It was a normal late afternoon at the park. Just before the horizon, children were kicking a ball around, joggers treading down the familiar gravel paths, and dogs relaxing under the shade of the trees to hide from the unseasonably cruel May heat. It certainly was not supposed to be this hot, one man thought to himself as he handled some black stones and translucent white shells. He placed one slate stone on a crosshair and puzzled over the winding shapes on the board.
He tore himself away from the game to lean back and stretch. He had been there all day, forsaking all responsibility to enjoy the festivities. Naturally, he did not actually join them. From a distance, he watched them eat their mochi rice cakes and marvel at the koi swimming in the wind. His history lessons reverberated in his mind, whispering tales about Heian samurai and boys riding bears. The man went back to his stones, unhappily noting that though the slate stones were still cool, the wooden bowls holding them had heated up more than he liked. He wondered if he would have to resort to using the Institute for study-indeed, the heat was quite annoying. "Today ought to be merely the start of the summer season," he lamented aloud to himself.
"You're tellin' me."
He whipped his head up to find who had spoken, but he only saw the back of a young man, perhaps just a teenager, speedily making his way down the pathway. It was a forgettable encounter, and likely both the man and the boy would forget that this was their first interaction. Regardless, fate was not done with them, and would require a far more substantial encounter before it could be satisfied.
It was too hot. It was sweltering.
"Goddammit, what is this? Tell me, Hikaru!" the man waved a flimsy white paper around.
"I-I'm sorry!" The boy pleaded with the grown man, "I tried, I really did—" as a hard backhand made contact with his face. The teenager found himself hunched over, leaning heavily against a wall and nursing a stinging cheek.
He remembered a time when he had tried to fight back. This actually wasn't as bad. No, it wasn't so bad at all, he kept telling himself. At least that was what he thought until he was lifted off his feet by his collar and slammed against the wall. Something was digging into his back, but that was the least of his worries.
"Do you think I spend my time working a job I hate so you can laze around and get bad grades?" He wasn't even shouting anymore. He had that disappointed look on his face, the one that said, 'why do I even bother?' and 'I can barely stand to look at you.' "I expect you to get an A on your next test, or so help me God…" and that's where he always ended, usually as Hikaru crumpled to the floor.
Hikaru could remember a few select times when his father had gone beyond the occasional slap or cigarette burn. Usually he had to have done something really bad, like when he embarrassed his father at his boss's birthday party. He had to take a few 'sick days' from school to recover from that particular punishment.
He unsteadily picked himself up, wary of the incensed man before him. He muttered apologies, hoping he could get away with a mere slap. Hikaru supposed his father must have been in a better mood that day. He wasn't drunk and he wasn't too violent. And he didn't even shout that much. Over all, things could have been worse.
He stumbled up the stairs and into bed without changing his clothes. Lying on his side in the darkness and the silence, Hikaru couldn't help but hope. 'For what?' he thought to himself bitterly. Was there anything more? What was the point?
He needed a tutor. But a cheap tutor. Not Akari. Hikaru couldn't let her know how stupid he'd become since their days at Haze. Since cram schools cost money, he would prefer a fellow student who needed service hours for something. Hikaru searched for something like it at his own school, but found nothing. Kuro High School was as ghetto as you could get in Tokyo, so no free tutor programs there. Richer schools always had volunteer tutor programs though it didn't make much sense. If the students were rich, couldn't they afford tutoring? If they weren't rich, they must have gone there on a scholarship, and surely they didn't need tutoring.
Hikaru was worried. He had skipped soccer practice to look for a tutor of some sort; really anything to help him avoid another altercation with his father. If he just weren't so stupid, if he just took the time to learn the stupid material, then maybe his dad would lay off a bit. The residual tenderness in his back and cheek were testaments to his father's anger, and he was starting to lose hope.
There really was nothing. No tutors, no cheap cram schools, no nothing. Hikaru almost scoffed at his own idiocy. Of course there wouldn't be a single reprieve for someone like him!
He found himself in the park after his failed search. It was a shortcut that meandered through the trees and past a small pond, but all too soon, it would be time to head home. He couldn't possibly leave his mom to face that man alone. If he came home drunk, he never differentiated between his wife and 'the accident.' Yup, that's all Hikaru was. He was the one who ruined his father's life, who drove away his fiancée and forced him to marry a girl barely out of high school. Hikaru had always been the problem.
