Title: The Edge of Hope
Chapter: 1 - Return
Word Count: 6076

Notes: Brace yourselves for a long beginning note.

I cannot tell you how excited I am to start posting this. This fic has been my life for so long and I haven't been able to share it with hardly anyone for fear of spoiling it. (Once I start talking about my fic, I get excited and tell the entire plot.) The initial response I got to the concept was mostly along the lines of "that's been done before," but I'm excited, my beta was excited, and my artist is excited. :)

This is one of the most intense fics I've ever written in terms of sheer volume and intensity. In addition to that, OFBB was an entirely new experience for both my beta and I, and I think neither of us were getting into. My first concept for the Fic Bang was intense, and by the end of the first week, I had thrown a 14-page outline and a two-page language guide at her. My beta didn't even flinch, diving feet first into a fic with a lot of world-building. Unfortunately, I was unable to roll with my first concept because it required a whole hell of a lot more time, energy, tears, and word count than I could manage for this. When I changed tacks, she handled it like a boss.

So, like an old movie, we're going to go credits first because these guys (well, gals, actually) deserve some major credit:

Hands down, I could not have done this without leviosaphoenix on AO3 (ohmyemilybett on Tumblr), my lovely beta. Quite honestly, I feel like this is our ace love child in some ways. I pitched the idea of her beta-ing for me out of left field, and was met with the most enthusiasm I've ever seen. One of the best decisions of my life. She has done beta work for me across a tremendous time zone gap, sometimes while sick or on vacation, and almost always at 3AM. (She's also an amazing fic author and you should go read her stuff RIGHT NOW.) So thank you, my dear, for your love, support, flailing, and compulsive grammar/punctuation changes. Kim, you're the best Australian brain twin a girl could ask for.

Secondly, a shout-out to the awesome artist who chose my fic based solely on the part of the summary in asterisks, the lovely willowpelt. Not gonna lie, it's every fic writer's dream to have art based on their fic. I screamed when I saw it because it's so damn pretty. LOOK AT THAT COVER, MY PEOPLE. You did an amazing job and—perhaps even more amazing—you dealt with my shit in the No-Beta Interim when Kim was on vacation. (Dark times, folks, dark times. Lots of blue text, lack of italics, and errors.) Many thanks for all of your hard work and much appreciation for your talent. You were truly a gift.

Last but certainly not least, shout-outs to Lexi (alexiablackbriar13 on AO3/Tumblr) and Twinkie (MysteriousTwinkie) for being awesomely supportive. Twink was one of the first ones who seemed enthusiastic about the idea, which made me want to continue with what I had written. And I sent Lexi Chapter 1 to read (because we're complete trash for each other's "trash" fics now, except I actually send her trash and she sends me awesomeness), and she flailed over it. Thanks for being your wonderful, charming selves.

Finally, thanks to you, my readers, for being epically awesome through these last few months. My post schedule has been crazily erratic ("Will she or won't she today?"), but you have persevered and conquered. My review replies have been twice as horrible as that, but you awesome-sauce nerds still took the time to say hey anyway. I don't deserve you.

I look forward to talking to all of you in the comments, should you have the chance to leave me some thoughts. If not, drop by my tumblr (I'm still thatmasquedgirl) and say hey—or even just take the time to read it. I get a special thrill from every hit on my fic, and you do not go unnoticed.

You are all beautiful and fantastic and I love to know you are reading this. :)

Two minutes. Two minutes in the Shatterdome are all it takes for Oliver to realize that he made a horrible, disastrous mistake by returning to Starling City. He gave this life up two years ago when he lost his fourth and final partner. But yet here he is, lured back to Starling by pleas from his mother and sister. He always said he'd never come back, and it's because of them that he broke that promise to himself. He might have broken that one for them, but there is one he can't break, not even for them.

Because Oliver Queen is never getting back into a Jaeger again—not for anyone.

