Hikaru stood tall, chin raised, looking down his nose at the fidgeting Hayato, the little runt Sensei decided he had to mentor. A kid allowed to breeze through training because pilots were dying faster than they could be trained.
“This is war, Hayato. You need to start taking this seriously.”
Hayato cast his eyes down, shoulders tensed. “I am.”
“No, you’re not!” Hikaru snapped. “You treat piloting a mech like it’s a joyride and you have no focus. Someday, your carelessness will cost you or someone else their lives!”
“But I just… I’m just happy to fly and with someone so famous…”
“This isn’t the time or place. Understood?”
Hayato nodded. “Understood.”
Hayato looked up, confused. Hikaru’s scowl deepened.
“A kid like you doesn’t know what’s at stake. Takeshi’s family was taken by the robots. Hitomi lost her parents in the first rebellion. I lost my parents!”
“Yeah, well so did I!”
In the ensuing silence, Hayato’s angry expression faded into horror before his face fell again.
“I... forget I said anything.” He spun and ran out of the hallway.
Hikaru stood frozen, eyes locked on Hayato’s retreating form.
It was another three days until Hikaru was able to track down Hayato.
The rookie managed to evade everyone, keeping away from security cameras and staying in the furthest corners of the mountain. When Hikaru had asked, no other Exo-Force pilots had seen him around and no Gate Defender mechs had been registered for scouting duty or training under his name. So, he tried asking Keiken Sensei.
“He’ll be found when he’s ready,” was all Sensei had to offer.
During scouting duty, Hikaru finally found him on a high mountain ledge, far above the top floor of headquarters.
The Silent Strike landed a safe distance from the edge where Hayato, who didn’t seem to take notice, sat; he continued to dangle his feet over the steep drop.
Hikaru dismounted and stood stiff a few feet behind Hayato. They remained in silence for several minutes.
Finally, Hikaru broke the silence: “I’m sorry.”
Hayato turned around, surprised, which caused Hikaru to shift uncomfortably. He folded his arms and kept his eyes on Southern Sentai Mountain.
“I was too harsh. I’ve been too harsh. But don’t misunderstand,” Hikaru locked eyes with Hayato, “you still need to take your duties more seriously. Raw talent will only take you so far.”
Despite his cold tone, Hayato didn’t miss the hidden compliment, and knowing that legendary pilot Hikaru didn’t totally look down on him lifted his spirits a bit.
Hayato smiled. “I promise I’ll do better!”
Hikaru managed a smirk.
They stayed silent again until Hikaru sighed. “I know you said not to mention it, but…”
“No, it’s okay,” Hayato pulled his knees to his chest, “I thought about it a lot, and I figured you should know.
“During the Second Robot Rebellion, you know the first industrial village that was destroyed? That was my village.”
When Hikaru didn’t interrupt, he continued.
“I built a glider and I wanted to test it, so I went alone to a nearby mountain. When I was gliding back home, there was a sudden wind and I crashed into a tree. But then- then I heard people screaming and-” Hayato’s shoulders shook, “-and I could smell smoke, but I was stuck. I couldn’t…”
He hugged his knees tighter, “I got free when- when the noise stopped, but I could still smell smoke, and everything was on fire, so I ran home…”
Hikaru could hear Hayato’s muffled sniffles. “Our house was on fire, but I couldn’t see my family anywhere. That’s when…”
He took a deep breath, “I heard my little sister screaming-“
The tears he kept trying to hold back started to pour down his face, “but the fire was everywhere- hic- and the doors were blocked- hic- then it collapsed-“
By now, Hayato was sobbing.
“I’m- I’m sorry- hic- I cried a lot- hic- a lot less in my head…”
Both chuckled a bit, but the mood turned dark again when Hayato still couldn’t keep his tears from flowing.
With a sigh, Hikaru sat next to Hayato on the ledge and placed a hand on his shoulder. “Take your time.”
And he did. It took a few minutes for Hayato’s crying to quiet, enough for him to speak again.
“When the fire stopped, I- I had to look. I hoped that maybe, maybe, there was a miracle, but…”
Hayato looked straight into Hikaru’s eyes, grief-stricken. “I couldn’t even tell their bodies apart.”
Again, he started choking up, so Hikaru gave his shoulder a reassuring squeeze.
“My parents weren’t there, so I thought that maybe-,” he sniffed, “maybe they were okay, but when I found them…”
Hayato started shaking his head, “I was the only one left.”
He buried his face in his knees. “I should have… If I had…”
“Hayato,” Hikaru said sternly, “Look at me.”
He did, bloodshot eyes meeting Hikaru’s.
“You are not at fault. You couldn’t have stopped the robots and if you tried, you would have gotten yourself killed.”
“Maybe,” Hayato whispered, “I should have.”
Hikaru turned Hayato abruptly and snatched his other shoulder, lurching forward, face mere inches away.
“Don’t you dare say that,” He shook Hayato in his death grip, “You are a valuable member of the Exo-Force. What you do saves lives, saves families.”
“No. Don’t start. None of this is your fault.” He let his hands fall from Hayato’s shoulders. “Understood?”
Hayato let out a sigh, once again clutching his knees, “Yeah, I know.”
The atmosphere was beginning to make Hikaru squirm, crossing and uncrossing his legs almost constantly. Again, he sighed.
When Hikaru spoke again, his voice was quiet and melancholic, “Honestly, it never goes away. The guilt. Some days, you almost forget it. Others, you feel like you killed them yourself. Regardless, the thoughts will always be there. Things like ‘if I had only moved faster…’” He shook his head, breaking that train of thought, “I’m rambling. The point is, it gets better even if sometimes it feels worse.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Hikaru could see Hayato’s tearful look of awe, and it was making him uncomfortable. So, he moved to stand.
“That’s enough brooding for the year. Come on, it’s lunch time.”
Once Hikaru rose, Hayato followed. Then, he nearly tackled Hikaru in a hug.
Immediately, Hikaru went stiff. He reached to pry the teenager from around his waist but Hayato squeezed tighter.
His hands froze.
Though Hikaru wouldn’t return the hug, he offered Hayato a few awkward pats on the head.
“Alright, let’s get some food.”