Touya comes to yell at him when he learns that Hikaru won't be taking part in the Dawn Promotion this year, which is so expected it's almost banal. “Personal reasons” doesn't seem to be a good excuse.
“You can't just take a leave whenever you want,” Touya tells him, which is a roundabout way of saying that he's offended to be unable to beat Hikaru in another official match.
But no one else understands the significance of this week, and he can't explain. He goes to Innoshima on May 4th, a day before it happened, carrying a pocketbook of Shuusaku's kifu like somehow looking over the old games he never knew will make everything ache a bit less.
Innoshima is everything he remembers: pretty, tiring, unfulfilling. He wavers between visiting the shrines and the museum before finally gravitating, once again, back to the carefully maintained gravestone.
Shuusaku's name appears in neat figures along with the names of his family. Sai's kanji is missing, but Hikaru feels his absence here anyway, as though the memorial was made with his guiding hand. He wonders where Sai died, if bones decay and disappear to wind and dust after a thousand years. He has wondered these things before and doesn't really want to know the answer.
If Hikaru were religious or hopeful or anything, really, he might pray, but instead he just stands awkwardly until a few tourists wander by and begin to look at him strangely. He walks further down the graveyard and reads the inscriptions on different stones until he circles back around to Shuusaku. He doesn't know why he's here. He doesn't know much of anything.
Hikaru crouches down and touches the stone.
“Oh, why did you do that?” A voice asks sadly. “I was sleeping.”
But the bowed man standing behind him could not look more unlike the regal Heien ghost he once knew. Blinking confusedly in a formal kimono, the middle-aged stranger tilts his head while Hikaru fumbles, and says, “Sorry, I didn't – I didn't realize you were here - “
“I knew someone named Sai once,” says the man softly. “Before I died. Yes. I suppose I should not be surprised by this.”
Hikaru stares at the man, who, he realizes, seems horribly familiar. “Oh no,” he breathes.
“My name is Torajirou,” the man offers. “Or you may call me Shuusaku, if you prefer.”
“Oh no no no,” Hikaru repeats, and putting his head in his hands wonders why these things always happen to him.
“What a nice board,” says Torajirou, examining Hikaru's goban. He politely ignores the mess of his room.
“Er, yeah,” Hikaru sighs. At least there's only a century's difference between them, give or take; this ghost took the surprise of cars and, well, umbrellas with much more equanimity than Sai. Hikaru drops his bag on his bed, glad to be back home and away from prying ears. “I suppose you want to play a game?” he asks blankly.
“No, not right now – unless you really must.”
Hikaru, pacing nervously around the goban, almost trips. “Uh, no, that's. Fine.” He stares at Torajirou.
“Is there a problem?” the ghost asks gently.
“You're just... not what I expected.”
“You're not really like Sai.” He's already explained their prior – connection.
“I don't imagine many people are like Sai.”
Well, that's true enough.
“So strange,” Torajirou muses, folding his arms into the sleeves of his large kimono, “To think that he haunted both of us. Everything is so cyclical...
“Then if you don't want to play a game we can get right to it,” Hikaru says firmly. “Tell Sai to come back.”
Torajirou falters. “Sorry?”
“Do you want something? Do we need to be closer, do we need to be where he died - “
“I don't understand.”
“You're dead! You can talk to Sai for me.”
“ - I think you misunderstand how death works,” Torajirou says.
Hikaru opens his mouth, then shuts it furiously. Dealing with Sai was always so easy; if the Heien ghost was difficult he just hinted that he would stop playing Go for awhile and Sai would cave immediately. The niggling reminder makes him guilty. He would play a thousand games of Go under Sai's direction, or stop playing forever, if either option would only bring him back.
“What do you want,” he repeats. “I'll give you anything if you'll talk to him for me – if you find him -”
Torajirou looks sad. “I don't want anything.”
“You're a ghost. You don't become a ghost without missing something or, or hating something - !”
Torajirou shrugs, unhelpfully.
“I wish you were dead,” says Hikaru, moronically, and then he throws himself on his bed and ignores the ghost until morning.
Torajirou remains when he wakes up.
It never felt like Sai was haunting him. The ghost traced his steps for years, eagerly, until he was as much Hikaru's life as a leg or an arm. As the sun, or air, or Go. And now Torajirou stumbles in his place like a bad shadow.
It was better to see nothing, when Hikaru looked over his shoulder, then to flinch at the sight of this man who fails to be everything Sai could be.
