Sai awakens to the sound of a boy's voice, complaining about the stains. It hits him deep, in the centre of his being, and immediately he is reaching out, not just towards the voice but towards the boy's revelation. It is a mostly conscious move, but something is drawing him out, out from the slumber that eats years away around him and leaves him disoriented and confused every time anything nudges him. It is the same power pulling him out; the one that had pulled him out to see and meet and eventually love one Kuwabara Torajiro.
But even though he can see the boy now – oh, he's so young, and bright, with hair like the sun, is he not from Japan? – he cannot reach. He hears the boy and feels his hand – warmth and life, tingling at the edges of his existence… but even though he can experience all of that, the borders of the Goban contain him in ways they didn't when he met Torajiro, and so when the boy wipes away the dust from the surface, Sai can do nothing but watch.
There is someone there too, wherever the Goban is – a young girl, judging by her voice, but Sai cannot hear the words, not like he can hear every word of complaint about the stains not going away. None of her words reach Sai, except for one: Hikaru – the boy's name, judging by his reaction.
"Those stains are that of my soul," Sai whispers to the boy. "Very few can see them, none as strongly as you."
But the boy doesn't hear him, and neither does the girl. And so he can do nothing as the boy and the girl fight over the stains which Hikaru can see, but the girl cannot. Eventually the girl leaves – where, Sai has no way of telling – leaving him, the Goban, alone with Hikaru.
"Well, whatever," he hears the boy say and the Goban jerks ever so slightly as the wooden bowls of Go-ke containing the stones are placed on top of the grid. As Sai marvels at that – at the simple, perfect agony of having a full set of Goban and stones so near him and being unable to reach out – another sensation takes over. For a moment it feels as if he is floating and weightless, but then it comes to him that the Goban is being lifted and that despite being young and small, Hikaru is holding it in his arms.
He intends to take the Goban with him.
"Thank you for not leaving me," Sai whispers to him, smiling and basking in the warmth of being held, even if Hikaru has no idea what he is truly holding. But if the Goban will be used once more, if Sai can watch games develop from below them, he will be content. It has been so long since he has heard the clicking of the stones – he misses it terribly.
"Oh," he sighs, as he is moved along with his Kayahousing, and something patters on to the surface of the Goban. "Is this rain?"
"Oh, damn it," Hikaru says, and the rain vanishes as he turns and returns into the cover of the building where the Goban had been kept. "Shouldn't let the wood get wet, might be damaged," the spirit hears the boy say and then he is lowered and left again on the Floor – no, the ground, it feels different from before. Sai very nearly panics at the sudden absence of feeling, as all the sensations of the world vanish along with Hikaru's touch – but it is only temporary. Hikaru returns soon and covers the Goban and the Go-ke with something and when he lifts the Goban to carry it again, the rain doesn't reach Sai's surface.
"Pity, but he is right," he murmurs, longing for the sensation of rain – it has been so long – but not wanting the Goban to be damaged in any way. "Thank you for your consideration, Hikaru."
Then he is being carried for a small, sweet eternity, with the train of rain pattering down on the material covering the Goban, and the warmth of Hikaru's arms around it – around him. Sai lets himself be lulled away by the sensations and the sounds – Hikaru's heartbeat, his footsteps, the rain, something nearby which sounds unlike anything he has ever heard…
"I think the store was there," he then hears Hikaru saying. "Yeah, alright. Time to sell this thing."
Sai freezes in spirit, stills in a way only someone beyond life could. Hikaru can't be… but… Hikaru can see the stains; Sai can feel him, hear him! He can't be giving the Goban away. "I have only just awakened!" he cries towards the unhearing boy. "I am aware again, I am no longer stagnant – you cannot leave me!"
But Hikaru doesn't hear, doesn't feel his desperation. While Sai rages against the edges of the Goban weakly, desperately, time passes in footsteps and raindrops, until there is a ringing noise and voices. The Goban is lowered, set on a table, and cold hands touch it, remove the Go-ke, examine the Goban, determining its value.
"You can see a part of me!" Sai yells desperately towards Hikaru – whose warmth already seems far away, now that his hands are no longer touching the wood. "Please! You cannot leave me! Please!"
"Is that good?" Hikaru asks, indifferent and distant, like through a great distance – but he is speaking to the merchant he is selling the Goban to. Then, after a little while; "Right. Well, anyway old man, just tell me how much and…"
Sai sobs, the sort of weak, wrecking sound that muffles out the world, the sort he hasn't experienced since the more troublesome years of his life. But the purchase is made, money is exchanged, and then Hikaru's warmth and light are receding, fading.
"Please, do not leave me," Sai begs at his retreating warmth. "No one might ever again see the stains, no one might ever again see me!" and then, as Hikaru's being vanishes from the limited field of his awareness, he cries, "I'm scared," into the unforgiving void around him, and curls into himself to weep.
Sai is falling asleep again, the world around him fading bit by bit. He is aware that the Goban is being tenderly cleaned and set on display, he feels some people watching but none of them feel bright – and he is aware how, a couple of days after Hikaru left him, the Goban was bought.
"No, please. I do not want to go with you," Sai says to whoever it is who buys the Goban – he can't feel them or see them, can't tell their gender or face, only the hollow feeling of being in the wrong hands, in the possession of someone so impossibly far away that they might as well have been in China, rather than right next to the Goban. "Please do not play, please, please…" it is torture, to be played upon by people he cannot feel – unable to see the games or feel the stones, only being used. And knowing that there is a game just there, just above him, only he can't see it, can't perceive it…
"Please, no. No, no, no," he whispers over and over again – and no one lays a single stone on the Goban, or so much as touches him even after he has been brought out of the shop. Sai knows it is his sadness seeping through the rich Kaya wood of the Goban, seeping into the people touching the board and making them hesitate – making them unwilling to play. It is a horrible, horrible thing to do, to stop someone from playing Go, to make them rethink their desire to do so, but he couldn't… he cannot stand it.
Some days later, the Goban is returned to the store, like it had been many, many times before, before the long, silent existence in the place where Hikaru awoke him. He has seen many such places since Torajiro, and the Goban has passed through many hands, both with him awake and then the much easier times when he slumbered.
Sai is still awake though, and not yet lulled deep enough into the lethargy of death so as to be unaware, or willing to endure such torture as being possessed and played upon, and so, he keeps the people away with his grief and pain, makes them flinch back and turn to other merchandise. Days pass by, and no one buys him.
Then, out of nowhere, there is light again. Sai can't believe it, can hardly trust his senses when Hikaru is suddenly there, radiating living warmth like the sun taken human shape.
"Alright, alright!" the boy says while Sai reaches for his warmth eagerly, feeling a little less stagnant once more, a little more alive. "I'm taking it, geez, calm down gramps."
There is talking, and even if Sai can only hear Hikaru's side of it and whenever Hikaru's name is mentioned, he can understand the trail of events. The Goban was never Hikaru's to sell – he did so without the permission of the Goban's true owner, who is Hikaru's grandparent. Now said grandparent is making Hikaru undo what he had done, and buy the Goban back.
"Thank you, whoever you are, thank you," Sai says to the unknown individual who, unknowingly, has saved him from another lifetime of stillness and misery. Hikaru is holding him again and he basks in it greedily, as sensation returns and he can once more see, a little, and feel.
He is carried out again, and into what he can only assume is a carriage because there is motion. Hikaru is no longer touching him, but he is near and Sai can still feel him, and hear him when he asks, "What?" incredulously. Soon Hikaru is adding in indignant tones, "No way, no way in hell gramps!"
