A/N: In Japanese mythology, the Baku is an anteater like spirit that devours dreams. This story is a crossover between Mononoke (not Hime!) and Hikaru no Go, two of my very favorite anime. It was entered into round 5(?) of blind go. Please enjoy.
Baku ~ The Dreameater ~
"He fell asleep that night and never woke up."
Those were the first words of Shindou Mitsuko, staring forlornly at the glaring white of the hospital bed where her son lay. If one disregarded the feeding tube and the IV needle in his arm, he looked, for all purposes, like he had just gone to sleep and would wake up any second. Akira, numbering one of the eight visitors in the room, could only look on numbly in disbelief.
The doctor had been just as baffled as anyone else. After all, who ever heard of a perfectly healthy eighteen-year-old going to sleep only to enter a coma? He had not been drinking, not even after becoming the youngest Honinbou in the history of Japan, wrenching the title from the stubborn, twisted hands of Old Man Kuwabara. Instead, as Akira clearly remembered, they had stayed up late into the night, discussing the game at his father's go salon while other young pros had added their own input. Shindou had been exhilarant, unable to hide his triumphant grin even when the discussion had turned serious. They had even quarreled about that, as Akira recalled. That had been two weeks ago.
"But everything had been perfectly normal that night…" he heard himself protesting out loud to the face of onlookers. There was Waya and Isumi, both who had been present during the late night discussion that had occurred a week ago. They turned their heads to look at him, both pairs of eyes acknowledging what he said, and nothing more.
Fujisaki Akari, Shindou's childhood friend was also there, but she too said nothing. Standing next to Shindou's mother with one hand on the older woman's shoulder, her attention remained focused on the still sleeping boy lying peacefully on the bed. There was even a faint trace of a smile, as if he was having sweet dreams.
The other members of the group was more surprising, including Ogata-san and his own father, both having gone along with him when he'd announced that he was going to visit Shindou in the hospital. Ogata-san was as impeccably dressed as ever in his usual white suit, while his father had donned western clothing, something he had never done while he had still been a professional go player in Japan.
"There was no warning… none at all," Waya said softly. Then he grimaced, clenching his hands together in a fist. Akira understood the gesture. Anger and frustration—why hadn't they seen this coming?
At the unexpected voice, everyone turned to face the strange man who had suddenly materialized from nowhere. It was amazing how none of them had noticed him, dressed as he was in clothing Akira could only describe as outlandish. In a sky blue kimono of brightly patterned greens, yellows, reds, and purples secured by an obi of patterned maroon, he would be hard to miss, even on the streets of Tokyo, where odd costumes were the norm. On his back, he carried a wooden chest that was half his height in size, seemingly heavy looking.
The man walked forward, the wooden echoes of his geta loud in a room too surprised to react. A continuous metallic rattling accompanied the sounds of his feet, and Akira again wondered how the man had appeared so silently.
"Who the hell are you?!"
Ignoring Waya's question the stranger continued to walk forward until he was at the foot of Shindou's bed. Close up, Akira saw that his face was painted with garish red lines, the top half of his lips lined in lavender. Somehow, instead of making him look foolish, it suited him, as if he could no more remove the paint than Akira could remove his own skin.
"Interesting…" he murmured, and the painted lips curved into a smile.
"He just…suddenly won't wake up?"
"Yes." Shindou's mother looked up at the man, and it was a sign of her desperation that she was looking at him imploringly. "Do you know why this happened?"
"Shindou-san! We don't know who he is!" Fujisaki-san said in a loud whisper.
"I am merely an ordinary medicine seller," the man answered slowly.
The answer was preposterous Akira wanted to say, but as he gave the man a second look, he realized that the man was dressed in the traditional garb of a medicine seller. Place him several centuries back, and he wouldn't look too out of place in the streets of Edo, though the painted face would look odd anywhere he went.
"Medicine seller my ass. Dressed like that, do you actually expect to sell any medicine here?" Waya snapped, more than a little annoyed that the medicine seller had ignored his first question.
