A/N: Characterisation = Hmmm... Questionable.

Disclaimer: All characters, concepts and whatnot belong to iNiS and Nintendo.

Ember

In the darkness of the empty lecture hall, his shadow is shrunken and still, would have been indistinguishable from the rest of the empty seats, if not for the the bright red hachimaki still wrapped about his head.

Ryuuta stares long and hard at Hajime's hunched shoulders and imagines sweat still beaded across his brow, soaking into the bandana, following the creases of his frown. He imagines gloved hands, clenched, then unclenching again, angrily forming the stiff L-shaped gestures the rookie had practiced for hours and hours - wondering if this, no, this, is the reason he couldn't even complete his first cheer.

From what he can tell, it doesn't seem that any explanation is enough.

Though he can only guess what might be wracking the boy's guilty heart at this point, Ryuuta wouldn't be surprised if it happened to involve thoughts of a Ronin's sixth failed entrance exam and hightailing the hell out of this mess, before he could make it any worse.

Re-runs of a train wreck in slow-motion - if only I hadn't tripped, if only I hadn't moved so quickly, if only I hadn't tried so stupidly hard to... Maybe I'm just just not cut out for this kind of thing.

Ryuuta can all but see the despair on Hajime's face as he watches him lower his head into his hands.

Several years ago, Ryuuta had done the same thing, and cried.

Alone, wondering why it stung like fuck when he didn't even know the damn girl that needed just a little more encouragement to enter her paintings in that competition. The responsibility weighed on him with such suffocating gravity that by the following morning, he had decided to quit.

The danchou had said nothing, striking his name from the roll, dismissing him without a word. It wasn't until he saw the Ouendan again at a home baseball match, leading the crowd in a monsterous war-cry that Ryuuta began to understand what it meant to fight. The players were tired, the score was in the visitor's favour, and yet, with only five minutes left and half-way through another inning, by the Ouendan's cue, the audience surged up in a deafening display of unity that left Ryuuta breathless.

They had lost the game. But Ryuuta had never been more inspired.

He takes a seat a place away from where Hajime is, head still bowed and waits for the younger boy to speak first.

Hot-blooded Squad Leader that he is, it doesn't take long for him to lose his patience anyway.

"Tanaka."

At first, it seems like there is no response, but Ryuuta notices a small twitch of a hand, a slow, heavy intake of air.

"Senpai," he acknowledges at last, out of politeness more than any desire to talk.

"It happens."

"I know..."

"To everyone. All the time."

"I know, it's just that..." Hajime reaches up and pulls off the hachimaki with a violent swipe, glaring at the Ouendan crest.

"... How do you... How do you deal with this?"

And though his voice is shaking, Ryuuta realises that the boy - this man - before him is a lot stronger than he once was. Under the pressure of expectation, the defeat failure and the disappointment of discovering that not every ending is a good one, Hajime's motions are still refined and controlled. For the moment, the fire had burnt out, but the grace in his sorrow is almost admirable.

He just doesn't know it yet.

Ryuuta sighs. "You stop."

There is a hesitant silence as the rookie stares at his senpai in near-disbelief. "Y-you mean, quit?"

"No, you moron, I said you stop. You take a break and you think about it. Reassess. Find out where you stuffed up."

"But... I don't know where to -"

"Tanaka!"

The boy jumps.

"What are you doing here?"

"Wh-what do you mean?"

"I mean here," Ryuuta stands, arms folded, back straight. "Here!" he barks, and is pleased to find that Hajime snaps to attention, his hand flailing for a moment as if wanting to throw a salute. "In this Ouendan. Why did you join?"

The young Squad Leader shifts uncomfortably as he muses his answer. "Doumeki-danchou said that I could help people."

"And you want to quit."

"I failed my first cheer! It was supposed to be so easy and I -" abruptly lost for words, he throws the hachimaki onto the ground in frustration, and it seems to ease him, somewhat. "How do I know that it won't happen again - that I won't fail another cheer, stop another person from reaching for what they want?"

"You don't."

Ryuuta unfolds his arms. It's not an argument anymore.

"You don't know, Tanaka, that's the point. Everytime you put on that uniform, it's another day. You're not expected to forecast the bloody weather, that's not your job. But you are expected to do your goddamned best.

"So that's what you do. You cheer. You pick yourself up off the ground and you try harder. You make up for all the screw ups. Because we're not here to make the world a better place. We're here to help it through a damn ugly place. And if everyone just up and left whenever shit got them down, nothing would ever get done. So that's where we pick up the slack. We have to nudge 'em out the door, remind them that it's worth it. Because if we can't get over our own mistakes, then how the hell d'you expect them to?"

With a sigh, Ryuuta fixes the boy with the frankest gaze he can muster, and wishes that someone had told him this when he was the one sitting in that chair. "You're the best goddamn Squad Leader I've seen out there for years, Tanaka. So get your act together, prove it and fight!"

Finally, mortified, Hajime nods dumbly.

"Louder!"

"Y-yes, senpai!"

"Good." Stooping, Ryuuta neatly snatches the red hachimaki off the ground and tosses it at Hajime, smiling, not unkindly, when the boy fumbles his catch. "Put this back on."

"But... It's... Sweaty."

"Oh."

There is an awkward pause as it seems Hajime can't quite bring himself to look Ryuuta in the eye.

"... Thank you, Ippongi-senpai."

This is not heat that is creeping up into his face.

"Showers," he grumbles, quickly turning to make his way out of the hall. "You stink."