[Viis]

May. 5th, 2015 12:01 am
answer_key: (igobu)
An earnest wish, granted



Her son, Mitsuko thought, had never once in his life been graceful.


He had never stepped so lightly as this, like air; never had skin so pale, almost translucent, nor eyes so dark and sad. This was her Hikaru for goodness sake, the boy who turned his chopsticks into a shovel when there was ramen in front of him, who hadn’t said a polite word to her in years--now saying hello to her, head ducked low and demure.


His hair was mussed, his eyes lined with red.


“Oh, you’re up. I thought you were napping.” She sounded inane even to herself. “You seemed so tired when you got home, I thought you’d be in bed for hours.”


“I...ended up not sleeping.”


“Ah. Hard time falling asleep?”


“...Yes.”


She waited a moment, because he was always so prickly nowadays, before asking, “Hikaru, are you sick? You look like you’re...not yourself.”


He did not scowl or rail at her. He raised a strangely self-conscious hand to his lips, and the look on his face was...almost one of hurt, but the kind of hurt that is born of love; an expression she hadn’t seen on his face since he was a little boy. “I’m not sick, mother.”


Mother?


Mitsuko walked over to him, to where he was standing so hesitantly by the stairs, and put a hand to his forehead. At her touch Hikaru’s eyes flew open wide and his breath came out sharp and quick; his own hand rose to clasp hers, seemingly without thought. There was something like surprise in his expression. Wonder, even.


“Hikaru?”


His hand squeezed hers and her heart squeezed a little too. Had it been so long since she’d touched her own son?


“Hikaru,” she said his name again, because that is what mothers do, “are you sure you’re all right?”


His hand fell away.


“…I’m just feeling a little off colour,” he said, as if he ever said things like off colour, and then he made her worry worse by adding, “My apologies.” He must have seen the emotions plain on her face, because he laughed quietly, a small, hapless sound. “I’m sorry. I don’t usually apologize, do I?”


She decided not to answer that, for all that it was true--because it was true. “Why don’t you sit down and I’ll take your temperature.”


He moved to the kitchen table and seated himself, slowly, in the chair his father usually took. Then he thought better of it and moved to his usual seat.


Taking his temperature was a strange, slow process. She told him to open his mouth and he opened it. She told him to close his mouth and he closed it. He did not know to do these things on his own, like he was a toddler again. He looked at her with huge, worried eyes, and she told herself not to make the same eyes at him; she was his mother, and she had to at least pretend.


The fact that he did not have a fever only made her heart beat faster.


“I think you should stay home and take it easy today.”


He nodded. He did not even ask what his temperature was.


“At least it’s a holiday,” she nattered on, absolutely insipid. “Honestly, the Go Institute shouldn’t have made you work during Golden Week at all.”


He nodded again and did not argue when she led him back to his room.


When she opened his door she frowned at the wide open window, at the long curtains billowing white and eerie in the spring breeze. No wonder he’d gotten sick.


-----


For lunch, she brought rice porridge and ginger tea to Hikaru’s room. The ginger was meant to soothe a sore throat or cough and he had neither; but what else could she give him?


When she came in Hikaru was staring at his go board. It lay on the floor with only a few black and white pieces on it, as if he’d barely started a game before abandoning it. The sight of it bothered her; for all his faults, Hikaru was not one to leave his go things lying around.


“I’m sorry the food is so plain, but I didn’t want to make you wait.”


She laid the tray on his lap and waited until he turned away from the goban and toward what she’d made for him. A flicker of emotion crossed his pallid face. He took a deep breath of the porridge and closed his eyes to feel the hot steam rising, as though it was something special. Watching him, she felt wretched that she had not laid a pickled plum on top of the rice porridge. Her own mother had always put a pickled plum on her rice porridge when she was sick. The acid in pickling juice could kill bacteria, right?


Hand shaking, Hikaru picked up the spoon and ate.


“This is...it’s truly delicious.”


“It’s just rice and water,” she said, but it pleased and unnerved her all at once that Hikaru would compliment her cooking. He was smiling, a smile as thin and watery as the porridge. He looked like he was going to cry.


“Hikaru?” she said.


“I’m all right. Really, I am.” He didn’t sound like he could convince even himself. But he ate all of her cooking, and after the food was done drank the tea with a slow, savouring calm. He seemed to regain some of his self-possession as he drank; in fact he settled into a strange sort of motionlessness, the kind he only ever showed in front of a goban, showed to his friends and to her father but not to her.


Her son should not be this graceful, she told herself again. What kind of sickness made a person like this?


At length he turned to her, a slow, lovely turning.


“You’ve done so much for me,” he murmured.


“This?” she said, deflecting. “This is the easiest meal in the world to make. You would know if you ever tried to cook anything.”


“Hm,” he said, a faint smile appearing on his lips. She hadn’t known such a small smile could make her so happy. “I’ve never prepared my own meal before.”


Mitsuko looked down at her hands. No go calluses there, but they were worn down in other ways. “I could teach you, if you’re interested? I know you’re really busy nowadays, but if you can find the time...”


The smile turned pensive, then faded away altogether.


“Or maybe after you graduate from middle school,” she added quickly. “When you’re less busy.” What had she said wrong? “Don’t worry yourself too much for now. You have plenty of time to grow up.”


“Truly?”


His eyes were level with hers and said more than he was saying, but she did not know how to read the message there.


She was getting tired of tip-toeing around like this. Hikaru was being...secretive, like he always was, like any teenager, but not in his usual blustering way. It frightened her. It frustrated her. She wondered if all parents felt like this at times.


“Hikaru,” she said, taking his hand, trying to ignore the way he tightened up. “Whatever is going on with you, you need to tell me. You say you’re not sick, but how do you know? Are you in some kind of trouble? Did you get in a fight with a friend? Are you…” she bit her lip, an old habit, “taking any weird medicines? Did someone give you something? Not knowing worries me more than anything.” The words tumbled out of her, and she knew it was too much at once but she could not stop. “I know we haven’t agreed on much lately but I’m your mother, Hikaru. I’ll always be here for you. Just tell me, so I can help.”


As she spoke his eyes slid away from hers. His ways went distant, dreamlike; she felt like only her hand on his kept him from floating away.


“You’re a very good mother,” he said finally. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. All these years I’ve been so selfish. I never thought of you enough. What I’ve done to you, and to...I’ve been so selfish.”


There was too much weight behind his words. Why, why was he being so... “No. It’s not your fault. You’ve just been...a teenager. I was horrible to my parents when I was your age.”


A small, strangled laugh emerged from his throat. “My age. But perhaps you’re right. Perhaps I haven’t grown up at all, and that’s why I can’t go on.”


He couldn’t mean...the fear rose up in her throat, and she didn’t wonder anymore if this was something all parents felt. This was not ordinary terror. Her son sounded like he wanted to die.


“Let me take you to the doctor, Hikaru.”


He shook his head right away, as if he’d been expecting her to ask. “I’m not sick.”


“Not physically, maybe, but…” She bit her lip again. “Dr. Hasegawa is away, but I’m sure we can find a clinic that’s open. Or the emergency room if we have to.”


He shook his head again, and the set of his lips was firm. She wondered if he would fight her, physically fight her, if she tried to force him into the car.


“No,” he said. “I refuse.”


“Why?”


“Do you want them to say I’m crazy, mother?” He said this blandly, as if it only pertained to her future, not his. “Do you want to be the mother of a boy who has lost his mind?”


“You’re not crazy,” she said automatically, but fear tinged her words with the lie of it. “You’re just a little...different.”


“I’m myself,” he said faintly. “I’ve always been here.”


“What do you mean?”


He didn’t give her time to collect her thoughts. He turned to her, a swift motion like a fan snapping shut, and said, “Please. I know you’re worried. But...I think it best if we...I don’t want strangers giving me medicines or trying to...understand me. I don’t think he...I don’t want to put myself through that. So instead,” he took a deep breath, “if it is not too much trouble, could you take me to my grandfather’s house? There’s something I need to see there.”


----


The temptation to turn the car toward the hospital was a strong one. There was the turn-off, at that traffic light--she only had to take it.


But he was so fragile, right now, she told herself. His trust, his love--those were in her keeping, as were her promises.


“For dinner, let’s have hot pot,” she said as she passed the intersection, if only to fill the air with noise. “Hot food is good when you’re not feeling well. Maybe you’re lacking nutrition. You’ve been traveling a lot lately and I don’t think you’ve been getting enough vegetables. I’ll put lots in the hot pot, and not too much meat.”


“Yes,” he said, voice tight, “that would be well.”


He alternately squirmed and held himself completely still in his seat. She’d had to put the seatbelt on him herself, because apparently he’d forgotten how. Amnesia of some sort? she wondered. She’d heard of things like this. People who forgot who they were and ran away from their forgetting; they would disappear suddenly without a word to their families and start a new life elsewhere, heedless of the pain they’d left behind.


Perhaps it had been a mistake to take the car when her father’s house was so close. Hikaru had looked so doubtful when she’d told him to get inside. He seemed not to want to touch anything. Maybe the walk, one he’d taken so many times, would have jogged his memory of himself.


But the thought of him running off, disappearing forever, had made her want to strap him down and hear the satisfying click of the safety belt, and they’d taken the car in spite of Hikaru’s nervous shivers.


There was so much wrong with him. He was like a child, like an old, old man. She should have taken him to the doctor after all, she chided herself, fear clogging her throat. If he really was in some kind of fugue state he needed more help than she could give. What if it was a disease that only got better if you treated it right away? Could the doctors still do anything if she waited? Could the doctors change him back to her little boy? Or would they take him away from her and never give him back?


Her father, she thought desperately; she would ask him. In a way he knew her boy better than she did. It had been like that ever since Hikaru started playing go, more than two years ago now. It was so strange, the way her flighty son had suddenly become so fascinated with that old game, without cause, without warning. He’d started talking to himself and holing himself up in his room around the same time, hadn’t he? So strange, the person her Hikaru had become. Today was not the first time she’d thought so.


Yes; all this started long ago, on that day he’d gone to his grandfather’s house with Akari and ended up in the hospital at the end of it. It was good that they were going there. Akari told them about the strange things Hikaru said in that dingy attic, not to her but to someone else, to no one. Something about blood stains. Something about a voice only he could hear.


Mitsuko gripped the steering wheel harder.


What if her son was already gone forever?


----



“Mitsuko? And Hikaru! Good to see you.”


Her father’s cheer was contagious--even Hikaru lit up as her father ushered them into the house without preamble, laughing as he shooed them past a messy pile of dirt from an overturned houseplant. A prayer plant, she thought absently; she coldn’t remember the more scientific name. It hadn’t been here the last time she visited.


“Your grandmother is out,” her father was telling Hikaru. “She’ll probably kill me when she sees I killed her new plant.”


“Oh no,” said Hikaru. “Perhaps we should clean it up?”


Her father guffawed and slapped Hikaru on the back. “Good one! Who are you and what did you do with my grandson?”


Hikaru stiffened.


“Mitsuko! Let’s have tea. Don’t worry about the mess. I’ll clean it up before your mother gets back, never fear.”


“Come on, Hikaru,” she said as gently as she could, and tugged on his sleeve until he followed.


Her father started boiling water, chattering away about Touya Akira (even she knew that name by now) and league matches in some kind of go tournament as they waited. Hikaru made polite, simple replies; Mitsuko prepared the tea tray. She knew what kind of rice crackers Hikaru liked best, and her parents had them stocked here. When the tea was ready her father led them to the living room.


There was a go board waiting there, of course.


“Don’t give me that look, Mitsuko. We won’t ignore you. We’re perfectly capable of playing and talking at the same time. Right, kiddo?” He cast a surreptious look at Hikaru, no doubt confused about why his noisy grandson wasn’t being noisy at all.


“Actually, Dad...” she said, not sure how to answer his silent questions, “there’s something I need to talk to you about…”


“Like I said, we can talk and play at the same time.”


He looked pointedly at Hikaru, who nodded, and there was that look in her son’s eyes again, that still, serious look, and she wanted to scream at her father it’s go that’s made him like this, it’s go that took my little boy away! but she didn’t want to be the crazy one here. She had to be sane and steady, for her son’s sake. So she said, “All right” and seated herself beside the board.


Her father plunked himself down with rather less ceremony and busied himself setting up the game. Hikaru busied himself staring at the game pieces tumbling out of their baskets, fascinated with something he saw every day. Mitsuko busied herself with pouring tea.


There were worried wrinkles on her father’s brow, she couldn’t help noticing. He had seen that Hikaru was strange--it was impossible not to see--but he had chosen to say nothing. Perhaps he was wiser than she was. He was her father, after all.


“How many stones today, do you think?”


Hikaru sipped his tea (he seemed to cover his mouth whenever he could), then said, too quietly, “Seven.”


“Seven stones! I know you’re a pro now, but I’m not that weak.”


Hikaru gave his grandfather an oddly pained look, then offered a four stone handicap, which seemed a more palatable number.


“So how was your seminar?” her father said, after a few moves had been played. “Was Ogata-juudan there?”


“He was.”


“You play him?”


“...In a way.”


Hikaru’s voice had gone hoarse and low. He dabbed at his eyes with his sleeves.


“Hikaru…?” her father did not finish his question. A fifteen-year-old boy was crying; there was no need to embarrass him further by saying it.


“I’m sorry,” Hikaru gasped out. “It’s wrong of me, but…to be playing with my own two hands...God forgive me, but I’m happy.”


More tears squeezed out from those scrunched, unhappy eyes, and Mitsuko’s wise old father gave her a look of complete bewilderment.


“Did something happen at the seminar?” he asked, voice worried and soothing, and Mitsuko thought, somewhat hysterically, that they would be using that kind of voice on her son for the rest of his life.


“Nothing happened,” Hikaru said. “I got to play go there.”


“Well, of course you did.” Her father looked to her, as though she had answers. “Did you lose a game you expected to win? Anyone put you down, give you trouble?”


Hikaru shook his head mutely.


They waited, but he said nothing more on the matter. Eventually, the lines on his face smoothed away; his expression went blank and calm, and she wasn’t sure if she hated this face more than the other.


“I give you my thanks,” he said, eyes blank, “for this game, but I’m afraid I can’t finish it. I should not have imposed upon you.”


“Hikaru,” her father’s face went incredulous, too shocked still to be hurt, “you know it’s never--”


“Please,” said the child in a steely tone she had never heard him use before, “do not ask me again to play. It’s not that I don’t want to,” and his voice broke a little, the steel brittle, “but it is not my right and it is not why I came here. Please, just allow me one favour: I would like to see the goban in the attic. Once I have done that, I will go and leave you in peace.”


TBC

[Viisi]

May. 5th, 2015 12:01 am
answer_key: (igobu)
Step by Step



Touya Akira is, without a doubt, utterly brilliant.

(Not that Hikaru would ever tell him that, but the point stands.)

He is incredibly tenacious and fierce in pursuit of his own goals, and once he zooms in on his target, he tears down every obstacle on his path until he has it. He always plays to win - just ask anyone who has faced him across the goban, seriously - and he is too damn good at ripping apart defenses and sending his opponents running.

(It is the most beautiful thing, actually, but Hikaru is not about to inform him of that, either.)

But the thing is - and Hikaru can definitely bring up the kifu of his games against Touya to prove it – direct attacks are not always the best strategy. They sure are effective in battles, but sometimes a little subterfuge will get you miles further than direct confrontation.

For example, in cases like this, thinks Hikaru as he lies on his bed in the hotel room in Beijing. He has just hung up on Touya, who is apparently a stubborn old man worse than his grandpa if he cannot openly admit that Hikaru's victory over some Chinese 9-dan was the most awesome thing this week, and his voice is sore from arguing for - he checks his phone - one hour twenty-seven minutes, and he thinks if he has make do with these phone calls any longer, he will stab someone.

It is unacceptable. They are eternal rivals - anyone will tell you that - and it's absolutely unquestionable that it should take priority over everything. It is vitally important that they have enough time to spend playing against each other, pushing and pulling each other to new heights, and yeah, maybe screaming into each other's faces every so often, if Touya insists on being blind to the obvious truths of Hikaru's words. And with their schedules being packed too tight with an ever-increasing number official matches and other commitments, it's totally unacceptable that their quality rival time together should suffer from it.

It's a good thing Hikaru has already thought up a solution for that. True enough, it will take up some time and not a little bit of stealth to carry out the plan, but Hikaru is pretty confident he can pull it off.

Touya can sometimes be stupid, thinks Hikaru, but that's okay, because Hikaru can always point him the error of his ways by outmaneuvering him.

* * *

The flight back home is exhausting and overall way longer than it should have been. It must be the unexpected delays, Hikaru thinks as he struggles to stand upright in front of the airport timetable, he's no good with them. Not after three weeks of doing things that were not playing against Touya.

He impatiently tugs at the straps of his carry-on bag and wonders if he can call Ashiwara-san already, or if 7 a.m. is still too early. The thought of starting on implementing his clever plan as soon as he's back in Japan is the only thing that keeps his eyes open after a sleepless night.

By the time his plane lands at Narita airport, it's already nearing noon. Hikaru dials Ashiwara's number even before he's cleared the customs, and the man clearly has a good grasp of and healthy respect for eternal rivalry, because without further questions he agrees to leave his copy of keys to Touya's apartment for Hikaru to pick up. Ashiwara is a great person, Hikaru thinks as he ends the call with heartfelt thanks.

Touya's apartment is predictably quiet and clean when Hikaru finally enters it. He would laugh at the familiar museum-levels of prissiness of the place, but his knees are weak with the relief at finally being here. Hikaru's legs buckle under him and he collapses on Touya's couch, asleep almost the very minute that his head touches its surface.

When he wakes up from what feels like hours spent lying unconscious in the same position, if his sore limbs are anything to judge by, it is to see Touya standing in the doorway, watching him.

"Didn't someone tell you that it's creepy to stand around staring at people when they sleep?" Hikaru croaks out as he rubs his eyes and tries not to sound too happy. It's not very easy, not when it's been three weeks, not when Touya is finally there, within arm's reach, only slight creases on his otherwise immaculate suit and barely perceptible tightness around his eyes showing that it has been a long day for him, too.

"Didn't someone tell you that it's creepy to break into other people's apartments?" Touya returns, raising his eyebrow in his very Touya way that means he's not actually angry, but will not hold back with criticism on principle - that very Touya way that Hikaru hasn't seen for what feels like years, Hikaru thinks, as he rebuffs with something half-hearted about Ashiwara and the key and tries not to grin. It wouldn't do to scare Touya off by acting like a happy loon, he reminds himself, not when he has not yet secured his territory.

"If you're here then make yourself useful," Touya says before Hikaru can come up with something clever to further his plans. "Get up so we can play."

And somehow this is best and the rightest thing either of them could have said, and Hikaru feels a bubble of warmth in his chest grow so large that he can't hold it in anymore, and he's beaming, delighted with being back to Touya, with being able to sit opposite him and play him again, and he thinks Touya must be happy about it too, even if he's still lingering in the doorway with a half-smile on his face.

* * *

For the next several days, Touya is almost completely preoccupied with his upcoming opening game for the Kisei title. The match is going to be held in Brazil, which is important enough to be doomed to have major media coverage, and conveniently far away so that Touya's hands are too full with preparations to pay attention to what Hikaru's doing.

Seriously, he doesn't even have much heart to nag Touya about his duty not to shame their rivalry in those faraway lands and show a decent game against Ogata, or the time to quietly (very, very quietly) feel furiously proud for Touya.

He is too busy using the camouflage offered by the rush of preparations to lay down the first stones of his genius plan.

It's nothing too conspicuous.

On the next day after his arrival he drops by his house to say hi to his mom ("Hikaru, are you leaving already, you just got home!"), to his room to pick up a few things ("Stay for dinner with us!"), check up on his goban ("Well, at least call me every other day and don't forget to eat!") and then returns to Touya's apartment.

He brings only the essentials with him - a few of his most inconspicuous t-shirts, stuff he can wear to the Institute, a couple of kifu collections he wants to study, and a few snacks. Hikaru is sure that they will go unnoticed in the depths of Touya's half-empty shelves and cupboards, especially if Hikaru keeps a low profile on things.

It is not some sort of statement, Hikaru thinks as he puts his shampoo on one of the bathroom shelves, behind Touya's toiletries. He's just making sure he has his base here, a lynchpin to his strategy and a perfectly valid explanation why he doesn't need to return to his parents' house just yet.

Days before Touya's departure pass by, and he doesn't protest or otherwise comment on Hikaru's continued presence in his apartment. Hikaru takes it as a sign that his plan goes really well. Not that he has expected Touya to object, Hikaru amends hastily, because that wouldn't have made any sense. Touya is just as committed to their rivalry as Hikaru, so it only stands to reason that more time in each other's company that can be spent playing Go should be a good thing in his books, too. Would be, if only he had thought of it.

Still, Hikaru is happy, and quietly pleased with his progress.

* * *

It's not until Touya actually leaves after a sleepy morning game of speed Go that Hikaru remembers that Touya's apartment is a boring, boring place which offers nothing in the way of entertainment (unless your idea of entertainment is an assortment of Chinese dictionaries or worse, Korean textbooks).

Hikaru uses the opportunity of having the apartment all to himself to establish his territory a bit more, drops by to see his mother ("Hikaru, I'm glad you dropped by! Dinner's ready!"), his goban and pick up a few more things from his room ("Hikaru, do you want seconds? Why are you raiding the bathroom, do you have some foreign tournament again?") to carefully deposit them later at various corners of Touya's apartment. He goes grocery shopping to fill Touya's pathetically empty shelves with real food, solves one book of Go problems and goes as far as vacuum-cleaning the whole place.

He feels very accomplished and his presence here more than justified, but by the end of the second day, he completely runs out of the things to do in his free time. Once he has wrestled with time differences to confirm that by now Touya must have regained consciousness after his million-light years-long trip to Sao Paulo, he picks up the godawful phone again.

"Hey Touya, let's play a game," Hikaru says without beating around the bush. Surely, Touya must feel it too, that restlessness that can only go away in a game between them. Hikaru can swear his brain becomes idle if they don't play too long, and he's itching to go ahead, slam the first stone furiously on the board and then a torrent of them right after it, to get swept away in the stream of their game.

Apparently, Touya feels the same, Hikaru thinks as he grins fiercely into the phone pressed against his cheek, because he agrees without hesitation, and the pa-ching of stones on the goban is faced-paced on both sides and it is exhilarating and fulfilling and just what both of them need.

But the fierce pacing and sheer aggression of this game is no reason to get carried away, Hikaru thinks with a smile as Touya misses that one small move in the center, completely misses its importance and walks right into the trap Hikary has been setting up. It's not even a hand later that he hears a ragged breath on the other end of the line and a grudging admission of defeat.

"Wow, I hope you won't play like that against Ogata tomorrow," Hikaru says, wiping the sweat off his face with the sleeve of his shirt. The game leaves him nearly trembling with excitement and exhaustion, but still, he has won, so he feels like rubbing it in. "Then they will have to reschedule everything, because no way would you last long enough to make it a two-day game."

A thumping noise is his answer, and then Touya's muffled voice reaches him.

"Shindou, I hate you so much."

And it's because he can just imagine the sight Touya presents at this very moment, probably plastered facedown on his hotel bed, glaring angrily at the phone through the shiny mop of his hair, Hikaru laughs, completely happy with the world.

When Touya mercilessly trashes all of Ogata's formations on the board in an efficient reenactment of this game two days later, Hikaru observes all the improvements and precise adjustments Touya has brought into it, and his heart feels light and very, very hot.

* * *

Hikaru takes his own preparations for Touya's return very seriously. Of course, he is looking forward to seeing him and playing him again, but Hikaru is aware that this is a very crucial stage in his plan. He has to casually convince Touya that Hikaru's presence in his living space is all-around beneficial to Touya - not just as the easiest way to play each other, but also, um. Good. In a more... flatmate-like sense, too. Flatmates is a good, rivalry-compatible word, right? And Touya will see the truth of it if Hikaru just shows him what a great flatmate he makes.

So he cleans up the apartment again, puts away his own things even more neatly than before, and even goes as far as to call Akari to ask her about something easy to cook. However, she refuses to be understanding at all, and instead of just telling him what to do, she grills him on what kind of a cooker he plans to use (like, aren't they all the same anyway, what does she care?) and whether he has a cutting board and knows how to stir-fry things. Because of that, not only does he run out of time to actually cook anything, but also almost misses the moment Touya comes back.

"Hey, you're back! I made tea. Do you want food? I'll make some!" Hikaru greets him, desperately trying not to think that his plan is threatened by something as stupid as a cooker.

Touya just stands there with his suitcase propped against the wall like one of those polished adults from airport ads, and thoughtfully looks at Hikaru as if he proposed something outrageous. Hikaru gulps and tells himself that he hasn't said or done anything even remotely outrageous yet, and unless Touya is a psychic, there is absolutely no proof there are any plans of this sort of thing in Hikaru's head at all.

"You're offering to... make me food?"

The cautious way Touya says these words would have been offending if Hikaru wasn't more worried about the transparency of his own intentions.

"I can make food. I'm great at food. Like, I could probably cook every day and stuff for... people."

Hikaru tries not to look at Touya, and prays to gods he hasn't messed it up yet.

Flatmates, flatmates. Please don't let Touya suspect anything and ruin this wonderful, wonderful plan.

Why did he think that this was going to be easy, Touya never makes it easy for him.

When Touya lets out a small huff, the one that interviewers get to hear sometimes when they are clearly being stupid and Touya is too polite to strangers for his own good to tell them that directly, Hikaru looks up in alarm. But Touya has already marched off to inspect the rooms - all the rooms, including even the bathroom, and what can be so interesting in the bloody bathroom cabinet, for god's sake, there is not that much stuff there anyway.

Hikaru finds hovering over Touya's shoulder too stressful and unproductive, and strategically retreats into kitchen. It's still salvageable, he thinks furiously as he prods the vegetables with a knife. How hard can cooking be anyway? He'll do it, and Touya will stop being so goddamn suspicious, and will happily forget about the hair mousse, because it's such an unimportant detail and -

"Shindou, are you moving into my apartment without asking me?"

God, Touya, would it hurt him to be less, less - less difficult?

"Is this about the hair mousse?" Hikaru asks, aware how pathetic it sounds, but not yet ready to give up on his plan. "Because it isn't like you're lacking space or anything."

"That isn't what I was asking."

Difficult and stubborn and absolutely terrible at being lead around. Hikaru feels cornered.

"Do you think I should move into your apartment?" he asks, and tries to come up with a list of things that would be worse than Touya saying a flat-out no. Sharing a flat with Kuwabara comes to mind, or beach holidays with Ogata, which are plenty terrible and Hikaru will need a brain bleach to erase these mental images, but somehow the sight of Touya watching him silently, quite possibly thinking life-ruining things, terrifies him so much more.

Kuwabara AND Ogata on a beach holiday. Hikaru wants to claw his eyes out.

"If you want to move your stuff in, just move your stuff in. Don't drag in bits and pieces."

Touya says that evenly, as if he was commenting on a match, and Hikaru has never heard anything better, and he wants to yell and laugh and slump down on the floor in relief, and also probably jump at Touya. But Touya just stands there, looking pristine with his prissy suit and shiny hair, quiet and calm and a little bit perfect, so Hikaru reminds himself not to ruin this, and just smiles.

* * *

Now that his presence in the apartment is established, Hikaru eases up enough to throw himself with full energy into his Honinbou qualifiers. It's not that he hasn't paid them enough attention before - he always does, because he is all too aware of the gap between himself and Touya, of every league he is not in, of every missed opportunity to play against Touya in an official match. But now he feels more anchored, more comfortable, and facing opponents who have spent the better part of their lives trying to get into the league feels easier somehow. Smoother.

And it definitely doesn't mean that he puts his plan on hold, either; on the contrary, he played his move, Touya answered, and they both turned their attention to different parts of the board. They will come back to these stones once other formations have grown and added new layers of meaning to the game. In the meantime, Hikaru thinks it wouldn't hurt to give Touya some time to get really used to the new arrangement before attempting... anything else. When the time is right, Hikaru is sure he'll think of what could possibly be... attempted, but for now, they can both reap the benefits of the current situation.

And judging by how awfully he plays his next two Kisei games, Touya definitely needs to all the benefits, too, which Hikaru is happy to provide. He points out all the lame-ass weak moves Touya played - seriously, does he go into the matches against Ogata wanting to lose? – and kindly explains in detail what would have been a better strategy.

It becomes especially pleasant to yell at Touya about his mistakes once Hikaru wins his way into the Honinbou league, and can feel his fingers curl in excitement at the idea of league matches they will soon play against each other.

Touya manages to win his fourth game by being absolutely ridiculous and shamelessly playing Hikaru’s Go for all the world to see. Hikaru yells at him extra hard until Touya calmly points out that Hikaru's Go just happened to be a part of his own.