"I prefer tradition," he answered simply, turning away to gaze into Waya's eyes before letting the chest on his back slide gently to the ground. There was another rattle, and Akira caught the sound of bells. He moved away from the chest, walking slowly to stand on the side of the bed this time, opposite of where Fujisaki-san and Shindou's mother sat. "But medicine will not help this boy," he added slowly. With one smooth motion, he held out his right hand to glide it over Shindou's face, as if somehow by doing so he could find out what was going on. After one round, whatever it was he was looking for seemed to have been answered, for his dropped his hand back to his side.
"Then what," Ogata-san said, stepping forward, "are you doing here? By your admission, your medicine is useless, and you are intruding." The tone of his voice was sardonic, heavy with irony and suspicion.
As if in answer, with a snap the top of the chest opened of its own accord. The sound was startling, and Akira flinched in spite of himself. He was not the only one. A cheap trick, he wanted to say, except this didn't seem like a trick at all. The lid revealed a maroon box embedded with jewels.
"I have come to kill," the medicine seller said.
With another snap, the lid of the second box also opened, showing a heavily decorated sword that was but the size of a dagger. Wrapped in one long paper seal covered in Buddhist writing, the sword lay unmoving upon a coverlet of velvet, the handle shaped into a face of a leering ogre with wild, white hair.
"No! Don't you dare hurt Hikaru!" Shindou's mother cried out, both hands shooting out over Shindou in a gesture of protection. Her action began a round of shouting, and Akira overheard Waya yelling at Ogata-san to quickly grab hold of the medicine seller before he did anything.
"Someone go get the authorities," Akira himself said, eyeing Isumi as he did so. The older professional was the one closest to the door.
But before he could reach for the door something shot out to paste itself over the crack between door and doorframe. Mere seconds later, tens of dozens joined the first, a slapdash of Buddhist seals all over the surface. Akira barely had time to let out a squeak of surprise, though Fujisaki-san made a shrill scream, and he could hear a string of curses coming from Waya. Being close as he was to the seals, Akira leaned forward for a closer look. They weren't seals Akira had ever seen before, and to his mixed horror and fascination, the image on the seals shifted from a block of characters to an image with an open eye, briefly flashing red before settling back down to black. The change caused another uproar, as the room filled with startled shouts and cries.
A continuous echo of bells rang through the room, freezing everybody into silence, even Fujisaki-san, who had been about to let out another scream. Then, to everybody's shock and disbelief, the sword that had been lying in the box stood up of its own accord to hover over the box, the Buddhist seal disappearing as it did so.
"Mononoke," the medicine seller said. "With this sword," he said as the sword shot straight into his hands, "I have come to kill mononoke."
"There's no such thing," Waya said immediately.
The medicine seller turned to look at him, a caricature of a smile on his lips.
"Why isn't there?"
"Because they're foolish stories told by people when they were still ignorant and needed a way to explain what they didn't understand."
"And we're all past that now," the medicine seller said.
Instead of answering, or perhaps, providing an explanation, the man looked back down on Shindou's sleeping face.
"The barriers to his mind lay open, and his spirit is wandering. If your son ever hopes to return to the human world, we must first close it," he said, looking at Shindou-san.
"Are you even listening to me? Mononoke are not real!" Waya said, glaring at the medicine seller as if a look of his could kill the man.
Shindou's mother trembled, but said nothing. The man continued to look into her eyes, his expression solemn, yet at the same time seemingly mocking. His upper lips had been painted in such a way that his face appeared to be eternally smiling. It had been done on purpose, Akira realized. No matter how grave a situation may be, this man, this so-called medicine seller, thought of the people involved as a joke.
"My purpose is to kill mononoke. I will kill it."
"And my son?"
"He may die," he said.
Shindou-san rocked back, and Fujisaki-san grabbed one of her hands to squeeze it. The young woman looked up at the medicine seller, anger in her eyes.
"You aren't even going to try to save Hikaru!" she said accusingly.
"I came to kill mononoke. I have no other purpose." Half-solemn, half-amused, the man showed not even a hint of remorse, revealing the truth of what he said. He did not care if Shindou died or not. "The boy may die," the medicine seller said, "or he may live. But that all depends on him. Judging from the way his mind is opened, he had entered this willingly. He may not wish to live."
"That's not true!"
His shout startled everybody in the room except for the medicine seller, who turned slowly to look at him. Eyes half-lidded, the man regarded him quietly, as if until that moment, he had not truly seen him. Akira felt the measuring gaze, and fought the urge to shake.
