Disclaimer: Obviously, the Hikaru no Go characters don't belong to me, however much I'd like them to, but to Yumi Hotta and Takeshi Obata. I'm not making any money from this, and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended.
THE LACQUER BOX
Now that I'm nearly old, I know that even the smallest thing can change the course of our lives, no matter how insignificant it seems at the time. Which is, of course, not to say that big and overwhelming things can't change our lives, too. I've had both happen to me.
First, there was Sai.
Naturally, he belonged to the overwhelming category. Both his arrival and his departure were dramatic events.
He arrived unexpectedly, as I've noticed people tend to do, particularly people who will be important. He departed equally unexpectedly, very quietly, when I had nodded into exhausted sleep at the Go board in the middle of a game. To say I missed him doesn't describe even a fraction of how I felt. My grief and sorrow eventually scarred over like badly healed wounds that still hurt sometimes, much like once broken bones will ache dully when the weather's rainy or cold.
I'm immensely grateful to Sai for what he did for me. He appeared into the world of the rather shallow and happy-go-lucky boy I was at twelve, and gave my life direction and aim. I can't even guess what I'd have become without him. I expect I'd have been rather unrefined and dissatisfied, with only a vague understanding of the reason for my dissatisfaction. I expect that I would still, as an adult, have been rather shallow, with a largely unclaimed intelligence and an unused, dormant sense of purpose. An unfinished product, so to speak, characterised by the bitterness of unused potential and promises unfulfilled.
When Sai arrived, he woke my hunger to learn and improve – the desire to learn Go, at first, but later on the desire to be a better human being.
I still dream of him sometimes, and I wake up with my face wet with tears. I miss his brilliance and kindness, his enthusiasm over small things, his idealism and his capacity for joy. I miss his presence in my life, the constant companionship. I often realise things too late. I've lost other people than Sai, and then, too, I've realised that I didn't value them properly when they were with me; I didn't understand how important they were to me until they were gone. I was unkind to them so often without meaning to, out of sheer thoughtlessness.
And it wasn't until I accepted the fact that he was gone that I could begin to grieve properly.
I've cried more over Sai than over anyone else. Sometimes I wonder what that says about me – that I've felt more grief over a ghost than I ever have over real people. But to me, Sai was more real than anyone.
On days after I've met Sai in my dreams, I often go to the nearby park and sit underneath the trees. Sometimes I draw a Go board in the sand at my feet with a twig and play through one of our games. At other times, I simply sit, watching people walk past, planes leave white vapour trails across the sky and dragonflies hover and disappear. And when I sit there and think, I know that Sai is still here. He's an indelible part of me, part of my pattern of thinking, part of my dreams and my games, and as long as I'm alive, Sai will live, too. As long as we're part of someone's memories, we haven't really died.
Secondly, there was Touya Akira.
His arrival in my life was as unexpected as Sai's, less dramatic but no less important.
He overwhelmed me, too. Here was someone my own age who was brilliant at something I'd only just started dabbling in, someone who took me seriously and took an immediate, intense interest in me. He spurred me, motivated me, annoyed me and took my breath away. The importance of Touya Akira's presence in my life can't be overestimated.
Thirdly, there was the tiniest detail that made my life change its course: a shirt button.
There, I knew it would look ridiculous in print. It was ridiculous, too.
This fateful item belonged to Touya Akira. It was the top button but one at the throat of a light summer shirt, and it was undone. This detail disrupted the game we were playing and subsequently both of our lives. I'd lie if I said we've always been grateful to that little button – on bad days, we've cursed its untidy existence. But mostly we're grateful to it, enough to let it meet its old age reverently stored between layers of rice paper in a small lacquer box.
It was a warm, humid day in August, so warm that the usual, hot tea served to the players was replaced with iced tea.
It wasn't a formal match at all, only a game we'd agreed between us to play at a Go salon on a day off, so thankfully there was no need to appear in suit and tie. We were still in very proper dress, but we'd both chosen light, airy materials. Despite this, my shirt was clinging to my damp back as the game began.
