A/N: Since it's a bit hard browsing for such specifics in the beta section, anyone here who knows something about strokes want to beta a second old already complete HnG story I've unearthed? I'm a bit dubious about its realism without a second more knowledgeable opinion. (The story involves Sai as a real person in a nursing home and a very young Hikaru becoming friends with and learning to play Go from him.)
I wrote this some undetermined amount of time after the first two parts, so I hope it still flows well and ties everything up decently. Let me know if it doesn't and I can at least explain what I intended to communicate.
.. .. .
"Of course the Koreans keep us waiting," Kansai Institute pro Yashiro-san grumbled, shoving his hands into his jeans pockets. "The Chinese don't have to go through this."
"You were late coming down," seventeen-year-old Akira pointed out mildly.
"Your patience is not natural," Yashiro grunted. "My bet is on you being a reincarnation of a hundred-year-old Go world sensei."
Akira just gave a slight shrug, disregarding the pronouncement. "I've had reason to learn it."
"You going to beat Ko Yeongha this time?"
Akira had been pleased to meet Yashiro two years before when the eighteen-and-younger pros competed to see who would be one of the three representatives for Japan for the new Hokuto Cup. He had immense talent and his style of play was unconventional; he also had a lack of interest in courtesy and his parents strongly disapproved of his choice of career. But he didn't quite have the skill to pull off some of the hands he tried, he had a lack of interest in anything but Go, and he was still persevering in trying to force his parents to acknowledge his chosen career. Akira and Yashiro got along well enough, but they weren't what either of them would call friends.
"We won't know until we've played," Akira said. "I've improved over the last two years, but I'm sure he has too, of course."
One of the Go reporters waiting for the Korean team's arrival apparently picked up his comment and turned toward the two players. "Touya-san? Are you looking forward to facing Ko Yeongha-san again?"
Akira bowed his head to him in acknowledgment. "Of course. I anticipate every match I play, but foreign pros are particularly exhilarating since their styles are often unfamiliar to me."
The reporter smiled, but before he could ask anything else the doors of the hotel lobby swished open and a small crowd entered of more press, spectators, and the Korean delegation. The reporters immediately converged on the new arrivals as they continued forward to meet the waiting Japanese; Akira thought absently that the tournament's sponsors must be very pleased at the increase in interest since the first Cup two years before. It would probably become an official semiannual event if its popularity continued to grow by such an increment.
Officially, the Japanese and Korean teams then greeted one another, but there were still so many other people bustling around that Akira had only the vaguest impression of who exactly the Korean members were—Ko Yeongha was one, of course, but he seemed content to hang back with the Korean reporters saying nothing, presumably merely listening. To Akira's ears all the chatter blurred together into a background hum, the Japanese he understood naturally and the Korean that for the most part was sound interspersed with catchable words or phrases. As far as Akira knew he was the only potential representative for Japan's team who had bothered to learn some Chinese and Korean before the first Hokuto Cup, and continued the study when it became likely that the Cup would be repeated. He hadn't intended to do any more than learn a few simple greetings, just for the sake of politeness. He had changed his mind when he happened to discover that the Chinese and Korean sign languages shared traits with Japans'.
Japanese sign language was something his hands still knew as surely as the feeling of Go stones, even though he hadn't used it in almost four years.
He hadn't learned any of the other countries' sign languages, of course; there was no reason—but the memory of the difference fluency made once had prompted him to study enough to be able to hold conversations and understand reasonably reliably if the other spoke carefully enough. It gave him a feeling of accomplishment as well as being polite to be able to communicate with his country's guests.
"…And you barely made the age limit this year, correct?" a Japanese reporter near Akira cut through his inattention, echoed rapidly by a Korean interpreter. Akira directed his attention to him with a quick blink since he couldn't tell if he was the person being addressed. "There's a lot of discussion going on about this final match between you and Touya Akira-san."
