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The Big Slump

Chapter Text

"Your go is made of money."

Ochi was not sure what that meant.

"You've been in a slump lately, yeah?" The six-dan flashed a set of crooked, yellowing teeth; he had to be a smoker, with a mouth like that. "Looked at your game record—meteoric rise as an insei, passed the pro exam with just two losses, won your Shin Shodan game, great win-loss record in your first six months—a teeny-weeny baby thirteen year old, suddenly a star!"

The teeth disappeared behind the six-dan's frown. "But then you tried to make it into the big leagues. Second round of the Meijin prelims—lost by five moku. The second round of the Tengen prelims—lost by six. Samsung Cup—out before you began. It was like you'd hit a wall. And now," the six-dan leaned an elbow on the goban, careful not to disturb the few stones laid in joseki, "you're gonna lose in the first round of the Kisei prelims, by, I'm betting, at least four stones, to a washed-up has-been who's been a six-dan for three years. And you know why? Because your go is made of money."

Ochi still didn't know what that meant. He tried to look as bored as possible. "Are you going to play? Or will you let your game clock wind down and down, until I win by default?"

The six-dan made a show of licking his teeth—his gross, smoke-stained teeth—before slamming a stone down on a completely predictable spot in the bottom left. "Money money money," he hissed, as if Ochi cared.

- 0 - 0 -

Ochi won by two and a half moku.

- 0 - 0 -

And then Ochi went home.

"Suzuki-san," he said to his driver, wondering as he always did what it must feel like to have such a common name, "if I were to take the train home, how long would it take?"

Suzuki answered without missing a beat. "It would take at least one hour and thirty minutes at this time of day."

"What a waste of time."

"Yes."

Ochi looked out the window, at the train speeding by over his head. He thought: look at all those poor fools crammed inside. He could hardly imagine what it was like, being that close to so many strangers. The only person Ochi had to put up with during transit was his driver.

"You must spend hours every day in this car," he noted aloud.

"Yes."

"Don't you find that a waste of time?"

"No."

Ochi heard nothing implying the presence of emotion in the man.

"Suzuki-san, have you ever considered playing a game against me?"

A pause. "No."

"But you play go, don't you?"

"A little."

"My grandfather said you started playing because of me."

"Yes."

"Why?"

Another pause. "Your go inspired me."

Suzuki said nothing more.

Ochi was tired of trying to talk to the man. He was tired of having to think up all the questions, tired of trying to understand why he was asking them. The real questions in the back of his mind—Is my go made of money? What does that mean?—were not the kinds of things you asked your driver. Especially not a driver like Suzuki, who always did what he was supposed to do. It was hard to find help like that. So impeccably reticent. Ochi didn't want to risk ruining that. It would inconvenience his family.

He tapped a finger against his slacks, then stopped himself. He'd been doing that more lately—tapping his fingers aimlessly. He had to stop it before it became a habit. He used to just do it in bathrooms, after a loss—

He didn't like thinking about that. He reminded himself of his win today, of the great cut he'd made into the middle of the board, splitting the territory of that six-dan like it was nothing. That man was nothing—all talk, all empty threats, a player who relied on pathetic mind tricks that didn't even work.

Ochi smiled to himself. Attacking through words never worked unless you could attack on the board too. Ochi knew that well enough.

But then his smile faded. He hadn't found a lot of reason for bravado lately. The people he used to taunt without mercy—Isumi-san during the pro exam, Waya in the year afterward, and Shindou, Shindou most of all—Ochi wasn't advancing much faster than they were. In fact Shindou had made it to the third round in the Kisei league, and under the new rules his dan level was now higher than Ochi's, despite those months of forfeits on his record. It was maddening. It wasn't right. It was—

"Our arrival will be delayed by fifteen minutes," Suzuki reported. "There is a traffic jam that we cannot avoid. You will be late for your appointment with Kannai-sensei. I apologize."

"That's fine," Ochi said. He'd been startled out of his thoughts, and his words came out clumsily. "It's not your fault."

Suzuki did not reply.

Ochi settled deeper into the leather seats, sighing inwardly. For whatever reason, he could not wait to get out of this car.

- 0 - 0 -

His parents were never home at this time of day. It was just him and his grandfather.

Ochi's grandfather opened the door himself, instead of having the housekeeper do it. He had a wide, indulgent smile on his face.

"You won today."

Ochi did not smile back. "It was nothing. My opponent was pathetic."

"A six-dan though! Two ranks above yours."

Ochi tried not to grit his teeth. Being a four-dan was not a bragging point.

"Kannai nine-dan is here." Ochi's grandfather moved aside to let Ochi in, and the door closed behind them with a genteel, oaken thud. "He's waiting in the living room for you. He's been telling me about his game against Kurata-sensei. What a wild one, that Kurata! I suppose that's the kind of go you get from someone who used to bet on horse races."

