Area 51 Testing and Training Center, Nevada
Three years since the launch of the world’s first Jaeger, five years since K Day, few piloting teams in the world had as many kills as the Maximoff twins. Beyond their impressive record, and their status as the first piloting team assigned to the LA Shatterdome, the pair of sharp-featured young Rangers were what calculating producers called ‘camera-friendly.’ That, plus their willingness to give interviews, made Thomas and William Maximoff west coast media darlings. Producers especially loved Thomas, always good for a tight sound bite, who had bleached his dark brown hair white somewhere between his first press conference and his second, and was rarely seen without a girl on his arm and his brother hovering somewhere in the background. Kaiju kills aside, the twins made good TV.
What all that meant was that Teddy couldn’t even turn on the news in freaking Nevada without hearing something about them.
“Barely a week after their last battle against the Category-2 kaiju dubbed ‘Rattler’ by the Pan Pacific Defense Corps, the Maximoffs were spotted heading up a tactical training exercise with a fellow Jaeger team near the Channel Islands. Magnus Echo and Yankee Hawker engaged with aircraft from Edwards AFB during the four-hour scenario-“
The door to the dayroom opened behind him and Teddy hit the mute button with a groan. The old couch that had probably been donated to the barracks sometime in the last century groaned back at him as he stretched his arms out along the sagging cushions. Eli Bradley leaned over the top and raised an eyebrow at Teddy from his vantage point. The harsh artificial light that ran everywhere in the base carved shadows along the strong dark line of his jaw, made him look as though he were scowling even when he smiled.
“Look at these jerks,” Teddy grumbled uncharitably, and waved the remote at the news footage flashing on the dusty screen. Magnus Echo, a Mark II painted up in dark green with vivid red racing stripes, did some ridiculous flip maneuver that sent a wave rolling up and half-over the other Jaeger, and the dogfighting planes scattered in all directions. “All they do is show off.”
Eli snorted, entirely unsympathetic. “You can’t argue with their kill count,” he replied. “And they have the deepest drift synchronization ever recorded. You want to be jealous, knock yourself out.” He flicked at Teddy’s ear and Teddy jerked away.
“I’m not jealous,” Teddy replied automatically, but the twisting somewhere down in his middle proved the lie. Eli’s smirk didn’t help matters. “Fine!” Teddy threw up a hand and then dropped it, a puff of dust bouncing out of the cushion to scatter in sparkles under the light. “I’m a little jealous. I’m so far down on the list that the war will be over before I ever get close to anything other than a simulator.”
They only had the resources to roll out one Jaeger a year, if that, after all, and without a co-pilot, he was doubly screwed. It didn’t matter what his kill counts were in training, as long as there were compatible teams ahead of him.
If Teddy’s parents had still been alive, he might have had a shot. His dad had been one hell of a fighter pilot, and he would have jumped at the chance to take on something like a Jaeger. But he was gone, KIA long before the Kaiju war, when Teddy was barely old enough to remember the shape of his face.
It was easier to pretend that he was happy where he was, a faceless cog in the machine that was the Pan-Pac industrial complex. Just another grunt with a gun.
“A lot of things can happen in a year or two,” Eli tossed back, but he brushed Teddy’s shoulder with his hand before straightening up again.
“Easy for you to say.” Teddy craned back over the couch to watch Eli as he walked away to grab a soda from the fridge, his coveralls still properly creased and bagged over his boots. “You and Uncle Joe are next in line when the new Mark IVs roll out.” There was that wave of envy again, but softer and tinged with more pride and affection than the uncomfortable tangle that sat low in Teddy’s gut when he watched video of William Maximoff and his twin.
The news report had changed focus, stopping the looped replay of footage from the last kaiju attack. (Code name: Yamarashi, taken out last year by Magnus Echo, Stinger Goliath, and the newly commissioned Yankee Hawker; Magnus Echo’s fourth confirmed kill). The bottle-blonde reporter on the screen had moved on to the ‘human interest’ segment, flashbulbs popping as the twins pushed their way through the crowd to the door of some fancy club. The camera zoomed in as William stopped to flirt with the doorman, and Teddy’s irritation flared again.