Our nigiri gave me white. I didn't mind. It was always exciting to play someone as brilliant and intense as Touya Akira, but the hot, unmoving air in the room made me watch his opening move almost languidly. It wasn't until Touya's fifth move, when he leant forward and placed the stone on the board, that I noticed he hadn't buttoned his shirt all the way up.
Nothing remarkable about that, you may think. It was a hot day, after all, and the shirt wasn't indecently open in any way. Only the top button and the one below it were left undone, but it was enough to throw me completely off balance. Touya usually buttoned his dreadfully coloured shirts all the way up to his chin, as I'd often noticed (and groaned inwardly at his terrible fashion sense, or lack of fashion sense). Because of this habit of his, I hadn't paid any attention to his neck.
I did now. I stared at it. It was slender but powerful with a chiselled-out Adam's apple, and the skin was slightly damp and misty, from humidity or perspiration or both. At the base of his throat, the little hollow lay in shadow, but light danced softly over the points of collarbone on either side. I wanted to push the Go board aside, grab Touya's shoulders and bury my tongue in that hollow. I wanted to rip the rest of the buttons open, make him throw his head back, and run my tongue up his neck and along his jawbone to his ear. I wanted to make him shudder and moan aloud.
The strength of my feeling shocked me. I had tried to deny even to myself that my desire for Touya Akira wasn't restricted to the Go board. Playing him and making him turn those intense eyes on me had been my driving force for years, and I wanted the excitement I felt when I responded to his moves in a game of Go to be taken further. In that soft, floating state between sleeping and waking, I'd dreamt of kissing him, but my daylight self had never admitted that I wanted him, his physical person - not only as an opponent or an intellectual challenge. I wanted him.
And now, there was no going back.
I must have made some kind of noise – he was looking at me strangely. Meeting his eyes made me gasp. Their intensity was one of the first things I'd noticed about him, and I hadn't failed to see their beauty, either. I saw it again now, for the millionth time, but in the light of my flash of desire.
I hastily removed my gaze from his eyes and lowered it to his mouth. Bad move, Hikaru. I had to hold back a whimper as I imagined myself covering his mouth with my own, feeling his lips part under mine... I made another bad move, on the Go board this time. Desperation isn't the best of allies.
Touya looked puzzled and I could see anger begin to burn in his eyes. He hated it when I played at less than my full capacity; he hated slovenly games. His responding move was quick and precise. The stone clicked the board smartly, reprovingly.
I breathed as if I'd been running. Sweat was drenching the back and armpits of my shirt, and I buried my fingers among the cool glass stones in my goke. I tried to focus on the game, on strategy and territory, but I could sense another game developing – one Touya wasn't even aware that we were playing.
My next move was badly planned; my hand trembled and I knew I'd already lost. I half expected Touya to stand up and shout "Stop messing around!", the way he'd done at the club tournament when we were still at school. Instead, his voice was soft and worried:
"Shindou...? Are you not well?"
I had to meet his eyes again. The anger was gone; the intensity wasn't. His hand rested lightly on his goke with his fingertips on top of the stones, and I wanted that hand on me, underneath my clothes, on my skin.
"No," I said and sounded like a child. "I feel very strange."
There was a flash of concern in his eyes. "Here, have some iced tea. Maybe you're dehydrated."
I took a sip and choked on it – I seemed unable to do anything properly. When I'd stopped coughing, I apologised and said pleadingly:
"Touya... can we please stop the game? You live around the corner, don't you?"
He was startled. "Yes... yes, I do."
"Can we go there? I want to tell you."
His mouth opened slightly, and I had to close my eyes. Kissing Touya Akira's mouth, his face, his neck, seemed to have become my all-encompassing goal. More important than Go, more important than anything else in the world.
"Tell me what?"
"About me. You know, what you asked me about. The... the other person in me. I said maybe some day I'd tell you. I want to tell you now."
I opened my eyes again as I heard stones rattle, and saw that he was putting the few black stones back in his goke. Touya Akira, quietly agreeing to stop an unfinished game to listen to me...? Incredulous, pleased and nervous, I fumbled my white stones off the board and stood up. Touya patiently tidied our place up and put it in order, looked at me and nodded.