And he would always be the problem, wouldn't he? He remembered that dusty day in December, the day things started changing for the worse. He remembered the crash, the shock, the guilt...
The sun would be setting soon. The warm, orange light taunted him, assuring him that there would be hope for the next day. It was so beautiful, so pointlessly beautiful. He laughed to himself. Empty hopes, always empty, useless hopes. Now he could see the dying sun cast ghostly shadows against the grass.
Walking the gravelly western path home, he lowered his head, letting his bangs protect his eyes from the waning sunlight. Soon, too soon, he would be at his house. He longed to prolong his journey, if only for a little while. So his steps slowed but continued, and he was able to watch a solitary board game being set up a meter or so away. It seemed a bit like checkers, except that the markers were on the lines rather than between them. Like the first solitary drops of rain before a storm, memories of a game started trickling into his consciousness one by one. Hikaru remembered. Go. Grandpa used to play Go. Grandpa was an amateur. A good amateur. Grandpa loved Go. Grandpa had a board in his attic at the top of the stairs, above the rickety ladder, at the very back, that must have been worth a lot, that would probably sell for a lot, that awakened his greed, that caused Hikaru to... He shook his head to rid himself of the memories.
Then he realized it was the same man from the day before who had been complaining about the heat. So he paused in his steps and started making his way toward the table with the Go board. "What'cha doing there, mister?" he asked with all the curiosity of a child. It had been such a long time since he'd had the chance to act like a kid. He probably should've been embarrassed; after all, he was in high school now, wasn't he?
The man looked up. He seemed to be in his mid-twenties and had long black hair that glistened purple in the sun. He smiled kindly and waved an elegant hand over the Go board. "Playing Go." Hikaru almost rolled his eyes. "I can see that," he said instead. It was still rude, but not as rude as his gesture would have been. Hikaru didn't get why the man was playing alone again. Didn't he have any friends? Why play a game alone in a park?
The man creased his eyebrows in consternation and glanced at the boy. "Do play Go? Here, try placing this black stone."
Hikaru shook his head to answer the man's question but directed his eyes toward the markers anyway, which, up close, turned out to be stones. They didn't make much sense to him; just a jumble of black and white. He tried to analyze it, though. His inexperience was bleeding through his facial expression and the way he held the stone between his forefinger and his thumb. He knew the basics: capture stones and keep territory. He was so engrossed in trying to understand the meaning of the stones that he neither noticed the man's widening eyes nor heard the rollerblades coming.
"Watch out!" both the man and another voice shouted.
Hikaru only had time to turn his torso around before his back rammed into the table as the skater slammed into him. "Sorry!" the skater said, gathering his lanky limbs and clumsily fleeing the scene before anyone could call him back. The strange man had managed to come out of the accident looking absolutely unscathed.
"Ow," Hikaru moaned. He still had the bruises from his father, and they hurt even more now.
The young man looked concerned about Hikaru. "Are you okay? Lift up your shirt, you might've been hurt—"
"No! I'm okay!" Hikaru said, hoping he didn't sound hysterical. What his father would do if anyone, even a stranger, suspected...! Hikaru looked around and saw that the man's stones had been scattered around the board and the grass. The stranger didn't look too interested in picking up the game pieces though—he was far too interested in Hikaru's reaction. Hikaru bent over the grass finding all of the black ones first since they would be harder to find as the sun continued to set. His back ached, but he could do little about it other than get home in time. Crap.
Hikaru hurried and was relieved to find the man picking up the pieces and dropping them onto the Go board. He really needed to go…so he quickly repositioned the stones where they had been, hoping he hadn't messed anything up. It looked identical to the game he had been observing earlier and was pretty satisfied. He still held the extra black stone, the one that the man had asked him to place.
Glancing at the board again, Hikaru decided that the group in the upper left was being threatened by the white stones. With barely a thought, he placed the stone on a crosshair that he knew wouldn't immediately capture stones. In fact, it would endanger the stone he just put down. But somehow, he didn't know how, but somehow, he knew white would take it and then black would threaten the white and white would have no choice but to block and black would continue to threaten the white that had taken the initial stone and white would have to save a different group because the there was no way to salvage them and black would eagerly take six stones—and Hikaru was a little afraid of how quickly his mind was working.
As soon as he had put down the black stone, he fled, much like the rollerblader. Only this time, he was fleeing to save his life.