The specimens bother him immediately, and he stares at them while wondering why they're actually taking parts of those damn Kaiju into any base they consider to be a safe place. But even more disturbing is that his mother seems to be completely relaxed with the idea of bringing parts of the nightmare monsters that have been plaguing the world back into their homes.

He studies the parts like a hawk, not trusting the Kaiju to stay dormant for long—even if they are just pieces of one. He's learned better than to turn his back on anything Kaiju. Oliver is studying what he believes to be a brain when someone says from behind him, "Hey, be careful around that. Kaiju specimens are incredibly rare." Oliver rounds on him with raised eyebrows to find a kid who doesn't look much older than his sister, and he bites down on the urge to ask him where his parents are.

He offers a hand with a smile when Moira doesn't introduce him—probably because she doesn't remember his name. "I'm Barry Allen," the kid states as Oliver shakes his hand. "The Marshal calls me 'Dr. Allen,' but we're mostly informal around here. I'm head of the Kaiju Research team." He tilts his head toward another boy who looks even younger, one wearing a grungy red hoodie and looking as though he hasn't even completed high school. "That's Roy Harper. He's one of my best assistants."

Oliver is completely distracted by the conversation because, when the boy pushes the sleeves of his hoodie over his elbows, he exposes sleeves of tattoos up his arms. Normally it wouldn't bother Oliver, but it's the subject material: the kid is proudly displaying Kaiju on his arms. Unable to stop himself, he asks, "Is that Yamarashi?"

"Yeah," Harper replies with a partial smile, looking almost impressed by that knowledge. "He was one of the biggest Category Threes ever—twenty-five hundred tons." Then he shrugs in dismissal. "One of the old Mark Two Jaegers they decommissioned took him down a few years back."

"Deathstroke was the name of the Jaeger," Oliver adds automatically, and Harper stares blankly at him. "I took him down in 2009. He was kill number five for Deathstroke." Then he says to both of them, probably unnecessarily, "I'm Oliver Queen."

Harper scoffs, and Oliver thinks he's really starting to dislike the kid. "Another Jaeger pilot coming in?" he says, sounding incredulous. He shakes his head before commenting to Barry in a dry voice, "What do you wanna bet that a certain someone is already in the Marshal's office raising hell?"

The conversation fades into the background as Moira turns to Oliver with a warm smile. "I'm sure Thea can show you around a little later, but for the moment, we need to speak to the Marshal." The concern with that he feels must cross his face because she continues, "Marshal Lance resigned some years back because we were running out of Jaeger pilots. He felt his place was in the field." That surprises Oliver; Lance had seemed less inclined to get back in a Jaeger than Oliver is. "John Diggle is Marshal now. You might recognize the name—he and his brother were pilots on Gipsy Danger."

"That's one of the old Mark Twos," Oliver realizes aloud. It was before his time as a pilot, of course, but how could he forget Gipsy Danger? He didn't get the honor of running a mission with them before Andrew Diggle's death, but he knew it from the days when his father co-captained Queen's Gambit with Malcolm Merlyn lifetimes ago. "Gipsy Danger was one of the best."

The elevator stops abruptly, and Oliver follows his mother out of the elevator. She looks even more out of place in the warn, battered building, especially in her immaculate black suit and skirt, with the emblem of the Pan Pacific Defense Corps shining on her lapel. Several people stop to stare—some at Moira, some at Oliver, and some at the both of them—but fortunately, he doesn't recognize any of the faces. He's had to face some demons by coming back here anyway; the last thing he wants to do is reunite with people who will bring those demons to the surface.

Inevitably, he does. Because he knows the Jaegers in the hangar they pass through—hell, he's fought side-by-side with several of them. The bulky, navy robot is one he recognizes as the old Mark One Romeo Blue, the one that Lance and Hilton are apparently running again. The second one makes his stomach drop because the black Mark Four masterpiece in front of him is the Black Canary, which immediately makes him realize that its pilots must be here somewhere.

