Chapter 1: Hello Again
Fujiwara Sai felt the pain wrack through his body as the sun was just peaking over the horizon to begin its daily trek through the sky. Was it possible for one’s entire soul to throb, Sai wondered. His brand new body felt stiff, as though it had rusted into its current position after he’d lain down. The places Hikaru touched felt more alive though. The forehead on his shoulder warmed him, the easy breaths from Hikaru’s lips fanned his neck, and the hand that lightly clasped his in sleep twitched every now and then.
Shindou Hikaru, his best friend in afterlife and life respectively, had stolen into his room earlier that night claiming he could not sleep. Sai hadn’t wanted to admit that he suffered from the same dilemma and merely offered half of his bed without comment. Surprisingly enough, when minutes before he had been staring at the ceiling uneasily awaiting sleep, seconds after Hikaru’s arrival he was snoring. Sai wished he was still experiencing that same comfort and peace. As it were, he felt nauseous; as if the air he breathed was toxic. His head ached, the heaviness of flesh holding his once free spirit was more pronounced.
Fragmented thoughts of nurses bringing child-proofed brown bottles with white tops flashed through his mind. If he wasn’t mistaken — and in his current state there was no guarantee that it was not so — Archangel Gabriel had forgotten to address another repercussion of regenerating a life.
Touya Kouyo sighed tiredly as he stalked through the sliding doors of his least favorite place. Walking briskly two steps ahead of him his lovely wife, Akiko, telegraphed a scowl over her shoulder. On some level Kouyo supposed he deserved that. He was causing Akiko undue stress — of which he had no doubt that she was enjoying every minute, as that was the kind of woman she was. He was also fairly certain that on some level that should never be thoroughly explored, Akiko had been delighted when he’d sustained the heart attack months before. It had been an opportunity for her to dote upon him, and it was proving to be a continued chance for more of the same treatment. Even if at the moment Akiko’s glare could frighten the green off of seaweed.
“Did you think you could get out of it Kouyo, really?” Akiko demanded. Her voice hadn’t raised a decibel. They could have been having a normal conversation if not for that single crease in her forehead and that disapproving sparkle in her eyes.
“There was hope,” Kouyo muttered just for reaction. He was not disappointed as he was treated to another less than charitable look from Akiko.
“I am not going through it again Kouyo. You will take care of yourself or I’ll take care of you.” The click of her heels carried her down the hall faster; the check-in desk was in sight. The last remark from his spirited wife had him a little worried. Said in that tone, the former Meijin couldn’t not know Akiko didn’t mean anything sweet and loving by her words. As he approached the desk, Akiko was already pointing to a seat in the waiting room with the end of the pen she was using to sign him in while carrying on a lively conversation with the receptionist. If she was still angry it was not noticeable, but the Go player knew better than to tempt fate and Akiko’s ire. After a quick perusal of the half full waiting room he decided on a seat next to a boy in flowing robes, matching hat, and insanely long hair braided into a queue that pooled in his lap. He listlessly toyed with the ends of it.
Kouyo smiled to himself. The kid looked lonely and miserable, as though he were no stranger to white walls and the sterility and quiet of a hospital. His pale skin in the fluorescent lighting lent him an unearthly glow. The black hair did nothing to dispel the thought of sitting next to a ghost as it accentuated the lack of color in his skin.
“Enjoying your wait thus far?” Kouyo queried as he sat.
“Am I that obvious?” was the answer. He didn’t lift his head in acknowledgment, but he did remove a loop of his hair from the seat before Kouyo flattened it. The former Meijin hadn’t even seen it.
“That is really long isn’t it?” Kouyo commented, pointing to the braid so that the boy wouldn’t be confused over the topic.
He offered a nod, still fumbling with the end of his hair; his hands seemed to be trembling.
“It doesn’t annoy you that some might think you’re a girl?”
“I don’t care,” the boy replied. The ends of his lips tilted upward, a secret smile that let Kouyo know that an incident of that nature had already occurred, perhaps more than once.
“Perhaps you’ll donate it someday,” Kouyo suggested. He settled more comfortably into his chair and folded his hands onto his lap.
“Donate it?” the boy asked. For the first time his head turned to look at the person he was talking to.
Kouyo was momentarily speechless. The lavender eyes in the boy’s young face were very old and spoke of wisdom beyond his limited years. He was struck again with the idea of a ghost, perhaps materialized for the moment to toy with the living. Not a single line marred the boy’s flesh. His skin had yet to taste the blade of a razor, and his smile was sweet. All of these things combined with the pallid hue to his skin and the glow of the lights enforced his ethereal qualities. Perhaps the boy had died young in another life, and the disturbing beauty he’d acquired in this life was an apology from God.
