tuulikannel: (Reality - illusion)
[personal profile] tuulikannel
Here it is, finally: the last chapter. I'm sorry about the wait. Although I did know what's going to happen from the beginning, I somehow ran into a huge writer's block with this chapter. Luckily once I got over it the rest of the fic pretty much wrote itself.

Chapter 5: Rivals

sai: I heard you're now a pro. Congrats.
akira: Thank you.
sai: so what's it like?
akira: I don't know yet, really. I have passed the pro test, even if I lose the last games, but I won't officially become pro until next year.
sai: It's just… why?
akira: That's when all the new pros start…
sai: no, I meant why did you become pro?
akira: I'm not sure I understand what you mean
sai: it's such a weird thing to be, go pro. you really wanna be one?
akira: Of course I want to be pro! I've always known that! I don't know about you, but I don't want to spend my days lurking anonymously in the shadows of the internet. I'm heading at the top of the go world.
akira: Sorry if that sounds boastful, but it's true.
sai: Lurking, huh? And you, you're out to make a name for yourself.
akira: Yes.
akira: What about you?
akira: Aren't you going to be pro?
akira: Shindou?
sai has logged out


"He seems to be pretty certain that I'm me," Hikaru remarked to Sai as the computer was shutting down.

Yes, Sai agreed. And, you know, I really think you should let him know you are.

Hikaru snorted and stood up, starting to shuffle toward his room. "What happened to all your warnings of never letting anyone know?"

I'm still worried about that, but I'm even more worried about your current state! Something must be done!

"Hmm."

So… how about becoming a pro too?

Hikaru paused. "What?"

You could easily do it! Sai's voice was eager, he was clearly excited about the idea. Akira could, too, and you're above his level.

"Yeah, but…" Hikaru started aloud, but then remembered his mother was home and quieted down. Why? What's the point? If I want to play, I can do that online.

Point? Don't you think it'd be fun? Besides, you could surely make your living as a pro, so that'd be one thing less to worry about in the future.

"I don't like the idea of turning go into work," Hikaru muttered. The short instant where something had momentarily brightened his eyes was over, and his look was as bleak as before. Sai dropped the subject – for now. He didn't stop thinking about it, though.

.


Touya Akira was thinking about the very same thing in his room, still staring at the computer screen. He didn't know what the matter was with sai – no, with Shindou, for he was growing surer and surer that the strange boy who had dropped in at the go salon was truly this mysterious net player. Everything fitted – apart from the young age, which really was a surprise.

He had decided to be patient and not to push Shindou, figuring the boy most likely had his reasons to keep his identity secret (he hoped so, though at times he couldn't help wondering if Shindou was just being annoying on purpose.) But no matter how patiently he waited, sai/Shindou didn't seem to be about to answer his questions.

And why… why wasn't he a pro? Wasn't he even planning to become one? It made no sense that someone with such skills would not join the ranks of the professional players. At first he had thought that perhaps sai suffered of some kind of medical condition that forced him to play only online, but Shindou certainly had moved quite nimbly when he had bolted out of the go salon. His hands were strange, yes, but surely that couldn't be the reason he was hiding. Shouldn't something like that be easily fixed, anyway?

No, he was sure the real reason lay elsewhere. Though he couldn't think of anything else, unless…

A new thought occurred to him, one he didn't like. What if sai – Shindou – was somehow mentally handicapped? That would explain why he had panicked the way he had, out of the blue, and also why he so insistently hid his identity. Moreover, Akira remembered reading somewhere about autistic people and how they could be inexplicably good at various things – so why not go, too?

He closed his eyes and thought. If he was on the right track and this was the true reason behind Shindou's strange behavior… well, it was unfortunate, but couldn't be helped. But surely that wouldn't have to keep a player of Shindou's quality shunned from the world of pros and condemned to play only in the peripheries of the internet… that wasn't right.

He would have to do something.

But first, he reminded himself, he would have to find out if he was right. How? He could hardly just ask someone who was practically a complete stranger about such things. And there was the possibility, unlikely though he found it, that he was completely wrong and sai and Shindou were not connected at all. He doubted that, though. He knew he had seen sai's go in Shindou's game.

What he should do was to find out sai's identity for sure. Meet him, face to face. Meet people who knew him, and then he'd know for sure and be able to decide how to proceed.

…so, in the end, all his thinking had led him round a full circle. It all came down to finding out sai's identity.

Aren't you ever going to tell me? he asked the next time they played. He got no answer.



Every night, in his dreams, Hikaru was in the water. All alone, without even Sai for company… but that was alright. There was peace and calm, and freedom so complete he couldn't even understand it; it was as natural, as self-evident to him as the blood coursing through his veins. What did you dream about? Sai would ask in the morning when he woke up, as if guessing that something was going on, but Hikaru said nothing, just blinked slowly into consciousness.

One such morning Hikaru crawled out of his bed for a silent breakfast and headed then straight for the computer, finding Akira there waiting for him. I want to meet you, flashed on his screen as soon as he logged in.

Good morning to you too, he typed in, a little peevish.

Morning, Akira replied. Sorry. But I mean it. I've had enough of this waiting. I want the truth.

And I want a game, Hikaru typed, hitting the keyboard hard. It's too early for talking about such stuff.

It's not that early. Did you sleep late? Besides, with you there doesn't seem to be a good time to talk about this. So we might as well talk now.

I said I want a game!

Not before we talk. I'm sure I know who you are. I want to meet you and find out the truth behind all this. Can you come to meet me at the go salon?

No I can't! I don't even live in Tokyo, idiot! And I want to play here and now!

You don't live in Tokyo? But somewhere near, right? Can I come to visit you?

Are you going to play or not?

…no. Not before you talk to me.

Whatever.

(sai has logged out)

From then on, Akira found himself totally ignored by sai. He tried sending messages at times but got no reply, and so he spent his time online just watching sai's games with others. Already after a few days it was beginning to grow tiresome. He was determined not to cave in and send a game request, though, and after two more days of being just a part of the audience, he decided it was best to stay away a while.

It was harder than he would have thought. This made him a little worried – had he grown addicted to sai's games or what? Nevertheless, he persisted, day after day, refusing to even touch his computer. A week passed with him being completely in the dark where sai was concerned, and he spent his days wondering how things were going online, if sai was playing his games as usual or if he had started to wonder about the absence of his most frequent opponent.

Two more days passed, and he decided it had been long enough – it was time to log in again and see how sai would react.

He got online at the time when he and sai used to play their games. Sai was in the middle of a game then, with someone called goshiki. They were in the endgame, and it looked like the game would soon be over. As Akira gave the board a cursory glance he realized this goshiki seemed to be an excellent player, but even so, no match for sai. The game ended to sai's victory, and as soon as it was over sai started a game with someone else.