Next to it is the three-armed Crimson Typhoon, the revolutionary Mark Four that was beside Slade and him when they took down Yamarashi. He doesn't recognize the fourth, and he only assumes that must be the new Mark Five they're talking about, the one that brought him here. Striker Eureka is silver and shining, without chipped paint like the others, and it feels odd to him. Striker hasn't been tested yet, and it doesn't know war. But the fifth in the hangar, the emerald Mark Four, knows war all too well. Oliver stops breathing when he lays eyes on it—and the flurry of workers attempting to restore it.

The Green Arrow has returned home.

It's not a beautiful piece of machinery by any means. In fact, Oliver would say it's the most broken of all the other Jaegers in the hangar. If Striker Eureka is an oddity with its newness—like a recently built house that hasn't been lived in yet—then the Green Arrow is its opposite: battered and dented, much of the paint chipped away. But despite its scars, Oliver can't help but be hit with a touch of pride and affection as he looks upon the last of his surviving Jagers.

It seems fitting to him that the Arrow was his last; it was the first Jaeger that was truly his and he knew from his first mission that there would never be another to compare. Sure, he piloted the Queen's Gambit with his father, but it was a hand-me-down Mark One, a museum piece by the time he made his first neural link at the age of twenty-two. The Gambit was his father's, the one he'd shared with Malcolm Merlyn for years before the other man had been declared unfit due to radiation poisoning. (Fortunately, J-Tech had fixed that feature before Oliver ever stepped foot in a Jaeger.)

Deathstroke had been a wholly other experience, but it wasn't his, either. The Mark Two was completely other from the Gambit, smooth and violent with close-range weapons. Slade's war machine had been a remnant of his partnership with Billy Wintergreen, who had been declared unfit because of mental illness relating to the neural link. Oliver and Slade had done well together, until the Australian had fallen out of the neural link because of his own difficulties.

Oliver had been so determined to make a name for himself—to be one of those Jaeger pilot rockstars like his father—that he'd leapt at the chance to salvage an old ARGUS Mark Three war machine, the notorious Alpha Omega. Men had been dying in it for years because of the unstable biochemical and radiation-based weapons of the rig, but he hadn't cared. Maseo Yamashiro, the only other surviving pilot, had been more than willing to go back into the field with it, but it was a mistake. The gas leak on one of the weapons had spelled his end, while Oliver had been ripped from the control station to wash up on the shore of a Chinese island the next morning. His left knee has never been the same since, but at least he lived—which was more than what he could say for Maseo.

But Oliver and Tommy had been unstoppable with the Green Arrow.

Thirty-six Kaiju kills. Another fifteen assists. Every one of them successful—even the mission where he lost Tommy, Oliver had been able to finish what they started by himself. There had been damage in the past, but never any injuries to the pilots. The Green Arrow had been designed with the two of them in mind because of the story behind it that the press had fallen in love with: a second generation of the Queen and Merlyn duo that had been so famous. With the other three Jaegers Oliver had driven out of commission for various reasons, they had needed a new one and the Arrow had been everything they'd hoped for and more. At least, it had been, until Knifehead had come out of the rift in 2013.

He hasn't even realized he stopped to stare until Moira's hand drops on his shoulder. "You don't have to be concerned, Oliver," she assures him. "The Green Arrow is retired now, but we felt it was only right to restore it, should the need for it arise." Oliver can read between the lines; his mother has every intention of coaxing him back into a Jaeger at some point. Despite that, he has no intention of crawling into a Jaeger ever again. "If nothing else, it will honor the sacrifice Tommy made that day."

He ignores her because the pain is still too deep, even two years after losing him. They don't understand what it was like. Oliver has lost partners before—both his father and Maseo had died on missions and Slade could never link right with him again after Shado—but it was nothing compared to the pain of losing Tommy in the middle of a neural link. When Tommy had died, their minds had been linked, had been in perfect unison with one another. So, when Tommy died, Oliver died with him, felt the life leave him as he was stuck in a three thousand ton piece of machinery before piloting it back to shore by himself and an empty neural link where there should have been one. No one he's ever met has understood because pilots usually go down together; very few have outlived their partner in a neural link.

