Running down the alley, half-laughing, half-gasping, catching up with his friend… Ducking down behind the windowsill, clutching the cheap-but-effective slingshot as shouts of rage echoed up from the street below… The hiss of the radiator as he spread his homework out, his notebook off to one side if inspiration struck… Pain of a fist exploding against his face… Dark hair intervening as the bully reached back for another strike… Steve butting his head into the guy’s stomach… Stomachs rumbling from weeks of no work as the Kaiju Wars took their toll on the world… Staggering into the recruiting station for the Army as if it represented salvation…
“With you ‘till the end of the line…”
“Steve, wake up!”
Bucky shook him into wakefulness, not even the thumping of the helicopter enough to keep Steve from sleeping after the long flight to the Portland Shatterdome. He stretched, ducking Bucky’s usual “pick-me-up” mock-punch with the ease of experience. His time with the Army had made him grow like a weed, but he hadn’t forgotten a thing about their times together scrappin’ through Brooklyn. He returned the hit with one of his own, which Bucky dodged with absent-minded grace as the helicopter settled.
“Let’s go, Rangers!”
The drill sergeant bark of the impatient pilot had them on their feet, duffle bags in hand, and out of the helicopter without conscious thought. The doors of the Shatterdome loomed over them, big enough to admit the enormous new Mark III Jaegers they were making. The nervousness Steve had kept at bay through dreams of the Drift was coming back in full force. Their Jaeger was in there, the machine he and Bucky would pilot together to fight against the kaiju, the monsters from an interdimensional Breach beyond their world.
Steve knew the hard work and sacrifices those giant machines represented. Jaegers were the product of harsh lessons, backwards thinking that had left enormous robots as the only viable option. Once it was realized the Breach wasn’t going to go away, the world had tried to blow it up. Nothing. Bombs deflected off of it, and even their most powerful weapons hadn’t been able to touch it. Then they’d wanted to set up posts right next to it to destroy kaijus as they appeared. But the Breach was in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, about as far away from land-side support as was physically possible to be. It sounded good on paper, but the energy the Breach exuded was hell on the equipment, and maintenance was damn near impossible. Playing Whack-a-Mole with the kaiju, who were far more cunning than the U.N. gave them credit for, had proved ultimately untenable.
The Breach-side Salvo project had eventually proven as unviable as the Maginot Line. If any kaiju had managed to dodge or survive strikes from the plasma canons or torpedoes, then the chosen costal city was in trouble if there wasn’t a Jaeger there to stop it. The kaijus also made a point of destroying the Salvo towers as they went by, and too many had died trying to rebuild them.
The world had tried to stop the monsters as close to the source as they could. And failed.
That’s when the Jaegers were built. With each kaiju having different capabilities, different speeds, different strengths, even arriving with the ability to emanate strange energies, there was no single weapon that could take them out. Normal bullets, rockets, and bombs had no effect on them. Repeated detonations of nuclear weapons would soon reduce the world to radioactive slag.
It was soon realized that the fastest weapon adaptation that anyone could field was the human brain. With a little pilot creativity, Jaegers could respond to any change in tactics the kaiju could dish out. Drift technology not only enabled the pilots to interact with the Jaegers at an unprecedented level of precision, but also eliminated the worst of the lengthy training required for complex equipment. There wasn’t enough time to run people through years-long training programs, not with kaiju coming several times a year, and more frequently as time went on. But with the Drift, you didn’t have to have pilots that needed years of school – you just needed those who could trust each other and hold their own in a fight.
Drift compatibility was easiest with shared memories, with those who’d grown up together, who had a long history to draw upon. Family members were the most common, but sometimes there were others who had just a long a history.
There were those who said the best Jaeger pilots were blood relatives, siblings, twins, parent and child, cousins, the memories of growing up together giving the strongest Drift foundation possible. But sometimes, blood didn’t mean a damn thing.
Steve let out a long, slow breath as he and Bucky descended into bowels of the Shatterdome. Now, they had to live up to what they’d seen played out in the oceans of the world for the past few years. The Drift they’d developed at the academy was what was going to make them be able to stand up to the monsters.
“Oregon’s been seeing a lot of action. Ranger Carter must have liked us enough to send us here,” Bucky said. Their Drift instructor at the academy, Ranger Carter, had made sure the two of them stayed together as co-pilots; she’d been the first to see how strong their Drift-compatibility could be.
“Or she hated us,” Steve jabbed back.
“Tell my poor, aching brain. She’s hell on the cortex,” Bucky said, rubbing a hand over the back of his skull where his post-Drift headache had always settled after training.
“I didn’t have that much trouble Drifting with her,” Steve said tentatively.
“Eh, you don’t know when to quit, punk,” Bucky said. “You would have hung on until she burned you out. You think anyone else can Drift with a dozen people in a day and not come out gibbering otherwise? We’re just lucky she can do it. The first few batches of pilots had to troubleshoot each other.” Bucky shuddered, exaggerating the motion. “I don’t want anyone else in my head.”
“What am I, chopped liver?” Steve asked.
“Naw, you’re like an echo. I know you.”
“What, you’re saying I’ve got an empty head?” Steve asked in mock-anger, and Bucky just smirked.