Ochi, who was hanging up his coat, grimaced in distaste. He didn't like Kurata-sensei much. Kurata was another prodigy—another strange one. It was Kurata who'd decided Shindou, not Touya, should play Ko Yeongha during the Hokuto Cup. No one else would have done that. It was like betting on the loser in a horse race.

"I hope you and Kannai-sensei are done discussing that game?" Ochi said coolly.

His grandfather gave him a surprised look. "I suppose so. But you two should discuss it too. It might provide some good insight. Kurata is pretty young, but he's done well for himself."

"No thanks." Ochi grimaced again. "I don't play his kind of go."

Ochi's grandfather made a non-committal grunt. "Yes, I suppose that's true."

But during the session with Kannai nine-dan, Ochi wondered in the back of his mind what kind of go he did play. How would someone who didn't know him describe it? It was strong, solid go, that was a certainty. It had never failed him until now.

"You're playing quite aggressively, Ochi-kun," said Kannai-sensei. He was a stern, solid man, with a large frame and thick fingers. His go was the same—stern, solid, thick. He built good defenses and planned ahead carefully. Right now he was placing a stone in just the right place to both fortify his strongholds and launch his attack on Ochi's bottom right corner—later, at a more opportune time. He would not attack the centre, Ochi was sure. "We'll discuss it after, but your move just now might have cost you the game."

Ochi felt a surge of annoyance. He was almost always annoyed at something, but today he was extra annoyed. "We're both pros, Kannai-sensei. You don't need to act as if you're my teacher."

Off to the side, Ochi's grandfather sucked in a breath. He covered it up by sucking in some tea as well, but it hardly mattered; Kannai already had a dark crease between his brows. "I see," said the pro, and laid his next stone. It was not in the place Ochi had hoped it would be.

"Ah—" Ochi's grandfather stuttered. "Perhaps I should get us some more tea." He stood, took one step toward the kitchen, then belatedly grabbed the tea tray from the side table. He wasn't used to getting tea for himself. "I'll be back soon," he added unnecessarily.

Ochi felt a small pang of remorse at that. He'd shown disrespect to this nine-dan, a man his grandfather had hired on Ochi's behalf. You need to play higher dans more often, Kousuke, his grandfather had said. You usually don't get the chance until you're out of the prelims. I'll arrange some teaching games.

Ochi had told him it was unseemly for a pro to ask another pro for a teaching game.

Oh, then I'll call them over to teach me, and they can also play you. I do want some tutoring for myself, of course. But the point is to get more experience for you. Don't worry about the expense. Ochi's grandfather had smiled affably, waving away the problem with a small gesture of his hand. I'll take care of it.

Another voice bled into Ochi's memory. Your go is made of money. Money money money.

Just as his grandfather shuffled back into the living room, tea tray balanced between soft, pudgy hands, Ochi slammed his reply on the board. "I'm not going to play like I usually do," he said aloud.

The tea tray rattled between his grandfather's hands.

- 0 - 0 -

Ochi lost by two and a half moku.

Chapter Text

"Why d'you look so pissy today?" said Waya. "More pissy than usual I mean."

The break room was almost empty. Most of the pros had already gone back to their games, but for some reason Ochi had lingered here. And for some reason, Waya seemed to think this meant Ochi wanted company.

Ochi stared at the vending machine, willing the idiot to go away.

"You're awfully quiet too," said Waya, not getting Ochi's mental messages. "It's not like you. Usually you want to gloat about your game during lunch."

Why was Waya still talking? Was he actually bored, or lonely or something? It was true Shindou and Isumi-san weren't here today, and Honda-san had already gone back to the game room, but surely Waya had other people he could talk to. Waya liked people. In fact, he was pretty sure Waya was friendly with his opponent today, a lower dan Ochi didn't even know the name of. She'd been in the break room earlier. Waya should have already gone back to his match with her. The fact that he hadn't...

"Are you waiting for me? You don't need to," Ochi informed the other pro, injecting the right amount of disdain into his voice. "I'll get back to the game room on time myself. Unlike some of our other acquaintances, I don't need a babysitter."

Waya rubbed a hand through his messy hair. (He really needed a more professional haircut at this point in his life.) Then he huffed lightly and said, "Geez, I'm just waiting for the vending machine. Are you done yet?"

For whatever reason, this irritated Ochi more than it ought to have. He stood aside and said, "It's all yours. I'm not thirsty anymore."

Waya gave Ochi a weird look then moved to take out his wallet. "Sure, whatever."

As Waya's finger hovered over the buttons, then settled on a hot milk coffee, Ochi suddenly had the urge to shake him, to ask, Aren't you worried about your rank? Don't you feel like you're stuck? Like you're never going to have a title? You're going to end up like Morishita nine-dan, your teacher, who challenged a couple times at the peak of his career, and was never seen in the top leagues again. Do you want to end up like that?

The can rattled thunderously in the empty spaces of the vending machine. Clang clang clang thud clang. Waya reached down, face expressionless, and retrieved his purchase. Then he turned to go back to the game room, leaving Ochi alone.

Ochi waited another minute, then went back in to play.