Akira let out an annoyed breath. Perhaps sai hadn't yet noticed he was back? He sat back to watch the game in silence, but when it ended sai simply logged out without so much as acknowledging his return. Akira told himself again that sai hadn't simply noticed him, but when the same was repeated the next day, and the next, he began to doubt it. In the end he finally gave in and sent a short message, it's been a while, but sai replied nothing. After two more days of no contact, he reluctantly sent a game request. It was declined.

Do you really mean you don't want to play with me anymore? he messaged sai. I thought you too enjoyed our games, he went on next day. Why else would you have played so much with me?

Silence was his only reply as sai went on playing his games with others.

You think I'm just going to give up if you don't talk to me? That I'll just submit to it that we'd never play again?

Shindou! I know it's you and I will yet prove it.

The next day sai didn't log in at all.

That was the day Hikaru first time skipped school. He left home as usual, but instead of getting on the bus he walked through the little village and headed into the forest around it, climbing up into the mountains.

Hikaru? Where are you going to?

"Nowhere."

True to his words, the boy stopped soon. He spent the whole day in the woods, doing nothing, just nodding against a big spruce, eyes half-closed, not listening to Sai's worried questions if everything was alright. When he finally went home his mother was quite frantic, not to mention angry, but Hikaru just shrugged her questions off as well. She declared Hikaru was now in home arrest until otherwise told, and that she would be driving him to school and back to make sure he went there. Hikaru just shrugged again, and for a few days did attend school, even if he didn't really follow the teaching.

Then, one day as he watched his mother's car drive away from the school, he wandered off again.



Akira was at a loss. A month had passed, and he had not played a single game against sai – hadn't even so much as exchanged a few words. Like once before, all his messages were ignored, and this time he had a feeling that things would not change anytime soon. He was getting desperate enough that he considered even sending an apology, promising he would let the matter rest in the future... but he was reluctant to do that, for he knew he might not be able to keep that promise.

Besides, he couldn't really be sure if sai would read his messages. After all, sai had now all but disappeared from internet – he did still occasionally appear there, playing a game or two, but the times were now highly irregular. A few times Akira had missed his games just because he had been at school, and this made him wonder if he had been wrong assuming sai and Shindou were the same person – after all, shouldn't Shindou be at school too?

Then again, as he carefully went through the records of the games, he clearly saw that it must have been the "other sai", the one he had named Teacher, who had been playing.

That was even more worrisome, though. Wasn't Shindou using the internet at all anymore?

He was beginning to despair over what to do, when he found a rather unexpected comrade in arms. One day, at the meeting of the Meijin's study group, Ogata suddenly brought sai up. They had finished their discussion of the latest league games, and were gradually beginning to end the meeting, when he suddenly gave Akira a strange look.

"I've noticed that you haven't played against sai for a long time, Akira-kun," he said.

"He's not been online much recently," Akira muttered, not really wanting to discuss this in his father's presence.

"I've noticed," Ogata said dryly. "Do you have any idea why?"

"Why would I know?" Akira said, trying to keep the annoyance from his voice.

"It's just that…" Ogata started, but their discussion had caught the attention of others.

"Are you a sai-fan too?" Ashiwara exclaimed happily, cutting off whatever Ogata had been about to say. The man shot him an annoyed look.

"Not really. But I find him intriguing – both his game and his… mystery, should I say. And the reason I asked you, Akira-kun," he went on, turning back to Akira, "is simply because you're the one who has played the most against him. If you don't know what's going on with him, who would?"

"I don't know anything." Akira shrugged uncomfortably. "He doesn't talk to me either."

"That's a shame." Something in the look Ogata gave him made Akira doubt he didn't quite believe him.

"But sai really is quite something!" Ashiwara put in, happily oblivious. "I wish I'd get to play him some day, but there are always so many people it's hopeless. And it's even harder nowadays when he's all but gone…" He gave a great sigh. "I've been hoping we might, maybe, some day, discuss some of his games here, but…" He glanced at the Meijin, who had been following the discussion very quietly, and fell silent, perhaps sensing that there was something awkward in the air.

"That would be interesting," Ogata said calmly. "I guess we could next time – if it's alright to you – discuss my game with him. It…"

"You've played with sai?!" Ashiwara exclaimed at the same time as Akira asked, a little incredulous, "You play online go, Ogata-san?"

"Well, yes," Ogata replied, adjusting his glasses. "Occasionally. And this was quite an interesting game, I can tell you. Though the game I'd most like to see," he went on, shooting a sideward glance toward the Meijin, "is one between you and sai, sensei."

Akira sat very, very quietly, staring at his hands. He heard his father give a quiet breath, one he knew to signify either annoyance or amusement, and hoped.

"This sai truly has grown popular, hasn't he?" the Meijin remarked dryly. "If it is as you say, that he is not much online anymore, it sounds like it might be quite hard for us to arrange a game. Besides…"

"I could ask him, father," Akira put in hurriedly, before his father would outright decline. "I could send him a message, that is…" He hoped sai still read his messages on those few times he logged in.

"Sounds like an idea," Ogata said.

The Meijin fell quiet. He watched all the faces whose attention was at the moment fixed to him: Ogata's unreadable, nonchalant expression, Ashiwara's badly hidden excitement, and the hope in his son's eyes, and he sighed.

"Fine. Ask – we'll see what he says."



The next time Hikaru and Sai logged in, there was a message from Akira waiting for them: Would you like to play against my father?

Akira's father? Sai asked slowly. Wait, isn't that…

"The Meijin, yeah," Hikaru muttered.

The best player currently living! Yes, Hikaru, yes! Tell him I do want to!

You want to? What about me? Hikaru asked, mildly amused.

I… Sai paused. That is… do you want to play this game, Hikaru? I mean, of course, if you… or maybe, maybe we could ask him for two games…

You can play him, Sai. It's fine for me.

…are you sure? I wouldn't…

"It's fine." Hikaru turned back to the computer and typed in, Okay. When?



It had been a long and anxious wait before sai replied to his message, and when he finally did there was no way Akira could hide his excitement. When the day of the game arrived, he locked himself into his room. Others in the study group had asked him to follow the game with them, but he felt he would rather watch it alone. He wasn't sure why, but he was convinced that this game would, in one way or another, bring about a change. It had better, he thought – he was completely at an impasse where Shindou was concerned, and he was growing sick of it.

When he logged in he saw that there already were quite a lot people online, from all around the world. They had tried to keep quiet about the game, but apparently word had leaked out. Personally he suspected Ashiwara – not that it mattered. Why shouldn't everyone get a chance to witness this game?

He saw his father's name among the people online, and it was a rather peculiar feeling. Sai, though, hadn't yet arrived. The minutes ticked by painfully slowly, and still there was no sign of him. Akira sat at the edge of his chair, staring intently at the list of usernames, suddenly half panicking – what if he wouldn't come? If he had changed his mind, or hadn't ever truly meant to play this game in the first place? Or if something had happened that kept him from playing, or...

