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You Are (Not) Free

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“Nervous, Haru-chan?”

Haruka bit down sharply on the inside of his cheek, tsking softly under his breath and shifting anxiously in place. “Don’t call me ‘-chan’,” came the almost instinctual reply, his monotone kept purposefully soft to keep a low profile. He’d been jerked off of his training shift in the Combat Room, and already his fingers itched, missing the tight bundling of bandages around his knuckles—it was capoeira week, and he couldn’t stop his balance from shifting rhythmically to a beat in his head.

Makoto must have realized his error in judgment, for he snorted softly and his wan smile waxed irritatingly fond. “I’m sure it’s nothing, you know; probably just a late recruit they want your opinion on.”

Haruka’s frown deepened, a tiny valley forming between his brows where they drew together; late recruits were a pain in the ass. So annoying. They never quite caught up to the cadets who enrolled during the regular semiannual rounds—it was a waste of time taking them on, in his opinion, when most wound up never even making it past the Pons training courses. What was the point in tutoring them mercilessly in every fighting style and weapons system the Jaeger Academy curriculum offered if they were never going to be placed in a position to implement what they learned?

They ought to just dump the lot of them into a Conn-Pod to begin with and see which ones merited a slot on the Kwoon room roster; separate the wheat from the chaff early on and concentrate their efforts on training the ones who’d be worth it in the end, that was the way to go.

Something bumped against his shoulder, and Haruka’s head snapped around, frown slipping into one of confusion, but all he received in return was an amused expression of knowing admonition, and he didn’t need Makoto to open his mouth to hear the manners, Haru-chan on the tip of his tongue.

He wasn’t supposed to be here; not here, waiting for Marshal Sasabe to brief him personally on whatever he’d been pulled out of the Combat Room for, not tucked away in the bowels of a Shatterdome modeling judo stances and demonstrating the quickest way to reload an automatic weapon. He wasn’t supposed to be squirreled away underground seeing to the training of greenhorns not much younger than himself—but that was, he supposed, what happened when the PPDC had poured time and energy and money into training you, only to have you practically pass out from neural overload as soon as you so much as looked at a Conn-Pod setup. Too valuable to let go, too weak to handle a Drift.

Makoto had been the one to convince him to hitchhike to the Tokyo Shatterdome and submit their names in the next nearest round of recruiting. The recruitment videos that seemed to play on almost constant loop in the windows of electronics department stores and inside train cars had helped spark an interest—childish minds were easily swayed by the glittering promises of fame and glory—but it hadn’t morphed into anything more than wouldn’t it be cool if, Haru-chan? until their fishing village had had the bad luck to be part of the hundred-or-so kilometers of Japanese shoreline devastated by some kaiju or another’s inexorable trek toward a city center that mattered. Collateral damage, that was all Iwatobi had been; just bad luck.

The Academy curriculum at the Tokyo Shatterdome had been a passable distraction—it’d felt like they were doing something, at least, and Haruka had thrived under the crisp, austere training they’d been subjected to for weeks on end. The discipline they could handle, the regimens they all but welcomed in a new world where monsters were real and humans were but tiny ants to be crushed under some great scaly heel.

And maybe if the training had stopped there, if all one needed to prove before donning a drive suit was competence in kickboxing and Krav Maga, then Haruka wouldn’t be here. But instead he’d been jerked out of the comforting pace of the Kwoon Combat Room and shoved into a Pons unit where he’d been barked at to control your thoughts and feel your partner, and no one ever thought to ask why his sync ratios always shot over optimal into downright dangerous territory or to warn him that you weren’t supposed to pry into your Drift partner’s mind, were just supposed to be a blank canvas that melded two minds into one to work in synchronicity. Instead, they had just scowled and scrawled failure to command consciousness and empath; risky Drift partner over his sheet and let him log a few hours in a test pod just to make him feel like he wasn’t a complete failure.

Makoto, for all his enthusiasm, though, hadn’t fared much better; perhaps it had been for the best that their scans had never been deemed compatible enough to merit even a trial Drift Sync, as it meant Haruka had been spared the look of utter devastation that would have surely crossed Makoto’s features when their Handshake sputtered and spun out of control just like all the others. The only time Haruka had ever broached the subject, though, with a muttered sorry that Makoto had somehow understood, largely because he was Makoto, he’d been met with a sad shake of the head and the reassurance that, “Piloting was never for me anyway, I think. I just…wanted to feel like I’d at least tried…”

Survivors’ guilt, it seemed, couldn’t override the innate fear--fear of being thrown into the line of fire to face those huge, hulking monsters certain to tear even the most experienced of pilots limb from mechanical limb--that gripped Makoto to the core when placed in a battle scenario (though who could blame him, really?), and suboptimal sync ratios along with Haruka being dropped from Ranger consideration were the final nails in the coffin of what might have been Ranger Tachibana of the Tokyo Shatterdome.

