It’s not all that often that the Marshal calls Daichi and Koushi into the big meeting room.
If he ever needs to speak to them, directly, without the aid of a runner, he’s most inclined to call them to the control room. That’s where he’s needed most of the time, and a man as important as the Marshal has no time to waste corralling his lead Rangers. He trusts everyone in that room with his life, the lives of his Rangers, and basically the whole human race, so there’s no need for secrecy there. It’s a feeling reciprocated by all the techs and Rangers as well. Everyone, from the latest batch of recruits, to the repair mechanics, to Takeda-sensei up in his lab is necessary to the war. A blanket of mutual trust among the inhabitants of the base is crucial to getting this dump of secondary base to function.
However, some state secrets and important strategy are better left to the ears of a select few. In that case, the Marshal tends to call his teams to his own personal quarters. They’re simple and hardly lived in—god knows the Marshal is up at all hours of the night on and off duty with the flick of a switch. The meetings there are brief and to the point, before the gathered are booted out as soon as possible. Daichi and Koushi have only been called to the big meeting room once, and that was when the first Category Four kaiju broke the surface of the Pacific, headed for Australia. The power triple in Darwin headed off the defense successfully before the kaiju could make landfall, but a Ranger was lost that day to the ocean and the wreckage of Geronimo Ace’s entire right side. His partner retired soon after, to no one’s surprise and everyone’s understanding.
So to be quite honest, the two Rangers aren’t all that thrilled to make this meeting.
Koushi is chewing his lip, eyebrows pressed together slightly. He doesn’t really want to betray his worry—especially to other members on the base—but the possible scenarios flicker through his mind quick as lightning, each one darker than the last. “What if it’s a Category Five?” He doesn’t wince at how hollow his voice sounds. He hasn’t heard anything on the news yet; surely that would be reported, right? But still…
“Hey.” Daichi nudges his shoulder and shoots his partner a comforting smile. “Asahi hasn’t said—”
“I know he hasn’t,” Koushi returns sharply, then feels bad for it. “God, Daichi, I’m sorry. It’s just…this can only be bad news, right?”
Daichi shrugs, but his smile doesn’t falter. “Well, you know Nishinoya hasn’t been around all that much, and he’s been acting really secretive. Maybe he was working on a project for the Marshal? Not that anything of that sort would keep him from blabbing to us.”
Koushi puts on his best brave face, although he knows Daichi can see right through him to the anxiety he tries to bury. It’s subconscious, at this point. The two instinctually test each other’s emotional and mental state all the time, but after four years together in the field (or ocean, really) Koushi can’t find it creepy. He needs the brush of his partner’s presence and the sweep of his attention as much as Daichi needs his. That’s what their partnership is built on; that’s why they’re the main team, the leaders.
Koushi takes a breath, letting Daichi’s warm and trustworthy presence calm him down. Daichi nods his approval, and taps the code in. Heavy metal doors part, and the pair step in.
Marshal Ukai is facing the screens wall, and Takeda-sensei is there as well, murmuring something low to him. The Marshal nods contemplatively, then turns to acknowledge his Rangers. The two straighten up instinctually under their leader’s gaze, and he nods again. “At ease, boys.” Takeda-sensei shoots them a wobbly smile.
“You wanted to see us, sir?” Daichi says, still maintaining good posture out of habit. Ukai sighs and drags a hand down his face. Koushi’s heart sinks with it.
“Situation’s getting rougher every day, though we already knew that. We’re not one of the primary bases—thank god—those are getting hit more often than anyone would like. I received word that another two Jaegers went down this month, taking their pilots with them.” Ukai pauses, and the room grows heavy with respectful silence. “I also hear that other secondary bases like our own have been visited more frequently. Category Twos and Threes mainly, but they still do their job, taking out infrastructure and civilians, and costing millions in Jaeger repair. Azumane’s not the only one predicting a rise in frequency of attacks either, you know.”
He turns to face the window, opening up into the Shatterdome. “We’re still pretty small, and we don’t get much funding since the kaiju tend to leave us be, for one reason or another, but things change. They’re getting bigger and smarter, so how long until they get bigger and smarter than us? That mad man Nishinoya seems to believe the kaiju are evolving based on their experiences fighting us.” Daichi and Koushi exchange glances. So Noya has been speaking with the Marshal.
“Well, if they’re going to evolve, then so will we. Secondary bases are required to hold a minimum of three Jaegers, and that’s fine for most of ‘em, but we’re short a team to pilot the third. With only two functional teams running defense, a Category Four could pick us off easy. Especially since we’ve got rookies as your assist.”
“Akaashi and Bokuto are away on a transfer to a primary base, too…” Daichi murmurs to himself.
“Are we getting a new team together, sir?” Koushi blurts. Marshal Ukai raises an eyebrow at him and walks over to the table in the center of the room, opening one of the file folders stacked on the edge.
“I’m getting there, Ranger,” he replies with a huff of amusement and Koushi goes scarlet. “We don’t really have the funds to hunt down a pair of seasoned veterans to take out our third, and she’d have to be calibrated and repaired and all that nonsense since she’s been inactive so long. However. A new solution has popped up, more or less.” He pulls a photo from the folder and shows the pair. “Doesn’t look like much right now since he’s still a work in progress, but in a few months he’ll be all put together and ready for Rangers.”
Koushi takes the photo and examines the Jaeger, while Daichi thumbs through the file folder. “He’s small,” Koushi concludes with surprise. “Probably a head and a half shorter than Apocalypto Alpha, and thinner, too. What’s with that?”