- 0 - 0 -

Ochi lost by three and a half moku.

- 0 - 0 -

Ochi headed to the bathroom, of course, after his game. He stood in his usual stall and tapped out the large keima he should've played instead of the small one. Such a little thing. An inconsequential play in an isolated side cluster. But it had cost him two moku, and it had cost him more psychologically. That was the bigger mistake. Don't do that again, he told himself. You're not that weak.

Tap tap. This is what happened because he played the large keima. Tap tap tap tap. This is what would have happened if he'd played the small keima. Tap tap tap tap tap. This is how he could have won the game, how he should have won. Tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap...

It wasn't working. The patterns he beat into the wall, they weren't repairing themselves the way they usually did. The whole shape of his game had gone ugly. All because of one foolish mistake. Why had he gotten so upset over such a small thing? It wasn't like the game had been lost at that point. He'd made mid-game mistakes in the past and still won. It just wasn't like him—

Creeeaaaak. Someone had swung open the bathroom's main door. An unfamiliar male voice echoed loudly against the tiles. "Almost had her, huh?"

A second voice said, "Yeah, I made one soft move and she pounced on it."

Ochi suppressed a groan. Waya again.

"I was pretty mad at myself," Waya went on. But he sounded surprisingly calm. "It cost me a lot of points. I recovered pretty well, but it just wasn't quite enough."

"Look who's being all mature." The other voice was jovial, but there was an underlying sneer in there. Ochi would know; he was good at underlying sneers. "Too bad! You haven't punched anyone out in a while, Waya. It's been boring without your Neanderthal antics."

"Hey," said Waya, starting to sound irritated. "I only did that once. And it was Mashiba, so I think I'm excused."

"No argument there. Like I said, I like it when you go batshit. It's a compliment."

"Sure it is."

"You know who you should do next?" The voice went low and sneaky, exaggeratedly so. "That Ochi guy. He's such a stuck-up rich brat."

Ochi stiffened. He waited for Waya's reply, but it didn't come.

"I don't even know why he's so high-and-mighty," the other voice went on, as if encouraged by Waya's silence. "He isn't even all that good, especially lately. Keeps bragging about how he'll be the strongest, but he's obviously the type to burn out. Look at how he did at the Young Lions Tournament. He just rose quickly at first because his rich granddaddy bought him all sorts of special training—"

Without thinking, Ochi slammed open the stall door. It hit with the wall with a satisfying bang! Like a gun going off in a man's head.

He looked Waya's companion in the eye. The other pro sported a crooked haircut, dull brown sheep eyes, and a cheap synthetic suit, cheaper even than Waya's. The young pro's face had the most comical expression on it. As if he couldn't imagine that anyone would just pop out of the bathroom stall and confront him. It was the sort of face that would normally make Ochi smirk with glee, but right now, it just made him feel sick inside.

Waya, meanwhile, didn't seem too surprised. He'd had his arms crossed, but now they fell neutral to his sides. His head was cocked slightly to the left, his eyes clear and assessing. It was almost a look of...sympathy.

Ochi felt even sicker.

He didn't have to take this. He strode past Waya and the gaping idiot (whoever he was) and out the bathroom door.

Behind him, he heard the gaping idiot say, "Hey, did he not wash his hands? Gross."

"Just shut up," said Waya, finally. "Shut up."

Ochi's chest was burning with an unfamiliar rage, but he kept his chin high, his lips pressed tight, his eyes hard.

- 0 - 0 -

Suzuki, holding open the car door, gave Ochi an odd, but still unreadable look. "Your grandfather asked me to tell you that Kurata eight-dan is coming to play you today."

Ochi's right fist clenched involuntarily. "You're not joking, are you."

There was obviously no need for Suzuki to answer that question. Suzuki never joked.

"How much is Kurata's fee?" Ochi almost spat the question.

"I'm afraid I don't know."

Ochi backed away from the car, steps slow but even. "I'll take the train today. I'm feeling carsick."

"Yes, sir. I'll inform your grandfather you'll be late."

No hesitation. Suzuki's face was distinctly bland. He shut the passenger door, stepped around to the driver's side, and got in. The way he moved, so smooth and purposeful, was strangely mesmerizing. The car, too, as it pulled away from the curb, gave off the same feeling.

Ochi watched all that smooth easiness drive away, and wondered how the hell he was supposed to take the train on his own.

Chapter Text

He ended up asking the gift shop attendant at the Institute for directions to the nearest station. She smiled and offered to walk him partway.

Ochi said no thanks. "I've taken the train before," he told her pointedly. "It's just been a while."

And he had never done it by himself. But he wasn't stupid. He could figure this out.

The walk from the Institute was supposed to take four minutes—Ochi did it in three.

Yurakucho station was not particularly crowded at this time of day. He walked down the stairs calmly, like he was meant to be there. People streamed up and down efficiently, no one touching anyone else. Good. It was hot and stuffy, but not unbearably so.

