The first time they played changed Akira's life. Here was a opponent he'd been waiting seemingly for all his life – someone his age who could not just challenge him but utterly beat him. Finally someone to push him, someone he needed to catch up to, someone who was ahead of him but his age, someone whom he could...
"Guess that's it then, huh," Shindo said, shrugged his shoulders, and walked out with a yawn.
Later, Akira examined their game in private. Later he came to the conclusion that Shindo hadn't ever been playing seriously. It was Shidou-Go. Shindo had played a teaching game. And he'd been bored.
Akira chased after him. What else could he do? Shindo was something different, something strange, something exhilarating and though already then there was a nervous quiver in Akira's belly when he thought about Shindo, he couldn't just let him walk out his life after he'd completely upturned it.
He wondered then if that was what other kids had felt when they played him – if this was why they always looked so nervous, so determined. Was this what he inspired in others?
He tracked Shindo down to a children's Go tournament and dragged him back for another game – and maybe in a way he deserves what he got. He'd been arrogant then, thinking to find out Shindo's true strength, thinking he hadn't played his all against the other boy – thinking he'd have a chance, if he only played his all. He'd prove Shindo he was good, that he was truly a skilled player and then...
It was a slaughter. Shindo ran him through without mercy and as Akira lay gasping, his stones broken and his formations shattered, Shindo sighed.
"We done now?" he asked.
"Y-yes. I forfeit –" Akira breathed – sobbed – and met his opponents eyes and they were...
"Finally," Shindo said and got up. "Move it," he said to the crowd of the Go salon patrons around them and they skittered away like nervous mice, making way for the irritated predator among them. And then Shindo was gone, again – leaving in his wake a disaster zone he'd caused only by passing through.
It was the first time Akira thought Shindo as a monster. A giant creature from old monster movie, that destroyed a city just by walking into it. That was what it felt like to sit there, in the shattered remains of his confidence. Akira lay crushed in the footprint Shindo had left on his life, and it was like a ravine.
It took him years before he managed to climb out of it.
Several days later, his father came home and locked himself in the study for several hours. That night he was quiet in dinner and when Akira asked for a game, his father stared at him long and thoughtful before refusing and returning to the study.
That was the day his father played against Shindo Hikaru for the first time.
"He came to the salon, looking for you maybe," Ogata told Akira later. "When one of the patrons recognised him, your father challenged him to a game."
Akira winced. He hadn't made a good showing of himself since Shindo and his parents had noticed – and everyone at the salon knew too, of course, wouldn't stop talking about it. They felt even sorry for him.
"Your father is very protective of you, in his own way," Ogata commented, noticing his expression. Mercifully though, he didn't say anything else about that. "They played, the game lasted almost two hours. It was..."
Akira could almost imagine it, his father across the goban and Shindo on the other side, looking bored, hiding his talons and fangs in his disinterest. Akira had done nothing but analysed his games with Shindo since they happened and he knew – he knew how strong Shindo was. But surely not that strong.
"What was it like?" Akira asked.
"Like watching a title match," Ogata admitted and lit a cigarette. His hands shook a little, Akira was relieved to find. "Only worse."
"... Worse?" Akira asked nervously.
"Yes. Your father won. But..." Ogata trailed away and was quiet for while, breathing in smoke. "I think he only won because Shindo didn't know about the komi rule. Your father had to explain it to him afterwards. Without it... Shindo would have won."
Akira's breath hitched at that and he – he wasn't even sure what he was supposed to think about it. He thought about the games, the style Shindo played, the old strategies he used. He'd wondered about it, but it hadn't crossed his mind that he might be playing with old rules too
"It was an even game," Akira then realised. "Shindo played father in a even game and only lost because he didn't know about the komi rule?"
Ogata met his eyes. "You found quite the monster, Akira-kun."
Akira stared at him and thought of Shindo holding his stones delicately between thumb and forefinger like a beginner...
...or like something very big and very strong holding something small, trying not to destroy it by accident.
It was a while before Akira saw Shindo again, though he was never far from his thoughts. Shindo didn't come back to the salon, and Akira wondered if it was maybe a good thing. He wasn't sure how well it would have handled another encounter with the monster. How well he or his father would have handled it.
It might be better for everyone if Shindo never showed up again.
And then there he was, in the middle of Akira's private tour of his new school, playing Go against amateurs. And, judging by the wide eyed look of his opponent, he was making quick and brutal work of it.
Like drawn by some strange, alien force of gravity, Akira went to look. And it was just as terrible as he thought it was.
Shindo stared listlessly at the game, leaning his chin on his palm, and yawned. Akira probably wasn't the only one who imagined a forked tongue and rows of sharp fangs – because that was the moment when Shindo's opponent finally, mercifully, resigned.
When Shindo looked up, scenting for new prey, it took effort to not jump. "Oh, it's just you," Shindo then said, what little interest he'd shown quickly waning as he stood and then just left. He was in the middle of a tournament, which Akira realised his team actually won a little later, and he just left.
