The boys took lunch-time to discuss the matter, crouched behind the bicycle shed where none of the teachers could hear them.
“And you’re sure your brother can get us tickets?”
“Yes, I’m sure. If we can figure out how to get out of school unnoticed, my brother can get us into the stadium.”
“We have to think up a good excuse.”
“I don’t know that an excuse will help much. With five of us all gone, they’re bound to realise something.”
“Five of us?”
“Yeah, us four and Shindou. He managed to get excused without even letting us know, the selfish bastard. I was standing right there when he told the teacher needed the time to study for an 'important match'.”
“That's awesome. He isn't even lying to them.”
“I wish I'd thought of taking up an activity that lets me take so much time off school. Really, they don't even check with anyone. He says it's go-related, and they just nod and mark it down.”
“Okay, so all of us individually falling ill or whatever is going to look suspicious. We need to come up with something that would excuse us as a group.”
“No, wait, go back. We could all ‘fall ill’ if they thought we all had the same thing. How about we all get wet and let them see us, and then we can use that heater trick to pretend we have fevers.”
“I don’t really want to get ill.”
“Come on, you can’t really be that feeble that a little water will bring you down.”
The arguments and proposals continued from there, until they reached the point where they were discussing actual transportation to the event. They dragged Shindou along for that, even if he’d already succeeded at the most difficult parts by himself.
He heard them out, and then said, “Aw, man, you're going to have so much fun. I really wish I could come.”
The boys looked at each other and at the classmate who’d reported his excuse-making.
“You’re not coming? I thought you got yourself excused from class already.”
“Yeah, but that’s for a really important go match the following day. I won’t even have time to watch the highlights of the soccer until Sunday.”
More glances were exchanged.
“Can’t you just, you know, study earlier?”
“Nah. It's not like cramming for an exam. You have to get into the right mindset before you face a strong opponent. You have to be able to feel what he'll do when you're playing him. That whole process takes some time. I'll be replaying some of his favourite matches and predicting his responses to my favourite tactics. There's some stuff you just have to do until the last minute, you know?”
“No. I really don’t.”
“You can’t be serious, Shindou! It’s the match. They're actually here, live, in person. We won’t have another chance to see a match like this for another decade. You can't really think one stupid game that you won't even be missing is worth more than that.”
Shindou’s expression closed off. “Sorry, but I can’t. I hope you all have fun, though.”
Shindou walked away without giving them another chance to speak.
“I guess he’s really serious about that go-thing.”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
They stood in silence for a few moments, no-one knowing quite what to say.
“Well, anyway, we still haven’t decided if we’re going to try cycling, or—“
Miyamoto had been a middle-dan player for years now, and would probably be a middle-dan player for life. Already, people were starting to make comments about how he didn't need to apply to the title preliminaries, and they how they had some very good teaching positions available. But he worked hard, and he wasn’t going to just give his position or his games away. They couldn’t make him stop trying to compete. And who were they trying to edge him out for? Brats like the one opposite him, who hadn’t even bothered to look up his name before sitting down to the match? If there was any justice to the world, then he would not be losing to someone who cared so little about winning.
An hour later, he bowed his head stiffly in defeat. Of course there was no justice in the world.
"Shall we discuss the game?"
Miyamoto paused too long, trying to control himself from saying something he would regret. Shindou-kun took his silence as an invitation to start, and quickly lay out a section. The first part of the analysis washed over him, but despite himself he found himself paying attention to the boy’s words.
"…this move here worked well - not quite as well as when you tried the similar strategy when the local position was like this..."
Miyamoto could hardly keep his mouth closed. He hadn’t recalled that game himself until Shindou-kun had drawn attention to the similarity. It hadn’t been a recent or even a very significant game, after all. How could this kid not know his name but be able to reproduce old games of his like that? Shindou-kun was a very odd person, a very odd person indeed, but perhaps… perhaps the unworthy one here wasn't Shindou.
Masao heard about Hikaru’s plans not to attend high school with misgivings. He usually left this kind of parental duties to his wife, but since she'd been so unsuccesful in the conversation when Hikaru had first become a pro, he’d have to step in himself.
