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i'll find you in the drift

Chapter Text

The Iron Avenger went down on a Monday.

In the middle of New York City, Manhattan just a smoking ruin somewhere behind them, a Category III Kaiju someone at base had taken to calling Skullcutter was tearing through buildings like they were nothing. Like they were air, so thin and flimsy that the tusks on either side of its wide, gaping maw were having no trouble smashing straight through them.

Tony didn’t need to step foot outside his jaeger to hear the screams of the civilians.

“Some fucking wall,” he muttered, pushing his arms out in front of him at the same time as Rhodey. The jaeger followed their actions, arms out in front and legs straightening to help them stand back up. New York was nothing but destruction now. The Anti-Kaiju Wall that had been built at the border of the ground was nothing but rubble – it wasn’t even completed, but after two years of constant work by thousands of labourers, it was destroyed.

By just one Category III.

The island of Manhattan had been a ruin long before the Coastal Wall Project had started, and it was still a wasteland now. Briefly, Tony remembered back to the first time a Kaiju had stepped on New York, and how—

“Forget about it, Tony,” Rhodey said from beside him. Their drivesuits glowed a faint blue in the cockpit, and Tony glanced over to his right to see the sweat beading around his co-pilot’s brow. “Let’s get the blade and finish this guy.”

“You got it.”

They moved in sync, as pilots tend to do when their neural pathways are merging onto the same track. Tony didn’t necessarily end, in these moments, he simply grew into a second person. There was no separation; what was Tony was also Rhodey, and what was Rhodey was Tony’s second home.

Their right arms came close to their sides, bent at the elbows. They made fists, pumped them once and straightened out their fingers, taut, as the blade started growing from the Iron Avenger’s right hand. A hologram glowed blue around the pilots’ hands, where the blade was, and they shifted their feet as one, ready to move.

“Let’s kick this Kaiju bitch’s ass,” Rhodey said.

Then they were running. The ground was shaking beneath the footsteps of the jaeger, pounding over and over, incessant. Rubble fell from the wrecked skyscrapers, people ran for cover. Maybe someday, they’d build better bunkers – but no one had done it here. Not in New York, too fucking far away from the Pacific Ocean.

Skullcutter had emerged from the breach almost fifteen hours before in the dead of night. The Japanese Shatterdome had tried to fend it off and failed as it set a course for the States, angry and belligerent. The jaeger known as the Black Panther had fallen before it reached land, and another, from the South American Shatterdome, known as the Guardian Blue, had gone down sometime after that.

Skullcutter had already taken down two high level jaegers, and Tony wasn’t about to let the Iron Avenger be the next.

They stabbed the blade into the thick hide of the Kaiju, watching it rear back and gritting in their teeth and feet to maintain their hold. The Avenger drew back, made for another slash and raised their left arm to block the Kaiju’s tusks. A warning light appeared in Tony’s periphery. He was the left-hand pilot – that was his arm that had taken a beating.

“It’s fine!” he shouted. “Go again!”

They did; slashing three more times and watching the Kaiju Blue blood splatter into broken beams and glass. It sizzled for a moment, toxic and alien, as Skullcutter roared. Then, everything slowed down.

It was the opposite to chasing the rabbit; that was always fast, lightning quick and so easy to slip into. Rhodey and Tony hadn’t chased rabbits in years, not with each other, not when they already knew everything there was to know. This was the opposite; this was fucking sluggish. This was drawn-out, the Kaiju making the most of its attack as it reared back and ducked beneath the jaeger’s swing to crash its tusk straight through the window of the cockpit.

The fucking face of the Iron Avenger.

Tony saw its teeth up close. Saw the blood, and acid, and the fucking uvula of the asshole.

He could smell its acrid breath, like sour poison, gone off and making him shiver.

They hesitated from the shock, and it was a moment too late when he and Rhodey moved the blade again – the angle so, so wrong to get a good hit – and that was the Kaiju’s fortune, because it darted even further forward, crushing a building under its hind legs, and chomped down.

Fucking took a bite of the face.

Of the right side.

Of Rhodey.

Tony screamed, and his scream was Rhodey’s scream, blood splashing across the cockpit, the entire conn-pod they were stood in slowly drenching in red.

RHODEY!”

The holograms around Rhodey’s hands had vanished – he wasn’t a pilot right now, he was just scared, down one leg and bleeding out all over the module, over the controls and Tony and—

They were both screaming so loud. Tony had never screamed so much in his life. The Kaiju seemed to be enjoying the show.

The Kaiju. Right.

Tony shook his right hand, the blade lighting up around his fist, as his left hand came out to touch the controls. God it was like his own leg had been torn off. He could feel the fucking stump.

Stark,” a voice said in his ear. “What the hell is going on?

The Kaiju was rearing back. Likely to go for another bite. Maybe he liked the taste of pilot. Of James Rhodes. Of Tony’s best friend.

“Rhodes is down,” Tony replied, rushed. “I’m transferring all the controls to me.”

You can’t handle the controls.

“Thanks, Dad, appreciate that.”

He heard someone sigh in his ear. It wasn’t his Dad, of course, but Marshal Fury. “One person can’t handle the strain of a jaeger that size. You won’t survive.

“I’m not gonna survive if I don’t,” Tony replied, sliding his finger across the holoscreens and watching the entire control be switched to his panel. He only had one shot at this – Fury was right, one person really couldn’t control a jaeger this size on their own.

But right now, he didn’t really have a choice.

He pulled his right arm back, slamming his left hand into the Kaiju’s neck and squeezing as he went. The Kaiju roared, its front legs scraping at the jaeger’s body in retaliation. Tony hit a button on the screen. Plasma blade. The entire knife-edge glowed like Christmas morning, a blue so bright it was almost white. So hot it could melt a building down.

Tony yelled as he slashed the blade clean through the Kaiju’s throat. The monster screamed, Kaiju Blue splattering across New York. He cut it back through once more and the body slumped, falling to the ground, only the head left in Iron Avenger’s hand.

For a moment, there was silence, and then Tony could only hear cheering from the base, his comms alight with success and rejoice. He was breathing heavily, though, his entire body aching with something so strong he could barely stand beneath it.

He took a step back, the jaeger following suit as a wave of nausea passed over him. He dropped the Kaiju head on the street. Tony tried to steady the Avenger, but he couldn’t – he couldn’t breathe, his entire body was shaking and his left arm was thumping like there was too much blood and not enough vein.

Oh right, he realised, belated, as he became light-head. Too much strain for one person.

The jaeger collapsed backwards, falling into the street of New York City, arms crushing a few smaller buildings as they splayed outwards. Tony fell down, too – as much as he could when the wiring of the conn-pod held him up.

Completely slack, Tony tried to reach forward and power down the jaeger – but forward was now up, and his arm was too heavy to move.

“Rhodes,” Tony whispered. “Rhodey. You with me?”

There was a faint groan from his right. He couldn’t look though – he’d only see red.

Rescue is on route,” Hill’s voice said in his ear. “She’ll pick you boys up. Just hold on. Pararescue is on its way, too. We’ll shut down Iron Avenger from here.”

Tony hummed faint confirmation, black spots appearing in his vision, threatening to take over. For a moment, he thought he could hear his mother’s voice, singing. He could’ve sworn it was there. Try to remember… the kind of September…

Black overcame Tony’s vision and he slipped into his mother’s song.

… When life was slow… and oh so mellow…

The Iron Avenger went down on a Monday.

 

*

 

“Have you got this?”

“No, I haven’t got this – it’s two gurneys, Pym, I am but one man.”

“Oh, shush, fly boy, I’ll help you out.”

“Fly boy? Really, Potts? I thought you were the nice one.”

There was laughter, somewhere beyond Tony’s vision. It was the kind that reminded him of warm summer days. It was familiar, too, though he couldn’t place it.

“You thought wrong. Under all these manners and social niceties is a stone cold bitch. Go have fun with your boyfriend, Pym! I’ll take the boys to medical.”

“Hm,” the male voice said. “She can hang out with her boyfriend and you can hang out with yours—hey! Did you just throw a pen at me?”

“Serves you right. We’re not dating. You know that.”

There was a humming sound, and then quiet. Or maybe it was just distant loudness. Like there was chatter and talking and people, but they were just a little too far away. Tony groaned suddenly, aware of the ache in his body as it all came back to him at once. Piloting a jaeger by himself, the Kaiju, Rhodey’s leg—

Rhodes.

Tony’s eyes shot open, staring suddenly at a grey ceiling gone green with rust, and the ever-beautiful face of Pepper Potts. Oh. It was her laugh. She blinked down at him in surprise, before her lips tugged into a smile.

“Nice to see you awake,” she said. “You’re gonna be a bit of a legend around here after that stunt.”

“I’m already a legend around here,” Tony mumbled, blinking his eyes hard and trying to shove himself upright.

“Whoa, whoa,” she said, the gurney slowing as Pepper placed a hand on his shoulder, pushing him back down. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“Rhodey. His leg—”

“Has been packed and stabilised. You see up there?” Pepper pointed ahead of them, to where Sam Wilson pushed another gurney. A familiar woman in blue scrubs was running up to his side – Dr Cho, head of medical in the Shatterdome. “See? He’s fine. He’s gonna get the best care we have.”

“He’s not fine,” Tony breathed, blinking his eyes back up to the ceiling. “He’s lost a leg.”

Pepper pursed her lips, falling silent. She followed Wilson – the head of the California Shatterdome’s pararescue team – along the corridors until they reached the medical wing, where rows and rows of beds were set out and waiting. The doctors rushed at the gurney ahead of him, wheeling Rhodey away and through another set of doors.

Tony watched him go.

“They’ll fix him up,” Pepper promised, quiet. “Just you wait.”

“He’ll never pilot again,” Tony replied.

“Maybe he’ll finally get that retirement he’s been talking about for five years, though.” She rolled his gurney to a stop and came down by his side. “You’re lucky to be alive, Tony,” Pepper said. “Worry about yourself for a few minutes.”

 

*

 

Tony always found Rhodey in the drift. After the first time they completed the Neural Handshake and Tony stepped into his best friend’s mind, he’d never felt far from him again. They became connected, intertwined, one entity and two beings all at once.

The drift shared memories, instincts, emotions. It was usually aided by the neural interface; wires that connected them together, let them feel that sudden rush of each other’s presence, the intake of breath and the slow release after.

Then there was the kind of drift when they weren’t aided. The ghost drift, someone once called it. The drifting that happened in sleep, in close proximity, in stress.

Tony was certainly stressed.

That’s probably why he slipped into Rhodey’s consciousness while his best friend was in surgery. Why, when Tony fell asleep, tired and worn straight through in the medbay, he woke up in a thousand of Rhodey’s memories, playing at once.

The day they met in college, the parties, the dinners, the rooftop shenanigans in the middle of the night. Thanksgiving at Rhodey’s, Easter at Tony’s, Spring Break in the Bahamas. Driving so fast the speedometer couldn’t keep up. Laughing so hard their stomachs ached. Getting drunk and singing so loud that the entire dorm hated them for weeks.

Over twenty years of friendship rushed through his mind at once. He chased every rabbit, followed every impulse and drifted through memories, moments, emotions. You’re my best friend, Tony’s voice said, somewhere and echoing. I know, Rhodey’s responded. You’d be lost without me.

 

*

 

James Rhodes wasn’t the kind of person who died young, so he lived.

Tony waited for him to wake up in an uncomfortable plastic chair, a tablet in his hands as he skimmed the news. KAIJU ATTACK ON NEW YORK CITY. KAIJU KILLED BY IRON AVENGER. WHAT WAS A KAIJU DOING AWAY FROM THE PACIFIC?

Tony let out a long, steady breath. Kaijus straying from the Pacific Ocean worried him – it worried everyone. Countries that didn’t border the Pacific were meant to be safe zones, untouchable. The breach in the bottom of the ocean was spewing out alien monsters and they’d only twice before left the Pacific for the Atlantic. This one – the third – had traipsed across Nicaragua to the Caribbean and wandered up the coast, decimating half of Puerto Rico in the process.

He shook his head, and cast his eyes to Rhodey, asleep and down one limb. His best friend, co-pilot, partner in crime. What was Tony supposed to do without him? Pilot a small jaeger like Rescue?

No, Tony was a fighter. Tony was a fucking legend in the Kaiju game. Tony wasn’t going to become a support pilot now, not when there was a race of aliens out there that needed to pay for Rhodey’s lost leg.

He tapped his fingers on the arm of his chair, agitated. He’d stared up at the stars as a child, wondering about life on far off, distant planets. They’d all speculated about aliens and UFOs, the whole world asking about other planets and life on Mars. Turns out, they’d been looking the wrong way.

They should’ve been looking down.

To where the breach cracked open in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and the first Kaiju climbed out – Trespasser, as it was known. A fissure between two tectonic plates. A fucking portal to another dimension. That first Kaiju landed in San Francisco, and it didn’t stop moving. It took a whole horde of tanks, jets and missiles to take it down – six days and thirty-five miles later. Three cities down. Tens of thousands of lives lost.

And six months later came the Jaeger Programme.

Tony shoved himself out of his chair. It squeaked on the floor. Rhodey didn’t even flinch in the bed, and Tony gave him a long, last look before heading out the door.

 

*

 

The cafeteria fell silent when Tony walked in.

They all stared at him for a few seconds, their gazes drilling into Tony’s pale skin, into the purple bruises under his eyes, into the shaking of his left hand, and then they erupted into cheers.

Someone slapped him on the back.

Someone else shook his hand.

No one’s ever piloted solo before!

Tony just wanted his dinner. He couldn’t make it through the crowd. They were all forgetting that for Tony to pilot solo, Rhodey had to lose his leg.

He was wondering why the ocean was rushing into his ears and his breathing was getting shallow when a hand clamped around his shoulders.

“Alright, alright!” someone shouted. “Let him be. You can talk to him later, but a man’s gotta eat. Come on, make way. That’s it, part like the Red Sea and get the hell out of here.”

Tony glanced up at his saviour, finding the fake smile of Steve Rogers aimed everywhere but Tony Stark. Steve manoeuvred him through the crowd and towards a table in the corner, where their friends were sitting and waiting.

“Thanks,” Tony mumbled.

“No problem,” Steve replied. He dumped his own tray of food on the table, sitting Tony in front of it, as his co-pilot Bucky Barnes came over, holding a tray in each hand. Steve took one as he climbed onto the bench next to Tony.

“Fuckin’ animals,” Bucky muttered, sitting down. He picked up his fork and stabbed it through a potato. “Not a shred of decency left in anyone these days.”

“How’s Rhodey doing?” Sam asked from across the table. Tony’s friends were largely made up of other pilots, bar two notable exceptions: Sam Wilson, the pararescue, and Deputy Marshal Hill, who’d been a pilot of the first-generation jaegers before her promotion.

“Cho’s optimistic,” Tony replied, eyeing the food on his tray. It had clearly been originally meant for Steve, with how overloaded it was with carbs. “Says he probably won’t wake up for a day or so. They’re keeping him asleep a little longer to help with the healing or something.”

“And the leg?” Sam asked.

“Instead a Kaiju’s stomach, I assume.”

They were quiet for a moment before three more trays clattered down on their table. Pepper Potts swung herself onto the bench beside Tony, while Natasha Romanoff and Clint Barton climbed in opposite him.

“So Hope tells me there’s new recruits coming in tonight,” Pepper announced. She had a skill for changing the mood in a group of people; directing conversations wherever she wanted, and another skill for remaining unflappable at all times. Tony was a little bit in love with her.

“Cadets?” Clint asked. His tray was ninety-five percent meat, five percent potatoes. Tony couldn’t see a green vegetable anywhere.

“I think so. Maybe I’ll finally stop being the new girl.”

“Unlikely,” Nat replied. “You and baby jaeger will always be newbies to us.”

Pepper rolled her eyes and Tony would’ve smiled, had the day not been so overwhelmingly shitty. Pepper Potts piloted the sole single-pilot jaeger in rotation: a silver-purple robot about forty-foot-tall, used as a support unit. It wasn’t powerful enough to fight Kaijus, but it was more than enough for search and rescue missions and evacuations. With a jaeger so small, Pepper could handle the strain by herself. She’d been previously stationed in South Korea, before that base had been shut down, having lost its funding.

She and Rescue had moved to the California base, and Tony had been nursing his crush on her since the day she arrived.

“Man, those cadets are always so sad to look at,” Sam said, shaking his head. “Don’t you think?”

“They’re all tiny and have no idea what they’re in for,” Clint agreed. “You know most cadets are minors, too?”

“Pretty sure that shouldn’t be legal,” Steve said, mild, as Bucky shrugged.

“I mean, what’s the difference between seventeen and eighteen, really?” he asked. “You don’t feel any different. You don’t suddenly understand taxes or care about neighbourhood watch groups and school zones—”

“The difference is what’s legally defined as an adult,” Sam replied.

Bucky shrugged. “I enlisted at eighteen, and I felt no different to being seventeen is all I’m saying.”

“There wasn’t a war when we enlisted, Buck,” Steve replied. “Now there is, and those kids are going right into the firing line.”

“Live on the coast,” Nat said. “That’s in the firing line. Civilians are statistically in more danger than the people fighting the war are. It’s somehow safer to come train in a Shatterdome and fight the bastards than it is not to.”

“You hear about Black Panther?” Clint asked suddenly.

“I heard it was brutal,” Sam replied.

“Apparently Shuri made it out alive,” Pepper interjected. “Not sure about her brother. Oh, and Guardian Blue—”

“Isn’t that a three pilot?” Nat asked.

Pepper nodded. “Gamora what’s-her-face is definitely alive, don’t know if her sister and boyfriend made it out, though. It’s surprising to have two leftovers in one day.”

“God, that’s gotta suck,” Sam huffed. “Drifting with your boyfriend and sister and feeling them die.”

Probably felt something like drifting with your best friend and feeling their leg being torn off, Tony assumed. He remained silent, however, and ate his food as the others talked. The group was always like this; flitting from conversation to conversation, familiar and friendly.

“Imagine drifting with your sister and your sister’s boyfriend and chasing the rabbit into their sex life,” Clint replied, making Nat almost snort her drink out of her nose and Steve choke on his food. Bucky laughed as he slapped a hand on Steve’s back, and Tony felt the vibrations through the table.

“You guys want to watch the recruits arrive tonight?” Pepper asked. “I wanna stake out the competition.”

“No one’s competing for your baby jaeger,” Bucky told her, and she rolled her eyes.

“Sure, but one of them is going to end up as a pilot.”

“We can place bets,” Sam agreed, as Tony was struck with a thought: one of them was going to end up as a pilot. His co-pilot.

Tony’s entire body stiffened at the thought of another person in his head. Rhodey was out of commission – Rhodey wasn’t coming back to the cockpit. Either Tony was going to give up being a jaeger pilot, or he was going to have to let someone new into his mind.

He was going to get a new co-pilot.

He stood up suddenly, and the group went silent at the action.

“Tony?” Steve asked.

“I’m—I’m going to find Thor,” he said. “Invite him to tonight’s thing.”

“You think he’ll come?” Clint asked with a raised eyebrow. “I don’t know if—”

“I’ll ask him anyway.” Tony climbed out from behind the bench. “I’ll—I’ll see you later.”

And then he was gone.

 

*

 

A little over a year before, Asgardian Savage had been torn in two.

It had been raining, and the jaeger had stood at two-hundred-and-fifty-foot, towering over a Category II Kaiju dubbed as Ragnarok. It was the early hours of the morning and a thunder storm raged in the ocean where they battled. The pilots of Asgardian Savage were not afraid of a storm – no, in a jaeger, you could fight a hurricane. You could win.

The Kaiju had breached with four limbs, all sinewy and muscle, but since the beginning of the battle, two more pairs of arms had grown from its flanks, all dull beige skin, lean and clawed. The face of the monster was almost skeletal; a long and narrow jaw with two sets of fangs, sunken eyes amidst a gaunt bone structure. Within its mouth was an orange, bioluminescent glow that extended to its eyes.

It fought like a typhoon and a tsunami all rolled into one. It was fucking vicious.

A little over a year before Iron Avenger fell in New York City, Asgardian Savage had been torn in two, shin-deep in the Pacific. And the pilots had been torn along with it.

Thor Odinson, the right-hand pilot, with a club-hammer hand, electrically charged, and Loki Odinson, on the left, with a red-hot blade protruding from his knuckles.

“We’re practically Gods,” Loki had said once, and his brother had wound an arm around his shoulders.

“Don’t get ahead of yourself. We’re not immortal yet.”

And they never would be – not when Ragnarok ripped the jaeger apart – first the arms, then the head from the torso. They tried to initiate the escape pods – the codes were typed in, rain leaking through the breaks in the window, in the metal. Red lights flashed, the brothers yelled as they swiped away the emergency notifications, slamming their escape pod codes into the system.

Thor’s activated a few seconds before Loki’s.

He was almost into the pod when the clawed fingers of Ragnarok crunched the conn-pod head of the jaeger, when the talons ripped through the metal, tearing the brothers apart.

LOKI!

His brother vanished into the black of night, into the black of the sea. Thor’s escape pod enclosed around him, shooting away from the Kaiju before it flattened where he’d been in its hands. He felt the moment Loki died, he felt it like it had been himself. The drift was so confusing and yet so simple – an eternal bond between two people, heart, soul and mind. Unbreakable, and it wrapped around their necks like a noose.

 

*

 

Tony found Thor where he always did.

The Shatterdome had a large, some four-hundred-foot tall main hall, where the jaegers were all lined up and worked on. They stood, headless, with their cockpits separated for easier access. Lining the edges of the hall were rafters, floors upon floors of mechanics, conference rooms and workshops. HQ sat in on the highest floor, overlooking it all, but Thor sat to the side.

His legs dangled over the edge, his arms resting on the metal of the railings, as he watched Iron Avenger be air lifted back into position. The front of the torso was a Pollock painting of damage, and there were large tusk-and-teeth marks around the neck. The head was gone. It creaked back into position, and the cables were carefully removed, one by one.

Tony lowered himself beside Thor, his whole body still a little achy, but something he could push away. He imagined he’d be down for the count for days if he had piloted solo any longer – but Tony was pushing away his pains. Rhodey had more of them.

“I’m sorry to hear about Rhodes,” Thor said, quiet, eyes not leaving the jaeger.

“Thanks,” Tony replied.

They sat in companionable silence for a while, watching the mechanics and engineers weave around his jaeger, plan their work for the next few weeks. Iron Avenger was an older model of jaeger, but still working as good as the newer ones – its power core was a large, blue arc reactor, glowing in the centre of the chest, while the newer generations of giant killer robots tended to be powered XIG Supercell Chambers. He was one of a kind, now the others had all been destroyed.

Tony had never come to grips with why Thor stayed. Leftovers – pilots who survived when their co-pilots were killed in action – didn’t come round very often, and they rarely stayed after their other half was taken away. Thor didn’t fight anymore, and mostly wandered the halls looking lost and despondent, but when he fought—the man was fucking magnificent. Fury had once told Thor that if he was staying, he was working, and so Thor agreed to teach the cadets how to fight, and swore he’d never step foot in a jaeger again. Sometimes, hearing your brother die on repeat for the rest of your life can be a little too much.

Tony often wondered if Thor still ghost drifted, even without Loki around.

He must’ve sighed particularly loudly or mournfully, because Thor pushed the sandwich that sat in a small metal lunchbox between them closer to Tony. He looked at it for a moment before picking up half, and watched Thor do the same.

“Does it get any easier?” Tony asked eventually, when the sandwich was long gone, and someone was laughing on the ground, the mechanics all agreeing to start up fresh in the morning.

“Easier? No,” Thor said, shaking his head. “Familiar? Normal? Yes. It gets so average to feel their pain and the loss of them by your side that you forget that there was once a time that you didn’t feel this at all.”

 

*

 

It was dark when the recruits arrived.

Under floodlights on the runway outside the base, a Jumphawk helicopter unloaded sixteen-or-so cadets in differing blue and green shades of jumpsuit. They stood to attention in rows when Marshal Fury approached.

Way above the runway, on a catwalk that wrapped around the outside of the base, Tony and his friends watched. Sometimes, he felt so young when he was with everyone; like high school seniors watching as the freshmen walked the halls for the first time.

Thor had deigned to join them, and they all either sat on the cat walk, legs dangling, or leaned against the railings and watched.

“Green is pilot, right?” Pepper asked, somewhere along the line.

“Yeah, and that dark blue is mechanics,” Nat replied. “Though most of the greens will become pararescues instead.”

“It’s what you do when you can’t reach pilot standards—hey!” Bucky grunted suddenly as Sam punched him in the arm. “I’m not wrong. You tried out for pilot.”

“I cleared all the tests, asshole. I just wasn’t drift compatible with anyone.”

“That’s how it goes, sometimes,” Steve said, his voice like mediation between the two. “You train forever to get into a jaeger and there just isn’t another person out there who can complete a Neural Handshake with you.”

“Fury has a theory,” Nat interrupted, “that anyone can drift with anyone else if they try hard enough.”

“Fury’s an idiot,” Tony replied. “If your Handshake isn’t above ninety percent then there’s no point, you’re a timebomb waiting to go off.”

“Are you guys all perfect scores?” Pepper asked. Tony supposed she’d never been drift compatible with anyone, like Sam. Maybe that’s why she was given her own jaeger.

“Of course we are,” Clint said. “That’s why we’re still alive—oh shit, look, that’s the Maximoff twins.”

“The who now?” Tony asked, frowning at the recruits.

Nat, by his side, nudged him with her elbow and pointed away from the recruits, back to the Jumphawk. A man and woman were stepping onto the runway. “The Maximoff Twins. Wanda and Pietro. They’re Sokovian and their jaeger is just about the fastest one to ever be made.”

“You think Twin Vision’s headed here?” Clint asked, almost vibrating in his seat.

“If they’re here, probably,” Steve replied. “I hear all the bases are shutting down one by one.”

“Government doesn’t want to pay for the Jaeger Programme when they think the Coastal Wall Project is gonna be such a success,” Pepper agreed.

Tony scoffed. “Skullcutter didn’t give a shit about the wall. The jaegers are our best bet.”

“Try telling that to the UN,” Steve replied.

The group went silent for a moment, and the recruits started moving towards the base, their duffels flung over their shoulders, looking around in wonder. It was someone in a blue jumpsuit – a heavyset kid, it seemed, with dark hair – that pointed up towards the pilots first, then all the recruits were looking. Tony could see, even from this distance, their slack jaws and open amazement.

Jaeger pilots were bigger than celebrities had ever been. They were a new breed of superhero.

Hill must’ve barked something at them from beside Fury, because they all ran to keep up, sending their last looks over their shoulders at the jaeger pilots, watching them.

“See anyone you like, Tony?” Clint asked from down the line.

Sam elbowed him. “Too soon.”

Tony just let out a long breath and looked to Thor, beside him. Thor glanced back over but said nothing.

“I saw a fresh shipment of whiskey head to the kitchens yesterday,” Tony announced. “Anyone wanna get drunk in Rhodey’s honour with me?”

Everyone’s hands went up.

Chapter Text

Tony was kissing Pepper.

The only light came from the dim lamp by her bunk, the rest of the room empty in that cold grey way they all tended to be, and Pepper was beneath him, arms twined around his neck and kissing him hard and fast.

They had a meeting to get to in twelve minutes.

Her jumpsuit was pulled down to her waist, the tank top beneath ridden up around her stomach, where Tony’s hands pressed her into the mattress. They were all pressure, quick movements and quiet grunts beneath each other’s mouths.