Instead of answering, he points to the silver, shiny Jaeger that needs to be tested. "Is that Striker Eureka?" he asks his mother. He tries not to let his features morph into distaste, but a new Jaeger is just a hunk of metal to him. Jaegers don't mean anything until they've been in an attack. "That's the new Mark Five model, right? Do you have pilots selected for this?"

She seems to know the subject change for what it is, but Moira humors him anyway. "We have several sets of potential pilots who are more than willing, but the decision of who pilots Striker Eureka is ultimately up to you, Oliver," she answers. "That's why Marshal Diggle wanted you here. You're the only Jaeger pilot in the world who has piloted all the classifications before and you know more about the connection that makes a powerful neural link because you've had four successful runs. And you're one of only two pilots who have ever run a successful solo mission." She studies him, a hint of pride washing over her features that he feels is undeserved. "If anyone can train Striker Eureka's pilots, it's you."

Unable to say anything, he simply pushes past her, heading in the direction she had started in before he'd been surprised by the Arrow. She catches up quickly enough and takes the lead again, but the point was clearly made because she doesn't try to bring the subject up again. In fact, all is quiet until they reach the the office with John Diggle's name on it.

His office, however, isn't nearly as quiet; the shouting is clearly discernible through the reinforced metal doors. "…don't know is that this cannot happen!" a male voice booms. "Do you know how hard it is to find two Drift-compatible partners? There's a reason most of them are related—it takes almost ninety percent compatibility to make the handshake work! Non-related, opposite gender pilots are impossible. To find another woman who would work with you is—"

A very feminine yet furious voice cuts him off, her words just as loud, if not louder. "Don't lecture me about the Drift program!" she snaps back. "I was on the original Drift team!" Oliver blinks twice; the first Drift experiments started ten years ago, and her voice is a little… young to suggest she was old enough for that. "I'm part of the reason that pilots can Drift! You've seen my simulator records—you know I could be good if you'd just let me out there! I've already talked to Laurel and McKenna. They're game. And Sara—she says she—"

"The Lance sisters can't even Drift with each other, let alone someone they barely know," the man Oliver can only assume to be the Marshal cuts in. It's a knife to the gut, but one that Oliver deserves. The reason the Lances can't keep a neural link together anymore is entirely his fault. "I've seen your combat trials with both of them. You and Laurel do all right, but she's better with Helena. Even so, they're not as good as the Lance sisters in their prime. McKenna is too soft for you—she loses the combat trials four-to-nothing every time." Then there's a pause. "And we both know that Sara's just trying to get back out there by any means necessary because that's where she thrives."

His voice is softer when he continues, "Sara and Nyssa had a good run in the Canary, but that went to hell the moment they started sleeping together. You know as well as I do that romantic partners don't work in the Drift." There's a slight pause, and Oliver uses it to digest that information. "I saw your combat trials with her. You need a four-to-three score to even consider a test run, but she wiped the floor with you." Whatever she says in response is too soft to hear her response, but then the man responds. "Find yourself a Drift-compatible partner, Smoak," the man answers coolly. "Then we'll talk."

Suddenly the door opens, and Oliver blinks twice at the polar opposites the two people present. John Diggle is broad-shouldered and muscular, standing at over six feet tall with a presence that seems to absorb the entire room. He's the only man Oliver has seen in a suit thus far, and he wears only the emblem of the PPDC on his lapel. Most retired Jaeger pilots choose to wear their medals on their suits—and Oliver knows he has plenty—but instead he goes for a clean approach.

The woman, however, throws Oliver. As something with that much passion, he was expecting tall, fierce, and determined, with a glare sharp enough to cut through rock. Instead, he's met with a blonde who barely reaches Diggle's shoulder, with a bright pink top exposed by the standard-issue, black PPDC jumpsuit that she's left open to just above the waist and a set of dog tags much like his own jangling around her neck. Her lips are painted a bright pink and her hair is up in a tight, no-nonsense ponytail that exposes the bar in the top of her right ear. She stares at the Marshal with intelligent blue eyes, through square-framed glasses.