Instead, he was standing here next to Haruka in a long white coat, hair cropped short and close with a clipboard in his hand bearing a topsheet memo reminding Psych Analysts to retrieve written permission from the Shatterdome pharma Head before dispensing any medication to Rangers post-mission, under penalty of demotion for repeated infractions. ”It’s better to have me outside your head than in it,” he’d reminded Haruka the day he’d submitted his application to train as an Analyst, and while Haruka hoped he hadn’t shown it, the knowledge that they’d never get to work on a team together—not as a Drift pair, not as Doctor-and-Patient, not even in the same damn division—had hung like his own personal albatross round the neck.  

What was he doing here, if not working toward the greater goal with Makoto at his side?

“Gentlemen,” a voice greeted sharply, and both men instantly snapped to attention, arms at their side and a practiced Sir! their instinctive response. Marshal Sasabe Gorou strode forward, a squirrelly handler in a starched suit on his heels and a Ranger--he had to be, from his confident carriage and sharp gaze, despite the wrinkled civilian-wear--slouching bored at his side. The Marshal waved them off, nodding a greeting, and wasted no time in launching into the business at hand, directing his attention to Makoto while waving haphazardly at Haruka. “This is Nanase, then? The Fightmaster?” Haruka stiffened at the title; he knew it was all part of the pomp and circumstance afforded those in the PPDC, a fancy title to wow the crowds and impress the recruits he was charged with training, but he still longed for the blessed comfort of anonymity. He didn’t want to be anyone’s master or glorified as a pilot—though at least piloting a Jaeger meant he was acting, approaching the problem head-on instead of wasting away behind the walls of the Shatterdome.

“Yes, sir. Top marks in Jaeger bushido from the Academy—“

“—but fucked up his Pons training. I know, I know—I read the file.” Haruka’s gaze flicked up to stare Marshal Sasabe straight on, brows twitching in annoyance. It was hardly a sensitive subject after three years, but it wouldn’t hurt to be a bit less blunt in reminding an officer that he was just that: an officer—not a Ranger.

“He…he did have issues with sync ratios,” Makoto tried, apparently hoping his intervention might help Haruka save face. “But Nanase’s values tended to be superoptimal, overwhelming potential partners and throwing off the balance, so theoretically with the right partner, he might still—” But Sasabe was waving his hand again, this time to beckon the Ranger at his side closer in introduction.

“We’re more interested in the combat training we’ve poured into him today; and hopefully his piss-poor Pons performance won’t be an issue now. Matsuoka, c’mere.” He slapped a hand onto Matsuoka’s shoulder once he drew within clapping distance and gripped tight, giving a little shake. “Matsuoka here’s on loan from the Sydney Shatterdome.”

“Loan, sir?” Makoto began, and Haruka slid a glance his way; it was hardly uncommon for Rangers to be shuttled around the Ring of Fire to whatever Shatterdome had found itself shorthanded, and while Japan wasn’t hurting for Rangers between the Tokyo and half-finished Osaka stations, one of their own returning home from working abroad wasn’t unusual—though admittedly, one returning alone was a bit off-script.

Sasabe nodded. “They just dealt with a Category IV aiming for Brisbane, so they don’t expect another attempt on Australia for at least a couple of months—and since we needed someone like Matsuoka here, well the timing was just too perfect to pass up.” He released Matsuoka’s shoulder with a satisfied hmph, and Haruka watched the Ranger carefully behind a guarded expression. He hoped he wasn’t about to be tasked with putting Matsuoka through his paces in the Kwoon room just because Sasabe wanted to show off a bit. Haruka’s skills weren’t a prize to be flaunted, and he had recruits to get back to.

It took him a moment to realize—after a hand on his shoulder from Makoto and a worried Haru?—that Sasabe was speaking to him now, and he snapped to attention again. “Sir?”

Sasabe just snorted, “Oh yeah; you’ll do,” and brushed past Haruka, his attendant scrambling behind him to keep up and Matsuoka tipping a nod to him with a pinch to the bill of the baseball cap he sported as he followed along. “Matsuoka’s file and the training particulars have been transferred to your comm tablet—I’d head back to your quarters and study it well if I were you. You’re to report to the Drivesuit Room at 0800 tomorrow.”

