Disclaimer: (sing it with me now!) No they're not mine, no they're not mine, though I've taken 'em out to play, but now you know, dear, that I don't own them, please don't take my money away ... (to the tune of You Are My Sunshine which, incidentally, I don't own either).

Timeline/Spoiler warnings: Takes place post-series.

Angst warning: Erm. Yeah. It's not like "omg,gonnaripopenmywristswithmyteeth!" sort of angst. But it's not quite happy either. Oh dear.

This one is purely for tarigwaemir, with much hugs and warm wishes for the season. She's one of the most patient people ever, and she's the one who gave me the inspiration for this story. Without her support, this piece wouldn't exist. But don't blame her too much, okay?

Ishi no Shita - Under the Stones

In the aftermath, he finds that it's the first meeting that is the hardest. That moment of not-quite silence when friends and acquaintances see him, pause, and grope for what to say. In the aftermath, he could almost measure the hours and minutes in the clearing of throats, and endless repeating of 'erm' and 'eto' and 'uhs' -- not to mention all sorts of phrases beginning with 'I can't imagine how you must feel, but I am so sorry ...' that inevitably trails into a foot-shifting awkwardness.

Half-silences must be the language of loss, he thinks briefly, and is almost amused.

Everyone means well; that much he knows. And it will get better; he knows that much as well. But it will take time; this he knows most of all. At least the worst of it -- two days ago, at the funeral -- has already passed.

He arrives early to the igo salon. As he enters, he can sense the customers glance at him, briefly, before looking away. He hesitates. Do they know? Lately, the days have been filled with averted gazes and conversations that stop mid-word as he passes. Did Touya tell them about my father-- ?

Well, so what if he did?

Ichikawa-san knows -- that much he can guess from the way her eyes widen slightly as he heads towards her.

It's all right, he wants to say. It's still me. I'm still that loudmouth brat that causes a ruckus every single time.

He wonders if there will be a ruckus this time.

He hopes so. It's not like something deep down has changed. I'm still here to play, just like always. I'm still me. Really. he thinks. Though it's like everyone keeps thinking something should have changed, just because my father . . . Maybe . . . something should have . . . I don't know.

"Hey, I know I'm really early."

"That's fine, Shindo-kun," she finally says, and there's a forced lightness to her voice. "I'll call Akira-kun for you, okay?"

"Nah. I don't mind waiting," he says. "I'll be in the usual spot."

"Shindo-kun ... wait," she starts, and Hikaru ducks his head to hide his wince. "How ... how are you? I ...uh ... I heard about your father, I'm so sorry ... I ..." her fingers flutter at the cash register. "I just want you to know that I'm so sorry."

"It's okay. I'm okay. But thank you," he says. To spare the both of them, he turns. "I'll ... uh, just go over there now."

From the corner of his eye, he can see her scrabble for her phone, probably to call Touya anyway.

He wonders how his rival will react. He can almost picture Touya widening his eyes and gripping his cell phone tighter. He can almost see the short nod of Touya's head as he tells Ichikawa-san that he'd be there shortly. Then, when he arrives ...

Hikaru stops. One hand comes up to trace the goban set out before him. When Touya arrives . . .

It shouldn't be that bad. We've already had that first meeting. And ergh, it couldn't get worse than that, he thinks. The entire time, Touya had restlessly fiddled with his impeccably knotted tie. It had been a revelation, of sorts; Hikaru having never seen Touya so clumsy with his fingers before. His rival, his steadfast, pushy, always challenging rival had been uncertain around him.

"Shindo," Touya had said, then stopped. "Shindo ... uh, Shindo ..."

"Yeah, that's my name," he had quipped, but Touya -- instead of glaring or sighing or any of the normal Touya-signs-of-exasperation -- Touya had merely just stared.

"I don't ... if it had been my father I don't know what I would've ... how I w-would've ... I'm just very sorry, Shindo. You must ... miss him very much."

"Uh. I guess." Now that he thought about it, that probably hadn't been the right answer; Touya had stared even more.

