I would like to take this opportunity to say that I have changed a few things in chap 2 along with this update. (Sorry for those alert spams, if there are any!) Mainly language stuff. The most important change to note is that Chap 2 was renamed "Defense Mechanisms".

Okay. Italics are thoughts. Now on with the chapter!

Chapter 3: Exchanging Shoes

"What kind of stupid mistake was that?" Akira Touya glowered menacingly. Other members of the Go study club scuttled instinctively out of the range of damage the two rival's spats usually promised.

Hikaru was irked, but could not help but silently agree that his performance had been a wreck. He stubbornly kept his gaze levelled and his lips pursed.

Touya had no patience for his stony silence however, as he stood up to peer condescendingly down. "It's an insult to both your intelligence and mine."

"So you say." Hikaru replied tightly, drawing himself too to his full height. His uncharacteristic lack of volume, however, earned a few curious glances.

Touya could tell that while Hikaru had not returned the heat in his words, he sounded immensely frustrated for an unknown reason. He paused, and, not outgunned but definitely out of spirit to argue, advised simply, "Shidou, I don't know what on earth is on your mind, but you need to clear your head."

He waited for the meaning of his words to sink in, before emphasizing, "You need to clear your head, and do it quickly, before I beat you to Judan and you lose your right to join the Honindo Competition."

Not waiting to see, and perhaps confident of, the effect of his words, Touya walked away in strides.

He was right. Hikaru heaved a sigh as he sank back down into his chair, not bothering to gather up the pieces quite yet. He stared spiritlessly at the board. An amateur mistake like loosening guard on the upper corner of the board…

The arrangement of the pieces was familiar.


"You exposed the upper area with this move." Hikaru gestured, explaining to Akari the key move that lost her the game.

Akari frowned in concentration. "Hmm, I see what you mean. But how was I supposed to know that I will lose more pieces here than I would gain in the middle ground?"

"You weren't supposed to know," He grinned, "I'm just too good for you."

"Don't gloat!" she huffed, "You're like – " her stock of vile analogies was nil, " – like an NBA player who brags about being able to play basketball!"

"More like Major League player who brags about being able to play baseball," He correctly solemnly, but with a betraying humorous twinkle in his eyes.

She rolled her eyes, "Forgive me for I fail to see the difference."

Their eyes met and held each other's for a second before both succumbed to laughter. Hikaru absently noted that they had not shared such a light-hearted, random conversation for a long time, and that it felt good to be able to be so completely unguarded.

And, as he had been doing for the past decade and more, he voiced his thoughts truthfully. "It's nice to talk to you like this. I missed being feeling so easy around someone."

He had expected an equally cheerful and casual reply from Akari. Her widen-eyed look of shyness mildly intrigued but also alarmed him.

"It's nothing." Akari muttered quietly. "I-I don't really do it consciously." Seconds later she added as an after thought, "I'm glad I've been able to help you either way."

"I should buy you a drink for this. You've wasted your afternoon on me, when you have other works to attend to." Hikaru said, half as reminder to himself.

Again, Akari reacted in an unexpected manner. She shook her head violently, and adopted an urgently polite tone. "No no, don't feel like it's a favour that you owe me, because speaking of unwitting favours you've done the same for me too."

At this he blinked. "I did?"

Seeming to have suddenly realized what she had let slip, Akari turned a darker shade of red as she nodded nervously.

"How so?" Hikaru asked, curiosity getting the best of him.

"Um, this might sound very very weird," seeing Hikaru nodded at every 'very' to urge her on, Akari swallowed. "Basically, I've been having regular mock exams between terms, and I felt panicked and restless about the revision." She halted uncertainly.

Hikaru nudged encouragingly, "And then?"

"Well, as I walked home from my cram school, I often see that your window was still lit. Which meant you must still be studying for Go, and I felt somewhat … accompanied. In my hard work."

Hikaru cocked his head, looking thoughtful at her admissions, and Akari did not dare to peer behind her lashes as she rushed on, "You helped me to focus on my life with your focus on your own. Don't you think that's something about friendship? Even the mere idea of the existence of a friend can give comfort and support. We don't necessarily have to be around each other to be able to help each other out, right?"

