Four years after the stars disappear and six months before Heaven's War Shindou Hikaru disappears. Akira can't help but think that it's utterly ridiculous, if Hikaru was going to disappear it should've been on an important day; the anniversary of the first time he walked away from Go or the day after finally winning the Honinbo title, not a random Thursday. Instead of something momentous Akira wakes up alone in bed and doesn't even realize Hikaru is gone until Waya hunts him down later in the day to find out why Hikaru missed their game.
They spend months trying to find him, they calls the hospitals and badger the police, but there's no sign of him anywhere. It's not until Akira starts to go through Hikaru's things and finds the fan that he lets himself accept the fact that Hikaru is gone and he hadn't wanted to go because he would never have left the fan behind. He keeps it next to the main goban after that, ready for Hikaru to pick up whenever he comes back, but as the years slip by he knows that maybe it's owner is never returning.
Sometimes he looks towards the Wall and can't help but think of the urban legend about the Gate giving you you're greatest desire so long as you're willing to pay the price.
Hikaru lets out a sigh at the sound of the magnets connecting to the board. Maybe it's being back in Japan after so many years, but he finds himself desperately missing the sound of a real stone striking a solidly built goban. If he doesn't think about it too hard he can almost feel the excitement the idea of Go used to bring him. Part of him wonders if he's imagining things, but another part remembers Evening Primrose's arguments when they'd tried to recruit him. He once heard another Contractor tell someone that there was a difference between having an emotion and experiencing an emotion and he thinks that maybe the trepidation he feels at being back in Japan is an experience because he hasn't felt this unsure of himself since the day he woke up and realized that everything had changed.
Perhaps that was why he was sitting on top of a building, performing his obeisance, and trying to remember which star is his. The fact that it's his own building might have something to do with it too. He hadn't expected Akira to live in their old apartment when he'd gone back. Or to be truthful, and despite what people might say Contractors tended more towards honesty then lying, he'd wanted to see Akira and outside of the Go Institute this was the only place he could think to go. He's not sure what to do with these half formed impulses he finds flooding his mind lately, replacing the cold logic with confusion and indecision.
It starts to rain as he packs up the little travel goban and he clutches the fan he found laying across the goban in the apartment as he walks away. He doesn't think about the three dead bodies halfway across town, except to think that maybe he'll finally be left alone. He's not entirely sure what his future holds anymore now that the Syndicate has fallen apart and the world knows about Contractors. He thinks he'd like to be Shindou Hikaru again though.
It's seven months after the Tokyo Explosion when Akira comes home from a late night celebrating Isumi's elevation to 7-Dan and finds Hikaru's fan missing. He searches the apartment for it despite knowing that there was no way it could be anywhere but the goban because the furthest it ever moves is to the floor when he's playing a game, but he does it anyway. Then he calls Waya. To be accurate he calls Waya five times before he picks up the phone with an irritated, “What?”
“The fan is gone.” He doesn't need to say anything else because there is no other fan and the silence stretches for a long minute.
Finally he hears Waya take in a shaky breath, “You're sure?”
He wants to scream that of course he's sure, but Hikaru was the only one he was ever able to yell at with any regularity, “Yes, I looked everywhere. It's gone.”
They hang up after making plans to meet the next day and Akira is left alone in his (their) apartment. There's absolutely no other sign of anyone having been there, but the fan is gone and there's only one person who would take it. He doesn't sleep that night, instead he sits in front of the goban listening to the rain and wondering why Hikaru left him again.
He spends the next day holed up in a tiny hotel room staring at the fan. He knows logically that it doesn't make sense that he spent several years haunted by a Go obsessed ghost. He knows ghosts aren't logical. He knows that there must be a better explanation for his sudden interest in Go and how quickly he learned it. At the same time he can remember Sai so clearly. As clearly as he remembers kifu. He can remember those days and he knows that Sai was real. It's not rational, but he thinks that maybe he'll try being irrational again.