"Shindou, the night that this happened, he'd been happy. Why would he want to die when he's happy?"
"Are you sure?"
"Of course I'm sure," Akira said, ignoring the niggling feeling in the back of his mind that knew that he had not been quite truthful. Behind him, he heard murmurs of agreement from Waya and Isumi both.
"We were all with him that night," Isumi said.
"So none of you have any idea what happened afterwards."
"We left at three in the morning," Waya said, exasperated. "What could he being doing afterwards except sleep?"
"Sleep…and to sleep, is to dream, is it not?"
"Dreaming has never hurt anyone," Waya said, though now he did not look so sure. And Akira felt a chill down his back that had nothing to do with the room temperature, which was comfortably warm.
"Is there a reason why we're still discussing this?" Ogata-san interrupted. "You," he said, matching the mocking expression on the medicine seller's face down to the tiniest curve of his lips, "came to kill mononoke. So why aren't you doing your job?"
"Because I cannot," the medicine seller said, then going on before Ogata-san could interrupt, "To kill mononoke I need the sword, and to draw the sword three conditions must be fulfilled. We have not yet fulfilled them, and until we do, I cannot kill."
"And what are these…conditions?"
"Katachi, Makoto, Kotowari. Katachi, the form the demon takes. Makoto, what lead to this. Kotowari, the reason and truth behind what's happening." The man's eyes shone, as if in anticipation. This was a game to him, a game he played not merely for the result, but for the process that is used to reach that end. A passion, Akira saw, eerily similar to his own. "A healthy boy goes to sleep, and afterward does not wake." A single finger traced the peaceful smile lying upon Shindou's face. "And the dreams the boy dreams are sweet. There is only one creature that can do that." His left hand rose, running the sword he held in its grip down over the boy.
"What we have here is a Baku."
In the moment the name left his lips, Akira saw the mouth on the sword handle open and close in a loud clack, as if confirming its master's words.
"Two conditions remain," the medicine seller said quietly, turning his head so that he met every single person within the room in the eye. "To everyone, I ask that you tell me the rest; makoto, and kotowari, I would hear of them both."
"How?" Isumi said. "How are we supposed to tell you, when we ourselves don't know?"
"You would not be here if you didn't know," the medicine seller said.
"That's ridiculous! None of us know. That's why we're here," Waya said, gritting his teeth.
Akira agreed, though he said nothing. The medicine seller's request was ridiculous. Even he didn't know, and he was with Shindou almost everyday. But the medicine seller merely smiled.
"All of you are here because you know a part of the cause that led to this," the man said.
"None of this has ever happened before," Waya said. "Normal healthy people don't go into a coma. There's no precedence."
"No…" Fujisaki-san suddenly said.
Surprised, everybody turned to look at her. Fujisaki-san had turned a pasty white, the pupils of her eyes dilated to the point where the irises could not be seen.
"Hikaru's… this… this isn't the first time Hikaru's fallen into a coma," she said. Beside her, Shindou-san gasped, as if reminded of something.
"When he was eleven years old, in his grandfather's attic," Shindou-san murmured.
"I remember. I hadn't wanted to go, but then Hikaru… he'd insisted. I don't even remember why now," Akari said, now flushing. "I'm… sorry."
The medicine seller's eyes narrowed, and the smile on his face grew wider.
"What happened afterwards?" he said.
"Well, he woke up after a couple hours, and went to school the next day."
The man continued to look at her, the curve on his lips never changing, and Fujisaki-san paled again.
"I-I… well, he started getting… strange afterwards." Still getting no change of a reaction from the medicine seller, the young woman trembled, and continued. "The day after he'd collapsed, at school, he suddenly started getting sick to his stomach and vomiting. At the time I thought it was just because he'd collapsed the other day, but I remember, when I'd rushed down the stairs to see if he was okay, I heard him shouting. It sounded like he was cursing someone, but... but there was no one there."
As if the young woman's words were a key to his own memories, Akira felt his vision replaced with an image of Shindou, still eleven, standing several meters away from him. He'd just rushed out of the subway into the streets, underneath a sky heavy with rain clouds. Shindou had been standing there, and Akira remembered what the other boy had been doing.