Hikaru finds that agreeing quietly is the only thing he can do not to cry.

* * *

Touya continues to benefit greatly from their new living arrangements, and Hikaru doesn't have to sputter over the kifu of his fifth Kisei match and threaten to unsubscribe from their rivalry. It fact, it is so good that Hikaru has barely anything to say about it, and Touya seems to understand, because he is going about the house with some newfound zen, looking at the world serenely from under his long hair, smiling inscrutable half-smiles and generally making Hikaru very, very restless.

Not because of Touya's smooth voice or exceptionally long, thoughtful stares, mind you. It's just Hikaru doesn't know what brought this zen on, and whether it will last Touya through the sixth game, which is very important, because Ogata has had enough of this winning Kisei title matches business.

Hikaru worries, and does his best to help Touya with preparation: they play game after game, and have long discussions, and for all means and purposes Touya seems immoveable - tranquil and balanced, as if some great Go truth has descended on him and bestowed upon him insights yet unknown to Hikaru. Such an epiphany itself would not be the problem; being eternal rivals means that whatever one of them learns, the other will eventually learn, too, because that's just how their never-ending race works. Hikaru is just worried that somewhere in this zen there is complacency, and Ogata will jump on it, because he knows Touya's game too well and will sniff out any weakness, real or imaginary, and exploit it without hesitation. Nasty opponent, Ogata Kisei Juudan.

But apparently, Touya has no appreciation for Hikaru's concern, because instead of being grateful for all the worrying he does, Touya still finds some fault with him.

"Will you just stop doing that!" he snaps.

Which is completely unfair, because Hikaru has only been standing by the bookshelf absolutely not doing anything but thinking of Touya's game and his own rival duty to help improve it.

"I'm not doing anything," Hikaru says, making a point to demonstrate his offense, and puts away Touya's Chinese self-study book that somehow turned up in Hikaru's hand.

"Yes, you are."

"No, I'm not."

"Yes, you ARE!"

There is something comforting about the fact that Touya's zen can be temporarily put on hold to make place for their quality discussions, Hikaru thinks gleefully, and prepares for a long argument.

"Oh, I'm sorry," he drawls. "Maybe I should just hover in the air so I don't touch the floor or anything. Or you should tie me too the kitchen table so I don't accidentally put a finger on your precious... Chinese dictionary."

When his creative insult to Touya's neurotic habits is met with complete silence, Hikaru grows bewildered. Does Touya think he is above this now?

Hikaru peers into Touya's face with suspicion, looking for an explanation in the shape of his clear, dark eyes or sharp lines of his face, but all he sees is this eerie calm of a person in possession of some sacred knowledge.

And then Touya, Touya Akira of serene eyes and pristine suits and fierce games, his eternal rival and now also his flatmate, speaks up in his most agreeable, smooth voice.

"Shindou," he says evenly, "I would tie you up wherever you wanted if you'd let me."

Hikaru's first thought, when it formulates itself not without a little bit of difficulty, is that Touya is speaking Chinese to him. Clearly, all these foreign languages have addled his grasp of Japanese, and his overworked rival has started using some outlandish expressions that translate really badly to normal human speech.

Then it occurs to Hikaru that Touya might be making fun of him. That Touya has somehow gained an insight into the darkest, farthest and most thoroughly avoided corners of Hikaru's mind, and saw something... funny there. And it is a terrifying thought. But Touya's still giving him that even, clear-eyed look that is nine parts seriousness, one part disarming straightforwardness, and Hikaru is so, so confused.

Confused and very, very lightheaded.

"You... wa-," he starts off, but then his voice cracks and he needs to start again. "I'm sorry? What did you just say?"

And he really, really, needs to hear Touya say something, and it is becomes imperative that he hears what this all means, because if Touya keeps speaking this Chinese of his and Hikaru doesn't make sense of it, he will miss something vitally important, and that would truly be terrifying.

"You heard me," Touya says. "Now, do you want to play or not?"

You heard me, Touya says.

You heard me.

The words ring in Hikaru's head, over and over, and soon it feels like every cell in his brain is ringing with them until it's a pleasant buzzing that drowns all other sounds out.

So this is how it is, Hikaru thinks wondrously. While he is spinning his webs and laying out traps, Touya has ideas and wants of his own and states them as clearly and loudly as possible. Like a declaration of war.

Figures.

Hikaru blinks off his daze and looks at Touya, properly looks at him and his ridiculous zen in the face.

"Really? Huh. Yeah ok, we could do that," Hikaru says, casually.

What did Touya expect, seriously? That he'd back off?

Touya blinks, a slow movement of his heavy lashes that momentarily hides his eyes from view, and Hikaru thinks, ha.

"The go or the tying up?" Touya carefully enunciates every syllable, and it occurs to Hikaru that Touya must be really invested in his answer.

It is the best thought ever.

Hikaru leans back on his arms to get a better look at Touya.

"Well, you know, we just played go and everything."

The silence between them stretches. Touya keeps watching him, and now it’s Hikaru's turn to meet his eyes serenely.

Touya seems to have reached some sort of decision, because he gets up, unhurried and steady, and carefully moves away the goban. Then he turns to Hikaru, and with the same precision of movement, grabs him by the collar and pulls him up onto his feet.

Hikaru grins right into his dark, shaded eyes. He absolutely does not object to a slight change of plan to accommodate this turn of events.

"So, kitchen, was it?"


A/N.
This story is a remix of Ties That Bind by Kexing

[Pet]

May. 5th, 2015 12:01 am
answer_key: (igobu)
Knotted Desires Part 1/2

Waya isn’t really gay for the record. He does like girls, just to be clear. He’s also not really kinky in the grand scheme of things. It’s frankly embarrassing how happy he can get just by holding hands; filled with the feeling of joy, a resounding chorus of "she likes me, and I like her!” resounding through his head.

Just he occasionally finds himself… well it’s normal to want to be spoiled by your seniors and to feel like indulging your juniors. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything. It’s nice when someone else in charge setting the stage – it lest you know exactly where you stand. But it’s something else; to be tempted by something more.

Like having fantasies about wanting to be held down by someone larger and stronger than yourself, wanting to be fucked, wanting to be teased to the edge of release and left panting and wanting, so that when you finally do find your eventual release it’s all the sweeter. Wanting to be relax, being petted and taken care of in the aftermath. No need to stay strong, and impress anyone. Wanting to just completely be able to let go.

Waya doesn’t quite know where it comes from. He does know what triggered it into a higher level of intensity.

A few years ago, while searching online for reasons of research – legitimate research even, he’d stumbled across a video. The scene was some kind of sketchy looking club, taken on someone’s handhold camera focused on the show taking place on the stage, starring a swarthy blond foreigner and a slim boyish looking blue-haired neko.

Normally Waya would click away quickly, but the neko’s silver eyes (it must have been contact lenses right? Contact lenses and a blue wig with cat ears attached?) flashing at the camera just looked so unreal and inhuman compared to how amateur the rest of the video looked that he’d stayed watching, and the way that the neko gasped when the swarthy guy grasped him, the way that his head and eyes rolled back in submission, Waya just couldn’t look away.

It was utterly hypnotizing watching the rough shoves to force an arm into place were combined and contrasted with gentle strokes once the rope had been slipped through. It was amazing watching the expressions captured – so open and unguarded, the bright silver eyes making it incredibly obvious every time the neko’s eyelids fluttered. The way that the rope knots combined to make beautiful artistic designs, butterflies that strained against human flesh as the body they were hosted on was hoisted to allow the audience a better look.

“Oh no.” Waya finds himself saying once the video ends, and it’s not just due to the tenting in his pants.
It wasn’t just that Waya found it hot, that made it wrong. Nor the fact that Waya desperately wanted to watch more. It was that Waya wanted that to be him; the neko. Waya wanted to experience that ecstasy as shown when helpless in another’s grip, to gasp and feel as knots are slid into place. Waya wanted to feel the relief as blood rushes back into his limbs.

Waya never to be in that position. Waya wanted someone to read his mind and play out his desires. Waya would die if anyone ever found out.

Since then, it's stayed lurking in the back of his head. He can go a few weeks without thinking about it, but then it will come with the force of a speeding bullet train and he’ll spend a painful night being unable to stop thinking about it.

But no one can ever know.



Since the internet brought him the problem, you’d think that the internet would be capable of taking it away, but it just doesn’t quite work like that. Rather than feeding the urge, the more exposed Waya finds himself to it, the stronger the cravings become. It’s probably because he’s still single, but he can’t seem to hold onto a girlfriend long enough to fix it.

Waya finds that he can’t even settle these urges with normal heterosexual porn; it sometimes works if it’s the woman doing the tying, but most of the time it needs to be a smaller guy being tied up by a larger man. He’s fascinated by the patterns that can be made. It’s getting to the point where Waya’s worried that he’s starting to undermine his paranoia with how badly the urge to see if someone’s updated in one of the roleplaying threads, by wanting to do normal things and stay logged into the porn profile he set up on the laptop. The whole point of setting up the second profile was so that there was no chance of anyone accidentally stumbling across something on his laptop if he left it unattended accidentally.
Maybe if he did it for real, that would settle things.


Despite Waya’s paranoia on being discovered, he does find it a relief when he’s tracked down who one of his partners that’s indicated that they might be open to something in real life is.
(Waya maintains that he’s not a stalker! He just happened to search on yahoo the email address and just so happened find it connected to a real world name, minor celebrity in their field, that has a history that matches up with everything that the RP partner said. If they were really paranoid about it, they’d get a burner email address.)
They don’t play go – the way that their dismissive of the game actually from one of their blog posts that Waya just so happened to stumble across, would normally fill Waya with indignation, but fills him with relief instead. He can do this. He can try it out, see how it would work and hopefully get it out of his head. The guy isn’t bad looking either, slightly taller and broader than Waya.




Waya’s feeling super awkward as he sits in the café, shifting a little bit nervously. He keeps needing to remind himself that he has nothing to be nervous about, that he’s left a note on the kitchen table and people will miss him if he doesn’t show up to one of his teaching games tomorrow. He’s come under an alias similar to his name; Yoshiyuki (after Oyama Yoshiyuki, one of the designers of Legend of Zelda), and said that he’d be wearing a green shirt. He’s watching the doorway, as the guy he’s meeting up with, going by his real name even, comes to the doorway, looks around before making eye contact with Waya and zooming in.

The cafe’s mostly empty and Waya’s alone, he reminds himself. It’s not that he’s a super obvious mark.

His partner for the night, slouches across the table, “You must be Yoshiyuki”, he declares with a smirk, waiting only half a second for Waya to nod back, before continuing brazenly on. “Right. Just laying it all up front, I like to get a little rough, I don’t do rope around the neck and shit like that, I don’t like to have the scene super controlled - you want out, just say so or safeword or whatever.”

Waya is positive that he’s gone bright red. “That’s all okay.” he swallows. He’s thought about this, how he wanted to seem knowledgeable and cool. “Like I said in my email, safe word is Zelda or I’ll tell you I want out. I don’t want any humiliation talk. Photographs of the knots are okay as long as there’s no shots taken of my face. I’d rather we start simple to see how things go. All cool?”
Kaga smirks at him across the table. “All cool. Right, let’s get going to the hotel then. This is going to be fun!”

TBC

[Go]

May. 5th, 2015 12:01 am
answer_key: (Default)
Hikaru no Magic

It was a grey, rainy November evening. In his father’s study Touya Akira paused for a moment from his reading, stretched his back a little and, hearing the wind howling outside, felt quite happy that he had nowhere to go. He had spent the whole day there, immersed in yet one of the thick volumes of his father’s impressive library. (He’s to-read list seemed to be never-ending, and sometimes he wondered if a single lifetime would be enough to read all the books he wanted to, but he surely was determined to at least attempt.) His chosen book – the memoirs of a thirteenth century lesser-known onmyouji, who nevertheless had some interesting ideas about herbs and their use in elemental magic – had captured him so completely he wouldn’t have remembered to pause to eat, unless his mother had come to fetch him personally. They had shared a quiet dinner together, Akira’s thoughts still dwelling on the book. His mother knew him well enough not even to attempt any small talk, she just watched him with a mildly amusement expression as he ate his food, probably not even noticing what it was.

His father was currently in Osaka, giving a lecture on contemporary practical magic for the local theoretical magicians. It had been nearly twenty years since he had, singlehandedly, returned magic to Japan. Sometimes Akira found it a little weird that there were still so very few practical magicians – and they all just students of his father – as he would have imagined pretty much everyone in the world had to dream of becoming a real magician… but perhaps it simply was so that very few in the world did have that gift. After all, there were many who aspired to become his father’s students, but extremely few made it.

He rolled his shoulders a little and took a more comfortable position, planning to go on reading, but a soft knock by the door made him pause.

“Akira-san?” his mother stepped into the room. “You have a visitor.”

“Oh?” He looked at his mother, surprised. Outside, the wind chose that moment for a particularly vicious howl, slamming raindrops with strength against the window. Who in their right mind would go out in weather like this? “Who is it?”

“A young man who in fact came to see your father, but as he is not here, asked to meet you instead. I am not completely certain of his business… his name is…”

“Shindou Hikaru!” an energetic voice exclaimed, and someone stepped into the room behind his mother’s back, giving a bow in the stride. “Nice to meet you!”

Akira stood up and bowed automatically in reply, though he was slightly annoyed at the way the other had entered the room without waiting for an invitation. Straightening, he paused, taking in the appearance of his guest. As was to be expected, he was wet – but strangely enough, only one half of him. On his right side his clothes and hair were glued to his skin, whereas the left side seemed completely dry. The next thing to catch Akira’s eye were his weird, bright yellow bangs.

Akira caught his mother’s eye, and she raised her eyebrow a little. He nodded, very slightly. “Thank you, mother.” As she left, he turned to his guest. “Happy to make your acquaintance, Shindou-san. What brings you here?” And why is only half of you wet, he also wanted to ask, but didn’t, yet.

“Oh, I was hoping to meet your father,” Shindou said. “I want to ask if I could study under him. But of course he’s not here! Figures. And as it was such trouble to get here, I thought I should meet at least somebody, now that I am here.”

Akira would have wanted to point out that it wasn’t exactly a secret that his father was travelling, but he kept quiet about that, too. “I see you’ve got… somewhat wet,” he said instead. “Do you want a blanket or something?”

“No thanks, your mom… mother already gave me one so that I could dry myself a bit. Nothing’s really going as it should today.” Shindou grimaced. “I waited the whole day for the rain to stop, but it never did, and then I thought I should do something about it, I mean, if I wanna call myself a magician it’s a bit silly to let something like rain stop me, but Sa… I mean, I’ve heard it’s not good to mess around with weather, it could cause some, uh, disturbances or something, so I made a spell to keep myself dry on the way, but it started failing right before I got here, and so…” He waved his wet right hand. “I managed to keep just half of myself out of the rain.”

“You… made a spell like that? Really?” Akira stared at him with slightly wide eyes, and he frowned.

“Really! What’s so weird about that?”

“Where did you learn it?” Akira was getting curious, despite himself. A simple water-reflecting spell certainly wasn’t that difficult to perform, but it was quite surprising someone would have come across one (outside of his father’s library, that is), let alone been able to cast it.

“I just said I made it!” Shindou exclaimed, giving Akira a look as if wondering if he was hard on hearing or understanding. “It wasn’t that difficult, I just made the air thicken a bit above me so that the water flowed away on it and didn’t hit me. But I’ve always been bad with, eh, consistency and stuff… which is why I want to get a teacher.”

“You don’t have one then?” Akira asked in disbelieving tone. Even if he were ready to believe that this youngster had created a spell like that out of his own head, he would never believe he’d be able to do something like that without any proper education.

“I…” Shindou glanced over his shoulder, appearing a bit ill at ease. “Not… really.”

“Have you studied on your own? For how long?”

“Umm, a few months, I guess.”

“A few months,” Akira said flatly, and Shindou nodded. “I see.” He sat down again by his book. “Well, as you heard, my father isn’t here now. He should return in a week or so. If you want to meet him, I recommend asking for an appointment beforehand – he is rather busy. But I must warn you, he is very picky in choosing students.”

Shindou watched him quietly as he finished his speech, eyes narrow. “You don’t believe me,” he said then. Akira shrugged, a little uncomfortable.

“I didn’t say so. But nevertheless, my father decides who he will teach and who not. I have no say there, so it doesn’t really matter what…”

“You think I’m making it up.” Shindou was beginning to sound seriously annoyed. “Why’d it be so astonishing if I could do a simple spell like that?!”

Akira sighed. He had already grasped his book, but now he placed it back on the table again. “For one thing, the spell you described is anything but simple. There are easier ways to stay dry in the rain. In fact, I don’t remember anyone, anywhere, ever suggesting something like that. It’s clear that you don’t really have much understanding of magic at all – and so it is quite hard to believe that you’d be able to pull off a spell like that on your own.”

“But I did! Is it my fault if no one else had thought of it before?! I thought it’s kind of obvious…”

“It’s kind of foolish, really,” Akira said shortly. “But, if you’d please…” He opened his book. “Come back next week.”

“I can use magic.” Shindou stated, standing stubbornly where he was and reminding Akira of a sulky five-year-old. “I’ll show you!”

“Fine,” Akira said with a sigh and leaned back in his chair. “Go ahead.”

“I will!” Shindou was practically glaring daggers at him. Akira raised his eyebrows at him expectantly, and slowly the scowl on Shindou’s face died away.

“Umm…” He glanced around, seeming to be a bit at a loss. “Let’s see, maybe…” He turned around, taking in the massive bookshelves, and his eyes widened a little as he realized just how many books there were. “Wow. You’ve got quite a library!” he exclaimed, his anger suddenly forgotten.

“This is just the study,” Akira said dryly. “Your spell, please. Nothing that’d have to do with the books,” he added hurriedly. He didn’t want any half-successful spell attempts destroying some of his father’s precious books.

Shindou let his gaze go round in the room. “Hmm, maybe… hey, what’s that?” He headed to a corner and bent to look at something.

“It’s a go board,” Akira said, biting back yet another sigh. “Haven’t you ever seen one?”

“You play go?” Shindou asked, sounding somewhat incredulous.

“Yes. My father’s fond of the game, and so am I.”

“Hmm.” Shindou was watching the board thoughtfully. He picked up one stone bowl and opened it. He too a look inside, placed it by the go board, and opened then also the other one. “Let’s see,” he muttered again and closed his eyes. Then he stretched out his hand and waved his fingers a bit, as if sprinkling something on the board. A moment passed and then, with a soft click a black stone rose from its bowl and settled on the board.

Akira stood up. A moment he just stared as a white stone did the same, then again a black one. He walked to the board and bent over it, frowning.

“They’re playing five in a row,” he said, not really knowing what to think about it.

“Yeah, so?” Shindou sounded still a bit hostile. “It’s not like I knew how to play go!”

Akira opened his mouth, but closed it then again, having nothing to say to that. Five in a row. In a way, he found this a little annoying, but… it was also somewhat impressing.

“Well. I guess my father might be interested in meeting you,” he said finally.

Shindou grinned. “I bet! I… I mean, that is, it’d be an honor.”

A moment Akira watched the stones playing out their simple game. “What made you interested in magic?” he asked then.

“Well, I don’t know…” Shindou ran his fingers through his hair. “I guess it’s mainly all the stories I’ve heard of Shuusaku, you know? It’s all so… cool. ”

Akira frowned. “A little piece of advice, don’t talk of Shuusaku to my father. You know he doesn’t quite agree with everything that man did. Haven’t you read the latest articles about Shuusaku in Magic Weekly?”

“Sure I have!” Shindou exclaimed. “The most ridiculous bullshit I’ve ever seen! I don’t understand how they dare to undermine someone as great as Shuusaku that way, it’s just...”

“You know, nothing’s published in that magazine unless my father approves of it,” Akira cut him off quietly. “And as I said, he doesn’t approve of Shuusaku. In fact, it is his goal to make sure this nonsensical admiration people who don’t really know anything about magic have for Shuusaku will come to an end.”

Shindou’s eyes widened. “What are you talking about?” he breathed, as if he had never heard anything so astonishing.

For a moment Akira paused to wonder how it was possible for someone to know so little of the man whose student he wanted to become. “Shuusaku dealt quite a lot with all kinds of spirits and fays,” he said then. “It’s even said he had some kitsune as his servants. That is not something my father wants to encourage, and his right in that. The spirit world is dangerous to humans, and it is better for us not to have any dealings with them.”

Shindou was frowning. “That’s silly,” he pronounced. “I mean, sure, I get that some spirits are dangerous, but not all! Some of them can be of great help, like those Shuusaku’s kitsune servants! Haven’t you heard all the stories, how many times they saved him?”

“Saved him from trouble he wouldn’t have been in if he hadn’t been messing with the spirits to begin with,” Akira retorted. He shook his head. “If you want to be my father’s student, you’d better abandon any ideas of dealing with creatures of the otherworld.”

“Maybe I don’t want to become his student, then!” Shindou exclaimed. “Seriously, how stupid is that? Study magic without the creatures that are practically made of it? I think I’ll fare better without your dad’s teaching!”

Akira took a deep breath and looked at the other boy sharply. “You have not attempted any dealings with the spirits yet on your own, have you?” he asked, and grimaced at the look that quickly passed on the other boy’s face. “Idiot! Thank the gods you were unsuccessful! You should leave spirits alone. You might not only bring misfortune to yourself, but to those close to you.”

“Who says I was unsuccessful,” Shindou retorted, indignantly. Akira just rolled his eyes at him.

“As if any spirit would be desperate enough to want to make a deal with a novice like you,” he muttered. “Listen to me, and forget all about those creatures. You don’t know what they’re capable of!”

“And you do?” Shindou snapped. “You think you know everything, don’t you? Just forget the whole thing!” he exclaimed before Akira could say that no, he didn’t think he knew everything (yet), which was why he’d like to continue his studies. “I’ll go! And you can tell your dad that he just missed his opportunity for getting a great student!”

“As if my father would need-!” Akira started to yell, but the other had already marched out of the room, leaving behind a wet spot on the carpet where his right foot had stood, and a go board where the stones apparently were starting another game. Akira shot an annoyed look at the latter, hoping the ridiculous spell would wear off soon. Five in a row, indeed.

‘’ ‘’ ‘’ ‘’

As he marched on in the rain, Shindou Hikaru’s left side became soon just as wet as his right side was, but he didn’t seem to notice.

“Can you believe it!” he exclaimed aloud, waving his arms angrily. “What an idiot! How can the son of a great magician be that dull!” He snorted. “No dealings with the spirit world, indeed! Destroy the admiration of Shuusaku! Those people are just about out of their minds!”

I don’t know about that, a ghostly figure walking by his side, untouched by the rain, said. But certainly they are quite rude. He sniffed his nose indignantly. Shuusaku was a great man and did lot for this country. They should dedicate a day to his memory, that’s what he’d deserve!

“Yeah,” Hikaru agreed. He shot a grin over shoulder. “Besides, just how strong a magician does that twerp think he is? You were there right under his nose all the time and he noticed nothing!”

His companion sighed. I know. I was somewhat disappointed at that.

“So.” Hikaru stopped. A while he stood unmoving in the rain, thinking. He glanced up, wondering if there was any point to try to cast his rain-repellent spell again, but decided he was so wet already it didn’t matter anymore. “Sai, what should I do now?”

I would have hoped that you’d get a teacher who is of this world, Sai said sadly. I can teach you much about the spirit world, but there are many things of which I don’t really know much. But apparently we should find someone else.

“Who else is there!” Hikaru exclaimed. “Every practical magician I know of belongs to the Touya school, and if that is their attitude, I won’t have anything to do with them! No,” he added, his eyes narrowing. “I won’t need them. You’re all I need, Sai. You’ll teach me more, and some day I’ll show those people!”

Yes! the spirit agreed happily, and the two continued their way through the rain.

‘’ ‘’ ‘’ ‘’ ‘’ ‘’


About a year later, on a day when the rain again was drumming against the windows with unrelenting strength, a young man rushed into a little shop in the outskirts of Tokyo.

A girl who’d been arranging the shelves spun swiftly around. “Welcome!” she exclaimed happily. “Would you like one of our anti-rain...” she started before noticing that the potential customer was completely dry. “Oh, do you have one already? Then how can I help you?”

The young man said nothing. His eyes skirted fast all over the shop, as if looking for something. The somehow anxious expression on his face made the girl frown a little.

“I’m sorry,” she said a bit hesitantly, “we don’t sell love potions or anything such, if that’s what...” The newcomer’s eyes stopped on her, nail-sharp, and she swallowed the rest of her sentence. “...how... how can I help you?” she repeated in a small voice when she again found her tongue.

“I’m looking for Shindou Hikaru,” he said, again turning his attention away from the girl. He watched thoughtfully the shelves full of herbs, powders and a multitude of different gadgets, the purpose of which was nearly impossible to figure out. “Is he here?”

“Not at the moment,” the girl replied. “If you tell me what you require, I could see if I can help you. Otherwise you can leave a...”

“I’ll wait,” the young man said. He spotted the only chair in the room and sat down on it. “He will drop by here, won’t he? This is his store after all.”

“Well...” the girl said, pursing her lips a bit. “It’s hard to say, he is very busy. He’ll probably not come today, so I think it’s better...” Her sentence was again left unfinished when the stranger gave her another sharp look, and for some reason she found herself blushing a little.

He stared at her a moment, and sat then back on his chair. “Good,” was all he said, as if he had heard something completely different than what she had said.

Time passed. A clock on the wall ticked minutes away one by one. The rain pounded against the window at times harder, then more softly before again gaining strength. The young man sat on his chair nearly unmoving, the very image of patience. The girl arranged the same shelf at least five times, seemingly unwilling to turn her back to him. After a while she finally let the shelf be with a heavy sigh and just stood there leaning against the counter.

No one came, not the shop owner, or a single customer. The girl watched the stranger from the corner of her eye, the fingers of one hand drumming soundlessly against the counter. He didn’t seem to be paying any attention to her.

“Oh, what the...!” she finally huffed, turned around, and rang a call bell on the counter.

Now the young man was watching her with mild interest. Or the bell, rather. “Where’s its pair?” he asked.

The girl blinked at him. “What do you...” she started, glancing at the bell, but paused this time on her own. “In his study,” she said with a sigh, turning back to him. “It’s pretty unlikely that he’s there though... but one can always try.”

“I see,” he said and resumed his wait. She sighed again, and, just to be sure, rang the bell again, long and hard.

Time passed, nearly half an hour. Then the front door suddenly burst open, startling the girl who had already began to fall into some kind of stupor in the silence of the shop. Someone stomped in through the door, shooting an angry glare at her.

“What is it, Akari?” the newcomer exclaimed. “I was just reading... oh.” He noticed the stranger who just stood up. “You.”

“Shindou. I’ve been looking for you.”

“Who is he?” Akari asked curiously, wondering about the nervous and at the same time eager look the stranger was trying (and failing) to keep in check. Her question was ignored.

“Why?” Shindou asked, frowning. “What do you want?”

“To ask you something. Where can we talk?”

“Well, I don’t know...” Shindou frowned. “I’m pretty busy.” Akari snorted, despite having made the same claim earlier, and he gave her a glare. “Maybe in the backroom, if you really must...” he went on, turning to his guest.

“Yes,” was the short, determined reply, and Shindou shrugged.

“Whatever. Come.” He started walking past the counter and the girl whose curiosity seemed only to be increasing.

“Hikaru? Who is he?” she repeated. He glanced at her.

“That Touya Akira,” he said, with strange emphasis on ‘that’, making it a little unclear whether he thought that being Touya Akira was a good thing or not.

Her eyes widened a little. “What? Really?! How didn’t I recognize...”

The two had walked into the backroom and Shindou slammed the door shut in front of her nose.

‘’ ‘’
“So, what is it you want?” Shindou asked as soon as the door closed behind his back.

Akira gave a look at the door, wondering if he should say something about the other being rude to the girl, but changed his mind. He didn’t reply immediately but first took a look at the room. It seemed to be some kind of a mixture of storage and an office, with walls covered with shelves full of boxes – except for one that had a full-length mirror on it, a somewhat strange thing to see in the dim, rather messy little room. In the middle of the room there was a desk, against which Shindou was leaning, arms crossed, glaring at him. Akira gave him a level look.

“I want to know what you did. And how.”

Shindou’s glare faded away as he stared at Akira, unblinking. “What I... did? Umm, when...?” He looked up, eyes focusing somewhere in the distance, as if trying to remember everything he had ever done (and, Akira suspected, he most likely had done his share of things others might call him to account for.)

“The go board,” he reminded the other patiently. “The never-ending games.”

“Games?” Now Shindou blinked. “Wait, you mean it’s still going on?”

Akira nodded. “And it’s not just that. Those games, they’re simply ingenious. How did you make inanimate objects to play such games?”