Even now, she looks less than pleased, and Oliver thinks he's very fortunate not to be the one on the receiving end of her fury. "I designed Eureka from the ground up, John," she states in a quietly furious tone, and Oliver's eyebrows shoot up of their own accord. "I built every damn weapon on it. The least you could do is give me a chance to prove to you that I can pilot it."

"No one here is doubting your capabilities, Miss Smoak," Diggle answers with a firm shake of his head, his voice much softer this time. "More than anyone, I understand the desire to pilot a Jaeger. Do you think I wouldn't be out there right now if I could find someone else I was Drift-compatible with?" Silence looms between them for a moment. "There are five billion people in the world. Only ten thousand or so work for this program. But there are only a handful of Drift-compatible partners. When you find yours, you come see me and you can have a crack at Eureka."

The woman turns with a roll of her eyes, but stops short as she takes in Oliver and Moira standing in front of the office. "Let me guess," she starts, her face coloring slightly. "You heard every word of that, didn't you?" Before anyone can answer, she shakes her head. It sends her ponytail flying, and only then does he notice the purple, teal, and hot pink streaks mixed in with the blonde. "Good to know I can make myself look like a fool anywhere." She holds out a hand toward Moira. "It's a pleasure to meet our patron, Mrs. Queen. I'm Felicity Smoak."

The name vaguely resonates with Oliver, but he doesn't remember much of the J-Tech team. The last time he ran in Starling City, it was a bigger crew of about thirty or so Jaegers, and he didn't know all of his fellow pilots, much less the technicians who kept them safe with the best gear they could design. "It's nice to meet you, too, Miss Smoak," Moira offers in return as she shakes the extended hand. "I've heard good things about your work in Coast City. I hope you can offer as much for us here." There's a thinly veiled threat somewhere in there, and Oliver narrows his eyes at his mother.

Before she can make a scene, she pulls herself away from the situation. "There are some things of importance to discuss with the Kaiju Science Research division," she states with a raised eyebrow. "If you'll excuse me. Marshal Diggle, I'll see you around three to discuss the state of this base."

"Of course, Mrs. Queen," Diggle assures her as she starts to walk away.

With a burning curiosity, Oliver steps in to speak to Felicity, offering his hand and a name. "Oliver Queen. Thank you for your work here, Miss Smoak. If these pilots don't appreciate what you do in J-Tech, they should."

The blonde seems genuinely surprised by his statement. "I know who you are, Mr. Queen," she states in a voice that makes it sound like she's stating the obvious. Her mouth turns up at one corner. "You're the pilot who can't seem to get enough of me." She winces, flushing again. "And by 'me,' I mean my Jaeger designs, not me as a person. Because we've never met before."

Oliver blinks twice in surprise at her statement, his mouth twitching into a smile at her haste to cover her verbal gaffe. "You designed some of my Jagers?" he asks, though her words were confirmation enough. Still, he's never known the creators of his machines, and he's always liked the idea of meeting one of them.

Felicity nods, her mouth turning up in a slight smile. "The Gambit, Deathstroke, and the Arrow were all mine," she tells him with a hint of pride in her voice. "They couldn't have gone to a better set of pilots, either. That's why I was so glad you came back to train new Rangers. If we had more Jaeger pilots like you, we would have won this war ten years ago." It's the nicest thing anyone has said to him since he returned, and she's the only one who hasn't tried to nudge him back into the Arrow.

His eyebrows rise in surprise, and she shrugs in response to his unspoken question. "I like to keep tabs on my Jaegers and take care of them. That's why Gambit and Deathstroke are in decommissioned storage in Hong Kong instead of a junk heap somewhere. I had them cleaned up, so if you ever get sentimental, you know where they are." She motions toward the hangar he just came from. "That's why I'm having the Green Arrow cleaned up—she's an excellent machine and she deserves to be treated with a little respect. You don't get fifty-one successful missions out of any piece of scrap."