“We have to go,” Pepper said, words lost between them. “We’ve got—”

“We’ve got time,” Tony interrupted. “Five more minutes.”

She smiled then, nodding and letting her fingers run through his hair, hers tangled up behind her on the pillow. Tony had been nursing his crush since she arrived at the base, a year before, but they’d been doing this – kissing in the shadows of her room and immediately ignoring it after – for about two months. It had first started after the group found the tequila stores in the kitchen after a particularly rough Kaiju fight, and Tony had stumbled Pepper back to her room, only for her to drag him inside, too.

They didn’t tell the others about this.

They didn’t tell anyone about this.

Tony never brought Pepper into the drift.

He locked her out of the shared consciousness, kept her a secret that he loved to keep; something for him and him alone. Something he didn’t have to share with anyone else. Pepper Potts; something of his own.

But she wasn’t his, and he wasn’t hers. They did this to pass the time, and Tony went right back to flirting afterwards, and she to rolling her eyes and pretending not to be interested in him. Even so, he was fairly sure she liked him back. She was the one who paged him or nodded him into her room; she was the one who initiated these moments in the dark, hidden from prying eyes and the Shatterdome gossip mill.

He was always the one wanting more, and she was the one holding back.

“It’s been five minutes,” she said, pulling away.

“Five more minutes,” Tony replied, kissing her again.

Pepper laughed into his mouth and shook her head. “Can’t be late.” She lowered her arms, running her hands down his sides as she went. “Off you get, chop chop.” She slapped his ass once, and he sent her a pointed look.

“Now that’s not a way to get me to stop, Ms Potts.”

She laughed and he rolled off her, sitting up on the side of the bed. They then climbed out, adjusting their clothes and hair until it looked like they hadn’t gone anywhere near a roll in the hay before Pepper nodded to the door.

“Sometimes I think Rhodey knows about this,” she said, shoving the sleeves of her jumpsuit up to her elbows. “He just looks at me sometimes like he knows.

“You know I don’t bring you into the drift,” Tony replied with a shrug.

“He could go searching – or ghost drifting.”

Tony opened the door. “I think I’d know if he was. He’s probably just looking at you funny because you have something in your teeth.”

Pepper paused and frowned. “Wait, do I?” She bared her teeth and he laughed, shaking his head.

“Perfect as always, Pep, now let’s get a move on. We’re late.”

She lightly hit his arm as they stepped into the hallway. “And who’s fault is that? Five more minutes,” she mocked, and at her smile, Tony had to acknowledge that he probably had more than a crush on Pepper Potts.

 

*

 

It was days before Tony met any of the new recruits.

He spent them moving between Rhodey’s bedside, the rafters overlooking Iron Avenger, and the table in the corner of the cafeteria.

Rhodey woke up after twenty-six hours, promptly discovered his leg to be missing and fell silent. Not even Tony Stark, best friend extraordinaire, could get him to speak.

A few of the new mechanic recruits were given a tour of Iron Avenger, seeing as it needed major repairs. They gushed and gawked at the arc reactor, at the jaeger, at the damage the Kaiju caused, and then they were led away again by their pack leader Scott Lang, while the more seasoned mechanics tried to piece Tony’s mechanical body back together again.

His friends came around the cafeteria at meal times, but otherwise he sat there in the quiet, watching a few people meander in and out for coffee. Deputy Marshal Hill sat with him sometimes – Maria, he called her, because they’d been friends for as long as he’d been living at this base, and she played card games with him until she was called away.

It didn’t help him, though. Not with the feeling of a leg being torn off at the thigh still rattling around his head, the fucking murder scene amount of blood in the conn-pod, the way Rhodey slipping out of consciousness had slipped into his after the fact, like he blocked it out in the moment and only in the quiet did it finally return to him.

So he visited Bruce in the basement and watched him work instead.

“It’s weird when you stare at me like that,” he said, sending Tony a pointed look. Bruce had seven doctorates and a stomach for gross alien parts. His lab was filled with organs, skin and Kaiju Blue, all sealed off in pods and containers on glass shelves. His pride and joy was a section of Kaiju brain, however, in a tank of yellow amniotic fluid, floating and wired up.

“I’m not staring at you,” Tony replied, “I’m staring at the Hulk.” He nodded to the brain, using Bruce’s pet name for it.

“Don’t stare at the Hulk either. He doesn’t like it.” For a few moments, Tony watched Bruce work; scribbling on a clipboard with one hand and tapping at a keyboard with another. Tony could’ve been this, in another life. Well – not exactly this. He could’ve been building the jaegers; could’ve followed in his father’s genius mechanical engineering footsteps. But Tony was a fighter, and his barely-finished master’s at MIT meant nothing after San Francisco. Saving the world was more his speed.

“Rhodey speaking yet?” Bruce asked, not looking up from his work.

“Barely,” Tony replied. “Not to me, anyway. I heard him ask his nurse for some water though. So that’s progress.”

“Don’t get disheartened. It’s traumatic, losing a leg. He’s got some shit to work through and then he’ll come back to you.”

“I can’t even talk to him about this whole new pilot thing,” Tony said, shaking his head. “I tried and he wouldn’t even look at me. But—he can’t expect me to just give up Iron Avenger, right?” Tony slipped off his stool and started pacing. “Like, I know we’re best friends and co-pilots – and I’m with him ‘til the end, you know? But this—this is the end, isn’t it? He’s fucking—he can’t walk. He can’t pilot with me. I have to get a new co-pilot if I want to keep going.”

“And you do want to keep going,” Bruce clarified.

“Of course I do! It’s—it’s a jaeger, Bruce. I know you’ve never been in one, but it’s unlike anything else. The jaeger and I are one. I can’t give him up.”

Bruce looked up from his work, saw Tony’s tense shoulders and tightened jaw. “When do the auditions for the recruits start?”

Tony checked the clock. “About twenty minutes ago.”

“Tony!”

He shrugged. “They can stand to wait. They’ve got young legs.”

 

*

 

Marshal Fury gave Tony the stink eye when he finally arrived in the Combat Room.

Tony was intimately familiar with the room, considering many training sessions lasted up to fourteen hours a day, and the amount of blood, sweat and tears he’d shed on this very floor.

At one end of the room, the line of candidates – filled with both new and old recruits – were grouped against the wall, with bare feet and closed expressions. Tony ignored them all as he walked to the other end, where Fury and Hill stood.

“You’re late,” Fury said.

“And you’re very pretty in this lighting,” Tony replied, shuffling off his shoes. “I got held up, and, you know, I don’t really want to do this.”

“You want to keep piloting,” Hill said, her voice quiet so the candidates couldn’t hear. “This is how you do it.”

“But it’s a little soon,” Tony huffed. “Platypus has only been down for four days. It’s like you’re dancing on his grave when he’s not even buried yet.”

“The Kaiju threat is constant,” Fury reminded him. “You have to be ready to go at a moment’s notice.”

“Iron Avenger isn’t even fixed yet,” Tony hissed. “We have time.”

Fury shook his head. “There’s never as much time as you think there’ll be. You know this whole programme is on the edge of being shut down. If you don’t get a co-pilot now, then you’ll be the first out the door when the UN starts looking at us.”

Fury and Tony glared at each other for all of three seconds before Tony huffed, flapping his arms once as he spun and took the bo staff from Hill.

“Let’s get this over with,” he said, stepping onto the mat.

The trials went too slowly for Tony’s liking. One by one, candidates fought him; not to win, but to reach something more even, and one by one they shuffled away. The point of the fight wasn’t to beat your opponent, but to be in sync; to understand your partner’s movements, to dodge when they swing and move back when they step forward. They needed to be evenly matched to pilot a jaeger; needed to be on the same level with similar instincts.

Tony and Rhodey had that; they knew each other like the backs of their hands before the Jaeger Academy, and so this was no different. It was the same with all the co-pilots he knew. Schoolyard friends Bucky and Steve knowing who was going to run and who was going to duck. Brothers Thor and Loki understanding every twitch of each other’s eyebrow, every glance to the side. Even Natasha and Clint, who didn’t meet until their candidate fight, slipped into a rhythm so easy it was like they’d known each other since the womb.

Tony needed that now.

So the new recruit Flash Thompson didn’t provide him with anything he could use; Tony was too experienced, too fast and got five points on him – five hits that could be deadly, stopped right before they touched the skin – before Flash got even one back.

And Sam Wilson and Hope Pym, both requested to the trials by Hill, didn’t match with Tony, though they all knew they wouldn’t from the start. Sam and Tony were two different people with different ways of fighting, different ways of living, and they couldn’t match up in the fight, while Hope was all precision, no gut instinct; she knew her own every move, but she couldn’t predict Tony’s.

It was disappointing, to say the least. He would’ve preferred either one of them to a stranger, would’ve preferred people who already knew him a little to know him a lot. But, Tony supposed, when he thought about it – Hope or Sam ever finding out every little thing in Tony’s head, every argument with his father, every night out drinking, morning after mistake, every hidden thing he purposefully locked away, would create something new and unfamiliar in their relationships – and Tony didn’t want that.

Maybe it was best to lay it all on the shoulders of someone new. Lay all of his flaws – and all of Rhodey’s too, because when you drift with someone who’s drifted with someone else, they bring two people into the Handshake. Tony would be bringing all of Rhodey’s grief and guilt, as well as his own.

Tony chugged half a bottle of water and wiped his forehead off on a towel before stepping back onto the mat. This had been going on too long – too many failed pairings for one afternoon.

“Alright,” Hill said, eyes drifting down her checklist. “Peter Parker. You’re up.”

The crowd parted for a teenager to poke out, shaking his hands to get rid of the nerves.

“Oh, I can’t fight you,” Tony huffed. “Your tiny. Hill. He’s tiny. What are you, twelve? God, I can’t believe we recruit twelve-year olds now.”

There was a smattering of laughter as the kid – Peter – picked up the bo staff. “I’m sixteen,” he said.

“You’re small for your age, right? Because I refuse to believe that all sixteen-year olds are your height.”

Peter sent him a dead-eyed look and span the staff around in his hands. “You know, I used to watch you on TV. All those Jaeger Programme parades. And before that—uh, Stark Industries stuff, you know?” Tony blinked as Peter moved onto the mat and got in position. No one had talked to him about Stark Industries since he first enlisted. “Yeah, I wanted to be a hotshot inventor-mechanic when I grew up. Idolised you and whatever. I should probably go back to ten-year old me and tell him not to bother.”

“Oh yeah?”

Peter shrugged and Tony stepped into position, raising the staff. “Yeah, turns out Tony Stark’s a dick.”

They leapt off the mark, then, staffs knocking together and Tony stepping aside a strike before throwing one of his own. Peter’s arm was a little too slow and Tony froze right before the staff would hit his skin.

“One,” Hill said, and the two moved back into their starting positions.

“I’m allowed to be a dick,” Tony said. “I have the highest kill count in jaeger pilot history.”

They moved again, and Tony noticed that Peter’s feet where left open – as Peter swung high, Tony ducked and went low, but somehow, he moved out the way. No, not somehow – Peter used his momentum to flip backwards, landing a metre away on the mat. His staff paused by Tony’s head before he had a chance to get back up again.

“One a piece.”

Peter hummed as Tony straightened. “Co-highest kill count in jaeger pilot history,” Peter corrected. “Let’s not forget Rhodes, huh? I hear he’s a lovely guy.”

Despite the attitude, Tony didn’t feel himself get angry at the kid or even want to knock him down a peg. Instead, they simply fought, exchanging words between each point, that never held real heat to them. And it wasn’t fighting, by the time they were at three all – it became some sort of dance. Tony pushed and Peter pulled; Peter went high and Tony went low. It became instinctual, like they knew what the other was going to do before they did it.

And the room had stopped laughing between rounds, they just watched in silence – each round becoming longer and longer, Peter keeping up with experience and Tony keeping up with youth.

Everyone in the room knew what this kind of fight meant, but Tony refused to think about it.

In the end, Tony won, but he didn’t feel victorious. He didn’t feel superior. He felt tired, worn straight to the bone. Peter crouched down, breathing heavily as he leant the staff across his knees.

“Man,” he muttered, and Tony shook his head, padding off the mat and wiping his face with his towel. He took a swig of his water before tossing it to the kid to drink from. Tony looked to Fury and Hill.

“His test scores are incredible,” Hill murmured. “He could be building these things, not just fighting in them.” They shared a look before Hill glanced over to Tony. “Take five,” she said. “We’ve still got a few candidates to go.”

But everyone knew who would be piloting Iron Avenger.

 

*

 

“He’s a kid,” Tony said two hours later in Fury’s office. Fury sat behind his desk, while Hill leaned against it. Tony paced the room like that helped his case. “He’s sixteen! I’m not piloting with a child!”

“You’ll pilot with whoever we tell you to pilot with,” Fury replied.

“He’s the best candidate,” Hill said, her voice a little softer. Everyone in the room knew that Tony was more likely to listen to Hill than Fury – that she was the humanity the Marshal often lacked. “We expect an incredible Neural Handshake.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Tony huffed. “He’s sixteen. He’s supposed to be in school – he hasn’t even finished high school, you know that?”

“You didn’t,” Hill pointed out.

“But that’s because I went to college at fourteen! Peter’s—he’s a sophomore. He shouldn’t be fighting a war.

“He joined up to the Academy last year,” Hill said, reading from her tablet. “He has the highest marks in his class, his physicals are off the charts – you saw that flip. And he was evenly matched with you.”

“I’m not arguing against that,” Tony said. “I’m arguing against piloting with a high schooler.” The room was quiet for a moment and Tony sighed, running a hand through his hair. “He’s too young to be fighting in a war. He’s got his whole life ahead of him! And this—this isn’t some game. This isn’t like one of the simulations. This is fighting two-hundred-foot-tall aliens. Even I get nightmares from this, I wouldn’t put that on a kid.” He couldn’t put that on a kid.

Hill stared a hole in the ground, before saying, “He knows the risks, Tony. I’m sorry, but we’ve chosen him. Some people – like you and me, like Parker – we’d rather die fighting than die running.”

Tony blinked. Nat’s voice reminded him, civilians are statistically in more danger than the people fighting the war are.

If Peter Parker came here for safety, he was just walking into the Kaiju’s mouth.

 

*

 

Tony watched the recruits train. They must’ve been half way through a ten-hour session, Thor drilling them to hell and back, walking around at the front of the class, running a hand through his short hair, twitching his bad eye – the one that was blinded by stray shrapnel in his final fight.

Peter Parker stood in the middle of the class, hair soaked with sweat, following the drills, one by one. His movements were controlled, but Tony could see it in the way the muscles of his back moved that he was aching for something less rigid.

Thor met Tony’s eye, and Tony pushed away from the door frame and back out into the hall.

 

*

 

“Apparently my co-pilot’s some kid,” Tony said, running a hand through his hair. “He’s got a bit of a mouth – had the audacity to sass me. Me! He must’ve been raised by animals or something because he should know not to sass your elders. Probably a nice kid though, I don’t know. Haven’t spent much time with him. Other than that fight – and he was good. Evenly matched and all that… Rhodey?”

Rhodey sat in his bed in the medical wing, watching Tony in silence. He let out a long breath.

“Can you pass the remote?”

Tony blinked. “Oh. Sure. Here you go.”

Rhodey flicked on the television and they lapsed into silence.

 

*

 

“I mean, scientifically we should be able to drift with animals, right?” Clint asked, sitting on one of Bruce’s work desks. Tony, on a stool, a packet of rations in his hand, pointed in agreement.

Bruce rolled his eyes with a huff. “They have brains,” was all he said.

“That means that we could drift with them.”

“It’d probably kill the animal though, right?” Tony asked. “Like, we’re too much for them to understand.”

Bruce paused in his work and shrugged. “Sure, yeah. Superior beings. They’d probably have an information overload and die. If one of you wants to drift with a racoon and find out, I’m sure we could try it.”

Clint tilted his head. “Do you think we’d understand racoon language if we did?”

“What?”

“I understand Russian when I drift with Nat, but I don’t speak a word of it when I’m not. But that’s because she speaks Russian. If we drift with an animal…”

“Yeah,” Tony said. “Logically, you would understand their language. Imagine if the racoon could understand English.”

Bruce just huffed.

Clint sat up, as if struck with a brilliant idea. “You know what else has brains?”

“Zombies?” Tony guessed.

“Kaijus.”

The room went silent.

“No,” Bruce said at last. “No, that’s a bad idea.”

“Possible though, right?”

“Superior being,” Bruce shot back. “We’d be fried.

Clint nodded at the Hulk in the container. “Care to find out?”

Bruce shook his head. “That’s an awful idea. Get out of my lab. Go. Heathens. Don’t let Fury hear that kind of crap – he’ll lose his mind! And I’ll get the blame!”

Clint and Tony cackled their way out of the lab.

 

*

 

Tony adjusted the straps of his jaeger suit, shifting it until it was comfortable. The door to the simulation conn-pod was open ahead of him, leading into a small room that mimicked the inside of a jaeger cockpit.

It had been a few days since he’d been assigned Peter Parker as his co-pilot and they were finally going to initiate a Neural Handshake – see if the Marshals had been right about them. Tony couldn’t help but feel a little guilty about the whole thing; as if he was cheating on Rhodey by just being here.

“Good luck, Tony,” a voice said, pulling him from his thoughts.

He smiled as a gut reaction, because Pepper Potts could always bring a smile out of him. She held his helmet in one hand, stuffing the other into the pocket of her jumpsuit, a shade of purple that matched her jaeger, despite the green that everyone else wore.

“Thanks. I’m kind of shitting it.”

She nodded, glancing back into the conn-pod. “I’ve never had a Neural Handshake before.”

“No? Never been into the drift?”

Pepper shook her head, her long golden-orange hair swaying with the movement. “Never needed to. I don’t think it’d be for me, anyway – having someone else inside my head.”

“I don’t think I could’ve lived without it.” She quirked an eyebrow and he continued, “It makes your relationship with that person so much more intimate. Like there’s another person out there that just gets you. Plus,” he added, with a coy smile and raised eyebrow, “I hear it makes sex so much hotter when you can feel what they feel.”

“Huh,” she said with a smirk. “I’m glad you and Rhodey can share that kind of experience.” She pressed the helmet into his hands and flicked her hair as she turned. “Have fun, Tony.”

He rolled his eyes, nodding to the jaeger mech who gestured him into the pod. That woman was going to be the death of him.

Tony pulled on the helmet and turned towards the footsteps behind him.

“Whoa,” Peter said, helmet wedged under his arm as he looked around the pod. “This is way cooler than the ones at the Academy.”

“Glad you like it,” Tony drawled. “Come on, let’s get this over with.”

Tony moved to the left-hand side as if it were a habit, before he paused. “Switch with me,” he said, and moved to the right, where Peter was standing. Peter looked surprised but nodded, moving to the left as he slipped on the helmet.

For some reason, Tony couldn’t help but think about Rhodey being on his right, the cockpit drenched in red. He’d prefer to look left, from now on.

They were connected to the system, a series of wires and tubes clipped into their suits and helmets, and the conn-pod door hissed closed, leaving them alone.

“You ever been drift compatible with anyone at the Academy?” Tony asked, adjusting his gloves as the hologram screens appeared before them, flickering into life.

“Uh – not really, no. I almost was with this guy, Ned, on the mechanical strain – they gotta learn about this stuff too – but we didn’t get over eighty percent.”

“So you’ve never drifted.”

“No.”

“Alright. Lesson number one: don’t bring anything into the drift.” He looked over to Peter and caught the furrow in his brow. “You’re going to do it anyway,” Tony continued, “it’s difficult not to. But you’ve got to try. You’ve got to relax and give yourself to it – don’t latch onto a memory, don’t go searching through mine. There’ll be surface stuff to wade through, sure, but if you bring too much in, we might get caught up in it. We don’t want any R.A.B.I.T.s, okay?”

“Right, right,” Peter said, facing forward. “Clear mind, got it, Mr Stark.”

“Tony,” he corrected. “You’re about to literally meld minds with me, kid, you might as well call me by my first name.”

You ready in there?” Hill said through the comms.

“I’d say so. Parker?”

“I’m good to go,” Peter replied.

Alright, then. Initiating Neural Handshake.

There was a moment of silence and then the intake of breath. The gasp, as if air had been forced into their lungs very suddenly, and then the blue electric fog of the minds coming together. Tony saw flashes of Peter, of faces he didn’t know, didn’t want to know. He saw Kaijus, roaring past, saw books and a small apartment and hands holding hands. He heard voices, I love you sweetie, Come on Pete, hey Parker wait for me! He heard music, playing like lullabies, swinging around and around and around. There was the smell of burnt cooking, of Thai food, of car oil and grease. There was Peter, slipping into Tony’s consciousness, and there was Tony, slipping into Peter’s.

Tony’s memories melded with Peter’s – robots and butlers, his father’s face in a flash; a publicity shot, not something familiar and personal. There was his mother’s singing, the same song that came to mind as he blacked out, feeling his leg gone when it was actually Rhodey’s, the strain of a jaeger too heavy to bear. Try to remember the kind of September… And there were his friends’ faces, and Rhodey, everywhere.

Because slipping into Tony’s consciousness meant slipping into Rhodey’s.

It meant that Rhodey’s smile and his voice was all over Tony’s memories; his cooking, his hoodie, his handwriting all bold and perfectly legible. There was Rhodey and the red. The bloodshed. The Kaiju’s mouth, all bloodied and full of Kaiju Blue.

But the two of them never latched. They never paused for a moment, just slipped past the everything they brought into the drift, even when they tried to bring nothing at all.

And somewhere, there was the exhale.

Neural Handshake is stable and holding. Good job, boys.

Tony opened his eyes and knew that Peter was opening his at the same moment. He’s just a fucking kid, he thought, and knew Peter was feeling that as he did so. He caught something back on the trail of the drift; something that felt like I’m more than just a kid, and he looked over to Peter, to see him already looking back.

Chapter Text

Tony trained with Peter every morning from six AM ‘til noon. After, he’d stop by Rhodey, who was getting a little more talkative by the day, and maybe visit Thor, to see how he was doing. Sometimes, he’d see Bruce, and others he’d go find the other pilots, in another Combat Room, and waste away the hours training with them, until they were bruised and sweating through their clothes.

They were always magnificent to watch; Natasha and Clint sharing the same mind and heart, always knowing each other’s movements. It was a graceful dance with those two, whereas Steve and Bucky fought with blistering heat. They were brash, reckless and violent with their attacks, trusting the other to always counter it.

Occasionally, Pepper would swing by, and Tony without his co-pilot would spar with her, knowing it to be more of a fight than a balance than he would usually experience.

They’d all eat together, too, crammed around their table, Bruce and Thor joining only if they were around and hungry.

“Hey, why don’t we invite them over?” Clint asked, nodding to the Maximoff twins a table over. “They’re pilots, too.”

The group was quiet for a moment and Steve shrugged. No one had been avoiding them – they were just separate. They came from a different base, Twin Vision a red and dented jaeger, much of the paint scratched off, its power core the only one of its kind, and the twins simply preferred their own company to anyone else’s.

But still: “Wanda, Pietro,” Steve called. The twins looked up in unison, which would be creepy if it weren’t for the drift, lingering even outside the jaeger. “Wanna come sit with us?”

They paused before shrugging, grabbing their trays and moving a table over.

“You know everyone, right?” Steve asked. “I don’t feel like doing introductions.”

“We know everyone,” Wanda replied. “We’ve seen you all on television.”

“Oh yeah?” Sam asked, though Tony couldn’t recall a time he’d been on the TV. “Who’s your favourite jaeger?”

“We don’t have one,” Wanda replied at the same moment Pietro said, “Black Hawk.”

Clint preened, and Nat smirked, Wanda rolling her eyes and elbowing her brother.

“We saw your battle against a Category III,” Pietro continued anyway, “uh, out near Alaska? You literally punched it through the heart and electrocuted it from the inside out.” Pietro had a dopey smile on his face. “It was awesome. Plus, in the time you were defending the Russian coast, not a single Kaiju made it past you. That’s seven drops, seven kills.”

The group kept talking, and Tony ate his meal surrounded by the familiar voices of his friends. He looked up when Pepper nudged him.

“We should invite Peter over some time,” she said, nodding to where he was sat a few tables away. Peter was wearing his green jumpsuit, sleeves rolled up to the elbows, and talking animatedly to the brown-skinned boy beside him, in blue. There was a girl opposite him, prodding at her food with vague disinterest, also in blue and shaking her head at whatever Peter was saying.

Their drift wasn’t strong enough yet for Peter to know that Tony was looking at him, but he could only imagine the day that Peter would; that he’d look up and meet Tony’s eye, knowing on some instinctual level.

Tony sighed and looked back to Pepper. “Why pull him away from his friends?”

She rolled her eyes. “He could be one of your friends too, you know.”

“I have plenty of friends,” Tony replied. “I don’t need more. But, you know, I have ample space for someone who wants to be more than a friend.”

Pepper blinked twice, her face blank. Then she turned back to the group. “Guys, Tony’s hitting on me again.”

Everyone at the table groaned in unison, Clint even throwing a pea from Nat’s tray at his head. Pepper looked awfully proud of herself and Tony really liked that look on her.

 

*

 

“You love it when I hit on you,” Tony murmured into Pepper’s mouth.

She hummed and kissed him. “Sure do,” she replied.

 

*

 

“So the flipping thing,” Tony said, mild, as he and Peter sat with their backs against the Combat Room wall. Peter was chugging a bottle of water and Tony was watching as Bucky and Steve moved onto the mat, cracking their knuckles.

“What about it?”

“How’d you learn?”

Peter paused, glancing at Tony with an expression of hesitation. It was fair, Tony had never expressed any interest in Peter past the bare minimum.

“Gymnastics lessons when I was a kid,” he said at last. “Stopped after a year or two but never forgot the flips.”

Tony nodded, eyed Barnes and Rogers. “You ever seen them spar before?”

“No.”

Tony smirked. “You’re in for a treat, then.”

 

*

 

He got thrown out of Bruce’s lab even though he’d barely stepped inside.

“I’m busy, Tony. Really, really busy.”

The door slammed in his face.

 

*

 

“Are you even trying old man?” Peter jeered, swinging a fist towards Tony’s face. Tony jerked back, and paused, levelling him with an offended gaze.

Old man? I’m not even middle-aged.”

Peter scoffed and moved suddenly, swinging his weight into a kick that Tony caught, bracing his back leg, and grabbing tight onto Peter’s shin. Peter paused, glancing down at his leg and back to Tony again.

“You’re gonna let go in a really mean way, aren’t you?” Peter asked.

Tony smirked. “I don’t know, I can barely stand up without my cane. And you’re all blurry, maybe I need to fetch my reading glasses. Is it four PM already? That’s bedtime for me.” Peter didn’t even get to sigh before Tony pulled him off balance, and flipped him, letting the leg go half way through.

From where Peter landed on the mat, he groaned. “Old men got some kick to ‘em, huh?”

“They do when you call them old men,” Tony retorted. “Where’d you even get that from, huh? Who taught you such disrespect for your elders?”

Peter laughed. “Queens public school.”

Tony nodded knowingly. “Yeah, see that would never happen in Manhattan.” He reached out a hand and pulled Peter back to his feet.

 

*

 

He was woken up by a red, flashing alarm.

“Fuck,” he muttered, pulling himself out of bed. Iron Avenger wasn’t even fixed yet, so the screen in his bedroom wasn’t calling for him to deal with the Kaiju currently crawling out of the breach. Still, though, he was awake.