Shindou was just staring at him, his mouth forming a little ‘o’. Then he blinked again, many times rapidly. “Oh. Oh. That. Well, sorry, but it’s a secret.” He grinned. “Can’t tell you. Except that maybe it’s just all about me being ingenious.”

Akira frowned. “Do you still claim you have no teacher? That... those go games... it’s an incredible act of magic. Even my father hasn’t been able to solve that mystery, and he has been studying that board the whole year.”

Shindou snorted. “Well, there’s something useful for him to do, instead of just badmouthing Shuushaku. I doubt if he’ll ever figure it out, though.”

Akira’s eyes narrowed. “You…!” he started hotly, but took then a deep breath and told himself to keep calm. “Where have you been this year?” he asked instead. “We’ve looked for you everywhere.”

“Here and there.” Shindou shrugged. “Studying.”

“Without a teacher?” Akira repeated his earlier question, but didn’t get any reply this time either, just a blank look. He bit his tongue a little to keep it from saying what it very much wanted to say, and took another approach. “Why did you start this shop?”

Shindou shrugged again. “For fun. And to get some money.”

For a moment Akira paused to wonder how to proceed. All his senses were telling him Shindou was hiding something. Maybe he wasn’t blatantly lying, but he certainly wasn’t volunteering the whole truth, either. But how to pull that truth out of him?

“Would you come to meet my father?” he said finally. “I know he’d like to meet you, and I’m sure you too would find that meeting fruitful.”

“No,” Shindou said shortly. Then he winced. “I said no!” he repeated loudly. “I don’t want to meet that guy!”

“Okay, fine!” Akira spat out, exasperated. “No need to be shouting! ‘That guy’... gods, you’ve really got no manners, do you?”

“Better than yours,” Shindou retorted, still looking angry. “At least I’m not trying to undermine the work of a great man, slandering his name after he’s no longer around to defend himself!”

Akira couldn’t resist rolling his eyes at that. “Why on earth are you so fixated on Shuusaku? I admit, he did have some skill, but still, that kind of admiration is just foolish!”

“Some skill?!” Shindou all but shrieked out, something flaring in his eyes. “Losers like you and your dad don’t come anywhere near his level!”

The fire spread to Akira’s eyes too. “You’ve never even seen my father! You’ve no idea what he’s capable of!”

For a long while the two locked eyes, each unwilling to be the first to look away. In the end it was Shindou who, with an angry jerk of his head, broke the eye contact, muttering quietly, “yeah, yeah, I know.” What he thought he knew Akira didn’t know, and didn’t care, to be honest. In fact, he truly doubted the truth of that sentence.

“If that was all you’ve got to say, you can just show yourself out,” Shindou stated gruffly.

“You really should be a little more co-operative,” Akira said, once again reminding himself that he was here representing his father and he at least should try to mind his manners, no matter what. “This shop of yours. Do you have a license for it?”

Shindou blinked. “What?”

“A license. You can’t put up a magic shop just like that! If we let people do such things, what would come of it? All kinds of charlatans and wannabe witches would start selling their potentially dangerous ‘services’ to innocent people.”

Shindou took a deep breath and puffed it slowly out. “You’re a jerk,” he muttered. “I’m not asking your permission for anything! I’m done with this talk. I’ve got my studies waiting.”

He took a step toward the door, but Akira moved in his way. “You might not ask for it, but you’ll still need it. Well, not my permission, of course, but that of a government-appointed official, who in this case would be Ogata-san.”

“One of your dad’s students, isn’t he?” Shindou mumbled, his tone full of unhidden anger. “Yeah, sure! Get the hell out of my!”

“Not before you agree to come to meet my father and talk about this,” Akira said levelly. “I’m sure you’ve got no problem to get your license once you’ve proved you’re not selling here anything dangerous.”

“I bet,” Hikaru mumbled. “You can keep your stupid licenses! I’m going!”

Akira raised his eyebrows, still standing in front of the door. Shindou glared at him a moment, turned then on his heels, and marched to the mirror.

Hikaru, wait! a voice called. Akira had time to blink at that, then Shindou stepped into the mirror and disappeared.

“What?” Akira said aloud. “He...” He blinked again. Of course, he had read about people travelling via mirrors, but no one had done something like that for, well, since the days of Shuusaku. He was sure his father could do that if he just wanted, but he never did. It was too easy to get lost in the mirror roads.

He walked to the mirror, curious, and placed his hand on it. Yes, it was a solid, real mirror – for a moment he had wondered if Shindou possibly had pulled some kind of a trick on him (they do it with mirrors, flashed in his mind.)

Well, Shindou had gone, who knew where. He just hoped that Shindou himself knew where he was going. He shook his head at his mirror image, muttering to himself, “what an idiot.”

Indeed! a voice agreed, and Akira took a step back with a startled yelp, stumbling down on his back, as his mirror image was suddenly replaced by the image of a man dressed in Heian age clothes.
‘’ ‘’


Fujiwara no Sai watched with great impatience and mild annoyance as the young man on the other side of the mirror’s glass was trying to gather himself up from the floor, eyes wide and mouth opening and closing without a single sound coming out.

“Come now!” he finally puffed. “This is partly your fault so get up and help me find him!”

“Wh-what?” Touya Akira finally managed to say, and Sai waved his arms, frustrated.

“I need help to find Hikaru! That idiot, I’ve told him not to get on the roads alone! He has no sense of directions whatsoever! I can’t believe he managed to get lost on this simple way from here to his home! Idiot!” He glared at the young man who was finally beginning to find his feet again. “Why did you have to make him mad like that? He always stops thinking when he’s mad!”

“I, uh, I’m... sorry,” Touya stammered, eyes still quite wide. “...he made me mad first,” he added, and winced then a little, probably realizing himself how immature that sounded. “Umm, you are...?”

“Fujiwara no Sai,” Sai said with a little bow and forced patience. “Now, if you...”

“Sai?” Touya had already seemed to have got over his startlement, but now his eyes widened again. “Wait, Fujiwara no Sai? You... you mean, one of Shuusaku’s spirit servants? Why are you here?”

Sai glared at him through the mirror. “I’ve never been anyone’s servant,” he stated indignantly. “Shuusaku was a friend of mine! And I’m here because of Hikaru! Now, he’s...”

“So are you Shindou’s teacher?” Touya cut him off again, understanding spreading on his face. “That... explains so much. How did he...”

“Would you just listen to me!” Sai exclaimed. “He’s lost in the roads and it’s your fault and we need to find him before something else does!”

“We?” Touya asked with a blink.

“We,” Sai repeated, reached out his hand and pulled the other into the mirror.

“Wha—?” Touya uttered as he was for the second time gathering himself up from the ground. Panic flashed on his face when he looked over his shoulder and realized that he indeed was now within the mirror. “What did you do!”

Sai sighed, telling himself to remain patient with the youngsters. “I told you. Hikaru entered the mirror roads, surely planning to go home – that’s the only way he knows at least somehow – but he’s not at home. I checked. He’s nowhere in the mortal world. There I’d be able to find him wherever he is, but this world works differently and it’d take too long to perform the spells that might find him!”

“And you think I could help you found him?” Touya sounded a little incredulous, but Sai was nodding, eagerly.

“Yes! For one thing, I noticed already during your first meeting that there is a connection between you too. Call it karma or fate, whatever you will. And now, you two were just fighting, and the energies between you are still heated up.”

Touya was staring at him with a blank expression. “I’ve studied magic my whole life,” he said, “and I still don’t understand what you’re talking about.”

“It’s not about magic,” Sai said impatiently. “It’s about the spiritual. But let’s get started already! I can explain more while we walk. Just, just don’t let your anger die out. Follow it, and you’ll find him.”

“...are you saying that I’m going to find Shindou just by getting mad at him?”

Sai nodded. “At least here, as this is a part of the spirit world.”

Touya paused. Then he shook his head. “That sounds way too easy,” he said dryly.

“Then how about doing it!” Sai exclaimed, all but wanting to strangle the other for taking so long. “Stop wasting...”

Hikaru? they heard a voice from somewhere. What’s going on? It got so quiet...

In the mirror they could see the door to the backroom opening and Akari peeking in through it.

“Let’s go before she sees us,” Sai said and grasped Touya’s arm, pulling him along. “I’m sure Hikaru started in this direction, unless he was completely confused of direction to begin with. You lead the way.”

“But...!” Touya tried to pull his arm free but Sai’s grip was quite firm. “But I...” he glanced over his shoulder at the mirror. “I, you know it’s dangerous here. I’m...”

“Aren’t you at all worried about Hikaru? I told you his lost here!” Sai turned to him, eyes wide and tearing up. “What if he runs into some strong monster? He’s not that good yet, you know!”

“I...” A deep frown appeared on Touya’s face, and he seemed to consider this. He glanced at Sai, who blinked a few tears out of his eyes, and swallowed. “Well, yes... I guess we should find him.”

“Great! Thank you so much!” Sai pushed him onward with both hands. “Now, keep going! I’ll get you out of here once we find him, I promise! On my name or whatever, what satisfies you! And I’ll protect you too if we come across something dangerous.”

“Alright,” Touya said and started walking. Then he blinked. “Wait, once we find him? What if we don’t...”

“Keep going, keep going!” Sai repeated, pushing him onward. “We’ll find him, and besides, you agreed already!”

Touya heaved out a great sigh and started walking onward the narrow grey path that wounded its way through empty darkness.

They walked a good while in silence.

“Are you mad at him now?” Sai asked, and Touya sighed again.

“I’m mad, alright,” he muttered. “How did I get myself into this mess?”

“Don’t be mad at yourself, be mad at Hikaru,” Sai admonished him, and he gave out a little laugh.

“This has to be the weirdest thing I’ve ever done, and I’ve been in some pretty weird situations.” He shook his head a little. “How did you two meet?”

“Oh, it’s...” Sai paused, considering how much to say. Then again, at this point telling the truth didn’t really matter anymore. “It was something stupid Hikaru did,” he said, and Touya laughed out loud.

“How surprising.”

“Well, he was young then,” Sai said a little defensively. Then again, it had been just a year and a half ago... he decided he didn’t need to tell Touya that. “He’d been reading about magic, and found somewhere a part of an old summoning spell. And of course he got it into him to try it out... If it had been anyone else there would have been no harm in that, but Hikaru... he has a gift. It’s a good thing I happened to hear him before something else did.”

“He got lucky there,” Touya muttered. “Just think what kinds of creatures a badly made spell might summon – and set free.” He frowned. “So... irresponsible.”

Sai nodded, looking ahead. The path divided into three. “Which way?” he asked.

Touya paused at the crossing, looking in each direction. “Here,” he said then and started walking again. He looked a little surprised, as if not quite believing that he really could feel the right direction. “I really need to talk about this with my father,” he muttered. “This is so peculiar.”

Sai said nothing, and they kept on going in silence. At times they passed mirrors, but those pathways hadn’t been used for such a long time they were barely visible anymore, in strict contrast to the brightly shining one through which they had entered the roads. There was nothing else in the roads, just the grey path and the darkness.

After a while Touya sighed. “It’s hard to believe that what reputedly is one of the most dangerous places in all worlds could be this boring,” he said.

“That’s part of the danger,” Sai said. “You have to keep alert and not let your senses grow dull.”

“But there’s nothing here. We haven’t seen any...”

“Well, isn’t this a surprise!” a voice cut him off and he gave a start. “It’s been so long since I’ve seen a mortal here!”

Sai sighed, and bowed his head a little in greeting. “You do know that magic is returning to the mortal world,” he said. He touched Touya’s shoulder slightly. “Keep going.”

Touya, who had stopped to stare at the beautiful woman who had suddenly appeared by their side, blinked and took a step. “I, uh...” He bowed his head at the woman, trying to collect his wits. “Um, afternoon, madam. And, eh, good bye.”

“Why such a hurry?” she asked with a sweet smile. “Wouldn’t you want to...”

“No,” Sai cut her off firmly. “I’m sorry, we really are in a hurry. And he,” he gave the woman a strict look, “is here under my protection, so leave him alone.”

The woman pursed her lips and seemed to consider this. “Not even...” she started, giving Sai a hopeful glance.

“No,” he repeated, and she sighed.

“You’re no fun, Sai-san,” she muttered. “Oh well. Drop in for a game some day.”

Sai nodded. “Maybe.” He started walking, again pushing Touya onward, and they left the woman behind.

“Where... where did she come from?” Touya asked, glancing over his shoulder.

“Forget her,” Sai said firmly. “I mean it. Don’t let her distract you. You don’t want to have anything to do with her kind.”

“She didn’t seem that dangerous...” Touya said, still throwing furtive glances behind.

“Shouldn’t someone who’s been ‘studying magic all his life’ know better than trust the looks?” Sai said, whacking the back of Touya’s head with his fan, and the other’s eyes widened a little.

“I...” He almost looked back again but managed to stop himself. “You’re right,” he said, sounding properly chagrined.

Sai nodded. “Of course. Can you still feel Hikaru?”

“Yes. I don’t think he’s too far...”

“I should hope so. She must be wondering what we’re doing here, and if she and her kind start hunting...” He shook his head. “Please hurry.”

“I try,” Touya muttered, sounding a little annoyed.

They hurried onward, Touya leading the way through a labyrinth of crossings, but there was no sign of Hikaru anywhere.

“Where did that idiot go?” Touya muttered angrily to himself. “I knowhe’s nearby, why can’t I find him?”

Sai said nothing, just watched him, tight-lipped. Touya paused, exasperated. “Why do I feel we’ve passed him already?”

“Should we go back?” Sai asked.

Touya shook his head. “I don’t know. Maybe.” He turned and they returned to the last crossing. “I don’t know,” Touya muttered. “I’m sorry. I can’t… I know he went that way from here, but I just don’t know what happened then.” He paused. “Do you think… something might have got him?” he asked quietly.

“I hope not,” Sai said grimly. “I just wonder…” He turned back again and returned to the path Touya had pointed out. He walked to a mirror they had passed now twice, one of those old, dim ones, through which one couldn’t see anything, and peeked into it. “Ah, I knew it!” He reached deeper into the mirror and pulled then back out, dragging Hikaru with himself.

“Shindou!” Touya exclaimed.

“What on earth were you doing there!” Sai was yelling. “Going through strange mirrors, do you have any idea how dangerous that might be! There’s no way to know where you’d end!”

“I thought it’d be less dangerous than staying here,” Hikaru tried to defend himself, dodging a whack of the fan. “I heard voices… and felt something... something I didn’t want to face, so I went in there. And it wasn’t a dangerous place, just an empty room, though it didn’t have a door or anything, just that mirror...”

Whack! went Sai’s fan against his forehead, and Hikaru winced.

“You,” Sai stated, “are more lucky than you deserve. I don’t know what I should do with you.”

“Why would you need to do something about my luck?” Hikaru mumbled glumly, rubbing his forehead. Then he noticed Touya. “Why is he here?”

“I wouldn’t have found you without him,” Sai said. “Especially not from where you were hiding! You should thank him.”

Hikaru gave Touya a glum look. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome,” Touya replied, though he looked like he might have wanted to say something quite different.

“So now what?” Hikaru asked, looking at Sai. “He knows about you now!”

“Now I get you two out of here,” Sai said. “Then we talk about what next. I,” he went on, turning to Touya, “would still like to meet your father, if that’s possible. And don’t worry,” he added to Hikaru. “They won’t be able to harm me anyway.”

“Umm,” Touya said. “Well, I’m sure father too... would be interested to meet you...”

“I could tell him how I did that spell on the go board!” Sai said happily.

Touya blinked. “Oh, of course! It was you! I should have understood that. There’s no way he could have done something like that!”

“What do you mean, no way?” Hikaru exclaimed. “Just cause you or your dad don’t understand it you think I wouldn’t, either!?”

“I know you wouldn’t! Such a high-class spell...”

Sai sighed. “Alright kids, move on before your yelling calls here company we don’t want,” he said and started ushering the two on.

THE END



(A/N: My apologies for all potential typos and other mistakes, and the rushed ending, I almost ran out of time...)

[Shan]

May. 5th, 2015 12:01 am
answer_key: (igobu)
The Tale of Hikaru: The Arrival at Court




Hikaru was surveying the rice fields on the eastern slope (or really, old-man Jirou was, with Hikaru accompanying him for show), when Takamaro came running towards them, bouncing down the hill like a frightened rabbit.

He stopped by their side, barely, tufts of grass dislodged off the wet ground under his sliding feet. Immediately, Jirou scolded him for such recklessness, while Takamaro was still gasping for breath.

“S-sorry grandfather, b-but… a messenger came!” Takamaro managed to get out finally, his eyes round as plates in his small round face. “From Kyoto!” he said the last in a hushed, awed voice. Then Takamaro looked at Hikaru, still with that wide-eyed expression.

“And, mistress sent me to get you. She, ah, wanted me to hurry.”

“Ok,” Hikaru replied dubiously. Why would they get a message from the capital? Maybe father’s lord had returned there, though last he heard they’d been visiting some province or another, implied to be a long visit by the way his grandfather had been shaking his head at the news. Hikaru didn’t really understand much about politics, but apparently all the nobles wanted to stay at the capital as much as possible.

His father didn’t send messages all that often, if he had it was probably something important.

When he got to the house, there was a horse stamping in the yard, surrounded by a gaggle of awed onlookers, both servants and people Hikaru vaguely recognized as living in the nearest village.

When he arrived most turned to look at him, freezing him briefly in his steps. He hurried past them, feeling the expectant gazes following him and wondering what that was all about. As he stepped to the porch, he could hear his mother’s voice, sounding distressed.

“But… Hikaru? He’s way too young, what could Masao have been thinking--” she was interrupted by grandfather:

“Mitsu, really! Of course he had no say in it, and for his lord to be asked by Fujiwara of the Konoe family, that’s an unexpected honour, to be sure!”

“Eh, what’s going on?” Hikaru asked, stepping in to the room. Immediately, all three occupants turned towards him. He got a quick impression of the messenger as a boy about his age, before his mother let out a cry.

“Hikaru!” she gestured at him in wordless agitation, which caused Hikaru to look down at himself. Ah, maybe he should have at least washed the mud off his feet. But it was just a messenger, right?

Mother was leaning her face in her hands and muttering something.

“Should say he is ill… dead, perhaps… terrible shame for the family…” Hikaru caught, before she broke down into tears.

“There there, Mitsu. It’ll be fine,” grandfather assured her, patting her shoulder. He was tearing up as well. “Imagine, our Hikaru serving at court, personal body-guard like his father and grandfather before him!”

Hikaru’s mother only sobbed harder.

*

They arrived to the capital in the evening. It had taken a while to prepare Hikaru with supplies and clothing his mother deemed appropriate to wear at court, and then several days of travel from their country estate to the capital.

The way over to Kyoto had been fun, actually, even if Hikaru wasn’t really used to riding horses. He and the messenger, Tsutsui no Kintou, had become friends along the way.

Tsutsui was working as a guard at the palace, so he’d been able to coach Hikaru on the way on how to behave at court. At least, he’d tried, and Hikaru figured out he’d caught the gist of it, even if Tsutsui seemed a bit dubious.

Once he arrived, he’d first been met by the captain of the palace guard, Kaga no Morozumi, who’d given another introduction to the life of a guard at the palace. It had involved a lot more shouting than Tsutsui’s, but Hikaru hadn’t let himself be intimidated by that.

In fact, he had felt pretty confident about it all until he was actually pushed into a room, late in the evening. There were bright lanterns shining in his eyes and behind them a crowd of shadowed, elaborately dressed strangers perusing him like his mother might have looked at wares of dubious quality presented by a travelling craftsman.

Hikaru shuffled his feet uncertainly, before Tsutsui coughed pointedly behind him at the doorway, prompting Hikaru to jump a bit and bend down into a bow.

“Greetings… my lords and, uh, ladies? Shindou no Hikaru, at your service!” he muttered, flushing, and his voice rising too loud at the end, causing him to wince inwardly.

Somewhere behind the shades at the side, there was a cloud of soft feminine titters, and then hushed whispering, followed by more laughter, as Hikaru flushed a deeper red.

Glancing up from his bow, Hikaru could see movement from one of the shadowed figures ahead of him, leaning towards another and muttering “He’s even more of a country bumpkin than I expected, this ought to be amusing indeed…” before they were strictly waved away by the figure in the middle.

“Shindou,” he spoke, and Hikaru’s spine straightened at the low, cold tones. It sounded like he imagined a snake might, if one could speak. “You’ll be serving Fujiwara no Sai. His safety and life will be your responsibility from this moment on. Understood?”

Hikaru nodded. He wouldn’t have dared to do otherwise.

“Very well. You will go to him at once.”

And with that, he was apparently dismissed, though he could hear a storm of whispers and even laughter rising behind him as he escaped back to the hallway.

Tsutsui patted him on the back commiseratingly.

“Buck up Hikaru, it could have gone worse!” he said, though Hikaru got the feeling he was being coddled.

“Do you know this Sai person?” Hikaru asked, trying his best to sound casually curious. If he was anything like those people…

Tsutsui frowned. “Well, I’ve heard of him.” he replied, hesitating at the end. “Of course we don’t exactly mix with the nobles, and I wouldn’t want to repeat rumours…”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Hikaru asked, now even more alarmed.

Before Yoshitaka had time to answer, they were interrupted by the appearance of a tall, pale nobleman. Tsutsui immediately bowed down, and pulled Hikaru down into one as well.

“Lord Michimasa!” Tsutsui greeted. “I’ve been tasked to present the new bodyguard, Hikaru no Shindou, to lord Sai, would you know if he is present?”

“To lord Sai?” Hikaru straightened up, and found that he was being scrutinized with a sharp, curious gaze. Then the lord frowned slightly, giving him a cold sort of look that had Hikaru bristling. What was he to these nobles, a troublesome insect? It wasn’t as if he’d decided to come here on his own!

“I see,” lord Michimasa muttered, gazing into the distance as if he’d already mentally dismissed Hikaru, before giving him another cold look. “He can wait at his apartments if he’s not present,” he said shortly before brushing past them.

“What’s his problem?” Hikaru muttered to Tsutsui, who shushed him, glancing behind them at the departing nobleman.

“You don’t want to get on Ogata no Michimasa’s bad side Hikaru!” he hissed. “For one, he’s close to your new employer. Or so I’ve heard.”

“Oh,” Hikaru said, deflating a bit. He was looking forward to meeting this Fujiwara no Sai less and less, if that was an example of his friends.

Tsutsui sighed, rubbing at his temple. “Best to get this over with… follow me, and try to make note of the way, the palace can be a bit difficult to navigate at the start.” he told Hikaru with a tired smile. It reminded Hikaru that it had been several days of travel, and it was late in the evening. He nodded, smothering a yawn as he trudged behind Tsutsui.

The apartment they arrived at was empty, so Tsutsui left Hikaru to wait there at the doorway.

He looked around briefly, but there wasn’t much of interest. The room contained a bedroll, a writing table and supplies, a decorated robe hanging on the far wall along with some fans, scrolls lying in a neat pile and a go board. Hikaru’s grandfather had one as well, old and slightly scuffed. Apparently he’d inherited it from the lord he’d used to guard.

Hikaru yawned, glancing longingly at the empty bedroll. Maybe if he just lied down for a moment here in the doorway and rest for a moment…

*

Something struck him in the side, and then there was a cry of surprise followed by a crushing weight. Hikaru flailed awake, or tried to, except he was still pinned to the floor by the weight, and there was some kind of cloth over his face.

“Ow.” he muttered, voice coming out muffled.

His sluggish, awakening brain became aware of two things around the same time. Firstly, someone had tripped over him and secondly, he could smell something burning. Not good.

“Fire!” Hikaru shouted, trying to push off the person still lying across his chest.

They made an alarmed sound, clambered over him (Hikaru getting a stray knee in the stomach in the process, ow). He got up anyway, squinting to see more than darkness and a small leaping flame (not good not good). Water? No, not available, what else… right! Hikaru quickly pulled off his heavy travelling coat and shook it out quickly, before laying it over the flame.

Immediately they were cast back into darkness, one smelling faintly of scorched wool.

“Oh dear,” said a voice, sounding distinctively shaken. “What in the heavens…”

They were interrupted by a sound of running footsteps and then, for the second time that night, someone tripped over Hikaru, this time holding a pail of water. Which was in turn dumped all over him.

The person who’d been running cursed, and then demanded:
“I heard the shout, where’s the fire?”

“You have bad aim!” Hikaru snapped, hurting, woozy and now wet to boot.

“It’s quite all right! I believe the fire has been doused already… hopefully.” the first voice spoke out, sounding placating.

“Waya?” a fourth voice called out, and Hikaru turned towards where a man carrying a lamp was moving towards them along the hallway.

“Looks to be dealt with!” the man with the pail called back.

Some others peeked out from their rooms as well, asking about the fire, and were placated. One of them took the time to glare at Hikaru, who glared back at him.

The man with the lamp stopped at the doorway, blinking at the group gathered there. He looked especially long at Hikaru who was still glowering at all and sundry.

“What happened, if I may ask?” the man asked tentatively.

“Ah, well, I… I’m not entirely sure, Isumi…”

It was the guy who’d woken him. He was sitting slightly further in the room, looking somewhat bewildered.

“This guy tripped on me!” Hikaru exclaimed.

“Well, you… why were you lying in the doorway in the dark anyway?” The man demanded indignantly.

“I was sleeping! Waiting for some stupid lord to arrive…”

He trailed off, adding two and two together. “You… wouldn’t happen to be Fujiwara no Sai?” he asked. The man nodded. Hikaru wondered if he could claim to have meant some other stupid lord.

“I… see,” lord Sai replied. Then he sighed, and smothered a yawn behind a hand. “Perhaps we can sort this out in the morning, I’m sure… I’m sure it will keep,” he blinked at Hikaru, looking a bit like a perplexed owl.

“I’ll be heading off to sleep as well, unless there’s anything you require help with, lord Sai?” Waya asked, giving Hikaru an ambiqous sort of glance. “Perhaps lead this one to the…”

He trailed off expectantly, and it took Hikaru a moment to first understand he was expected to say something and then think of what to say.

“Uh, guards? I mean, I’m supposed to be that guy’s… lord Sai’s bodyguard?”

All three of them looked surprised.

“But I didn’t hear anything about this?!” lord Sai cried out, and someone in the next room irritably told him to lower his voice. “I mean to say…”

Hikaru saw the two other men glancing at one another, some kind of message seeming to move between them. It was the one with the lamp, Isumi, who spoke, addressing Hikaru.

“Who was it who sent for you?”

“Uh… Fujiwara no Masanori of the Konoe family?” he muttered, only recalling the name because both his mother and Tsutsui had kept talking about him and how important he supposedly was, being the go instructor for the emperor and a member of the most important branch of the Fujiwara or some such.

There was another meaningful glance between the two men. Hikaru wished they would stop doing that.

Sai frowned, seeming to ponder the matter, and then shrugged, still looking confused.

“I can’t see how it’s necessary; really…” he gave Hikaru a concerned look. “But I suppose sending you back… ah, it really is best if we consider it all tomorrow. After some sleep,” he yawned again. Hikaru had to stifle his own yawn.

“We’ll take care of that,” Isumi said, and then Hikaru found himself grabbed by the elbow by the shorter man, Waya, and decisively removed from the scene. Behind him, he could hear Isumi cheerfully wishing a good night to lord Sai, and a sleepy reply, and then footsteps following him and Waya.

“Oy, I can walk on my own!” Hikaru complained, but only got a distracted hum in reply.

“Say, Waya, why don’t we take a shortcut over the yard towards the guard’s quarters?” Isumi suggested, his voice low enough to be quiet without being a whisper.

“Eh? Ah, I see. Yes, of course,” Waya replied, and at the next doorway the three of them veered out, exiting the house to a large inner courtyard containing a garden.

The moon was out, throwing long shadows over the landscape. In the silvery light, Hikaru couldn’t help thinking it all looked a bit eerie. This didn’t seem to concern the two men, as they decisively stepped off the veranda and took the path over the garden, winding between the sparse trees.

Around the middle there was a small pond, the stream leading to it crossed by a curving bridge. Hikaru could still see the dark form of the house in the distance, but the night-time hush made the spot seem deserted.

There, Waya and Isumi stopped, turning to look at him. Where the yellow glow of the lantern didn’t reach, the shadows on their faces seemed even darker, despite the moonlight.

It suddenly occurred to Hikaru that he had been dragged out of immediate sight and hearing by two strangers in the middle of the night. And they were looking at him in a… not exactly threatening way, but not friendly either.

“Um, what’s going on?” he asked.

“That’s what I’d like to know!” Waya replied sharply. “Masanori is no friend of Sai’s, so whatever play he’s making here…”

“How should I know, I just arrived!” Hikaru argued back, getting a feeling he was accused for something, though not sure what.

“Waya,” Isumi interrupted him, gently admonishing. “We just wanted to talk with you,” he added conciliatorily. “It’s a lot, isn’t it, being thrown into the court so suddenly. I was certainly confused!” he said with a small laugh.

