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Through the Dark Tide of Memory

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He knew what it was to win. Even as he watched the Kaiju stagger, watched it rend the air with teeth and claw, he knew that this was a victory, one last notch on his belt, on their belt, one more hashmark for the human resistance.

He was laughing, laughing out loud with pure joy, even as the tail ripped free from the ocean, swinging up to slam into the conn-pod.

The hit came from behind, from in front, all at once, cracking his narrow world like an egg in a vise, shattering metal and alloys and plastics and the thin illusion of safety that they had carried. For an instant, he thought that they'd make it, even as the icy air roared in, pummeling his helmet, rocking him in the cradle of his pilot's seat.

But the air tasted like sea salt, sharp and bitter as tears on his lips, and he realized that his helmet's faceplate was shattered, realized that he was ripping free, that his body was tumbling across the floor. His whole world turned on its head, tipping and tumbling in counterpoint to the way he fell, until he couldn't tell which way was up, and he wasn't sure he cared.

His hands scrambled, gloved hands desperately fighting to get a grip on something, anything, but there was salt water on everything, salt water and Kaiju blue, acid and ice coating every surface, death and destruction. He couldn't get a grip, his fingers sliding across metal and plastic and the world twisted beneath his body, beneath his weight and he was sliding, feet and hands and everything failing him.

Another blow, and he couldn't see, he couldn't breathe, shattered bits of his life clattering down as he fell, as he tumbled, his fingers still scraping uselessly against the metal of the floor, and he was falling. He was falling, and he couldn't tell if he was screaming, or it if was the wind, or if it was the monster, the alien horror, or if it was his partner, silent in his head.

But the world was dark and cold and wet and he hit the edge of the world, the edge of everything, and the night was an empty void beyond it. He lashed out, one last attempt, one last try to save his life, and his partner's, and he could hear the screaming now, inside his head. His arm caught, clung, to an exposed spar of metal, and it cut deep, slicing through his drivesuit, through his skin, and he didn't care, he was glad, the pain was something he could understand.

For an instant, he thought it was going to be okay, he could feel the heartbeat in his ears, loud enough to drown out the sea and the storm and the wild wind. He could feel the rain through the shattered faceplate of his helmet, could feel the wires pulling tight, wrenching his head around, but he held on, he clung with all the effort he had left.

One hand was extended to him, and he reached for it, he struggled forward, his fingers grasping in the air.

Then the metal monster beneath him shifted, twisting, in its death throes, and the metal in his hand pulled free. It splintered in his grip, and he was in free fall, into the darkness, into the night, into the storm swept sea.

He screamed Steve's name as the wires in his suit ripped free, breaking the connection, and he fell alone.

Steve Rogers came awake howling his own name.

It took him a long time to remember how to breathe, it took him a long time to separate himself from Bucky, to allow his scattered, damaged brain to force the two memory streams apart, to remember that he hadn't fallen during that battle. He'd been left behind, helplessly pinned to his seat, unable to do anything more than scream as Bucky slipped from the crippled conn-pod of their Jaeger.

He scrubbed his hands over his face, trying to ignore how his fingers were shaking. Tried to regulate his breathing, his heartbeat, but there was no chance, the memories were too raw, too fresh, and his brain remembered what it was to suffocate, to drown.

The worst part about the nightmares was that for a brief, horrible moment, he wasn't alone any more. He hated it and he was grateful for it, all at once, and he woke up with grief so raw in his chest that he didn't even have the energy to cry. He just struggled to breathe, and waited to forget; waited until the memories faded from raw agony to a throbbing ache. Waited until he could remember that he was singular, that he was alone. And that he was always going to be alone, because he could not bear the drift.

Steve wondered if Tony was awake.

He rolled to his feet, and his legs didn't want to hold him. He grabbed for the wall, using it to push himself along, shoving his weight forward. He made it to the small bathroom and ducked his head into the sink. With a vicious twist of his wrist, he turned on the cold water, full force, and let it sluice over his head and neck.

The cold was a shock to the system, clearing the cobwebs from his brain, forcing him back into the present. He kept his mouth tightly closed, not wanting the sensation of icy water in his mouth, in his nose, shaking the scattered memories back into place.