“Like I can shout in there and hear my name fifteen times.”
Steve punched Bucky in the shoulder as the doors finally opened to the Shatterdome floor.
Leaning casually against the wall outside was a short, lean man wearing a technician’s jumpsuit with an array of tools. Beneath the loose sleeves was the muscle of someone who worked physically, hard and often. He had dark hair and a neatly trimmed goatee, and it was that, and the slightly manic smile on his face, that made Steve and Bucky recognize him in the same breath.
A breath they caught, because no one really expected the co-creator of the Jaeger program to be the one meeting two of its newest pilots.
“Dr. Stark,” Steve said, managing to get his composure first.
“Tony,” he corrected with a wave of his hand. “I hear some good things about you two.”
Steve didn’t need to Drift with Bucky to practically hear him thinking, Who did we pay to get him to say that?
“I hear we didn’t need to try to squash two squabbling relatives together to find decent pilots,” he continued. “That perfect bloodline connection, that’s partially bullshit,” Dr. Stark- Tony, said cheerfully. While Dr. Banner had helped invent the Drift connection with the Jaegers, it was Tony Stark who’d been the one to make them stand as tall as they did. He was constantly experimenting to see how different pilots handled different armaments, speeds, and configurations. He understood the Drift too, better that some who’d been in it – he knew the better the Drift, the better there was a chance that the Jaegers he created would come home in one piece, and the pilots too.
There was a reason Marshal Fury kept Dr. Stark on the Jaeger project, no matter how many toes he stepped on.
“I had my eye on your profiles, because the two of you,” he pointed at Steve and Bucky, “are besties. And I mean that not in the kid way. Best friends, secrets shared, do anything for each other, all that crap, right?”
The identical look they shared without a word being exchanged made Tony crow with delight.
“You see? That look, that’s what I’m talking about. I got a good friend-,” he broke off with a fleeting look of disappointment before smiling again. “But I gotta make the Jaegers, and he kicks ass with Wilson and War Falcon. Anyway, come on, I got someone I want you to meet.”
Bucky and Steve followed Tony as he threaded through the Shatterdome’s lower floors, Steve wondering what exactly had been said about them. He hadn’t thought he’d impressed his instructors that much, even if he and Bucky’s Drift was…
“Take a look.” Stark stopped and pointed out the corridor windows to the Jaeger launch bays. One, a new, unpainted Mark III Jaeger, was in its final stages of assembly. It was the tallest Jaeger Steve had ever seen – just getting it out the Shatterdome would take incredible precision, but its long arms and legs promised speed and good leverage. Kaiju were getting bigger, and a Jaeger like this one could help contain them even if something unexpected showed up. It looked a little like… Steve blushed as Bucky grinned at him and rolled his eyes in the same motion. After Steve had enlisted, the better food and exercise in the Army had given him a late growth spurt that had made him shoot up over a foot. The Jaeger… it had his proportions. Just a coincidence? Curiously, it only seemed to have a plasma canon on one hand, the other taken up with an attachment. A discus? No, Steve realized, a shield, a large round shield with sharp edges.
Steve looked over at Bucky, who was salivating over the canon. He had killer hand-eye coordination, obviously couldn’t wait to try the distance on that thing. But the shield… Jaegers’ protection relied on their outer armor and the skill of their pilots to avoid damage. Purely defensive measures were mostly seen as a waste. The point was to attack and destroy, not hold back. The kaiju certainly wouldn’t.
But pilots had seen more casualties of late and Steve had voiced his concerns at training as to why they weren’t trying to protect the Jaegers more. Even with the Pan Pacific Defense Alliance working together to build more, the Jaegers were still huge machines, each one unique and requiring time and effort to craft. And the results, as with the Jaeger Stark was showing them, could be spectacular.
“Wow,” Bucky breathed. “The range on that thing…”
“Yeah, exactly as good as you’re thinking. Probably even better. No, definitely even better,” Tony said.
“She’s beautiful,” Steve said sincerely, with a sideways look at Stark. Had he built this just for them?
“You’re some of Carter’s kids. When she talks, I listen.”
So he had made this Jaeger for them.
“I didn’t think we’d manage to impress Ranger Carter that much,” Steve said.
“I’m not your mother, not your babysitter, not here to hold your hand. You are here to fight for humanity with everything you have, and I’m here to see if you can handle it. If you have it in you to be Drift compatible, I will find it – and you won’t like me for it.” She paced up and down the line of new recruits at the academy, her dark eyes flashing, assessing, picking out weaknesses where everyone stood. She paused in front of Steve, flicked her eyes to Bucky next to him, and then back to Steve.
“The clock never stops, gentlemen. And neither do I.”
Stark didn’t bother to repress a somewhat cruel laugh. “You know what we call her? Cerebral Cuisinart. She’s got a mind like a knife. If she ever finds someone who can last more than five minutes with her, she’s going to go for a kill record. She can almost move a Jaeger on her own.”
Bucky winced in sympathy. Carter’s mind was forceful, but she was quick to pick up on the gist of each person’s Drift, the highlighted memories and personality traits that made each person what they were. Ranger Carter was no more than five years Steve’s senior, but she was the best Drift Instructor in the Pan Pacific Alliance. British, which was a little less common, their country not being under direct threat, but no person on Earth was immune to the danger the Kaiju represented, and there were volunteers from all corners of the globe.
