‘This is no time to be scared. Think of the effect this new wave of go will have on the go world! We’re witnessing the birth of a whole new style of playing, standing on the bridge between the go of old and the go of the future…’
Ha. Except that was the last place Saeki wanted to be—an outsider to the whole affair, stuck between the amazing go players rising behind him and the experienced—and immovable—players in front. He was going nowhere, and all he could do was watch as the go world reached new heights and left him behind…
Morishita’s study sessions weren’t exactly helping, either.
“This is a terrible time to hit a slump, Saeki-kun. The title matches are coming up, and I hear that Ashiwara from Touya’s study group is just a few games away from being raised to 5-dan.”
Ashiwara. Oh yeah.
…Not even going there.
Waya glanced up from the go board and asked, “Morishita-sensei... since the former Meijin isn’t a pro anymore, don’t you think this rivalry is a bit... outdated?”
Bless Waya. The question’s purpose—to get Morishita to tone down a bit—would be unfulfilled, of course, but at least now Morishita’s ire wouldn’t be directed wholly at Saeki. Not that Morishita’s tirade against Waya would last long. Waya had won his game.
Saeki took his time packing up when the study session ended, hoping to avoid conversation while leaving the Go Institute—or, at least, the sort of conversation involving questions on whether his go problems were girl-related or parent-related, as these were considered to be the two most prevalent reasons for go slumps among the younger players. His plan failed, however; when he entered the shoe room, he found that Shindou was waiting for him.
He hesitated slightly. He and Shindou had never been close—they talked when they ran into each other in the Go Institute on game days, but even those conversations had the awkward colouring of two people who had nothing to say to one another. Besides, Shindou was at the top of Saeki’s Newcomers Who Terrify Me list.
He gave Shindou a quick grin, hoping the other boy would see he wasn’t in the talking mood. For a total idiot, Shindou could be pretty observant that way.
“Hey Saeki-san—” Shindou began, his big eyes solemn.
…Or not. Shit.
“It’s not just a slump, is it?”
“No, I’m not having girl problems, and my parents are—“
“I’m not talking about that. You act as though you’ve lost the will to play. As though you don’t care.”
“Listen, Shindou,” said Saeki, his eyes narrowing. “I. Love. Go. Go is my life. I sure as hell haven’t lost the will to play.”
“I’m not making accusations or anything. Remember that the same thing happened to me.”
Saeki paused, remembering the long string of forfeits—and Shindou’s ambiguous explanations as to the reasons. “This isn’t like that. I’m still… I mean, I’m still playing. I’m haven’t quit like you did.”
“Bullshit. I’m sure your reasons are nothing like mine were—ha, that’d be pretty weird—but even though you’re dumping stones on a board, you’re not playing. There’s no brain power going into your moves. Otherwise, how do you explain your game today? A beginner would have been horrified by some of your moves!”
Saeki flushed, but he couldn’t really refute Shindou’s words. Not honestly. “I feel as though I’ve forgotten how to think. Or as though I’m still thinking the same way I always have, but everyone else is thinking faster, with more complex ideas. I don’t know.” He closed his eyes, realizing how stupid he was sounding to someone who wasn’t even really his friend.
“So… you’re scared?”
Saeki flinched, but then shrugged. “I don’t know.”
Shindou snorted. “I think you do. Tell me.”
Now that’s just nosy. “Why?”
Shindou grinned abruptly, and the room seemed to brighten a few shades in response. “Because Touya Akira is my rival, and there’s no way I’m going to let anyone in my study group get behind their equivalents in his.”
“…Equivalents? Excuse me?”
“You know; the people who’re on the same level and stuff. Besides, I sort of bet Touya ten lunches that you’d beat Ashiwara when you two play each other in the title matches, and if he wins, I won’t get ramen for two weeks and I'll have to pay.”
Not Ashiwara again. “...You bet in lunches? Anyway, that definitely isn’t my problem.”
“It will be when you have to deal with my broke and ramen-deprived self for two weeks. Tell me.”
“Shindou… listen, I really don’t want to talk about this right now…”
Saeki blinked, surprised. What that really all it took? Why didn’t he just say that at the beginning of this conversation?
“See you later, Saeki-san. Try to start thinking again, please.”
And he was gone.
Waya tottered into his apartment, managing to stay upright only long enough to trip over his phone cord and come crashing down face-first onto his floor. A spectacular mid-dive twist spared his nose but cracked his head, and now his feet were effectively tangled up in the phone cord.