Everyone seemed to have a fare card or money ready. Ochi didn't, so he stood out of the way and studied the map on the wall. He had to tilt his head far back to read it. He found the route to his grandfather's house, which was indeed very far and required three circuitous transfers. It all seemed so...pedestrian. Literally.

His eyes strayed to other parts of the map. There were so many places in Tokyo he had never seen. There had never been much need for him to go out—he didn't have much interest in shopping and other frivolous amusements. But there were some places he wouldn't mind visiting—strong go clubs and study groups. Touya Kouyo's most of all, even if Touya Kouyo was usually absent nowadays.

Hey, Shindou's voice chattered in his memory. Touya invited me to his study group this Tuesday. Should I go?

Shindou had been talking to Waya, not Ochi.

You do whatever you want, Waya had replied.

You think Morishita-sensei will kill me?

If he finds out, yeah.

But he won't, right?

Shindou had left with a nervous, thankful smile for Waya, and not a single nod of acknowledgement for Ochi. Probably the moron had completely forgotten Ochi was there. Forgotten what Touya had done to Ochi during the pro exam.

That old fury and shame came flooding back. Nothing had changed since then, despite all that Ochi had accomplished as a pro. Last month at the Young Lions Tournament, Touya had barely spoken to him. Barely looked at him. All Ochi wanted was a little respect. But Touya had only ever noticed Ochi when Shindou was involved.

Ochi's fists clenched at his sides. Damn it. He shouldn't be thinking of this. But he couldn't stop. Shindou didn't even think anything of Touya's regard—he just thought it was his natural place in the world. But it wasn't natural at all! Where did Shindou even come from? He had no teacher, had never been part of a go club until after he joined the insei. Never mentioned a relative or friend who'd taught him go. Why did he start playing?

What was Shindou's go made of?

Ochi noticed his teeth were grinding together. He told himself to unclench his jaw. His fingers were tapping a familiar rhythm inside his pants pocket—a losing rhythm, the one from his most recent game. He pulled his hand from his pocket. His foot started tapping.

This was getting ridiculous.

What was he doing here?

Around him the air was getting hotter, denser. The number of bodies must have grown. An announcement chimed overhead...about a train line closure or something, he couldn't hear where. The station names were all unfamiliar to him. There were too many people, pressing in on him with their sticky early-autumn sweat. His own armpits felt damp with humidity.

This wasn't where he belonged. He was supposed to be in an air-conditioned car right now. He was supposed to be on his way home to play a game with a high-level pro. He was a go player. He just wanted to play some go, his go...whatever that was supposed to be.

But that was the problem, wasn't it? Ochi didn't know what his go was. Didn't know how to advance without his grandfather's hand to guide him. Didn't even know how to get out of this stupid slump without fistfuls of cash to throw at his weaknesses.

How pathetic. There were wet blobs leaking out of the corners of his eyes now. Stupid humidity. He had to remove his glasses so he could wipe the liquid away. Now the back of his hand was even wetter and stickier than before. He put his glasses back on quickly. He hated how he looked without his glasses.

What a mess. Maybe he should have just gone home. Maybe Grandpa was terribly angry. Maybe Grandpa would never want to hire pros for Ochi again. Ochi had wasted all that money, and for what?

What was worth that price?

Money again. He squeezed his eyes shut, thinking. There had to be something more to his go. Something else to push him out of this hole he'd fallen into. Real talent, real passion...real genius.

Touya Akira's face floated into his vision once more.

Ochi's eyes drifted to Nakano station, the one nearest to Touya Kouyo's go salon, which Shindou visited at least once a week.

...Was that what he needed? He'd always wanted Touya as his rival. Should he run off to Touya's go salon right now? But what if Touya wasn't there? Or what if he was with Shindou, and refused to even look at Ochi? Just like the pro exam...

No. Never again. Ochi blinked rapidly, furiously, banishing the misty film over his eyes. He wasn't going to play that game. Touya Akira had never once looked at Ochi and seen Ochi. Just the shadow of Shindou Hikaru.

Yes, Ochi realized, a vicious stab of anger unfurling in his chest. That was where it all started—when Grandpa hired Touya Akira. Looking back, he could see how disgusting Touya's actions were, how unethical. How could a supposed professional accept a job, accept a person's trust, and abuse it like that?

This was what happened when you relied on money.

Well, Ochi was done with that.

Abruptly, he turned away from the train map he was supposed to be examining. He didn't need to run off somewhere to find his go. His go was here. Inside him, in the game. He just needed to play, to play someone strong, someone worthy—no strings, no money attached. And he knew exactly where he could find that kind of game, without the help of Touya Akira or Shindou Hikaru.

"Excuse me," he said to the station attendant. "Are there any Internet cafés around here?"

Chapter Text

"Yeah, no one good will play you—you got no wins on your record," explained the nosy but strangely knowledgeable attendant at the Internet café. Working this close to the Institute, she probably saw a fair number of people playing NetGo. Her teeth were obnoxiously white. "And you've got one of the default user names? That just makes you even more boring. Why don't you try using a famous pro's name? People will jump at the chance to play the real deal."

