Disclaimers: Hikaru no Go and its characters are created and/or owned by Hotta Yumi, Obata Takeshi, Shueisha, Studio Pierrot (all rights reserved). I just borrow them to provide - hopefully - a bit of free entertainment to the fans.
Warning: spoilers everywhere! Mild language. Hikaru having guy interests.
The Way of Go
10. The Value of a Friend
Second street on the left after the stadium... Must be that one.
If really the so-called "stadium" was that modest area with the running track Akira had just walked by a minute ago, he was most likely on the right way. From there, the two-storied little house was easily found, so Akira folded Hikaru's map up, a photocopy of it to be precise: the original had been sketched on the back of the kifu recording their Moonlight Game, and of course was too precious to be risked on any gust. Not that it was really windy—quite the opposite—but well, you never know...
Despite Shindo's incredibly awful writing, the way to his place had been rather easy to find. It was five o'clock when Akira passed the fenced gate and rang the doorbell, right on time. Indistinct voices heard from the window above the roof canopy stopped for seconds. Shindo's was instantly recognizable; was he talking to someone?
The opening door left Akira no time to ponder on that. He quickly bowed to the middle-aged woman standing in the doorway:
"Greetings, Shindo-san, my name is Touya Akira. I'm sorry to disturb you; your son-"
"Yes, come in, Touya-kun!" Shindo Mitsuko bade at once. "Hikaru told me about your visit." She stepped aside to let the boy in. "Hikaru! Touya-kun's here!" she called out, while Akira was leaving his docksides in the genkan.
"Let him come upstairs and join us!" her son yelled from inside his room.
Akira frowned. Us?
"Hikaru..." Mitsuko sighed. She turned to the young pro: "I'm sorry, whatever I tell him, I can't get him to behave correctly!"
"It's OK, Shindo-san, I'm used to his ways."
"No, really, he makes me so ashamed sometimes! I'm glad he meet friends like you, Touya-kun. Or like his nice little disciple, who's already here."
"Aha..." Akira just uttered wryly.
"Go's such a strange world," Mitsuko went on. "Hikaru's not even eighteen, and he's already tutoring a disciple, can you imagine that?... What am I saying? Of course you can, you're a professional too; you must think I'm completely silly. If Hikaru heard me, I guess he'd be the one ashamed..."
"Not at all, Shindo-san. My mother is often at a loss herself when Father and I talk about our job."
"You're too kind, Touya-kun. And how're your parents doing? Hikaru told me they travel abroad, leaving you all by yourself, is it possible?"
"My parents are doing fine, thank you. Don't worry about me, I have friends coming home to help. By the way..." Akira bowed, remembering his promise. "Thank you very much for your delicious curry, Shindo-san. It was really kind of you to treat us like this."
"Oh, you're so welcome, Touya-kun," Mitsuko blushed. "I couldn't let Hikaru go empty-handed since he was sleeping over at your place. I also thought you two wouldn't take too much of your study time for cooking."
Though obviously less sophisticated, Shindo's mother was made after the same caring model as Touya Akiko, and the same kindness shone through her eyes. Akira's features softened.
"That was so thoughtful of you, Shindo-san, all the more since it's the second time: we also greatly appreciated your cooking two years ago, though I confess we didn't duly thank you because of the Hokuto Cup stress. Please let me apologize for that oversight."
"It's really nothing," Mitsuko muttered in embarrassment. She was getting more and more impressed by the young man.
Hikaru's so different, it's hard to believe he gets along with this little prince, she thought with an approving glance at Akira's attire: a white linen open-necked shirt and beige trousers of the same fabric, that gave him a comfortable yet elegant casualness. The boy himself was not bad-looking at all despite a really unfashionable haircut. With a cheerier face, he would likely be irresistible.
"Touyaaa! What'you doin'?" the same shrilly voice shouted from upstairs.
"Hikaru! Stop with the rudeness already! You should at least come down and welcome our guest!"
An exasperated groan was the only answer. Mitsuko shook her head in despair:
"It's hopeless. I'm so sorry I don't know what to say, Touya-kun."
"There's really no problem, Shindo-san. If I had to take offence every time Shindo-kun is or sounds rude, I guess we'd never meet," Akira joked.
"Yes, he'll be the shame of us all till the end," Mitsuko sighed. Only then Akira realized his off-handed comment on his rival was a little cutting for her. A quick correction was called for:
"However, save his behavior, you have every reason to be proud of your son, Shindo-san. His accomplishments do not go unnoticed, in Japan and abroad. One day he may become not only your pride, but the pride of our whole nation." Along with me, Akira added for himself after his lofty declaration.
Mitsuko goggled at him.
"You're not speaking seriously, are you?"
Akira looked straight in her eyes.
"I'm always serious when it comes to Go. But please don't repeat it to him, Shindo-san, or I'll never hear the end of it."
"O...of course, Touya-kun," Mitsuko stammered, her face going a delicate pink again.
Who ever told Akira that the best way to win a mother's heart is to praise her only son? Nobody actually. He had not been living enough to sink very deep into cynicism. His commendation, though a little overdone because of his natural courtesy, was genuine. With immediate effect: from then on, Shindo Mitsuko would never let anyone speak ill of the sweet, gentle—and quite dashing—Touya Akira.
"I won't keep you any longer, you must want to meet the boys."
"If you allow me."
"Just go upstairs, Hikaru's door is the one open on your right, you'll find easily. If you need anything, feel free to ask me or Hikaru."
"Thank you very much, Shindo-san."