The light, almost inaudible knock on the door brought his head around. He snagged a towel with one hand, already moving towards the door as he rubbed briskly at his face and hair. He knew who was waiting for him before he even opened the door, but still, finding Tony standing there, two bo staffs in the crook of one arm and a faint smile on his face, was a relief. Tony didn't have to say a thing; he just arched an eyebrow, and Steve nodded, the panic and strain already melting away.

"Thanks," he whispered. He slung the towel over his shoulder and caught the staff that Tony tossed to him. Together, they set off through the living quarters, side by side.

Even at this hour, the Malibu Shatterdome wasn't quite still. He could feel the faint vibration through the flooring beneath his feet. Steve was used to it by now, and he knew Tony was, too. Steve had been here for most of his adult life; he'd entered the Ranger program just after the first wave of Jaegers had launched, he and Bucky both. One of the first 'domes to see active use, it was an early adapter and had a benefit none of the others did: Howard Stark. Howard, pilot and designer and engineer, Howard, who poured his family fortune and his company's output into producing Jaegers, into advancing the Jaeger program more than any other one man did.

Howard, who'd died piloting one of his own creations. His name was on the wall of Rangers, lost in the line of duty, along with Bucky's. He'd left behind a magnificent legacy. A base of operations, a full fleet of Jaegers, a huge factory that still produced generic Jaegers for use world wide, and perhaps the most important, his son Tony.

Tony, who'd hit the ground running with his father's legacy and hadn't ever stopped running. It was Tony who'd figured out a way to integrate the arc reactor technology with Jaeger technology, producing Jaegers that were faster, more maneuverable and capable of flight.

It was Tony who'd turned the tide of this war. There might not be any end in sight, but for now, they were holding their own, they were holding their ground. And the Malibu Shatterdome was home to more than a thousand, workers and pilots, support crews and cadets, a rapidly evolving society of people that stood against the oncoming tide of Kaiju.

Steve wondered when, exactly, an active warzone had become the only home that he could imagine. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Tony tapping lightly on the wall with his free hand, and wondered if Tony remembered any other home at all.

Steve, at least, hadn't been raised here.

The gym was empty at this time of morning, even the most dedicated of the new trainees having given in to the need for sleep after a brutal day of punishment. Steve stretched, his body going through the familiar movements by rote as Tony shrugged off his thin sweatshirt, tossing it in a heap beside the mat before he removed his boots. "Bad night?"

"Bad enough," Steve said, rolling his shoulders. "You?"

"Haven't tried to sleep yet." There was a manic note to his voice that was as familiar as the rhythm of his steps to Steve. The two of them had done this more times than he could remember, and he knew every flex of Tony's back, every flicker of his fingers, every skip to his voice. "Alloys aren't performing as expected." He swirled the staff above his head, whip fast and smooth, his hands dancing around the wood as he spiraled through a complicated sequence of steps, his pale feet a blur on the mat.

"You have unreasonably high expectations of metals, Tony," Steve said, his lips twitching. His head tipped to the side, something like a nod. "Actually, you have unreasonably high expectations of everything."

Tony laughed, and for an instant, the stress and tension melted out of his face. "Oh, coming from you, that's fucking rich." He braced the tip of the staff on the mat and snapped his body around, using the pivot point to flip his body up and around and he landed in a crouch, the staff snapping out behind him. "Ready?"

Steve grinned as he brought staff up, around and back down, the blow cracking the air like a whip, but the tip stopped a bare inch from the ground. "Control," he said, and Tony rolled to his feet.

"You talk to much." He shifted back into position, and Steve mirrored him, without a second thought. He took a deep breath, and it was synched up with Tony's breathing by this point, they both knew what the other was about to do, even as they moved. The staffs cracked in mid-air, and again, low and hard, Steve using his greater strength to pull Tony's blow up and away. Tony moved with the flow of the strike, swirling along the length of their staffs, pushing Steve back and out, both of the wooden poles coming up and down, clicking and cracking as they hit, one blow flowing into the next.