“…yes,” Hikaru agreed sulkily.

“Where did you come from? I spent my early childhood in Ise, and recall it very fondly…” Isumi continued, sounding idly curious.

“Well, I…”

Finally, someone who spoke to him like an actual person, Hikaru thought with relief as he talked about his grandfather’s home. Isumi made soft, interested noises, and by the time they eventually reached his new quarters, Hikaru found he had told the entire story from the arrival of the message to arriving at court.

It was only much later that Hikaru realized Isumi had been motivated by anything but honest curiosity, and that their friendly discussion had really been a skilful interrogation, to see if he was in on some nefarious plan set against Sai.

By then he couldn’t even blame him, knowing what sort of poisonous enemies Sai had.

Well, he did a little anyway. Isumi could be a bit of snake himself, when he wanted to be. Hikaru supposed it came from having been at court for too long, or something.

*

Sai was staring at him with something like horror, the game he’d been playing momentarily forgotten.

“Not… not interested?!” his voice rose indignantly, and Hikaru winced a little, before shrugging.

“Like I said, my grandfather tried to teach me… anyway, I’m supposed to just guard, right?” he said, doing his best to sound conciliatory.

However, Sai would have none of that.

“Have you ever even seen a proper game of go?” he asked accusingly. “You can’t just dismiss it based on such little experience! Really, I… oh, I’m so sorry,” he interrupted himself at the polite but firm clearing of a throat from his opponent.

Oh great, Hikaru thought, as he was glared at by one Kamo no Akira. Presumably for interrupting the game, since the boy had been completely ignoring his presence so far. Onmyoji or not, he could not be older than Hikaru, so that seemed a bit much.

And all he’d done was to yawn in the middle of their game… and, admittedly, make the mistake of admitting he didn’t find it all that interesting. Should have just said he’d slept badly, which was also true.

“I apologise for not providing a better example,” Akira said quietly, hair swinging into his face as he bowed down over the board.

“Now, I didn’t mean to…”

“I appreciate your teaching, lord Sai,” Akira continued smoothly, “but I understand such a game can hardly be of interest to the unitiated.”

Hikaru bristled, being able to sense a subtle insult when he heard one, especially with the sideways glare Akira had thrown his way.

“Furthermore, I’m afraid my duties call me elsewhere. Thank you for the game.”

With that, and another terse bow, Kamo no Akira swept away.

Sai tapped his fan against his chin, frowning down at the game on the board. “Most vexing…” he muttered.

“What is?” Hikaru asked, before he realized lord Sai probably hadn’t spoken to him. Luckily he still seemed distracted by whatever he was seeing in the game.

“Kamo. He has such potential, and yet something is holding him back,” Sai sighed, shaking his head ruefully. “The right opponent, perhaps...” he mused, seeming to talk more to himself than Hikaru.

Then, his gaze turned towards Hikaru, seeming to really focus on him for the first time. Perhaps the first time since their meeting. It was… unexpectedly intimidating.

“Now, what was this about not being interested in go again?”

*

As it turned out, Hikaru and Fujiwara no Sai were almost equally stubborn people. The more Sai insisted that Hikaru would find go interesting if he just tried his hand at it, the more Hikaru resisted the idea. Their arguments on the subject became an immediate source of jests at court, to the delight of Fujiwara no Masanori and his inner circle and to the dismay of many of Sai’s admirers.

Hikaru only wondered why Ogata no Michimasa seemed to want to murder him with looks.

The only person who seemed entirely unconcerned (besides Hikaru, who was yet mostly unaware of being the butt of a joke) was lord Sai himself. Not that he hadn’t noticed, but as long as he got to play go, things like that didn’t concern him overmuch.

Though he did wish Ogata would stop taking it all so personally. It was distracting him from his game, Sai thought irritably as he found his opponent glaring at his bodyguard. Again.

And as for Hikaru, Sai thought with a smile that he hid behind his fan, if he thought Sai hadn’t noticed how he’d started to follow the games more intently of recent… only a matter of time, after all. Now if only he’d admit to it already!

*

Slowly, the summer turned towards autumn. Hikaru gradually got used to the life at court, for all that most of the nobles continued to snicker behind his back or glare at him. Lord Sai, he’d decided soon after arriving, was a good sort for the most part, for being a noble. Waya and Isumi were not too bad either.

He’d even, by happenstance; found out that one of the ladies in attendance was an old childhood friend of his. They hadn’t been able to speak much, as it was apparently considered improper, but she seemed to be doing well.

Even she played go, though apparently her friend Nase was better at it, according to Akari. Absolutely everyone seemed to, here. And, apparently, there was some kind of great rivalry between lord Masanori and lord Sai, at least as seen by lord Masanori.

“Lord Sai, I think, simply wants to play go, but lord Masanori has been the emperor’s instructor much longer, and sees him as a threat… but don’t tell anyone I said that,” Akari had told him during one of their brief discussions over the upper half of a screen door.

Eventually, Hikaru asked Tsutsui to learn him go, as long as he promised not to make noise about it, as he couldn’t stand the thought of Sai crowing about it after everything. Kaga made some noise about wasting time and distractions from work the first time he caught them at it, and then joined in the game.

One morning, as Hikaru was heading toward’s Sai’s room, there were a lot of servants running around. Hikaru spotted Tsutsui, who was frowning at two servants struggling with an ornate carriage, and greeted him.

“What’s going on?” he asked, and Tsutsui sighed.

“Temple visit the day before next, they’ll be gone for some time… all too sudden, really. But can’t complain, I suppose,” he muttered.

There was a loud crash and some yelling, as the servants dropped the heavy carriage, and Tsutsui winced.

“Excuse me I better check nothing’s broken… oh, you should ask lord Sai if he’s going!” he told Hikaru before bustling away.

However, when Hikaru arrived at the room, he found Sai looking wan and unrested. Hikaru just assumed he’d been up too late playing a game or just woolgathering, since it happened quite often. And to think some people at court talked about how romantic he was. Really. One time he’d dropped his hat in the lake after a party.

When Kamo no Akira arrived for their game that day Hikaru kept catching him giving worried glances at Sai.

Sai, of course, noticed too.

“I slept badly, is all,” he told the boy with a mildly amused smile.

Akira nodded, but his lips were pressed into a thin, unhappy line. Sometimes Hikaru felt perhaps he should have been lord Sai’s bodyguard, with all the worrying he did. Him and lord Michimasa… except no, lord Michimasa didn’t really seem bodyguard material, on second though.

The next morning, Hikaru found Sai still in deep sleep, and fuzzy and irritable when he woke.

When he was no better the next morning, Sai announced he was ill and would not be travelling to the temple. Several people offered to stay behind with him, but were summarily waved away.

All except Kamo no Akira, who had politely hovered back until the rest of the crowd was gone, only to appear after with a stubborn glint in his grey eyes.

Hikaru saw Sai noticing that, and the exhausted sigh that followed, and wondered if he would get in trouble if he just picked up the onmyoji and dropped him in the garden pond. Bothering Sai when he was already ill, the nerve of him!

“I’ve bad feeling about this,” Akira said with little preamble.

Sai seemed to visible gather himself from the tired slump he’d started to fall into.

“I suppose that would be your expertise,” he replied politely, though clearly strained around the edges.

The onmyoji gave him an inscrutable look.

“I would rather stay behind, but I was specially requested to follow by lord Masanori in the company of his highness,” he said.

By now, Hikaru knew enough to realize that meant not going would be considered an insult which lord Masanori, being a particularly proud (and unpleasant, Hikaru thought privately) nobleman, would never let him forget.

“I see,” Sai said wanly. “Thank you, but I do think it would be unnecessary in any case.”

“I would, at least, recommend a change of rooms, though I am not sure…” Akira hesitated, which was uncommon enough to surprise Hikaru. “It could be beneficial.”

Sai sighed again.

“If you say so,” he agreed mournfully.

Hikaru dismissed it then, but when evening fell and he was lying in bed trying to sleep Akira’s words came back to haunt him. He didn’t know much about… spirits and the supernatural, but Kamo no Akira was supposed to. And besides, he was fond of lord Sai, in his own way. Which might mean he was worrying for nothing, onmyoji or not, but what if he wasn’t…

After tossing and turning for what seemed like several hours, Hikaru got up with a silent huff, pulled on his outer jacket and walked over to Sai’s room. If he could only see that all was well, maybe he could finally sleep himself.

It was the middle of the night, with no moon, so the walk across the garden was especially unpleasant. Several times, Hikaru almost turned back, but a strange feeling of foreboding pressed him on.
The corridor and Sai’s room were likewise dark and quiet. Hikaru didn’t even hear anyone snoring or shifting in their sleep, which was actually rather unusual… still, it seemed like everything was—

And then, he heard the familiar click of a go stone on the board, almost echoing in the silence.

But, Sai’s room was dark, even he wouldn’t play with the lights off, would he?

With every hair standing on end, Hikaru crept closer.

“S-Sai?” he called out, voice shaking. There was another click of a stone on wood, but no other reply, so after another hesitation, he peered into the room.

The first thing he registered was a strange smell, earthy and rotten, and an almost stinging cold, the sort that was painful to breathe in.

There was Sai, sitting next to the board, but Hikaru’s eyes were immediately drawn to his opponent, shaped like a human, but with an unnatural glow to her pale clothing and skin.

She had bedraggled hair that fell in limp, dark strands over her clothes, some sticking to an emaciated face. Suddenly, she looked straight at Hikaru, and he could see her eyes had a milky sheen, and like the rest of her they glowed like a covered paper lantern.

He tried to scream, but the sound seemed to lodge in his throat. The apparition smiled, almost coyly, and reached out to place a stone on the board. Her nails were black and sharp looking, where they grasped the stone. The board was almost fully covered, Hikaru realized amidst his mounting horror. He tried to scream again, or move, or do something, but it was like the air itself had turned to lead. Just breathing seemed an effort.

The ghostly figure smiled again, but this time at Sai, reaching a skeletal hand towards him, a grasping sort of gesture. Sai’s eyes were closed, and in the ghostly bluish glow from the spirit he looked almost dead as well. In the unnatural silence, Hikaru could hear his breath coming in short, rasping inhalations. Yet, his face remained slack and unaware.

As he placed another stone, the ghost followed the gesture hungrily, leaning towards him…

Hikaru had been struggling against whatever was holding him in place. At that moment, he suddenly felt as though he had torn free of something.

On instinct, he crawled towards the go board, reaching out to it. There was a horrible screech, and Hikaru felt as if he’d been encased in ice, cold enough to burn. He faltered and fell forward as everything went dark, even the ghostly glow blinking out.

*

Hikaru woke up slowly, everything seemingly wreathed in a haze of exhaustion. At first, he could only see a sort of blob of dark and lighter colours leaning over him, before it solidified into a face. Kamo no Akira’s face, to be precise. Hikaru blinked. Hadn’t he gone with the nobles?

For that matter, wasn’t there something more important…

“…ghost!” Hikary managed to say, and tried to sit up, only to find his body sluggish and resisting. He flopped back down, peering in confusion at his chest and the narrow, elegant hand that had been placed there to hold him down.

Kamo no Akira cleared his throat daintily and took his hand back, before frowning down at Hikaru.

“Don’t try to move yet, you just fought a vengeful spirit,” he said in a dry, matter of fact tone as if things like that happened every day. Perhaps for him they did, Hikaru thought sourly.

“Is… is Sai ok?” he asked, and Akira turned towards something at the side, prompting Hikaru to do the same, albeit more laboriously.

Sai was lying in his bed, pale and with shadows under his eyes.

“He’s still sleeping,” Akira said, his voice habitually controlled, but with a certain tightness to it.

Hikaru looked at him, at the tense brows that belied his calm.

“Is he going to wake up?” he asked tentatively, hating how young he sounded.

Akira turned to him again, expression smoothing out. He looked tired too, Hikaru thought suddenly, if not as much as Sai… or how he himself felt, he noted with a yawn.

“He should, though it must have been very close. I decided to return after all, but would certainly have been too late.” Akira said softly, the last said in a mutter that seemed more to himself than Hikaru.

“You did well, knocking down the board,” he added, though he was frowning down at Hikaru again.

“Did I?” Hikaru asked.

“Didn’t you?” Akira repeated, blinking.

“I… think I might have tried to, but then I passed out and…”

There was a strange, stifled noise, and as Hikaru looked up, he saw the usually serious onmyoji was very nearly laughing, his grey eyes creased and the corners of his mouth bending upwards. He’d raised a hand as if to hide it, the long fingers almost brushing his lower lip.

He looked much younger, like this, and Hikaru blinked, not sure why the sigh… well, it was a strange feeling it gave him.

“You… you must have knocked it down as you fell!” Akira said, and clamped the hand over his mouth, the giggles escaping out nevertheless.

“Oy! I could have done it on purpose!” Hikaru protested, the strange feeling gone away again,, mostly.

They both turned towards the back of the room as there was an indistinct but protesting mumble from Sai’s direction, causing Akira to dash over to him and try to wake him further.

Sai didn’t sound at all happy about it, but Hikaru could tell by the lessening tension in the line of Akira’s back that this was a good thing.

He allowed himself to slump back on the floor. There was, at least, a pillow under his head, so it was quite comfortable, he thought idly as he drifted back to sleep. Halfway between awake and asleep, he heard Akira’s voice, sounding scolding and relieved at once, and Sai’s irate reply, but the words themselves were blurred, and soon enough he fell completely into sleep.

*

“Nase, are you… oh, I’m so sorry.”

The two women turned towards her, Akari blushing in embarrassment as she saw just who Nase’s visitor was.

“Lady Aki! I really didn’t mean to interrupt…”

Lady Aki smiled, a shy, gentle expression.

“Oh, it’s quite alright, we were only discussing the game,” she said, and at the other side of the board Nase grinned at Akari. She had a certain glow about her she always got after a particularly enjoyable game of go.

“Yes, it was a most lovely game!” she chirped. “I can certainly see who it was who taught Lord Sai the game.”

Lady Aki raised a pale, small hand to hide a smile.

“Oh no, that child has certainly outgrown his mother a long time ago…” she said, sounding proud despite the wistful words.

Nase waved Akari in, and after glancing timidly at Lady Aki and receiving another smile she sat between them, listening as they finished their discussion on the game. They made a curious contrast, Nase with her lively, at times too bold gestures and Lady Aki’s gentle restraint. Like looking at summer and autumn conversing, Akari thought.

Lady Aki had only arrived at court very recently, and was famed to have been something of a hermit for several years previous. Akari had even heard a rumour it was because her younger son had been kidnapped and disappeared as an infant, which she thought sounded a bit too fabulous to be true. Though it would explain why she seemed so sad sometimes…

Be that as it may, she was a pleasant, elegant lady. Perhaps only more elegant for the tragic aura that seemed to surround her. Nase had laughed at her when Akari had told her that, she remembered with some embarrassment.

At some point, Nase raised her head and exclaimed at the darkening light.

“Oh, I didn’t realize it was so late, we’ve missed the evening feast entirely…”

“Yes,” Akari said, only slightly pointedly. It had only been a small thing, to welcome the nobles returning from the temple visit, but without Nase there she’d been stuck next to Lady Matsu all evening, and had to nod along to her not particularly amusing witticisms. Sei Shonagon she was not, though she might imagine herself so…

“Anything interesting happen?” Nase asked, with an apologetic glance her way.

“Not particularly. Oh, except lord Michimasa challenging lord Sai to a game…”

“Doesn’t that happen every day?” Nase said dryly. “Sometimes several times.”

“Yes, except they were both terribly drunk! I do believe it added a certain element of excitement even for the onlookers. At one point, lord Sai actually placed a stone wrong, and I’m not sure which of them was more dismayed!”

Nase was laughing, and even Lady Aki was smiling, even while she was shaking her head.

“I do worry for him sometimes, such an impetuous person at court…” she said.

Nase and Akari glanced at one another. It was true that lord Sai was not popular with all of the nobles at court; especially within the group surrounding the emperor’s other go teacher. Still…

“He is… kind, though,” Nase said, thoughtfully. “Except in go, perhaps,” she amended.

Lady Aki sighed, smiling at her wistfully.

“Oh, I know…”

Perhaps that worried her as well, Akari reflected.

“He tells me he has a bodyguard now, a boy called Hikaru, I believe. Only saw him briefly, but they do seem… similar, in some ways,” Lady Aki remarked, causing Nase to have to smother a giggle.

“Don’t let lord Michimasa hear you say that…!” she exclaimed, before getting herself under control again. “Oh, but he is something of a troublemaker indeed. Makes things interesting,” she said cheerfully.

“That reminds me, I heard he has started to learn go from Kamo no Akira,” Akari dared to say, causing Nase to look at her in surprise.

“Akira? Truly? How did that happen?”

“Well, Kaneko wrote me that one of her admirers told her lord Akira simply dragged him away for lessons the other day. That is, you know how Hikaru is pretending not to care for the game…” Akari added with an eye roll.

They’d grown up in neighbouring provinces and met a few times growing up. It only emphasised what a child he could still be, really. As if everyone didn’t know about his “secret” lessons.

“Perhaps lord Sai bribed him,” Nase suggested with a laugh. “We’ll see how long Akira can bear it, though…”

“Oh, indeed…” Akari agreed. She liked Hikaru, but his company was not for the faint of heart.

What they didn’t know, though, was that it had been a bet, rather than a bribe. And perhaps even Sai hadn’t quite realized what he started, bringing the two and go together.

At that moment, as Nase and Akari continued to discuss the various happenings at court, lady Aki glanced over at the screen towards the garden. There, a figure carrying a lantern was passing by, obscured by the trees. His lilac robes stood out pale against the settling gloom of the evening, and something about the profile glimpsed behind a fall of dark hair struck her as eerily familiar.

Before she could quite grasp what it was, the figure had already disappeared, and a concerned voice called her attention back to the room.

“Are you well?” Akari asked, “You look as though you’ve seen a ghost… oh,” she turned pale suddenly. “I heard lord Sai was attacked by one recently, what if…”

Lady Aki laughed, trying to shake the strange feeling that had grasped her for a moment.

“Oh no…” she began, but Akari already seemed set on a course.

“I’ll send a letter to Kamo no Akira tomorrow, he’ll be sure to look into it. Sai is his teacher, after all!” she said decisively.

She didn’t say it aloud, but she’d long felt those two acted rather like brothers, and that Sai was the closest thing Akira had to family he actually liked. He’d certainly want to see that Sai’s mother was not plagued by any malicious spirits.

“It can’t do any harm,” Nase added calmly, before lady Aki had time to assure them it wasn’t necessary.

“Yes, I suppose so,” she agreed tentatively. “And… I’ve heard so much about this onmyoji already, but have yet to even see him once. That will at least be interesting.”

“Oh, certainly,” Nase agreed idly.

*

[Cinq]

May. 5th, 2015 12:01 am
answer_key: (igobu)
Bitterblossom


The door chimed as it opened, the sound sharp and jarring. With a scratch of his ear and a poorly-hidden yawn, the man at the counter looked up at and forced a smile on his face. "Welcome to Hakuyousha."

Carrying a large tote of items, the man walking through the door, looking overly formal in his wafuku, scowled as he set it upon the counter. "I need these items cleaned by Wednesday." He squinted, looking at the name tag of the man behind the counter. "Hikaru-san. I trust you can do this?"

Flicking a finger through his bleached bangs to nudge them back from his forehead, Hikaru shrugged, wondering again why he'd insisted on having that name rather than his family name on the tag. "Depends. Do you have anything in here that needs special attention? I'm seeing hakama and stuff, but is there any silk or maybe something that needs to be fixed?"

"No." The man stood tall suddenly. "I have an account here, as well, so we needn't bother with more conversation. Touya Akira. I'll be back on Wednesday."

It took a second for Hikaru to look up from the computer, rolling his eyes as Akira left. "Rude." It only took a moment to get the items hung and logged into the system under Akira's name, and then it was back to yawning and living in the divide between wanting to have customers so there was something to do and wanting to have no more customers so he wouldn't have to do anything.

By Wednesday, Hikaru no longer remembered the incident. That is, until Akira walked though the door, his haori himo looking like a white kitten perched on his breastbone. Hikaru squinted at him for a moment, taking only that long to remember the man's name, then dashing off to get his items, placing them on the rack beside the register where Akira would be able to grab them. He snorted, reminded of what he'd hung up, and couldn't seem to blurt out, "You know you can just wash fundoshi in the sink, right?"

Akira's brows shot up and then furrowed as he glared at Hikaru. "I don't have the time. Nor do I have the time for this conversation." He reached up to push a lock of hair back from his face, the sleeve of his haori jacket pulling back slightly and revealing a pale forearm dotted with spots and streaks of ink. Tugging it back down with a scowl, Akira looked up defiantly at Hikaru, as if daring him to do anything but what Akira had asked.

Hikaru wanted to laugh, but instead huffed out a breath as he pulled up Akira's account and gave him the total. "That bright yellow furoshiki you had in there? I can't imagine someone deciding to use that on a gift for you."

Pulling out exact change for the bill, Akira arched his shoulders in a shrug. "No mention of the one that seems to resemble a snake eye? I found that one disturbing. The yellow is merely bright. Obnoxious, perhaps, but you seem to know a bit of that."

"Ouch!" Hikaru snorted and took the money from the other man, his fingertips curling against Akira's palm to grab the coins he'd placed there. For a moment, he could swear that Akira's fingers curled toward his own. "I'd be offended if I thought there was a chance you'd apologize by bringing me a gift wrapped in the yellow one."

Akira stood still. "What would I give you as a gift?" There was a pause only just long enough to notice. "And why?"

"Uh, because I had to resew the seams of like three of your tabi? You might want to consider a pedicure, dude." Hikaru grinned. "As for what to give me, how about your number?"

"Is it not in the system?" Akira looked visibly flustered, his fingers tracing along the pleats of his hakama.

Raising an eyebrow, Hikaru laughed softly. "Is that permission to call you? Do you do messaging? You're a little old-fashioned. We're about the same age and you dress like my grandpa when he goes to funerals."

"I'm a calligrapher." Akira cleared his throat. "There are certain expectations for how I present myself."

Hikaru leaned forward onto his elbows and grinned broadly. "I'm calling your bluff. No man wears fundoshi anymore unless he has to or he kind of likes it. And do you make enough money playing in ink that you can afford to bring all of your clothing to the cleaners?"

Akira ran a hand through his hair and took a deep breath. "As I stated before, I don't have the time for this. I'll be back later in the week with more items to have cleaned. Good day." He was quick to gather his items and head out the door, giving Hikaru one last glance before his eyes widened and he hurried off.

On Friday, when Hikaru came in to work, he found a familiar looking scrap of cloth folded and twisted into an attractive shape sitting by the register with a note from the wife of the man who ran the shop that a formal-looking young gentleman had left it. Hikaru was quick to unwrap the fabric, smirking at the way the furoshiki cloth seemed to shine in the light, highlighting what had surely been meant to look so much like a snake's eye as the resemblance was so strong. What lay inside, though, was a bit of a surprise. It was a small shikishi, the hard-backed fine paper used to display so much ink as art, a pale tan color with artful but sure strokes of black across the page. Each line was perfectly formed and somehow written in a way that imbued the words with extra meaning. It was a simple haiku, talking of the way that breezes caught at flower blossoms, testing the resilience of the tree. Carefully folded beneath it, though, was the yellow furoshiki he'd admired and a poorly folded piece of paper. It was this that caught his breath. The writing was not as careful, but was just as beautiful for the hurried hand.

Hikaru traced along below the words as he read them. You asked for my number and then did not call. I can only assume you are either not truly interested or you merely wish not to take liberties. Should it be the latter and not perhaps some other reason I've not thought to presume, please know that I do actually message frequently and would not be adverse to finding a time when I may show you another side of myself, or at least one who is not run ragged with the demands of hand-crafting hundreds of diplomas. As the sakura bloom, I find my thoughts of you seem to echo them in splendor. They occupy my thoughts in equal measure as I walk along the river to run errands that must be done by day, prompting a hurry I am unused to. My number is listed below, as well, in case my missive about its existence within your workplace's computer system should stand incorrect, as is my messaging address should you wish to contact me that way. I hope to hear from you with more fervor than I wish to examine at this moment. Touya Akira

It made his heart beat faster to have those kinds of words used in regard to him, but Hikaru made himself pause in pulling out his own phone to give it all a quick response. Instead, he grabbed for a square of paper and began to very carefully write his own name and number on it, then arranged it carefully atop the yellow fabric, snapping a picture of it and sending it off to the address Akira had provided with a typed note of "When we meet, I'll bring you a real gift. Until then, enjoy how pathetic my writing looks compared to your own. - Hikaru"

He didn't receive a response until nearly the end of his shift, but the day had been busy enough after the morning lull that he hadn't truly been able to notice until things were drawing to a close once more. The response he did get was short and to the point. Would you like to come over for tea?

Only a few more messages were exchanged, leading to Hikaru walking along the river using the same path he assumed that Akira walked, the water a floating mosaic of white and pink petals taken from the trees lining the banks, tinged with just a hint of orange from the setting sun. Akira's home was not difficult to find and it was easy, somehow, to ring the bell, despite his amusement in regard to its modernity against the somewhat traditional look of the rest of the home. It wasn't as easy to parse what his actions should be when Akira answered the door in yukata, the pale fabric chasing away the somberness of Akira that existed in Hikaru's mental image. He started different words, the noises coming out as something garbled, then shook off the error and bowed his head just enough to be polite and pulled the snake eye furoshiki from his pocket and wrapped it around his hand, offering it to Akira. "I liked the yellow one, so I'm keeping that. And I don't really have a gift for you yet, so I can only give you what you can get from me."

Akira's cheeks flushed with the pink of the first sakura that dared to change, but he did not speak until he had motioned Hikaru inside and closed the door carefully behind him. "There is much that can be taken from a person, and more still that may be freely given."

"You spend too much time looking at old words, I swear. But I guess there's not much calligraphy of emoji, huh?" Hikaru exchanged his shoes for slippers and grinned at the ink spots he found along the soles.

"There is not, at least thus far." Akira quirked his lips into a smile for just long enough for Hikaru to recognize it as such, then gestured toward another room. "I apologize for my forwardness in regard to this. However, your own behavior led me to believe that you might find that acceptable."

Hikaru pushed his own hair back, smiling all the while. "Yeah. I don't see much point in keeping quiet about what you want. Better to know sooner if you need to back off, right?" He took a seat on one of the cushions, cross-legged, leaning back and giving Akira a measured glance as he braced his hands against the floor. "And do I need to? Back off, that is."

Sitting down carefully in seiza on the cushion across from Hikaru, Akira shook his head. "I may not be so familiar with boldness as you are, but I hope my actions have proven that it is not entirely out of my nature. I am intrigued by you, though I do wish to know you better before I attempt to say what my feelings are."

"You did promise to show me more of yourself, too." Hikaru leaned forward, his elbows on his knees as he looked Akira up and down. "Does that include the fundoshi?"

Akira busied himself with the tea suddenly, placing one cup in front of Hikaru and letting his own fingers wrap carefully around the other. "I suppose it could? I would be remiss if I didn't insist upon a similar gesture from you."

"You want me naked? Just ask. I'll even let you write all over me if that's a thing you're into. I just don't want life to pass me by because I was too afraid to live it." Hikaru picked up his cup and took a sip, his nose wrinkling afterward. "That's a little bitter."

"If the tea isn't brewed well, there's not much point trying to drink it, is there?" Akira wet his lips with the liquid, nodding as he set the cup down. "Perhaps we can try the tea again later."

"Later like another day or later like tomorrow morning with breakfast?" Hikaru bit at his low lip. "I'm cool with either."

Akira stood up and reached for the knot of his obi, slowly loosening it as he smirked at Hikaru. "My futon has room for two."

And if, in the morning, Hikaru was sent out the door with some items that needed dry cleaning because certain things (and not just ink) took a bit more care to have come out in the wash, then it was seen by both of them as another guarantee of seeing each other. If they were as ephemeral as the sakura, it was still a beautiful moment. But, too, they might be as resilient as the tree.
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It Takes Two (Pairs) to Rengo



“Are you going to be a major nuisance this time, too? You know, you don’t really have to do it.”

Ko felt her lips twist in a smile even before she turned to look at the person leaning against her hotel room door. And sure enough, there was the owner of the voice, frowning down at her from her considerable height, arms crossed, the trademark haircut and various buckles on her clothes unmistakably identifying Japan’s most recognizable female Go player.

“Why, hello to you, too, ” Ko flashed Yashiro her the best smile. “I’m delighted you’ve missed me enough to show up without any ceremonies on my doorstep.”

“See, you’re doing it already,” Yashiro said, completely unfazed. “You don’t really have to act like the world’s biggest jerk when you’re not actually one.”