During the brief silence that followed, she smiled tentatively at him, heart slightly fluttering in anticipation of what would follow.

In truth, she was more questioning herself than persuading him, and discreetly she had wanted him to prove her wrong, even just with a slightly doubtful quirk of the brow. She had wanted him to argue that solid physical presence was still more reassuring than the flimsy concept of a friend also slaving away for his goal in life. Most of all, she had wanted him to confirm that he would love her company, focused on Go or not.

But Hikaru was not one to notice such subtleties and trusted unwaveringly in the face value of her words – like a dutiful best friend and a rotten object of affection.

"Yeah… I suppose so." He had not quite understood, but, seeing that she was uncomfortable with the subject, lightly dropped it.

Two years later, Hikaru belatedly realized that Akari had made the lonely observation that two friends, no matter how close, have personal spaces and agendas that aught to be respected by the other. They become barriers in intimacy and gaps in shared memories, but do not necessarily detract from the friendship's affectionate nature.

Hikaru made up his mind.

If Akari needed to concentrate, then, as a friend, it was the least he could do to give her space and time until she was ready to be distracted and to talk about the unresolved issues between them.

Liberation was sweet. Akari smiled as she stretched her tight muscles after a long period of studying.

It has been a month or so after her confrontation with Hikaru, and her spring term was drawing to a close. Tomorrow will be Friday and the last of her examinations will be gone by the afternoon.

The wind stirred her notepapers and Akari momentarily closed her eyes to feel it against her face.

She has been single-mindedly devoted to her school work and her rankings were improving. The fog that shrouded her future path also lifted slightly as she could feel with certainty that Go Weekly reading habits and possibly Go-related career were in fact what she wanted. For myself. She thought, somewhat triumphantly.

She rejoiced in the fact that she could now view her decisions without the nagging fear that she was losing something of herself to trade for the possibility of an access to Hikaru's world.

Because that hope has been violently dashed and mercilessly beaten to pulp. Akari mused about the incident and its bittersweet results.

Admittedly, her feelings for Hikaru inspired her interest initially, but now she no longer looked upon this fact with shame. Rather, she accepted this aspect of her past as a shaping factor of her character. She was not about to discard Hikaru's influences in her life simply because he rejected her – that would be denying the part of her that had choose to fall for him.

She may not have been the same girl that she was before she fell in love with him, but all her changes were passed and authorized by her. She was her own person, and it felt good to be so sure after so many years.

The cicadas' obnoxious notes announced the arrival of summer. Summer in Tokyo was heat. It was typhoons and it was also when the commerce flourished as students were released, if temporarily, from the clutches of school.

For Hikaru, though, primarily, it was a chance for retribution. He was impatient to rid the conviction of him as the guilty one in ruining his and Akari's relationship.

The first week of the summer break was when the two families, the Fujisakis and the Shidous, customarily take turns to host dinners for the others. Hikaru knew for a fact that Akari, as a student, will have no good reason not to attend the event. He reasoned that then be a perfectly unthreatening way to approach her, and that, when worst comes to worst, he would have all summer to badger her, if that was what it would take to persuade her to re-examine their friendship.

Contrary to Hikaru's reasoning, however, Akari was unsettled nonetheless when she saw the Shidous arrive with their only son. She had thought that he would wriggle out of this embarrassing encounter with excuses about Go commitments. She wondered what on earth was wrong with him.

The moment the door to Fujisaki's household swung open, Hikaru also felt like his decision to come was a fallacy in logic – he had failed to consider how to go about approaching her.

Although he strangely found Akari's dazed expression amusing, he had better sense than to tease her about it. He did not want her to think that he was smug about her feelings for him, after all. He was just dearly concerned about how much he had hurt her when he had endeavoured to avoid romantic entanglements.

Maybe he should have wrote down a five-step plan to convince her that his earnest apology and desire to patch things with her has nothing to do with pity and everything to do with the fact that they have been friends for so long he would feel quite lonely without the knowledge that she would gladly be his relax-games opponent anytime.

How do those guys in movies and TV shows act so winningly? All he could do was to utter meekly, "Hello. It's been a long time, no?"

Akari agreed in an equally timid voice, "Yeah, it's been busy, hasn't it?"