There is talking, and Sai listens to as much of it as he can. "What, no, that's – no way, gramps, come on! Okay, it was wrong, but you ought to blame dad, he cut my allowance and – no, what? No way!" Hikaru cries and then again, "No, no way! That’s a cruel and unusual punishment!" and finally, "To hell with respecting – I'm not learning Go!" followed shortly by, "And not with that Goban, it's dirty – no, what, gramps? Gramps, come on!"
Sai laughs, joyous, as he realises what is going on. Hikaru's grandparent is intending to punish the boy by forcing him to understand and, perhaps, respect the very thing he so mistreated with his intention of a sale – Hikaru does not know Go, but it seems he will, soon. "I approve," the spirit says. "Yes, I approve very much." Especially if Hikaru is to learn on his Goban – that way Sai can watch the games. Yes, he approves Hikaru's grandparent's plan indeed.
Hikaru carries him out of the carriage and up somewhere, while distantly people speak in incoherent voices. "Gently!" Sai admonishes the unhearing youth when Hikaru drops the Goban too hard, jarring it throughout. But in the end the Goban settles and the Go-ke are placed on top of it, and the set is complete and perfect once more.
The Go-ke are removed soon after, however, but Sai can still feel them as they are placed onto the floor beside the Goban, one at each side.
"I don't wanna," Hikaru complains, but Sai can feel him, sitting down beside him, and then there is someone else there, across from Hikaru, on the other side, enclosing the Goban – and Sai – between two players.
Three black stones are then placed, one by one, on the grid with one empty space between them – and then a white stone is placed between them. Sai stares up at them with wide eyed surprise, then delight. "Ah, Atari!" Sai says, rejoicing and reaching towards them. They seem gigantic above him, so far above him, impossibly far away – like distant stars.
"Here, right?" he hears Hikaru's voice, before the boy places the fifth hand, a black stone, and takes the white. With a rush of happiness, Sai watches how the shape of the stones is changed, a set of white set to link with the black, to create a Ko situation. Hikaru's grandparent is true to his word, it seems, and is already teaching the boy, moving from Ko to more difficult Atari situations, then to the arrangement of Eyes, of Fake Eyes, and so forth. Sai sits back, sitting in the endless space inside the Goban, watching the sky of the nineteen by nineteen grid above him change and shift as the problems change, and Hikaru learns.
Sai soon knows why Hikaru is the one to find him and to see the stains, and not someone who already knows Go. The boy does not take long to learn to delight in Go, and he learns fast – a mere week or so into being taught by his grandparent, and Hikaru is already past the basics and actually playing the game, with a full set of nine handicap stones against said grandparent, but playing.
It has really been so long, so very long. As much as Sai longs to play himself, to be able to dictate the game rather than to merely watch it, to be able to see it after so long is beautiful. Hikaru's grandparent is good as well, skilled and sly and experienced, playing hands Sai has never seen and showing techniques he has not even heard of, but which he enjoys immensely. And of course, having the perfect observation point to watch Hikaru's Go develop game by game… it is a rare pleasure for him, and he delights in it.
But oh, if only he could play too. There are so many games to be played! Sai knows the times are different, can sense it around him in the way Hikaru is, and the way his room is arranged – more and more of the world is visible to him, and he sees things he does not understand, but which seem commonplace – a box in which glowing images move, another which plays strange music and distant voices… What he would not give to have a closer look, not just at the world, but at Go. Hikaru's grandparent – grandfather, Sai is fairly certain – is a great player and so there must be others, people he once played against, and then people those people had played in return. Sai wants to play them all and if not… he wants to know of them, see their Go, see how things have changed.
"I already know they have, of course," he muses. He has heard it from Hikaru and seen it in the games he and his grandfather played. At first he had thought that the games were horribly uneven somehow, something was strange… but then he had realised that the Komi which Hikaru had once mentioned and his grandfather had explained in tones Sai hadn't been able to hear, must have been it. An additional rule has been added to the game when he was sleeping, one compensating for the advance of the first move by black – and now black has to gain more territory than white to win. "Five moku. No, five and half," Sai whispers and wonders about how many ways it changes the game – how different it is now for black, and for white?
He wants to play so much it hurts… but he will take what he can, and he is grateful for the opportunity to see and hear and bask in Hikaru's shining presence. He feels so little and insignificant in return – a shadow hiding away in the corner – but… Hikaru's light is giving him strength. That is enough.
Time passes and even though Hikaru's grandfather stops coming so often, Hikaru doesn't stop playing. He returns to the Goban alone, in bursts and fits, wielding the stones alone and playing out theories and thoughts, spreading his musings around the board. Some of them are foolish, often they are silly and would've been easily counteracted by a more skilled player. Hikaru is full of holes and weaknesses; his Go is lacking its true definition, but…
And then it happens. Hikaru's warm fingers hesitate, and the light flickers. Sai watches curiously how the stones vanish from his starry sky and then another idea is spread out for him to observe, hand by hand. It is something new, something different – powered by a notion of something Hikaru himself cannot understand. But it is interesting, wild and free and reaching out, shining almost as brightly as Hikaru's being is.
It is an epiphany. About Go, about Hikaru himself, about the games he has been playing and the ideas he has been developing and discarding – it runs through the whole board and makes the stones electric. As Sai watches, amazed, Hikaru crashes through and far beyond the limitations of his current ability and awakens.
And the unspoken and unseen border between them, the barrier that made Sai mute and Hikaru unfeeling, breaks. For a moment Sai thinks; this will be like before, and he rejoices. He will speak with Hikaru and once more he will be able to play – and if not, then he can follow Hikaru and watch him play and grow and become beautiful. It will be like it was with Torajiro.
But it isn't. Because as the barrier breaks between the outside world and Sai, it breaks between the outside world and Hikaru as well – and then --
There is Hikaru and Sai knows him. Knows why he stole the Goban – not because of money, he didn't really need it for anything important, but he hated that his worth was measured just by his school records and that getting bad ones meant that he was worth less; and stealing and selling the Goban worked too: someone noticed, his grandfather noticed, and then he didn't leave until Hikaru was sick of the attention and realising that no, of course not, his worth had never been in money or school grades.
And then there is Sai and he can feel Hikaru there too, in him, watching him get married at the age of twelve and lose his wife at the age of sixteen and become a Go teacher at the age of nineteen. Hikaru is there when he discovered Go and learned of his own ability and how he had expanded it as far as it could, and he sees how Sai lived, played, loved Go, and died with his final thoughts dedicated to the games he wished to play and never could.
And Sai knows all of Hikaru's friends and how he doesn't actually like soccer that much because he doesn't like relying on someone else's skills, but he is good at it because he runs fast and can kick precisely. Sai sees how intelligent Hikaru is – he could be getting all those grades, and more, easily, but it doesn’t feel worth it, never had, because his mother would frown and look at him like that and shake her head with a smile regardless of what he brings home, and his father only cares when he is doing poorly, so it isn't worth the effort.
And Hikaru knows how Sai has never loved people more than as friends and how hard he avoided getting married again, even while all his friends and acquaintances took wives, second wives, third wives. How he grew out his hair, and tied it back with a delicate paper tie in the latest fashion; how he let people know what he felt, how he was, until no one minded when he met women without screens in between – because truly, he saw no difference between a man and a woman. And he never loved either more than he loved Go; but he had loved some, he’dloved Torajiro for existing and mourned him after he died and Sai loved Hikaru too, now, for the same reason.