Haruka stared after the trio blankly, blinking in silence as he watched them turn a corner heading for the Jaeger bays. Once they’d disappeared, he slowly turned back to Makoto, brows furrowed in confusion. The apologetic smile he received in response, tinged with worry, was not helping to settle his nerves. “…Did I miss something?”

Makoto humored him, and Haruka wished he hadn’t: “Looks like you’ve been drafted. They’re putting you in a Jaeger.”

Haruka resisted the urge to bash his head in with the comm tablet he held above his head as he lay sprawled on his back in his bunk, waiting the final few moments for the data transfer to complete so that he could see what he’d just been tossed into. Most in his position likely would’ve been thrilled to finally be granted a seat in a Conn-Pod, but Haruka knew better. There was a reason he hadn’t made it past the initial Sync testing in his Academy days; he couldn’t handle it. Sure, his sync ratios had skewed superoptimal rather than below par compared to his fellow cadets, but what did it matter if you overwhelmed your partner or they couldn’t keep up with you? It all amounted to the same end: no one could maintain a stable Drift with him.

He’d thought, stupidly, that if there were anyone he could Drift with, it would’ve been Makoto. Because that’s what they always said on the television specials and newspaper articles and internet blog postings: Drifting was sharing headspace with someone else, was letting someone into your thoughts to see your deepest, darkest fears, being naked before them and not being ashamed of it. Makoto was the one that knew him, already knew what he was feeling before he ever thought to make his desires or distaste known. It was part of what kept them so close: Makoto knew everything about him and never judged him for it. But then the Academy swept away all of the pretty words that the media had filled their heads with, and suddenly it wasn’t about emotional closeness or comfort, it was about brainwaves and working in sync and potential. You were either compatible, or you weren’t. Still—it was hard to imagine how he’d ever be Drift Compatible with anyone if not the one person in the world he felt the closest connection to, but there it was.

He frowned as his fingers traced the colorful lines of the graph displayed, a long horizontal line citing Matsuoka’s sync ratios at a flat 100%, narry a dip or swell for…fuck, was that five Drift partners? He mouthed the description next to the graph as he read it to himself—Ranger has proven Drift Compatible with every partner he has been assigned, with neural sync ratios of 100% ± 0.7%. NBOs should be aware, however, of Ranger’s inconsistent history of partners and strong risk of Drifter Bends.

The last term was hyperlinked, and Haruka brushed a finger over it, popping up a browser connected to the Shatterdome’s intranet; he was met with nothing but a Restricted Access page, though, and he huffed an irritated snort. So he was being teamed up with a mystery transfer from halfway across the globe who would quite likely, it seemed, find him hospitalized with whatever the hell ‘Drifter Bends’ were. It didn’t sound pleasant.

He flipped back a few pages through the file to Matsuoka’s personal profile, a sense of foreboding settling over his mind and refusing to budge the more he read. No records or ID numbers—Japanese or Australian—available before being picked up following the Scissure attack on Sydney; remanded to a state-run pop-up children’s home caring for kaiju attack orphans for three years; enrolled at the Sydney Jaeger Academy once he was of-age; from there, advanced through the PPDC program smoothly and started being deployed on drops to back up veteran Rangers.

He scrolled through the list of associated personnel—the previous Drift Partners Matsuoka had apparently left in his wake—and skimmed their medical records; acute psychosis, non-epileptic seizure, epistaxis, extreme physical exertion, catastrophic neural overload, discharged to palliative care.

His stomach turned sickeningly; this was what they wanted him to meld his mind with? Someone who, for all intents and purposes, drove his partners insane?

Haruka had never successfully Drifted with anyone outside of a few sparks of energy before the Handshake went haywire in his Pons sessions back during his Academy training, but he was quite certain that these kinds of effects—catastrophic neural overload—weren’t normal, weren’t calculated risks that every pilot dealt with when suiting up. It was a suicide mission, getting into a Conn-Pod with this man.

He had his place—he didn’t like it, but he had one. He had excellent battle reflexes, a tolerance for training recruits so long as he didn’t have to do much beyond model the stances and kata, and he kept his head down and did his job well. But every good pilot was needed, and stuffing him into a Jaeger with an unknown, someone whose scans looked promising on paper but who apparently fried the brains of anyone he initiated a Handshake with was a waste of a good Reserve.