The next day he wanders around Tokyo. He eats ramen because he remembers liking it and looks at the places he used to frequent and somehow finds himself in front of the entrance to the Touya Go Salon. He hasn't been in a salon since he woke up a Contractor. The chance of being recognized was too great, but he's being Shindou Hikaru again so it seems right to walk up the steps. The soft sounds of stones hitting the boards reaches him before he gets to the door and he stands outside listening to it for a moment. He finds himself grinning, just slightly, as he pushes through the door.
The lady standing at the counter isn't Ichikawa and he's not sure if that should be a relief or not. Logically he knows it's a good thing as he's not ready to be recognized, but he also knows if that was the only thing he was concerned about he wouldn't be in this Go salon of all places. He has a brief moment of confusion when she asks for his money, he's pretty sure he's never had to pay there before, but he pulls out the required yen and walks to the back of the room. The set up is the same and it's easy to find the goban he always played Akira on. From the look the lady gives him as he sits down he's pretty sure Akira still plays on it.
He takes a moment to take in the sight and sound and smell of the place before opening the bowls. It's been close to six years since he's laid out a kifu for anything other than his obeisance and close to three since he's held an actual stone in his hand instead of the magnets from his travel set and he fumbles the first one. The sound of it falling back into bowl makes him flinch, but he tries again. He puts it on the board without much thought and panics briefly before running through his mental catalog and finding a game he played with Sai that started in the same place. From there it's easy to play out the rest of the game.
It's only after he's finished laying it out that he realizes there are tears running down his face. He lifts a hand up to feel the wetness across his cheek. He can't remember the last time he cried. It's absurd, but there is always some element of choice when it comes to obeisance, a Contractor's renumeration is ultimately a very personal thing after all, and Hikaru has always chosen to use games he played himself. More specifically games he played with Sai or Akira. For six years they were the only thing he spread across the goban and suddenly he knows exactly why. He wanted to feel that way again, the way playing Go with those two always made him feel. Because Contractors may not have feelings, but they have memories and he was more than capable of missing those feelings his memory told him he had. Letting the tears fall freely he moves to the next goban in the line.
Walking into the salon with Waya and Isumi still feels like it should feel awkward, even though he's been friends with them for what feels like forever. Losing Hikaru brought them together, but a part of Akira will always long for the days they were stiff and uncomfortable around each other because in those days Hikaru was the reason they were in the same room. They're no closer to the answer behind the missing fan then they were yesterday and he knows they had dragged Akira here in an attempt to distract him. It doesn't work until he sees Achiko's face and wonders what happened to piss her off that much, “Achiko?”
She notices them than and gestures to the back area where Akira always sits, “This, this, boy comes in and almost doesn't pay before going back there and doing that! Then he just up and leaves!”
It takes him a second to realize what 'that' is, but looking towards the gobans set up there he can see each one covered in stones. A dozen games laid out and left there and he turns to assure Achiko that everything is fine when Isumi yells, “Waya, Touya, come here!”
They look at each other and shrug before walking over to where Isumi is standing in front of one of the boards. Akira recognizes it instantly as the last official game he played against Hikaru. A simple oteai match that Hikaru had won by an embarrassing margin. The three of them turned to the next one, “That was the semi-finals for the Fujitsu Cup. Hikaru beat me and then lost to Yoshiro.” His voice is flat and he feels like he's talking from far away. If this is someone's idea of a joke he will kill them.
The next one makes them all pause for a moment because while Hikaru's Go is clear the opponent isn't Akira. Finally Waya breathes out quietly, “Sai.” It makes sense because Hikaru and Sai were always tied together in some way, even if he refused to talk about it and seeing proof of that relationship laid out before them doesn't leave anything but a bitter taste in Akira's mouth after all this time.
The next board is another game with Sai, but the one after that stops Akira in his tracks once he recognizes it, “We played this in bed one night when Hikaru couldn't sleep. Blind Go.” He doesn't need to say anymore because there's no way anyone could know about a game they'd played in the dark calling out positions to each other. It's proof that it was Hikaru who laid out the games.