“Assuming we don’t kill each other before then,” Eli joked, flopping on the couch and grabbing the remote. He jabbed at the channel button and the television flashed through a half-dozen sitcoms, a talk show with flashing marquee lights, and paused at an old black and white movie about a giant fire-breathing turtle that had achieved serious cult status over the past half-decade. “Stop drooling over your crush and chill out for a while.”
“I don’t have a crush,” Teddy insisted hotly, folding his arms and turning away from the screen. “The pair of them need to stop sucking up to the media and this ‘Jaeger pilot celebrity’ kick. It’s annoying.”
“Sure, Teddy. Whatever you say.” Eli smirked. He might have a point, if Teddy had to be entirely honest with himself, but he wasn’t some ridiculous teenage girl, to start sticking posters of pilots up in his bedroom, like some shrine.
Sure, the twins were good-looking. So they moved like poetry in their Jaeger. It didn’t mean a thing when it came to personality, say, or whether he’d actually enjoy spending any amount of time with either of them.
Drift partners picked up each others’ quirks and characteristics after a while; it came with the territory. And if Thomas was the kind of publicity-craving jackass that he seemed to be in interviews, barely managing to contain his smirk and better-than-you swagger, well. The odds were pretty good that his brother was a lot like that too. So William Maximoff could take his stupid perfect cheekbones and his unblemished piloting record and shove ‘em.
It seemed, sometimes, like Teddy was the only one who felt that way. The LA Shatterdome was prime territory, responsible for the entire coastline between Mexico and Canada, and the three Jaegers stationed there had already racked up seven dead kaiju between them. Anyone within 500 miles of the coast could recite their stats.
Kate Bishop and America Chavez, Yankee Hawker. Two kill shots, four assists. Scott and Cassie Lang, Stinger Goliath. One kill shot, two assists. Thomas and William Maximoff, Magnus Echo. Four kills, three assists.
They were heroes, the Jaegers made into action figures, their pilots’ faces blazoned on magazine covers and t-shirts, and against the kaiju they were a bulwark, a barricade, impenetrable.
Until the day they weren’t.
Teddy woke to the sound of pounding on his door. His clock blinked at him – 4:13 am. The hell? He rolled bare-chested out of sweat-crumpled sheets and jammed his feet into his boots, pulse picking up as he wrenched open his door. It was only Eli on the other side, his t-shirt untucked and his eyes narrowed in anticipation. “There’s action in the Breach,” he said, without any other commentary. “Uncle Joe just buzzed me. Stark’s got a feed running.”
There was a secondary set of alarms at Area 51, linked to those at the Shatterdome on the coast. It was all highly unofficial, of course. Marshal Hill had a vein on her forehead that pulsed terrifyingly when she caught the system analysts and debuggers down in R&D burning bandwidth on the downlink from LA. But even the threat of divine-level retribution wasn’t enough to stop them all from convening in the lower labs when the kaiju alert sounded.
“Two seconds,” Teddy promised, holding up a couple of fingers and ducking behind his door to grab a clean shirt. The air was cold on his back and his dog tags snagged on the neck as he hauled the dark green t-shirt on over his head and jammed it in the vague direction of the waistband of his fatigues. He wasn’t exactly presentable, but at least he wasn’t half-naked as he followed Eli down the winding corridors.
Stark’s lab in the sub-basement had been part of the complex before K Day, part of a military installation used for test aircraft that now belonged to the PPDC for Jaeger R&D. Conspiracy theorists had named Area 51 a center for research on alien technology fifty years before there had been any such thing; now they’d been proven wrong and made right all at once. There was irony there.
A vast arm structure lay open on the concrete floor of the vast underground hangar that had once held stealth fighters and long-range bombers, the iron skin splayed open and dissected, servos and electronics on vulgar display. Coils of wire and tubing hung out of the chasm, strung across the space like the veins that they were. It looked like an autopsy in progress, the tang of iron and oil hanging over the usual dry smells of dust and concrete. The Mark IV, pieces of a prototype grappling system.