He could practically hear his heart thrumming noisily against his ribcage, the blood in his veins a loud throbbing in his ears, and he closed his eyes and let the tablet drop to the bed. He pressed the heels of his palms into his eyes until his vision sparked with purples and blues, then blinked the visions away as he stared up at the nut-and-bolted iron ceiling above him.

Fuck, he needed a dip.

This late in the evening, well after curfew for the Academy recruits, the natatorium on level 5F was empty, almost eerily silent save for the sounds of dripping water echoing off of the high concrete and metal walls and the soft hum of the generator keeping the water temperature constant.

The water lapped gently against Haruka’s sides, splashing over his stomach and sliding down over his ribs as he lazily floated on the surface, staring up at the ceiling high above and wondering how many layers of concrete separated this room from the surface. If a kaiju struck right now, would he feel the shudder as it laid into the rock and soil above? Would he have time to break for the nearest ladder, or would the impact send debris raining down, knocking him out until one of the custodial staff found him floating facedown after real pilots had taken out the beast?

“So do you just come down here to float and angst or do you ever actually swim? Nanase Haruka.” Haruka leaned forward to tread water, his toes just brushing the pool bottom, and he glared when he found the Ranger—Matsuoka—settled cross-legged on one of the starting blocks and twirling his ball cap around on the tip of one finger.

“…This area’s for authorized personnel only.”

“And I think you just got told earlier today that I’m one of those personnel. Did you reserve the room or something?” Haruka didn’t deign to respond, and Matsuoka shrugged. “Then I guess that means I’ve got as much right to be here as you.”

He shifted up with fluid ease, stretching up to a height that had to be at least a couple centimeters over Haruka’s own build—and the fact that he noticed this at all was just another point that made him patently not like Matsuoka. He glanced away with a soft huff and started sluggishly for the poolside ladder. “As you will, then. I was done anyway.”

“Hey—huh? Wait—” Matsuoka protested weakly, a whine edging his voice, and he started going for his belt with frantic fingers of one hand while the other awkwardly tried to tug his sweatshirt over his head. “Wait—wait, sorry, that was—dammit.” He grumbled something to himself before finally managing to unclasp the belt that had been giving him trouble. He cast a wary glance out over the water, as if reassuring himself that Haruka had indeed waited, and when he met Haruka’s untrusting gaze, he let a grin quirk at his lips. “We didn’t get a chance to talk earlier; thought we might be able to now.”

Haruka continued the silent treatment, wondering if there was such thing as a ‘safe distance’ from Matsuoka, given his history—but then, Marshal Sasabe had been practically groping him earlier and seemed no worse the wear for it, so whatever Matsuoka did to his Drift partners, it probably wasn’t contagious outside of a Conn-Pod.

“I’m not dangerous,” Matsuoka reassured him, his sweatpants pooling at his feet as he stepped out of them, a black pair of legskins with red piping down the sides showing that he’d come here fully expecting a swim, and Haruka wondered for a wild moment if Matsuoka could read his mind—if he was like Haruka, if psychosis, seizures, catastrophic neural overload was what people like him did to Drift partners when forced into a sync. But then Matsuoka beckoned him forward, reassuring, “I mean yeah, maybe I look scary on paper, but I’ve got a clean bill of health, and we’re not gonna be Drifting deep, not for what we’re being roped into.”

Which, he had a point; theirs was not a mission of attack, they weren’t even going to be drafted to defend a more seasoned pair. Research, that was what the almost purposefully vague briefing memo he’d received had said; two pilots were needed to play guinea pigs for a Jaeger prototype so new they weren’t even sure if they ought to give it a Mark yet, just in case it wound up failing catastrophically and publicly embarrassing the PPDC.

Regardless, Haruka let himself drift a little closer to the line of starting blocks, and Matsuoka crossed his arms over his chest, tapping one foot playfully against the concrete. Haruka eyed him warily, raking his gaze from head to toe. “…And I’m supposed to trust you?”

Matsuoka shrugged, uncaring. “As I understand it, trust is pretty key to a stable Drift—but if you don’t believe me, you can petition for a report from the Psych Analysts and NBOs. They don’t seem too worried.” Of course not; they weren’t the ones going into the line of fire, after all—and as if in response to this very point, Matsuoka cocked a brow. “Or are you not up to the challenge? Your file said you’ve never Drifted—”

“I have,” Haruka snapped almost petulantly, strokes growing a bit frantic as he paddled over to the edge. “I just…it’s never stabilized.” He fixed Matsuoka with a pointed glare. “I don’t kill my partners, though.”

