Ochi slipped his finger into the small jar and brought a few white grains to his lips, then promptly gagged at the flavour. "What is this? I thought you said it's supposed to taste good!"
"Not by itself! You have to mix it with something—it improves the flavour of other food! Eating that by itself, that's like... like trying to play go by yourself. You need a partner to play go with, don't you? Well, you need a complementary food for umami seasoning to taste good, too."
"You do not need a partner for go, you need an opponent. Go is not a team sport."
"Well, that's the same, isn't it? You still need someone to play with to make the game work, whatever you call them."
"I don't see the resemblance."
"That's because you're not looking for it."
Ko Yeong-ha’s smile upon being introduced to Ochi and the other members of the Japanese team was polite, but his disinterest--his boredom--was evident. Korea was finally hosting the tournament, but now there was no Shindou to lose his head and defy all the rules so that he could play a desperate and fiery match. No Touya, quiet and calculating but somehow just as passionate as Shindou. No Yashiro to invent bold and crazy new go moves and yet somehow manage to pull them off. No, just a loud tournament in which to play a trio of mundane unknowns--boring, but at least it was the last one before his age disqualified him from the tournament and he could move on to bigger and brighter things.
The worst part was that Ochi could see where he was coming from. Ochi glanced at his own teammates with distaste. How he'd dreamed of claiming his rightful place in this tournament! And yet, he wasn't standing side-by-side with Touya, or Isumi, or Shindou, or even Waya, as he had in those dreams.
There had been no pre-chosen first chair for the Hokuto Cup Tournament this year; the previous entrants now all exceeded the age limit, and in the stunned wake left by Touya, Shindou, and Yashiro’s brilliant performances, none of the younger pros stood out from the others enough to guarantee a place of glory. There was talk, for a while—mortifying discussions of whether or not it would be possible to extend the age limit to 19, or 20, or anything that would bring back the last years’ popular entrants; thankfully, that notion had been tossed away. And so, the pre-cup tournament began, this time with all three chairs open for grabs.
And this time, there was no Yashiro to stand in Ochi’s way of earning a chair for himself.
And this time, there was no one else at all; all of Ochi’s rivals were older, and he was left to face the Korean and Chinese teams alone in a bitter backdrop to his triumph in finally making the team.
'Team,' huh? Ochi hadn't even bothered to learn his teammates' names. It didn't matter--he'd show them. He didn't need a team; he'd just play such a fantastic game that no one would even notice their resignations. Touya would be so upset that he hadn't gotten to be on Ochi's team. Waya and Shindou and Isumi, too. He'd show them all.
Ko turned his frozen-polite smile toward Ochi. Ochi did not smile back.
Team Japan had a last study meeting the night before they faced China in the opening match of the Hokuto Cup Tournament. Ochi was not enthused. The meeting was held in the hotel room of their trainer, a 7-dan Japanese pro who was just as nameless as Ochi’s teammates and even more irritating. Rather than allowing the entrants to study by themselves—as was infinitely more beneficial, really—he forced them to have these meetings and wasted precious time preaching about inane concepts like ‘teamwork’—and how often did Ochi have to tell people that go is not a team sport and there is no teamwork in go.
The only teamwork he’d thus far observed was in the second chair subtlely nudging the third chair awake from where she’d dozed off, somehow managing to stay seated upright, during some speech or another during the opening ceremonies. Ochi didn’t blame her; the opening ceremonies were long and tedious, the convention centre the events were being held in was stiflingly hot, and besides—she was only fourteen. It was probably past her bedtime.
He glanced at his teammates now, watching as they listened—or appeared to listen—closely to their trainer explain a complex move often favoured by Chinese pros—for the third time that night. Pathetic. And these were the best young go players Japan had to offer?
Ochi stood up. “I’m sorry to interrupt,” he lied, “but it’s getting late. I’d like to be able to have a long night’s rest before the matches tomorrow.” Not that Ochi intended to go to bed. He still had his real studying to do, after all.
“Of course!” replied the trainer, also standing. “That’s a splendid idea, Ochi. Yes, we should all be getting to bed. Don’t stay up late worrying—I know you’ll all do great!”
Ochi had already turned to leave before the trainer had finished speaking. His teammates weren’t far behind.
“Thank you so, so much,” whispered the second chair to Ochi when the door was closed. “I thought he’d never stop talking! The study meeting’d have continued straight into the morning, and we’d all have missed our matches, and he’d still be yammering on about how people we’re not even playing in the tournament sometimes like to play.”
The third chair’s lips twitched as she walked past them to her own room, but she didn’t raise her eyes from the plush hotel carpet. She rarely did.
