There is a voice, ringing in Saburo’s ears. It is not one he recognizes, a memory more like a dream he couldn’t place if he tried. Even the words he doesn’t trust, storybook perfect and painted sepia in the burnt-up reel of his memories. But still does he hear them, clear as day above the clatter of the projector—“Be strong, Saburo. Don’t cry. You have to grow up strong, so you can stand on your own two feet.”
He doesn’t know when or where those words were spoken. Not why, or by whom. He doesn’t even know if they’re really his first memory, or just a desperate wish to give significance to the few things that cleave through the fog. But he doesn’t need to know any of that to understand that they’re true.
He needs to be strong. This world isn’t kind to anyone else.
But somewhere along the line, he forgets. Or not, Saburo thinks, trembling with something he thinks might be rage. Not forgets. Ignores. Assures himself of the certainty of his place in the world and thinks not on what dwells in the shadows creeping in on the edges of his vision. He does not suspect that things are wrong. And when he does, he does not speak out--for that’s not a child’s place. The adults know best, and so does Ichi-nii.
No matter how Saburo might worry, Ichiro can handle himself. He’s doing the right thing. Ichi-nii knows best.
(Until the moment he doesn’t. Until Saburo sees him with his own two eyes, wielding violence like a demon with the devil at his side. He reaches for them. Saburo flinches away. And a panicked chick trills from its nest, desperate at the back of his mind-- he doesn’t know best, he doesn’t know best at all--)
Strength, thinks Saburo, echoes of a burnt-out film flashing behind his eyes, which one of us is strongest?
He is nine years old, but not sure of the answer. Jiro is strong, there’s no question about that. It stems from his kindness, from the way he holds Saburo’s hand and the way he chases away bullies before they get so much as the chance to rear their heads. Saburo isn’t sure he’s stronger than that. But he cannot be the weakest brother, because that is the one they don’t talk about. The one who cast him away when he reached out for help. Who he’s ashamed to admit he resembles every time he looks in the mirror, a disgrace to their name. The brother who’ll spend just as many nights out on the streets as asleep in their room--that a tiny part of Saburo can’t help but wish would just stay away for good.
He’s not family.
(Is that really what you feel? asks an owl with wise eyes and dappled feathers, watching him from the trees, Are you really rejecting him? Or are you only making excuses for him still?
Perhaps. Perhaps not. If his expectations are low, then he cannot possibly be disappointed again.
But you would doubt? Take the word of false fathers over his? asks the owl, its head tilted far to the side. Enough so to push him away when he is half of what remains?
Saburo shakes his head and the owl flutters off, quiet into the night. He will. He can stand with Jiro. After all, he thinks, straining for the memory of faces that must have once watched him with pride, it’s better than being left behind.)
Ichiro is like a god. A hero. Saburo doesn’t remember much, but the silhouette of Ichiro’s back burned straight through his tears, seared itself into his memory to remain even now. The edges of that memory crackle, spark electric in his lungs. In this age, words are weapons just as potent as knives. And they suit him, Saburo thinks, far better than violence ever did.
Strength, Saburo recalls, breath caught in his throat with a longing he can’t describe. Ichi-nii hasn’t given up on us yet.
The weapon of this new age, and one Saburo is sure he can wield just as well as Ichiro risking his life to save them. In that split second, he makes up his mind. He can’t let himself be protected. How many years has he let Jiro fight his battles? How much did Ichiro have to suffer because Saburo was blind to the truth? He’s already twelve years old. It makes him sick.
Ichiro’s hand lands in his hair for the first time in years, and Saburo whispers a vow on its warmth—on the blood trickling from his ear as he admits he can’t hear them— One day, I’ll protect you.
But he ignores that, too. Lives his life in ignorant bliss, honing his skills with ease but no real urgency. The nest is his world, and his feathers are vibrant as the spectrum of a star. The projector still rattles, sometimes, but Saburo does not turn his head to watch. He is already strong enough. His evidence is in what surrounds him, after all. There is no one in school who can best him. Most don’t even try. It’s simple enough to start dipping his fingers into places they shouldn’t be and boredom is good enough motivation as any. Information is his currency of choice, and it’s one he quickly grows adept in gathering. His monitors shine brighter than the moon through his window in the dead of night, and the crows watch him curious through the window, wondering at this boy who fights the wars of adults.
