copilot to fight. Thought her only use was inside a Jaeger.
Oh, how wrong they were.
The second the man opens the door, she leapt. Latched onto his neck with her arms before he could slam the door shut, and twisted.
The resulting crack was satisfying, and she let the body fall to the ground as she runs away.
They gave her a serum to make her live forever. She didn’t, doesn’t want it. Natalia fears few things, but a life without death was at the top of the list.
Her second worst fear has already been realized, and she decides at this moment that she will never again be anyone’s but her own.
Time passes, and she hides.
When did you become such a coward, Natalia?
Steve’s first thought after he wakes up is Bucky.
The reality comes crashing down on him that Bucky is gone, and he runs out of the room without so much as a glance at the nurse watching over him.
The Avengers Initiative is the world’s last hope at taking down the Kaiju. They’ve been getting stronger and harder to beat, and everyone is desperate.
Banner and Stark, the Initiative’s lead scientists, say it will only get worse.
Steve and Natasha (that’s her name now, Natasha; she can’t bear the weight of being Natalia any longer) drift into it and decide if they’re going to die, they might as well die in a Jaeger.
They end up as partners, though the others can hardly see how: on the outside, Steve seems like a soldier, and Natasha has never been anything but a spy. But it works for them. Because inside they're both broken without their former partner.
That's just the way their lives work. They've moved on, somewhat. As much as a person can ever move on.
Their first Drift is a shock for both of them.
As Natasha walks through Steve's memories, she sees James. Everywhere. In every thought he's had in the past few years.
She's in a back alley behind the movie theater, the one she and Bucky go to whenever they can scrape up a little money. A bigger guy is punching, oh, that's gonna leave a bruise, mama's gonna worry. But she's never been to the movie theater, and she never had a mama. Then Bucky, James, Bucky comes, her knight in shining armor.
Natasha's never needed a savior, but Steve has. And he found that in James, until he was strong enough to do his share of saving.
She feels Steve's current thoughts too, along with the past ones. Bucky? He's as surprised as she is at the shared man in their memories.
I knew him as James. Back in Russia. A few years ago, she thinks at him.
Natasha never thought to question if James might still be alive. He was gone, and that was as good as dead, if she couldn't feel him.
Steve questioned it every day, every night, every moment since the train.
Stark and Banner don't predict another Kaiju attack for a week, so they go find him.
They return two weeks later, and though they're scolded by Nick Fury, they're told the Hawkeyes took over.
They return with a stranger. He hasn't woken up, not yet, though they got his body out of the cryotubes. It's only a matter of time, they hope.
"Natalia? What's going on?" James asks. His voice is hoarse but he's him and she wants more than anything to kiss him, so she does.
"James, oh, my James. You're okay," she murmurs, eyes shining. She feels in the back of her mind Steve leaving the room. I'll give you two some time alone, he thinks at her, and she's grateful.
He isn't the Bucky that she saw in Steve's memories, but he remembers being Bucky now, which is good. Natasha knows how heartbroken Steve would be if Bucky didn't remember him.
Natasha realizes that she's broken Natalia's promise. She'd said that she wouldn't be anyone elses, but she's undeniably Steve's. And now Bucky's, too.
They're a three-person team, and it works better than anyone can imagine. Steve and Natasha are both comforted by Bucky's presence in their minds, something they thought they had lost forever.
Nobody’s really surprised when their Jaeger is the one to beat the Kaiju at last.
One escape pod pops out of the water.
Two pods float in the ocean as the people inside open it and sit up.
Two pods float and Natasha and Steve worry -- worry is the wrong word, it’s more of an endless gasping feeling in their hearts -- about the third.
A lifetime or two passes and the third escapes from under the ocean, and a single sigh of relief is breathed from two bodies.
The relief ends abruptly once they realize it isn’t opening.
Simultaneously, they throw themselves off their respective escape pods and swim towards Bucky. With their combined strength, they pry open the pod. Natasha checks his pulse while Steve checks if he’s breathing. One thought courses through them. No.
In an instant they’re sitting on either side of Bucky and holding him as tight as they can, whispers of “Bucky no you can’t do this I need you we need you James Bucky please” passing back and forth.
Then, a cough. And a whisper of, “You’re crushing me, I can’t breathe.”
Natasha and Steve release him with a cry of “Bucky!” and “James!” and a smile. Then they’re both pressing into him and kissing his face, and they can hardly believe they survived, they beat the Kaiju, they’re together and they’re safe.