After a last bow, Akira made for the wooden stairs. He had been quite anxious to meet Shindo at his place, but his anticipation was now severely dampened by the unexpected presence of the "disciple". Shindo's unwillingness to welcome him was not very encouraging either.
He straightened up as he reached the upper landing. A clear laughter from behind a door ajar froze him on the spot. His right hand still clutching the banister, Akira stayed eavesdropping for a short moment, trying to make sense of the conversation currently going on between the boys:
"What would you choose, then?" a high-pitched voice asked.
"Hmm, dunno, depends of the place," Shindo's lower tone replied.
"So, which place?" and they both burst into a long laugh.
The piece of talk made little sense to Akira, but it did not sound like he was involved. A bit ashamed, he took a good breath, rapped on the door and stepped in the room.
"At last, Touya! How long does it take you to climb a dozen steps?" Hikaru cracked from behind his disciple, who had his back to Akira. The goban between them was covered with stones: obviously, one game or more had preceded their chit-chat.
"I was busy paying my respects to your mother, if you don't mind. Good afternoon, by the way," Akira replied crossly.
The other boy was more deferential:
"Good afternoon, Touya-san!" he said, standing up and bowing. Akira just answered with a nod.
"You already know Oka, my disciple?"
"Yes, you two meet on Wednesdays, usually," Akira observed.
"Right. Since I've got a couple of hours to kill till you come, I'm giving Oka an extra training session... You don't mind, do you?"
"Absolutely not," Akira replied quietly. Of course I mind! his emotional self bellowed inside.
"Fine! So you wouldn't mind doing me a favor?"
"What kind of favor?"
"First, sit down, you make me feel giddy standing so high above us," Hikaru smirked. Oka was polite enough to stifle his chuckle.
Akira quickly went through a list of possible reactions: smack the top of Shindo's head, blow a fuse, not react, come out with a good quip. The first option was by far the most tempting, but the last one was obviously the best, only it took a few seconds more to implement.
"Sorry for you dwarf," Akira retorted, looking straight at the 3-dan as he sat down in a very strict seiza by the right side of the goban. It was coming a tad too late to be really effective, but Hikaru gave it credit nonetheless:
"You're mean, Touya; Oka-kun's not that small."
Oka made no comment, but tossed a Go stone right on his master's nose. Hikaru merely brushed it and flashed a mischievous grin toward his disciple. Akira, whom those expressions of connivance irked, coughed.
"So the favor I'm asking you, Touya–"
"I'm already sitting."
"Nah, not that! Before Oka leaves us, I'd like him to play a game with you, no problem?"
"Eh?" Oka hiccupped.
"So, is it okay, Touya?" Hikaru insisted.
Akira frowned, feeling entrapped. Oka did not look enthused at all either.
"You really don't have to, Touya-san," he mumbled, throwing a fearful glance at the 5-dan's steel face.
Akira ignored him, he would not have an insei telling him what to do or not do. What was Shindo's plan? Did he want to pride himself on mastering a disciple, or to show the kid how he talked on equal terms with Touya the Great, as Yashiro dubbed him? Very childish in either way... For a second, Akira considered refusing the game. On the other hand, he was curious to see how good "Shindo's disciple" actually was.
"All right... but we won't play and discuss it for ever. We have studies, remember?" he added with an intent stare at his rival.
"Thanks, Touya! And don't go soft on him, he's in great need to become stronger!"
"Sensei!" Oka shouted in alarm.
"You'll thank me later, Oka," Hikaru winked.
"Maaan..." the boy mumbled with a hangdog expression on his face. Touya-san already looked pretty peeved; why Shindo-sensei had to throw him straight into the tiger's claws?
Hikaru pushed the goban in between the two others, while they were removing the stones covering it.
"I take white, you begin," Akira decided. They all knew who was the obvious challenger, so no time to lose with nigiri. Shindo had practically granted his rival license to kill, and Akira was going to make sure the kill would be fast...
Fast it was, though the kid was better game than expected. After nailing him on every area of the goban, Akira gave him the finishing blow:
"Much too aggressive. You won't go anywhere if you can't restrain yourself. Here, your ko threat, I can't decide whether it's a mistake or a very naive move. Ludicrous either way."
Oka just nodded helplessly. Hikaru stood by his side:
"I don't agree. If you consider-"
"Think what you want, I warned you I won't discuss this game," Akira snapped, crossing his arms.
Hikaru threw a long stare at him before shaking his head:
"Come on, Oka. I walk you downstairs."
The boy quickly nodded at his opponent, stood out and passed the door without turning back. Hikaru shut it behind them, leaving Akira alone in his room.
Oka looked pretty downbeat.
"Anything's wrong, Oka-kun?" Mitsuko asked at the foot of the stairs.
"No, Shindo-san, thank you for everything," he managed to say.
"You're always welcome, dear," Mitsuko smiled, before retreating to the kitchen.
"Sure you are!" Hikaru merrily confirmed. "Next week we'll try to find a few hours for another extra, here or elsewhere. Remember, it's on me; your mother doesn't have to pay for it."
"Thank you very much, sensei."
"Don't pull this face!" Hikaru laughed. "Was it so terrible?"
"Oh man..." Oka groaned. "I almost feel sorry for Shouji now! D'you think Touya-san was upset because of me, sensei?"
"Touya's an orderly guy, so he's always bothered when something doesn't go as planned... He'd better get used to it with me!"
"What about my game? Was that move really silly, sensei?"
"I don't think so, I kinda guess your intention behind, a shame you weren't able to exploit it. Truly, your forcing moves had no chance to work against Touya, but you couldn't know unless you had my experience with the man."
He opened the front door for his disciple, friendly patting his back:
"This loss is of no importance anyway, so just chill out!"