“Test type,” Daichi mumbles, having found the sketches of the finished Jaeger.
Takeda jumps in with a literal sparkle in his eye. “That’s right. He’s the first of his kind, completely unique. He’s a Test Mark as of now, since we’re really not sure if he’ll be up to par with the other, traditional Jaegers, but the government was willing to pay us to try. We designed him to be significantly lighter, more agile, and more responsive to the pilots. With luck and the right pilots, he could possibly be quicker than the Mark V Jaegers.” Takeda puffs up his chest in pride.
“Then what is the ‘test type’ part of this Jaeger? Seems fairly standard to me, why not just call it Mark VI?” Koushi presses.
The head scientist nods. “Very perceptive, Sugawara-san. Functioning on the basis of the idea that kaiju evolve through their experiences and pass it down through the hivemind to other kaiju, my scientists and I have sought out a way to enable the Jaeger to be variable enough to evolve in battle too. It was around the time we started throwing around ideas and looking for patrons to fund us, that I entertained a fascinating idea from one of the scientists in another department. He seemed to believe that by using kaiju materials and DNA, one could create an extremely versatile Jaeger with the potential to learn. An unholy combination of beast and machine, of sorts. I was fascinated by this completely insane idea, and by putting our heads together, we formed a design that just might work. A unique idea like this found private sponsors and even a little financial input from the Japanese government, so we were able to flesh out our idea. Literally.”
“Ah!” Daichi exclaims in understanding. “That’s where Nishinoya has been, then!”
Takeda-sensei grins. “He’s completely nuts, but he’s brilliant too. This project is his baby as much as it is mine.”
“Getting back to the point,” the Marshal breaks in, “we compiled a list of candidates that might be able to pilot this goddamn trainwreck of a Jaeger. It was a very short list to start out with, since a unique type like this requires an incredibly strong bond to pilot, but none of the candidate pairs have been able to hold it. Either they fall out of the Drift near immediately, or they suffer from unusual neural overload. It’s a real problem that many of our most promising recruits have been knocked out of commission temporarily with the danger level on the rise out there. We can’t figure out what the hell is causing the problem since everything seems normal enough until they settle into the Drift. Those who were able to hold on for a little while say that it feels too large a space and also too small at the same time. There’s some kind of pressure forcing them out, but it has to be mental since the readings are showing nothing out of the ordinary.”
“Hold on,” Koushi starts. “You’re not…you’re not going to ask us to—is that why we’re here?”
“God no,” Ukai stops his train of thought. “I would never risk my best pilots in a test type like that. But both Nishinoya and Takeda are convinced it can be done, and I’m willing to put my faith in them. That’s why I even agreed to this project in the first place. We have a last resort. There are two new recruits in training right now—both have some amazing abilities that would set them straight on the path to Rangers, however, they also have some major shortcomings that have prevented them from drifting successfully with another. To be honest, they’d probably be dropped from consideration as Rangers in the next couple of months anyway, so this is do or die for them as well. We’d like you to approach them with the chance to pilot the Test Mark and become Rangers.”
Marshal Ukai hands them each a thinner folder with the recruits’ information compiled in it. Koushi hums in interest and Daichi clicks his tongue disapprovingly. “It’ll be a real stretch to get them to cooperate, I apologize in advance,” the Marshal says. “They’re both strong personalities, and it’s doubtful they’re even Drift compatible. Even so, we want to give it a shot. Go fetch them after their lunch break tomorrow, make the offer, and for god’s sake try and get them onboard. Oh, and get that shrimp to show you around the test type first. Dismissed.”
The Rangers salute sharply, and turn to leave. Daichi hesitates. “Sir, what did you say the name of the Test Mark was?”
Ukai whistles. “I didn’t. But since you asked…” His smile is sharp. “Tyrant Omega.”
Daichi nods in acknowledgement and tests out the name on his tongue as he jogs to catch up to Koushi. Tyrant Omega. A fitting name: both the underling of the Alpha, and a powerful contender to lead. Takeda must be proud. Well, we’ll see if this Jaeger can live up to such a promising title.
“Oi, watch out.”
“Look out, look out, he’s coming!~”
“Make way for the ‘king of the base’.”
“If you don’t bow down he’ll knock you out of the Drift in a heartbeat.”
“I heard that the headaches you get after Drifting with him are worse than migraines.”
“Oh? I heard he actually gave a kid a nosebleed.”
“Ehhh?! No way! I guess a selfish monarch like that doesn’t care as long as he can use you to maintain his perfect simulator score, huh?”
It’s hard to tune out the whispers with halls that echo as much as the base’s do, but after months of training, Kageyama is quite adept. So what if the other recruits don’t like his style of training? He’s got the highest score in the simulator of his class and he’s surely the top pick for official Ranger training. If they pushed as hard as he did, worked until every muscle fiber and neuron in their body ached, they would be as good as him. It’s just jealousy, Kageyama tells himself. But this jealousy hasn’t made him many friends.
That’s okay too, though. Friends would probably distract him from his training, and until he makes the cut as a Ranger and is seated comfortably in his own Jaeger, he needs to focus. Although the silence that greets him every time he walks into the mess hall is a little more than disturbing to his concentration. Sure, he could probably sit with his usual rotation, the one with the shallot-head guy and the sneaky weasel-faced one, but he prefers the solitude of the free gyms during lunch break. Occasionally, he spars with an invisible opponent, runs, or stretches before he eats. (Food tastes better after you’ve worked up a sweat, anyway.)