“Yes, donate it,” Kouyo answered after several seconds of silence. Perhaps it was a good thing the boy didn’t often look at the people he spoke with. Aged eyes bearing the weight of the dead shouldn’t often gaze upon the living. “Some people grow their hair, have it cut off, and made into wigs for children with cancer.”
The boy choked on laughter. He was back to pawing the end of his braid, his eyes focused on the task. “Then I would be growing it for myself wouldn’t I?”
Touya Kouyo sucked in a breath at his negligence. Hadn’t his instincts told him before he'd sat down that the child looked as though he spent a lot of time indoors? “I’m sorry, I didn’t think . . .”
The boy waved him off. “No-no, it’s alright.” He took a breath as though the tiny act of moving his arm had taxed his strength. “Actually I’m a cancer survivor. I promised myself that if I ever got better I’d never cut my hair again.”
“Well that makes sense,” Kouyo replied. It also explained why centuries of sadness could be seen in his eyes. “It is very lovely,” he added as an afterthought. It would be problematic to have the resolution the boy did and a lackluster, tangled mess to show for it after all.
“Thank you,” he whispered as a nurse in a pink uniform rolled up with a wheelchair. With arms akimbo she frowned down on the child and shook her head. Kouyo couldn’t refrain from turning his head to look at his wife, still chatting with the receptionist. The nurse had reminded him of a scene he’d endured earlier that morning. Akiko had been checking the messages on the machine and heard of the doctor’s appointment he’d been hoping to shirk — thus his current predicament.
“For shame, Fujiwara Sai,” the nurse reprimanded.
Touya Kouyo’s head whipped around like a tetherball on a pole to see the woman helping the ghost he’d been seated beside into the wheelchair. His mouth moved but no words emerged. Sai was not a common name. It couldn’t be a coincidence that the one person he’d been searching for had been seated beside him and carried on a conversation over something a mundane as hair when they could have been discussing Go. That was insane; it was too surreal to be true. He wanted to ask but his throat was closed and any words spoken would portray him as a senile old man if said incorrectly. But then those old eyes rested once again on him and his lips stilled. In one sentence he received both question and answer.
“It was nice to finally meet you Mr. Touya.” The nurse guided him forward.
Halfway down the hall Shindou Hikaru and another nurse emerged from a door that read employees only. His son’s rival looked properly chastised for all of two seconds before promptly breaking away from the scowling nurse to take the now empty spot behind Sai’s wheelchair, as though it were a tradition of some sort.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
Touya Kouyo blinked. He hadn’t realized he’d regained his feet and had taken three steps after the ghost called Fujiwara Sai and his advocate, Shindou Hikaru. Akiko stood before him, pose mimicking the agitated nurse that had taken Sai away. “I . . .” the senior Touya began. There was a petite finger poking his chest.
“You?” Akiko queried, that wrinkle divided her forehead into halves again. This was not a pleased woman glaring at him.
“Bu . . .” Kouyo began again.
Kouyo found himself sitting down beside his wife prior to his acknowledging such a move had taken place. His eyes remained fixated upon the last spot he’d seen the embodiment of “Sai” the creature of Go legends that had challenged Kouyo's intellect and won. The incarnation was a ghost of a child with ancient lavender eyes. On a less than mature level that even he was not above, Touya Kouyo could empathize with his son’s consternation. Meeting Sai in this period of the game just wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair at all.
Chapter 2: On the Go
Disclaimer: Hikaru no Go is a product of Hotta and Obata.
Warnings: Divine Intervention, Originally posted 10.01.2006 | Rewritten 07.29.2010 | Revised 04.28.2012 and still not Beta'd.
The Weekly Go newsroom was in its usual state of orderly disarray one week and two days after the Hokuto Cup tournament. Kosemura sat across from Amano’s desk as the other reporter spoke on the phone. He felt itchy but in an excited kind of way, because approximately seven years, five months, and three days ago an American publishing company stationed in Los Angelos, California had a Japanese chairman of the board who had loved Go. Luckily, two years before, a manga entitled Go-Jyasu Takashi had been published in Japan dealing specifically with the game in question. The American publishing company bought the rights and translated the manga at the chairman’s urging.
It had taken many years — almost a decade — but suddenly the American populace had a great interest in the game. And so to promote the manga as well as grow an even greater following the company — Solar Productions by name, Home of all Stellar Manga by catchphrase — wanted to host the next tournament in America. Of course this declaration may ruffle a few feathers in Korea, whom was supposed to hold the second tournament as they did win the first; it was just too great an opportunity to put off another year. The most exciting part, Kosemura had to say, was that he and Amano had been personally called to break the story to Go fans young and old.