If Teddy couldn’t pilot a Jaeger, at least he could have this; being close to the behemoth, able to run his fingers over the sleek polish of her frame, breathe in the faint smell of oxide that lingered long after the workings had powered down, stand beside the towering replica of a god on earth and feel anything but small. Fingers the size of Teddy’s entire body from knuckle to tip curled upward, beckoning to him. She would be gorgeous when she was whole.
He could only afford a glance, a wistful tug curling deep in his core, before he was turning away again and picking up the pace. A body jumped out of the way as Teddy skidded around the corner, Eli long since gone ahead. He’d almost mowed down Dr. Banner, and he was carrying a tray of beakers and test tubes that rattled and clinked together with his abrupt stop-and-swing-away maneuver.
Teddy stopped dead, an apology written on his face, but Banner gave him a vague smile in his usual long-suffering way, and nodded at the room he’d only just left. “No harm done. They’re in there,” he added unnecessarily, because the noise already filtering through the closed door gave the gathering away.
“Any sign of Marshal Hill?” Teddy asked, glancing back over his shoulder at the hangar doors, vast and cold steel-gray.
“All clear; she’ll be asleep at this time of night. Though I’m sure you can blame Tony if you get caught,” he added, that little grin that Teddy could never quite identify curling up one corner of his mouth, before he headed off with his batch of samples.
It only occurred to Teddy that he should have asked Banner why he was up and around so early long after the door had closed behind him.
Tony Stark’s lab was a riot of chatter, music and lights, as always, a low drum beat and heavy guitar riff pulsing just at the bottom range of Teddy’s hearing. Teddy elbowed his way through the cluster of techs and other cadets to ease in beside Eli and his uncle. Josiah nodded to him but said nothing, his thick arms folded across his broad expanse of a chest and his attention entirely focussed on the monitors and displays. Stark’s screens were all displaying different things, night views of the ocean and burning red and blue data streams, rigged to show all the telemetry and video feeds he had tapped into from the Shatterdome.
“Twenty bucks says Yankee gets the killshot.”
Stark laughed from his chair, his eyes creasing at the corners and the scarring on his chest showing around the arm of his tank top when he waved his hands wildly in the air. “No bet, losers. Have you seen the new code for their aiming subroutines? What am I saying? Of course you haven’t. Yankee Hawker can take a fly off a tree branch at three miles; no, better – the wings off the fly, and not touch the tree.”
“That’s assuming Magnus doesn’t take it out first.”
“I’ll see your twenty and raise you ten on Stinger Goliath taking the kill. The Langs are insane.”
The main video feed zoomed in, piggybacked on one of the Jumphawks that hauled Yankee Hawker out and over the midnight ocean. It was still for a moment, no sound but for the chopping of the blades, the creaking and groaning of stressed metal, and the routine check-ins on the comms.
Hawker dropped, the water curling up around her legs, black as ink. Stinger Goliath dropped behind her, Magnus Echo already in the lead, beacons on and luminous against the mist in the air.
Teddy’s breath caught in his throat and he struggled to keep his heart from racing. Water sheeted down in the darkness, picked out by spots from circling helicopters and Magnus Echo’s brilliant halogen searchlight. The ocean was breathing.
Stark scowled and poked a finger through the indicator on one of his rotating holographic displays. Sound started to pipe in, beeps and voices from the Shatterdome’s LOCCENT, status reports and comms, chatter from the pilots as they deployed.
/Three on one is stupid odds; one day I want a real fight./
/You want this one, Kate? Be our guests! We’ll come mop up after you get your butts handed to you./
/Forget it, Billy; the girls just want all the glory for themselves./
/That’s women to you, Maximoff./
/Can the chatter, kids. It’s like a goddamned high school locker room out here tonight./
Teddy strained, absolutely not listening for one voice in particular, a rich, warm tenor that always laughed at his brother’s stupid jokes-
Because Teddy was a giant creeper, apparently, and Eli was already smirking. Teddy frowned at him, stepped back in beside Josiah and forced his shoulders down, his jaw to stay loose. The room was getting warm and stuffy, too many bodies jammed into too small a space, talking over and around each other. Teddy drummed his fingers against his thigh, his body thrumming in sync with the nervous energy filling the lab.
“What’s the name on this one?”
“Nothing’s dropped from LOCCENT yet. Wait – here it comes.”