"I've always wondered what he was shouting about when he was upstairs in his room. There was no one in the room, yet he'd be yelling," Shindou-san said.
"He does talk to himself a lot," Waya said, and looked to Isumi, who had his arms crossed in a pose of thoughtfulness.
"He'd do strange things too, like fall over for no reason. Remember that time in the elevator?" Isumi said.
"Oh… he'd covered his ears suddenly like someone'd been shouting, and then fell to the ground. I remember. I thought it was just Shindou being weird at the time but…" Waya sobered. "Are you saying that this all as to do with why Shindou's in a coma right now?" he asked, turning to the medicine seller.
"I don't know." Ignoring Waya's growl of anger, he turned to ones who still had not yet spoken.
"I have never heard Shindou-kun saying or doing strange things," Ogata-san said. "Touya-sensei, have you?"
"I can't say I have," his father said.
"He's always been an unusually rude brat, but I can't say that this is something that would lead to a coma," Ogata-san said. At the words, Shindou-san snapped her head up. "Though… I have always thought…" He paused.
"Hikaru has always had a problem with opening his mouth first and thinking later," Shindou-san admitted, chagrined.
"Yet for a boy who can't keep his mouth shut, he has quite a few secrets," Ogata-san said.
"Secrets?" the medicine seller prompted, looking, for all the world, like he was being vastly entertained. Akira did not doubt that he was.
"His go for one, and…" Ogata-san paused again, seemingly unwilling to speak further. Instead, he turned to look at Akira's father.
"His go," the medicine seller said.
"I first became interested in him at a children's go tournament. There, he'd pointed out a correct move that would have been challenging even for a professional player. I was intrigued. However, I shouldn't be the one to comment on his go. Akira-kun has played him a lot more than I have." With a sly smile eerily similar to the mysterious medicine seller's, Ogata-san turned to him, nodding as if to urge him to speak.
"His go…" Akira started, and found himself at a loss. How was he supposed to even begin to describe Shindou's go?
"How about from the beginning, when you first played him?" Ogata-san said, and Akira throttled down the urge to glare at the older man. Unable to take control of the situation, Ogata-san had settled on joining the medicine seller, deciding that if he didn't know what was going on, at least he could be entertained by tormenting Akira.
"The first time I played him, he refused a handicap," he started. "So we played evenly. I noticed immediately that something was wrong." No one said anything, so he continued. "His playing was solid and strong, but the way he held the stones was like a beginner. He'd also stop at odd place, as if unsure of where to place, which didn't make sense, because for his go to be that strong, he shouldn't be unsure. His go told of someone with a great deal of strength and experience, but his actions were like that of someone who had never played go before."
"How did the game end?" Isumi asked, genuinely interested.
"I won, but it wasn't a victory," Akira said.
"What do you mean?" Waya said, and Akira could feel the suspicion from the other boy boring into him.
"Because the game wasn't that of someone who'd played me evenly and lost," Akira said. "It was shidougo. Shindou had been playing a teaching game with me." At this, the room went silent. "The second time we played, I'd demanded a rematch, and this time, Shindou… he destroyed me. It was a level completely different from mine. But the third time..." Akira felt the bitter memory welling up inside, and could not keep the emotion out of his voice. "I beat him. He played like a complete beginner, a terrible beginner. It doesn't make any sense. The first two times I played him, he was strong enough to be a match for father, and the third time, it was like he'd never played go before."
"That reminds me of the rumors when Shindou first entered insei class," Waya said. "There were rumors that you considered him your rival, but his games sucked."
"He improved quickly enough though," Isumi said.
"And his later games," Akira said. "His later games were nothing like his earlier games. The style is completely different, though you can see a hint of his former playing style in his go still."
"This is unusual?"
"Unless Shindou completely changed personalities between the time I first met him and now, yes, it is unusual," Akira said, answering the medicine seller.
"I see." The medicine seller looked away from him, to look at the seals pasted on the door. A sound like an electric current started, coming first from the ceiling. One by one, the seals on the doorway turned red. "The sweet dreams are over," he said softly.