"There, we're ready. I'm looking forward to hearing your story."
We left in silence. The heat outside was oppressive, the air close and humid. It was only a short walk to Touya's apartment, but I was soaked with sweat when we entered a cool, air-conditioned lobby with a concierge desk.
The entire place spoke of money. I knew, of course, that Touya's family was wealthy and that Akira himself made good money out of his games, but this place with its strict elegance, straight lines and polished surfaces of stone, glass and wood made me feel insignificant and out of place.
I held my breath as we entered Touya's apartment. I don't know what I'd expected; perhaps that the place would instantly tell me everything I needed to know about Touya. It didn't tell me very much at all. It wasn't very big, but pleasant in an impersonal way; tidy and conventional, decorated in soft, muted colours, the rooms divided by sliding, wood-framed paper doors.
Touya offered me tea and I accepted, too nervous to think even for a minute that I'd actually be able to drink it. I knelt on the mat by the table while he made the tea, and soon he came in carrying two steaming cups.
I sipped the hot green tea without choking this time. The air conditioning was set high and the cool air made me shiver in my soaked shirt.
"Nipples," I thought vaguely, and then decided that Touya was far too unworldly to notice anything of the kind.
Touya sat down, not opposite me but at the short end of the table, next to me without being uncomfortably close. He took a sip of the tea and I couldn't stop looking at him. I wondered who had decorated the apartment. The soft, muted blue-greys and sea-greens and the dark honey-colour of the natural wood set off his own colours, hair and eyes and skin, to perfection.
"I've been afraid of this moment," he said quietly, looking down at his hands holding the black ceramic cup.
"Afraid?" My mouth felt dry despite the tea.
"Yes." He smiled a little, an ironic smile that seemed directed at himself. "Shindou..."
I shivered, from the air conditioning or at my name on his lips. He paused and I wondered whether he wanted me to respond, and how.
"It's strange to see you in my apartment."
He grinned now, and I couldn't help smiling back.
"You've been so important to me for so long, Shindou," he said in a low voice, grave again. "I'm grateful to you; I truly am. You've motivated me when no one else could. You've followed my path and made me rise. You intrigue me; you always have. I've never been able to figure you out – neither you nor your skills. And I've been afraid to hear your story... afraid it would be... trivial. Disappointing."
He looked up at me apologetically, and he still seemed to be expecting something. I knew I wouldn't disappoint him, not this time. I had stopped messing around.
"You're not afraid any more?"
He shook his head.
"It's not trivial," I said. "It's a lot of other things, but it isn't trivial. Actually it's really strange and I know it's going to sound incredible - I want you to be prepared for that. But please listen anyway, and you'll see that it explains a lot of things about me."
His eyes widened and I saw them assume that firm resolve, that look they always had during a game. Absolute focus, complete concentration.
So the time had come. I took a deep breath and began to tell Touya Akira my story, the fantastic and improbable story about Sai, who first returned to play as Honinbou Shuusaku, then returned a second time to be the invisible teacher and companion of a silly, careless and carefree Tokyo boy named Shindou Hikaru.
Having told Touya about Sai's arrival and his time with me, I also had to tell the story of his departure. I couldn't do that without tears. I bent my head and gritted my teeth, but the tears came and made my voice tremble. A few tears landed on the shiny surface of the table while I spoke; I rubbed them into the wood with an unsteady finger and continued talking.
When I had finished, silence lay heavy over the room. I waited for a reaction, still with my head bent, getting more and more nervous. There was none. In the silence, I slowly lifted my face and saw Touya stare at me with an indescribable mix of compassion and incredulity in his eyes. There was something else, too – something I couldn't read or was afraid to read.
"Shindou!" he whispered.
I didn't know what to say, so I said nothing.
"It makes sense," he said slowly. "It does make sense. It is an unbelievable story, just like you said… but I believe you, Shindou. I do believe you. It explains so many things."
