If truth be told, Hikaru Shindo was not the type of boy who was prone to a feeling guilty. He was more the type to take the last meatbun, tell Akari that her new hair-style looked the same as the old one, and shove a pillow over his head when Sai started wailing about playing Go. But ever since he'd played against Akira in the school tournament, there was an unfamiliar lead feeling in his stomach.
Hikaru would have liked to convince himself that he felt this way because he had lost. And that the way he'd stared after Akira's back as the other boy walked away had been because he was upset at losing, not because Akira was disappointed in him.
And he might have been able to convince himself of that if he hadn't made the mistake of talking to the other members of Kaio after the tournament.
Curious to know of his connection with Akira, they'd told him more than they'd probably intended. Transferring to a new school, being bullied, studying Go books in every moment of his spare time: all just to face Hikaru Shindo in a lousy middle school tournament. Hikaru himself couldn't understand it at all. But he thought he'd probably never wanted anything in his whole life as much as Akira had wanted to play him—no, Sai. It had been Sai that Akira had wanted to play, and Hikaru had taken that from him. The lead feeling was back again.
After he had resigned, watching Akira look at him with a disappointment that bordered on disgust (the way he'd looked when Hikaru talked about playing Go for money) Hikaru had tried to fix it. He'd told Akira to wait for to become stronger. But that was what only Hikaru wanted, he realized. Akira didn't want to wait years for Hikaru to get stronger, become a professional, and challenge him to another Go match. In point of fact, Akira didn't want to play Hikaru at all. He wanted to play Sai.
Hikaru wasn't sure why this bothered him so much. After all, who was Akira but a spoiled little master who took Go far too seriously? But for some reason, Akira's disproval had been an irritation to Hikaru from almost the moment they met, and realizing this only irritated him more. Stupid, snobby Akira, with no interest in Hikaru except for the Sai he'd glimpsed in their game.
At this point, Hikaru was ready to throw in the towel and just let Akira play Sai again, just so he wouldn't feel so guilty anymore. But given the cold brush-off Akira had given him last time they'd met, he might not even be willing to give Hikaru another chance. Not unless Hikaru could come up with a convincing explanation of why last time had been so terrible, and why this time would be different. It would probably have to be more convincing than "you see, there's this Go-playing ghost which decided to haunt me."
Luckily, good ideas were Hikaru's strong point (in his own opinion, at least.)
Sai waved his fan frantically in front of Hikaru's face. "Hi-kar-ru! Are you listening?"
"No," Hikaru said bluntly. He'd been lying on his bed, trying to think. "It's not as though you ever have anything to say except about Go."
Sai teared up, which was ridiculous on a grown man much less a thousand-year-old ghost. "I'm only trying to help you! How will you reach Akira's level if you don't practice?"
The lead feeling returned to Hikaru's stomach—but this time he recognized the feeling as not guilt but bitterness. "I'm not going to reach Akira's level." He amended, "Not for a very long time. You just wait. But it's not fair to him, if I expect him to wait around for years."
"He's probably not waiting for you to play another game with him anymore," Sai pointed out, a little too aptly.
"No, but I bet he still wants to play you. So we're going to let him. I have this plan…"
Stage one of the plan was to obtain Akira's cell phone number. His fortunate encounter with Kaio's captain had helped with that. Hikaru was a little disappointed that he no longer needed Sai to sneak into Akira's room and try to find clues, but the ghost was only relieved. Wimp. It wasn't as though he could be caught or anything. Hikaru himself had been considering sneaking into Akira's room until Sai began asking all these annoying questions, like "Isn't that breaking in and entering?" and "If you're going to walk all the way into his house, why not just leave him a letter?"
Stage two was to send Akira the following message: "To Akira Touya: The person who beat you at Go was not who you think it is. If you want to know the truth, come to the place where you first played against Hikaru Shindo tomorrow at 12:00. From, a mysterious stranger."
Stage three was to steal Akari's spare gym bag.
Not that she would notice it missing any time soon. What kind of anal-retentive person had three bags packed with a change of clothes just in case she forgot one of them? Hikaru assumed that meant she wouldn't be missing her spare spare bag before the end of the weekend, which would give him enough time.