At exactly the agreed time sai appeared, and the game started without any fanfares or formalities.

It was clear from the very beginning that this was no ordinary game. Akira watched in silence, letting the game sweep himself away, following the rhythm of the moves without bothering yet to think of them – there would yet be time to analyze and overanalyze this game. Now, he wanted just to enjoy it.

And he did. Every move carried him further, as if floating on the waves of an immense ocean where the shore couldn't be seen, and very soon he had all but forgotten everything this game was about, immersed into its complicated beauty. When the last move was suddenly played, it took him a while to realize the game was over. Slowly, as if returning from somewhere far away, he returned to reality, and realized his father had lost.



Far away from Akira, Hikaru and Sai were too staring at the finished game.

What a wonderful game! Sai breathed then, joy in his voice. I'm so happy you let me play, Hikaru...

"If he had played there," Hikaru said, not listening, "he'd have had a chance."

Sai paused. True, he said then. There were ways in which he could have won this game. But even so...

Hikaru shut down the computer without even bothering to log out first, ignoring the messages flooding at them. He stood up and started shuffling toward his room.

"Hikaru?" His mother appeared in the kitchen doorway. "Is your game over? Didn't you win?"

He had considered long where to play the game, and in the end decided that home was best. He'd told his mother just that he had an important game then and asked her not to bother him, which she thankfully hadn't done, though she had seemed a little amused about it.

"Sure we won," Hikaru muttered, and she blinked.

"We? Was it a team game?" she asked, but Hikaru already slammed the door shut behind him.

What's the matter, Hikaru?

Sai was watching the boy worriedly as he slumped on his bed, lying on his back. He had thought this game might cheer Hikaru up, and momentarily it truly had seemed to, but now the boy's mood appeared to be even lower than before.

"That," Hikaru muttered aloud numbly, "was the best this world can offer."

...yes? What do you mean? Wasn't it a beautiful game?

"Yeah, I guess. It's just that... I think I could have won it, too."

Possibly, Sai admitted.

"So what's the point!" Hikaru sat up suddenly, slamming his palms against the bed. "What's the point just to play games you know you can win? If I become a pro like you'd want me to, that's all I'd be doing! You... you're the only one, who..." He sighed, and fell back down on the bed.

But, Hikaru, it's not about winning, is it? Sai admonished him gently. Didn't this game prove it to you? You agreed that it was a beautiful game. I knew half-way through that I would win it – but did that somehow diminish its beauty? I think not.

"I don't know," Hikaru muttered. "It's just that... that..."

Yes?

Leave me be already! Hikaru shrieked in his mind, grasped his pillow and threw it into the wall. A moment he stared after it, then curled up on his bed, ignoring Sai's startlement.



As days passed by, Akira was growing more and more irritated. Since the game with the Meijin, sai had been gone. He hadn't been online a single time after that, and – obviously – not replied to any of the messages he had sent him. Now that his father too had come over and told him he had been wrong to tell him to avoid sai, now sai was the one avoiding him – him and the rest of the world.

"If he doesn't want to reveal his identity, he must have reasons for it," the Meijin had said. "And it doesn't matter who he is, in the end. But if you do get contact to him, tell him I'd be honored to play him again."

Akira had promised, of course, while in truth he had wanted to scream what do you mean it doesn't matter who he is?! His father simply didn't understand. If sai was Shindou... that mattered. It couldn't have mattered more. Though he couldn't believe that Shindou could have played this game; that was little too frightening. Perhaps, he mused, he had been correct and there were two of them. Surely this had been the teacher playing.

...and that, of course, led to the question why two people of such skill would want to hide.

He let out an exasperated sigh. He had hoped the game to bring around a change; if it had, the change had not been to the better.

One day, a few weeks after the game, he stopped by the Ki'in to get some papers as the time when he would fully start his career as a pro was getting closer. It was a chilly day, and he went to the café to spend a moment with a warm cup of tea. A group of insei were sitting at the next table, some of them looking vaguely familiar – he thought they had most likely taken part into the pro exam, too. With some wry amusement he heard them talking about sai. The game with his father had really kickstarted all speculation about sai again, both online and in real life. In fact, it was beginning to grow a little irritating. He decided to empty his cup quickly, not wanting to listen to the discussion any longer than he had to.

"...but I'd say at the very least the game with the Meijin proves that theory wrong," someone was saying, and Akira sighed. He didn't want to be thinking about that game right now.

"Yeah, I know. But it did make sense until then, didn't it? I mean, who else but a kid could be online at those times?"

Akira shot a curious glance toward them. So, someone else too had been thinking sai could be a child. He was a little surprised at that.

Even so, he didn't plan to stay there eavesdropping any more. He drank the last of his tea and rose to go.

"So now that you have that info, what are you going to do with it?" a girl asked right when he walked by the little group, and he paused, glancing toward them. Did she mean some info about sai, or were they talking about something else...?

"I don't know," a boy replied, the same who had said sai might have been a kid. "Nothing, I guess. I'm not going to shout it out loud in the internet, at least. Besides, I've got nothing specific."

"So why did you do it in the first place?" another boy asked, laughing.

"I dunno! I guess I was curious. I..." He paused, frowning. "What are you staring at?" he snapped at Akira, having noticed how Akira had frozen by their table. At that moment Akira remembered him, the insei from the pro exam who had been strangely hostile toward him. He also remembered the boy's go, which was almost but not quite strong enough for pro, but couldn't for the life of him remember his name.

"Nothing, I..." He almost turned and went his way, but curiosity got over. "I'm sorry, I happened to hear a part of your conversation, and... were you talking about sai? Do you know something about him?"

"What if I do? None of your business."

"Waya!" the other boy admonished him. "What's the matter with you?"

Waya Yoshi-something, Akira remembered. And the older boy, he too had been in the pro exam. He should have passed, Akira thought, instead of that Mashiba-guy. His name was... Isumi? He was quite sure of that. The girl he couldn't quite remember.

"I'm sorry," he said again. "I realize this is rude of me. I'm Touya Akira," he gave a little bow and ignored Waya's "as if we didn't know" mutter. "Ever since my father played that game with sai, he's been wishing to get to play him again, but sai seems to have vanished completely... so, I was thinking that if you have any information about him at all, no matter how small, we'd be thankful about it."

A moment the three at the table just stared at each other. Then Isumi raised his eyebrows a little, questioningly, at Waya, and the other boy leaned back, groaning.

"Fine!" he exclaimed. "But I wasn't the one who told you. I don't want to get into any trouble over this."

"If you don't want to get into trouble you should think of that before you do stupid stuff," the girl muttered with a small smile, but she was ignored.

"I got sai's IP address," Waya said, "and..."

"What?" Akira cut him off, astonished. "How did you get it?"