I knew then that I'd told him because I had known he'd believe me, however improbable the story seemed. Touya had a keen intellect but he also had instinct and imagination; he didn't need concrete proof of abstract things. And he had already had proof of a kind: he'd seen a boy who couldn't even hold the stone properly play a brilliant game worthy of a high-dan pro player.
I could see how, as he was taking in my words, the pieces of this particular puzzle were rapidly falling into place in his mind. He was going through the times he'd played me, and some of my games with other people, too, comparing them to what I'd just told him, assessing them to see when it had been Shindou playing and when it had been Sai.
Someone else might not, would not, have believed me this easily, even if they'd had my game history in fresh memory, like Touya did. I had no doubt Ogata did, too, but even though he'd been panting to know the truth for years, I knew he'd neither have recognised it nor accepted it if I'd placed it in front of him.
Touya recognised it. Touya accepted it.
"Honinbou Shuusaku!?" he was saying shakily. "Shindou! You were so right when you said this isn't a trivial story." He exhaled, and there was a breathy little laugh. "You've intrigued me since I first met you. And even now that I know, everything about you is still so strange...! I've never met anyone this intriguing, and that's why I..."
He stopped himself and bit his lip (oh, that lip!). I hadn't realised I was still crying, but tears were streaming down my face. Touya seemed to notice it the same moment I did.
"Don't cry, Shindou," he said, very softly.
I had told him the story because I knew he'd understand, but also because I wanted closeness. I wanted us, him and me, to be the only people in the world who knew the truth.
I'm sorry, Sai, but then I nearly forgot about you for a minute. You'll forgive me when I say it was because Touya Akira was staring at me again, with that intensity I'd been craving for years concentrated into something so strong I could barely breathe. He reached out a hand to my face, lay his palm against my cheek and very gently wiped tears away with his thumb.
"Don't cry," he whispered again. "I don't recognise Shindou if he cries."
He wanted me to be me, but this was part of me too – my love for Sai and my love for Touya Akira. I wanted him to see it. I wanted him to see the real me.
The name hung in the air between us, either much too formal or much too casual for the situation, I wasn't sure which.
That was better. He smiled as I gave him his name, and he replied, easily and with a gentleness that I hadn't seen in him before today but began to realise was part of him, just like the sadness was part of me.
It was enough of a confirmation. I had asked; he had given permission.
I leant forward and gently kissed the mouth that had held my name a fraction of a second earlier. The air conditioning hummed faintly around us like the soft breathing of a giant. The cool air made me shiver, but there was nothing cold about either Touya Akira's mouth or his response to the kiss. His lips were soft and firm and parted under mine to allow tongues to meet, making my body both hard and liquid. His hand left my cheek to cup the back of my neck instead, fingers gently finding their way into my hair.
How many times had my imagination played this scene inside my head when I was half asleep? The touch, the kiss, the gratifying intake of breath...? Innumerable times, but the intensity had never even been close to this.
I wanted body contact but we were kneeling, awkwardly turned toward each other. When I tried to move closer our knees collided, and I was too shy to do what I wanted – move forward and straddle him. Instead, I stood up slowly and made him follow me, his mouth only leaving mine for a fraction of a second.
Touya seemed to want this as badly as I did. His entire front was pressed against mine; his fingers combed through my hair and stroked the back of my neck, locked around my head as though afraid I'd pull out of the kiss. He ought to have known I'd never move away from him.
My hands were wandering off on an exploration of their own, doing things I'd never have dared, but left to their own devices they ran up and down Touya's back, feeling the warmth of his skin through the thin fabric of his shirt. Annoyed with anything that kept them from touching that skin, my hands slid in under it.
He moaned into my mouth, and I lost it. Still with my mouth against his, licking his tongue, sucking at his lower lip, I began to fumble his shirt open and pushed it back over his shoulders, unbuttoning it with feverish fingers. He stopped kissing me, took a step back and shrugged out of the shirt, and I just stood there stupidly with my hands outstretched and frozen in mid-air, staring at him. I had never seen anything as fantastic, as insanely desirable as this in my life: Touya Akira, shirtless, glorious, sunlight making his skin golden, his eyes wide and dark with desire and his mouth glisteningly wet from mine.