Steve was grinning now, his feet moving fast over the mat, Tony's greater speed and maneuverability more than a match for his strength and his reach. He darted back, spinning into the next swing, deflecting it down and out and pressing his advantage, even as Tony's leg snaked in to tangle with his. Using his momentum, Tony flipped backwards, pulling Steve with him, and they rolled, bodies thumping hard against the mat. Steve came up on top, his foot on the mat snug with Tony's hip, his knee pressed in on the other side, his bo pressed lightly on Tony's throat.

"You keep trying that move," he said, his breathing regulated.

Tony laughed. "One day, I'll get it." Steve pushed himself up, stepping away from Tony, and Tony rolled to his feet. "One-zero. Take stance, Ranger."

Steve shifted his feet, moving his body into position, and brought his staff around, never once breaking eye contact with Tony. Tony was grinning now, manic and brilliant, his cheeks flushed, and his hair a mess. Steve held himself still as Tony began swinging the staff, his hands dancing on the wood, the weapon a blur as he swung it, and himself, in, closer and closer, his feet soundless now, light and careful. The staff flashed towards Steve's head, and at the last possible second, he brought his staff up to deflect it. Laughing, Tony pulled back and struck again, again and again and again, until it was all that Steve could do to keep blocking, faster and faster, his hands darting here and there as he readjusted his grip, his hold, his stance, and he was falling back, one step, then two, and Tony swung hard, his body a little too open, and Steve struck, the blow darting in.

Tony deflected it without batting an eyelash, and swung the staff around, the other end coming to rest against Steve's side. "One-one," he said, and Steve laughed. "You always fall for that," Tony told him, chiding as they broke apart.

"You leave yourself way too open," Steve told him, and they were both moving already, both swinging. The steady, staccato blows of the staffs, one after another, faster and faster, set the rhythm for their feet, and they were moving faster and faster, each sure of the other. Steve let himself go, let himself fight, because Tony matched him, move for move and blow for blow. Faster now, and with more force, until the hits shook his arms to the bone, and he was breathing hard and fast, far too aware of the heat of Tony's body as they collided and sparred and broke apart again.

He swung, hard and fast, and Tony was a second too slow to block him, the blow deflected, not stopped. Steve's staff slammed into the side of his knee, and he went sprawling, his body hitting the mat hard.

Cursing, Tony tried to push himself up, and Steve was there before he could manage it. He pinned Tony to the ground, one hand heavy on his shoulder. "Stay still," he said, furious with himself.

Tony huffed out a breath. "It's fine, Cap," he said, but he tilted his head, letting Steve's fingers settle on the throb of his pulse. It was steady and fast under Steve's fingers, the skin hot to the touch. "Really, I just misjudged it."

Steve let out a breath that he hadn't been aware that he'd been holding, his head falling forward as he waited for Tony's pulse to slow. Under his hand, Tony shifted, trying to push himself up again, and Steve let his fingers tighten on his shoulder. "Stay still," he said, and it was the tone he used on his cadets, the one that required immediate, unquestioning obedience.

Of course, this being Tony, it had no effect at all. Tony struggled against his grip, one arm coming up to swat at Steve's bicep. "I am fine," he said, and his face was flushed, his pupils dilated, his skin damp with sweat, but he was giving Steve a look. "Can I sit up now?"

Reluctantly, Steve pulled back, letting him up, his hand landing on Tony's back, supporting him. Tony didn't object. "Dizzy?" Steve asked.

"Nope. Let's go again. Two-one," Tony said, reaching for his staff, and Steve huffed out a sigh.

"Tony-"

Tony brought his staff around and tapped Steve lightly on the top of the head. "Spar with me, or I go back to the drawing board, literally," he said, and Steve reached up to push his staff away, his fingers lingering along the length of the wood, testing the strength of Tony's grip.

He rolled back to his feet, watching Tony as he took his time reclaiming his weapon. "I get any sense that you're not-"

Tony swung, and Steve blocked it. "Back on point, Ranger, or I'll put you on your ass.”

Steve held him in check for an instant, then, with a twist, knocked his staff aside. “You can try,” he said, and that was okay, that was fine. He felt the smile bloom on his features, saw it echoed on Tony's and then they were both moving, the steps as familiar as a dance for which they'd long since memorized the choreography.