A touch of amusement strikes him as she uses a feminine pronoun to refer to her war machines; instead of using it for fragile things like boats and planes, Felicity uses it to refer to powerful weapons used to destroy the nastiest monsters the world has ever seen. "The Green Arrow is an excellent Jaeger," he agrees. Personally he thinks it's the greatest Jaeger ever created, but he might be more than a little biased. "Thank you for taking the time to restore it."

"She's the best Jaeger I ever built," Felicity agrees before wincing again. "I've been told that sounds conceited, but I really didn't mean it like that. I'm actually really surprised that I created something that turned out so well." She waves a hand. "After all, the Green Arrow is a legend—it's mentioned in the same breath as Lucky Seven, Vulcan Specter, and Horizon Brave."

Diggle clears his throat behind her, and she blushes again. "I've taken up enough of your time, but it was nice meeting you, Mr. Queen. If you need me, I'm up in J-Tech." With that, she turns down the hallway, toward the hangar.

Oliver glances at the man left standing before watching Felicity disappear down the hallway. "You have a good team here," is all he says, feeling that it's enough. If Felicity Smoak is half as capable as he suspects and they have three of the best Jaegers ever to fight, then maybe all isn't as lost as the world would have them believe.

The Marshal smiles knowingly. "Smoak is one of our brightest," he agrees, bypassing Oliver's bullshit with ease. "After the first Kaiju attack and the nations pooling resources, our best and brightest were selected to come up with a solution. Miss Smoak was among them." He offers a fond smile at the name. "She was at MIT when they found her. If the war hadn't happened, she'd probably be the CEO of a Fortune 500 technology corporation." His smile turns sad. "As it is, she's one of the best J-Tech officers we have."

The former Jaeger pilot extends his hand. "Thank you for coming, Mr. Queen. I might be the acting Marshal around here, but most people call me Diggle or Digg." As he releases his hand, Diggle continues, "I took a hit to the skull when we fought Mutavore, so my memory isn't what it once was. Did we run any missions together?"

Oliver shakes his head. "I didn't get the honor," he answers. And it would have been an honor; Gipsy Danger was one of the best Jaegers to ever fight, even if its tenure was short-lived because of Andrew Diggle's death. "Merlyn and my father were in the Queen's Gambit back then." He hesitates. "And it's Oliver, not 'Mr. Queen.'"

He nods once at that. "Good Rangers, both of them," is all he comments. He marches straight into business, and Oliver appreciates the direct approach. "If you'll follow me, Oliver, I can show you to the candidates." They walk side by side for a moment before Diggle continues, "This complex used to house thirty Jaegers, but now we're down to four. They think the Anti-Kaiju Wall is the solution, but I think we all know how that's going to work out."

With a glance at Oliver, Diggle continues, "The Green Arrow is here for restoration before shipping off to Hong Kong for storage, but the rest are operational. Right now, the only two active Jaegers are Romeo Blue and Crimson Typhoon. Black Canary's Rangers are having trouble linking right now, but when they get over their issues, the Canary will ride again." He turns to look at Oliver. "Maybe if you had the time, you could try to kick them back in line." The former Ranger doubts that would go over well, but then again, they're also a unit down and he's had a particular talent for being an asshole when he wants to be. "And you already know all about Striker Eureka—it's why you're here."

He pushes through a set of doors, into what must now be the training area. They're overlooking it from above, while a crowd gathers around a set of mats and two women beat each other with sticks. "I'll send the files to your quarters, but I figured you'd want to see the candidates for yourself first." He offers the hint of a smile. "We Rangers are men of action." Turning serious again, he adds, "All of them score equally and consistently in the combat trials."

Diggle points to the two in the ring. "Those are your first pair of candidates, Nyssa Raatko and Isabel Rochev. Nyssa comes from… an unusual background—she's a killing machine and she's Drifted before. Isabel is more subtle, more cunning. They make a nice pair." Then he points to two men in the background watching the fight. "Option number two is Ted Grant and Isaac Stanzler. Neither one has Drift experience, but Grant was a world-champion boxer before the War started. Stanzler is his protégé—they trained together back then."