Waya shot him a glare. "That you don't need to know. Anyway, I got it, and based on it he lives, well, in the middle of nothing. Mind you, these things aren't overly accurate. The location I got might be miles off."

"Still, it's better than nothing!" Akira could feel his heart speeding up. "Please, tell me more! Where is that 'middle of nothing'?"

A little grudgingly Waya did tell him all he knew, and Akira rushed straight out. He could come to get those papers some other day. He ran all the way home from the metro station and headed straight to his computer to do some research.

It was like Waya had said. The location could hardly be quite exact. But it gave him some kind of an idea of the possible area where sai might live. And he had something Waya didn't have. He had a name.

A quick search through the telephone catalogs gave him one hit in the area. Shindou Mitsuko.

He stared at the name. Thought about picking up the phone and making a call. Hello, is Hikaru-kun home? And if they said there was no Hikaru... well, then he'd just apologize and say he had a wrong number.

Or maybe it would be Shindou who picked up the phone.

What would he say to him? Hi, it's me. Touya. Remember? I told you I'd find you.

He could feel his palms sweating. It was so simple. So simple, and so... frightening. For some reason he realized he was terrified.

This was his only connection to Shindou. And if it was a false one... then he had nothing. Arimasen. I have lost.

He went to bed that night, unusually quiet. Sleep avoided him, and he lay awake on his bed, staring at the ceiling, his mind working at high speed, and during those quiet hours of the night it did come up with a somewhat insane plan. He got up in the dark and turned on his computer. After a long while the plan had been perfected, and he went back to bed, this time falling asleep almost immediately.

The plan did seem perfectly reasonable to him in the night, but in the morning when he woke up he started wondering. Still, it was the only plan he had, so when he packed his backpack for school, he put secretly in a water bottle, a sandwich, a map and his notes.

He was sure when he left home that his parents must notice something was off, but they said nothing. He walked out, passed the metro station, and a weird feeling in the pit of his stomach didn't go down for the train that would take him to school but walked on, until he reached a bus stop.

There he dug out his notes. He'd have to change buses on the way, but other than that, it seemed quite straightforward. It would take nearly three hours to get there. And three hours to get back – that didn't leave him much time. But it had to be enough.

Standing there, eagerly waiting for the bus, he didn't notice the red sports car before it stopped by him. Then, he turned away with a start, feverishly wondering where to hide – but of course it was already too late.

Ogata rolled down the car window. "Morning, Akira-kun. Going somewhere?"

"Ye-yeah," he stuttered, turning back to him. "I've got... some... things to do."

"I thought you had school today," Ogata said, watching the list of the busses that stopped at this stop. "Are the things you've got to do go-related?"

"Yes. Kind of. In a way."

Ogata gave him a long look, and he tried to look normal. How did one look normal? Suddenly he couldn't quite remember. Should he smile? Probably not.

"Do your parents know about your in a way go-related things to do?" Ogata asked, and he bit his lip, not knowing what to say. As he remained silent, Ogata gave a little laugh. "Jump in, kid. I'll give you a ride. C'mon!" He nodded his head demandingly, and not knowing what else to do Akira got in.

"So, where is it you're going?" Ogata asked as he drove away from the bus stop. Akira considered the reply a long while.

"To Kanba town," he finally said.

The look Ogata gave him was honestly astonished. "Kanba? Where is that?"

Silently Akira took out his map and showed him. Ogata stared at the map a long while.

"And why are you going there?" he asked.

"I've got a lead on sai," Akira said levelly.

It was almost worth it, he thought, for the look he got from Ogata then. The car made a little lurch, and quickly turning his attention back to the road the man steered it straight again.

"A lead, huh?" he said, looking at Akira in the corner of his eye. "How good a lead? …must be good enough, if it makes you skip school."

"I hope so," Akira muttered. "It might be false too."

"Well, I did promise you a ride, didn't I?" Ogata mused. "It's a bit longer than I thought, but sure, why not."

As the car sped on, Akira was carefully weighing the pros and cons in his mind. By car the trip would be much faster, that was a definite pro. But he wasn't sure if he wanted to have Ogata with him when he met Shindou. No, in fact he was sure he didn't want to have the man anywhere close by. It would just complicate things, and there was no way to know how Shindou might react.

So, he'd have to somehow get rid of Ogata once they reached the town. Send him somewhere else while he visited–– He suddenly realized something he should have realized much earlier. Shindou had to be at school, didn't he? That might complicate things. But, he reasoned, it was too late to change his mind. There was nothing else to do than to deal with the potential complications as he faced them.



This day Hikaru truly had gone to school as he was supposed to, and had stayed there, too. This was beginning to be more an exception than a rule, to the degree that Hikaru's teacher had already had two meetings with his mother, and most likely would soon have another, if things weren't to change. And they didn't seem to be – Hikaru appeared to be quite deaf to all nagging, begging, threatening and bribing.

Sai followed him around very quietly, not drawing any attention to himself. Recently Hikaru had grown more and more irritable, losing his tempter without a warning, and Sai didn't want to say or do anything that would lead to him leaving school once again, now that he for once was there.

Though little difference it made where he was – Sai could see that the boy wasn't paying any attention at all in the class. Hikaru, he'd whisper when he noticed the boy had no clue what was going on, the teacher asked you the years of the Tokugawa Shogunate. That's… from 1600 to 1868, right?

"1600 to 1868," Hikaru muttered half-heartedly.

"Correct, Shindou-kun," the teacher said, sounding perhaps a little surprised. "Nice to see you're awake."

Hikaru just slumped back down on his desk.

"Hikaru?" During the lunch break, Akari came to him and sat down beside him with hesitant air. She too had apparently come to the same conclusion as Sai and decided it was best to tread carefully around the boy. "Are you coming to the club today?"

Hikaru had, for a while, started attending the club more diligently, but now his interest had faded again. And as it was, if he didn't go to school, he most likely wouldn't be coming to the go club, either.

"I don't know," he stated shortly, watching glumly his untouched food and not her.

"We've got a new member since the last time you were there," Akari went on. "He's a beginner, but still. I thought maybe you'd like to meet him."

Hikaru shrugged. "Maybe." Akari didn't seem to know what to say, so she just leaned back in silence, watching him worriedly.

"I'm probably not coming," he suddenly said, and Akari frowned.

"Why not?" she couldn't help exclaiming. "Hikaru!"

"He's not coming?" someone asked. Hikaru shot an annoyed look up and saw two of the boysin the go club.

"What about it?" he snapped. "I don't have to if I don't want to."

"It's called mandatory club activity, Hikaru," Akari pointed out quietly. No one paid attention to her.

"If you're not coming, that's fine!" the boy went on. He turned to Akari. "If Shindou's not coming, I'll be the new club president."

Akari just sighed. The frown on Hikaru's face deepened. "You? Taking over my club? As if!"

"You can't call it your club if you're never there," Akari put in quietly.

Hikaru shot her a glare. "You're siding with them?"