“Is he for real?”
“Someone needs to take Choi’s movie collection away from him.”
/Estimated size 2600 tons, closing in. Projected first contact in T-minus ten minutes./
“Biggest damn category three I’ve ever seen.” Jan, the tiny brunette who had supervised Teddy’s last training session, bullied her way under his arm and he stepped aside to let her get closer.
The name was apt. The proof flashed on the screens when the monster erupted from beneath the cresting waves, a skull-like face that was all angles and grey-bleached bone, teeth and claws. Jan actually yelped when the camera feed from Stinger Goliath zoomed in on the black hollowed eye sockets, and the thing turned. It tuned and it grinned right into the damn camera, and Teddy felt a shiver of fear rush straight through him to sit cold in his stomach.
It looked like it knew.
Hone-onna roared and the feed jumped back to transmitting from the helo circling high above, as Goliath flipped its power over to weapons. The holographic projections spun and jumped with it, a dozen streams of data spinning through and casting a witchlight glow on Stark’s face, lips moving silently as he processed it all.
The three Jaegers moved in patterns that were so familiar by now, Teddy could see the steps of the dance five moves before they happened. Hawker would stay back, fire her pulse cannon – there. Magnus was in close, the movement so fluid and clean that it didn’t seem possible. It was a computer simulation of a robot, not an actual mech the size of a skyscraper; nothing that large should be able to pivot, parry, riposte so gracefully.
Teddy’s hands were up in front of him and he hadn’t noticed until he caught Eli’s own hands twitching out of the corner of his eye. They were moving together, mimicking the Jaegers’ stances with their own bodies, the hours of training videos and sims that Teddy had put himself through singing now in his blood.
That was what he was meant to be doing. He punched forward with Magnus and he could feel the weight of the servos gliding along his arm, the pressure of the hydraulics digging into him, cradling him, transmitting every neural pulse and muscle movement into something a thousand times more powerful than he could ever be alone. Bend next, turn. Imagined respirators buzzed in his ears, reflecting the sound of his own breathing back to him. Bring the left arm up to block and leave an opening for Stinger Goliath-
It should have worked. It had already worked a handful of times before.
Hone-onna’s claws ripped through Magnus Echo and the screech of shredding metal was loud enough to cut through the static, the sounds of the ocean, the chatter on the comms. The Jaeger vented steam through the rents in her outer armor, sparks cutting through the darkness and escaping into the sky where stars used to shine.
/Hydraulics punctured; fluid leak. Magnus Echo losing motor control./
/Goliath taking the lead./
/Copy that, Goliath. Flank and distract. Magnus Echo, what’s your status?/
/Billy’s out cold – fuck! HUD’s down; I can’t see a goddamn thing!/
/Prep medbay – Hawker, give them some cover./
Goliath fired, Hawker’s blast got there first. The kaiju reeled back and roared in triumph, momentum carried it forward again, those claws, burning blue, dripping oil and ichor that gleamed in the spotlights before they moved on again. Those claws came down a second time, a third, a fourth-
Magnus Echo fell to her knees. The displacement wave burst out from around her in a wall of salt spray that clouded the camera lenses. A plasma burst fired, a blue so bright that Teddy’s eyes burned, and the room fell silent.
The data continued to spool in, the video feeds giving them nothing but shapes in the mist and smoke. There was a harsh rasping of breath; someone was panicking, and close by. Josiah’s hand settled, warm and strong, on Teddy’s shoulder, pressed him down and back into himself. The breathing had been his. Teddy fought against the rising tide of panic, beat it down, but only barely. The blue glow of the kaiju flickered, then dimmed to grey. Three red lights burned on the radar scope for a split-second, and everyone seemed to be holding their breath together.
A creaking, groaning noise of distressed steel moaned out from the feeds. A second wave rushed up to swamp the circling helos. One of the red lights blinked, faltered, went out.
/Mayday, mayday, mayday. Magnus Echo is down. Control, do you copy? Magnus Echo is down./
To no-one’s surprise, Eli and Josiah Bradley were called up two weeks later.