Tony pulled on his old MIT sweatshirt – and by his, he meant Rhodey’s – and a pair of shoes and jogged down the hall. He wasn’t the only one up; the alarm alerted everyone on the base, and they were all running to see the jaeger leave.

Tony entered the HQ, towering over the main hall of the Shatterdome, just as Fury was talking into the overhead system. “Black Hawk, you’re on lift off.”

Tony moved to the window to watch as the Black Hawk jaeger hissed, massive cables attaching it to the heavy-duty helicopters known as Jumphawks overhead. The skylight ceiling had opened and the jaeger was slowly raised out of the dome.

“What have we got?” Tony asked, crossing his arms over his chest. Steve, nearby, glanced over.

“Category III. We’ve got a few early sonographic images in. The kids are calling him Tailreaper.”

“The kids?”

Steve nodded towards the side window, looking out over the rafters. Tony could just about see Peter and his two friends watching in awe as Black Hawk was carried away, Nat and Clint secured inside.

“How far out is it?”

“About an hour,” Steve replied. “The Maximoffs are suiting up for back up, too. They’re heading out in thirty minutes.”

“You should’ve seen them,” Bucky said, on Steve’s other side. “They were so excited to play back up for Black Hawk. Pietro was practically vibrating.

Tony managed a small smile. “And Pepper?”

Hill stepped over, adjusting her headset. “Rescue’s getting deployed in an hour, but hopefully she won’t be needed.”

Tony nodded and clapped his hands together. It always felt strange to know that other people were going off to fight – that the most he could do to help was stay alive until the next time he was needed.

Hill placed a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t worry. Barton and Romanoff aren’t the kind who die.” He’d once thought that Rhodes wasn’t the kind to lose a limb, that he wasn’t the kind to be drift compatible with a child. But Tony nodded, and watched out the window until Black Hawk had disappeared entire from sight and Twin Vision was slowly powering up.

Then he left HQ and wandered around the rafters, to where Peter was sat, his legs dangling over the edge beside his friends.

“Kid,” Tony greeted, moving to lean against the railing.

“Ranger Stark,” Peter replied.

Tony sighed, but didn’t comment on the name. He was fairly sure Peter was just doing it to annoy him; he swung wildly between the utmost respect and the highest amount of sass he could muster in a sentence. “Aren’t you going to introduce me to your friends?”

“Oh, right! This is Ned and MJ. We went to the Academy together, but they’re in the mech strain.” His friends were the same ones Tony had seen in the cafeteria; a brown-skinned girl with curly hair, pulled back, and a heavy-set boy with an exuberant smile on his face, eyes wide at Tony.

“Oh my God,” Ned said. “Ranger Stark. Tony. Ranger Tony Stark, I’m a big fan. Like, massive. Your battle against a Category I outside East Russia is legendary. Flying Kaijus are so rare and you held on even when you were so high that your jaegers controls were likely to freeze over in the atmosphere and stop working—”

Tony smiled, shaking his head. “Yeah, kid. It was a trip alright. That was back in the good old War Machine days. Way before arc reactor tech. We fixed the icing problem, you know.”

“Oh, I know! I read Dr Banner’s paper on it. War Machine was such cool jaeger, but I think I love Iron Avenger even more.”

“Is that so?”

He looked down at Ned, eyes catching on the amused smiles of Peter and MJ, before Tony moved to sit down beside the trio, arms resting on the railing.

“I think Rhodey always liked War Machine better than the Avenger,” Tony mused, tilting his head and watching the yellow glow of Twin Vision’s power core light up. “I don’t think he ever truly forgave me for jumping on that ugly fucker’s back and riding it into space.”

“Rhodey as in Ranger James Rhodes?” Ned asked, eyes wide.

“The one and only.”

“Is it true you guys are like life long best friends? I read it in a magazine once.”

Tony nodded. “We met in college, but that was almost twenty years ago now. I’ve known him longer than I hadn’t. People who are close like that have the best neural drifts.”

“Do you think strangers can drift as well as people who know each other?” MJ asked from the end of the row. Tony quirked an eyebrow down at her – she still looked largely disinterested in him and the conversation, but she was watching him like a hawk.

“No,” Tony said simply. “I mean, it’s possible. But it’s rare. People who know each other, they just… they fit. They have trust, which is vital to control a jaeger. It’s easier to have someone you know intimately in your head than someone you don’t.”

“Peter said your Handshake was one-hundred percent,” MJ replied.

Tony nodded, eyes darting to Peter now. He was watching Twin Vision, the conn-pod head lowering onto the torso.

“Like I said, rare but possible. Parker and I are the exception, not the rule. Teenagers can create stronger drifts than adults, and I’m a seasoned pro. But from what I’ve seen, strangers chase the rabbit much easier than friends.”

Peter glanced over. “You think?”

Tony nodded. There was a glow beneath the head as it attached to the jaeger body, and a loud hiss they could hear from all the way across the room. “Friends can pull each other out of it better. And people who don’t know each other, getting caught up in each other’s memory? There’s curiosity there, you know? It’s easy to get lost when you don’t know each other. But if you do – you’ve seen it all before. You have trust that the other one won’t pry, but you likely already know how the memories play out.” Tony shrugged, and the group went silent.

Fury’s voice counted down the Twin Vision launch, and soon enough it was rising in the air like Black Hawk had done half an hour before.

“Tailreaper, huh?” Tony asked when the excitement died down.

Peter shrugged. “We saw the thermal image. Massive tail. Looks a bit like a flail.”

“You’re thinking of a morning star,” MJ corrected. “A flail’s the one on the chain that swings around, a morning star has the spikey ball but just on a stick.”

Peter paused. “You’re right, I was, but I kind of hope it is like a flail. Just swinging around wildly.” Peter caught Tony’s amused look and stammered, “I mean—that would be awful. Terrible. A weapon of mass destruction, very dangerous for Ranger Romanoff and Ranger Barton. It wouldn’t be cool at all. Like, the least cool thing we would ever see.”

Tony scoffed and rolled his eyes, biting the bullet. “What’s with the whole Ranger Barton thing, kid? Clint doesn’t deserve that kind of reverence.”

“My aunt taught me to treat my elders with respect, Ranger Stark.

Tony was about to open his mouth for a likely scathing reply, when a figure crouched down on his other side.

“I’m heading out,” Pepper said, helmet between her hands. Her armour matched the Rescue jaeger perfectly – purple and silver armour locked together.

“Good luck, Ms Potts.”

She smiled, and straightened, looking out across the Shatterdome for a moment before glancing back down at him. He was, of course, already looking up at her. “Look after the kids, sweetie. Make sure they get to bed on time.”

Tony snorted and Peter let out a quiet hey.

“Will do, honey,” Tony said, leaning back and propping himself up on his arms as Pepper turned to walk away. He called after her, “Hey, if you make it back alive, can I take you out for a drink?”

She didn’t look back. “In your dreams!”

“I’m always dreaming of you, Pep!”

He heard her bark of laughter before she disappeared around the corner. When he looked back to the teenagers beside him, they were all sending him various shades of unimpressed.

“I can’t tell if she’s actually into you and playing along or if that’s genuinely your best attempt at flirting and she’s hoping you’ll do better,” MJ commented, her voice mild.

Tony frowned. “Hey,” he said, just as Peter had said a moment before. “She’s into me.”

“Are you sure about that?”

“A solid eighty percent sure, kid,” Tony replied. “And that’s really all I need.”

 

*

 

When Black Hawk landed, Tony could tell by the expressions on the faces of the people in HQ. Bucky and Steve stood shoulder to shoulder, staring intently at the screen, and people crammed together to get a good look. Twin Vision would still be half an hour of battling away, and Rescue had only just left, ready to help pick up the pieces at the end.

“Come on, kids, let’s go watch.”

“We’re not allowed in there, sir,” Ned said, as Tony pulled his legs back up onto the rafter. “We tried, earlier, but they said cadets aren’t allowed in HQ.”

Tony frowned. “Stick by me. You’ll be fine. Come on, it’s the best seats in the house.”

They glanced between themselves, unsure, but Peter pulled himself up anyway and so the others followed suit. He never used to wonder with Rhodey about what his co-pilot saw in the drift – but with Peter he did. With Peter, he wondered if he saw Howard Stark’s cruel words, or Maria Stark’s gentle touches. He wondered if he saw Jarvis, or something that made him trust Tony, rather than the violence of battle and war.

The kids followed him into HQ, and Tony placed a hand on Peter’s shoulder to steer him through the crowd, the others following immediately behind. When Tony arrived beside Steve, he caught his friend’s glance at the three teenagers, but they both stayed quiet on the subject. Instead, Tony let the kids stand in front so they could see the screens better.

On the right, a map of the Pacific showed a red dot for the Kaiju and a green for the jaegers. Black Hawk’s dot was less than a mile from the Kaiju that was thrashing its way to land. The three jaegers were also pulled up, spectral diagrams of the bodies in action, moving just as they were currently; Rescue and Twin Vision still as they were carried to the scene, and Black Hawk wading through water. And then there were the comm links to the conn-pods, presenting the audio of the five pilots live.

We’re closing in,” Clint’s voice said, the screen with the word BARTON on it bursting to life. “I think I can see it.

“Alright,” Hill said into her mic, “engage at your digression. We’ll be watching from here.”

You got it,” Clint replied.

They waited with baited breath, silence in the room as Black Hawk reached Tailreaper.

Nat swore in Russian, then, “You seeing this?

Jesus Christ,” Clint replied. “That’s one ugly fucker. Nat, have HQ got the live feed?

A screen burst into life. The image was almost pitch black, bar the faint glow emanating from Black Hawk’s power core in its chest, and the corner of white light from the torch on the jaeger’s head. In the distance was a vague shape, that slowly became clearer the closer they got.

“Tailreaper,” Tony said, appreciative. “You were right about the flail.”

Peter shuffled uncomfortably as Tailreaper became visible; its flail-like tail swinging like crazy as it trekked towards land, somewhere just up the coast.

Alright, Nat. Just like we practised.

Tony could imagine how Clint and Nat moved in sync, their fists clenched, arms at the ready. Holograms would appear around their left arms as they built a plasma canon.

Engaging,” Nat said. There was a pause as the plasma canon loaded, and then the recoil, a loud echoing bang as it shot towards the Kaiju; a vibrant streak in the air followed by a faint shriek of pain.

Then the battle began.

Tony could tell early on that the three kids had never seen a Kaiju battle from this perspective before. Peter – at least – must’ve completed simulations, but nothing like this. Nothing like watching it in real time; the waves, the Kaiju Blue, the screaming maw of a massive fuck off monster.

The battle would’ve been elegant if the Kaiju had played along with Black Hawk’s style of fighting. Graceful lines, perfectly synced, right arm turning electric with vicious lightning.

“You’re getting too close to the wall,” Hill said suddenly. “You need to direct it away from land.”

Rogers,” Clint said.

“Yes?” Steve replied.

Bucky scoffed and Tony snorted, but no one else seemed to find the joke funny.

Tony could tell they were trying to direct it from land, but the Kaiju had a game plan too – and that was towards the glowing lights of Oregon, it seemed.

Fuck,” Clint huffed. “I need an ETA on Twin Vision. This fucker’s too fast for us to keep up with.” That was true – Tailreaper was racing away every chance it got; it was only Clint’s plasma gun at long range that was hindering it.

“Twin Vision is seven minutes out,” Hill announced, and then then the Kaiju slammed through the wall.

A silence fell over the room. The Oregon section of the wall was mostly complete, but on the first knock, half of it crumbled. Black Hawk shot another plasma bolt, making it scream but nothing much else, and it backed into the rest of the wall, trampling everything in its path it as it raced into Oregon, its tail slamming into buildings on either side.

Clint and Natasha swore in unison, and they raced after.

“Is this how it usually goes?” Peter asked, quiet. Tony glanced down at the kid and saw his eyes glued to the screen.

“Sometimes, yeah,” Tony replied. “Sometimes we get our asses kicked for a while before we win.”

“But we have always won,” Steve added.

“Is it winning if there’s that much collateral damage?” MJ murmured, as Tailreaper leapt atop a building that couldn’t hold its weight. The entire thing was crushed beneath its body.

“It’s gotta be,” Bucky said. “Otherwise we’re always losing and then there’s no point.”

The room watched and waited in agonising silence.

When Twin Vision finally landed, Black Hawk had a death grip on the Tail, trying and failing to pull it back down the main road and out to sea, to keep it away from civilians. The new jaeger really was the fastest anyone had seen, and it slammed into battle, a chainsaw for one arm, immediately leaping into the fray.

Square up, Подонок,” Pietro said, excitement in his voice.

We’ve got you, Black Hawk,” Wanda added as the jaeger lifted its chainsaw arm. “Let’s lead ‘em back out to sea.

Between the two of them, Tailreaper made it back to the wall, Kaiju Blue spilling everywhere, before it got the upper hand again. Then it was a shitshow.

The tail slammed so hard into Black Hawk’s torso that the power core was left flickering, and the lights in the conn-pod had likely turned red with alarm. They started losing power, and Fury leaned over Hill to order them back, to get away before they lost the jaeger all together.

Clint swore so violently and colourfully that Tony had the urge to cover the kids’ ears, but they did as they were told. With Black Hawk to the side, Twin Vision tried to take on the beast alone; chainsaw slicing shallow lacerations into the thick hide of the monster – but it wasn’t enough. It was that fucking tail, and Tony realised it would happen the moment before it did.

The Tailreaper span, the tail swung, and it slammed so hard into the head of the Twin Vision jaeger that all Tony could see was crumpled metal.

There was a distant screaming, too, the only thing audible in the dead silence of everything else. Wanda, shrieking. Her panel on the monitor was lit up like a Christmas tree. Pietro’s had faded.

Thor had once felt his brother die as if he was dying himself. Tony had no doubt that Wanda was going through the exact same thing.

Then: “Fuck it.” Nat’s voice through the comms and Black Hawk running back into the fray with Rescue almost ten minutes out.

Black Hawk leapt into the air, and landed heavily, cracking the road. They grabbed the tail, and swung, knocking buildings down as they did so, spinning as they ramped up their speed and power, before launching the fucker back out into the ocean.

“Wanda! Twin Vision, do you copy?” Hill was saying into the comms as Black Hawk started back out into the ocean. The Kaiju thrashed in the waves. “Does anyone copy from Twin Vision? Wanda? Pietro?” She looked up, and Fury, tapping at his tablet nodded once.

“Oregon pararescue are en route. ETA nine minutes.”

“Help is on the way,” Hill said into the mic. “Wanda. Pietro. Do you copy? Pararescue is nine minutes out.”

Twin Vision didn’t reply, however, and Black Hawk had almost reached its prey in the water.

Tony could hear Ned’s whisper. “Are they dead?”

“I don’t know,” Peter replied, and Tony felt a shiver down his spine. He’d brought kids in to watch this – there were surely reasons that it wasn’t allowed. Maybe the trauma from this would stick with them for life. Maybe this trauma would mingle with all the rest. Maybe Peter would see this and decide that piloting a jaeger wasn’t for him.

For some reason, Tony was a little disappointed by that idea. He didn’t like a kid being in the line of fire like that – hell, the Maximoffs were only twenty-one; practically children themselves – but Tony had felt Peter in the drift, they’d connected. The idea of having that bond and never experiencing it again was saddening in way Tony didn’t realise it could be.

He was pulled from this feeling, however, by Black Hawk ripping the tail off the Kaiju. Its scream was something unholy, and then it couldn’t scream anymore. The jaeger grabbed the thrashing monster, and with an electric fist, punched straight into its mouth, bursting out the back of its neck in a splatter of white lightning and Kaiju Blue blood.

The pilots of Black Hawk huffed.

One more for luck,” Nat said, and the left hand reformed into a plasma canon, pressed against the Kaiju’s head, and shot; the head exploding on impact.

They dropped the Kaiju into the water, and the red dot on the map vanished.

“The Kaiju is down,” Hill confirmed, but there were no cheers.

Rescue is on site,” Pepper said, her jaeger arriving and landing beside the fallen Twin Vision. She climbed over the downed jaeger and peered at the crushed conn-pod for a moment, before she started pulling the head apart to look inside.

There was a moment of silence.

Both Maximoffs are down,” Pepper reported. “I repeat, both Maximoffs are down.

“I need confirmation,” Hill said, “are they unconscious or are they dead?”

There was the creaking of metal, and the faint noise of choppers overhead; pararescue moving in on the downed jaeger and the injured civilians.

The Maximoffs are dead,” Pepper said, and Tony put one hand on Peter’s shoulder, and led the three teenagers out of the room.

 

*

 

They ended up in Scott Lang’s workshop.

The room was a cluttered mess of projects and jaeger parts, of blueprints hastily drawn and family photos all featuring a little girl with a gap-toothed grin. Tony didn’t know Scott Lang very well, but he knew about his daughter Cassie, who’d been born the same day as the first ever Kaiju attack in San Francisco, and barely escaped with her life.

MJ and Ned were being trained by Lang, which was why they led Peter and Tony there, amongst all the clutter and mess. Lang was likely asleep, it being somewhere around three AM, but MJ hoisted herself up onto a desk, and Tony leaned against another.

“Are they all like that?” she asked, looking Tony dead on. She wasn’t afraid of eye contact, he noticed. “Really?”

“The crew doesn’t die every time,” he said. “We’ve actually got a low turnover rate, considering.”

“But when they do die? Is it that gruesome every time?”

“Yes.”

MJ’s face fell. “And Ranger Maximoff’s screaming—”

“She felt her brother die before she died herself, probably. We’ll be able to know for sure when the conn-pod gets back here. It has a black box that can report the intensity of the neural drift.”

“You’re very,” she waved a hand around, “factual about it all. Devoid of emotion, even.”

Tony shrugged, and he locked his eyes on a photo of Cassie and Scott, when she was little. “There are some things you can’t bring emotion into if you want to get through the day.” He sighed and rubbed a hand over his face. “That’s a depressing lesson.”

He looked over to Peter and Ned, sitting quietly on stools and raised his eyebrows, to see if they were okay. Peter grimaced.

“The simulations weren’t as real as that,” he said.

“Yeah, kid, they weren’t,” Tony replied. He ducked his head for a moment and clenched his hands around the desk until his knuckles turned white. “Are you sure you want to be a jaeger pilot?”

Peter scoffed. “You’re asking me that now? After I just saw those two die?

“Yeah, I am. Because it’s not—it’s not an easy job. And seeing death is part of it, and—”

“I’m used to people dying,” Peter replied with the same cold tone that Tony had used to talk to MJ. “And if I can help people—”

“There are plenty of jobs that’ll let you help people without putting yourself in the line of fire.”

“But I can put myself in the line of fire,” Peter insisted. “Not everyone can. Not everyone passed the physicals or could go to the Academy. Not everyone can be drift compatible with someone else. I can. If I’ve got the ability to help, then helping is the right thing to do. If I don’t—then that’s on me when the Kaijus keep coming and there’s no one around to stop them.”

Peter’s gaze was so sure that Tony had to look away. Only then did he nod, blowing out a breath. “Your funeral,” he muttered, before pushing himself upright. “Okay, who wants ice cream?”

They looked surprised. “Really?”

“Yeah, the kitchens are empty this time of night, and I happen to know where the good stuff’s hidden. So let’s get some ice cream, and Pete – let’s push back training until nine AM, okay? At least get like—” he checked the time, “—five hour’s sleep.”

Peter slipped off his stool. “They got sprinkles?”

Tony scoffed. “They got sprinkles? Of course they’ve got sprinkles! We’re government funded, baby. We’ve got all the good stuff.”

 

*

 

After the cadets went back to bed, Tony walked through the main hall. He caught it just in time.

“Restart the clock!” Fury yelled.

The war clock on the wall counted the time between Kaiju attacks. They’d lasted two weeks this time.

The clock reset to zero.

Chapter Text

Tony didn’t see Clint and Nat until lunch, and when he did, Clint didn’t say a word.

“How’d the kids take it?” Steve asked, setting his tray down opposite Tony.

He blew out a breath. “Not great. They must’ve seen Kaiju attacks before—”

“No one ever sees the pilots…” Steve glanced over at Clint and fell silent. Die, Tony completed.

Pepper sat down beside Tony, no tray and just a mug of coffee in her hands. She looked like she hadn’t slept.

“You know, I’m sure I can get you something with more of a kick to it,” Tony told her, quiet.

Pepper shook her head, tearing her eyes from her cup to look at him. “I’m okay, thanks.” They were quiet for a moment before she said, “Sometimes I think I should give up the jaeger.”

Tony frowned. “You wouldn’t be saying that if last night had gone better.”

Pepper let out a long sigh, and Tony’s gaze swept over her; the growing bags under her eyes, her hair pulled back to hide the grease. “Maybe I would be. People are rarely in one piece by the time I reach the scene,” she muttered. “I’m just kind of sick of seeing it.”

Clint moved suddenly, standing and making his tray clatter with the movement. He didn’t look anyone in eye before he stormed out of the cafeteria. Nat just shrugged, eyes watching him go.

“We’re all pretty sick of it,” she sighed. “I don’t know a person here who hasn’t lost someone to the Kaiju attacks.”

Tony’s mind flashed back to his parents, to the first time a Kaiju made it all the way to New York before it was killed. He shut his eyes against the images and locked them up tight in the back of his mind. There were things he didn’t need to bring into the drift.

 

*

 

Peter knocked his bo staff into Tony’s, his feet light as he darted from side to side. Tony played the game, anticipating Peter’s movements and trying to match them. Peter went left, so Tony went right. Peter ducked low, swinging out a foot, and Tony leapt over it. They were going through the motions, again and again, and yet he didn’t feel any better.

Last night, there’d been a memorial for the twins, and their deaths had been announced on the news. TWIN VISION PILOTS K.I.A.

Their jaeger was still in working order, besides the head. Tony knew that new pilots would be picked in a matter of days; they’d fight just like this and they’d stand in a conn-pod, see if their minds could meld easily. And Twin Vision would have new owners; the fastest jaeger in circulation without its Sokovian pilots.

Tony swept the bo staff up and froze before it hit Peter’s chin.

They pulled apart.

“I read that Shuri – the Black Panther pilot – is still in a coma,” Peter said, twirling the staff around his fingers as he wandered to the wall. Skullcutter had taken a lot; Category IIIs nearly always took pilot lives now. “And that Gamora woman – from Guardian Blue? – yeah, apparently she died from her injuries.”

“Leftovers are rare,” Tony replied. “The fact that she made it out at all is almost impossible.”

“Like single-handedly piloting a jaeger.” Peter’s look was pointed, and Tony shrugged before catching the water bottle thrown over to him.

“I did it for like ten seconds. Not that impressive.”

He glanced over as Steve and Bucky entered the Combat Room, towels over their shoulders, bottles in their hands. They threw their stuff to the side and started stretching before Tony looked back to Peter.

“Come on, let’s go do something fun.”

“Like what?”

“Like, I don’t know, get our teeth pulled. I’ve got an idea, come on.”

Peter hesitated but pushed away from the wall and followed anyway. Tony whistled on his way out, looking over to Steve in a downward dog stretch.

“That is America’s ass,” he called. “Take good care of it, Rogers!”

He could hear Bucky’s laughter as they left.

 

*

 

Tony leant on the railings and stared at the headless torso of Iron Avenger. Peter moved to his side, their arms only centimetres apart. He knew Peter had been here before, to watch the mechanics work – he’d spotted the kid himself a few times, and heard reports from some of his friends, but Tony had never stood here with Peter, never watched the body of his jaeger be fixed with his new co-pilot.

“He’s the last of his kind,” Tony said, eyeing the arc reactor in the centre of the jaeger’s chest. “That kind of power source is great, but the explosions were too dangerous.”

“You mean when they were destroyed?” Peter asked.

Tony nodded. “An overloaded arc reactor is deadly,” he said. “But by my calculations, it could make for one hell of an attack. All the other jaegers like him lost, though. So he’s the last.”

They lapsed into silence for a moment, watching the mechanics crawl up Iron Avenger’s torso and stand on its shoulders. In their hands, they used high-tech glow sticks to direct the head down into position. Tony recognised the same design, the same metal frame, but much of the right side had been replaced; all new windows, new sheets of metal, in a slightly different colour. It hissed as it clicked into position.

“You saved me once,” Peter said, quiet.

“What?”

He nodded. “There have only been three attacks on New York, and I was there for the second.”

Tony cast his mind back to New York, to an ugly fucker they dubbed Knifehead, rampaging through the city. Kaijus had ended up in New York three times – the first, Tony had lost his parents, the third, Rhodey had lost his leg. And now, apparently, the second, Peter had almost lost his life.

“What happened?”

“Well, uh – I lived in Queens. This was about two years ago. Right before I joined the Academy. The Kaiju tore through the streets, tore through… through everyone. And I just stared at it. I stood in the middle of the road and I stared at it. I couldn’t move, you know? I’d never seen one in person before. That first time Kaijus came to New York I wasn’t in the city – it actually crushed our apartment that day, so I was lucky, I guess. But I’d never seen one before and I froze.” Peter stared resolutely at Iron Avenger, at the glowing blue of the arc reactor, the reflection of the lights in the conn-pod’s visor.

“And it almost trampled me. It was so close, and then suddenly Iron Avenger is ploughing into its side and its careening into a building and I’m safe.” Peter sighed. “Another second and I would’ve died.”

Tony didn’t speak, he just studied the angles of Peter’s face. Committing it all to memory, though everything that made up Peter was already nesting inside his head, as much a part of Tony as anything else.

When he eventually looked away, he gazed at his jaeger. At their jaeger.

“I’m glad you’re not dead,” Tony said at last.

Peter scoffed. “Yeah, me too.”

 

*

 

“Anyone seen Bruce lately?” Tony asked, biting into an apple.

Nat shook her head. “He’s holed up in his lab. Won’t let anyone in.”

“He even turned me away,” Thor added, which was more than Tony had heard him say in three days. “And we’re, like, friends.”

“We’re all friends, Point Break,” Tony replied, rolling his eyes. “I hope he isn’t up to some mad scientist shit in there.”

 

*

 

Tony entered the medbay just as Rhodey was being moved into a wheelchair. He stopped at the doorway to watch his best friend get situated. When Rhodey looked up, Tony shot him a pointed look.

“You always told me you wanted to be part robot.”

Rhodey, despite himself, snorted. “I’m not part robot, Tones. I’m part wheels, now.”

“You think you could classify as a car? Enter a race or something?” Tony sidled around to the wheelchair and the nurse stepped out of the room.

“Nice to see you too, Tony.”

“Nice to hear you talking, Rhodes.”

Tony took the handles of the wheelchair and started directing him out of the room. “Anywhere you want to go? Cuba? Europe? That room on the fourth floor that smells like weed?”

Rhodey scoffed. “I’d kill for some fresh air.”

“You’ve done all your killing, buddy,” Tony replied. “Leave that to me, now.”

Tony led him through the Shatterdome, ignoring the looks people sent their way at finally getting to see James Rhodes out of the medbay again. Rhodey had pointedly not covered his lap with a blanket, and but instead wore some loose-fitting cargo trousers, one leg cut short. The massive bay doors of the Shatterdome were nearly always open, and Tony wheeled Rhodey out through them, to the runway that directly led into the water.

The Shatterdome was situated right on the water’s edge, carved straight into the side of a cliff. The entire government facility crawled with people in uniform, and planes were lined up everywhere, next to the Jumphawks and SUVs.

Rhodey breathed in the salty air and sighed with relief. “This is what I’ve been missing.”