(And they caw and they trill, but Saburo speaks only the language of owls. Their warnings go unheeded. He is the top--but only because he has gone untested.)
Strategy is somewhat of Saburo’s forte. Outsmarting others is practically his hobby. Whether it’s prying into someone’s past across a screen or doing a quick read across a table with a man more than twice his age, Saburo knows how to get what he wants. It’s why he understands: when their enemies scan the line, they’ll be searching for the weakest link. It’s only natural, Saburo thinks. It’s good strategy. Pick off the weakest, and take down the strongest while they’re distressed. He’s tried it before to great success. Even on the dark web, people are quick to crumble when Saburo threatens their collaborators. There will always be a weakest link. Saburo’s known this since the moment he was born, but it’s now that he finally understands.
His path of action is clear. Like Ichiro, he’ll be able to assess the situation in an instant, make the right call level-headed and decisive. Like Jiro— better than Jiro, he quickly corrects—he won’t hesitate on his course. He’d simply trust in his instincts and let his words shape the war.
His wings are ready. He will fly.
Are you ignoring how you’ve been tricked, little chick? caws the shadow of a great bird overhead, gone from sight when Saburo cranes his head to the sky. He shakes his head, chasing the slander away. Ichiro grew up at fourteen. Now is the time for Saburo to do the same.
(But how, cries the crow, just as worried as it is smug, will you fly without wings?)
Saburo panics at the thought of wasting his abilities to protect himself, and Jiro falls limp at his feet. He can’t charge forth to face his end, and so everything fades to black with the sight of Ichiro’s face twisting in pain as he’s caught up in Aohitsugi’s assault. And Saburo’s last thought before he falls, vivid from the depths of his mind, is-- Ichi-nii knows best. Except when he’s covering for me.
In the darkness, Saburo has a dream. A giant bird like a pheasant burns before him, feathers red as the dawn as they brush his cheeks. He expects to recoil, but does not feel the heat as it perches before him, pressing its head against his. You’ve learned, little bird. Are you ready for a test?
My whole life has been a test, Saburo tries to say, but finds the words stuck in his throat. There is a weight where warm air should be; Saburo thrashes against it, clutching at his throat with the sudden fear he’s about to choke to death.
Shh, whispers the bird, folding its wings around him--to protect him, Saburo thinks, trying to shove it away in a panic--but instead it catches flame as it brushes against his aching shoulder, feathers driving like knives into his skin. Saburo cries out soundless as he falls to his knees, scrambling to ease the pain as the flesh sears away.
This is the path you choose, whispers the bird, striking straight through Saburo’s aching heart, Be strong. Don’t cry. Stand on your own two feet. It is the only way you will fly.
For the first time, Saburo manages a sound--a weak one, cutting through his heaving tears. Just one, then another, then another, until the weight in his throat feels like it’s constricting his lungs, a snake that’s sunk in its fangs.
How could he ever manage to fly if he couldn’t support his own weight?
Don’t make me laugh.
He is fourteen years old, and nothing has changed.
Jiro. Ichiro. Rei.
Protected. Powerless. Deceived.
What the hell was his resolve to grow strong?
It’s laughable. Pitiable, even. He thought he could be seen as his own person, judged on his own merits?
Naive. Sickeningly so. This Saburo is not the soldier. He’s the prey.
For the last time in his life, Saburo stares up at his ceiling and wipes away his tears. There is no moonlight to bear witness; the city lights drown out all but the bravest of stars. What light remains is a beacon as he pulls himself from bed, trudging over to his computer without bothering with slippers, letting the chill of the concrete freeze his feet. The projector rattles to life again, spilling out the words of a man he doesn’t know if he should remember. He’s keeping something from you. I’ll promise you that.
“Ichi-nii knows best,” Saburo says as he pulls up his usual source, and it sounds hollow as it did when they were still in the orphanage. But the days of living in ignorance are gone. So too are the days of living in the shadow of brothers who’d keep him in the dark, who’d shelter him so deeply he’d forget how to stand up for himself.
There is a wing at his back, burning with the flame of his ambitions. No longer will anyone look down on him. He is more than just a child, far more than just the youngest brother of three. He isn’t here to play backup; inexperience and ignorance will not become his hurdles to falter on. Tonight will be his proving ground.
With the owls heading off to sleep, Saburo sets to work.
The stars give way to bloody dawn.
(With his soul on the line—Saburo will never be the same.)