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“I still don’t understand what you want from me,” Clint said as he trailed through the facility behind Coulson. “If they’re starting the Jaeger project up again you’ll want someone who isn’t scrambled.” Someone who still has a co-pilot, he didn’t add.

Clint and his brother Barney had been pilots for a Jaeger called Echo Gauge, based down near the Gulf of California. Most of their patrol zone had extended down the side of Mexico and overlapped with that of Matador Fury so, when the Jaeger program was shut down in favour of the wall, Echo Gauge had been the first to be decommissioned. It was probably a good thing, because Clint and Barney weren’t exactly in top condition by then. They clashed a lot out of the suits, and Clint knew in his bones that it would only be so long before they fractured apart inside Echo. Their neural handshake had slipped more and more often as time went on. Fighting the Kaiju wasn’t an easy job, and they just hadn’t been suited to it. Maybe if they’d been split up and paired with other guys, maybe if they hadn’t been so desperate to hold on to a good ride.

The thing about falling out of the drift was, no matter what caused it or who was to blame, there was still a Kaiju to fight and a lot of people to keep alive. Barney was the one with the bright ideas like getting into the program, but Clint was the pit dog of the two of them. He could keep Echo going until Barney had cussed him out and Opps could give them enough space to reconnect. Only for a minute or two, but that was long enough.

That kind of focus took its toll. He’d gotten harder to drift with while in the rig and shakier and shakier out in the real world. He’d never regained some of his fine motor control, left clumsy because his brain had been so thoroughly rewired to move Echo’s fingers rather than his own. One of his eyes was permanently bloodshot from the strain. He would have been retired from the program if everyone hadn’t known that it was getting shut down anyway. After that, there was no more money, no more fame, and Barney left Clint to deal with his bloody pillowcases in peace.

That had been fifteen years ago, back when Clint had been younger and snottier and more eager to get out of bed in the mornings. Then the rift had been closed, the world had moved on, and Clint had done his best to get lost in it. He stayed away from the coast though. Stuck to the Midwest and jobs that didn’t always need the steadiest of hands. But, of course, some organisations made it very hard for certain people to stay lost. He’d been picked up and shipped off, and two days worth of cramped flights later he’d wound up in New Zealand of all places and was tasked with trailing around after Operations Control Coulson until his jetlag wore itself out.

“Do you know why the Jaeger program led to so much destruction during the last round?” Coulson asked.

“We smashed things up,” Clint replied. “That was basically the whole point.”

“Due to the rushed nature of Jaeger construction, the predominant form was basically humanoid,” Coulson replied, ignoring Clint’s token contribution. “The Jaegers were constricted in terms of battle functionality by the same weaknesses a human has. As a form of defence, that was a flaw that only became more problematic as the Kaiju attacks progressed.”

“We worked with what we had,” Clint said simply.

“And considering the rift was eventually closed, many have argued that they were the right tools for the job.”

“You don’t think so,” Clint observed, not bothering to frame it as a question.

“After the Kaiju war, people kept working on Jaeger design. It actually became quite an active area in the academics of physics and engineering.” Coulson looked back at Clint, a conspiratorial look in his eye as he added, “People in both fields had been critiquing the Jaeger project since it was first announced but, in the interests of minimising global hysteria, the journals were recommended to keep the discourse from reaching publication.”

Clint had never read an academic journal in his life, and wasn’t sure that a few articles in some dull volume once a year would have caused much fuss, but he looked stern and nodded all the same.

“The biggest problem is that humans aren’t especially suited to any habitat,” Coulson continued, leading the way down long flights of stairs, Clint moving awkwardly behind him. “We change the habitat to suit us. To that end, places that we can’t inhabit remain a mystery to us and a tactical advantage to possible outside forces.”

“You think people need to go swimming more?”

“There’s a reason the Kaiju came from the ocean, Mister Barton,” Coulson replied, and Clint couldn’t deny that. Kaiju weren’t exactly intellectual giants, but they weren’t dumb beasts either. Like most creatures that humans were scared of, they seemed to operate on instinct more than anything else. But they were good instincts, and a lot of good rangers died with salt water and ammonia in their lungs.