"I should have done better..." the boy muttered glumly.
In a lower voice, so they would not be overheard by Akira through the open windows above, Hikaru confided:
"Oka, let's be clear: I've never expected you to beat Touya today—gee, I'd be seriously worried about myself if you had! I just wanted to see you show some fighting spirit, in the gist of our yesterday talk, remember? At the exam and later on, you'll meet players that are incredibly strong, or awfully scary. Touya's both at the same time, so this game was a perfect test. A test you've just passed."
"Yeah, you were scared stiff, but you didn't chicken out. Touya left you no opening, but you fought nonetheless, and bravely so!"
The insei blushed.
"I think I was more afraid of disappointing you, sensei."
"Well, you didn't. I'm proud of you, Oka-kun!"
Oka's heart leaped. With those few words, Shindo-sensei had magically turned a grim disaster into a heroic feat. After that, the boy would readily follow his master on a carpet of red ambers, on the moon surface, or buck naked between two lines of giggling girls. Beaming, he held out his right fist toward Hikaru:
"Genius will prevail, sensei!"
"Yeah right!" Hikaru grinned, pressing the fist with his left one.
He bestowed Oka a last wave as the kid was walking away. Then he climbed the stairs quite angrily and burst into his room, where Akira was still sitting at the same place.
"If the game bothered you so much, just say 'maybe another time', I'd have understood, yunno?" he attacked at once.
"You asked me a favor, you had it, Shindo," Akira replied equally as straight. "You also told me not to go soft-"
"I know what I told you! I won't pick on your play, it was perfect! A bit sadistic on the side, but exactly what I wanted for Oka. I don't remember asking you the after-game flaming!"
"Sorry, perhaps my comments were a little harsh?" Akira smirked, which got Hikaru really upset.
"Not just harsh, they were unfair! His move-"
"Shindo, for the third time, I-"
"You won't discuss it, I know!" Hikaru cut, infuriated. "You'd rather have a study? Fine!"
He briskly shifted a large part of the stones covering the goban, leaving only a quarter of them:
"Here's Oka's move that makes the ko, and your answer. Naive, you say? Lemme tell you a whole new story. Onegaishimas'!"
That said, he smashed a black stone and waited, his nostrils flaring, his face almost as fiery as his red tee-shirt.
Akira withstood his glare for a while, then took up the gauntlet by laying a white stone down. Facing Shindo's fury, he would answer with his cool, collected demeanor that impressed his opponents—or strongly annoyed them. Inside though, his blood was boiling too, for reasons very alien to the mere game challenge. Of course, he would be extra careful: this was no hapless insei performing those vicious approaches. Nevertheless, by no means he would let his rival prove his point... Which proved to be the most unnerving: as they were playing, it was pretty clear that idiot was probably right: correctly used, Oka's ko threat was severely restraining Akira's expansion, and Shindo used it very efficiently. By the end of the game, the bleached boy was only one moku and a half short from his opponent.
"So now?" he snarled after the final territories were established.
"So I win again," Akira retorted. "Your disciple already had his advantage lost by the time he created the ko."
"Some nerve you have, Touya!" Hikaru bellowed, outraged. "Have you seen me resign like Oka? Tell me, who was sente the whole game? Who was leading the whole game? Just thank darn ol' komi for saving your ass!"
"Oh now, you're going to complain about the komi rule? Six points are too unfair?" Akira sniggered.
"You know that's not the point! Oka's move was not naive, you know it, and I want you to say it RIGHT NOW!" Hikaru hammered.
"Hikaru, what's happening?" his mother asked worryingly through the door.
"Nothing, Mom! Can't you let us have a row in peace?"
"Hikaru, be polite!" she insisted, sticking her head inside. "And there's no reason you should pick a fight with Touya-kun, especially for his first coming."
Hikaru rolled his eyes, preparing himself for a painstaking explanation of what should be obvious and well-known of everybody:
"Mom, we always fight, every time, everywhere... Here it's a first, I'll give you that."
"This is no reason either, and... HIKARU!" she suddenly shrieked, pointing to a small tray with a couple of glasses, the ones her son had shared with Oka. "Don't tell me you haven't even offered Touya-kun any drink?"
"Oops..." Hikaru muttered. On this confession, Mitsuko exploded:
"Now we've had it! You have no sense of the least hospitality at all! You've been playing for more than an hour and it never occurred to you your guest must die with thirst in this heat? This is unacceptable, Hikaru, I tell you, this time, I'm really ashamed! When I think..."
As Hikaru was ducking under the storm, Akira looked away, slightly amused and extremely embarrassed for his rival at the same time.
"All right, all right, I go fetch some drinks, sorry!" Hikaru eventually shouted.
"You apologize to your friend, not to me, Hikaru!" She turned to Akira. "I'm so sorry, Touya-kun, you must think poorly of our reception..."
"No, it's really nothing, Shindo-san!" Akira assured. "Don't blame him, we were both too engrossed by our game to think of it."
"You're really too kind, Touya-kun," she told him with a tender smile. Then, to her son: "I want you in the kitchen in a minute, young man!" and she left.
Akira dared not look at Hikaru, but Hikaru was goggling at him:
"What have you done to her?"
"Mom's always moaning after me about anything, but it's been such a long time since she last read me the riot act like this! Just because of you? What did you tell her?"
Akira let a smile hover on his lips.
"Just the truth..."
"Hikaru!" Mitsuko roared from downstairs.
The bleached boy sighed and reached for the tray.
"What d'you drink? We've got ice tea, diet coke, mango juice... ramune... canned coffee, too... and sake, but you must wait till the dead of night for me to swipe the bottle."
