It is a sunny Friday in early May and Akira wakes up with a strange, painful feeling in his chest. He has no idea where it is coming from. It worsens as he gets up and walks in to the kitchen and when he puts the kettle on Akira realizes that his hands are shaking and he can’t seem to make them stop. He eats breakfast and gets ready for his teaching game trying to shake off the feeling but it follows him, a heavy and painful sickness in his chest. It feels like a cold hand has pushed into his chest cavity making it hard to breathe. He has the completely illogical feeling that he’s losing something utterly vital, but can’t for a moment define what that would be. Something is wrong, the air seems to whisper, something is wrong, wrong, wrong. No matter how much he tries he can’t ignore it and it is eating away at him, leaving him increasingly afraid. Akira doesn’t consider himself as a person prone to unexplained anxiety and he doesn’t believe in premonitions but the insistency of the feeling really unnerves him. A deeper, more childish part of him just wants to go back to bed and crawl under the covers, as if hiding from the world would make this go away. For the first time in years he actually feels unwell enough to consider calling in sick.
Akira is a responsible person, however, and his personal sense of duty forbids him to resort to such childish behavior. No matter how bad he feels, calling in sick would inconvenience a lot of people and there doesn’t seem to be anything physically wrong with him. He shakes his head, clenches his teeth and prepares to leave the house, hoping that fresh air and sunlight will help alleviate the fear. He has obligations. He can’t spend his day hiding under his bedcovers because he’s afraid.
As he grabs his keys on his way out the door the world tilts-
-and then, suddenly, he is sitting in a chair in front of a large desk in a small, very neat office. A man is sitting on the other side of the desk and is smiling pleasantly at him. Akira blinks, and then blinks again. He experiences a sudden spell of vertigo.
He clears his throat and tries again but no words are coming out. This has to be some kind of a dream. He carefully closes his eyes and opens them again. He is still in the unfamiliar office, sitting in front of the same pleasantly smiling man. A sense of panic is starting to claw its way out of his chest.
“Ah, Touya-san. What a pleasure to meet you. I do apologize for the abrupt journey. I thought it would be easier this way.”
Akira just stares at him. Generally (well, with some notable exceptions) he considers himself capable of staying pretty levelheaded and calm in stressful situations, but right now he can almost feel his sanity fraying at the edges. This has to be a dream, but every instinct he has is screaming at him that it isn’t. The panic is speeding up his heart beats and it feels like he can’t get air into his lungs.
The man seems pretty unconcerned with Akira’s imminent meltdown, however; he just keeps smiling. He looks like an exceptionally ordinary man. A man you could find in every office in every town of Japan. So ordinary, in fact, that it in some bizarre way crosses the line into extremely unsettling.
“Well then,” the man says, still very pleasant and now a bit brisk. “Now that you're here, let’s get down to business. I do apologize again for the inconvenience, but we have something in our possession that is noted as your property. We were hoping that you would either sign it over to us or make a formal claim on it. Bureaucracy, you know.”
Then he looks expectantly at Akira. Akira stares back, eyes wide and scared. I’m going insane, he thinks. This cannot be happening. I’m going insane. The office is completely and utterly quiet. Not a sound can be heard. No noise from traffic, no birds, no voices, not even a sound of a chair moving or a rustle of paper. The only thing that Akira can hear is his own panicked breathing. The man doesn’t move nor does he appear inconvenienced by the silence. He continues to look at Akira with exactly the same face. Pleasant. Expectant.
Akira takes a deep breath and then another one. Bites his lip until it almost bleeds.
“I’m sorry,” he says “I… I don’t quite understand. What property is it you have, exactly?”
His voice is shaking, but right now Akira settles for actually getting the words out. The man nods agreeably.
“Ah, yes, of course, I apologize if I am getting ahead of myself. You are of course familiar with Shindou Hikaru?”
Absurdly, the first thing Akira experiences when hearing Shindou’s name is utter relief. Yes, of course everything here is absurd and nonsensical. Shindou is involved. That helps Akira find his bearings and gets his voice working properly. Then the rest of the man’s words catch up with him.