Time to put his plan into action.
Hikaru strained his neck around, trying to see his back in the mirror. "Sai, how do I look? Do I have the bow on right?"
"It appears to be straight now," the ghost informed him. "But your skirt is shoved up under your underwear."
Growling, Hikaru pulled the offending fabric loose. "I can't believe that girls do this every day. I'm not even going to bother with the make-up."
"Are you sure that is wise?" Sai asked.
"Look, Sai, just because you think it's normal to prance around with your face painted white doesn't mean I'm going to do anything so girly."
Sai refrained from pointing out that Hikaru had no room to talk about being "girly" right now. And that his pale complexion was entirely natural. Instead, he said, "I thought you might disguise yourself some more. Right now you don't look that different."
Hikaru sighed theatrically. "That would be the point, Sai. I look exactly like Hikaru Shindo, so that explains why Akira mistook me for him when I first played Go with him. But, I am clearly a girl, and therefore cannot be Hikaru Shindo. I'm a similar looking yet different obscenely talented Go player. And then Akira can play you and you can resoundingly beat him again and we'll all be happy."
The idea of pretending to be someone else had occurred to Hikaru right away—the idea of pretending to be a girl, he had been less enthusiastic about. Hikaru had initially wanted to go as his identical twin brother, but had to admit that if even Sai thought it was a stupid idea then no one would believe it. (And what did he mean by that, Sai wondered?)
Then Hikaru had considered a fake beard, a pair of thick-rimmed glasses, and platform shoes, but had been disappointed by the realization that these tools would actually cost money. On the other hand, Akari accidentally leaving her gym bag at his house was free. Sai couldn't help thinking that only Hikaru would cross-dress because it was cheap.
Hikaru attempted to hike his leg up on the sink so he could look at it in the mirror. "Come on, Sai, this mirror is too small for me to really see myself. Do I look like a real girl or not? I'm supposed to meet Akira in an hour."
Sai gave Hikaru a close look. Dressed in skirt and blazer, his hair smoothed down and the bleached fringe tucked up under a baseball cap, Hikaru did look like a girl. A tomboyish, flat-chested girl, but even so if Sai had been meeting him for the first time he wouldn't have thought twice about the young teen's gender.
If he had been meeting him for the first time; that was the critical point. "You look like Hikaru."
Hikaru rolled his eyes. "Yes, I know, but do I look like a boy in a skirt? Because that would be mortifying."
"No," Sai said honestly. "You make a presentable young lady."
"Great, because I don't have any other ideas and I need to catch the train!"
A thought occurred to Sai. "Hikaru, your voice. You don't sound like a girl!"
Hikaru paused for a second, then said in a high falsetto, "Oh, dear, I'm late for my train!"
Sai winced. "Perhaps it would be better if you simply didn't talk at all."
Akira didn't know what he was doing at the Go salon. That message on his cell phone had been ridiculous, but then every single thing that had happened to him after meeting Hikaru Shindo had been ridiculous. Starting with the part where he had been crushed by a boy who held his stones like a beginner and spoke mockingly of Go—that still stung. After the third game he'd worked so hard for turned into a disaster, he'd been prepared to forget about Hikaru Shindo entirely.
Except, not as prepared as he thought he was, because one transparently anonymous text message later, here he was.
His head jerked up at the clang of the door opening, as it had been for the last half an hour.
Except this time, his head stayed up, and his eyes nearly bulged out of their sockets.
Standing in the doorway, wearing a brown long-sleeved shirt with a white collar, gold buttons, a big black bow, black knee socks, and a pleated skirt was…Hikaru Shindo. Akira blinked, bulged, and looked again. Yes, that was definitely the Haze Middle School girl's uniform, and that was Hikaru's face peeking out above it, under a completely-out-of-place baseball cap.
Hikaru turned his back to Akira to pay Ms. Ichikawa. Yes, Akira could see that was definitely not some sort of effeminate boy's shirt—that was definitely a school girl's skirt he was wearing. Ms. Ichikawa didn't seem to notice anything. Akira wondered if he could be hallucinating.
Hikaru turned around, eyes scanning the room. His gaze lit on Akira, and he beamed and walked over.
Leaning over the table, in a faint breathy whisper, he said, "Hi."