Steve marked the passage of time by the steady, ever increasing beat of their sticks, of their feet, of the flow of bodies and breath. He lost himself in the physical, moving faster and faster, and Tony matched him, blow for blow and step for step, and when he fell to one knee, exhaustion swamping him at last, Tony was only a second behind him.

“Son of a bitch,” Tony panted, one fisted hand braced on the mat, his head down, his shoulders flexing with the force of his breathing. “Steve?”

Steve glanced at him. “Yeah?”

Tony tapped him on the head with his staff. “Three-four. I win.” He then promptly keeled over, going spread-eagle on the mat, not seeming to care when Steve burst into laughter.

“I declare you the winner,” Steve said. Grabbing his boots, he muscled them on before he tossed Tony's in his direction. Tony shoved his feet in them but didn't bother with the laces. Steve didn't really blame him.

He got to his feet and the exhaustion was like a drug now, dragging him down, making it impossible to think, to remember anything more complicated than the path back to his room. He reached down and grabbed Tony's arm, muscling him up and onto his feet, even though they basically ended up propping each other up. “You can't sleep here,” he said, trying to sound stern. “I have students in the morning.”

Tony yawned, but he started moving in the right direction when Steve gave him a nudge. Steve paused for a second to reclaim their weapons and dropped them into the rack as they passed it on the way to the door. “How is the newest class?” Tony asked.

Steve's nose wrinkled. “Young,” he said.

Tony chuckled. “No younger than you were,” he pointed out. “Than I was.” His head hung down, his arm slung over Steve's shoulders.

“Feels younger.” Steve jolted him to keep him moving. “How's the new design?”

“Can't dedicate any time to it.” Tony's feet shuffled against the floor. “Damn Rangers keep smashing my Jaegers up against the solid mass of giant alien monsters. I'm up to my neck in repairs, and I got Fury breathing down my neck.”

Steve's arm tightened on him. “You can do it.”

Tony gave a snort. “I can. I'm annoyed that I have to.” His head rested on Steve's shoulder. “Sick of fixing the fucking things.” He pulled away from Steve's grip. “I need sleep.” Before Steve could stop him, he ducked down the wrong corridor, heading right for Steve's room. He pushed the door open and wandered inside.

"Go home," Steve said to Tony, who just wobbled his way across the floor. "Hey! You don't live here, you mooch. Go- You have a nicer room than me, can you please just go-"

Tony fell face first into the lower bunk, his body more or less on the mattress, and he let out a happy sigh. His arms latched onto Steve's pillow, drawing it in, and just like that, he was out. Steve rolled his eyes. "Goddammit, Tony, you rat,” he groused, but he did it quietly, because Tony was asleep. Crouching down, he yanked Tony's boots off, shoving his legs onto the bed. With a flick of his wrist, he pulled the blankets up over Tony's still form. "You could at least let me have my-" he said, and Tony grumbled something into the pillow, hugging it tight.

"Yeah, I know, that's a lost cause." Steve leaned against the bedframe, watching the slow, even rise and fall of Tony's back. Reassured, he staggered back to turn off the light.

Under the cover of darkness, Steve pulled off his boots and set them neatly aside, then stripped down to his shorts. It was his damn room, after all. He boosted himself up to the top bunk, and collapsed onto the thin mattress, too exhausted to care. But he could still hear Tony's breathing, soft and even, and he wondered if Tony knew that he couldn't bear to be alone.

Or if Tony just had the same problem.

*

“Gooooood morning, K-Science!” Tony crowed as he strode through the door, two coffee cups in each and and a spring in his step. The latter might've been directly related to the former, but he'd take what he could get at this point.

Bruce Banner raised his head from his microscope, his eyes blurry and his glasses on top of his head. He blinked at Tony, his face scrunching up. “Is it morning?” he asked, scrubbing a hand over his face. His lab coat was a wrinkled mess, the sleeves turned up around his elbows, his tie thrown back over his shoulder.