Steve hid a faint stab of guilt at Bucky’s pained expression, and kept his mouth shut.
“She was one of the first to really throw in to the fact that not all relatives are as compatible as they say,” Stark said, his expression going a little flat. Ah. Steve had met Tony’s father Howard once, at an expo before the Kaiju wars, back when he was a kid. The man had been larger than life, the life of the party, effortlessly playing the crowd, but Steve hadn’t even realized Howard had a son until much later. You’d think that sort of thing might have come up at least once, even at a public demonstration. It seemed some people were better businessmen and inventors than fathers.
“Sure, relatives have that shared base, but it’s more about a shared attitude. Hard thing is, we’re going through our Drift-compatible family teams faster than anyone wants to admit. We’re trying friends, even compatible strangers. That’s Carter’s real talent – seeing the potential in people. She told me what she saw in you.”
Steve sure as hell hoped not.
“The canon is for Barnes,” Stark said, nodding at Bucky. “She said you want to soften them up at a distance. But the shield is for Rogers. Her Drift assessment says you think you can use defense as offense as well as help keep the Jaeger intact. I say we give it a shot. The kaiju aren’t going to wait for us to get things perfect.”
Steve looked out at the Jaeger, their Jaeger, and then looked back at Bucky. He was grinning ear to ear.
“What do we call her?” Steve asked, fingers flexing as he would when he was helping control the giant machine.
“Two guys from New York? We’re calling her Star Striker.”
Three years later
“Code name, Hammertop. Category three.”
Steve snuck a look at their adversary from the satellite monitors over the Breach as the techs assembled the neural suit around him. This kaiju was long and thin, quadruped, with a noggin like a hammerhead shark, heavily reinforced with bone. He repressed an almost atavistic shiver; it reminded him of Trespasser, the first kaiju, who’d left a deep scar on the world’s psyche.
He shook off the ghosts of fear as the techs vanished and the neural connection spun up, his mind melding with Bucky’s, giving them strength enough to become one with their Jaeger. In that moment, he was no longer a six-foot-tall man, but a Jaeger tall as a skyscraper with enough strength to destroy monsters and nightmares.
Star Striker stepped out with a will off the Oregon cost. Bucky grinned unseen in Steve’s mind as he matched Steve’s long stride. Steve had been almost tiny for most of his life – a last-ditch growth spurt in his very late teens had filled him out and up, making him taller than Bucky, and dedication had given him the muscle he’d always wanted, and now they could hold their own against anyone.
But they didn’t have to do it alone. Black Hawk, sleek and deadly, moving with fluid grace, was raging behind them as backup. Romanov and Barton moved between the Russian and west American coasts, a helping hand whenever one was needed to stealth attack a kaiju. Destructive as kaiju were, some were very clever ambushers.
Black Hawk would keep Hammertop off Star Striker’s back. That was how Marshal Fury wanted it done – double teams, triple if they had enough Jaegers at the site. If more than one Jaeger was available in the area, the Pan Pacific Defense Alliance saw no reasons for Jaegers to go cowboy, facing them one-on-one like something out of a movie. They were not here to play fair. The kaiju were there to destroy humanity, the Jaegers were there to save lives.
“Off your three, four hundred yards west.” The voice of LOCCENT off of Portland was Maria Hill, a steady voice in their ears.
Hammertop was circling a small area, as if hunting for the best path of approach. Black Hawk was ranging to the south, keeping an eye on the kaiju if he’d try to make a run for it. Bucky smiled, the sensation clear in Steve’s mind, and Steve/Bucky remembered targeting bullies who’d thought to take advantage of them or other neighborhood kids with a slingshot from an unseen vantage point from the roof. Then later, looking through a scope in sniper class. Steve’s arm raised as Bucky’s did, sighting the plasma canon squarely on their foe. Right arm out, plasma warming, left arm up, holding the shield at the ready. It was a sound strategy they’d used plenty of times before.
Star Striker lined up on Hammertop as he leapt clear of the water, screaming a challenge as he tried to make a break for the shore. They plasma surged, the hum felt through Steve’s feet as Star Striker fired, the bolt streaking across the Pacific in their own personal bolt of lightning. Hammertop’s long body convulsed as Bucky lit it up squarely. Grinning savagely, they strode a little closer to confirm the kill.
“LOCCENT, lit up the target,” Bucky said.
“Roger that, Star Striker. Still showing some slight movement. Careful as you confirm.”
“Roger that,” Steve said. They moved the shield into position over Star Striker’s heart as they scanned the waters carefully.
“No movement from our side, Star Striker,” Romanov said. The dark form of Black Hawk was still lurking nearby, just in case the kaiju was playing possum. Kaiju didn’t always register on infrared, and they could be elusive, sneaky sons of bitches. LOCCENT could give them an approximate direction and distance, but there was still a world of difference between knowing that location and actually being able to instantly respond to a kaiju coming out of the dark on top of you, even if you knew it was coming.