The barracks had been like a morgue for the first few days after the attack, the usual post-kaiju ass-kicking celebrations subdued, conversations in the hallways carried on in a murmured hush. They’d lost Jaegers before; the Mark Is had a track record as bad as the kaiju, back at the beginning. It was different when it was so close to home, though, when it was someone whose voice they heard over the hacked downlinks every few months. Anyone who wanted to pilot studied the LA Jaegers and their pilots, watched their training videos, learned the terrain. William Maximoff was one of the closest things Area 51 had to a local boy, despite the fact that the twins had originally come from New York. (Or maybe Jersey; the reports conflicted.)
The status updates were more reassuring than they could have been; ‘medically-induced coma’ was better than dead.
Tony Stark had flown out with an entire cargo hold full of equipment and spare parts less than 48 hours after the incident to manage Magnus Echo’s reconstruction, which meant she wasn’t headed for Oblivion Bay with the other burned-out husks. Everything pointed toward William Maximoff recovering and being back out on kaiju watch again before the end of the year.
In the mean time, the American coast still needed a third Jaeger.
The loss of Magnus Echo cast a shadow over the entire program, and the news was having a field-day with the fear-mongering. Teddy flipped back and forth between random bullshit-spouting talking heads, his pad with all the specs from the last battle sitting forgotten in his lap
Channel 42 was running some more amateur footage of the fight, from an angle that Teddy hadn’t seen before, and he stopped clicking, his thumb still on the button. It had been shot on a cell phone or a personal cam of some kind, from down on the coast, and – hold it, wait – there. There was the moment the kaiju had turned, and looked at the cameras mounted on Stinger Goliath. It was no mistake, no fluke of the cameras catching the light; there was something deliberate there, in its motion-
“Are you watching that again?” Eli dropped down onto the couch beside Teddy and stole the remote from his hand. The screen flickered and popped into black, and Eli tossed the remote onto the side table. He was dressed for outside: not the casual t-shirts and cargos they wore as half-uniform in the barracks, but full fatigues with boots so well-shined that Teddy could see the reflection of his own feet in them. “That too,” Eli groused, and tried to steal the tablet from Teddy’s lap. That Teddy grabbed for, and the screen bleeped in protest when he wrestled the thing away.
“You’re going to make yourself crazy, you know,” Eli settled for telling him off instead. The schematics and analytics played out across the screen in Teddy’s hand. Magnus Echo died for the fifth time that afternoon, a bright red burn leaving an afterimage on Teddy’s corneas. He turned the tablet off.
“They made a mistake,” Teddy replied. It wasn’t anything unusual, reviewing the data from a kaiju attack after the fact. Losing one of the newer Jaegers, that was unusual. As was Eli giving him grief over it. Usually he was the first one in, scrounging through the feeds for information on tactics, exploitable weaknesses... Teddy narrowed his eyes, and Eli arched his eyebrow in response.
“The relied on old tactics, didn’t shake it up enough. We were all at that debriefing,” Eli reminded him. “You’re the only one obsessing. Are you sure this isn’t just because your crush got himself hurt?” Eli drawled, and there was a hint of a light in his eye that meant- that meant that Eli was a fucker.
“It’s not a crush,” Teddy protested hotly, because he was an idiot who couldn’t seem to learn not to take the bait when it was dangled in front of him. “I’ve never even met the guy. I doubt we’d get along even if I did meet him someday. Especially,” he added, matching Eli’s amused look eyebrow for eyebrow, “given that he’s in a coma. Didn’t your mother ever teach you not to mock the afflicted?”
“If I followed that rule, I’d never be able to make fun of you,” Eli replied easily.
Yeah, he was going to miss Eli. And it wasn’t just because they’d practically gone through the Academy in each other’s pockets. Eli had been there the day Teddy had gotten the news, called in to Xavier’s office to be told of his mother’s death in the Seattle attack. He’d waited outside in the hall while Teddy collapsed in tears, then picked up the pieces, brought Teddy back to the room Eli shared with Josiah and bullied him until he started eating and sleeping again. All because ‘someone’s got to keep an eye on you.’ Josiah had taken Teddy under his wing for real after that, treated him like another nephew, a real extension of their family.
It was almost like having a couple of brothers, or a co-pilot of his own.