Seagulls swooped overhead, the only marks in a clear blue sky. A boat was docked to their left, unloading supplies, and uniformed workers drove forklifts around them, massive boxes of metal shards as their load. Tony had to admit that it was nice out there. He’d always liked the view from the catwalk, especially, but being amongst everyone…

He could feel Rhodey’s relief, the wash of calm that was spreading over him.

“I heard about the Maximoffs,” Rhodey said a moment later. “I never met them, but—”

“They were nice,” Tony interrupted. “Kids, really. Pietro was practically Black Hawk’s biggest fan. Clint was theirs. Wanda—she had real potential, you know? I watched her train once; she was a force to be reckoned with.”

Rhodey looked back at him. “Sucks, man. And I heard about Guardian Blue and Black Panther, too.”

“Looks like we’re the only ones leaving that fight alive,” Tony replied. If Shuri had been comatose for over two weeks, he doubted she’d wake up. Their entire jaeger was trashed anyway; no one would be fighting as Black Panther again. “You ever think about… giving up the fight?”

“Retirement?” Rhodey asked. “You mean, that thing I’ve been talking about for half a decade?” Tony cracked a smile. “The farm in the countryside, golf every weekend, sitting pretty on all that money you’re gonna give me to live in comfort?”

“Ha. You better get it from me soon because I haven’t named an heir yet and if I die now it’s all going to community colleges.”

Rhodey scoffed and shook his head. “No, Tones. Giving up the fight for real? I never planned on doing that.”

“Yeah… yeah, me neither.” The fight was too much a part of him to ever really let go, no matter how he might fantasise at night, or in the aftermath of something with Pepper, when he could wonder, just for a moment, what their lives might be like far away from here.

They watched people move. Watched the seagulls, the sea, the Pacific Ocean calm yet harbouring its secrets; hiding a portal to another dimension within its depths. Then Rhodey sighed.

“Tell me about the kid.”

“You really wanna hear about him?”

Rhodey tilted his head back. “Yeah, Tones, I really wanna hear about him.”

 

*

 

Hill sat down opposite him in the cafeteria. It was about three PM, so the place was largely empty, but Tony was nursing a cup of coffee and reading the obituaries for the twins.

Pietro and Wanda Maximoff, twenty-one-year-old twin pilots of Twin Vision, killed by the Kaiju Tailreaper in the early hours of September 12th

“I’m telling you now so you don’t get mad later,” she said, placing her coffee down beside his. Tony quirked an eyebrow, looking up from his tablet. “We’ve found new pilots to replace the twins.”

Tony paused, before carefully saying, “And why would I get mad about that?”

“Because Clint’s mad about it,” Hill replied, “and your whole group has a severe case of mob mentality. If one of you has a feeling, you all have that feeling. I once watched you all go from I’m not hungry to eating a three course meal in the span of five minutes because none of you wanted Wilson to eat alone. Even though he’s an adult. With other friends.”

“Point taken. Who are the new pilots?”

“Carol Danvers and Maria Rambeau. They’re air force pilots with great drifting scores and years of combat training. They’ll be here next week, and I want Clint to be calm by then.”

Tony shook his head. “He’s upset, Maria, you can’t just expect—”

“I know. But there are causalities all the time, and this happens every time.

“With Clint?”

She nodded. “Every time we lose a pilot, every time he watches someone die in the field, he loses it. It takes him weeks to calm down again, and he’s no good to anybody like that.”

“He’s mourning.”

“We’re all mourning. But some of us have work to do. He lets grief take over.”

Tony fell silent, not wanting to argue. Neither of them had raised their voices, but Tony knew how the beginnings of arguments played out, so he nodded and took a sip of his coffee. Then he eyed Hill for a moment, catching the faintest of bags under her eyes, and the way her hand shook, just a little.

“Those pills helping at all?” he asked.

Hill shook her head. “No better than the last ones. The ones before them slowed it down, though, so that was good, but they didn’t get FDA approval.” She shrugged. “I think there was Kaiju parts in them or something.”

Tony pulled a face, but said, “Anything to keep living.”

“You got that right. I bet you’re glad we got rid of nuclear power cores.”

“I think we’re all pretty thrilled about not getting cancer for our troubles, Maria.”

She stretched a half-fake smile across her face before taking a breath. “I’ve got things to do.”

“You sure do. Take it easy, Hill.”

“I don’t take orders from you.” Then she was gone, and Tony was left with the faces of the twins staring out at him from their obituary.

 

*

 

They held a meeting and Bruce put forward his new theory.

“The Kaiju appearances are getting more and more frequent,” he said to a room of pilots and high up commanders. The Marshals stood to the sides, arms crossed and silent, while every team leader in the Shatterdome watched Bruce’s hologram. It was of the breach and the tunnel between the dimensions. “It’s not an exact science; the rate they’re coming in – but they are getting closer together. I think it’s safe to say that we’re due another attack within the next two weeks.”

Tony balked. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Peter, leaning against a desk. He’d been invited too, as Iron Avenger’s other pilot, and his knuckles looked white where his hands were clasped together.

“And then, if this continues, we’ll probably see a double event within the month.”

“A double event,” Fury repeated.

“Two Kaijus at once.”

Murmurs washed across the room and Tony turned, catching Pepper’s gaze before dropping it again. They could barely take on one Kaiju. Sometimes, the Kaijus took down multiple jaegers before they died – they couldn’t handle more than one at once. The world would be destroyed in days.

“And what’s your plan for this?” Fury asked.

Bruce stammered for a moment before gesturing to the hologram. “The only reasonable plan is to close the breach.”

“And how would we do that?” Hill questioned.

Bruce’s face fell. “I’m not sure.”

 

*

 

The moment the meeting was over, Tony moved to Peter’s side and clapped a hand on his shoulder. “Come on,” he said.

“Where are we going?”

“We’re testing out Avenger. You’ve never even stepped foot in the damn thing and apparently the end of the world is in two weeks, so—”

“Okay,” Peter said. There was fear in his eyes, shining so clearly. Tony’s heart lurched for a moment, and then he stilled it. He’d learned his lesson once before about caring for kids, but it was in his nature to look out for them. Being a fighter meant he was also a protector.

“Okay,” Tony repeated.

 

*

 

Tony clipped Peter’s drivesuit into place, the holograms inside the Iron Avenger conn-pod glowing a faint blue, shedding vague light across the two pilots. The wetport Tony twisted into position was a long wire that connected the helmet to the jaeger – it acted as the neural interface that would link their brains together. Peter stared resolutely ahead.

“You alright there?” Tony asked, his voice low. He was aware of the comms, of Hill and a room of technicians listening in from HQ.

Peter nodded, blowing out a breath. “I’ve been practising in the simulator every day,” he said. “It’s nothing like this.”

Tony cracked half a smile. “You’ll be fine,” he promised. “The main difference is the weight.”

“The weight?”

“Yeah, you’re controlling a two-hundred-and-fifty-foot robot with your brain,” Tony replied. “It feels like you’ve just become really heavy. Like there’s concrete around your feet, or… or a pressure on your shoulders. You’ll get used to it though. It’ll be like a second skin in no time.”

Tony finished with Peter’s wires and moved over to the right side of the conn-pod, clipping himself into position. He twisted the wetport wire into his helmet and turned his attention to the screens ahead of him, swiping through the system checks and starting the power up.

Tony pulled a face and glanced over to Peter. “We’re not even drifting and I can feel your nerves,” he commented. “Tone it down a little.”

Peter shook out his hands, jumping from foot to foot. “I’m sorry! It’s just—”

“Your first time, I know.”

“It’s scary, man. This is a massive fuck off robot.”

“Language.”

Peter shot an unimpressed look his way and Tony internally shot one at himself. He didn’t like the paternal tone he’d taken, and he had no right to aim it at Peter.

“What if I mess up?”

“You’re not going to,” Tony replied, eyes on the screens again. “We drifted fine the other day. We had a great Neural Handshake and we train together daily. We’ve got this.”

Peter hesitated. “We have?”

“Yes, Parker. We have.” Tony stepped back from his screen and looked over to Peter. He looked so young behind his visor, and he’s a kid he’s a kid he’s a kid ran through his mind unbidden. “We’re a team, okay? I’ve got your back and you’ve got mine. I’m the right side of the brain and you’re the left, got it?”

Peter nodded, setting his jaw and looking straight forward out the front window of the jaeger, where the hall spread out before them. Crowds of people in uniforms lingered to watch their first test, and Tony was sure that if they turned the jaeger’s head a little to the right, he’d see his friends sitting in the rafters.

“Alright,” Tony said, and held out a fist to Peter. The kid looked at it for a moment before the serious expressed broke into a smile and he reached out, bumping Tony’s fist with his own.

“Not a hug kind of person, huh?” Peter asked, and Tony rolled his eyes, tapping at his helmet over his ear.

“God, Hill, let’s get this started before the kid kills me?”

Hill’s voice was amused. “Oh no, we can wait a little longer if you want to do some father-son bonding exercises. Steve’s partial to the trust fall, but I hear Barnes prefers those jaunts through the wilderness with only your co-workers, a rope and enough food for half the group.

Tony snorted. “Sounds about right. Let’s get going, we don’t have all day.”

There was a beat before: “Starting the Neural Handshake.

Then Tony slipped away on the intake of a breath.

The waves washed over him, pooling around his ankles and dragging him slowly towards Peter’s mind. Around him were familiar voices; lines he knew intimately, lilting tones that surrounded him daily. There was Rhodey’s laugh and Clint’s sarcastic twang; Natasha’s whisper when she had a secret only Tony’s ears could hear. Then there was something new; a voice he didn’t know saying, I love you, sweetie, I love you, honey over and over and over.

Somewhere, Hill’s voice was saying, “Neutral link is strong and holding,” but Tony wasn’t sure how long that would last.

Not when, within the waves, the blue fog that span around them, wisps of colour caught between the synapses of their nerves, there was a woman beside Peter. Tony spotted them for a moment, before a man was filled in by shadow and memory, becoming real and tangible in the haze.

“Peter,” he said aloud, his voice sounding a million miles away. “Let them go. Don’t get caught in a memory.”

For a moment, it looked like Peter would walk away; that this vague shape that made up Tony’s co-pilot would turn away from these people, but he didn’t. Rather, he stepped backwards, towards them, the fog of their bodies breaking apart and latching onto him.

“R.A.B.I.T., Peter,” Tony said. Random Access Brain Impulse Triggers. “Just let it go past.”

Stark,” Hill said, somewhere. “Do we shut it down?

“No,” he replied. “He’s got this. Come on, Parker. Just let them go. We don’t bring anything into the drift, remember?” Not Pepper, not the past, not the family they left behind.

But there was a gasp from Peter, and then a sudden cry and the waves of blue became buildings and roads; they swam up to form a sky, cloudless and bright. The towers were crumbling, there were car alarms wailing, and the road was already torn up, cracked all the way down the middle.

In front of him was Peter in his drivesuit, running. He was between a man and woman – the man with greying hair, and the woman brunette, her glasses cracked. They were tiring, but Tony had to sprint to keep up with them; they had a head start. From all around him, the tell-tale sound of a Kaiju echoed. Tony knew this sound intimately; the deep rumble of a Kaiju stomping its feet, the ear-piercing shriek when an attack landed. And Tony knew this street, knew this area: New York.

The second Kaiju attack.

Tony knew what was going to happen and he knew he’d watch it all. He’d have to. Peter chased a rabbit, and Tony didn’t know him well enough to pull him back out.

“Peter,” the woman said when he stumbled. Peter flickered, his drivesuit vanishing and a hoodie appearing in its place. He was shorter too, just a little, his face younger and less like it had seen the world’s end. The woman grabbed his hand – May, he caught the name on the edge of a thought. May and Ben.

Peter’s aunt and uncle, the answers falling into Tony’s lap before he’d asked the question. He was in Peter’s mind now, Peter’s memories, following Peter’s rabbit all the way back to New York, where only bad things happened.

“This way,” Ben said with a huff, leading them towards a building. It had a sign on its window: EMERGENCY KAIJU ATTACK BUNKER, but when they reached the door, it was locked. Ben slammed his shoulder into it twice as the Kaiju screamed in the distance.

“We’ve got to go,” May implored, her eyes full of tears.

“Why won’t it open?” Peter asked. He span around at the sound of something metallic and loud; the blades forming around Iron Avenger’s hands.

“It’s probably full, Pete,” Ben replied. “Let’s keep moving. Come on.” Ben took Peter’s arm and then they were running off down the street again – but it wasn’t enough. Being out in the open was the easiest way to die; being in a skyscraper was the next.

Tony watched as the Kaiju rampaged through Queens, tearing apart the city as Iron Avenger followed in its wake. Knifehead rammed into buildings and stomped on the remains.

May and Ben were up ahead, just by a metre or so. It was enough. When the Kaiju crashed into an apartment block, pieces of cement went flying; perfect arcs that finished at the Parkers’ bodies.  When the whole building fell down, Peter ran and Tony ran after him, turning back only to see May and Ben be crushed, vanishing beneath the wreckage.

And Peter wailed. He fucking howled, stumbling to the side of the road and staring at the place his aunt and uncle had been standing. It was the kind of empty cry that tore a person in two; Tony felt his heart breaking, the splintering and cracking that Peter was causing.

Peter stumbled into the middle of the street and Tony just watched. He stood there, the blue fog of the drift pulling at him.

“Peter,” he said, though his words were lost in the noise. In Knifehead, tearing down the street, ready to pound Peter into the tarmac with its taloned feet. And for a moment, Peter was Harley.

And Tony’s breath stopped in his throat, because Harley Keener didn’t come into the drift.

Tony Stark did everything in his power to keep him out of it.

When Iron Avenger tackled the Kaiju, the world was tackled with it, Peter and Harley merging into the same person and then splitting violently apart, the boys two entities once again. The city turned into something else; a rainy day in another place entirely, and Tony wasn’t in his suit anymore – he was in the moment, in the memory.

“Harley,” he breathed, rushing forward to the boy standing by Peter’s side. Harley turned, eight years old and tiny, eyes wide and breathing uneven. “Where’s your Mom?”

“I-I don’t know—”

“That’s okay, that’s okay.” It wasn’t okay. It couldn’t be okay. “She’s got your sister, yeah?” Harley nodded and Tony grabbed his hand, tugging him through the carnage. When Harley slipped on the mud that was quickly forming from the rain and rubble, Tony stopped only to lift him up, carrying him through the mess.

It rarely ever rained in Malibu, but a giant monster coming out of the ocean was even rarer.

“This way,” Tony muttered, and somewhere behind him, he heard Tony? getting lost in the wind. He had to get Harley somewhere safe, had to find his family, had to get them the hell out of here.

“What is that thing?” Harley asked, clutching onto Tony despite all his talk about being a big kid and independent only half an hour before.

“Kaiju,” Tony huffed. At least, that’s what the news was calling them; aliens that were climbing out of a magic portal in the ocean. No – Tony was a scientist, a mechanic – there was no magic involved. It was an interdimensional breach.

He was barely twenty years old and the world was ending. He needed to get Harley out of there.

Tony ran down the street, pointedly ignoring the roars of the monster somewhere in the city behind him. He recognised the roads after a moment – he was only a little way away from where Harley’s mom worked. The florist – they had a basement; pretty old but definitely secure.

Tony veered suddenly left and pelted down the street. He saw only a few others as he went, everyone a blur in the rain.

When he reached the florist, he pushed open the door without a hesitation. The bell chimed and he tracked mud as he went in search for the basement door. He’d been in there once before, to help Melissa carry up some shelving just after she was promoted to manager.

Distantly, a Kaiju screamed bloody murder. Distantly, someone said pull him out, Parker! Distantly, there was a thought echoing, something like, we both chased the rabbit, we both fell down the rabbit hole, we’re both never coming out.

Tony found the basement hatch and pulled it open, startling when he saw a face in the low light. “Melissa?”

“Oh, my God, Tony! Harley! Get down here!”

Tony jogged down the steps, pulling the hatch shut behind him. The basement was small, with a few units of shelving in one corner and a pile of dead flowers in another. Harley’s baby sister, only two years old, whimpered in her mother’s arms.

Tony set Harley down and watched him barrel into his mother’s arms in an embrace. A moment later, Melissa curled an arm around Tony, too, pressing a kiss into his cheek. “Thank you,” she whispered. “Thank you.”

Tony nodded, before settling on the steps to catch his breath. There was a presence beside him that he couldn’t entirely pinpoint, like it was a shadow of something that didn’t belong in this moment.

Harley slumped by Tony’s feet, clearly trying not to cry, and Melissa sat down opposite him.

“We’re okay,” she promised. “We’ll be safe down here.”

“It took days to kill the last monster,” Harley said, because even the kids knew something about the aliens that appeared in the ocean, even if it had last happened almost a year before.

“I’m sure they’ve figured out a way to do it faster,” Melissa said, brushing down the flyaways of his hair.

“And then we’ll leave California,” Tony added, sparing a glance for Melissa’s look of surprise. “We’ll move you three out somewhere quiet, where you won’t be right next to the ocean. You’ll be safe there.”

Harley peered up at him. “What about you?”

Tony smiled. “I’ll be around,” he swore, because he would be, because this was his makeshift family that he’d put together all himself before this alien invasion had ever dreamed of starting. He’d built this all himself; better than the robots and machines he made in his workshop. Melissa, Harley, Abbie and Rhodey. He wouldn’t let anything happen to them.

“Ranger Stark,” a voice said, somewhere. Tony placed a comforting hand in Harley’s hair and took a long breath. “Tony. We need clear minds for the drift. We can’t bring memories in. I know I did it first, but—you need to let this moment go. It’s in the past. Come back, Tony.”

He frowned, registering that presence by his side. Tony glanced over and blinked at the boy sitting next to him. He wore a strange suit of armour and helmet, very sci-fi, in greys and blacks with streaks of red. He looked older than his age, for a moment – not a boy, but something of an adult. Someone who’d seen too much.

Almost there.

“Don’t bring anything into the drift, Tony. Our memories don’t belong here.” Tony tilted his head at this stranger, before the face became recognisable. Peter. Peter Parker.

Tony gasped and he was in the conn-pod, hologram screens flaring with light and Peter on his left, eyes wide and panicked.

“Shit,” Tony said, looking over to Peter. “Christ.” Harley Harley Harley.

Neural Handshake holding steady again,” Hill said suddenly. “Good job pulling it back there. We were worried we’d have to shut it down.

Tony looked out the visor at the Shatterdome, the clusters of people looking more alarmed than they had before. He turned to his hands, twin hologram blades visible from both knuckles. Tony shook his head and moved to dismiss them at the same time as Peter.

Then he ripped his helmet off, Harley’s face swimming around his head and Melissa’s voice in his mind. He unclipped himself from the wires and felt the head of the jaeger detach and start rising back to the entrance bridge, leaving Iron Avenger behind.

Peter was slower about pulling out the wires, but he followed behind Tony a moment after, carefully avoiding looking at his co-pilot.

 “Don’t bring memories into the drift,” he hissed. “You won’t like what you see.”

Peter took off his helmet. “I know that.”

Tony span to him. “And yet you did it.”

“I didn’t mean—”

“If the memories we’d ended up in were combat-heavy, what do you think the jaeger would be doing right now?” Peter was silent, eyes wide at Tony’s sudden turn. “We’d be tearing up this place. Because we have no control when we chase rabbits. We’re lost in the past, and there’s no choice but to play out the memory if you can’t let go.”

Peter jutted out his jaw and Tony recognised the move of defiance, but the kid said nothing, just glared as if Tony was somehow in the wrong here.

He huffed. “You want me to treat you like an adult?” Tony asked. “Don’t chase rabbits. And listen to me when I tell you to let shit go—”

“It was my first time in a jaeger!” Peter retorted. “You’ve been doing this for a decade and you slipped into it just as easily as me!”

“It’s not my fault you reminded me of—” Tony broke off before he could say Harley’s name, and Peter let out a cold laugh.

“Oh yeah, I remind you of an eight-year-old. Thanks, Tony, for that one. At least your kid survived, I watched my family fucking die for this shit. In this stupid-ass war. That’s the first time I’ve seen them since, and—”

Now Tony barked out cruel laughter. The conn-pod slowed to a halt. “You think my family made it out, kid? You think I didn’t see my parents die in the first New York attack? You think I didn’t feel every inch of Rhodes’ leg being torn off? Or do you wanna go back in and feel it for yourself, because we can do that if you want. And that kid—he deserved better than this shit. He still deserves better, because I got all three of them out. Bumfuck-nowhere Rose Hill Tennessee. Never been touched by a Kaiju and if I have anything to say about it: never will.”

The door hissed open and Tony started up the ramp, ignoring the technicians that stared at them with panicked faces. Peter followed behind, radiating the kind of anger Tony didn’t know he could hold.

“I’m not a kid,” Peter said, when they reached the rafters. They stopped in their tracks, the argument apparently not over. “I’m not a fucking child, alright? I know you see me and you remember that scared little kid – Harley, or whoever – but you gotta stop. I’m not your son, okay?”

“He’s not my—”

“Just don’t bring him into the drift and I won’t bring—them. Alright?”

Tony didn’t say a word, and Peter nodded once, looking suddenly drained from it all. He shook his head and brushed past Tony, heading away from HQ. Tony watched him go until he rounded the corner and then sighed, full-body. Harley, he thought. He’d sworn to visit and that had been a promise he’d broken almost immediately. He could try to blame it on the days and nights in the Shatterdome, bleeding into one long existence that never gave him a break, but there was something more. There was Tony, avoiding the responsibility that he’d taken for himself. Tony, realising that Harley saw him as a father figure, and not wanting to be that.

Tony turned, looking towards HQ and froze. His friends all stood in the hall, watching him with blank expressions, and Hill leaned against a railing, arms crossed and shaking her head. Behind her was the HQ, filled to the brim with technicians, all staring out at him, or pretending they weren’t, and, of course, Marshal Fury, that stony look on his face even stonier than usual.

“Next time you fight,” Hill said, a sigh in her voice, “turn your comms off.”

Chapter Text

Tony woke up to the sound of knocking on his door. The doors to the bunks were metal, pod-like, and the taps rang throughout the entire room, waking him from a fitful sleep filled with Harley’s face and Peter’s words.

I’m not your son, Peter’s voice rang in his mind, over and over. Harley tilted his head to the side, glaring, the words coming out of his mouth.

Tony flicked the bolt on the door and pulled it open, blinking in surprise at Clint standing on the other side. He seemed hesitant, but Clint lifted a bottle of whiskey in one hand and two glasses in the other.

Tony stepped aside to let him in.

 

*

 

Tony met Melissa Keener by accident. He’d just finished up his master’s degree and found a place in Malibu where he thought he could live for a while; a penthouse that overlooked the ocean in one direction, and a sprawling city in the other. Despite his parents’ interest in staying in New York, Tony was looking into opening a new branch of Stark Industries factories in California.

He was partying nightly, drinking a lot, but he had his life planned. He’d take over the company when his father finally took his claws out of it, and he’d build great things. Explosive things. They were weapons manufacturers by trade; arc reactor technology just to keep the hippies at bay. Tony was set for life, all he had to do was keep coming up with new designs.

And then Melissa Keener spilled a tray of drinks over him while on her shift. He’d taken it surprisingly well, waved a hand and said he was planning on throwing this outfit out anyway, but she’d been fired.

“One too many warning shots,” she told him as he walked her back home. He felt bad, in some roundabout way. It wasn’t his fault that she was clumsy, but she was pretty and if he hadn’t been standing there, no one would’ve gotten covered in cheap tequila shots.

At her door, Tony had half a mind to kiss her – he figured she’d probably let him, and he was about to lean forward and try his luck when the door swung wide open, a boy with huge eyes and messy hair staring up at them.

“Harley,” Melissa said in surprise. “What are you—where’s Nancy?”

The boy – Harley – had tilted his head to the side, and Tony got the sudden feeling that he was more intelligent than he looked. “She’s on the couch,” he said. “She got stoned and then she passed out.” Melissa’s eyes widened and she pushed past her son and into the apartment. “I think she forgot to feed Abbie too, but I did it about half an hour ago.” Harley looked up at Tony. “Who are you?”

Tony blinked. “I’m—I’m a friend of your Mom’s.” He was still in the doorway, and Harley nodded like this was reasonable, walking back into the apartment. It was sparsely decorated, from what Tony could see; every item seemed to have at least three purposes, nothing less. And, when Tony took a step inside, he could see a girl on the sofa, Melissa peering over her.

“This is just great,” Melissa huffed, moving to a door on the far side of the living room and peeking through it. The room inside was pitch black, and she shut the door again with a soft click. “I get fired, my babysitter is high and passed out, and rent’s due next week—Harley, you should be in bed.”

“Abbie needed feeding.”

Melissa’s face softened by an inch and she nodded. “Okay. You did good, kiddo.” She made her way to Harley’s side and ran her hands through his hair. “You did very good. Now, how about you get into your pyjamas and I’ll read you a bedtime story?”

Harley pulled a face. “I can read to myself. I’m seven.

Melissa hummed. “Yeah, but I do all the voices you like.”

Harley conceded and ran off to his room, and only after his door shut did Melissa finally look over to Tony, an apology on the tip of her tongue. Tony waved a hand.

“I’ve got an early start tomorrow,” he lied, “so I should get going – I can call her a cab if you’d like?”

So Tony left, and the Keeners didn’t leave his mind all night; Melissa’s hopeless sigh and Harley’s curious expression. So if Tony slipped a list of available jobs through their mailbox the next day, no one could prove it was him. And if he kept tabs on the family for the next month before working up the courage to swing by the florist that had hired Melissa (number four on his list), then he could easily deny that, too.

And Melissa recognised him when he claimed to be buying flowers for his mother, and then it was just a matter of saying the right things and smiling the right smiles. It was always platonic between them, but Tony liked her a lot, liked Harley and baby Abbie who screamed bloody murder with tiny, vicious lungs. And it was between the four of them that a family formed, nebulous but loving all the same.

And the day Tresspasser appeared; the first Kaiju, tearing through Osaka in San Francisco, Tony found himself in the Keeners’ apartment, watching the news on their crappy television, and following the instructions to wait inside until it was over, until the Kaiju was down and dead, almost a week later.

“Are you surprised?” Melissa had whispered to Tony in the middle of the night. Her bed was a fold out sofa, fit for two people, and Tony had commandeered half of it amongst all the chaos.

“That Harley can say the alphabet backwards? Not really. He recited eighty-four digits of pi the other day, so this is practically child’s play.”

He couldn’t see her in the dark, but he thought she rolled her eyes. “No, I meant about aliens. Life outside Earth. Are you surprised?”

Tony hesitated for only a second before shaking his head. “I always figured they existed, but I just thought they’d come from above, not below.”

 

*

 

Clint stared into his glass, sitting cross-legged at the other end of Tony’s bunk. Most rooms were doubles, and jaeger pilots often shared, so they would be in the same place if a Kaiju attacked at night. That meant that it was Rhodey’s top bunk that was empty, that would stay empty, and Natasha sleeping soundly in Clint’s room who didn’t know he’d left.

“So, he’s not your son,” Clint clarified, and Tony recalled Peter referring to Harley as such during their fight.

Tony shook his head. “No, but he’s family. Or, was, I guess. I haven’t seen him in a long time.”

“Why not?”

“The war, I guess. It got in the way. And Tennessee’s not close, you know?” Tony let out a long sigh. “They made a new life for themselves, away from the breach and danger, and that’s great. And, I suppose, I just let them slip to the side.”

Clint shrugged. “It happens.”

“It shouldn’t.”