This was the most interaction they’d had in the entire time they’d known one another, barring that which had been forced by their trainer. Some team.
The next morning eventually came, and Ochi, bleary-eyed but ready for action, seated himself before the first board’s goban, ready to show the world just how capable he was.
He didn’t expect to be already facing destruction barely an hour into the game. He didn’t expect to be facing destruction at all.
During the first two Hokuto Cup tournaments, everyone’s attention had been locked on the ferocious battles between Korea and Japan; somehow, even though China had scored second place during the first tournament, Ochi had never really considered them to be serious contenders. All of his attention had been locked onto how to defeat Ko Yeong-ha.
And yet, here he was, feeling his dreams of recognition sliding through his fingers as he lost more and more territory to his opponent. He held out as long as he could, probably longer than he should have, but he finally bowed his resignation.
Later, as Ochi was exiting the men’s bathroom of the convention centre cradling his aching finger, he caught sight of his third chair exiting the women’s bathroom across the hall; her eyes were raw and red from crying. The two quickly walked away, trying to pretend that they hadn’t seen the other.
So, there went game one of Ochi’s Prove Your Worth to Everyone plan, and he’d been crushed, along with his team. The score was two devastating defeats and one barely-achieved win for Japan.
"Have you ever tried kimchi before, Ochi?"
Ochi looked up and frowned at the stranger standing in front of him. How dare this person invade his private meal? Nevermind that he was sitting at an open table in the hotel restaurant--it was his open table! It took a moment for his outrage to fade enough for him to recognise his teammate, the second chair. What was his name again? Yamada, maybe?
You should remember his name--he won his game against China. You didn't. I bet Touya wouldn't mind being his rival.
"No," he replied shortly, "I haven't. And I'm not intending to start now." Maybe if he acted rudely enough, the intruder would go away.
The boy's face fell. "Awww... come on, try it! It's not like the stuff you get in Japan, you know. This has got some bite. And the flavour--it's amazing!"
"Oh?" The boy seemed eager to talk. Ochi should have just ignored him in the beginning--maybe then he'd have gone away. "What does it taste like?" He wasn't going to say what it smelled like. His empty stomach was already revolting from the odour.
"Well... it's really spicy and, uh... garlicy and... it's kind of hard to explain, you know? It's that umami flavour; you can't really categorise it. I just love it."
Feeling pressured, Ochi took a small bite… and almost spat it back out again. With concentration and his entire cup of water, he finally managed to swallow it. The other boy looked saddened. "Oh. Well, maybe I'm just biased. I mean, I am Zainichi Korean."
Ochi blinked in surprise. "But isn't your name Japanese?"
"Yeah, it's Kaneda; my great-grandfather, he changed his name to that from Kim when he was forced to immigrate to Japan. You know, to try to fit in better."
Kaneda stayed with Ochi throughout the meal, discussing everything from his family history to his latest haircut. To Ochi's surpise, he found himself listening to the largely-one-sided conversation with interest. Despite being the only member of their team to have secured a win against China, Kaneda didn’t seem smug, superior, or anything other than friendly. Kaneda was also Ochi's age, unlike the majority of Ochi’s peers during his go career, and while he was certainly no Touya Akira, Ochi mentally decided that he could stand Kaneda's company. Maybe.
Just before he excused himself from the table, Kaneda asked, "So, did you like it after all?"
"The kimchi. You finished the whole plate."
Ochi hadn't even noticed he'd been eating it. Perhaps he’d simply needed to get used to it?
Team Japan went together to watch Korea’s match against China. It hadn’t been planned that way; Ochi had simply been preparing to leave by himself when Kaneda, accompanied by the third chair, had appeared at his door. Upon their arriving in the audience room, they were joined by their team trainer, who was presumably all aflutter at their emboldened display of Team Support by Means of Physical Proximity.
The mood was tense as each member of the team stared hard at the game played by their past and future opponents, searching for any weakness in the latter that they might be able to take advantage of, and strengths in the former that might justify their own losses and mistakes. As the games headed into midgame, the trainer excused himself to get a glass of water, and Ochi heard the third chair speak without prompting for the first time. “I don’t think I can win.”
Ochi waited for Kaneda to give her an overdone encouraging speech, but to his surprise, Kaneda only sighed and said, “I know what you mean, Yamamoto. I was so psyched about qualifying for this tournament, but it feels as though everyone’s on a whole different level from me. I’m wondering if I really deserve to be here.”
“You won your game,” Yamamoto reminded him in her whispery voice.