“I don’t… I’m sorry? Shindou isn’t mine. I don’t understand- What do you mean ‘have in your possession’?”
Apparently he still isn’t terribly coherent.
“Ah.” The man says and nods again. He never changes his expression. It is stuck on pleasant, like someone painted his face on with permanent colors. Without knowing why Akira suddenly gets the horrifying suspicion that someone actually has.
“Well, of course Shindou Hikaru himself is not your property, but according to our notes his go actually is.”
Akira blinks at him again. Shindou’s go. Well Shindou’s go does belong to him in a way. Just like Akira’s own go belongs to Shindou. It is a part of their never ending rivalry. You are my rival and I am yours. Your go is mine and mine is yours. It isn’t something Akira has ever vocalized to himself but he still suddenly and absolutely knows that it is true.
“Yes,” he agrees “Yes, it is.”
“Splendid,” the man says. “Well, allow me to summarize the situation. Shindou Hikaru has recently come in to our possession but it has now become apparent that he was bringing property that wasn’t, strictly speaking, his own. Regretfully we can’t actually separate his go from his soul so we were forced to involve you. Again, I do apologize, but it shouldn’t take too long.”
Akira licks his suddenly dry lips.
“I’m sorry,” he says again. “You said, ‘in your possession'. Who exactly are you?”
“Oh, I am sorry for not clarifying. We’re Hell, of course.”
“Hell?” Akira finds himself feeling dizzy again, “Shindou made a deal with Hell?”
For Akira Hell is a very abstract place. He knows the concepts of yomi and jigoku. His grandparents enjoys telling stories, so he knows about the land of the dead with its opening in Higashiizumo, about Enma judging souls in the underworld and the terror of the eighteen levels of Hell. But that is about it. The concept of making deals with Hell is utterly incomprehensible to him.
“Well, a division of one of the Hells, to be precise. And not an official deal as such. He was trying to reacquire a ghost, as I understand it. But he didn’t quite understand the workings of the universe. What he was trying to achieve is not actually possible. As a result he opened the wrong door, and now we have a very inconvenient situation on our hands.”
Seeing Akira’s bewildered expression he hums and continues.
“I seem to be getting ahead of myself again. Allow me to explain. If you get caught in Hell you become the property of that Hell. But, at the same time, all things you bring in to Hell must exclusively belong to you. Since the relevant regulatory provisions states that no human can be property of another human this has never actually been an issue before. But it seems that in their current edition the regulations do not deny ownership rights to someone else’s go skills which puts the whole acquisition of this particular soul into question. It was quite unexpected. The legal team is very upset. “
He says everything with the same bland pleasantness. Akira sits still for a couple of moments and tries to wrap his head around the notion of legislation in Hell. Then he takes a few moments to imagines, in colorful detail, all the ways he is going to kill Shindou over and over again. After Akira gets him out of hell, apparently. This whole experience is surreal, but right now Akira’s only options seems to be either screaming hysterically or accepting that this is actually happening. Since screaming probably won’t get him anywhere, he tries working on acceptance. He is going to save up all that screaming until he can do it straight into Shindou’s stupid face.
“So,” he says, trying to sound calm and collected even though his voice is still trembling. “What happens now?”
“Well, the easiest way to resolve this is of course if you would just sign this paper giving up any and all rights to the go in Shindou Hikaru’s possession. You would of course be generously compensated.”
The man pauses to look at Akira’s face and something like genuine amusement slithers under the unmoving pleasantness. Maybe from the real being under the painted face.
“No, I see that you don’t consider this an option. Well, if that is the case you can of course make you claim official. If you succeed Hell will relinquish its entire claim on Shindou Hikaru and you will both be within your right to leave. If you fail, however, all property rights will be lost to you.”
Akira sits very still.
“And how do I make my claim?”
“You will be granted entrance into the Hell where Shindou Hikaru is currently residing and if you make him verify your rights to his go, you are both free to leave.”