Today is no different. He hasn’t run in a while, and his legs are itching for a good workout. The indoor track should be open, in any case. He wanders past the Kwoon Room, but pauses and heads back once he passes it. He does want to run, but… Really, they only ever go in there if the Master is present or there’s a physical compatibility test going on, so he’s not really sure if recruits are allowed. But holding the staff in his hand and moving with it, using every muscle in alternations of balance and power, puts Kageyama’s mind at ease like nothing else can. He sneaks in with his lunch tray, tucking it into the corner and away from the mat. Padding over to the staff rack, he selects the one right for his height and lets out a long breath. The rod is heavy and smooth under his fingers, and it feels right. He warms up with a few test swings, maintaining perfect posture.
Kageyama’s about to launch a simple attack on the air in front of him when he hears a throat clear behind him. He whips around with a flush at being caught, when he notices the person behind him is leaning on the doorframe at ease. He’s clearly not intending on turning Kageyama in. The guy looks to be in his early twenties—not much older than Kageyama, actually—and he has an amused smile on his face. Before Kageyama can open his mouth to ask the guy what he wants, the other beats him to it. “Not sure newbies are really supposed to be in here on their own. You could get hurt, you know?”
Kageyama stiffens and narrows his eyes before recognition sets in, and then he’s wide-eyed and horrified. It’s Sawamura Daichi in front of him, co-pilot of Apocalypto Alpha, and half of the leading team of Rangers on the base. Kageyama didn’t recognize the guy out of uniform. “A-Apologies, sir!”
Daichi chuckles and waves his hand dismissively. “Relax, kid. I didn’t come here to rat you out for using the facilities during lunch hour.” He walks past Kageyama and over to the staff rack. He runs his fingers over them with a wistful smile on his face. “Nothing but good memories in this room. Sure, training’s a real pain and we worked some long hours in here until I couldn’t remember if I’d ever not been sweaty, but it’s also where I sparred with my partner for the first time. ‘Course, I kicked his ass almost every time, but the point’s not to win, it’s to forge a bond.”
Daichi glances back at Kageyama. “You can’t do this whole thing on your own.” It’s like being slapped in the face. Daichi has a knowing look in his eyes, which says he’s heard about how unpleasant a partner Kageyama is in the Drift. How he overworks his partners to move faster, think quicker, and push harder. Kageyama knows he’s a pusher, but he always figured one day he’d stumble upon the right partner who’d acquiesce to his needs and with whom he could be a casual but pleasant acquaintance.
“You’re probably thinking that eventually you’ll find the right partner. That they’ll be a subservient, non-presence in the back of your mind when you pilot a Jaeger. That you won’t have to really see or talk to them outside of your duties or for when you become a decorated war hero. Better yet, maybe they’ll find a way to work with a single pilot without the issues of neural overload one day. That’d be ideal, wouldn’t it?” Daichi has moved gradually closer and closer to Kageyama, who has backed away in return, ears burning and anger flaring.
“Let me tell you a little secret, rookie—they already tried that. It doesn’t work, it won’t work, it can’t work. In order to be a Jaeger pilot, you must rely on your partner, you must connect with them, and you must trust them. There’s no one-man-show in any base in the world, kiddo. Those that have run solo combat have paid or are paying with their lives. No one does it all on their own.” He puts an arm around Kageyama’s shoulders sympathetically.
“I’ve been hard on you—sorry. I just couldn’t believe my eyes when I read your file.” He waves the folder. “The very core of piloting is trust and teamwork; I didn’t understand how or why anyone would want to do it alone. But I guess you’re a special case.” He claps Kageyama on the back hard enough to make him stumble forward. Kageyama shoots him a glare and Daichi laughs. “That’s more like it. We need our Rangers to have spirit; god knows those rookies are way too uptight.”
Kageyama blinks once in confusion, and then he jerks up. “Wait…you need your Rangers to have spirit?”
Daichi grins slyly. “That’s right. Kageyama Tobio, you may be the rumored ‘king of the base’ who cares for no one but himself, but your simulator scores are flawless, and you have a wide range of Drift compatibility—although no one is compatible with you—not to mention you’ve excelled in your physical training. I’m not gonna lie to you—that attitude and personality of yours would put you out of the running as a Ranger for a normal Jaeger. Lucky for you though, the Marshal has a special offer: a new, Test Mark Jaeger with features completely new to the world of Jaeger designs. He’s an oddball, and apparently tough to Drift in, but we’ve put a lot faith in his abilities. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity…do you want in?”
Kageyama’s brain swam at “out of the running as a Ranger” and “Test Mark Jaeger”, but he latches on to the essential message behind Daichi’s speech which was do you want to pilot a Jaeger? He opened and closed his mouth twice before sputtering, “Na—Of—Yes!”
Couldn’t decide between ‘Naturally!’ and ‘Of course!’, huh? Daichi thinks to himself. He might just be an okay guy.
“Come on then,” he said, gesturing with a nod and walking out. “Let’s go meet your new co-pilot and your brand new Jaeger.”
Kageyama sprints after him, still in a daze, but quickly shaking himself out of it in order to appear more professional. (Daichi laughs again. “Oh man, Suga’s gonna love you.”)
Kageyama’s lunch tray remained in the corner of the Kwoon Room, cold and forgotten.
“Out of meat buns again, huh?” Izumi shoots his dejected friend a sympathetic glance and pats him on the back. “Maybe if you stopped staying so late after the instructors released you, you would make it in time.”