"Ice tea will do, thanks."
Hikaru stood up and took the tray downstairs. Akira breathed. Since they were back on joking terms, maybe this afternoon was not to be totally ruined after all...
Being left alone for the second time, he looked around curiously. Shindo's room was smaller than his, with more furniture by far, yet you could sit and move around without feeling too cramped. Light and air freely circulated through two wide windows, one next to the bed, the other one above the stereo, VCR, TV set and... was ita fridge? The 3-dan was pretty well equipped to say the least, if you didn't count the notable absence of personal computer. His desk, dressers and other storage units were surprisingly all clean and tidy; Akira rightly suspected the Mom factor.
Between the door and the bed stood a bookcase filled from bottom to top. Akira slid towards it to have a closer look, but Hikaru was already back with clean glasses and a couple of cans.
"Mom's making Hiyashi chuka and kabayaki tonight... and coffee jello for dessert. OK for you?"
"Ah, erm... Thanks for the invitation, but I wouldn't like to-"
Hikaru cast him an annoyed look.
"What? You've planned something else?"
"So you're dining with us. Just cut out the ceremony, it's no big deal! Mom won't let you leave with an empty belly anyway. She's just worrying that you may not like what she's cooking."
"Having tasted it twice, I think your mother needn't worry, I totally trust her on this," Akira smiled.
Hikaru nodded thoughtfully.
"So that's what you told her... Well played, Touya," he muttered.
"It wasn't played, I told her exactly what I think of her cooking. You should know me by now, Shindo," Akira said. He himself should have known his friend by the time:
"You're honest with my mother, all right. How come you're not with my disciple?"
It came like a slap in Akira's face. Despite the heat, the atmosphere felt again like a couple of degrees lower.
"Look," Hikaru continued coolly, "I can understand you had a bad day, that somebody walked on your feet in the train or whatever. I can even admit you don't like Oka, though I can't imagine why; you two should get along rather well... Anyway, when it comes to Go and anybody but me's involved, no matter how harsh you sound, I take it you're always honest. Only this time, you were not, and don't try to deny it! Why, Touya?"
He looked almost sad when asking this. Of course Akira would never ever confess the pitiful truth: I'm jealous and I refuse to share my best friend. Actually, his brain was running in half denial mode, so this truth was not even clearly thought. Yet the fact remained that Shindo obviously felt upset, and unlike Akira, had every good reason to be.
"You're really concerned about your disciple, aren't you?"
If there was bitterness in Akira's mind, it did not surface in the question.
"Yes I am," Hikaru asserted. "It's a huge responsibility... but I've agreed to take it, and I won't let Oka down."
That said, he pushed an ice tea can and a glass toward Akira, then helped himself. Akira thanked him with a nod, but despite his thirst, he didn't open his drink. In his head, two selves were fighting: a passionate Akira who resented Oka as an intruder interfering in their growing friendship, versus a reasonable one who knew such a friendship could never be exclusive with someone like Shindo. Most of the time, Akira valued reason over passion, so he was determined to resolve their present conflict as smoothly as possible.
"His play... It looks a bit like yours."
Even this simple fact Akira would hardly acknowledge, but it lightened Hikaru's face:
"Yes... Problem is, I'm not sure he can sustain it, with his current level."
Hikaru shook his head:
"The problem is not you're not sure, Touya. This is his problem: he's not sure himself he can. Yet he's a good player, and a very good learner. What he needs first is self-confidence, hardening. That's why I put him against you, so he exactly knows what he's worth."
Hikaru took several gulps from his glass. Akira was just opening his can.
"You'll probably hate me for bringing this discussion back but... are you really sure you're doing the right thing? "
Hikaru put down his glass on the tray with a short clatter.
"No, I'm not," he said moodily. "I can't be sure of anything, but I'm doing my best. That's the least I can do for him."
"Is he aware of that?" Akira asked, expecting a negative answer.
"Yes, he is. I told him, just yesterday. Guess what? He still trusts me, maybe more than ever. How can I give up now? I don't want to, anyway. Not after..."
Hikaru trailed off, and nervously reached for his glass.
"Not after what?"
"Nothing... I could be wrong," Hikaru moaned, unwilling to speak.
"Wrong about him?"
Hikaru took a deep breath and a quick decision:
"I've got... expectations of him. If he lives up to them, he'll be great. Really great. If not... at least, he'll make a decent pro. That's all I'll say for now," he concluded, and you could be sure he would not drift into further revelations. The line had been drawn, but possessive Akira could not refrain from peering over it:
"You like him?"
Hikaru shrugged, his cheeks going a light pink.
"He's a good kid," he said in a clearly affected offhandedness. "Shy, but very funny, and interesting."
Akira raised an eyebrow.
"He doesn't look too shy to me."
"Oh, he really is, but shy guys tend to open out when I'm around," Hikaru said, smiling intently at him. "Call it my magic touch..."
"Whatever..." Akira snorted, though with a slight blush too.
"Indeed. When Oka first asked me to become his master, he was all fretting, staring at my knees, stuttering every two words." Hikaru chuckled at the memory. "He was really funny to tease... still is, but now he's much more playful. He doesn't fear to talk back and tell what he really thinks. Like, of the two of us, you're the best Go player, but I'm the coolest one."
"Is that so?" Akira said with a twitch on the corner of his lips.
"According to him, yeah," Hikaru laughed. "Just before you came in here, he even asked me if I had a tattoo somewhere, and what kind I'd like to wear."
"So, have you a tattoo?"
Akira was openly smiling this time.