“All right, we’ll be in contact then. Thank-you and goodbye.” Amano placed the phone in its cradle and turned to Kosemura. The excited gleam in his eyes, goofy grin on his face, and twiddling of his hands were vaguely reminiscent of a school girl with her first crush, Kosemura noted. He felt the same way of course; Go in America was without a doubt the highlight of his entire career.
“What did he say?” Kosemura queried anxiously. Their boss usually never minced words and if something Go related were to be done then there was no stopping its implementation.
Amano’s grin became an even goofier smile. “Only that AGA and Weekly Go will begin advertising for the next North Star Cup Tournament to be totally ‘stellar’ in America as a tag team tournament!”
“Don’t you get it?” Amano was positively gleeful. “Not three of a country’s best players but the top six. This means more young people are presented playing the game, it gives every country a chance to redeem itself incase of a loss, and most importantly there will be greater exposure in America of all places. They even said they have at least three young players ready right now. While that isn’t enough to participate in the tournament, they can help teach shidougo with Asian players who don’t speak English very well. It’s a really great idea.”
Amano’s enthusiasm was contagious and Kosemura was just as giddy by the time he finished speaking. “What are you telling me all this for then? Put it on paper and let’s get word out!”
Touya Akira was in quandary as he so often was when concerning Shindou Hikaru. His rival was a maze inside a labyrinth, a puzzle inside an enigma, a . . . well in any case Shindou was complicated in the least confusing of times. But that mystery that was Shindou had been part of his initial attraction, Akira admitted. He had been fixated for years on Shindou’s seeming dual personalities when it came to Go, only to find out that all this time the boy had been telling the truth. There was no real mystery, only two friends. Shindou wasn’t Sai. And after meeting Sai, Akira wished to God that he had been right instead.
To say that he hadn’t been mentally prepared to meet Sai was an understatement. The most he had been equipped to do was confess to Shindou and hope for the best. That was all anyone in the utterly deplorable position of unrequited love could ask for, after all. And when in such a situation, no one wanted to meet someone like Sai on the arm of the person they liked.
Sai possessed a rare, frail beauty, and a wonderful personality that was warm and inviting. He was the kind of person you didn’t mind doing things for and couldn’t stay angry with no matter what he had done. Not that Sai had done anything wrong. He only existed and Touya couldn’t possibly fault him for that. Touya’s shoulders slumped. Was he discouraged? He had to admit that he was.
It was just that Sai complicated things even further when it came to Shindou. To be perfectly honest his rivalry with Shindou was the only aspect of the boy’s life that Akira had exclusive rights to. When there was only his half baked speculation that Shindou was Sai, there was still a sort of friendly rapport that they had. Akira could even honestly say that with the exception of their occasional fights, he and Shindou got along perfectly—perhaps even better than Shindou did with Waya and Isumi. Furthermore, until that moment in the Go salon, Akira had not had any reason to believe that Shindou hadn’t begun to take Go seriously because Shindou wanted to be able to complete with him and only him. A living breathing Sai threw that logic to hell. Shindou’s Go now became utterly dependent on beating Sai’s skill level — which was considerably above Akira’s own. It became more about standing on equal footing with a friend, not a rival. Akira was ashamed of himself for missing that aspect of his relationship with Shindou.
They — in all honesty — weren’t friends.
They didn’t have any non-competitive history.
They didn’t do non-Go related things together.
They didn’t call each other on the phone.
They didn’t frequent restaurants just to enjoy each other’s company.
They didn’t make conversation for the joy of conversing.
They weren’t rivals in the way they should be rivals.
They weren’t moving in together.
They weren’t moving in together.
They weren’t moving in toget—
Touya Akira swallowed hard.
The entire crux of his problem could be summed up in one little sentence. Five words. Period. It had nothing to do with how beautiful Sai was, or anything to do with whether or not Shindou liked boys in that way. The things they didn’t do and didn’t say had compounded over the years into that day which could be explained in five words. Shindou was moving in with someone that wasn’t him, and he didn’t know what to do about it aside from regret all those actions, all those words, and every hour of every day that he hadn’t told Shindou how he felt about him.
There was a soft knock on the door to his room before it cracked a bit and a dark head peaked in. “Akira?”
“Come in, Mother.” The boy sat up on his bed as Akiko entered the room balancing a cup of tea and cookies on a tray.
“I brought you some snacks in case you felt like eating,” she offered, her smile hopeful even though her tone was neutral. The snacks were for a highly unusual second study session his father was having this week. Akira didn’t feel he could face the others or properly concentrate on the game so he was skipping it again.