In a weird way, it was a blessing that Eli was so totally and entirely straight. If he’d even been a little bit inclined Teddy’s way, Teddy might have been tempted to try. Just to see what would happen. The crash-and-burn would have been epic.
“Shut up,” Teddy said, instead of any of the other things that were running around in his mind. “Shouldn’t you be packing, instead of harassing me?”
Eli didn’t respond to the grumpy undertones in Teddy’s voice, just shrugged and nodded at the entrance. Teddy looked over and caught sight of Eli’s massive olive drab duffle sitting beside the door, the name ‘E. Bradley’ scrawled across the side in thick black handwritten letters. “You sure you have everything?” Teddy jutted a thumb at the bag. “I’m pretty sure you could fit another couple of tarps in there; maybe the bathroom sink?”
He was rewarded with a grin and a snort of laughter. “Please. You’re just jealous of my amazing packing skills.”
“I’ll show you who’s packing.”
The door swung open as Eli was grabbing for a pillow that was definitely going to end up being swung at Teddy’s head. It was only Josiah who stepped inside, though, and the tension ebbed out of Teddy’s shoulders as he sagged back down into the half-broken cushions. Teddy tipped his head back over the arm rest and watched the door swing closed behind him. Eli kicked at Teddy’s leg and Teddy kicked back without looking.
“Hey, Uncle Joe,” Teddy greeted him affectionately, and Josiah looked down over the rims of the little round John Lennon glasses that he affected, a fashion so totally incongruous on the imposingly large wall of man that it totally negated whatever retro effect it was supposed to have.
“Theodore,” Josiah replied with a slow and meticulous smile. “Elijah, get your ass moving. They’re waiting for us on the hangar deck.”
Teddy pried himself out of the soul-eating couch as Eli stood, and he took the chance to scrub his knuckles across the top of the shorter man’s shaved head. “For luck.” He grinned when Eli took a swat at him, and Josiah hid a snicker behind a crooked finger. “You ready to be a hero, hero?”
“I was born ready.” Eli’s chest puffed out with pride, and he looked almost like he was taking his swagger seriously.
“You were born cocky, boy, that’s what you were,” Josiah replied, and Teddy couldn’t help the laugh that bubbled up. It hurt already, watching Eli grab his duffle and haul it up on his shoulder, looking at Josiah in his uniform, his cover tucked under his arm like the Army man that he had once been.
He wanted to throw his arms around them both, hug them close and make them promise that they’d see each other again. But that would be ridiculous, childish. Teddy held out a fist to Eli instead, got a fist-bump, a grin and a nod back. It was enough. Josiah ruffled his hair and nodded quietly when Teddy turned to look, a dozen unspoken things sitting behind his eyes and on the top of his tongue.
“Stay safe,” Teddy said simply.
“I’m a lot more frightened of his mother and his gran than I am of any sea monster,” Josiah chuckled, then, more seriously, “and Papa Valentine’s no slouch. We’ll be fine, Ted. And we’ll be seeing you in the Shatterdome soon enough.”
“Gonna hold you to that, Uncle Joe.” Teddy shoved his hands in his pockets, just in case he felt another urge to grab and to hold.
Eli nodded, as though he were part of Teddy’s unvoiced conversation, and resettled his bag on his shoulder. They could definitely fit Eli himself in there, folded in half. He had to be carrying every possession he’d ever owned in that thing, catalogued and organized, no doubt, by color and date of purchase. “You just make sure they start a proper kill counter for us down here,” Eli instructed him from half-under the bag. “None of Stark’s predictive bullshit. You know he’ll rig it.”
“Get out of here,” Teddy laughed, his suggestion drowned out by the door banging open and a handful of cadets stumbling in. Eli and Joe were the center of activity for a couple of minutes, hand-shakes and back-pats and ‘kick kaiju ass’s coming at them from all directions. They left on the tide of approval and excitement; the last glimpse Teddy had of them before the door swung closed was Josiah settling a companionable hand on his nephew’s free shoulder as they walked away.