Fat lot of good it did.
Hikaru flinched at the deep voice. "I was…that is, soccer practice ran late."
"Really?" his father asked, sounding generally interested now. That never boded well.
"Er, yeah. We had to do a few extra drills because we have a game coming up…"
"Even though it's not tournament season?" his father seemed to be circling him now, much like a shark and its prey.
Hikaru gulped. "Well, it's just a scrimmage against another tea—"
"Don't lie to me!" Hikaru was bent over his stomach in seconds, the wind completely knocked out of him. "Your coach called to say you didn't show up! So, what have you been doing while you should have been at practice, hm? You're the one who wanted to play soccer. You're the one who decided soccer took precedence over your grades. And here you are, skipping? Feed me an excuse, Hikaru! Give me one damn good excuse!" A few more punches, one aimed at his temple which he was able to soften with his arms, another to his unprotected stomach, and one flying wildly into his raised arm, as he tried to protect his head, his abdomen, his everything.
Hikaru fell to his knees. His throat grew tight with bile or something, and he felt like he was going to throw up…but he couldn't, not in the kitchen. His father would skin him if he dirtied the kitchen. "I-I was l-looking for a t-tutor!" he struggled to say. His mouth felt thick and coppery, and he couldn't help but cough into his hand. Was that blood? No, he was just imagining it. He rarely coughed up blood.
"Why would my son need a tutor? If he feels the need to spend money on a tutor, why doesn't he get a job? Or why doesn't he quit soccer so he can actually study!" another kick, and he was down. The shouting continued, but Hikaru was having trouble deciphering the words.
His vision was blurring, just a bit. That wasn't too unusual. The blood, however, worried him. And the ringing in his ears. "I-I'm sorry, I'm sorry!" He never noticed when he father left the kitchen. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," he continued to mutter to himself. He never noticed when his mother snuck into the kitchen and cleaned her son's face. He never noticed when the woman left as soon as she heard footsteps. "S-Sorry…" And he never noticed when the two started eating dinner without a second glance for their son.
His face was always untouched. Always. Mostly. Except for the slapping, which didn't leave obvious marks anyway. He was never punched, kicked, cut, or burned on his face, and Hikaru supposed he should be a little thankful. He would never be able to keep his secret if his face looked as bad as the rest of his body usually did.
His breaths were labored, he could tell, and his chest felt tender. He could walk, but he was bent over; the weird walking position stretched his back but made his stomach feel better. He had to compromise. Sitting, at least, was fine. When he had been a kid, his father only used his hand and the belt. The hand was fine, but the belt made it impossible to sit the next day, and Hikaru always tried to disrupt the class only so the teacher would make him stand out in the hallway holding buckets of water. These days, it was a relief to sit. Such a relief…much better than the cold hard floor of the kitchen.
"Yo, Shindou, wake up!" A student behind him poked him with a pencil.
He tried not to wince. "I'm awake!"
"Shindo," clucked the teacher, "go stand in the hallway. Take these with you."
But of course these days, standing straight holding a bucketful of water in each hand hurt a lot more than sitting. How was he supposed to get an A on a test if he was stuck in the hallway most of the time? Hikaru sighed and started to feel his arm muscles weakening from the weight of the buckets.
The rest of the school day passed uneventfully. He spoke with a few classmates and gave an excuse to his soccer teammates, adding in that the coach most certainly did not have to call his father. He couldn't play soccer, not when he was so out of breath. And he still felt a little dizzy sometimes. He wondered how bad it was since he had been bleeding.
He checked his fingernails, and sure enough, they were tinted blue. "Cyanosis," he muttered to himself a little proudly. He had long ago looked up the symptoms and had come to recognize them. Yep, that meant he had a pulmonary contusion, just bruised lungs. From experience, they would be better in three or five days as long as he didn't aggravate his injuries—which meant no soccer. He wasn't so sure about his father though; the man didn't usually become violent two days in a row. Hikaru supposed that was his own fault since he came home late the night before.
He knew there were no free tutoring places around, so he spent the rest of the time that he should have spent in soccer at the park. He was wary this time around, looking around occasionally to make sure no rogue rollerblades were coming his way. That man was back at the table with the Go board before him. He looked as engrossed in the stones as always. It seemed like the same game, except that white had responded. In fact, white had responded exactly where he thought it would have. Hikaru didn't focus too much on the thought that the man hadn't moved on from that stone for a whole day.
