A/N: So, here's the thing. I'm not really interested in the Hikaru no Go fandom at the moment (though I do still hope to complete Stepping Stones eventually), but I found this story among my older stuff already actually complete, so I decided why not put it up since others might enjoy. Who knows, maybe posting it will help revive my interest.

Warning for those who read, since it's old it might not be up to my current writing standards but since it's late and I have work tomorrow you'll have to take it as is. From what I recall I did a tiny bit of research about JSL when writing this, but the sign used for 'goodbye' is from American Sign Language since I couldn't find any description of the Japanese equivalent online. *shrug* If anything's awkward, unclear, or glaringly unfactual let me know and I shall do my best to fix it. I'll probably post the next part tomorrow (er... technically, today) or the day after.

.. .

"Is this your first time in a Go salon?" twelve-year-old Akira heard Ichikawa-san ask, as she had a hundred times before. He didn't hear an answer, but he wasn't paying attention; he was recreating the game he and his father had played that morning, nominally to study his weaknesses so he could improve but really just to keep his hands busy. Akira's mind was always occupied with Go and didn't need the help, but occasionally his hands got restless in between opponents at the salon.

At some point he looked around and noticed that there was another boy who looked about the same age as him playing against Kitajima-san, but aside from mild surprise and pleasure that other children actually did play Go he took no note. At some point after that he finished recreating his game and, hands satisfied, cleared the goban and folded them in his lap preparatory to beginning another game in his head. At that point he happened to look up and saw that the other boy had finished playing Kitajima-san and was looking at him, hands in pockets.

"Would you like to play?" Akira asked to be polite, gesturing to the goban.

The boy looked at him for another second, then shrugged and took the chair across from him.

"You'll probably want to go ahead and lay down five or six stones—" Akira began, but the boy ignored him, grabbing a fistful of stones from his pot to nigiri. Akira hid his surprise, set down two in response, and got white. They started playing.

The other boy was better than Akira expected—much, much better—in fact, nearly on the same level as himself. And considering Akira's level was nearly that of the pros, he was understandably shocked. And excited. Go was, for Akira anyway, not a game where rivals were to be despised; it was such an insular world that he had no rivals to challenge him—before today. He burned with curiosity to know who this boy was, why he hadn't ever heard of him before, who had taught him to play such marvelous Go.

Akira won, and hardly noticed. He opened his mouth to ask his first question—and the other boy moved right into recreating and discussing the game, without saying a word. At first Akira didn't even realize what he was doing, except suddenly moving around both colors of stones on the board with brisk tap-tap-taps instead of the placing pachi, but then the new patterns clicked and he understood. Most Go players only discussed hands that could have been played differently and the results of them; this boy actually laid them out instead, tapping the stones at their original positions and then rapidly reforming them, tapping again to emphasize points. It was strange, but intriguing.

Akira waited until he finished a hand and then laid out his own version, what could have happened if black had responded elsewhere, and saw why the other boy had suddenly switched to holding the stones like a beginner as he shifted them around—the traditional index-middle finger hold Akira had always used was deftest at putting stones down, not lifting them again without jostling the stones around them. So they both moved stones like amateurs, got into a minor scuffle over one shape as they both tried to show their differing opinions at once, and ended abruptly before Akira even realized when the other boy stood up, grabbed his jacket, and left. Ichikawa-san appeared at Akira's side just as he finished blinking, unfortunately preventing him from bolting after the other boy and demanding answers—for what, he wasn't quite sure, but he wanted them.

"Did you have a good game?" Ichikawa-san asked, looking at the goban.

"Yes, very," Akira answered distractedly, trying to think how he could find that boy again.

"Oh, good; I felt so sorry for him when he first came in. I guess Go puts everyone on an equal footing, doesn't it?"

Akira pulled himself out of his preoccupied thoughts and looked up at her with confusion. "What? I don't understand."

She looked surprised. "You didn't notice, Akira-kun? The poor boy was deaf."

.. .. ..

The next week passed in slow agony for Akira, having to remember not to hold his breath while he waited to see if the other boy would return, trying to think how he could find out his name if he couldn't speak, wondering rather illogically why he was deaf. There seemed to be no hope of finding him if he didn't choose to return himself; Ichikawa-san, with her notoriously soft heart for boys, hadn't made him sign in at the counter when he wanted to just go on in and even if he did come back it wouldn't be reasonable to try to insist he had to do so the second time. But when Akira considered the possibility of there not being a second time, he quickly decided that the boy's name took secondary importance. He wanted to play him again! To see if once was just a fluke, if his skill really was so close to Akira's own, if he could be a rival like Akira had never fully imagined before. Surely he felt the same way—surely he'd come back to find out too!

