Brightly Burning

by aishuu

Chapter Thirteen: Searching for the Rainbow's End

Yashirou spent the evening pouring over the scant records of Shindou's matches – he was only able to locate less than ten. Thankfully his hotel had Internet access, or else he wouldn't have had even those kifu to study.

The only official game – his Shin Shodan match against Ogata – had showed a talented, yet ultimately normal, young professional. Had that been the only one Yashirou had seen, he would have felt confident that he could play on Shindou's level, but there were several unofficial records that were worrisome.

It was becoming vogue for web sites to collect "unofficial" records of games. Kifu collecting had always been a hobby for some, but with the advent of the Internet, there was a certain prestige to be gained by being among the top collectors. Several – usually retired old men with nothing better to do – made a point of attending every tournament possible to offer their recordings. Even a couple of the lower-ranked pros (the ones who knew how to use a computer, since the older pros tended to be in the Dark Ages, technologically speaking) liked to post records of all their matches.

Those records were the ones Yashirou found when he searched for Shindou Hikaru's name at several of the online databases. There were kifu of matches he'd played as an insei against his classmates, along with a couple of the games he'd played during the pro exam. Most worrisome was his only other "official" game, written down in an informal kifu. Apparently Shindou had played in the final round of the Young Lions Tournament last year, and nearly won. He'd gone head-to-head against Touya Akira, and almost claimed victory.

Touya Akira was the baseline every aspiring professional and lower dan used as the benchmark to measure their skills. Yashirou had spent hours studying Touya's kifu, and had been impressed at the brilliance of his play. The game he'd played a year ago against Shindou was up to his usual exacting standards – and Shindou had matched him, hand for hand.

Well, crap.

Yashirou studied the game, looking for some sign of weakness, an obvious flaw that would render Shindou beatable. Every pro, especially low-ranking ones, had problems they needed to work on in their styles. It took years – decades – to become a true master of Go.

The problem was he couldn't see anything... but there were few games which had been played through to the end. Such was Shindou's strength that he overwhelmed his opponents and forced resignations consistently.

And there might be the key Yashirou had been searching for. If he could bring the game into yose, there would be a chance that Shindou would slip-up. Shindou might just be one of those players who was weak in the end stages. It wasn't like the teenager was the incarnation of the God of Go.

He wished he had a printer, so he could make copies of some of the unofficial kifu to study. Shindou played interesting hands, and didn't shy away from nouveau concepts, although much of his style was based on older joseki. So instead he popped open a can of juice and studied his laptop screen until his eyes were ready to cross. He forced himself to go to bed at midnight, knowing he'd need to let his mind idle before playing the qualification match.

Yashirou knew he would dream about go that night. Sometimes his best ideas came while he slept, and if he won black, he'd be able to have a game plan in place. He had the feeling he was going to need it.

It must have been the day of a blue moon, because when Waya arrived at the Institute for the second day of qualifiers, Shindou was already there. He sat comfortably against a wall in the meeting room, idly switching his paper fan back and forth between hands. To calm his own nerves – playing Ochi for a seat would be challenging – Waya decided a game of Shindou-baiting was in order. Light-hearted teasing would help steady him, and maybe even make Shindou laugh.

"Yo, Shindou! I was talking to Akari last night, and she told me the most interesting thing!" he came over and clapped his friend on the shoulder, offering a slightly lecherous grin.

Shindou's expression was appropriately wary. "What?"

Waya tried not to snicker to himself noticeably. It was obvious his girlfriend knew plenty of embarrassing material about Shindou; one day he needed to convince her to write a list of potential topics down. "She told me that the first time you saw a goban, you fainted."

Okay, that was maybe stretching the truth a little bit. Akari had absentmindedly related the incident after sighting an antique goban in a pawn-shop when they'd gone shopping the evening before. Waya, who knew a player needed relaxation time to keep from over stretching himself, had agreed to an evening of whatever she'd wanted to do. To his surprise, shopping had been fun since Akari was willing to go into any store (including the video game store), and didn't demand that he carry all her bags.

They'd wandered down a narrow street with specialty stores, and Akari had wanted to examine some antiques to find a potential birthday gift for her mother. Waya had followed, and been impressed by a small selection of Go-related goods, especially a go set that was over one hundred years old.