“No, but it does. It’s the way things go sometimes. You try your best, you build a life, and then something comes along that just takes your attention from it all. And before you know it…” Clint blew out a breath, waving a hand vague. “They’re gone. And you didn’t even notice it happen.”

Tony blinked at Clint and waited. He didn’t like the look in Clint’s eye, like he was lost in a memory, chasing a rabbit down a hole he’ll never be able to climb out of again. After a moment, Clint topped up their glasses, and carefully screwed the lid back onto the bottle.

“I had a wife, before all this,” he said.

Tony forced his eyes not to pop out of his head. A wife? He’d known Clint for five years, since he’d moved to the Shatterdome to be a Pararescue and eventually wound up in a sparring session against one Natasha Romanoff. He’d never once heard anything about a wife.

“I had kids, too.” Clint shook his head and sipped at his whiskey. “They were—they were my everything. And then they weren’t. Then, there were aliens and this war and I insisted on fighting. I insisted. We had a house in Nevada that Laura – my wife – had fallen in love with at first sight. She wasn’t happy about me signing up, but she understood that I felt like I had a job to do, you know? That if we needed bodies, I’d give mine for the greater good and all that.” Tony had joined because even if he was a mechanic, he was a fighter at heart, and here was the ultimate battle. Tony had joined because the Keeners were out of immediate harm and he was still foolishly in California, staring out at the Pacific Ocean like it might bite him at any moment.

“I lost her before I really lost her,” he said. “I just forgot, I guess. I forgot to call and write and visit. I was so obsessed with my training in the Academy, and then I get here and within weeks I meet Natasha and I’m a jaeger pilot. That’s massive. They put me on TV and our first attack was about four months after I got here and we kicked ass, Tony.”

“I know,” Tony replied. “I remember.”

It had been a Category I and it never even made it to land. Clint and Natasha took it down in record time.

“Laura and the kids went on a backburner. I shouldn’t’ve – I was wrong to do it. So wrong. I regret it every day, but it’s what I did. I just figured they were out of harm’s way, I’d do this, I’d be a hero, and I’d come back. I’d go home having done by part.” Clint took a large swig of whiskey and then coughed for the trouble. “And then Mutavore happened.”

Tony vaguely remembered Mutavore. Three years before; with six eyes, a bladed head and appendages that looked like axes on its back. Category II. He didn’t remember much else.

“Mutavore tore through Northern California,” Clint said, refusing to look up and meet Tony’s eye. “It made it to Nevada before Frozen Shield took it down.” Tony swallowed and Clint leaned back against the wall. “I was so caught up in being a hero that I just… ignored my family. I pushed them away. I forgot that they were the people that made me, me.

Tony thought about Clint losing himself every time someone died in the field with him. About his reaction to Wanda and Pietro being crushed by a Kaiju; two kids who were fans of his, and he fans of them. Tony thought, and then forced himself to stop thinking about, all the death that followed them around, following Tony and Clint and everyone who dared to fight against a race of beings so strong that they could raze entire cities in mere hours.

He blew out a breath. “What were your kids’ names?”

Clint swallowed the last of his whiskey. “Lila, Cooper and Nathanial. What were yours?”

Tony scoffed and shook his head, but Clint kept looking at him anyway, patient. “Harley and Abbie,” Tony said at last. He didn’t bother to tack on his regular excuse. But he’s not my son. They were a family, for a moment there.

And he let that be taken away. Or, more accurately, he gave it away and stopped himself from looking back.

 

*

 

“Clint’s not going to lose his shit about Danvers and Rambeau,” Tony told Maria at breakfast. He had a bit of a headache from the night before, and they hadn’t slept much after talking until the early hours of the morning, but Tony had a lot to do – he had a lot of people to make amends with.

Hill quirked an eyebrow. “And you know this how?”

Tony shrugged. “We had a chat. He’ll keep mourning, because that’s who he is, but he won’t persuade us into a moral panic or anything.”

 

*

 

Tony settled into the chair beside Rhodey’s bed. His best friend looked at him, expectant.

“What is it?” Rhodey asked at last, when Tony remained silent.

He blew out a breath. “I’m going to tell you about the things I didn’t let into the drift.”

Rhodey’s eyebrows rose and Tony wondered for all of a millisecond if his co-pilot had ever kept anything from him; if there was anything in Rhodey’s existence that wasn’t shared with Tony the moment it happened. But Tony knew there wasn’t. He knew Rhodey was an open book, and it was only Tony who kept secrets in a locked box.

Rhodey waited and Tony shook out his hands. “Okay, first: Pepper and I have been sleeping together for months.”

 

*

 

Tony swung by Bruce’s lab, knocking on the door as he entered. He froze when he got inside, though; what was usually a clean and consistent lab was now a mess. Everywhere, wires and tubing spread across every surface; notes scattered on the ground and complicated illegible scrawls written across the black boards.

Amongst it all was Bruce, and beside him, Thor.

“What the hell is going on in here?” Tony asked, and the two looked over from whatever argument they seemed to be having.

“Finally, a person with reason,” Thor said, stepping over a large tube to make his way to Tony’s side. “Tell Bruce to get some goddamn sleep.”

Tony blinked. “Is sleep the main worry here? Because none of this looks like work on the breach.”

Bruce flicked hand towards the left-hand side of the room, where holograms glowed yellow with breach statistics and test ideas. There was a model made out of paper mâché and toilet rolls in the shape of the tunnel that linked the two dimensions, and an upturned coffee mug, the coffee still wet and staining multiple notebooks.

“Banner,” Thor said. “You haven’t slept in days.”

“I’m on the brink of something great—”

“It doesn’t matter!”

“It does! You wouldn’t tell Einstein to just sleep it off, would you?”

“I’m not—” Thor huffed. “You can work on this again when you’re rested. I’m not asking for much.”

“Tony, when you were in the zone, would you ever go to sleep?” Bruce asked, turning erratic eyes on him.

“Hey, I’m not part of this,” Tony replied, raising his hands in surrender.

“That’s a yes,” Bruce shot back. “I read an article about you that said when you were repurposing arc reactor technology for the jaegers, you didn’t sleep for two weeks.”

Tony shrugged. “That was years ago – I was young and dumb and could handle no sleep. But I never got like… this.”

“Like what?” Bruce asked, swinging his arm around and knocking down a stack of papers.

“Manic,” Thor supplied. “Out of his damn mind.” Thor shook his head, crossing his arms over his chest. “You know, when we were younger, Loki got a little like this when he was going through something, and it always helped him to—”

“Oh my God!” Bruce shouted suddenly, his entire body tensed. “All you talk about is your brother! I know, Thor! He’s in your head all the time! You felt him die! He’s not coming back! He’s gone and you’re a leftover and it’s so depressing, but this is nothing like that! I’m nothing like Loki! Would you just give it a rest?!”

The room fell silent. All three men stared at each other with stricken expressions; Tony, shocked that he’d heard such a thing; Bruce, his eyes wide with the realisation of what he’d just said; and Thor, jaw clenched and hurt painted across his face.

Thor’s voice was quiet, but hard, “I’m so sorry my trauma has inconvenienced you,” he said. “And that my only working coping method of talking about my brother is so annoying for you to listen to. I won’t do it again.”

Thor turned abruptly to the door, as Bruce leapt forward. “No! Thor! I didn’t mean it like that—I didn’t mean it at all. I don’t know—I don’t know what I was saying.” But Thor was gone, and Bruce’s feet tangled in the wires that criss-crossed the floor. He tried to yank out his foot, but he just fell, tripping over the tubing as he went and landing sprawled on the floor.

Tony stepped over and knelt by his side, helping him to sit up.

“I didn’t—I don’t—”

“I know,” Tony said. “I know you didn’t mean it.”

“That’s not me,” Bruce told him. “That’s not what I’m like.”

“I know. I know, Bruce.”

 

*

 

Tony went looking for Peter. After watching Bruce and leading him to his bunk at last, he figured it was better to make up with the kid sooner rather than later. Because there were facts that Tony had to admit to: he saw Harley in Peter; if he’d let Harley into the drift more often, he wouldn’t have been so suddenly taken by the sight of him; and he’d been a little too hard on the kid.

He’d chased a rabbit. It happened.

Everyone had done it when they first started out, and it was lucky that they were only testing, not in a battle.

Tony couldn’t find him in the Combat Room, nor along the rafters. He took a long moment to stare at his jaeger, at the massive robot that he commanded in this war, and then turned away again, knowing that Iron Avenger deserved better that pilots who couldn’t get along. He stopped by the cadets’ bunkroom, stepping inside without knocking and watching three unfamiliar recruits scramble to their feet and salute, one announcing Ranger on deck! at his appearance. The bunk room had four bunkbeds on either side, and he noted Peter’s absence before eyeing the cadets.

“You know where Parker is?” he asked.

Two of the cadets stayed quiet, but one with brown skin stepped forward. “He didn’t show to combat training today, sir. He usually hangs out with cadets from the mechanic strain.”

Tony nodded once. Right, Ned and MJ. Those friends of Peter’s that watched the Tailreaper.

“Thanks,” he said, before leaving.

He ran into Scott Lang before he ever entered his workshop. Scott lifted his hands in surprise, before noting who he’d bumped into and saying, “Whoa whoa whoa, you can’t go in there.”

“Why not?”

“Because the kid’s avoiding you, and this is like their treehouse, you know? The adults can’t go in the treehouse. It’s their safe space.”

You go in the treehouse.”

“Well, in this scenario, I’m a teenager too.”

Tony sighed. “Lang, I need to talk to him. Move aside.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea. They’re teenagers, so they’ve got a whole mob mentality thing going on and that means MJ’s pissed at you. And a pissed MJ is a scary MJ. She’s got, like, laser vision or something. Her eyes glow red, really creepy, you don’t wanna see it.”

Tony shot Scott an unimpressed look. “I’m going in there.”

“I’m warning you—”

“I know.” He pushed Scott aside and stepped into his workshop. His first thought was that Harley would like it in there, but he shoved that away – that kid had been on his mind too much in the past twenty-four hours. Especially after spending a solid year avoiding thinking about him altogether.

All three teenagers in the room looked up at Tony’s arrival, and then all of them froze in their work. Tony’s eyes latched onto Peter, but before he could even say a word, MJ slipped off her stool and stood between them.

“You should go,” she said, not a suggestion but a pointed order.

“And you should grow a few inches before you think you can tell me what to do,” Tony replied.

Across the room, Peter huffed. “You know you’re short, too, right?” Peter asked, tone laced with annoyance.

“Sure, but you’re shorter. Now, come on, Parker, I need a word with you.”

“You can do it here,” MJ shot back.

Tony blinked at her and then looked over her shoulder, to where Peter was leaned over a desk, a few metal components in front of him. He nodded. “You can do it here.”

Tony sighed, eyes shutting briefly for a moment. “Fine. Parker, I chased the rabbit. I saw your memory and it reminded me of Harley, and I—I couldn’t let that go. I shouldn’t have yelled at you after, I should’ve taken some of the responsibility, and I definitely should’ve turned off my comm before I did anything.”

The room was quiet for a moment, and Tony saw the way Peter’s face relaxed just a centimetre.

“You either bring nothing into the drift,” Tony continued, “or you bring everything. There’s no in between. But I’ve been spending the better part of a decade hiding things in a place where everything should be accessible, and that back there is what it looks like when the things you’ve been hiding come out. Harley—Harley’s a part of me, and I should’ve let him into the drift a long time ago.” Pepper, too, though he didn’t say that out loud. I figured, Rhodey had said at the end of Tony’s confession. If she wasn’t into you, she wouldn’t put up with you the way she does.

Peter nodded and swung his legs off the stool. He gestured to the door.

“Peter,” MJ started, but he shook his head.

“It’s okay, MJ. Thanks.”

Tony followed Peter out into the hall and away from the prying ears of Lang’s workshop. Peter leant against the wall and waited until Tony was doing the same before speaking.

“I just wanna—wanna clear the air before we get back in that jaeger,” Peter said, his voice quiet. “It’s okay that I remind you of your son—”

“He’s not my son,” Tony interrupted on impulse. “I mean, he’s like my son. Or he was, once. But—I didn’t—he wasn’t…”

“It’s cool,” Peter said. “Whatever he was to you… I can’t be that. I’m not saying that’s what you’re after,” he added quickly, brows furrowed, “or that I think you’re trying to parent me or anything, because you’re not! You know? We only spar together, and we don’t really do anything else, and you’re like a friend, not a—” he sighed and swiped a hand over his face. “Drifting is about trust, right? And that’s why it’s easier to drift with people you know – because you already trust them.”

“That’s right,” Tony agreed.

“Well I—I want that. I want us to trust each other, and know each other, but I can’t have another person… parent me, or anything.” Peter’s eyes were stuck on a point on the opposite wall and Tony frowned at him. He didn’t see himself as the kid’s father figure, but it was like Peter had caught something along those lines in the drift – maybe from Harley, or maybe it was Peter’s fears that had been emphasised in the silence they shared between their minds. “I’m just—I’m four parents down and I’m not going to do it again.”

And that sounded so fucking sad. Like there was heartbreak etched all over Peter Parker’s body; like he’d been dealing with the trauma in his chest a lot longer than Tony had been dealing with Kaijus.

“I’m just after trust,” Tony said, low. “I’m after a co-pilot, Peter, not a son.” He wasn’t sure if that was strictly true, but he said it anyway and made it feel as genuine as possible.

Peter nodded jerkily and pushed himself away from the wall. “Okay then.”

“Alright. Fury wants us to do another test run in Avenger this evening; work out the kinks. The drift is silence, Parker, it’s just a bond between two people – it doesn’t have to be made complicated.”

 

*

 

Pepper pressed Tony against the wall as soon as he entered her room. She kissed him hard and fast, fingers reaching to pull his jacket off his shoulders, but he stopped her, hands around her wrists.

“What’s got you all excited?” he asked, leaning back just an inch.

“Nothing’s got me excited.”

“You jumped me the second I walked in.”

“Which, usually, you’d be excited about.” She raised an eyebrow and he smiled down at her. Fucking Pepper Potts. For a moment, he almost opened his mouth and said something dumb (or brave) like, I’m in love with you – but instead he just pressed his forehead against hers and took a long, deep breath.

“You alright there?” she whispered.

Tony nodded. “Just dandy. Now, where were we?” He kissed her, slow and languid, and savoured the feel of her pressed against him. It wasn’t Tony who was always pulling away from the possibility of them, it was Pepper. It was she who rejected his advances for drinks or dates, who rolled her eyes at his flirting and ignored any slither of genuine interest he showed.

Tony didn’t want to ruin what he had by asking for more, so he walked her back to her bunk and pretended that it was enough for him.

 

*

 

This time, when they drifted, neither of them chased any rabbits. There was safety in the silence they found; a pocket of space between the memories and past that swirled all around them. Textbooks and school classes; cars and engines roaring, parents who held the boys tightly or not at all.

Tony and Peter exhaled their relief and moved in sync.

He’s not a kid he’s not a kid he’s not a kid, Tony reminded himself. He’s seen too much for that; he’s grown up too quickly for that – he’s a jaeger pilot, he’s a soldier, he’s here.

Tony caught the wisp of satisfaction from Peter, to his left, and shook his head. He wasn’t a kid – wasn’t his kid – but that didn’t mean Tony wouldn’t protect him anyway.

Chapter Text

“So, Iron Avenger is a Stark Industries jaeger?” Peter asked, leaning forward excitedly as he crunched on an apple. Fresh fruit was hard to come by and, ten years into the war, it rarely made an appearance in the Shatterdome, so when Tony saw a box of apples that morning before breakfast, he swiped two for himself and the kid.

“Sort of,” Tony replied, taking a bite. He waved a hand in the air from side to side. “The arc reactor is Stark Industries tech—”

Your tech,” Peter interrupted. “You figured out how to change the size and have it successfully power a jaeger.”

Tony shrugged. “I mean, sure. It wasn’t difficult. And everything from Mark I to Mark III had SI input and tech and workers. Everything after the run of arc reactor jaegers doesn’t.” Since Howard Stark was killed by a Kaiju and his only son was busy fighting instead of running a company.

Peter nodded slow and took a large bite of his apple. He savoured the taste for a moment before swallowing. “That’s so cool,” he decided. “I never got why you became a pilot when you could build the jaegers just as well.”

“I could say the same about you,” Tony replied. “I saw your test results. You’re a little genius.”

Peter rolled his eyes. “That doesn’t answer my question.”

“Didn’t realise you asked one.”

Peter groaned and flopped back against the wall. “Why did you become a pilot not a mechanic?”

Tony smiled. “Fighting’s more fun than building ever was.”

Peter raised his eyebrows. “Yeah?”

“Maybe,” Tony replied. “Or maybe I’m all about the attention and heroic death. You know, the kind where people will be talking about me for the rest of their lives. A statue would be built in my honour. Multiple, even.”

That was something Tony thought about more than he liked to admit; death, however far away it was from him, always creeping closer. He ran headlong towards massive alien monsters, he fought for a living and expected to go home at the end of the day. When Tony was young, on benders and high to all hell, he could’ve died any number of times. Overdoses, car wrecks, that one time his dealer pointed a gun at him – and if he’d died then, no one would’ve cared. Tony Stark dead at 18 the papers would’ve read, but no one would’ve mourned.

No one would’ve remembered him.

But now, if he died, the whole world would watch it happen. They’d see the jaeger be torn to pieces, they’d film him fly through skyscrapers or be crunched in the clawed hands of an alien beast. The whole world would know if he died now. And they’d remember him.

Where would you rather die, Marshal Fury had once asked him years ago, staring out at the Pacific Ocean as Tony toyed with deserting and taking off to Rose Hill and living in the quiet, away from the danger of it all. Here, or in a jaeger?

And the answer was always a jaeger. Tony Stark would rather die in a battle against a Kaiju, some two-hundred-foot in the air, controlling a massive, monstrous robot with his mind than on the ground, crushed underfoot, dying insignificant or old.

It wasn’t notoriety he was after, it was the exhilaration. It was a death well done. It was a life well spent. It was Tony Stark, fighting for something, for the world, and giving his life to protect it.

Tony Stark wanted to die in a jaeger, not in a workshop, and no matter what he said to the contrary, he knew that Peter Parker would know that truth.

 

*

 

The day Carol Danvers and Maria Rambeau arrived, Tony watched from atop a scrapped jaeger hand in the Shatterdome. The hand to Frozen Shield had been replaced, and the original now sat, discarded on the ground, waiting to be picked apart.

The new pilots arrived in a Jumphawk and stood outside with Marshal Fury – the two seemingly familiar and friendly with him, which was confusing, because Fury was not a friendly man. They then started the trek inside, taking a breath at the doors to look at the line-up of jaegers. Tony couldn’t get a good look at them from the distance, the only details he was able to pick out being that one woman was pale-skinned and blonde, and the other with dark skin, wearing Air Force colours. He wondered if they’d ever stepped in a jaeger before.

“Getting a look at the competition?” a voice asked, and Tony glanced over, finding Maria Hill climbing up the hand he was sat on. He reached out and helped her up, Hill settling by his side before finding her small metal box of pills and slipping one in her mouth.

“I know I’d never heard of the twins before I came here,” Tony said, “but I read up on them and they seemed pretty popular.”

“They were,” Hill confirmed. “They had five drops, five kills until they came here. Only one of the drops ever ended up on land. Other than that, the Kaijus never got past the ten-mile border.”

The two lapsed into silence as Danvers and Rambeau were led by Fury in their direction. When they reached Twin Vision – the head almost rebuilt – they stopped to get a good look at it; the colour red and scratched, the chainsaw arm and the bright yellow power core in its chest. The only one of its kind; it was a miracle it wasn’t damaged in the battle.

An Infinity Core, Wanda had said when Tony had spotted the twins admiring their jaeger once. Once one was made, the scientists failed to replicate it.

Pietro had smiled his wide, dopey smile. And it’s all ours, he’d added. The fastest jaeger with the most powerful core in existence. We got pretty lucky, huh?

“Look at that,” Hill said, quiet. “Look at their faces.”

Tony knew what she meant. Danvers and Rambeau stared up at the jaeger like it was some kind of god; like it was a heavenly creation, something they’d never seen before and the kind of beautiful that could only be experienced once in a lifetime.

Tony had worn that exact expression upon seeing Iron Avenger for the first time, and before that, War Machine. He’d seen those faces on the twins, on Peter, on Pepper, on Nat and Clint, and Steve and Bucky before them. And if never got tiring, to see a jaeger; no one ever looked less in love with them. Especially when the god was theirs to control.

“I’d kill to be them right now,” Hill whispered.

Tony looked over. “Yeah?”

“Yeah. To get to do this all over again, start up as a cadet and find my co-pilot, drift.” She sighs. “We had to scrape together jaegers at the beginning. We built the first one in fourteen months. The nuclear power cores weren’t the problem – the Mark II jaegers worked great with them – it was just that we didn’t take the time to think about protection from the radiation.” Hill tilted her head back, turning her face to the skylight high up above them. “If I step foot in a jaeger again, the strain would kill me.”

“I know,” Tony said, soft, because he did, because he’d heard this speech before, because Maria Hill was an incredible leader and Deputy Marshal, but she was a fighter like him, she was born for the battle, not the paperwork after.

“But I would kill to go in one again. Some day. Maybe when I’m old and ready to go, or in a few years when the cancer’s finally done playing around, I’ll get in one, take it for a walk…” She shut her eyes, arms stretched out beside her as she bathed in the sunlight.

Danvers and Rambeau passed them by, headed towards their bunks, and Marshal Fury only sent the two of them a glance; two friends sitting on a decommissioned jaeger hand, taking a moment to rest.

Maria Hill was like Tony. Tony Stark was like Maria. “You’d rather die in a jaeger than here,” he said, quiet, and the corners of her lips curled upwards.

“Wouldn’t anyone?” she asked.

 

*

 

The war clock kept ticking. Days went past, and the world was filled with quiet anticipation. Bruce warned of the Kaiju getting closer together, of a double event happening mere weeks away. By Bruce’s calculations, they had less than six days until the next attack – until, likely, the next death.

Closing the breach was important, but difficult. It had been ten years, of course they’d tried to blow the breach before, but it never worked – the portal to another dimension stayed open, and the Precursors – what humans called the beings on the other side of the breach – were still sending their Kaiju to attack.

Tony and Peter spent more of their time together, falling into a synchronisation that Tony only recognised with Rhodey. They fought daily, they played one-on-one basketball, and they talked about the world that came before, the lives that they had lived before everything fell to shit.

Tony knew that when two people drifted, they knew everything the other thought. They didn’t need to say a lot of things out loud, because the other would already know. Peter was like this; catching the things that Tony didn’t say on the back end of a thought; quirking a smile to let Tony know that he understood loud and clear.

And Peter’s smile was always freely given, always wide and exuberant, because the world had knocked him down again and again, and yet he never gave anything less than his all, never was anything less than optimistic.

“Kid,” Tony called across the cafeteria.

Peter paused where he was about to climb onto a bench, opposite his friends. Tony nodded him over and sat back down, immediately meeting Sam’s raised eyebrow.

“Really? He’s sitting with us now?”

“He’s a pilot, dipshit,” Tony replied. “You got a problem with that?”

“No, no problem,” Sam said, mild. “Just think it’s awful paternal of you, is all.”

Tony threw a piece of broccoli at Sam as Peter appeared by his side, slipping his tray onto the table. His friends, MJ and Ned, looked a little unsure and a little in awe respectively, but did the same.

“Parker,” Tony greeted as the three kids sat down. “Leeds, Jones. Welcome to the cool table.”

“Bet you never sat at that table before,” Clint said, digging into his meal – which was, as always, majority meat and no vegetables. (You’re gonna get scurvy one of these days, Tony had mentioned once. Then I’ll die like a pirate, Clint had shot back.)

The rest of the group appeared with their trays then, and Pepper flicked at the side of Tony’s head, saying, “budge up,” to get him to move to the side. They crammed into the table that likely wasn’t made for as many people as this and ate with their usual familiar banter.

Pepper leaned forward to look past Tony, and then sent him a pointed I told you so look. “Hey, Jones,” she called down the table. “Michelle, right?”

MJ looked up and nodded. “Yeah?”

“I saw you working on Rescue earlier.”

“Uh, yeah, I was replacing parts of the quantum data core. You reported it was – and I quote – being a little bitch.”

Tony snorted, and Pepper smiled that proud-of-herself smile he loved to see.

“And I stand by that,” she replied. “Thanks for the assist.”

“Mm, so kid,” Sam said, spearing a piece of potato with his fork. He was looking directly at Peter, an amused glint in his eye. “What’s your simulation score?”

“Thirty-one drops, thirty kills.”

“That’s impressive,” Nat commented.

“What happened on the one?” Steve asked.

Peter shrugged. “Got eaten.”

Tony snorted into his food and tried to cover it up.

“Got eaten,” Sam repeated. “How did you get eaten?

“The Kaiju had a big mouth and I am but a small boy,” he replied.

“You sure are,” Sam agreed. “What are you, twelve?”

“On a scale of one-to-ten, maybe,” Peter said. As Clint and Tony laughed, and Pepper pressed her lips together in a thin line to stop herself, Peter added, “Hey, did you see the new pilots in the Combat Room today? They’re insane.”

“Yeah?” Tony asked.

Peter nodded, excitement alight in his eyes. “I can’t remember their names but they went hard. Like, the blonde one is all offense. She broke her bo staff and everything.”

 

*

 

Half an hour later, Tony and Peter were heading out of the cafeteria. Tony was going to show him the catwalk that wrapped around the edge of the building; the view was incredible and Peter had already expressed his excitement about high up places and being able to see for miles in so many directions.

However, they were barely out the door when Thor barrelled straight into him.

“What the—Thor, are you okay?”

Thor looked more than a little crazed. His eyes were wide with panic, and he kept jerking around, as if to see if he’d been followed.

“I was looking for you,” Thor said.

“Well, you found me. What do you need?”

“I need you to come with me.”

Tony frowned and glanced over at Peter. “Now?”

“Yes! Now. It’s important. It’s about Bruce.”

Tony blew out a breath. “Alright, alright. Kid, rain check on the catwalk thing—”

“Kid,” Thor repeated. “Parker, I need you to get the Marshal.”

What?” Tony and Peter asked in unison.

“I’ll explain when you get there,” Thor promised, grabbing Tony’s arm – but Peter moved in Thor’s way, gesturing wildly.

“I can’t get the Marshal! He won’t listen to me!” Thor stared at him and Peter sighed. “Tell me what’s going on so I can tell him.”

Thor glanced around as he made up his mind, but he eventually huffed and said, Fine, before leaning down and whispering in Peter’s ear. His eyes immediately widened with shock, and then he was nodding frantically.

“I’ll get the Marshal,” he said, and ran off down the hall, away from Tony and Thor.

“What did you just tell him?” Tony asked, as Thor latched onto his arm again. “What did you say?”

“I’ll tell you when we get there.”

“Tell me now, Point Break!”

“Just come on, it’ll be easier if I show you.”

“Thor—”

“Come on!”

Thor dragged Tony to the freight elevator, and then took them down to the lower levels, finally stopping on the floor where Bruce’s lab was situated. Everything that far down was dark and dank, grey tinted with green. They rushed along the hall and Thor shoved open Bruce’s door, pushing Tony inside.