That had been the nearly the very worst moment, topped only by the funeral itself.

But that's over with now, right? Things should be back to normal. Hikaru sets both hands on the goban. Its empty surface gleams, even under the fluorescent lighting. We'll nigiri, then play, and everything will be fine. If I win, I'll gloat at him. If he wins, he'll yell at how stupid I was.

His fingers tap nervously on the board. He tries to tell himself it's from the anticipation of a good game.

But what if there is no yelling?

What if Touya merely stares at him, hands uncertain? Or what if he feels sorry for me, and throws the game ...

Hikaru is standing before he realizes it. His chair tips over, smacking loudly against the floor. "S-sorry!" he stutters as everyone turns to stare at the disturbance. "Um, please go back to your games!" he insists as he bends to right his seat.

Ichikawa-san startles upward from her seat at the counter as he makes his way to the door.

"Shindo-kun ..." she says.

"Uh, tell Touya something came up. Tell him I'll be back later," his words rush together in his haste to leave.

"But ... but ... Shindo-kun, are you ..."

"I gotta go!" he insists, nearly half way out the door --

"Shindo-kun. Please wait."

-- but that voice, that deep, ringing-with-authority voice stops him.

It must be genetic. The thought comes, unbidden, even as he freezes. He had been so close; one more half inch, and he would have been able to push the button to slide the door open.

"It's been awhile since I've seen you. I know you probably are busy, but perhaps you can spare just the slightest bit of time for a game?" There is no hesitation in that voice. There is no not-quite silence.

Hikaru turns. "T-touya ... s-sensei?"

"I believe we have the back room free. Is that correct, Ichikawa-san?"

"Ah, y-yes, Touya-sensei. Of course it's free."

"That's good. Come on, Shindo-kun. Let's have a game."

He finds he can't do anything but follow that tall, unyielding figure as it leads him to the very back of the igo parlour, past all the customers, past the normal playing stations, to the most quiet sanctuary of the establishment. The floor is matted with the traditional tatami, and two padded, legless chairs are placed next to a highly polished goban. The air smells slightly musty. He has only seen this chamber once, and he has never played the younger Touya here.

And it'll be the first time I really play Touya-sensei ... as myself ... anywhere. At that thought, Hikaru nearly trips over his own feet, and he is glad for the excuse of having to stoop to take off his shoes and thus regain his balance. What am I getting into!

If Hikaru had been superstitious, he would've said that the room somehow knew that Touya-sensei had entered it. That the shadows had somehow deepened, and the silence had thickened. That the very presence of the igo master had enriched the atmosphere, providing it with gravitas, a meaning, a purpose.

But Shindo Hikaru isn't in the mood to be superstitious. What he does feel -- more than anything else -- is an odd prickling sensation against his skin, as if the air has been electrified. His heart thuds loudly in his chest, and for a moment, he wonders how bad of an impression it would make if he bolted out of the back room. Touya-sensei should be used to that sort of behavior from me ... right?

Any thought of running disappears, however, as Touya-sensei settles into his chair and motions for Hikaru to sit at the other side.

"I've been wanting to play someone locally, ever since I got back from Korea yesterday, but I hadn't gotten around to calling yet and no one has bothered to call me." Touya-sensei says casually. "Everyone seems to think I need to rest; I guess they consider me to be an old has-been. Though I'm sure that Ogata-kun, in particular, is just biding his time, trying to figure out the right moment to try out his new traps on his old sensei."

Touya-sensei chuckles. Hikaru has to stop himself from gaping in astonishment. Whoa. Touya-sensei is ... chuckling? Hikaru blinks. And joking too. It's almost as odd as watching Touya-the-rival fiddle with his necktie.

"But until then, I plan to prove to you, at the very least, that I'm not a has-been. And you can kindly inform the others for me. Nigiri?"

"N-nigiri?" This time, he can't help but gape. "We're gonna play an even game?"

"Is there any better way to play? Besides, I don't think you need to handicap yourself further." Touya-sensei offers the go-ke forward.

"But isn't the handicap supposed to be for --" Hikaru hesitates as Touya-sensei narrows his eyes.