“Yes, it's morning,” Reed Richards said, scrambling up a few more steps on the ladder that allowed him access to the top of his chalkboards. His pantlegs were covered in chalk dust, streaks of pale white against the black fabric, clear indications where he'd swiped his fingers. He shoved a hand through his hair, disordering the strands, and went back to his calculations.

“What morning?” Betty Ross asked, not looking up from her computer. Her fingers were dancing over the keys, her glasses reflecting the light every so often, hiding her eyes. Her shoulders were hunched forward, almost protectively, over her work, and her hair pulled back into a messy bun that was secured with two pencils. “What day is it, Reed?”

Reed paused, his body swinging out and away from the chalkboard, one hand bracing himself as he considered the question. “A workday.”

“Technically correct, and worrying none the less,” Tony said, shaking his head. Before he could say anything else, Betty reached back and, without looking, snagged one of the coffee mugs out of his hand. He fumbled to keep his grip on the other one. “Hey, that's-” Bruce wandered past, rubbing the back of his neck with one big hand, and took another. “Those... Those were all for me, I don't think you understand,” Tony started, and both of them turned identical exhausted and disinterested looks on him. Tony sighed. “Fine. Don't say I never gave you anything.”

Giving in to the inevitable, he held one of the remaining two mugs out to Reed, who took it without a word, still staring down his figures. “You're welcome,” Tony told him, but Reed didn't seem to notice. “It worries me. It worries me endlessly that I appear to be the person in this room with the most social graces, that is just, that is terrifying.”

“I think we have bigger things to worry about,” Bruce said with a faint smile. He had both hands wrapped around his coffee cup, hoarding the warmth. He had deep, dark circles carved beneath his eyes.

“As long as we're in K-Science, there's always something bigger to worry about.” Betty put her bare feet up on the edge of the desk, tipping her chair back. “Say, I don't know, maybe the Kaiju?”

“There's that.” Tony headed to his drafting table. He had his own office, but he ended up here more often than not. He needed their data, their insights, and, if he was being honest, their company. “Anything new?”

“Reed's re-evaluating the breach,” Bruce said, leaning against the workbench. Reed made a sound of agreement, a little hum under his breath. “I'm still trying to neutralize the Kaiju blue phenomenon in a way that won't make everything more toxic, and Betty-”

“I'm working on a predictive model for landfall,” she said, covering a yawn behind her hand. Her long lashes hung low over her eyes, but her voice was still crisp and even.

Tony glanced at her. “You're trying to predict Kaiju movements?”

Her chin came up. “I am predicting Kaiju movements.”

“They're animals,” Reed said into his coffee cup. He was scribbling numbers on the chalkboard in front of him, the rapid click of chalk on slate in counterpoint to his words. “There's no predicting the movements of animals.”

“That's completely incorrect,” Betty said, her arms crossing over her chest. “We've predicted the movements of animals since the beginning of human history. Our earliest survival was dependent on us being able to determine just where and how animals were going to move, because they were our food source.”

“Kaiju aren't buffalo or elk,” Reed said.

“No, but they can be predicted,” Betty said, stubborn.

“Let me see,” Tony said, and she scooted back to her computer, tipping the screen so he could see. He stared at the world map that she brought up.

“See, I've plotted the attacks, from the first landfall in San Francisco, to the most recent Cat-III that went ashore in Ecuador.” Her fingers danced over the keyboard. “They're moving in waves.”

Tony stared at the colored arrows that appeared, one after another, each noted with a date, a name, a category, and an outcome. He frowned as the arrows started to spread, some intersected at sea by Jaegers and their pilots, others slipping ashore before they could be stopped. “Okay,” he said, one hand braced on her desk. “Why?”

“Still working on that,” she said, her mouth twitching up on one side. “If I can determine that answer, I might be able to buy us time to get additional teams in place before the Kaiju start moving. If we know that the next attack will be in Lima, then we can shift Jaegers from Anchorage, be prepared. We can act offensively, rather than defensively.”

“And if you're wrong, then we'll be leaving a city completely undefended,” Reed pointed out.

