A/N: Here we go. I finished one of the oldest stories I've ever written... and the longest, by a wide margin. Holy shit people, I wrote a novel. I genuinely hadn't believed I could do that. (I still don't know how I did that.)

Hope it's a satisfying end for everyone who's enjoyed the ride. :)


Stepping Stones

~43~ In which life goes on

"Real world experience. It'd probably even make me all cosmopolitan," Hikaru pointed out from the floor as he threaded the laces in his new shoes. "You know, while my brain's still young and stretchy, I'd learn how to talk with people I don't know well, and not get lost easily, and never be afraid of new things—"

"As opposed to all those new things you're crippled with fear of now," his mother agreed from the sofa.

"I'll eat sushi," Hikaru bargained. "I'll choke down raw fish until I get food poisoning, I'll even smile while I die."

"Those things I called rice rolls you had seconds of last night were sushi," his mother said mildly. "From the shop down at the corner, by the way."


"How cheap? I mean… I love you, Mom, I'll love you forever and always but if you really wanted to be known as the greatest parents ever in history for giving me such great learning opportunities as a kid I'd mention you in every thank-you speech I ever give. I'll dedicate my first title to you! Assuming Akira's left any for me by the time I get to go pro. And have you talked to Touya Meijin yet? Because I already double-checked the number but if I got it wrong I can go get the right one for you while I'm out and let you know it right away, no trouble—"

"Hikaru," his mother interrupted.

"I love you Mom," he repeated cheerfully.

She mock-frowned and then smiled at him. "Yes, your father and I have spoken with Mr. Touya, and we're thinking about it. Leisurely. He's not planning to leave for America before your semester ends—"

Hikaru squealed. He wasn't even embarrassed about it. "Mom! He said? You'd let me? You can not tell me that if you're not planning to let me go, you're not that cruel! Pleasepleasepleaseplease—"

"You'd have to come back," she pointed out.

"I know! That's fine! Please?"

"And the odds are tiny you'd be stopping anywhere close to anywhere you've been before."

"I've always wanted to see more places in America. Too. Here and there. And elsewhere. My life's ambition."

"For how many minutes?"

"More than one."

His mother laughed. "Give us a good presentation on why you should go once you've calmed down."

"I'll do flowcharts if you want them," Hikaru vowed. "And in the meantime just keep in mind I've already made that exact trip, without any problems, so I could even help Touya Meijin if he nee—I could be like his interpreter! If Go doesn't work out I can be a professional interpreter instead Mom, so letting me go means giving me experience for two careers, I could even do both at once—"

"Don't you still have somewhere to be?" she reminded him.

Hikaru finished stuffing his shoes on, hugged her, and swung back toward his room with his jacket to load up Sai's stones.


Hikaru got to the gang's salon less early than he'd intended for their tournament with whatever insei had agreed to come, but he wasn't late, so he let himself stop when he noticed a small sign taped in the window he didn't think he'd seen before. He made a guess (solid, he considered, given what store it was in) that it involved Go, and after a moment Sai made an a-ha! sound and deduced that it was announcing a Go match. A group match, including a team of insei.

"Seriously?" Hikaru laughed, under his breath since he was ostensibly alone in public. "Advertising?"

Still, if it did anything for the salon's business, maybe that explained how the gang got half-off prices. But seriously? Why would it do anything? Maybe it was just to let regulars know when to come watch or steer clear of the chaos.

Squirrel jogged up and ducked under Hikaru's arm as he opened the door. The first thing Hikaru saw inside was Miniboss hardly a step to the side chatting with the Go Weekly guy, who looked up and smiled in greeting as Hikaru came in. For a second Hikaru blanked in preparation for panic, then genius flashed and he snagged Squirrel by the shoulder before the kid could slip by into the herd.

'Introduce yourself. Nicely,' he instructed, as if it was because Squirrel needed manners practice and not because Hikaru couldn't come up with the guy's name to handle introductions himself for the life of him.

Squirrel shot him a dirty look and did so. The Go Weekly guy gravely introduced himself back as Amano-san. Hikaru let Squirrel go and greeted Amano too, by name, with the cheer of relief.

Most of the regulars appeared to have landed on the come-watch side of the poster, as the salon seemed unusually crowded with heads both tall and short. Hikaru managed to spot Tsutsui and Nase, the only two older kids available given his gang had gotten this rematch set up without any regard for anyone else's schedules, as he waded in to start herding straggler kids toward the evidently designated table and tried to get a headcount to make sure there was an equal number of neighborhood brats and insei present.