He's not gonna take it easy on me. Hikaru realizes. Taking a deep breath, he plunges his hand into the ke.

Hikaru wins black, but that advantage lasts all of five moves. Touya-sensei is a master after all. Fifteen moves in, and Hikaru's nascent territories are already in serious trouble.

But still, there is something comforting in throwing all his weight into the game, of struggling against something he can't possibly win. Of going all out, without hesitation, without reserve, despite it all.

There is something comforting ... and familiar, as well.

They don't talk. They don't even match gazes.

Thirty moves in, and Hikaru knows. There is no hope of turning back the flow, of regaining the game. But still he plays, and still Touya-sensei answers each of his hands.

Past fifty moves, even a beginner should have known to call an end. Hikaru does not.

Move after move. Step after step. There are no windows nor clocks in the back room of the igo salon so the shadows do not change shape nor are there any ticks or tocks to mark the passage of time. They could have been playing for a day or an eternity. Hikaru does not know. He forces himself to keep playing, to keep making each move, to keep placing the pieces at a rate almost faster than he can think, or feel, or react.

It is only when there are no moves left to play, when there are no more spaces to run or to fight back, that Hikaru finally drops both of his hands to his knees and admits the magnitude of his loss.

"Makemashita," he says.

"Thank you, Shindo-kun." Touya-sensei replies. "It was an interesting game."

No, it was a slaughter, Hikaru wants to say. Not even after his very first games has he lost by quite so large a margin. You don't have to be polite to me, he wants to continue, but he can't quite make the words form. I know it was an awful game

"Thank you for playing me with all your strength," is what finally comes out.

"Why would I do otherwise?" asks Touya-sensei. "You've improved dramatically, Shindo-kun. And you've lost some of your fear of me, and of stronger players. That's good. That's very good. You've also become so much bolder, and your moves are made with strength. But today, your style ... do you mind if we discuss it?"

For a moment, something flashes across Touya-sensei's otherwise impassive face. His eyebrows draw together slightly, and the lines around his mouth deepen.

Hikaru bites his lip. An awkward moment is fast approaching again -- he can feel it. Something in him curls up tight, bristling and defensive, but he refuses to give into the sensation. He said I wasn't as scared of him anymore. I can't disappoint him.

"Um, okay."

"Your hands here. And here. All of them, actually." Touya-sensei's voice is very quiet. "There's not a questioning hand among them, nor is there a challenging one, nor one that seeks more territory. It's atypical of what I've seen of your normal style. In most games, you like to attack your opponent straight on, to challenge them, to force your own inroads, no matter how strongly your opponent has made his territories. Yet, your hands here and here, especially, around the tengen ... it's a defensive style or a shielding pattern. It's a style where the main objective is to stand against losing pieces, at any cost. That's not like you."

Hikaru swallows.

"Playing such a style limited your forward progress and made your shapes static and resistant to change. But that fine in its own right. Sometimes we have to play those kinds of games, even with ourselves."

Hikaru swallows again, fighting against the sudden tightness in his throat. "Um. I'm really sorry about that. I guess it wasn't a very good game, huh?"

"It's not a question of good or bad, Shindo-kun, nor should you apologize. It's merely the way you reacted to this specific game. You did well, considering. From the beginning, no matter how you played, you knew couldn't have won; still, you played and fought to the best of your strength. That's a commendable attitude, in a game and in life ... well, in most cases." Touya-sensei's hands stop gesturing at the board, and Hikaru feels his stomach drop.

"But Shindo-kun ... the trouble with life is that it isn't always like an igo game. It is harder, for it doesn't follow any set of given rules. Sometimes, no matter how you prepare, no matter how you fight, you lose, unexpectedly. And it's not the same, when you lose something in life."

"I ..." Hikaru licks his lips. The edges of his thoughts feel slippery and blank. "I ... with all due respect, can we just go back to talking about igo? You said we were just gonna discuss my style of play. I only wanna talk about that, all right?"

Touya-sensei merely sits and waits, hands folded, eyes calm.