Hinata goes from gloomy to belligerent in a tenth of a second. “But Izumin, my rotation is so crowded, and nobody is taking the training seriously. No matter how much our instructor yells at us, they never do anything. I have no one to fight and nothing to test my abilities against. Honestly, you and Kouji are the only ones I have worth training with.” Hinata wraps his arms around his knees. “Just because our rotation has the lowest potential doesn’t mean that we should give up hope. If we hone our bodies, minds, and abilities, even the least Drift compatible at least have a shot at being a Ranger…”
Izumi and Kouji exchange worried glances. Hinata’s been pretty down as of late, and the fact that he trains with recruits so far beneath his level of ability with no motivation hasn’t helped a bit. It’s not really fair, Izumi thinks. Hinata’s a stellar candidate for a Ranger. He’s a born fighter, quick on his feet and swift in his takedowns. What he lacks in strength and power he makes up for in sharp thinking and pure speed. He’s as slippery as an eel, but he has a hawk’s keen eye, and takes advantage of every opening. The one time his rotation trained in the Kwoon Room, he was the closest to beating the Master. Not only that, but both Izumi and Kouji have heard rumors that his skill in the simulator is unparalleled. He is innovative, careful of collateral damage, and takes down the kaiju as fast as possible. Kouji definitely heard one of the techs say he was inhumanly fast, too fast even for the Jaeger. Of course, with his low rank, both his insane score and the instructor’s notes of approval were lost under the weight of the other recruits’ potential.
Hinata just…couldn’t Drift. There was something about the way he tried to sync with his partner—maybe he was too overzealous or disruptive or something, because he fell out of the Drift before the bridge could even fully form every time, without fail. Not that a setback even as significant as that would ever stop him from trying. Hinata was determined to be a pilot, and that was that. He had the drive, sure...but what Hinata really needed was the right peers to push him beyond his limits, force him to excel. In the right situation—well, his friends were sure that Hinata would shine brighter than any other recruits, no matter how Drift compatible they were.
It was because of this that they tried to help him in any way they could. The three had known each other since junior high, and honestly, it was only coincidence that they all ended up at the base together. But everyone had a different path. Izumi was trying to put his degree to use and become a tech for the base, crossing his fingers that he could make it in with the big boys in the control room as an intern. Kouji, who went to a trade school, signed up because the pay was good, and he needed to take care of his parents who lost their house in one of the kaiju attacks. And he was a pretty damn good mechanic, anyway, already in training to work repair on the Jaegers. Hinata’s was the brightest, most glorious path though, so his childhood friends would do what they could.
Both had been on school sports teams in high school, and kept up their fitness even after. They weren’t ideal sparring partners, but they were better than the lumps of flesh that occupied Hinata’s rotation. Any break that overlapped with Hinata’s was filled with shouts and the clack of the short staffs Hinata had managed to sneak away into his room. And when all three overlapped, like at lunch, the guys took time to catch up.
But with Hinata’s cheery demeanor faltering, a solemn air hung over the group. Kouji shook himself from gloomy thoughts and ruffled Hinata’s hair affectionately. “Geez, Shou-chan, you just gonna let those calories sit in your gut and put fat on those bones? What’re you gonna do if all your muscles wither away because you sulked so much?”
Hinata leapt to his feet and huffed. “Like I’d ever let that happen!” He started jogging in place before glaring at Kouji as hard as he could (which was actually pretty cute, in a pathetic kind of way). “…And don’t call me Shou-chan.”
“Whatever you say, Shou-chan,” Izumi pipes in breezily, a serene smile on his face. Hinata growls at his two best friends, and the pair laugh at his attempt at ferocity. He ends up putting his hands on his hips, taking a deep breath and preparing to give them a tongue-lashing, when a soft voice stops him.
He turns around in surprise, and then jumps a foot in the air. “Wah! You’re…you’re Sugawara Koushi, aren’t you?! Um,” he thinks for a moment before his eyes go wide as saucers. “I-I promise I was intending on returning the staffs to the Kwoon Room! S-soon! Today, actually! I just wanted to train a little more, sir!”
Koushi laughs lightly. “No need to be so jumpy. I am looking for you, but not for…that reason.” He tucks a strand of hair behind his ear, and Hinata figures that in person, this guy is really pretty beautiful. No wonder he’s got a lot of fans. But what does he want with me?
“Ah, I hope you’re finished with your lunch. I have somewhat urgent business that we must attend to. I apologize if I have interrupted.”
Hinata gulps. “We?”
“Yes, we,” Koushi says with a smile. “But I can’t explain here. Top secret business, you know?”
Hinata’s eyes grow even wider, but he snaps to attention. “U-um, well, I have finished my lunch, so I guess I’m free to go? Sir.”
Koushi gestures for him to follow. “I’m glad. Ah, and no need for all that formality. Just Suga is fine.”
“Suga-san,” Hinata murmurs under his breath. He takes a step to follow, but then glances back to his friends, giving him confused but supportive smiles. Hinata kind of feels like he’ll never see them again.
Koushi notices this and adds, “Don’t worry, you aren’t in trouble. Quite the opposite, actually—I intend to explain on the way. There’s no need to worry.”
Hinata nods finally, after a long moment, and follows Koushi. “Good luck, Shou-chan,” Izumi says just loud enough for them both to hear. Hinata goes redder than his hair and flips them off, while Koushi hides a smile behind his hand.
When they’re safely sealed into the cargo elevator, Koushi puts his hands on his hips and looks Hinata in the eyes. “So,” he says. “You want to be a Ranger.”