I am the real deal, Ochi thought about saying.

He tried to ignore her as she leaned over and peered at his monitor. "Yeah why don't you become...um, how about that guy who's in the news pretty often, Touya...something-or-other Meijin? Or his son, what was his name..."

Before she could say another word, he changed his account name to ochi kousuke.

"Who's that?"

"You can leave now," Ochi informed her, eyes on his screen.

"Just trying to be helpful."

After that he was blessedly alone in his dark, dingy corner. Above him, cheap fluorescent light flickered and buzzed, as if whining for a new bulb.

If he'd wanted a place to make him forget about having money, this was it.

He scrolled through the list of players, wondering who to challenge. Almost everyone here was weak. But then so was he, according to his game record. Until he won a few games, the stronger players wouldn't want to bother with him.

Impatience skittered inside his chest, along with something else—something weighty, unfamiliar. He was ochi kousuke, but with those zeroes beside him name he looked like a nobody, and that's how people would treat him. It would be faster to pretend to be a famous pro...

The muscles in his left cheek twitched. Well, if he was a zero, that's where he would start. If he'd wanted the easy way, he would have gone to his uncle's house.

He clicked on the name of a lowly three-kyuu player and sent his challenge

- 0 - 0 -

Ochi stomped four weak players in the next two hours—NetGo games were blessedly short compared to real ones—and found he was actually enjoying himself a little, once he sifted out the boredom of amateur play. Destroying weak players had a certain appeal. Usually he only played teaching games with non-pros, but here he didn't have to be nice.

Soon enough he came up with a new kind of game, called "How quickly can I scare the weaklings into resigning?" It meant playing aggressively, playing fast, and fighting tooth and nail for every short-term victory rather than worrying about the long-term.

This style of play was probably giving him some bad habits, but it was strangely liberating. He could see why someone like Waya played on the Internet so much. It was an ego boost.

So far, though, this wasn't teaching him anything new about his own go...he already knew he was a mean person. But against real pros...he couldn't play like this. He itched to play someone strong. In another two hours, perhaps, he could approach a pro for a game. Until then, he would have to keep demoralizing random amateurs. Not the worst way to spend an afternoon.

- 0 - 0 -

But thirty minutes later, just as he was about to start a game with a decent-looking eighteen-kyuu player, he received a challenge.

"Yasniro Kiyoharu?" Ochi muttered aloud in disbelief.

His fingers tightened on his mouse, as if physically remembering their game during the Hokuto Cup prelims. The thought of it still stung—all those eyes on him, questioning his pride. Shindou and Touya's eyes most of all—turning away from him, toward Yashiro, with his new, exciting go...

Was this Ochi's chance to take it all back?

Then his challenger sent a message.

Want your revenge?

The line was so cliché that Ochi snorted aloud. If this was Yashiro, he was trying too hard. More likely it was a fake, someone who'd read that stupid write-up about the Hokuto Cup prelims in Weekly Go. If this person was trying to make him feel bad, he would make them feel horrible.

Accept, he clicked.

Chapter Text

Chapter 5: Pachi pachi pachi

His opponent's first move was at 3x3—just like Yashiro's opening in the Hokuto Cup prelims.

Ochi didn't think long on his response. He played his move at 5x5 in the opposite corner, just to be different. There was no way he was going to follow the same losing pattern as before.

His opponent's next move was at tengen.

Ochi almost wanted to laugh. This was like a game played by kindergarteners. Othello or Gomoku maybe.

He played his next move at 10x10.

- 0 - 0 -

The game proceeded more normally after they'd laid their fuseki. If you could call what they'd done fuseki.

Ochi watched as his opponent set up a decent defense—so this person did have some ability—and Ochi did the same. But the game was still a ridiculous one, thanks to their aggressive opening moves. Moves all over the map.

It actually was an exciting game.

Ochi slowed down and gave himself some time to examine the board. He'd studied Yashiro's games a little, after the Hokuto Cup prelims. This style of play now...it really looked like him. That sprawling pattern that somehow cut into you in late chuuban...

Ochi's fingers slowly unclenched around the mouse. He leaned back and wiped his glasses. Again, he wanted to laugh. But of course he didn't. He put his glasses back on and played his next move, carefully.

- 0 - 0 -

Sixty moves in, Ochi wondered if the air conditioning had died. His armpits were sweating again.

What was the point total right now? He wiped his brow with the back of his hand. He was having a hard time keeping track of who was winning, and usually he was so good at that. But here there were no clear demarcations of territory—just small battles everywhere. Occasionally the stones cohered into larger shapes, but these were so strange they made Ochi's head hurt. Like looking at a familiar map and seeing the names in all the wrong places. Or...like coming to an unexplored land, and mapping it for the very first time.

Click. His opponent had ignored his stone in atari—the one that looked so critical—and attacked somewhere else. Another weird move. But somehow, Yashiro made it work.