Hammertop was still, floating limply in the water, and Bucky got ready for another shot. No sense in taking changes. Rangers had died, Jaegers had been destroyed, and civilians had been slaughtered because of too-early celebrations. Star Striker hummed deep in her core as the charge built, and Bucky sighted-
Hammertop suddenly shot off at a right angle, right at Black Hawk, faster than Steve had ever seen a kaiju move before. The comms were chattering out warnings left and right, but Black Hawk never faltered, firing a metal lance through Hammertop’s exposed shoulder and then zapping with a hard jolt of electricity. Enough power to kill it would have drained the Jaeger, but enough to briefly stun it made kills much easier. Black Hawk was too close to the kaiju to risk another plasma burst, so Star Striker raised the shield with its razor-sharp edges, lifting it high as Black Hawk jerked the kaiju into a good kill position. She came down fast, shield angled to sever its head, as the stunned Hammertop sprang at Star Striker in a last crazed burst of energy. It clung to Star Striker’s head, avoiding both shield and canon, its long bony claws slicing through their armor. The weight was staggering, and Star Striker felt her knees buckling as Steve and Bucky strained to not collapse to the ocean floor.
Bucky and Steve flailed at Hammertop with both arms, cursing, knowing Black Hawk would be looking for an opening, but unable to sit still when they felt the integrity of the pod breaking. Steve was shouting, trying to slide the shield between Hammertop’s claws and the top of pod, anything to give them the extra layer of protection they could use to keep themselves alive.
Hammertop screeched, the sound reverberating, piercing, nauseating this close to the source, and Steve felt the Drift waver and desperately reached for Bucky again. He could feel the shield dropping, feeling too heavy for him to lift on his own.
“Bucky!” he shouted over the echoes of the noise. “Bucky!”
Bucky gasped and reached mentally again, the shield coming up at their joint direction and managing to catch Hammertop in the side, but not at the right angle to cover the pod. It screeched again, and suddenly there was a sickening crack of the pod breaking. Huge, sharp claws penetrated their protection and sliced between them, unstoppable as an avalanche. Steve was looking right at Bucky when the massive claws ripped Bucky’s left arm clean off.
The echoes of pain through the Drift made Steve scream for both of them as Bucky’s connection thinned through shock of both his own injury and the damage to Star Striker. The plasma canon lost its charge without Bucky’s direction, and the shield was almost too heavy to lift without Bucky’s help.
Steve felt the pain of over-exertion from the neural load pressing into his skull like a vice as he brought the shield up with a desperate shout of pain. Hammertop lost his grip as the shield severed its hand, flopping in the ocean, and had only enough time for one more roar as Black Hawk punched two mental lances clean through its skull.
Steve felt Bucky’s pain through his own body, and had to take a quick look at his own arm to make sure it was still attached. Then he looked around the severed kaiju fingers to see Bucky’s suit had sealed around the severed stump, protecting him from further blood loss. Bucky was still vaguely present in Steve’s mind, a quiet, almost sleeping presence as his body hung limply in the clamps that connected him to Star Striker. Maybe, just maybe, Steve might be able to get Star Striker closer to shore so the helicopters could get Bucky to medical.
“Don’t die, Bucky. Come on, don’t die,” he whispered. Frantically, he forced his feet and Bucky’s to movement, Bucky barely responding in the depths of his shocky brain as Steve held the Drift together with everything he had.
“Star Striker, you all right?” Barton asked.
“Barnes is in shock. Lost an arm,” Steve said. He barely heard LOCCENT telling them to come in as far as they could. Star Striker shuddered as Black Hawk moved up, supporting them around the waist and under the shoulder. Steve nearly felt dizzy with relief as he felt someone else supporting Star Striker’s weight, and quickly cast his eyes over the floor to see if Bucky’s arm was anywhere. There was a chance, if it wasn’t too damaged, that maybe the doctors could replace-
He found it, half under the severed kaiju fingers, saturated with poisonous blue kaiju blood.
“Bucky,” he whispered, and looked down at his hands. “No.”
Steve pulled himself upright out of the chairs outside of the medical wing as Tony flopped himself down, massaging his temples. Tony wasn’t a medical doctor, but he knew the Drift, knew Jaegers, and knew kaiju. He had been the one to gently disconnect the Drift between Steve, Bucky, and Star Striker when the battered Jaeger had finally made it back to the Shatterdome, and he had been to one to check Bucky’s brainwaves before they took him into surgery, and he had been the one to give Steve the third degree about his phantom pain so the surgeons had a better idea of what was really damaged under the shredded meat and bone of Bucky’s shoulder.
And it seemed today, Tony was the one willing to be the bearer of news, good or bad.
“The suit kept enough pressure on the wound. He didn’t lose nearly as much blood as we’d feared. He’ll live,” Tony said, dropping his head back against the top of the chair.
“Did he…?” At times like Steve, he desperately wished he was still connected so he’d know what Bucky was feeling. After three years as a Ranger and Jaeger pilot, you got to depend on the Drift, needing it almost. It eliminated the need for words, and after battling monsters, that was better than even a cold beer on the front porch.
Drifting with Bucky was so easy, just a whisper closer than their friendship. Their memories interlocked at early levels, from playing games on the streets, sharing the same classes, the same church, nearly living in each other’s homes. Their shared every triumph and tragedy. When they’d Drift-tested under Ranger Carter, Bucky’s mind had washed over his, and it had felt just like an echo. Like home.