The fact that Yashiro said it unironically was both sweet and troublesome. Yashiro’s brand of uncomplicated straightforwardness was cute, but Ko happened to enjoy being a jerk, thank you very much, and didn’t plan on stopping that any time soon.

“I’m probably not doing a good job if I’m not even fooling you with my act,” Ko said with fake thoughtfulness. “Next thing I know, Shindou will come knocking on my door singing kumbaya.”

“About that,” said Yashiro with an alarming expression of a person who thought things were going their way. “Why don’t you try to get along with him?”

“Why would I?” Ko asked sincerely. “Shindou’s fun enough to rile up, but he’s hard to put up with in his normal state, unless you’re Touya Akira. In which case, my condolences.”

Yashiro let out a sigh of someone who currently had to put up with a broad range of quirks exhibited by professional Go players.

“I get along with both of them just fine, and I can’t see why you don’t,” she said with a frown. “And I really don’t understand why both of you insist on making a ruckus on every international event – seriously, do you take some of pleasure in that?”

It took Ko a massive display of willpower not to nod at that.

“Go publications probably benefit from the attention,” she said flippantly, but Yashiro was having none of it. She unglued herself from the door and walked to where Ko was sitting.

“Please, can you just try? I would be really happy if my friends could get along,” she said earnestly, putting on hand on Ko’s shoulder. “And preferably not by making the headlines together,” she added, only half-joking.

Ko thought that for someone who looked like a mean punk rocker, Yashiro could be awfully cute. Awful puppy-like cuteness was Ko’s one and only weakness – even she was allowed one, after all – and right there and then she saw no reason why she shouldn’t indulge it.

“Fine,” she said generously. “Bring your loser friends here. If all else fails, we can at least play a game or two, even if they turn out to be abysmal at small talk.”

* * *

Shindou considered himself to be pretty brave, all things considered. Fate threw Heian ghosts, drastic life changes, early career choices and bearded men left and right in his path, and he calmly and bravely faced all of that – even the bearded men.

However, Shindou could admit his bravery wasn’t limitless, and that it probably stopped short somewhere close to the mysterious land marked as ‘girls’.

It was not as if Shindou had anything against girls, not at all. Besides their general benefits like the ability to remember stuff he couldn’t be bothered to, or to mysteriously procure food around their person, they could be pretty cool friends. He knew Akari since forever – since that day she offered him her sand bucket and he put it on her head (ah, good times), and Yashiro was pretty great, too. She dressed better than all of the Nihon Ki-in combined (excluding himself, because in no way was Shindou like those stuffy old men), played mean hands that made the said stuffy men clutch at their pearls, and could even beat Shindou at video games (sometimes, very rarely, really, maybe half of the time, but definitely not more).

But Shindou was aware of the universal truth that deep down inside, all girls were scary, because it was impossible to tell when they would have one of their ideas. The kind of terrible ideas that they believed were for your own good. You never knew when they would flip the switch that would turn your old friend into an unstoppable force of nature.

“Whaaat? To Ko’s room?! No way!” Shindou shook his head violently.

Yashiro wasn’t impressed.

“Shindou, stop freaking out. We’ll just hang out for a bit together, that’s all. What are you afraid of?”

“I’m not afraid!” A tiny unimportant understatement. “I’m against it! Ko is a terrible person who says mean things, and I don’t know why I need to see more of her than I have to. And somehow she always makes it look I’m at fault! And for some reason, it always ends up in the newspapers – Touya even has the cutouts to prove it.”

Yashiro shot Touya a dubious look. He was sitting on Shindou’s bed laying down a game on a foldable goban and refusing to acknowledge that any part of the conversation had any relation to him. Touya had amazing skills at handling women, Shindou had to give him that.

“She is fun,” Yashiro said, turning back to Shindou. “You’ll like that.”

“Correction: she likes making fun of people, and I don’t like that at all.”

Yashiro crossed her arms and gave Shindou an ill-boding look.

“Shindou, if you don’t come to hang out with Ko, I’m not going to any more concerts with you, tours or no tours. You can try to persuade Touya to go with you to the next gig for all I care.”

Touya’s back immediately straightened.

“We accept Ko Yeong-ha’s invitation,” he said quickly.

“Traitor!” Shindou wailed. He knew it! Girls were terrible, terrible creatures who used every underhanded means at their disposal.

“I am not listening to your whining anymore, Shindou. We’re coming with Yashiro, and I think between us we’ll be able to keep you and Ko from any publicity stunts.” He gave Yashiro a mildly concerned look and added, “Probably.”

Terrible. Shindou was right to be afraid, it was self-preservation instincts talking, really. Those girls even lured Touya to the dark side, and he was now giving Shindou a look that promised violence at the prospect of the future where Shindou would attempt to sweet-talk Touya into going to a rock concert with him. (The first and – so far – the last time Touya went to one didn’t go too bad, in Shindou’s opinion. It was just that Touya was too fussy about things like stomping on shoes and blaring basses. He was probably secretly sixty-year-old or something.)

“Fine, I’ll go,” Shindou admitted grudgingly. “But you owe me for that.”

“Great! Thank you!” Yashiro looked disproportionally happy and leaned in to give him a rough hug. Shindou wasn’t very good with hugs and tried to telepathically convey that to Touya over Yashiro’s shoulder. Touya had the decency to look sympathetic but didn’t seem to be in any rush to intervene, but before Shindou had to detach Yashiro from himself, she remembered she was actually a cool person and moved away with a slight slap on his shoulder.

“Ko said there might be Korean snacks, too!” she said with a grin.

Well, at least they come with food, Shindou thought grudgingly.

* * *

Judging by the growing pile of empty Choco Pie wrappers, Shindou got over his reservations pretty fast, Ko thought. The evening wasn’t actually going too bad, even if she had to agree to the temporary ban of her all-time favourite Shindou activity of determining just how short his fuse was. Touya Akira turned out to be surprisingly capable of making small talk, even on subjects other than Go, Shindou was bearable when he kept his mouth otherwise occupied, and Yashiro- Yashiro’s grinning, animated face was well worth doing this, Ko thought.

When Ko’s sweets stash was completely depleted and Shindou started fidgeting around and invading Touya Akira’s private space in many inventive ways, she decided a change of pace was in order.

“Who’s up for a game?” she asked, setting down her custom-made foldable goban on the table. Judging by how Shindou’s fidgeting changed from alarming to almost human, the suggestion came at the right time.

“Hayago, hayago!” said Shindou enthusiastically, but before he could have everyone agree with him, Ko took the reins into her hands.

“There is an even number of players in the room,” she said. “Why don’t we play rengo?”

Judging by Yashiro and Shindou’s equally wide-eyed looks, they weren’t very familiar with pair Go. Or maybe they had never played it before? The thought was strange to anyone who studied under Korean Institute, which believed in using all the existing game forms and exercises for training its students, but Ko guessed things could be different for Japan.

However, she was obviously not the only person in the room who knew of pair Go, because it was Touya who spoke up next.

“I believe we even have the right number of women and men for a traditional game of rengo,” he said with a small cough. ”In a typical game, the players are paired up into teams of one man and one woman, and they each play a hand in turn.”

“Wait, am I reading this right? Four players, two teams, one board?” Shindou’s eyes lit up. Yashiro seemed very intrigued by the idea as well, and judging by the way she was chewing on her lower lip, already thinking through possible moves.

“Yes, exactly that,” Touya nodded and continued with a contemplative look. “But I think it would be more fair to pair up differently for this game, so that there is at least one person on each team with rengo experience.”

“I concur,” said Ko and immediately arranged the goke around the board so that it was clear who she was teaming up with. Yashiro rolled her eyes good-naturedly but didn’t object, and if Shindou’s slightly demented look was anything to judge by, he didn’t mind either.

“I like rengo because it test different strengths, builds different muscles, so to say,” Ko said, silently gesturing Touya to nigiri. “In any other game, you’re the chief-in-command, and your goal is clear. You set your stones as you would send your troop to battle. But in rengo, there are two of you who have the right to place stones, two generals that have to coordinate their movements without any messengers running between then, and unless you can read each other better than your opponent, you’re doomed to lose.”

Ko smiled with aniticipation. She was rather looking forward to this game herself.

The opening hands of the game established that Yashiro heard her message and was willing to hold back with her notoriously reckless plays in favour of extending and strengthening the hands Ko played. It was the objectively the best bet Yashiro could have made and at the same time a gesture of good will, which warmed Ko’s heart – after all, Yashiro was known for plays that were the opposite of conventional. With this stance, they had a pretty good chance of winning, especially if their opponents got bogged down in the struggle for leading the game.

If she was honest with herself, Ko would have to admit she was intrigued. She had played both Shindou and Touya in a number of international tournaments, and she had read enough of their kifu to know that while equally devoted to the game, they could not have been more different as players. Where Shindou was all tricks and sleights of hand, a player who read so far into the game that he ended up losing some of his matches only because he got distracted by winning some alternate version of them in his head (a habit which Ko personally found tremendously annoying), Touya wielded the knowledge of what seemed to be all existing Go forms like war machinery perfectly attuned to his needs (which got a reluctant pass in Ko’s books, mostly because it was hard to deny Touya’s efficiency).

And even without Yashiro’s anecdotes about her friends Ko was informed that the rivalry between the two of them was something of a national pride in Nihon Ki-in. It was either sink or swim.

* * *

It was fun, fun, fun. It was so much fun that Shindou wanted to shout at Touya why they had never played rengo before. He would have, too, if he hadn’t been too busy thinking through a move that was very likely to get Touya shouting at him in a hand or two.

Yashiro and Ko made a very good team, he saw that. It was pretty clear by early chuuban that their strategy had secured them two corners and a good chunk of the center, which would have been very hard to beat even in a regular game.

But this wasn’t any regular game. Touya, as was expected of him, had unmistakably identified the weakest point in their opponents’ defense, and set up at attack that could have lessened their position in the center of the board by half.

Could have, but would not.

Shindou grinned and slammed his stone down in what looked a lot like move that would send Touya yelling pretty soon. Let him think about that.

* * *

Ko would have understood if Touya had screamed at what had to be the world’s most dickish move ever played in rengo, but it not being her place to worry, Ko just played a hand that sealed the white’s dominance on half of the board.

Touya, to his credit, had not screamed, even if his hand tightened around the edge of the goke.

Yashiro was openly frowning at the offensive stone and at Shindou himself, who was visibly struggling but failing to suppress a smile. Ko was running through possible scenarios where Shindou’s last hand meant anything other than undermining Touya’s offense, but was coming up short.

After a long silence, Touya smiled a thin-lipped smile and put down a stone that almost made Ko scream in frustration. It was a terrible move, it made no sense, it added neither to their offense or defense, but Shindou looked like it was Christmas come early. Touya huffed and quirked an eyebrow in response.

Ko peered into the board once again. It made no sense if their aim was to advance their position in the game, but at the same time, it definitely wasn’t miscommunication on their part. Then what was it?

In the next several hands, the game steadied and the black stones had strengthened their position by effectively eating into one of the white’s corners. The battle for the corner was an unexpectedly tenacious one, and Ko was getting more and more glad by the minute that Yashiro was reliably backing her up, because the attack was surprisingly vicious for a territory so small. Just as she was thinking of putting an end this the battle and moving on a different part of the board on her next turn, Touya played a completely nonsensical move that had Shindou glaring at him angrily, and in two more moves, had Ko frantically counting the cost of abandoning their second corner without a fight and concentrating on expanding from the center instead.

And then, with the opponents’ next incomprehensible move, it occurred to her. And judging by Yashiro’s exasperated sigh, she had the same idea.

Their opponents were laying out traps for each other. Avoiding the trap was earning the other one’s agreement to continue with the chosen line of strategy.

It was ridiculous. It was unnecessarily complicated. And most annoyingly, it worked.

Almost worked, amended Ko, watching with satisfaction as Yashiro slammed down a stone for her next move.



* * *

“I thought the evening went well,” said Shindou, stretching his arms as they walked back to their hotel rooms.

“We lost, Shindou,” said Touya.

“If you hadn’t taken two stones to clear out the last trap, we could have made it!”

“If you didn’t drag that one into early endgame, we could have made it with better odds.”

“It wouldn’t have been fun.”

“It was an interesting challenge,” admitted Touya.

“I guess Ko’s not too bad, either,” Shindou added as an afterthought. “I guess we can hang out with her sometimes. Especially if she brings more of those snacks.”

* * *

Back in Ko’s room, Yashiro profusely apologized on behalf of her ‘mostly well-meaning but sometimes a bit tactless’ friends.

Ko generously accepted all apologies and said that she didn’t mind, and made a mental note to send a copy of the game’s kifu to her reporter friend. After all, some traditions were worth keeping up.

[Sanno]

Sep. 20th, 2014 10:41 am
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When I Was Your Age


Akira started playing when she was two and her chubby fingers sometimes scattered the go pieces. Her father would chuckle and Akira’s ears would burn as she tried to sit up straighter even though she much preferred to squat. “Like this,” her father had said, guiding her hand so she would place the pieces strongly and decisively on the go board. He taught her like he would have taught a son. Akira would watch his hand and she would shake, her bangs quivering when her father placed a piece. But her eyes never left the go board and so her father continued to teach her.

-

They didn’t see many girls in the go salon. So when she – with her bleached bangs and her trendy clothes, even more unusual – entered, the whole go salon paused for a second. The girl stilled for a second, and then she screwed up her face and walked over to the counter. She smiled at Harumi, leaned on the counter, and said she wanted to play. Harumi seemed to stifle a laugh. Her gaze drifted over the salon and Akira sat up straighter when it settled on her. Harumi was always talking about how Akira needed friends her own age, not a bunch of retired men.

“How do you feel about playing Akira?” Harumi asked warmly. Akira wandered over and suppressed a snort when the girl seemed ready to dismiss her, but the girl shrugged, as if ignoring an internal argument.

“Sure,” she said. “Do they make you wear those terrible clothes?” She said, as they walked through the go salon, to one of Akira’s favourite go boards.

Akira looked down and didn’t understand. She thought the other girl was dressed obnoxiously bright.

“Nice to see a girl here. These places seem full of old men,” the girl whispered, her voice way too loud for a quiet go salon. A couple of the regulars spluttered. The go salon was soon filled with muttering; about how glad they would be when Akira would be beat that girl punk.

It didn’t quite work that way. Akira didn’t have high hopes, not with the way the girl was placing the stones, as if she only half knew they were supposed to go there. But then. Akira leaned back.

Akira was twelve when Hikaru beat her. She stared across the go board, shocked. Because Hikaru didn’t fit in here, with her bleached bangs and very casual clothes, she stuck out like a sore thumb where the average age was closer to sixty. She then left and Akira was left facing a go board that showed her defeat, but didn’t show how Hikaru, of all people, had beaten her.

It started an obsession, something even Akira could admit.

-

As a rule, Akira didn’t enter competitions. Not against children.

She had been six and she had already been escorted by her father several times to the Go Institute to watch him play. It was fascinating and Akira had wanted to play. The only people she usually played with were her father’s students. And they smiled at her, patting her on the head, saying what a pretty girl she was, what a wonderful wife she would make, especially for a go master.

They offered to play her and her father had nodded. Then they had seemed unnerved by her intensity, how she had placed the stones with a sure and practiced air. At six, she usually didn’t beat them, not unless they had made some truly fatal errors at the beginning. But.

“They fear what you could become, especially for a girl,” her mother had whispered in her air. Her mother had taken her hand and led her to her bedroom. There she had tucked Akira into bed, smoothing her bangs and pressed a kiss against the soft skin of her forehead. “You’re already strong, who knows what you’ll be at fifteen? Twenty five?”

Akira had wrinkled her nose, because that was terribly old. Her mother’s laugh was gentle and musical. She hummed an old song and Akira fell to sleep dreaming of go boards and victory.

The next day her father had quietly told her she would crush the children, the boys, because she was too strong. Akira had continued to eat her breakfast for a few minutes before nodding.

“But I can still play here, right?” Because most of all Akira wanted to play.

Her father smiled.

-

The girl was going to be there. Akira was almost jittery from excitement and it was only her mother’s quiet voice in her head that stopped her from storming over to her, shaking her and demanding a rematch. Akira had dignity, but she also wanted to play her. So she begged, she cajoled. The teacher, who she could easily beat, had nodded finally. She was going to be playing Hikaru in the third round.

When she played the girl – it wasn’t the same. At first Akira had marvelled at Hikaru’s smooth playing, but then half way through the game, something changed. Akira bit her lip, fighting back anger and tears, because she had always listened to her father and thought maybe this girl could help her find the Hand of God. But now the girl was playing clumsily, not at all like someone who had beaten Akira. In the end the girl resigned, her blonde bangs moving to cover half her face.

“You didn’t play like this before,” Akira murmured. Hikaru started and looked at her with wide eyes. Hikaru looked she was going to say something before she ducked her head and bit her lip. She was rather pretty, Akira thought, even with the blonde hair. Akira looked away, her nails digging into her thighs.

And so she became a professional. Playing in a middle school go club was - was for children.

-

And then Hikaru became a professional. She was grinning, bangs freshly bleached, on the cover. She was brighter than Waya and Ochi, even though Akira should have been looking at Ochi as his former tutor. She could only imagine some of the more conservative go players, shaking their head at this new wave of go professionals. Akira had moved smoothly into their world, at least as smoothly as a woman could. The old men of the go world had huffed heavily. The younger go professionals had all heard of her, of course. Many of them had already played her and they resigned with more good humor.

She knew how to sit, knew the procedures because she had lived and breathed go since she was a child. Hikaru wasn’t going to be wave, Akira thought, she had the potential to be a tsunami.

Later, at her father’s home, it was a regular study night. Akira was distracted, thinking of playing Hikaru professionally.

Ogata made unsavory remarks. It was something that Akira usually ignored entirely, that she didn’t even blink when he made a comment about Hikaru. Then the actual words hit her and Akira frowned. Ogata seemed amused, his eyes hooded.

“You won’t speak about her that way,” Akira said and her words rang out. She stood up, smoothing her skirt and stared imperiously down at Ogata. She didn’t know where she was getting this courage.

She left the room, grateful that hadn’t been in the middle of a game. Her mother’s gaze followed her up the stairs. But it was her father, hours later, who entered her room and sank with a sigh to her desk chair. He sounded old and Akira’s stomach clenched unpleasantly. He didn’t say anything and he didn’t need to, because Akira was speaking.

“Do you think you’ll find it one day?” Akira asked. “The Hand of God.”

“One day,” her father said easily, as if he hadn’t been playing for decades, searching for it. Her father stood up and brushed her hair away from her face. Akira blushed, feeling like she was a little girl again.

“Father,” she started, fidgeting away.

“One day,” he said, patting her on shoulder. “I’ll see the Hand of God.”

-

Hikaru smiled at Akira. Akira had heard of her return. But it wasn’t the same as playing her.They started their game and it didn’t feel like the Hand of God. But it did feel like the beginning, silver turning to gold. The game went faster. Akira’s breath caught in her throat.

She might not win this; she wanted to win this that was the thrill of playing Hikaru.

Akira smiled, just for a second. Hikaru saw it.
answer_key: (Default)
Half Moon


Visiting a prostitute was not something Hikaru had ever done before or had even contemplated doing, but that afternoon, he and Isumi weren't really going for the usual things a prostitute does, no they had come to play go, which was a hobby for this particular prostitute. For Hikaru and Isumi playing go was their work but on occasion, if the prospected opponent was really good, they would themselves pay (if only for the refreshments and location hire) to play. It was just a first time thing for Hikaru that the location of this particular game was a bordello and the opponent a prostitute.

For Isumi this was his second visit, and it had been Isumi who had talked Hikaru into coming along that day, assuring him that he didn't have to do anything he didn't want to and besides they were only going to be playing go and nothing else, so Hikaru needn't worry.

Of course Hikaru really wasn't worried about what it was prostitutes did or didn't do. Nor would Isumi had been so worried on Hikaru's behalf if he'd have known his friend a little better than he thought he did. You see, Hikaru did 'discrete' really well. And this was a very good thing because he liked sex a lot and had slept with a lot of people both Hikaru and Isumi knew well. Hikaru's discretion kept Isumi from finding out a whole bunch of things he was better of not knowing about his current girlfriend (and the last one, and the one before that, incidentally). Isumi, Hikaru knew, was the straight laced sort and Hikaru didn't see a point in needlessly upsetting his friend. Because while Hikaru loved sex in all its forms, he wasn't ready to commit and he had always been up front about that with all his partners and, except for a few unfortunate instances, most of his partners had accepted that. And so at 19 Hikaru was a successful and unhatched go pro and he was looking forward to his very first visit to an actual brothel.

S$S$S

The start of the visit was somewhat disappointing. After having turned from the brightly lit main street of Tokyo's red light district into a rather dingy alleyway, Isumi knocked on a dark wooden door that looked like any other door in the alleyway; decapitated and uninviting. The knock was answered with an elderly sounding female asking who was there. Isumi said his name and added Hikaru simply as 'and friend'.

The door creaked open and they were let into a dark anteroom where both of them took off their footwear and put on the slippers the older lady pointed them to. She was maybe in her sixties and wearing a fairly formal version of traditional kimono, as far a Hikaru could tell. She was well groomed and her actions radiated tradition, but while she smiled in a very polite way as she bade her guests to follow her, Hikaru detected a very hard glint in the lady's eyes; it said 'don't mess with me'.

Hikaru had no intention of messing with anyone, so he didn't feel threatened but the lady, and he followed after Isumi who followed the lady down the narrow corridor that led off the anteroom. The floors were covered in traditional matting and wall on either side were made of large dark wooden panels, the kind that also slid apart and functioned as doors and room dividers. They turned a corner to the left and then later a corner to the right after which the lady stopped, knelt down near the left wall, facing her guest, slid open the panel right next to her, bowed and bad them enter.

There was artificial light coming from the room, lighting up the corridor as Isumi first entered and Hikaru followed. Once they were both inside, the door behind them slid closed; the lady had shut herself out of the room. Hikaru let his eyes quickly scan the new space; moderate sided room with tatami mats on the floors, dark wood on the walls, with some scrolls - one of a bamboo shoot in bloom and one of a bird in the light of a half moon - and one display of ornate fans and another of a beautiful purple kimono, hung out to best effect. The room was lit by two lampoon like lanterns hanging from the dark ceiling. Presently Hikaru's eyes fell on the only other occupant of the room, who was bowing to them in welcome. And Hikaru couldn't help but stare.

The prostitute was beautiful. A slender face and physique, near purple irises in almond shaped eyes, pinkish red lips on a dainty mouth, long straight natural looking hair that seemed to go on forever behind her back, Hikaru was sure that the hair would still touch the floor when the lady would be standing up straight. Hikaru was mesmerized. And intrigued, because he had also noticed that the lady wasn't wearing what Hikaru would have expected a traditional Japanese lady of the night to wear. She looked more like she's just come out of a bath; hair still damp, wearing a cotton jukata (a very nice jukata to be sure, printed with at least 5 different colors, but still only a jukata). She wore no make-up, traditional or otherwise, her feet were bare (Hikaru could just see them tucked under her bottom as she sat in seiza behind a rather plain goban but one that did have legs). No, all in all this lady looked like some one who was at leisure, not at work. And suddenly it struck Hikaru that he'd been thinking of her as at work because Isumi was paying for this game, and now he saw her in a new light; that of a fellow go lover.

Hikaru and Isumi sat down after the lady had indicated they should. Isumi sat in the seat set out for the lady's opponent of the day and Hikaru took the cushion at Isumi's right hand.

"Welcome good sirs, my name is Fujiwara Sai, how do you do," the lady said and bowed. And Hikaru did a classic double take; that voice did not belong to a female. Hikaru found he had to blink a couple of times to get his brains in gear but Isumi's response to the 'lady's' opening gave him a few moments he needed to collect himself. That lady was no female.

S$S$S

After Hikaru had fumbled through his own self introduction and formal greeting and Isumi and the 'lady' had started to game, Hikaru got his chance to sit back and observe the game and - now that this Fujiwara turned out to be something unexpected - the players too.

The first handful of moves Hikaru followed only peripherally; most games start with a bit of territory claiming mixed with some feeling out of the opponents strengths and weaknesses. All interesting enough but also familiar enough so Hikaru, who was not actually playing, could ponder other matters. Like the matter of this Fujiwara person.

Now that Hikaru had heard Fujiwara speak, he could see that Fujiwara was more of an androgynous creature than he first had thought. Hikaru concluded that it was the way Fujiwara was dressed had thrown him off; the jukata was worn in the female style, with an overlap of material at the waist and a colorful wide obi with a large feminine bow at the back. A man would have omitted the overlap and would have worn a narrow obi with a stylized knot at the right hip. Also the way Fujiwara held herself, himself? Demure and ladylike, eager to please and also shy. But maybe all these behaviors, and the dress style, were part of being a prostitute, no matter what gender. Maybe even definitely all part of that.

Hmm, Hikaru thought, Fujiwara is certainly intriguing. The question is do I want to know more?

Hikaru's thought was interrupted by a move that Fujiwara made and that had Isumi visibly sit up and take notice. He let his thought go, promising himself some more pondering time later as he too put his full mind on the game; that move looked pretty bold from where he was sitting.

S$S$S

Fujiwara turned out to be an excellent opponent, keeping Isumi on his toes for the full two hours the game lasted. Hikaru had found only a little time to do any thinking at all on matter other than go, and most of it had been during the bladder induced break he was forced to take after an hour and a half of sitting and guzzling tea. It was when he ran into the proprietress along the way that he did his very rash thing. And on the way back he kept asking himself what ever had gotten over him and when he re-entered the game room and saw Fujiwara elegantly place a stone on the goban, a closed fan sitting to his/her lips while she/he concentrated, that Hikaru remembered exactly why he'd done it; this was certainly going to be an interesting night!

S$S$S

Sai always delighted in having a strong opponent to play and Isumi-san was a skillful player. Indeed playing such an accomplished player is likely to be the high point of this day, Sai thought to himself as he thanked Isumi-san for the wonderful challenge. After this serious player (Sai had privately nicknamed him Mr. Serious) and his good looking friend left, the evening would start and evenings never brought anything good, Sai had found.

Sai bowed his farewells and he expected Mr. Serious and he-who-shines-brightly (Sai's private name for Shindou-san, Isumi-san's companion) to leave quickly. Most of Sai's go challengers did, and Sai couldn't blame them, after all who'd want to be around a person like him? But as Sai came up from his bow, he realized the bright one was still sitting there.

"Shindou-san," he started tentatively, letting his tone go up into a question mark.

"I, uh," the bright one started, rubbing his palm along the top of his thigh in what Sai assumed was a nervous gesture. "I seemed to have acquired your services tonight," he continued.

"You have?" Sai was mortified, he sounded like he was questioning a person who now turned out to be a paying customer; it was the height of rudeness! He quickly tried to cover up his faux pas by bending his head down, opening his fan and hiding behind it. He chided himself. How many times did Mama-san have to pound it into his stupid head; the customer is always right!

"Uh, yeah, it seems so," came the youthful voice of the young man.

At his hesitant tone, Sai dared to look up from behind his fan. The bright one didn't appear to be angry, in fact his was smiling shyly at Sai and Sai found himself smiling back and lowering the fan from his face. Maybe this evening was going to different.

S$S$S

"So," the bright one said, "now that I have you all to myself." He paused, catching Sai's eye and giving an theatrical wink. "I first want to know your first name, and then I want to play you at go."

He wants to play, Sai thought, but... "My given name is Sai, and-and I would love to play you but, are you sure? I mean, an hour is not very long and if you also want..." Here Sai ran out of words; even with the job he did he still couldn't talk about, well, that.

"An hour? We have plenty of time; I paid for the night, see?" the bright one said.

Sai was startled; the whole night? It was unheard of. Maybe... "But Shindou-san, did you not know it is customary, in my metier, to be paid for by the hour? Did Mama-san not explain that?"

The bight one shrugged his shoulders at what Sai had said. "The proprietress explained nothing about anything and this is my first time in a place like this anyway," he said and Sai's heart sank. When this nice young man realized how badly he's cheated off by Mama-san, Sai was well aware that however nice the young man sounded just now, he might still take it out on him, just to get his money's worth. It had happened before.

"But," Shindou-san said, "I wanted to have a nice long game first so paying for an hour would never have suited, in any case." The ice that had threatened to take over Sai's heart faded when Shindou-san shifted around 'til he was sitting tailor fashion, scratching the back of his head, and added "And call me Hikaru." And Sai found himself smiling back at Hikaru-sama's grin.

S$S$S

The bright one was a totally different type of player than his friend, Sai was delighted to find. Where Mr. Serious was cautious the bright one was bold and he would attack more often than defend. But for all Shindou-san's bravado, he was still a deeply thinking player and not to be underestimated. Sai enjoyed every move in their sparring, and he did his best to draw out every facet of the bright one's game. Who knew if Sai would ever have that chance to play this opponent again? In all likelihood he'd never see the young man again after this night. Very few ever returned for a second nightly visit and of those few that did, Sai prayed most of them would stay away instead. But, Sai reminded himself, he was playing a great game now and he should not contaminated the experience with gloomy thoughts of things that could not be changed.