For a moment Akira thought Ko Yeongha wasn't going to bother replying—he had seemed to have a tendency toward deliberate provocation in the last tournament two years before—but then he heard the vaguely familiar Korean drawl, promptly overlaid by the interpreter, while the background buzz continued unabated. Akira was probably the only person besides the interpreter and Koreans who could understand that single unhurried thread of voice. And he was only human; there was no reason not to listen to a public conversation concerning himself.
"That's already out of date in Korea," said his nominal rival in a tone that to Akira sounded both condescending and amused. "There's more speculation over there about the future of Japan's pro world right now."
That explained the condescension, then—Akira did not have to be told that on an international level Japan's pros were considered rather poor—but not the amusement.
"Why?" the Japanese reporter asked, honestly bewildered, undoubtedly with the same knowledge. "I mean, what would cause the Koreans to take an interest in Japan so suddenly?"
Akira noticed that now the interpreter—a Korean—also carried an undertone of humor as he translated.
"Why not?" Ko Yeongha returned maddeningly casually. "I would think one of our team members switching to your country after this tournament would be of interest to both."
"Really? Why would one of you do that?" the Japanese reporter asked quickly, with professional or unprofessional excitement.
The reporter was the one Akira had been idly watching as the informal interview went on, but finally the crowd shifted enough that Ko Yeongha came into his peripheral vision beside the interpreter, just as his shoulders lifted in a negligent shrug. His expression confirmed all the inflections of his voice.
"Why not?" he repeated. "When he came from here in the first place." Without even looking behind him he reached back and clapped another figure on the shoulder, not bothering to pull him forward as the reporter focused in like a hawk. Only vaguely did Akira's mind process and register the Korean's uninterpreted, obviously familiar scoff, "Shy as a girl," because, his attention so attracted, he automatically took a step to the side to bring the other competitor into view between animated heads. Then he stared as intently and meaningfully as he ever had in his life since there was no point in calling for the other's attention.
Shindou Hikaru felt it, unsurprisingly considering his old sensitivity to other people's attention, and raised his head slightly and met Akira's gaze. It seemed irrationally strange that he should look so different now when Akira finally saw him again—taller, lankier, less unformed with baby fat even though his bangs were still bleached and his posture was still a casual slump—strange even though intellectually Akira knew that he himself must look at least as different compared to four years ago too. He also felt surprisingly calm considering the suddenness of the encounter—just as Shindou looked entirely unsurprised.
Of course, if Shindou was somehow (how?) on the Korean team, he would be aware that Akira was on Japan's again.
With the absolute confidence of not even consciously doing so Akira raised his hands and formed, not quite as deftly as before after so long out of practice and with utter disregard for the people remaining between them, -Any explanation to give?-
Shindou glanced away for a second, jiggling his shoulders a little and putting on a not-very-sincere innocent expression, and signed back, -What, no hello?-
It struck Akira, after the memorable last meeting he had ever had with his childhood rival, that that previously sullen, self-contained barely-teenager now looked remarkably assured and at ease with himself.
-No,- he signed, precisely and unhesitatingly. -You skip goodbye, I skip hello. Are you going to ask if it's a pleasant surprise to see you again?-
-Don't think so,- Shindou returned, with a previously uncharacteristic grin. -Are you going to ask me what I'm doing here?-
-That's obvious,- Akira decreed with some asperity. How easy it was to fall back into familiar patterns with a boy who could well be a perfect stranger now. He had never been so… typical-teenager-ish… with anyone else. -I will, however, ask what you're doing on the Korean team.-
-Decided I felt like playing you again,- Shindou signed nonchalantly. -You remember what I told you, right, that I wasn't ever going to come in at the bottom of a ring where you were already on top? Well I had to come up with some way to make sure everyone understands we're really equals when I'm stuck with that.-
Several replies immediately crowded into Akira's head, all with equal urgency, so that he had to sort through and prioritize them despite the slightly surreal casualness of the entire reunion that suggested order didn't really matter. -So you pick a way that involves briefly making yourself as famous as me as well as associated with me,- he chose dryly after only a brief pause. -That actually seems well thought out. Are you really the same Shindou?-
-Now brilliant on and off the Go board,- came the lofty, breezy return. -Hope you're prepared for a real rival.-
Akira felt a slow, small smile growing on his face, unusual in its spontaneity. -Jerk.-
Shindou grinned—a free, easy grin. He was definitely no longer the near-delinquent runaway. -Go snob.-
-You too now,- Akira pointed out, slightly childishly, slightly still unbelieving. -You're really going to become a pro?-
When Shindou merely shrugged, he tilted his head and regarded him for a moment, simply puzzling. -What changed?-
Again Shindou merely twitched a shoulder in answer, but though deflecting he still wasn't as closed off or defensive as he used to be. Despite their long separation Akira thought he could safely press him for the answers he was going to get eventually.