After years of the Kaiju Wars, that memory of home was something they needed.
“No chance,” Stark said flatly, dashing Steve’s hope. “The arm was contaminated. He’s a permanent righty from now on.”
“He’ll never pilot again.” Tony kept looking at the ceiling. “I’m sorry, Steve. I am. But you have to have a full neural interface to connect with the Jaeger, full nerve conductivity. Even if I gave him the best prosthetic ever designed, he couldn’t make the left arm work with you.” Tony closed his eyes for a second, then opened them again and looked at Steve. “Not that you needed much help.”
What? Steve was about to respond when the door at the end of the hallway opened. He snapped to attention as Marshal Fury walked onto the medical deck.
Tony just shook his head, and Fury nodded once. He was never a man to waste words, and if a gesture or even a glare could do instead, he’d use that.
“Rogers, I’m sorry about Barnes. Stark, can Star Striker be repaired?”
“Give me two days,” Stark said confidently. “I’ve got my team on it right now. She’s never taken much damage, not with the shield, so all the spare parts are cherry.”
“You’ll need another pilot,” Fury said, his one good eye looking hard and shrewd. “We’ve had too many casualties to lose you too, Rogers. You’re a good pilot and Star Striker is a good Jaeger. We’ll find someone else.”
Steve looked back at the doors to the operating rooms, and then at Fury with quickly-hidden incredulity. He had been co-piloting with Bucky for three years, and had known him nearly all his life. You didn’t replace that with a snap of the fingers.
But Kaiju were coming almost weekly now, and though the Jaegers had rarely failed, one less Jaeger in the field could mean the difference between a city living or dying.
“Ranger.” Fury’s non-question was said in almost a parade-ground bark, and Steve felt his spine stiffening automatically. He wasn’t the only Ranger to have lost a co-pilot, and he had been lucky that both had escaped with their lives. Bucky was alive, and the kaijus were still coming.
“Your new co-pilot will be here in two days.” With a nod, at Steve, another at Tony, Marshal Fury turned and walked out.
Steve looked towards the doors to the operating rooms with a pleading expression, but Tony shook his head.
“He was out like a light, and he’ll be down for a while. Technically, you should be in bed too, Rogers. I saw how much neural load you were taking today.” Tony gave him another penetrating looking like Fury had, far too knowing and not willing to talk about it. He made a vague but high gesture, and Steve considered the implications with a small chill going down his spine. Tony had been the one to take him and Bucky out of the Drift, and he had been the one to see how much Steve had been taking to get Star Striker close to the Shatterdome. How much had it been? Fifty-five percent? Sixty? More? He had no idea how much he’d been taking to compensate for Bucky’s nearly unconscious state. “You should be flat on a bed with a migraine and a nosebleed, but it seems like your head and nose disagree with my assessment. Go get yourself some food and water. I’ll call you if he wakes up.”
Steve took a deep breath, running a hand down his side to try to brush away the phantom pain he felt whenever he thought about Bucky’s wounded body. He was still trying to convince his own arm that it was attached, rubbing at the intact muscle and bone to remind himself that he was whole and well.
Whole and well and by the day after tomorrow there would be someone else in the clamps beside him. Not Bucky.
But Bucky was alive. He’d heard horror stories about pilots who’d had their co-pilots killed, left alone in a Jaeger too big for them to move, against a kaiju who took them apart piece by piece. He couldn’t imagine a worse death.
He’d lived. Bucky had lived. He had to keep reminding himself of that.
He picked up the tray and walked into the mess hall. Barton and Romanov waved him over to where the other pilots were sitting, their welcome quiet and contained. Not exactly subdued, but enough to see the sympathy they were extending without getting into detail. Steve could appreciate that.
Wilson and Rhodes, from War Falcon, gave him a friendly nod. “Hey, Rhodey and I are going to take off down south tomorrow. L.A.’s still down a Jaeger after Haven Trace went down under that big Cat Three last month. Ice Hammer will cover for you until you get back on your feet. Meet Loki and Thor.”
Steve lifted his eyes off his tray to look at his new fellow pilots. Wilson and Rhodes’s Jaeger was a heavily-armed Jaeger with some impressive jumping ability, enough to get the drop on particularly speedy kaiju. It would take a lot to fill their shoes, but it was better to think about something else right now than the lack of a familiar echo in him he’d never get a chance to hear again.
Ice Hammer was built in collaboration between the Scandinavian countries, piloted by brothers Loki and Thor. A heavy hitter with a surprising amount of agility, the old but tough Mark II would be able to back up Black Hawk until Steve was able to get back into harness, if there was any unexpected movement in the Breach. He wondered who had been picked. There hadn’t been anyone else at the academy he remembered as being any better than marginal with him. Well, except for… But she wouldn’t leave her position. They needed her.
“I’m sorry for your fallen friend,” Thor said, nodding down at Steve from his very impressive height. His brother couldn’t be any more different, lithe and dark, but physical differences didn’t count for much in the Drift. What mattered was the way they worked together, and if you looked, you could tell co-pilots just by how they ate lunch. The way Sam and James were swapping food on their trays, the way Natasha and Clint idly switched their salt for hot sauce without a word, even how Loki and Thor switched off eating to scan the crowds for threats. There was a similarity in the way they moved that went beyond close friendship, or even a romantic bond, down to the place where they became, at least temporarily, one person.