One of the drawers in the medicine chest slid open, and from the drawer floated out an odd object Akira could not describe. It was beautifully made, white and gold, with other bright colors and jewels embedded on its surface. Slowly, it floated to the medicine seller's hand.
"Where is it?"
Another one of the odd objects floated from the drawer, followed by another, until there was an endless line of them, certainly more than what should have been able to fit into the drawer. Akira, like everyone else, automatically backed away as far as they could into the nearest wall, partly in shock, partly in terror. Even his father was white-lipped and tense, though he showed nothing else to reveal his unease. Fujisaki-san and Shindou-san had backed into the same wall where Waya and Isumi were, clutching one another and shaking.
With a jerk of the hand, the objects changed directions, and floated toward the ceiling. Once reaching it, bells dropped from them, though how anything could drop up, Akira did not know. If he was to be honest with himself, he did not want to know.
"Wh-what are you doing?" Waya demanded.
"The Baku has returned," the man said. "The scales are to determine from which direction it is coming."
"Those are scales?!"
"They measure distance."
"Scales measure weight, not distance," Ogata-san said, eyeing the odd scales above his head nervously. At that moment, as one, the scales tipped in the direction where Shindou-san and the others were standing.
"From the south?" the medicine seller said, turning to face in the same direction. Akira saw that, as he did so, dozens of folded paper appeared in both his hands. Faster than he could see, the folded papers shot forward, where they turned into the same seals that he had used earlier to paste over the door. Like hundreds of bullets, they hit against the wall, discounting the screaming people who fell to the ground in terror. No sooner did the seals touch the wall, did they all as one turn red, and with the change, came a physical shock and a roar, as something seemed to collide against the wall. The room shook with the collision, and Akira fell to the ground, screaming in fear.
There was a second where things were still, and then the pounding against the wall started again. Akira had the impression of some giant creature pounding repeatedly at the wall only to be stopped… by something.
"Akira!" he heard his father cry.
"Father!" he called back, and made an effort to reach his right hand out toward where his father had also collapsed, though he could barely stay on all fours, the floor was shaking so.
Meanwhile, the medicine seller remained miraculously standing, the sword held horizontally across his face as he faced the wall.
"What's going on?" Fujisaki-san screamed.
"No. You will not feed!" the medicine seller said. Strong wind burst from the wall, making Akira's eyes tear up, and further flattening him to the ground. All he could see now was the fluttering ends of the medicine seller's obi, as the man fought against an unseen force.
Akira could not look up to see what was going on, but he recognized Shindou-san's voice.
And that was when a horrible wail filled the room. In the midst of roaring wind and the pounding against the wall, it cut through the noise like a knife. Akira could feel the endless despair, depression, and agony in the sound as the wail continued. Instead of getting softer, as the seconds flew by the wail grew stronger.
"Kami-sama please! Return time to when I first met him! I don't need anything! I won't ask to play anymore, so please…!"
It took another few seconds before Akira realized that it was Shindou's voice. As if listening, the wind died, and the shaking settled to a mere tremor. Slowly, everybody stood, if only to try to see what was happening to Shindou.
Shindou was speaking, yet his eyes remained firmly closed, even as a torrent of tears flowed down his cheeks.
"I should have let him play everything. All the games. All of them! Anyone would have agreed. It would have been better if I had let him play instead of me."
Unable to resist, Akira ran to the bed and bent over the boy. He held Shindou's shoulders, willing the other boy to wake.
"Who? Who should you have let play? Shindou! Wake up! Shindou!"
But once again, Shindou had gone quiet, though the tears did not stop flowing. Silence fell over the room. Akira shook, exhausted, while he gasped for air. His legs could not hold him up any longer. He fell to his knees, his right hand curled tightly around the hospital sheets on the bed.
At first it was a mere trembling, but as Akira watched, the trembling turned into shaking, until Shindou was convulsing before his eyes. Behind him, he heard a loud curse, followed by another roar as once again, something collided against the wall. This time though, the medicine seller could not stop whatever it was from coming through. Before his eyes, Akira watched as the seals blackened and disappeared. Then from the center, like some sort of dark lava, it poured from the wall. Akira caught a glimpse of tusks and small, hungry-looking eyes. Too terrified to move, he could only look on as the formless mass crested like a wave toward Shindou, and then—poured into Shindou's head. The medicine seller himself was flung backwards, where he slammed against the opposite wall.