Torajirou accompanies him to the Go Association in the morning. Hikaru doesn't have a game scheduled for three days – the first in a series of teaching-games, minor promotional events he regrets having agreed to do – but he meets with Waya and Isumi, who are both curious about his absence and early return.
It is May 6th.
“Couldn't stay away, huh? Some vacation,” Waya says. Isumi watches him more closely. “Here, I'm not scheduled for anything today, Shindou; do you want to play a game?”
“How things have changed,” Torajirou sighs, glancing around.
“Sure,” says Shindou. They sit down.
“You keep a fan like him,” says Torajiro, noticing him tap, tap, tapping it against the ground. “Does it help you?”
Hikaru throws down the fan. They begin nigiri.
And Torajirou watches silently.
That's worth repeating; Torajirou watches silently.
Ten, twenty, thirty rounds of stones go down without words. “What's wrong with you, Shindou?” Waya snaps suddenly. “God, you haven't played this badly since you started.” And it's true; the board is starting to look distorted, favoring Waya's white. Maybe he can recover some territory, but -
“Well?” Waya asks.
Hikaru looks over his shoulder.
Torajirou, watching the board, returns the stare patiently. Hikaru suddenly feels sick. “I gotta go,” he says.
“What? We haven't finished playing!”
“I resign!” Hikaru scatters the pieces and grabs his bag. Waya curses when he stands up.
As he leaves, he hears Isumi ask, “Do you think something happened?”
“Maybe Shindou just goes crazy every year,” Waya responds.
“Stop looking at me like that!” Hikaru snaps. A few passerby glance at him. He walks faster. He just wants to get home and throw himself into bed – sleep, so he can stop thinking about this and Torajirou and everything.
Torajirou picks at his sleeve and carefully turns his face toward the sky. “It is a little hard to avoid looking at you,” he admits. “We are bound, after all.”
“You're judging me! I hate it.”
“My Go isn't as good as yours but I'm getting better. I just – I just didn't have as long with Sai.”
The words burn in his throat. Torajirou had Sai for years, and he didn't mess up with the ghost. It's not fair. It's not fair.
“You think I'm judging your Go,” says Torajirou, and pauses. “ - Hikaru. No. Your Go is splendid. Quite better than mine, I would say.”
Hikaru abruptly stops. A man nearly runs into him and curses. He turns around on the sidewalk to face Torajirou. “Better than you? You were going to be the Honinbou! You were the best player in, well, ever!”
“Sai was,” Torajirou corrects gently. “And Sai won almost all my games for me. Sometimes we attempted to split games; Sai would take over part of the way through because I was not strong enough.”
“But that's cheating,” says Hikaru. Torajirou winces.
“We were like one person,” the older player answers; he does not deny the accusation. “And Sai would not cheat,” he adds, which is true. “At the end of things we did not see it as deceit because it was Sai, and not I, who was in truth the prodigal player. He was the one everyone wanted to play anyway. And when I played it was never cheating – one cannot cheat by self-imposing a handicap.”
Hikaru swallows. He wonders if Sai would have been interested enough to stay around if Hikaru had let him play every game, if Hikaru had confined his own talents to their practice sessions and been content with that. “But you have to be good,” he says. “You were Sai's student.”
“I was nothing,” says Torajirou with finality. And when he will say no more Hikaru shakes away the cold around his shoulders and finishes trudging home.
“So what we need to do,” Hikaru says, flipping through a book titled Tsukimono: Harae and Other Defenses, “Is to just... figure out how to get rid of you. I'm sure you'll be happier moving on to wherever ghosts are supposed to go, right?”
“You seem to think Sai should be here with you,” Torajirou observes, because he's a jerk.
Hikaru slams his book shut and spins around. His room is cold, but he can't close the window. “Is the Onusa doing anything?” he asks, pointing to the large tassels of paper waving from his ceiling. It's meant to purify an area. He bought it on ebay.
“I might feel a little queasy,” Torajirou admits.
“Oh, great.” Hikaru throws his book against the wall. Kicks his bed. “ - You're completely useless, you know that? At least Sai was fun.” At least Sai played Go. At least Sai liked Hikaru.
“I'm sorry,” says Torajirou, the most boring person ever.
“Let's play a game,” Hikaru decides.
Torajirou sighs, almost resigned, and sits on the ground. “You know,” he says. “It's a bit odd; I always had to move the stones for Sai when I was alive.”