Betty leaned back in her chair. “If I'm wrong,” she said, accenting the first word. “If. I don't think I am. Or will be.” She stood. “But I need more data. I'm not willing to put lives on the line for it just yet.” She stretched, pulling the pencils from her hair and shaking it out. The brown waves curled over her slim shoulders. “I'm going to see what Aunt May's managed to scrape together for breakfast. Anyone hungry?”

Tony gave Bruce a look. Bruce stared into his coffee cup. “Give me a second to get this,” Tony said, waving a hand at his drafting board. “I'll join you.”

Betty gave him a bright smile. “Meet you down in Mess C, then.” Grabbing her shoes, she headed for the door.

Tony waited until she was gone before he gave Bruce a light smack on the back of the head. “Ow!” Bruce gave him a glare. “What was that for?”

“One of these days,” Tony said, “you're going to have to man up and actually do something other than pine after her. I mean, the world's ending, you could at least tell the smartest, nicest, prettiest, sweetest-”

“I get it, thanks, really, you can stop any time,” Bruce said, pushing himself away from his workbench.

“Woman that you've ever met,” Tony continued, unconcerned with the interruption, “a woman, I might add, that actually likes and admires you, that you would like to, I don't know, I don't know what the hell you've got going on up there in your big brain, but I assume it's like, you want to court her or shit, but you really need to DO SOMETHING. Anything. What do you have to lose?”

Bruce was giving him a look, Bruce was giving him that look, that head tipped forward, eyes looking up LOOK that he managed sometimes. “Do you really,” he said, his voice carefully measured, “really want to get into a discussion about pining after someone?”

Tony saw the trap yawning right in front of his feet, as wide and deep and dangerous as the breach itself and back-pedaled with all due speed. “No, actually, let's not-”

“Because I could really have something to say about you and pining,” Bruce said. He gave Tony a tight lipped smile over the rim of his coffee cup. “About your habit of middle of the night fights with the good Ranger Rogers. About the fact that you-”

“Fine, got it, you can stop any time now,” Tony said.

“Yeah, that's what I thought,” Bruce said, his voice a little too sweet.

“How, exactly, is it that REED, of all people, is the only one that actually has a love life?” Tony asked, and they both turned to look in Reed's direction.

Reed kicked the rolling ladder along the length of his chalkboard. “Sue asked me out,” he said, not at all concerned.

“That would explain so much,” Tony said.

“That does explain so much,” Bruce said. “Breakfast?”

“Breakfast,” Tony agreed. “C'mon, let's catch up to Betty, you can wax lyrical about her data results.”

“She's wrong,” Reed said.

“Sue asking him out makes so much sense,” Tony said. “It calls into question Sue's mental status and she might need to be re-evaluated before we can let her pilot my Jaeger any more, but it makes so much sense.”

*

"Again," Steve said, resting his hands easily on the worn wood of his staff. "Teddy, control. You need to rein yourself in, and do not let the speed of the match overwhelm you." He waited until the boy nodded, his face tense. "And Kate. We're going for a touch. Not an actual injury. This is practice, not a life or death fight. Do we understand one another?"

Kate glanced at him, her dark ponytail swinging around her shoulders. "Yes, sir."

Steve gave her a smile, trying to soften the criticism. "This is your partner. When we do these practice rounds, it's to help you get used to moving with another person, moving in tandem, learning someone else's patterns, someone else's rhythm. This is fighting practice, but it's also fighting socialization. If you get into a Jaeger, Kate, the only thing that matters will be the person in the seat next to you. That person will be your entire world, for as long as you're in the drift.” He leaned forward. “You cannot worry about being better than them. You have to be in balance with them.”

He tapped the end of his staff against the mat. "Use this time to come into alignment with your partner." He stepped back, his bare feet silent on the metal floor surrounding the mat. "Find position." He waited until they both shifted into place. He thumped the end of his staff against the floor, and they both moved. A minute later, Teddy hit the ground with a bone jarring thud, and Steve resisted the urge to sigh.

"Again," he said, determined to see this through. "Three-one. This time, let's-"

The wail of the siren brought him up short. The cadets started moving immediately, grabbing their things, fumbling their boots and over shirts back on. "You know the drill," Steve said, pitching his voice to be heard over the alarms. "Those of you with emergency posts, find them. If you do not have an assigned duty for this quarter, head for your designated bunker and await orders." The cadets and trainees were moving briskly and quietly, and Steve added, "I want everyone in place in less than five minutes; our response time is being monitored."