A week passed and he didn't appear. When he did on Saturday the tension that dispelled in Akira's stomach, in his entire frame, was so great that for a moment he felt like he had left his seat and was floating above it. He kept sitting, outwardly composed, caught in a strange feeling of wanting to smile and to explode and just breathing slowly and regularly while the other boy paused at the doorway and looked around, hands in pockets, then nodded to Ichikawa-san as he headed toward Akira's empty table, and sat down across from him with no preamble.

Akira got out his pot of stones, feeling a greeting rise to his lips but letting it die as he remembered the other boy was deaf. (It was probably just as well, as he couldn't be sure he would have actually made a very polite greeting considering how many other things were buzzing around his mind.) As before, they played, then 'discussed,' but this time when Akira reached for a stone to disagree the other boy smacked his hand lightly before he touched it.

Akira pulled back, shocked and stung, and the other boy finished, then removed his hands from the board and gestured for Akira to take his turn. Akira went to the stone he had meant to before, keeping wary attention on the other boy with his peripheral vision—if he interrupted, he'd just get a smack right back—and noticed, as he continued his alternate play, the other boy's hands twitch once or twice but that he restrained himself firmly and kept them in his lap. So there were rules of polite conduct for this show-not-tell version of discussing, and he had just chosen to inform Akira of them impolitely. Well, so far they seemed reasonable enough; he would follow them.

They played and discussed twice before the other boy glanced at the clock, rose, and grabbed his jacket. Akira rose with him, mouth half open as he tried to think of some nonverbal way to ask if he would be back next week, and could only watch in helpless frustration as the other boy raised one hand in the air, palm flat, as he walked away—the most dismissive goodbye Akira had ever seen.

After a moment he slowly sat back down and began rearranging the stones with sharp clacks! and the occasional pachi!, simmering and trying not to.

It had been a very good game.

. .. ..

The third Saturday the other boy came Akira had prepared beforehand, but spent almost the entire afternoon playing with no difference before he finally found a good opening and worked up his nerve. The other boy paused in the more laid-back game they were playing after they had somehow wound up in an intense war from the center outward and stretched, glancing around the room. Akira gave himself no more time to doubt and quickly picked up the notepad and pencil waiting in the chair beside him, carefully printed 'My name is Touya Akira' and pushed it across the table, finding himself holding his breath.

The other boy picked the pad up and read it. His eyebrows went up; then he gave a small shrug, set the pad aside, and kept playing. Akira felt flummoxed. And illogically irritated. So he'd heard of Touya Akira, but hadn't known who he was playing?—and, most importantly, didn't feel the need to respond with the obvious common courtesy of giving his own name?

Ichikawa-san came over to his table again after the other boy had left and he was again slapping stones down by himself, lips pinched together. That boy was the rudest he had ever met. And he acted too casual about playing Go. What a rival!

"It looks like you two are getting along wonderfully, with how much you play together!" Ichikawa-san said with brightly misplaced optimism.

"I tried, but he doesn't seem to care," Akira said sourly, putting away the stones since he didn't want to act sulky in front of someone else.

Ichikawa-san seemed to notice the notepad. "Well, I imagine that would be a little awkward, trying to hold a conversation on paper, but it is a very kind thought, Akira-kun. Maybe he just doesn't let himself get interested in partial efforts; a boy like that probably has a hard time with most people."

Akira frowned, then looked up at her in blank perplexity. "Partial efforts? What else is there if he can't talk, Ichikawa-san?"

She looked surprised, then like she was hiding a smile. "Oh, I always forget you don't know as much about everything as you do about Go. Deaf people use sign language, Akira-kun—speaking with their hands, as I understand it."

. .. .. .

Akira quickly discovered that there was no single standard form of sign language among regions, so after brief hesitation he chose to focus on the Tokyo one. He also discovered that there was more than one kind of sign language, and after more baffled stress settled on the air-writing kanji apparently most common for giving personal and place names. Akira had a quick memory; after a few days of studying shapes around his Go practice he felt confident he would be able to recognize any name the other boy gave him, and went back to his normal schedule with a pleased and relieved sigh.

Then it occurred to him that if the other boy signed anything other than his name Akira wouldn't be able to understand, and he was so irritatingly perverse he'd probably never make another sign again no matter what Akira tried. Saturday came far too quickly as he scrambled in every spare minute to juggle schoolwork, Go, and absurdly deficient sources for independently learning sign language. He felt tired and frazzled as he waited for the other boy and half undecided if he would try signing to him at all.