Shit. Every fucking night. He should probably take this as a divine hint that phone cords left trailing about the room did obligatory double duty as trip wires, but he was too tired to even think of cleaning it up until tomorrow. All these study sessions were wearing him out; how did everyone else manage? Shindou bounced around the city at any given time of day, his passion for go electrifying his movements and thoughts until he could barely restrain his excess energy. Touya, for all his outward composure, was the same, using go like caffeine or speed or something. Of course, maybe those two weren’t the best examples, given their penchant for complete insanity, but no one else seemed to be having much difficulty. Morishita bellowed the same as normal, Shirakawa was still smiling and alert, Saeki seemed more frustrated than tired, Ochi probably hadn’t looked up from a go board in weeks except to complete his ritual tapping after losing a game, and Isumi... Isumi was just as focused, just as polite, just as kind as ever.
Or at least, that’s how he appeared from a distance. Even their old tradition of hanging out together at go salons had stopped almost altogether in the face of the upcoming title matches. Shit, shit, shit. Waya couldn’t help but wonder if the study overload was really all it was; Isumi had said that he understood, that they were still friends, but...
But Waya had still confessed to feelings of Very Much Not Friendship toward Isumi, and he’d heard that could make things awkward. Isumi hadn’t seemed uncomfortable then, but what if he’d changed his mind about still being friends? Or what if he really had been freaked out, but had lied just to make Waya feel better? That didn’t really fit Isumi’s personality, but Waya didn’t actually know that much about Isumi outside of go.
Shit, shit, shit.
The phone rang then, once, twice, three times, and Waya stared at it blankly before attempting to get up to grab it and falling over his entangled feet.
He tugged the wires off his feet and managed to snatch the phone, banging his head again as he did so and cursing the whole time.
“...Waya-kun?” asked a voice on the other line.
“Huh? Yeah? What? Who’s this?”
“...Fuku. Are you alright?”
“Er... Ow! Shit! Yeah. What’s up?”
“Are we still up for tutoring tomorrow? I know you’re busy, but the pro test is—” Fukui’s voice sounded small and nervous, a far cry from his normal relaxed tone.
“Yeah, I know. How’d the prelims go, by the way?” Waya asked, hurriedly trying to scribble down a note to himself. How could he have forgotten? Once his life had revolved around the pro test!
“Er, I skipped them. I mean, they were waived. I mean, I—”
“Cool! You were one of the top three in the A group? Awesome! How didn’t I hear about that?”
“Er, you’ve been busy. Nase was in the top three, too.”
Shit. These people were his friends! What had happened to him?
“Wow... Hey, Fuku, I promise I’ll be there tomorrow, but I may not be at my best. I’ve been really tired lately, and... the title matches...”
Fukui laughed, and some of the awful tension seemed to slide out of the conversation. “Don’t worry! I need whatever pointers you can give to me. So... your place at ten?”
Waya couldn’t help but grin. “Not taking any chances, are you?”
“It’s not that! I know you’ll show up if you say you will. It’s just easier if we’re in your apartment, since you live alone...”
“Yeah, yeah, sure. I’ll see you then.”
Good-byes were said, and the phone was wrestled back into its nesting place. Waya stared blearily at his kitchen before deciding that even the most instant of dinners would be too exhausting, and so instead stumbled over to the corner of his apartment that served as his bedroom. He barely remembered to change out of his clothes before he collapsed onto his futon.
Shit. Maybe it wasn’t just Isumi, then. Maybe it wasn’t Isumi at all. Maybe it had nothing to do with Waya’s horrible and ridiculous and totally inappropriate and friendship-breaking confession. Maybe it was just Waya, and that Waya sucked at multi-tasking, sucked at keeping up with his best friends. What kind of person would do this? Who would drop people so readily once their companionship was no longer needed? Waya wasn’t a person like that, he knew he wasn’t a person like that, but without the weekly insei meetings, it was so hard to meet with everyone, so hard to remember what was going on with whom, so hard to remember that he hadn’t seen them in months. Shit, shit, shit.
Well, title matches or not, this needed to be fixed. Starting tomorrow, he’d learn to be a better friend.
Someone was knocking at the door.
Waya opened his eyes, squinted at his clock, and groaned. No way. Morning was not supposed to happen this fast. He dragged himself out of bed—literally—and managed to haphazardly stand up before lumbering his way toward the door, not bothering to change from his rumbled pyjamas into something more visitor-friendly. Fukui could handle it.
Fukui... Wait... Hadn’t he said ten? He turned around sharply, almost knocking himself over as he dodged the trip-wire phone cord, and glared at the clock again. It read 9:23. That little bastard.
He yanked the door open, scowling, and opened his mouth to deliver a scathing speech about people who arrived—unannounced!—almost an hour early, but he closed it again quickly and just stared instead.
Isumi stared back at him and managed a wan smile. “I brought sushi,” he said, holding it out as like an olive branch.
...Which was definitely weird, since Waya was sure they hadn’t fought or anything...
Isumi helped Waya set the table and brew the tea, and they settled down to eat, sneaking nervous glances at each other.
What the hell?