S$S$S

This Fujiwara Sai was a very strong opponent, Hikaru realized pretty quickly. Of course he'd known that from witnessing Isumi getting clobbered by the guy, but it was still different to be experiencing the clobbering for oneself. Sai was fucking strong. And Hikaru couldn't help but admiring that strength. This guy could give Touya a run for his money!

The game ended very predictably with a loss for Hikaru. Less predictably was the fact that Hikaru lost by only one half moku; Hikaru had been thinking he was going to go down by at least 10 moku. But a loss is a loss and and Hikaru was about to suggest best two out of three when the sliding door opened and a little girl in a red silk kimono daintily glided in baring a tray of food. And before Hikaru could ask for his second game, Sai had efficiently tidied away the goban and goke to make room for the tray and the second tray with tea and warmed sake on it that the girl brought next. Before the little girl left she walked over to Sai and whispered something in his ear. She didn't even have to bend down; she was just the right height for reaching the prostitute's ear while Sai sat and she stood, she was that small. She quickly left.

"Ah, it's diner time," Sai said and Hikaru quickly glanced at his watch: 6:55 pm. "You can eat and while I'll prepare for

the evening," Sai added.

Hikaru's tummy didn't mind the interruption; it hadn't been fed since 2 pm. But his mind did; he really did want that second game, and his body, most notably his lower regions, had plans of its own and they definitely included two people being present, not himself scoffing dinner all alone. "Prepare? For what?" he asked, slightly worried what this prepping would be in aid of.

Sai looked startled, again startled, Hikaru was starting to feel he was seriously out of his depth in this world of prostitutes; he seemed to be saying or doing the wrong thing every time he opened his mouth!

"Uh, I need to change," Sai explained, his tone held patience. The kind of patience a kindergarten teacher has with a particular stupid 5 year old. Hikaru, when will you learn to keep your trap shut?

But Hikaru found he couldn't leave Sai's answer alone. He just didn't see why the prostitute had to chance; he looked lovely the way he was, barefoot in that mulch-colored jukata. So he asked why.

"So I can be a worthy host," Sai said. Hikaru's eyes followed the man as he got up gracefully, moved to one of the wall (and yes, the long hair did sweep across the tatami mats behind him as he walked) where he slid back a panel revealing a dark closet from which he retrieved a sizable photo book. He closed the closet and brought to book over to Hikaru, laying it with the right side up for Hikaru to open. Sai folded his legs under himself to sit across from the book, elegantly opening it so Hikaru could view the content.

The fist two pictures were only recognized by HIkaru as depicting Sai at a closer look, because Sai's face was made up as a Maiko, a Geisha student. He was dressed as a Maiko too. An ornate red kimono sat low on his shoulders, showing off a lot of bare neck, which traditionally is considered an erotic look. The kimono was tied at the front with a green obi-sash with gold embroidery on it. The pictures were obviously from a professional shoot; well lit and with a dark blue back-drop, one showing the whole person while the other was a close-up of the face. Hikaru could appreciate the esthetics of the photos, but not so much the content; too garish.

"I can be a Geisha, if you like or," Sai turned the heavy page revealing another set of pro-pictures with Sai kneeling, dressed in a pastel colored costume the like Hikaru had seen once in a No play, against a white background. Again it was a set of two pictures, one an overall shot, the other a close-up. The lighting and backdrop made Sai's shiny black hair stand out as it fanned behind him, as he posed in a submissive pose of a woman of whatever period No theater got their costumes from. Sai's face was made up in white again, lips blood red, stylized black eyebrows painted high on his forehead, and Hikaru found he didn't like this anymore than he had the first pictures.

"A lady of the Heian court, my specialty. Or," Sai continued, turning the page, "I can be more modern."

The newest pictures depicted Sai in a Lolita type dress on the one page, complete with pigtails, ultra short frilly pink skirt, garters and matching pink Mary-janes, and on the other page Sai wore are a very revealing electric blue evening gown and way too much make-up.

When Sai leaned forward again, presumably to turn the page again, Hikaru quickly closed the book and said, "That's all very, uh, lovely, but not what I want."

Again that startled look appeared on Sai's face and Hikaru couldn't help thinking, oh crap, I said something wrong again. But then the look passed and Sai's face mellowed, even took on a knowing look. And Hikaru waited what would happen next.

Sai rose up elegantly, stood regal before Hikaru, who incidentally was feeling like a total peasant in comparison, what with the way he was sitting cross legged in his favorite dungarees and faded T-shirt.

"If those do not please," Sai said, his hands going behind him. "Then maybe you would see me without any adornments," he continued pulling on one of the ends of his sash, releasing the bow at the back of his jukata.

Hikaru didn't know how fast he got to his feet, all he knew was that he caught the hands before the jukata came undone. It was not that he didn't want to see Sai naked, he did, but, "that is for me to do," he said, releasing one of the prostitute's pale hands; he didn't want to come across as bullying.

They stood still for a moment, and then the prostitute lowered his head in submission and Hikaru was cheering inside; this would go the way he wanted, nice and slow. He made them stand a long moment longer, as he took a good look at his companion for the night.

That Sai was beautiful Hikaru had seen the moment he'd walked into the room that afternoon. But now he had the chance to studied Sai more in detail, and he was determined to take his time. Sai was taller that Hikaru. Nothing earth shattering there; most males were taller than Hikaru and Hikaru was very much used to that annoying facet of his life. Some of his would-be lovers had tried to cast him in a certain role because of his (lack of) height but Hikaru had never catered to that, nor was he ever planing to. Such pre-deciding of sexual roles based on what amounted to irrelevant physical facts was something he hated. He'd much rather discover what sex between two people would be like on a case by case basis. And, in all his escapades, he'd found that as each person he'd been with was different, the sexual act with any person was different from any other sex he'd had with any other person. And now he was looking forward to 'learn' to have sex with this unique person called Fujiwara Sai.

He gently pulled Sai down with him as he sat back down. Sai let himself be pulled and ended up sitting quite close to Hikaru, his legs shifted out from under him, so he leaned into Hikaru's side and had to keep his balance with one hand to the tatami mat. Hikaru had done his best to keep the jukata on the prostitute, so he'd not be distracted from the next step of the night; the getting to know each other. (And the eating, as Hikaru's stomach reminded him embarrassingly loudly)

S$S$S

The brothel's dinner fare was actually quite good, Hikaru found to his surprise. He explained it to himself as maybe being part of the feel good experience that a visit to a high class prostitute should probably be. But of course he had no frame of reference as this was his first time. So anyway, the food was good. It was served with sake, of course, but Hikaru turned the alcoholic drink down for two reasons. One, after seeing what booze did to Ogata-sensei when Hikaru had only been 12 years old, Hikaru had acquired a distaste for drunks. And two, he wanted to keep a clear head so he could enjoy the night to the fullest. (And incidentally be able to get home safely when he was going to be leaving the district in the middle of the night.)

If Sai thought Hikaru's refusing the sake was strange, he didn't show it in any way. Hikaru did note that the prostitute stuck to drinking tea himself, now sharing his pot with Hikaru (who was forced to drink the tea even though it was not his favorite; he was more the soda type).

Over dinner they talked go. First they reviewed the game they had just played and then, when the food was nearly all gone, they talked about Isumi's game against Sai of earlier that day. It was interesting to hear Sai's thoughts on Hikaru's friend's go-playing style. Sai had seen things Hikaru had also noticed as he'd played Isumi in the past, but he'd seen it in just playing the guy twice. And he had noticed a lot more besides, that, now Sai mentioned them, Hikaru very much recognized. Hikaru's respect for Sai's go skills rose by the second over dinner, and he was having a great time with the enigmatic prostitute.

S$S$S

Well after all the food and tea was gone, the door slid open again and the little girl busied herself taking the ravages away. As Hikaru was still talking go with Sai, from the corner of Hikaru's eye he saw the little girl first bring in a covered tray and then a folded futon, almost twice her size. Hikaru quickly intercepted her, taking her too large burden off her and putting it on the floor.

"Thanks, that's enough," he said not unkindly to the startled girl. Next to him Sai nodded to her and the girl quickly moved to the open door, turning to the room's occupants to bow briefly before turning again to leave.

Just as Sai was moving from next to him to get up, Hikaru caught a wrist and stopped him. The prostitute turned his wide eyes on him in a question. Hikaru was pleased to see that that extreme startled-ness he'd seen in those deep purple eyes before was absent this time.

"Hikaru-sama, don't you want me to make the bed?" Sai asked him.

"I do," he said, "but later. First," he gently tugged on Sai's arm. "First I want to kiss you."

S$S$S

Sai's client just kept doing things so differently from what Sai from what he was used to, from how things were done. First it turns out Shindou-san had payed for the whole night, then he wanted to play go instead of wanting to do the usual first. Then he didn't want Sai to change and wear something suitable, then they share the dinner and the bright one talked more go. And afterward, when Momoko came in with a very unsubtle hint of what would ordinarily happen next, Hikaru-sama wanted to kiss him.

Sai had tried to comply with the bright one's odd wishes as best he could. In truth Sai didn't like the dressing up or any other part of his job, so playing go and having good dinner conversation instead was like a dream come true. But he was under no illusion as to how the evening would proceed, that was his job after all, and HIkaru-sama had more than paid for the service. So Sai had resigned himself to having to do it. But then the confounding man stopped Sai from preparing the bed and demanded they kiss.

It put Sai completely out of his depth; for all the nature of his job, a kiss was the one thing no-one had ever wanted from him. Sai was well aware he had only very few skills and some were even using his mouth. But kissing, he knew, was a very intimate act, definitely the thing the one thing a client coming to see a prostitute would NOT be looking for. Physical pleasure, certainly. The thrill of experiencing something out of the ordinary, definitely. But real intimacy? No. That was what you had with an equal, a true lover, not a paid companion.

But on the other hand, Mama-san insisted that the customer was always right, and if that was true when the circumstances were bad than it was also true when they were favorable. So if Hikaru-sama wanted to kiss him, Sai would let himself be kissed. But he fervently hoped that the bright one knew how, because Sai had no clue!

S$S$S

Kissing Sai was interesting. Upon reflection Hikaru should have realized that kissing would probably not be something the prostitute did much. Traditional Japanese sexual intimacy didn't have the act of kissing, it was introduced by the Americans (and their movies) in the 1940s.

But Hikaru was a big fan of kissing and so, the moment he realized Sai had not much experience with it, Hikaru slowed the act down, letting his companion catch up. He found Sai very responsive, sensitive to every move of their mouths upon each other, and very unsure of himself. When Hikaru deepened the kiss, he felt Sai tremble in his arms for a moment and then go nearly limp, leaving himself open for whatever Hikaru chose to do next. It was like a sweet surrender, that sent hot shivers of lust up his spine.

He continued to kiss as he eased his companion on his back, onto the still folded futon, so Hikaru could lean over and have all the control he wanted at that moment. The kiss continued, each catching a breath here and there, where able to, with Sai clutching at Hikaru's T-shirt at the shoulders, giving Hikaru the freedom to slip both his hands inside the V of Sai's jukata, opening it up to reveal a pale heaving chest with nipples already standing up and hard.

Hikaru moved his mouth away from the tantalizing ruby red lips, leaving Sai gasping for breath while Hikaru explored his companion's long neck, trailing down towards his chest as he opened more of the jukata on the way lower down. As he laved the sensitive nipples with his tongue, making Sai make to most delightful squeals and moans, his hands found the outline in the jukata material of his companion's penis. It was soft still, but Hikaru pulled the cloth away, determined to change that state.

With none of Hikaru's lovers sex had been the same. Nor had their bodies been similar, except in the most basic way that all man have certain assets and women have a different standard set of assets. But once you had a person naked, it was all new territory open to exploration. Hikaru delighted in finding those places that excited his lover, and those actions that would put his lover on fire. Sometimes, using the direct approach worked very well; with men especially. Sometimes it took a while for the lover to run hot. And sometimes a lover would respond quickly one day and very slowly the next. Never the same. And never dull.

So the fact that Sai wasn't hard yet, even after all that moaning, didn't phase Hikaru one bit. He just redoubled his efforts on his companion's nipples and carefully (and blindly) extracted the soft penis from the clothing and palmed it, stroking softly. Some men's penises were sensitive and Hikaru wanted to feel out what would be good for his newest lover. As he stroked he realized the organ was smallish. Again no cause for concern, some people were showers and others growers, and Sai might well be the latter.

Sai was very sensitive though, Hikaru found; too sensitive for Hikaru's course hands. Some sort of lotion would be good right now, he thought as he lifted his head up a little to look around for inspiration. Then he saw the covered tray. He quickly transferred all his weight onto the hand that he had put next to Sai's hips so as to not squash his companion, reached out with the other, the one that had been exploring the most, to pull the cloth cover off the tray, revealing exactly what he had hoped: a tube of lubricant. He even recognized the brand; the better stuff.

He quickly snagged it and found it had already been opened. He squeezed the tube, putting a dollop on Sai's twitching stomach, then he dropped it unceremoniously next to Sai's hip, scooped up most of cream onto his fingers and brought it down to coat the soft penis. As the cold lube touched Sai so intimately, the man actually squawked and Hikaru leaned back over so he could distract his companion with more nipple play.

Hikaru always made it point to get his lover off first before he did himself. The kick it gave him to see how much power he had was almost addictive and watching his lovers turn to goo in his arms was so exhilarating he'd found it heightened his own pleasure. And he was getting plenty of pleasure from hearing the prostitute moan and see him writhe in ecstacy. The only thing was that his companion still wasn't fully hard, for all his writhing and moaning.

Hikaru redoubled his efforts, letting his hand find the more pleasurable places down below, while he alternately kissed and nibbled the sensitive nipples. He knew some men were particularly sensitive around their balls and so he gently palmed them. The were soft and a bit small, and Hikaru felt that rolling them around in his hand did not seem to heighten Sai's pleasure, so he let go of them and moved lower. With some men, the space just behind their penis was an erogenous zone, so Hikaru moved his fingers there, so he could stroke the area and see what response it would yield.

His fingers looked for the flat area but then Hikaru stopped. What he'd touched was not flat. Nor was it dry. It was almost as if... Hikaru sat up, pulling his head way from his companion's chest, so he could take a look. He was now sitting between Sai's legs while the prostitute was lying back, part of his lower half still covered by the jukata.

"What...?" Sai asked, looking quite flushed as he tried to raise his head. But Hikaru wasn't listening. He had to know what he had felt, so he carefully drew the jukata out of the way.

S$S$S

Sai frowned at the look on the bright one's face. He tried to get his brain into gear but it was difficult with the languid heat that was still zinging through his body. Hikaru-sama had made him feel amazing, unlike anything he'd felt before, and he had felt he'd been quite close to a finale of sorts, when the bright one had suddenly pulled his hand and mouth away, leaving Sai instantly bereft.

Sai shook his head once to try and clear it. Then he took in the scene as he pushed himself up on his elbows. Now he could see Hikaru-sama sit there and look down at...

"You have a vagina," Sai heard Hikaru-sama breathe. Oh, that, Sai thought. Then he recognized the look on his clients face.

"You didn't know?" Sai felt he had to ask.

"How could I have know?!" the bright one said, sounding angry, never taking his eyes away from the evidence. He's playing with me, Sai thought, there is no way he couldn't have know. It was the very reason people came to see him at all; to gawk at the freak. Sai, feeling embarrassed now, and scared too, rolled one leg across the other and wrapped the jukata around both, hiding away the topic of conversation.

"It's on the big sign by the front door," he said, his tone flat as he turned his head and shoulders away, effectively turning his back on his client. There would be consequences to this, but he was suddenly too numb to give it much thought. The only thing he could think was, well, here we go again.

"We came in the back," the bright one said. Sai started. There would not have been a sign by the back door, so Hikaru-sama might indeed not have know. Had he thought he was just buying the services of an ordinary prostitute? Oh god, he must be so disappointed now, Sai thought.

He quickly turned back around, clutching the jukata close, so as to not embarrass his client further. Quickly he spoke, "I'm so sorry! I didn't realize you didn't know! I will talk to Mama-san and get you your money back, I honestly did not mean to deceive you!" His breath came hard as he waited for the bright one's response. Of course he knew Mama-san never gave any money back once she'd got her hands on it, but Sai felt sure that if he pleaded enough with her and offered to do one of those parties she always wanted him to do - he shuddered at the thought - he'd be able to get her to give his unintentionally duped client at least part of his money back.

"No." Sai was startled out of his thoughts by the tone of Hikaru's voice; decisive, maybe even angry. He swallowed. He had been in this position before; sometimes clients would be upset by Sai's condition, even though they knew about it beforehand. Some would be horrified, some would be disgusted, and some would get very angry and then Sai would get hurt. He wrapped his arms closer about his body as he slowly inched back into one of the corners of the small room. He knew it wouldn't do any good, possibly even make things worse, but he couldn't help himself.

S$S$S

Fujiwara had a vagina. Or at least it looked like one. 'He' had both male and female parts. Hikaru couldn't stop thinking this over and over, trying desperately to wrap his mind around this. He'd never seen anything like it, had not even heard of such a thing. Was it real? Or maybe artificial? How could it even exist? The thoughts swirled in his head and it took all his will power to stem the flow so he could hear what the prostitute was saying.

His money back? Why would he want that? No, was his first thought on that and he didn't realize he'd said the word out load until his mouth closed again. He looked up from where he'd been staring at the futon, after Sai had moved away without Hikaru realizing it, and saw the prostitute had cornered himself, herself, oh gag, how should Hikaru now think of his lover of mere moments earlier? But then he saw the look on Sai's face: fear, real fear. And he found himself saying "No" again. Sai trembled at the word and Hikaru suddenly felt outraged. Who had put such fear in his companion?

Hikaru's anger quickly died down when he saw Sai react to it with more quacking. Not what Hikaru wanted. And so he elaborated on his use of the word 'no'.

"No, I don't want my money back," he said, trying to make is tone both soothing and authoritative. "What I want is to know how it's possible." At that he looked Sai straight in the eyes, awaiting an answer.

He could see emotions wash over the prostitutes face, anything from fear to resignation. Finally, after biting his almost red lip in worry, Sai apparently decided to speak.

"How it's possible that am I like this, you mean?" Hikaru nodded, and the prostitute looked down and sighed. "I don't know, I was always been hangetsu, half man and half woman." Sai's tone was sad, resigned.

So, a trick of nature then, Hikaru thought, not anything Sai can do about it. In a way it made things easier for Hikaru to understand it. One cannot chose one's body; you are born male or female, well most of the time anyway, and sometimes, apparently, you are born both. Or at least a little bit of both, Hikaru thought, remembering the feel of the prostitute's bits; small and not very responsive.

"My family were appalled with how I was," Sai said after, what Hikaru interpreted as Sai's idea of an uncomfortable silence; Sai sounded nervous. Hikaru was about to interrupt the story, wanting to say he didn't need to hear the background, but he stopped himself because while he didn't need to know, he certainly wanted to know.

"My grandfather would take care of me, he kept me in his room so I'd be safe," Sai continued, "but then he died and I was taken off the island and sold to Mama-san. I've been in this house ever since."

"So, you've never been anywhere in Tokyo?" Hikaru asked. Sai shook his head. "And you're stuck here, like, forever?"

At that Sai smiled. "Oh no, not forever! No, my contract will end and when it does I'll become a professional go player!" Sai now looked happy at this thought. He looked earnestly at Hikaru and said, "I have some books that talk of the professional go world, I know that I need to join a go school and then later I can earn a living as a pro player." In his enthusiasm Sai jumped to his feet, swept to the sliding door that had the cupboard hidden behind it, opened it and brought out some very old looking books. Sai came to a stop in front of Hikaru, folding his legs beneath him and depositing his burden in front of Hikaru, all without loosing his tight grip on his jukata. It was a feat worthy of a dancer.

Hikaru looked at the battered books, picking one up and opening it. 'Go and it's culture' was the title. Published in 1887 in Osaka. The index spoke of the old go schools, Honinbo House, Inoue House and Yasui House. Hikaru's heart sank; all the information presented was so incredibly out of date.

"Sai," he started, putting the book down, picking up the next to check the date on that: 1885, no good either. He put it back down without even leafing through it. "How long before your contract is up?" he asked, dreading the answer.

"Oh, nine more years, if all goes well," Sai said, his face still radiating his hopes for the future, all expressed in a dreamy smile.

Hikaru felt terrible, but he had to ask the next question, it would have been unfair not to. "And how old are you now?"

"Uh," Sai looked puzzled for a moment, like no-one had ever asked him that before. "This is my 25th summer," he said, unknowingly sealing his own fate.

Hikaru sighed. He knew he had to tell the prostitute the truth, anything else would disrespectful and cruel. But the truth was just as cruel and so Hikaru found himself the bearer of very bad news indeed.

S$S$S

Sai had listened to every word the bright one had said. The world of go is different from what was in these old books, he had said. There is a go exam that you must pass but only under 30 year olds could take part, he'd said.

Sai was no fool, in 9 years he would be 34 years old, much too old to take the exam. At 34 he'd be 'free' to go out into the world and starve, because he had only two skills, only one of which he was actually any good at. No. At 34 he would be forced back here, back to this hell where he'd be showing off his 'assets' to anyone who'd pay, and this time with no chance of escaping, with no hope for the future.

He remembered well what his grandfather had said, mere days before the man died, when Sai had only been 7 years old. My child, I'm sorry life dealt you a bad hand, but remember, you can always try again in a next life, maybe you'll have better luck then. May the Buddha guide you.

'A next life'. Yes, that was the only way now. Sai found that facing a single more day here, in this life, in this job, was more than he could bear. At least he had had a nice evening with Hikaru-sama, even if it had been Hikaru-sama who'd told him the truth. Or possibly because Hikaru-sama had shown him the kindness and respect to actually tell him the truth. No matter what happened from now on, Sai had at least that to cherish. And all the rest could be resolved with the flick of his knife, the one he had secreted a long time ago, without Mama-san or anyone else knowing.

Yes, that was a solid plan; his blood would flow soon and it bring would take the pain away. But for now there was the bright one looking frowningly at him. Time to be a good host one last time.

S$S$S

The play of emotion on the prostitute's face, just after Hikaru had told him, uh, her, that there was no way she, he, would be able to take the pro exam truly frightened Hikaru. The deathly pallor, with the wide purple eyes staring off into nowhere. The ridged stance, with the shallow breathing, panting almost. One hand clutching closed the jukata, the other held up as if in supplication to some god or spirit Hikaru could not see.

For some minutes the prostitute held the terrible pose and then all of a sudden, his/her face went slack, the hand came down, she/he sat back on his/her heels and quite calmly looked over at Hikaru.

"Shall I ring for some more tea?" the prostitute asked in a civil tone.

"No, thanks," Hikaru said almost automatically; he really wasn't all that fond of tea.

"Sake then? Or soda pop?" Sai asked again, nothing in his/her demeanor showing that anything of any importance had happened in the last half hour. Hikaru wasn't buying it.

"What are you up to?" he asked, making his tone carry a warning. But apparently Sai wasn't phased at all by this, no, the person who had earlier in the evening had been unsure and even frightened of Hikaru every move and opinion, was now courtliness personified, and seemingly impervious to threats, even from Hikaru. Hikaru didn't like it all.

"Nothing at all," Sai said, letting go of his hold on his jukata, while moving closer to Hikaru. "How about we kiss some more? Kissing is nice, don't you think?" Sai purred in his ear. Well, yes, kissing Sai was very nice indeed, but Hikaru wasn't about to be distracted by such tactics. He grabbed the nearest thin wrist and forced the prostitute to stop his/her advances.

"What's going on?" he demanded. And Hikaru knew Sai was lying when she/he replied "nothing," the fact that the prostitute was looking at the floor instead of his face, spoke volumes. He reached out a hand and used it to turn up the prostitute's face so he could confront him/her. Sai's eyes were still turned down.

"Out with it," he commanded.

Sai look up, directly into his eyes and said, "it will all be resolved by tomorrow." The tone was flat, the eyes were empty.

No! Every fiber in Hikaru's being rebelled against the notion of what was obviously going to be a suicide attempt of some sort. Not on my watch, was his first thought. And his second too. But then he realized that there wasn't terribly much he could do here. Except maybe...

"Can that contract of yours be bought out?" he asked and Sai blinked as if in slow motion and some of that emptiness in the purple gaze filled up with some emotion Hikaru couldn't quite fathom.

"It can." Sai's voice broke on the few words, almost as if he'd forgotten how to speak at all. Hikaru saw the prostitute's chest heave as if he/she tried to draw breath under water.

"How much?" Hikaru asked mater-of-factually.

Sai's almost non existent Adam's apple bobbed. "10 million, 400 thousand yen."

Fuck! That was ten times more that Hikaru had ever owned in the world. Hikaru kept his gaze steady though, don't show the fact that you don't have a hand to play here. "I'll have it for you..." He had to think for a moment; there was no way he could have it by the next morning, that was Sunday and any bank would be closed. He wasn't sure if Sai, who'd never been anywhere by his own account, even knew about banking hours, but still. "I'll have it the day after tomorrow," he promised.

"You will?" Sai asked in confirmation, his/her eyes shining with tears, one of which escaped down the beautiful face.

Hikaru nodded his resolve. And then found his lap full of sobbing prostitute, and he questioned his own sanity.

S$S$S

Hikaru let Sai weep, at the very least he could give her/him that much. He knew very well that getting the money was going to be more than hard, but even if he to go rob a bank for it, he was resolved to get the brilliant go player out of this hell hole. But on the not so off chance that he couldn't deliver, he let Sai cry his/her misery out on his now very damp lap. It was the very least he could do.

After a while the weeping became hitched breathing and after some more time steady breathing. And then, finally, Sai raised her/his head and gave Hikaru a watery smile.

"May I request something?" Sai asked, that smile growing.

Hikaru smiled. "Of course you may," he answered.

"Would you kiss me again?"

Hikaru felt his smile stretching his face. In reply he hooked a finger under the prostitute's chin, leveling the head up and he leaned over, their lips touching in moist warmth.

S$S$S

Many hours later, Sai lay alone on the futon. He had neglected to take his usual shower he'd take after seeing a client. No, instead he reveled in the smell and feel of bright one's sweat still up his skin and the bed, and his seed still inside of him.

He couldn't help the tears that leaked from his eyes, being sopped up by the bedding. They were mixed tears of hope and desperation. What if Hikaru-sama didn't come for him on Monday? What if he did? Questions with no answers.

Sai reminded himself of the only thing he was sure of; that he had to survive one more Sunday in order to receive his answers. Just one more day of hell. And at that thought, the tears flowed faster still.

S$S$S

Hikaru had left the brothel at 4 am, after Sai had woken him up to tell him time was up 5 minutes earlier. There hadn't been much time to say goodbye, and Hikaru strongly suspected that the prostitute had planned it that way; Hikaru had seen he/she was openly crying as Hikaru rushed to pull on shirt and pants. His socks and underwear he stuffed in a pocket, wanting to spend the time he would have taken putting them on, kissing his Sai instead.

He had run out the door saying "Monday, I promise," one last time. And was unceremoniously herded down the corridors by the proprieties, who gave him just enough time to stuff his feet in his shoes before chucking him out back into the dark empty alleyway he'd entered that afternoon.

He took a moment to sit on a stoop, taking out his socks, putting them and his shoes on properly. Presently he walked out of the alley.

At 4:10 am no bus ran, but he didn't mind the long walk to the metro station; he figured he could use the time to think.

He thought about his day, about meeting Sai, about how Sai was half man and half woman, hangetsu. About how he felt about Sai, regardless of the male/female thing. Or because of the male/female thing? Hikaru now wasn't sure. The strangeness of it had first surprised him and then it had turned him on like nothing before ever had. But there was more to Sai than being a hangetsu, or even being some one Hikaru was very much attracted to; he/she was a great go player too. Hikaru could not forget either game the prostitute had played yesterday; both were brilliant, worthy of any go pro.

So, it all came down to that 10 million 400 thousand yen. If Hikaru couldn't come up with that somehow, Sai would not be free in time to get his chance at the pro exam, hell, the way Sai had been talking, the prostitute wasn't going to be alive by Tuesday! Hikaru was not going to let that happen. While he wasn't completely convinced he was in love with Sai just yet, he was not going to stand by and watch the hangetsu end it so permanently between them before it had even started. Especially not for lack of money. Just not. Which brought him neatly back to those 10 million plus yen.