Then, for one brief moment, Shindou's eyes opened.
All fell still. After a brief moment, Akira found that his legs could move again, and he stood up. His father was already up, though his face was ghastly pale.
"Are you okay?" Fujisaki-san asked, looking up at the medicine seller. He stood up on one of the tables standing near the guest chairs, his posture calm. There was no sign that just a few minutes before, he'd been thrown against a wall. The medicine seller looked down at Shindou, his expression inscrutable.
"Tell me. Who is Sai?"
"He appeared on the internet one summer seven years ago, and then just as suddenly disappeared," Waya said.
"And the boy knew this Sai?"
"How should I know? He's always denied knowing him!" Waya snapped. "But this explains a lot about him."
"I had always suspected," Ogata-san said, then cast a glare toward Akira's father. "You too, denied that Shindou had any connection with Sai." It was a mark of Ogata-san's anger and passion that he would speak so rudely to his teacher. Akira's father though, did not react to the accusation.
"I had made a promise."
"Please speak of it," the medicine seller said. Akira noted the tone of respect in the man's voice, and felt a spark of gratification. Even this man considered his father worthy of respect. After a long moment, in which it felt like his father was weighing the severity of the consequences of what he would choose, he finally spoke.
"He asked me, while visiting me at the hospital, if I would play a game with Sai. At first, I'll admit I refused, but he was persistent. We agreed on a time. Finally, he asked that I play seriously against Sai. In response, I told him that I naturally would. To reassure him of my sincerity, I told him that if I lost, I would resign, but in return, if I had won, he would be forced to tell me who Sai was. Shindou-kun agreed, though he begged me not to tell anyone that he had set this up.
"Sai won. I have nothing more to tell."
Ogata-san looked triumphant.
"Now all we need is to figure out where Sai is," Ogata-san said, "Then…"
"Sai is dead."
The other man glared at the medicine seller like he'd been slapped.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Or did you not hear the wail and the entreaty to god to turn back time?" the medicine seller continued mercilessly.
"The wailing… that was Shindou?" Waya whispered hoarsely. "I…"
"That is not a sound the Baku makes. You all heard the despair and the agony. The Baku is not a spirit of despair." The medicine seller chuckled. "It looks like my assumptions were wrong. I had thought at first that the one who had possessed the boy was the Baku. The Baku is merely feeding on the aftermath."
"Then what had done the possessing?" Akira wanted to know.
"Possession opens up a part of the possessed mind," the medicine seller continued. "The Baku took that opportunity to feed on the wound that possession caused." From where the medicine seller stood, Akira once again, heard a clack, as the mouth of the sword briefly snapped shut. "This is the Makoto. Now all that is needed is the Kotowari."
"Answer Akira's question first," Waya said.
"The answer is obvious." The medicine seller once again looked down at where Shindou was from where he stood on the table. "Considering the depth of the wound Sai had left him, the boy must have loved him very much."
"Sai is not a mononoke!" Akira shouted, yet even as he said it, he felt his heart skip a beat. Hadn't he himself once told Shindou that Sai was inside Shindou, as a part of him?
"I never said he was. Mononoke are not the only types of spirits capable of possession. It is not a unique ability in the spirit world. The question however, remains to be answered. What was Sai?" He suddenly turned his gaze onto Fujisaki-san, who jumped. "How much more do you remember of the night the boy first collapsed?"
"I-I…we were upstairs in his grandfather's attic. His grandfather has a lot of old things stored up there, and we found an old go board. Hikaru… he'd wanted to sell it," she said timidly. Akira reminded himself that this was the old Shindou she was describing, not the current one, so he did his best to keep his instinctive outrage tightly lidded. "But he started complaining that the board was dirty. He said that there were s-stains all over the board."
"Do you know what kind of stains?"
"Blood." Seeing the medicine seller narrowing his eyes, Fujisaki-san hastily added, "But I couldn't see a thing."
"The go board. Do you remember anything about it?"
"No. Except that, Hikaru's grandpa talked about how old and valuable it was. Shindou-san, do you know?"