"Nope, I already have my bleached hair, it's good enough! Nase keeps saying it's way out of fashion, but I'm too used to it. Though if I had to choose a tattoo..." Hikaru considered.
"A big number 5 on the shoulder, maybe?"
Hikaru picked a stone and tossed it right at the mocking Akira. Far from being offended, the 5-dan felt suddenly lighter. In terms of friendship, that was a sign he was not lagging behind Shindo's pupil. If Akira hadn't be so upset earlier, he would have remembered Hikaru had already blessed him in the same way on several occasions before. Thus his jealousy proved less and less defensible. He allowed himself a good half of his drink to celebrate.
"Why not tattooing one of my shirts, you mean?" Hikaru growled.
"Thought you'd like something Go related..."
"Oh please, this pun is funny to wear once in a while, but every second of my life? Though I like the Go idea..." Hikaru mused. "The kanji for 'Igo' maybe? It wouldn't impress Kaga too much... No, it should be something original!"
"A pair of stones?" Akira suggested without much conviction.
"Hmm..." Hikaru made, consequently unconvinced.
Akira snapped his fingers:
"I know. The kifu of a famous game: that would be original."
"A kifu?" Hikaru exclaimed. "Are you insane? It'd take days and days, I'd sure die! No way!"
"All right, if you're such a needle wimp..."
"Hey, you realize we're talking about a whole game record to inject under my skin, don't you? Oh boy, it'd have to be one helluva kifu for me to stand the torture! Like our moonlight game... but a thousand times better! Like the Kami no itte, no less!"
"Ah, you'd willingly do it for the Kami no itte?"
"For the divine move, sure I'll tattoo the whole kifu on my back... but only if you do the same on yours!"
"Of course, Touya, I'm not gonna play the divine move alone!"
Akira could poke fun at Hikaru's "magic touch", but that last line effectively blasted every doubt, jealousy or resent bogging his mind, leaving him speechless.
"So, you'd do it?"
"I-yes I would," Akira eventually stammered, his brow, cheeks and ears an interesting color.
"And we'd do it together so we actually see who's the needle wimp!"
Hikaru already had his own established theory on the question. Akira made no attempt to debate on it, he just hoped his rival had not measured the weirdly erotic charge of his silly challenge. He himself should not even think about it, so he was examining the bookcase with a suddenly renewed interest. Not for its content—bunk stacks of comic books—but the piece of furniture conveniently stood where Akira's field of vision would not presently cover its owner.
Said owner only noticed where his friend's stare had fallen on.
"Impressive, eh?" he said quite smugly.
"That must be the word..." Akira muttered. Years of allowance spoiled on a fair hundred volumes of inane stories!
"Go on, just ask for it," Hikaru whispered in his ear, making him recoil nervously.
"Ask for what?"
"Here! Make your choice! I bet anything you've never read a manga in your life."
"I don't feel like I've missed anything..." sniggered Akira, who hardly stood Hikaru's patronizing manners. "Big-mouthed, spiky-haired 'heroes', always stuffing themselves when they're not scuttling after big mighty shiny artifacts, really!"
"Sorry Touya, I was wrong," Hikaru chuckled. "To say that, you must have read one at least! How come?"
"There were always those distant relatives who used to drop by once every two years, bringing a little present for the 'normal' child they thought I was..." he said, very deadpan. "Of course, we never tried to set them straight."
"Haha, I guess the poor comics touched the bottom of the trash bin the second your guests left?" Hikaru chortled.
"No. Hopefully and thanks to Mother, they have made kids in hospital happier, if not brighter..."
"Fine! But won't you give it a new try? I cleaned the kiddy stuff off my shelves long ago. Even you should find something to please you."
Akira sighed, resigned that Shindo would not let him go without one of his stupid comic books. He idly scanned the multicolored spines, totally lost among the various and extravagant titles. Out of desperation, he picked a volume at random.
He wasn't allowed to read the whole title, because a suddenly flushed Hikaru snatched the book from his hands and quickly slid it back on its shelf.
"Ha! Er... Not that one... It's j-just too...uh-stupid," he stammered.
Akira had had the graphic novel under his eyes for only a couple of seconds, just long enough to notice how graphic it was.
"Nice breasts..." he muttered for himself. His flummoxed rival pretended he had not heard and hurriedly made Akira's choice himself:
"You want something more... erm... Jedi Goki, like this," Hikaru said, lending him a regular shounen.
"You mean Jidaigeki..."
"Yeah, whatever. This should appeal to you, samurai and stuff..."
"From the title, I reckon it's more about rounin than samurai," Akira observed, with a doubtful glance at the red-haired swordsman on the cover.
"Oh, cut it out and just take the darn book!" Hikaru groaned. "You may even take the five first volumes, so you won't call me in the middle of the night to beg me for the following ones."
"You seem pretty confident I take interest in this, Shindo..."
"Because it's a classic, and a good one. Why don't you trust me for once?" Hikaru replied, annoyed. "I wish there was a manga about Go, but I've still to find one, sorry."
"A manga about Go? Could it be?"
"Why not? There are manga about almost anything..." Hikaru shrugged.
Akira stroked his chin.
"It's just I can't figure Spiky-Haired Hero sitting seiza for a hundred pages, playing games..."
They both burst out into a loud guffaw that let them fully release their previous tensions.
"That'd be the most boring manga ever!" Hikaru declared, wiping tears of merriment at the corners of his eyes.
"Followed by an anime series, maybe?" Akira suggested, nearly crying too.
"Yeah, of course! With a lot of action!"
"Action? Like what?"