"Hi," Akira replied. His brain screamed, "Why are you wearing a school girl's uniform?"
Hikaru held out his cellphone. Numbly, Akira took it, and read: "I am Hikaru's twin sister. I am sorry that you confused me with my brother, but I am the one you played a match against here, not him. We look a lot alike, it is an easy mistake to make. Plus I sometimes steal his clothes. Do you want a rematch?"
Akira's brain wanted to know, "What's going on? Do you honestly expect me to believe any of this? Have you lost your mind?" His mouth said, "Yes."
Hikaru took white, Akira black. Stones clacked against the board. (Akira couldn't help noticing that Hikaru had gotten much better at holding the stones, nor did he make so many odd pauses.) The skillful elegance in the Fuseki told Akira that this was the original Hikaru he was facing, the one who made him tremble with each move of the game.
Yet even while playing Go, Akira's thoughts wouldn't stop. True, as far as Go games went, he would swear that he was playing a completely different person. But his eyes told him that this was the same Hikaru Shindo. Yes, that was definitely the same bright mischievous face peeking over a white schoolgirl's uniform collar. It was the way Hikaru placed the Go stones that finally convinced him—still a little clumsy, but an improvement over last time. Just as Hikaru had made the stones clack a little sharper with every game he had played since their first one. Yes, even with that disgraceful Kaio game, Hikaru's hand motions had improved even if his strategies had deteriorated. But why? Why had he pretended to stop knowing how to play Go? Why was he pretending to be someone else? Why did he still move the stones as if he was a beginner when he played like a professional, albeit one from a hundred years ago? Why, oh why, was he wearing a school girl's uniform?
Akira snuck another look at the girl who was actually Hikaru. She had already made her move but was watching the board with a look he'd describe as curiosity. No, not she, that was a he. In a school girl's uniform.
"You were about five minutes late. Did you miss your train?" he asked politely.
She grunted, keeping her face down. She hadn't spoken a word since they started playing. Now that didn't seem like Hikaru at all. Perhaps he was wrong, and this was a one-in-a-billion look alike with a very similar style of Go?
Bored at the pause in the game, his opponent tipped his chair backwards, then flailed arms wildly as he almost fell over. No, that was definitely Hikaru. In a school girl's uniform. Yes, Akira had thought that before, but there was something about the idea of Hikaru Shindo in a school girl's uniform that had his brain stuck on "repeat."
He played the worst Go game in his entire life. Even when he'd been sick with a 104 degree fever and his father had brought a Go board to the hospital, he has still made a better showing than this. When he realized he had no recourse but to resign, he felt disgraced. His father had taught him not to be ashamed of a lost game, but this was not a game he could be proud of.
Hikaru held up the cell phone again. "Rematch?" it read. So his opponent had noticed how poorly he had played. Well, even if Hikaru had been a beginner instead of a Go genius, he still would have noticed that the game has lasted under ten minutes.
"Can we play again a different day?" Akira pleaded. A part of him did still want this rematch, oh yes. But he knew he wouldn't play any better if he began another game right now.
Hikaru frowned, clearly not enthused. But he nodded his head and stood up, mumbling, "Fine."
He was about to leave. "Wait," Akira called, stumbling to his feet. "When do we play again?"
Hikaru waved his cell phone.
"Give me your number?"
Hikaru started to hand over his cell phone, and then jerked away. He did not seem to want to part with any revealing information. He also had a dim grasp of technology; he didn't seem to realize that Akira already had Hikaru's number because of the message telling him to meet here. Akira had only asked because he wanted to see if Hikaru's phone had his name on it.
"What is your name?" he asked, certain he already knew but curious as to the response.
Hikaru looked as froze. It had clearly never dawned on him that he could be asked this question. In the same low voice, he murmured, "Sai," then turned and fled.
Hikaru's plan had gone absolutely brilliantly, in his own opinion. He had straightened out his story with Akira. No one had so much as given him a second glance on the train. His brilliant disguise was impenetrable. He probably should have thought of an alias in advance instead of blurting out the first thing that came to mind, but in fact it was oddly fitting for Akira to know his Go opponent as "Sai." The only downside is that Akira had happened to be sick today. Hikaru could tell by how flushed his face had been. He must have come despite having a fever—typical Akira, not about to give up a Go game for anything. Hikaru was fairly neutral about going through this charade a second time, but he hadn't gone to all this trouble for an unsatisfactory result.