It was too much to handle today.
Steve got up without a word and walked out, turning his eyes away from the other teams.
“Bucky… is there anything you can do?”
Tony was still in the exact same position that Steve had left him an hour before, eyes closed, head tilted back on the waiting chair, body sprawled out.
“Maybe,” he said instantly, as if he wasn’t asleep, had never been asleep, maybe simply thinking while being in that god-awful uncomfortable pose. “Experimental shit, top secret, or at least so secret no one else knows but me. I’ve got some ideas. You ever heard of auto-Drift?”
Steve furrowed his brow. “No?”
“Most haven’t. I made it up. Fury won’t accept me as a pilot because I’m too damn good at making Jaegers, and I’ll be the first to admit I’m shit at interpersonal relationships and probably wouldn’t be a great Drift candidate. But the reason you need two pilots for Jaegers is that they’re frickin’ huge. If you could build something smaller, you wouldn’t need two.”
In spite of himself, Steve found himself distracted. “Smaller? Against kaiju?”
“Sometimes it’s more about precision. Might not work, but hey, it can only not, right?”
“What does any of this have to do with Bucky?”
“If Barnes can get half of a few thousand tons of metal to move with his mind, don’t you think he could get a five kilo arm to do the same?”
Steve caught his jaw on the way down. Tony lifted his head and opened an eye to get a look at Steve’s face.
“Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. If I can make it work… Well, than at least he’d have both arms again. I don’t know what that’d to do his Drift compatibility with a Jaeger, but worse-case scenario, he could still work with me. If I get my auto-Drift working, we could put a hell of a lot more people in the field. Not full Jaeger weight, but enough to provide the big boys with more openings, more information, better kaiju locations than LOCCENT even. If I can get armored up enough, I can give you guys more sets of eyes that you don’t have to worry about getting squashed.”
“The Holy Grail of Jaeger/kaiju combat, I know. I’m just that good.”
The ludicrous eyebrow waggle Tony gave actually made Steve crack a smile. “If you’re gonna insist on hanging out around here, go sit down and finish your tray, Rogers. The doctors will let you know when he’s up.”
“Ranger Carter, Ranger Rogers.” Fury sat back in his chair as Steve automatically shut the door behind him, body on autopilot as Ranger Carter turned to face him.
Steve tried to get his heart going again, a response to months of Carter’s relentless training still strong in him. She could be ruthless, pitiless, and hadn’t shown him more than an ounce of sympathy, and all of that spread out over his entire time under her command in the academy. In his mind, she’d always seemed much larger than life, but in reality she was a half-head shorter than him, strong and attractive, and still intimidating.
“Rogers,” she said, nodding. “I’m sorry it had to be this way.”
He almost missed the empathy in her voice under the formal apology. He’d seen Bucky twice in the last two days, unconscious and pale, his body lopsided under bandages where his arm had been. He’d just looked at him, wanting to find words to say, and wishing desperately they could just Drift so Bucky would know everything. It was hard to quantify a lifetime of friendship in something as simple as words, and Steve had found himself remaining mostly quiet, the echoes in his head merely his own.
“Ranger Carter…” he said, and trailed off, uncertain of what to say.
“Do you know my name?” she asked sharply.
He’d never been told it. Never looked up her record. Never overheard anyone say it.
“I’ll take that as a no.”
Her lips quirked, and for an instant, Steve was back in the academy.
Ranger Carter looked Steve up and down disconcertingly as he stepped up next in line. “Let’s go, cadet.”
Steve felt a faint flutter of panic, quickly covered as she stood stoically for the technicians to strap them into the Jaeger. It was an old Mark I, stripped of its armaments, but still heavy and huge, an honorable retirement instead of being entombed at Oblivion Bay with all of its fallen brothers.
“Your simulation scores are interesting.”
Steve’s eyes slid over to her, not daring to turn his head as the clamps were pressed down on his body, the real thing now, and not the simulator.
“Your strategy is unorthodox, like Barnes.”
“We grew up together.”
Bucky had come out of his session with Carter with a migraine and a weak smile. “What a dame,” was all he’d said, well out of her earshot. He’d gotten off lightly; Steve had watched others walk out of there with nosebleeds, unable to even handle half the neural load needed to move the massive machine.
“I expect more from you, Rogers.”
The technicians moved away, and Steve was able to turn enough to watch her. The smile she gave him was secretive and utterly opaque.
“You’re a fighter, so remember who your enemy is.” And she gave a nod of readiness to their mock LOCCENT operator.
“Neural handshake initiated.”
He didn’t know what to expect, no one really did. Despite articles written by Jaeger pilots trying to explain, nothing did it justice to feel the stable ground beneath his feet fall away as his memories dropped him into an abyss.