-Why don't we start with how you ended up in Korea?-
Shindou's hands started to move; then he glanced off to the side and Akira became aware that the Korean interpreter was regarding them both with a surprised frown while he absently continued to mediate for the Japanese reporter. Shindou signed something to him briefly in what must have been Korean sign language, then turned dismissively back to Akira and suggested, -Help me check in and find my room and we can talk there, yeah?-
Akira quickly moved to do so, though now that he was no longer solely focused on Shindou he was also aware of the mild interest the two teens stirred in the remaining group as they departed the lobby together. But Akira was the Japanese member who had studied Korean for the sake of being able to converse with the visitors, and Shindou had picked up a duffel bag so he was obviously just getting help getting settled as he'd requested, and anyway Akira didn't care what anyone thought. Alone and private in Shindou's hotel room, they continued almost as if there had been no interruption.
-Didn't wind up in Korea on purpose,- Shindou started with a distantly thoughtful expression, a detachment from his explanation that Akira was glad to see compared to before even as it made him more curious as to such a change. -Well, not really. Then I had nothing I could do except Go when I was there, and decided I'd have to do it to get by—but they really are a lot higher than our Go salons and amateur tournaments and stuff. Had to be something really, really special to make it—so I was.-
His expression was still distant, only vaguely aware of his audience, with a strange mixture of remembered fondness and sadness that was almost embarrassing to be observing, it seemed so personal. But a trace of a smile emphasized it, and made it a little lighter, before Akira could come up with any reaction.
-The others will probably tell you I've gotten worse since then if you ask, though a lot better since you and I last played. But that's that; won't ever be again… I'm on your level now, I know I am. You're not going to beat me this time.-
-I'll go tell Kurata-san to put me on second board,- Akira signed without any hesitation, despite the inevitable upset such a demand would cause among the Japanese Go public, when he was their strongest player in the Cup and they wanted to make up for their previous loss.
-If you really want a rematch with Ko Yeongha that badly,- Shindou signed, with a casually innocent expression that, when Akira stared at him, broke into amusement and faint condescension. -I told you I'm your level now.-
-I didn't beat Ko Yeongha last time!- Akira protested, too incredulous to be polite.
-He gave me reason,- Shindou signed with a suddenly flat expression, then lifted one eyebrow deliberately with a complete change back to his new easygoing attitude. -And you'd beat him this time, wouldn't you?-
The answer he'd give anyone else, the one he had given everyone else, was of course a polite neither yea nor nay. With Shindou he answered without even thinking about it, -Yes.-
Shindou looked satisfied. -So there.-
Akira shook his head, abruptly wryly amused. -You've grown up, but you haven't really changed.-
-Neither have you,- Shindou challenged. -I'll bet you could still bring out that last game we didn't finish, couldn't you?-
Deliberately Akira did not think about where in his room he probably still had that kifu stored.
-I'm not going to,- he chose to answer, not admitting or denying it. -Since we're about to have a new game tomorrow.-
Shindou made a face that suggested he hadn't actually grown up much except for discarding his defensive shell. It occurred to Akira that he still didn't know how or why that had happened, and might not ever know. That seemed a little personal between such newly rejoined, distantly casual friends as they were—and, anyway, not something Shindou was likely to tell him even now. Four years had been quite enough time to realize that he had never really known anything about Shindou Hikaru except his Go.