They didn't need to be told that, they never needed to be told that. These prospective Rangers knew that every single thing they did was being noted, every interaction taken into account when it came down to choosing which of them would have the ability to respond to that alarm one day. Most of them never would. And Steve wished it was none. For all their time in the simulator, their studies, their practice, their work, he sometimes wished that he could mark every one of them as being unfit for Jaeger duty.

He was sick of burying people. When, of course, they had a body to bury.

Out in the corridor, he joined the flow of people, all single minded as they moved towards their goals. The sirens kept wailing, but by now it resulted in sustained rush, instead of panic.

“Rogers!”

Steve paused, stepping to the side to let others pass him. Carol Danvers cut through the crowd, her movement a controlled rush, and everyone got out of her way. Her blonde hair was a wild crest on the top of her head, and she was already dressed in a full drivesuit, blue and red with a gold star against her breastbone. The helmet under her arm had a matching star on the side.

“You being deployed?” Steve asked as Carol fell into step beside him.

“Don't know yet,” she said, but the color was up in her cheeks, her eyes bright and an eager grin on her lips. “You headed for LOCCENT?”

“Yeah.” Mission Control was the best place to keep tabs on the emerging crisis, and even if he wasn't an active duty Jaeger pilot any longer, Steve was still accepted there. He had a range of skills that kept him useful to Hill and Coulson, and if they couldn't put him to work, they were polite enough to ignore him, as long as he kept out of the way.

He didn't know why he felt compelled to stand witness to every single mission that went out, but he suspected that it was just guilt. Guilt and self-loathing, as he watched others run the missions that should've fallen to him.

“Where's Rhodes?” he asked Carol, and her grin stretched a bit wider.

“Taking a nap,” she said, smug about it. “Last time I woke him at the alarms, he was an absolute bear. Figured that if he can't be polite about it, I'll leave him to his own devices and see how he likes that.”

“Cruel,” Steve said, but he couldn't keep his lips from twitching.

“C'mon,” she said, utterly unashamed. “There's no way he's going to sleep through those alarms, and he's a damn bear when he's waking up.”

“Still cruel,” Steve said.

“Damn straight.” They slipped together onto the lift, both of them pushing back against the wall to let the rest of the technical and operational staffers to flood in around them.

“Hold the doors!”

Steve's hand snapped out, punching the 'door open' button just before they started to close. He held it as Tony scrambled down the last few meters of the corridor and slipped into the lift. He was breathing hard, his eyes brilliant. “Thanks,” he said, juggling a clipboard and a handful of files in his arms before he got everything straightened out, and jammed a protein bar between his teeth. He chewed fast, and as soon as he swallowed, he asked, “What've we got?”

“Cat-III,” Carol said. “That's all I know. If they follow rotation, it'll be War Marvel and Invisible Flame on point with Moon Wasp holding the miracle mile.”

Tony's nose wrinkled. “Not Black Hawk?”

“Barton's got a dislocated shoulder. They patched him up, McCoy's good at doing that, but as long as we have the crews, Fury won't risk him not being at one hundred percent,” Steve explained.

“Also, he doesn't play well with Flame's crew,” Carol added, in an undertone.

“Let's be honest,” Tony said. “It's that half of Flame's crew doesn't play nice with anyone else. Johnny's been a real-”

Steve cleared his throat, and Tony's teeth clicked shut. Steve gave him a chiding look. “Not sure that helps the situation,” he said, his voice quiet. “In fact, pretty sure it doesn't.”

Tony gave him a look, his eyes warm and sharp. “As long as I'm the one who keeps having to patch his damn Jaeger,” he said, “then I get to have an opinion on the fact that he keeps wrecking the damn thing.”

Carol hid a smile by rubbing her chin, and Tony laughed out loud. “I don't ever want to hear anyone say that drifting doesn't affect pilots,” he said, grinning at her. “That is Rhodey. That little gesture, that is all your partner, and you don't even know that you're doing it, do you?”

