Waya sits across from the goban, his hands clenched on his knees ready for a fight. He can do this, he knows he can. He has spent extra time this last year training himself, bettering himself and his game in order to face down this opponent, to win a spot on the Hokutohai team.
He is going to do it. He is going to beat Shindou.
When Waya had seen the tournament matchup order, he only felt the slightest hesitation when he noticed he'd be facing Shindou in the second round. He has changed, he's no longer the person he was last year when he was glad he wasn't facing Shindou.
This year, Shindou's ass is his.
He's feeling good about everything, his first opponent, one of the players from the Kansai Ki'in, resigned after a game that hadn't been too much of a challenge. Waya knows it's not a fair test of his chances against Shindou, since Shindou is kind of a freak of nature when it comes to his growth as a player, but something tells him that things are going to be different this year. Go is as much a game of attitude as it is a game of strategy, and if he doesn't have confidence in himself then he knows he's already lost.
Waya hears murmuring coming from the hall outside the game room, and knows the other players are returning from lunch. He looks to the door, watching them shuffle in one and two at a time, his eyes lighting on Shindou and following him as he makes his way toward him. His hands clench in anticipation, and he meets Shindou's curious gaze with a steady, uncompromising one.
"Missed you at lunch," Shindou says with a half-wave and a smile. Waya doesn't return it; he doesn't know if he can smile at anyone right now, least of all Shindou.
"I just had something to drink," he says in answer. "I wasn't hungry."
"That's weird," Shindou replies with a smirk. "Usually you're a bottomless pit at lunch."
"Yeah, well," Waya trails off, shrugging one shoulder stiffly and wishing the proctor would announce the start of the final round of preliminaries so he could breathe again. The anticipation of the game is almost making him more nervous than the actual game itself will. He knows once he's started, he'll relax and things will start to come together.
"Please take your places," the proctor announces to the room, and Waya releases a relieved sigh, sitting up straighter in front of the goban. Shindou drops down across from him, and the two of them nigiri. Waya drops a single black stone onto the goban, and Shindou releases a fistful of white stones, the clatter loud in Waya's ears. Even before Shindou's counted the stones, he knows he's won black. Once the goban is clear of stones once more, he places his first hand.
Waya plays each hand with confidence; he isn't going to let Shindou set the pace of the game in his usual manner. He knows that once he hands over control to Shindou for even an instant, his chances of beating him decrease dramatically. He playes hasami, trying to provoke Shindou into a confrontation, but Shindou plays tenuki, choosing to extend instead of responding. Waya isn't going to let that happen for long, though, and as he plays a keima against one of Shindou's white stones, he briefly wonders what it would take to draw Shindou into a complicated, unorthodox game the way Yashiro had been able to last year. People still talk about that game; it's a legend among the new pros this year. The game, and Shindou and Yashiro.
A few hands later, Shindou sets his folding fan aside, and Waya raises his eyebrows before he can catch himself. He has noticed Shindou does that when he's getting particularly serious, and he's a little annoyed at himself at the thrill he feels at making Shindou get serious. Shindou snaps a hand down while he's in the middle of congratulating himself, though, that gives him pause. It's not one he had been expecting when he considered his moves, and he has to admit begrudgingly that it's a good hand. It cuts black off, and gives white a good position to grab territory in the center. Waya responds to the hand, but the moment he lifts his finger from the stone, he can see that his response isn't bold enough.
The two of them exchange a few more hands, and each time Waya second-guesses himself. Shindou is playing his usual game, it's bold and aggressive, and Waya has seen him play in the study group every week for three years now. He should be used to his play, but Shindou has the habit of changing so quickly that it's difficult to keep up. Even as they move to fight over one of the corners, Waya's mind keeps going back to that hand of Shindou's, the one that took the wind out of his sails. He hasn't lost the initiative, but he doesn't have the initiative any more either. He knows that his situation is like walking along a razorblade's edge, and if he's not careful he's going to get cut.
Shaking his head, Waya focuses on the task at hand. The game is nowhere near over, not yet, and the tables can still be turned. He's been keeping up with Shindou, not letting him push him around, but the further they go into the game the more worried he becomes. Shindou has picked his fan up again, and is fiddling with it while Waya thinks over his moves. He's been using a light touch rather than brute force on the board, taking care not to overextend himself, but sometimes his touch is too light and he can see that each time he holds back a touch too much he is giving Shindou the leverage he needs to overtake him.