-Ah, not today?- was what Shindou complained. -I already had to study those Chinese brats. They'll just be boring.-
-Go is never boring,- Akira reproved. -You truly must have matured. Studying opponents? So serious now.-
Shindou made another, deeper face. -Slave drivers, those foreigners. Why do you think I want to come back to Japan?-
Then he straightened and swung off the bed he had been lounging on, grabbing up his jacket with the kind of casual sweep that was still familiar even as he signed, -I'm hungry. Let's go for ramen.-
-I'm surprised you survived in Korea without it,- Akira mocked lightly, marveling somewhere inside that they seemed to be such perfect friends after so sudden a separation and reunion—much friendlier than ever before except for that last meeting. Was this the kind of relationship they would have developed after that last game if Shindou had stayed around instead of disappearing?
Probably not, he reminded himself, considering the evident strain with his parents. Did Shindou intend to reunite with them too now that he was back on Japanese soil? After running away to an entirely different country…
Unexpectedly the idea popped into Akira's head of renting his own apartment and extending the offer of becoming roommates. They were both seventeen, after all; Akira was making more than enough to live on his own if he decided to, and Shindou would also as he rose through the ranks of the pros if he was willing to take on the supplementary duties like teaching. Was this new Shindou different enough to accept that, even with the undeniable handicap of his disability?
-You know,- he found himself signing before he consciously thought about it, -I expect my father will want to play you now when he hears you're back.-
The look Shindou gave him was pure incredulity. -Touya-sama? The Meijin? All he knows is back when I was a brat playing with you!-
He said you had skill, Akira started to sign, and then stopped as he recalled the other part of that comment, that Shindou had also lacked fire. Suddenly he wanted badly to ask—had he found that, finally? He was planning to enter the pro world when he had sworn he never would—was it only because he "had nothing to do but Go" or because he wanted nothing else but Go?
-Yes, the Meijin,- was all he wound up signing, mildly. -The ex-Meijin. He's retired.-
Shindou blinked. -How come?-
-He had a heart attack a couple years ago.- The intervening time and his father's continued good health afterward let Akira explain with a calmness that was a far cry from what he had experienced when it happened. -It wasn't too major. But he decided to start slowing down, taking things easier. He still plays Go constantly, of course. He says he's much happier since he decided to retire.-
-Good grief,- Shindou signed, looking vaguely dazed. -But he'd want to play me?-
-Well, he did then,- Akira signed a little less patiently. -I never got a chance to mention it to you before.-
The bleach-banged teen seemed entirely unconscious of the subtle reference to the lack of any warning or goodbye before he vanished. Then again, Shindou had never noticed subtlety.
-Well—- but he stopped without finishing and then signed abruptly, -Well, guess we'll just see now; are we going to eat or not? I want ramen!-
Akira suppressed the desire to remind him that patience was a virtue and simply followed along in his search for the nearest ramen shop. The question of Shindou's motivation for playing still lingered in his mind now that it had occurred to him, but he harnessed all his long-cultivated patience and let the question lie resting until something should come up that would answer it one way or the other. They would play tomorrow. After four years, that was soon enough.
He told himself that this new casual Shindou who had somehow managed to shed the burdens of his past was not likely to have kept only the focus for the game that he had once displayed. But he had improved enough to be accepted onto the Korean team—and first board, even above the celebrated prodigy Ko Yeongha—improved, and unimproved, if his brief undetailed explanation was to be believed. How had Ko Yeongha managed to "give him a reason" to beat him; what hidden point had he managed to find to spark the drive that was surely necessary for such an accomplishment? Was it a drive that only lasted for that purpose, just as Shindou had never exhibited any interest in finding any opponents better than Akira when they were younger?
He told himself not to be disappointed if passion like his own did not appear in his and Shindou's game tomorrow. The evidence was not encouraging. And he had not been in the habit of hoping anything about a game since as long as he could remember—anticipating, yes, but here he didn't have enough information to accurately anticipate anything. Shindou would either fulfill his prediction of beating him or not.