"I… I don't know much about go," Shindou-san said. "But the board has always been grandfather's pride and joy. He said a famous go player used to own it. I'd always thought it was bragging on his part."
"A famous go player?" Ogata-san said, suddenly alert. He was not the only one. Every go player in the room had caught the phrase, and with a suddenly clarity, they all knew just who had once used the go board.
"Shuusaku. Honinbou Shuusaku."
Then everything turned black.
For an eternity, Akira thought he was falling into an endless darkness. When he opened his eyes, he was back in the hospital room.
"They were never here," the medicine seller said. "This is a dream."
Considering what has happened so far, Akira no longer felt any shock or surprise.
"Why am I here?"
"Because there is something you can do."
Akira looked at the medicine seller, and saw that, for the first time, even with the painted lips, he was no longer smiling.
"I'm the only one who can bring him back," he realized. The other man said nothing, but Akira knew that he had gotten the right answer. "We're rivals," Akira said, on firm ground for the first time since everything had happened. "I know him better than anyone."
The hospital door swung open, and a young man in a Heian period silk robe peeked in.
"Am I disturbing anyone?" he asked. Long, silky hair flowed from the young man's head to the point where some of it swept the ground. He had a finely sculpted face, handsome as well as beautiful. There was an air of kindness and dignity around him that was, contradictorily enough, coupled by a puppy-like friendliness.
"Who are you?" the medicine seller asked.
"Oh! I'm sorry. I'm looking for someone. My name is Sai. Fujiwara no Sai."
Sai looked around the room, before setting his eyes on Akira. His eyes lit up with recognition.
"Akira! You've grown so big!" he said, and bounded into the room, dignity forgotten.
"Y-you know me?"
"Of course! I've always enjoyed my games with you and Hikaru never could stop thinking about you. But of course, you never could see me before." His eyes shone. "You can see me now."
Pleased as Akira was to know that Shindou probably thought of him as often as Akira did, he could not but be reminded of what was happening to Shindou.
"Sai, Shindou. He needs your help. He keeps calling for you, and…"
"I cannot go to him," Sai said quietly. The light in his eyes dimmed, and there was a shadow of the misery that Shindou had when he had called to Sai. "My time with him is over, as was my time in the living world. I have to move on, and so does he."
"To connect the past to the present," Akira said, suddenly remembering what Shindou had once said after losing to Ko Yeongha.
"Shindou has forgotten," Sai said. Once again, his eyes took on a glow of pleasure as he recalled the past. "That boy always forgets his lessons. It takes a while to get things to stick in his head." He sighed. "Somehow I manage."
It was at the moment that Akira realized that what the medicine seller had said about Shindou also applied to Sai. This man loved Shindou deeply, their relationship something beyond mere teacher and student. Despite himself, Akira felt a twinge of jealousy. All his life, he had craved for the closeness that Shindou once had.
"You must have been a good teacher."
"Oh, Hikaru is gifted," Sai said, smiling. "I can't say it was wholly me, and neither can he. He and I have you to thank."
"You were the one who took him by the hand and dragged him into go. I hadn't been able to do that. He saw how hard you were chasing me, and wanted you to chase him instead. It was you who first taught him to love go, and it was you who drove him to go forward." Sai looked at him soberly. "He will always be your rival. Never doubt that."
"I haven't," Akira said
"But this goes beyond your rivalry," Sai said, looking at the empty hospital bed. "Shindou never could forget about what Torajiro allowed me to do. He keeps thinking that he should have done the same."
Torajiro, Akira remembered, was Honinbou Shuusaku's former name, before he took on the title of Go Sage.
"He… he stopped playing go for awhile. When you left, it devastated him." Akira looked at Sai, who looked away. "But he went back. I don't know why. I wish I did. If I did, maybe I could solve this."
"You can," Sai said earnestly. He reached out a hand to touch Akira, but before it could touch him, it paled and turned translucent. "Ah," Sai said. "My time is up. It was nice talking to you Akira. I've always wanted to." Sai's eyes dimmed. "There are so many people I want to talk to still."
"It must be hard," Akira said, and flushed, knowing that he had stated the obvious. He had never been good at comforting people, and this situation was no different. Sai continued to turn paler and paler.