“So you’re saying you’ve built a better robot,” Clint said bluntly.

“I’m afraid that any potential construction details are classified,” Coulson replied in a polite but firm tone of voice. Clint found it kind of refreshing to hear the government agent voice from Coulson, it let him know where the boundaries were.

“You still haven’t explained why I’m here,” Clint complained when they reached the bottom of the stairs, his left hand throbbing from having gripped the handrail tightly the whole way down. “You got a better robot, you need a better ranger. I was barely even good.”

“On the contrary,” Coulson replied. “You had a one hundred percent success rate.”

“We had five fights,” Clint said bluntly. “And for two of them we had help.” They’d been deployed more than that, but mainly as backup for the South American squad and those fights had never stretched too far up North.

“I was referring to load control,” Coulson replied. “Despite falling out of drift a number of times – and I’m sure you’re aware that even a brief falter in the connection has been a big enough weakness to bring down a Jaeger – your team never registered a system failure.” Coulson turned to look at Clint again, and the sharpness of his gaze made Clint stumble. “I’m not sure you realise how extraordinary that is,” he said quietly.

Clint shifted awkwardly, rolling his shoulders as if he could shake off the attention. “Not wanting to die isn’t exactly uncommon,” he replied.

“But managing to avoid death is,” Phil returned before turning away and heading off again, trusting that Clint would follow. “The honest truth is that we need skilled fighters,” he said, returning to his sales pitch, “and there are a finite number of rangers to choose from. Of those on the list, you’re my first choice for relaunch candidate.”

“And how many people actually give a shit about your vote?” Clint asked.

“Not many, thankfully,” Coulson replied with a small grin. “If any of the other hubs had tried to poach you, I doubt we’d have the funds to grasp your attention.”

Clint paused, waiting for two thoughts in his head to finish colliding and for the reverberations to die down. “How serious are the talks of waking up the Jaeger program?” He had been told that the PPDC needed his expertise. He’d been led to believe that he would be some kind of consultant on a monitoring and research project. It was only once the plane had landed and Coulson had shaken Clint’s hand that he’d gotten a sense of the actual trajectory he’d been set upon.

“Atomic disruptions similar to those observed around the breach after its close have been detected,” Coulson said mildly as they turned down yet another empty and musty hallway. “And are steadily increasing.”

“It’s opening again?”

“Something is trying to break through,” Coulson replied. “As to whether it’s the same breach or even the same life forms at the other end, we don’t yet know.”

“Shit,” Clint said dully, though he was exasperated more than anything else. He’d been assured that the whole mess was thoroughly over, that people could go back to getting killed by muggers and heatwaves. “Well, I got even less idea why you want me,” Clint said bluntly. “I wasn’t a great ranger at my peak, and I haven’t seen Barney around so you don’t even have him lined up to save my ass.”

“The new Jaegers require new skills,” Coulson said, and Clint sighed heavily, though he was happy that they’d finally reached a respite in the bullshit that surrounded the project. Clint had been asking since he’d been picked up as to what, exactly, they wanted with him. After thirty hours and three continents, it was nice to be getting an answer.

“The mechs are a completely new design,” Coulson explained, “so the old standbys of running at a target and punching it aren’t going to cut it. Initial testing has indicated that neurological connection to the new system is more taxing than expected.”

“So of course you want to plug a brain that’s half-melted into that,” Clint said with a perfectly straight face. If it was scrambling two new rangers then he definitely wasn’t the man for the project.

Coulson’s mouth twitched slightly, as though he were fighting back a smile. Not the reaction Clint had been expecting. “I want a brain that’s used to high stress combat,” Coulson said plainly.

“I’m not even good in a bar fight,” Clint returned as Coulson let them through a safety hatch. They’d walked through a part of the facility that had been closed for maintenance, taking a more direct route out of respect for Clint’s battered body. When they stepped over onto more commonly trod ground the musty smell was instead replaced by that of old seawater, which gave the worrying impression that the base had sprung a leak. “I don’t know why you think I can fight in whatever you have hooked up.”