The son presented a small encouraging smile to her. “Yes, thank-you.”
Akiko, his mother, was one hell of a lady. Touya wouldn’t often think such a thing, but the truth could only be said in such a vulgar — however enthusiastic — sentence. He wasn’t aware of exactly how many years his mother had been trying to speak with him as unobtrusively as possible. Her tone was always so mild and her smile could be very misleading. Was it truly only a couple mornings past that he’d realized what a treasure she was to be so understanding and patient for so many years? Even now, as she fussed over placement of the snack tray on his desk, she was imitating cheerfulness as she consciously loitered as though she was waiting. Whereas before a few days ago, Akira knew, he would have been somewhat irritated with his mother for taking so long to accomplish such a simple task; it was endearing now. Akira understood why she always hesitated, comprehended it quite easily after speaking with her at length. Akiko was waiting on some gesture or phrase that would allow her to stay longer. And if she didn’t receive it, she would smile anyway as she retreated and probably hope for a change the next time.
He wouldn’t lie, he had often disdained Akiko’s lack of interest and inability to play Go before that day, but now he was learning to love her despite that, on her own terms.
Her head snapped up a little too quickly. Akira knew he was right then. It really did mean a lot to Akiko when her son spoke with her. “Yes?”
The boy patted the bed beside him and waited until his mother crossed the room and uncertainly sat down beside him. She was nervous, but he could also see her anticipation of what was to come. He wasn’t going to ask for advice about Shindou now, and he wouldn’t cry anymore — only sissies did that. He just wanted to know one thing. “Mother, why aren’t you angry about my liking a boy?”
Akiko’s smile was gentle, there was nothing misleading in it at all as she reached out her hand and tentatively tucked long strands of her son’s hair behind his ear. She sighed. “People say that being a parent is hard. That it is expensive, and children in this time are difficult to raise because they go their own way.”
Missing the touch of his mother’s smooth fingers Akira inclined his head towards her, and before he realized it, he was laying on his mother’s shoulder for only the second time in his memory. As he inhaled, he could only think that if sunshine could be bottled and given a scent, it would smell just like his mother.
“But I say—” she continued in her soft voice as her arm came around him and rested on his back, “—that your children will be richer than an emperor, and happy, if you love them for who they are.”
Downstairs in the Touya household upon finishing review of a few kifu, Ashiwara, Kouyo, and Ogata sat at the kitchen table taking part in the snacks Akiko had prepared. Touya had a very good wife, Ogata thought this often. She was supportive without being intrusive. She never pretended to be even remotely interested in either her child’s or her husband’s profession, but she was always present. When lying abed with his current conquest — who would always look much better the night before than in the morning — he would smoke a cigarette and say to himself, ‘I wish this person were more like Akiko.’ Not that he had any designs on Touya Kouyo's wife, he was just acknowledging that she was, in fact, ideal wife material.
As the older players solemnly ate, Ashiwara would look miserable at the younger Touya being unavailable and delighted with a pastry he was eating by turns. Ogata was sure the younger player was doing it on purpose, trying to get a reaction from him. He decided not to take the bait, and instead pondered the younger Touya’s absence. Oftentimes, Ogata forgot Touya Akira’s age; today was not one of those days he could do so. He hadn’t seen the boy as vulnerable as he currently was since . . . well — it had been a while if ever he had. Usually the only person who could upset him was Shindou, but Ogata couldn’t recall any recent events between the two that could have spawned Akira’s mood. However, a name that often popped up, and even more often than that disappeared for lengths at a time, had caused a reaction Ogata would never have thought of Akira capable of. It was troublesome being able to speculate on many things but never receive anything definite. Sai hadn’t been spoken of after Akira had mentioned him the other day. Kouyo had wisely refrained from comment, and Ashiwara and he had followed suit — if for no other reason than it was Touya’s house and he got to make the rules. Ogata wished that he could have just a few minutes alone with Akira so that he could ask.
In between a sip of tea Touya Kouyo calmly remarked, “By the way, I’ve met the mysterious Sai.”
His train of thought disrupted, Ogata stood; the sudden action jostled the table, which in turn disturbed Ashiwara’s grip on his food. As the pastry landed in a forlorn puddle of crumbs on the floor, and Ashiwara’s face decided to maintain its abject façade, and Ogata’s adrenaline skyrocketed after his brain completely grasped what he’d heard; he watched Touya Kouyo sip from his tea again with a serenity Buddha would have applauded. Damn him.
“What?” Ogata demanded. His tone was barely appropriate for indoors. “When was this? Why are you just telling me about this?”