“Hikaru, if I could have a word?”
“Of course, Dad.” Hikaru obediently followed him into the little study Masao almost never used and sat down.
“You know that your mother and I have always thought you should have the chance to enjoy yourself while you were young, and that you'd have to conform to adult responsibilities soon enough.”
“You are still young, so we haven't really pressed you. I guess we've known for a while now that you were never going to be university material, but I'm afraid you're making choices now that you won't be able to recover from. I know you told your mother you could make enough money from your game playing to afford to live by yourself, and we're not asking you to do that. We are happy to look after you here for many years to come. But you're making decisions now that will decide your whole future, so you're going to need to start thinking about how this is going to affect you long term. I realise it’ll seem an eternity from now, but at some point you’ll want to retire. If you run out of money in your old age, it will be too late then to regret the choices you’ve made.”
“Oh, the institute is really good with things like that. Give me a second and I'll get the paperwork.”
Hikaru bounced off before Masao could respond. It was probably a good thing, because he wasn’t sure what he would have said. Paperwork? What paperwork?
Hikaru came back with booklets and pamphlets and stapled together sheets, and unearthed a sheet showing a grid. “This is all the stuff related to the retirement fund associated with the Go Institute. They recommend everyone save a different percentage into the pension they’ve organised depending on your ‘lifestyle’, see? Mine’s way up here at the moment because of no children and stuff. If you follow it along, it predicts what percentage of your average income that will return at retirement.”
“A percentage of how much, exactly? What are you expecting your average income to be?”
“Well, that’s not something anyone can know precisely. They pay you different amounts depending whether you win or lose, and which games you’re allowed to play at all depends on your performance at previous games. I’ll also be getting appearance and tutorship fees, which are a little more standard, but also depend a little on how much people like me. Wait a sec, though,” said Hikaru, diving back into the stack of papers.
“Ha! Thought they had one of these in here. The Institute defines various bands for the different types of professionals in order to smooth out how we pay tax. I’m currently earning towards the top of Band F – that’s the ‘other commitments’ band, because I’m still at school, you see? That means I’m mostly playing in tournaments without prerequisites, and only a few other games. I’m also limited in volume of appearances, tutoring, and institute duties I’m expected to perform. By the end of the year, I’ll be moving into Band B – that’s people who participate in second and third preliminary title tournaments and some invitational tournaments, with appearance and tutoring fees suitable to a full time middle-dan professional. I hope to go into Band A in a few years, which is actual title league tournaments. If I fail horribly, though, I’ll drop into C, which means fewer tournaments and more tutoring and appearances.”
He took the papers almost gingerly. If Hikaru was already earning at the top of Band F, then no wonder Hikaru claimed he could afford to live by himself even after his pension fund contributions (a pension fund before he was even sixteen – it was absurd). And next year, Hikaru thought he'd be earning the kind of salary that usually took a degree and three years’ experience to rise to. Even the bottom of Band C was substantially above the unskilled labour wages he’d been worried Hikaru would be reduced to. Hikaru would clearly not be taking on jobs as a construction worker in between fooling around with games. And if Hikaru started earning in Band A in the future … well, that was simply impossible. That was serious money. Surely there was no way a country as small as Japan was really paying people that much to play a board game.
“It does look very organised,” he said, unable to come up with anything more intelligent to say.
“Yeah, I didn’t want to be yelled at by that administration lady again by not having it all done. She’s really scary.”
Half of his speech had now been made ridiculous, but the money didn't address all his concerns. Quitting high school was still an irrevocable step. He knew there were high school equivalences, but the really good companies hired conventional new graduates almost exclusively. No-one really got a second chance at choosing their career, but at least most people were in their twenties when they had to decide. “What if you have another incident like in summer ? You’re still very young to decide the rest of your life.”
Hikaru's face took that hooded, pained expression that seemed so out of place on him. “That had nothing to do with not liking go anymore. I still wanted to play. But if something happens, there are still choices for exactly what type of professional I want to be. Some pros start go-related businesses or get hired as spokesman and the like. Even if it ends up just being a tutor and other responsibilities, it still won’t be as bad as some boring salary job. I’ll deal.”