Hinata fidgets under the direct gaze, but gives a small nod. “I joined the training program here at this base because I wanted to be a Ranger. I felt so useless sitting at home while my parents worried themselves grey and Natsu cried alone in her room.” He straightens up. “I hate feeling helpless. I want to do something to help them. This is something I can do, so I’m going to put my mind, body, and soul into it.”
Well…that was all accurate. But truthfully, Hinata had once snuck out to see a televised kaiju-Jaeger battle. The smallest Mark V ever commissioned had been forced to defend not only Tokyo, but her two fallen assists, against a fierce Category Four. Despite the incredible odds against her, the Mark V was able to evade the kaiju’s attacks and deal a quick, powerful blow that killed it instantly. The crowd watching had erupted into cheers, and Hinata was swept away in their celebration as the news anchor spoke. “Saving all three crews with their astonishing skills and bravery, the pilots of the Mark V Jaeger Small Giant have done it again…” Hinata had known instantly that he would become a pilot, or die trying. But that’s not what he told people.
Koushi nods thoughtfully. “All admirable reasons.” He opens and flips through Hinata’s file folder. “I’ve taken a good look through your file, and I’ve seen all the crazy stuff you can do that’s slipped under the radar. You’re pretty incredible, and you’ve got great aptitude to become a pilot—better than me, for sure, maybe better than Daichi or the ace kid at the top of the training program. Killer instincts are what win battles, and you’ve got them.” Hinata brightens under the praise.
Koushi sighs. “However, I’ve also seen your practical Drift compatibility. It’s abysmal, and we both know it. It’s very strange that someone of your talent would be so disinclined to the Jaeger program, especially since you have no history of mental trauma. Maybe you just need the right partner, but…” He sighs again. “You’ve got terrible odds, and you must know that. Don’t you think you should just give up and try for an easier, more suitable position? I bet you could become the Master of the Kwoon Room in no time flat. Why do you keep trying?”
Hinata is silent for a long moment. Then, he tilts his head to the side, expression neutral, and looks Koushi dead in the eyes. “I guess it’s like this: I haven’t been kicked out yet, right?” He shrugs. “Regardless of whether or not I can Drift, I have great aptitude for piloting—all the tests have shown that. And I haven’t been dropped from the program. As long as they’ll have me, I’ll keep pushing until I’m a pilot like you. I’ll do the simulator over and over, practice for hours and hours, even attempt to Drift until I feel like puking. There’s no point in giving up if there’s still a chance, right?”
He stares long and hard at Koushi, who holds a poker face for another long moment before breaking out into a smile. “God, I knew you’d be worth it. All that nonsense about testing…it doesn’t matter. I knew you had fire; you’ll make a great pilot. Don’t worry about the Drifting too much, you’ve already got a co-pilot, so we’ll just work you two into sync, I’ve seen it done before. Daichi’s training regimen is killer, but you’ve got the body and the ability for it. I’m really glad to have you aboard.”
Hinata stares at him blankly, the words registering but not computing in his mind. “…What?”
“Ah, sorry,” Koushi apologizes for the second time. “I’ve gone and rushed you into this. I just wanted to make sure you were really the type of guy I thought you were. And you passed my test!”
“I’ll make a great pilot?” Hinata asks weakly.
“Yes,” Koushi agrees. “I was told to summon you to the Shatterdome where you’ll see him. You and another recruit have been selected to attempt piloting the newly developed Test Mark, Tyrant Omega. I won’t lie to you—you two weren’t our first choice. In fact, you’re our last choice. But if you can Drift successfully, and manage to pilot him, he’s all yours. He’s rather tricky though; knocked out our best recruits. We’re hoping that an oddball duo like you two can pull off a miracle.”
Hinata stumbles backwards a little bit. “I’m gonna be a pilot? My own Jaeger?” At Koushi’s nod of affirmation, he lights up and lets out a whoop of glee, before covering his mouth in embarrassment at doing such a childish thing in front of a legend. Koushi doesn’t seem to mind though, and glances up.
“Ah, we’re here.”
Recruits aren’t allowed into the Shatterdome under any circumstances until they are fully trained and on their way to becoming Rangers. And even then, they need at least one pilot or instructor keeping an eye on them. In the hangar holding humanity’s last hope, even the smallest mistake or accident could prove fatal to millions. Hinata had never actually been in the Shatterdome, although he had seen pictures and fantasized, even to the point of putting a poster up in his dorm room.
Such a small expression of awe could not truly portray Hinata’s exhilaration at finally being allowed inside. The hangar was huge—obviously, it had to be, but knowing that and seeing it firsthand were two different things entirely. He just had to spin around once to get the full feeling of the enormity of the building. And the Jaegers. Taller than skyscrapers, even, Hinata would bet. He had to tilt his head all the way up to catch a glance of Apocalypto Alpha’s face. To think that something that tall didn’t even scrape the roof! The entire place was buzzing, too—white coats with clipboards, grease coated engineers barking at each other for different tools, managers keeping tabs on materials, and materials being carted from Jaeger to Jaeger, in and out of cargo elevators. A cargo helicopter lowered itself through one of the ceiling doors, its blades creating a deafening echo that was challenged by the low rumble of voices and the hiss and whir of machinery. The smell of electricity and motor oil, he thinks, breathing in deeply. Hinata was captivated. He was in love.
A shoulder roughly bumped into his, knocking him back a few steps. “Oops. Didn’t see you there, shorty.”