Hikaru sits on the ground and pauses. Imagines that, for a moment, coming back to haunt some dumb kid and taking Sai's place as a spirit. “Yeah,” is all he says, and plays his first stone.
Torajirou wasn't kidding.
He's... not that great.
“You're excellent,” says Torajirou when they enter yose. Hikaru, increasingly dismayed, smacks a stone onto the board. It's a bad move; his opponent doesn't seem to notice. “I see why Sai chose you.” But why, why did Sai choose this guy?
He wins by six moku.
“Thank you for the game,” says Torajirou, all politeness.
Hikaru stares at the board for a long time.
Hikaru doesn't enter the Go Association again until his shidougo matches start up. The games are easy – training matches with amateur players – and a thought occurs to him when his first opponent, a thin, nervous man with a pair of grey wire glasses, comes and sits down.
“Torajirou,” he says.
“Uh,” the man answers. Right. He's forgotten what it's like to have a ghost in the back of his skull.
So, silently, he says this: “Torajirou. Play this game.”
“What!” Torajirou exclaims. Hikaru feels a bit smug to have finally broken the man's imperturbable calm. “I can't! And you're, you're much better - “
“Play him or I'm just going to sit here,” Hikaru says. He leans back while the stranger waits, respectfully, for him to make a move.
Silence stretches on. Torajirou seems like a nervous type. First he waits to see if Hikaru is bluffing, but Hikaru has done worse than mess up some training-matches. His opponent starts to fidget, and finally, angry, Torajirou spits, “17-4.”
For an amateur, the man is good. They win the game and Hikaru, playing confidently, points out enough of the technical aspects that his own near-win probably looks like a deliberate kindness and not the result of a lacking skillset. Torajirou seems sullen when a woman sits in front of them next.
“Again,” Hikaru says silently. And, with a dark glance, Torajirou plays.
At the end of the day Hikaru feels exhausted, as though he's played a hundred games instead of just shifting around pieces on a board. He glimpses Akira's hideous lavender coat and clashing orange tie across the room, so he ducks out as soon as it seems acceptable. Torajirou and him need to have a chat.
“I've decided to become your teacher,” Hikaru says. He plays his first stone.
Torajirou stares at him. He holds a white stone between his fingers and he does not play. “Perhaps it has escaped your attention,” he says. “But I'm dead. I don't think that improving my game matters much.”
“Sai thought it mattered.”
“I'm not Sai.”
I know, Hikaru does not say. “But you want to play.”
“No, I don't.”
“Yes, you do.”
“No, I - “
“Yes, you do.”
“Are you always this - “ Torajirou waves his hands, frustrated. Hikaru grins. He's starting to understand now. Torajirou isn't emotionless. He's old. Traditional, sort of. Like how Akira's dad, the old Meijin, never exactly smiles or frowns but everything he says can mean a thousand different things anyway. Getting this guy to react feels strangely like an accomplishment. “It's not as though I have anything to offer you,” Torajirou says. “You know you are much better at Go than me.”
“So that means you can't play?”
Hikaru stares. “Wow,” he says finally, clenching his fan. “I think Sai kind of messed you up, didn't he?”
“Do not say such things about Sai.”
“I mean, I don't think he did it on purpose. But you shouldn't refuse to play just because you're not the very best player in the world. And you're still pretty good, you know. Definitely pro-level!”
“Sai liked to compare me to the best students from his stories,” says Torajirou bitterly. “The Emperor's favorite niece, the governor's son Akihiko. How could I compare to those people he loved so dearly?”
“I've never even heard those names. But he talked about you a lot. He always said you were a great person.”
“But not a great player,” Torajirou says.
Hikaru hesitates. Refuses to press the subject. “Did – did Sai talk about the past a lot? After he left I tried to find out where he lived, where he died, but - “
“You don't know?”
“I never asked him.”
“Oh. What do you know about his family?”
“I – nothing.”
Torajirou looks honestly surprised. He so rarely shows any strong emotions that it makes Hikaru feel even worse. “Sai loved talking about his family,” he says. “He never mentioned any of them? Not even his mother? His little sister?”
“What about the Emperor? His old teacher? Lady Noa?”
“I – I never asked,” Hikaru repeats.
At last, Torajirou seems to understand.