No. Instead, without alerting the man to his presence, Hikaru took a black stone and made the move he had thought of earlier. It threatened the white and only slightly strengthened the black.
"You again," the man said, snapping his head up. "Are you okay? You did not look well yesterday."
Someone cared? It had been such a long time since someone cared. "Yeah, I'm fine," he brushed off the man's concern as he had always brushed off the half-hearted concern of others. "So how would you respond to that?"
The man quirked a smile and expertly picked up a white stone between his middle and fore fingers. With a decided klak, the white stone landed precisely where Hikaru predicted it would have gone. Without missing a beat, he grabbed a stone in his amateur hold and threatened the white stones again.
The man grinned openly and abandoned the white group, aiming instead for some other group in some other area of the board. Gleefully, Hikaru killed the six white stones by blocking them off with a black one, exactly how he predicted it. What he didn't predict was another battle occurring in the section the other man just attacked. From Hikaru's perspective, there wasn't much to save there. He would only end up sacrificing a few stones and gaining little. "Wow, you're really good at this, huh?" Hikaru said in wonder. "You really made a comeback."
"This is a recreation of a game I played. I had been playing black," the man said, "and I did exactly as you did. Except for maybe the last move. White has given those stones up for dead, and taking them when you did merely wasted a turn."
"What?" Hikaru had to ask. How did it waste a turn? He captured the stones, didn't he?
"How long have you been playing?" the man asked curiously. He sounded just like Hikaru did when they first met.
Hikaru had to think. "My grandpa showed me his stones once, but I hadn't seen a Go board till yesterday."
'Liar!' a voice in his head accused him. 'You can't have forgotten about the Go board in the attic.'
The man's eyebrows shot up. "This is your first time playing Go?"
Hikaru shrugged. "I guess. I mean, my grandpa just told me you want to capture stones and gain territory. He talked about sharing the board, not overtaking the entire thing. That's pretty much it."
The man chuckled. "You seem to be a natural then. Come, sit, and I'll play a game with you." Hikaru was unsure; the last time he had messed with the Go board, he ended up getting home late.
"Okay, but I have to get home soon."
The man nodded emphatically. "Of course! Do not let me keep you if you need to go." He gestured at the bench on the other side of the table. "I am Fujiwara Sai. You?"
Hikaru was wary of strangers, but this one seemed kind. Maybe he could take the risk.
"His name is Shindou Hikaru," Sai told him. They were hovering around the coffee machine while his colleague waited impatiently for a cup of the bitter liquid.
"So? What of it?" Ogata replied flippantly. "You won't find your greatest student hiding in the park. Just give up. You know very well that Touya Akira will be the head of the next generation."
"But this boy—he solved a 2-dan problem, and he looked really young!" Sai said enthusiastically, clapping his hands in excitement. Times like these, Ogata wished he had gone into a profession that required maturity. "And he recreated a game just from looking at it for a few seconds. We played a game—his first game—and it was very insightful."
Ogata merely "mm'd" and continued to drink his coffee sans sugar.
"I want him to take the Pro test."
Ogata sputtered. "Didn't you say his first game was yesterday? Why the hell would you encourage him to take the Pro test now—"
"Not now, but eventually."
"At least make him an insei first!"
Sai waved it off. "No, no! He'll be much too good—he would only discourage the other insei."
"You sound like Toya Meijin," Ogata muttered.
"Do I?" he asked airily, as if his thoughts were already in the clouds. "He has much more natural talent than little Akira, anyway." He said without a thought to where he was or to whom he was speaking.
The blonde man stopped himself from spitting out his coffee, lest he let himself look like a fool. "That- that's quite impossible, Fujiwara. You forget that 'little' Akira is stronger than many professionals, he's even kept up with you. Your little prodigy probably doesn't even know what a Go professional does."
His friend shrugged. "Nevertheless, he shall be a great player. Let it be known that that boy will be at the front of the new wave!"
"Whatever, crazy. Let's go. You have a game in three minutes."
Sometimes Hikaru liked to hang out with Akari and her friends. They had gone on to Haze High School, unlike Hikaru—he'd gone to the cheapest school which was, surprisingly, not Haze. It was some out of the way school called Kuroshin, affectionately termed the "Black" School by its students. Nobody liked Kuro. It was an all boy's school for kids who weren't able to get into any other high schools. Prospects were low for those who couldn't even survive at Kuro. Hikaru wasn't stupid by any stretch, but he had missed the entrance exam for Haze due to a few suspicious injuries, and other schools were simply too expensive. So it was Kuro for him.