Ochi reached up with both hands and massaged his shoulders, taking a moment's break. Assessing. Remembering. He'd watched Yashiro lose to China's Zhao Shi and Korea's Hong Suyeong, and those were people who played strong, steady go. Yashiro's wild strategies hadn't worked against them. Ochi told himself to take heed. He couldn't get caught up in that wild pace again. He needed to play his own strong, steady go. He needed to read further ahead, more deeply, with more maturity. He'd been a pro longer than Yashiro after all.

But then, this board was not an easy one to read. Those silly moves they'd played at the beginning, and these strange attacks in chuuban...

He tapped his fingers twice on the desk. There was something there, nagging at the edges of his consciousness. He didn't know what it was yet, but he could almost see it...no, hear it. A pattern, a plan, a shadow-shape: the clink of stones yet to fall. Pachi pachi pachi pachi pachi...

He wasn't used to playing on a hunch. On a sound. But...in this messed-up Yashiro-style game, maybe that was exactly what he needed.

He placed his next stone.

His opponent's next hand came quickly: an attack. A cross-cut leaping boldly into Ochi's area of influence. Typical Yashiro Kiyoharu. So typical. But was there enough strength behind the move to be a threat?

Ochi folded his hands together, leaning forward. Above, the fluorescent light finally sputtered and died. The computer screen was too bright in the dark room, hurting his eyes. He closed his eyes. I see your intent, he said to that stone. I see the hand that placed you. It's a hand that sometimes plays too hastily. If I can use that, with that stupid 10x10 I played early on...

He opened his eyes and played his own move somewhere else, as if to run away.

Yashiro pounced.

And Ochi finally laughed.

Got you.

- 0 - 0 -

Ochi lost by half a moku.

Chapter Text

Chapter 6: Ring ring ring

But after the game, he received a message.

So you ARE the real deal. When I challenged you I wasn't sure.

After a moment, Ochi sent his own message back. Same to you.

There was a long computer silence. Ochi's ears picked up the low hum of computer fans, the faint breaths of the other customers at their terminals. The stones stared back at Ochi, reminding him that he'd lost. But...

Good game, Yashiro typed.

Weird game, Ochi thought. And after some consideration, wrote, I wouldn't have played like that normally.

Yashiro's reply came quick. I knew you had it in you. Only someone crazy would do what you did during the Hokuto Cup.

A couple hours ago, Ochi would have sent back an insult if someone called him crazy. But now he didn't.

Let's play again, he wrote instead.

Sorry I gotta go, Yashiro replied.

Ochi's fingers left the keyboard. He told himself he needed a break. He wasn't disappointed that Yashiro didn't want to play again.

But later would work. Maybe 10pm.

Ochi's fingers flew back to the keys. Sure. See you then.

Okay.

Btw you should come to Osaka one of these days.

Ochi blinked. Huh?

Your go is interesting.

Really?

080-6856-6643

Ochi took out his cell phone and input the number into his address book. He stared at it. Then he pressed the Call button.

- 0 - 0 -

After he hung up with Yashiro, he noticed the seventeen missed calls and twelve missed texts on his phone.

Most were from his parents or his grandfather. One text was from Waya (he ignored that one). One text was from Suzuki. All it said was Good luck.

Ochi thought about it for a while. He thought about it as he paid the attendant at the Internet café, as he walked back to the station, as he paid for a ticket and got on the Yamanote Line. He thought about it as bodies pressed in on him, sweat mingling with his, hands raised high to cling at the swaying handholds. Ochi could barely reach his.

When he got to Tokyo Station, he got off the train, left the platform, found a nice corner to stand in, and called his grandfather's cell.

"Kousuke!" Grandpa's voice was shrill, but more frantic than angry. Ochi felt as if a rock had settled in his stomach. "Suzuki said you were taking the train! That was hours ago! Where are you?"

"Ah, I apologize," Ochi said. "I was a little...lost." It wasn't exactly a lie.

"You didn't answer my calls or texts! I was worried sick!"

"I got a caught up in something," Ochi said, trying to inject contrition into his voice. It was hard, even though he did feel sorry. "I forgot my phone was on silent."

"Your parents are home. Even Kurata-sensei is still here. You can tell them you're sorry for what you put them through!"

"Kurata-sensei stayed?"

But the phone had already gone to Ochi's father.

"Kousuke, where the heck are you?"

Ochi didn't say, "On my way to Osaka." Instead he said, "I'd like to stay a friend's house this weekend. I know Grandpa asked Hayashi eight-dan to come on Saturday, but I was wondering if we could...clear my schedule."

"What? Is that why you called him?"

"No, not just for that..."

Ochi had also called to ask his grandfather never to hire pros for him again, but decided that was probably a conversation better left for another time.

He could hear a lot of muted arguing at the other end of the line. His mother seemed to be...telling them to let him go? She thought it was good he was finally making friends his own age? Well, if that's what they wanted to believe.

"How do we know he's telling the truth?" His father was yelling. "He just blew off everything to do who knows what! He wouldn't even tell us what he was doing!"

"I was playing NetGo near the Institute," he said into the phone, but apparently no one was listening.