With Eli and Josiah gone, Teddy’s usual routines fell all kinds of flat. Duty hours weren’t so bad, even though his focus kept wandering. He caught himself staring out at the south-western horizon on more than one occasion, beyond the dirt and the scrub hills, searching for the ocean that lay hundreds of miles away. So other than getting told off for that, duty hours were fine. Meals were the worst. He had plenty of casual and friendly acquaintances, sure, and there were always crews willing to give him a place at their tables.
That was the thing, though; their tables. And if it came to a choice between being an obviously extra appendage, hanging off the end of one of the crew tables, or finding something else to fill the hours of downtime, he preferred to head down to the labs. He might not have the engineering background to be a real tech, but he could make himself useful as an extra pair of hands to hold wires and things while the real brains worked on the prototypes. There was only so often he could flutter his eyelashes at Jan, after all, before he got banned from the simulators altogether for being in the way.
That was how Marshal Hill found him, six weeks after the last kaiju attack. He was waist-deep in the guts of some highly technical piece of analytical equipment, Dr. Banner directing his every move with a distracted sort of stammer. The wiring was incredibly fine, the flashlight in his mouth bobbing as he breathed, the little circle of bright white light shifting every time he almost had the coupling attached. Just another moment, and... there!
Hill – shit. What had he done? Teddy sat up instantly, his head bouncing off the sharp edge of the open access door. Stars of pain flashed behind his eyes and he grabbed his head with a low groan, dropping the coupling. It rattled across the floor with a series of small, sharp pings until it finally subsided into silence.
“Ma’am,” Teddy struggled to his feet, pressing his hand against the sore spot on his head. His hand was clean when he took it away, thank god – no blood meant no head wound or stitches, and wouldn’t medical have had an absolute field day with that one?
“What are you doing in there?” Marshal Hill asked, drawing herself to her full height. She was only a couple of inches shorter than Teddy and she held herself with an amazing amount of compressed power, like a 6’8” bodybuilder crammed down into a body half that mass.
And she could probably bench-press Teddy with the power of her glare alone, so he snapped into parade rest and winced at the reverb of pain that sent through his forehead.
“He’s doing what I need him to do,” Dr. Banner interrupted, hands up in front of him and his voice gentle. He was probably halfway to offering her a soothing cup of tea from the kettle on his desk that was in a permanent state of boiling, just-boiled or about-to-be-boiled. But-
Teddy frowned and looked again. Her expression was sharp as nails and twice as tough, but there was no popping vein. Her forehead was smooth. Whatever he’d done or not done, it wasn’t a capital offense.
“He’s going to have to knock it off,” Hill replied to Banner, and Teddy looked back and forth between them. He was being pulled out? But why?
“I checked in with my CO before I volunteered, ma’am,” Teddy said. He would not worry at his bottom lip, because he cleared this all in advance. “There’re no regulations against offering to help out in the labs during off-duty hours, and I have the appropriate security clearances.”
“Tough shit,” Hill cut in, and all the background noise in the hangar – the beeping of a hundred different systems, conversations between the different crews – all of it died away to nothing and the world narrowed into a focus that was way too tight. His chest squeezed closed, stomach sore to match his head. “I want you off my base.”
‘Confused’ didn’t even begin to describe it; were there words in English that covered the swim of disorientation that threatened to sink him? “Ma’am?”
“Do I need to repeat myself, Ranger?”
“Ma’am-“ he was a broken record, a stuck track, and he couldn’t keep up with the words she was saying, the gleam in her eye that had replaced the feigned anger. “Ranger?” He recovered his sanity, then, because now it was obvious what was going on.
Josiah had somehow bribed or blackmailed Marshal Hill into messing with him.
“Begging your pardon, ma’am, but I’m just a cadet. I...” he looked at her again, really looked, and dear god. Was that a twinkle in her eye? Whatever it was, it vanished instantly. Banner, on the other hand, had developed a twitch. “I have the feeling I’m missing something, here.”
Hill relaxed her stance and Banner leaned casually against his desk, watching the interplay. “I’ll talk slower, Ranger, so you can keep up,” she said, dry as anything. “You,” she pointed at him with an index finger, “are going to get your ass back to the barracks and pack your crap.” She pointed at the hangar bay door, then dropped the exaggerated act. “Because in just under an hour, there will be a helo waiting for you to take you down to the Shatterdome. Marshal Danvers will be waiting for you. She’ll give you the full briefing when you touch down.”
