They dug him out of the ice.
Steve doesn’t remember.
What he does remember is that kaiju’s mouth, wide and toothy. The wrench of his left arm as Bucky went into the waters below. The rain, a storm and terror against his cheek. Heat as his skin scorched amidst the pack bond splintering, and then the chill of the sea as his pod went down.
That last one most of all things.
He’s still numb, more than the cold. As if the ice he didn’t remember never left him. Steve was numb through except for that. That empty space, long and wanting. The missing thread of pack. The rift. The absence of Bucky in his space.
It’s a null worse than he could have dreamt.
He hasn’t fully adjusted when the bureaucratic red tape breaks. His psych eval advise otherwise, but the kaijus are still there. They need pilots, and Steve Rogers is one, simple as that. Dr. Erskine knew. Peggy knew. The brass knew. They all knew so many years before, and they know it too today. No one was ever going to keep Steve from the cockpit, so Phil Coulson fits him.
“Here,” he says. He holds out the undergarment, and his face is impossibly bland. “No one knows you’re alive.”
It’s a reason. For why he’s standing there instead of another personnel. It doesn’t matter.
Steve takes the garment and doesn’t answer. He might lose himself if he did. He nods. Puts on the suit and focuses on the way it feels. It’s snug, lighter than those before. The navy’s near black, and the silver star and bleak stripes stand grim on his chest. Steve touches the star, and his arm smarts as the spinal port locks in place from the base of his skull to tailbone. The rift widens then, howling, and still his left arm tingles for a man who wasn’t there, for his pack to ground him. Steve inhales, slaps the helmet on, and the orange tint bleeds through his eyelids, familiar and cool. He can almost forget the rift, the void.
“And,” Coulson says then. “Your partner.”
Steve looks, and she steps forward, already dressed. Her suit is black with red accents, and she’s red haired. Not quite like Peggy’s shade of lipstick. Opposite, in fact, but she’s a beta and an adapter. Able to fit whatever a person needs. A hundred percent, he hears, drift compatible with anyone.
“Hello,” he says.
It’s wrong. They haven’t even hit the mats. Steve doesn’t look at Coulson as they settle in. The controls are different but still firm in his hands. His body remembers the movement, the walk, the physicality of it. The stimulation starts and—
“You chased the rabbit,” Natasha Romanov says, disimpassioned. There is a faint annoyance just barely there.
Steve turns the helmet in his hands. “Ruined your hundred percent match.”
Natasha smiles, lips curved bold behind her helmet. “What makes you think you’re first?”
There’s a story there. He doesn’t ask. Instead, he stares her straight in the eye. Good. There’s challenge in them, even if he can’t scent it.
“Again,” he says and the helmet goes right back on. Steve is a pilot, first and foremost.
They dive into it a dozen times over. On the mats. In the stimulator. Again and again until they both breathe hard and blood streams from their nose in stress. He memorizes her scent. A soft woody smell of pine and snow crystalized on a winter’s day. It’s delicate. Almost like Buck’s.
“Again,” he demands, and she complies. God knows why. Bending and shaping. He takes her scent and gives his own. They tumble on the mat, and Clint Barton snarls at him when he doesn’t let up.
“Stop,” he says, and Steve wants to fight. The blood floods his cheeks, and Clint’s in his space. It takes a minute before he remembers where he is. Steve backs away, but he growls still. It takes Clint’s partner to sooth the tension, ease them through it. Steve stands, quivers. From anger or loss, he doesn’t know. The rift is still wide, a gulf of nothing. Sam Wilson is good, but he can’t hold it, not against the onslaught Steve would give in his grief.
What shakes him is this.
Natasha raises a hand at Clint, fingers gesturing. Clint frowns, and his fingers are rapid in motion—a wordless argument. Steve can’t read sign, and he watches. Natasha puts her hand in Sam’s to steady herself, an omega’s safety, and…let’s go.
Her lips curl and her teeth are sharp, baring them at Steve. She points her staff at him.
“Again,” she says, undeterred. Her scent peaks high, crystalized snow to icicles, deadly frigid and sweet.
He runs with Sam in the morning around the dome. Clint teaches him today’s words, and he reads with Natasha in quiet time. They all huddle at night for warmth and to watch a film, and Steve gets it. He marks Sam and Clint both, take them as his through Natasha. It’s not his pack—not the family he built with the Commandos, but it’s pack. His. Natasha, Clint, Sam. Natasha, Clint, Sam. He runs their names on his tongue, through the rift, and darns the gap with it. Natasha, Clint, Sam.
The neural handshake holds steady one day just before dawn lights over the dome and peeks through the window.
“Your Jaeger’s done,” Fury tells them.
Steve nods. He doesn’t ask about his old one. He doesn’t know if he could set foot in the cockpit and know Buck is gone. If their scent still ran deep in the metal, blood and sweat put in centuries ago.