And there is so much Go in between them. His old skills, born and honed through two lifetimes, matured in the ages and in the ages in-between; Hikaru's bright new abilities, still growing, but so fast and already showing the signs of the great player he is to become. There are games Sai played, hundreds of them, layered one on top of the other in an endless display of pattern after pattern, and there are Hikaru's racing thoughts and ideas, mingling into the seams in between. All wrapped in their private delight in Go, in having discovered it, in understanding it, and in being able to learn more of it.
Before Sai realises it, he knows Hikaru better than he has ever known anyone – and Hikaru knows things of him he has never spoken aloud, never allowed himself the time to wonder about. They are together, somewhere in the back of Hikaru's mind, in the drumming of his heart, together, and only a little apart.
"Hello, Hikaru," Sai whispers almost shyly, because this is new and beautiful and strong and fragile and he doesn't dare to disturb the balance.
"Hi, Sai," Hikaru answers, wide eyed in the private space of their combined Go, and there is nothing more they need to say.
When things even out, and reality reaffirms itself around Hikaru, they separate – but only a little. Hikaru sits up, stands still for a moment, making sure he is steady, and then he walks away from the Goban, out through the door of his bedroom, down the stairs of the two story home, to the hall, and finally out of the house.
And Sai is with him every step of the way.
They are silent for now, getting used to each other. After such a joining, Sai cannot think of separation with anything but the deepest of pains, and he thinks Hikaru shares that thought for the boy avoids thinking it with all he can. Instead, Hikaru walks, and Sai looks out through his eyes, experiences the gravity and wind and temperature through Hikaru's skin, hears through his ears.
He is so happy that it echoes to Hikaru and the boy laughs, joyful and surprised, touching his chest in wonder. The emotion bounces back and forth a bit, and then others get into it. Sai's curiosity is the first – he knows the modern world now, he has seen it through Hikaru's memories, but he wants to see it himself, unopinionated and new to everything. Hikaru lets him, and chuckles at how Sai marvels at the cars and street lamps and enormous advertisement screens that shine even in the daylight – so strange even with Hikaru's knowledge of their feasibility.
They take a bus to central Tokyo, then a train elsewhere, they walk through a garden and over a water way, and watch some people play baseball, they wander into a store and stare at the thousands and thousands of different sorts of merchandise, and they glance at a movie theatre, but don't go in. Despite Hikaru's knowledge, everything is new to Sai and it is new to Hikaru through him and so they are experiencing new things together, with joined wonder and amazement and often quite a bit of amusement.
When they finally calm down – if such a solemn, happy wandering can be called hectic when they have taken every step slowly and deliberately – they are in a quiet street full of restaurants. As wonder turns into contemplation between them, Hikaru walks into a ramen stand and orders a bowl.
'So,' the boy asks in the privacy of their joined mind. 'What are we? I know what you are, what I am, but this thing between us?'
'I do not know,' Sai admits thoughtfully. 'It did not happen like this with me and Torajiro; I was there as a spectre only he could see, not as a part of his being.'
Hikaru hums and thinks – and with surprised delight, Sai realises he can see his mind as it is in motion and follow the words and images as they flash through series of notions into a final, concrete thought. Hikaru thinks of him, what he knows of him – everything – and how damned worrying and terrifying it would be if he didn't suddenly know everything about Sai – how seriously freaky and scary it would be to have another being inside his mind and body. But Hikaru knows Sai, thinks him ridiculously honourable and humble and sensitive, and knows, with the same factual trust as he knows the sun, that Sai would never try to steal his body or life.
And Sai knows Hikaru would hate nothing more than to lose his existence as a person. Hikaru is an individual in every sense of the world – it is in his colourful shirts and comfortable jeans, his expensive sport shoes and his bleached bangs and he wants nothing more than to be himself in every sense of the word. He hates the idea of a school uniform and having to conform to certain hairstyles and being polite and meek. To lose himself in the little things and to be lost in the details of a person is the scariest thing to Hikaru. Because he is more than his family or his grades or even his clothing, he is the sum of his parts – which is mainly why he hates how his parents press him to get good grades, because it feels like the grades are all they want from him, the only value he has to them.
Therefore Sai, another being with a whole different personality and a set of personal values, being inside him and having access to every bit of him, would've scared the boy to death, if not for Sai's own values as a being. In an odd way, it makes Sai love the boy a little more – he’d known that Hikaru is bright and warm and rather forceful before, but to see the nuances of his personality and brightness…
He would've hated to take any part of Hikaru's life. He enjoys it too much the way it is, loud and wild and free, and he doesn't want to change the boy in any way.
'We should play Go,' Sai says and hears an echo before realising that Hikaru has said it at the exact moment he had. They laugh silently together, Hikaru snickering out loud into the ramen, because that is something they share, something that is growing ever brighter between them.
Hikaru eats while Sai enjoys the taste and warmth of the slippery food and how it fills Hikaru's stomach, and soon they leave the ramen stand. Together they look around, wondering where to start, when their eyes land on the sign of a Go-salon – something Hikaru has only learned about recently and Sai has never known – and decide to go inside.
"Welcome!" a young woman greets them at the door and with anticipation they enter the salon, wondering what their combined abilities might bring forth. While Sai enjoys the sound of games, of Go stones clattering and comments being exchanged, Hikaru looks around for an opponent, his eyes landing on a young boy.
Hikaru is brash and rude as is his nature, saying he doesn't want to play geezers and how glad he was that there was a kid there, and while Sai half mourns and half laughs at his antics and lack of manners, the other boy kindly agrees to play them, showing them to the back and even lets them get in without needing to pay.
Toya Akira offers them a handicap, at which Hikaru snorts. "But we're the same age!" he says while Sai muses what a special child it would've been, one he would've needed a handicap against. But the game is imminent and both his and Hikaru's eager attention concentrates onto it, and they accept the black stones without complaint. Together they reach for a stone and… stumble, their hands shaking, fingers reaching for the stones and failing to catch one.
"Wha –" Hikaru asks out loud and looks at his hands, while Sai inside him confusedly does the same – and together they realise. Hikaru is left handed and though he holds stones still somewhat clumsily, it is always the left hand he uses. Sai however is right handed and has always been, even after his death. And the body they now share is confused because Sai is not good with his left and Hikaru is not good with his right. For a moment Sai flails in horror – he didn't expected to cause such a conflict – and Hikaru wonders in equal terror if it would be the same with everything and if he has lost everything from hand writing to kicking the ball.
But there is a game to be played and they settle soon, too determined to let this set back hinder them.
"Okay," Hikaru says and takes one of the stones in his hand, holding it between thumb and forefinger. "I'll be a bit slow maybe, but just bear with me," he tells Toya Akira, and then places the stone.
The game blooms between them, Hikaru wondering and contemplating, reading far ahead and planning, while Sai contemplates moves as they are played, and Toya Akira's hand as it reveals itself, stone by stone. Their thoughts aren't quite unified, but the Go is, and it comes out smooth and clumsy both, a little uneven between Sai's decades of mastery and experience, and Hikaru's lack of both. And beyond the board, Toya Akira proves to be a brilliant child.
'He is good,' Hikaru thinks, taking silent, gleeful pleasure in being able to understand now, to be able to see so far.