Mom’s hand on his forehead, the smell of Dad’s pipe… Coughing out his lungs in the hospital… Standing in front of little Casey Jarmin and putting up his fists against Tommy Coronello so he couldn’t take his lunch money again… Laughing against the wall as he and Bucky ran away from the police, Steve’s breath wheezing but him not caring… Reaching down to pull Bucky up over the wall at the obstacle course, bones aching as his new, lanky limbs from delayed puberty gave him reach he’d never expected… Watching the kaiju rampage across the world and trying to find a way to fight a bully few people had the guts to stand up to…
Steve let himself drop, drift, flow like water, Ranger Carter’s instructions from class echoing in his mind. Don’t hold on, don’t chase the RABIT, stay loose…
Father at her side, tall as a tree against her… Looking down the barrel of her gun against the target in front of her… Paul at her side, a giant, sneering down as he reached, and then his surprise as her flash of fear turned into cold and precise rage, his nose cracking and then his gasp as she put him on his back… All the boys avoiding her, too scared to try… “Never going to make it, you know that.” “No, you know that, I don’t….” Reaching up to touch the metal of a Jaeger’s foot… I can be the giant… I am the giant, and you don’t know the half of me…
I can be as strong outside as in.
The thought echoed between both of them, a double impact, a punch to the gut and the heart.
They took it. They were made to take it.
“Neural handshake complete. Right hemisphere calibrated. Left hemisphere calibrated.”
Light flashed along the HUD between them, and Steve could see… no, feel the huge steel frame that he/they’d become. Ranger Carter raised her left hand, Steve feeling it, his own coming up at the same time. It felt a little heavy at first, like moving in a lead-lined coat, but he saw it move, the huge metal fist coming up into his field of vision.
Like a joint popping into place, he could feel it strongly, their fingers flexing, his and Ranger Carter’s and the old Mark I’s. Right hand up, one fist clenching against the other, the lead-lined coat falling away as they moved, punching up, left, right, down, both fists together in a skull-crushing move used to destroy more than one kaiju.
Tall as a giant, strong as they could be.
Ranger Carter turned to look at him as she spoke, her words sparing but her expression more open than he’d seen her before, looking just as happy as Steve, and he smiled. God almighty, this was amazing. Bucky would love this…
“Neural handshake terminated.”
Steve dropped back into himself abruptly, shaking his head as the phantom sensation of the Jaeger fell from his body, Ranger Carter’s memories fading from full color to just a whisper in his mind. He blinked several times and looked over at her, wondering if he had imagined her happiness earlier, because she was back to her usual tolerantly amused look.
“Your friend Bucky should have no trouble Drifting with you. You’ll be on assignment within a month,” she said briskly as the technicians descended upon them to get them out of their suits. By the time Steve had gotten himself together enough mentally enough to respond, Ranger Carter was already out of the clamps, hardware, and pod all together.
It was only then he realized she’d called Bucky by his first name.
It was only much later that Steve realized he’d held his Drift with Ranger Carter for sixty minutes.
“Sir, I thought…” Steve trailed off, mouth clicking shut as he tried to marshal his thoughts into some semblance of order.
“The world is at war, Ranger,” Marshal Fury said, standing up in front of the map that highlighted the record of all kaiju attacks. The glitter of untold mayhem, chaos, and death was spattered across the cities of the Pacific Ocean like the evidence of a murder scene, one that was still ongoing. “We will use every resource we have to stop it, and we will stop it.”
“Sir, I understand, and I’m not objecting.” Steve talked fast, before the Marshal could turn his ire on him for bringing any doubt into what should have been obvious. Marshal Fury’s anger was as strong as his name, and almost unsurvivable as a kaiju attack. “Ranger Carter is the best, everyone says so. She’s the best Drift teacher in the Alliance. Who’ll take her place?”
Fury’s good eye softened a nearly infinitesimal fraction as Ranger Carter kept her eyes focused on Steve. “The experienced Rangers, our scientists, our own good sense and experience. Everything we could have been using before, if we hadn’t gotten lazy because Carter is strong enough to Drift with so many people. It’s the same way you learned you could trust Barnes and fight alongside him, to have him at your back and know you’d both be all right.”
Steve looked away, abashed, then lifted his head again. “What about Bucky?”
“Dr. Stark has Barnes in good hands. And I do mean hands, plural.”
“Rogers,” Carter said, turning towards him to look him full in the face. “Are you ready to fight with me, Ranger?”
He’d drifted with her for an hour, the strongest mind of all the Rangers. And she’d let him and Bucky be co-pilots, not out of sympathy, but because…
There were some words you just had to say.
It was after midnight, the lights in the Shatterdome slightly dimmer in their only concession to the rhythms of the sun. Steve was lingering, looking up at Star Striker, the pod now rebuilt and reinforced, giving the Jaeger the look of wearing a helmet. The shield was back in place, the plasma canon reloaded, along with whichever new tricks Stark had put inside her. She was ready again for the next battle, the next kaiju.
Her next pilots.
“She looks good.”
Steve started as he turned, Bucky coming into the light of the Shatterdome floor. “You’re awake!”
“No, I’m sleepwalking, punk,” Bucky said with almost a straight face. “I heard some idiot had been sitting shiva over my bed for two days, so I had to come find him and tell him to stop.” Steel glimmered at his shoulder, a sleek, plated metal prosthetic replacing the flesh and bone of his left arm. It was neater than a Jaeger arm, flexible and precise, made for more than just bashing monsters into paste. Tony had delivered all he’d promised and more. Bucky looked pale, and the scars peeking out of his tank top were still red, but he moved the metal hand and placed it on the railing, leaning out to see what they’d done to Star Striker.