"Toya?" someone asked and Akira looked up to see an older boy in the same uniform Shindo had worn. "You know Shindo?"
"A... passing acquaintance really," Akira admitted and looked at the boy. "Do I know you?"
"Tch!" the boy answered. "The same way Shindo knows you, I bet," he said and looked to where his team-mate went. "Scary guy, isn't he?"
"That's... one word for it."
The red head barked a laugh. "You better watch yourself," he said. "Because when that guy decides he might just as well become a pro, he's going to eat you all alive."
Akira almost joins his new schools Go club. The teacher managing it asks him to and the principal strongly suggests him joining would be good for morale. But he doesn't.
"You know about Shindo Hikaru," Yun-sensei says. "No one in the club us a match for him. You could –"
"I've played him twice and lost both times. He played my father in a even game and almost won," Akira answered. "Trust me when I say, I really couldn't."
The teacher stares at him, speechless.
"When Shindo comes after me, I'll face him," Akira said, more to himself than to the man. "But I'm not stupid enough to go after him."
If it had been anyone other than Shindo Hikaru, Akira thought the skill would have been fine. It would have been awe-inspiring – and just inspiring in general. It would have been a goal to reach for. He even might've chased after it.
But it was Shindo.
It was Shindo's bored slouch and disinterested expression and his wide, rude yawns full of teeth.
It was the aura he had that was the worst thing about him, Akira thought. Shindo didn't care. It didn't matter to him. It didn't shake him or change him or even make him think. He wasn't invested enough to even be disappointed by weak opponents!
And Akira wasn't sure he could sit across that goban again, playing another life changing game and know how utterly insignificant it would be in his opponent's eyes.
Shindo didn't enter the pro exam and Akira was ashamed of how relieved he was.
But that didn't mean he managed to avoid thinking about him.
That summer a beast begun stirring online. Akira heard mutters about it during the preliminaries and then came face to face with it during an amateur Go event he'd been invited to. He didn't take part in the tournament itself, of course not, but thought it would be fun just to have a look.
And then there were whispers about someone called Sai.
"Sai?" Ogata, one of the pros in charge of the event, asked with interest.
"He's a Japanese Netgo player – the strongest player on the site," the Chinese contestant explained. "Many of us were hoping he might take part in the tournament, seeing as he doesn't seem to be a pro."
"I was just talking about it," an insei who'd came in with Morishita-ninth-dan said. "I think it might be a kid – he's only been playing this summer, during the break, and he only plays during daytime and always around the same amount, and never after seven pm – like someone with a curfew!"
Akira stared at him. Beside him, Ogata hummed. "A strong kid huh," the blond man murmured and glanced at Akira. Akira grit his teeth and didn't say anything.
The insei went and got a laptop and Akira ended up being pushed in front of the thing – by Ogata probably. Begrudgingly Akira logged into his rarely used account and then as everyone stared he checked the online players and by some evil quirk of fortune... Sai's name was on the list.
And then he challenged Akira.
And Akira thought, if it's Shindo... if it's Shindo, I don't want to play this game here. But if it's Shindo and he's finally coming after me...
Unbidden the mental image of monster looming over him came to his head and he imagined himself stomped again. And Akira was just standing there, defenceless.
I'm not going down without fight. You're going to have to work for it. You won't just swallow me in a single bite this time. I'm going to make you chew.
Akira hit accept.
It ended up disrupting the event completely. A crowd of people gathered around the computer, until finally Ogata had the whole thing moved to another room – to an actual stage. A display goban was brought in and in the peripheral edge of awareness Akira could sense the insei checking the game over his shoulder for the hands played, before relaying the information on. The game was then replayed on the display goban, while Ogata and Morishita commented on it.
Akira should have cared – this wasn't how a future pro should conduct himself. But it was Shindo and Akira was face to face with a monster again and fighting for his life. He didn't care.
It was Shindo and Akira forced him to chew. And chew he did. He chewed Akira into bits.
"You know that guy," the insei, Waya, said later, in a lunch break during the pro exam. "Sai I mean. You know him in real life."
It had been a while since the amateur tournament, which would probably go down in history as the most dramatically disrupted amateur tournament of the decade. Only comfort Akira had in the whole debacle was that the participants had apparently enjoyed the show – he'd gotten a lot of compliments later on.
The whole thing had even gotten an article in Go Weekly, much to his embarrassment. It had been mostly about the new age of Go and how Internet was changing things and so on – but Akira himself had featured too. There was even a picture of him sitting at the laptop, playing Sai.
"What's he like?" Waya asked. "And why isn't he a pro?"
"He's a...." Akira hesitated. "He's different. And I suppose he isn't a pro because he doesn't want to be."
Ogata had put it the best, really. "He's found himself a horde of easy prey. He'll glut himself on Netgo until they stop satisfying him."
And then Shindo might go after more satisfying fare. If he cared to. Akira had no idea if he would though.