He was treated to seeing the cup rise to Kouyo’s lips again; Ogata's ire rose another notch in retaliation. The tea had to go. Delaying tactics at this moment were not appreciated.
“When I went for my usual check-up I sat beside a person with the most outstanding hair I’d ever seen in my life,” Kouyo answered after what felt like an eternity.
Ogata wanted to rip the man’s tongue out and fillet it for following orders that were producing more questions than answers. “What has that to do with anything?”
“That person had the saddest most interesting and frightening eyes . . .”
Ogata sat down, hands clenched on the table top to keep from causing bodily harm.
“When he was called from the lobby room he thanked me for the game we had,” Kouyo concluded, punctuated with a sip from his tea.
Ogata’s mouth worked silently a moment as his vexation waned and he could fully understand what Kouyo had been explaining — albeit in a roundabout way. Sai was a person with long hair and sad eyes, a person Touya Akira and then Touya Kouyo had seen in the flesh . . .
“I was later told by a nurse that my room was right beside Sai’s during my stay in the hospital. She was shocked that I hadn’t met him during that time as we are both Go enthusiast.”
Side by side in the hospital and he hadn’t noticed! Ogata wanted to fall into a Xeroxing machine just so he would be able to kick himself. Wait a minute . . . side by side in the hospital, Ogata thought again as his brain was finally making the connections. Side by side, combined with what he’d once presumed — that Shindou Hikaru knew Sai . . . Plus, that time he’d caught the boy on his way to visit Touya Kouyo after the collapse . . .
It appeared he would need more than one copy when it came to kicking himself.
“Do you know how to get in contact with him?” Ogata wondered.
Kouyo shook his head, but he had that gleam Ogata had come to respect during their many games in his eyes once again. It was then Ogata knew it wouldn’t be too much longer before their search for Sai reached a definite conclusion.
Chapter 3: Go Is Played By Two
Disclaimer: Hikaru no Go is a product of Hotta and Obata.
Warnings: Romantic overtures, Divine Intervention
Fujiwarano Midori was being punished. She was a disgrace to the Fujiwarano name. As a descendent of the Lady Murasaki, her ancestors likely hissed in their graves when she sat before them to pay homage. Her mother’s eyes concentrated solely on the floor whenever Midori passed. Her father’s only words to her were said over a goban. Go was her only redemption. As she let the stone slide over her fingertips into the position that would crush her father, she refrained from smiling.
Her Go was her proof that she was not a complete failure. Placing stones was not the same as letting them slide uncontrollably from her hands. Placing stones into a design of her making was not the same as living her life to the exact specifications that her parents quietly dictated. Playing Go allowed her to be free. She made her own money, she kept busy, and her record was infallible so her parents had no cause to complain.
“I have nothing,” her father uttered after a moment. It was always hard for him to admit defeat.
At thirteen Midori had fallen for a boy who’s eyes had glistened like two polished, black Go stones. Seiya had been brilliant and kind. Though he’d been an artist with no talent for Go, he claimed to love the serious look on her face whenever she played the members of her club. He would patiently sit beside her with a pencil and drawing pad on his knees and sketch her “Go vigil” as he called it.
Two years later, Midori and her best friend, Sakurano Chieko, had planned a party for Seiya. He’d been recognized as an up and coming artist by the local newspaper and his work was going to be on exhibit in the museum. As he was crossing the street to meet them an impatient driver ran the light and plowed into him. Midori would never forget the way Seiya’s body crumpled as he rolled onto the hood, spider webbed the glass of the windshield, then fell and reconnected with the ground like a basketball that wasn’t rebounded after a failed shot.
“It was a good game. Your best yet.” It wasn’t, but there was no need to add insult to injury. “Would you like to discuss?” Midori politely asked.
Seiya died that day. But that was not the end of them. Much to her parents chagrin, she had refused to abolish her pregnancy. All that struggle for a shape that couldn’t support itself. Her baby boy had been born with ancient purple eyes that had likely been passed down by the Lady Murasaki herself. Already tired of seeing the world, those eyes had closed. The doctors had done all they could she was told, but still, her parents returned to her birthing room empty handed.
“Not really,” her father mumbled. “Midori, do you have plans later?”
Uh oh. This was starting to sound like a set up. Her parents had done an excellent job covering up her pregnancy fifteen years ago. They had sent her to the island Honinbo Shuusaku had been born on claiming to any who asked that she was studying in the birthplace of the master Go player before taking the pro exam. Because it only made sense that Fujiwarano Midori would commune with the dead now that her boyfriend was one of them. As a result, she was, unfortunately, still a good catch.