Finally, Isumi took a deep breath and said, very carefully, “Waya, I know I haven’t been the best of friends lately. We’ve both been very busy, and it’s been difficult to find times that are free for both of us, but that’s no excuse for my behaviour. I want to apologize for avoiding you, and I promise that—”
“Wait, what?! You’ve—” Waya’s eyes were suddenly wide-open and wild, and Isumi shifted uncertainly.
“I’m sorry?” he tried.
“—been avoiding me? Since when? Why?”
There was a pause as both of them tried to catch up to the other side of the conversation, and then a longer pause as they both stared at each other, trying to figure out what the other one meant.
Isumi broke the silence first. “Since the last time we met, when you told me...”
“Oh... yeah. Right.”
So it was true.
“You didn’t, er... notice?”
Waya blushed. “Like you said, we’ve been busy.”
“Yes, we have,” said Isumi quietly. He sighed. “This isn’t really how I imagined the life of a pro to be.”
“What’d you think it’d be like?” Waya asked, hoping he wasn’t being too nosy. Isumi rarely seemed willing to discuss his inner thoughts; as kind and helpful as he was, he still held himself fairly aloof.
Isumi didn’t seem to notice Waya’s hesitation. “I don’t know. Different. I didn’t think there would be this... awkwardness. We were always competing against one another as insei, but,” he stared into his cup of tea, not seeming to realize that it’d gone cold. “I guess I thought the pressure to do your best, to be the best, wouldn’t be so strong once we’d taken the pro test. The pro test was the goal, and I guess I thought everything after that would be easy, that we’d just be automatically set for life.” His eyes slowly refocused on Waya’s face, and he added, “Or at least that we wouldn’t be struggling to remain friends despite the competition.”
Waya’s heart soared foolishly at hearing Isumi call them friends, before his brain belatedly processed the rest of Isumi’s statement. “We’re not struggling! I mean, this... or... you avoiding me or whatever, that has nothing to do with competition, does it?”
Isumi, still staring at Waya expressionlessly, said, “I don’t know.”
“Wait, but... You just said you’ve been avoiding me because I told you that I... that I... you know...”
“No I didn’t.”
“Yeah, you did! You said you’d been avoiding me since—”
“Since, not because.”
“Oh... right. Er...”
Whatthehellwhatthehellwhatthehell?! This didn’t make any sense... It almost sounded as though Isumi was jealous of Waya’s abilities or dan, but how was that even possible? Isumi had always been the better player, and Waya’s earlier ascension to the rank of pro was the only reason he was a higher dan than Isumi. Isumi knew that, right? What the hell was going on?
“You thought I was avoiding you because you’re in love with me?”
Waya couldn’t help but feel insulted by Isumi’s ease in pronouncing that statement. This was not a casual topic! Okay, maybe he’d been praying for Isumi not to think of his confession as a big deal, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t a big deal!
He quickly suppressed his irritation and said, “Well... yeah. It seemed reasonable enough.” Waya peered at Isumi, trying to interpret the older man’s expression.
Isumi opened his mouth to respond, and then shut it again, his eyebrows knit together, and his lips pressed into a tense line. “I told you before, Waya—”
A knock on the door made them both jump, and Waya looked at the clock, startled. Ten o’clock. Shitshitshitshitshit.
“Er... That must be Fuku. We said we’d meet up for some tutoring for the pro test. Er...”
“I see,” said Isumi, and his expression make Waya shift uncomfortably, though he couldn’t have said why. “I’ll be leaving, then.”
Waya silently headed to the door and let Fukui in, who blinked when he saw Isumi, but otherwise didn’t seem surprised. There was a brief exchange of pleasantries before Isumi make his excuses and departed, leaving Waya and Fukui standing in the entrance, staring at each other.
“So,” Fukui grinned, “I feel as though I’ve missed something.” He didn’t seem particularly concerned.
Waya inwardly debated on what to tell Fukui, before deciding what the hell. He’d made a promise to rebond with his friends, right? And Fukui wasn’t exactly known for being indiscrete...
Waya shut the door and began to speak.
Three days later, Saeki hadn’t become anymore successful at thinking.
He loitered around at his place reading kifu and replaying old games, and then moved on to Waya’s, hoping to scrounge up some inspiration.
Once Waya had delicately and gently kicked him out—the resulting bruise was turning disturbing colours—the only thing left was Shindou.
Shindou spent the majority of his gameless late mornings and early afternoons in Touya’s go salon, getting into shouting matches with Touya after losing. It was sort of amusing from a distance, but the thought of asking an irate Shindou for advice sent shivers down Saeki’s spine. Still, he didn’t have many options; he had no idea how Shindou spent the rest of his time, nor where Shindou lived. He didn’t even have his phone number.
After a few false starts, Saeki managed to get himself moving toward the go salon, and if his movements were slightly lethargic... at least, he told himself, he was moving at all.