Sometimes he wasn't sure if Shindo even wanted to play Go.
"Could you introduce me to him?" Waya asked excitedly.
Akira looked at him. It would be like a human sacrifice, he mused, and shook his head.
"Why not?" Waya demanded.
"When he finally comes here, you'll be glad I didn't," Akira answered grimly and said nothing more about it.
"Ogata tells me Shindo Hikaru playing Go online now," his father commented later on.
Akira swallowed, hesitated and then admitted, "Yes, under the name Sai. He... was the one I played at the event."
"Hmm, I thought as much," Toya Koyo answered thoughtfully. "Will you help me set up an Netgo account, son?"
The first Toya Koyo vs. Sai game came out of nowhere and was widely and wildly commented on. Toya Koyo lost by two and half moku. Internet all but lost its mind.
The second Toya Koyo vs. Sai game happened exactly week after the first and at the exact same time. It gathered a twice as big audience and even got a mention on the Go Weekly. Toya Koyo won by half moku. The online reviews were numerous.
After that, it became a weekly, settled thing. A regular clash of titans, with Sai and Toya Koyo vying for victory over each other. Sometimes Sai won, sometimes Toya-Meijin grabbed a lead. The games were always close and never anything short of breathtaking.
Akira watched them from the side, feeling impossibly small.
"Is he going to become a pro?" Ogata asked.
Akira's father considered it for a moment and then said. "Its hard to say. If it was just about his Go, I'd say he'd undoubtedly become a pro."
"But it isn't, " Ogata agreed.
Akira made a face. The newly minted Go professional in him wanted Shindo to become pro, if not for any other reason, then so that they could pin a rank on him and force some order to his madness. Akira himself though...
"It could be good for him," Ogata commented.
"Or it could be bad. In either case, it's up to Shindo himself and no one else."
Akira said nothing.
Shindo Hikaru didn't join the pro exam that year either. He settled in Netgo instead, becoming a legendary figure, this mythical player, the strongest amateur.
They called Sai "the Saint of NetGo". Akira had some mixed feelings about that.
He'd heard that Netgo might've actually hired Sai. The site was going through some changes and there were rumours of online tournaments being introduced, with titles like Net Honinbo and Net Meijin up for grabs. Everyone knew who'd grab them if they were introduced, though.
Akira didn't really pay it much attention, not beyond what he heard from his father.
"Do you ever chat online? " he asked once out of some morbid curiosity.
"Not often," his father answered. "He doesn't seem to have much to say."
Mostly Akira concentrated onto his career. Shindo could do whatever he damn well pleased, he'd decided – in the meanwhile Akira was going to do his job and he was going to do it well.
Shindo didn't become a pro the year after that one either. Or the one after that.
Akira kind of wished he could just forget about him already. But even as he rouse in ranks, fourth-dan, fifth-dan, sixth... the monster always loomed somewhere behind him, dark and terrible and ready to stomp him under his heel again.
He looked in on his father's games sometimes. Shindo certainly had not gotten weaker over the years. And neither had his father, Akira thought when his father finally wrestled the title of Honinbo from Kuwabara's tight grip.
Akira watched the titans – the dragons really – play and wondered when was he going to outgrow the monster of his childhood.
And then, suddenly, there was Shindo.
It happened so normally and in such a ordinary place too. Akira had been dragged out on some post event drinks, and there was Shindo, lounging by the counter in shorts and a tank top, pint of beer next to him and a smart phone in front of him.
He was playing Go on it.
And it was... so different from what he'd imagined. Shindo had remained a twelve year old in his mind, but here he was, and time had passed for him too. He too had grown up into adulthood and Akira wondered how weirdly bitter he was about that.
Shindo had been a teenager somewhere along the way, and Akira hadn't seen it.
Akira wasn't sure what made him do it. Over ten years of frustration and four drinks under his belt maybe. Or maybe the fact that Waya caught him staring, put together two and two and got twenty two, and decided to shove him at Shindo.
In either case, it sent him right at the man.
"What the hell?" Shindo asked, tugging the phone protectively closer as he looked up. Then he stared and, and...
Akira knew how Shindo Hikaru was supposed to look. Aloof and disinterested and bored, yawning with a maw full of fangs – well perhaps not that but still. Shindo Hikaru was supposed to look unaffected and cold and, and... and not like this.
His hair was shorter, wilder, he had a hint of scruffy beard and he was tanned, practically bronzed. He looked like he worked out. He looked... warm.
"I've been scared of you for ten years, and I don't even know anything about you," Akira admitted, practically blurting it out, while Shindo raked his eyes up and down along Akira's face, his long hair, his neat suit.
"Holy shit," Shindo answered, his eyes widening. "Toya?"
Akira swallowed and suddenly Shindo was grinning at him and oh god, that was so much worse than the yawns.
"Lemme buy you a drink?" Shindo asked.
... does that mean I'm the virgin sacrifice? Akira wondered faintly and sat beside his dragon.