"I wouldn't want to! But, Hikaru, I seriously don't know what's the matter with you anymore. It's not fair to the others, if their captain never shows up…"

"I never wanted the damn club in the first place! And after I founded it for you, you're kicking me out?"

"If you never wanted it, why don't you just leave!" the boy from the club yelled, leaning across the table to stare Hikaru in the eye. "No one wants you there anyway, water freak, except maybe her. It's not like we needed you for anything!"

Hikaru glared at him over his lunch. Sai's voice was whispering in the back of his mind, telling him to calm down, and breaking the eye contact he took a sip of his water, attempting to do that. And failed. "Think so?" he couldn't help snorting. "I'm a better player than you all put together, and…"

"Who cares! Doesn't matter if you're the best player in the world, we still wouldn't want you in our club! You're just getting freakier all the time, so stay aw…"

"Shut up!" Hikaru's fingers had tightened around his glass, and suddenly his hand moved, throwing the water on the boy's face – except that it wasn't just his hand that did the throwing, but his mind as well. The water hit the boy with strength, knocking him down. A moment every stood in silence, then a girl at the next table screamed.

It didn't take long for two teachers to rush at the place. By then the boy was scrambling back to his feet, helped by his friends, and they had gained quite an audience.

"What is it? What happened?" one of the teacher's exclaimed, while the other hurried to see if the boy was alright.

"Shindou hit him!" one of the students shouted.

"No, he threw water on him!" another corrected.

"Last waterbender, huh…" someone muttered.

"What? Water?" The teachers watched confusedly the boy's wet face.

"Yeah, I saw it!" a first-year girl was saying, a frantic look in her eyes. "He just threw water, and bam! it knocked him down!"

"Don't be stupid," Akari put in hurriedly. "That's just impossible! I was right next to him and I saw it all. Hikaru, why did you hit him like that?"

"If Shindou just hit him," someone muttered, "why does he have bruises all over his face?"

The teachers looked quite at a loss, looking from the boy's bruised face to Hikaru who was sitting quietly by the table and to the other students who were all clearly freaked out. "Well," one of them finally said, "You take Sato-kun to the nurse," he said to the companion, "and you're coming with me, Shindou-kun. We need to figure out what really…"

At that moment the fire sprinklers turned on, and water sprouted on all of them. There was a moment's stunned silence, then the fire alarm went off.

"Right." One of the teachers took a deep breath. "We've had fire drills, you know what do. Everyone, out of here, in order! No running!"

Despite the teachers' orders, something of a chaos ensued, and Hikaru took the chance and slipped away, to his locker, and took his shoes, coat and backpack. Not wanting anyone to see him leaving he headed to a side door and slipped out, unnoticed – by anyone else but Akari.

"Hikaru? Where are you going?" the girl shouted as he started jogging away. Glancing over his shoulder he saw to his annoyance that she was all set to follow him, with her bag and outdoor clothes.

"None of your business," he muttered and went on.

"I really think you should stay here and straighten everything out," Akari said, hurrying after him. "It will only make things worse if you run away."

"Why did you say I hit him?" Hikaru asked, completely ignoring what she was saying. "Didn't you see what happened?"

"Yeah, I did." Akari swallowed. "But it would just cause more trouble, to tell them that. And… did you make the sprinklers turn on? Hikaru? That was just stupid, it will cause even more rumors!"

Hikaru said nothing. Having arrived to a bus stop he stopped to wait for a bus. Akari glanced at his face and seeing his closed expression decided it was best just to follow him quietly for now.



As the car speed toward Kanba, Akira found himself happy he had taken also his school books with him, to read in the bus. Otherwise the ride would have turned quite awkward. Ogata had attempted to find out more about his information, and he had merely said something indefinite about an IP address and then pretended to be studying diligently, and thankfully Ogata had left him in peace. He found it quite impossible to really concentrate on his books, but at least they saved him from trying to keep up a conversation.

When they finally arrived to the town, Ogata drove to a small parking lot (to be exact, it was just sandy square, but as there were a couple of cars there, they figured it probably served as a parking lot) and the car rolled softly to a stop. A moment they just sat in silence, watching out. Then Ogata turned to look at him.

"Are you sure this is the right place?"

"I… think so," Akira said, and opened the door.

Of course, he had known this would be a small place, but it was still surprising to see how small it was. For a boy who had rarely left Tokyo, a town with basically one street and not a single crossing with traffic lights was something nearly incomprehensible.

So.

"How about we separate?" Akira suggested as innocently as he could. "You could talk with adults, and I… I'll try to find some kids. It's easier for me to talk with them if you're not looming over my shoulder," he pointed out, when Ogata gave him a narrow-eyed look.

The man considered this a moment, and nodded then. "Fine. This is a small enough place you shouldn't be able to get lost. Let's meet here in half an hour. Call me if you find anything."

"Sure!" With a nod for goodbye Akira started walking briskly away, hardly daring to believe it could be this easy. After a while he glanced over his shoulder and saw that Ogata had disappeared, most likely entered a small shop, and he paused to think. Should he go to Shindou's school, or try to find his home instead? He wouldn't have wanted to waste any time, but thinking about it, it might be best to check first that he was in the right town, before going to a school looking for a student who didn't exist.

Now, the question was, where in the town was Shindou's home?

An elderly woman was watching him curiously as he passed her by, and he quickly made his mind and turned back to her, asking her the way.

The woman gave a laugh. "Oh dear, that is one of the roads leading here! It's out of town." She paused, thinking. "There are not many people living out there," she went then on. "Have you come to visit the Shindous?"

Akira's heart jumped. "Yes! Their son is a friend of mine."

"Oh? Hikaru-kun?" Akira's heart jumped again. "Interesting. Who knew he had friends outside town, he seems to be such a loner."

"I met him when he was visiting Tokyo," Akira said, deciding to see if he could find out anything else from the woman. "We played some go, but he had to leave quite hastily."

"Go?" The woman's look was genuinely surprised. "I wouldn't have believed that boy would… though he surely is strange enough…" She paused, a little embarrassed, seeming to suddenly remember she was talking to a friend of Hikaru's.

"You didn't know he plays go?" Akira said, curious. Did Shindou hide his skills so completely?

"Oh, I don't know much about him, after all. One just… hears things… This is a small town, you know. Everyone knows everyone's business." She gave him a wink, and Akira smiled politedly.

"Thank you," he said with a little bow. "You've been very helpful. But, actually, I think he must be at school now, so maybe I could go to see him there. Could you tell me where the middle school is?"

The woman laughed out loud again, and explained then that this was a too small place for a middle school. "We only have an elementary school," she said. "The children go to the middle school in the next town."