"Like this!" Hikaru grabbed a stone between his fingers and raised it high above his head. "Iiiiken-jimariiii!" he shouted, before slamming it on the board.
"Haha, lacks the wind in your hair and the lightning effects on the goban!"
"So, Touya, you've already seen anime series too!"
Akira gulped to take his breath after laughing for so long.
"Hard to avoid bits of them when half the city is covered with screens... Seriously, the day someone brings out an intelligent manga about Go, I'll call that person a genius."
"One day, maybe..." Hikaru muttered dreamily. "Yunno, it doesn't have to be packed with action. I can see a hero just learning about the game... after meeting a very special master..."
Hikaru promptly realized he was sailing by perilous shores.
"Aw, forget it. Try those ones already, and tell me—honestly—if you enjoy."
"All right," Akira said. "In return, may I suggest you other readings than manga or Go books?"
"What makes you think I only read that?" Hikaru pouted.
"That's all I can see in this bookcase."
"Then you need glasses, Touya."
Akira stood up to look closer at the upper shelf, and indeed there were a very few other books squeezing up on the side like misfits: a world atlas for children, a kanji dictionary, an illustrated history of football, and...
"Genji Monogatari..." Akira read out. "Let me guess: someone gave you this one, thinking you'd enjoy reading the life of Prince Hikaru?"
Hikaru rolled his eyes. Someone made me buy this one. And yes, he used that trick to convince me.
"That's right, more or less," he said. "I'll be honest with you, I've never fully read it. If it wasn't for the nice poetry, it'd be unreadable."
"Glad to know you appreciate poetry."
Hikaru squinted at Akira, who sounded like the patronizing one this time.
"Come join me in regrets for the passing of spring
And wisteria now aglow in the evening light."
The lines were delivered with perfect intonation, rhythm and intensity. As Akira was gaping at him in amazement, he added: "Wisteria Leaves, thirty-third chapter." His favorite.
Akira slowly sat back.
"I had no idea you're so fluent in ancient Japanese, Shindo. And didn't you tell me you had no memory for lines?"
"In a play, that's not the same thing!" And I never had Tsutsui reading the same lines over and over in my head!
"What a shame..." Akira sighed. "You can and you should study something beside Go, Shindo."
Hikaru vehemently shook his head.
"Touya, one of the best days of my life was middle school graduation, when I knew for certain I'd never set foot in a school ever again... as a student, I mean. Go to high school or university if you like, but don't expect me to follow you there."
"You don't need to attend a school. Ever heard about distance learning? You can choose the lectures that appeal most to you, you study by yourself, your occasional homework you send to-"
"Aaargh!" Hikaru wailed, grimacing. "You said it! Homework. See this desk? The last time I sat there is long forgotten. Don't make me remember, Touya."
Obviously, they were standing on either edge of a deep cultural rift. Not long ago, Akira would have stigmatized Hikaru's laziness in derogatory terms, sparkling the usual quarrel. He didn't even try this time. We was done with needless rows marring their blooming friendship. Actually, he was slowly turning his back to fifteen years of filial obedience and self-righteousness, to progressively embrace Hikaru's live-and-let-live way of thinking. However, considering his friend's obvious potential, Shindo's behavior strongly disappointed him, and somehow Hikaru noticed it.
"What would you make me study, to begin with?" he muttered, softening his stance.
"I'll never make you study anything, Shindo, but if you want suggestions, a foreign language may be useful in your career. Why don't you try Korean for example... so you can answer Hong-kun's mail without my help?"
"Ah! By the way..."
Hikaru stretched for a postcard stuck to the fridge with a magnet and gave it to Akira.
"Su-Yong sent me that one after my message, remember?"
"After our message, yes..."
"Haha, yeah... It's written half Japanese and half Korean again. Can you translate...?" Hikaru asked meekly.
Akira rolled his eyes, looked at the scribbled message for a moment, then chuckled.
"What, what?" Hikaru pressed.
"You really want me...?"
"Yeah, go ahead!"
"All right... 'Dear Touya-san. You didn't sign the Korean part of Shindo's card, but I'm sure I've already heard those... honorable words... in your mouth, and certainly not Shindo's. Thanks for the... courtesy and tell this...'Hmm, I don't know this expression but he must mean 'lazy person' (Hikaru huffed). 'Tell him I forgive him if he agrees to come here again. He's welcome... and I'll beat him for sure. You're welcome too.'"
Akira looked up.
"Very kind of him, don't you think?"
"Touya, you've just made this up, haven't you?"
"Not at all. See? This is my name here, that he correctly wrote with the title, and yours is written there."
"Talk about an evidence," Hikaru dismissed.
"If you don't believe me... you know what to do," Akira retorted equally.
Hikaru grabbed the postcard and stuck it back on the fridge.
"I'll think about it," he growled. Even that non-binding promise he was not sure to keep.
"At least, you know his invitation is no invention, since he wrote it in Japanese too. Aren't you tempted by another trip to Korea?"
"I'd love to go," Hikaru moaned, scratching the nape of his neck, "but I need to spare money for this. It's not the Hokuto Cup anymore, with every seat, room and cocktail offered. And unlike Su-Yong, I don't have a good uncle overseas to put me up."
"If I've read correctly, your good friend Su-Yong himself will be delighted to receive you. You'd insult him by booking a room somewhere else."
"I'm not sure Su-Yong and I are so good friends..." Hikaru tempered. "Sure, we're in better terms than four years ago. He's an OK guy now, but still so proud and touchy! If I'm to spend several days at his place, I need you to prevent all the clashes I'm bound to spark."