Hikaru cannot meet that gaze. Instead, he focuses on the goban, concentrating on the pieces so hard that his eyes ache.

"I don't want to talk about ... other stuff. I don't. I ... I just want to play igo today. And I just want talk about igo. Nothing else. Because I know igo, and I don't know ... but everybody keeps asking me about other stuff, and I ... I can only think about igo. Oh God, does this mean I love igo more than I love my own father?" suddenly, without his conscious permission, the words tumble out and spill, breaking the long spell of his own not-quite silence and his inept fumblings and reassurances that he was just fine.

He doesn't even have the chance to think, or feel, or react. "Oh God, what if I do! I think I might! I know I should be feeling more, that I'm not feeling enough, that it's wrong somehow. And at his funeral, I wanted to play a game more than I wanted to be there, I wanted to play so bad that I had to stop myself from running here -- I wanted to play more than I wanted to say goodbye to him. I ... I ..."

He knows he is probably crying, that he is probably making a blubbering mess of himself. But through it all, Touya-sensei just sits and waits. And the words keep coming, bowling over the not-quite-silences and the half awkward pauses and trite phrases.

"He is .. was ... is my father! You're supposed to love your father. But ... he and I don't talk much nowadays ... or we didn't talk ... and now he's just gone and I don't know what to think about that, and mom's just crying all the time, and he's just not there anymore, but it's a different kind of not there. And I don't know what to do with that! Because I think I loved him. I think I must have. You're supposed to love your father."

"You loved him. As much as you could, as much as he let you -- of this, I am certain."

"But how can you know that?"

"I can read it in you ..."

"Bullshit!" the word escapes before he realizes he has just disrespected the one of the best igo players in the world. Hikaru is beyond caring though. He's the one who pushed it outside of the game!

"You can't tell me you knew through my igo! Cause he's NOT there. He's NOT there, and I don't know where to find him ..." he stops as the realization hits. "I ... don't know where to find him. Not like before. Not like ... "

"Not like your first loss." Something glitters in Touya-sensei's eyes, and Hikaru feels his breathing slide to a stop.

He knows.

"No, it's ... not like the first time. But that one hurt more too, and now I hate how it hurt more, and I hate how I know where to find him, but I don't know where to find my own father. He never played with me!" His hands react violently, faster than rational thought, striking at the goban before him. The stones clatter down to the tatami, a shower of black and white against the faded gold. "It doesn't work! Not for him ..."

For a long moment, he stares at the empty crosslines of the now clean goban. Then, hands shaking, he stoops to pick up the scattered stones. Just as he is about to collect the first one, there comes a light touch on his shoulder.

"Each time, it's different. Each time, it hurts with its own unique pain. But you'll find another way. Another way to remember ... another way to know what he meant to you. And a way to let him go and say goodbye."

"But how ... how do you know I will?"

"Well, it's not because I'm an igo master or anything like that. It's far simpler. I'm a father and I had a father, too. And I have a son. So in that way, I can believe some part of you must have loved him, even if you didn't share much time together, even if you may not have seen each other much or shared a common interest ... because it's that way, a lot of the time, between fathers and sons. My father didn't play igo. I rarely saw him. But you'll find a way."

Then, with a sigh and an audible crick of his bones, Touya-sensei bends over and helps Hikaru pick up the stones. Together, they separate the pieces, white to white. Black to black. When they finally finish, they close the covers to the bowls and just sit, for a quiet space of a few heartbeats.

It is a good silence. One in which Hikaru can breathe, finally.

"Thank you for the game," he says again, when that small, half starved spot in him feels as if it has enough air. And thank you for more than that.

"You're welcome," Touya-sensei says softly, but there is something else though, in the way that his eyes flicker, just for a moment. The way he has tilted his head, and the way his lips have tightened.

He wants to ask, but doesn't know how, Hikaru thinks, I guess some things really are genetic.

"Just ask. It's okay. I really am feeling better now. And I know ... that it's important. And it'll help, I think, to finally talk about that time too. I can't let go ... I can't all the way. But at least a little more."

