"A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops." ~ Henry Brooks Adams
"When in doubt, ponnuki."
The stones scattered with a loud crash, flying off the stone goban in a blur of black and white offset by the yellow streak of the tennis ball that had set them in motion. Kouyo counted himself lucky when none flew into his eyes. He lowered his arms and straightened himself, glancing around the park. A boy was running towards him, his tennis racquet clattering to the ground behind him.
"Are you all right?" the boy asked as he came closer. He was young, eleven or twelve at the most, with blond hair and large eyes. He stopped by the side of the goban and bowed from the waist. "I apologize for the inconvenience to you!"
Kouyo silently plucked a stray go stone from his clothes, dropping it onto the board before him. He eyed the dispersed stones slowly. Kiba Park had never been the best place to replay games, given the proximity of the stone gobans to the various athletic fields, but the peace to be found there had always been ample compensation for the occasional noise disturbances, and the warm noon sunlight had tempted him that day. Perhaps he would find somewhere new to practice…
Kouyo looked up at the boy, who was staring openly at the board, curiosity written across his face. The boy shook his head.
"I'm very sorry, I've ruined your game," he apologized, dropping to gather the stones. Kouyo sighed. It was fortunate that he only ever brought cheap stone markers with him. He turned to his right, gathering the stones on the opposite side of the board. Black and white stones did not stick out among the grass as much as he would have liked. Some were undoubtedly lost forever, though he was optimistic of regaining most.
Among the stones, he found it – the bright yellow ball that had started the whole problem. Kouyo turned it slowly in his hands as he resettled himself on the bench, neatly depositing his gathered stones on the board before him.
"These are all that I could find," the boy said after a moment.
Kouyo looked at him, startled. The blond's shoulders were hunched forward, one hand extended palm up before him, filled with black and white stones. Kouyo reached out his free hand, and the boy dropped the stones into it. Kouyo placed them on the board with the others, put the tennis ball beside them, and began sorting the stones.
The boy watched him as he fastidiously separated the large pile into groups of black and white. Then he seated himself on the opposite bench and reached out, helping to sort the stones. The disruption had unsettled Kouyo's flow, broken his smooth day of preparation for the upcoming tournament. He scooped the white stones up and dumped them neatly into the go ke. The boy did the same with the black stones seconds later.
"I know that we didn't find all of the stones," the boy said quietly. Kouyo paused, waiting. The boy shrugged. "I'd like to make it up to you. We could play a game, if you want. My grandmother says that I'm pretty good."
The kid's face coloured when he said it, which was oddly endearing. He considered the proposition. It might work – a quick teaching game to set his mind back at ease before tomorrow's match.
Kouyo nodded, and gestured for the boy to place the first stone.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Two weeks later, Kouyo was again sitting in Kiba Park. On the goban before him was the latest match of the Honinbo tournament, Sawada-Honinbo against the fox-like Kuwabara 9-dan. Sawada had held the title for the last two years, but Kuwabara, who had been in and out of contention for and possession of several major titles over the years, was said to be deadly serious about this series. With Sawada-Honinbo down three games to none, Kuwabara 9-dan needed only to avoid calamity to win. Naturally, this meant that Kouyo's own third-round Meijin match with Kuwabara would only be all the more difficult. He was just about to place a particularly unusual tesuji when a voice spoke up.
"You," it said.
Kouyo looked up. The blond boy stood on the path running between the tennis courts and the park's stone gobans. A blue and white tennis bag was slung over his shoulder, a single yellow tennis ball in his hands. Kouyo lowered his hand, the white stone still held firmly between his fingers.
"I saw that you won the NHK Cup." The boy's eyes narrowed as he spoke. Kouyo waited, and the boy continued, "You didn't tell me that you were practicing for it. I wouldn't have suggested a game if I'd known."
He looked almost angry, his mouth set in a scowl. Kouyo crossed his arms. The boy fidgeted, switching the tennis ball from one hand to the other.
"It was a good game," Kouyo said eventually, and when the boy opened his mouth to protest, Kouyo cut him off at the pass. "Would you have time to play another?"
The boy's eyes raked over him, eyebrows receding into his hairline. Kouyo met his gaze with the calmness of the nearby lake. The game that time had been a good one. Perhaps the same strategy would serve him well again. If it did not, he had lost very little.
Kouyo read the boy's acceptance in his eyes long before the boy settled himself on the bench across from Kouyo, dropping his bag to the ground and setting aside the tennis ball for the stones.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Funny, how easily something becomes a pattern. Kouyo had favoured Kiba Park long before the boy turned up. He did not doubt that he would still go even if the boy never again appeared. Indeed, sometimes the boy did not show up for weeks at a time, only to come back again for another game. He had other interests – tennis, Kouyo knew, and perhaps school and other activities. Kouyo, too, was occasionally kept from the park – courting Akiko, or playing a match. The matches were unofficial, free, which was the half the reason Kouyo enjoyed them as he did.