This was another complication he hadn't foreseen. He thanked the woman again, and wondered what to do. Ask Ogata to drive him to the next town? Find a bus and go there by himself? He had noticed a bus station – one so small he wasn't sure if 'station' really was the correct word– when they drove through the town, but… He didn't even know how long the bus trip would take. He imagined Ogata having to call his parents and tell them he had lost their son in a small town in the middle of nowhere, and decided it was most likely best to avoid that scene. Ogata would not forgive him easily, and neither would his parents.

Besides, given the size of the village, there was a great possibility of Ogata once again spotting him waiting for a bus. That would be difficult to explain.

Even so his feet carried him to the bus stop. As he stood there, trying to make his mind, a bus arrived and emptied its few passengers on the street. He was so deep in thought he almost didn't notice anything, but suddenly bright yellow bangs registered in his mind.

"Shindou!" he exclaimed, and the boy turned to look.

It really was him. Akira couldn't quite believe his luck – were school days this short in the countryside? "Shindou," he repeated more calmly, and walked to the boy. "I told you I'd find you, didn't I?"

Hikaru was just staring at him, face frozen. He shifted from foot to foot, waiting for the boy say something, but nothing happened.

"Hikaru? Who is this?" someone finally broke the silence – a girl standing behind Hikaru's back.

"No one," Hikaru stated shortly and turned on his heels. Akira blinked at his back.

"What do you mean, no one? Shindou!" He rushed after the boy, and grasping his arm spun him around. "How can you say so? I… I know I'm not on your level, but didn't you enjoy our games at all?"

Hikaru stood very still, eyes closed. Then he wrenched his arm free. "That's beyond the point," he muttered. "Get lost. What are you doing here in the first place?"

"What am I doing here?!" Akira exclaimed in annoyance. "What'd you think! And do you really imagine I'd come all this way just to leave cause you say so?"

"Whatever." Hikaru went on, hands in his pockets, not bothering even to look at Akira. Akira glared at his back, but the other didn't turn back. He opened his mouth, but considered then, remembering the girl. Glancing at her he saw she was watching him curiously, and he nodded his head to her.

"I'm Touya Akira," he said. "I met Shindou-kun a bit over a year ago, around the new year, when they were in Tokyo."

"Fujisaki Akari," the girl said, and hesitated then, clearly somewhat at a loss.

"Have you known Shindou-kun for long?" Akira asked. She nodded.

"All my life." She looked after Hikaru, who was still walking briskly away. "I'm sorry, I have to go," she said suddenly, and started hurrying after him.

"Wait!" Akira said quietly after her. "Is something wrong? Why aren't you two at school?"

Akari glanced back at him. "No, nothing's wrong, it's just… just that… well, there was a fire alarm at school, so…" Her voice trailed off.

"A fire alarm?" Akira said, surprised.

"Yeah." She seemed quite ill at ease. "It was false though... but… I have to go," she finished suddenly and ran off.

Akira stood still a moment, wondering, and then hurried after her. Akari had almost reached Hikaru, but curiously remained behind him, following him instead of walking by his side. Akira caught up with her, more and more certain that something strange was going on. After a short hesitation he whispered to Akari, very, very quietly so that Hikaru surely wouldn't hear him, "Is there something wrong with him?"

"What?" Akari exclaimed. "Of course not!" Something in the forcefulness of her exclamation made Akira wonder just how true it was.

"I was just wondering," Akira said, in a pacifying tone. "When we met in Tokyo, we started playing a game of go, and then he suddenly panicked and ran away." He raised his voice. "Why did you, Shindou? Ran away like that? What were you afraid of?"

"I wasn't afraid of anything!" Hikaru snapped, shooting a glare over his shoulder.

Akira smiled. "So you admit that we've met?"

Hikaru paused. "I never said that we hadn't," he muttered then.

"Do you also admit that you're sai?"

Finally Hikaru turned back to him, giving him a look he couldn't figure out. "You're awfully stubborn," the boy stated dryly. "But just stop. It doesn't matter who I am. I'm not going to play with you again, anyway."

"Who is Sai?" Akari asked, confused, but they didn't even hear her question.

"But… why?!" Akira exclaimed, not believing his ears. "We… you… that is, I mean… why…?"

"Because I don't want to!" Hikaru was suddenly yelling. "I don't want to play you or her or anyone else ever again, got that?! …and you be quiet too!" he added, nearly in a scream.

"What…" Akira blinked at him. Who was he talking to? He felt a moment of disquiet, wondering again about his theory of sai's potential mental problems. "Shindou," he said. "I don't know what's wrong, but if there is any way, I want to help you. You're such an amazing player, and… you shouldn't be confined into the shadows. Even my father wants to play with you again! Please let me help you!"

"What makes you think I need – or want – your help?" Hikaru muttered under his breath. "I just want you to go away and leave me in peace!"

Akira opened his mouth and then closed it, not knowing what to say. "Just go away," Hikaru muttered again and turned to go, and unable to decide what to do Akira just stood watching after him.

Akari gave him a hesitant glance but left then after Hikaru. She hadn't taken many steps when the boy suddenly spun around.

"And why are you following me? I want you both leave me alone already!" he yelled, and Akari paused mid-step, looking startled.

"What is the matter with him?" Akira asked when Hikaru disappeared behind a corner.

"I don't know," Akari sighed. "He's… been changing. He used to be so happy and carefree, but now… day after day he seems somehow more and more… angry. Misbalanced. Something." She looked at Akira. "So, tell me again, who are you and why are you here?"

Akira did, explaining to her everything about his meeting with Hikaru, and about the incredibly strong net go player, sai. "Have you ever heard that name?" he asked, hopeful, but Akari shook her head with a frown.

"It doesn't sound familiar. But… I know Hikaru is quite a strong player. I'm not sure how strong… I guess I'm not good enough myself to really figure it out. And I know he plays net go – his mom is complaining about him spending too much time online. Or was – he apparently hasn't been playing that much recently."

"Just like sai," Akira breathed. "It must be him! But if he's so good, the best player in the whole world, why is he hiding in this village?"

Akari laughed out loud. "Best player in the world? Hikaru?"

"Yes," Akira said solemnly, watching her into the eyes. "He won against my father, and my father is, or was, in general consider the world's best go-player."

"Oh." Akari quieted. "Are you quite sure it was Hikaru…?"

"Yes," Akira repeated with emphasis. "Now, if I only could figure out what's going on… are you sure he doesn't – I'm sorry to ask this, and I don't mean any offense – have any… you know, condition?"

Akari was quiet. "Depends on what you mean by condition," she said then. "It's… I, I'm sorry. I promised not to tell anyone," she finished, staring at the ground.

"But there is something, then," Akira mused. "Is it something… psychiatric?"

"You mean, is he crazy?" Akari smiled a little wryly. "Most people would probably think he is, if he tried to tell them the truth. It's just too weird to be true. But… I know it is true. And maybe it's what is behind all this…"

She looked at Akira, tightlipped and eyes serious. "You said you wanted to help him? Can you?"