Robbing a bank was out of the question. Even though it had been the first thing he'd thought of, he'd realized quickly he'd never get away with it. If the police didn't catch him right away, Gramps would and Hikaru was more scared of what Gramps would do to him than law enforcement agency. He could still feel the belting he'd received when he'd tried to steal that goban when he'd been 11 years old. It had been the day Gramps had taken charge of Hikaru's life and the reason he'd become a go pro instead of going to collage and become a salary man like his dad. Gramps knew his stuff, that was for sure.

Hikaru walked aimlessly, deeply in thought, well after the sun had come up. His feet had taken him on a meandering path in the direction of home. And once he'd decided he'd thought enough, he took the train the last stretch home, walked briskly from the station to the house he shared with his grandparents, and, after coming in, settled at the kitchen table to wait for Gramps to wake up, so he could make his appeal.

S$S$S

owari.

S$S$S

[Kanto]

Sep. 20th, 2014 10:32 am
answer_key: (Default)
Attention to Go Players


They flew in from Frankfurt to find themselves ambushed at Narita by the paparazzi, at seven in the morning.

While Go would never draw widespread attention among most Japanese (who usually reacted with bemusement to the concept of a Go pro), now and then, there were exceptions. Unfortunately, the exceptions tended to what certain narrow-minded people regarded as scandalous and outrageous.

"Touya-sensei, have you heard the latest rumours about Touya Kouyo-sensei?" asked a male reporter who looked too old to be running the paparazzi circuit. "How about you, Shindou-sensei?"

Hikaru didn't know who it was and he didn't care since the reporter wasn't from Go Weekly. The focus on Touya-sensei was probably just one another of those idiotic rumours fanned by tabloids seeking to increase their circulation, he thought. He had encountered too many of them (rumours and reporters) to be alarmed by anything they said. Besides, Akira would have received a phone call from his father if anything were truly amiss. He glanced over at Akira, who was wearing the usual polite mask of a person who was wishing that every single reporter in Tokyo would drop into a pit.

"Excuse me, let us pass through," Akira said with a little bow that was not a bow, and tried to walk past them.

"Yeah, stop bothering us," Hikaru said, dragging along his luggage, then grabbed Akira's arm and waded through the small crowd, taking pleasure in the way one or more photographers had to jump out of his way.

They settled into a taxi and Hikaru leant back with a minor grumble. He had been sitting down for more than fifteen hours, and he would like some real ramen, a game on his own goban, and then his own bed. Though possibly not in that order. He glanced at Akira, who was checking his phone. "Nothing happened, right?" he asked.

Akira scrolled through what must be news headlines, then shook his head. "My parents are still in Tokyo," he said. "Although 'Touya-sensei was seen checking into a hotel in Kobe late last Friday alone'," he quoted blandly. " 'Is Touya-sensei's marriage on the rocks?' " Akira finished with a twist of his lips.

"What, again?" Hikaru exclaimed. "And why Kobe, anyway?"

Akira's shrug indicated that he didn't care. Go pros travelled all the time. But he then frowned in thought. "I heard from Amano-san that there was a Go event in Kobe last week."

"Doesn't seem like Touya-sensei's style to go all the way to Kobe for a Go event," Hikaru said, but shrugged. It was a possibility.

"Come to think of it, I heard that Ichiruyu-sensei was also travelling to Kobe last week," Akira said. "He used to be from the same study group as-"

"-as Touya-sensei," Hikaru said, nodding. "I think I heard Morishita-sensei mention that. He was in a different study group. Huh, I bet that's why Touya-sensei was in Kobe, for a reunion or something."

"That would have been an interesting meeting."

Hikaru made a face. "It's probably more like a gathering of retired Go pros who still can't forget who made pro first. I bet they just get together to compare how many titles they have. No thanks."

"They aren't as juvenile as you, Hikaru." Akira sounded amused and bemused at the same time. "Older pros are more mature."

"Hah! Tell that to Kuwabara-sensei," Hikaru retorted. "Okay, maybe not Touya-sensei," Hikaru acknowledged, rubbing his chin in speculation, going through in his mind the number of older pros who were likely to have a reunion in Kobe. "I can't see that happening. I bet Touya-sensei's classier than that. But I can't say the same for the others. That old man from Fukushima, for example-"

"You're babbling."

Hikaru pouted for all of five minutes, before he fell asleep.

***

Someone was shaking him awake. Hikaru grumbled and tried to pull his pillow over his head, but there was no pillow, and his nose met the smell of pine air-refresher. Huh. It smelt like the inside of a taxi. He opened his eyes to see Akira standing outside the taxi. "Hikaru, are you coming in with me, or are you going home first?"

"Huh?" Hikaru rubbed his eyes. His mind felt as heavy as cotton. Damn jag lag. "I'll come in. May as well greet Touya-sensei properly," he said. "And I've got kifu-" he interrupted himself with a huge yawn "-of that game with Mike Chiang that I want to show Touya-sensei."

"All right." Akira went around to the back, presumably to supervise the unloading of their luggage, while Hikaru yawned again and stumbled out of the taxi. Half-leaning on him, they made their way into the Touya residence.

"We're back!" Akira said, and Hikaru echoed him blearily. Akira looked at him in amusement. "You don't even live here."

"I could live here," Hikaru said loftily. "If I wanted." He liked living in his grandfather's place, though. He had a soft spot for the place where he had first met Sai. There was also Torajiro's goban in the storeroom, which made him feel incredibly secure, for some reason.

The sound of steps made them look up. "Welcome back, Akira-san," said Akira's father, then he blinked. "And Shindou-kun. Both of you look exhausted!"

"Long flight. Good morning, Touya-sensei," Hikaru said, attempting to bow and was saved from lurching to the ground by Akira's arm around him.

There was a chuckle from Akira's father. "Come in," he said, "Would you like some breakfast? Akira-san?"

Hikaru brightened. "Can I have ramen, please, Touya-sensei?" He ignored Akira's elbow at his side. "There was no ramen in the whole of Germany," he said.

"He's exaggerating," Akira said, pulling first his luggage into the house, then Hikaru's. "Though not by much. Would it have killed you to try some German food?"

"I tried it. And I didn't like it." Hikaru walked past him into the house, slightly more awake now and his attention focused only in the direction of the study, then wondered if he should barge in, just like that.

Akira caught his hesitant actions and said, "Yes, Mother should be inside at this time. But I thought you wanted to eat ramen."

"Later," Hikaru said, then caught the resigned look on Akira's father. "Um, maybe it's too early." Probably seen too many young pros anxious to prove themselves to Akira's mother to the exclusion of everybody else. Although Hikaru hoped that he wasn't coming off as one of those nuisances.

"Go on," Akira's father said encouragingly. "It's fine." Despite not knowing about Hikaru's connection to Sai, Akira's father had always understood that Hikaru's attachment to Go went deep. But then Akira's father had Akira to learn from, too.

Hikaru nodded, sheepish. He had to get used to the fact that they didn't think of him that way.

"Go ahead, then," Akira said, giving him a light push.

"Huh." Hikaru rubbed the back of his head, half-aware that he reverted to a bashful teen whenever he had to see the ex-Meijin. He approached the study and knocked softly. "It's me, Hikaru," he said.

A moment, then, "Come in, Shindou-kun."

Hikaru slid open the door, and entered. The tatami room was, as usual, bare except for some low shelves of kifu and poetry. At one end of it was a beautiful old goban, and behind it was Touya-sensei, with both bowls of stones at her fingers. There was a game that glowed intriguingly from the goban, and the combination was like something out of a painting. Hikaru realised he had been staring when he heard Akira huff a breath of amusement behind him. His neck turning red, Hikaru hastily bowed. "Good morning, Touya-sensei," he said.

"Good morning, Mother," Akira said.

"Akira, Shindou-kun, come and look at this game."

"Sure, Touya-sensei!" Hikaru brightened and scrambled to sit down opposite the goban, Akira following but at a less boisterous pace after sliding the door closed.

Well, it looked like Touya-sensei had a more interesting time than Hikaru would have imagined, meeting up with old friends and rivals in Kobe. Someone had managed to unearth a kifu showing a game that a historian from Kyoto University believed to be between Shuusaku and an unknown lady, or at least Touya-sensei's friend, the historian, had assumed it was a lady by the script. Shuusaku -- if it was Shuusaku, Touya-sensei cautioned, but Hikaru had caught the excitement in her voice too -- had given the lady a significant handicap, but it seemed she, too, had been an experienced and skilful player too. Unfortunately, part of the kifu was damaged and Touya-sensei had been trying to reconstruct what happened in the upper left corner.

Delighted and thrilled at the thought of tracking down another of Sai's games, Hikaru spent the rest of the morning discussing the kifu with Touya-sensei.

---


"Shindou, this is Ikeda Kei, one of this year's new pros," Ogata said. He was standing with a boy who looked about eighteen, dressed in a suit that probably cost what Hikaru made in a month. Good looking, if you liked them delicate-jawed and intellectual-looking, thought Hikaru with an inner grin, with hair that was little too long but gave him an artfully casual look.

"This is Shindou-sensei," Ogata introduced. "You've probably heard of him. He'll be joining in the study session as well."

Hikaru resisted the urge to stick his tongue out at Ogata. Despite the years, he was still a little wary of Ogata, and their repeated meetings over the goban in the title games didn't diminish that.

Ikeda bowed, "Shindou-sensei, pleased to meet you."

A bit disconcerted at the extreme formality, Shindou bowed too. "Pleased to meet you too," he said. "Is this your first time to Touya's place?"

Ikeda nodded, but he seemed unusually excited at Hikaru's question. "It's an honour to be here," he said. "I look forward to meeting Touya-sensei as well."

"Akira? I thought you'd have met him already, he was at the Beginner Pros ceremony-" Hikaru cut himself off as Akira came up to them. Ah, wrong Touya.

"Ogata-san, you're here. Ikeda-kun, good evening."

Hikaru was amused to observe the boy's excitement sharpen even more upon seeing Akira. Ogata only said, "Good evening, Akira. Ikeda, we better go in."

Ogata led Ikeda further into the house, towards the Go study. Hikaru stifled a grin and met Akira's eyes.
"So… Ikeda-kun's one of those, huh?"

Judging by his expression, Akira was not amused.

Privately (and not so privately), Hikaru thought it was hilarious. He had had a healthy respect (and fear) of Touya-sensei since the first time he met the person Sai would refer to as his eternal rival. But while it was true that Touya-sensei's personality was impressive and charismatic enough to make people think they were in the presence of a movie star, Hikaru had seen Touya-sensei too, in the moments when she was fully focused on Go. When she played with Sai. In those moments, she was one of the best Go players in the world, every hand a sublime move.

Her absolute dedication to Go was well-known, as were the many (frankly distracting) media references to her frequent travel trips for Go games. Now and then, reports recurred of how Akira's main carer had been his father rather than his mother, even the way she mixed around with mainly male company.

("But all of the older pros are men, like Kuwabara-sensei." "Yes I know, Hikaru.")

Then there were her fans. Oh, the fans. So many, and so dedicated. Even years after the retirement.

"Are you coming in?" Akira asked.

"A moment." Knowing that the first fifteen minutes of any study session with new students was filled with introductions, Hikaru opted to delay his entrance. What was more, this was a combined study session of both Touya-sensei's students and Ogata's students, so it would be even more crowded. Akira probably guessed his intention, and followed as Hikaru headed for the kitchen.

"Shindou-kun! Just in time to try my new recipe. Akira-san, have you eaten dinner?"

"Touya-sensei! Really?" Hikaru glanced around and saw that Akira was on his heels. Ah, well. Akira didn't like the acolyte parade any more than Touya-sensei did. "Is it ramen too?"

Akira's father nodded and chuckled. "I'm thinking of adding it to my new book, but it needs another taste tester. I'm afraid Kouyo's getting sick of ramen."

How could anyone get sick of ramen? Hikaru thought. From what Hikaru knew, Akira's father had been a manager in a hot spring ryokan before he married an up-and-coming female pro. Everyone had assumed that eighteen-year-old Takeuchi Kouyo would stop being a pro once she was married, or at least when she had a child, and the extremely conservative side of the Go world (which was about all of it at that time, according to Kuwabara-sensei) was scandalised when Touya Akihito quit his job to be a homemaker instead. He had stated that he planned to be a freelance food critic, but the unspoken reason was to take care of the home so that his wife, upcoming Go pro, could focus all her time on her career. It upended a lot of convention in those days.

Over the years, Akira's father had published numerous home cooking recipe books that had been well-received and had gained some publicity that way, but it was nothing in comparison to his wife Touya Kouyo who had once held all Go five titles in Japan.

They sat down at the dining table to eat: Hikaru, Akira, and Touya-sensei, and were joined halfway by one of Akira's students Uchida Yuri, who was sixteen-year-old with a not-so-secret crush on Hikaru.

"Have you met Ikeda already, Shindou-sensei?" she asked with a conspiratorial air when she sat down with her own bowl of ramen.

"Uh-huh," Hikaru said, intent on slurping all his broth.

"Is he good?" she asked with an air of testing out the competition. Uchida was a new pro last year and was ambitious, which Hikaru approved of, but prone to make snap judgments, which he did not.

"Play him yourself," Hikaru said. He found a sliver of salmon beneath of the dregs of the soup, and popped it into his mouth.

"Not today," Uchida said with a snort. "He's hanging on Touya-sensei's every word, and I think he wants to play with Touya-sensei."

"Ah," Touya's father said. "When I saw him come in just now, I thought-"

Uchida nodded. "Yes, he's one of those."

Akira did not roll his eyes, but his sentiment was clear.

All four of them contemplated, in their own ways, about Touya Kouyo fanboys.

Frankly, if Sai hadn't been such a huge Go manic, Hikaru thought, he'd probably be one of those fanboys. In fact, back in the days when he was still to enter the Go profession, Hikaru had assumed that one of the reasons that Sai wanted to play with Touya Kouyo was that he was attracted to her, and the fact that she played Go like a dream was just icing on the cake. Hikaru, too, had been overwhelmed by Touya-sensei's intensity from the first time they met. It didn't help that Sai was so focused on her as his eternal rival. It wasn't until his Beginner Dan game that Hikaru could look past all the glamour that surrounded the then Touya Meijin.

Then again, Hikaru always had Akira to focus on.

The problem was that Touya Kouyo was gorgeous. She was tall, imposing with vibrant eyes and a serious demeanour. Akira definitely took after his mother in that regard. She had long, straight hair that flowed like a river down her back. She wore kimono to title games, and she looked like a goddess when she was seated in front of a goban. Even if she were not famous, most people (men, that is) who met her for the first time were intimidated by her beauty, her confidence, and the way her gaze could pierce into you. She had been photographed more often than any other pro in the world, and even those who knew nothing of Go knew that they had seen her picture somewhere, is she an actor or something?

With that kind of unasked-for fame came invented associations with high profile businessmen, politicians and other Go pros. The Touya marriage was rumoured to be on the rocks more often than not. Some people pitied Touya Akihito, while some thought he was hen-pecked. After all, beside his eye-catching wife, Touya Akihito looked plain and boring.

The fanboys, usually motivated by Touya-sensei's Go skills or by the novelty of a woman who could play genius-level Go (Hikaru figured it was both), tended to gather around the Go Institute or at Go events, hoping for a chance to be introduced to her and be invited to her Go study sessions. They had a tendency to hang on her every word and gesture, often ending up annoying anyone else who might be in Touya-sensei's presence, such as her husband or her son.

Then there had been all the hullabaloo when Akira's relationship with Hikaru became clear and the public had realised that Touya Kouyo's prodigy son was gay and wasn't that because he didn't have a female's proper nurturing influence when he was young?

Hikaru couldn't blame Akira for being so blasé about the reporters.

A newcomer entered the kitchen. "Here you are. Touya-sensei, good evening."

Akira's father nodded. "Ashiwara-sensei, good evening. Have you just arrived?"

Hikaru looked up at the good-natured smile on Ashiwara's face and nodded a greeting before wiping his mouth. "Ashiwara-sensei." Akira and Uchida added their greetings.

"Yes, I just got in. But Ogata-sensei messaged that he wanted to see Akira, so I came looking for him."

"Would you like some, Ashiwara-san?"

Ashiwara shook his head. "No thanks, I've had dinner. Come on, Akira. I think Sensei wants you to explain your game last month with Ko Yeongha to the others."

"You better go, Akira-san," Akira's father said.

They made their way to the study, and entered to see Ogata discussing a game with Touya Kouyo-sensei. They were already surrounded by the other students. Silently, Hikaru and Akira went to sit at the side, trying to catch a better view, and the one of the students moved silently, his gaze never moving from the goban. Hikaru saw that it was Ikeda, shrugged inwardly, and shifted closer.

Ah. It was a game between another player and Touya-sensei that Hikaru had seen the week before he and Akira left for Germany. Hikaru studied it again. He'd known that Touya-sensei had been studying Shuwa's techniques, contrasting it with Shuusaku's for the past year, and it was interesting to see the effect here.

"This was where Park-sensei surprised me," Touya-sensei was saying of the fight in the lower left. There was a distinct tone of fondness in her tone. Ikeda, in front of Hikaru, leant closer. Park… ah, probably Yeongha's student, Hikaru remembered. The Korean pro's students really didn't care that Touya-sensei was a woman, and Touya-sensei had a soft spot for that.

"It would have been faster to cut through here," Ogata suggested, pointing to a spot exactly one step below.

"Perhaps," Touya-sensei said, and she looked up. "Ikeda-kun, what do you think?"

"Um." Hikaru could hear Ikeda swallow at the question. "I-I think he was trying to fortify the territory here," he made a swipe over the lower section of the goban. "Without drawing notice to it. Otherwise this section could be in danger."

"Very true," Touya-sensei said, smiling directly at Ikeda. Hikaru was certain he could see the tips of Ikeda's ears turning red.

"Too unsubtle, though," Ogata sniffed. "Sensei saw through the attempt in no time."

"But it was a good attempt. Next time, Park-sensei will be more cunning, I'm sure," Touya-sensei said with a smile.

Hikaru had to agree with Touya-sensei's assessment. He'd played with that student of Yeongha's before, too. Wait- he leant forward. "This is a variation of Shuwa's technique, isn't it?" he said in sudden comprehension. It hadn't been obvious to him until just now. "He was working on a counter for Shuusaku's fuseki, and came up with a series of feints."

"Except Park-sensei adapted one of them even further," Akira pointed out, catching on as well. "He saw that if he started from the centre, Mother would catch it immediately, so he-"

Everyone looked again. "Now that you mention it," Ogata said, starting to frown.

"I wondered if anyone would comment on that," Touya-sensei said, and nodded. "Yes, I suspected that Park-sensei was trying that, but it still surprised me. He must have studied hard to find a way for it to work."

Hikaru nodded, running through the permutations in his mind. He had studied Shuusaku's techniques, of course, and in recent years he had begun to study those of his contemporaries as well. Sai had been developing his technique with Torajiro, building on the skills he had honed in the Heian period. Later, he would do just the same with Hikaru, building on the skills he had honed before. Hikaru gave a tiny sigh, feeling a wave of nostalgia for Sai and caught Touya-sensei looking at him curiously. Nothing, he shook his head very slightly. The last thing he wanted was for questions about Sai to recur, especially in front of Ogata.

Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Ikeda's puzzled frown. Ikeda was probably new to the undercurrent of Sai's mystery, not that anyone in the room was about to enlighten him, Hikaru thought. He suddenly realised that Ikeda was the only one wearing a suit: all the others, even Ogata, were dressed much more casually. Then again, Ikeda must have felt some pressure to stand out at his first study session with Ogata.

Akira next demonstrated his game against Ko Yeongha. Compared to Park Hanjeong, Ko's technique was far more refined and displayed an understanding of strategy that Hikaru reluctantly admitted was breathtaking. Still, Akira was well able to hold his own against the Korean pro, and Hikaru gleefully pointed out where a slight hesitation on Ko's part had allowed Akira to expand his offense.

"It was a good game," Touya-sensei said. "I see that Ko-sensei has improved again." By that comparison, so had Akira. She looked pleased, almost admiring.

Akira nodded. "Yes, Ko Yeongha's skills have reached a higher level than before," he said.

"But he's still inferior compared to you, Touya-sensei!" Ikeda said, a little too loudly.

Inwardly, Hikaru grimaced. Touya-sensei's skills were incomparable, that was true, but for someone to denigrate another pro's skills so baldly simply to curry favour with Touya-sensei was painful to observe. Ko's skills were of a very high level; and Touya-sensei himself knew it. Who was to say that Ko could not surpass Touya-sensei one day? (Not if Hikaru had anything to say about it, though.) A stealthy glance around the goban showed that Ogata looked mildly pained, behind his neutral expression, Ashiwara looked like he was biting his lip, and Akira looked pissed off beneath that bland look.

As though Ikeda had not spoken, Touya-sensei only said, "He is an extremely skilful player; I would like to play with him the next time he's in Tokyo."

Akira nodded. "He said the same, Mother."

And that seemed to be that. The study session broke into smaller groups after that. Uchida cornered Hikaru, demanding to see the game with Mike Chiang that Hikaru played in Frankfurt, and as Hikaru laid out the game on one of the spare goban she half-giggled, half-snorted, "What a prize, that Ikeda."

"Uchida." Hikaru glanced up, and decided to concentrate on remembering the game.

"When he said that, I wanted to sink through the floor. Super embarrassing."

Come to think of it, female fans of Touya-sensei tended to be one of two types: either they admired Touya-sensei for being one of the strongest players in the world who was also a woman, or they took her as an example of how a woman in the (still) male-dominated world of professional Go could be successful. Hikaru had, up to now, been thankful that Uchida seemed to be free of any hero worship of Touya-sensei, but he reflected that perhaps it was only because he had been unobservant.

"And I don't know how Touya-sensei remained so calm, I would have slapped-"

"Uchida."

"What?"

Hikaru only said, "Touya-sensei, this was the game I was planning to show you the other day."

Uchida's face as she turned back to see Touya-sensei was priceless.

[Kanda]

Sep. 20th, 2014 10:26 am
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Kissing Games


"Aren't we a little old for this?" Yoshi asked.

"What?" Shindou blinked. "Of course not. Stop stalling."

"We're totally too old for this."

Isumi glanced over at her with an expression that looked like agreement, but he didn't say anything to help. Traitorous bastard.

"Well I've never done it, so obviously we're not," Shindou said. "I'm still a teenager for another hour. It's fine."

"It's not my fault you had your head so far up Touya's ass that you never did anything like play spin the bottle as a kid," Yoshi huffed.

"Oh come on, you're my best friend, it's your job to make sure I don't miss out on stuff. So it's totally your fault."

"No way, I'm not taking responsibility for that. And we can't play with three people anyway, it's stupid."

Shindou whined at her until finally she sighed and spun the stupid bottle around, cursing her luck at having a friend like Shindou who got her stuck in these situations. Hell, who created the situations in the first place and then somehow talked his friends into jumping into the deep end with him. She silently prayed for the bottle to suddenly blow up, or for it to land directly between Shindou and Isumi so that she wouldn't have to kiss either of them. Of course, even if it was someone else's turn...

This was such an epically bad idea.

"Waya-chan," Isumi's voice said, soft all of a sudden. She hadn't even realized she'd closed her eyes until that moment.

Yoshi looked down and saw that the bottle was pointing at Isumi. Well, fuck. Of course. It fucking figured that her first spin would be him. She wouldn't have objected under normal circumstances, if Isumi had actually wanted to and they weren't sitting in front of Shindou, because she'd liked Isumi since before she even knew what that meant. But this, this was totally wrong.

"You don't have to," Isumi said. "If you really hate it that much, I'm not going to make you do anything you don't want to do."

"No way!" Shindou shrieked, flailing his arms in Yoshi's periphrial vision, because she was too busy staring at Isumi. "Those aren't the rules!"

"She can do something else," Isumi said, and Yoshi felt a surge of gratefulness that he wanted to protect her, even though it was a little misplaced in this case.

"No, it's okay," she said. "No one needs to break the rules for me."

She got another look from Isumi, this one clearly saying, "are you sure?" She nodded. She tried not to think about the objections he might've made for himself if he hadn't been trying to watch out for her. Not that it worked. Damn him. Damn Shindou.

When Isumi's lips met hers, at first it was nothing except a soft pressure. Then her brain decided to remind her that it was, in fact, Isumi, because her brain was clearly a masochist. Yoshi gasped and pushed against the kiss. She wanted more of that, definitely. Isumi was even kissing her back. That was a surprise. She figured he'd be all polite about it and pull away as soon as possible. But no, he was giving as good as he got, though it was still just a tangle of lips and nothing else.

"Guys," Shindou said, which broke the moment.

Yoshi turned her head and looked at Shindou with the fiercest glare she could scrounge up for interrupting. "What?"

"We're still playing," Shindou answered. He seemed completely unaffected by the power of Yoshi's expression. Of course.

She wanted to say that no, actually, she was good and they could stop now, but Isumi shrugged.

"It does seem unfair to stop after one pair," he said. Traitor.

Shindou took the opportunity to spin the bottle on the floor himself, and a few moments later, they were all staring at each other somewhat dumbfounded.

"We don't really..." Shindou said.

"You kiss who it lands on. Those are the rules," Yoshi said. She had absolutely no idea why she was pointing that out now. She was possibly just relieved.

"But it's... oh, fine," he sighed and leaned over to kiss Isumi.

It lasted all of three seconds before they both pulled away. Not that Yoshi was counting or anything.

"That was weird," Shindou said.

"It was," Isumi agreed.

"You guys are right. This is dumb," Shindou added.

Yoshi snorted. "So that means we're done?"

"Yeah."

"Good. Next time you get an idea about doing this kind of stuff with people, try Touya."

"Wha--"

While Shindou was doing his best impression of an angry plum, Isumi was giving Yoshi a look she'd never seen before. Surprise? Interest? She didn't know. She just knew she really, really wanted to find out.

[Kanamara]

Sep. 20th, 2014 10:20 am
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A Letter Home


In the quiet of the sleeping palace Sai was writing a letter to her mother. She had shadowed her lamp so she wouldn’t disturb the lady-in-waiting who shared her room and was already fast asleep, and it shed its dim light only on her letter, and the pastel-colored sleeves of her under robes – the over-robe she had already taken off. At times she paused from her writing, listening to the silence where the only sound was her companion’s soft breathing. How pleasant, she thought to herself, this quiet was, compared to the constant noise and chattering that filled the days. Sometimes it seemed to her that the ladies were like little children, unable to spend a moment in silence. Perhaps the winter days would be calmer, or so the others had claimed.

She looked down at her letter, reading what she had written so far and wondering how to go on.

Honored Mother, thank you for your letter and all the advice you sent with it. I wish you would finally put your mind to rest; my first weeks here have passed without any problems. I quite enjoy the life at the palace, and I think I have found my place here. Of course I understand your worries, but I can assure you that I am very careful.

I told you already in my previous letter how beautiful and charming our Empress is, but the longer I am here, the more impressed I become of Her Majesty. It is not just her appearance that is beyond any criticism, but her character is also so gentle and gracious, and her bearing so noble and dignified that I find myself truly blessed to be in the service of one such as her.


If she were honest, Sai would have said that the inner beauty of the Empress greatly surpassed her physical beauty, but during her short time at the court Sai had already come to like her young mistress so much, that she was willing to exaggerate to praise her beauty to outsiders who wouldn’t anyway ever see her. As it was, there wasn’t anything special in the Empress’s face – her eyes were small, mouth a little too wide… but at least her hair was quite magnificent, silky and black as night, reaching the ground when she stood.

The other night, Sai went on after a short hesitation, Her Majesty’s father, the Regent, and her brother, the Major Counselor, came suddenly to visit her chambers. It caused quite a commotion, and I must say I was quite flustered as I had not expected something like this to happen. I managed to stay in the background, though, and in the end I guess I should count myself lucky, having been able to observe these two grand men from so close.

Sai paused again, feeling a little guilty. This was already the second not-quite-the-truth in her letter, and while the first certainly was forgivable (she was even supposed to praise her mistress), this… this was a bit different. She just didn’t want to tell her mother how the Regent had almost immediately spotted a new presence among the ladies, no matter how hard she had tried to hide, and she had been drawn into the conversation. Though she had attempted to be bland and uninteresting, she had a feeling she had somehow caught the interest of both the father and the son. Which, of course, normally would have been something to boast about, but she knew it would only make her mother more anxious.

She whispered a quick apology for lying to her mother, and left it at that.

The court is certainly full of interesting people! Many of the ladies are true personalities, always so witty and, some of them, ready for mischief that life here truly isn’t boring. And many of them are excellent go players, too! I have played so many great games here. I’ll send you the records of some of them with this letter, I know you can appreciate them, Mother. Leave the one I have marked last! That is a game I played with the Emperor’s go tutor himself, and I am still thoroughly shaken of how wonderful go he plays. I have always thought of myself as a good player, but now I realize I have still a long way to go. And, truly, that couldn’t make me happier!