The kids sorted themselves into some semblance of order, Nase set up the game clocks beside each goban, and some guy Hikaru thought was a regular, or maybe even the salon manager or owner or somebody, made a brief over-dramatic speech that had both kids and adults smirking before declaring the games begin.

Hikaru wandered up and down the table regularly to let Sai keep up with each game in progress, and Nase and Tsutsui spaced themselves out to be near any potential problem, but mostly, compared to the first mini-me tourney, this one was surprisingly… easy. There was at least one interested regular for each kid to jibe with or get advice from whenever anyone's attention wandered, and the general noise level never quite dropped so low that anyone seemed to hesitate to speak.

Mostly due, Hikaru admitted freely to himself, to his gang's antics. They'd suck at normal, quiet Go matches. Well, at least until they grew up some. It looked like they'd managed to make a pretty good home for themselves here though.

The Go Weekly g—Amano also wandered along the games a few times, but mostly stood against a nearby wall watching or making notes. Hikaru wound up leaning against the wall beside him in between progress checks, and discovered the man was happy to chat in undertones about Touya Meijin's retirement announcement and match against Jaro.

'I talk to Touya Meijin about why he retire now, and he mention he played online. And when I go online, so much talk! Such a mystery! Who played God of NetGo's equal?' Amano laughed, still quietly so as not to distract the squirts. 'And now every night they play again!'

'Not every night,' Hikaru corrected automatically, then tried not to flush. 'Er… I look.'

'Me too.' Amano smiled. 'Touya Meijin showed me how to find the kifu. This Jaro must be great pro! Yet never give his name. Very strange.'

Sai fidgeted, face still firmly pointed toward the mini-me tourney and expression suggesting he was working very hard to not hear. As if he could avoid it when he was only five feet away from Amano.

'Maybe he not Japanese,' Hikaru suggested, as casually as possible.

'Good guess,' Amano agreed. 'But no one seem to know… no one on NetGo, anyway. Maybe in other country. Even Touya Meijin say he not know. Went online so he could play Go in hospital. Great luck Jaro challenged him.' Amano laughed again, cheerful and low. Hikaru breathed out a silent, fervent prayer of thanks that Touya Meijin had evidently left out Hikaru's involvement. 'Touya Meijin play more online now even out of hospital. Can't blame him! Games that good, they should be for titles.'

'Well… God of NetGo is unofficial title,' Hikaru couldn't resist suggesting. Sai squirmed desperately and suggested they go look at the kids' games again.

Amano chuckled. 'True! Jaro play many games, though, Touya Meijin only play Jaro. Good luck for Touya Meijin to find rival, even at end of career,' he went on in a thoughtful tone. 'Maybe, no wonder he retire… never found rival in professional matches, now he look elsewhere.'

Hikaru gulped, told himself the implication he'd heard wasn't there, and excused himself to let Sai check on the kids' games.

Touya Meijin hadn't said anything about trying to find Jaro when he told Hikaru why he planned to retire and travel. He didn't need to look, Jaro was right there online whenever they wanted to play. Hikaru had told him Jaro could only play on computers, this was just some guy's speculation, Touya Meijin understood…

And Touya Meijin won five titles, surely those games were as good as the ones with Sai—Touya Meijin hadn't won two titles, so those games would have to be as good as the ones with Sai. Assuming Touya Meijin had ever played for those titles.

One of the kids resigned and Hikaru busied himself echoing postgame analysis, with painstaking care for vocabulary, which wasn't as hard as usual. Sai was fairly quiet.

Lunch time hit, and the semi-order and peace dissolved into ruckus as the older teens tried to make sure all the kids had actually brought lunches like they were told to and help keep track of everyone's bento-lunchboxes and assorted debris. Regulars chatted with insei about their career prospects, Amano and the maybe-salon-owner-or-manager guy lent willing ears to Miniboss's stringent opinions on group names and the prestige of Jaro's Disciples versus Yankees, and Tsutsui made not-so-subtle pitches to each member of the neighborhood gang that they should attend his school (and Go club) as soon as they were old enough. Sai stood back and looked around at all the fuss with a fond, almost wistful smile.

'Okay?' Hikaru murmured to him during a moment when no one seemed to pay attention to their corner.

'Yes,' Sai said simply, fan fluttering. 'Is… Go. Is good.'