He didn't show up. Akira waited, played with Kitajima-san and a few of the other regulars, talked with Ichikawa-san, ran through three different high-level Go games and his entire sign lexicon in his head, and finally the eternally slowing clock on the wall showed only an hour to closing and still there wasn't the slightest hint of the other boy appearing. Akira went home stewing and threw himself into his computer and all the sites he'd bookmarked with sign language instructions. No longer was he concerned about not being to respond to any small random comments the other boy might feel moved to make. Now his entire motivation and concentration was set on being able to demand and understand an explanation from his rival next week. How could he care so little even about the potential of such challenging, equal games!

. .. . .

-You didn't come last time,- Akira was able to form and execute that Saturday with a well-controlled balance of calm and accusation when the other boy strolled in as casually as he always had, hands in pockets until he reached Akira's table and pulled off his jacket.

He paused and regarded Akira with what might have been surprise, then shrugged, sat down—and signed back, -Got busy.-

Akira felt inexplicably disappointed by such a short answer even though he was relieved—he wouldn't even begin to fool himself by thinking he had even a decent vocabulary yet—but he'd hoped the explanation would be something more like "Something unexpected came up I couldn't get away from" or "Family emergency." Something that suggested Go was a little more important to him. But maybe he was just taking Akira's likely amateur experience into consideration; "Got busy" could be a simpler form of those reasons.

-I go to a lot of salons,- the boy continued, just slowly enough for Akira to follow, with an air of almost casual cruelty, -but since you're a decent opponent I try to remember this one.-

Akira blinked, keeping tight hold of his temper, honestly not sure how to react. Did the boy know how Akira felt about Go, about the heady possibility of a real rival, that he chose to say that? Could he possibly care so little about playing when his skill was so great?

-Is that what matters to you in Go?- he finally asked, struggling a bit to find signs that fit and unable to be sure he was using them correctly. -Strong opponents?-

-What else is there?- the boy's reply came, swift and difficult. -Money?-

-Right,- Akira agreed, relieved. Of course the boy had to feel at least partly the same as he did; he was just brash and rude. Akira had forgotten.

The boy grabbed a handful of stones from the white pot. -Nigiri.-

That or "play." It was hard to find Go-specific words online or in the library books. But he filed that sign away coupled with that context, with possible meaning inferred. Hopefully he'd learn it more firmly in the future.

-Coming again next time?- Akira signed quickly several hours later when the boy stretched and made motions to leave.

He shrugged his jacket on before cocking his head and nodding. Akira realized he had almost forgotten the (second) most important question and reached out and grabbed the other boy's arm as he turned to go, then hastily formed, -What's your name?-

For an unbelievable moment he thought the boy might just walk away without telling him. Then he straightened his jacket sleeve and traced out, -Shindou Hikaru.-

Shindou Hikaru. Akira nodded and watched him leave, feeling plain relief at finally being able to attach any name to that face and game. It made him seem a little more human.

. ..

Akira's sign language continued to improve, and Shindou's attitude continued to not; they progressed to arguing with heated expressions and gestures in after-play while maintaining the painfully well-mannered taking of turns to demonstrate their points. Akira found himself regularly baffled by the other boy's inexplicable lassitude; he kept failing to appear every now and then, usually with no explanation but "Yeah" or "Oh well," and the few times Akira got so annoyed by his ignorance or lack of interest in some aspect of the Go world besides their own games and tried to educate him, he was almost always cut off with an equally annoyed, -So what?-

He could play equal to Touya Akira, and he acted like it was just a hobby. Akira was eventually forced to simply accept it, and Shindou seemed to become a bit more easygoing, but he couldn't help but keep searching for something that would find him a spark of passion rather than just interest. A one-sided rivalry was hard to maintain.

-What's wrong?- Akira asked one day when Shindou came in dragging his feet and slumped down in his chair, resting his forehead on the goban. Asking required rapping the other boy's head and forming the signs almost directly under his nose to force him to be aware of the question. Sometimes Akira was surprised to realize just how much Shindou's convenient-result rudeness rubbed off on him when they were together.

Shindou sighed deeply as he dragged his head up and replied dispiritedly, -Got suspended from the soccer team, that's all; now I can't play for a month.-

Akira had yet to find a sign for "Er," and wished for one now while he thought for something to say. He was surprised to learn Shindou was on a soccer team, though he certainly looked more like he belonged on one than in front of a goban. But then he already knew Go was only a hobby for Shindou. Why shouldn't he have another, when being deaf probably didn't matter there either?