After this, he wouldn't see Akira again. Well, not until he came back as a Go professional and force Akira to acknowledge his own skills!
That thought lightened him considerably. Cheerfully, he said, "Sai, at least you got to play Go today, huh?"
"It wasn't much of a game," the ghost grumbled. "I could have been playing against myself."
"Don't be so selfish! Akira dragged himself out here even though he was sick. And you'll get a rematch. The one who should be angry is me—I didn't ask to waste my Saturday afternoon doing this!"
As far as Hikaru was concerned, that was the end of that conversation. But little did he know, the reason why Sai didn't pester him on the train ride home or question him about modern foods over dinner was because the ghost was deep in thought.
As he mulled over what Hikaru had said, Sai was forced to admit that the boy was right—he gained absolutely nothing by indulging Sai with Go games. Sai himself might think that anything to do with Go was a pleasure, but Hikaru had demonstrated on numerous occasions that he did not feel the same way. Even Sai's reluctant help with his history homework did not seem to outweigh the sheer amount of time Hikaru had put into indulging Sai's whims.
Sai had tried to help Hikaru by tutoring him in Go, but Hikaru's enthusiasm for that went up and down faster than one of those odd metal carts that rode across the sky on television. Besides, playing Go with Hikaru was as much doing himself a favor as the other way around.
In that case, if Sai wasn't doing anything else to help Hikaru, then that really made him just a parasite of a ghost haunting an unfortunate person.
With Honinbo Shusaku, it had been easy. Little Torajirou liked to win. He liked the fame and prestige and money that came with being a Go champion. And since Sai liked to play Go and was good at winning, so that worked out nicely. But Hikaru didn't seem to like Sai playing his games for him at all. So how was Sai supposed to pay his rent for the space he was taking up in Hikaru's life?
Sai tried to think about what Hikaru did like. He liked food, he liked soccer, and he liked Sai helping him in history class. He liked winning Go games, but only when he did it himself. Oh, and he also liked it when Akira paid attention to him. These days, Akira seemed to be practically all Hikaru thought about.
Perhaps there was a way Sai could help Hikaru with that?
Akira came to his next game with his mind clear and free of earthly emotions. When he received the awaited-for text from Hikaru, he did not puzzle over what was going on with the strange boy and he did not even wonder if he would be wearing the school girl's uniform again for more than five seconds. Instead, he played over his first two games with Hikaru a few times, practiced some Go puzzles, and left early for the same Go salon where the message had told him to meet for their next match.
His transformation came about for a simple reason. He had turned to his father with his problem. The conversation had gone something like this:
"Father, if you're in the middle of a Go game and your opponent is doing something very bizarre and distracting, what is the acceptable response?"
Koyo Touya frowned severely. "No response in necessary. You cannot allow yourself to be distracted."
"What if you're…concerned…about your opponent's well-being?" (About his sanity, he added mentally.)
"If your opponent is in any distress, it is their business to decide whether to continue. You need only to focus on the Go board in front of you. To do anything else is disrespectful to your opponent."
Father was right, Akira decided. He had played a disgraceful game last time. Just because Hikaru himself often played disgraceful games and declined to take Go seriously was no excuse. This time, Akira would play to win, and Hikaru could come in a nurse's outfit if that was what struck his fancy. Or a maid's uniform. Or maybe cat ears.
But no, he was still a school girl.
Hikaru took his seat in silence, muttering the cursory phrase "Onegaishimasu" under his breath. Without asking he took the weaker side white again, which was a tad patronizing.
But his arrogance was justified, Akira couldn't deny that. This time, with his fully mind on the game, Akira could recognize the brilliance of the former Hikaru in every move. The only person he knew who played like this was his father—but where Touya Meijin's style was as unyielding as a mountain, this player was like the wind, flowing through his defenses and taking over so smoothly that it was several moves before he realized that he had fallen into a trap. It took all his concentration just to play on his opponent's level.