Midori was not an only child. She had an older brother, Shori, but he had renounced the family shortly after he had announced he was gay. Their father had given him an ultimatum concerning his inheritance and if he would receive it or not -- as if that would magically ‘un-gay’ him. Shori now lived in California and ran a successful boutique with his longtime lover. Good for him, but bad for Midori, who was now her parents’ sole hope of carrying on the family name. This, of course, wouldn’t even be an issue if her parents hadn’t wished the child she had borne dead in the first place . . .
But Midori digressed. She was thirty-one years old and her father’s tone implied an omiai was on the horizon. She couldn’t allow that. If she couldn’t have Seiya, or their child, or the life she still imagined they could have had every time she placed a stone, then her parents didn’t deserve their dreams either.
“Actually, Chieko just returned from China and she invited me to study with her group. I’m supposed to be giving pointers to one of their Beginner Dans. His name is lsumi Shinichiro, and even Kuwabara Honinbo praised him for being quite good.” Midori knew it was always best to overload her father with information about her job when she wanted to get out of doing anything he had planned. “I think he will be the perfect practice partner for me because you know I’ll be in the Female Meijin League and the games start soon for that.” Her smile was arsenic; unconsciously deadly. “I just know you want me to succeed.”
Her father began to remove the stones he had placed from the board. ”Of course, Midori.”
The train was as crowded as ever at the inconspicuous time of 1030 in the morning. Hikaru had chosen it because work had started for the average person, yet it was before lunch. It had seemed like the best opportunity to take his ailing housemate across town to register at the very same Go institute he had studied at before. Sai sat on a bench Hikaru had hastily procured when an old lady had vacated the train. The kifu Sai would need to present to Mr. Shinoda lay protected in a brown envelop across his lap steadied by one hand, while the other gripped the same bar Hikaru used to keep from shuffling on the lurching rails.
Sai seemed happy. That much was communicated as a pleased hum across their link. Whenever he thought Hikaru wasn’t paying him any attention he would glance up and smile, his chest would swell as he inhaled.
Shindou Hikaru was loathed to end such a harmless tableau, but he had a question that wouldn’t answer itself.
“Sai,” he spoke out loud because Sai needed to exercise his lungs and voice. Sai’s body was like a brand new baby in some ways. He needed to grow strong.
“I mean, I know I was all ‘whatever you want’ the other day, but why do you want to be an insei when someone like you has already beaten Touya’s dad?”
“Hikaru . . .”
“Ah crap,” Hikaru interrupted because he knew that tone. This was going to be another one of those deep, philosophical answers that he still wouldn’t understand.
“I can explain it very well, thank you,” Sai pouted. Hikaru had to turn away from the under-eyed glare leveled at him, but soon conceded defeat. He still found it impossible to stay angry with Sai.
“Okay then. Why? I mean, Touya didn’t.”
“And I’m not Touya.”
It was the closest Sai had come to snapping at him, Hikaru thought. His friend seemed . . . insulted. Fujiwara no Sai stared unseeing at the passing scenery, a tick in his cheek. He wouldn’t look at Hikaru when he spoke again.
“Touya wasn’t an insei because he wouldn’t have been able to handle it.”
Protest roiled in Hikaru’s mind but he somehow clamped his lips together and continued to listen. Not liking what was said didn’t make it any less true—providing Sai could say it correctly, anyway.
“Touya has had every opportunity in the world to play Go.” The former ghost unnecessarily pushed a lock of hair behind his ear. Hikaru’s fingers itched to do the same. If Sai wasn’t angry with him later he would ask to brush his hair. “Remember when we first met Touya Kouyo? He said he’d been grooming his son to play since he was two. And Touya’s brilliant but who wants to play him?”
“I do!” Hikaru exploded. He received some dirty looks from the other passengers. Embarrassed, he mumbled an apology, and frowned at the dusty floor. “I do,” he muttered again, meeting Sai’s beautiful, yet disbelieving, purple eyes from the corner of his own. Perhaps dragging a brush through Sai’s tresses could wait. In his current state of irritation Hikaru would probably snap Sai’s neck accidently-on-purpose.
“You want to beat Touya Akira over and over and over again. That isn’t the same thing.”
“Of course it is.”
Sai shrugged and refused to say more on Touya. It was a moment before he tugged at Hikaru’s baggy shorts and looked him in the face. “Do you hate me for always winning?”
Hikaru stumbled for an answer briefly. “Because you’re . . . you.”
“Do you think somebody else could?”
“Hate you? Definitely . . . I mean if you were mean about it, that is.” He stuttered for the proper phrase. “Perhaps, if you did it by too much, I guess so.”
“And it would cause a lot of fuss, wouldn’t it?”
“Then, what if I played under a three stone handicap at all times.”