He knew he was hoping anyway, despite all his good sense telling him otherwise. Shindou's reappearance and intention to play was already one miracle; how could he not hope for the other one on top of it that would make the metamorphosis complete? Even though really it wasn't fair to Shindou to be piling his own expectations and desires on him.
-You're totally out of it,- Shindou signed directly in front of his face, much to his surprise. -If you don't say no I'm going to dump your ramen on your head, okay? And then laugh. Hold still.-
.. .. ..
They took their seats the next day across the board from one another, and Akira couldn't help glancing up at Shindou's face as the commentator ran through the preliminary explanations for spectators before the matches began. The blond-banged teen didn't even seem to notice; his expression was already set, focused on the board, as if he were already playing through endless rounds of possible hands. Akira felt a small spark of hope in his chest but suppressed it by sharpening his focus, narrowing his view and concentration down to the bare nineteen-by-nineteen black lines on wood, his personal universe and battlefield.
The game began, with Shindou winning black and therefore the right to go first, and he spent ten minutes on that opening hand just sitting staring at the empty board with a shale stone between his fingers before finally placing it. Akira wondered what that might signify and what was going through his head, but only in terms of his opponent's mindset. Other curiosity had its place, but during a match it would only be a potentially fatal distraction.
Shindou placed his stone, and since his opponent had just done so, setting the pace as it were, Akira took his time considering strategies before choosing his own first move. Then they settled into a steadier rhythm, of pebbles and waves, patterns and aberrations, and Akira sank wholly into the game.
It had been four years since he had last played Shindou, since he had consciously considered the then-rebel his childhood rival in Go, and his memory had not dimmed to the point of glossing over the constant frustration that had hounded him back then over the unrealized potential in his rival's game. Shindou had not, truly, been his rival—he only could have been, and Akira had desperately wanted him to be and so never judged objectively then. And yet still he had never met anyone quite Shindou's equal.
In this match, though, four years later… Shindou had surpassed himself. His play was no longer rough, half-engaged, mystifying; it was honed, wielded with conscious precision, and an even greater ability to backstep, sideswipe, and fool the senses of even common sense just long enough to gain an advantage. In the first few hands it became clear that somewhere in the four years Akira hadn't known him Shindou had gained a dedication to the game that rivaled Akira's own—he had committed himself to it, and done so with a passion Akira would never have dared hope for ever before.
Akira looked up at his opponent only once after the match started, not even doing so consciously. A tiny smile rested on Shindou's face, a smile that spoke and hid volumes. Something had changed him in Korea, or somewhere in between. Akira played him, part of his mind utterly focused and determined not to lose in the first match with his new, true rival; part of his mind wordlessly formlessly rejoicing, and hardly noticing or caring who won since that was of secondary as well as primary importance.
-What did it?- Akira asked still in much the same mood when they finally ended, half an eternity and mere moments later, while everyone around them swirled and talked inconsequentially.
Shindou gave him a little crooked smile, part hurt and part humor, and signed back, -The stupidest thing, really. When I had to be really, really good—that was… that was the first time I ever really saw someone who—looked at each game with plain simple joy.- His eyes seemed to lose their focus slightly, but he came back to himself—mostly—as he finished, -And now I have to play to remember that.-
Akira was sure, on some level, that he didn't understand the explanation at all; that there was too much in it Shindou wasn't actually telling him. But on another level that didn't matter, and he was content with knowing that for whatever reason he finally had the rival he had always hoped and strove for. Akira wasn't the one who had caused it, but Shindou was complete, a new whole, and Akira could only bless whoever was responsible for that transformation since they would both be reaping the benefit.
Shindou's gaze flicked down to the board, and when he returned it to Akira's his smile seemed more normal, a little smug, a little taunting. -You lost.-
Akira felt a smile grow on his own face in response, still completely uncaring of all the other people around them. -Then I demand a rematch.-
-What if I just win again?-
-Then we keep playing until I win.-
-Then until I win.-
-I'll make Meijin first.-
-I'll make Honinbou first.-
-Race you,- Akira signed, whispering the same, and feeling like he could smile for the rest of his life.