"It would be easier if he let me," Akira said with a sigh. "But I will definitely try."

"Then we need to find him," Akari said firmly, and they hurried into the direction Hikaru had gone.



Hikaru?

Sai's voice was very quiet, hesitant. A moment Hikaru ignored it, but then he stopped, sighing.

What?

Why did you say that? About not wanting to play with anyone? You didn't mean that, did you?

Hikaru sighed again. "I don't know. I'm just… tired of this all." He had left the town, following a small path into the forest. Now he sat down on a stone, head bent, hands lying listlessly in his lap.

I can understand that, Sai said gently. So, shouldn't you try to do something about it all? That boy, Touya Akira… maybe he really could help you.

Hikaru just snorted at that.

Maybe he could! Sai insisted. You know, I was there every time you played with him. I know what you felt then. You shouldn't drive him away.

"I don't know," Hikaru repeated. "Okay, so it was fun playing with him. But somehow, I just… I don't… I guess I want more challenge than he can give me."

Sai said nothing, and for a while they sat in silence. When Hikaru finally broke it, his voice was very soft.

"I've been thinking… that maybe, maybe we really aren't meant to live like this." He raised his hands to his face, watching the strange web between his fingers. "With a physical body. You said we're children of water, and… water is free, isn't it?"

Sai remained quiet, so very still Hikaru could barely sense him. The boy smiled a little. "Sai, maybe it's time," he said, and stood up.



Akira's phone rang, and he grimaced. "Sorry, Ogata-san," he said into it. "I… kind of, maybe got a track and didn't realize what time it is. I… no, I'm not sure, but… well, I guess we could. What? …no, no, just, umm, someone I was talking with and she, umm, she knows the town, and, and… yeah, we're coming."

"What is it?" Akari asked when he ended the call.

"Oh, I'm… I'm here with someone," Akira said, trying to make his mind. How much he'd tell Ogata? He wasn't sure why, but for some reason he didn't yet want to mention Shindou to him. "Okay, let's go. And… don't say anything about Shindou yet, okay?"

Akari nodded, though she looked a little confused. They started walking toward the place where Ogata was waiting for them, both deep in their thoughts. It was only by chance Akari happened to glance at a minibus that drove by them, and she froze on the spot.

"Hikaru!" she exclaimed, and Akira too stopped.

"What, where?"

"The bus!" Akari took a few running steps after it, but the bus was already too far away. "Why is he…" She paused. "That bus," she said then, a panicky edge in her voice. "It goes by the river." By that beach where she once had been sure she had lost Hikaru for good.

"Are you sure he was in there?" Akira asked.

"How many boys with yellow bangs you think there are in this town!" she exclaimed, turning to him. "We need to go after him!"

"Why?" Akira was watching her wonderingly. "I mean, of course, I want to meet him again, but why are you so frightened?"

"If… if he's going to the river… he almost, kind of… drowned there once, and… and if he's going there now, I…"

Akira stared at her a moment and dashed then off.

"Ogata!" he was shouting already from far away. "Get the car going!"

The man had been leaning against his car with a cigarette in his hand. Now he straightened and watched in astonishment the two children running toward him.

"Hurry!" Akira yelled, and he dropped the cigarette and went into the car. The car's engine started purring the moment Akira and Akari rushed into it too.

"What is it?" Ogata asked.

"The bus," Akira panted. "We need to catch it!"

Ogata bit back a sigh and forced his voice calm. "What bus?"

"The one that, that…" Akira glanced at Akari on the backseat.

"Go that way," the girl said, pointing, and Ogata started driving.

"Why are we chasing a bus?" he said, some annoyance in his voice, and Akira figured it was best to make sure he'd be serious about catching it.

"Because sai might be on it," he said.

Ogata gave him one look and stepped on the gas. On the backseat Akari quickly attached the seatbelt, only now giving a wondering look at the sports car's shiny inside, and the spotless white suit of the man who drove it.

"Wow," she breathed quietly.



Unsurprisingly, all the way to the shore Sai tried to talk Hikaru out of it.

You can't leave like this, was his last retort. Imagine how everyone's going to feel when they don't know where you are!

I'll leave my things on the shore, Hikaru told him calmly. They'll figure it out. I mean, who goes to swim in February?

Yes, but… Sai attempted as Hikaru stepped out of the bus. But it's…

"Let it be," Hikaru said. "You won't turn my head. Besides," he added with a smile, "don't you think we're going to have fun? Now I too can visit all those places you've told me about! And what's the big deal, anyway? You did the same, and you were younger than me!"

I had no one left in the world, Sai pointed out. Hikaru, you…

"What, don't you want to have me as company anymore?"

It's not that, you know it! I now we're going to have great time. But… there are so many people who will mourn you.

I know. Hikaru walked down the path that led to the beach, now abandoned. He paused for a moment, remembering that summer day when the place had been full of people. It can't be helped.

He walked to the water's edge and crouched down, watching it. Carefully he reached out and dipped his fingers. The water was cold, but that didn't matter; for him it was still as welcoming as ever. The call traveled from his fingers and arm down his spine, and he shivered.

Hikaru…

His thoughts wandered, on that summer day and Akari, on his parents and the trip to Tokyo, and paused on that guy. Touya.

"It would have been fun to play with him one more time…" he said, as if thinking to himself, and Sai heaved out a great sigh.

Yes. And you should. You should play with him again – and not just once.

Hikaru was shaking his head. He lowered his backpack on the ground and started unzipping his coat, with one cautious glance around to confirm that there was no one around.

I told you about Torajiro and how he died, didn't I? Sai said suddenly and Hikaru paused.

"Yeah," he said. "But don't worry, I'm not going to die. I'll just do the same as you did."

I'm not sure if Torajiro meant to die, either… Sai said quietly. Hikaru frowned.

"Look, if you think you can scare me off, you…"

No. That's not what I meant. I think Torajiro tried to get rid of the water, then. And he managed, somehow. But the water, Sai's voice was but a whisper, the water is jealous, It didn't let him go, not just like that. I told him, like I told you… no one controls water.

"What are you talking about?" Hikaru muttered, the frown still on his face.

Torajiro had a family. A little daughter he loved very dearly. I can't believe he would have chosen to leave them like that. I think he went to the river to give away his heritage, and he did it, but… but the water…

"…why are you telling me this?"

I'm trying to tell you that you've got options. You're right, at the moment you're caught between two worlds, and you can't live like this. But it's not necessarily this world you need to give up.

Hikaru sat on the shore, right at the water's edge, very quiet and still. He heard the water's murmur in his ears, constant and calling, flowing through him as if his body already was without substance.

But he heard other things, too, familiar voices; his mother wishing him good night, Akari whining when he teased her, and… the quiet snap of the stone against wood, that brought to his mind his one and only face-to-face game with Touya.