They talked disjointedly about inconsequential things like weather as they moved into the Fujisaki living room, where a few plates of finger food appetizers were served. Both found excuse to not speak as they ate their shares and in silence, Hikaru thinking frantically and Akari not knowing what to think.

The parents caught up with much more enthusiasm. Immediately, and rather inevitably, their subject of discussion jumped to the children.

"It is nice that Hikaru knows so well what he wants." Mr. Fujisaki commented, his mention of Hikaru's name drawing the attention of both teenagers'. "Akari here is still unsure of what major to take in university."

"Dad!" Akari protested softly.

"Well, it is true, my dear, and it's okay," Her father smiled at her soothingly, "Not many seventeen year-olds knows the best career for him or her. Hikaru just happens to be the few that have strong inclinations from an early age."

"Actually," Mr. Shidou laughed, "it's not like Hikaru's all that purposeful. He simply wins matches and moves on."

"Hey! What other things do you expect a Go player to do?" It was Hikaru's turn to protest.

As Mrs. Fujisaki excused herself to the kitchen to warm up some food, the exchange continued.

"Either way, I think that it is a parent's sweet burden to counsel and guide their children," Mrs. Shidou pondered out loud, "Your Akari would still be with you for at least a few years. Our Hikaru is actually leaving Japan for a while. He'll be travelling between overseas Go Institute for friendly rub-shoulders and warm-up matches for at least a year."

As Mrs. Shidou sighed, Akari's startled gaze met Hikaru's across the coffee table of the Fujisakis' living room in a sense of déjà vu. As he held her stare steadily, she felt a swell of feelings rising in her chest. Feelings that she had successfully kept in check for over a month flooded her senses.

Away? For a year? Her mind reared from the impact, and Mrs. Shidou's next remark was lost on her.

The news shouldn't affect her so - there was nothing in the lifestyle of her past month that required Hikaru's presence - and yet, it did.

It was irrational, but when Hikaru was still there, the opportunity to reconcile with him was always there as well. Now she felt like her options were being snatched out of her fingers, and that she was forced to choose between keeping all and keeping nothing of her friendship with Hikaru.

Knowing that their link may be severed beyond repair from this separation was unbearable.

Akari searched Hikaru's eyes for signs of a similar apprehension, but he seemed more to be appraising her reactions than exposing that of his own.

"Akari, come get this list. There are a few things that I want you to pick up for me from the supermarket."

Mrs. Fujisaki's shout from the kitchen broke their locked gaze as both hastily looked away.

As if unaware of the tension between them, Mrs. Shidou intoned casually, "Hikaru aught to help then, it's not safe for pretty young girls to travel alone at this hour of the day." She winked at Akari, who could not help but gawk rather impolitely in return.

Before she could think of a tactful way to say that there was no need, her mother accepted graciously on her behalf, "That would be nice. Thanks in advance then, Hikaru."

Akari's head pivoted violently around to watch Hikaru, half wishing that he would risk rudeness to refuse, and half wishing he would say that it was no problem and he certainly would help.

It seemed to her that eons passed before Hikaru mutely nodded, and she exhaled a breath that was both out of dismay and gratification.


I don't know if the whole flashback was too far-flung or her explanation about his "unwitting favour" a bit delusional for some tastes, but until I have better expressions they are staying that way. (If you have suggestions, please do give them!) Of course, I intend to clear this bit of insecurity up in later chapters, so bear with me (you'll need loads of patience!)

About how Hikaru acted in the family meeting. He just doesn't fit in with the suave image and so he's staying this way - he endears me this way, actually :)

A few factual things (like weather in Tokyo) maybe misplaced but I've tried my best bet in researching these. Please point them out if you wish.

All in all, I hope y'all have enjoyed this chapter. It didn't take me as long (thank heavens plot bunnies are finally producing themselves like bunnies should), so I do hope that quality was up to par! Hugs to all my reviewers and thanks to all my readers, new and not-so-new ones!

Replies to anon. reviews:

foldedflowers: I thought this would be a three shot sort of story too, but now it seems that plot bunnies just refuse to go the way they are ordered to, and this would have to be a tad bit longer than planned. Hehe, I'm flattered that the ambiguous ending of my second chap was well-received by you! Well, I hope you will enjoy this new update as well!