'Yes. But he is a child,' Sai thinks, and their game continues, clumsy and masterful both, testing and experimenting both with Toya Akira and with Hikaru, with hands and ideas and experience. It is a very odd sort of Shidou-Go, with Hikaru and Sai testing themselves almost as much as they are testing their opponent. And it is beautiful.
They win, and Toya Akira loses himself in his disbelief, staring at the Goban like he does not even know what it is anymore. Together Sai and Hikaru wonder about the benefits of speaking, of offering suggestions and advice and in the end decide to merely leave – Toya needs a moment to comprehend the game, and neither of them has ever been the sort to pour salt onto anyone's wounds.
"How was it?" Ishikawa asks them at the door, smiling at them.
"Amazing, but I was a bit slow," Hikaru admits. "I think I need a bit more practice before I start playing people."
She chuckles. "Well, if you change your mind, you're always welcome and I'm sure Akira-kun would be happy to teach you," she says and then offers them a leaflet to a children's Go tournament, in case they are interested. Then they leave the salon, feeling rather satisfied with the experiment and thinking about the sort of game their skills have created, and what other games they could play.
'Hikaru,' Sai thinks, happily humming inside him. 'Our Go can be great. Together, we can reach the Hand of God.'
'Yeah. We just might,' the boy agrees; even if the Hand of God is not something he has ever wanted, he likes the idea for Sai's sake and for the sake of their Go.
There is much to learn. Thankfully Hikaru's hands know things Sai doesn't, like how to hold a pen rather than a brush and fold a paper plane, and his legs know how to kick a football and run just at the right speed, the sort he can keep up for hours if he is all that inclined. He also hasn't picked up more than Go from Sai – because for all the knowledge of Sai he has, it doesn't make any of it his knowledge. Tests in the music classroom prove it – Hikaru's fingers don't know the strings of the biwa nor can they play it like Sai once had, and he drops the sho when he tries to blow out a note.
"I think Go is the only thing we share," Hikaru mutters, privately a little relieved but also sad for Sai.
'It is alright. There is so much music in this time, I do not need to make my own,' Sai answers, and they move on without worries.
But their Go is as untested and unlearned as the rest, because it doesn't come out like Sai's old Go, nor does it come out like Hikaru's young Go, but as an odd, unbalanced mixture of both – beautiful in its own right, and they make no mistakes, not with the experience Sai has and the intuitive grasp of the board which Sai knows Hikaru will one day possess much better than he ever had. But it is strange and wavering, like a spinning top on the break of either falling, or spinning forever more.
'Let's go to the Go tournament and see more,' Sai urges Hikaru and they go. The tournament delights Sai and amazes Hikaru and is new to them both – neither knows a thing of the competitive side of Go in this era, except for the fact that Hikaru's grandfather Heiachi, had won some tournament way back when. To see so many children, all playing so seriously, so many adults watching and wandering about the event… it is wonderful.
They are still there, marvelling and wondering about what Go is like in this modern world, when Toya Akira finds them. He has been running – chasing, Sai thinks – and is out of breath when he demands from Hikaru another game. And then there are other people – a man in a white suit and another in a montsuki who Toya Akira calls father, and some others, watching.
"You beat Toya Akira?" the man in the white suit asks, and Hikaru and Sai squirm between Hikaru's embarrassment and Sai's sheepishness, at being caught, at having played such a clumsy game, at knowing that their Go is still unbalanced and wavering. They barely manage to come up with an excuse or explanation before they are being rushed into a back room, where the men – Toya Koyo and Ogata Seiji – watch and Toya Akira demands that they Nigiri.
Hikaru sighs. 'I guess this is the price we pay, huh?' he asks Sai.
"For all our faults, we are strong. Strength is always sought after,' Sai agrees, and clumsily Hikaru picks up a stone. Toya Akira gets the black stones leaving Hikaru and Sai with the white ones, and they play.
It is a little less clumsy now, but still nothing like Sai's original, level strength – the hint of new and young still makes them waver and makes the game seem like a patchwork of great and lacking. But they brave through it and when Toya shows his fangs as a young genius, Hikaru and Sai unsheathe the true edge of their ability. And while the men watch, silent and contemplating, they duck and weave across the Goban, and slice their opponent in half.
'In his place I'd hate it if anyone went easy on me,' Hikaru sighs as the final blow is laid, and Toya stumbles. It is not quite a justification for their combined brutality in the game, only a statement.
'As would I. He will learn from this,' Sai agrees, and Toya Akira forfeits the game with a quivering voice and shuddering shoulders.
But there are still Toya Koyo and Ogata Seiji there, both staring at Hikaru, at the game, at Akira, with calculations and questions in their eyes.
"I want to see your ability," Toya Koyo says, grave as he lays a hand across his son's shaking shoulders, facing Hikaru because Akira cannot bring himself to do it.
Hikaru wants to decline, but Sai cries for the game almost as eagerly as he shies away from it. He knows of Toya Koyo from Hikaru's memories, from Heiachi's mutterings – Toya Meijin, known for his pursuit of the Hand of God, a worthy opponent – but… their Go is in shambles and at points it confuses them as much as it confused Akira – and with such an ungainly hand, against such an opponent… do they have a chance of winning? Can they be their best, can they show their best?
Hikaru makes the decision for Sai, and for all the desire he has for the game, Sai sees its justification. "No," Hikaru says and stands up. "I won't play you until I think I can win."
"Go is not always about winning," Toyo Koyo says. "It can be about learning."
"Against someone like you I could only play to win," Hikaru shrugs. "Besides, I would hate to be anything other than my best when I play game like that."
Ogata Seiji looks like he would like to object and Toya Akira makes the effort to look at Hikaru in disbelief, but Toya Koyo understands and nods. Hikaru nods in return, bows and retreats, and together he and Sai plan on playing and playing and playing until they know what their hand is, how it works, and how strong they truly are.
'I think we need to ask grandpa for a bit of help,' Hikaru thought. 'About places to go and things to do, he'll know more than I do.'
'Yes,' Sai agrees. 'Let's do that.'
And they do. Heiachi is amused and pleased both when Hikaru goes to him and asks for answers to all the questions they have – about the professional Go players and amateur tournaments for the young and for the adults, and of course where they can learn. There are many, many Go-salons in Tokyo, and many events they can go to, many tournaments if they want to try them – though Heiachi doesn't think they have the ability yet, he is pleased that Hikaru has the curiosity. The greatest thing Heiachi leaves Hikaru and Sai with is the knowledge of NetGo – something he himself learned to play against an old opponent who now lives in Sapporo and whom he cannot see as regularly as he wants to.
'This is it!' Hikaru rejoices after suffering through a long and slow explanation about how NetGo works. 'With this we can play as much as we want.'
'It seems a bit strange,' Sai says back, considering. He knows what computers are, roughly how they work – Hikaru is no expert either, but he knows the abilities of technology and that is enough – and though he can appreciate the power of such machines, it is still… strange. Go, to him, is a game on a wooden board, played with physical stones, and something so… ethereal as a digital Goban with its virtual game and virtual stones seems odd.
But he is definitely not against trying, and so they try, visiting a net café that is close to where Hikaru lives. They log in as sai and then they play – and Sai finds he quickly grows accustomed to the board because the game is the same, and Hikaru learns it so quickly that Sai is dragged along with him to understanding by his proficiency. And there are so many things to learn, so many opponents to play, that once they start, there is no stopping.