"He's fourteen," his mother argued back more calmly. "Rebelling a little, taking a break, riding the train to a friend's house—those are normal things at that age."

"Our son isn't exactly normal!"

"That's right," said Grandpa. "He's better than normal."

Ochi felt his face heat up. It was hot in here. Tokyo Station was always packed, even this late in the day.

"And that's why we have to hold him to a higher standard," said Ochi's father. "He can't just go gallivanting around the city when he feels like it."

There was a lot more arguing, which Ochi tuned out so he could figure out the way to the shinkansen gates. Tokyo Station was enormous and disgustingly crowded, but there were plenty of signs and Ochi wasn't an idiot.

He kept his ear to the phone, wondering if his family were ever going to remember that the subject of their argument was still listening.

Abruptly Kurata nine-dan's voice, loud and obnoxiously recognizable, blared into his ear. "Ochi-kun, what's the name of your friend you want to visit?"

"Yashiro Kiyoharu," Ochi replied. He had wedged his phone beneath his shoulder to free up his hands; he fumbled with the ticket machine and tried to talk with Kurata at the same time. "I think you know him. And yes, he lives in Osaka."

Kurata didn't miss a beat. "Oh, Yashiro. Lives with his parents. Reliable guy. Good player, but needs to figure out a more tenable play style."

"I can help him with that to some extent."

"There's that pride I've heard so much about." Kurata sounded almost amused. "Well, I'll talk to Yashiro's parents to confirm what you've said. Then I'm sure your parents will be fine with it."

In the background, Ochi could hear a lot of incoherent arguing between his mother and father. Ochi ignored them both.

"How about my grandfather?"

Kurata's confidence didn't waver. "He'll come around. He just wants what's best for you and your go, Ochi-kun. They all do. Have fun this weekend."

"Thank you," said Ochi. The rock in his stomach was dissolving. "Please tell them thank you for me."

"You already did. You've been on speaker phone for a while."

The rock immediately re-formed. Ochi's eye twitched.

"I'm fine with you going." His mother spoke quickly, and he could picture her glare silencing the rest. "If this is what you need to further yourself personally and professionally, then we support you all the way. Right, dear?"

"Osaka!" Ochi's father ranted. "That's too far!"

"He travels all the time for work, dearest."

"Not by himself, he doesn't."

"Think of it as networking," said Kurata. "Professionals who don't form real relationships with other pros never get as far as those who do. I would know. I make friends with everyone."

Ochi's mother coughed. "Right."

Grandpa's voice was quieter. "Real relationships."

"I still think," Father ramped up again, "that he shouldn't be going off and—"

"You don't think, that's the problem," said his mother. "You just react. Look, Kousuke never misbehaves. If he's doing this now, there must be a good reason for it."

"You want to reward him for his bad behaviour?"

"I want to listen to what he's telling us."

Ochi wasn't actually telling them anything. He let them argue, waiting for his mother to talk his father down as she always did. It didn't take long.

"—and you've smothered him all his life, I told you so many times, a kid needs to be a kid sometimes, and he's responsible enough, you see that he called home—"

"Okay, okay!" Father cut her off. "He can go. I can see I'm outnumbered. Even Kurata-sensei wants him to go."

Kurata laughed without any self-consciousness whatsoever. "Hope I'm not intruding! In a private family matter!"

"Kousuke," Mother finally addressed him directly. "Have a good trip. And be careful, all right?"

"Of course he will," said Grandpa.

It was true.

"Don't you dare get kidnapped," Father added. "We aren't made of money."

"I know," said Ochi. "I know."

Chapter Text

Chapter 7: Choo choo choo

"So I'll meet you at the station at ten," said Yashiro, not fazed at all by the late hour. "I'll be wearing a bright orange shirt so you can spot me easy."

"I wouldn't worry about that." Ochi spoke with his usually dryness, but without his usual bite. "You're hard to miss."

"Huh? Oh, you haven't seen me in a while. My hair isn't white anymore."

Ochi watched the landscape zip by. He was standing in a compartment at the end of the train car, near the bathrooms. He'd opted for a cheaper ticket without a reserved seat; he hadn't expected the train to be full at this hour. But he was fine with standing. He had a wall to lean against. He'd been sitting all day and could use the chance to stretch.

For two and a half hours.

Ochi's stomach rumbled. The disadvantage of standing was that even if he bought a bentou box from the lady with the cart he wouldn't be able to eat it. When he got to Osaka he would have to pick up a quick dinner—along with toiletries and socks and underwear—at a convenience store. Tomorrow he should probably buy at least one more set of clothes. He'd have to ask Yashiro to point him to a decent store.

"Are you sure I'm not imposing too much?" Ochi said into his phone. "Maybe I should stay in a hotel."

"Nah, that's a waste of money. And we'll get to play more go if you stay with me."

"Your parents won't mind?"

"Trust me, they'll be too shocked I'm bringing home a friend with some class to be worrying about that."