Hinata rubbed his shoulder and glanced up to see the smug look of someone he immediately categorized as absolute bastard. He was the one who “accidentally” bumped Hinata, although such a dismissive tone of voice revealed how much of accident it wasn’t. Unfortunately, he was intimidatingly tall and mean-looking, and Hinata had to bite back a yelp. A smaller, freckled guy appeared from behind him and sneered in a completely unintimidating way, though, so Hinata was able to compose himself.
“Who the he—”
“Oi, Suga. Shouldn’t you be keeping the pup on a leash? He might get lost or hurt,” tall-blond-and-bespectacled snipped at Koushi, cutting Hinata off. Freckles huffed in agreement.
“Hmm? Oh, Tsukishima,” Koushi replied sweetly. “Are you upset that you’re not the talk of the hangar anymore? No? Well, if you have time to spare, I think Daichi’s got a little something to keep even your mind occupied. What was that training regimen called again…ah, that’s right, The Remedy. I hear it’s strong enough to put even the most rambunctious of rookies out of their misery.”
Tsukishima narrowed his eyes at Koushi, and for a moment, the air felt like a fight. But the moment passed, and Tsukishima backed off with a click of his tongue, apparently more afraid of Daichi than of letting his pride hurt. He stalked off with a call of “Tadashi” thrown over his shoulder. Freckles—Tadashi, Hinata supposed—puffed up his chest and growled at Hinata, “You stay out of Tsukki’s way, hear?” before chasing down the blond. (“Coming, Tsukki!”)
Hinata watched them go, feeling strangely more irritated by that forty second encounter than by anything he’d ever experienced before. Koushi sighed and rubbed his head. “Sorry about that. Those rookies get braver every day. Soon enough, even the threat of Daichi won’t keep them in line.” He smiles apologetically.
“Well, you needed to get to know them anyway. That’s Tsukishima Kei, the pilot of Gold Strike, our only Mark V. He’s got a pretty bad personality, but after knowing him for a year, I guess I find him oddly tolerable. That little sidekick of his is Yamaguchi Tadashi, his co-pilot. He’s actually a sweetheart and a hard-worker, if he’d stop worshipping the ground Tsukishima walks on. Gotta respect him for clawing his way to the top, though. He had very little aptitude as a pilot, to start.” Koushi beckons for Hinata to follow. “They seem pretty dysfunctional if you think about it, and to be honest, I never asked them how they’re so drift compatible, but they’re a pretty dependable duo. They’ve been running flank for Daichi and I for a year now, about.”
He nods at one of the Jaegers. “That’s Gold Strike. He’s one of the fastest Mark V’s ever commissioned, and they put his speed to good use. Typically they do the initial blows and we deal the finishing one. Tsukishima’s probably just crabby that we get all the glory.” Hinata finds that he is grudgingly amazed at the elegant beauty of the Jaeger. Gold Strike is smooth and aerodynamic, all dark blues with the occasional silver plating and bright yellow detail lining that reminds Hinata of a lightning storm. He feels a little bad that such a powerful and regal machine has to be piloted by those two jackasses.
Nodding to the other side of the hangar, Koushi tells him about the other Jaeger. “And of course, that beauty is Apocalypto Alpha. She’s a shining beacon of hope, and I do love her so. She’s a Mark IV, but she handles really well for something so heavy. She also packs the greatest payload of all the Jaegers I’ve ever seen, and she’s chock full of weapons and mechanical strength. I wouldn’t ride with any other girl.” He takes a moment to blink fondly at his Jaeger, a solidly built mecha of glimmering silver and peeling gold paint. She's unusual in her light coloring; most Jaeger designs favor dark colors and brighter details, but Suga-san is right, Hinata thinks. Apocalypto Alpha does look like a beacon of hope.
“She has two siblings, as well,” Koushi informs him. “Same exact design, different paint job, and an armory suited to their pilots. One’s away on transfer, though, and the other’s out of commission.”
Hinata glances around once more, peering down the hangar, but… “There’s only two?”
Koushi smiles knowingly. “Our third is in storage, and yours has its own hangar, branching off behind AA.” They come to another hangar door, this one large enough to accompany something very large, but not any of the Jaegers currently in the main hangar of the Shatterdome. Koushi taps in a code, and the doors part. They step in quickly, and the doors shut just as fast.
“We’re trying to keep this as quiet as possible,” Koushi explains. We don’t want the media latching onto any news of a new breed of Jaeger, especially if the project falls apart.”
That’s right, Hinata remembers. This is still only a test. I may never pilot a Jaeger yet… He shakes those thoughts from his head and follows Koushi around the corner. And then, he is floored.
His first thought is: now I understand why the hangar doors are smaller. And then, he’s just a baby Jaeger. True enough, Tyrant Omega was of smaller stature and thinner frame than the other two out in the Shatterdome. Half his side was draped in plastic curtains, and the echoes of machinery told Hinata that he wasn’t 100% complete just yet. Unlike the others, Tyrant Omega didn’t look completely mechanical. Hinata couldn’t put his finger on what exactly gave him that impression, but something about the dark, textured material that coated his outside along bright, reflective titanium gave a reptilian appearance to his structure. The body type, too, looked far more detailed to look like something real, something living…Hinata walked closer, entranced.
The strange, almost skin-looking material covered about half of Tyrant Omega’s body, in contrast with the silver and black painted metal that made up the other half. The alternation of metal and material made it look like he had…muscles, almost, like the metal was just armor protecting a dormant beast. Of course, Hinata knew that under that faux skin were gears and wires, pistons and engines that helped the machine to run. The illusion, however, was unsettling, almost to the point of disturbing. The head of the Jaeger was also covered in the clouded plastic of the curtains, and Hinata felt a bizarre sadness rise up in him that he couldn’t see the Jaeger’s face.