"Hikaru!" Akari cried when he teased her about her ugly new sweater. Really, since when were blue and orange horizontal stripes in fashion? Her friends laughed heartily. They were usually genial toward Hikaru, if not a little snobby at times. Sometimes going to a worse school made him look really bad.
"What colleges are you guys thinking of?" one person asked. Hikaru felt a bit awkward. He never seriously thought he could get into college. College was for people who were smart and could afford to go in the absence of intelligence. Not Hikaru. Sometimes he thought he should've gone straight to a technical school.
Akari brightened at the new topic of conversation. "I'm thinking Tokyo University."
Her friends ooh'ed, "That's pretty ambitious, Akari."
She stuck her tongue out playfully and smiled. "It's a reach school, really. There is a women's college I was thinking about, but I really want to get into Tokyo." Her friends continued talking and laughing about their futures, their ambitions, and eventually they found themselves at the local playground. Hikaru remembered playing there as a child, and seeing the slides and swings only made him long for the old days.
Suddenly, a happy ringtone cut the air and Akari left to take her call. She walked a distance away and flipped her phone open. Meanwhile, her friends continued conversation with Hikaru. He was sitting on a swing with Akari's friends spread around the swing set and slides.
"What about you, Shindo?" a boy asked.
Hikaru felt uncomfortable. Not many people from his high school went on to college anyway. "We're just freshmen, we don't need to worry about that this early. Anyway, I was going to check out a few colleges, but then I was thinking I might just start working as a chef. And then start my own restaurant, eventually. " Hikaru didn't like this alternative either. No matter how much he loved ramen, he didn't want to be elbow-deep in it for the rest of his life. He wanted to travel, see other countries, meet interesting people…
"Sounds just like Shindo!" someone laughed. Hikaru laughed half-heartedly, but was cut short when he felt a blow to the back of his head. Another round of laughs.
"What are you doing here?" A playful voice belied the menace in the aura behind him. Hikaru froze. "Dad?" he whispered. The man roughly grabbed his arm and pulled him to his feet.
Another of Akari's friends laughed. "Aw, Hikaru, got a bed time?" he snickered. Hikaru liked to think that they only made jokes to lighten the situation. After all, they'd seen parents treat their children roughly in manga all the time, and they were always in comic situations.
His father smirked and went along with the other kids. "You know how Hikaru is—never listens! C'mon, boy," he said, pulling Hikaru along. Hikaru winced at the bruise that would form on his upper arm. He looked back for a second to see Akari's friends still laughing and joking as if nothing had just happened.
"You have time to go gallivanting around? You should be studying!" his dad shouted once they were far enough away. The man had loosened his grip and was now silently fuming. Hikaru knew he was in a dangerous mood, and kept his eyes down.
"You say you're looking for a tutor? Why get a tutor when you don't even study!"
"No one else is studying," Hikaru muttered.
He felt a ringing sensation as a hand came from nowhere to slap him on the back of the head. "Because they study during the weekday! But what are you doing? You're skipping soccer and lazing around! That's why you couldn't even get into Haze!" His father continued his rant, even as they boarded the train. The man's biting words grew sharper but quieter, whispering threats and insults while everyone else in the world only looked on and nodded in approval at the strict father and his punk son.
"Hikaru, I know you have a test coming up. You better get an A, or so help me…"
Hikaru nodded, even though he knew there was no way he would pass, let alone earn an A on his history exam. Back home, he sat on his bed, trying to cram into his brain information on daimyos and samurai and emperors he didn't care about. He paused though when his book mentioned Go. It was a short blurb off to the side, but it distracted him enough to lead his mind back to that afternoon he spent playing Go with that stranger, Fujiwara Sai.
The game didn't require any physical exertion, and there were no teammates or coaches or arguments with teammates and coaches. It was only a player and Go. How many stories had he heard from his grandpa about the game? How many epic battles had Shindo Heihachi fought on the board and recounted to Hikaru? So many, he thought, and had he paid attention then? Hikaru thought that he wouldn't be interested in that type of thing, but the more he reread the excerpt and remembered his grandfather's Go, the more he wanted to give Fujiwara-san's art a chance.