Bruce’s lab was worse than the last time he’d seen it. Wires and tubing still stretched from one side of the room to the other, and there were messes and spillages that weren’t cleaned up beside destroyed models and computer screens that flashed with emergency symbols. But now the blackboards were filled with illegible scrawling, papers covered the floor until the cement was invisible, and Bruce was sat in the middle of it, blood trickling down from his nose, his eyes unfocused and limbs lax.

“Jesus Christ,” Tony breathed. “What happened in here?” He stepped over some mess and crouched by Bruce’s side. “Bruce, buddy. Can you hear me?” Bruce just groaned in response, and Tony looked over his shoulder at Thor. “What happened?”

“He was an idiot is what happened,” Thor said.

“Yeah, I’m sensing some tension here,” Tony replied, “but I’m gonna need the specifics. What happened?”

Thor gestured to the right-hand side of the room, and Tony turned to look. The Kaiju brain they all called Hulk was there as always, floating in yellow liquid, but there were more wires than ever connecting to it, and a hastily-put-together machine on a desk, that was lit up in red. Tony caught side of a headset of sorts, one that looked a little like the original drift tech from the beginning of the war.

“Thor?” Tony asked, wary.

“Bruce drifted with a Kaiju.”

The world seemed to stop.

“Bruce… drifted… with a Kaiju.” Tony turned slowly to his friend. “You drifted with a Kaiju. Holy shit, Bruce! What the fuck!” He stood up suddenly. “You can’t just—just drift with a Kaiju! Jesus! I know we joke about drifting with animals, but—” Tony paused. “You didn’t… You didn’t do this after that conversation with Clint, did you?”

Bruce shook his head, a little more awake from the yelling. “No, no… I mean, I hadn’t thought about it until then…”

“You shouldn’t be thinking about it at all! It’s a Kaiju!

Tony didn’t consider drifting to be a sacred thing, per se, but it was definitely important. It wasn’t to be taken lightly. Being drift compatible was rare enough, but to let someone else inside your mind, to give them everything and be given everything in return – it was no small thing. The bonds that were forged in drift were steadfast, until death. He may have joked about drifting with animals, but Tony would never do that – would never agree to doing that. His drifts with Rhodey and Peter were important, they were what forged the relationships in iron, shackling them all together.

This was a fucking Kaiju.

“Fucking hell, Bruce,” Tony said, pressing a hand to his forehead and pacing the floor. “This is…” he didn’t even know what this was. Unprecedented? Certainly. A surprise? Absolutely. Batshit crazy? Without a doubt.

Luckily, he didn’t have to figure out the end to his sentence, as the door swung open and Marshal Fury strode in, followed by Peter. The latter of the two stopped upon entered, eyes wide and muttering a quiet whoa.

“Banner,” Fury said, stepping over the broken plate. “I need you to tell me that Parker was lying to me.”

“What did he say?” Bruce asked warily, lifting his head.

“That you drifted with a motherfucking Kaiju.

Bruce nodded, half-hearted. “That sounds about right.”

Fury looked for a moment like he was going to riot, before he let out a long, steady breath and grabbed a nearby chair. “Alright,” he said, resigned.

Alright? Are you kidding me?” Tony gestured wildly to the Hulk. “That’s a fucking Kaiju brain! He drifted with a dead Kaiju!”

“I’m aware, Stark,” Fury replied. “But what’s done is done. And what’s done was very stupid.” He sent a pointed look Bruce’s way. “So, let’s see what the bright side is in all this.”

Tony flung his hands up in the air, huffing, and moved towards Peter, who had moved to the blackboard of unreadable scrawls.

“How many times did you drift with it?” Fury asked.

“Twice,” Bruce replied.

Twice,” Tony hissed at Peter, who rolled his eyes in response.

“And did you learn anything?” There was a long pause, which made Tony turn around. “Banner,” Fury said. “Did you learn anything?”

“I learned a lot,” Bruce replied. “But you’re not gonna like it.”

“Since when have I liked anything in the past ten years?”

Bruce blew out a long breath. “For a while, I’ve been theorising about the Kaijus – I studied cells from Kaijus five years ago, and cells from more recent attacks and found the same thing: that they’re identical. Literally clones of each other.”

“Whoa,” Peter whispered.

Bruce’s eye started twitching as he continued, “So I’ve been wondering—what if they’re all the same? What if they’re connected? And I was right! The first time I drifted was a little bumpy, but I realised that they were a hive mind—”

“A hive mind?” Thor asked, from where he leant against a desk.

“They’re all connected,” Bruce replied, and Tony could see him getting frantic, like he had the week before. “They’re all controlled by the same thing! They were made, right? And they’re not attacking wildly, they’re attacking with a purpose. The Kaiju we’ve been fighting – they’re scouts! They’re not even the big ones! When they’ve demolished all the big cities, taken down our defences, they’ll send in the exterminators to finish the job.”

There had only ever been one Category IV in history; a year before, and it took three jaegers to take it down. Frozen Shield dealt the killing blow.

To know that this wasn’t even the best of their soldiers?

“And that’s not all!”

“Oh, good,” Tony said.

“The breach,” Bruce announced. “I know how to close it.”

 

*

 

“So, him acting crazy,” Tony said, low, as they followed Bruce up towards HQ. Thor was by his side, and Peter was ahead of them with one of Bruce’s arms flung over his shoulders. Fury walked at the front, already calling a meeting. “And, you know, the Loki comment…”

“Drifting with a Kaiju melted his mind a little,” Thor replied. “He’s gone slightly crazy.”

“You think we’ll get Bruce back?”

“I hope so. I don’t think Bruce would ever say… that sort of thing, if he was in his right mind. We’ll get him back, but we need to focus on the breach first.”

“Right, right. You think it’ll work?”

“Blowing it the fuck up?” Thor asked. “I sure do.”

 

*

 

“If we could make a big enough explosion, we could take down the breach,” Bruce said in HQ, the room empty bar the top brass and remaining jaeger pilots.

And Scott Lang, who was sitting on a desk, frowning at everything Bruce said.

“We’ve taken explosives to the breach before,” Scott insisted. “It doesn’t work. Anything that we throw at it is knocked right back out. Isn’t that how Ravager Wild was destroyed? The bomb just bounced off the breach.”

Bruce’s fingers typed erratically at a keyboard, a holographic screen bursting to life with a diagram of the breach in yellow.

“The explosive needs to go in the breach,” Bruce said.

“It’s like he’s not even listening,” Scott replied. “Nothing can go in the breach.”

“No, we can’t go in the breach.” Bruce looked around the room, eyes wide, fingers fidgeting. Tony wondered what the inside of a Kaiju brain was like; if drifting with a superior being really had fried his mind. If he’d seen the Precursors and their world; the other dimension that they were travelling from. “The Kaijus can, though.”

Fury sighed. “Stop with the cryptic garbage. Just tell us what you mean.”

“Okay-okay-okay, think of it like this: the Kaiju are cans of beans—”

“Cans of beans,” Scott muttered. “Fantastic.”

“—and the breach is a barcode scanner. Well, they’ve got to scan the barcode to get it past security and into your shopping bag. And the Kaiju DNA is the barcode.”

The room was quiet for a beat. “God, this is dumb,” Tony said. He stretched his neck. “You’re saying that only Kaiju DNA can get past the breach.”

“Right!”

“And to get a bomb to go through, we’d have to trick the breach into thinking it’s Kaiju.”

“Exactly”

“And how exactly would we do that?” Steve asked, his arms crossed over his chest.

Bruce jumped, agitated. “You send the bomb in at the same time as a Kaiju! The breach opens, the bomb slips through! Then it explodes, and—” He clicked a button on the keyboard and the yellow diagram disintegrated, mimicking the effect of a bomb going off. “Voila. Plan to save the world. You’re welcome.”

“And you’re an idiot,” Thor growled. “Drifting with a Kaiju.”

Fury held up a hand before the argument could start up again, stepping into the centre of the room. “Dr Banner’s methods were, for a lack of a better word, stupid, but it got us some usable results. So, here’s the game plan: we need explosives, and a lot of them. We need to contact all the remaining bases and take whatever they have. Second, we need those jaegers in tip-top shape. Lang, lead the restoration. I need Twin Vision up and running; it’s the fastest jaeger and will be carrying the bomb. Danvers, Rambeau, you better be ready for this.”

The two women nodded. “No problem,” Carol said.

“Frozen Shield, Black Hawk, Iron Avenger, you’ll be following as back up – keep the Kaiju away from the package. Rescue will come on scene for evac, and evac only.

Pepper nodded.

Fury looked back to Banner, before glancing over to Thor. “Get rid of the Kaiju brain in his lab. I want it destroyed.”

“My pleasure,” Thor replied, as Bruce’s eyes widened.

“No! You can’t—”

“I can and will,” Fury said. “You drifted with that thing twice—”

“We can learn so much from the Hulk! Not just through drifting but through studying the molecular make up of the Kaiju and their—”

“Thor,” Fury said. “I want that thing gone.

Bruce scrambled forward, as if he was somehow going to stop the six-foot-three ex-jaeger pilot that was Thor Odinson, and Tony darted forward, grabbing Bruce’s arm at the same time as Steve to hold him back. Bruce struggled in their arms, and Tony nodded to Thor.

“Go,” he said. “Get rid of it.”

Thor stared at Bruce for all of a moment before stalking out of the room. Bruce shook and struggled, but eventually went lax in their grip. Hulk had been around for almost five years; he’d been the first Kaiju brain specimen that Bruce had ever managed to take from the body without it getting destroyed or damaged.

“It’s alright,” Tony said. “You won’t feel a thing.”

“But Hulk—”

“Is a Kaiju,” Steve replied. “Would kill us all if it still had a body. Tried to kill us all when it did.”

Fury looked like he was about to say something when a screen lit up, a red alarm light flashing. Hill darted across the room to the control desk, skidding into a seat.

“There’s activity in the breach,” she said.

“That’s not possible!” Bruce cried. “We should be days away from the next attack! My calculations—”

“Were wrong,” Fury interrupted. He moved behind Hill before looking back into the room.

“Rogers, Barnes, suit up.”

“You got it,” Bucky replied, and started out the room. Clint moved forward to grab Bruce’s arm in Steve’s place, and then the two of them were gone, and the Shatterdome was bathed in a red flashing light. The alarm sounded, and Tony could see the people moving to get out of the way, to get to their helicopters. The mechanics on Frozen Shield abseiled down and away, unclipping themselves as soon as possible, the headless body of the jaeger in start up protocol.

“Uh, sir?” Hill said. “You’re not gonna like this.”

“What is it, Hill?”

“It’s a second Kaiju.”

Tony took a breath.

Bruce’s eyes widened. “A double event. This wasn’t supposed to happen for weeks!”

Fury looked over to the pilots. “Iron Avenger. Go.”

Tony nodded and broke away from Bruce, who simply fell against Clint’s side, all effort gone.

“Tony,” Pepper said, before he left the room. “Good luck.”

Tony nodded and tried for a smile. “You can take me out for a drink if I live.”

He then strode out the room, Peter moving to his side before the two of them broke out into a job towards the jaeger bay.

“Wow, this is scary,” Peter announced as they ran. “Like, it was already scary, but this is scary. And we’re not even in the jaeger yet.”

“I’m gonna beg you, kid, stop talking.”

They changed into their gear and climbed into the conn-pod as fast as they could, strapping themselves in and twisting the wires into their helmets. The head of the jaeger lowered onto the torso, locking into place as the blue holograms lit up in front of them.

“Starting the power up sequence,” Tony said, running his fingers along the screens.

Frozen Shield, beginning Neural Drift,” Hill said over the comms.

Peter bounced from foot to foot, before clicking at the panels. “Any stats on the Kaijus yet?” he asked.

Two Kaijus. A Category III and a Category IV.

Tony paused. “You’ve gotta be shitting me.”

Unfortunately not. Frozen Shield, Neural Drift holding strong and steady. Jumphawks in position, get ready for lift off. Kaiju codenames Raiju and Yamarashi, respectively. Iron Avenger, initiating Neural Drift.”

There was the inhale. There was Tony and Peter and Rhodey and everyone that had come before them. There was May and Ben, Mary and Richard, Maria and Howard. There was the blue that twisted and twined around their bodies, the pure white silence of the drift, the rush that brought their heads together, merging them into one being, one entity. And there were things Tony had never allowed into the drift before – his parents bodies, discovered after the attack on New York; Harley, grinning and holding the potato gun he’d built; Pepper, laughing at a dumb joke Tony had told, her eyes alight.

Then there was the exhale.

Neural drift successful. Iron Avenger, you’re ready for lift off.

The cables from the Jumphawks connected to the jaeger and the robot around them creaked as it was lifted into the air. The Shatterdome lowered around them, the sky a brilliant blue in the middle of the afternoon.

Peter pressed a button on his screen and his comm turned off. Tony raised an eyebrow but followed suit. They could still hear Hill’s instructions, but no one in HQ could hear them.

“So, you and Pepper, huh?” Peter asked, a cheeky grin on his face.

Tony groaned. “Shut up.”

“No, no, it’s good! I support it. She’s great, you’re great—”

Please stop talking.”

“It’s nice, is all,” Peter said, still grinning wildly. “You should tell her how you feel.”

“Oh my god.”

“You should! Girls like that, I think.”

“And how would you know?” Below them, the Pacific Ocean spread out; deep blue and shifting ominously. The Kaijus were down there, somewhere.

Peter shrugged. “I’ve kissed like, one girl in my time. And I know that she only did it because I told her how I felt.”

“Well, thanks for that stellar advice, kid. I appreciate it.”

Peter waved a hand. “No problem. It’s free, though next time I’m charging.”

Tony rolled his eyes and flicked his comms back on again, shaking his head. Peter followed suit, clearly proud of himself.

“What’s the game plan?” Tony asked.

Both Kaijus are headed towards our location,” Hill reported. “From our scanners, the Category IV is faster and bigger – bigger than maybe any Kaiju we’ve ever seen. Both jaegers are going to guard the ten-mile line – you don’t let them get any closer to land than that.

Understood,” Steve said. “Kill them out at sea. Avenger, take the Category III. We’ve got the big guy.

Tony confirmed and then looked over to Peter. “You ready, kid?”

“As I’ll ever be.”

Ten miles out from shore, the two jaegers were dropped into the ocean. Tony and Peter bent their legs in unison and caught themselves on the landing, straightening up and bringing out both blades from their knuckles as they waited for a sign of the Kaijus.

They’re six miles out and closing,” Hill said in their ears.

Tony looked over to the Frozen Shield jaeger; painted with a white star on each shoulder and holding a circular shield on one arm.

Three miles out.”

Second-hand nerves rattled through his body.

“Stay focused, Parker,” Tony said, low.

There was silence; just the hum of the jaeger and Peter’s breathing. There were no gulls this far out, nothing but a clear, unbroken blue sky and the calm waters of the ocean. Tony breathed in, breathed out, and waited.

Tony could feel Peter’s anxiety wash over him in waves, and he hoped Peter was feeling Tony’s calm.

Tony Stark could do a lot of things; he could build robots and design arc reactors, he could spar and cook and speak three languages – but here was something he could do better than anything else; he could pilot a jaeger.

He and the jaeger were one, after all.

“It’s here,” Tony said, without needing Hill’s update. He just knew.

The first Kaiju careened out of the water with a cry, slamming into the Iron Avenger’s side. Tony and Peter shifted immediately, one foot moving back to keep them standing, and the arms swinging around to holding it. They twisted, the weight too much, and threw the beast back into the water.

That’s Yamarashi, Category IV,” Hill said in Tony’s ear. “Raiju is circling.

Yamarashi broke out of the water once more, wailing and spinning to turn back on the Avenger, but Frozen Shield had moved forward, grabbing it by the arms and throwing themselves backwards, twisting so it would land beneath them.

We’ve got this!” Bucky yelled, and the jaeger vanished beneath the surface with the Kaiju.

Only a moment later was Raiju leaping into an attack, its mouth opening wide as it moved to bite into the jaeger. Tony slammed the right arm up, knocking the bottom of its mouth into the top, as Peter directed the left blade towards its throat. It didn’t make a mark, just clattered along the scales and off again.

“Shit!” Peter said as the Kaiju threw a wild punch through the air, hitting them in the side. They stumbled, and caught themselves, before swinging back up into a bladed uppercut, hoping to get the knife through the underjaw – but it wasn’t enough. The right-hand blade snapped off on contact, and Tony heaved a breath. “The armour’s too thick!”

The scales that made up the armour of Raiju were massive, and pointed all down the back, like a porcupine. On its front, they locked together without any chinks to press a knife into. The Kaiju swung its tail out of the water, and its head extended forward in another bite that the jaeger barely dodged.

“Don’t worry,” Tony said. “We’ve got this.”

They threw themselves into the fight, the right-hand blade reforming into a sword, and battered away at the Kaiju, yanking on its tail and spinning it around whenever it leapt over the ten-mile mark towards the base.

Frozen Shield and Yamarashi duked it out nearby, massive waves being made by the two of them as they slammed the shield into its long snouted nose, and the other hand heated until glowing red, burning straight through its throat.

Yamarashi howled in pain, and Raiju darted away from a swing of the sword, replying to the call. Raiju leapt onto Frozen Shield’s back, and Tony could hear the pilots yelping before they ran after it.

“I can’t get a good hit!” Tony yelled as they flailed around. “Stop moving so much!”

Rather, Frozen Shield leapt into the air and down, Raiju beneath them, vanishing beneath the massive waves they formed. Peter turned the head towards Yamarashi, bleeding Kaiju Blue into the ocean in toxic ooze.

They darted towards it, swinging back into battle with the Category IV. Yamarashi was bigger than Raiju; vicious in a different way, but its hide was softer – easier to penetrate with the blades. They created cross hatches against its limbs before the other two re-emerged from the water, Frozen Shield’s left-hand side scratched and sparking.

We can’t make a dent on it!” Steve yelled. “Hill, are you sure Raiju is the C III?

Pretty damn sure, Rogers,” Hill replied as Raiju and Yamarashi swept in for new attacks. “If you can’t attack its outside, try the inside.

She’s either talking about its asshole or its mouth and I don’t care which,” Barnes said. A moment later, Tony could see the hand glowing red hot before it was punched into Raiju’s massive, gaping mouth. Then Yamarashi tackled Iron Avenger into the water.

They thrashed and fought, Tony and Peter yelling out ideas towards each other as they grappled to survive. Steve and Bucky shouted in their ears, too, a mixture of voices and panic – two whole ass Kaijus.

Usually one was enough to take down multiple jaegers.

They had to be smart.

It’s not working!” Steve shouted. “Any other bright ideas.

Tony felt the flash of thought from Peter, and as he threw punches at Yamarashi’s face, he said through gritted teeth, “If you’ve got an idea Parker, speak up.”

“Something you said!” Peter replied, and they swung a punch hard enough to knock the Kaiju off for just a moment. They clambered to their feet, moving to tackle it back down. It was difficult to see underwater, and Yamarashi was just a violent thrashing in the water. “About the arc reactor!”

Tony understood suddenly. “Rogers, Barnes. Switch with us.”

Your funeral,” Barnes said, and Iron Avenger pushed away from Yamarashi, resurfacing and looking as Frozen Shield ducked under a punch from Raiju and moved out of its reach.

The Iron Avenger raced towards Raiju, then.

Peter’s voice worried, “Are you sure about this?”

“Nope,” Tony said. “But I’m sure I can do the maths in the next six seconds so it won’t kill us.”

When they hit the Kaiju, it swung around on them immediately, shrieking.

“Grab the mouth,” Tony instructed. “Keep it open.” The right hand grabbed the bottom row of teeth and the left hand the top. The two of them stretched it as far open as possible, Raiju desperately trying to both pull away and leap forward to eat them. “Hold it open for me.”

Tony moved out of the hold, Peter staying in place as he clicked through the holographic screens and did the maths in his head, trying to figure out how much power he could spare before it killed them. He glanced up only once to look into Raiju’s mouth, a searing burn mark across the roof of it in the shape of a jaeger’s fist.

“Got it,” Tony said as Peter strained under the weight. “Here we go now.”

He swiped past the emergency screen that warned him against the overload and got back into position with Peter.

“Arc reactor overloading,” a female warning voice stated.

Stark? Parker? What are you doing?

“Don’t worry about it, Hill,” Tony replied. “Trust me.”

A new voice joined in: “Tony? Are you blowing up your jaeger?

Peter glanced over, and Tony watched the bar load, rising higher and higher. Almost there.

“Wouldn’t dream of it, Pep.” He looked over to Peter. “Hold on. This might hurt a little.” Before the arc reactor could overload, Tony slammed his hand on the screen. The arc reactor glowed a violent blue so bright it was almost white, and then a beam of arc reactor energy shot out of the jaeger’s chest and into the mouth of Raiju.

Tony felt the energy course through him, felt the ache in the centre of his chest, and yelled. He shut his eyes tight against the pain, his hands tensed around the holographic Kaiju mouth, jaeger arms following his lead. In his own head, it was white. The drift was pure silence, but this was loud.

He yelled beside Peter, who yelled beside him.

He’d rather die in a jaeger than die anywhere else. He didn’t know if Peter felt the same.

And then, as quickly as it had started, it was over, and Tony opened his eyes, the body of the Kaiju limp in his hands.

“Quickly,” Peter huffed, and he hefted his blade hand, shoving it down the throat of the jaeger and slashing it through the hide. Kaiju Blue splattered out, and Tony pulled the head off the body, dumping it in the water.

They stumbled back, breathing heavily. “You were right,” Peter said. “The arc reactor can totally be used as a weapon.”

Tony nodded. “I’m usually right,” he agreed. “But it usually doesn’t hurt this much.”

The pain in his chest was shocking and slicing, but he pushed past it. Yamarashi and Frozen Shield were still duking it out in the water, much closer to land than they had been before – the Kaiju seemed to be trying to escape towards the base, rather than destroy the pestering robot that kept attacking it.

“Let’s go,” Tony heaved. “They’ll need our help.”

Peter nodded and rubbed his chest as they started walking. “Let’s not use that beam again though, yeah? I think it’s gonna be sore in the morning.”

“In the morning? It’s sore now.

Still, they marched back into the battle, watching Frozen Shield fight hard and fast with the monster.

It’s within five miles of the base,” Hill said in their ears. “Keep it back.

Tony could see the Shatterdome at a distance. People were running across the runway, helicopters and Jumphawks rising into the air. The alarm would still be blaring, surely.

Avenger,” Steve said, “can you hold this son of a bitch down so we can kill it already?

“Sounds like you’re getting agitated,” Tony remarked as they ran into the battle.

Steve’s ten steps past agitated,” Bucky replied. “There’s a vein on his forehead throbbing.

Tony bit back the laugh and Peter manoeuvred them into the fray, grabbing Yamarashi and ducking under its swing. The Iron Avenger fought for a moment before grabbing it from behind, attempting to get it in a chokehold but moving instead until they had pulled both of the arms back, locking their hands behind its head.

They then held on tight as the Frozen Shield pounded its fist and shield into the Kaiju, burning red hot and slicing straight through the skin. The Kaiju shrieked and tried to escape, but Avenger just held on tighter until the burning hand punched straight into its chest and yanked out the secondary brain, crushing it in its fingers.

Is it dead?” Peter asked after a moment. The Kaiju had stopped moving in their arms, a dead weight.

I don’t know,” Steve said. “We should check.” The jaeger then pulled back its shield arm and swiped it through the throat, decapitating it. The head rolled off the body and splashed into the water. “Yeah,” he said. “I think it’s dead.

 

*

 

“Restart the clock!” Fury yelled as the jaegers moved back into position in the Shatterdome. They watched out of the conn-pod visor as the clock flipped back over to zero.

Tony looked over to Peter, at the weariness on his face. “How you feeling?”

Peter blew out a long breath. “Like death.”

“That’s to be expected.” He detached himself from the conn-pod and pulled off his helmet, switching the comm in his ear off as he went. “You’ll get used to it.”

“Fighting two Kaijus at once, though?”

Tony nodded. “Yeah, even I’ll admit that’s a little overkill.”

He rubbed at the painful spot in his chest as the conn-pod rose back up to the bridge, and then nodded Peter to walk along with him to HQ. There, Bruce was rambling, scribbling calculations, and Fury was watching with a blank face.

Tony sidled up beside Thor. “Is Hulk…?”

“Gone,” Thor said. “But Bruce is still insane.”

“What is he doing?”

“Trying to figure out when the next double event will be.”

Slowly, the HQ filled with people, all as down-trodden as the next. A double event. Weeks before it was predicted. Tony didn’t like the phrase the beginning of the end, but he felt it now – there was nothing else this could be.

“It doesn’t make sense,” Barnes was saying as he entered the room. He only wore the drive suit around his legs, while he walked into HQ shirtless, a medic trying to patch up the massive mark around his left side – the same spot the jaeger had been damaged. “There wasn’t supposed to be one for six days. How could we have two at once?”

Tony eyed the damage on Barnes’ side and pressed again at the ache on his chest. He didn’t want to take off the suit and find out what kind of injury he’d dealt to himself and the kid.

“The timeline has moved up,” Bruce announced, still scribbling. “If my calculations are correct – which I believe they were before – the next double event will be within the next twelve hours.”

“You’re kidding me,” Clint said. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“And then six hours after that, then three, until we’re having activity in the breach every four minutes.”

Fury looked at Hill. “I want every mech we’ve got fixing up those jaegers. Stark, you too.”

“Huh?”

“Take Parker and get your orders from Lang. The explosives will be here in six hours – we need the jaegers ready by then so we can take the bomb to the breach without having to fight our way there.”

“But we shouldn’t have even been fighting today,” Nat said. “What changed?”

“Bruce did,” Tony realised. He blinked. “Bruce drifted with a Kaiju.”

“We know that,” Thor muttered.

“No, but—drifting. It’s a two-way street. Bruce saw into the other dimension, saw their plan, the hivemind. They saw into ours. They would’ve seen how many jaegers we’ve got left, seen our timeline, seen our only hope being to close the breach.”

“Which means,” Fury said, “it’s safe to say that the Precursors know that we’re going to blow it up.”

“And that means they’ll be here in less than twelve hours,” Hill agreed. “To stop us before we even have the chance.”

Chapter Text

The war clock barely hit four hours by the time they were suiting up.

Tony washed his face and stared at his reflection in the mirror as he rubbed away at the grime. Four hours of working on jaegers, of reminding his hands how to build rather than punch, of hanging by Peter’s side from the back of Twin Vision, welding the bomb into place. The plan was to disconnect it at the breach and send it inside at the same time as a Kaiju was coming out. They didn’t have enough living Kaiju flesh to send it in with. They had to rely on the moment of a Kaiju coming to attack.

Tony hated this, to be short.

He hated the plan, hated the time frame, hated the way Bucky’s side was flaring in pain every second from his injury, and Tony’s chest had a hard time expanding with each breath – because there it was, and he could see it in the mirror: the knot of scars where the arc reactor lived in the jaeger.

Red and angry, like a festering burn mark. Matching with Peter’s.

Tony took time to stick a fabric compress on top of it, pressing the adhesive into his skin before securing it with bandages.

They were going to die today, as the sky grew dark and aliens poured from an undersea portal. They were going to die.

Only that morning Tony had been laughing with Rhodey and calling Peter over to sit at his table in the cafeteria. Only that morning, they’d had time.

And now time was a fleeting concept, there and gone in the blink of an eye.

There was no time to have the hours long fight he needed to have with Harley and Melissa to get his apology through; there was no time to know Peter enough that he could break through whatever barriers they were both putting up; there was no time to play Pepper’s long game and wait for her to be ready.

Because he was going to escort a bomb to an interdimensional portal, and their plan was weak at best.