“You’re okay,” Steve said, a wash of relief leaving him relaxed. He reached out and tentatively put his arm around Bucky’s shoulders, very careful of the new scars.
“I am on all sorts of really awesome semi-illegal painkillers right now. Hug away, you wuss,” Bucky said with a crooked grin. He pulled Steve in hard, his new arm unexpectedly strong. Steve hugged him back, then pulled away to look at Bucky, unsure what to say.
“It worked,” he said inanely, and Bucky just nodded, rubbing his right hand over his new arm.
“Stark knows what he’s doing. It’s sort of like Drifting, but alone. I can even feel with it, sort of.” He raised his left hand and wiggled the fingers in an amazing display of dexterity for someone who had been literally left with nothing to back it up. Bucky turned and jerked his chin at Star Striker, looking quiet and composed. “I hear you got a prettier co-pilot than me.”
Steve made a protesting noise. “Ranger Carter-.”
“You’ll do great. Trust me,” Bucky said, clapping his right hand on Steve’s shoulder. There was something in Bucky’s expression, pride and some kind of… relief? It was complex, something he couldn’t fully interpret even as long as he’d known Bucky, and in a moment of mild panic Steve realized he probably wouldn’t ever be able to figure it out. They couldn’t Drift, not anymore. No more echoing in each other’s heads, no more connection on such a deep level that they were, in some ways, one.
They had to go back to what they’d been before, two kids from Brooklyn, figuring things out as they went along. Except this time there was a war raging, and they wouldn’t be able to watch each other’s backs, not always.
Both turned as Ranger Carter came striding down the platform towards them, slowing as she reached them, turning almost involuntarily towards Star Striker. Steve couldn’t blame her; she was an arresting sight. As Carter turned in profile, something clicked in the back of Steve’s mind, an old memory, not his, but one that had come back strongly as anything he’d experienced.
“Your name’s Peggy,” he blurted out. “It’s Margaret, but your friends call you Peggy.”
“I told you,” Bucky said triumphantly to Peggy- Ranger Carter, as Steve looked back and forth between them. Then things started to click.
“I didn’t end up with a nosebleed after Drifting with you,” Steve said.
“The only one who didn’t. It’s time to let the cadets fly on their own,” she said, not taking her eyes off of Star Striker.
Steve looked back at Bucky, who bit his lip, but gave Steve an encouraging nod. Steve opened his mouth to apologize and Bucky gave him a light punch with his new arm, rocking Steve back, and pointed firmly at Carter.
“You echo with Bucky, because you two have always fought together. But you’re strong enough to hold your own with more than one person,” she said quietly.
“I don’t like bullies,” he said just as softly.
“Neither do I, Steve.”
It was the first time she’d used his name. She turned back to look at him, and it still startled him to realize she was shorter than him. In his mind, she’d always seemed so much larger.
They’d both thought that way. They’d been that little guy standing against the giant.
“Hey,” Bucky’s voice wasn’t any louder than theirs, reverent in the late night of the Shatterdome, a steel cathedral watched over by giant guardian angels. “Both of you, get Star Striker back out there. Kaiju don’t wait just because Steve can’t believe he’s got a big enough brain to share.”
“Thought you said my head was empty,” Steve said with a small smile.
“Nah, not really. Just tougher than me. Both of you,” Bucky said.
“I think there will be proof of that soon enough,” Peggy said, smiling.
“What are you gonna-?”
“Stark’s got some ideas about finding ways to get more people into the field. Little Jaegers, ways to help out the teams.” Bucky shrugged, his metal shoulder gleaming in the overhead lights. “I don’t know how long it’s going to take to get working, but I’ll watch your back as much as I can, punk.” He covered a massive yawn and rubbed at his left arm. “Both of you.”
“Movement in the breach, Category Three. Code name: Jaws.”
“Because that’s not ominous at all,” Steve said as Maria Hill’s voice spilled through the launch pod.
He heard Peggy’s laugh beside him as they were armored up and strapped in.
That laugh echoed as the neural handshake opened up, and Steve extended his mind to hers, feeling her strength rushing past him to open up the connection. This time he held nothing back, and the feeling of Star Striker closed in around him, as light this time as if she’d been sunshine on his back.
He looked over at Peggy as they brought the left arm up, her power washing away the phantom pain, and synched with her as the right arm powered up.
“Let’s go!” They stepped out across the bay as if taking a walk in the park, synched hard and easily. Star Striker moved a lot faster now, the effort no longer so taxing to shift the tons of machinery. Off to one side, Black Hawk was closing in on the circling Jaws, and Ice Hammer had her back to the harbor mouth, ready to defend it.
The city was behind him, the Shatterdome, where one day Bucky and Tony were going to be out there with him, maybe even be able to figure out the kaijus’ weakness and get rid of them for good. But until then, they had their own to defend. The Drift didn’t echo, but instead rang with the same conviction Steve and Peggy both felt.
Pushing their Jaeger into a run, Star Striker leapt into the fray, a battle they were going to win.