Ochi rolled his eyes. What stupidity! He refused to admit that he’d been lost in the same style of thoughts before Yamamoto had broken the silence. “Of course you’ll both lose.”
His two teammates looked at him in surprise.
“Pathetic! If you don’t think you can win then you really don’t deserve to be here. Think whatever you want about your own abilities, but I’m going to continue focusing on Ko’s weaknesses, because I intend to win.”
Ack. Now Ochi had gone and made a speech, one so cheesy it could have come from their team trainer, and—wait, was that…? Yes, there was a low clapping noise coming just beside them. Their trainer had returned and was beaming at Ochi with pride. “That’s exactly right! No one can go into something expecting to lose and come out a winner. We need to do something to get rid of those defeatist attitudes of yours… I know, we’ll all go out to dinner—my treat, of course—and loosen up. After that, we’ll discuss your specific strategies for each of your games and work on how to strengthen them.”
The dinner and discussion, to Ochi’s surprise, were actually very helpful. The tense mood relaxed over the food, and their confidence rose as they went over all of their opponents’ mistakes and how to use those weaknesses to take the game. As he listened to his teammates analyze the games, Ochi felt a tiny seed of respect grow for them, and for the first time he realised that they might be more than just fill-ins. They’d discussed games together before, of course, but Ochi had never bothered to pay attention to them before.
As the four returned to the hotel, the talk began to deviate from go study a little.
“That Ko Yeong-ha,” grumbled Yamamoto, her shyness broken in the giddiness produced from the release of nerves. “Did you see how he looked at us when we were first introduced? As though we were just irritating flies to be swatted away so that he could focus on his real business? I wanted to punch him right in his pretty face—watch him try to ignore that!”
Ochi tried to imagine Yamamoto, who was even shorter than he himself was, punch Ko, or even reach high enough to land a solid punch.
Kaneda was apparently following a similar trail of thought, because he said, “He’d probably have managed. Maybe he’d have asked the convention centre for a stepladder as though it were a 3-stone handicap.”
Yamamoto scowled in response, but rather than snapping back as Ochi had expected, only answered, “You’re right. I’d need to knee him in the groin, first, so that he’d curl in on himself and bring his face straight into punching range.”
Kaneda winced theatrically, but he was sniggering as he did so. So was their trainer, and he still hadn’t managed to dispense with his laughter enough to admonish their violent ill-wishings by the time they’d arrived at the hotel.
Kaneda lingered by Ochi’s door after their trainer and Yamamoto had headed off to their own rooms. “I’m glad she’s finally loosening up,” he said. “It must be hard for her here.”
“Why’s that?” asked Ochi, only vaguely interested in the response. There were still a few problems in his strategy that he wanted to work out…
“Oh, you know… being so much younger than most of us, and being just about the only girl in sight… It must be a little disheartening to spend her time around comparatively old men all day.”
Ochi blinked at that, and thought back to his own experience of being one of the youngest insei, surrounded by older—in most cases much older—boys and girls. It had been a little isolating, he supposed. Still… “She didn’t have to come here,” he replied, shrugging. “She didn’t have to become a go player. She must have decided that the gain was larger than the loss.”
“Oh, I’m sure. She must love go; she’s been playing it since she was old enough to pick up stones. That doesn’t mean it’s not hard, though.”
Kaneda must have taken that as his leave to go, and Ochi was relieved to finally be able to shut his door and block out the world. As he settled on his futon with a notebook full of kifu, he wondered whether or not his teammates really could win their matches. Team Japan did have one thing in their favour—the Korean team had suffered a fairly heavy blow against China, too. Their score was 1-2, with Ko Yeong-ha as the team’s only winner.
The morning of the Hokuto Cup Tournament’s final match, Kaneda and Yamamoto joined Ochi for breakfast at the hotel, all three of them nursing cups of green tea.
“We can do this,” muttered Kaneda over and over again, his tone feverish.
Finally, Ochi couldn’t take it anymore. “I know I can,” he snapped. “I don’t know about you.”
To Ochi’s surprise, Yamamoto raised her chin and looked him straight in the eye. “I know I can, too,” she said calmly. She turned to Kaneda. “If you don’t shut up, I might have to turn you into a Ko effigy and serve you with a knee-punch combination.”
Kaneda started and then laughed, his shoulders relaxing a little. “I suppose I’d better change the subject for my own safety, then. Alright, why don’t we start planning our victory party?”
As his two teammates struck up a lively conversation, Ochi sat quietly observing them. Yamamoto was almost unrecognizable from the soft-spoken, frightened girl she’d been just a few days before, and while Kaneda’s change wasn’t as extreme, he also seemed to have gained something in confidence.