“The ride I have for you doesn’t even have hands,” Coulson replied. “I don’t need your body, Mister Barton. I need a very specific set of skills, and you appear to have them.”

Clint shoved his hands deep into his pockets as they walked along, liking the scheme less and less the more he learned about it. Still, it had been a long time since he’d been useful. A long time since he’d heard the roar of success in his aching ears. He’d loved being a ranger, it just hadn’t been especially rewarding in the end.

“I still think you’d be better off getting a new team,” he said. “Training someone up from scratch. Go fuck up some young bodies.”

“Your co-pilot has the youth side of things taken care of,” Coulson replied, and that caught Clint’s interest. It was the first he’d heard of anyone else being strapped back into a drivesuit. “She’s already started training in terms of combat manoeuvres. You’ll be mentoring her in the handshake and drift.”

“She any good?” Clint asked.

“Very promising,” Coulson assured him. “A bit of an attitude, but very goal oriented.”

“Where’d you pick her up?” Clint asked. “Do career counsellors still recommend this shit?”

“Juvie,” Phil replied, and Clint stumbled a little. “You and Miss Bishop will have some common history to bond over.”

Clint scrubbed a hand over his face. “This whole plan just gets better and better,” he said, a hint of a whine in his voice.

“I thought it might be just desperate enough to appeal to you,” Coulson replied, his voice warm with amusement. Clint scowled at the back of his head, but kept limping along behind.

As much as Clint was sure that walking away would be the best bet for his own self-preservation, it had been a long time since he’d been around anyone who cared about things. Post-war, he’d been working shitty jobs staffed by people who knew they were stuck in shitty jobs, who didn’t care about the job so much as the money. And even then the money was fed into other things they didn’t care about – booze, taxes, their own shitty families. But Coulson, he had a small shiver of excitement in him over this little project of his. Clint had been briefed on his flights about cutting edge research teams and refined tactics. The same bullshit he’d been fed when he was still a pilot and working up to be a ranger, the same shit he’d gladly gobbled up the first time he’d been recruited.

But whatever Clint thought about getting back inside a Jaeger, it had been so long since he had seen someone who seemed to honestly love what they were doing that he continued following after Coulson out of pure curiosity. He wanted to see exactly what had gotten someone who was clearly a government man, who should have been sucked dry of hope and passion a long time ago, bouncing on his toes as he waited for a wheezy automatic door to open.

They paused just inside the operations control room, the maintenance bay on the other side dimly lit by emergency lighting. Clint could see a lump of a shape taking up the middle of the deck, but nothing that looked like a Jaeger.

“Anything beyond this point is classified,” Coulson said in a low tone. “I can’t show you any more without your commitment to the project.”

“You make me walk all the way down here, and then you dangle the prize in front of me like that?” Clint asked incredulously. Coulson offered Clint a contract and a needle pen, his face politely blank while he waited for Clint to take it. “Rude,” Clint grumbled, but he signed his name and pressed a bloodspot to the paper all the same. “Alright,” he said with a sigh. “Show me what I just signed the last of my organs away for.”

Coulson tapped a security code into a nearby desk, and then switched the hanger lights on through the computer system. Clint drifted over to the long observation window and stared down at the Jaeger. It was rope-like, coiled up so there was no way of gauging how long it was. It seemed to be nothing but points of articulation, and Clint was torn between thinking that it was stupid to build an mech with so many points of weakness and acknowledging the wisdom of having no hard lengths that could be levered against the body and twisted off. He couldn’t see a Conn-pod, and he had no idea whether it was disconnected, or lost somewhere within the dark twists of the mech.

“You made a snake,” he said at last. And maybe that was an over-simplification, but it was a little more generous than calling it a mess.

Went Clint looked over, Coulson had a hand pressed against the glass, looking down at the silent beast with an expression that was undoubtedly fond. His voice was warm when he spoke, “Unit name, Long Shot.”

Clint grimaced. “Of course it is.”