“And I don’t kill mine; they all recovered—eventually. Or did you just go green and close the browser at the first sign that Drifting isn’t all sunshine and daisies?”

“Drifting isn’t supposed to be dangerous—“

“Whoever told you you that was selling you a line of shit.” Matsuoka’s voice had gone cold and sharp, and Haruka didn’t need any heightened senses to feel the irritation radiating almost palpably off of him—but just as quickly, it dissipated, and Matsuoka was once again a bundle of confidence and cockiness and the greasy slide of flirtation bubbling up from under his words. Haruka shivered uneasily, and Matsuoka misinterpreted this for reaction to his comment. “…I know you’re—I mean.” He huffed to himself and settled his hands on his hips. “You’re here, aren’t you?” He waved a hand around the natatorium. “Jaeger piloting comes with all sorts of risks. What’s one more?”

He wouldn’t say it—wouldn’t embarrass everyone who was working on this project, wouldn’t call into question Makoto’s own judgment by saying something like I don’t want to die, because that wasn’t what you did here on the front lines of what was well and truly a war (though it often felt like an extermination). But he wasn’t some kamikaze pilot who would walk calmly into a situation he had next to no control over, not just to satisfy the PPDC’s curiosity and their quest for a better, faster Jaeger. He wasn’t theirs; he didn’t belong to them.

Matsuoka squatted in place, cocking his head. “Wanna race?”


“You know—a race. First one to the opposite end and back wins; this is, what, a 50-meter pool?” He hopped off the starting block and rifled through the duffel bag he’d brought in with him, pulling out a pair of goggles that he quickly slipped on, snapping the band at the back of his head to ensure a tight fit.

Haruka sat in the water, staring mutely as Matsuoka readied himself excitedly—Haruka couldn’t stand pushy people like him, always assuming that everyone would just be passively swept along in the wake of their effervescent charm. He had his own agenda, his own training regimen; if Matsuoka wanted to take advantage of the Shatterdome’s facilities, he was welcome to do so, and Haruka would even tolerate joint sessions if forced to, but he wasn’t about to be dragged into a race of all things just for a new transfer’s amusement.

Makoto wasn’t here to translate all of this into plain Japanese, though, and so Haruka was forced to explain as calmly as possible, “…I don’t want to. Don’t get me involved in your training.”

“C’mon, more fun this way,” Matsuoka wheedled absently, throwing an arm over his chest for a moment before switching to stretch the opposite shoulder. “Think of it as our first step towards getting to know one another.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Haruka muttered just loudly enough to ensure Matsuoka heard the comment. They were supposed to be partners—not rivals. Not that Haruka particularly wanted to be either, and he was still trying to work out just how exactly he was supposed to not die when he was inevitably shoved into a Drift with Matsuoka in less than 12 hours. It seemed, though, there was no arguing nor reasoning with Matsuoka, so Haruka opted for the old standby of ignoring the problem until it went away.

He rolled onto his back, lazily pumping his legs until he was well into the center of the pool before slipping onto his stomach again, calmly stroking across the surface in a rough parody of freestyle as he allowed his senses to settle down again. No obsessing over the Conn-Pod test in the morning, no worrying about attention-mongering Rangers, no going over the schedule for next week’s Kwoon Room lessons. Just the calm and the water and the quiet under the surface that never demanded Haruka have a perfect sync ratio or clear his head to merge with it, just accepted him without judgment, letting him float, suspended, motionless—

A whooshing roar ripped through his concentration, and when his eyes flickered open, he caught the white wash of bubbles at the far end of the pool and a long, dark shape dolphin-kicking through the water, headed for the surface with a spray of foam in its wake. Matsuoka powered down the lane, closing in on Haruka fast—impossibly fast—and he mentally groaned his irritation, longing to just roll over onto his side and clench his eyes closed, to float suspended in darkness until Matsuoka tired of him and abandoned him to his thoughts.

But he couldn’t block out the thudding whomp, whomp of Matsuoka’s strokes hitting the water, and the thick syrupy wave of anticipation and competition and eagerness bore down upon his mind mercilessly, growing stronger and more viscous as Matsuoka approached. He groped for air, his consciousness gasping for relief from Matsuoka’s insistent need, and he breached the surface of the pool with a loud gasp, arms windmilling into a proper stroke before he could stop himself.

