Yamada Ichiro will do whatever it takes to achieve his goals. There is no stone left unturned, no lead left unchased, no word beyond his grasp. But it is not a desperate sort of determination--not the frantic pleas of a man facing the executioner nor the scuttling of a cornered rat. It is that of one resolved to their fate. Head down, eyes peeled, orders obeyed at any cost. If there is individuality in him anywhere, it is smothered beneath the weight of his duty.
It is what makes him such a useful pawn.
(It's a rebellion in the making. But it will take more than money from a child’s purse and pizza left on a door handle to realize that.)
Distance, distance, distance.
Ichiro clings to the shadows of a place he won’t call home and stalks through its halls a stranger to the ones he cares about most. He draws up plans for a faraway future and chases after them with abandon, staining his hands with all the things his brothers mustn’t touch.
But something in him must know--it is hardly protecting them. If the shadows set their sights on them, there is no way they won’t be found. No one in this world could mistake the lengths to which he’d go for his them--except, perhaps, the brothers themselves. When they only see his retreating back, how could they think otherwise?
But he hides away the part of him that cares, ices it down between sidelong glares and harsh words he rarely ever means and reminds himself-- one day. One day.
(It’s a family moving back towards home. But that’s still not in his sights.)
You’ll never find a rainbow if you’re looking down.
Ichiro’s not sure where he heard the phrase--English, spoken by someone he’d never met and never would. Maybe it was a billboard. Maybe dad liked it, some distant summers past.
“Hey, Yamada Ichiro. I’ll tell you something good.”
He can hardly imagine it’s anything of worth. Yet still, he answers- “What?”
“If you sell your soul for your goal, then you’ll never be able to go back.”
But Ichiro hasn’t sold his soul, he wants to protest. Even if he had, it’s not worth a damn thing. Not when he’s still powerless.
Besides. Aohitsugi Samatoki doesn’t know him. Not a single thing of his goals or his struggles or what he’s done for Jiro and Saburo’s sake. And yet. And yet--
“Your soul’s not cheap enough to sell by the piece. So do things how you want, and don’t bother giving a shit about what comes next.”
“Sell my soul…?”
Something stoic in him crumbles. He lifts his head to the sight of red and thinks distantly, caught in the gears of revelation-- that’s the first color of a rainbow.
If he lets this happen, he’ll have cut away the first part of his heart. If Aohitsugi Samatoki falls here, then Yamada Ichiro goes down with him. So, he thinks, wondering if everyone else can feel the world shifting on its axis too, so--
Ichiro steals his gaze away and slowly, slowly turns. Never show your back to an enemy, right?
If Samatoki falling means both their ends, then Ichiro has a simple answer for that. They might lose everything. It might be the one act of rebellion that dooms all his work to naught. But he won’t stand with cowards. So he’ll stand with Samatoki. For one verse, until the end. Until red fades to orange fades to yellow to green, and Ichiro never forgets what it means to live with his head held high.
It’s a love story. (But Ichiro doesn’t know that, yet.)
He couldn’t know it. Brothers come home and it’s as if the world bursts into bloom, quarreling and banter warming the corners of a barren house. His friends are a net, lighthouses in the fog as Ichiro makes the long voyage home. When they fight amongst themselves it is never to win; only to drive each other higher, to places beside the stars.
Outside it is the same--his team brims with power, though no longer are the reigns his. It’s strange, but stranger still is the fact he really can’t think of a reason to mind. As it always has been, the choice to follow was his. (It’s simply that for the first time, he doesn’t regret it.)
When he closes his eyes and reaches, he can remember the taste of home, like miso on his tongue. In a dreamlike, ephemeral way, he can recall what it felt like to be there, safe and sheltered from the world. And for a few brief months, here in this office that smells of old smoke and is filled with friends and mentors alike, Ichiro can almost grasp it once more.
But it isn’t meant to last. He’s gotten his feet back under himself just in time for Kuko to throw him adrift in the waves, unwilling to listen to Ichiro’s promises of change. Too disgusted with him to even explain how he needs to. He hits back, but it’s pointless. He doesn’t want Kuko to hurt. He doesn’t want Kuko’s last memory of him to be any worse than it already is.
Kuko walks away, and doesn’t turn back.
(And the rainbow loses violet, and maybe indigo, too. But there’s still red through blue, Ichiro tells himself, there’s still--)
He doesn’t remember the last time he cried. He had never been allowed the luxury. He’s long since learned that any adults he dare show weakness to will only turn it back on him a blade, pressed to his throat until it cuts. He won’t cry. At least not until he’s alone. He makes himself swear, pinky promise, cross his heart and hope to die. He won’t let them see. He won’t let them think he’s useless, just another broken pawn to throw away.
But he returns to their base and Samatoki is there. He’s there, and Ichiro sees him, sitting without Sasara at his side and scrapes on his palms and even as he thinks his voice is steady as he explains, as he sits down hard and reminds himself that he promised himself, he swore to himself that he wouldn’t--
Samatoki puts an arm around his shoulders. His words shake away the tears, the pain—or at least the sharpest edges, the smarting of his knuckles and the bruising on his cheek—and in that moment, Ichiro realizes just how strong Samatoki really is.