I would have wanted to finish that game…

Breathing hard, he covered his face with his hands. Sai? If I do that… doesn't that mean that you… you'll be gone from me? That I won't sense you at all anymore?

Most likely. Sai's voice was very gentle. But, Hikaru, I will still be there, always. I promise.

Hikaru said nothing, just drew in a shaky breath. A few tears rolled down his face as he looked up. I can't. I don't want to lose you. Besides, it's too dangerous! You said yourself, Torajiro died! I don't want to die too…

Torajiro was very foolish to attempt it on his own, Sai said, strictly. I wish he had told me. I wonder why he didn't… maybe he thought I'd try to stop him? If I had been there, maybe he would have survived.

Hikaru remained quiet, staring into the water without truly seeing it.

Hikaru. Give me your hands.

"What?" The boy glanced around, startled. "My hands? How?"

Here, in the water, Sai said, and Hikaru looked down again, realizing Sai's voice did appear to be coming from there.

Hesitantly he put his hands into the water, shivering again, and not because of the cold. Suddenly he found himself unable to think, unable to make his mind. All the decisions… so hard. Why couldn't he just be?

Hikaru, Sai whispered to him. What do you want? Think about what you want.

He blinked, and tried to do so, but focusing was hard. What did he want? What had he ever wanted? He couldn't remember.

Think, Hikaru, Sai whispered. The sun on your skin, and Akari's laughter, and your mother's cooking… and the life waiting for you, everything you can yet have. Love, and a family of your own. And remember go… a go stone in your hand, how does it feel? Do you remember? Don't you want to feel it again? If you let water take you, you will never play with Touya again.

If I let the world take me, I'll never play with you again, Hikaru thought, and felt tears rolling down his face again.

And suddenly he was in the water, surrounded by it, caressed, supported, and the tears disappeared, just a few drops among so many. But there was something holding him, someone, a tight grip of his hands, and he couldn't pull himself free.

Think, Hikaru! The sun and the grass, the air in your lungs! Your family, and Touya, and Akari too! Stand up, stand up now! You can do it – you did it once before! Just pull yourself away! Pull!

And Hikaru pulled, as hard as he could, though he couldn't quite understand what he was doing. He could feel someone pushing – and something pulling to the opposite direction – and he kicked with his feet, attempting to find the ground, and failing.

How was that possible, hadn't he just been on the shore? He kicked again, in vain. Concentrate, Hikaru, concentrate, someone was whispering. You can do it!

Strange images flashed through his mind, of watery deeps and quiet pools, places he had never seen, but among them were also other images, these ones familiar, little snippets of everyday life. He let them flow by, not focusing on anything, but then a game flashed in his eyes, moves following each other in a sequence he would remember even in his dreams, and he latched onto that memory, starting to replay the game in his mind. Move after move he went through it, until he finally reached the last one – but the game, the game wasn't finished.

I need to play it to the end, he thought. His feet kicked again, and hit something hard this time, and then he was surging up, up, toward sunlight and air, and suddenly the grip of his hands loosened and he lay on the ground on his back, panting and shivering, wet to the bone.

Slowly he gathered himself on his knees, watching the river. Something, he realized, was missing, something that was much more than just Sai, but he couldn't quite decipher what it was.

"Hikaru!"

The yell was weak in his ears, and he didn't react, didn't understand it somehow concerned him.

"Shindou!" someone else shouted, and he twitched.

Suddenly there were people around him, two panicking voices and hands that placed a coat on his shoulders.

"Hikaru!" someone was wailing and hugging him. "Thank god you're okay!"

"What did you think you were doing, Shindou!" someone else exclaimed, sheer anger in the voice. "What kind of a stupid stunt this was!"

"We need to get him into the car," a strange voice said. "Hey, kid, can you stand?"

Hikaru took a breath. He looked at the faces around him, his eyes slowly focusing on that of a familiar-looking boy.

"Sai's gone," he whispered. The boy blinked, but placed then a hand on his shoulder.

"It's okay, Shindou," he said more calmly. "You're alright, that's what matters."

"No." He was shaking his head. "You… you don't get it! Sai's gone!" And to the astonishment of the three around him, he burst into tears.

It was only when they were leading the shaking boy into the car that Akari's eyes fell on his hands. "Hikaru!" he breathed, and took a hold of them. "What happened?"

The web between the fingers was gone. There were only ragged shreds hanging from his fingers, and some of them came off when she touched them. Hikaru too looked at his hands, but couldn't answer her question as he himself couldn't at the moment remember just what his hands should have looked like.



It took Hikaru weeks to completely recover from what had happened by the river, and much longer before he lost the gloomy look in his eyes. Akira had to return to Tokyo, and after a couple of days Hikaru too traveled there with his mother. They went there to get Hikaru medically examined, but Akira asked them to let Hikaru remain there longer, so that they could meet daily. Hikaru's parents couldn't quite understand who this boy was and how he had entered their son's life, but they saw that his presence seemed to ease Hikaru's mind, and so they agreed.

Hikaru and Akira played go almost daily, but to his great astonishment Akira came to realize that Hikaru's game was nothing like it used to be. No, that wasn't quite true – his style was still familiar, but now he needed many handicap stones to somehow survive against Akira. It truly seemed like 'sai' was gone.

But, Akira thought to himself, perhaps he would someday come back, and he kept on playing teaching games with Hikaru.

After his medical leave Hikaru returned to his childhood home for a short while, to finish the school year, after which he and his mother moved to Tokyo and he was enrolled in the Haze Middle School. Next autumn he joined the insei, and a year later passed the pro exam. His go skills didn't return to that incredible level they had once had, but he did reach Akira, playing on par with his friend and rival for years to come.

As time passed, strange rumors started circulating about Shindou Kisei. For one thing, they said he never lost on a day when it rained. Akira smiled at that; he knew it wasn't true. (Then again, he had to admit that Hikaru had played his best games on rainy days. That, of course, had to be a coincidence.) He thought that the rumor possibly had something to do with the infuriating habit Hikaru had never to use an umbrella, no matter how hard it rained – once he had appeared at a title match completely drenched. Time and time again he attempted to give Hikaru umbrellas, but it was futile.

"I won't let you to separate me from Sai that completely," Hikaru would tell him in that maddeningly mysterious way of his, refuse the umbrella, and keep on walking in the rain with the water flowing freely down his face, a strange smile on his lips.




...when I started writing the Hikaru part of this fic I was wondering where to place it. I knew it would have to be outside Tokyo, preferably a very small place, but still not too far away. My image about Japan is very densely populated, and I wondered how small towns there would be near Tokyo. I did some research on wikipedia and on Google maps, and this led me to a small town called Kanna, which has been my model for this "Kanba" town. (Kanba is a combination of Kanna and Manba, which is the name of an elementary school there.) Even so, any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. :p

Anyways, here you see the result of too much procrastination. It just suddenly struck me how badly Ogata and his car would stand out there. xD

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May 2016

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