She was looking for her shoes when she noticed the crouched figure in the corner--head in hands, knees drawn up, shoulders slouched. The very picture of depression. The dark head looked familiar, so she called out, "Hey! What's wrong?"
The head lifted, revealing a red, uncomfortable face. "Nase-san?"
"Is that you, Miyano? What are you doing there?"
The insei got up to her feet awkwardly, looking rather embarrassed. "Nothing. I thought no one would come by this floor."
"Well, I was dropping by the kifu library to do some research." Nase tilted her head as she studied the younger girl. "Pro exam blues?"
Miyano nodded. "I lost again today. It puts me out of the running unless the top three start messing up."
"You never know what might happen. Don't lose hope yet."
"Nase-san? Have you ever--"
"Has anyone ever told you that girls can't play go?"
"Many times," Nase said, with a little laugh. "Best way to shut them up is to win against them."
Miyano said in a rush, "Sometimes I worry that I'm just not good enough. That I won't get any stronger. That even if I become a pro, it won't mean anything because I'll never play go like Touya Akira."
Nase bit her lip and made no reply.
"How do you know when it's time to give up?"
(black's turn. place a stone.)
"I'm sorry," she says and puts away the goke.
She's especially angry with herself for losing that game by four and a half moku.
Instead, she signs up for the women's special exam. It's a round-robin, and she wins every game. Her opponents are strong, but it's different when you're only competing against half the usual number of opponents. After five years, she finally passes, though not in the way that she imagined she would. Still, the members of her study group throw her a party to celebrate.
"It's about time you joined us," says Waya, when he hears the news.
She grins, relieved to hear him say "us". No matter what the route she took to get there, she's a pro now. That's all that counts, she tells herself and tries to believe it.
"Why, you little brat!" she exclaims in mock-anger, laughing. Ochi squirms as she ruffles his hair and glares.
"But Asumi-chan! You never have time to hang out with us."
She shakes her head and tries not to feel left out as she watches the rest of them leave without her.
It's her first time really drinking beer, and after the first few bitter swallows, she's gotten accustomed to the taste. Iijima-san is as morose as ever and downs a whole glass in a few quick gulps.
"You see, I just knew. I just knew. I wasn't getting anywhere. And it all seemed so pointless."
She stared at her own glass, still half-full.
"I mean, it's just a game. You don't realize when you're in the middle of it all, but it's really just a meaningless game."
She said sharply, "You don't really mean that, Iijima-san."
He sighed and poured himself another glass. "No, I don't. But it would be so much easier if I could believe it."
"Ah, Asumi-chan! We've missed you. When are you going to pass the pro exam? We're all cheering for you."
She grimaces but covers it up with chatter about the latest title match; Fukuzawa-ojisan doesn't notice.
They lay out the fuseki cautiously. Neither of them are speed players. She plays a bold hand, and he studies it for a long while, his hand pausing over the bowl. The shapes grow complex and tangled, not nearly as neat as the life-or-death problems in her tsumego books. She breathes slowly, in and out, waiting for his response. It's this calm between the moves that she likes the most, even more so than the excitement of capturing stones.
In the end, she loses the game by one and a half moku. She bows with clenched fists and says, "Thank you," in a muffled voice.
Her opponent says, "That was a really great game, Asumi-chan." He sounds completely sincere.
She looks again at the board, as her hands uncurl in her lap. He's right, it was her best game yet, even if she lost.
"Let's play again sometime," he calls out just before their mothers bundle them up in coats and rush them out of the room.
"Sure! Next time, I'm going to win," she answers back cheerfully.
That night, she records the game in her notebook--her first kifu.
She's surprised to see him pull up in his flashy red car when she's about to leave the building. He rolls down the window and asks, "Shall I drive you home?"
"Only if you intend to play go," she retorts, feeling her cheeks grow hot.
He smiles sardonically. "I don't have the time or energy to tutor little girls. Even pretty ones like you."
She doesn't know what to say, just stands there mute and mortified until he drives away.
"Please, Kikuchi-san, let me reassure you that I'm a shodan registered with the Kiin," she says as politely as she can.
She convinces him to sit down and play a game of shidougo. It ends with her two-moku win, and he eyes her skeptically. "Is this all? The strength of a pro player?"
She's a pro, which means behaving like a professional, she reminds herself. "That was a tutoring game, Kikuchi-san, played with a handicap."
He scowls. "Tell the Kiin to send a real pro next time."
"I won't lie to you, the doubts aren't going to go away. No matter how strong you are. And there will be people who won't take you seriously even if you're a pro, or even if you're a title-holder.
"But there's a reason why you're here. Why you keep playing, no matter how many times you lose, and why you want to get stronger. Isn't there?"
There was a long pause. Then, "Yeah. I guess you're right."