She shrugged. “He does that kick thing with his foot now, so any affect he's having on me, I'm having it on him, too.”

The lift shuddered to a stop, and Carol slipped through the doors before they even fully opened. Holding back just a bit, Steve glanced at Tony. “You okay?” he asked, his voice soft, almost lost in the shifting of bodies and feet.

Tony's eyes flicked in his direction. “Yeah.” He ran a hand through his hair. “Got a couple of hours of sleep. You?”

“Out like a light.” No more nightmares, no more memories, no more gnawing sense of guilt. He'd just slept, and that was a blessing that came all to rarely these days.

LOCCENT was packed by the time they made it up there, with Agent Phil Coulson standing in the front of the room, Agent Maria Hill bent over the incoming data, and Marshall Fury standing behind them, his one dark eye missing nothing.

“All right,” Phil called, and the room came to silence in a heartbeat. “We have a Catagory-III, codenamed Sawtooth, moving quick up the Northern coast. It looks like it's aiming to make landfall around Monterey.” He handed a stack of pages to the nearest person, and they made the rounds, people taking one and passing it on. “Speed is up 25% from the average, so we have less than an hour to get in place.”

“We're pulling three teams,” Fury said, his voice calm. “Moon Wasp and War Marvel, you're heading out to provide active support, Los Angeles is short staffed and over budget. Invisible Flame, you're going to hold back and provide protection in the miracle mile.”

“Are you kidding me?” Johnny Storm, already in his blue and white drivesuit, jerked forward, his hands coming up, fisted tight. “We-”

“Thank you, sir,” Sue Storm said, cutting him off with ruthless calm. When her brother turned on her, she met his eyes with a fierce look. “We understand.”

“I-”

“Dismissed,” Fury said, ignoring him. But the set of his jaw made it clear that the insubordination hadn't been overlooked, it was just shelved for now.

Steve shook his head, and Tony gave a light snort. “Kid's going to get himself, and his sister, tossed from the corps,” he said. Pushing away from the wall, he glanced at Steve. “You sticking around?”

Steve took a deep breath. “Yeah. Not local, but close enough.”

Tony jammed the fact sheet into his back pocket and put his hands in his front pockets. “As much as I'd like to,” he said, his mouth tight, “I've got work to do. Foxtrot Ultra needs repairs, again, if we're going to make use of it.”

Steve's jaw locked. Through the crowd, he could see Wade Wilson, the pilot a spastic twitch of movement that seemed unstable somehow. Even from this distance, he could see Wade's mouth moving, talking to someone no one else could hear. “Didn't know our local mercenary was back,” he said at last. Wade didn't have a Shatterdome of his own, he and his frequently damaged Jaeger skipped back and forth up and down the Pacific coast, ending up in Malibu more often than not. Mostly because Tony was the only one who could fix his Jaeger. And nearby Los Angeles was one of the few Shatterdomes that would still supply him with a partner.

Most of the others were too protective of their pilot candidates to risk a drift with the pilot that the experienced crews called the Rip Tide, because he would drag you right under.

“His latest drift partner lasted one mission,” Tony said, his shoulders hunched forward. “Left the program entirely. Scuttlebutt is that he's still got problems with talking to himself.”

Steve watched Wade move. He wondered, sometimes. If Wade was talking to himself at all. Or if the voices in his head were his dead partners, both of them, the two who'd died in the seat next to him, still connected, still drifting. Maybe they were still around, still clinging to Wade's brain with more then memories. Sometimes, he wondered if Wade just couldn't bear to admit that they were dead at all.

And talked to those who were now left behind in the drift.

“Two dead partners,” Steve said, his voice quiet. “Three sets of memories in the drift. For an inexperienced pilot, it might as well be a death sentence.”

“And none of the experienced ones will get into a conn-pod with him,” Tony agreed. He shook his head. “Anyway, I've got repairs to make.”

“Thank you,” Steve said, giving him a faint smile.

“Hang in there, Steve. And do me a favor?”

“What?”

“Don't let any of your cadets near Wilson.”

“Don't worry,” Steve said, his voice low. “That's not ever going to happen.”