I could have passed out. I didn't. I laughed. Touya looked genuinely alarmed for a moment, as if I'd done all this to ridicule him. I had to reassure him; I'd laughed out of sheer joy.
"Akira, you are... you look beautiful."
The colour on his already flushed face deepened, embarrassment and pleasure mixed.
His voice was husky. I pulled my damp shirt over my head, stretched out a hand and pulled him to me again, skin against skin now.
"Oh," he said.
I kissed him again, my fingers entangling in the soft silk of his hair. His hands ran up my back, then round to my front, and he started fumbling with my button fly. I forgot that I was a guest in Touya's house. I pulled him with me to the bedroom, and we reeled and stumbled over each other's feet as we couldn't bear to let go of each other even for a second. Touya let himself fall on his back on the bed, looking up at me, pulling me down on top of him, and we struggled blindly out of our remaining clothes.
How could I have failed to see how my feelings for Touya had been mixed up with Go? I suppose the answer lay in my inexperience. I had felt the intensity and pull of a good game of Go, with Waya, with Ogata, with Sai, and then I had played Touya Akira and felt the difference. I had thought it was because Touya was such an unusual and exceptionally talented player; his originality had to make a game with him feel different. I hadn't realised the difference consisted of attraction.
Akira was beautiful. I'd just never seen how beautiful. My God, I saw it now.
Naked, stretched out on his bed, eyes wide and dark, face flushed, hair spread over his pillow like a fan... pale skin, dark hair in his armpits and his groin. I had never wanted anything this badly, not even Go. I licked his nipples, ran my tongue down his stomach, let my teeth nip at his hipbone and heard him laugh in surprise. The perspective made me giddy. My lips moved over the taut skin on his hipbone, my fingers caressed the silky inside of his thigh... His erection was aligned with my cheek and I could feel the warmth of it. I could smell him, faintly, like the sea in late summer.
His fingers were bunching the bedsheet. I turned my head and slid my lips along the hard silkiness, and there was a growl or a snarl in his throat as his hand came into my hair, his fingers entangling in it, hard.
"Just do it, Shindou!"
Touya in bed wasn't that different from Touya at the Go board. He could be endlessly patient with other people, but he'd never been with me. With me, he wanted everything to happen at once.
So I did it. I made it happen.
That was where our relationship started, and that's how it continued. After all, we'd been practising for it for years. We knew each other's strengths and strategies so well; we knew when to attack, when to hold back, when to surround – and we knew when to resign.
Sai and Akira, the people who shaped my life.
I'm sitting here on a bench in the park with one of Sai's and my old games of Go played out in the sand at my feet. It's getting late in the afternoon, and the shadow that falls over my roughly drawn board is long and narrow.
"I thought I'd find you here," Akira says and sits down next to me on the bench. "Have you forgotten we're going to the country this evening?"
"No. But I did forget about the time. I was thinking."
"About what?" He looks at the Go board at my feet. "What are you replaying?"
"One of my games with Sai."
He says it lightly, but he has reason to be resentful of Sai. Several times, when we were younger, he shouted at me that he was sick of having to share me with Sai, share my attention and even my love. And every time, I shouted back that it wasn't like that with Sai, and if it had been, Sai would have been much nicer to me than Akira was. I'm ashamed of many things I've said to Akira in heated moments.
But Akira eventually seemed to reconcile himself with the memory of Sai – after all, who can continue to feel threatened by the memory of a ghost? Lately, Akira has even begun to ask about Sai again, curiously, like he often did in the first stages of our relationship, when I had just told him the story.
"I can see you've been sitting here getting sentimental," he says now with a smile in his eyes. "Come. It's time to leave." He rises from the bench and starts walking away, slowly.
"I love you," I say quietly to his back, and I know that if he can't hear it, he can feel it.
I also know that when we get home and begin packing, he'll put the little lacquer box with the shirt button in a side pocket of his overnight bag, and this is only one of all the things I love him for.