The confidence in Hikaru's voice rocked him back a bit. Masao realised suddenly that Hikaru was just humouring him by having this discussion. Hikaru had no intention of changing his mind if Masao disagreed. The statement that he could afford his own place wasn’t just a reassurance; it was a warning. Hikaru would be doing this, even if he had to move out and apply for legal independence.
Masao closed his eyes in surrender. He had blinked, and his little boy had grown up without him. “I hope it all works out for you. Remember, I’m always available if you want to talk.”
Masao watched Hikaru bounce out, mourning lost opportunities.
Kimiko let the boys settle at the table while she put out the food. She'd wanted to talk her son out of inviting Shindou Hikaru – she had not wanted her son to be friends with bad influences – but her husband thought it was important to give those kind of boys plenty of chances to change their mind. She'd promptly 'suggested' her son take Shindou along to their martial arts class in order to make Shindou her husband's problem. She examined them as surreptitiously as she could. Shindou seemed happy enough. There was no sign in either his expression or her husband's of Shindou having acted out against authority. Good. It might be worth giving a push to see how things really stood.
"So, Shindou-kun. How many times did you volunteer to run around the building, then?"
He looked completely confused. "I didn't. Do you mean I could have? Why didn't anyone tell me! That's so mean."
"Mother is teasing, Shindou. Being made to run around the building is punishment for breaking seiza, and since you were just watching today..."
"Oh, I see. I still think you could have told me. I would have loved to have a chance to get up and move around. No offense, Sensei."
"None taken," he murmured.
"You mean you didn't break position? Not even once?" she asked in disbelief.
"No? It was only twenty-five minutes. Not even I'm going to get tired that quickly."
"Actually, Shindou-kun, in my experience most teenagers barely last five minutes."
"Oh, wait, you're right! When I started I was like that. Huh. I'd totally forgotten."
"You sit in seiza often, then?"
"All the time. It's traditional in my line of work, and it really is the most convenient way to study."
Kimiko stopped moving. Shindou had a job? A job that required him to sit in seiza of all things? "Ah, I thought my son had said that you'd left school to play games."
Shindou grinned. "Yup. I'm a professional go player. I still can't believe they're willing to pay me for that, but I'm not about to stop them!"
A professional game player? There was such a thing? When her son had said 'games', she hadn't thought he'd meant old-fashioned board games, and certainly not as a career.
"Can't you continue school while you do that?"
Shindou shrugged. "The institute will make allowances in your schedule if you want to, but it damages your career. You can play into your eighties, of course, but fifteen to twenty-five is were you make most of your gains in competition. You can't afford to waste half of them if you're hoping to win titles."
Kimiko looked over at her husband, but he just shrugged and smiled. She guessed it was a little inappropriate to encourage Shindou to return to school when it would interfere with his profession like that. She continued with serving. There didn't seem any reason to be concerned about her son maintaining the friendship after all.
Jun thought that attending events was the worst part of having become a professional shogi player, and this one – a promotional stunt for various types of board games – was sillier than most. As soon as he found a chance, he and a few friends snuck in to what would become the dining area. He was more than irritated to find his bolt-hole already occupied by some punk kid.
“Oi! You! You’re not supposed to be in here.”
The kid looked them over insultingly before answering. “Neither are you.”
“What are you doing?”
“Same thing you are, I imagine. Taking a break from the convention.”
Great, some kid that had been dragged along by a desperate parent.
“Except that I’m Furuyama Jun,” he said dryly.
“Nice to meet you, Furuyama-san. I’m Shindou Hikaru.”
Atchan immediately leapt in to correct the kid. “Sensei!”
“Show some respect, brat, and call him Furuyama-sensei. He’s a professional Shogi player, after all.”
“Is he? I play Go, so I wouldn't know about any of that.”
They gave him a few seconds to apologise for his previous rudeness, even if it was unintentional, and leave the room, but the kid just turned back to his book.
“So you don’t think that means he’s worth your respect? He’s dedicated his life to a very demanding field, you know!”
The kid closed the book with an irritated sigh.
“He’s worthy of as much respect as anyone else, I guess. He’s been lucky enough to get a job doing what he feels passionate about. It doesn’t make him some kind of saint.”