“He makes me nervous, to be honest,” Koushi admits quietly, from behind Hinata. “At least with the Jaegers, you know, they look…human. But that thing, I don’t know, it just has this presence. Like a wild animal or something, all I can think of is that it’s some kind of…monster.” Koushi shivers.
“He’s beautiful,” Hinata murmurs.
Koushi blinks at him in surprise, and Hinata turns to explain. “I mean, obviously, I can see why he’s a test type. He’s really grotesque, to be honest, like some kind of hybrid animal and machine. I get goosebumps looking at him, and it’s not exactly the good kind. But maybe that’s what we need. If something like this is on our side, what would the kaiju think? Maybe for once, they would be the ones afraid.”
He puts his hands on his hips and takes a deep breath. “It’s okay, Suga-san. You don’t need to be anxious about this Jaeger. With me as a pilot, I’ll make sure I’ve always got your back. I’m gonna make you rely on us, too, so please think of this Jaeger as the kid of the family, just raring to prove himself.” Hinata fixes him with a confident and warm smile, and Koushi finds that he has to shiver for an altogether different reason.
He puts a hand on Hinata’s shoulder. “I’ll be counting on you from now on, then.”
The two grin at each other before Koushi nods towards the small gathering of people at Tyrant Omega’s base. “C’mon. It’s about time you meet these guys. And your future co-pilot.” Hinata’s smile goes wobbly with nerves, and Koushi rolls his eyes and pushes him forward. “Don’t be chickening out now.”
When they get closer to the group, Koushi easily picks Daichi out from the crowd, and feels for him along their bond. Daichi blinks and looks over at him, giving a small wave. “Well, well, well. Look who decided to show up,” he calls to them, and the rest of the group look up. Koushi recognizes Takeda-sensei and his handful of trustworthy scientists that helped in the project. Surprisingly, Noya isn’t present. Koushi had thought he might have wanted to assess the pilots of his precious baby in person. Alongside Daichi is a younger guy with stiff posture and a foul expression. That must be Kageyama Tobio, then, Koushi muses. This will be an odd pair.
“Where’s Noya at?” He asks by way of greeting. Daichi grins and looks up to the top of Tyrant Omega.
“Some slippery nonsense about calibrating the Conn-Pod to Omega’s ‘unique system’, or so he said,” Daichi snorts. “The fact that he wouldn’t meet my eyes does kind of make that story sounds fishy, though, not gonna lie.”
“We can introduce them later I suppose,” Koushi sighs. “Speaking of, I’d like to introduce Hinata Shouyou, candidate pilot number I don’t know what.”
Hinata bows politely to Daichi and then—more hesitantly—to Kageyama, standing off to the side of Daichi and sizing him up. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Sawamura-san and uh…”
“Kageyama Tobio. The other new candidate, I’m sure you’ve gathered. With luck, you two will be co-pilots. And please, just Daichi is fine,” Daichi replies.
Kageyama doesn’t say a word, but offers his hand. Hinata shakes it firmly, and Kageyama mutters, “Nice meeting you.”
Geez, Hinata thinks. That attitude makes you think he’d been asked to touch a leper. What’s this guy’s problem anyway? Working together’s gonna be tough…
Kageyama releases his hand, but pauses. He tilts his head slightly at Hinata, who in return, looks him over curiously. Kageyama frowns in thought, and Hinata unconsciously mimics the action. “You look…” he starts.
“…Familiar,” Hinata finishes. He was thinking the same thing. Something about this guy’s sour face and the way he holds himself is eating at Hinata’s brain. Surely he hasn’t seen him before?
“Well,” Daichi breaks in. “This base is big, but it’s not that big. It’s definitely possible that you’ve run into each other, especially since you’ve both enlisted in the Ranger training program and test process. But to think that a noble would recognize a peasant, that’s something.” Koushi berates Daichi for his teasing in an urgent whisper, but Hinata's brain is already working.
That guy stiffens at the jab and his eyes narrow, and then it clicks. “’King of the base’,” he murmurs quietly. “Wow, to think I’d see a guy like that in the flesh.” He doesn’t mean for it to come out sounding as patronizing as it does; truthfully, the king’s supposed to be an amazing person, so that’s kind of cool. But he can tell he’s made a mistake by the sharp snap of Kageyama’s eyes to his, and then suddenly he’s shoved painfully against a metal wall with a thunk, and the king’s face is way too close to his.
“What the hell did you say?” he snarls, and Hinata squeaks in response. “Don’t ever call me by that name again.”
“Put me down,” Hinata growls, fear melting into irritation at being shoved around like a little kid. Aren’t they supposed to be partners now? Kageyama’s hold on his jacket tightens, and Hinata kicks at him. Hissing in pain, he drops him, and the two stare each other down.
“Hey,” Daichi calls in surprise. “What the hell are you guys doing?” Koushi jogs over to try and break it up, but they both shove his hand away when he rests it on their shoulders.
“Are you really a recruit?” Kageyama snaps. “I’ve never seen you anywhere around the training rooms and you’re not in my rotation. Why were you picked as my partner if you can’t even keep up with the basic training regimen?”