-Would you rather be at a ramen shop then?- he suggested tentatively, that being the extent of what he knew about the other boy's preferences after several months of association.

-Shut up and play,- was his unencouraging reply. After only two somewhat lackluster games Shindou looked up at the clock, sighed, and signed, -Gotta go. My mom's going on about how I can spend so much more time on homework now with all this. See you next week.-

-Bye,- Akira signed, which was the same wave Shindou had given him the second time they met. -Good luck.-

It was a silly thing to add, but he couldn't think of anything else, and Shindou didn't see it anyway as he headed for the door. Akira tried, not for the first time, not to feel frustrated or envious that the other boy could play so well when he seemed to work for it so little—even if Akira won most of their games.

.. . .. ..

Instead of coming the next Saturday, Shindou showed up in the middle of the week, luckily when Akira was already there, and peremptorily took over the time he usually spent teaching customers with nothing but a sighed, -So bored.- Thereafter he began appearing regularly twice a week. Akira couldn't mind playing him more often, but he did feel an obligation to his father's customers, so the second time Shindou came in on a Wednesday night he curtly gestured him away from sliding into the chair opposite and slyly suggested, -Since you're here, why don't you make up a bit of the fee you've been skipping and help me give teaching games?-

Shindou stopped and gave him a scowl that suggested he knew what Akira was trying to do. Part of a pro's job was to teach amateurs; he probably knew that much.

-Playing's one thing, teaching's another,- he signed back, his movements brusque. -How exactly do you think they'd manage to hang onto my every word as I spout pearls of wisdom?-

-We discussed perfectly fine in the beginning, just like we still do,- Akira returned calmly. -If you really need help I can translate.-

Shindou snorted, which was always a slightly jarring sound. -You have no idea.-

Akira ignored him, continuing to wait for a paying opponent. After a moment Shindou scowled again and sat down with a thump, beside rather than across from him. -I'll give advice if you tell them a dumb move, but I'm not teaching. With this much business you'll have to play me or fall asleep anyway.-

-I'll play you while we wait, we just have to keep the board open so we don't drive anyone away,- Akira signed with a flash of inspiration. He'd heard of blind Go before, but never thought it would be possible for someone who couldn't hear the placements instead of seeing them before now. Funny that the solution was to remove the goban. -5-5.-

Shindou looked at him like he was crazy, then rolled his eyes, closed them briefly, and responded, -14-9.-

The game was much more difficult than their usual ones, since it was easier to picture the grid and stones with closed eyes but knowing the opponent's next move required opening them. Shindou won by an embarrassing margin when a customer came along and Akira had to divide his attention, then taunted him about it mercilessly. The customer, not one of the regulars, looked slightly offput by the silent communication even though Akira maintained a professional calm, but he was too involved in the evening to care if they lost the salon one man's occasional thousand yen. Even though he absolutely hated Shindou's deliberate casual insults to the game that he knew he only said to provoke him.

Then one evening an unfamiliar woman, which was quite rare in the Go world, appeared at the doorway of the salon as Akira and Shindou were playing and strode up behind the other boy, clapping a hand down on his shoulder. Akira started and Shindou jumped and spun around, and the signing that followed was like a silent explosion, too rapid for Akira to follow, an upbraiding conducted in mime until Shindou made a funny little sound in the middle of it, the first Akira had ever heard from him besides a few associated with breathing, and the woman started scolding him with voice as well as hands.

"Please, Shindou-san, we were just playing," Akira stammered after he got over his first shock, daring to break in. He didn't actually know if she'd taken her husband's name upon marriage, but she was clearly Shindou's mother and he didn't know any other name for her, so he just hoped she wouldn't take offense. "Hikaru-san is very good at Go, very good, he could probably make a living at it if he wanted—"

"My son is not helpless," the woman turned on him in a towering fury, looking offended indeed, "he will never rely on games for a living; he will learn to apply himself and improve himself and make something of himself and stop disappearing all over the city and never coming home and I will thank you not to tempt him further down that path, young man!"

Akira shrank back, bewildered and a little frightened, and the woman swept Shindou away with her, hunched and silent like a chastised child. It wasn't until several long empty seconds later that Akira slowly started to clear away their game and noticed she had left Shindou's jacket, but he entertained no thought of trying to go after her and return it. He took it home with him instead, hoping an opportunity would somehow come to give it back in person.