Then he points to the last set of men. "The last two up are Cooper Seldon and Myron Forest. Neither is a fighter—both of them were at MIT when the war started. Seldon has a background in computer engineering, and Forest is a mechanical engineer. They're the ones who built Eureka from Felicity's design—it was only fair that we gave them a chance to drive it."

Oliver probably shouldn't, but he raises an eyebrow anyway. "But not Miss Smoak?" he counters. It's more statement than question; clearly Diggle isn't interested in sending his best and brightest out in a Jaeger to get slaughtered. While he doesn't blame him for that, Oliver thinks he's a little hypocritical for not admitting it.

The look he earns from Diggle is pure ice, followed by a weary sigh. "Miss Smoak has yet to find a suitable Drift partner," he replies evenly. The former pilot takes a deep breath before adding, "Much to her chagrin and my relief." A breathy laugh escapes him. "For a neural link to be established, the two people have to be able to understand one another—to keep up with one another." A smile covers his face. "I've yet to meet anyone who can keep up with Felicity Smoak." He pats Oliver's shoulder. "I'll leave you to it. Files will be in your quarters, if you need them." And, with that, he leaves Oliver to the training area.

Taking the first staircase to the ground floor he sees, Oliver arrives just in time to see one of the dark-haired women deliver a solid blow with bloodlust in her eyes. He can only assume that's Nyssa, the one Diggle called a killing machine. While she's a good fighter and as lethal as he expects, he can also see that she holds a good battle rapport with her partner. The combat trial is about the connection between fighters, the give-and-take. It's a conversation in physical form, and the two have good communication with one another.

He's so distracted that he's taken by surprise when a brunette hugs him around the middle, so tight that she nearly knocks him down off his already tenuous balance. "Ollie, it's so good to see you again!" Thea declares happily, and Oliver wraps his arms around her. "Mom said you were coming back, but I didn't think it would be so soon." She releases him, pointing to the mats. "Come to see the fights?"

"I'm working, Thea," he says to her instead, kissing her forehead. They both know that her insistence is part of the reason he's here. "I've missed you, Speedy." The childhood nickname elicits a groan from her, but one in good humor. He nods to the mats, to the two women fighting on them. "What do you think?"

"About Isabel or Nyssa?" she asks, staring at him blankly. "I think that the two of them kick ass together. Isabel kind of scares me, but Nyssa's pretty cool." She shrugs as if trying to appear blasé, but they both know that's not the case. "You know, when she's not all terrifying-cold-assassin." She licks her lips. "Just so you don't hear it from someone else, she's dating Sara."

Instead of answering, Oliver chooses to squeeze his sister's shoulder. "As soon as Mom gets back, we should all have lunch together in the mess hall," he tells her. "I need to look into these candidates, but I'll catch you later, okay?"

Before she can respond, he pushes his way through the crowd to step into view of the ring. Since the match is still ongoing and he doesn't want to interrupt, Oliver walks up to the girl with the clipboard who doesn't look to be much older than Thea. "Hey," he says as he reaches her. "I'm Oliver. Are you in charge of recording the combat trial scores?"

She stops to glance up at him, seeming completely unimpressed by his presence. "Sin," she answers with a nod. "I keep a record of the combat trials for the day and write out scores for Marshal Diggle to assess." She tilts her head to the side as she appraises him. "Well, for you to assess now, I guess. You're the new Ranger instructor, right?"

With a nod, Oliver answers, "That's what I've been told." He watches the fights for a moment, until the wheels in his head start to turn, and then he gestures to the paper on her clipboard. "This is planned out through the day. Do the Rangers know this schedule?"

Sin nods, though her eyebrows knit together. "It's posted in the mess hall every morning. Why?"

He elects not to answer her question, favoring to ask another instead. "And who is in charge of the schedule?" is his next choice of words. An idea is starting to form in his head, and Oliver thinks it might help. After all, the job of a Ranger only begins when the Kaiju sirens go off; most the Rangers spend their days in the training area anyway. This is the time when J-Tech is busy, not the Rangers.