"Great..." Akira muttered, not too thrilled by the prospect of acting as a buffer between former foes. On the positive side, it was unlikely the young Korean pro would make a serious contender for the biggest share in Shindo's friendship.
From Hong Su-Yong, the conversation came around to past and future international Go events. Hikaru wondered if the Go game would ever appear among the Olympic ones, that were currently taking place in Greece. Akira was skeptical, even for Beijing 2008, though side events were still possible, he said.
"Hikaru!" Mitsuko called from downstairs. "Dinner's ready soon. If you two have finished, you can just come down."
"OK!" Hikaru yelled back.
Akira was about to stand up, but Hikaru first moved toward the bookcase on his knees and collected the five volumes of manga he lent to him.
"I'll put them in a plastic bag so it's easier for you to take away."
"Thank you, Shindo..." Akira sighed. Any plan of leaving the books "forgotten" was not even to consider.
"You're welcome. Oh, remember this one?" Hikaru winked, picking a small book from an upper shelf.
Akira looked at the cover Hikaru was showing him: Tsumego, a selection by Touya Meijin. He smiled:
"One of his best-sellers. Did it help you?"
"Yeah... in many ways," Hikaru replied modestly.
"You'd like Father to sign it? I can ask him when he's back home."
"Hehe, why not? I'd sure like it better than Kurata-sensei's autograph!" Hikaru laughed. "D'you think your father could write me a kind little note with it?"
"Sure. Something like: If you still need this, you're nothing close to beat my son," Akira sniggered. He was hit right away on the top of the head with the book, but Hikaru was grinning doing so.
"I will beat you, Touya. It's just a question of time."
"Take yours, I'm waiting."
The rivalry was clearly present in their words and eyes, as always. However, nothing of the former antagonism did remain. Just the challenge between friends competing to show their best to each other. Hikaru nibbled at his lip, staring for a while at his rival and friend.
"Nothing..." Hikaru mumbled with an awkward smile. "I just thought... it's kinda... strange to see you here. All those years I could just imagine you sitting at this goban to face me... Eventually it's happened..."
What could Akira answer to that? Luckily, Hikaru's bout of nostalgia was over soon:
"OK, let's go!"
In the kitchen, Mitsuko was putting the finishing touches to her meal.
"Hikaru, the table's clean, can you set it, please? Go wash your hands first, and you can show the bathroom to Touya-kun at the same time."
"We go, we go," Hikaru cheerfully chanted, making his mother turn to him in surprise.
"By the way, your father called," she added later as her clean-handed son was coming back. "He has a late meeting so he won't dine with us tonight."
The news was received like a complete non-event, and Hikaru just dragged his feet toward the cupboard to take the plates out.
They had a very merry dinner. Hikaru's mother was especially happy because unlike her son, Akira obligingly answered every question she had about their Go life. Consequently, Hikaru felt the need to bring his own views on the matter. Within a couple of hours, he had fed his mother with more personal stories than she ever dared expect to hear from him in three years. After the meal, Akira stood up and congratulated the lady of the house for her definitely exquisite cooking. Mitsuko blushed and bowed a lot in return, while Hikaru was miming a languorous violinist behind Akira's back. The 5-dan also insisted to help Hikaru do the washing-up, despite Mitsuko's embarrassed protest.
"It's not a problem, Shindo-san, I'm used to it."
"He's right, Mom! I've never seen a man wash a glass like he does!"
Akira lightly prodded Hikaru's nose with the dish brush, leaving a small amount of lather on the tip of it. Hikaru retaliated by brushing Akira on the same place with the dish towel. Mitsuko had no desire to chide him: both boys were laughing loud, the young Touya no less than her son, and there he was, irresistible.
When they were done—after a long series of digs and disputes over the best way to wash and dry things—Akira and Hikaru's mother engaged in yet another exchange of bows and courtesies :
"I must leave now. Thank you again for everything, Shindo-san."
"You're welcome, Touya-kun. Feel free to stay longer if you like, it'll be a pleasure for us."
"I'd love to, Shindo-san, but I don't want to disturb you by staying so late."
"No, no, Touya-kun, I assure you-"
Hikaru's patience ran out very fast in such conditions:
"Mom, he's got to go because he must prepare for an important game on Saturday. Honinbo league. See? We talked about it and you were not listening."
"I was listening, but how am I to remember everything you say, Hikaru?"
Her son sighed and made for the genkan.
"I come with you to the station," he said to Akira. Strangely, he wasn't opposed any polite refusal.
"Come back anytime, Touya-kun!" Mitsuko added warmly.
"I'll certainly do, Shindo-san," Akira answered with a genuine smile.
"You have years of manga series to catch up on, after all," Hikaru sniggered.
"That won't be my first motive, Shindo."
Theirs shoes on and Akira's last goodbyes to Hikaru's mother said, they went out right into the dusk of the street. Akira was usually walking in a fast pace, always hurrying himself from point A to point B, with close to zero interest for anything happening in between. This time, he was restraining himself to fall into step with his friend, and inwardly cursed point B (the station) for being already so close, though they had quite a bit of walk left to reach it.
"So, how d'you feel this game against Serizawa-sensei?"
"I feel it like the previous ones," Akira shrugged. "Heavy calculation from beginning to end. Until now, he's been better at this."
"After our last studies, your brain should have expanded its abilities."
"That, or it'll end up all disturbed. We've done pretty silly things, when I think about it."
"Haha, yeah! You won't hold it against me if you lose though?"
"If I lose, I give you back all those manga books right away, unread."
"I don't see the connection, but so be it. So if you win, you promise me to read them all?" Hikaru winked. "Oh, I shouldn't tell you that, you would lose on purpose just not to read them."