Desperately, Waya attacks the center, trying to mitigate some of the damage he allowed Shindou to do, but none of the hands he plays seem to have any effect. He is acutely aware of the game clock as it ticks his time down, seconds trickling away like rainwater, and Shindou opens and shuts one panel of his folding fan in impatience as he waits for the next move Waya will make. He runs through the possibilities in his mind, trying to see a future in which he can make his position work, one where he's not completely screwed because he couldn't make bolder moves, but nothing comes to him; all he can see is that he comes up short no matter what he does.
He's tempted to throw a temper tantrum, to sweep the stones from the board in frustration, but knows that it will help nothing, that it will cause a scene which will cause him to get scolded for unsportsmanlike conduct. Waya isn't a sore loser, he doesn't need to be treated like one. But it's so frustrating to want to be the best yet not have the ability to back that desire up.
Closing his eyes, Waya tilts his head forward to concede the game. "I have nothing," he mutters, his voice thick with disappointment.
The worst part, Waya thinks, is that he had prepared so hard for this. If he had tried and failed without any extra effort it would still hurt, but it would have been tolerable. This, no. This is worse than the years he'd failed to pass the pro exam combined. This is worse than his loss to Ochi last year in the Hokutohai prelims. He is used to losing to Ochi.
Losing to Shindou is hard. He had started out in the insei class slow, almost as a joke after spouting off that nonsense about being Touya's rival. Nobody could take him seriously, including him. Of course, things gradually changed as Shindou hit his stride, and Waya almost never won against him now. It's a bitter pill to swallow, and he wants to hate Shindou for it, for surpassing him so easily. For taking off at a run after Touya, and not even turning around to hold out his hand to pull Waya along behind him. No, Shindou's eyes are focused eternally on Touya and nobody else.
Some days, Waya does think he hates Shindou with a passion great enough that his clenched hands leave crescent moon impressions in his palms. He knows it's just jealousy, though. The hate he feels is mostly directed toward himself for his inability to keep pace. The face of his hatred just happens to have the face of Shindou Hikaru.
"Waya," Shindou's voice floats from across the goban, sounding hesitant. Waya doesn't want to look up from the board, from the shape of the game he had trained for so long to play and end up losing. He manages to tear his gaze away to look up at his friend, though, and the concern he sees is almost worse than the smug superiority Ochi had shown him last year. He feels his hands clench, wishing he were a more gracious loser, wishing Shindou would just leave him alone and let him wallow. "It was a really good game. You've really improved!" Shindou says, and the kind words are a knife in his heart.
I've improved, but not enough to overtake you.
"I really thought you had me for a while," Hikaru continues, pointing to the lower left. He thought he had him there, too, but it had been too little in the end. He shakes his head, not trusting himself to speak as he begins to gather the stones, sorting them by color to exorcise the game from the board. Shindou takes the hint and stops trying to engage him in conversation, and Waya is grateful that his stupid, dense friend is finally learning to read the atmosphere.
Finally, Waya trusts himself enough to speak without his voice shaking from emotion. "Thank you for the game," he says in a flat monotone, dumping his black stones into the goke and replacing the lid. He stands, and Shindou follows him up, the concerned look still on his face. He doesn't feel much like smiling, but he's willing to do anything just to erase the pity he doesn't want. Flashing Shindou a grin, he leans over and punches his arm jokingly.
If it's a little harder than it strictly has to be, Shindou doesn't say anything.
"Hey, don't get comfortable winning against me. I'm totally gonna kick your ass next time," he says in as normal a voice as he can manage. The return to routine seems to calm Shindou's worry, and his expression smooths into a sunny smile so much like his name.
"Bring it!" Shindou exclaims, punching him back. "Hey, wanna see if Yashiro won?"
"Nah, I have to go give Isumi-san a call really quick. I'll see you on Saturday at my place though, right?" He can feel the muscles in his face straining less, the charade of acting normally becoming easier as each moment slips by, blurring one into another.
"Yeah I'll be there," Shindou confirms, and Waya nods, raising a hand as he walks out of the game room while simultaneously fishing his phone out of his pocket. Speed dial 1 is Isumi, and he makes it to the elevators before Isumi picks up.
"Isumi-san? It's me. Hey I've been thinking... you up for a trip to China?"
The doors to the elevator close and as he hits the button for the lobby Waya makes himself a promise. Next year, he'll be ready.