He’s always had just the right words to grab Ichiro by the hand and pull him towards the future. Admiring him had been natural as breathing once Ichiro had made the decision to join him. Because where Kuko was willing to stay by his side, a steadying weight in the dark, Samatoki showed him that there was still a way back to the light. He’s still reminding him, even now.
No matter what, you’re gonna keep going. So I...
Ichiro wipes away his tears, and the well of them begins to dry. In its place--or just adjacent to it, rather, soothing over the ache with something that Ichiro can’t quite describe, blooms a spark. Like trust. Like gratitude. Like as long as he has Samatoki by his side to remind him he won’t be alone again, then there’s nothing he can’t overcome.
It is strong, and it is warm, and it shines just as brilliant as the fact he now has a place to call home. It’s red as flames, and burns like autumn leaves beneath the setting sun.
And it feels like something fragile.
If he puts a word to it, it might break.
So he doesn’t. He lets them climb the ladder up to the sun under a new name but the same guidance, two new faces at their side. Not the ones he wanted, but not ones he’d refuse. Jakurai and Ramuda are good people. Burdened with secrets, but not any more than the ones Ichiro keeps close to his chest. When Samatoki says there’s something stronger than family between them—all of them—Ichiro is in no place to disagree.
They steal fire from the sun, but no one tells them the most important thing: their wings are only made of wax, and the clouds will not catch them when they fall away.
(It is a love story, and it ends before it can so much as begin.)
Tell me, begs Ichiro, with voice that dares not become sound. It’s still caught in his throat, trapped in the day Kuko pushed him away. Tell me why you’re here.
Samatoki doesn’t. Or more likely: he can’t, bound to the same terms as Ichiro himself. Thrust into this game or not, he understands its rules. Ichiro can guess what’s at stake. Can’t be sure, but he can guess.
It’ll be fine, Ichiro tries to tell himself, bounding across a tightrope strung above an abyss of panic, it’ll be fine. We’re family, too.
He has to win. Samatoki has given him so much already; Ichiro will win and repay it a thousand-fold. Whatever it is at wager, Ichiro will win and take it all back, before the desperation in Samatoki’s voice boils over into something that can’t be taken back.
He has to. He has to.
(He doesn’t. He doesn’t, and it haunts him just as much as Samatoki’s shadow, a phantom weight around his shoulders reminding him he’s not supposed to cry.)
And you never told me why, Ichiro thinks, walking in the shadow of the gates that had ruined them. Not that he was any better.
(But how could he, when home was all he had? When the fear that he’d lose them tracked far off that stage, hung over him like a guillotine still, ready to fall at his slightest slip. It should have stopped him. It should have. But at least I fucking tried.)
For the second time, Ichiro stares up at these walls. He imagines them crumbling, if only for just a moment. It is what they’d both longed for—what now they desire with an anger that burns. They almost cost him his brothers, his everything. They lost him his team. They lost him his leader.
Ichiro will tear down these walls with his own two hands. And when he does, he won’t be alone. (Or at least, he doesn’t want to be.)
It just won’t be the same person at his side.
...He’s long since made his peace with that.
“Let’s go,” he says, and Jiro and Saburo follow close behind. This is all he needs, now. His family has always been his everything.
(And it’s everything he needs to prove Samatoki wrong--there’s nothing more powerful than the bonds between the three of them.)
They stand across from each other on that stage, and somewhere, distantly, Ichiro finally understands. It is a story, where Ichiro happened to fall in fruitless love. The years pass and Ichiro cannot be eroded away from the light he’d been shown, fallen so close to irrevocable dark. He’s grown. He’s a true leader himself, now. They’re finally standing on even ground.
On that day this stadium was their end. In the last battle, Ichiro hadn’t managed to reach Samatoki, hadn’t found the words to shake him red as dawn from the dark of night. This time knowledge weighs on him, haunts his words with the same force as Samatoki kicking him off, betraying him with remorse more lip service than guilt.
They’re not family.
If Samatoki couldn’t bother to give a shit about him when he needed it most, then they never really were.
(But despite it all, no matter how he denies it--somewhere in the flames of anger, that first spark still burns.)
It’s a love story. And no matter how the old wounds still throb, that trust torn from its place at admiration’s side, there is nothing that can’t one day be rebuilt. So long as they’re both still alive. You taught me that, thinks Ichiro, slipping into the dark as Samatoki towers above, cruel as ever in his victory. You taught me that, and I…
Aohitsugi Nemu, Ichiro reads, months later, with a different weight in his heart, missing.
...He didn’t know. He couldn’t have known. If, maybe, just maybe, what happened that day wasn’t the cause of all this, or at least wasn’t what had made Samatoki betray him so callously--
(Red is Ichiro’s color, now. Really, it always has been. Samatoki had always preferred black and white. If he’d ever embraced crimson, it was only because it was something he and Ichiro had…)
He’ll do it for her. For her, he tells himself, and if that means I finally understand why he changed, then… Ichiro shakes the thoughts away. He still has plenty of reasons to be angry at Samatoki, ones that could never be his own fault. There’s a long road before them still, and it doesn’t lead back from whence they came. But it does lead forward. Where that might take them, not even Ichiro knows.
But the possibility shines like a light in the dark. And cradled deep in the depths he still pretends he’s cut away, the spark from that day begins to rise above the flames.
(It’s about to become a love story. But Ichiro doesn’t know that, yet.)