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Akari sits on folded knees, staring at the unfamiliar grid lines of the go board. Her posture is stiff, uncomfortable, the urge to stand on weak knees and flee almost irrepressible. What keeps her seated is familiarity: she knows this room, knows the boy who occupies it, knows every book and comic lined up on the bookshelf, knows which carpeted part of the floor creaks when stepped on and the taste of the week-old chocolate scattered atop the desk.

"I'm fine, you know," Hikaru reassures her again. His voice washes over her, casual and nonchalant. He speaks without care, the words as unimportant to him as the schoolwork he has neglected to do. "I was just feeling sick yesterday."

Akari wants to know how that's possible - nothing about his behavior yesterday was odd. He was the same obnoxious punk he always was, ignoring her chiding words with ease. Now, today in his room with the old goban he'd intended to steal the day before sitting between them, Akari thinks she can see the sickness.

"Are you still going to sell it?" she asks, motioning to the object between them.

"No," Hikaru answers, too calm to be natural. His hand hovers over the top, fingertips trailing delicately over the grid lines in such a way that Akari is reminded of when he asked her if she could see bloodstains.

The go board is clean, of blood and dust both. She feels it isn't right, the air tight with something strange that nearly chokes her. The way Hikaru regards this piece of wood so reverently is nearly disgusting.

She finally meets his eyes. In only a moment, Akari realizes she does not know him.


Tsutsui prides himself on his ability to hold composure - he does not cringe despite the violence of his peers nor is he affronted by the condescension of the elderly who sit before him. Tsutsui is gentle and down-to-earth, his expectations often met because he sets them so low.

It's disconcerting, then, to meet an anomaly.

The boy who takes the seat across from him looks bored. This would be expected, if he had been coerced into it - but this is a festival, the game is voluntary, and the boy is alone. There is no reason for the boy to sit there except at his own volition, but he seems bothered all the same.

Tsutsui starts with the easiest tsumego but the boy completes it the moment Tsutsui's hands retreat from the board. It proceeds like this through the next ten tsumego, and by the time they reach the final one, the boy hardly does more than glance at it before he solves it. His eyes return to Tsutsui's face as the older boy stumbles over putting the prizes together.

"I already have all that, so don't bother. Give them to someone else, " the boy says. He barely pauses for breath as he continues. "You want to go to the Go tournament, right? I'll go with you. Any board - it doesn't matter to me. Just get me a uniform. "

Tsutsui stares at him. The boy is right about Tsutsui, but what's more striking is how casual he is about it - as if this were expected. As if this was rote, going through the motions of a play where only the boy had the script and everyone else around him was improvising.

"You- Who are you?" Tsutsui stutters out.

The boy blinks, as if questions about his identity were bewildering. There's no arrogance there, only sincere bemusement, but that's somehow worse - arrogance is human, conceit is mankind's vice and one Tsutsui can at least understand. This is something else and for one moment Tsutsui thinks he has mis-stepped.

"I'm Shindou Hikaru," the boy answers. His lips smile but his eyes do not.

"I don't know where to get a uniform," Tsutsui finally says after a long moment. He doesn't want to admit that he is scared but he is because there's something wrong in Shindou's eyes when he smiles, like some malevolent god who tries to wear the mask of mortality for the sake of amusement.

"You know someone that does," Shindou says. He sits back and waits, and Tsutsui waits with him because there's little else he can do.

Kaga storms up to their table and stumps out his cigarette on the board. Shindou looks up at the redhead with that same vacant look of recognition, saying all the right words to get Kaga to do what is needed. Tsutsui does not rise to any of Kaga's baiting words, conscious of the monster disguised as a young boy seated across from him.


 

Waya doesn't know the boy but he does recognize the look on his face - he'd worn it often enough himself as he stumbled into the brilliant world of Go. The boy was pulling off his shoes absently, eyes skittering about the entrance and lingering over some of the other insei as they trudged past him. It doesn't take long for his eyes to find Waya, and when they do, they do not widen at being caught nor dart away in embarrassment; instead they meet his own pair evenly, intent in a way Waya cannot answer.

"Are you new?" The words slip out before Waya can stop them, almost on reflex. Waya does not shy away from confrontation after all, even if the other boy was hardly acting aggressive.