They play and play and play, and bit by bit their Go begins to even out as Hikaru internalises Sai's experience, and Sai embraces Hikaru's youth and eagerness – together they become something new, with Sai's age old Go and Hikaru's newness. They are old and they are young and their Go becomes that too, until it is strong and baffling and gorgeous the way only Go can be – with so many things known by Sai, and so many things to be discovered by Hikaru.
To realise how much room for improvement there still is in his abilities amazes Sai to no end. It is like the addition of Hikaru and his inexperience is shining light onto the fact that Sai has truly grown stagnant. He is strong, even by modern standards they are simply unbeatable, but everything is still so open. There is so much more to learn! If Sai had ever thought he was at the peak of his ability, Hikaru certainly proved him wrong.
'Stop it,' Hikaru says, squirming a bit as Sai turns all his joy and admiration and love at the boy, and surrounded in contentment at having found each other, they play some more.
When Toya Akira finds them again, it is due to Hikaru's brash attitude. An incident at a school festival where Hikaru went to check out what sorts of clubs and extracurricular activities his future junior high would have leads them to be taking part illegally in a minor tournament – the Go-clubs of junior highs playing in team matches against each other. As embarrassed and awkward as Hikaru is, he and Sai both enjoy the idea too much to shy away from the chance, so they don the uniform jacket Tsutsui had grown out of, and they make their way to Kaio.
Even though the games they play there are nothing impressive, it still makes Sai happy to see children playing Go, and Hikaru enjoys the experience in other ways – in getting to test their Go, in learning more about the way people play now, in being a part of a team that doesn't rely on each other's speed or durability, but their intelligence – because he knows Tsutsui and Kaga are both intelligent and good players, and he knows he can trust them to hold out on their own. Especially since aside from winning his own games, there is nothing he is expected to do for them.
Hikaru has always been bad at being relied upon – and truly, Sai had never been much better. He’d been relied upon twice, and had ended up in agony both times, once betrayed and dead and twice mourning.
And then Toya Akira is there, watching the game, watching them, with a speculating look about his face. The game is finished – and then the gig is up when Hikaru is recognised and their team is disqualified. But at that point there is nothing to do so nothing is what they do, neither grieving nor bothering to be angry and instead they face their past opponent, whose mixed feelings show in his eyes. Joy at finding them. Trepidation at the thought of playing them again – and excitement too, because Toya knows they are strong, and wants to grow strong too.
"I wish I’d been playing that game," Toya admits, looking longingly at the Goban. Hikaru and Sai consider that for a moment, because Toya is so strong, the strongest they have played so far despite the internet, and it would be interesting to see what comes of it, now that they are no longer so sloppy.
"Are you busy now?" Hikaru asks, looking around. This isn't the place for it, they both know – there is an awkward ceremony and too many people watching and they have been told to leave once already.
"Not… really. I was just about to leave when I was asked to come here and…" Toya trails away, hope and horror conflicting in his eyes.
"Then you can come over," Hikaru decides and takes off the uniform jacket that isn't his, handing it to a confused looking Tsutsui. "We'll have a game."
Toya is quiet and almost meek as he follows them, out of the Kaio junior high building, then on a bus rideto the neighbourhood where Hikaru lives. His meekness has turned into curiosity by then, and thoughtfully he asks what Hikaru was doing at Kaio, wearing a junior high uniform. Hikaru explains in embarrassment, how he blew up at Kaga for insulting him, actually, and ended up playing Kaga who then promptly decided to make him the first board of a team he had no place being a part of.
Hikaru's mother welcomes them with baffled delight, looking at Toya and his very neat clothing, his tie, curiously, especially after learning they are about to play Go. But she is nothing if not amiable, and only brings them cool drinks and leaves them be, while Toya eyes the Goban sitting in the corner of the room with consideration – blind, as everyone else but Hikaru is, to the stains there.
"Don't have any cushions, sorry, but you can have my pillow if you want it," Hikaru says while gently lifting up Torajiro's Goban and carrying it to the middle of the room, checking to see if it is dirty – it isn't, he cleans it every morning. Toya declines the offer and sits across from them in seiza the way Hikaru can't stand to sit yet, and quietly they nigiri.
Toya's loss is inevitable – and quicker than before, with Hikaru and Sai making less of a mess out of the game, but he takes it better than he did the last time, with frowning contemplation rather than disbelieving sobs. He looks around the room, eyeing the shelves full of manga and adventure stories, and frowns a little deeper. "You have no kifu here," he says thoughtfully.
"Nope," Hikaru agrees, leaning his cheek on his knuckles and watching the prim and proper boy across the bloodstained Goban, wondering. "You're pretty good, you know."
Toya flushes bright red at that, and looks back down at the Goban. "Not… really. Not like you."
Hikaru smiles sadly and Sai feels almost guilty. Hikaru wouldn't be anywhere near this skill without Sai and they both know it – but they cannot say it. However, they don't regret what they've become or the Go they've created between them, and they won't apologise for it.
"Are you going to become a professional player?" Toya asks, as they slowly clean the board.
"Professional?" Hikaru asks, confused, and Sai echoes that. No, they haven't considered anything like that, they haven't even thought of joining tournaments, amateur or otherwise.
"You have the skill for it," the other boy points out.
"Hm… well, there's a thought," Hikaru agrees and Sai hums. They don't know their skill for sure yet, they haven't tested it enough or against strong enough opponents, but… they are what they are, and their Go is what it is, there is no denying it. "You're going to do it, aren't you?" Hikaru asks.
Toya doesn't answer, just looks at Hikaru intently, waiting for his answer.
"I'll think about it," Hikaru finally says. "Right now, though, I just want to play some more."
And so they play – that day, and a few days later when Toya shows up at the door of Hikaru's home, awkward in more casual clothing and apologising profusely for showing up unannounced, but not regretting it. Hikaru laughs and welcomes him in and they play and it becomes a thing, slowly blooming into a tentative, awkward friendship over the mismatched board, while Hikaru and Sai even out, and Toya Akira grows by leaps and bounds.
Hikaru graduates from grade school and starts junior high, joining Tsutsui's Go-club and advertising it at every opportunity even while the thought of the professional Go world teases him and Sai. Tsutsui knows more of it than they do, and he is eager to share, speaking of the pro exam and the shin shodan series, the many tournaments, title and otherwise, and all the rest. Hikaru and Sai learn of the ranking games, the oteai, and of the many prizes one can earn as a pro – the many jobs they can have, teaching and explaining and displaying their talents to the world.
It is tempting indeed – and Tsutsui seems to see it too, because he holds no hopes of seeing Hikaru in another Go-club tournament like the one they took part in illegally. Instead he shows Hikaru how to make kifu and tells him what sort of publications he can take a look at, and gives Hikaru a whole stack of old Go Weekly magazines to study.
In them they learn more of Ogata Seiji and Toya Koyo – they see their kifu and hear of the tournaments they have taken place in, and they admire their skill.
'It would be something to see how we'd fare against them, now that we are more level,' Sai mused, tracing Toya Koyo's kifu with considering eyes. 'And all the other professionals as well,' he adds longingly.
'Yes, it would be,' Hikaru agrees, equally considering. There is still time until the pro-exam and they aren't in any hurry, but the thought doesn't go anywhere, nor does the longing for strong opponents for once. So far they have yet to play anyone, in the physical world or on the net, who truly gives them a challenge.
'Should we ask Toya if his dad would like to play that game now?' Hikaru wonders.