And suddenly he's crying because Hikaru is alive and in Tokyo and he wants to find him and punch him for disappearing and coming back like this, “Where is he?”
He doesn't go back to the hotel. Instead he buys a cup of tea and goes back to wandering. He feels empty, but in a good way. Like his indecisions are just gone and his path is clear again. He stops at a park and sits on one of the benches, contemplating his next move as he sips his tea and realizes it's gone cold. There's a flash of something that might be happiness that courses through him as he re-heats the tea. This is what Contractors should be like; someone who can re-heat their tea when it gets cold, not someone who can boil all the blood in a person's body. He scratches out a 9x9 grid in the dirt with his foot, almost absentmindedly, and marks the places with Xs and Os while he finishes his tea.
Walking back to the apartment he can't help but notice the destruction to the Wall. They say BK-201 is responsible for it and if that's the case he really wishes he could thank the Black Reaper. The Tokyo Explosion destroyed the Syndicate and let him do this. Let him make this attempt at being Shindou Hikaru once more. He's not sure he can be, he's not sure he can remember what it was like to love Akira and Go and miss Sai. He wants to try though and he hopes that's enough.
Or at least a starting point.
Waya and Isumi clean up the boards while Akira breaks down. Once he's done they each take an arm and he follows them out of the salon and down the street. It's only after they shove a bag of drinks in his arms that he realizes they stopped to pick up food, “What?”
“And he awakens!” Waya attempts to tease, but it falls flat and they all know it. “We're getting some food, going back to your apartment, and figuring out what to tell the police.”
He snorts in response and Isumi shrugs, “I know they figure he just ran off, but we have proof he's still around now. We'll figure out something to say to them to get them to look. He's in the city somewhere.”
It's a bit too much to hope for, that after all these years the police will go out and find Hikaru and after that he's not sure. It's not like they can go back to the way it was before. Too much time has passed and he's not the same person even if he does still long to wake up one morning to find Hikaru drooling on his pillow and the past six years a terrible dream. But they can't go back, they can only go forward, and he's not sure he's strong enough to except that Hikaru might have just left him for no reason at all.
The rest of the walk is silent and he tries not to think about anything. It works well enough because the next thing he notices is his apartment door. They're all inside and toeing off their shoes when he notices someone is in the apartment. He turns and freezes, the bag of drinks falling from his hands, one of the bottles smashing, because Hikaru is there, hair all one color now. Sitting cross-legged in front of the goban, his fan clutched tightly in his hands like he never left. Only instead of the wide grin Akira remembers so well his mouth is in a tight line and his eyes are completely blank. Akira walks past the dropped bag and stops at the other side of the goban, “Hikaru.”
“MI-782,” Hikaru says in response and for a second Akira is sure he's lost his ability to comprehend speech because it makes no sense, but he continues looking down at the goban and tracing the lines. “I used to think playing Go was like creating a universe. White stars against a black sky of my own design. I'm part of that fake sky now and I want to remember what it was like making other ones with you.” He looks confused and a little hopeful as he finishes his speech and Akira isn't sure anything he said made any sense.
There's a clatter behind him and he turns to see that it's Waya who's dropped his bag this time. He's rushing across the room now, “Contractor.” It's a word that sends a shiver down Akira's spine and he turns back to look at Hikaru in horror. Because suddenly the speech makes some sense. They say the stars are really Contractors or those Dolls and he vaguely remembers Waya talking about a code used to catalog them. And he wants to vomit because he doesn't want to think of Hikaru, his Hikaru, doing the things they say Contractors do. He doesn't want to think about Hikaru waking up one morning and walking out of his life because suddenly he wasn't human anymore. Instead he stares at the man sitting in at the goban waiting for him to deny it.
Instead he nods at Waya and then looks back up at Akira, “Can you show me how to do it again?”
He wants to cry again, wants to run away and pretend none of this happened, instead he sits down on the other side of the goban, “You can be black.”