Holy shit. There were better words for it than that, more eloquent ones, but Teddy bit them all back. There was always the chance that this wasn’t what he was building it up to be, in his mind’s eye. He didn’t have a co-pilot, and from everything Eli had said in his emails, none of the teams were looking-
The penny dropped.
“Magnus Echo, ma’am?” He was guessing, but it was the only thing that made sense. William Maximoff was still out of commission, or at least if he was back in the field Teddy hadn’t heard anything about it. That left his twin a solo pilot, and their Jaeger hung up in dry dock. Unless-
“They’re calling in a bunch of single pilots to test,” Hill said, a warning in her voice, and he folded the warning up tight inside. To get the chance was a miracle – to get the spot would take another, and there wasn’t anything else he could do to prepare for it, other than... hope. Hope that he was good enough. Hope that he could somehow become the person that his co-pilot would need him to be. “You’ve got compatible EEGs, but you’re not the only one on the list, so no guarantees. This is your chance, Altman,” Hill nodded at him, then jutted her chin toward the door in a gesture of dismissal. “Try not to fuck it up.”
And that was the closest he’d ever get to a ‘do us proud’ from Hill. He couldn’t stop the smile from spreading across his face as he saluted, turned and jogged toward the hangar doors. He got a couple of thumbs-up along the way; it was no secret how badly he’d wanted this, just to have this one shot.
Except – he was riding on the back of a tragedy, to try and earn a place beside a man who’d already all but lost his brother. Teddy caught himself and tamped down the wave of seriously inappropriate elation, the feeling swamped under the rising tide of dread.
He was going to have to try and drift with Tom Maximoff.
Teddy’s step faltered and he had to do a fancy little jog not to fall over his own feet. There was no-one in the hallway to see it, thankfully, and he turned down toward the barracks, his footsteps echoing in the corridor. How was this going to be anything but awkward? He flushed warm with a vague sense of foreboding.
To drift with someone, to complete the neural sync and actually have a hope in hell of maintaining the handshake, pilots had to trust each other completely. There was no room at all for fear, or anger, or embarrassment.
A mess of nerves tangled up in his gut at the idea of actually stripping himself so bare. His gut clenched tight, low and fierce; some the things he’d thought about the twins... and the slightly inappropriate things he’d imagined, once or twice, about one of them in particular.
At least he’d never- god, that would have been humiliating!
All of it was going to have to go, get shoved way back into the recesses of his brain, never to be brought out into the light again. Whatever he might have considered, or thought, or muttered to Eli over breakfast when the news reels played- he couldn’t allow himself to think of any of it.
From now on, he was Tom Maximoff’s next co-pilot. Nothing else mattered.
It took him less than half an hour to pack, to collect everything he owned in the world and stuff it into his duffle. It ended up maybe half the size of Eli’s, lying there open on the metal-frame single bunk that had been his for the past year. The tiny room seemed impossibly small now, grey-painted walls barren and cold. It was claustrophobic, rather than snug and secure.
There wasn’t much left there to miss, honestly, and Teddy said his not-so-fond goodbyes as the door to his room swung shut behind him for the last time.
Word had gotten around and a handful of the staff had come out to the landing pad to wave him off, or wish him luck. Dr. Banner shook his hand warmly – as warmly as he ever got, anyway, which was to say slightly standoffish and harassed – and pressed a ziplock bag of grey and brown dirt into his hand. “Tea. It’ll help relax you before a drift,” was all he said, and Teddy shoved it into the end of his bag before the duffle was unceremoniously tossed into the open belly of the helicopter.
Five minutes later and Teddy was airborne, the steel mesh of the passenger bench digging sharply into his legs and back. In two hours, they would be landing in Los Angeles. The burst of anticipation in his head tangled up with the dread that had settled low in his gut. There was no way he was ready for this; Hill had made a terrible mistake. They were going to take one look at his file and send him packing, and he would end up right back where he started.
The base retreated below them, shrank away to nothing as they moved over the hills, brown and beige and spotted here and there with green. It was too late to back out now.