"Idiot," Akira replied, lightly knocking the bag of books against his friend's hip.
They laughed, then remained silent. Akira felt like he had a million things to tell Shindo, but just walking by his side in the warmth of the evening was pleasant enough. In this moment, he also vividly realized how lonely his life had been before those very last weeks.
Friendship's like a drug, he would think later on. You don't feel like you need it until you've tasted it. Then, you wonder how you ever managed to live without it, and you get strongly and irreversibly addicted.
He dared not imagine the withdrawal effects of such a drug. There lied his vulnerability, he realized, compared to Shindo who had many friends and could likely afford to lose one or two without heavy emotional damages. As the ugly specter of treason loomed on the back of his mind, he wondered again if Shindo's friendly attitude was part of a plan to get him all trusting and gullible, in order to wreck him at the right time.
He was totally off the mark. For a start, he would have been very surprised to learn that his rival never had any friends sleeping over in his room. Hikaru was certainly far more outgoing than Akira, but almost as selfish, and just like him, had long considered others for their practical value. Akari, the annoying yet convenient sidekick he needed to liven up his child whims, had been the perfect example.
Truly, it had taken Hikaru a long time to rightly measure the value of a friend. In fact, not until he paid twice its dear price: first with Mitani, whose hostility after what the red-head boy considered a personal treason had distressed Hikaru more than he would admit. Then of course, with the most intimate friend any mortal could ever hope... Hikaru had long thought he would never recover from the awful loss, until his friend Isumi came to lend him the hand of salvation. After that, Hikaru would never take friendship so lightly, as he proved to Akira:
"Touya..." he voiced awkwardly as they were nearing the station entrance.
"I'm glad you came today, it was great. I'm sorry we had this fight over Oka. I should have told you before..."
He did sound sorry, and so Akira felt:
"Never mind. Actually..." Be brave, Akira, and just say it. "It's my fault. Please tell your disciple I'm sorry about today... and that I wish him the best for the pro exam."
All that was reeled off quite mechanically, but Hikaru didn't question Akira's sincerity, only considering the gesture, and what it cost his friend. On this night, Akira learnt how clapping the lid on his pride at proper times led to great rewards, like Shindo warmly gripping his shoulder with a simple but meaningful "Yeah, sure!".
"Is Touya-kun safely on his way home?" Mitsuko asked, raising her nose from a smoking cup of tea as her son, back from the station, was shutting the front door.
"Last time I checked, he was boarding the train, with no stalker or potential abductor in sight. He keeps papers with his name and address in his pockets, so yeah, I guess he's quite safe."
"Hikaru..." she moaned, though she had to smile at the absurdity of her own question. "He's such a nice young man! Is he the same boy you said used to look down on you?"
"Yep, that's him all right," Hikaru confirmed as he was rummaging in the fridge for a soft drink.
"I find it hard to believe," Mitsuko said, leaning her chin on her hand. "He's so polite, and he was speaking so highly of you..."
"Yes, talking about you as the future pride of our country... Oh no, I promised..." She flapped her hand back and forth. "Let's just say he had nothing but praises for you."
Hikaru took a thoughtful gulp, then shrugged:
"Like you said, it's just politeness to please you. I know exactly what he thinks about me."
"Don't say that, Hikaru, he looked really sincere when-"
"Good night, Mom."
Hikaru was already climbing the stairs in a perfect I-don't-give-a-damn way. Only on the last but one step, way out of his mother's sight, did he clutch the top of the landing post and jumped straight over the banister. He smoothly landed next to his door, the half-emptied can in his free hand miraculously unspilt.
"Yosh!" he whispered in excitement. Then, he could not help it: he victoriously threw his arm up in the air, getting an instant fizzy shower.
(to be continued)
Ramune: a carbonated soft drink, sold in typical bottles sealed by a glass marble. You often see anime characters drink those in summertime/beach episodes.
Hiyashi chuka: noodle salad, eaten cold, served with various toppings and dressing.
Kabayaki: a dish of freshwater eels (unagi), filleted and steamed or grilled, often served on a bed of rice.
Jidaigeki: "period drama", a genre of stories taking place in feudal times of Japan (generally the Edo era).
Rounin: samurai and rounin are both warriors (bushi), but as the samurai has a lord to serve, the rounin has lost his. Forty-seven of the latter kind managed to become famous in the Edo period. I let you guess what manga series Hikaru has lent Akira (don't even ask for further clues about the "graphic" novel!).
Ikken-jimari: a jimari/shimari (enclosure) is a pair of stones defending a corner. Ikken-jimari are specifically played on points 3-5/5-4. Not that it's very useful in this chapter!
Genji Monogatari: "The Tale of Genji" is a famous classic in Japanese (and world) literature. Supposedly written by Murasaki Shikibu, a noble woman from the Heian era, it is considered by many specialists as "the first novel" (with controversy). It tells the life and deeds of Prince Hikaru Genji, especially on the romantic side. The plot is rather hard to follow, as the numerous characters are referred to only by their function or their relationship with the protagonist, which of course change along the story. Recent translations tend to tweak the original text and insert proper names instead.
Ahem. So it's six months again. What or who are we going to blame this time? Some deathly hallows, a depressing summer, or just my lazy bum?
Meanwhile, you people come in numbers to read this fic, review it sometimes and keep a watch on it with a kind story/even kinder author alert! Thank you so much, beloved readers, I hope this extra-long chapter of sweet (though always SATIN!) AkiHika friendship makes up a bit for the appalling delay. Sorry, I totally put Fuku and his birth charts aside, but next chapter will have him back, and should make the plot significantly progress again!