Sai thinks of it and then sighs. 'Yes. No. I do not know,' he admits. 'You are still a child and if he wouldn’t truly take the game seriously, if he would play as if against a strong child…'
Hikaru agrees silently. He might be childish but his Go isn't, not really, even if it has a child's ability to grow, it has the maturity of a man and of a ghost. To play such a game and to not be taken seriously would be a painful disappointment indeed. 'Official games would probably be different,' Hikaru muses. 'You can't really play sloppily on those, no matter how strong you think you are or how weak your opponent is. Not if you want to be taken seriously.'
'Indeed,' Sai answers. They think of the amateur tournaments they will never take part in, of the experiences they might deny themselves by reaching so far so quickly, but the decision has been made – they will take the pro-exam.
And so will Toya Akira, it turns out – who has been only waiting for Hikaru's decision to decide himself. Sai wonders if the youth would've taken the exam by himself if Hikaru and Sai had decided against it, but there is no way of knowing and he doesn't wish for Hikaru to ask and to, perhaps, bring Toya's determined, excited mood down. They'll be taking the pro-exam together, and that is enough for now.
"The pro-exam?!" Heiachi asks, when Hikaru begs him to help with the admission fee, because his parents had only stared at him blankly and then with horror when he named the price. "No way, you're years too early for that!"
"Am not. I'll prove it," Hikaru says, and they play on Heiachi's own Go-board. Heiachi is strong – not quite as strong as Toya Akira perhaps, but impressive in his own right – but they knew that from before, from where Hikaru was still learning and Sai was still in the Goban. Their victory is, once more, inevitable.
"Damn," Heiachi mutters, staring at the Goban for a long while, trying to figure it out. "Again," he then demands, and they play – and win – another game. It takes two more, one that day and one the day after, before the old man yields with a puzzled, amazed look about his eyes, and with pride. Heiachi doesn't only agree to pay the admission fee, but he explains the situation to Mitsuko and Masao, until they stop being incredulous and start staring at Hikaru like they don't know him anymore.
"Whatever," Hikaru says at their confused looks, and inside him Sai embraces him tightly to shield away the looks which hurt Hikaru more than he'd ever admit out loud.
But there is still time and in that time they play. sai becomes more and more known on the internet and Toya becomes their regular visitor over the weekends and sometimes on weekdays, and they play some more. The awkwardness that had remained in their Go slowly fades and they learn to know its abilities and potentials through and through, and just how much they can improve it. Weeks pass by, months, and they play more and more until Sai's original Go blends into the newer techniques of the modern world, and it is impossible to tell where Sai's abilities end and Hikaru's potential begin.
It is alright, though, it is brilliant and beautiful and when the school year ends and the pro-exam begins to loom ahead, they are more than ready. Once the day comes, they meet Toya in front of the Go association and head inside together, to join the other exam takers and the many, many insei who will be taking the preliminary exam.
"Ready for this?" Hikaru asks, while they wait for the selection process.
'Yes, definitely,' Sai enthuses.
"I think so," Toya answers and Hikaru pats his back. And soon after they are playing, Hikaru against a boy with wild brown hair and a sleeveless shirt – who starts staring at them with wide eyes after some hands.
"You're sai, aren't you?" the boy demands once the half time comes and Hikaru is getting lunch.
"What?" Hikaru asks while Sai perks up curiously.
"On the net, NetGo. Your nick is sai!"
Hikaru blinks, not sure why he is being yelled at, while inside him Sai marvels at the boy's ability to tell – he plays a strong game, stronger than some of the opponents they played against, but to be able to tell after only so many hands. "Yes," Hikaru finally answers and looks up as Toya comes to join them. "What of it?"
The other boy falters at that, his momentum halted by Hikaru's easy answer, and with a shrug Hikaru sits down to eat beside Toya who looks at him curiously.
"NetGo?" Toya asks.
"A hobby," Hikaru shrugs, and eats.
They win the game that day against Yoshitaka Waya, who keeps staring at them the whole time and who follows them out of the game room. "My name is zelda on the net," the boy tells them, while Hikaru gets something to drink and prepares to leave. "Maybe we could have a game sometime, on the net?"
"Zelda, huh? I'll keep that in mind," Hikaru promises.
The preliminaries pass without a hitch and they make it to the actual exam which will start in a few months. In the meantime, they play Go, against Toya, against Heiachi, against many, many opponents on the net, and against zelda. Waya is a good opponent, not as good as Toya but better than Heiachi, and with Waya come the other insei, some of whom learn to play NetGo just to play against Hikaru and Sai.
The months pass by fast this way, and they enjoy every moment of it despite how confused Hikaru's parents and friends from before Go look. And when the time for the actual pro-exam comes, they throw themselves at the games eagerly, enjoying each and every one of them to the fullest, and taking a little something away from each game. Waya is their fifth opponent, Toya their eighteenth, and they win both games, and in between there are many, many more enjoyable games.
And as their winning streak holds even, almost equally as unbeatable as Toya Akira, people start taking notice. The insei stare at them thoughtfully, worriedly, some complaining, some marvelling, and one by one the outsiders fall before them. Hikaru and Sai know now that they'll pass the exam without a defeat – Toya has already played the opponents they have yet to play, and beaten them, after all. What impact it will all have once they finally become pro is left to be seen, and they can't wait.
The time goes on and game by game they near the completion of the exam until their passing is confirmed with twenty six wins – even though they still have three games to play, they'll still pass even if they lose them all. And of course they do not, and when the congratulations are given, the winning streak has held, and they pass the exam as the top player – with Toya following as close second and Tsujioka, another outsider, as the third.
"Congratulations," Toya offers later, when they are playing in Hikaru's bedroom, over Torajiro's Goban.
"You too," Hikaru grins. "It'll be interesting to see what happens next, won't it?"
"Yes," Toya agrees and smiles, and then they discuss the game.
What happens next is the shin shodan game, the beginner dan series where the new professionals are set to play high level pro players in the famed Room of Profound Darkness. Sai and Hikaru both wait for it eagerly – they have read of past series from the Go Weeklies and knew that more often than not the new pros played against the best of the best – the titleholders. And now that they know of the current titleholders and of their abilities, they cannot wait for the chance to test themselves against them.
'Mind you, the game has a reverse komi,' Hikaru sighs. 'Well, I suppose it will be interesting to see how it goes regardless, with them compensating and us having an advantage.'
'Yes. And there will be other games,' Sai agrees, and they wait.
When their opponent is finally announced, it is both a disappointment and a relief – it is not Toya Meijin, but Zama Ouza. Though they would've liked to play against Toya Meijin, they are both glad that the game which will eventually happen – there is no doubt of that – will not be hindered by the reverse komi. Once they meet Toya Meijin across the Goban, it will be in an even game.
'Yikes, though,' Hikaru thinks when they meet Zama Ouza for the photographs and the short interview and eventually for the game. The title holder takes an instant dislike to Hikaru it seems, though he smiles for the camera – he frowns at Hikaru's hair, which he hasn't cut since meeting Sai, but which is still as bleached from the front as ever, and at his clothes, only slightly formal but mostly casual. It will take more than the shin shodan to make Hikaru don a suit, after all.
'It won't affect our game, only his,' Sai says softly, and they make their way to the Yugen no Ma calmly, taking their seat when it is pointed to them and greeting their opponent formally. Somewhere Toya Akira is watching they know, and maybe someone else – would Waya come and watch? Perhaps.