“His entire existence surrounded you," the older player pronounces gravely. "Everything he did. Everything he was. And you – you must have known him for years – and you never asked - “
“I know! I know, okay? I want – I wish I could...” Hikaru covers his face, but it's no use. He doesn't want to look at Torajirou, sitting where Sai should sit, playing the stones badly like he never bothered to learn anything from his amazing tutor.
But maybe that doesn't matter – Torajirou never learned much Go, but he learned about Sai. Hikaru feels suddenly, fiercely jealous for that.
"I was doing fine before you came," he blurts suddenly. "I was fine. I was."
Finally Torajirou looks down at the goban between them. “I'll play,” he says. “Because Sai would have liked it, I think. Not for you.”
Which. Yeah. Hikaru is okay with that.
He manages to avoid Akira for two months.
He doesn't have any seriously important matches, fortunately, but Torajirou plays and he doesn't always play well. Hikaru goes on a sudden losing streak that he can't adequately explain when Waya and Isumi demand answers. “I guess it's just that time of the year,” he makes the mistake of saying, at one point, and Isumi stares at him for an unnervingly long time.
Torajirou stops apologizing after awhile. Hijaru thinks the ghost might hate him, just a little. That's alright. Sometimes he hates himself too.
He faces Akira in a preliminary match for the Meijin title - again. It's a shame, Hikaru thinks, to lose his chance this year at continuing up the ranks. But if Akira becomes Meijin he can challenge Hikaru can formally challenge him in a year or two. That would be much more interesting anyway.
When they begin to play Akira is careful, cautious. He scrutinizes Hikaru's moves, which are Torajirou's moves, with great care. Like he expects a trick.
Then he starts to look angry.
“What are you doing,” Akira asks suddenly.
“Are you losing on purpose?” Akira demands.
“Why would I do that?” Hikaru asks breezily, and internally winces when Torajirou completely ignores the signs of a trap to press an attack forward.
“Then play seriously!”
“We're not twelve,” Hikaru laughs, feeling both small and strangely powerful as he moves another stone for his shadow. “I'm just playing like I always play.”
“You're going to lose.”
Hikaru is unfazed. “You're wrong, Touya,” he says. “I'm as great a player as Honinbou Shuusaku himself.”
Akira looks furious. He slaps down a stone. “You've talked about Shuusaku before,” he says. “You're an insult to his memory, Shindou.”
Torajirou points at the board. This time Hikaru grins. “No, I'm really not,” he says. “ - And Shuusaku is so much more than you know, Akira.”
They lose. They lose by two and a half moku, and by the end Akira has stopped looking quite so upset, though he still eyes Hikaru suspiciously when they part. Torajirou seems troubled while they walk home, and he asks, “That man – that boy – you know him well?”
“We're rivals,” Hikaru says.
“But you allowed me to play him anyway.”
“Sure. You did great, Torajirou.” Hikaru hesitates. “ - Sai would have been really proud.”
They go home. His parents are asleep already, the house quiet. Hikaru takes off his shoes and sneaks upstairs, startled when Torajirou breaks the silence again. “I think I've improved,” he says. “I think I could continue to improve.”
“You could be a fantastic player,” Hikaru says. And amends; “You are a fantastic player. Even if you never knew it.”
“But it will not mean anything,” Torajirou says. “Because my time for this life has passed. And I cannot do to you what Sai did to me.”
Hikaru steps back. “Um - “
“Thank you,” says Torajirou sadly. “It is good to know what I could have been, Shindou Hikaru.” And then, in front of Hikaru's eyes, a green glow winks from his innermost being. Torajirou mouths something else but the words don't form. He disappears as though he never was, and Hikaru is alone, again, yet not without ghosts.
It occurs to Hikaru, later in the night, that the invincible Honinbou Shuusaku followed him around for almost three months and Hikaru never asked how he found Sai. Never asked about his family, his life, his other hobbies. Never asked about his death.
He will always have regrets.
“You're playing better,” Isumi says. “How are you feeling, Shindou?”
Hikaru places a stone on the board. He can almost feel an elegant, ancient fan directing his movement, and, overlaying the sensation, the phantom touch of a more hesitant hand. A hand that trembles and wavers before growing firm. Hikaru buries his fist in his goke to hide its shaking.
“I'm great,” he says. For some reason his eyes burn a little. He blinks rapidly. “Great.”
He plays a good game. A great game. Isumi resigns before they ever reach yose.
He likes to think Sai would be proud.