“You play Akari at three stones. She’s not shabby, but she wouldn’t recognize your strength,” Hikaru immediately refuted. “Make it a five stone deficit and I could see it working out.”
“I knew you’d say that.”
“Why are we talking about this at all?”
“Because, your question was, ‘why would I want to be an insei?’ When you really meant to ask why someone as good as I am would do that, right?”
Hikaru shuffled his sneakered feet. “Well, yeah.”
“I don’t want to be a Touya Akira. I don’t want to be great, but lonely. I want people to want, and I mean really want to play me because of what they could learn, because I’m fun to be around, because . . . . it’s because I’m selfish. I want it all. I want to study Go all day, and play lots of matches against different people, and feel the stones gliding over my fingernails, and attend study groups, and, please don’t take this the wrong way, but in one thousand years, there’s only been Torajirou and you. I want a Waya and Isumi of my own.” Sai looked away for a second and took a deep breath. “Hikaru, remember the first time you placed a stone the correct way? Remember when you first thought ‘me too’ — when you wanted to learn the game for yourself? It’s the same, only I don’t need to learn to play, I need to learn to interact with others like you do. Me too. You once wanted to be like me, now I want to be like you. People don’t resent you for winning.”
Sai’s passion had drawn him in. He completely understood. Then, I want that for you. This was Hikaru’s dream and he and Sai shared it.
Hikaru was leaning down. His lips were ghosting over Sai’s before he remembered where he was, on a crowded train about to kiss another boy. He stood straight so suddenly that he could have been tazered. His cheeks burning red.
This was it. Her last chance. The final year she could be an insei. Asumi Nase had resolved that she would not lose. Already, Honda, Waya, and Isumi had gone before her. Shindou too. Shindou, who had had dedicated less time than any of them, had blown right by her. She wasn’t a prodigy, Asumi knew, but she wasn’t a bad player either. She just seemed to be missing something.
She walked through the doors of the Go Institute, placed her shoes in the cubby everyone knew was hers by seniority, and then proceeded to one of the rooms. Out of the corner of her eye she happened to see a figure seated on one of the benches reserved for new students waiting to see Mr. Shinoda. She altered her course.
“Oh,” she breathed, and sat down. “It’s so rare that another girl my age signs up!” she enthused. “I’m Nase Asumi. You are a Go player aren’t you?”
The girl dragged long black hair — Asumi was so envious of its shine — behind her ear with her fingers and smiled. “Yes, I’m signing up here. It’s nice to meet you, I’m Fujiwara Sai.”
Nase smiled back. “Do you think you’ll be admitted?” It would be so nice if she had someone to eat lunch with. She had nothing against the boys but sometimes their minds strayed from Go. She would have to introduce Fujiwara to Yuuta Fukui. He was the only one left of the original bunch.
“It’s a very good possibility,” Fujiwara said. The cadence of her voice was nice, Nase decided. She’d always wanted an ambiguous tone like that, both husky and light. And the way Fujiwara pronounced her words was as though she’d had a tutor in classic Japanese at some point. It sounded so polite.
“Hey Sai, Mr. Shinoda said . . . Hey Nase.”
It was a direct contrast to the voice of Shindou Hikaru, who still appeared young and energetic as he walked toward them. Asumi greeted him and then listened to his delivery of what Mr. Shinoda said about the kifu Fujiwara had presented. He was much too familiar with Fujiwara but she didn’t seem to mind.
“I’ve got to go now. But I’ll see you.” Fujiwara allowed Hikaru to take her by the hand and lead her to the Headmaster’s office.
It would be a relief to have another girl around, she thought again. But now Asumi needed to study. She needed to practice. This was her year to become a Pro.
Fukui smiled at her when she entered the Go room. They were both in Class One now. Nase claimed the number five spot. Fukui had recently fallen to nine, but he wasn’t discouraged. Somehow, over the years Fukui’s usual lightheartedness and good temper had fostered a fighting spirit where Go was concerned. After Shindou’s miraculous rise from bottom of Class Two to top three of Class One, and then gone on to pass the Pro Exam, Fukui was no longer content to not do the same. He was lucky that he was so much younger than her, Asumi thought. He could afford to not pass this year, even though he didn’t want to.
The mood of the Go room was a mixture of excitement and trepidation. Nase’s place was beside Fukui today, so she sat gratefully beside him. It was always a pleasure to speak with him before games. Fukui was an easy-going person.
“Did you see the guy out in the lobby?” Fukui wasted no time in asking.
“Sure did. We spoke . . .”
“I heard that Shindou discovered him. Everyone’s real scared cause Uchida said he’d seen his kifu in Mr. Shinoda’s office by mistake. And he’s crazy strong, Nase.”