He jogs that morning, around the dome without Sam, and the rift runs wide through him. Splits and pulls, a break through Natasha, Clint, Sam on his lips. Steve can barely contain it. The chasm in him threatens to drag him under, and his newly formed pack isn’t enough to offset it yet. Not close enough. Team, but not family.
Steve’s clumsy with the rift, and he stumbles into the omega then, unable to clear his head. He only knows he needs to see his Jaegar. Iron and coconut flood his senses. His left arm tingles, a warning, and he all but inhales as he apologizes. The omega’s scent flare strong in irritation, and Steve knows that underlying note.
“You’re…Tony Stark, aren’t you?”
He doesn’t get an answer. Not a usable one.
“Actually, I am a space turnip.” The omega brushes him off, picks up his stuff, but Steve knows that scent. He doesn’t forget. Not with the drift fresh in his mind and all the rabbits he’s chased working to close the drift with Natasha.
It’s Howard. Someone of his, and he read this too.
Steve blinks, Tony’s scent still in his nose, and it settles the rift inside.
“My name is Steve,” he says. Hopes the omega will stay. That Tony Stark would look at him.
“Hi, Captain Newbie,” and Tony turns. Steve breathes that in too, that unintended rush of scent, of fire and iron meld with tropical fruit. The rift stifles, and he reaches for the toolbox. Tony bristles and even as his scent sharpens in warning Steve is heady with it.
“I do just fine with two, thanks.”
That, that makes Steve snap. His body automatically shifts to position. To posture.
“I didn’t mean anything by it.”
“Sure,” Tony snorts.
They head to the hangar bay. He tells Tony he’s drifting with Natasha. There’s a reaction. Not in the way he wants. He thinks he wants. He doesn’t understand. Not even when Tony says, “I built them.”
A jaegar’s name and the solid weight of it.
Fury comes and makes the introduction to a crowd.
Steve understands when his Jaegar is revealed: Captain America tall and gleaming. Same old shield in hand but sturdier and just as solid as the mechs before. From his before. He looks at Tony, but the omega turns. His crew follows, and they exit the room in a file as if they synchronized beforehand. They leave, and the rift roars to life, arm stinging and empty space clamoring for something to fill it.
It’s a gulf Steve didn’t expect.
He tries to talk to Tony during the testing. He’s answered by JARVIS, and the numbness clenches over his heart.
In the ensuing months, he argues too much with Tony. It bleeds over the rift, and it’s worrying. He asks Natasha. She’s been here long enough.
“You weren’t first,” she says.
“What?” Steve stares at her, and she says it again. Echoes their conversation from the beginning.
“You weren’t first. My hundred percent record.”
And Steve sees how. Tony alone and unable. Tony and JARVIS.
Natasha’s blunt, and it strikes hard before Steve had even thought of it. “You want him?”
“No,” Steve says, and it’s honest. It wouldn’t work, but…he wants something. Natasha stretches on the mat, neck bare to calm, and she tells him: “he doesn’t have one”.
“Both.” No pilot. No alpha.
“He’s too reckless for a pilot.” Steve’s seen him out. It’s suicidal. He doesn’t answer the second.
Natasha throws him a staff, and they go. They have to. Again and again. It’s as close as they get to drift compatible, learning each other. Clint doesn’t snarl this time. He purrs as he fiddles with an arrow, a miniature replica of his Jaegar.
Steve works the logistic out.
“You should talk” is Sam’s advice.
“You?” Tony says, mouth twisting.
“Me,” Steve agrees and steps fully into the belly of Iron Man. James Rhodes took two weeks to wear down, and Pepper Potts three. They relent, and Mrs. Abrogast gives him access. The air here is thick with Tony’s scent, at the core of the jaegar where Tony built the heart and made his nest. “I want to apologize.”
“What for?” Tony spins a wrench on his hand, hair wild and cheek streaked with grease. “Get out.”
“I’m sorry,” Steve says, heedless. He steps in, closer, and Tony’s words rattle fast, spit fire, to confuse, to distract. To push. Steve is—he is, he’s intimidating in Tony’s space. It breaks the rift, and Steve stumbles back, trips. It’s primal.
Tony curses, and he’s pulling Steve up. Touching him.
“Are you stupid?” he asks.
“I’m not turnip head, am I?” Steve shoots back, and that hand on his burns. It slides up, and Steve has to swallow hard.
“Captain Newbie,” Tony says, drawl out soft and nice. His eyes meet Steve’s, hot and angry. The rift is the furthest thing on Steve’s mind.
“Look,” Tony says, bites out. His neck is bare, the wife beater hides nothing, and his scent is all around. “I’m—“
Tony’s sent sprawling on top of him. The bolts and loose screws dig into Steve’s back and deeper still as Tony tries to get up. The position forces his legs wide to accommodate the girth of Steve’s waist, and he’s all but straddling.
“Steve,” and it’s a pant and a whine.
He presses his nose into Tony’s neck, nuzzles in to breathe deep. Steve isn’t mistaken.