The seasons turned slowly forwards as they always do. Before Kouyo knew it, the summer began to fade. He was stunned to realize they had been playing each other for months and he still didn't know the boy's name.
"It's Ogata," the boy replied when Kouyo finally inquired. Red and yellow leaves were falling from the trees around them, carried by the wind onto the grass where a groundskeeper was attempting to sweep them into neat piles. "Ogata Seiji, age 13, of Seigaku's Class 1-A."
"Ogata-kun," Kouyo repeated. He pushed the black go ke over to the blond. "Shall we play, Ogata-kun?"
The blond favoured him with a particularly wry look, and set his two stone handicap on the board.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
In November, Kouyo offered Ogata-kun a slip of paper after their usual match. He slipped his hands into his sleeves as the boy read it. The chill of his cooled flesh against his inner arm made him shiver.
"155 Mitsume Avenue…" Ogata-kun read aloud, and stopped. He glanced at Kouyo. "This is…?"
"It's getting colder," Kouyo replied. The leaves were completely gone from the trees, making Kiba Koen Ohashi so much the more visible. The bridge stood tall against the grey sky, a solid move in man's progress. Winter had not yet come upon them, but its snows would be soon to follow the chilling of the air. Kouyo did not bring his stones to the park then.
"Ah." Ogata said. He glanced at the scrap of paper in his hand and looked back up at Kouyo. "I'll meet you at the salon next week, then?"
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Ogata came to play more consistently over the winter. He arrived precisely at four on Tuesday afternoons, still dressed in a neatly buttoned navy-coloured school blazer with a gold I stitched at the collar. He would come in, buy a cup of hot chocolate, and warm his hands while Kouyo cleared the board of whatever game he had been studying. Then, they would play.
With the returning of spring, though, Ogata's absences again grew more frequent, as Kouyo had considered they might. First just a week here or there. Sometimes he would be later than usual, and occasionally he would be early. Still, when three weeks went by in April with no word from Ogata, Kouyo grew… concerned.
It was chance that he found out, really. The shout had startled him.
"What do you mean, he won't be able to play again?!" The dark-haired youth who had spoken was waving a tennis racket at his companion. He was also wearing the same uniform as Ogata, which was why Kouyo didn't immediately ignore them.
"That's what he said," the other boy replied, shrugging his shoulders and spreading his hands. "Too bad, really. Ogata would have made a great Regular this year if he hadn't been hit in the head like that. The doctors at Akitaken Koseiren say he's lucky he didn't end up completely blind or something, but for a player who relies on his ability to see where the ball is going from a distance, it's a disaster."
"Head injuries are scary." The first boy shook his head. Then he smiled. "Well, more chances for the rest of us!"
"Right!" the second said.
Their conversation continued, but Kouyo paid it no further mind. He looked down at the board before him, spread with his most recent game against Satoshi 8-dan. The next move, as he recalled, had been his. A ponnuki. Kouyo considered a moment more, and then gathered his stones, and left.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Kouyo had never been to Akitaken Koseiren before, but all hospitals were much the same. He asked at the desk, and was directed to room 588 in the pediatrics ward. He considered stopping for a sweet or some other trivial gift along the way, but decided against it. He had better moves to play just then.
"Touya-sensei," Ogata said when he opened the door. A large cream-coloured bandage was wrapped around his head, but what Kouyo noted first was the thick pair of glasses resting upon his nose. The boy bowed his head. "I'm sorry not to have met you recently."
"You have been otherwise engaged," Kouyo said lightly. The blond's head jerked up, and for just a moment their eyes met before Ogata looked away once more. Kouyo seated himself in the chair by Ogata's bed.
"You could say that," the boy said, his tone dark. Kouyo watched him, turning his face away. The 9-dan produced a magnetic go board from his pocket.
"Onegaishimasu," Kouyo said, unfolding the board on Ogata's side table. The boy looked at the board, and at Kouyo, and back at the board again.
"Well, why not?" Ogata replied. "Onegaishimasu."
They played with no handicap stones, but Ogata took black as usual. The boy had never been particularly good at defense; rather, offense had always been his greatest asset. Ogata had never been truly vicious before that day, though. Points were surrendered left and right, but always, always with the desire to gain more than he let go. He ignored a group of four and gained a group of eight. Ogata handed Kouyo victory in two ko battles to start a third, more vital one. And though he lost nonetheless, Ogata's defeat was a mere three moku.
When the match had ended, Kouyo looked at the game, and looked at his opponent.
"Ogata-kun," he said, and waited until the blond's eyes were on him before continuing. "You should take the pro exam."
Behind his new glasses, Ogata's eyes went wide as he inhaled sharply.
Kouyo left the board where it was, and swept out of the room. He could feel Ogata's eyes on him as he left, though, and that was how Kouyo knew.