Hinata sees red. “Listen up, asshole. I’m the goddamn best in the Jaeger simulator, perfect marks and addends from my instructors verifying that I’ve got the instincts for the job. Not to mention I’ve wiped the floor with my entire rotation and a few others that challenged me to a round. I was pretty damn near taking down the Kwoon Room Master, too! What do you have that I don’t?”
Kageyama rolls his eyes. “Oh please, plenty of people have figured out the simulator, who cares if you got good marks? I’m the top of the class, and that includes you, dumbass! And for the record, I did beat the Master. I’ve also got the broadest range of Drift compatibility of all the recruits. What’re your scores anyway?”
Hinata falters. He opens his mouth, closes it, then looks away. Kageyama gets in his space, pressing. “Well?”
“12%,” Hinata mutters. Kageyama’s jaw drops and he sputters in disbelief.
“12%?! You do realize that the cut off to even be considered for a Ranger’s position is 75%?” At this point Kageyama is practically foaming at the mouth. Their voices only get louder and louder, drawing the attention of a few mechanics.
“Guys, please,” Koushi begs. “Can’t we at least try to get along?”
But the two don’t hear him.
“Just because it’s that low doesn’t mean I can’t Drift! If I train hard I’ll be able too!”
“Imbecile! You need to actually have aptitude in order to be a pilot!”
“And I do! I have incredibly high aptitude to be a pilot, read my file.”
“Do you even underst—”
Daichi’s voice booms loud enough to cut off Kageyama mid-yell. The two look up at him, and Koushi winces and sighs. “Now you’ve done it…”
The veteran pilot fixes the two with a ferocious smile that shakes them to their bones. He’s a hurricane with skin right now, and the calm exterior hides an overpowering fury at his subordinates. “You two seem to have forgotten two very, very important facts. One, you are not pilots yet. Two, in order to become pilots, you have to work together.” His voice rises sharply at the end. Koushi walks over and rests a hand on his arm, and he takes a deep breath.
“I’ve seen enough. Marshal Ukai put me and Suga in charge of beating you newbies into shape, and I thought that maybe we could work with what he’d given us. But with your attitudes, I realize now that it’s a futile task. So I’ve made a decision. Neither of you will be getting anywhere near Tyrant Omega until you can prove that you’re willing and able to participate as the close team that we need. Omega is not like the other Jaegers, and he does need an incredibly close bond to function, so if you can’t at least act civil with each other, we’ll start pulling people off the street to replace you as candidates. God knows they’d have a better chance.
“We’ve lost a lot of good recruits and potential Rangers to this beast, all pairs better than the both of you. I don’t care what your strengths or weaknesses are. They don’t matter anymore, so just forget about all that bureaucratic nonsense they’ve been shoving down your throats. What really matters is your ability to cover for each other’s weaknesses and pool your strengths so that you’re stronger together than you ever would be alone.
“I don’t care how you do it. Spar, test Drift, talk it out if you have to. Whatever you do, figure out and improve your relationship if you ever want to get in a Jaeger. You both were a hair from getting kicked out of our training program, and you can just as easily be dismissed from this program. I want to see major improvement by the time Tyrant Omega is complete and ready to be test run. If you’re not ready by then…you will be discharged. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes sir,” Kageyama and Hinata reply in unison. They won’t look at each other. Daichi deflates a little, disappointment heavy on his face. Koushi peers at him in concern, and Daichi raises an eyebrow at his partner.
“Suga, don’t you go helping them either. This is something they’ve got to figure out themselves, and you won’t do them any good holding their hands,” Daichi rumbles, giving Koushi a knowing look. The other hesitates, then gives a small nod.
“Alright you two,” Koushi says, turning to them. “You’re dismissed.”
“One last thing,” Daichi says, as they turn to leave. “You’ll be staying in the same room, Rangers’ quarters, starting tomorrow. So get packed up.”
The two Rangers watch their looks of disdain and surreptitious glances at each other as they depart, a wide berth between them. Koushi leans his head on Daichi’s shoulder, and the physical connection soothes them both. “What’re we going to do?” Koushi sighs.
Daichi rubs his face with his hand. “I really don’t know. At least Tsukishima and Yamaguchi only rubbed us the wrong way, not each other. I haven’t the slightest clue how we’re going to get them to cooperate. Ah, Noya’s gonna be pretty down. He put a lot of effort into this project.”
“Let’s not give up just yet,” Koushi presses.
“Oh, I haven’t given up on them, don’t worry. They’ve got the fire and the drive to do amazing things. If they could just bond, I feel like the sum of their power could really do some great things. Hinata’s got the natural talent and restless energy and conviction. If Kageyama could harness that and strategize for them, hell, we might be out of a job as the main team. But they’ve got to get past their personalities and their demons first.”
Koushi nods in agreement. “C’mon, the Marshal will want a report, no matter how disastrous.”
That evening, both friends and enemies alike gave Hinata and Kageyama their space. The usual taunts of ‘king of the base’ fell unspoken from the other recruits, and a nervous fear settled instead, with one look at his expression of broiling fury. Hinata’s companions probed at their friend’s unusually malevolent countenance, but a few sharp, clipped answers had them bidding him goodnight with worry in their eyes and voices.
Despite their reluctance, both heeded Daichi’s advice and miserably packed up their belongings, ignoring the curious glances of their roommates. Hinata’s supposed the poor kid finally got kicked out, with a disastrous sync score as his. Kageyama’s whispered that he’d threatened, no, hurt, no, killed a major officer and was getting stuck in a mental institution.
In any case, the two fell asleep with the same thought in their heads:
How will I ever—
—get along with a guy like that?