The old goban had been a treasure, and Akari had been the one to have to drag him away, since it was outside his current budget. He was thinking about putting it on reserve, since he really wanted a quality board. There was something different about the older gobans, a slightly darker shade of wood and tiny flaws in the hand-painted lines. Waya knew some of the older professionals vastly preferred them to the mass-marketed ones put out.

It was a thought for a later time, maybe if he won his way into the Hokuto Cup. Right now, he was going to tease Shindou with the newly discovered gem of information. He mimed fainting, putting the back of his hand against his forehead and pretending to swoon. "Catch me, catch me!" he said in a high, quavering voice.

Shindou looked at him, his face tight. "Waya, it's really not funny."

"I'm just joking with you, Shindou," he said, winking.

"I don't want to think about that," Shindou replied tersely. He turned his head away, looking at the official schedule on the wall. There was no need to, since today was basically a repeat of yesterday's qualifiers.

For Waya, it was like getting a door slammed in his face. He still remembered the damage he had done their friendship, back when he had begged Shindou to let Honda win at the pro qualifier exam. He had thought they'd repaired their friendship enough for playful teasing to be allowed, but apparently he'd just struck another nerve in Shindou's unpredictable psyche.

But if Shindou couldn't take some good-natured teasing, it wasn't Waya's fault. It wasn't like he was trying to hurt his friend. Friends teased each other; it was part of the give-and-take needed for a relationship.

"Look, Shindou... sometimes I think I'm walking on a minefield with you. I don't mean to offend you, but I have no clue that I'm stepping on a mine until after you blow up at me. I sometimes wonder why there isn't a Shindou Hikaru Instruction Manual to help stupid idiots like me avoid that." He spoke so rapidly that his words were tripping over each other, but he was frustrated.

And maybe he was being a bit on the sarcastic side. But it was either speak honestly now, or punch Shindou from sheer frustration the next time Shindou went off without warning.

Shindou looked stunned, like he had been hit over the head by something much harder than a Go Weekly issue. "I don't mean to be like this..." he said softly, much to Waya's surprise. "I don't know what's going to set me off until I hear it."

For the first time, he was opening up to Waya, and it couldn't have been at a worse moment. Waya had known that there was something wrong with Shindou, some kind of deep-seated pain that stemmed from the very heart of his Go, and it was right before one of the most important matches of their careers. They didn't have time to discuss it now.

"Shindou... after this game, how about we go out to dinner and talk about this," Waya said. "I'm your friend, and I want to be able to help you."

Shindou's eyes were suspiciously glassy, carrying an extra sheen from suppressed tears. "I know," he said softly. "It's... well, it's hard to talk about."

"If you don't talk about what's bothering you, it'll just get worse," Waya said. "Keeping things to yourself only makes you miserable."

Shindou took a breath, and for a second Waya thought he was going to refuse. "Sure," he said. "If one of us doesn't qualify, that person picks up the check."

Waya scowled, knowing Shindou was much more likely to win. "Fine," he grumbled. "And that includes paying for Touya, since I think we should invite him. He said he'd be here at the end of the tournament to see if we qualified. He's at a festival in Yokohama today, so he's going to be running a bit late."

"That'll be nice," Shindou said. "I'm sure he'll have some interesting insights into our games."

Again, Waya had to refrain from hitting Shindou for fear of causing yet more brain damage to that bleach-soaked head of his. Touya wasn't interested in discussing this match; he was hoping to talk about the Hokuto Cup.

He was saved from the temptation by the sound of the elevator door opening, and the arrival of the Kansai professional Yashirou.

Yashirou slouched out of the elevator, slumping slightly in the manner of a true teenager. He looked around, before coming to stand next to Shindou.

"Thanks for yesterday, Shindou-san," he said. "I can't wait to see what kind of game you play against me today – I've heard you're pretty good."

"Ah, yes," Shindou said, stammering slightly. His eyes were a bit wide, and Waya instantly picked up the problem.

"You already forgot his name, didn't you?" Waya asked with exasperation.

"Eh-heh," Shindou chuckled, putting his hand behind his head. "I didn't think I'd need to remember it!"

Whap! Waya cuffed him upside the head lightly, finally giving into the urge to try to smack some sense into him. And it also served to help him feel more natural with Shindou. "It's a wonder you remember your own name!"

Yashirou raised an eyebrow. "It's Yashirou Kiyoharu," he said neutrally, not sure if he was offended or not.

"Nice to meet you. Again, I mean. I'm Shindou Hikaru," he replied.

"I know." The deadpan delivery was perfect, making a subtle jab. He had greeted Shindou by name, after all.

