At 5 to 10, Hikaru stood in front of the Touya House front door, wondering whether it would be okay to ring the bell early. He had been very surprised when Touya's father had asked him to come visit that morning; he had thought that after a year and a half of silence there would be no more demands of to play Sai forthcoming. But such a demand was really the only thing he could think of that might make the former Meijin want to speak to the young pro in private.
The decision on whether or not to ring early was taken out of his hand when the door opened and Mrs. Touya appeared, wearing shoes and a rain coat, a full flower basket on one arm.
''Good morning, Shindou-kun, my husband said you might come over,'' she greeted him cheerfully. ''Go on through, the door to the Go study is open.'' She stepped out onto the pavement and added,
''I'm off, enjoy your game.''
Hikaru watched her walk away with purpose in her stride and then stepped through the open door into the grand Japanese home.
He had been here before, of course, when training for the North Star cup, and while the boys had not been in the Go study, that being the former Meijin's private territory, he did know where it was. He left his shoes in the shoe rack beside the door and put on a pair of mint green slippers that were available to guests to the Touya residence.
The intimidating form of Touya Kouyo, former holder of 5 Go titles, sat ready at a Goban in the middle of the Go study. Shindou Hikaru, 2-dan, and winner of no titles as of yet and in fact the loser of the North Star cup inched his way into the room.
''Come in,'' the deep voice of the older man rumbled, startling Hikaru. The young pro bit his lip, worrying yet again over why he had been asked to come here.
Hikaru walked up to the seat cushion on the other side of the Goban, hesitating, unsure if he should sit down. There was a single black stone placed on a star point. The young pro player recognized it as the opening move of that one game and fervently hoped the former Meijin wouldn't ask questions he really couldn't answer.
''Sit,'' Touya Sr. commanded, adding, ''If you please.''
Hikaru sat, his legs tucked under him, feeling out of his depth in the traditional surroundings, with such a formidable player in front of him. Touya Kouyo was dressed the way Hikaru and Sai had first seen him, in gi, hakama and haoiri, showcasing a millennium of Samurai rule. The young pro found himself as impressed and intimidated as he had back then, when he had accidentally run into the man at the children's tournament. Even though the last time he had sat across from the then Meijin had been far from comfortable, back at his Shinshodan game, Hikaru fervently hoped they were going to play, because he knew that playing would take his mind away from the ordinary world, placing it on a different plane, where only black and white stones mattered and the only difficulty was finding the right strategy that would make you the winner. A safe familiar place where he knew his way around and he'd lose his nervousness instantly.
''I want to play him again.''
Even though Hikaru had more than expected the demand, a cold lance went through him at the actual words.
'Him', SAI of NetGo, Fuijwara no Sai, Hikaru's mentor and the ghost that had haunted him for nearly three years. The mere thought of Sai made the young pro's heart beat faster and filled his mind with memories.
A Goban in a dusty attic, with blood stains.
Holding stones awkwardly as he played them where Sai commanded from behind him, seeing such intensity in those eyes, whenever he'd looked up at the tall ghost.
Touya Akira's eyes while the boy concentrated on the Goban.
Cajoling Sai into doing Hikaru's homework for him.
Taking Go lessons.
''Let me play him!''
Sai's comments at the children's tournament.
The power in Touya Sr.'s presence.
The Haze Go club, and the Jr. High tournament.
Playing NetGo - endless, fascinating hours of Go.
''Let's play some Go!''
Getting the Goban from Grandpa and playing more endlessly fascinating games with Sai on it.
Becoming an insei.
And then a pro.
The Shinshodan debacle. ''I'll take a 15 point handicap, just let me play!''
How he had rationalized that he couldn't let Sai play again anytime soon, but promising him ''someday'' instead.
''When are you going to let me play?''
The ultimate game of SAI vs Toya Koyo .
The lousy game against a drunk Ogata.
''Hikaru? I think I might go soon...''
Then time ran out.
''Sai is dead.'' Hikaru nearly choked on the last word. Yes, Sai was dead, had always been dead, but it was final, now that he had said it out loud. For all the time that had passed and all the games he had played and enjoyed without Sai at his side, he still missed the ghostly presence, his council, his childish enthusiasm, even his whining. He had come to terms with the Heian noble's death, he truly had. But each and every day he was confronted with his loss and saw no sign of that ever diminishing. And in all honestly he did not want the memory to ever fade.
Hikaru hadn't realized tears had started running down his cheeks until one splashed onto his hand lying on his thigh. The grief and the guilt washed over him, like Sai had disappeared only yesterday. He should have listened when Sai had warned, should have done something to prevent... No, he knew there was nothing he could have done to stop Sai from disappearing. He had no powers over life and death, the kind a hero in a Manga sometimes has. No, he was a mortal who had hosted a ghost for over two years and had profoundly been changed by the experience.