"Marshal Diggle is the one who set the schedule," she starts slowly, as if she's trying to work out his plan, "but that job would be yours now, since you're the instructor."

"Would you mind if I changed the order then?" he asks her, and the girl stares at him as if he's spoken in a foreign language. They stand like that for a minute, Sin blinking at him with a blank expression and Oliver waiting for her answer.

Finally she seems to realize what he's asking, to realize that he's serious about this question. "No," she answers, drawing out the word in a long, sustained note.

He doesn't answer it, instead turning back to the combat trial and watching Nyssa and Isabel's give and take, the conversation they're having in violent swings. Maybe today he can play the bad guy and finally put an end to this by throwing Sara and Laurel in the ring together—against him. It's not the best plan he's ever had, but they're a Jaeger down and it will take him a month to select Eureka's team and get them ready for battle against the Kaiju. And, after all, it was Laurel who once told him that he was only good at starting a fight.

Maybe, just this once, it can work to their advantage.

With a deep breath, he finally tells her what he wants her to do, and a hush falls across the room when Sin calls their names. "Lance, Laurel and Lance, Sara," she states in a firm tone. After the silence, the crowd starts up into a low murmur, alive with the excitement that accompanies controversy. Apparently they haven't been in the ring together since before he cheated on Laurel with Sara, and that adds new complication to the situation.

Sara immediately rolls her shoulders and steps up to grab a staff from the set, not caring about the order of fights. It's one of the qualities that Oliver has always liked about her, one that makes her an excellent Jaeger pilot. She adapts to any situation because a fight is always her element. Laurel, on the other hand, steps up to the corner of the ring, crossing her arms over her chest. "That's not on the schedule," she states, in that tone that indicates a fight is sure to come.

The girl with the clipboard shrugs, indicating that she isn't paid enough to argue about this. Oliver doesn't blame her. "I'm under orders, Laurel," Sin states with no hint of expression. "If you don't like it, take It up with the new Ranger captain."

"I will," Laurel assures her, displaying the quality that makes her a good Ranger. In another life, Oliver thinks she would have made an excellent lawyer, with her sharp mind and an inner fire that also makes her a strong fighter. "Which insecure, washed-up Ranger has Diggle found this time?"

"At least it's one you already know," Oliver answers, stepping forward. Most of the crowd falls into a hush for a moment before the ones that recognize him start into a whisper. The last time he'd stood on the edge of this arena, he'd been a naïve kid, but now he's a washed-up ex-Ranger who knows what it's like to lose everything. And if he has to piss off Laurel to get her to work with her sister again, he'll do it.

Then he addresses all of the Rangers around him, not just Laurel. "My name is Oliver Queen, and I'm going to be in charge of preparing you to link together to the best of your ability." He doesn't bore them with flaunted credentials; he doesn't give a damn if they think he's qualified or not. He's very certain he'll prove that soon enough. "Before, you had a schedule to work from, but now, there won't be one. The Kaiju don't make appointments before passing through the Rift—you have to be prepared at all times to go into the Breach to fight one. You are expected to show up here when that alarm isn't going off and I'll pick training groups at random." He levels a look around at all of them. "It would be in your best interest to show up." He leaves the thought hanging, knowing they'll think up the worst alternative on their own.

In a slow, fluid motion, he turns to Laurel and Sara. "The two of you have spent the last few years fighting each other, and it's made you unable to link." As they pick up their staves, he pulls a third from the rack by the mats. "It's time you two stopped fighting each other and remember that we have a bigger enemy to fight now."

He joins them in the ring. "You're up against me—and I want to see you working together this time."

Notes: Chapters drop on Friday.


"Alive" - Sia
"Bohemian Rhapsody" - Panic! At the Disco
"Believe" - Hollywood Undead
"Stars Align" - Lindsey Stirling
"Living Dangerously" - Fools for Rowan
"Open Your Eyes (Deep Blue Songspell)" - Bea Miller