“Heat,” Steve says against skin, lust pooling in his loins, and Tony stutters agreement.
“Y-yes.” Tony clutches at his shirt, needing purchase. “Please.”
“Fuck,” Tony says, and it’s more of a groan that sends a shiver right down Steve’s spine. Steve’s hard, and he knows better than this.
“Are—are you sure?”
“Yes,” Tony says, and Steve takes it. He licks and bites and nips, wearing his teeth mark into neck, just by that tempting gland. Tony shifts against him, scent strong. He’s needy.
“Fuck,” Tony says again, and Steve rolls them over. Kisses him deep and long. Properly. Gets his fingers between them, under fabric, and rubs. The slick is wet on his fingers, and Tony’s scent surrounds him. Buoys him against the rift.
“I don’t,” Tony says. They lie in the heart of Iron Man, the aftermath of heat. Round one. “I don’t do relationships.”
“You do,” Steve says, and it’s an affirmation.
“I don’t.” Tony shakes his head. He feels for his boxer, and it’s sticky from the mess they made.
“You’re friends with Ms. Potts and Rhodes. Dr. Banner too.”
“Doesn’t count?” Steve finishes. He pulls Tony back into him. Tony shivers, drops the boxer, and his pupils are still dilated with want. “You weren’t going to say that.”
“I was—“ Tony blinks. His throat works, but nothing comes out. Then, “it’s different.”
Tony closes his eyes, pained. “I’m not a paired pilot.”
He says it against Steve’s chest, whispers into skin, and it tickles Steve’s nipple, along the burns into his left chest and arm. He says it as if that’s everything.
“Bucky,” Steve says. “Bucky was an alpha.”
He strokes a hand down Tony’s back, can smell the slick, and it isn’t over yet.
“He’s your brother,” Tony counters, unable to quell his mouth.
“And Natasha is my pair.”
Tony stiffens, and there’s goosebumps raised on that tanned skin. Steve skims his palm down that beautiful back once more, gentle. Assuring. He continues.
“I don’t need you as my pair. I don’t need you in my drift, but I need you here.”
He drags Tony’s callous fingers up, over his heart.
“You—“ Tony’s mouth’s open. Ajar. “It’s not the heat.”
It was not the heat. It never was, and Steve asks: “And you? Is it?”
Tony flushes. “No.”
“Tony,” Steve screams.
The rift’s there, on edge, ready to return. Steve’s heart thunders, and he can’t do this again. His left arm tingles enough to hurt. He needs to know.
“Status, Iron Man?”
Natasha shoots him a look, and they’re connected in the drift. She’s aware like he’s aware of her.
“Not the rabbit,” she says, and Steve struggles to keep from the rift. From when he first woke in this century.
“I know,” he growls.
“Steve,” she says, because there’s still the kaijus to be dealt with, and then it’s comes. Tony’s voice on the comms.
“Let me get back to you on that.”
It should be enough, but it isn’t. The unibeam was only just and—
“We’re fine,” Tony says. Steve could weep. “Don’t think I can take a blow to the chest though.”
That’s okay. Tony’s alive, and Steve is so glad, so glad. Tells Mjolnir and Guardsman to fall back to Tony’s position.
He throws his shield. Follows as it knocks the lead kaiju in the face and drives his fist down, Natasha meting out his fury alongside him. He won’t let another kaiju do this. He won’t lose Tony.
He chases Tony down, in the sickbay. Before his stupid omega can get out of bed. Steve’s sick with fright and relief.
“Stay in that bed,” he orders, and Tony obeys out of exhaustion. He is too stubborn otherwise, even forgoing sleep and rest till collapse. Steve’s jaw clenches, and everyone in a ten mile radius can scent his anger. Good. He wants them to know. The scent is overwhelming in the room, and it only peaks higher as Tony lists his injuries.
“Cracked rib, minor concussion. I’ve been told to stay here overnight.”
“Which you will do,” Steve says sharply. He would enforce it. Stand guard if he had to.
Tony agrees, and he fingers his gland. It’s alluring, and there’s a sultry promise in his words.
“Is this where I get dressed down?”
It shouldn’t work, but it does. Still, Steve doesn’t let it affect his answer. Keeps his tone even and straight, but he tells Tony this.
“You scared me today. That kaiju could have eaten you whole. I thought it was going to. I thought…”
He remembers the rift, how long it took to mend. That empty space so wide and lonely. Steve takes Tony’s foot into his hand, feels that fine bony prominence at the ankle, that smooth arch. He can’t do this again.
“I need you to stay alive for me,” Steve asks. He’s selfish, and he knows it. “Stay here with me.”
Tony doesn’t quite say yes, says it in his own way. “I don’t like being hurt either.”
He gets into the bed with Tony, holds him in his arms. Breathes in that iron and coconut and feels the memory rift fade.
He presses a kiss to Tony’s forehead, to his lips.
He isn’t numb.
Steve feels too much, and he sinks down with Tony to rest.