In retrospect, and Hikaru had done a lot of retro-specting in the year and a half that Sai had been gone, Hikaru knew that Sai hadn't wanted to leave. And while the ghost had been resigned to his fate, he had tried to warn the boy of their impending farewell. But Hikaru had not listened and had just waltzed right over the Heian Go player's fears. And then it was too late, and Hikaru found himself alone, without having been able to say a simple goodbye and a heartfelt thanks for everything. And that still hurt.
But after much fruitless searching and swearing at the gods, Hikaru had found his beloved mentor again. Sai was there in Hikaru's Go, had always been there, and the young pro hoped, always would be.
''All that is left of Sai is in my Go," Hikaru stated cryptically.
Yes, there Sai lived and there would Hikaru keep him alive until the end of his days.
''Then,'' the former Meijin said after a thoughtful pause. ''Let us play, and make him come alive again.''
Hikaru nodded, relieved that the Master player did not ask more of him; playing he could do and playing to show Sai's genius was what he lived for! He wiped his face on his sleeve and accepted the goke the older man offered.
After dinner, Touya Sr. retired to the Go study, as was his custom. But instead of sitting down at the Goban to again recreate that game, he moved to the side of the room where he opened a small set of doors to reveal the Touya family shrine.
It was entirely made of Kaya wood and consisted of three shelves where a statuette of the Buddha resided in the middle, surrounded by photos of Touyas of the past and flanked by two incense burners that were ready to be lit.
Touya Kouyo, grand master of Go and head of this branch of the Touya family, lit the incense and said the appropriate prayers to his ancestors.
When he had come to the end of the liturgy, he paused as if in quandary about what to do next.
He nodded once, to show he had made up his mind, his right hand slipping into his gi and drew out a folded piece of paper.
''Is there a place I can visit?'' Kouyo had asked after their game.
''No. I'm sorry.'' The boy had looked so upset, with tears forming anew in his young eyes, that the older man did not have the heart to question or blame the boy about a lack of a grave. But still he had needed something tangible, anything at all.
Ever since his defeat at the hands of the elusive SAI had he yearned for a rematch. At first he had hoped the boy would come to him again to offer him another match; so sure had he been that SAI would want to play him again. Then he had heard from his son that the young pro had been missing all his games and for all intents and purposes had disappeared from the world of Go. The boy had returned some months later and had resumed playing, but still there was no invitation to a rematch forthcoming. Kouyo had waited patiently as the months turned into a year, keeping himself busy by playing the best players out there, hoping he'd run into SAI along the way, but he never saw a sign of him anywhere. It was the North Star Cup that had drawn him home; partly to see his son play, partly because he had not found SAI among the foreign players, as he had hoped. Akira had reported all that he knew of the goings on at the Cup and Kouyo was certain it had all had something to do with the illusive Go genius. He had gone over every bit of information he had about the mysterious NetGo player and finally his patience had run out; he needed to know the truth. And so he had invited the boy over, making sure they'd be alone, in case the boy might feel reluctant to talk.
The revelation that SAI was dead was not a surprise as such; he had begun to suspect something of the sort. No Go player of SAI 's caliber could ever give up playing. The fact that he appeared to have done just that, had not boded well. More of a surprise was the feelings the young man before him still had for the phantom player. There was more here than mere acquaintance between the two. But all that was none of Kouyo's business, no matter how curious he was about the relationship and he did not feel it was his place to pry.
Sitting across the board from man who was the keeper of the secrets of SAI , the older pro had tried asking Hikaru again, searching for something the young pro could give him that would not him hurt too much to reveal.
''Do you, by chance, know his real name?''
Knowing SAI 's true name would have been the prize he would have won if he had won that game so long ago. Now it had seemed the right thing to ask for, now that his true rival was dead.
''Fujiwara no Sai.'' The boy's voice had rung clear and strong, and he had sat up from the slouch caused by Touya's first question. The name had seemed to empower him and the boy had met the former Meijin's eyes on an equal level.
As an acknowledgement, Touya had nodded once and left it at that.
The paper he held had a kifu of a Go game on one side - that game. It was first folded over, where writing had been added; Fujiwara no Sai in the former Meijin's own hand. It had then been folded again, lengthways, putting the flowing calligraphy on the inside.
Touya put the paper behind one of the photos and said another prayer.
He left the altar doors open, letting the incense waft into the room as he turned around and shifted over to the Goban, which was still dotted with black and white stones, still in the configuration of the game played that morning.
''All that is left of Sai is in my Go''
Yes, he was there in the game, in the boy's hands, and also, the older man noted, in his own hands. It was only a tiny spark here and there, but he was there in Touya's game.
It would have to be enough.