“I think we can win,” he said quietly, not knowing that he’d spoken aloud until the other two ended their discussion to look at him.
Kaneda smiled. “I think so, too.”
Yamamoto said nothing, but she nodded firmly in agreement.
It wasn’t until Ochi sat facing Ko Yeong-ha across the goban that he realised that he’d stopped thinking of him, Ochi, winning, and started focusing on us, the team, winning.
Not that it made a difference. For us, the team, to win, he, as a part of that team, also had to win. For us, the team of unknowns following in the wake of internationally famous players, to receive acknowledgement, he, Ochi, had to play a brilliant game. So what if go sort-of-really-maybe could be a team sport after all? It was still the same.
And in the end, after all his preparation, all his nights going over ever existing record of Ko’s games, all his care in developing the perfect, unbeatable strategy… in the end, Ochi still lost, but he played a game that no one could take their eyes off of.
Even after they’d made it through check in and security, found their gate, boarded the plane, loaded their carry ons, and finally collapsed into their assigned seats in preparation for their 6 a.m. departure, Kaneda still had enough congratulatory energy to throw his arms around his teammates, seated on either side of him, and announce, “So how about it—Team Japan gets second place! Touya Akira’s team didn’t make it there their first time around. Surely that reflects well on a bunch of newbies?”
“As you’ve already pointed out,” sighed Ochi.
“Three times.” Yamamoto was apparently in a less conciliatory mood than Ochi. “And anyway, we’ve been playing go for most of our lives. How are we newbies?”
Kaneda waved his hand dismissively. “No one’s heard of us, so it’s the same thing. Second place!”
Their trainer peered over the seats from the row behind them. “That’s right. And next year, I expect first. You’d better start studying now.”
“We’ll be fine,” said Yamamoto. “After all, we’ve got Ochi.”
Ochi cracked open a sleep-encrusted eye to scowl at her. “I lost.”
“Yeah, but you were playing against Mr. Shiner. He’ll be too old to play next year, so you’ll definitely win, and you’ll still be helping us along, too.”
“Dreaming about punching him is not enough for him to manifest a black eye, Yamamoto,” interjected Kaneda. “For that you need to, you know, actually punch him.”
“You shut up.”
“…How did I help you this time?” asked Ochi, not sure whether or not she was making fun of him.
“You know, by encouraging us! I’d have never been able to win if not for you.”
“Same here—though I barely won either match anyway.” Kaneda smiled happily. “This year, second place; next year, first. I like it. Go Team Ochi!”
“Go Team Ochi!” echoed Yamamoto and the trainer—Ochi still hadn’t bothered to learn his name—in sync.
Ochi simply rolled his eyes and tried not to smile.
Ochi turned to face the speaker, though of course he'd recognise Waya's shouting anywhere. "Yes?" Waya was not alone. Shindou and Isumi--and Touya!--were with him. What could convince Touya and Waya to stand within four feet of one another?
He was not left long in suspense.
"You played a wonderful game," said Touya, smiling. "It was a close match." Ochi looked closely, but he could see neither irony nor superiority in Touya's expression.
"Thank you for the compliment," he replied, rather bemused.
"Su-Yeong wanted me to let you know that he looks forward to playing you next year, so you'd better get first chair again," added Shindou.
"Not that Kaneda and Yamamoto are going to give it up without a fight," laughed Waya. "They played some damn good games!"
"I'll let them know you said so," said Ochi politely.
"Awww, you keep up with these kids you've barely known for a few weeks, but you can't be bothered to even send us--who you've known since before you were twelve--an e-mail when you're out of the country?"
"They're better than you were," replied Ochi calmly--and they laughed! Touya was actually sniggering!--"And you've never written me any e-mails, either."
"Waya hasn't been out of the country, and I sent you e-mails regularly, Ochi, and still do.” Trust Touya to be responsible even when it comes to correspondence.
"Shindou and Isumi didn't and still don't."
Waya snorted. "Shindou can't even turn on a computer without step-by-step instructions, and Isumi isn't much better."
"We're not meaning to keep you if you're in a rush, Ochi," said Isumi, managing to sound apologetic toward Ochi while scowling at Waya. "We just wanted to congratulate you on your game. We're heading off to dinner now."
And that was the end of that pleasant moment of camaraderie... unless, maybe...? "May I come along?"
The group blinked at him in surprise. "Of course," answered Isumi, smiling. "We'd have asked; you just never seemed interested before."
Ochi could have said something like, ‘Well, I’m starting to realise that opponents and rivals can just as easily be teammates and friends,’ but that was just lame. “That’s because I never was,” he said, and left it at that.