"I would have liked to play another game of go against you. This time as myself, instead of in Hikaru's shadow," Sai said. Then, in a renewed sense of urgency, said, "Please tell him one thing for me. Please let him know."
"Tell me," Akira said, fighting the panic at seeing Sai's rapidly disappearing form.
"I didn't want to go. I'd never wanted to lea—"
In a flash of light that was temporarily blinding, Akira covered his eyes to shield himself. When he opened his eyes, he was back in the hospital room, with everybody standing as they were before.
"Well?" the medicine seller asked. He looked at Akira expectantly.
"Shindou… Shindou stopped playing go for a very long time at one point. Then he suddenly came back. To play me. Why?"
Isumi shifted uncomfortably.
"I don't know why exactly, but… shortly after I visited him, he started playing go again." At the silence, he continued. "I forced him to play a game with me. I convinced him when I told him that it was for me. But in the middle of the game, he suddenly stopped, and started crying."
"What did he say?" Akira asked.
"This way of playing… he used to play like this," Isumi said. "It was like as if he had finally found something. I remember, because I'd been asking around. One of the people he was last with told me that Shindou had rushed around as if he was looking for something."
"He was looking for Sai," Waya said. "And then he found him."
"In his own game," Akira finished.
"But he went back to go. He didn't quit. He got over it, and found Sai. So why is he in a coma now?" Waya said, frustrated. "It doesn't make any sense."
"Because even though he found him, he never forgave himself," Akira said. He felt something move inside him, like a turn of a key. "And winning the Honinbou title reminded him. As a title holder, he'll be playing the other title holders as equals, all the people Sai had wanted to play…"
A loud, final click echoed through the room.
"That is the Kotowari." The sword floated above the medicine seller's head, and on his face was a feral grin, wider than the other smiles Akira had seen so far. "The mononoke may be slain, the sword shall be unsheathed."
The mouth of the sword opened, and it let out a cry.
For a long moment the room was bathed in warm yellow light. Akira felt its warmth, but dared not look too closely at it, lest it blind him. Eventually, the light faded, and when it did, the medicine seller was, as expected, nowhere to be seen. Not even a scrap of a seal remained.
On the bed, Shindou stirred for the first time in days.
"I think Shindou will be hungry when he wakes up," Fujisaki-san noted.
"I'll inform the doctor," Shindou-san said, standing up.
"I need to get out for a bit," Waya said, and Isumi soon joined him.
"We'll be out in the hallway for a while too," Ogata-san said. He looked at the door for a long time, touching the place where the seals had once been.
"I'll stay here," Akira said.
Shindou woke up a few minutes later. He moved a bit, but then quickly sat up.
"Congratulations," Akira said.
Shindou glared at him.
"What's that supposed to mean? And why am I in a hospital bed?"
"You've been asleep for two weeks," Akira said, not bothering to answer the question.
"I have?" But he didn't look as shocked as he should be.
"Yes. You have."
For a moment there was an awkward silence, as neither was quite sure what to say.
"I guess, if I've been sleeping for two weeks, I kinda deserve a congrats, don't I?"
"Deserve?" Akira snapped, losing his temper. "You deserve several kicks to the head. Idiot! Do you know how worried we've all been? You'd even got Sa—" He froze.
Shindou leveled Akira with a stunned look.
Akira took a deep breath. Then another.
"Sai told me to send you a message. He told me to tell you that he didn't want to go. He hadn't wanted to leave you."
There was another brief moment of silence, as Shindou stopped to look away. When he looked back, the light in his eyes wavered a bit more than usual.
"It looks like we have a lot to talk about."
"We'll talk about it later," Akira said, knowing that it was going to happen sooner rather than later, if the others were anything to judge by. The door opened, and Waya rushed in, shortly followed by Isumi.
"You idiot! You stupid idiot! What were you thinking?" Waya roared, rushing to where Shindou sat.
"Hey! I just woke up! Is that any way to treat an invalid?"
"Like hell you're one. We have a lot to talk about, and this time, you're going to spill all of it. All of it."
Akira found a chair and sat down to watch as the rest returned to the room, including a stunned doctor and a nurse carrying a tray. He watched Shindou sputter, and was glad that for once, it wasn't him having to look for answers.
It was time for him to be entertained now.