The boy smiles but it's odd because it seems out of place on his face. "Yes," he answers. Waya doesn't know why it sounds like a lie and struggles to keep his irritation in check.

"I'm Shindou Hikaru, nice to meet you," the boy continues on. His voice is serene but bored; he sounds as if introductions are more a hassle than a medium of interaction.

"Waya," the older insei responds. The odd smile grows on the other boy's face.

Waya pulls himself together - he's clearly the older of the pair, not to mention the one of higher rank. It's his duty to be the mature one, not be cowed just by the boy's eerie disposition. It isn't as if Shindou is even being rude.

"Might as well come inside or the teacher will lecture us for loitering," Waya advises nonchalantly. There is no reason to be bothered by the other boy; he's just another insei, another young Go player interested in joining the ranks and adoring the game Waya values so much.

Waya slouches a bit as he moves forward, Shindou falling into step with him. It's both casual and disturbing, the easy way Shindou moves alongside him - there is a familiarity there that even Waya feels but knows he has no reason to, and there's something frightening in that. Like a childhood friend who he had forgotten suddenly re-emerging, just as free and easy as before.

"You looked pretty freaked out when I saw you," Waya teases good-naturedly, in an earnest attempt to establish dialogue and ignore his own unease. "Did you get lost or something?"

There's a pause. It's very fortunate that Waya does not turn around, because the look on Shindou's face is equal parts heartbreaking and terrifying.

"Something like that," Shindou answers. He is sincere.


 

"I know Sai." Ogata doesn't quite believe the words, but he knows the kid who says them. Shindou Hikaru, the player that recently passed the Pro Exams with Akira. He infuriates the young Touya in a way Ogata has never seen before, but the look of apathy on his young face is so different from the way he looks when seated at a go board.

"Do you?" Ogata snorts. While few people claim to know NetGo's Saint, the ones that do usually only say so anonymously on the online forums. No one would ever lie so publicly, especially in the face of someone like Ogata ninth-dan.

"Yeah," the boy replies with a shrug. Shindou doesn't look irritated at Ogata's lack of faith, eyes never straying from where they meet Ogata's own bespectacled pair. Ogata wants to lecture him about his poor manners but this entire interaction is so strange that he can't do much more than just glower at the boy.

"I can arrange a game for you but it has to be at your place," Shindou bargains.

Ogata snorts. "What, 'sai' can't afford a cup of coffee?"

"I'm actually aiming for the beer," the boy shrugs again.

Ogata glares at him. "Is this a game request or a proposition?"

That startles a laugh out of Shindou. The sound of Touya Akira's rival actually sounding happy draws eyes, making Ogata uncomfortable with their scrutiny. He hadn't expected the boy to actually understand his remark and it's disconcerting that not only had he understood the context, but also the humor behind it.

"If it's a match you want, we can just play it here," Ogata points out.

Shindou tilts his head in a mockery of curiosity, not quite human enough to feel the emotion but still trying to emulate some sense of it. "This is Sai's game, though - do you want to play it here?"

Ogata doesn't understand him. He heard it's a common feeling when dealing with Shindou Hikaru.

"Does it matter where it's played?" he asks, feeling out of his depth.

Shindou's eyes are shuttered, his words bitter: "No, it really doesn't."


 

There's a certain look in people's eyes, a way they hold themselves that denotes their experiences and maturity. Children's eyes are wider, brighter, more open and receptive to the world around them; the older they grow, the more closed they become. Age turns people rigid, assurance in their postures but withered in their gazes. Kuwabara finds himself looking to those under him in both age and rank, enjoying the fire that rages in their eyes spurned on only by the young blood still running in their veins.

At his age, it is too easy to be overcome by the prospect of death. It waits around every corner, with every tremor that runs through his limbs and dropped Go stone from loose fingers. His weathered skin and visible veins stand out prominently every time he looks at himself in the mirror, and when he finally does see himself, all he can think about is the games he will no longer be able to play because there is no Go in the grave. Kuwabara thinks there is value in religion, once his own impermanence finally dawns on him.