"Yeah," Hikaru echoed to himself, looking around again with a new sense of pride. They'd managed to start something pretty cool out of a whim, hadn't they?

Then he dived in before Squirrel and Four Eyes could get into a war with chopsticks, half-parroting Sai's scoldings to remember good behavior if they wanted to be allowed to play here again, now apologize to the poor insei they just almost spattered.

'Shindo-kun is mature for his age,' Amano remarked to Miniboss over twin protestations of grievance.

'Eh,' Miniboss shrugged. 'Talks grown-up, still laughs though.'


'Okay?' Hikaru murmured, and Sai smiled and said yes, but no words he could find seemed to encompass all he felt at that moment. (Even when the children scuffled, as they always eventually did, and had to be scolded and refocused before the games could resume. Sai had become so used to it he hardly found himself minding.)

When Sai died—if, perhaps, he had really died, and wasn't drifting somewhere in between—his only thoughts had been for Go, for playing more, without imagining Go might ever change. When he woke to Torajiro's company, he had been delighted to discover an association devoted to the study and play of Go, and thrown himself into it (on Torajiro's behest) whole-heartedly.

With Heihachi he had been glad to hear that the "professional" Go world still existed—and had even expanded across oceans!—but contented himself with teaching this single student who, while interested in the game, was not much inclined to take himself farther. The world had progressed so much that there did not seem to be much time even for a student of Go to devote to its practice.

But now, with Hikaru (who turned out to be Heihachi's grandson)… Sai had never imagined so many things to be possible until Hikaru showed him. Clever Hikaru to have discovered how to free Sai from the confines of his goban, to let him see the world outside his goban's storage place… it was both wondrous and frightening how unrecognizable his Japan had become. It made him grateful to be only a spirit now, who did not have to understand or interact with anything other than Hikaru except by observation. Sai would be lost were he to truly live again in this strange time.

The world's progression past him didn't matter though, because there was still Go. Still professional Go, established so solidly (as Hikaru found out, so slowly at first) that Sai dared to think it a permanent institution by now, existent regardless of time. But now, somehow, there was… even more.

Right in front of them, at that very moment, there were children and old men, most of whom neither played nor taught Go for their livings, and yet came together and played anyway. The old teaching the young, the young teaching each other, competing, congratulating each other in victory and in loss. And Sai, thanks to Hikaru, had a hand in bringing some of these children to love Go.

At a basic level, Sai did not quite understand how anyone could have interest in Go, could work to improve their play, without desiring to spend all their time on it. But he didn't need to understand to be happy, to look around at all this Go where Go might not exist at all. These children would grow up, turn to whatever professions were set for them if they did not choose Go, and even if they did not choose Go they would, perhaps, someday become these old men teaching new children to love the game as it deserved.

Sai was thankful, thankful to both his student and whatever gods had granted Sai these intangible extensions to his life, that Hikaru had decided to join the professional players and was never going to set Go aside for something else. Sai could hardly wait to see what beautiful games, what esteemed opponents Hikaru was going to play. And he was thankful beyond description that he himself could play Touya Meijin, and others in the world, through the magic box.

But something about this… about these children, collected from games in a neighborhood street, now sitting with pre-professional students and old men playing Go… there was something here Sai had never imagined before. Would never have imagined without Hikaru. And he was so grateful to now know of it.

Sai had never given much thought to why or how he had been allowed to exist past the end of his normal life. He was able to continue playing Go, as he desired more than anything; what else mattered?

But perhaps there was a reason Sai was granted this persistence, and perhaps it wasn't just to play Go. He had continued to exist after all not just when he was playing for Torajiro, but when he was only teaching Heihachi. What Hikaru had done here, bringing together such disparate people to bond over one game… it was not professional Go. It might not last, might not be remembered, as professional Go was.

But Sai could remember. Sai would remember. Sometime in the future, when Hikaru had ascended the ranks of the professionals and was a name committed to history like Touya Meijin (after a long life, long like Heihachi's not cut short like Torajiro's, a long career and a peaceful retirement of more Go), sometime when Sai met whoever would see him next…

Sai could reintroduce this play of Go-among-everyone if it had faded from people's memories. Sai could make sure Hikaru's legacy survived, every time Sai found a new companion…

Sai could not only play but preserve Go. While he existed, so too would continue some little part of Torajiro, of Heihachi, of Hikaru and Touya Meijin, of all the changes and influences to the game they wrought… they could live on through him.

The thought humbled him. And filled him with happiness.

There was no better fate he could imagine.