After pulling on his drivesuit, he made only one, short call. Howard’s lawyers had always been plentiful and vicious. If a Stark wanted something, they got it thanks to the army of lawyers that they employed. Tony called one now and put through his request.

He never had named an heir, but if he was going to die today, Harley deserved to have everything he could ever want. The Keeners deserved to live without worry.

And if Peter survived today, he deserved it, too.

Leftovers were rare; surviving the painstaking feeling of someone dying in your head was difficult enough – but the Kaiju not taking you both down at once was more so. If Tony died and Peter made it out, by some miracle of God or whatever was up there, laughing at them, then he’d be set for life.

There was a time when Tony had only given material presents to show his affection – that was before drifting, before he realised that unsaid words could be translated through thought alone, through intense feeling; that the people he cared about most in this world could be linked to him through his mind and share in whatever feelings careened wildly around his body.

He left a large sum for Rhodey, too, with the words for your retirement attached.

Then he pulled down his drivesuit helmet from its place on the wall and headed for the jaeger bay.

 

*

 

“Good luck,” Pepper said.

Tony stopped in his tracks. Ahead of him, the HQ was lit up with people and screens, and the halls they stood in now were crammed with people rushing about. He looked back at Pepper, inexplicable confusion on his face.

“Seriously?” he asked. “Good luck?

Pepper furrowed her brow. “It’s what we say to each other,” she said.

“Yeah, when it’s a Kaiju. When it’s a normal attack. When the world isn’t about to end – Pepper. I am about to literally walk into the jaws of death with a rookie teenager by my side, and that’s all you have to say? Good luck?

Tony ignored the people that slowed down to watch him as he spoke, his voice raised just a bit. He could’ve sworn he’d seen people in HQ look over; Maria’s eyes finding his before he stared into Pepper’s.

There was anger there, confusion, hurt. “Well what the hell do you want me to say?”

Tony blew out a breath, waving his arms around for a moment. “What—I don’t know! Something more than Good luck, though! This is a suicide mission, Pep. I’m going to fucking die today. I want you to say—” He shook his head and stepped closer to her. “No, there’s a hundred things I want you to say, but I don’t want you to say them if you don’t mean it.”

The hall felt unbearably quiet all of a sudden, Pepper dawning with realisation. Tony slipped his hands around her upper arms, just willing her to say something other than good luck.

“Pep, if you have anything to say to me, you say it now or you don’t say it at all. We’re not going to get another chance.”

He took a breath. And another, and just as he was starting to think that good luck was all she ever had to say to him, Pepper darted forward, pressing her lips against his. His hands moved up her arms to cup her face, her hands at his sides, pulling at the drivesuit, at him.

Pepper Fucking Potts.

And for the first time, it was Tony who pulled away, searching her face.

“I love you,” she told him, and then again, louder: “I love you. And you better not die today, because I’m not loving a dead man. You live, Tony Stark. You live and you come back, right here, to me.”

A smile tugged at Tony’s lips. He nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”

He kissed her again.

 

*

 

“Took you long enough,” Hill commented as he entered HQ. He shot her a dead look and she shrugged. “I don’t need to be in your head to know that you’ve liked her since the moment she arrived on this base. It was like watching a lovesick puppy.”

She placed a hand on his shoulder, her expression sobering. “Kick ass, Tony.”

He pushed the hand away and pulled her in for a hug. “As likely as it is that this is gonna go wrong, I wish you were out there with us.”

“I know.” Hill pulled away. “I wish I was, too. But somethings just aren’t meant to be. If it’s not me, though, who gets to save the world—I’m glad it’s you.”

 

*

 

Rhodey sat in his wheelchair besides Hill’s chair at the control panel.

“Biggest fight in history and I’m on the bench.”

Tony smiled. “Don’t worry, your name will still end up in the history books.”

“I’m not worried about that.”

“Right below mine,” Tony continued. “James Rhodes, best friend and sidekick to the hero of Earth: Tony Stark.” Rhodey punched him lightly in the arm and Tony laughed. “Love you too, Platypus.”

“Don’t get yourself killed.”

“I’ll do my best.”

 

*

 

Tony met Peter at the bridge to the conn-pod. The kid was bouncing from foot to foot, helmet rattling between his hands. Tony had passed MJ and Ned on the way over, the two of them with tense expressions on their faces.

“You alright, kid?” Tony asked, stopping by the door to Iron Avenger’s head.

“Huh? Oh, oh yeah. I’m—I’m great. Never better.”

“You look terrified.”

Peter froze and hissed, “That’s because I am terrified.”

Tony smiled, shaking his head. “You killed a Category III this morning. You assisted on a Category IV five minutes later. You’ve got this, Parker.”

“Neither of those had so much weighing on it,” Peter replied. “If we fail right now, the whole world ends. This is it. This is our last chance to save Earth.”

“Well when you put that kind of pressure on the situation, it’s gonna feel terrifying,” Tony responded. “You know, when I was a kid and I was stressed out, my mother used to play piano to calm me down.”

“Yeah?”

Tony nodded. “She was a concert pianist. That’s how she met my dad – at one of her shows. She played more beautifully than anyone else I’ve ever heard.”

“Did she teach you how to play?”

“Of course. We’re made up of parts of our parents, you know, and then something wholly our own.” He fixed problems like his father and played piano like his mother, but fighting was something that came from Tony.

“My parents were scientists,” Peter said. Neither of them stepped over the threshold of the conn-pod, knowing the moment would vanish the second they did. “My uncle and aunt though – Ben was a cop, and May ran a homeless shelter. I get my brains from my parents and—”

“You get your heart from your aunt and uncle,” Tony finished. Peter didn’t smile, but he looked a little more relaxed. “That disrespect for your elders and witty comebacks is all you, though.” Tony placed a hand on Peter’s shoulder, stepping close to him. The kid looked up at Tony like he was wishing for something, like he was hoping that Tony would say the perfect thing or turn out to be the greatest role model possible. But all Tony knew how to say was, “They’d be proud of you. I know I am.”

The corners of Peter’s lips quirked upwards and he held out his fist for Tony to bump his against.

But Tony rolled his eyes. “What? You’re not a hug kinda person?”

He pulled Peter in, and felt the kid’s arms wrap around his torso, felt the squeeze of pain in his chest, felt Peter’s chin resting on his shoulder. Tony shut his eyes for a brief second before pulling away.

He’s a kid, Tony thought, but you don’t get to treat him like one.

Tony placed a guiding hand on Peter’s shoulder and led him into the conn-pod.

They wired themselves into the jaeger, connecting the wetports to their helmets and clipping the drivesuits into place.

Alright,” Hill said in their ears as their comms flickered to life. “Iron Avenger and Black Hawk in position. Twin Vision, Frozen Shield, we’re waiting on you.

No problem, boss,” Carol replied, and Tony could hear the smile in her voice. “We had a brief panic about never piloting a jaeger before, but we’re past that crisis now, and we’re ready and waiting.

We had a totally different crisis,” Steve said.

No, you had a totally different crisis,” Bucky interjected. “I was fine.

Tony heard Steve’s laugh as he went through the start up sequence for Avenger. “Bucky just turned to me, said ‘it’s just occurred to me that we might die today’ and then proposed.

Tony barked out a laugh as Peter’s eyes widened comically. Along the comms, Clint was laughing too and Natasha said “About time”, as both Danvers and Rambeau happily congratulated them.

“They’re dating?” Peter whispered.

“Yeah, for like eighty years,” Tony replied. “Keep up. And good job, Barnes, on locking that down. We’re all very jealous and happy for you.”

How bad was Steve’s conniption?” Nat asked.

Not as bad as you’d think,” Barnes replied, and out of the conn-pod’s visor, Tony saw the Frozen Shield jaeger light up as the system came online. “But he lost his mind that I was doing it now of all times.

No time like the present,” Clint agreed.

Oh,” Carol said suddenly. “You guys should have a Spring wedding. That’s what we did—

Yeah. We all wore flower crowns and everything. Our daughter loved it.

If Peter’s eyes could’ve popped any further out of his head, they would’ve.

“Since when have they been married? With a child?” he hissed, and Tony flashed a grin back at him.

“You kids really need to stop looking at your phones and start paying attention,” Tony replied, snickering at Peter’s dead-eyed expression. “Alright, Hill, we ready to go?”

Unless anyone else wants to announce their surprising-but-not-really relationship status,” Hill responded.

Tony and I are totally together,” Pepper said down the comms, and Tony caught sight of the solo-rig Rescue glowing as it started up for battle support. He grinned and watched Peter roll his eyes.

We know,” Hill replied. “We knew before you made out in the hallway, which—PDA is prohibited in the public areas of the base, I’ll have to write you up for that – but we knew before that, too.

How did you know before I knew?” Pepper asked.

There’s a betting pool,” Clint replied, mild. “Did you two make it official today? Does anyone know who won that? You know, before we die?

Hill sighed. “No one’s dying. And Rhodes’ says that Fury got the closest.

Wait, Fury was in on this?” Tony flapped an arm about, and Peter laughed.

It was Fury’s idea in the first place,” Hill responded. “Now, if you don’t mind. Avenger, Shield, Hawk, Vision, initiating Neural Drifts.

 

*

 

There was the intake of breath.

 

*

 

It’s official, I can’t see a thing.” Steve’s voice over the comms was the only thing to break the silence that came with being underwater. The movements of the jaegers were a little slower, with all the water, and the sound of creaking limbs was muffled. It was also pitch black, the only lights coming from the headlights on the foreheads of the conn-pods, and the glowing power cores of the four jaegers.

Up ahead, Twin Vision had the bomb mounted on its back; the components and explosives given to them by as many Shatterdomes still up and running as possible – which, considering the budget cuts and reallocation of funds towards the Coastal Wall Project, wasn’t many. Still, there should be one hell of a blast from that thing, if they ever had the chance to set it off.

Then, Frozen Shield followed behind, tailed by Iron Avenger and Black Hawk. Tony always felt better with Clint and Nat at his six – they were eagle-eyed and loyal to a fault; nothing would attack from behind if they were there.

Frozen Shield was barely patched up from that afternoon’s jaunt with Kaijus, and Iron Avenger had been a little banged up from the entire escapade, but Lang had been a cold yet fair leader, sending every spare body towards the jaegers to pull them back up to one-hundred percent.

Still, they didn’t have the right hand’s blade to match the left, though the sword was still in working order.

Together, the four of them walked towards the breach, still a few miles out but getting ever closer. Peter’s nerves were electric and palpable, and Tony regularly had to let them slide over him if only to snuff them out with his calm.

So after this,” Clint said conversationally into the comms, trying to fill the silence, “Barnes and Rogers get married, Danvers and Rambeau go back to Louisiana and their daughter. What’s everyone else going to do?

“You’re sounding awfully confident right now,” Tony said, mild. “That’s gotta be a jinx or something, right?”

“I think bringing up a jinx is a jinx,” Peter replied.

I’m gonna get super drunk,” Nat said, ignoring the two of them. “A week-long bender. I want a hangover that lasts a month.

“Mm,” Tony hummed. “I’ve got some people out in Tennessee to find. But also, two-month long trip to Europe with Pepper, forget about the last decade, drink myself blind.”

He heard Pepper’s laugh down the line, her jaeger suspended from Jumphawks above their position, waiting to be dropped in. “Make it three months and we’re golden.”

“Well,” Peter said, his tone as casual as possible despite the raging fear, “as the only member of this group who can’t drink—”

“We wouldn’t tell,” Tony interrupted. “If you wanna get black out drunk, I’m sure we’d support you in that.”

I mean—"

Well—"

I totally would—"

Not entirely legal—"

“I’m probably gonna stay right here,” Peter continued. “Or, like, wherever they send me.”

I forget that you haven’t been here long,” Clint said. “We’ve all done our time and you’re just starting.”

Tony frowned at the kid, glancing over to see him unworried by what he’d said. A school of fish darted away in the distance, giant robots impeding on their territory.

“Still,” Tony said, “if the war’s over—”

“If the war’s over and I leave, I get sent into care,” Peter said with a shrug. “Or like, one of those orphanages you see on TV? It’s why I enlisted in the first place – like, why I joined the Academy. The social worker gave me two options: go into foster care or fight to the death with giant aliens. This sounded more fun.”

Oh yeah,” Bucky drawled. “It’s a hoot.”

Tony didn’t say anything, but by the way Peter jerked his gaze over and away again, he knew the kid was picking up on his thoughts. Foster care. Peter Parker was an orphan; a minor, and the social worker told him he could be sent to a home or risk his life in the military. Thoughts and ideas flashed through Tony’s mind, but he clamped them down, hoping they didn’t make the leap from his ear to Peter’s – but what if? What if they survived this and Tony filled out the paperwork to take the kid with him? What if he joined whatever makeshift family Tony was hoping to have after the war – he’d already slipped so easily into the one he had during it. What if he and Harley got along – that is, if Harley still wanted to even see Tony’s face.

But they were all distant concepts; ones he couldn’t put weight and gravity into, not right now. Not underwater, with a bomb strapped to a jaeger and an interdimensional breach getting closer.

They made it to the edge of the canyon, in which the breach sat at the bottom of, a few hundred feet down, when Hill’s voice appeared in his ear.

Hold up,” she said, breaking up whatever conversation Clint had tried to leap them into after Peter’s casual comment about foster care. “We have movement in the breach.

You’re shitting me,” Natasha muttered.

“They know we’re here,” Tony huffed. “Hill, where’s Bruce?”

I can get him for you—

“No, just keep him out of HQ,” Tony replied. “Keep him as far away as possible from all of this, from any of the live updates.”

You think they’re still looking through his mind?” Steve asked.

“Maybe. I wondered if they might be earlier, but I’m far past risking it. What Category have we got?”

IV,” Hill sighed. “And there’s another coming out after it.

I hate this job,” Barnes said, mild. “Have I ever told you that? I hate this job.

We’re too far out to get the bomb there before they emerge,” Carol huffed. “We’ll have to kill one and send the bomb back in with it.

First Kaiju isn’t moving from the breach,” Hill reported a moment later. “It’s just circling it. It’s waiting for you.” There was a beat. “Second Kaiju is Category IV.

All four jaegers stood at the edge of the canyon, looking down at the orange electricity that created the breach; swarming and swirling, darting back and forth, moving like water and like fire, like violence and static and everything in between. Dark shapes broke out of it and swam around, sentinel guards of the other dimension.

“Is Rhodes there?” Tony asked, a sinking feeling in his gut.

Yeah Tones?” Rhodey’s voice came on the line and Tony shut his eyes against it.

“Give us a play here.”

When Rhodey spoke again, it was less soft, more strategic, commanding. James Rhodes, highest drop score in the Academy; MIT graduate in aerospace engineering. The man who knew literal rocket science; jaeger pilot extraordinaire.

Twin Vision, hold back with the bomb. We need to clear a path before you can get through, and if you go off then it’s over. Frozen Shield, take the left flank, Black Hawk the right. Keep the Kaijus occupied. Iron Avenger, lead Vision through – do what you’ve got to do to get them to the breach, but only start moving when there’s a Kaiju body to throw in there with the bomb. We can’t count on another Kaiju coming out anymore.

You heard him,” Steve said, and then Frozen Shield was moving around to the left, before jumping down into the canyon far below them. After a moment, Black Hawk followed on the right.

Almost immediately, the black shapes of the Kaiju darted off into the shadows. It was too dark to see as far down as the bottom of the canyon, and the only light came from the breach itself, or the hard-to-see glows of the distant jaegers. All Tony knew was on the comms, Roger’s brusque engaging, and Clint’s howled, now that’s an ugly fucker!

Otherwise it was dark and quiet.

Iron Avenger stood in the silence, in the black, Twin Vision glowing yellow by their side, a bomb strapped to its back.

Far below them, a battle raged. Monster vs monster, alien vs robot. There was a surprising amount of luminescent blue; of water-distorted shrieking that could only be from one kind of animal. Occasionally, Tony could see the way the water bubbled and boiled, a red-hot jaeger hand glowing in the dark.

And then there were the broken voices on the comms. They were off for the most part, but occasionally there would be shouting, a sudden curse in the middle of the underwater quiet, an idea or yell or grunt.

Just as Tony was getting overly antsy about waiting, Clint yelled, “Avenger! We need an assist! Now!

“You heard him, kid,” Tony said, and the jaeger leapt forward into the abyss. “Vision, alert us if anything comes your way.”

You got it,” Danvers replied. “Let us know if you need an extra hand.”

They ran Iron Avenger through the water as fast as they could, following the glowing dot on their screen to find Barton and Romanoff. When they arrived, the jaeger and Kaiju were in an all-out brawl; Kaiju Blue seeping into the water from a number of slashes in the hide, but the robot pinned beneath the beast’s body, struggling as the Kaiju tried to rip one of the arms off with its teeth.

Avenger tackled it full-force and the two went sprawling, sand and mud billowing up where they disturbed the bottom of the ocean. They pounded punches into its body, grunted against the ones they received in return. It was difficult to see much of the monster in the dark; just flashes of beady eyes reflecting their headlight, and scales, claws, teeth.

Just when Tony thought they had it in a strong grip, they were shoved away, the Kaiju swimming up and then darting back to Black Hawk, teeth bared.

“Coming your way!” Peter said as they turned back, heading after it.

“Fast fucker,” Tony huffed, the two of them slamming their left arm back, hand fisted to draw out the blade from the knuckles.

Clint swore as the Kaiju leapt onto them again, and suddenly there was another monster in the mix; Frozen Shield battling side by side with the other two jaegers as the other Category IV - all tail and ear-bleeding war cries – tangled around Shield’s legs, bringing it to the ground.

Avenger was on the back of Hawk’s Kaiju, Peter’s blade stabbing into its hide over and over, Kaiju Blue dripping out into the water.

Over the comms, Steve let out a strangled cry. “Shit! Can someone—

Got you, Rogers,” Clint grunted, and Tony caught in his periphery as the left arm of Black Hawk – Clint’s arm – stretched out, a plasma canon forming around the fist. As the Kaiju went for the glowing warm up light of the canon, Tony and Peter pulled it back in unison, struggling against the thrashing, against the immense strength of the alien.

The plasma canon sent three shots through the water, each lighting up the Kaiju wrapped around Frozen Shield’s body in a white glow. The Kaiju recoiled in pain and an ear-splitting cry, and Shield leapt back into action.

Then the Kaiju Avenger was holding back broke out of their hold. Peter swore as it darted forward, all claws and teeth, and tore the left arm of Black Hawk off with its mouth.

Tony heard Clint’s yell through the comms.

It was Clint’s arm, being ripped off.

It was Clint, feeling the agony of losing a limb, without losing one of his own.

Tony knew the feeling.

Iron Avenger grabbed the lost limb of Hawk and used it to stab back into the neck of the Kaiju, the razor sharp metal slashing into the beast. The Kaiju shoved Avenger off before swimming suddenly back into the dark, no doubt to join its clone and attack Frozen Shield instead.

Tony took the moment, though, pulling the jaeger to its feet and then helping up Black Hawk.

“Barton,” he said. “Are you good to keep going?”

There was a pause before: “I—I think. I’ll manage.

He’s looking pretty faint,” Nat said. “I can’t have you pass out on me. I can’t pilot this thing alone.

I’m good,” Clint swore. “I’ll let you know if I’m not. But we’ve still got one good arm, the blade—

Can’t believe we’re fighting underwater when my strongest hit is electric,” Nat commented.

Has anyone got eyes on our Kaiju? It fucked off.

It fucked over here,” Barnes said. “Shit—

Tony checked the map, spotted the other jaeger only a little way away. “We’re coming to you. Hold on.” Iron Avenger started over, Black Hawk following slowly behind, one limb down. “Hawk, we’re gonna flank this bitch and take it down, alright? Decapitate the motherfucker.”

You got it,” Nat replied.

By the time they arrived, Frozen Shield was looking worse for wear. The shield on their right arm, controlled by Steve, was broken; the top half sticking out of the ground some distance away, while the left leg was ripped at the knee. It was still standing, but all the support had been torn away, and they were limping as they fought two Category IVs at once.

They converged on the Kaiju they’d already been fighting – Otachi, Hill finally told them, assigning its codename – and Peter’s blade sunk into its neck at the same time as Nat’s rammed into its chest.

They grappled it backwards, knives slashing and stabbing at the monster, until it was a mess of toxic blue and long, dangerous marks. When it still squirmed under their grip, Peter yelled and stabbed the blade through its head, slicing the primary brain in two. Nat followed his lead and cut the secondary brain out of its stomach. Tony watched the luminescent blue glow that lived beneath its scales fade, before the entire water became filled with its blood. With visuals obscured for the moment, they shoved themselves to standing.

“That’s one down,” Tony said. “Frozen Shield are you—Rogers! Barnes!

At that moment, the Frozen Shield comms burst to life, from where they’d been strangely silent. It was all yelling; pained screams that wouldn’t stop.

Tony shoved through the Kaiju Blue until he could see properly.

The eel-like Kaiju was wrapped around the body once more, burn marks over its scales, as it squeezed, crumpling the metal into itself.

 “Do you need an assist?” Rambeau called.

“We’ve got a dead Kaiju,” Tony replied, ignoring the question. “Get down here and get the bomb to the breach.”

In the back of Tony’s mind, they confirmed, but he couldn’t see that. He drew the sword as he approached, Black Hawk somewhere behind him and leapt into an attack on the Kaiju.

“Barnes!” Peter asked, his actions in perfect time with Tony’s; right arm swiping down in an attack. “Rogers! Talk to us!”

K—Kill it!” Steve yelled. “KILL IT!

And they tried. As the Kaiju wrapped so tightly around the jaeger that it crunched, the left leg snapping off in time to Barnes’ cry, the torso badly dented and damaged, they attacked with the sword, slashing and swiping as it clattered harmlessly off the scales.

Hill’s yell was in their ears too. Too many voices, too much shouting. She was calling it Tentalus amidst the chaos. Tentalus, all eel, all alien.

Steve—come on, STEVE!” Barnes’ yelling filled his ears, and then there was a sigh. “We’re ejecting. The jaeger’s—Frozen Shield is down. I repeat: Frozen Shield is—” his voice cut off with a scream as the Kaiju’s teeth clamped down around the conn-pod head.

“Peter!” Tony yelled and they were on it in a second, wrestling with the Kaiju to let the head go. The life pods would be ejecting any second—

They ripped Tentalus’ mouth away from the conn-pod, holding it in a grapple to let the life pods escape, but—

Only one shot out, floating up towards the surface.

“Who’s still in there?” Tony asked. “Only one life pod ejected.”

Steve,” Barnes replied. “He’s—he’s still—” The comms cut out as Tentalus’ tail whipped around the jaeger, suddenly latching onto the head and squeezing it tight; the metal collapsing in on itself. Tony felt Peter’s yell in his chest, and threw the Kaiju to the side, where Black Hawk was waiting, one-handed, to leap into the battle again.

With Nat’s blade trying to pierce its hide, Avenger darted forward to the crumpled body of Frozen Shield. They disabled the sword, it slipping apart and collapsing back into his arm as he reached forward, trying to pry off the metal of the head.

Barnes’ life pod has reached the surface,” Hill reported. “Readings are reporting him as unconscious. Pararescue is on the scene, ready to fish him out. Where’s Rogers?

“Hold on,” Peter grunted as they revealed the inside of the conn-pod. At the top of the head, just like in Avenger’s, there were two docks for the life pods to sit in, one now empty where Barnes had gotten out. Steve’s, however, was still there, the man himself inside, eyes shut, the pod a wreck.

“Shit,” Tony said, scooping Steve’s pod out of the head. “The pod’s broken, it’s cracked. Water’s getting in. I’m sending it up to the surface.” He lifted Steve’s pod up, and watched half of the buoyancies expand, sending him floating upwards. “Are there any readings?”

No, the pod’s not transmitting,” Hill replied. “Crap—Twin Vision, how close are you to the breach?

We’re on our way. Almost there,” Danvers said. Tony could vaguely see them in the distance, lugging the arm of the Kaiju corpse behind them to drop with the bomb. Kaiju Blue trailed in their wake.

The breach is active,” Hill reported. “I think we’ve got more incoming.

You can’t be serious,” Clint huffed, and Tony turned to see Tentalus shriek and wrap around their remaining arm.

Assist!” Nat called, and Avenger drew its sword once more.

I’m serious,” Hill said. “We’ve got another Kaiju coming out of the breach.

“A triple event,” Peter whispered. “That’s impossible.”

Nothing’s impossible, Tony thought, knowing Peter caught the words anyway. They leapt into battle again.

And again, and again, and again.

Because Tentalus didn’t give up; it was fast and brutal, it swam circles around the jaegers and darted in for fast, gory attacks. And though Tony tried to give the asshole all his attention, he couldn’t help but notice the giant body rising out of the breach as Twin Vision tried to detatch the bomb, tried to send it towards the breach, and—

SHIT!

DANVERS, RAMBEAU, get out of there! That’s a Category V! VISION!

There was too much happening at once. A thousand instances all playing over each other. Tony couldn’t keep up, and he was the smartest person he knew.

There was too much.

There was the bomb, sinking to the floor of the ocean, not detonating because—

There was Twin Vision, swiped far away by the Category V’s hand, the Kaiju swimming fully out of the breach, and—

There was Tentalus, darting in its direction—

There was Black Hawk, two arms down, the second one in the jaws of the Kaiju, and—

There was Pepper’s voice, and Hill’s, Rhodey’s, Clint’s, Natasha’s, Carol’s, Maria’s, Peter’s and—

There was his mom’s.

Try to remember… the kind of September…

When life was slow… and oh so mellow…

Tony looked at Peter, who looked at him. He knew Peter could hear her too, could hear her lilting voice, the piano soft and beautiful.

Try to remember… the kind of September…

When grass was green… and grain so yellow…

Tony could feel the world pressing down on his chest, tangling with the knot of scars that now sat there – but he could feel it weighing on Peter’s too. Could feel them sharing the load, the agonising fear of the apocalypse being their fault, their responsibility.

One thing at a time, Tony heard in his head, Peter’s voice loud and clear. Just one thing at a time.

They looked to Black Hawk, on its knees. Somewhere, amongst all the shouting, was Natasha’s strangled voice, reporting their evacuation. They saw the two life pods burst out of the conn-pod and float towards the surface.

Then they looked at Twin Vision, climbing to its feet, far away from the bomb. The two Kaiju surrounding them; a Category IV and a Category V.

As the thought entered Tony’s mind, Peter reached forward to enact it, switching off the comms until it was only them and Vision left behind.

“We’re on our way,” Peter said. “Can you lead them back to the bomb?”

I don’t think so,” Maria replied. “Can you take it?

“We’ll try,” Tony answered, and they started off towards the breach. On the other side, Twin Vision’s chainsaw arm was trying to slice through Tentalus, but nothing could get through the impenetrable scales that made up its skin. Then there was the Category V, that Hill was calling Slattern. Through the darkness, Tony could only make out the size – at least double the height of Twin Vision, and three tails, whipping about in the water.

Twin Vision couldn’t take on both. They’d die. Even if Tony blew up this breach, they’d die.

Peter flicked the comms off entirely. “Tony.”

“I can’t just—”

“I know.”

Tony glanced over, and Peter was already staring right back. He nodded once. “We’ll figure something out after, but we have to save them.”

Tony turned the comms back on.

Iron Avenger ran through the water as fast as possible, skidding to a halt beside the bomb and hefting it onto their right shoulder.

“You can detonate this, right?” Tony asked, as they started walking around the rim of the breach, towards the battle.

