[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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