Waya raised his eyebrow, finding he liked this new professional. "I'm Waya Yoshitaka," he said, not wanting to be left out.

"Nice to meet you, too. You're playing in the other match, right? Maybe we'll be teammates," Yashirou said.

Waya almost felt sorry for him. The poor guy didn't stand a chance again Shindou – with the exception of Touya Akira, there was no one in their age group who would be able to put up a good enough fight.

Yashirou settled into seiza across from the goban he and Shindou had been assigned. One of the tournament officials was going over the rules, but since there had been no change from this round to the last, he allowed himself the opportunity to study his opponent.

Shindou sat comfortably, with his legs crossed, his face intent on the empty lines running over the kaya. It was a sign that whoever Shindou's primary teacher had been was likely younger – all of the older masters tried to instill the strict discipline of traditional posture, but the younger ones focused more on getting their students to play first. Go wasn't that popular with youth, and younger masters understood that accommodations had to be made for the video game generation.

The little sidetracks his mind followed could have been counterproductive under different circumstances, but it served to relax him. They were natural, and helped put this match into perspective; it was important, since he desperately wanted to join the Hokuto Cup team. He planned on shaking up the Go world, but first he needed a stage to act from.

Finally the official declared the matches ready to begin, and the players performed nigiri. Shindou won black, making Yashirou wince a bit inside. Even with the 5.5 komi, he would be at a disadvantage if Shindou was anywhere near as good as rumor claimed. Even if he had wanted to start with a startling opening – and he wasn't sure he did, not against someone like Shindou – that option wasn't available now.

Dipping his head in acknowledgment of his opponent, he murmured the traditional words of challenge before waiting for Shindou's first hand.

Shindou didn't need to think at all, pressing his first stone into the 5-5 spot, an unusually deep move for a game to begin on. Yashirou smiled, and mirrored the move on the other side of the board. And then there was no time to be amused or to be intimidated, because Shindou was replying, and in this kind of game a player needed all his focus to avoid getting trounced.

On the periphery of his awareness, he sensed the ebb and flow of observers around the board, as match officials and fellow professionals stole peeks at their game. But that was secondary to the game Shindou was helping him create, an annoyance he dismissed as unimportant as they began a live-or-die fight for the upper right.

Shindou Hikaru was talented, pressing Yashirou passed his previous limits. The games he'd played in the pro exam were nothing compared to what Shindou was showing him; he wasn't afraid of Yashirou's daring hands, and always came up with a reply promptly. Moreover, he was playing some fairly outrageous, but amazingly deep, hands himself.

But there were times, brief moments, when Yashirou wondered how much attention Shindou was really paying to him. Every now and then, the other professional would hesitate for a brief moment. Once Yashirou caught the blond pro shaking his head, like he was trying to dismiss another thought. Yashirou had seen this kind of distraction in other players, usually when their personal lives were under crisis. The inability to forget other problems might create a weakness, if Yashirou could see and exploit it.

A large knight's move from Shindou made Yashirou frown slightly, thinking that a smaller one would have been a better play, since it offered a larger opening, but if he could secure the lower left... his eyes darted over the board, trying to decide how to press his attack.

There! A part of him wondered if it was a trap, but he didn't have any other option but to take it. He laid the stone down firmly, not willing to show his wariness in front of this opponent.

Shindou inhaled softly, a sound that Yashirou would have missed, had he not been paying close attention. His move had changed the flow of the game, which up until then Shindou had been controlling. The shift was minute, but in a game this tightly contested, Shindou would have to do something drastic to take back the lead.

Yashirou could feel his heart threatening to pound its way free of his chest; Go like this was intense, both mentally and physically taxing. Go like this was why Yashirou played in the first place, pushing his limits and seeking to improve his game.

He was going to win, he told himself.

Then they entered the end game, fighting for every moku there was. Yose was something Yashirou knew as well as the back of his own hands, and it went as expected. As Shindou placed the final stone in the board, Yashirou thought that win or lose, it was the best game he'd ever played.

They shifted the stones so they could count territory. It was a complicated game, and it wasn't immediately obvious who won. But after counting it up, there was no denying the final result.

Yashirou looked at the board, and realized he'd won. He slumped in his seat, feeling like he'd just crossed the finish line of a marathon. If games like this awaited him as a professional, Yashirou didn't regret his decision to pursue Go as a career. It was worth the fights with his parents, worth all the sacrifices he had made.