And then they play. Zama Ouza proves to be their best opponent so far, but the reverse komi gives Hikaru and Sai clear advantage even if their skills hadn't, and being already five and half points ahead of their opponent – eleven, counting the compensation of normal Komi – and it is not an advantage Zama can easily overcome, not against them. It is still a great game, powerful and fierce and quite educating. For all his anger and annoyance, Zama Ouza is very skilled indeed.
Hikaru and Sai win by eleven moku, and after snapping his fan in two, Zama leaves the room grumbling. Hikaru clears the board alone, smiling, and leaves the room to accept the congratulations and to give the after interview. Toya is there, and almost the first to congratulate him – but Toya Meijin is there as well, as is Ogata nine-dan, and Waya who uneasily lingers around the edges of the group.
"That was a great game," Toya says later after all of it is done, and they are heading out together to get something to eat. "I hope mine against Ichiryuu Kisei will be as great."
"I've no doubt it will be," Hikaru says and bounces to the nearest Ramen restaurant with Toya following close after.
Toya's game against Ichiryuu Kisei is as great – he too wins, though Tsujioka loses against Kuwabara Honinbo. After that, there is more waiting – it won't be until next year that they would truly begin their work as professional players, and start climbing the ladder of dan levels and, eventually, titles.
"Work, work, work," Hikaru says as they head home afterwards and then he grins. "I can't wait!"
By the time the award ceremony at the Go Association comes and Hikaru, Toya and Tsujioka get their moments on stage and their oteai schedules, Hikaru's hair is long enough to be tied in a ponytail, and they have reached their thousandth game on NetGo. The award ceremony comes and goes with very little hitch, with pros they don't know and some they have met getting their prizes for doing well, and with the new pro's being little more than an after-thought – it is the games that follow that interest them.
And after that, there are a lot of games. The oteai games are played once or twice a week, and the opponents are all obviously professional players. Their first comes and goes without much notice, as does the second – lower dan players are not quite as impressive as most they have played, even Toya could beat them without trouble. Their third and fourth follow suit, and they settle into the position of a pro-player comfortably, enjoying each game and thanking each opponent.
There is more to being a pro however. The Young Lion's Tournament between recently made young pros and the insei comes around eventually, and so do the occasional jobs offered to pros – Go events and conventions, teaching assignments and such. The Young Lion's Tournament is by far the most interesting, allowing Hikaru and Sai to take another look at the insei, some of whom they’d played against in the previous pro exam, some of whom might be passing in that year's exam.
Sadly they only get the chance to play against Isumi, who has grown but still loses – and the rest are dropped in the games against other pros, though someone named Ochi makes it into the second round, he too is dropped. The rest of the rounds are between pro-players until finally it's Hikaru and Sai against Toya Akira in the very last round of the tournament.
Toya has grown as well and shows them one brilliant move after another, but he is still short and Sai and Hikaru take the victory – for they haven't been growing still either, and in the intervening months they have been playing more and more. The prize of the tournament is mostly inconsequential to them, though it shocks Hikaru's mother somewhat when she looks into the statements of Hikaru's – rather recently made – bank account to find a ten thousand yen increase there.
'Do you ever wonder what would've happened if we hadn't, you know… become like this?' Hikaru asks later, lying on the floor beside Torajiro's Goban and staring up at the ceiling.
'No,' Sai admits honestly because he likes the way they are too much to worry about such things. 'Do you?' he asks in return and then abruptly wonders about it – what would've become of Hikaru without his inclusion, what would've become of Hikaru's Go?
'Not really. But… it probably wouldn't be like this,' Hikaru thinks and reaches a hand up, as if to touch the ceiling. 'Something's a bit different now, though, isn't it?'
'How do you mean?'
Hikaru doesn't answer instantly, just looks at his own hand – and though Sai can see it as he thinks, feel it as he feels, this thought is too obscure for him to follow completely, not before Hikaru words it. 'Sai?' the boy asks. 'I… want to play a flute.'
'Hichiriki?' Sai asks, confused.
'Yeah,' Hikaru answers, frowning, sounding about as confused as Sai feels.
'I… can teach you,' the spirit offers after a moment.
'No, I don't mean that. I mean I want to play it, right now,' Hikaru says and lowers his hand. 'I feel like I could. Like I… know how.'
And Sai abruptly understands.
The next day at school, Hikaru slips away from Akari and his other friends, and into the empty music classroom – so much like the one in grade school, only bigger and full of more instruments. Hikaru finds the hichiriki rather quickly, examines it while Sai marvels how it is still so much like the hichiriki he had once owned. And then…
Then Hikaru plays. It is clumsy and awkward, his fingers aren't quite as fluent as his mind, but he plays and the melody is recognizable, being one of the melodies Sai's mother used to play, before her untimely death.
'I've never played a Hichiriki before – hell, any flute! What is going on?' Hikaru thinks afterwards, staring at the flute, running a hand through his partially bleached hair which, like every part of him, is growing at the rate only seen in children – which already reached his shoulders.
'I don't know,' Sai answers softly, and together they wonder and worry – and avoid the simple fact that Sai knows hichiriki very well, and the knowledge that before Sai, Hikaru had hated the very notion of having long hair.
They play and play, at home, in tournaments, in events, on the net, everywhere and all the time. They feel no different than before, but they are, because Hikaru doesn't only know how to play hichiriki now, but the biwa as well, and though he is clumsy, the sho sits comfortably in his palms – and sometimes, when he is too tired, he switches hands and writes with his right rather than his left and often when doing so he forgets to write normally in kanji, hiragana and katakana, and ends up writing in sogana instead.
And one day on the way to a game, Hikaru stops by a costume shop and comes out with a delicate white kawahori, which fills Sai with nostalgia and feels comfortable in Hikaru's hand. After that, they never go to a game without it.
It would've been terrifying, and it is scary in its own way… if they weren't already so close. Whatever is happening to Hikaru – and in return to Sai – does not hurt, and doesn't feel wrong, if anything they feel even more comfortable than before, as they slowly, bit by bit, mingle in abilities and knowledge. It is gradual, almost unnoticeable, but it happens more and more, and by the time it has been two years since Hikaru and Sai met, Hikaru has become quite fluent with the hichiriki.
And Sai is starting to feel a little lethargic.
'Hikaru?' he asks softly. 'I think I would like for us to play against Toya Meijin. Please.'
'Yeah,' Hikaru answers and promptly calls Toya to arrange it.
It ends up being a bit of an over blown event, rather than the simple, private match they had planned. The word spreads like wild fire, exciting people who were watching Hikaru's advancement and Ogata Seiji arranges the game to be played in one of the Go Association’s private rooms, somehow – and there is even a reporter from Go Weekly there to watch the spontaneous game between Toya Meijin and the year's top rookie. Hikaru feels wholly inadequately dressed when he appears at the game, while Toya Meijin faces him in his montsuki.
It is not quite the Room of Profound Darkness, where they play, but it is very fine indeed.
"You feel ready, now?" Toya Meijin asks, as Hikaru sits across him.
"Yes," Hikaru answers, and inside Sai stirs, regaining his vigour and concentrating. He and Hikaru both remember another game, so very fine, played in front of an emperor oh so long ago, a game that was supposed to be magnificent and had ended in betrayal, and together they rejoice in the knowledge that this will be so very different.
And then they play, the game forming slowly but steadily from brilliance to magnificence, each hand a piece of a greater mastery, each move a clash of sharp swords, sharper than any other Hikaru and Sai faced together.