Ochi adjusted his glasses. He was a little shocked himself, not at the word "class" but at the word "friend."

"Yashiro," he said, feeling bold, "what did you mean when you said my go is 'interesting'?"

Yashiro took a while to answer that one. "It's kind of hard to say. Just that...you're the guy who risked his Hokuto spot because he was too proud for second best. And your go says that about you, at least from what I can see—the way you can play really confident hands, even if sometimes you're prouder than your go is strong. But it's pretty clear to me you'll be strong enough to match that pride one day. I think I'm the same way sometimes. So yeah, the shorthand for that is 'interesting.'"

That was...quite a mouthful from a guy who was usually so laconic.

"Well," said Ochi, "thank you."

"For what? Was that even a compliment?"

"I don't need compliments. Just the truth."

"I know," said Yashiro, "I was joking."

Ochi actually cracked a smile, even though his friend could not see it. "You have a weird sense of humour."

"Yeah."

"And your go is interesting too."

"Yeah." Ochi couldn't see, but he imagined Yashiro smiling too. "So ten o'clock at the southern gate of Imamiya Station, right? I have to get off the phone soon, can't use up too many minutes."

"Yes, ten o'clock."

"You okay transferring to the local line on your own?"

"Of course."

"All right, see you at the gate. Don't get robbed."

And Yashiro hung up.

Well, it was better than being told not to get kidnapped. Ochi checked his watch and counted down the minutes. So much time to kill. He wondered if this was how Suzuki felt when he was stuck in traffic. But Ochi wasn't bored. He had a ticket in his pocket and Yashiro's Osakan accent still rolling against his eardrums. He had plenty of things to think about, like the great game he'd played today, despite his loss, the future traps he could lay, long nights of go to look forward to. And practical matters too: all the things he needed to buy or borrow from Yashiro (pyjamas, he would need those too), the logistics of transferring trains...

Ochi was struck by a thought. He took out his cell phone and navigated to the last message Suzuki had sent him. Good luck, it said. Ochi felt a warmth settling in his stomach where the rock had been before. He had to repay his driver in some way. But thank you wasn't enough.

When I get back, Ochi typed, I'll play you in an even game first. Then we can see how many stones you should put down from then on.

Suzuki replied right away. I look forward to it.

Ochi put his phone away. Closing his eyes, he leaned back against the wall, crossed his arms, and spent the rest of his train ride thinking of nothing but go.

- End -


Author's note: I say "End," but there is an epilogue.

Chapter Text

EPILOGUE

"You tried inviting Ochi to our round robin? Even after he turned you down so hard last time?"

Waya gave Shindou a nasty glare. "What do you mean 'our' round robin? I'm the one who does all the organizing."

Shindou, busy raiding Waya's fridge, didn't see the nasty glare. "It wouldn't work if we didn't all come, right?"

Waya muttered something about the round robin becoming less of a go event and more of a big underage drinking party that he'd be taking the fall for if any of their parents found out, but Shindou was busy opening a can of beer and didn't hear a thing.

"Anyway," said Shindou, sipping at his illicit drink, "I'm still surprised you invited Ochi."

Waya sighed and gave in to the inevitable--he opened a beer of his own. "I felt bad for him. You notice he's been in a slump lately?"

"He has? Didn't he destroy Honda-san by eight moku in their last official game?"

The two of them threw a sidelong glance at the living room area, where Honda was crumpled over a goban.

"That was awesome!" Fuku could be heard cheering. "Honda-san, let's play again! Speed go!"

"No," Honda moaned.

Shindou took another sip of his beer. "I think Honda-san is the one in a slump now, not Ochi."

"Maybe," said Waya, conceding the point. "But it's not just about the slump. I felt bad for Ochi. He doesn't seem to have any friends in the go world."

"Oh," said Shindou. "I forgot to tell you. Ochi said he's bringing a friend."

"What? A go friend?" Waya was shocked, but more than that he wanted to reach out and strangle Shindou. "I have to rework the whole schedule if there's another person! Please tell me you're joking."

Shindou's eyes were wide with guilt. "I'm joking?"

And that's when the doorbell rang.

"Uh, I guess that's them—uh, him, now?"

Glaring furiously at Shindou (again), Waya strode to the door, stepping over the comatose Honda on his way. There had better not be two people behind that door. And if there were two people, Ochi's tag-along had better be some two-bit nobody Waya could easily shoo away. This was his round robin! He'd organized the whole thing, with a chart and everything! How dare Ochi suddenly bring a friend? Ochi couldn't have friends!

He flung open the door.

"Hello," said Ochi. "Shindou said I could bring someone. Here he is."

Beside him stood—Yashiro Kiyoharu, with his scary face and his scarier go.

"Yo," said Yashiro. "Thanks for having me."

Ochi smiled smugly—i.e., he smiled the way he always did. "I know Honda-san wanted a rematch, and I'm sure everyone else wants to play him too. Yashiro came all the way from Osaka. So I'm sure it's no trouble?"

Sighing (again), Waya let them in.

- End -