The observers burst into comment, several of them calling their congratulations to Yashirou. He managed a relieved smile. Feeling parched, he reached over to take a drink of the cold tea that sat to his left, since he knew people would want to discuss the complicated game. Yashirou owed Shindou his thanks, and his condolences, he thought, turning his attention to his vanquished opponent.

Shindou's head hung low, his bleached bangs blocking his eyes. Yashirou wondered if he was crying, but after taking several deep breaths, Shindou lifted his head. His eyes were blank, void of any kind of emotion.

"Thank you for the game," Shindou said, before pushing himself to his feet and leaving the room, not waiting for a post-game discussion.

Yashirou watched him go, knowing that winning this game had proven – to himself, and hopefully to his parents – that he had what it took to compete with the best. He couldn't help but think Shindou was a poor sport for making such a hasty exit, but he could understand. While Yashirou had proven himself, Shindou had just crashed and burned spectacularly.

Amano was relieved to see Ishinami in the office when he returned, since he wanted to discuss the results. It had been a shocker for him, but on reflection he couldn't say it was entirely unexpected. While Shindou had amassed an impressive number of wins as an insei, that meant nothing now that he was officially a pro.

Ishinami was tweaking an intern's copy, muttering to himself about the way "kids these days" wrote. Looking up, the older man pushed his reading glasses back on his forehead and gestured for Amano to sit. "So it's Waya and Yashirou? What happened? I thought Shindou was supposed to cruise through."

He wasn't surprised Ishinami already knew the results. Kosemura had likely come back immediately to talk about it. The younger reporter had talent as a writer, but was still very excitable and lacked discretion. It would be a while before any truly important assignment was given into his hands.

"He should have," Amano said. "From all accounts Yashirou-shodan is good, but he's not on Touya Akira's level... and since Shindou managed to play nearly evenly with young Touya at last year's Young Lion's tournament, Shindou should have won. I would've bet on it, but..."

"But that's why we actually bother to play games," Ishinami said reasonably. "If we already knew how things would fall out, life – and Go – would be boring. It's when the unexpected happens that makes the game worth playing."

"That's very nice philosophy, Ishinami-san, but I'd rather figure out why it happened," said Amano.

Ishinami put the pen and print-out down – he, like Amano, preferred to work from hard copies whenever possible – and straightened in his chair. With a gesture of his hand, he indicated that Amano should make himself comfortable.

Amano sat down, digging into his shirt pocket for a cigar, feeling a need for a nicotine hit. After lighting up, he inhaled deeply, feeling the tension in his shoulders start to relax. He should know now not to get emotionally invested in the story, but it was inevitable. He'd thought he'd seen the future of Go in Shindou's talent, but now wasn't so sure.

"Tell me why this is bothering you so much," Ishinami ordered.

"I'm disappointed," Amano admitted. "Shindou's brilliant, but he doesn't seem to do well when under pressure. So far the only games he's lost are the ones that count. And he's lost all of his major matches – the one against Ogata, the one against young Touya, and now the qualifier for the Hokuto Cup."

"So he's fragile?"

"Is there any other excuse?"

"Maybe he just hasn't accepted his own strength," Ishinami said, scratching his chin in an inscrutable way.

"What do you mean by that?"

Ishinami leaned forward slightly. "Tell me, what's Touya Kouyo's biggest problem?"

The question was ridiculous, Amano couldn't help thinking. Touya Kouyo was the undisputed reigning king of Japanese Go, currently holding four titles and due to challenge for a fifth. His understanding of the game was surpassed by no one, and he had no rival.

"If I could tell you that, I'd be challenging for the Meijin title, not covering the games," Amano said glibly, adjusting his glasses.

"Just because you can recognize someone's weaknesses doesn't mean you'll have the power to take advantage of them," Ishinami scolded gently. Amano squirmed uncomfortably in his seat, and wondered how his boss was still able to make him feel like an errant teenager. "Touya Meijin's weakness is fairly obvious, if you think on it."

Amano wondered if this was going to be one of those discussions where he was left with "homework," offered tantalizing clues that he needed to put together himself. He racked his brain, trying to understand what Ishinami was getting at, and failing. "Touya Meijin is without peer," he said finally. "I don't see how he can have any obvious flaw."

Ishinami gave a slight smile. "That's just it. The God of Go must be lonely, don't you think? Without a rival, there's no way for him to ever reach the Hand of God."