It is great, beyond beautiful and Sai can just feel every hand taking him one step closer to the Hand of God. But at the same time… the game is a mixture of him and Hikaru in every sense, a seamless blend of two colours invisible to anyone but him and Hikaru, and somehow that, more than anything, makes him happy, to be such an intimate part of someone. They are together, they are whole, and the game in front of them is a testimony to the beauty of that blend.
The game continues, the struggles increase, the fights intensify… and then it ends, with Toya Meijin bowing his head and resigning nobly, while the watchers mumble and chatter around them, and someone snaps a photograph.
And for Sai there is nothing but Hikaru's glow and warmth, still so blinding even after all the time they’ve been together, so overwhelming – and he can feel himself sliding into it, not quite into rest and never to non-existence. Hikaru is a little scared and more than sad, because this is the one thing he has always been so afraid of, but at the same time it is Sai and he is Hikaru, and really… they have always known, haven't they?
It wasn't like this with Torajiro, of course not. Torajiro was strong; he possessed some unique trait that made him Sai's kin for a beautiful while. But unlike Hikaru, Torajiro was never his other half, missing for lifetimes and ages; finally found again and at last welcoming him home.
And Sai has been wandering alone for so long…
'Hikaru,' he whispers. 'Thank you. I love you.'
'Me too, Sai,' Hikaru answers without opening his eyes because if he does he'll cry. There are half a million things left unsaid between them, that are never said, that never need be said, and for a moment the space that is not space between them buzzes with the potential of a last conversation which never happens. Doesn't need to happen.
Sighing, Sai lets himself go and then joins the light.
Shindo is playing. Akira pauses for a moment just in front of his long standing rival and friend's door, listening to the soft notes of the flute, floating out of the apartment. After finding out that Shindo can play music, it took him a while to really understand it – because people with the sort of ability Shindo has in Go tend to only have one such mastered ability. And true, Shindo might not be the best of musicians and will never be part of an orchestra, but he plays beautifully with a sort of haunting melody that even Akira, who knows about as much about music as the door in front of him, can appreciate. But it is still a bit overwhelming to know that not only does Shindo know Go, but that he can play several ancient instruments.
He knows one thing, though. Shindo does not appreciate being interrupted when he is playing, be it Go or music, so he waits until the melody peters out, into final notes before ending, and that is where he knocks, adjusting his jacket a bit and then waiting.
"There you are," Shindo says, as he opens the door and lets him in. "I've been waiting. Do you want something to drink?"
"I'm fine, thank you," Akira answers, easing his shoes off while Shindo closes the door behind him and casting a sideways glance at the other to gauge his mood. Even though they have known each other for about five years now, a bit more, there are still times when he is unsure of Shindo and times he really doesn't want to bother him – especially when he is in one of those dark moods that sometimes come over him, which are usually accompanied by a lot of very sad music.
But it seems that Shindo is in a good mood that day – he is wearing his usual clothes, shorts and a t-shirt, and his long hair has been tied into a high ponytail. All good signs; in a more morose mood, Shindo tends to break out the ancient, traditional clothing Akira knows he has filled an entire closet with.
"So, how did the game go?" Shindo asks him, as they walk to the living room and to the tall Kaya Goban waiting there. Like always, Akira has to take a moment to appreciate the décor of the room - Shindo has a very old fashioned and fine taste at times. Though he has all the modern comforts from a flat screen TV to an expensive DVD player and lots, and lots of speakers strewn about the room, they are usually hidden behind elaborate folding screens, and the walls themselves are decorated with scrolls and fans written full of ancient poetry that Akira cannot understand a word of because of the elaborate sogana characters. And of course there are his instruments, lutes and flutes and such, sitting on their usual stands for display.
"It went well, I think. A bit more difficult than I assumed, but I got ahead in the end," Akira says, sitting down on the cushion beside the empty Goban. "If I win the next match, I just might have a chance at the Tengen title."
"That would definitely be interesting," Shindo grins, sitting across him. "I'd love to see you and Ogata at it again – I haven't seen a match like that since his defence of the Judan title."
"Yes," Akira agrees, thinking fondly back to the game just a few months ago. Of course, he’d lost, but it had still been a game to remember. "It'll be interesting to see you defend your title too, against him," he says then, smiling. Ogata had been going after the Honinbo title with a vengeance ever since Kuwabara-sensei's retirement, and was resentful of Shindo for having grabbed it first. "He's really going to make you pay for getting the title first."
"I know. It'll be fun," Shindo grins wider and Akira almost sighs at that. Not that he can begrudge Shindo his skill, but sometimes he really wishes Shindo would have to take his matches always as seriously as Akira has to take his. Granted, Shindo always plays with deadly earnest, but… he doesn't worry and fret at all.
They begin to play, as they usually do, with Shindo playing white. "How's your dad?" Shindo asks, while placing his third move.
"Better," Akira says. "Retirement suits him more than it suits Kuwabara-sensei – he's gained a bit of weight, which is good. And mother doesn't seem so worried anymore."
"That's good," Shindo nods, with a look of nostalgia on his face for a moment. Akira glances at him and says nothing, concentrating on the game instead and for a while they play in silence.
When they eventually talk, it's about the new shodan and lower dan pros who show some promise, and about the upcoming Young Lion's Tournament – which they won't be taking part in, with Akira being a five-dan and Shindo being a nine-dan and a title holder. Eventually the talk moves on to the North Star Cup, which is also ahead – and which they had once, two years ago, been in together.
"Man, I wish I could take part in it," Shindo moans sadly, leaning his chin to his palm. "It was so much fun to kick Ko Yeong-ha's ass."
"That's what you get for becoming a title holder," Akira answers with a smile, though he has to admit that privately he is glad. He had wanted to try his skills against Ko Yeong-ha himself, and though Shindo's match against the Korean genius had been a thing to behold, it had been uneven – like most all of Shindo's matches were. Ko Yeong-ha won't be there this time, of course – he’s now past the age limit of eighteen years. But there will be others, and Akira is looking forward to those matches almost as much.
"Besides, aren't you busy with everything else already?" Akira asks, turning to the game again. "If you win the next match you might have a serious chance at the Meijin title too."
"Yeah, that would be nice. And I'd get to face Zama, too. He’s strong, and it would be lovely to kick his ass again," Shindo murmurs dreamily and then shakes his head. "You're probably right. But still…"
Akira shakes his head and plays a hand, still thinking of the North Star Cup. The game continues a while more in silence, before Akira breaks it, "Shindo? Do you have a rival?" and is almost as surprised by the question as Shindo is. But he was thinking of Ko Yeong-ha – who notoriously thinks of Shindo as his rival, so…
"Rival?" Shindo asks, and there is something old in his eyes, which sometimes comes into view when Akira asks just the right question – or the wrong one, depending on Shindo's answer. "I enjoy every game I play, I learn from every game, and every game is a challenge in its own right. But a rival?" he looks away. "I'm not sure I was put on this earth for rivalry."
Akira raises his eyes at that and looks at him. "What was it then?"
Shindo smiles – a sweet, beautiful smile that he shows rarely, which fits his face badly, but which pairs up with the aged eyes perfectly. "What was it, hmm…" he says, lifting the kawahori fan that very rarely leaves his hand, opening one fold of it and hiding the smile behind it.
Akira waits, staring at Shindo and wondering about the secrets he has, the endless questions Shindo never answers straight, and why, occasionally, Shindo looks like a completely different person from the one who had challenged him in his father's salon, years ago. Shindo closes his eyes, chuckling, and finally answers:
"To achieve the Hand of God, of course."