Hikaru leaned over a little and began to pull on one of his knee-socks, which had slipped down. Akira took a deep breath and reminded himself about concentration.
He turned back to the board. But he began to notice something odd. They had fallen into joseki, which was unusual for a player of Hikaru (the original Hikaru)'s brilliance. A closer look and he concluded this was to distract him from the odd structure at tengen, where a critical stone of his was in atari. Not about to let his opponent control his fuseki so easily, Akira knew he had to defend even if it left him with an aji. But three moves later, he knew his pride had left him in tsumego. He was almost about to resign, when to his astonishment Hikaru completely ignore thesente and drops his next stone in a dame. But this move was less random than it seemed: Hikaru had divided the fuseki completely evenly between them, down to the last stone, and played a moved that invited him into the tengen that belonged to Hikaru. It was a true demonstration of tesuji to have forced this standoff, but why play a move that sacrificed his own victory? A move that seemed to invite them to build territory together to mutual benefit instead of competing this stones? An offer of friendship—no, of mutual commitment on the board.
Was Hikaru flirting with him? Using GO?
Akira's arm jerked and he overturned the Go cup all over the table.
"I can't believe it. Another ruined game!" Hikaru moaned. "I can't believe that after all his blah-blah about proper Go etiquette, Akira was so clumsy. I suppose even Mr. Perfect makes mistakes."
"I think it went well. You have another game with him next weekend," Sai said. It had not escaped his notice that Hikaru had scheduled another game, instead of insisting on a rematch on the spot so he could cut ties with Akira that day. Clearly the ghost was on the right track. "I don't think Akira would mind playing you on a regular basis either."
Hikaru's steps faltered slightly. "It's not me he wants to play. It's you."
Sai said, "But he doesn't know it's not you?"
In disgust, Hikaru said, "You don't understand anything, Sai."
Sai supposed he didn't. He was going to have to try harder.
To play disgracefully in one game was, perhaps, forgivable. To do it twice was an embarrassment to everything Akira's father had ever taught him. At least the second time, he had the excuse that his opponent had also been taking Go equally frivolously.
Yet no sooner had he thought that than doubt arose. In both their recent games, Hikaru had played magnificently, no shadow of his klutzy self during the Kaio tournament. As for the second game—maybe Akira had been reading too much into his moves. Maybe the shape on the board was a coincidence. Hikaru certainly hadn't behaved as if there was any kind of message on the Go board. He'd been his usual abrasive, energetic self, fidgeting and playing each stone with an absence of calm. Except for the fact that Hikaru hadn't spoken a word.
Oh, and the school girl's uniform.
Akira stared down at the game he'd been attempting to replay. He'd completely lost his place. And he was no sooner to figuring out the meaning behind Hikaru's strange stratagems than before. Also, he couldn't help noticing that despite the skilled player making some rather odd moves towards the end, Akira was still losing by a significant margin. He'd hoped he had improved—but the wall between them was as high as ever.
Clearly, Akira had no choice but to unravel the mystery of Hikaru Shindo. For the sake of his Go, obviously.
Hikaru spent a good portion of the next week studying Go. He pressured Tetsuo and Yuki endlessly to play with him, stayed up late practicing with Sai, and even spent some money on a book about studying to be a professional. Having watched Akira and Sai play, he was more frustrated than ever with his own weakness.
Alas, the games with Akira had not been enough to satisfy Sai's desire to play. Hikaru thought about asking if playing him wasn't good enough, but he really didn't want to know the answer to that. He had eventually succumbed to pressure and visited an unfamiliar Go salon. After checking carefully to make sure no one he knew, especially Akira was around before he started playing. Honestly, it was almost less nerve-wracking to play for Sai as a girl.
He barely made it in home in time for dinner, something he knew wouldn't make his mother happy. He breezed past her on the stairs before she could catch him.
He found Akari waiting for him on his bed, holding up her gym bag. "Hikaru, why does my uniform look like it's been worn?"
Hikaru cursed his mother for letting Akari into his room without asking. He cursed himself for not thinking of a better hiding place for the bag than under his bed. He cursed Akari for being a girl and for not knowing how to mind her own business. But most of all, he cursed the day he'd ever met Akira Touya.
To be continued.