"So he's really gone? The one you see in your igo." Touya-sensei turns his gaze to the goban. His hands fall to his sides.

"Yes," Hikaru says, and he feels the first tendrils of sympathy curl through him and mesh with the rest of what he knows now is grief.

"I see," Touya-sensei says. He bows his head slightly over the board.

Hikaru bites his lip, hard enough that he can taste the tang of blood. His hand slides into his pocket.

"Here," he says, holding his hands in front of him.

Touya-sensei's eyes widen for a moment, perhaps in surprise. Or perhaps it's something else. Hikaru doesn't know.

But as they accept the fan, Touya-sensei's hands feel warm. His fingers are thin and graceful ... yet at the same time, there's strength in that grip as well. It's a familiar strength. A comforting strength. One that Hikaru has missed, for a very long, long time. "If anyone should hold that, it's you. It helps me. It h-helps me a lot. Sometimes it reminds me that maybe I'll find him, in places outside my igo. Someday."

Touya-sensei traces the hard lines of the slats before fingering the tassel gently. Hikaru's fingers twitch, and he covertly balls them into fists. No, he thinks. I can do this. I should do this.

Then, Touya-sensei smiles and pushes the fan back.

"I thank you for this, Shindo-kun, I thank you more than words can express, and I am especially honored because this must mean a lot to you. But in the end, we must find our own path. I'll find mine. But I thank you anyway."

For a moment, Hikaru feels caught between wanting to accept the fan but not wanting to seem as if he did not truly mean the gesture. Strangely enough, though, his hands are not uncertain at all. They take the fan, slipping it back into in his pocket before he can reconsider.

He will never admit it, not aloud ... perhaps not even to himself. But he is glad to have the fan back. He has lost enough for today.

One path to travel. So many more to find.

"Let's play again soon, Shindo-kun. I enjoyed finally seeing your true strength."

They lock gazes for one moment, and Hikaru cannot tell if what passes between them is significant because one of them is a father, or because both of them have been sons, or if it is because both of them are igo players.

But he decides it doesn't matter.

He turns to the door leading back to the front of the igo salon, where he can hear Touya Akira calling his name.

- end

A/N: (Aka: Erm. Well, that was kinda depressing.)

This was originally written for the 31days theme challenge, specifically the December 1st theme: E como vivo? -- How do I live? Much love to the community!

Much love also goes to my F-list for tolerating me and my neverending whining. Feel sorry for them; you only had to read it once! They had to sit through countless renditions of this thing. In particular, much eternal gratitude goes to sarasusa, luce red/issen4, and tarigwaemir. All of them gave me the bestest present of all ... their time, effort, and some really awesome concrit. Meh, if you think this version of the story's bad, you should've seen it before I had their help!

Big glomps to T-chan, who not only helped edit, but who also helped think of a summary (otherwise, I would've gone with the "warghwarghwargh, Hikaru is an angst puppy!" summary. Which isn't ... quite as good).

And as always and ever and ever, much love and adoration to my ever suffering beta, Imbrium, who had to read this more times than anyone else on the planet. (I worry for her, I really do. This can't be good for her sanity!).

Still, all mistakes, as ever, belong to me -- mainly because I don't listen none to good.

Some technical notes, because I am quite a doofus when it comes to explaining igo moves --

As defined by the Sensei's Library, the move Ishi no Shita is:

A play under the stones (Japanese: ishi-no-shita) is a play in a space which has become free because some of your own stones have been captured.

There are some spectacular tesuji where you plan to do this, losing stones deliberately, and carry that out unexpectedly.

ref: http/ senseis. ? Ishinoshita (just take out the spaces!)

I think that's the "losing stones trap" that Hikaru likes to make, every now and then, for a come-behind win. When played correctly, it can make a win out of a loss. Kinda nifty, eh?

Anyways, last but never theleast, much love to you, with the warmest wishes for the season. Thanks for reading! I'm always open for more concrit; if you see anything you think needs to be pointed out/changed/flamedintoacrisp, just let me know!