Kuwabara doesn't take solace gradually; it is sudden, a violent epiphany that nearly kills him then and there. It is when the elevator doors open while he's at the Go Institute, admitting a first-dan player out into the hall. It is Touya Meijin's newest student, a boy with blond bangs who once goaded Touya Akira into a fistfight earlier in the year. The boy greets him dully as he moves forward, and while it is common for people to know who Kuwabara is, especially in these halls, the Honinbou catches those green eyes before they can move away.

God. That's what Kuwabara sees as Shindou Hikaru passes him.

It's there in the way Shindou views him because Kuwabara can see Death in those eyes, but no fear of it; there is an intimate understanding of death but none for mortality. Eternity lurks behind the child's eyes, an omnipresence that forces some semblance of emotion on a human face with a soul that no longer matches.

God, or something just as cruel.


Akira is looking over the game with tired eyes. He's lost the title match to Ogata once again but there's a certain satisfaction in that - Ogata is one of the few who can push him to his limit these days, and Akira finds more solace in his loss than he would if he'd actually won. It's a truth that eats at him every day, slowly tearing him up piece by piece as time trudges on relentlessly.

Day by day, Akira grows stronger. Day by day, he will conquer those that are steps above him, and then-

And then?

Akira draws in a shuddering breath, cleaning up the stones lest he give in to the urge to throw the board across the room. Go was his life, was his past, present, and future- Akira and Go and that's all.

He closes the goke mechanically. The rain is pouring down hard outside, fitting background music to his turbulent thoughts. Sixteen years old and already he felt too old for the world he was in - a surprisingly arrogant feat, given the median age of his workplace.

A drop of water falls onto the board, startling Akira into awareness. His eyes are wide as they take in the soaked figure before him: a boy around Akira's age, sharp green eyes evaluating and a smile on his lips that looks almost fond. Ichikawa is idling behind him, looking nervous and one hand still outstretched in an aborted attempt to stop the strange boy from getting any closer to Akira.

"Sorry I'm late," the boy says. It makes no sense because Akira does not know him, positive he would at least recognize someone with such a distinctive hairstyle. "But let's play a game, okay?"

The boy takes the open seat across from him. Akira wants to say no but doesn't, the words caught in his throat.

He doesn't know him-

But he does know him-

No, he doesn't know him.

("You idiot!" Akira shouts but doesn't mean the words because he loves-)

Ichikawa makes one last attempt to intervene but Akira stops her, giving her a wan smile and kind "it's fine, Ichikawa-san." She retreats back to the front but keeps a watchful eye on the strange boy. Akira uncaps the goke he had just closed, starting nigiri without much conscious effort.

"I'm Shindou Hikaru, by the way," the boy says off-handedly.

"I know," Akira returns shortly, but then stills because no, he didn't know that. He doesn't know Shindou. They'd never met.

Shindou looks back at him. His eyes aren't expectant nor surprised; he remains the same as before, unchanging and unaffected. Akira wonders if his eyes are painted on, for all the genuine emotion they show - there's a hollow quality there no person should have.

Akira earns the white stones. He takes his goke, moving past the awkward moment with all the subtleties of a teenage boy. "Ah- you said you were late?" Akira asks tentatively. He feels shy in a way he hasn't since he was twelve, a feeling further heightened by the way Shindou continues to regard him so warmly.

"By about two and a half years," Shindou shrugs. He holds a black Go stone between his fingers with the ease of long experience.

Akira starts, taken-aback by the response. His fingers stray over the raindrop Shindou has left on the board and the strange boy watches him with the devotion of a martyr.

"I-I don't understand," Akira admits.

Shindou smiles, both endearing and unkind. "You will," he says, and places the first stone.


 

Fujiwara no Sai waits diligently for his new host to wake up; the boy seemed rambunctious and rather petulant when he'd entered the attic where Torajiroh's go board waited before their newly-established tie had forced him into unconsciousness.

Sai knows little about the outside world in this modern day, but Fate had to know what it was doing when it had attached him to such a rough-looking little boy.

Green eyes open and immediately latch onto him. It is the expectancy that keeps Sai silent, because no one should ever expect to see the dead when they wake.

"Well," the boy begins. "Maybe we'll get it right this time?"

 


an endless, unavailing, and ultimately futile task