There was so much more she could have said about Sugawara no Akitada, but again she decided to keep it all to herself. The man had made a great impression on her – and she on him, she was afraid. The game she had played had been a good one but not good enough, and she knew that he wasn’t interested in her as a go player, but as a beautiful woman who happened to play quite good go. He had sent her poems and she had answered some of them, straining her wit to make her replies polite but declining. Then, one night when the lady who shared her room had been keeping company to the Empress, soft rapping had come from the door. She had lain on her bedding, tense and quiet, barely daring to breath and fervently praying he would not enter. After what seemed like an eternity, quiet steps had finally retreated.

Next day a poem had arrived from Akitada, confirming that she had guessed the nocturnal visitor’s identity right. How sad for him who stands the whole night long, knocking on your cedar door, tap-tap-tap like the cry of the kuina bird.

She almost didn’t reply but decided then she would have to do something so that the episode wouldn’t repeat itself. Sadder for her who had answered the kuina’s tap, for it was no innocent bird who stood there knocking on the door, she finally sent, and got no reply to that.

It was rather troublesome. She wanted to play more with Akitada – but only go, and nothing else. Anything else was, in the end, impossible. But if she expressed any interest toward the man at all, she was afraid he would see it in the wrong way. If he appeared by her door again, would he leave a second time just as meekly? She’d better be careful not to do anything he might take as encouragement.

And that, she concluded sadly, meant no go with him for the time being. She knew herself, there was no way she would be able to hide her excitement if they were to play again. It was best to avoid the man completely.

Looking down at her letter she realized she’d forgotten what she had been going to say next. What else was there to write about? Somehow she couldn’t find the words to describe the frivolous and silly pastimes that filled the idle hours, or the long and tedious court proceedings she honestly found quite boring.

She lowered her brush next to the inkstone, and let her thoughts wander.

If… that huge if of her life. If a different decision had been made on the day she was born. If the confused midwife and the onmyouji who as well had been consulted had arrived to a different conclusion. If she had been raised as a boy and not a girl, if she had been able to enter the court as a man and not a woman… how different everything would have been. The life of a man was so much freer. Then she wouldn’t have to worry about such things as unwanted admirers.

Besides, these days she couldn’t help wondering if the midwife and the onmyouji hadn’t been wrong in their decision. She couldn’t blame them, though – if she herself couldn’t say for sure, how could they? All she knew was that most of her life she had been at home in the women’s circles, that she still enjoyed their company and chatting with them, spending her days with women’s chores, and she had little interest in the more manly pastimes, hunting and archery and studying Chinese. But she had also always known that something was off. She wasn’t like her sister. Ever since they were small she had noticed a slight difference in how people treated them, and for some reason they were never allowed to bath together. One day, though, the servants’ attention had divided, and they had, stealthily, feeling they were doing something forbidden but still filled with childish curiosity, examined each other. Her sister, two years older and so more knowledgeable, had quietly whispered, “Are you a boy?” and later that day she had innocently repeated that question to her mother.

Who had, for the first and last time ever, raised her hand to hit her.

Afterwards her mother had gathered her in her arms, trying to comfort her. “Don’t say such things, dearest,” she’d whispered. “Don’t ever say such things. Of course you’re not a boy.”

“Why do I look like a boy then?” she’d sniffed against her shoulder.

“You don’t,” she’d mumbled. “A boy doesn’t look like that, trust me. You look nothing like a boy.”

“But why am I different? From big sister,” she had asked, raising her head to look up, and felt her mother stiffening, avoiding her questioning eyes.

“I don’t know, darling,” she’d finally muttered. “Don’t worry about it. Everything will be alright when you grow up.”

Everything wasn’t alright, though. As her body matured, she realized it was becoming even weirder, as if it was just as confused as she was about which sex it was supposed to be. Her mother was greatly bothered about it all, not understanding what had gone wrong and blaming it on herself, on something she had done during the pregnancy. Sai herself was calmer about it, despite her confusion. She didn’t have any clear idea of exactly what she should have been like, and half the time she couldn’t really understand why it was such a big deal to begin with. Once she had attempted to suggest to her mother that maybe it would be simplest just to say that she wasn’t quite a woman or quite a man and leave it at that, but her mother had been horrified about the idea. “What if there are others like me? How do we ever know, if everyone always keeps quiet about it?” Sai had still attempted, but to no avail.

So, there she was, a lady-in-waiting in the Empress’s court, in all appearances a woman but unable to accept the advances of a potential suitor. Her mother had, of course, been opposed to her going to court. She would have wanted Sai to become a nun – the only life she could imagine where her strange daughter might be safe from all scandals, but although Sai until then had been quite obedient, here she wouldn’t budge. She didn’t want to be buried in some distant recluse and dedicate her life to the gods. The only god she could have served, had there been one, was the god of go, and in the absence of one the best thing she could think of was to head to the court where the strongest players could be found.

And now that she had found the strongest player of them all, she wouldn’t be able to play with him. How utterly maddening!

Her lips drawn in a tight, annoyed line she grasped the letter, suddenly wanting to burn it. To start again from the beginning, this time more honestly. Write what she really thought and really wanted…

With a sigh she threw the letter on the floor and lay down beside her lamp. What was it, in the end, that she wanted? Live as a man? While that would certainly take care of some of her problems, she was sure it would also bring about new complications, complications she couldn’t even imagine yet. And how would she do that, switch to a man? She thought of a story she had read, of the siblings who had pretended to be of the opposite gender and then switched back, and hoped – not for the first time – that she too had a brother to switch with. Sometimes she dreamed of just making up a brother for herself… she had the whole tragic story ready in her mind, how he had been stolen away as a child and only now been reunited with his family. Then she could be either a man or a woman, whichever pleased her more.

In the darkness of the night, that plan felt almost feasible, but as the sun rose she always realized how impossible it was. For one thing, she would need at least the help of her mother for it, and she would never agree. And if she cut her hair to be a man, how would she switch back to a woman if need be?

It was just a silly daydream, better to be forgotten. She gathered herself up from the floor again, picked up the letter and took her brush to finish it.

I am really looking forward to the Iris Festival. The ladies have grand plans of how to decorate the Empress’s quarters, and I believe even Her Majesty is excited about it. I can’t tell you more about that yet, though, for it’s still a secret. The courtiers have been trying to spy on us, but in vain, so far. Their attempts have been so clumsy that it is a great source of amusement for us all!

She wrote on, telling her mother the latest gossip without really thinking too much of what she said, her mind busy on other things. The greatest problem, she thought, where Akitada was concerned, wasn’t so much her gender but her skill as a go player. She was still lacking. She should dedicate every moment she could for the study of go and become even better, so that the next time they played (there had to be a next time, even if only in the far-off future) he would see beyond her appearance, into what really mattered.

Perhaps then… perhaps then she would be able to do something about her… situation. Now was much too soon. She was still new at the court, a nobody. She had to make a name for herself, become someone who could challenge even the Emperor’s go tutor. If she tried to be as unfeminine as she could, maybe in the end they would be able to see her above all as a go player, not just as a woman. And then, maybe…

Soft knocking came from the door, and she froze. Akitada, again? But surely he wouldn’t come to visit her like this when she wasn’t alone! She glanced at her companion who was still asleep, immensely happy of her presence. The quiet tapping repeated. “Are you awake?” a voice whispered, and she gave a great sigh of relief, recognizing one of the ladies who had been keeping company to the Empress.

Quickly she shuffled to the door on her knees and parted it a little. “Yes?”

“Oh, good, you hadn’t completely undressed yet,” the lady exclaimed. “The Empress cannot sleep and she has requested your presence. I believe she wishes to play a game with you.”

Sai smiled widely, paying no attention to the slightly cold tone in the lady’s voice. “I’m ready in an instant!” she said, louder than she had meant, and her roommate rolled over, glancing at the door.

“What is it?” she mumbled sleepily.

“Oh, I’m sorry I woke you, I must go to the Empress,” Sai replied while quickly throwing the over-robe on her shoulders.

“What?” The lady sat up, trying to blink sleep out of her eyes. “Should I too…” she started, beginning to reach for her clothes, but the one who had come to fetch Sai shook her head.

“No. It’s only her that’s wanted,” she said.

Sai stood up, not noticing the look the ladies shared. She straightened her robes, patted her hair to make sure it wasn’t tangled, and nodded, ready and eager to go. Her roommate lay back down as they started their way to the Empress’s quarters without another word.

This was the start, she thought to herself. The Empress was a good player, and she too would learn much from the games the played. Day by day she’d climb higher, all the way to the top.

The letter was left on the floor, forgotten and unfinished, as she headed to the Empress, her mind full of dreams of a wonderful future.

~* ~


A/N: The poems in this fic were originally exchanged by Murasaki Shikibu and Michinaga.

[Honen]

Sep. 20th, 2014 10:17 am
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Things That Burn


"I don't need a chaperone, Grandfather." Ochi shoved her glasses up her nose then crossed her arms over her chest awkwardly. "Touya-pro is coming over for a teaching game. That's all. When there is go, you don't need to worry about me getting distracted."
 
With a deep laugh, the old man patted her head, ruffling her short bob of a haircut. "I'm not worried about you. I'm worried about him. What kind of boy can resist a cute girl like yourself?"
 
Pushing her grandfather's hand away, Ochi scowled and fixed her hair as best she could without a mirror. "Touya-pro is only interested in go. As am I. The only things of his I'll be touching are his stones as I capture them." She held her chin up, defiant, and fought the urge to push her glasses up anew. "I'll be in the study, so let him in, offer tea, and then leave us to our game."
 
There was a comfort to the routine of setting up the board, wiping it clean of any dust garnered since the previous night and placing the goke just so atop the grid of the goban. She let her carefully filed nails tap against the wood as she sucked at her bottom lip, trying to get her mind into the right place to truly attack as she needed to in order to dominate. She was broken from it only a moment later as the door opened and Touya Akira walked through, his jacket draped over his arm. "Welcome. Shall we play?" Ochi fanned out her hand at the board.
 
Placing his jacket on the sofa in the room, Touya joined her at the table without so much as a bow of his head. "I've seen Shindou-san's games recently. She's getting better. You'll need to work even harder."
 
Opening the goke closer to her, Ochi shrugged one shoulder. "You know, my grandfather wanted to chaperone us."
 
The look on Touya's face was one of confusion. "Why would he need to do that? I'm certainly not teaching you to gamble or anything else untoward."
 
Gripping a few of the black stones between her fingers, Ochi forced a smile onto her face. "Of course not. He's an old man, and a foolish one at that. Who knows what he was thinking?"
 
"Nigiri." Touya said it as enough of an order that Ochi's jaw tightened as she thrust her fingers between the stones to grab a handful, pulling them out to let them fall across the board as Touya slapped down his one white stone to her seven black, winning the right to the black stones. "I don't know if you'll think this helpful or not, but when Shindou-san does nigiri and has the black stones in front of her, she's much more likely to have an even number of stones. Her hands are small, so she rarely pulls more than six stones. It is an advantage to know your opponent like that."
 
Ochi's eyes shut and she reached up to adjust her glasses once more. Of course Touya-pro would know more about Shindou-san's hands than just the ones she played. There was something captivating about Shindou-san. There had to be, but Ochi knew she couldn't see it. Touya-pro, though... that was all he seemed to see. Ochi had heard enough talk around the Ki-in to know that everyone thought that Shindou-san and Touya-pro were entwined with a red string of fate. As Touya-pro placed his first stone, Ochi decided she hated red, hated fate, and definitely hated Shindou Hikaru. But, most of all, she hated the way her hatred burned inside of her like a bonfire, consuming everything but her own weakness that she hated most of all.

[Hadaka]

Sep. 20th, 2014 09:53 am
answer_key: (find your answer)
 The Intrepid


One day in February, Akira is looking in the mirror and combing out his hair and suddenly there’s a huge yawning chasm between his self and his reflection. It feels like a real physical distance; it feels dangerous and terrifying; and it beckons.
 
He runs his fingers through the fringe absently, an echo two months in the making of Shindo’s hesitant, awkward outreach. Akira had jumped at the time, leaving behind three heavy strands pinched between Shindo’s first two fingers— fingers that automatically aligned like any go player’s, like most times Akira’s did, with middle over index. Shindo’s fingers, plucking at Akira’s fringe…
 
Akira was concerned chiefly that anyone would see, and so he looked: the salon was nearly empty, though, just Ms. Ichikawa putting away teacups and one set of opponents who always came late after they got off work and another set of elderly opponents looking about to fall asleep at the board. (When had everyone else left?) Now it was quiet, too quiet to really argue with Shindo, too quiet to say, Not in public.
 
Which, in hindsight, would have probably told Shindo way too much. Akira told him enough with the way he didn’t speak a word of reproach, the way he went back to staring at the board as if nothing happened. Oddly, he fought his lips from twitching into a smile. It was difficult and mildly mortifying.
 
Shindo said with a rare quaver, “I resign.”
 
“Already?” Akira asked, somewhat astonished. Then he glared suspiciously. “Why?”
 
“Shut up,” Shindo muttered automatically. It seemed to require not a small amount of bravery for him to continue, lighter, “Let’s go get some ramen. Or a burger. Whatever, uh. Whatever you’re in the mood for.”
 
They cleared their board and said goodnight to Ms. Ichikawa, who yawned and smiled but didn’t have enough energy left to really respond. The night was cold, so Akira buttoned his coat primly and was mildly surprised when Shindo held out his scarf for him. It was all very suspect, but Akira allowed him to continue being uncharacteristically thoughtful until they had reached a little shop that Akira didn’t mind.
 
No one was looking the next time Shindo reached out. This time, Akira wouldn’t have minded if they had.
 
Shindo rolled thick strands between his fingers, quietly pensive. There was comfort to be found in the tiny tremors in those fingers; they reassured Akira’s faintly fluttering heart. Akira kept his eyes on Shindo’s chin as he chewed his tonkatsu. 
 
It was easy to know everything about Shindo at that moment— the tiny little stain on the side of his jeans where he might have wiped greasy fingers at lunch time, or the terrible posture of his back, or the silliest, smallest patch of hair on the edge of his chin where he might have shaved hopefully. Yes, it was easy, and right, Akira thinks now, and lovely to know everything about Shindo.
 
Only, he didn’t. He hardly knew anything. He knew nothing about Shindo, but...  
 
But it was… good. To sit there with him. The chill winter air was rattling the sliding doors behind them, but they were safe and together here, tucked away in a warm little shop where the grills heated the space easily and no one bothered them.
 
Shindo finally dropped his hand, maybe only to stuff more food in his maw, and then said crudely around his mouthful: “You gonna grow it out?”
 
Akira felt lightheaded and a little slow. “Excuse me?”
 
“Your hair,” Shindo said more clearly. “You’ve had the same length since we were, like, eleven. Are you just gonna have it like that?”
 
Akira felt his cheeks warm. People didn’t usually say anything about his choice; trust Shindo, though, to be the one who broke that little rule. Akira struggled for a moment before he, in a fit of fondness, went with the truth: “I think if I went any longer, it might be inconvenient.”
 
“Hm.” Shindo swallowed, squinted. “Like, getting in your face when you’re bent over the board? But it already does that.”
 
“No,” Akira stuttered. He took a deep breath that stung his lungs a little. “No, more… Inconvenient… As in what people might think.”
 
Shindo’s face squashed darkly. “Like what?” It sounded defensive, but not entirely on Akira’s behalf. 
 
In response, Akira shrugged, lopsided and awkward. At the crest of the shrug, his shoulder his the bottom of his hair. “It’s okay to have it like this. But any longer, and that’ll be a bit strange. Actually,” Akira said and winced. He deliberated on whether or not to say this— he hadn’t ever talked about his hair to anyone but his mother and, in smaller ways, his father —but Shindo was his friend now, and what good were friends if you couldn’t— just a little —be anxious around them?
 
“Actually,” Akira continued after a moment’s hesitation. “I was thinking I was getting a little older, so maybe I have to cut it soon.”
 
“Don’t you dare,” Shindo cut in almost before the words were out of Akira’s mouth. He looked angry and faintly horrified. Akira reflexively reached up to smooth his hair.
 
“No?” Akira asked with the hint of a tease. 
 
“No,” Shindo responded seriously. “You don’t want to, do you?”
 
That had Akira’s heart fluttering again. “Don’t what?”
 
“You don’t want to cut your hair.”
 
“No,” Akira admitted. “Not really.”
 
“Then don’t! Who cares what anyone else thinks, Touya. Kick their ass in a match if they look sideways at you!”
 
Akira couldn’t help the grin taking over his face— he could only attempt to contain it by clamping his lips shut. Shindo’s eyes were shining with righteousness where they met Akira’s. Shindo kept them there, and Akira felt like he was trying to impart some important message that Akira could only understand half of. Typical Shindo! If only he would say it aloud…
 
“My parents probably wouldn’t like it very much, to be honest,” Akira eventually demurred, hoping his tone would convey that he wasn’t rejecting Shindo’s sudden fierce protection. But his face fell a little at the thought. “I wouldn’t want to embarrass my father.”
 
“Fuck that!”
 
“Shindo!”
 
“Sorry.” Now Shindo was looking anywhere but Akira’s reproachful gaze. He stared out the clear doors, out at the passersby with a furrowed brow as if they, too, would challenge his ire, and he wouldn’t back down from them the way he was, most strangely, backing down from Akira. He continued, “Really, though. What would he care? You’re a fantastic player, you’re so strong, and you’re gonna surpass everything he’s done one day. You know that, right? That’s who you are, Touya. So who cares if you’re… if you’re different,” he finished quietly. He dropped his gaze to his empty bowl.
 
Akira didn’t reply. It suddenly felt like they were on the edge of something a little dangerous. Akira wanted to deny it, say that his hair wouldn’t be such a big deal. He didn’t particularly want to cut it, he liked the length, he liked the way it touched his face, but it wouldn’t be a great hardship to part with it. Akira wanted to say this… but when he looked at Shindo’s stormy expression, he knew it was a lie he didn’t have to make himself believe right now.
 
One of them made the first move to get going, he’s not sure which, but then they had both paid and were walking off again, side by side. In a contemplative funk, they found themselves slow-walking and unwilling to part. Shindo gestured weakly at a park when they drew up to it. Akira went with him. Something strange was moving inside of Shindo right now; Akira didn’t want to leave him to it. Shindo’s business was his business, as far as he was concerned.
 
“My parents are…” Shindo stopped, mouth still open, then snapped it shut. 
 
Akira waited for a moment, then realized they were both just standing there in the middle of a playground at what might be midnight, them seventeen, nearly eighteen years old, and Shindo was trying to say something important. So he sat down on a swing, knees together and elbows tucked in, and fixed Shindo with an encouraging, attentive face. Shindo’s eyes glittered in the light of a streetlamp, and they felt like an xray on Akira. What was he seeing in Akira that made this whole conversation come to light? Perhaps they had never talked this seriously before— at least about anything more than go.  
 
But Shindo simply wasn’t the kind who shared, and yet here he was on the cusp of sharing with Akira. It was the stuff of racing hearts. No matter what, Akira wouldn’t desert him over whatever would come out of his mouth next. ‘Eternal rivals’, and all that. Nothing could make Akira stop wanting to be near Shindo. Nothing could make him want to abandon Shindo when something deep was swirling in that secret head of his— any time Shindo seems darkhearted, Akira can’t help but remember him in the throes of mysterious suffering, unwilling to play go. Akira never wants to leave Shindo to that again.
 
Shindo knew that— Akira could see him work it out, the gears turning in his head as he studied Akira’s open, serious face, the face where the cold had turned his nose red and that the odd hair curtained. So Shindo finally breathed deep and shuddering and found a huge tire to sit on facing Akira, and he said:
 
“I’m not what my parents expected, you know. Not in any way. At least yours, they got you all polite and proper and good at go. But mine… I feel bad sometimes. Y’know? I feel bad for my mom. Just a little. And they let me do just whatever I want… but they’re so damn clueless. Like, I’m so used to, to just doing whatever comes in my head. Like taking up go and dropping out of school and stuff. Buying my own clothes. Hell, going to Innoshima and the like! They won’t stop me. They’ll never stop me. So I guess in that way, I’m lucky. But… they keep their hands off. Like, seriously. They don’t understand me, I guess. I’ve always been weird. So. When I do something new that’s weird. Like go. They just… It’s like they think, ‘Well, it isn’t as weird as that other thing’, and if it isn’t as weird as that how can they complain? But they don’t really get involved, either. They just sort of sit back and… I guess that’s why I don’t really feel close to them.” 
 
Shindo bit his lip, looking very soft and young in that light. He continued, “I don’t think anyone would understand, really. I could try to explain, but I’ve only got two parents who have to love me unconditionally, you know. I don’t think everyone else would just say, ‘Okay’ like they have. So I… I don’t want to explain.”
 
The fire returned to his eyes. More sure of himself, he said, “I don’t have to explain. I don’t have to be ashamed. So that’s the way I live my life in general. I don’t care what anyone thinks of me. It’s not like they can stop me. No one is ever going to stop me from being who I want, acting the way I want!”
 
Akira wanted to drink in Shindo’s brave face forever. Still, he never wants to be apart from this person. He wants that courage, that intrepid spirit, that strength of will to guide him and inspire him for the rest of his life.
 
Shindo finished, “So. Since it’s you. Only you, Touya, you know I— I don’t want you to hide, either. Whatever it is you feel you want to do, just— just do it. Whoever you want to be. Don’t let anyone hold you back. I know you can do that. I know you can be…” He smiles at last, the first since he got in this funk. “You can be amazing.”
 
Akira smiled back shakily, nerves on high, heart swelling thickly with every pump. He walked Shindo home, then, at who-knows-what time in the morning. The lights were off in Shindo’s house. He thought Shindo must’ve been a little relieved. Shindo looked at one of the windows on the second story and said, “Sorry. I usually keep that stuff to myself. I’m just thinking about it now that I’m getting older, I guess. You know, adulthood, it changes things. I keep thinking about the future, the path I’ve chosen, the obstacles in my way, and how I’m gonna have to overcome them. How people might not like the person I’m gonna be. But it doesn’t matter. I’ve always done my own thing.” Shindo looked back at Akira and said, most sincerely, “And I know that you’re gonna be there, too. We already agreed.” 
 
Then it came flooding into Akira, burning and glaringly obvious, and yet— he didn’t know how it suddenly made sense. His head had been buzzing with Shindo’s words as they had walked in companionable silence, Shindo still coming down from the nervous high of what must have been his most emotional confession to another living person in his entire life. Akira had been proud, happy to receive these words from Shindo, and he felt closer to his rival, his friend than ever before. But he didn’t quite understand…
 
... and then, suddenly, he did, and it took his breath away. 
 
“Why did you tell me all that?” Akira whispered into the dark suburban night.
 
Shindo’s eyes flashed in quicksilver emotion. “Because… you know, I… I really do think we were meant to walk together. Like there’s something drawing us together. I don’t know. Fate. We’re— we’re meant to hold each other up.”
 
Akira waited. Shindo finally clarified,
 
“I think you’re like me. You are, aren’t you?”
 
And he reached out to take a lock of Akira’s hair between his fingers once more. The air was electric and Akira couldn’t breathe. 
 
Shindo whispered, “I just know. I just feel it. Because I’m always watching you… Because of that, I’m the only one who can see...“
 
Akira reached back. He understood, understood, but how could he know? He knew instinctively, like he knew that Shindo was and was not Sai. Shindo hadn’t said anything explicit, but…
 
Akira rested his hand on Shindo’s hip. It was shaking. He trailed it up, skimming intimately into a very pronounced dipping waist— up, following the curve of a body Shindo kept under relaxed, concealing fabric. He felt a slick, stiff undershirt that didn’t budge. And he looked up into Shindo’s face, wondering how he could have just now registered the smoothness of his skin, the bareness of his face, the high pitch of his voice…The fullness of his lips… 
 
“I know who you really are,” Shindo whispered. His hand was still full of Akira’s hair. “And I don’t want you to hide. Because, to me, you are—“
 
 
Akira blushes deeply to remember that night, but he is tainted by shame. He was afraid, the same fear as right now, brush in hand and looking at his face in the mirror. It makes him wonder how Shindo felt, those years ago, when he skipped all those games. What sort of fear, what sort of shame must it have took to drive him away; what sort of bravery did it take to come back?
 
With quaking hands, Akira settles the brush on the sink and runs his fingers through his hair again. He looks at the sharpness of his face but also at the beauty. He brushes a finger over the length of his eyelashes, and, in a parody of what he did to Shindo, runs his hands over his (straight) waist, his (narrow) hips, and then back up again, over his (flat) chest, to settle lightly on his collarbones. Akira looks at and likes the thinness of his fingers, the smallness of his wrists. 
 
At last, he walks quietly back into his room, unhooks the phone from the charger, and dials Shindo’s number.
 
“Hello,” Shindo answers grumpily.
 
It’s been two months. Two months since they’ve said more than the barest of pleasantries when passing at the institute.
 
“I’m sorry,” Akira says.
 
He can just hear Shindo’s breathing for many long moments. Then Shindo capitulates. “It’s fine.”
 
“It isn’t, though,” Akira says, not feeling up to anything more than a murmur. 
 
“It is,” Shindo says firmly. “Hell. I did enough running away from you and giving you the silent treatment, it’s fine you get a turn.”
 
Akira takes a deep gulp of air. His heart is buzzing. His parents aren’t home, but he’s quiet anyway when he says, “You were right.” And just like that, he’s free. Akira says it again, “You were right about me.”
 
“Yeah,” Shindo says. His voice is warm.
 
Suddenly the future blossoms beautifully inside Akira’s heart. When they hang up with a promise to meet at the salon, Akira has time to wonder how his shoulders, which had always seemed so tight under the weight of his familial duty, could possibly be so loose and light now. He calls his hairdresser next to cancel his routine appointment, and then, without thinking, he picks out something soft and lavender from his closet.
 
Half a year from this moment, Akira and Hikaru will be sitting before each other at an official match. Having lost, Hikaru will look up and gaze at Akira as if he’s never seen him before, something he does after a particularly intense game, and then he will notice. He will then invite his friend out to lunch, where he will extend his hand and bury it in Akira’s long, dark tresses where they flow over Akira’s shoulders.
 
“It looks great,” he’ll say. Akira will smile shyly, brightly. And then they’ll go back to arguing about the damn go game.
 
And in a year from that moment, in a hotel room before a convention, Akira will tell Hikaru to wait and then disappear into the bathroom. Akira will come out, suit pants shucked and replaced with a skirt.
 
“Do you think I can get away with it?” Akira will ask, a spark of mischief alighting her eyes. “I’ll be sitting down almost all day.”
 
“Who cares if you’re sitting?” Hikaru will point out belligerently, rubbing idly at his sideburns. “Who can complain to see legs like those?”
 
“Stop it!” Akira answers with a blush and swats Hikaru on the arm.
 
And a year from that, and two and three, and continuing along the line, Hikaru and Akira will continue to walk their paths side by side, as they’re meant to: honestly, and bravely; something the go world had never seen before, surely. Always one step closer to their destinies, to divinity.
answer_key: (Default)

S.A.I

Ghost in the Machine

History and Science – WALTZ

https://www.triplejunearthed.com/artist/waltz (download available)

History and Science,

Won’t you find it and work out

Invisible Man – HAWKAI

https://www.triplejunearthed.com/artist/hawkai (download available)

as the search takes over you

Digital Love – Daft Punk

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QOngRDVtEQI

http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/daftpunk/digitallove.html

Why don’t you play the game?

Why don’t you play the game?

I feel fantastic – Jonathan Coulton

http://www.jonathancoulton.com/wiki/I_Feel_Fantastic/Lyrics

http://www.jonathancoulton.com/wiki/I_Feel_Fantastic (download available)
I feel fantastic
And I never felt as good as how I do right now
Except for maybe when I think of how I felt that day
When I felt the way that I do right now, right now

Magical Mystery Tour – The Beatles

http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/beatles/magicalmysterytour.html

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hnrsqf33MXA


Roll up (And that's an invitation), roll up for the mystery tour
Roll up (To make a reservation), roll up for the mystery tour
The magical mystery tour is waiting to take you away
Waiting to take you away

Internet Games – Matt Weaven

https://www.triplejunearthed.com/artist/upstream (download available)

show me something new

Rock star – NERD (remix)

http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/nerd/rockstarposer.html

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bdFJ13MTZX8

You think that you don't have to ever quit
You think that you can get away with it

You think the light won't be ever lit

It's almost over now
Almost over now

Stay Useless – Cloud Nothings

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HtkePLlTUcY

I need time to stop moving
I need time to stay useless
I need time to stop moving
I need time to stay useless
I need time to stop moving
I need time to stay useless
I need time

Tribute – Tenacious D

http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/tenaciousd/tribute.html

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P5M04_qkRdY

This is not The Greatest Song in the World, no.
This is just a tribute.
Couldn't remember The Greatest Song in the World, no, no.
This is a tribute, oh, to The Greatest Song in the World

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