Yeah! Just get that Kaiju limb and tell us when to go,” Carol replied.

But they didn’t pick up Otachi’s ripped-off limb, strewn in the sand. They just walked the bomb towards Twin Vision, towards the two Kaijus that were barely being fended off. Twin Vision was fast, but not fast enough – not for Tentalus, not for the tails of Slattern, darting down with piercing accuracy.

Vision was taking deep hits, Tony saw as they got closer. Metal littered the ground and floated through the water, the entire body being torn to pieces, one piece at a time.

“Your jaeger’s going down,” Tony said, flanking Tentalus to get towards them from the side. “You’ve got to get in your pods.”

Not until the breach is destroyed,” Carol replied. “You can’t take these guys alone.

“We won’t have to,” Peter said. They slipped the bomb down by Twin Vision’s feet and swiped the blade at Tentalus when it tried to whip towards them. Avenger backed off and Tony eyed the spiked tails of Slattern, dancing wildly in the water. “Draw them in close and eject your pods.”

What the hell are you doing?” Maria asked. “And why the fuck did you mute Hill? She’s losing her shit—

“Just do it,” Tony replied, backing Avenger off as far as possible. “It’s your only chance.” He sighed and flicked on the comms. “Rescue, Pararescue. Vision’s pods are coming up but you gotta get them fast.”

What’s going on down there?” Pepper called.

Did you mute me?” Hill asked at the same moment.

“When the bomb detonates, all the water will be shot away,” Tony said, ignoring them both. “If you don’t get the pods, they’ll be killed.” They’d be killed if Tony did nothing, and Tony’s only plan would probably kill them, too.

Twin Vision’s Infinity Core glowed brighter, all of a sudden. It glowed so bright it burned to look at it, even in the murky depths of the water. The Kaijus, however, were attracted to it like a moth to a flame and drew in close. Only a moment later, two pods appeared behind the glow, floating up in the water.

Life pods ejected,” Maria Rambeau reported.

En route to your location,” Pepper replied. “I’ll pick you up.

Only, nothing was easy in the battle to save the world. Nothing. Not even this; two pods floating harmlessly up towards the surface. One, however, to be caught by Slattern’s tail, wrapping around it and shaking the pod from side to side.

Tony swore and Avenger ran back in that direction, despite the bomb, the glowing Infinity Core, only getting brighter. With the sword drawn, he yelled, “Danvers! Rambeau! Which one of you is that?”

What?” Rambeau yelled. “What’s happening?

Danver’s life pod just went offline,” Hill said. “It’s not transmitting.

“Slattern caught it,” Tony replied. “We’re gonna get him to let it the fuck go. Don’t detonate until we tell you to.”

Be fast,” Rambeau said. “That core’s gonna go at any second.

“Yeah,” Peter muttered. “Thought as much.”

They leapt as hard as they could, then, sword raised above their head, and slashed into Slattern’s tail. The yellow Infinity Core grew brighter. The sword didn’t chop off the tail, but it made a mark – it made the Kaiju scream, it made Slattern release the pod, that floated back up towards the surface.

“She’s on her way up!” Peter yelled.

And then the Infinity Core exploded.

 

*

 

Deep in December… it’s nice to remember…

Although you know the snow will follow…

Tony sat on the bench beside his mother, watching her fingers run along the piano keys, the most beautiful sound he’d ever heard playing from wherever she touched. When she sang, it was like his entire body became lighter, like his soul was ascending through his body.

Then, she was gone, and in her place was Peter. It was now Tony’s hands on the ivories, playing like he’d been taught every afternoon of his childhood. His mother’s soft voice was replaced by his, not nearly as sweet, but still trained, still hitting the right notes like he knew how to do.

Deep in December… it’s nice to remember…

Without a hurt the heart is hollow…

“I’ll teach you to play some time,” Tony said, his voice echoing in a way that his singing didn’t. He realised, suddenly, what this was, and looked down at his body. There was a drivesuit, black and metallic; the words IRON AVENGER engraved over his heart.

“R.A.B.I.T.,” Peter said, and he was in his drivesuit, too. The two of them sat in the memory, in the moment. “Alice chased her rabbit all the way to Wonderland.”

“Alice didn’t have to save the world,” Tony said, and then they were shot back to reality.

 

*

 

“Fuck,” Peter hissed, lying on the floor of the conn-pod. Tony, also on the ground, groaned as he moved to sit up. His entire body screamed in protest, and he made it half way before stopping and lying back down.

There was a tug from the cords that connected him to the jaeger, wanting him to move back to standing.

“Kid,” Tony called, quiet. “You alright?”

“Define alright,” Peter muttered.

He blew out a breath. “You’re fine.”

They took another moment before Tony force himself to sit up. The visor of the conn-pod was cracked, but there wasn’t any water getting in just yet, and somewhere, a mile or so from them, was the breach, yellow and static, alive and waiting.

He knocked on the side of his helmet, frowning at the lack of voices in his head. Then he reached up, the hologram screens still alight, and clicked at them until the voices came back, tinny and hollow.

Life support says they’re still breathing,” Hill was saying when he could finally make out the words. “They’re not responding and the jaeger hasn’t moved for two minutes. Rescue?

Danvers’ pod has been delivered to Pararescue. It was touch and go there for a moment. The pod broke and water got inside, but I think she’s still alive.

Do you think you can get to Avenger?

Rescue can’t survive depths like that,” Pepper replied. “So, no.

Fine. Pararescue, Wilson. Report?

Barnes is stable and en route to your location. Rogers not far behind him but in far worse condition – both unconscious last time I saw them. Barton and Romanoff are awake and being loaded into Pym’s chopper now. Rambeau is awake and fine. Danvers… not so much. She’s taken serious damage, seems to have a lot of broken bones. Same as Rogers, she didn’t have oxygen for too long there, and it was a miracle Rescue found her after the explosion. We’re loading her up as we speak.

Tony blinked and looked over to Peter. He shuffled along the floor, and reached out, grabbing onto the kid’s foot, who jerked at the sudden touch.

“Whoa, whoa. It’s me. Same side,” he grunted, throat sore. “You think you can stand?”

Peter groaned. “Maybe. My leg kills though.”

“Left?”

“Yeah. Is the breach still—”

“Yeah, kid. We’re gonna blow it now. Before any more Kaiju can get through.”

“What about the ones…” Peter rolled over and looked over to Tony. He held out a hand and Peter grabbed onto it, letting himself be pulled up to sitting.

“I don’t see them,” Tony said. “I think Hill would be losing her shit on the comms if they were still alive.”

Peter nodded and tapped at his helmet, over his ear. Tony tampered down the thoughts about him having done the same thing.

“Oh,” Peter said. “I can hear them.”

Submersibles are en route to Iron Avenger,” Hill announced. “The jaeger still looks functional but we haven’t had a reply from the crew in three minutes. We need Pararescue on standby, as they’re likely to be injured or unconscious—”

“No, no,” Peter said. “Not unconscious. Injured, maybe. Fucked up leg also highly likely.”

Parker?

“The one and only—wait, that’s depressing to say when my entire family’s dead. Yes. It’s me.”

Is Stark—

“Not dead yet,” Tony replied. “You can hang back on the submersibles. We’ve got a breach to close.”

Holy shit, Tones,” Rhodey said in his ear, at the same time as Pepper breathed, “Oh, my god.

“The Kaijus,” Peter huffed, staring out at the darkness of the ocean through the visor. It seemed darker than usual, and Tony realised the headlight must’ve broken, and so the only light was coming from the blue of the arc reactor, and the yellow glow of the breach. “Are they…?”

Both life signatures vanished with the explosion,” Hill said. “They’re gone. But it won’t be long until another arrives.

“That’s our cue to get moving,” Tony said, and forced himself to stand, ignoring the screaming of his limbs as he went. He stretched experimentally and immediately regretted it.

The kid was in worse shape, and Tony helped him to stand, noting how he couldn’t put pressure on his left leg. Tony waved a hand at the screen, bringing up a hologram of Avenger. The left leg was drawn in error red.

“Are we missing a leg?” Tony asked, blinking at all the words and diagrams.

Almost,” Rhodey replied. “I’d know if you were. The leg is still attached and functional, but it’s barely hanging on.

“It fucking hurts,” Peter grit out.

“S’alright, Pete,” Tony said. “We’ll do this and then we’re gone.” He took a deep breath. “Come on.”

The two of them heaved the jaeger to standing, and Tony felt the splitting pain of Peter’s leg, cruelly reminded of how it felt when Rhodey lost his. He almost dreaded looking to the left, as if there would be murder scene amounts of blood splashed across the pod, but he forced those thoughts away, the jaeger limping forward, barely, towards the breach.

“I assume the core exploded,” Tony muttered, keeping an eye on the surroundings. They needed a Kaiju part to get the breach to open.

Exploded and detonated the bomb with it,” Hill replied. “You were right about the water – for a moment there, the Pacific Ocean had a crater the size of Los Angeles. No water at all. Then it all rushed back in. It’s a miracle Potts even managed to find Danvers’ pod, let alone you two surviving that.

“Oh, I feel lucky,” Tony mumbled, wincing with every step on Peter’s behalf.

Tones,” Rhodey said, “how are you supposed to destroy the breach without a bomb?

“Haven’t you been paying attention?” Tony asked, trying to smile. “I’d say we’d take a page out of Twin Vision’s book, but maybe they took a page out of every arc reactor jaeger before us.”

Tony,” Rhodey replied, but nothing more.

“You can do the maths, right?” Peter asked. “So we won’t…?” He made an explosion gesture with his hands.

“I have more than six seconds, this time,” he said. “But—” he made the gesture “—is kind of the goal, this time.”

The walk to the breach was silent, and Tony inwardly cursed the explosion for throwing all the Kaiju parts so far away. They hadn’t passed any on the journey and the leg was too busted to keep going like that.

“We’ll have to wait,” he said, and so they did.

They stood by the edge of the breach, looking into the yellow static abyss, and they breathed, slow and deep.

Peter hummed to pass the minutes by, and only half way through his song did Tony realise which one he was playing. He thought back to the piano, to Peter sitting by his side in a memory of a memory.

“After this,” Tony said, quiet, “I really will teach you to play.”

Peter’s smile was soft, and understanding passing between the two, floating along the drift. “I hope you do,” he replied.

The wait felt dragged out, too long, but Tony knew it couldn’t have been more than ten minutes. Ten minutes for another Kaiju to come crawling out of the breach in front of them, Hill’s warning arriving before they spotted even the first claw.

“You ready?” Tony asked.

“As I’ll ever be,” Peter said.

Tony tapped at his helmet. “Hey, Miss Potts.”

Tony.

“I love you, too.”

Then the Kaiju emerged from the breach; a giant snout, first, tusked, followed by a mouth lined with razor-sharp teeth, six eyes, blinking into the water. They didn’t see much else, because that’s when Iron Avenger leapt into the portal.

 

*

 

There were colours everywhere. Shifting, turning, spiralling. There was so much of it, so many and they all had names Tony couldn’t even grasp. He hadn’t seen these colours before.

“Alright, kid,” Tony said as the colours rushed by, the tunnel to the other dimension pulsing around them, letting them through. The Kaiju body was still climbing, inch by inch, into their world – but Tony wasn’t worried about that.

The hard part was done.

And if the Kaiju survived, tanks and missiles would take it down eventually.

There was no end of the world, anymore. Not today, anyway. Not by this breach.

“Time for you to go.”

Peter frowned. “What? But we’re blowing the jaeger.”

“Only one of us needs to stay for that,” Tony said, reaching over to Peter’s screen and pressing the ejection button. “It’s just falling, now. And anyone can fall.”

Peter stared at him for a moment, before shaking his head. “I’ll leave when you leave.”

“Peter—” Tony clicked through the code and stopped at the screen’s error code.

POD MALFUNCTION.

“Oh,” Peter said, strangely quiet, strangely at ease. “Maybe you should go then.”

“I’m not leaving you here.”

The comms had gone silent, unable to breach the tunnel, and Tony stared at Peter in the strange, deafening silence of eye-aching colours and noises.

“My pod doesn’t work. It probably broke in the explosion. It’s okay, Tony.”

“It’s not okay. I’m not leaving you behind.”

“You can,” Peter said, the calmest he’d been all day. “I’m used to it. I can overload the arc reactor by myself. Anyone can fall, right?”

Tony blinked at Peter, at the kid who wasn’t a kid but so fucking was and shook his head. “No,” he said. “I’m not saving the world for you to not live in it. You’re getting out of here.”

“Tony—”

“We’ll share my pod.” He clicked at his own screen and breathed a sigh of relief to see his pod still working. “I’m not going to leave you, Peter. I promise: I’m never going to leave you.”

Tony had made that promise once and failed to keep it. He and Peter both knew that; they knew that Tony’s word wasn’t as good as it should’ve been, that he could’ve done better. But Peter nodded, and Tony knew that he trusted him. That despite the broken promises that trailed behind him, Peter believed in this one.

Peter Parker, the last Parker standing, used to being the only one, believed that Tony Stark wouldn’t leave him behind. Not for anything.

Tony overloaded the arc reactor.

He swiped past the warning, ignored the woman’s voice.

The jaeger kept falling.

Tony held out a hand and Peter took it. Using his spare, Peter reached behind him and unclipped himself from the conn-pod, falling immediately into Tony’s side as the jaeger fell and span and turned and twisted.

Tony held him close, both arms around Peter’s torso.

He watched the percentage bar increase, and knew that this time, he wouldn’t be stopping it for a single beam. He’d just let it go.

He’d let his jaeger explode.

“The pod,” he said, quiet, and Peter reached forward a shaky hand to input the command. After a beat, the set up the drivesuits were hooked up to lifted the two of them up to the ceiling, a panel sliding open for them to pass through. Then they were in the pod, Tony squeezing Peter in tight for him to fit, too, and then—

Then they were spiralling upwards.

Up past the dizzing array of colours and lights, unrecognisable, unnameable, constantly changing.

Up past the pulsating waves of the tunnel walls.

And, finally, up past the Kaiju, still climbing out of the breach.

 

*

 

They didn’t say a thing.

They didn’t need to, not with the drift.

They already knew everything the other wanted to say.

 

*

 

Somewhere, there were the words, victorious: “Stop the clock!”

There was cheering. There was celebration.

Somewhere.

 

*

 

There was a soft beeping in the medbay; several heart monitors overlaid against others. All of them felt distant, where Tony sat with his eyes shut, the entire world hidden somewhere behind a curtain, a concrete wall, a vast, empty ocean.

He was sat at the end of Steve Rogers’ bed; the man in question covered in wires, a tube in his mouth, screens and monitors keeping an eye on everything that was happening to him.

The sun was barely rising on their night of horrors.

Barnes was asleep in a chair by Steve’s head. He slept fitfully, an IV in his hand, bandages around his body. He’d refused to stay in his bed, even though his left leg was splinted; the skin scarred at the knee where it had been torn apart, and his entire torso was scraped with bright, angry marks. These injuries matched Steve’s, whose chest was a cross-hatching of pain, mimicking the crumpled metal of Frozen Shield when Tentalus was done with it.

He’d passed out from the pain in the life pod, but Wilson had kept him alive.

On the left of Steve’s bed was Nat and Clint’s. They were both awake and talking quietly, their voices inaudible to Tony. Their injuries were mirrored; massive welts and scars around Clint’s left shoulder and forearm, and Nat’s right. They’d felt their limbs being pulled from their bodies. They’d come out of it with the smallest injuries of all.

Then there was Carol Danvers, on the other side of Clint. She, like Steve, was asleep, eyes shut, a tube in her mouth. She’d been deprived of oxygen for too long – the plan to save her life had also threatened it. Her ribs were broken from Slattern shaking her around, her face was covered in cuts and bruises from the window of the pod breaking after being thrown by the explosion. And her lungs had been so full of water that resuscitating her had been a miracle.

Maria, on the other hand, was bruised and battered, angry scars from the crushed torso making it difficult to move, but she was alive, and in the bed beside her wife, watching her with an eagle eye.

The heart monitors beeped softly, out of time.

Tony’s mother wouldn’t have been agitated by such an uneven tune; she would’ve found the music within it.

He looked to the bed he should be sitting beside, next to Steve’s. He’d sat there for hours before Bucky had started falling asleep and forcibly waking himself up. I’ll sit with him, Tony had offered, I’ll keep him company. Bucky had drifted off after that, and Tony had watched Steve for a long while.

Now he watched Peter.

The strain of a jaeger was a lot, even when you shared it. Tony was older, stronger, used to the weight – Peter wasn’t. Especially not after fighting five Kaijus in a day, after being thrown around in an explosion, and having his leg be practically ripped apart in the process.

He’d gone to sleep by himself, an IV in his hand and nothing much else, the day just too much to be awake after.

Tony couldn’t bear to think about the last twelve hours. About Bruce, the Hulk, the first round of Kaijus and the second. He’d like to think about Pepper’s I love you, someday, but not now, when it was all tied up in a thousand bad things he didn’t want to look at.

It was Pepper who walked into the medbay a few minutes later, her drivesuit replaced by sweatpants and a hoodie, rather than her usual jumpsuit. There were bags under her eyes, and she’d pulled her sleeves over her hands before hugging her arms around her body.

She stood a few steps away from Tony’s chair. “You think they’ll make it?” she asked, her voice a whisper.

“I don’t know,” Tony said. “I hope so.”

“Shuri died last night.”

“What?” He tore his gaze from Peter to look over at her.

Pepper nodded. “The Black Panther pilot. Her heart stopped an hour before you closed the breach.”

Tony frowned. “She never got to see the world without Kaijus.”

He wasn’t sure why it was that thought that did it, but Pepper choked out a sob, and pressed one of her sleeve-covered hands over her mouth to silence it. Tony pulled himself out of his chair and limped over, letting her fall into his arms. She cried into his shoulder and Tony gritted his teeth to stop himself from doing the same.

Somehow, the world felt no different now the breach was destroyed.

Everything just felt very, very quiet.

 

*

 

The TV played on low in the medbay.

Our top story this morning is a report from the Pan Pacific Defense Corps who have officially announced that the breach in the bottom of the Pacific Ocean has been closed. That’s right: the breach to the other dimension is gone. The PPDC have confirmed that the Kaiju war is officially over.

“We’re on TV,” Peter whispered, nodding to the screen. The photo was a still from the PPDC’s footage of the fight the afternoon before, ten miles from the Shatterdome. Iron Avenger and Frozen Shield were paused in combat with Yamarashi and Raiju.

In their official statement,” the anchor continued, “Marshal Fury said, ‘The mission to close the breach couldn’t have been a success without everyone’s massive contributions. While we are saddened to have lost four jaegers in the battle, we were victorious in ending the Kaiju War once and for all.’ The jaegers reported to have been involved with the battle were Black Hawk, Frozen Shield, Twin Vision and Iron Avenger, with the solo-piloted Rescue assisting. All four full-sized jaegers were lost in the battle against two Category IV Kaijus and a Category V, but Rescue is said to still be operational.

The screen changed to the nine official photos of the pilots. Each one had their name beneath, and they were separated by jaeger.

There is no word on the condition of the nine jaeger pilots who fought in the battle, but the official statement does say that Iron Avenger, piloted by Rangers Tony Stark and Peter Parker, was the one to successfully destroy the breach…”

“We’re famous,” Peter said.

“Yeah, kid, we are.”

 

*

 

Maria Hill pulled Tony into a long hug when she visited the medbay.

“If you ever mute me on comms again,” she whispered in his ear, “I will kill you myself.”

Tony scoffed and held her tighter.

 

*

 

Rhodey and Tony played cards, using the empty space at the end of Peter’s bed for a table.

“How can you be so calm about all this?” Peter asked, his voice quiet against the melody of heart monitors.

“Tony’s always flirting with death,” Rhodey said with a shrug. “He does it almost as much as he flirts with Pepper. I’m kind of used to it. Any eights?”

“Go fish.”

 

*

 

He stared at the phone for a long time before he used it, typing in a number he still knew by heart. It rang for a while before being picked up.

“Hello?”

“Harley?” Tony asked.

There was a pause. “Yeah. Who’s speaking?”

“It’s Tony. Tony St—”

The phone hung up. He blinked. He couldn’t say he wasn’t expecting it, necessarily – but he thought he’d get through his whole name before it happened.

After a moment, his phone rang.

“—ark,” he finished.

There was a scoffing sound down the line. “How long’s it been? Six years? Seven?” Tony remembered the first three-or-so years of Rose Hill; finding a house for them and visiting every few months, until the times he wasn’t there started to stretch out longer and longer.

“Seven,” Tony replied. “And I’m sorry about that. I made you a promise and I broke it. I should’ve been there.”

Harley paused before responding. “The news said you were dead, but I didn’t believe it.”

“Oh, yeah?”

Harley hummed. “Not because of you, or anything, but because they’ve been changing their mind about who’s dead all day. One of you has to be, right? Four downed jaegers and all.”

Tony nodded, though Harley couldn’t see that. “No one’s dead yet,” he replied. “But two are in critical condition. They might not make it ‘til dinner.”

“Oh. That sucks.”

“It does…” Tony swallowed. “How’s your mom? And Abbie?”

“Mom’s fine. And Abbie’s – well, you know. A twelve-year-old girl.”

“And you?”

“I’m—I’m okay. I’m going to college next year.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. I mean, I was gonna enlist to the Academy, but if the war’s over, I could do something normal, you know? Regular college. Regular degree. No alien fighting.”

“No alien fighting is good,” Tony said. “You should do that as much as you can.”

“Right. Didn’t really think it was for me, anyway. Alien fighting was always more your thing.”

The silence stretched out until Tony sighed. “Harley—”

“It’s okay,” he said suddenly. “It is. Like, I’m bitter in that way all teenagers are bitter when they have mountains of daddy issues, but—I’m okay. I know why you had to go. It’s not like you ditched for no reason. You had a war to fight, and look: you won it. You did it, Tony.”

He shut his eyes. “I’m still going to make it up to you,” he said. “I know my word doesn’t mean much anymore, but—”

“It means a lot,” Harley interrupted. “So it’s okay if you ever wanna—wanna visit sometime. That’s okay. I mean, Mom’s the one you’ve gotta win over a bit more. She might not be happy about you coming ‘round. But she likes peonies and grovelling. I’m sure you’ve got that covered, right?”

Tony breathed out a smile. “Right.”

Somehow, it felt like a misaligned part of him was slipping back into place.

 

*

 

He tilted his head, looking through the one-way window into the cell. Bruce was seated on his bed, reading one of the many textbooks that littered the room.

Flanking Tony were Thor and Fury, the two of them staring at Bruce like they had been when Tony first arrived.

“So, is this just a precaution, or—”

“You were worried about the risk, too,” Fury said. “The Precursors aren’t dead, they’re just gone from this universe. Almost.”

The only parts of the aliens that remained were their corpses, their bones, and the little piece of Kaiju that lived on in Bruce’s mind.

Tony huffed. “So, what, we just keep him in here forever?”

“Until the drift fades,” Thor replied.

“You know as well as I do that drifts don’t fade.”

“Then until we can make it fade,” Fury said. “If we can sever the connection, he can come out.”

Tony shook his head, and looked to Thor, whose face was unreadable, stoic. “Bruce is our friend. We can’t just leave him to rot in a cell.”

“We won’t,” Thor assured him. “He is our friend, but he let the enemy into a secure military base, into his head. He knew what he was doing when he drifted with it. We’ll move him into a luxury apartment soon enough, he just won’t be allowed near his research—”

“—and his every move will be watched and documented,” Fury added. “We’re not risking a possible growing alliance with the Kaiju.”

“This is insane,” Tony whispered. He understood it on a base level. He did. But it was harder to accept when it was Bruce. When it was his friend.

Inside the cell, Bruce flipped the page. He didn’t even know they were there, discussing his future, his existence as a prisoner. But the Kaiju existed in his mind, and it was a dangerous mind to exist in; the only person the world knew of who could reverse engineer the breach; who’d meticulously studied Kaijus and their origins; who could tear down the whole planet with just his mind and the new voice that had moved in there.

Tony shook his head. “I’m heading back to the medbay. I don’t want to see this anymore.”

 

*

 

Tony held the door open for Peter, who swung himself up the final set of steps on his crutches and out onto the catwalk.

It had been a few days since the world stopped ending, and Tony realised he’d called a rain check on showing Peter one of his favourite places on the base. The view really did go on for miles. And now, looking out at the Pacific Ocean didn’t feel like a death sentence.

It just felt quiet.

“Whoa,” Peter breathed, leaning against the railing. Tony leaned by his side, careful of the crutches. “This was worth the wait.”

“Yeah?” Tony asked.

Peter nodded, his smile soft. “Yeah. Definitely.”

They stood there for a moment, taking in the view, taking in just a small slice of what they fought to protect, and then Tony bit the bullet, because he knew he had to.

“Do you really want to stay here? In the Defense Corps, I mean?”

Peter shrugged. “It’s not so bad here,” he said. “I get views like this, three meals a day and the opportunity to pilot giant murder robots.”

“But at the end of the day,” Tony continued, “if you had the choice – would you stay here or would you go?”

A crease appeared between Peter’s brows. “You mean, if I wasn’t a minor?”

“Yeah,” Tony said. “If there was an option for you, now, to leave and not go into care, would you want to?”

Again, Peter shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said. “I really don’t. I like it here. I like the people and the things I get to do – I like that if jaegers aren’t needed anymore, I’ll get to learn how to fly planes and choppers, and if they are, I’m at the top of the list to pilot them. Hell, if you’re all leaving, I’ll probably be the most experienced pilot left—which is a terrifying thought, by the way.”

Tony smiled, amused. “Two drops, six kills,” he said.

“That’s a record,” Peter replied.

“Joint record.”

“So, it’s not like it’d be bad to stay here. But…” Peter sighed and tore his gaze away from the view. He studied Tony’s face for all of a beat before saying, “But I’m drifting with you whether we’re in a jaeger or not. So I know you’re trying to ask me if I’d prefer to stick with the Corps or with you.” Peter exhaled half a laugh.. “And, if it’s alright, I’d prefer to stick with you.”

Tony ducked his head, smiling. When he looked back, Peter was mirroring his expression, shaking his head with fondness. Tony wondered what it would be like to have this relationship without regularly drifting, but Peter was right: they were always drifting, always connected, whether they were using the neural interface or not. Tony would ghost-drift in his sleep, would know Peter’s thoughts with a quick look and an intimate familiarity with Peter’s mind, would move in sync with Peter whether he meant to or not.

“You sure?” Tony asked, and Peter nodded.

He looked back out at the Pacific Ocean. “I can always come back here when I’m older, if I miss it,” he said. “But I’ve only got a few years left to be a kid, as it seems someone insists on thinking I’m one.”

Tony grinned and bumped his shoulder against Peter’s. “So, black-out drunk, three-month vacation with Pepper, and then how do you feel about Rose Hill, Tennessee?”

Peter’s smile was better than the sunrise in a world without Kaiju – and Tony had seen a few of those so far; he knew what he was talking about. “Well, you seem pretty excited about it, so I guess I am, too.”

Tony flung an arm around Peter’s shoulders and stared out at the view. In the back of his mind, there was the familiar silence, the familiar blue waves, the familiar gentle push and pull of Peter’s mind, connected to his. And it told him one particular, reassuring thing: that no matter how far they went, no matter the distance between them, there was always a connection that would stretch and spiral; connecting their minds, their memories, their emotions.

In the simplest of terms, it told Tony, unequivocally, that no matter where he went in this world, he would always find Peter in the drift.