That sounds suspiciously easy.
“So he just has to agree that his go is mine?” Akira says doubtfully.
“Well not exactly. Shindou Hikaru absolutely acknowledges that his go is yours, if not we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now. What you have to do is make him remember.”
The man’s constant use of Shindou’s full name grates on Akira’ nerves. It sounds like he is talking about a product in a store. He carefully consider what he has just been told, and then slowly says,
“You said that anyone caught in Hell becomes the property of that Hell. Wouldn’t that automatically apply to me as well? If I go to the same place as Shindou, wouldn’t that Hell just claim me and all my possessions including Shindou’s go?”
That amusement flickers under the surface again.
“Very logical, Touya-san. But no, since this is a contract dispute you are regretfully not subject to the regular Hell legislation. You will be protected, at least for the duration of the dispute.”
Something seems to ripple under the unmoving, smiling face, something like hunger.
“We can of course not guarantee you are safe from getting caught in the despair of Hell. That’s your own responsibility.”
“How do I even know you are telling the truth?” Akira says, but even as he asks it, he knows the question is absurd. Because he just knows. He knows with the same certainty that he knows where his hand is or that he is breathing. It is a bone deep knowledge, wedged in the deepest part of him. This man does not lie.
The man just continues smiling at him.
“Yes. Alright.” Akira agrees, suddenly exhausted. I suppose you wouldn’t want to tell me what exactly it is that I have to do to make Shindou remember?”
“On the contrary Touya-san. You have the right to know the basic premise of this case. You are a claimant; that gives you right to information.”
Akira has a very strong feeling that Hell did not make up these rules on its own but he doesn’t comment.
“To make Shindou Hikaru remember you need to show him the things that make up his go in the first place. You are, of course, one important part of this and Sai is the other.”
It sort of feels like being punched in the chest. It isn’t that Akira is totally clueless about Shindou and Sai’s connection. Shindou has promised to tell him some day, after all, and sometimes he slips up and mentions small things. A game, a joke, a story half told about something Sai said or did that never gets finished because Shindou suddenly catches himself. “Sai is in my go,” he once told Akira, on their way home from Hokuto cup, still on the verge of tears. “So I’m playing for him.” But ultimately Sai remains a mystery. He is still something that Akira doesn’t understand after all these years and some days it drives him nearly insane.
“But I don’t know who Sai is,” he says between clenched teeth. “How is that supposed to help me?”
The man watches him with the same unshakable pleasantness.
“That’s very unfortunate for you, isn’t it?” he says agreeably.
Akira has gone through his whole life without having to hit anyone, but right now it takes serious effort for him to not punch the man in the face. But the anger helps with the fear and for the first time since he got here his voice is steady when he opens his mouth.
“Fine,” he says coolly. “Is there anything else I need to know?”
“Some small formalities. If you succeed in finding Shindou Hikaru and making him remember, you will need to leave through the blue door you entered Hell through. Shindou Hikaru will not be able to leave without his memories. You have one week Touya-san. If you have not left by then, with or without your property, all special rules are null and void for you. You are entitled to go about the task anyway you like and no being created by Hell can consciously hinder you, lie to you or refuse you information. If you have any questions while inside Hell please use the red phone beside the blue door.”
“Will it-” Akira takes a deep breath and lets it out “I mean, is it dangerous?”
“Physically? Oh, no, no. We’re not a flashy kind of Hell. It is a very small, family run enterprise. It has just built its world based around Shindou Hikaru’s fears and despair. It is quite safe.”
It doesn’t sound safe, but that same bone deep instinct from before keeps telling Akira that this is not a man who lies. He might leave things out or avoid the truth but anything he says outright will always be accurate. So he clenches his fists and nods shortly.
“Alright, I’m ready.”
The man nods, raises his hands and a blue door appears from nowhere in the middle of the room.
“Here you go Touya-san. I would wish you good luck, but your luck would mean a loss for us, wouldn’t it?”
And Akira turns his back to him, opens the door and steps through.