He hadn't drifted since that day; not since the day that she had vanished on a routine jaeger mission. And vanished really was the right word. One minute she'd been there, next to him and neurally linked, and the next, he'd blinked and there was a hole in the conn-pod of the jaeger and she was gone. He'd expected to look outside and see the kaiju (level three, spotted off the southernmost of the Kuril Islands), swallowing her or squeezing the life out of her or something equally horrific. But the kaiju wasn't even looking his way, and there was no body splashing into the deep ocean below either.
A search party turned up nothing, and from that day, Goto Hidenori would pilot with nobody else. He insisted he could do it on his own, because he knew he was still linked to her, felt it in his bones and his soul and his mind; she was there in his mind and he could still drift with her, he knew it.
He wasn't on his own. He would have a copilot! He swore it.
But they didn't listen, and he was put on leave and they insisted on comprehensive therapy, despite the fact that he knew he didn't need it.
"You are mentally compromised, Goto Hidenori," the marshal of the Tokyo Shatterdome, a man that he'd always admired and looked up to, told him. His eyes were tired and his lips were turned down in a grim frown. "You're the best and brightest we have, but we can't risk having you here, let alone allowing you to pilot alone."
"I'm not alone," Goto had replied, but the marshal walked away without dignifying him with a response.
That had been three years ago, but for Goto, it had felt like a lifetime. He'd worked his hardest to forge a new path since then, attending police academy and acquiring a job as an officer in a Tokyo precinct. He'd dropped the therapy soon after it had begun, feeling it wasn't necessary, and things were... normal now. At night, when he slept he still ghost-drifted with her. She hadn't left his side.
When the kaiju attacks grew more intense and frequent, and the Pan-Pacific Defense Corps put out a desperate call for more ranger trainees, Goto tried to ignore it.
He succeeded, until a member of the Ministry of Defense came to his work one day, introduced herself, and told Goto "he was needed, he had to come with them now". Goto had a hunch as to where they would be taking him, and he pressed his forehead into his hands and sighed when she verified it.
The Tokyo Shatterdome was the same as it had been when he left it, save for a couple of new jaegers and a lot of new employees.
The marshal had not changed. "Goto Hidenori." He shook hands with the former ranger, and Goto knew his hands were clammy, soaked in sweat from nerves.
"Have you found something on her dis-"
"I think you know that's not why I brought you here," he interrupted.
Goto merely nodded, watching as the marshal began pacing back and forth.
"You are one of the best pilots we've ever had," he said, his voice crisp and authoritative. "She was too, but that's neither here nor there."
Is, Goto stopped himself from correcting him.
"We want you back."
"Hazama Masayoshi will be your partner,"
"Hazama... Masayoshi?" Goto repeated. The name didn't ring a bell, so he must have been new to the program.
"Like you, he is on his own. We don't understand why. He's an excellent pilot, albeit he started out a mess, and we need to have him out there, but we've not been able to find a single ranger who is drift compatible with him. We've tried trainees from other Shatterdomes as well."
Goto imagined someone like that, someone who had enough trouble making emotional connections that with all their potential rangers across the globe, no one was a match.
They must have been awful. Cold, unkind, unfeeling.
"With all due respect, Marshal, I'm not sure that I'd want to drift with someone in that position. He sounds… difficult." Goto's lips were pressed together in a thin line. He wanted to go home; back to work at the precinct where it was safe and he wasn't reminded of… before.
"He isn't what you'd imagine," the marshal said, and Goto took a moment to realize that, outside the huge fans in the hallway they stood in, it was actually very quiet. The Shatterdome had always been a warm place, a hectic conglomerate of all manner of people; diverse and eccentric and full of life. But it felt more sterile now, and he wondered if it was all in his head or if it was due to the increase in kaiju attacks. "That's what makes it odd. He's a good kid. Kind, enthusiastic, outgoing, and positively brimming with potential." He shook his head. "He just seems to have trouble making the kind of emotional connection necessary to drift."
"Hazama… Masayoshi," Goto said under his breath.
"Japan needs you Goto," the marshal said. "The world needs you. This might not even work, but it's worth a try. You might be good enough to make up for his inability to make a connection, or who knows, you may just be the one he really can connect with."
Goto nodded, just barely. He closed his eyes and sighed in resignation. "I don't really have much of a choice, do I?"
"Very good, Ranger," the marshal replied, not answering his question. "I'm happy to have you back on boa-"
"Is this Goto-san?!" a slightly higher pitched, although definitely male, voice interrupted.
The owner of said voice, a young man, barely more than a high schooler by Goto's estimation, careened around the corner, his feet sliding across the cold metal floor. His eyes were bright and alive, and his smile was absolutely massive (if, Goto thought, a bit vacuous). There was a bounce in his step, and Goto thought, this guy was ready to take on the world, whether he was actually skilled enough to do so or not. Instead of a uniform, he wore a graphic teeshirt emblazoned with Tacit Ronin, the first Japanese jaeger ever deployed.
"Is this him?" Goto said, his voice barely above a whisper. The marshal nodded his way, and then nodded toward Masayoshi as well.
Masayoshi stepped forward, his strides wide and excited, and his smile, if possible, grew. "Hazama Masayoshi, pleased to meet you!" he exclaimed. He shook Goto's hand rather vigorously.
"Same," Goto responded, rubbing his wrist once Masayoshi had pulled away. "So uh-"
"Where evil lurks, borne from the breach within the ring of fire, Samurai Flamenco will be there, ready to smite it and bring justice and peace to the world once more!" Hazama exclaimed, and he ended his impromptu speech with a clearly practiced pose, one arm straight out to his side and the other forward, his palm outstretched.
"Samurai Flamenco is the name of the Mark-4 jaeger you'll be piloting, if all goes well. It's brand new," the marshal clarified.
Goto merely nodded. "That's not exactly what I was questioning…"
Masayoshi, for his part, did not even appear to have noticed their exchange. "Ah what do you think of that pose Goto-san? With the neural link it should be no problem to get Samurai Flamenco to do a cool pose after we defeat a kaiju."
Goto blinked. Silence.
"There's no way I'm going to be drift compatible with this idiot!" he finally shouted at the marshal, finger pointed at Masayoshi's face.
Then the marshal did the strangest thing. He laughed. Goto's cheeks burned in embarrassment. "Let's get you two into the conn-pod."
Masayoshi, unphased by Goto's insult, grinned and punched his fist into the air.
And when they attempted their first neural bridge later in the day, even Goto couldn't deny how successful it had been. Samurai Flamenco was a go, and for Hidenori Goto, things would never be the same.