“You don’t believe that it’s hard work?”
“Of course it’s hard work. But if you’re any kind of player, you’d do it for free if you had to. Hell, you’d pay if you had to. Being a professional just means he’s skilled at it.”
“So that means you won't call anyone sensei?”
“Of course I will. Naturally, I recognise people who have gone before me in my own field, but I know absolutely nothing about you. I'll tell you what, how about I call him Furu-whatever-pro? Will that make you happy?”
“This isn't about making me happy, you little brat, this is about paying appropriate respect to your betters.”
“When I find any, I'll be sure to pay them appropriate respect.”
Atchan was interrupted by a male bursting into the room. “Shindou-kun! Shindou-kun, there you are. They're asking for you at the reception area.”
The newcomer was an adult, but too young to be the brat's father. The brat looked at his watch and swore. “Ah, sorry, Kadowaki-san. I'll go right now.”
He was gone before Jun had a chance to react further to his insolence, but then, making him go away had been their goal anyway. The newcomer turned to them and bowed.
“Forgive me for interrupting you. I'm Kadowaki-2nd dan, a go player. You're Furuyama-sensei, aren't you? It's an honour to meet you.”
“Ah,” said Jun, unintelligently.
Still irate, Atchan pounced on his words. “A professional go player, is it? That brat, does he know you’re a professional?”
“Yes, of course.”
“I knew he was all lip. Rude bastard.”
The go player frowned. “Excuse me, but what exactly did Shindou-kun do?”
“He was really rude to Furuyama-sensei, and claimed he didn't have to be polite because he wasn't a shogi player. He implied that he would call stronger go players 'sensei', but he called you plain -san. Doesn’t that upset you?”
“Oh, I haven’t given up yet. I’m improving all the time, and he says himself you don’t know who will win until you play.”
Jun's mind couldn't follow that leap of logic. Hadn't given up on what, and who said what?
Atchan voiced their collective confusion. “Em... what?”
“You asked if I was upset that Shindou's a stronger player than me. Nobody likes losing, I guess, but he doesn't rub it in. And really, from a rational point of view, he's just out of my league. No point in comparing myself.”
“But... but... you're a professional player! Are you telling me you think you'd lose to that brat?”
“Shindou-kun's a professional too. In fact, he's been a professional player longer than I have. Don't you recognise him? He was recently named as one of the top dozen under-eighteen players in the world, one of only two Japanese players to make that list. I should really be calling him sensei, but I'll wait on that until he's taken a title. Makes things less awkward. Anyway, you'll have to excuse me, I'll be needed shortly myself.”
He bowed and left. Jun was happy to have no further witnesses to his embarrassment – and relieved that Atchan had done most of the speaking so he could disassociate himself from it entirely if necessary. They'd gotten into the whole mess because they'd been offended that the brat hadn't recognised him, and all that time the brat had had the better cause to be offended. Just – who expected a kid who looked like that to be that good at a game like go? Jun shook his head. The event would be over in a day, and with any luck, he'd never meet up with the kid again.
There were reasons Akira didn't enjoy spending much time with the younger go professionals, and the number one reason was standing in front of him right now.
Waya said, “I bet you... I bet you substitute attendance at two events that you’re the only person in this entire room who played go on Christmas Day.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Not going to bet, huh? Because you know that you're going to lose.”
Akira seethed. There was nothing wrong with him playing go on Christmas Day. He just thought betting on those kind of things was ridiculous and childish. But... but he didn't want to back down to Waya, and he certainly didn't want it to look like he agreed with Waya. And, after all, it wasn't Akira's fault that Waya hadn't noticed a particular late arrival when he'd made his preposterous bet.
“Alright, what?” asked Waya suspiciously.
“Alright, I’ll take your bet.”
“Okay! If you can't find me another person here who played go on Christmas Day by the end of the night, then you owe me two attendances of my choosing. Don't try and weasel out of it by claiming you don't want to ask that many people, now.”
Touya smiled. “That won’t be a problem. Shindou! Would you mind coming over here for a second?”
Forget about the attendances, seeing the look on Waya's face was all the victory Akira needed.