Matsuoka passed him at a sharp clip while he worked to gain momentum, not an easy thing to do from a cold start in the middle of the pool, but he wasted nothing when he hit the turn, Matsuoka’s eagerness shifting to excitement and thrill that sent little shudders of electricity deep into his muscles and sent him rocketing back down the lane, still trailing by a body-length.

He could almost hear a mantra in his head urging him forward come on come on come on come on until he couldn’t tell if it was echoes from Matsuoka or his own atrophied competitive spirit making a rare show. It was hard to remember that he didn’t care for races or competitions of any sort and that he most definitely didn’t care for Matsuoka when he was practically drowning in a tsunami of emotion saying just the opposite; racing was fun, competition between equals was fulfilling, and Matsuoka was just what he needed.

He knew he’d lost before he knew it, the mantra in his head falling silent and the anticipation and eagerness simmering down into a low boil of told you so—and while he understood that there was no logical reason to feel irritated at being bested by someone who’d had a head start, especially when he didn’t care about competition, it did little to lessen the sting of defeat. Just another disappointing display, another Ranger who’d look at him now and realize he never would’ve made the cut even if he’d been born half-Jaeger.

“Here,” came a voice remarkably restrained with respect to the thrill of victory that typically laced the whoops and yells of Pilots back from successful missions. Haruka didn’t even meet his eyes, though, instead groping for the side of the pool to orient himself properly before hauling himself up and out by his own power.

Matsuoka took no offense, though, only snorting good-naturedly and noting, “I thought you might surprise me, Nanase, but…” He shook his head. “Nope, you’re exactly like I expected.” He squatted down until he was at eye level with Haruka, who struggled to catch his breath after the unanticipated exertion. “You’re all the same…everyone eventually fights back, in the end.” And the quirk of his lips this time was much more predatory and knowing and far less flirtatious than before; he seemed less like one of the overly cocky Rangers he shared an occupation with and more like the monsters they hunted.

He reached out, brushing a thumb over Haruka’s cheekbone to smooth away a line of water that had been dripping down his tear line, but Haruka quickly batted the hand away roughly, wary of the knowing way in which he spoke. “…I swim how I feel, how I want. Not how someone else goads me into feeling or reacting.” He hoped it didn’t sound entirely like the lie it felt as soon as the words left his lips.

Matsuoka slipped on the mask of casual disinterest again, grin going cocky. “And here I thought we were supposed to be partners, in it together and all that?”

Haruka rolled onto the balls of his feet and slowly stood, taking care to drip as much water as possible into Matsuoka’s duffel bag. “Swimming isn’t piloting a Jaeger. I’m not your partner here; I swim for myself.” He stalked over to the lockers just beyond the benches and yanked the one he’d requisitioned open, tugging out a fresh towel and shaking it to unfurl it.

“Then if I let you keep swimming for yourself…as you call it…” Matsuoka’s voice was right by his ear and carried an otherworldly softness that hid the sharp edge of challenge currently glinting off of Haruka’s mind—and his fist clenched in the towel as he struggled to swallow, not daring to turn around. “…will you pilot for me?”

He blurred his vision and reminded himself that it would be rather unwise and frowned upon if he broke the new Transfer’s nose and sprained a few ribs for show, reminding his heart to calm down—if he wanted to take out his frustration over the race in a pound of Matsuoka’s flesh, the man would surely respond to a cordial invitation to lunch and a session in the Kwoon Combat Room. No need to show his hand here. He took a breath, and then, “Of course not. Piloting isn’t for any one person, regardless. It’s for the good of everyone else; for humanity.”

Matsuoka took a step back, and the oppressive weight was suddenly blessedly gone. “Maybe it’s supposed to be like that; but we both know better.” He turned on his heel and strode over to one of the benches, straddling it and cocking his head as he watched Haruka collect his belongings. “Everyone pilots for himself—for glory, for fame, maybe just to feel like they’re doing something instead of curling up into a little ball and waiting to die. No one pilots for anyone but themselves.”

Haruka slammed the locker door shut with one hand, tugging on a loose pair of sweats with the other and trying not to lose the towel draped around his neck. “Then why should I be the first to be any different?” He cursed softly to himself as he nearly lost his balance when one foot got stuck on the material inside the pants-leg—and he might have toppled backward into an embarrassing heap had there not been a helpful hand at his elbow steadying him.

“Because,” Matsuoka reasoned easily as Haruka jerked his arm back, tugging on the ties to the pants to keep them up around his hips. “If you pilot for me...then I’ll show you a sight you’ve never seen before.”

Well that was a new one.