“Fujiwara didn’t seem,” Asumi began, but was interrupted again.
“Nase, have you ever known Shindou to hang out with Go weaklings?”
The thought gave her pause. But now that she thought about it she could honestly answer, “No.”
“Exactly,” Fukui breathed. “Waya, Isumi, and Yashiro are all pros. They say Shindou is Touya Akira’s rival and he only lost by half a moku in the North Star Cup tournament. That means anyone he notices has got to be at least as strong as he is.”
Asumi frowned briefly. “But Shindou isn’t mean like that. I mean, he can be a little driven but he doesn’t just throw people away. He always talks to us when he’s here. And even makes time to play us and give pointers when his schedule allows it.
“I never said he was mean. I just said that anyone Shindou endorses would be great. Fujiwara looks like he’s good too. I mean, leave it to Shindou to find someone just as flashy as he is. Fujiwara’s hair is really long, and his clothes are unique,” Fukui sighed wistfully. “Only confident people would walk in public like that, right?”
“I guess so,” Nase stated as her opponent sat across from her. It was only after nigiri, as she was rummaging through the stones to check for stray whites in her black, that it occurred to her Fukui had said ‘he’. And that maybe, quite possibly, Sai wasn’t a very feminine name. The palm of her hand smacked her forehead of its own volition and she winced. Her partner, ironically enough, Uchida, looked askance at her, but she waved him off.
I’m an idiot, she thought. Always, she missed something, in Go and in life. She would just have to apologize to Fujiwara Sai when she saw him again.
As long as Sai didn’t give him a chance to think about it, Hikaru behaved normally. Slowly but surely, he’d been painstakingly luring Hikaru away from embarrassment over that day on the train a few weeks before. Now they sat across from each other, studying the stones grouped on the goban Sai’s soul had formerly been tied to. Hikaru’s mind was focused. For a moment Sai thought Hikaru would out read him. Twice now he’d almost fallen into one of Hikaru’s ‘bad hand’ traps. Hikaru was getting better. Evolving with every game they played. But . . .
“I have lost,” Hikaru stated. He wasn’t angry or frustrated — or blushing either, thank God, when his light eyes met Sai’s over the goban.
“I thought you would place a couple more hands before resigning,” Sai remarked.
Hikaru shook his head negatively. “Every place I could think of, I already saw how you would respond. No point dragging it out. Besides, isn’t Nase coming over soon?”
Sai nodded. On the day he’d started at the Go institute at the bottom of Class Two, where everyone began, she’d stopped him from entering the room. Nase promptly bowed and apologized for her mistake and they had been together ever since. She and Fukui were his very own friends. He was so pleased.
However, lately, Nase seemed annoyed with him. At first, she’d been encouraging. Smiling as he rose from the last position of Class Two, to the last position of Class One. He was popular. All he beat waved it off. They never lost by too many moku, and he always discussed the game in a positive, informative light. Mr. Shinoda had even privately praised him for raising the overall level of Class Two. He hadn’t noticed it, but Mr. Shinoda claimed that those who played Sai improved.
He’d been scheduled to play Nase two days ago. She’d been on an undefeated streak for the last two weeks. Then Sai had won and ruined it. They didn’t eat lunch together that day or the next. So he had invited her over to try and make peace.
Sai’s hands shook with the effort of removing stones to his container. He was so tired all of a sudden, but he refused to be beaten by his raggedy body. Hikaru also replaced his black stones, though he seemed preoccupied. “Sai,” he murmured, “about that . . .”
The doorbell rang.
But he nor Hikaru made any move toward it. Their eyes met again. Stayed. An eternity passed, or so it seemed. Then Sai smiled. “It’s fine, Hikaru.”
He didn’t remember the walk to the door being so far, but by the time he got there Sai was out of breath. Nase stood on the other side about to ring the bell again.
She frowned at him. “Fukui was right,” she whispered.
“What are you talking about?” Sai queried, genuinely confused. She was accusing him of something and he couldn’t recall doing anything to wrong her.
“Why is someone like you an insei?” she demanded. “You’re so much better than what you let on. I can tell. You’re just laughing at us, aren’t you?”
“No,” Sai shook his head. “I would never do that.”
“Wouldn’t you? You’re already guaranteed a spot so why bother with the rest of us who . . .”
“Nase, stop.” Hikaru was at the door then. Sai could feel Hikaru’s cool hand on his arm, there was a cool touch to his forehead.
“I promise I’ll make sure you have a spot too . . .” Sai thought he said, even as Nase cried out in alarm, Hikaru’s arms closed around him, and the world went black.